Nations, like stars, are entitled to eclipse. All is well, provided the light returns and the eclipse does not become endless night. Dawn and resurrection are synonymous. The reappearance of the light is the same as the survival of the soul. –Victor Hugo
The ride into the State of Veracruz was intense. I was feeling extremely ill from what may have been sunstroke after a day hiking around the ruins of Teotihuacan without a hat. In any event I was suffering. I hadn’t slept all night owing to a pounding headache (unusual for me), explosive guts, and a horde of stealth-like, uncatchable mosquitos buzzing around my head. It was a tortuous night but I really didn’t want to burn a day in Teotiuacan recovering, despite my host family being lovely, because there really wasn’t anything else to do here. Mounted my gear after ingesting a bean and tortilla breakfast, had one final washroom purge, gritted my teeth and headed off. Less than an hour into the ride, I was feeling so rough that I was forced to pull over for a break. I found a somewhat fancy seafood restaurant in some shitty little town which certainly wasn’t ideal but I figured it was probably the only place in town with air conditioning. I ordered a bowl of Sopa Azteca, but couldn’t get through more than a few spoonfuls. Exhausted and dazed I lay my head back against the wall behind my chair and closed my eyes. There was a group of businessmen at a table nearby that had already been eyeing me and my lavish riding gear. I knew that falling asleep at my table while sweating profusely was not the most suitable behavior for a cultured genteel such as myself, but in this condition I didn’t really give a damn. When I set off again, the weather changed quickly. My surroundings went from blistering and humid to cold, foggy and wet within a matter of a few kilometers. One of the reasons I decided to hook over to Veracruz (the first being, of course, to hit the Gulf) were the magnificent vistas from the elevated highway described in my Lonely Planet. The fog became so thick that before long I literally couldn’t see more than 15 feet in front of my windscreen. Thick fog when on a motorbike is especially problematic because your face mask keeps misting up and you have to wipe it with your glove every bloody minute. At least the rain was helping to cool me down.
The first couple nights I stayed in an oil town called Poza Rica on the Atlantic Coast. The city is about 60km from where Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and 80 revolutionary fighters departed on the Granma in 1956 to start the Cuban Revolt. The city proved to be super grimy, congested and overwhelming. There was a terrific amount of road construction through the city making traffic abysmal. Even with the ability to lane split it was taking forever to navigate through the rush hour-packed centro. My GPS was useless because every road it took me to was closed. I’m positive there was just a single path through town and the whole process was like being trapped in a haunted maze. Eventually I got to the road I was supposed to be on. In Mexico, streets are not always clearly marked, so in lieu of an address my host just sent me a photo of a traffic overpass and a sign reading Buen Viaje. I was thrilled and astonished when I found the sign as it had been a very trying ride. There was only one business near the overpass which was an internet café up a slight slope above the street. I sturdied up my bike and went to find, David, my host. Sure enough the young man sitting at the desk of the empty café was David. He greeted me with a smile and looked grateful that he had an excuse to close up the shop now. He took me up to his house which was further up the extremely steep embankment behind the café where he lives with his mother and father.
David’s mother works as a tanker truck driver for Pemex, the national oil company, which directly or indirectly employs the majority of Poza Rica’s populous. His father, sadly, is confined to a wheel chair after a traffic accident several years earlier. The internet café exists so that David’s father can still contribute to the family economy by manning the store during the day. The fact that their property is so ridiculously steep is just a cruel coincidence that they have to deal with. The distance between the house and the road has been fitted with a narrow concrete driveway- although with a dizzying amount of switchbacks- which David’s father has become extremely adept at navigating. Both David’s parents were absolutely lovely to me during my stay. We had meals together and they did their best to dumb down their Spanish for me to understand. Although they don’t speak English in the home, I discovered that David is taking transitory English classes to get into a better university. One of the reasons he hosts Couchsurfers is to practice his English to help with this goal. It is this kind of culture exchange which makes me so proud to be a member of this community. Occasionally I get hosts who make me feel that they’re doing me a huge solid and that I should exude profuse gratitude for giving me a place to stay. This is not the purpose of being part of Couchsurfing and I sometimes resent such people for missing the point of the exercise. It isn’t about saving someone hotel costs, but about sharing with people from different cultures, backgrounds, credos; learning about one another, creating commonality and hopefully a connection. It is about mutual acceptance and the idea that humanity as a whole is one entity indivisible by its parts. A buddy who has been on Coushsurfing even longer than me has written on his profile: “First, I provide you with a space. From that simple space which you seek, a relationship ensues in which we share some of life’s stories and lessons as well as listen. I participate by opening my door to strangers in hopes that distrust, indifference and fear become less of an issue among people.” Love it!
