[I just found this post drafted but mysteriously unpublished. It was written way back in late ’08, but mostly concerns even earlier times finding a place to rent in Mexico. I’ve always meant to fill in the whole story, but more kept happening than I could keep up with]
My camera had to go back to the States for repair again, so photos may be sparse for a while.
I left the last installment of the story of my arrival in Mexico hanging a post or two back. I had just entered Anton Lizardo to see an empty restaurant kindly offered to me as a boatbuilding venue by Miguel Lara Rodriguez. The place turned out to be right on the beach, which was good, but had no doors which was bad, and nothing resembling anywhere I could set up house. There were a couple of gas grills and on the tiled floor large piles of sand carried in by the nortes, since the beach and restaurant face north. I didn’t like the look of the place, nor the town itself. I really wanted somewhere where I could both live and work which would obviate any need to carry my tools back and forth every day. I decided to decline Señor Rodriguez’s offer politely, with some relief…though he had been a real gentleman I could not shake the feeling that in accepting his offer I might have become his plaything.
Back in Veracruz, I was dropped off at the edge of town and navigated the bus system in confusion, before remembering that I was carrying my GPS, whose memory contained a basic layout of the city. I would get on a bus that appeared to be heading my way, and when it deviated on the screen from my intended compass direction, I would get off and find another. Buses are fantastically frequent and efficient here, and I used them a bit more that afternoon, but because I didn’t know where I wanted to go I mostly just walked at random for miles in the hope of stumbling across somewhere to buy a used motorcycle. Dictionary in hand I asked a few people if they knew anywhere I might try but nobody had any advice to offer on this point. There were plenty of new bikes for sale, many of them in furniture stores for some reason, and very reasonably priced, but I was not in the market for those.
The next day I flagged down a cab and explained to the driver my mission. This was definitely a good idea. He drove me all over town, to motorcycle workshops, used car lots, pizza delivery places, dealerships. He would flag down passing bikers and grill them, following them into neighborhoods to view battered old Hondas as well as ”Ventos” and ”Italikas”, brands I’d never heard of, from China. Nothing suited. We did this for three or four days with only one real lead. It cost me $50 per day plus a $20 tip.
Hector the driver and I became friends. His English ran to a few words only and my Spanish was not much better but this matters surprisingly little. Many people tell me that they can understand more than they can speak but for me it is quite the opposite, so I have to try to express to folks what I think they are trying to say, then look at them quizzically for confirmation or denial. At this stage I could catch maybe one word in ten or fifteen unless the speaker was unusually sensitive and spoke slowly in simple sentences. Anyway, Hector was as friendly and helpful as could be and we got on just fine. 50 ish, moustached, divorced with one daughter in another town, a huge libido, often honking at women as they do here (rather childish I think); on a good day Hector would make about $35, so I was a lucky fare for him. Veracruz is not what I would call a large city , yet it has 3200 cabs so nobody really cleans up; this situation is the same in all unskilled trades in Mexico and is heartbreaking. Because there are so many people trying to say, sell wristwatches to tourists in the centro, each vendor may only offload one or two in a long day of pounding the streets. It’s a terrible waste of human life, and I find it especially distressing to see this kind of thing endured by such lovely people.
The one bike we found was at a motorcycle dealership. Of course they tried to sell the gringo something fancy but I was more intersted in an old 2-stroke Yamaha with 100cc of raw power. This was small; I wanted at least 125cc but this search, as well as my stay in Veracruz, was becoming expensive. Hector called the bike ”El Feo” – ”The Ugly”. The price was an outrageous $500.
This bike would be lucky to fetch $50 in the States. I had erred in thinking that such things would be cheaper in Mexico in the same way that food is cheaper. In fact, since a used bike is still a bike that goes and can do useful work, its value to any prospective buyer is relatively high compared to the same machine in a country where such frivolous things as aesthetics and a non-smoking engine carry weight. In fact, very little is cheaper in Mexico. Unprepared food and down-to earth prepared local food is inexpensive, but anything manufactured and especially high-tech goods are more expensive, often disgracefully and annoyingly so. A fridge might cost double what you would expect to pay in the States. Tools, lumber, clothes, hardware, all give me sticker shock – sometimes triple the U.S. price. Bolts are cheap, but one cannot live on bolts. They almost give away distilled alcohol…you can pick up a litre of cane liquor for US $2.50, though you will regret it in the morning. Can you imagine the drunkenness that would abound in the US and Europe if booze was so affordable?
