Saturday, January 17, 2015

dancing through life

"Did you ever imagine, when we were kids in Coos County, that we would be touring the exotic environs of Mexico -- looking for places to live?"

It is a question Dan and I have asked one another several times during this trip.  I did not raise my hand to that one -- as Bob Wells would say.

Here I sit on a cool Friday night on a terrace in Veracruz with the towers of the municipal palace and cathedral for company listening to a band play danzón tunes.  I am not certain that it can get much better than this.  (Of course, it will get better -- or the next two weeks will suffer from the miasma of anti-climax.)

We started our morning in Coatzacoalcos, where slow internet, drizzle, and a strong wind off of the Gulf kept us from getting too nostalgic about blowing out of town.  Because the weather was not being very cooperative, we decided to not take the scenic route along the coast.  Instead, we spent a few pesos and hours on the cuota -- the toll road.

I have praised Mexico's roads in the past.  Especially, the toll roads.  I may need to revise that opinion.  The cuotas we have encountered in this portion of Mexico are seriously pot-holed.

The scenery on our way lured our attention away from the road hazards too often.  We are not talking purple mountains majesty distraction here.  The views were far more prosaic.  But, for us, they were new.

I have seen pineapple fields before.  There are some just east of Barra de Navidad.  But I have never seen them in acre after acre.  It turns out that Veracruz state claims to be the pineapple-growing capital of Mexico.

To take full advantage of that boast, we stopped to buy two jugs of freshly-made pineapple juice.  Made from the variety known as "honey."

And then there is the sugar cane.  I may have seen larger fields of this diabetes magnet in Jalisco (up around La Huerta), but the fields in Veracruz are impressive.  It could be a corn field in Kansas.

Not as impressive as the city itself, though.

For some reason, I never expected too much of Veracruz.  Someone once told me it is as hellishly hot as New Orleans without any of the redeeming jazz notes.

Jazz it may not have.  But it has a fascinating colonial city center with enough history slathered on to make it a place of interest to me.

Let's start with the obvious.  Veracruz is not just old.  It is REAL old. 

In the list of Spanish settlements on the mainland Americas, it is number two.  The second settlement to be established  It is number one if the awarding of a European coat of arms is one of the criterion for first settlement.

And we all know who the founder was.  Our good pal, The Conqueror.  Hernán Cortés.  This is where he landed his troops and set up base camp in 1519 -- on his way to reduce Moctezuma II to a phrase in The Marine Hymn.

The city was the last piece of land the Spanish held -- even after signing the treaty that gave Mexico its independence in 1821.  That treaty was signed at the city's fort (Fort San Juan de Ulúa).  A fort that Spanish held through 1823 when the Spanish bombarded the city for good measure -- resulting in the city's first designation as the vaguely Stalinist honor of "Heroic City."

Veracruz, the perpetual victim, was to receive three more "Heroic City" honors.  During the 1837 Pastry War when the fort fell to the French.  In 1847, when the Americans captured the city during the American-Mexican War.  And, in 1914, when President Wilson sent troops to occupy Veracruz in an attempt to assist General Carranza's attempt to depose the dictator Huerta during the Mexican Revolution.  A favor Carranza rejected.

As a port city, almost every post-Conquest bit of history has played itself out on Veracruz's stage.  And it has a real stage.  In the central plaza that is surrounded by a municipal palace, with 17th century foundations and 18th century makeup, and a neoclassical cathedral, whose tile-covered dome is far more interesting than the cathedral's interior.

But the plaza is not just a place for history to be remembered.  I started this essay with a reference to the stage in the main plaza.  There is one.  But the plaza itself is a stage.

Every Friday, a band shows up to play
danzón music.  Members of the public are free to join in.  Some from as far away as Mexico City.

You may recall that we have already taken a long look at
danzón in sex on the floor.  Back then, I had doubts that this Latin dance had its roots in stiff upper lip England.

I changed my mind.  The version danced in the plaza was very staid and formalistic.  Patty noted that no one seemed to be smiling.

Perhaps, after years of being banned as too sensual and then being sneered at as lower class, the form has taken on a bourgeois rigidity.

Even if it has, it was fun to watch people doing something they enjoyed to the accompaniment of live music.  It is my theory and experience that live music can elevate even the most mundane of activity.

So, there you have our day in Veracruz.  It has come as an unexpected surprise.  And, I suspect, it would look a lot better with a bit of Louisiana sun.

But that play will wait for another day.  Tomorrow, I suspect we will take in the fort and head up to Xalapa -- where we will undoubtedly ask ourselves: "Did you ever imagine --?"


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