I had a great time with David. A super sharp, ambitious and hilarious young man, he had me in stitches for most of my stay. He took me in his car to the ruins of El Tajin, one of the largest and most important cities from the Classic Mesoamerican era. El Tajin was the capital of the Totonac people who controlled much of modern-day Veracruz state. Archaeologists have found proof of activity at the site dating back to 5600BC. The peak period of El Tajin’s power and influence though was between 600 to 1200AD. It is believed that the city flourished until 1230AD when it succumbed to social collapse and was abandoned. One of the more well preserved sites that I had visited, I was especially impressed with the Pyramid of Nichos. The pyramid includes 365 niches representing the days in a solar year.
We watched a Danza de los Voladores inside the ground; an ancient ritual which David explained is like an early bungee jump. Five men in traditional dress climb up to the top of a 30 meter high pole. Four of the men tie a rope around their ankles or waist and launch themselves off the top of the pole. The fifth remains on the top playing a flute or drum. As the flyers rotate around the pole, the ropes slowly unwind lowering the men to the ground. The best part of the performance for me was as soon as they touched the ground, the voladores freed themselves instantly bolting towards any newcomers for a donation. I was truly amazed that while flying upside down through the air, they were still able to track the new people that arrived and then without any wobbling or dizziness managed to scamper across the terrain to their expected patrons. Luckily David had made a donation prior to their ascent so we were now free to lounge on the grass and look on with laughter.
David told me as we were leaving that he had already taken six previous Couchsurfers to El Tajin. Considering this fact, I was very impressed at his enthusiasm during my tour as well as grateful for his company. What a guy to go out of his way to see some old ruins he’d already been to numerous times purely for the enjoyment of his guests. He also drove me out to the ocean at Tecolutla, a quiet Mexican vacation spot on the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the hotels and restaurants were extremely rundown. We found one tourist attraction, the city Aquario, behind a scummy, faded façade reminiscent of an old Granville Street, X-rated theatre. The bored looking girl lounging in the box office sold us two tickets for 20 pesos each and then had to run into the back to switch on the lights for us. Inside were a bunch of open aquariums and terrariums. There were some creepy lizard fish I’d never seen before, a small cracked aquarium housing a pissed off looking eel and in the outside loading area, there were two huge crocodiles laying upon a dirt floor behind a chain link enclosure. I remember the bar in St. Blas with the crocodile in the back room behind the 4 foot high fence. I guess it’s just a common thing in Mexico to keep crocodiles out back. We spent the rest of the day pounding caguamas on the beach and talking to the fisherman and local vacationers. It was cool to again be on the Atlantic Ocean just 3.5 months since my visit to Nova Scotia. I was pretty content at the thought of spending the next six months slaloming back and forth on my bike between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans on my way to Panama. Decidedly better than working for a living.
My next host in Veracruz City was an entrepreneur in his early 30’s named Aaron. He had never hosted before and had signed up on Couchsurfing thanks to his sister’s positive testimonial. In fact it was his sister Erika who I had first applied to, but as she was already hosting at the time, she referred me to Aaron. And thankfully she did, because courtesy of Aaron and his friends I had just the best time in Veracruz. Unfortunately I had watched my Patriots get vanquished at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens a couple weeks earlier at a gringo bar in San Miguel de Allende. But it was Super Bowl weekend and I was stoked to have found myself in a fairly up-scale city by Mexico standards. Surely I would be able to find somewhere with a decend atmosphere to watch the game. Even in modern Guadalajara, the Primos and I had stalked from bar to bar only to find one venue playing the Patriots Divisional Round playoff game against the Texans… playing in Spanish and on one regular-sized TV. I was still keeping the faith that Veracruz would come through for the Superbowl. It was a good sign when one of Aaron’s co-workers, a Mexican guy named Maurizio, who had spent a lot of time in Texas, invited me to a Halcones Rojo’s game: the state basketball team. At least I was in the company of sports fans. Aaron already had a date arranged for the evening and was very apologetic that he couldn’t hang out that night. The ball game had about 1,500 spectators and the players were made up mostly of black African Americans, ex-college players and probably only two Mexican or Latin American nationals per team. The quality of the competition was less than what you might see at a Canadian University match but that did not deter the fans. The noise inside the tiny stadium might have rivaled that produced at a Vancouver Grizzlies home game. The home team prevailed and the fans went nuts. I wanted to buy a jersey to add to my collection of international sports jerseys but they didn’t have any XL gear at the fan shop; amusing since this was a basketball game.
I was aware of Veracruz’s reputation as a very dangerous place before arriving. There had been an all-out Narco war here since 2010. I was told Gulf cities tended to have a problem with Narcos due to the proximity of the ports to Texas and Florida, used for smuggling drugs into the US. When Mauricio and I got back to Aaron’s place, Aaron was sitting on the couch and looking rather pale. We asked what was up and he told us that while he was at dinner a bunch of masked men charged into the restaurant, firing guns into the air and kidnapped one of the other diners who was sitting with his wife and children. We found out on the news the next day that the guy was a local politician who had evidently found himself on the wrong side of the drug mafia. Aaron said he and his date both hit the deck and laid under their table until it was all over. The next day, we inadvertently walked past the restaurant which was just down the street from his place. He showed me the table where he had been sitting, right next to the door. Freaky. Maybe not all the news reports about the drug war are as exaggerated as I thought.