Hector would drop me off at about three in the afternoon…as long a day as we could stand in the cab in that heat. I would spend the rest of the day walking for miles on the same motorcycle quest, and looking for food. Having eaten with Hector at lunchtime, I could hold off until 5 or 6pm. He’d pick me up at the hotel again in the morning and we’d thread off through the traffic, the whistling policemen, the newspaper sellers and street sweepers. We’d have coffee and wait for things to open, sitting and sipping in the car like detectives.
I don’t get it with the whistling policemen. In Veracruz it’s the first thing you hear when you wake up, a half dozen different whistles from a half dozen intersections near your hotel. The signals work fine, so why all the cops directing traffic? And why their extraordinary zeal? Each and every one of them works with absolute concentration and furious energy, totally on the ball. Pheep pheep pheeeeeeep! The traffic is stopped even for the most insignificant beggar and he or she is escorted across the street like royalty. I understand perhaps that the traffic is so impatient and disobedient to automated signals that the cops may be necessary to control it but this extraordinary professionalism in a land of lackadaisical, laissez-faire and corrupt law enforcement seems out of place.
Trading starts about 10am, and goes on until late at night, quite unlike the first world where people are more likely to have lives and do other things after work.
One day, wandering down Calle Simon Bolivar a good mile or two from the centro, I stopped at a cantina (Actually this word in Mexico means a drinking house like a pub (alchohol is served and women are not allowed, save putas) but ”canteen” seems to me to befit the kind of establishment in which I eat. ”Restaurant” to me implies a level of fanciness that these places to not possess). I explained my food restrictions to the ladies working there and asked them to bring me whatever they thought suitable. Beans, lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, tortillas, salsa, came promptly and was so tasty that I asked for a take-out and for the last year I have eaten here almost every time I enter Veracruz. I don’t need to order, I just sit down and they never disappoint me. After eating one time during the carnival when there was much dancing I performed for the ladies the ”Dance of the Happy Stomach” which killed them and moved them to ever afterwards blow kisses at me so nowadays I flirt with them, especially enormous Patty who turns bright crimson every time as the rest fall about in laughter. I tell her that she is my heart, my star, my love, that my heart is exploding, that I dream of her every night. She turns an impossible red and giggles hysterically, her plumpness quivering all over. If any other man talks to her I offer to fight him. It’s great sport for everyone and I really feel welcome there. I intend to bring them all flowers before I leave. [I did]
After a week of searching for a bike I realized that had I just shelled out for the first overpriced bike I’d seen I’d have wound up financially ahead, the stay having proved so costly. I became a little desperate. When I passed on foot the little motorcycle repair shop run by El Maestro Carlos described a couple of posts back (I had stopped earlier with Hector, they had a massive Vento for sale that I felt was unsuitable), I stopped in again and met a man called Edgar.
Edgar, Hector, Enrique (Henry), Eduardo, Jorge; Mexico uses the Christian names that in my native lands went out of style years ago. They are gentlemanly-sounding names, and their bearers usually live up to them. I find them charming. The women often have names like ”Maria of the Angels”. One I met recently was called, I believe ”Maria la Salvador Castillo Vasquez” Which I heard as ”Maria the savior of Vasquez castle” and I imagined her, alone on the battlements, pouring boiling oil upon the infidel horde.
Edgar had a bike for sale. It was an Italika 150, rather rusty but only two years old. He said it had been parked for ages. ”Where, I asked, in the sea?” The thing looked like it could carry a load, a practical machine, no frippery. It started easily, ran well, did not smoke, and was surprisingly quiet. He wanted $1100 for it but went down to $950 after a long process. I rather surprised myself, being a hopeless bargainer, though I now know I paid too much. A deal was struck.
