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Thunderstorms and a dead dog alibi

19 Sep

Tuesday 4.30 a.m. William is outside the hotel with the pick-up truck for the return journey to Cartagena. This time I get to sit in the front. I must have earned the privilege somehow, or else he is feeling guilty about the Sunday lunch invitation. Rumblings of approaching thunder.

We are barely out of Mompox when the storm hits us with apocalyptic intensity, the rain crashing down like stair rods. We edge forward along the mud road, which has become a slow-moving river. Visibility is down to a few metres. At one point, an hour out of Mompox, the rain has not diminished. It is still dark, and I glimpse a cyclist, dressed only in a vest and pants, utterly stuck in the mud, drenched, balanced immobile on his bike.

When we hit the ferry at Santa Ana de la Magdalena, we are escorted down the slippery approach by a man clad in a bin liner. Around 6.30 daylight filters through and the rain begins to ease. We hit a covered road and begin to make progress. Casualties of the storm begin to appear along the roadside: mainly dogs that have been hit by cars driving blind through the storm. I count six dead dogs on the return trip. A (live) dog is tearing at one of the canine corpses, pulling at a leg, as if dismembering a chicken. A disturbing image. Dog eat dog. Further on, vultures are feasting on another. The body of a donkey on the verge comes as a vision from Chagall: how did they hit that? Where is the owner? There is plenty of other random roadkill, unidentified, and whenever our truck approaches the vultures scatter. The weather has cleared up and we look set for another warm day. At our breakfast stop, a parakeet hops onto the railing by my table, stares at me intently and then wolf-whistles loudly. It continues to stare at me while I finish my coffee, and when I get up to leave, it flies off.

 

aa parakeet friend

 

Just after eleven we descend into Cartagena, as another rainstorm hits from the Caribbean. William drops me off at my hotel, the aptly named Casa Relax. It rains for two hours and the streets are flooded. When I emerge to try and find some lunch, the sun is finally attempting a breakthrough.

 

Rain in Cartagena

Rain in Cartagena

 

As I set off down the street toward the Plaza, someone calls out ‘Oyé, Blanco’. I wonder how they can possibly know my name, and then I register this a regular form of address for a white man. A street vendor is beckoning me over: ‘Hey, Whitey!’ In similar fashion, black men are addressed as ‘Negro’ in a friendly, inoffensive way that would be unthinkable at home – although not, I guess, in the U.S. portrayed in The Wire and elsewhere – but then strictly black on black, whereas in Colombia white and black call each other ‘negro’ and ‘blanco’ indiscriminately. I recall that the footballer Luis Suárez referred to this familiar usage of ‘Negro’ as a defence when accused of using racist language against Patrice Evra in October 2011. His claim that this was a normal and friendly form of address was rejected by the FA enquiry, because it was not delivered in a friendly or familiar manner.

 

 

 

 

 

Of iguanas and aguardiente

18 Sep

 

aa iguana

Saturday evening in Mompox. I bump into our driver, William, and he invites me to come for a bite to eat with some members of his family. We sit out in the Plaza next to the church of Santo Domingo. William’s brother-in-law, Carlos, finds it extremely amusing that the family is seated around a table with a foreigner, and occasionally leans over in an attempt to speak a word or two of pidgin English. I have no idea why he does this. I speak perfectly good Spanish. But there is a certain type of individual who finds foreigners inherently funny (perhaps to deflect from the fact that he finds them threatening) and it comes as no surprise to discover he is a member of the Colombian police. A rather junior member, I would hope, but you can never tell.

We eat several plates of meat and potatoes – a variety of potato with a thick fibrous taste, which William tells me is called papa yucca. It is accompanied by Aguila light, a practically alcohol-free beer. Although Colombians like to drink, like the Russians they do not really consider beer to be a form of alcohol. The favourite tipple of Carlos and William – indeed of Colombians in general – is aguardiente, an aniseed based firewater. When, after supper, we retire to the discoteca – a forlorn establishment, in which couples of a certain age dance in each other’s arms – William and Carlos put away a bottle of aguardiente between them within an hour. At the end of the evening William refuses to let me walk home – although we are only three blocks from my hotel – and we hail a mototaxi – basically a motorbike with a small bench for two passengers attached, and six of us pile on. This is quite illegal, but we have the police with us, so I guess it’s all right.

