Lonely Planet's section on Veracruz starts, "Be Careful. Veracruz is intoxicating... both regal and trashy, Veracruz could make even the most stoic traveler wax poetic."
I'd have to agree, and it's a much needed respite from all the "prettiness" of San Miguel de Allende.
Veracruz is like nowhere I've ever been in Mexico, but more like a combination of everywhere I've ever traveled. The harbor reminds me of Baltimore. The run down, colonial buildings remind me of St Louis, Senegal. The occasional scent of urine, also reminds me of Africa. My hotel room is like everywhere I ever stayed in Southeast Asia- just nice enough with amazing air conditioning. The zocolo, is all things wonderful about Mexico- last night dancers and musicians filled the square, tonight it was wrestlers. Musicians stroll from restaurant from restaurant, along with hawkers and their watches, sunglasses, and flowers.
Veracruz is gritty, for sure. And even though a Hilton DoubleTree is going up next door, I doubt you'll suddenly be seeing a ton of Ameicans honeymooning here. But for me, it's perfect.
I wandered around a bit aimlessly this morning, unsure of what to do with myself. I ended up meeting Ricardo. Ricardo was trying to talk me into going on a boat trip, which actually sounded lovely considering the sweltering heat. But I was in pants, and needed my swimsuit. I told Ricardo that I'd be back around 1. Ricardo was not there when I returned, but a million other guys trying to talk me into a boat trip were, so I just chose one and got on the boat. I was accompanied by a Mexican couple in their twenties, another Mexican couple in their forties, and our captain, who was missing his two front teeth. Not a single one of them spoke English, which has been the norm here in Veracruz.
As soon as we left the pier, the captain cracked open a beer, left the helm and started mopping the floor. I tried my hardest not to freak out, as one of my reoccurring nightmares is realizing that I'm in a car and nobody is at the steering wheel.
I worked through my fear.
Until the younger man grabbed onto the wheel for a picture. Deep breaths. Take deep breaths. You know how to swim. And your wearing a life jacket. You're fine, Lauri.
It was all fine, until the older lady, who I later discovered might have some serious self-esteem issues, took the wheel. She looked pretty nervous up there, but not as nervous as I did, when the toothless captain started yelling, "Derrecha! Derrecha" Indicated that she had cranked the wheel do far left and we needed to even it out. He ran over and grabbed the wheel from her. Sweet relief. I never thought I'd be so happy to have the toothless, drunk captain back at the helm. He offered me the wheel next, and I declined.
We arrived at a sandbar out in the middle of the ocean. It's called "Little Cancun," for it's clear waters. Granted, I've never been to Cancun, but I doubt it looks much like this sandbar.
We bobbed around in the water fow awhile, while the toothless drunk captain searched for snorkeling gear. He passed out some ill fitting masks, snorkels and we set off. The lady with low self esteem was too afraid to put the mask on and the captain was trying to convince her that it was ok. I watched this drama for a bit, then put on my snorkle and took off. Nothing. I saw nothing, but little minnow type fish. Finally, the younger guy pointed to a darker area and told me "es bueno" followed by a thumbs-up sign. I swam my way over there. Yeah, it was alright. I'd seen much better in Cabo when I was younger. And even in Vietnam a few years ago. But it was bueno- the floor was covered in sea urchins and coral and every once in a while you'd see a fish swim by,
Suddenly, I was grabbed from the side, like I was being hugged. I fought back a bit, spit out my mask and came up for air. The toothless captain had ahold of me. He carried me back to the sandbar and set me down. From what I could understand, he was scolding me for swimming over by the sea urchins, because they can hurt your feet if you stand on them. I wanted to say, "I may be American, but I'm not stupid." I'd even settle for being able to tell him that I knew how to swim.