Oh this bike. I have replaced two tires and tubes, the front wheel. The clutch cable, the accelerator cable, spark plug, the brake shoes twice, the brakes pads three times, kick stand return spring, the clutch, the chain and sprockets twice, the rear suspension linkage bolt, clutch lever and brake lever bolts, the rear wheel hub bolts and bushings, twice, most of its bulbs at least twice and the brake light switch. I’ve had the fuel tank off to repair a leak – now it has another – the carb in pieces four times and welded the exhaust twice, and am doing without rev counter and speedometer, choke cable, instrument lights, left signal lights, both mirrors, the side trim panels, kick start lever rubber and high beams since all of these have died or fallen off. I’ve had six punctures, bought four new inner tubes. The seat is falling apart and needs a towel over it after rain. Life near the beach has completed the scabby coating of rust. My bike is the subject of ribald humor around the village and my bike mechanic friends hold their heads in their hands when I show them the latest tragedy. The only good thing on it is the engine, which is quite enthusiastic and has not let me down. Nobody wants to steal it, which is nice. It has been knocked down four times by reversing vehicles whilst parked and once by a Pepsi truck moving forwards, also whilst parked. It was difficult to extract, jammed under the front axle like that. Since I have had no accidents whilst moving, I have formed the idea that it is quite safe to ride a motorcycle in Mexico (it isn’t) but extremely dangerous to park one. Take the key out and run for your life.
The next day we rendezvoused at the government office to settle the paperwork. Hector showed up to vouch that I had an address with him. The process was endless, Kafkaesque, copies, copies, forms in triplicate, IDs, passports , driving licence, upstairs, downstairs, this queue, that queue, hours and hours. It was senseless, mad, almost unbelievable, this bureaucracy. I could never have gotten through it without Edgar.
At one point Edgar had volunteered to do the umpteenth round of queueing so I had nothing to do and stood near the street door. Two women at desks near the door were clearly suffering from the heat which blasted in from outside every time the door was opened. The building was air-conditioned but the automatic door-closer was broken so I amused myself by closing the door every time it was left open which was…well, every time it was opened. At least 250 people came through that door before one, a woman, bothered to close it behind her. I find this kind of thing depressing. Most Mexicans are well aware what air conditioning costs in terms of energy because they know that they cannot afford it. Living in a better world demands that when we have a choice, we do the right thing. The door was easy to close, costing nothing, yet only one person in 250 chose to bother. It makes me feel overwhelmed, outnumbered, and hopeless. As does the local zeal for canned tuna.
When we left the office, I had my motorcycle. This felt fantastic. I couldn’t wait to get moving.
That night I dropped off my excess luggage at Hector’s house. The next morning I tied the rest to the bike and crept carefully out of town, thinking of all the motorcyclists I have known with metal in their legs. It has been many years since I rode a bike, and in this Mexican morning traffic I was pretty rattled. I reached the edge of town alive, then found the road that headed down the unknown coast. I knew exactly what I wanted to do first, more than anything.
I kept my eyes peeled both for potholes and for the thing I was looking for, and after twenty minutes – there it was! A side road leading off somewhere that didn’t even merit a sign. Along that for a mile, then a dirt lane between fields, stopped under some trees I took off the old helmet Carlos had given me and hung it on a limb in the hedge. Peace. My first peace in ten days. It was beautiful. Mexico is such a terribly noisy place, and I find the beauty of the world, and my own inner balance, in its increasingly rare calms.
Millions of years the human mind dwelt and developed in peace. Sure we had music, made with effort by human hands and mouths, not thumped and pounded and hammered at us all day, every day, from every restaurant, elevator, supermarket, house, boogie box, car…Music is not like other noises, it is specially designed to affect the human nervous system and as such is more or less impossible for most or perhaps all of us to ”tune out”, to the extent that it is used as a torture by many governments. To foist your music upon others is an invasion, an assault. Especially bass, to many people profoundly intrusive, disturbing, unsettling and certainly unwanted. An ugly noise made by ugly people…now we get peace only by the grace of the graceless. Play your entertainment in your home, not in mine, swine.
One good test of whether a questionable action is ethical or otherwise, is to ask ”What would things be like if everybody did it?”. Here in Mexico, on this bass thing you get a bit of an idea. Even though I am living in a rural situation surrounded by fields outside a tiny village, there is almost never peace. The air rumbles, pounds, thunders, heaves, thumps and grunts at all hours, like something evil is about (indeed it is), starting at 5 or 6am and not necessarily finishing at all. I don’t begrudge any neighbor the occasional loud party but this is not what is going on, 99% of this bass pollution -heavy, threatening, relentless – is thrust upon all by perhaps 2% of the population, day in, day out, morning noon and night. Not that the percentage of sociopaths is lower in other demographics, but here they can operate with virtual impunity despite the fact that what they do is proscribed by the law of the nation, enforcement being so poor. No, the rest of the population is not indifferent to this pervasive stench, many say they don’t like it at all, but are resigned to a world that doesn’t change for the better (This passive resignation is a large part of the national character. You may think that this is a stereotypification but it is not, and I will back that statement up sometime.).
