A brief overview :- I left Mexico some 18 months ago having been beaten by all the peccadillos of the boat I was building and being much in need of a break from the relentless pounding bass and awful heat. Knowing this project to be somewhat misguided and the discomforts in store I was less than enthusiastic about the idea of returning but finally decided to have another go. This time I came by car which enabled me to bring a quantity of tools, hardwood and so on, driving first to the northwest USA to visit Hawaii, family and Crumpetina, then with Crumpetina to Arizona, sadly leaving her at the airport and going on alone to Mexico. So far I am glad I came.
The Cops Squeeze the Gribbler.
From Tucson Arizona to Veracruz was 2000 miles of mostly desert driving which I managed in four days, camping out at night wherever I could find a quiet spot. The border crossing was fine, no dreaded bureaucratic nightmare, no search. The only incident occurred on the outskirts of Tampico on Christmas Eve. After night had closed in I was trying to get away from the city when six local cops with machine guns on the side of the road waved me down. I considered just driving on but all that firepower was intimidating and the thick traffic made that idea academic. I pulled over and rolled down the window. The Head Cop asked me if all was well and I said that it was, then he said that they needed some money “for chicken” (they always seem to have a food or drink reason). I said that I was not a ticket for a free meal but didn’t think I’d get out of it that easily – and I really, really didn’t want to get searched and have to try to hang on to my cameras or explain the flare gun under the seat – so I pulled out my wallet and forked over 50 pesos, about $4.50USD. Head Cop saw the contents of my wallet and said “More, more” but I put the money away, folded my arms and said “No. That’s enough for chicken (for one man maybe). I have to eat too. Happy Christmas”. At this Head Cop smiled rather charmingly, wished me a Happy Christmas and let me go.
That night was a bit rough. I found a spot in a roadside field and slept in the open except for Alden’s miracle Thai mosquito net. But cars kept stopping in the field’s entrance for breakdowns and to pee, and it was hard to relax the vigil that one knows is probably unnecessary but one has to do anyway. How do i know that someone didn’t see me enter the field and this car that just stopped isn’t him and his friends coming to rob me? Then long before daylight the rain came suddenly, and all I could do was stuff my wet bedding into the back of the car and take off. I’d been warned not to drive in the dark but nothing happened. The trailer followed along behind sometimes bouncing clear off the road, and the miles passed with nothing more surprising happening than the dawning of the realization that I was actually going to make it without anything going wrong at all.
I’m back. 18 months older and no wiser, rolling into Veracruz on Christmas day in my beloved little Toyota Yaris, overloaded to the gunwhales as was the trailer I was pulling. The plan, such as I have one, is to rebuild the boat, test it out and then have a jolly good think about stuff.
Oh Mexico! Such a bad rap you were getting in the press about the drugs and the kidnappings and the murders that even I – who should know you better by now – was afeared and toted beneath my seat an array of weapons that would make Ghengis Khan look like a pacifist. I even took out my first ever fully comprehensive car insurance. But once across the border at Brownsville Texas and into Matamoros you lulled me back into a feeling of wholly unthreatened comfort and good cheer. It just doesn’t feel dangerous here, not like Columbia or Honduras or Guatemala or the Bronx; one night I strolled the lumpy streets of El Zapote in perfect comfort and wondered how it works, the subconscious analog processing that figures out the truth of the situation then subtly tells the rest of the brain the truth, in this case that the blackness of the night held no more threat than the danger of stepping in a puddle of stinky water.
Well, ok, it was New Year’s Eve and the place was filled with laughter and the reports of fireworks and pistols, the smell of barbecued chicken, the screams and howls of participants in mad pinata melees in the family-crowded yards of a hundred homes. Uniquely Mexican, this madness and warmth and willingness to play the fool and to love every child that totters through the door.
They have made me so welcome in this fishing village of playa Zapote (4km from El Zapote) that for the last few days – since I managed to rent a house and move here properly from the (also pleasant) home of friends in Veracruz – I have been as relaxed and happy as I have ever been in my life. My spanish is still terrible but conversation seems easier and I have no trouble sitting down with random Mexicans to discuss their new bait trap (a rebar-framed net-walled box designed to catch little fish which they then use to catch bigger fish including manta rays and sharks for sale to the Japanese) or to talk of the coming norte whilst peeling the strange green fruits called chupipi whose exposed flesh weeps rubbery latex on to my hands and pocket knife. It probably does not hurt my reputation around here that much of my carload was presents including four used sewing machines, now in the pleased hands of folks who really value them, or that I made a largely successful effort to remember the names of most of the people I knew here last time. This last is no mean feat, I have to cheat by writing the names down each evening; certainly in the last week I’ve had to cope with 50-100 new names… I do pretty well at the names but the massively intertwined family relationships are beyond me – every new person is always introduced as “this is my cousin, my aunt, nephew, father-in-law etc.”…and though I can get who is related to who I cannot figure out the grand scheme, the great intertwining that is the big picture. I suppose this figuring-out is actually possible, somehow, but it would take me a lot of bits of paper for sure.