When we get to my hotel Carlos leaps out and hammers on the thick wooden door with the iron knocker, invoking all the authority of the law. William has invited me to lunch with the extended family (and parents-in-law) after mass the next day. I say I would be happy to come but will skip mass. Whether for this reason or another (Carlos’ suspicions that I may be an intellectual and therefore probably a leftist – or the fact that while in Cartagena I was staying in the comparatively disreputable barrio of Getsemaní rather than the historic centre –where hotels cost from three to six times as much) I do not know, but William doesn’t come to pick me up at the arranged time (I later find out he had to make an unscheduled chauffering trip to Cartagena at midday). It would have been nice, but I think I garnered enough of the conservative, Catholic agenda to have predicted the course of the lunchtime conversation.

First and foremost on this agenda is an unshakeable faith: churches in Colombia are packed and religious paraphernalia everywhere. William crosses himself every time he passes a church, and at random other moments while driving his truck. Secondly, and not surprisingly given the country’s recent past, a deep hostility to both drugs and drug users. In a certain sense, the drug trade and all who sail in it are seen by the Catholic right as responsible for the multiple woes that Colombia has suffered. The following evening, sitting in the park, I am approached by a young dreadlocked type who taps me for a few coins. I give him a few pesos – the equivalent, literally, of around 20 p – and he goes off happy. Two drunks sitting nearby, sharing a bottle of aguardiente tell me off, explaining that the boy will spend it on la droga. This incenses them. They wave the bottle around in their rage at the very thought, and they are clearly oblivious to any inconsistency between their attitude to drugs and their own benighted state. But it has always been this way: the ‘legal’ drug of the Christian West somehow fuels people with moral indignation about other intoxicating substances. With Islam it’s the other way round.

On Sunday I try to arrange a boat trip up the Magdalena. The banks are thick with wildlife – especially birds. I know very little about birds, but it seems a shame to be on the river and not take the opportunity to explore a little. A young entrepreneur, Lazaro, offers to find a boat for me. Unfortunately he doesn’t have a mobile phone, and has to borrow mine to speak to his contacts. This seems like a poor start, but I give him the benefit of the doubt. He tells me to meet him at 3 pm in the Plaza de la Concepión. He finds me having lunch at the nearby Comedor Costeño and waits for me to finish. When we leave he tells me that paying 14,000 pesos (about £4.50) for a meal of oxtail soup, fresh fish, rice, plantain and salad, and a home made fruit juice was excessive. I think I have his measure. He borrows my phone to speak to his contact again, and the price I was promised this morning – 25,000 for three hours on the river – has gone up to 35,000 – he hands me the phone to speak to the boat owner just to prove he is not making it up. We stop a mototaxi and set off for the outskirts of town, downriver. When we get there, there is no boat. Lazaro, a little frantic now, borrows my mobile again. He furrows his brow. I can tell this is not going to be good news. The boat trip is off: the other two passengers that were lined up have postponed until tomorrow. I have a friend, begins Lazaro, with a boat, good price . . .

I have given up, lost all interest, but we have to return to town anyway, so off we go in the same mototaxi. When we get to the Plaza San Francisco, Lazaro strides to the bank and yells across the river to a single farm building on the other side. Miraculously, a couple of minutes later I see a man come to the shore. He is accompanied by a man in a red shirt and a young girl of around ten. After considerable discussion between the two men, they unrope the launch – little more than a canoe with a small outboard attached, and cross the river. We fix a price, a quarter of which goes to Lazaro, who then departs, happy. I am not sorry to seem him go.

aa girl on boat

 