Bassholes, I have exactly as much respect for you as you have for everyone whose lives you so casually pollute. Your arrogance and egotism beggars belief. If you regularly and repeatedly act as befitting an arsehole, are you not an arsehole? Why pretend to be anything else? Revel in your scumbaggery.
If you’d dwelt here a year, you might have a tirade of your own on this subject.
After sitting for an hour of truly delicious quiet interrupted only by the arrival a farmer who seemed unsurprised to find a random gringo in his field, onwards. Nothing but overgrown sand dunes on both sides of the road, mile after mile, occasional glimpses of the sea to the left. I deviated briefly down a sand road to the sand beach, long, completely deserted except for a million plastic bottles. No rocks. Along the way I hit my first swarm of bees and it didn’t really work out well for any of us. I reached Alvarado with its massive, stunning inland lagoon off to the right. I had met an ex-pat named John Todd in Veracruz who was most helpful and had suggested Alvarado as a possible spot to set up operations. The lagoon was amazing, hundreds of square miles of brackish water with clumps of pulpy vegetation floating everywhere in rafts. These often discharge via the narrow mouth of the lagoon and wash up on the beach, still alive and in rafts, where I live 50kms to the north. The water I felt, was a bit creepy but would still be a good place to test-sail a boat, however, I came across nowhere to rent that was near the water, and the edge of the water itself was unsavory, garbaged and with a polluted feel to it. I was a bit put off. The town itself was friendly, bustling, loud, very busy indeed. I was the only one amongst many motorcyclists wearing a lid, but it is mandatory under the law. Perhaps the policemen here are not so enthusiastic.
I watched the sun set magnificently over the lagoon, then checked into what turned out to be the first in a series of ghastly hotels. To call it a dump is to insult dumps. My room, setting me back $30, was dirty and stank. Mexican plumbers often seem unaquainted with the advantages of U-bends under sinks and showers. It was depressing and it was a relief to fall asleep.
In the morning it was a bit blustery but I didn’t know the half of it until I cruised over the high dunes between the town and the ocean. Here in a full gale it was hard to keep the bike upright and I bogged down many times in drifting sand. Whole dunes were moving across the road and the sea was so wild I do not exaggerate when I say it struck terror into me. The boundary between air and water was indistinct. I was building a boat to go out onto that? Clearly no small boat would last a single minute in that crazy tumult. I was filled with doubt. Of course I would not leave the land in such conditions but what if this happened whilst I was already afloat? I worry about this every day.
I kept looking for a place to rent but my heart wasn’t in it. Lunch was beans and tortillas served by a beautiful child. The children here – so cute, so utterly endearing. They seem well behaved, innocent, shy, polite, quite without malice. It takes nothing to make them smile and laugh. They play in the streets, even a plastic bag towed on a string is a world of fun. I remember English kids in terms not so glowing.
Alvarado behind me, I continued south. More sand, then cane sugar fields being harvested into ludicrously overloaded trucks. My backside hurt abominably from the unfamiliar use. I stopped and gnawed on some cane that had fallen from a truck – like vegan roadkill – there was plenty of this, incredibly sweet and slightly burnt-tasting, because they burn the fields to remove the sharp-edged leafs. I have noticed that Mexicans adore fires, and will burn everything they can, garbage, brush, weeds. As far as I can see they never make compost from vegetable matter, as I would, especially here in soil so sandy and starved of humus. This evening, beneath the dark thunderheads, Anton Lizardo glooms in a miasma of garbage smoke. All is well.
