Sunday, August 13, 2006

Good times in Veracruz

(VERACRUZ, MX) "Mangooooooooo, mango mango, mangooooooo," shouted the street vendor, and Kathy stopped to spend six pesos, a little less than 60 cents, for an enormous mango on a stick carved in the shape of a rose. By the time she finished it she was too full to eat dinner that evening.

As I mentioned in my last post, you don't come to Veracruz City for the beaches, but for a lot of reasons I sure love visiting Veracruz. We returned to this city Friday after spending a week in the southern lake district (which I'll write about soon, perhaps), and leave this evening for Mexico City on an overnight bus. The best time to visit this bustling town is on the weekends, when the Malécon (the equivalent of a boardwalk in an American coastal town) is filled with thousands of people of all ages.

Street performers and vendors shout out to the passersby, offering everything from chamoyadas (snow cones with natural fruit flavoring) and diabolitas (the same with a dash of hot chili) to amazing meat pies and every kind of taco, picada (tortillas quick-fried with frijoles, cheese and rojo or verde sauce on top), sandwiches and any other food you can think of suitable for eating while walking around.

On weekends after dusk in central Veracruz, there's a carnival atmosphere. Clowns, mimes, dancers, musicians, and yesterday trick-bicycle experts perform for tips. Meanwhile, others sell t-shirts, caps and other tourist-wear, not to mention everything you can think of made out of sea shells, from images of the Virgin, Barbie-dolls made up as mermaids, knick-knacks, purses, belts, and even soap and facial cream. Indian gals sell hand-made shirts, belts, scarves and purses, while elderly men sell leather goods and cigars made locally or in Cuba. For kids there are toys of all description, including hundreds of colorful balloons, pull-toys, kites (hugely popular on the malécon where there are no impeding trees to interfere with coastal winds) and lots of kids (and their parents) blowing soap bubbles that frequently fill the air (and are almost irrestistable to reach out and pop with your finger).

On weekend evenings there's always live music in the main zocalo, or town square, and typically chairs are arranged in an enormous triangle to leave plenty of room for salsa dancing, an activity engaged in by young and old alike (see my description of a similar scene in Xalapa). If you get there by about six p.m. you can get a seat, but there are plenty of planters, benches, and mostly bars with many dozens of tables arranged café style out in the square where you can sit and eat or drink, though prices there are a lot higher than at the perfectly wonderful restaurants in the fish market and in the surrounding neighborhoods.

And let's speak for a moment longer of food. For starters, if anyone ever offers you Mojarra con mojo de ajo (a commonly served fish cooked in a sauce with two cloves worth of garlic still in its skins melting together on top), jump at the chance. Just scrape off the garlic and start peeling the fish away from the bone. Ditto for any Veracruzano serving sopa de marisco, or seafood soup. At a restaurant in the fish market I spent 65 pesos, maybe $6, for a soup that included a whole fish, two whole crabs, plus eight good-sized shrimp and eight clams in a tomato-flavored fish broth. As Grandpa and Junior Samples used to say on Hee Haw, "Yuuuum, yum."

But if you really want to eat cheaply and well in Veracruz, or for that matter anywhere in Mexico, you basically need to know two words: comida corrida. It translates as fast food, but it's really much more- a complete meal typically with a soup course, rice (sometimes served with a fried egg on top), a meat dish of chicken or beef, and usually an agua fresca, which is a fruit juice, water and sugar concoction that's essentially lemonade, but made with any fruit you can name instead of just lemons. That usually runs about 25-35 pesos, or $2.50 - $3.30 American, at current rates. Once we had comida corrida with fried Mojarra, and the price went up to a whopping 38 pesos. If such a meal doesn't come with a drink, I've been ordering agua de horchata, which is a rice-based drink flavored with locally grown vanilla. Most Mexicans who dine out do so at a mid-morning breakfast or a late lunch much more often than dinner, and comida corrida meals are often only available in the afternoons. So if you want to eat cheaply in Mexico, eat like the Mexicans do - a large, late lunch and a snack for dinner.

Nearly anywhere you go in downtown Veracruz you'll find live music. Last night we listened to a family playing for tips on the malécon whose roughly 12-year old son pounded away like an experienced pro on an electric piano, interspersing the ever-present Caribbean riffs with wonderful jazz-infused flights of fancy that would be impressive to hear from any seasoned performer back home. The kid was a bit undisciplined, sometimes letting his obvious skills and penchant for rapid playing overcome and overshadow the rest of the band who were average by comparison (though to be fair, his roughly 8-year old brother's enthusiastic drum renditions, too, had a lot of promise). But you couldn't have asked for better, basically free entertainment. In America, playing with amplified music in a public park like that would get you a ticket to the hoosegow.

Which brings up another point. For all of Americans' pridefulness about our "freedom," Mexicans enjoy a lot of day to day freedoms that simply aren't tolerated in more the so-much bourgeois United States. There is a substantial Mexican middle class - sitting in at a popular local restaurant this morning at breakfast, Kathy commented that the Mexican middle class looks like a combination of the American and Italian middle classes: basically the same, but more fashionably dressed and with more sunglasses. But there doesn't seem to be the same disdain you see in America for the poor. Street vendors of all types and even musicians are allowed to circulate in restaurants to hawk their wares, where in the US they'd be chased away or even have the police called to arrest them. Lone musicians or even whole bands featuring marimbas or large, formal harps will play at your table for a minimal fee, and the restauranteurs not only don't discourage it, it's part of why people come. Sometimes, when several performers will be going at once in the same bar and amplified music fills the zocalo, it can be a bit cacophonous, but overall it's both a lot of fun and allows folks to earn a living, some of whom might otherwise be reduced to beggardom.

Similarly, street vendors may not have a business permit or operate health-department approved kitchens, but the free market mostly seems to weed out the bad eggs. Because, as with any business enterprise, return customers make or break such folks given their small margins, most street food I've had has been above reproach and the goods purchased on the street are of similar quality to those in stores with lower prices. If you've got goods to sell, whether it's hand-sewn clothing or home-made ice cream, you can spread out a blanket on the ground or load it up on a three-wheeled cart and go around town looking for customers. That kind of economic freedom has vanished in the United States outside a few places like downtown New York.

The United States invaded Veracruz twice - once as part of the Mexican-American war over Texas' statehood in 1846, and again under Woodrow Wilson in 1914. (Actually everybody who invades Mexico seems to begin at Veracruz, from the the Spaniards under Hernán Cortés to the French under Napolean III.) From what I've seen, given everything this state has to offer, I'd be amazed if Americans don't invade again, but this time as mobs of tourists or baby boomer retirees. Veracruz the city is a little hot and humid, maybe, for norteamericano tastes, but much of the rest of the state is moutainous and temperate year-round, and a short bus trip from Veracruz for a weekend party.

When I get a chance next I'll try to post on our trip down to Lake Catemaco - we rented a car to get a chance to see a lot of relatively obscure, less touristed areas that really made the whole trip worthwhile. But for now this morning rains have ended, the sun just peaked out 20 minutes or so ago, and I'm headed out with Kathy to enjoy our last afternoon in Veracruz.

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