For anyone who has ever taken a foreign language you know that some of the first things you learn are stupid verbs like "to sing" and "to swim". I remember thinking to myself in high school how stupid this was. Who is going to go to France and walk around saying things like, "My name is Lauri I like to collect stamps and sing. And you?" But in this moment, all I wanted was to tell this guy that my name was Lauri and that I like to swim. But I dismissed that verb, thinking I'd never use it....
Instead, he gave the younger Mexican girl the same speech about the sea urchins and they bobbed off together, floating with life jackets on, and exploring the depths around the sandbar.
I put my goggles up and resorted to floating around in the ocean. I suddenly heard some shouting. I stood up, looked over, and the lady with the low self esteem, who also apparently could not follow directions in her own language, had floated too far away from the sand bar, tried to touch bottom, and stabbed her foot on an urchin. Oh, and she didn't know how to swim. And neither did her husband.
So the young Mexican swam over there, grabbed onto her and tried to get her to paddle back to the sand bar. I tried not to stare.
We all got back on the boat. The captain, opened another beer and looked at the lady's foot. I could not tell what the diagnosis was, but it didn't look pretty. We safely made our way back to shore. I tried not to kiss the ground as we landed, and instead settled for a beer and some ceviche.
I'm back at the hotel now, drinking a couple beers as Nilo barks at the birds across the street. We will make our way on to San Cristobal tomorrow.
A few weeks before I left for Mexico I started to get really nervous. I'm a single female, travelling to a third world country. What the hell am I thinking? Never mind the fact that I lived in an Islamic Republic, in developing West Africa for nearly two years....Or that this is my fourth trip to Mexico in the last three years....
I solved my anxiety by searching for a book about a woman, who had done the same thing. And while I couldn't find any books about the exact same trip, I did find a book called, "All Over the Map" by Laura Fraser.
As soon as I picked it up, I was shocked by the similarities that ran through our lives, our philosophical beliefs and our luck with men. Not to mention the love for travel and adventure. I highlighted furiously for the first few chapters of this book:
"I don't feel comfortable anywhere. My desires- to be free and to belong, to be independent and to be inextricably loved, to be in motion and to be still pull me back and forth."
"My parents raised me to carry a pack in the wilderness without complaining, and be competent in the wilderness and everywhere else. As a result, I've never been able to use the charming helpless card with men, to let them feel heroic, or even useful, because I can manage almost anything perfectly well on my own."
She kept referring to growing up this place called "Littleton." Surely, she couldn't mean the same Littleton, Colorado that I grew up in? Yup, same place.
I am pretty sure that if I was born just ten years earlier, that her and I would have become teenage best friends....
I had to put the book down a few weeks ago, as I became too overwhelmed preparing for this trip.
I picked it up again last night. The next chapter? She goes to San Miguel de Allende and buys a house.
(At this point I totally Facebook stalked her, wrote her a long winded message about how much we have in common, that I am currently in San Miguel, and if she is too, that I would love to buy her a drink. I'm pretty sure I came off as totally nutso....)
Her undying love for San Miguel, however, is where her and I differ.
San Miguel is beautiful, and if Trump is elected, I might seriously consider moving here. However, it does not make my heart twitter-pate, like it does for so many of the expatriates here. Maybe it's because this is not my first visit to a colonial town in Mexico. Maybe I have fallen too hard for city life, and San Miguel is just a bit too quaint for me. Maybe it's seeing the vast difference in wealth between Central San Miguel and it's suburbs. I was not aware that a Mexican neighborhood, in Mexico, could be gentrified....
While I have not fallen for the city itself, and gave up on trying to find that perfect shot of "La Parroquia" I have found a lot to love. The colors, the light, the people. I have become comfortable with my camera, which, sadly, is often neglected in the US.
Nilo and I leave for Veracruz tomorrow, and I already have a million monarch butterflies in my stomach. This is not something particular to Mexico for me, or particular to driving in Mexico. It is something that has always happened the day before I travel, as early as my first trip to Dakar, in places as safe as Vietnam or Thailand, and sometimes even just camping alone in Colorado.