Something I said when asked about my present grisly dental troubles seems to have amused the locals. “When the pain stops you know you’re dead.” Apparently that went around the village because I hear them repeating it when I’m around.
For the first five nights I slept in Veracruz in the home of my friend Professor Santiago and his wife Beatriz . Beatriz made irresistible breakfasts after which I would drive to Playa Zapote to attend fiestas and hunt for a place to rent, or lie on my back as excellent dentists drilled holes in me, work that I was too cheap to have done in the USA. A good thing too: the work is good and the savings more than paid for the whole trip down from Oregon. I looked forward to evening conversations with Santiago, always good-humored and amusing; he regaled me with stories of his childhood in car-less Alvarado where unspeakable things happened to burros.
I miss the motorcycle some. The Yaris does not have the same credibility but it does feel safer and hauls a bigger load. And it has air-conditioning, though it is winter now it is brutally hot in the daytime. I arrived less than a week ago in a howling norte windstorm and already another has arrived; the car is now outside my new rented shack having its paint stripped by blown sand, this just the latest indignity after being driven overloaded with a heavy trailer over 4000 miles, 1000 miles on Mexican roads, and in the last week it has bumped along lots of dirt road and the salty beach, heavily laden with Mexicans. Poor car. This evening I was warned not to park it under the coconut palm outside; falling coconuts make big expensive dents.
I kind of miss running the gauntlets of packs of dogs as I used to on the bike.
Part of my unexpectedly warm welcome here – unexpectedly because I really had little idea how I was viewed by the locals when I left – was being invited to every party happening. In the first 5 days I attended one fiesta and three quincaneras, the 15th birthday coming-of-age party of Mexican girls. It works like this: The invitees get the food, the girl gets the presents, the parents get the bill. And the bill can be huge. the largest celbration of the three, in Anton Lizardo, had forty or fifty tables with cloths and flowers and fabric-decorated chairs, maybe seven hundred people attended, all were fed, add to that the singer, sound system, videographer, the church service and its decoration, the balloons, the waiters, the costumes of the girl and her siblings, oh god the cakes… better hope you have boys.
Pink is the order of the day for the girl, she wears a great pink balloon dress as do her attendants, some of them unbearably cute tiny girls. The cakes, oh god the cakes, rest on a specially-made rack, are pink and white and the most prominent of them always sports a model of the girl in a dress similar to the one she is actually wearing. I only went in the church for one of the services ( I am rather antireligious and don’t feel it appropriate), this was at the poorest (and most enjoyable) event and I only entered then because an ancient coal-fired Sony was pressed into my hands and I was asked to be the videographer. However Aline who owned the camera did not want to lose what she had already filmed elsewhere so I only had 22 minutes of tape to use and I scurried ahead of the procession – they entered the little cement church much like a wedding, flanked by the unbelievable little girls – wondering what would happen next and how long I dared keep the camera running in case a “good bit” happened. I decided to shut off the camera during the boring parts, which was of course the interminable sermon of the pastor of which I understood little but I hope I didn’t miss anything important. This was an evangelist service in avery modest cement-block evangelical church of the type I see everywhere around here, most of them unfinished and lacking windows (few of these charming people have a pot to piss in) so that in walking past one hears and sees the action within – there is much crying out and shouting of “Gracias a Dios” and “Gracias al Senor” and a great deal of groveling as the sharply-dressed pastor strides about yelling and whipping the crowd into a frenzy. So you see why I don’t enter unless I must.
Though the local pastor and his wife are charming and very friendly towards me despite my infamous atheism, I am annoyed at them. Evangelists are not allowed to wear jewellery, revealing clothing, or to drink alcohol and so on but what really gets my goat is that they cannot dance. Most of them have so little material wealth and so little entertainment that I feel to take dancing – one thing poor people have always had everywhere, one of the finest things that comes free with every human life – away from them is criminal. I asked one evangelist why they did not dance and she said “dancing comes from the devil”. Sigh. “Well then” I replied, “so do I”.