Sand, sand, sand, eighty or a hundred miles of sand. Past the grim town of Lerdo with it’s sugar-mill smokestacks in full belch I turned left onto a minor road to try to regain the coast, the road having veered inland. There were some actual rocks to be seen from this road, which plied through cane fields and hilly country, which I might have appreciated more if my arse wasn’t murdering me. At the coastal village of Playa Hermosa I stopped and looked for somewhere to rent, and was offered rooms in family homes, but I was not prepared to live without privacy. Eventually the road turned back inland and took me to a touristy town called Catemaco, where I checked in to a hotel even worse than the one of the night before. A long walk, beans, tortillas, then to bed where it was hard to sleep for the squeakings and cries of ecstasy from the room above. I am used to being alone but there is something about these foul lodgings which really laid me low. Sunrise was welcome. I headed back to Veracruz.
I daresay I could have found a dwelling to rent on that attractive coast near Playa Hermosa but I was coming to realise that it might be too far from any major town. Perhaps I would need things from the city and this long drive would definitely become tiresome (this certainly proved to be the case). Maybe north of Veracruz would turn something up.
But no. Over the next day or two the only place I found was a beach tourist town called Chachalacas. It was awful, earsplittingly raucous, garbaged, pricy, and crowded. Mexicans in general enjoy a beach by driving on to it. They park within a few feet of other vehicles on each side, throw open all the doors and turn up their stereos as loud as they will go, which is very loud indeed. Many of the pickup trucks will have enormous speakers loaded on the back and generators to supply them with power. Quite what they get out of this is beyond me. It seems to be to a large extent a status thing – I-have-a-car-and-you’d-better-know-it. This is fine as far as it goes but it doesn’t leave much space for those other people (and there are such Mexicans, many of whom come long distances to escape their city lives for a few days) who would like to relax in a peaceful, natural setting, and anyone who lives within a mile of the beach. Wild horses could not drag me back to Chachalacas. I stayed the night inland in the dark sugar town of Cardel, in the worst room yet, a stinking hole that had me about ready to slash my wrists. I walked the filthy but unthreatening streets looking for food and found some kind of cabbage-stuffed fried things that squirted oil when bitten. I could not return to Veracruz because all the hotels were full for Carnival.
I stand out in Mexico. Appearancewise I might be able to pass for a member of the upper social strata here, who are mostly whiter and taller, but no such folks would be walking around at night in Cardel. Probably not much in the daytime either. So it is obvious I’m a gringo even before I open my mouth. But Mexicans do not stare at or hassle, are uniformly polite and almost always friendly, and I feel comfortable enough. I stay away from dark alleys and slums of course. I have been repeatedly warned about the kidnapping risk and the drug violence thing but it has not affected me. I think it helps that I drive a crappy Chinese motorcycle and work in the watermelon fields occasionally.
I thought it a good idea to see some of the annual Veracruz carnival and to film it; accordingly I dropped my camcorder into a pillow case, strapped it to the bike and headed down the freeway. About half way I looked back and to my horror saw that the camera had gone…worked loose from it’s straps somehow! No! This was a high-definition Sony, top of the line, appallingly expensive, now lying smashed on the freeway. Cursing myself, heart in my mouth, praying for the absence of federales, I turned around and drove back along the freeway the wrong way on the shoulder, there being no way to cross the divider between the two sides. I found the camera about two miles back, miraculously intact though pretty bashed up. The replaceable battery had taken the first blow and then it had bounced end over end for a while. Incredibly it had not been run over. It still worked perfectly. I give it full marks for impact-resistance but since then it has had to be returned to the USA twice for unrelated malfunctions, costing me a great deal of good footage, so I would not describe it as reliable.
The carnival was interesting but I don’t think I would go again. A million people come to town for this and they are accommodated by wending the parade along a very long route between miles of tiered metal seating erected just for the purpose. By the time the parade reached me, it was worn out and ragged in the blistering heat, with the groups of dancers, paraders, whatever you call them, often far apart. The procession would start, stop, wait for ever, move on a few meters then stop again. Huge loudspeakers on floats knocked the crowd almost insensible. Hour after hour. It was too long for anyone to maintain interest or energy, crowd and procession alike, and one had the feeling that the joy was gone and all this was for the tourists. Nonetheless it was really an impressive and colorful effort and entertaining at times.
