After a few days in Xalapa (the Spanish sort of renamed it "Jalapa," or perhaps co-named is more like it since both names are ubiquitously and interchangeably used) I feel like I'm finally starting to unwind. A little.
It's hard not to feel better when the air is cool and clean and views alternate between nearby mountains, colonial architecture, and narrow streets filled with vibrant pedestrian traffic. And the food! Boy, let me tell you folks here can cook, and the best food frequently comes dirt cheap in the market stalls, where 25 pesos (a little less than $2.50 American, at current exchange rates), will get you a three course menu with an agua fresca, which is essentially any kind of juice you can think mixed with water and sugar - think lemondade with oranges, papaya, mango, etc..
For breakfast, though, we've been migrating back to a place that's clearly a local central city favorite, La Paroquilla, where the white-coated waiters pour cafe con leche from two steaming hot pots -- one with strong local coffee (from the neighboring village of Coatepec), and one with hot milk. This morning's breakfast was a brilliant version of poached eggs in a wonderful chicken-broth base. Tomato, onion, spinach, and jalapeño peppers flavored the broth, with chunks of Mexican white cheese floating alongside and two beautifully poached eggs floating in the mix. Add a basket of Mexican sweet breads and you've got a meal that tastes like the pictures in Diana Kennedy's cookbooks look.
This hilly city surprises with every corner turned, but the best part, I think, is the friendly people. They're different from folks in the states, I think. For starters, most of them seem happy. People smile and laugh together here more than at home - on the streets, in the shops, just walking along. Maybe it's that mi español no está muy bueno, so I'm paying more attention to people's faces, but I really think that's true.
Yesterday Kathy and I wandered the streets east of the city's center and wound up in a wonderful old park (it'd have to be old to boast trees that thick) with five fountains that's obviously a neighborhood favorite, especially for bringing kids. Two different vendors in this mid-sized neighborhood park were offering pony rides while others sold balloons or sweets or rented little battery operated toy cars for toddlers to drive around in, typically with Mom or Dad scurrying alongside turning the wheel periodically to avoid trees, passersby and other obstacles.
Last night we met Roy Dudley, the unofficial gringo mayor of Xalapa. He's a wedding photographer who married a gal from Xalapa and never left (wise man, says me). His article on the web titled "Xalapa de mis sueños," or Xalapa of my dreams, is one of several that constitute perhaps the best web-based resource on the area in English, at least that I've found. He introduced himself in a restaurant and invited us to his table where we drank a stiff local version of sangria laced with vodka and filled with floating chunks of pineapple.
While mariachis played and two dancers performed who were part of the band (the man took over occasionally for harp solos while the gal rested), Roy translated word for word the often baudy songs. Perhaps the funniest was a tune about a man who bought his girlfriend a pair of gloves as a gift after accidentally damaging hers while on a date. But the store clerk accidentally wrapped up a pair of women's panties instead. The note the fellow wrote ot go with the gift said something to the effect that, "I got you another pair of these because I felt so bad about tearing yours last night. I'm sorry about that, my passion overcame me. I know these will fit, the store clerk was just your size and she tried them on to make sure."
And all the while the dancers danced.
Roy also turned us on to a local eatery where we'll be having lunch tomorrow - we had to stop by today to tell the woman our order because she makes it all by hand, the meat marinates overnight, and she needed to know how many tamales to make. Roy knows the town like the back of his hand, and everybody obviously knows him. Most gringos who come down here seem to find him eventually, and like us I'm sure their stay is improved when they do.
The previous night we heard a terrific 11-piece band play Veracruzano-style samba music while dozens of couples danced in front of a stage beneath the main zocalo in the center of town. A surprising number of Veracruz bands feature harpists, and I mean a full-blown five foot tall stand-up harp - usually it's used as a rhythm instrument, keeping time like you would with a bass guitar except high up on the treble end. They had a bass player too, an electric guitarist, mandolin player, a flautist, trumpet and trombone, electric piano, and a variety of other often-changing instruments. The crowd seemed to know many of the tunes and quite a few of them were excellent dancers.
It's cool to watch really good samba dancers go at it, and one couple seemed especially talented, spinning and gyrating with a purpose and precision that somebody like me with two left feet can only watch and admire. But the best samba dancers I've ever seen where elderly couples in Veracruz City when we were there two years ago. Folks who, if you saw them walking on the street, might seem old and fragile on the dance floor came alive with a remarkable grace and fluidity - the young folks we watched on Thursday may dance with more speed and power, but seeing folks in their 70s do it makes you think samba isn't just a dance, but seems to somehow capture the fundamental rhythms of Caribbean life. Reggae sounds fine outside Jamaica, and Russian mazurkas can be played by any orchestra, but somehow samba music to me seems more attached to its geographic setting. I like it well enough when I hear it in the states, but here in Veracruz it comes alive, pulsing like the Gulf coast waves pounding the beach, like some musical heartbeat shared by everyone in the region. At home, every generation likes different music: Young folks like hip hop, folks my age listen to rock and roll or folk music, and folks my parents age might favor big band music or jazz. Here, when they spark up the samba music, everybody from 17 to 75 ambles toward the dance floor.
Not as much politics in the street here as in Mexico City, and fewer signs in home and business windows accusing the government of voter fraud. But a semi-permanent protest has been set up in front of the main cathedral across from the municipal building, and several thousand people protested yesterday, said the paper, though I didn't see it myself. I'm actually trying not to think much about politics, thank God.
This blog post got a little longer because a rainstorm prevented me from leaving the Internet cafe without getting soaked, but it's over and I'm heading back to find Kathy at the hotel. More next time. And for the record, the high was about 75 Fahrenheit today, which was Austin's low last night -- eat your heart out Texans.