Blog 8: Veracruz

November 14, 2013

            A day’s drive south of Pánuco, we hole up for a couple of nights in Nautla on the Veracruz coast at an eco-lodge called Istirinché. It is fancier than is our custom; a main hotel of three flours of suites, a sprinkle of separate cabins, a swimming pool and a splashing pool, a playground, a horse paddock, 600-meters of private beach, 30+ hectares of tropical forest and wetlands, and aviary with toucans, a cage with assorted iguanas, some small, medium, and large pens with crocodiles, and a sheltered area where they raise turtles and periodically free the young’uns into the gulf; a dining area palapa on the edge of the barrier dune, and a kitchen with a decent chef. We plan to stay a night but end up staying two. We stroll, I hike. Linda knits and I write a bit. I go birding and butterflying, Linda communes with the toucans. It’s relaxing, and gorgeous, and we are not in all that much of a hurry, and we can, and what the hell.

            Eventually we leave, after spending a morning hour with Istirinché’s naturalist releasing turtles. He has brought a tub of them onto the beach, the last nest of the season to hatch and reach viability. The tub holds maybe a fifty turtles, and over the last four months he has already released 30,000 of the little critters. One by one we pick them out of the tub, as their little flippers, unaccustomed to resting on air instead of a hard surface, flap madly to find purchase. We place them on the sand and they scurry toward the surf line. Some, when the wash of wave reaches them, begin to make swimming motions—presumably their first—heading for deep water. The waves tumble a few of them onto their backs, and after flipping about madly for thirty seconds or so, as soon as the next wave reaches them they flip themselves over and hurry out to join their cousins. The naturalist tells us that if we want to wait to see how they do, they’ll be back as young adults to lay their first eggs on this beach in about 15 years.

            The drive from Nautla to Veracruz should only take two hours, but much of it is hilly, and two lane, it is heavily trafficked by doble semi remolques, two unit tractor trailers, that chug up the hills in close packed convoys of three or four and discourage all but the most suicide-minded motorists from trying to pass. At the halfway mark we turn off to spend an hour at Cempoala (aka Zempoala), site of what was the largest Totonac city on the central coast. Cortés won his first big battle here, but before long had turned the survivors into allies against their common enemy, Moctezuma’s Aztec empire. Though the city stretched for kilometers, and at its heyday had a population of maybe 150,000 (though it was only 1/5 that size by the time the Spaniards arrived), most of it has been built or cane-fielded over. The remaining fenced-in area is pleasant enough, with a few pyramids and a vast central plaza. The row of acaxtle trees along the fence was rich in both birds and fragments of old broken dishes, so we poked around for a couple of hours and had a grand time before climbing back into the CRV for the last 50 kilometers to Veracruz. 


            Funny what the memory will do. I had only been in the city of Veracruz once before, quite a while back, and then only in its historic center district, and my mind’s archives had not treated it kindly. Hot, humid, windy, moldy, and grubby were the adjectives that my mind pulled out of its files. I knew Veracruz was Mexico’s oldest city, and in fact the oldest European-founded city on the mainland of the Americas, but I could not conjure up any old monuments. Instead, the snapshots I saw laid out on my mind’s desk were images of old but not ancient three and four-story stucco buildings, their pastel paint scaling off under patches of black mold; a tiny arcaded zócalo plaza with a bandstand surrounded by huge green trees, cacophonous with grackles in the late afternoon; a grey cathedral not much older than my father; the palm trees on the street that fronts the harbor bent nearly double in the wind.


            Of course, those images went into the archives a long time ago. It was the summer of 1960, and I was an eighteen-year old college student spending the summer of my freshman year in Mexico to put a little Spanish into my head before settling down to a pre-law program and eventually joining my father’s firm. I routinely cut my Friday classes in Mexico City to go traveling on the weekends, a habit that lasted me—to my profit and to my detriment all through my college years—and this particular weekend my destination was Veracruz thinking, I suspect, to eat a little seafood, see some tropical forest, and enjoy the scenery on the long bus trip down to the coast and back. I had, it turned out, timed my visit to coincide with the arrival of a hurricane, which is why another photo in my mind’s archive was of water running knee-deep in the streets, people soaked to the skin as they picked their way around fallen tree limbs and palm fronds on their way to rescue this or that, boats among buildings, and a sense—not of urgency or disaster—but a resigned, here-we-go-again sort of calm. I don’t remember going hungry, so some restaurants must have been open (or grocery stores – I was on a minimal budget). I remember music, too, tropical music, Caribbean, not the sort of sound I was used to hearing in Mexico City.