I make no apologies for saying that evangelists need to lighten up some and learn how to throw a party.
Back to the quincaneras . After the service ( I caught on tape the speeches of the parents and the few words the girl managed to choke out through her tears) everyone sits down at the tables except the girl who proceeds to a small stage where she collects the swag, presents presented generally one per family or one per gringo (that’ll be me, the only one in a crowd of 700 or so at the biggest event but quite happy because Mexicans do not stare when you can see them do it or do anything else to make a person feel uncomfortable. There is only one other gringo around here, my friend Gringo Jack, but he is rather more wealthy than I and though his house is in the village his life does not really intersect with those of the locals except when they are squeezing money out of him… which he gives gladly because he is a decent guy) I gave the girls money because I could find no decent gifts in Veracruz; this is quite acceptable apparently.
Then the food. Interestingly the men prepare much of the food at these events and do all the serving, unlike in daily life when they do no domestic work whatsoever as far as i can tell. Their specialty is the barbacoa, which is meat not prepared by barbecuing as Americans would understand it but by stuffing single portions into individual plastic bags along with many herbs and spices, wrapping each with aluminum foil then packing hundreds of these into oil drums which stand over firepits and bubble away for half a day or so. These packets are served as-is and it is up to the eater to extricate his tender, juicy hunk from the foil and plastic. Sometimes it it is still done with banana leaves and string. I tried a little piece, it was absolutely delicious. Also served is rice, the inevitable tortillas (which I have found make excellent impromptu continents when torn into shape during discussions about geography (how long does it take to drive to England?)) and sometimes chicken with mole (accent on the e), a thick, rich and delicious dark brown sauce made with cocoa and a great many spices. They know I like this so I am served plenty to eat with rice, and I make no fuss about the fact that the sauce I eat is taken from the top of a huge pot with the chicken submerged below, and I eat it with apparent relish though the smell of the chicken fat makes me gag. This dish is made regularly hereabouts and in great quantity: three days ago I was driving and saw a girl on the street carrying a large aluminium boat paddle. My Mexican passenger asked what she was carrying it for… “to stir the mole” !
Though normally strictly vegan I do not feel it productive to be picky. I make the point that I wish to live without cruelty but to be religious about it creates a bad reputation. I’d rather not eat the chicken fat but if I do it makes no difference to the number of creatures that have to live in torment for our pleasure. I’ve known folks who burst into tears if they accidentally eat some kind of animal product: get over yourselves, it helps nothing. Further, I have eaten a little fish here twice already; I am in a fishing village, not just for a day or two but living, and find refusing the hospitality of those who have little else to offer to be rude and counterproductive. The last thing I want to do is offend anyone here. I really like these people.
This quincanera food, straightforward and unembellished but enjoyed by all (well, except me) seems to be the right of the guests earned by their attendance. The atmosphere is very friendly as it always is at Mexican events, but is somewhat marred in my opinion by the music which is blasted from speakers cunningly placed throughout the site so that no-one is spared having their ears pounded in. It literally hurts my teeth. It goes on and on, Mexican music ( I don’t think I have ever heard an American or European song played around here, not once) either recorded or played by a hired singer with slicked-back hair and a keyboard, and finally the food including the many cakes, oh god the cakes, is either eaten or stowed away in handbags, then throughout the afternoon people slowly drift away.
The whole event, anticipated for years and remembered for life means a lot to every Mexican girl and is much more than yet another excuse for Mexicans to have another fiesta and add to their considerable girths. it is a well-wishing towards an individual, an affirmation of the appreciation of an entire community towards it’s female youth, and a celebration of femininity. My word these women deserve some appreciation. I approve of the whole thing.
My, I am going on bit today aren’t I?
Reyna y Hacinto.