Pedro, the boat owner, introduces himself. He is courteous and sober. His companion, Edgar, seems exceedingly dim, until I realise that his exaggeratedly slow speech and movements are due to the fact that he is completely off his face. The girl sits on the prow at first, but is deposited on the far bank before we set off, first down river, then upriver. Pedro is fairly astute and good at pointing out animals and birds. Edgar is completely vacant, occasionally turning to me and asking if I speak Spanish, and when I reply in the affirmative saying no more but simply nodding to himself sadly. He even ventures to ask me where I am from, and when I tell him he clearly has no idea what on earth Wales is, and I can’t be bothered with an explanation – so he again nods to himself sadly, perched precariously on the edge of the launch, a position he maintain majestically throughout the trip. There are no further attempts at conversation, except when Pedro calls out the name of an animal or bird and Edgar waves his arms frantically in the requisite direction, of which the only effect is to scare the creatures away. The biggest thrill comes with the iguanas, which I cannot see at first – they are so well disguised – and Edgar rouses himself from his moribund state to gesture frantically at the river bank. Unfortunately there is a lot of riverbank, and by the time I have got the iguana in focus, it moves. Same thing happens the second time. Fortunately I am luckier the third time.

 

aa edgar

 

aa canoe + 4

That evening, my last in Mompox, I wander around the town. I can pick up something of the mystery of the place, especially along the old riverside buildings, which once served as warehouses and workshops. Some of them look as though they are being turned into bars, but haven’t quite opened. My unhelpful guidebook tells me the ‘zona rosa’ is a pleasant place to take a nightcap, but I can neither agree not disagree, because it doesn’t seem to exist. However I have a flavour, I think, both of what Mompox once was, and what it might become if tourism gets a firmer toehold. Certainly there were properties for sale that could well appeal to a certain kind of nostalgic and world-weary European or North American with an urge to sink into timeless reverie on the banks of the Magdalena.

aa house for sale

 

aa mompox juice shop

 

aa mompox night

 

 

 

 

Mompox

16 Sep

mompox river view

 

Travel is often a matter of balancing a desire for control and a willingness to abandon that control when it serves no purpose. If one finds oneself in a place where timetables and commitments are loosely treated and made on the spur of the moment without too much forethought – well-meant but never likely, in reality, to materialise – and you find yourself fighting this attitude as though it were an aberration, then you are in trouble. If, when travelling you are always trying to be in control of the uncontrollable – especially in a country like Colombia that resists any kind of ulterior control – then you are doomed to misery and failure.

I tried for a couple of days to find the best way to travel to the old colonial town of Mompox -also known as Mompós (population 30,000). It is to be found 249 km up the Magdalena river from Cartagena, and was founded in 1540 by Don Alonso de Heredia, whose elder brother settled Cartagena. An absence of functioning travel agents, as well as the complications of getting reliable information together contributed to a delay in my arrangements. I knew that there was a daily bus service from Cartagena that took eight hours, but did not wish to lose so much of the day. Alternatively I could take a colectivo to an intermediary town five hours south, catch a taxi to a riverside settlement and then a launch upriver for the remainder of the journey –which would again take up most of a day: two days, there and back. In the end, by chance, I came across the Toto Express, run by the eponymous Toto, who organises a pick-up truck for four or five passengers, and who asked me to be ready at 4.30 a.m. on Saturday morning. The truck takes an hour or so to pick up passengers, and arrives in Mompox at 11.00. – in theory at least.

My companions on the trip were William, the driver, and three Colombian ladies, Momposinas on their way home. They talked more or less incessantly, so I was able to catch a flavour of the town they came from. The señora in front was very concerned about William’s driving, although I thought he was rather good, considering the hazards of the journey, and the tendency of other drivers to drive on the wrong side of the road because of the caked mud trenches and potholes (although much of the route is covered, there are long stretches of mud track to negotiate).

