The Port of Veracruz

Veracruz is the first point on the American mainland reached by the Spanish conquistadors in the early 16th century, from the foothold they had established in the Caribbean. Hernan Cortes, the expedition leader, built a house there. It still stands in a small village a half-hour outside of town, the roof sent to oblivion, thick and gnarled tree roots braiding its crumbling stone walls. Mexican children, dust caking their lambent black hair, shoeless, rush like a flock of urgent spirits at the visitor to offer themselves as guides. There are few visitors. The children insist and plead with those who do come, as if worried that when they wake up the next morning nature will have completed its erasure of this stubborn relic of human ambition, and the opportunity to make a few pesos from it will be lost.

The entire city would likely collapse in the heat, a heat that not even nightfall brings respite from, were it not for the commingled imperatives of commerce and desire. Pastel Greek colonnades and arches front the restaurants and day-rate motels that ring Veracruz’s central plaza; because of this it is often referred to as Los Portales (The Portals), rather than el zocalo. Life in the plaza is restrained until about six, when the tables outside the restaurants begin to really fill with patrons — both locals (Jarochos, as people from Veracruz are known) and visitors from other parts of Mexico: Chilangos (Mexico City), Regiomontanos (Monterrey), etc., distinguished by particularities of dress, accent and temperament, united in what seems to be a committed inquiry into the transformative possibilities of excess.

As the sun tucks itself behind the horizon and the lights outside the restaurants begin to blaze in its stead, young girls emerge from the alleys and edge their way through the crowd with trays suspended by neck straps, the tray’s compartments filled with individual cigarettes, matchbooks, cheap lighters, tiny boxes of gum, and chile-dusted peanuts, calling out as they walk, “cigarros, chicle? cigarros, chicle?” There are so many of these girls winding their way through the plaza, their products indistinguishable from each other and the prices fixed, that a well-timed coquettish smile or a subtle eye glint can make all the difference in a sale. Women in nurse attire come through with blood pressure cuffs offering to do a reading. Boys walk by hoisting on their shoulders replicas of Cortes’ ship for sale. A patron must become practiced at the quick negating finger wag to reorient the hawking.

Throughout the plaza, more than a dozen marimba bands, xylophone keys struck with soft malleted sticks and sending into the air supple blooms of sound, stand at the edges of the line of tables, trying to play loud enough to be heard over the other bands as well as the squawking birds roosted above in the boughs of the rubber trees, and who seem to be encouraged by the music to squawk louder. Often a tightrope walker in clown face has strung a rope between two of these trees and sways across pantomiming drunkenness, clutching his hands to his heart, telling a story of romantic disappointment as he weeps theatrically. Steps away, a prostitute in a green dress clutching a green rose between her teeth leans against a telephone booth. Children run by her holding multi-colored balloons that pull against their strings, while on a riser in front of the whitewashed government building, ancianos, or seniors, all dressed in white practice the stately danzon, something like a sexless tango.

When the restaurants finally close at around 2 a.m., taxis line up on the street, the drivers leaning against their vehicles and calling out to stumbling merrymakers. Inside the cab, the driver will flip down his visor, to which are rubber-banded flyers for the dozen or so strip clubs that stand at the edge of town, and in spite of a direction to drive to Hotel Santander, ask which one the passenger wants to go to. “I recommend Club Fantasy,” he might say with a certain graveness, ignoring protests . “The girls there won’t go into a private room with you unless they like you,” as if a strip club were an efficient place to meet a mate; in Veracruz maybe it is. “The hotel, please.”

Entering the hotel lobby unsteadily, you see Blanca asleep with her head on the desk. As you mull waking her to retrieve your key, you notice through the little window that hands are still moving about, hear the music from the jukebox inside. You double back to the sidewalk, push open the saloon doors and enter. A haze of cigarette smoke, the sound of bottles being opened punctuating the music, the sour odor of beer. The waitresses move through the crowd, shepherding buckets of beer bottles to the patrons, then on their way back are waylaid by men. They dance with them for a spell, holding the tray above their heads, looking happy enough until a hand firmly on a thigh or some more serious trespass elicits a theatrical slap to the face and they return to their duties, until it happens again. Belly up to the bar and a woman grabs your elbow, slurring something indecipherable but apparently urgent, as a man on the other side with a moony look in his eyes tries to trace his finger along your earlobe. Dissuade both as best you can and down your beer, order another. Sometime later, the barkeep walks over and throws a latch on the door. One of the waitresses climbs onto a table and begins a strip tease, as patrons throw peso bills at her feet. She eventually climbs down and enters negotiation with a patron at a back table.

As time winds on, little hands poke through the mail slot on the barred door as if to suggest they are trapped outside, then begin pushing things through, little offerings: loose cigarettes, peso coins, a desiccated flower. All of these things accumulate in a pile on the floor and are ignored. Finally, around 4 a.m., the barkeep unplugs the jukebox and everyone is ushered out to the street. All there is to do until the bars open again is to return to the hotel and lay on the bed, watching the ceiling fan make its ineffectual rotations, noticing a tiny lizard scampering across the peels in the salmon-colored paint on the wall, hoping for sleep.

On a Sunday morning, the sunbaked plaza is nearly empty and the restaurants are shuttered, but the hangover industry is in full swing: the bars on the adjacent streets with their saloon-style swinging doors open as early as 10 a.m., the jukebox playing Rancheras at top-volume, bleary-eyed patrons hunched over Micheladas (beer with tomato juice and cayenne), as there is a belief that as well as hair-of-the-dog, spice will alleviate the symptoms of a hangover. One restaurant has a set Sunday menu. When you walk in they don’t ask you what you want; they just begin bringing you dishes — first a spicy clam broth and a bowl of pork rinds, followed by ear tacos doused with a green salsa the heat of which begins in the mouth but radiates all the way down to the hips and wobbles the knees.

Hangover still uncured, there is little to do after this but head to the Malecon (boardwalk) to try some fresh air. Sitting on a bench to watch the Sunday strollers, you could take out your wallet to see how much damage was done the night before, and make sure there’s enough to get back to the Federal District. You could certainly do that, or you could put that off for a bit later; remain seated and stare through the haze, past the brightly colored fishing boats, the quiet surf lapping indifferently at their rusted hulls, and all the way to the horizon, where one day, many years ago, at a particular moment in time, the sails of a ship appeared.