A day or two later found me again south of Veracruz, cruising along the main coast road. I was now a bit more confident on the bike, having encountered and survived some of the many hazards presented to motorcyclists on Mexican roads, including:
– Potholes, some big enough to swallow the whole bike. I have learned to jump the bike over many of them by bouncing down hard upon it just before the hole. This also works well for
– Topes. These vicious little speed bumps are the bane of motorists throughout Mexico, one has to slow one’s vehicle almost to a dead stop to get over them without damage. Every village has at least a couple, often many more, and much of the time they are completely unmarked. I rather like them, because they are so completely democratic – nobody rich or poor can afford to ignore them. Many in this area are made from old ship’s hawsers due to their availability from the shipping at Veracruz, though most are cement or tarmac and it seems may be placed in the road by anyone who feels like it. A local variety which I call ”negative topes” consist of a trench dug in the sand.
– Stinky water. Anwhere you see water on the road, and you see it a lot, it’s best to go slow. Some of these suspicious pools are from burst sewers or other smelly outflows and you plow into them at your peril. One has to make sure to pass through alone because other vehicles will try to pass and drench you in the process.
– Aggressive drivers. Scumbags in any culture.
– Rain. When it falls here, it really falls, and it shorts out the bike’s sparking gear somewhere, leaving me drenched at the roadside for an hour or two. Sometimes she keeps going though, and I have had a couple of trips through rain so heavy I can’t describe it, except that they had me laughing, with shoes and pockets brimful.
-Bees. Run into a swarm of these at speed and you will probably scream as I did the first time it happened to me. It was like a bad day at the Death Star.
-Sand. Blown from the dunes and off of trucks heading to Veracruz to make concrete, this scours your visor blurry in a few hours. You cannot drive around here without protective eyewear. I rather like the feel of it stinging my arms though. Sand is also very dangerous if you hit the dry stuff at speed – the front wheel bogs down and the machine becomes uncontrollable. Dry sand drifts across the roads here a lot and has to be ploughed off.
– Cops. On Calle Simon Bolivar in Veracruz one day I became aware that I had a number of bogeys at various positions o’clock. Six on motorcycles and one in a car then knobbled me, zeroing in from all directions at speed as if I was known to be extremely dangerous. They checked my papers, laughed at the bike and let me go. I have not had any real trouble with the cops here. In fact they visit me at home by the truckload at least twice a week, very friendly and interested in my progress on the boat. They seem to be increasing in rank as time goes on; it is hard to keep track of them all. They have excellent black uniforms which I think I would find irresistible if I were gay, and they never put down their machine guns. It can be awkward… entertaining a platoon of Gestapo friendly or not is not my forte. I often give them five bucks for coca-cola (the lowly ones only earn ten or fifteen dollars per day), this is not much between a truckload of guys and I do not consider it a bribe since I ask nothing in return. Usually they say that all is tranquilo, that they haven’t caught any criminals lately, but on the last visit they said that the three youths believed to have robbed my shack have been arrested on other charges.
But I digress, again. One day I had another look at Alvarado, but on the way back to Veracruz I saw a minor road leading off towards the sea, I took that, then another even smaller one into the village of El Zapote. A scrawled sign on a tree pointed to “Playa Zapote” (Zapote Beach) which sounded good, so I went that way, a sandy lane. As soon as this track arrived at the beach, I knew I had found my place. A thin village of concrete huts roofed with corrugated iron straggled along the tan sand beach, interspersed with the occasional rich family’s getaway palace, usually surrounded by a high wall. Fishing lanchas were pulled up on the sand, coconut palms swayed about, the water looked inviting, the people on the dirt street smiled at me. It smelled of fish but was open, breezy, quiet ( I thought) and just plain felt right. I tootled along the dirt road about three kilometers then stopped at a tienda in the next village, Mata de Uva, to ask about renting a place. I had in mind something bright and clean, with good plumbing, perhaps a television, a dry space outside to work in…sigh.
Here I met Enrique. This good-looking fisherman was leaning drunkenly against the refrigerator in the store, gazing longingly at the beers within and rubbing his belly which was doing it’s best to escape the confines of his shirt. He said something incomprehensible to me which I took to mean ”Buy me a beer, friend”. I needed a friend, so I did, and Enrique resolved to help me. I went to meet his family, and they made a great fuss of me, forced me to play a fiddle tune for them which was horrible, but I did warn them. I had to go back to my hotel room north of Veracruz but kept returning to this village over the next week until Enrique, squashing the back of my bike low to the ground, took me to meet his uncle in Playa Zapote.