After a day of wandering around a good portion of the city with Aaron in a futile effort to find vegetarian gorditas, we found a sports bar. Dawson’s is a mainstay next to the water on Blvd Avila Camacho. There were big professionally printed posters advertising burgers and tequila specials during the big game. I’d arrived. Aaron wasn’t so interested in American Football and was super busy with work but he contacted one of his co-workers, an ex-pat from the States, who said he would be at Dawson’s for the game with a few friends. Mauricio, probably from his time spent in Texas, was also keen to see the game. He picked me up at around 11am the next morning at took me to a really cool seafood restaurant on the ocean. We had pescado a la veracruzano, white fish with a spicy tomato sauce, and a couple pre-game beers. Also at the restaurant was the national baseball team of Guatemala. I had read in the newspaper that the Latino Americano World Series was being held in Veracruz this weekend. All the players looked pretty fit and well looked after. You could tell that this was a high level team and that baseball was a serious thing in this part of the world. As we left, I wished the men ‘Buen Provecho’ and told them good luck with the rest of the series. They were super friendly and most of them shouted back a thank you or salutation. As it turned out, the stadium was only three blocks from Aaron’s place and on my last night in town, Aaron and his girlfriend accompanied me to a world series game.
When we got to Dawson’s the place was already packed. We had actually arrived a couple hours early because as usual, I’d miffed the start time. When it comes to sports start times either I mix up the time zone advertised on the website (not completely my fault) or I’m confused about the time zone in which I currently reside (wholly on me.) I found Aaron’s buddies pretty easily as they were the only gringos in the place and they were boisterously shouting at us from the second floor gallery when we walked in, obviously well on their way with the tequila. Just like my boys back home… already shitfaced two hours before kick-off. Saba’s Ravens had earned their place in the big game by beating my Patriots and their opponent were the San Francisco 49ers. I had expected, if anything, there would be a smattering of 9ers fans at the bar- maybe a jersey and a couple hats. In fact, the bar was packed with Ravens fans, complete with purple jerseys and supplementary accouterments. I remember thinking it was such an obscure city for Mexicans to be cheering for. I guess Ray Lewis really holds sway. Or perhaps it is because the QB, Joe Flacco’s last name is a Spanish word (it means skinny.) At least I was in good company since I would be supporting the Ravens; obviously because they’re my best mate’s team but also because they bested my own team. There were also a good number of San Fran jerseys including the American guys that we were meeting up with. I could tell by the smell of their breath and their overall demeanor that there was going to be some muy intensio trash talking. The game was sensational. The owner, a tough-looking bear of a man from Chicago, came ’round a few times with courtesy shots of tequila for us. He was having a blast. Half in the can himself, as you would expect from any self-respecting gringo owning a bar in Mexico. The Ravens played superbly during the first half leading me to run around the bar rowdily slapping hands with the Ravens fans and making friends. The 45 minute power failure, when the stadium lights went down, caused a delay of game allowing time for three additional shots of El Jimador. I was wondering if this game might turn out similar to the year we watched Super Bowl 37 at the Lamplighter, where after 4 double ceasers before the game even started, none of us had a very clear recollection of the 4th quarter.
The power failure must have allowed the trailing Niners to take stock of the situation because they came on strong towards the end. It made for a nerve wracking end to the game, but the Ravens held on for the win. I have to admit I was somewhat emotional by the final whistle. This was the first time that I had been even remotely homesick since I began my trip – thinking about my friends cavorting at some Vancouver bar as we did every year. I had made Tanya promise that she would attend a portion of the Superbowl party so that I was at least represented and to ensure I wasn’t forgotten. I went into the back DJ room after the game to shoot the shit with Dawson a bit more. He had been donning a San Fran jersey, so I thought he’d be feeling it considered their defeat and the fact that he was now likely as drunk as I was. I was indeed correct, he was in the back looking through his collection of LPs and licking his wounds. I started to ask him a bit about the bar and how long he’d been here. His response was a bit jarring. He said he had been here for 10 years but a couple years ago he had been approached by some of the racketeers demanding protection money. He tells them to go get fucked. Not so surprising for a guy who grew up in the city of Al Capone. Not long after, they allegedly came back in the middle of the night and burned his bar to the ground. Not to be deterred, he immediately set to rebuilding at a site a couple doors down. The charred remains of his first bar are still just down the street. I’m pretty sure the result of the game and the booze was making him a bit more loose-lipped than usual but he looked up at me forlornly and said, “I gotta get outta town pretty soon. These guys are killers”. I could not imagine living full time in a country where gangsters routinely kidnap and kill politicians, the police no better (and in many cases worse) than criminals and the citizenry are basically on their own to survive. Mexico is a beautiful country with some of the most hospitable people I have come across, but they certainly have some obstacles to surmount before they come anywhere close to being a country with liberty and security for all.