When I left 18 months ago my good neighbors Reyna and Hacinto offered me a place to store my boat in their chicken shed – mercifully unoccupied by chickens – an offer I accepted gladly. They have been very good to me, not only guarding my valuables, doing my laundry, lending me a stove and finding me this house to rent, but feeding me twice a day in their home. It has become very hard to resist their daily invitations to eat breakfast and lunch always excellent with beans and vegetables and salsa with Reyna’s hand-made tortillas. They will accept no payment so I load them up with groceries instead. They are poor but have a well-kept house and and the prettiest garden in Playa Zapote. Recently they finally saved enough to buy a lancha, one of the ubiquitous fishing launches that go out from the beach, but the engine was stolen and the $4000 needed to replace it with a used one is beyond them, so they had to sell the boat. I feel for them. Thieves are a plague of this place and have destroyed my friends’ hopes for a better future for themselves and their children. Raimundo, their highly intelligent, handsome and genial son will now not go to college, I see him every morning at 4am going out on his grandfather’s lancha to fish. One cannot leave one’s home unguarded unless it is heavily barred with steel, which most cannot afford. I have to load all my valuable tools, cameras etc into the car before going anywhere (then worry about the car getting broken into) whenever I leave the house, a true pain in the arse. Next thief who tells me he doesn’t really hurt anyone gets a punch in the face.
This business with the stolen engine came on the heels of hurricane Karl, which hit the State of Veracruz and caused a situation very similar to the one in New Orleans. Many drowned and thousands were flooded out and lost their furniture and other possessions. Here in Playa Zapote Reyna and Hacinto lived for 8 days with about ten inches of water in their home; they carried in cement blocks and balanced their things upon them and did not fare too badly. A big difference between Veracruz and Orleans is that the homes here are almost all concrete – lumber is hard to come by, the locals are agog when they see my video of the wonderful forest I live in – and though there was substantial damage to roofs and some foundations were eaten away, most houses were structurally OK though badly messed up by filthy water sometimes including oily contaminants.
So it is hard times for Reyna and Hacinto but that does not prevent them from helping me out in every way they can. They did have one bit of luck recently when torrential rain washed down from the mountains and out to sea a great deal of timber. An enormous cedar log four feet in diameter washed up on the beach and with the help of two tractors in tandem Hacinto and Raoul hauled it up out of the surf and and chainsawed it up into chunks and beams, very high quality lumber which they are still selling. They have to keep this on the down-low because due to timber theft and deforestation a government permiso is required to transport or sell forest products, they cannot just truck it into town and cash in at a lumber yard for its real value.
Giovanni the younger son has married since I have been away and has become a fisherman with the clan of his new wife, Isaman, who isnotaman at all. She is sixteen, he is fourteen, a strapping and immensely friendly and energetic fellow. I gave him an air rifle and he has become the scourge of the iguana population since I neglected to extract a promise from him about those when I asked him never to kill birds. Iguanas, huge and emerald green, are a prized delicacy here, normally taken from the trees by packs of boys with catapults.
My New House.
It took a few days of chasing landlords around then Reyna found me this place which her father had recently vacated. It’s a concrete box a hundred feet back from the waves which as I write are crashing soothingly on the sand. There is no furniture whatsoever but I am very comfortable on the floor on a camping mat (Thanks a MILLION Susan Lange for that gift, you’ve no idea what a difference it has already made to me). There are two lanchas stationed out front so I am generally wakened at 4am by the arrival of fishermen and I stumble out to help them launch which is a short or long process depending on the state of the tide and consequent distance to the water. Rolling the boat down to to surf is easy enough for it is empty in the mornings, the net having been deployed the evening before, but one must be careful in the dark that the big palm logs used as rollers do not crush one’s feet. The motor roars, I wish them luck, they disappear out into the pool of ink and I go back to bed. About 9am they return and we haul the boats out again, this time uphill, rolling them backwards on the logs which have to be carried around from from bow to stern in a relay. The boats, incredibly battered and patched fiberglass and wood jobs with 40-80hp outboards, are now very heavy loaded as they are with their wet nets weighing a couple of thousand pounds, you can’t get a lancha up the beach without at least five guys. Women often appear and pull on a rope tied to the stern. We get the job done together. The nets themselves are a half-kilometer long and twenty feet deep, with floats along the top boltrope and weights along the bottom. The guys return in the afternoon, again roll the boat to the surf and string the net out there somewhere. So far I have not seen them catch more than a bucket of fish per expedition, not enough even to feed their families let alone sell to pay for the gasoline and considerable wear and tear on the net. This is the state of things, they are after fish which swim migratory routes along the coast, and the coast is a gauntlet of nets, After a few hundred miles there aren’t many left. The seas are dying, we all know it, and yes I am eating a little fish here (after 25 years without) for reasons I have explained, but who is to blame if not you habitual fish eaters paying up an industrial harvesting system which cannot last?