I said Enrique was good-looking, despite tending to plumpness now at about 33 years old. A stocky sea-reddened face with short curly hair, dark eyebrows and moustache, a strong jaw and nose, rumor has it that he is the spitting image of his father, a famous Mexican soap star. Enrique is illegitimate, hence he is a poor fisherman whilst his half-siblings doubtless roll in luxury. That must be tough.
The uncle was Sefarino, who has been my landlord for the last year. There was a problem here with rentals – there were a few places available but I needed at least three months and there was nothing so long-term. Except Sefarino’s place. He had lived at his little concrete home for years before marrying and moving to Anton Lizardo, leaving the place empty except for his daily visits. I immediately liked him, a short, sprightly 71-year-old whose smiling gnomish face showed his Aztec ancestry in all it’s lines. He’s missing parts of two fingers from a boyhood machete accident, but is physically in such fine shape that I regularly see him climbing the trees in his garden after fruit, digging holes for fence posts and so on. For a while he and his wife Elizabeth, a round woman always in a full-body apron, both wore digital watches which beeped every hour, which was amusing; I don’t think they have much to be on time for, except church. They are both evangelists, as are many folk around here ( I think it is more fun than Catholicism) Sefarino was a fisherman for forty years, much of it spent in a dugout canoe. He was one of the first to own an outboard motor, which he fixed to the canoe, earning him the lasting nickname ”Motorola”. He also kept chickens, burros, cows, horses, and has forgotton more about surviving here than I will ever learn. He has been a gentleman throughout my stay here. Not necessarily reliable, but a gentleman.
The house of Sefarino…and the first boat. Eventually I’ll get around to telling you about the first boat.
The house itself is a three-roomed concrete box with little paint, no plumbing and electricity that wheezes in at about 80 volts due to the distance from the road and dodgy, thin, much-jointed wires that convey it. These are hooked onto the power lines where they pass by…I mean, hooked on!
Standard village power hookup. Not legal. Nobody cares. Every six months the Company truck comes by and unhooks everyone, then there is a great to-do as we all come out and share the long sticks we use to lift the ends of the wires way up and hook them back on.
So many locals aquire their electricity in this way that I am surprised the power company is solvent. I am more than a little annoyed to find myself a benificiary of this theft, but can see no way out of it. I can find nowhere else to rent.
There are frequent power cuts – almost daily – especially during storms but also due to transmission cable theft. One night some outfit stole 11 kilometers of power cable, a feat that was accomplished, it is said, using the power company’s own trucks!
The house has three rooms but I leave one full of Sefarino’s stuff. The garden is a little piece of paradise, or became so once I had the garbage cleaned up. Bananas, plantains, two types of avocados, limes, guanabanas (big, spiky, green, full of soft tangy white stuff), zapotes (like a sort of kiwi fruit but bigger), oranges, two types of mangos, almonds, really perilous chiles… the lime trees have been kicking off continuous fruit for eight months – why can’t all fruit trees spread it out like that?[The lime trees turned out to supply fruit throughout the entire year, fantastic for one who partakes of the odd gin and tonic.] – the avocados were fabulous while they lasted. Dishes are done outside, scooping water from a barrel which is filled every few days with the aid of a pump and well. A small anaemic gas stove and bare wooden table comprise the kitchen.
We had a discussion, of which I understood almost nothing. To this day I understand very little of what Sefarino says; he understands me much better. At one point Enrique said ”3 months, 400 dollars?”, which was fine with me. The next day I started the cleanup, and loaded up 20 litres of white ”paint” on the bike because the last paint job inside the house was effected long ago. This paint was the most terrible stuff, rolling it on gave the appearance of there being less paint on the wall than there was when I started; it was like milk. Damned if I’d buy more, had to do the best I could. Anything on the walls would help brighten up the place and make resting mosquitoes easier to spot and kill. I stapled mosquito netting around the unglazed windows, fixed up the frames and the door. Sefarino’s wife and two other somehow-related women appeared to help, and we all brushed and scrubbed and laughed together. Near the end when all that remained was to clean the floor, Sefarino had a brainwave and appeared with the hose from the well-pump which is a real gusher and for a while in there it was like one of the later scenes in Titanic.
