Sunday, January 18, 2015

forting around

Jennifer Rose yesterday suggested that my career as a traveler was over if I did not visit San Juan de Ulúa -- the fort in Veracruz's harbor.

I may have overstated her position -- just a bit.  But I would have fully understood it had she worded it that way.

Short of a few attractions of a more exotic nature in Veracruz, San Juan de Ulúa may be the city's primary traveler attraction.  It certainly had everything that I would expect to find in a fort.

And we will get there.  But, first, let me share two pre-fort experiences.

Even with my libertarian leanings, I am quite fond of the military.  I took an early morning walk along Veracruz's malecon yesterday and ran into a Navy celebration that was just getting under way.

I have no idea what was  being celebrated.  But there were sailors, admirals, and band members everywhere in front of the old lighthouse.  Something big was about to start.

While shooting the Navy, I heard a bird song (well, more like a croak) coming from a tree next to the Pemex building.  Even though I could not get a very clear shot of it, I would never have thought I would find one of these in downtown Veracruz.

A toucan.  My first.  At least, the first one I have seen in the wild.  His finery was even bolder than the sailors'.

I didn't have enough time to dawdle in front of the Navy spectacle.  We had a fort to see.

As I said, San Juan de Ulúa is everything a fort should be.  Even before the fort existed, the island worked its way into Spanish colonial history.  This is the spot where Hernan Cortés -- yes, him again -- met with the ambassadors of Moctezuma II in 1519 in a vain attempt by the Aztec emperor to forestall the inevitability of history's grinding wheel.

Forty-six years later, the Spanish would start constructing the fort, and would continue renovating it until 1825 when an independent Mexico took control of the place from their defeated colonial masters.  That is, they took control after the Spanish took pleasure in bombarding Veracruz from the fort in 1823 in a vain attempt to re-claim its former colony.

There, of course, were other rather poignant events.  In the 1800s, the Americans seized the fort once and the French twice.  Then the Americans returned in 1914.

That last foreign seizure resulted in the end of one of the fort's more unsavory bits of history.  The fort had long been used as a prison.  Often for political prisoners.

Even Benito Juárez, before he was president, was imprisoned there.  A plaque commemorates his incarceration.

But there were plenty of other political prisoners who did not get their own plaques.  Porfirio Diaz locked up a lot of his opponents.  When the Americans took over the fort in 1914, the cells were so filthy that it took the sailors several weeks to clean the place.  The prison was then permanently closed.

I took a quick look around one of the cells.  It worked its way back through the wall of the fort like a maze.  It was so damp that stalactites had started to form.  At one point, though, this place was crammed with men.

The fort also has its own history with pirates -- one of the reasons the place was built in the first place.  Veracruz was a frequent target of English and Dutch pirates who plied their trade in Gulf waters.  Including Sir Francis Drake.

I started to say that the fort has a certain Disney look.  But that would be unfair.  It is Disney that has pilfered the design of Spanish forts to further its own entertainment ends.  One can almost imagine Captain Jack Sparrow spending his last days at the end of a noose -- or in one of the prison's hell-holes.

The fort has also served as the home of two presidents on the run -- or, at least, presidents under political pressure to stay out of Mexico City.  Both Benito Juárez and Venustiano Carranza attempted to rule the country from the fort.

Jennifer was absolutely correct.  Visiting Veracruz without visiting the fort is like not visiting Veracruz at all.

But it was time for us to move on -- to Xalapa.  The three of us remarked, on the drive up into the mountains, that Mexico's scenery is about as diverse as any country we know.  Even on relatively short drives.

We arrived in Xalapa just in time for one of Mexico's continuing rituals -- a political demonstration.  There was a crowd in front of the cathedral listening to speeches, carrying uniform signs, and chanting what appeared to be heavy-handed phrases delivered in an almost festive voice. 

After all, this is Mexico.  Where even political demonstrations attract food vendors.

We never did discover exactly what the demonstration was about.  It is easy to speculate, though.  Parts of Mexico are very upset about the corruption that pervades the current political establishment.  Of course, decrying and reforming are not the same thing.

With the fall of night, the cathedral returned to its primary role as a place of worship.  And we reverted to our role as tired travelers.

Tomorrow, we will head out to Xico and Coatepec -- or to the anthropological museum.  Life has a way of helping us make choices.

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