I have to stop myself each and every time, and ask myself what I might be scared of. Some fears are more realistic than others. For instance, an encounter with a bear while camping in Colorado, might actually be more probable than my car breaking down in Mexico.
It's the unknown, that is both terrifying, and yet gratifying. Confronting that fear of the unknown, only to discover the most amazing places and people, is what makes it all so worthwhile.
Learning languages has always been a weakness of mine, and I cannot remember a single time that I have not cried like a little girl on the first day of learning a new language. I cried during French, on the first day of every new semester, for three years. In Russian, I only lasted about halfway through the alphabet, broke down sobbing and then quit. I cried everyday while learning Pulaar for a month straight.
I have what is called "Survival Spanish". I know my numbers, greetings and can buy things, but that's about the extent of it. As I prepared for this trip, I knew my survival Spanish would probably get me to Tulum and back. However, I also knew that my experience would be much more meaningful if I could pick up some new vocab and figure out some verb conjugations along the way.
I hesitated to sign up for private classes at the Academia Hispano Americana here in San Miguel. I braced myself for the tears before my first class, and made sure to wear waterproof mascara.
And yet, I have not cried a single time!
I like to think that my ability to tackle the seemingly impossible and surely terrifying things in life has improved with age. I also have to give some tribute to the students I spend most of my time with, as many of them are English language learners. Watching them struggle and triumph through all the difficulties of learning a new language, has definitely given me courage to do the same.
I know that I sound like a total idiot sometimes. OK, I sound like an idiot most of the time. But, I think I understand now, that this is just part of the process. That you have to put your ego at risk, and open your mouth, and accidentally ask someone how many parts they have in their back, when you meant to ask them their age. They laugh, and you have to realize that it's not in a hurtful way, it's because this is, truly, funny shit....
I woke up early this morning to go to a place called Pozos, about 60km outside of San Miguel. Lonely Planet described it as a former ghost town, brimming with artists, and a lively Zocolo with adorable bed and breakfasts.
Maybe there are two Pozos in Guanajuato State? Because after waking up at 5:30 am to catch the morning light in Pozo, I saw a teeny tiny zocolo, poverty that could not let me walk around with a camera in good conscious, and no "adorable" bed and breakfasts. I could not even find the mining town, that initially drew me to Pozo.
So I'm back at my casita in San Miguel, practicing my Spanish with Nilo. One more day in San Miguel, and then I'm off to Veracruz.
Veracruz is a bit of an unexpected stop in this trip. I had originally intended to go to Oaxaca, which was the city that initially drew me to Mexico just three years ago. I spent 10 days there, and it was a bit of a game changer. That trip to Oaxaca was the first time I had traveled since I returned from Mauritania, and also the first time I had traveled alone. I was terrified for the weeks leading up to the trip, yet, as soon as I got to Oaxaca, everything fell into place. The girl who lived to my right was a photographer from California, who loved alternative processes as much as I do. Probably more. The neighbors to my left were a couple who had just finished their Peace Corps service in Mexico, and were planning to continue living there.
I mean seriously, what are the chances that I could find so many parallels to my life in this little city in Mexico?
At first I wasn't deterred by the protests and the violence. I wanted to be in Oaxaca and witness this, because I understand these teachers, in my own, unique, American perspective. I spent much of 2014-2015, attending school board meetings, protesting outside of meetings when they were at capacity, and gathering signatures in opposition of the so-called "educational reform" in Jeffco, which is eerily similar to the "educational reform" in Mexico. I wanted to be present in Oaxaca, a place that feels like a sister city, for this reason.
However, I also understand that when the US embassy says you shouldn't go somewhere, you shouldn't go there.
I am praying for these teacher's safety.
So on to Veracruz, instead.
I'm Lauri. Teacher for nine months of the year, vagabond for the other three. I've traveled to France, Russia, West Africa, SE Asia and all over the US. This summer I'll be driving to Mexico with my little dog, Nilo.