            The highway into the center of the Veracruz is uncharacteristically well marked, and we navigate to the zócalo without a hitch. The atmospheric old hotel we had chosen is under renovation, but next door is the Hotel Colonial, a rabbit warren of comfortable, quiet, large, reasonably priced rooms. And it has attached parking! Settled and content, we go out into the city for a look around.


            Not surprisingly, in the intervening half-century some things have changed. The cathedral is 50 years older, and WiFi in the hotels is routine. But the grackles, the mold, the peeling pastel paint is still here. The sky has that roiling black run-for-the-shelter feel of my mind-photograph. This afternoon it seems, Veracruz is on the edge of a storm system the Mexicans call a norte, a norther, and as we walk along the malecón, the esplanade that fronts the port, the palm trees are bent double, the fronds clacking like a nest of rattlesnakes. The Venustiano Carranza Lighthouse, a 5 story tower topping a historic office building where one of Mexico’s many constitutions was negotiated, is as I remember it. But next to it, and nearly twice its size, is the Pemex Building, the ultra-modern headquarters of Mexico’s state oil company.



 I have no memories of the port itself, and if I did they would be hopelessly out of date. The neport is immense, hosting container ships as big a New York City block, and oil tankers that would have a hard time turning around in Narragansett Bay. The newer port, that is going in next to the old-new one on reclaimed land and—if the eco-preservationists lose their battle in the courts—a swath of mangrove swamps, will be three times the size of the current port. Huge derricks for loading and unloading cargo loom above the wharfs like dinosaurs readying to take a great bite out of the loading dock roofs. Back in 1960 I had no experience with any modern parts of Veracruz, and I had no sense of the size of its population. Today it numbers 550,000, and the suburbs that stretch south along the gulf are full of modern apartment buildings, condos, classy hotels, and sport shopping malls, an aquarium, and kilometer after kilometer of upscale restaurants.

            Since the one thing I wanted to see in Veracruz was closed on Mondays, early Tuesday morning we took a cab to the fort of San Juan de Ulúa, visible from the malecón, but reachable by land only by a several kilometer loop that makes a peninsula out what used to be an island. It is the only island along the central coast, from what I have been able to research, that offers a deep water harbor on its lee side, which is why sailors from Cortés on chose it as a landing site that would protect their fragile boats from Caribbean storms and, perhaps, shield them from the view of pirates. By the 1550s, in fact, San Juan de Ulúa had become colonial Mexico’s Ellis Island, the place where all immigrants debarked from their ships, went through customs, and—if they were deemed suitable, and had paid all the appropriate taxes on the goods they were bringing in, and if they had papers to prove that they had no ancestors in the last two generations who had been Muslims, Jews, or godforbid Lutherans—they were ferried ashore to the new city of Veracruz. Almost all of the miners I am studying entered through San Juan de Ulúa, with their forged and perhaps bribe-sweetened papers securing them passage on a skiff from there to the mainland. 


            Turning the island into a peninsula was not the only change that time has wrought. Protecting, as it does, the port of entry to the main route from the Gulf to Mexico City, the island’s strategic value has merited reinforcing, from those days to the present. Fort after fort were built on the island, only to be destroyed by storms or invading armies. As the technology of naval warfare improved, fortifications had to be enlarged, strengthened, and reconfigured to withstand cannon, howitzers, rockets, and the like. The place is still managed by the naval command, and the port still bristles with defenses, but stone walls aren’t all that much use nowadays, so the 19th-century fort, which had fallen into ruin in the 1870s except for periodic use as a prison, is now a museum, with a display of just exactly the succession of historic maps and drawings I had been looking for.


            Photographs made, notes taken, Linda and I, back in our car, head for the mountains and Oaxaca. We don’t feel a need to go back to Veracruz immediately, but maybe after another 50 years have gone by . . . .


David & LInda