I pull water from the frog-filled well in a bucket and carry it inside to dump on my head or to flush the toilet. I sit on the patio and play the fiddle, badly. I love the place despite the ants, mosquitos, dodgy wiring, barren concrete floor and the asbestos cement roof that heats up in the sun turning the inside into an oven. Who else gets a house on the beach for $140USD per month? My landlord, Jose Pepe, is an intelligent adorable smiling fellow in his late fifties, easy to understand and to talk to, never bothering me as Sefarino did at the last place though often I go over next door and we discuss philosophy from chairs on his patio and watch the waves roll in. In appearance he is indistinguishable from the local fishermen but he is a professor of law at Veracruz University and puts on no airs or pretensions whatsoever.
Two dogs live here. Capitan is an unrufflable old bruiser with a worried expression and a gentle, knowing manner, more battle scarred than any dog I have ever seen. He often walks off to El Zapote and returns when he pleases. He hates fireworks. Chainga is a small young bitch, very friendly and playful. Both sleep on my patio with a cat and all are fed by Raimundo, fisherman, perfect gentleman and grandfather of Raimundo.
Behind my house shaded by an almond tree is a concrete area perfect for boatbuilding. Reyna and Hacinto loaned me a work table. I’m back in action.
The Pacific Flying Proa
18 months and two Veracruz wet seasons in a chicken shed have not improved him (Pacific flying proas are traditionally male) but though completely covered in a thick rind of dark green mildew he is basically sound. Most of the lumber stored alongside is in the same mildewed state and because it was not protected by a layer of epoxy it may be more damaged; I have yet to see. I hauled my baby over to the new place – one end projecting from the back of the trailer by a good ten feet. The weight was distressing, no way would I be able to haul this boat up on the beach without help. So the first order of business has been ripping out the entire deck and removing the 200 plastic bottles and urethane pour-foam below, because although I will miss the unsinkability aspect the weight must go. I will shave off more weight wherever I can, then add rudder brackets and replace the decks. New lightweight carbon spars I brought with me, along with cool new rudders and new lighter crossbeams of laminated Alaskan yellow cedar. This boat will still weigh too much, way over what I originally intended when I came here and first half-built a skin-on frame hull that I could lift with one hand. I abandoned that flawed design and regret it somewhat: excess weight may fatally limit my options.
Honestly I dreaded coming back here, most especially I detest the bass but monster basshole El Gordo that fat swine has moved away and the restaurant/club that was a big problem also closed (Reyna and Hacinto and the other neighbors are very happy about the return to peace) and it is low season so though there are still times when the bass pounds it is generally quite peaceful here and very pleasant indeed. I have a lot of visitors, this morning working amongst 4 adults and 8 boys. It’s a little hard to keep track of my tools – boys can be light-fingered but so far so good. Dad gave me a whole box of pocket knives he’d collected and these have been a smash hit with the men and boys as were the sewing machines with the women… to my surprise none of the fisherman carries anything other than a sort of kitchen knife, they seem immensely pleased to have something more personal and interesting to carry. Thanks Dad. Oh on the subject, I was approached by the likable rascal Enrique (a picture of him holding a fish can be seen way back in the blog somewhere) who said that they were fishing for something that they had to pursue through the ocean on straight-line compass courses, did I have a compass they could use? (it may seem strange that something so simple as a compass is hard to come by but these folks have very little materially, though they are well-fed. When I asked a girl I know, Meridi, her age I was surprised to learn that she was only ten – I’d have guessed fourteen. “What do eat? ” I asked? “Fish”, she said with a grimace). Dad had given me a lovely big yacht’s compass with a floating rose and luminous markings; when I pulled that out of the car and gave it to Enrique he was flabbergasted.
The manta rays are coming. the guys bait hooks and leave them out in the ocean anchored with flagged buoys. they find them again the next day using GPS enabled cellphones. Pretty handy for them, though these phones are no use in steering compass courses apparently. I hope to be going on a manta ray expedition in the next week or two.
And so the world turns. The waves crash, my lights flicker in tune with the Christmas lights of Jose Pepe next door and intermittently black out altogether as the norte swings the wires back and forth. Chainga yaps at a passerby out on the sand. My buddy The Huge Spider looks down on me from his corner, a gecko keeps his fruitful buggy station near the single bare lightbulb and a land crab scratches at the bottom of the door. My stomach still burns contentedly with the chile I ate at dinner hours ago. Sometimes I wonder at the twists of fate and idiocy that bring me to these experiences. It’s not comfortable (when the pain stops you know you are dead), it’s not exactly fun, but it is wonderfully real.