I moved in. Sefarino and family brought along a bed to replace the old one which had crumbled away from termites, and there was one wooden chair and a table. I was very happy. I hoped to be here for only three or four months. Fool.
A year later, and…those who know me are aware that I am accustomed to a primitive and uncomfortable life, but oh! How I have suffered in this place! The unbelievable heat and humidity day and night, roasting indoors worse than out because of the sun on its thin corrugated asbestos roof, the tortuous chair, the black power cuts, the moldy walls, the omnipresent sand, the crazy toilet, the fleas and ants in my bed [these did exist but I eventually figured out that my main problem was an allergy and chiggers] and elsewhere, cockroaches, mice, mosquitoes, the lack of a refrigerator, the damp ruination of so many of my clothes and canvas and other things, the horrible noise (the noise, almost continuous bass, is by far the worst thing; everything else is bearable, in fact easily so, and although I describe these things to you, it is not by way of complaint, I accept all these things with fortitude, even amusement, except the noise), the early-morning wake-ups, the lack of privacy, the cursed chickens.
Sefarino showed up the day I moved in, and pottered about in the garden, made lunch, wandered in and out of the house, used the toilet, kipped in his hammock. He did the same the next day. And the next. I soon realized that although he had rented the place to me, he did not make the mental adjustment that it was my house, my home. He continued to come almost every day, sometimes bringing family for impromptu fiestas and lunches. One time there were 17 people there, in the garden and house.
I’m a very private fellow. An Englishman’s home is his castle, and all that. But I put up with this despite it bothering the hell out of me, especially the 6am arrivals. Perhaps this was the norm here? Perhaps he had said in that first negotiation ”Sure you can rent the place but it will only be yours at night”? I wasn’t sure. I’d already made one blunder by giving him a bottle of tequila before discovering that he is an Evangelist and therefore doesn’t drink. What to do? The last thing I wanted to do was insult anyone or strain our relations.
So I put up with this for eight months. It became difficult. I like the old fellow a lot but I would nearly scream when I saw his VW beetling across the field towards the house. I reasoned that he had been doing this daily for years and didn’t know what else to do with his time. I myself would not have wanted to be shut up in Anton Lizardo with his wife.
There was another problem. Sefarino or his wife Elizabeth would, a couple of times a week, bring a bag of garbage from their home and casually dump it in the bushes. It would blow about all over the place and I became tired of cleaning it up. Sefarino would eventually rake up some of it along with the leaves then burn it, which makes a foul and poisonous stink all day long. Get used to it, the national smell. I suggested that this was bad for the air, bad for people, that the air was not a good place for basura. This does not compute here at all, and it took a lot of asking before he stopped burning the stuff, and it continued to show up in the bushes.
Eight months of this, I’d had enough. I approached Sefarino in his hammock and as delicately as I could explained that I wanted more privacy, and that I found the garbage disgusting. I didn’t bring my garbage to his home, why did he bring his to mine? Could he not at least warn me next time he planned to bring a bunch of people by? This conversation had the desired effect, but definitely cooled our relations a bit. It’s ok now, and I have a great deal more time to myself. Sefarino still visits often but does not hang around all day unless he has work to do on his land. He is still careless with his garbage but it does not come in by the sackload – those he now dumps in the trees across the field. Sigh.
Sefarino inherited eight hectares around the house, a parcel worth at today’s crazy prices around here about US $2,500,000. He’d be a rich man if he could sell any of it. He has been trying. Meantime he rents out the fields for the growing of watermelons., and for the grazing of cattle when the melons are out of season. The watermelons are sown in December so by the time I arrived in early February the plants were growing strongly and beginning to cover the earth. Workers would arrive daily with their backpack sprayers to apply pesticides and fungicides, sans gloves, sans masks. I got to know these workers, they would ask me to go on the motorcycle to procure cold Coca-Cola and crackers, the stuff of life to Mexican watermelon farmers, and we would sit under the mango tree and attempt to converse. Angel Polom, a huge-bellied man known fondly as ”el Gordo” (the Fat One) runs the show, with help from Angel his teenage son, and Freddie, his brother. Of all the families I have become familiar with here, this one is by far the least intelligible in speech. If Sefarino spoke backwards I would catch more meaning than I ever do talking to the Poloms. But they are very friendly, and do what they can to find things out on my behalf.
Sorry, got to end it there.