At one point we are taking a number of curves on a particularly poor stretch of road, with a lot of traffic. We are stuck behind a lorry. A car passes us at speed, and William edges out carefully to see if it is safe for us to go also. ‘Such imprudence’, says the señora in front, speaking with extraordinary formality. ‘And for what? Just to get ahead! I would rather be wise than imprudent, wait for an opportune moment to pass, and thus keep my life.’ A chorus of agreement from the two señoras in the back with me. William appears to take this personally and turns up the Ranchera music so loud the ladies cannot hear each other speak. The music is pretty awful, but his feelings have been hurt already, so I don’t complain. William then takes what he claims is a shortcut and we encounter a lorry stuck in the mud, completely blocking the narrow uncovered road. We do a three point turn and take the long way around, crossing the River Magdalena by an ancient ferry, consisting of planks attached to three metal boats, and powered by an invisible motor. On the bank a pair of dogs are glued together by their hindquarters, determinedly facing away from each other but unable to move. They appear bored and indignant.

Mompox is a town strongly referenced in the work of Gabriel García Márquez, whom I am currently reading in a pirated – and very badly printed – Spanish edition of Love in the Time of Colera. (It seems obligatory to read García Márquez in Mompox, just as I was compelled to read Lowry in Cuernavaca). Neither this book, nor, apparently, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, are actually based in Mompox (although the latter was partly filmed here) and the settings for Gabo’s fictions tend to be an amalgam of places, real and imagined. If his literary vision is of a certain type of Caribbean town, hopelessly locked into its past, apparently forlorn and yet inherently joyful – such paradoxes are essential to any understanding of Colombian sensibilities, and Colombians are supposedly the second happiest people on earth – then Mompox is as good a place as any to begin to understand the novelist’s sense of habitus. It is a quintessentially Marquesian place, in which the improbable – not to say the fantastic – seem to be woven into the fabric of everyday life. And there are a lot of colourful birds, iguanas and snakes, just to add to the atmosphere.

Iguana in a tree

Iguana in a tree

 

Dead deadly snake

Dead deadly snake

 

Solitary stork

Solitary stork

Yellow bird

Yellow bird

A random google search came up with ‘the very aristocratic and sorrowful city of Mompox’. The Spanish colonial authorities had the Royal Mint here, supposedly out of reach of the English pirates who made frequent raids on the regional capital, Cartagena. Aristocratic it might well once have been, and sorrowful, at times. It was a site of many confrontations during Colombia’s serial civil wars following independence from Spain. More recently it was a no-go area, changing hands between FARC rebels and government forces over a period of years. Since Colombia’s big clean-up a few years back, it has been – and is being – readied for tourism. But tourism, you might be warned, of a particular kind. It reminds me a little of Greece in the 1970s, in which tourism was taking off, but was still in its fledgling, puppy-love stage. There is the same unawareness of ‘service’ – you often wait until whoever is behind the till/counter to finish what they are doing before they attend to you. This is done entirely without malice: it is simply the pace of life telling you what’s what. There is a lot of smiling and a lot of mutual incomprehension. My question about the wifi in my hotel – which I was assured was available in every room – is answered by a shrug, and when pressed, the explanation: oh, you know, it comes and goes. Foreigners are still a novelty, and therefore quite amusing. The hotels, or rather pensions, are extremely cheap and mine is decorated with the kind of bad hippy art that I thought had died in the 1970s also.

On the first evening I wander around the cemetery – often a good place to start – and am delighted to find the grave of one Juan de Dios Wooggle Boivié. You couldn’t make it up. It goes into the catalogue of great names, just pipping that of the Baron Ferdinand Edgar Percival de Frutigen, whose memorial I once encountered in the Pyrenean town of Prats de Mollo.

 

Tomb of Juan de Dios Wooggle Boivié. Mompox

Tomb of Juan de Dios Wooggle Boivié. Mompox

 

mompox cementery

Mompox Cemetery

mompox cementery 2

 

Mompox cementery cats

Mompox cementery cats

mompox old market

 

mompox flowers and street

 

mompox 2 cyclists

 

 

Man at window, residence for the elderly, Mompox.

Man at window, residence for the elderly, Mompox.

 

 

 

 

Bolívar Square

9 Sep

Bogota homeless man

 

I caught sight of this man crossing the Plaza de Bolívar, and from a distance something looked very wrong. He had a strange loping gait, and was clutching a small white ticket in his right hand, and what looked like sheets of parchment in his left. I am sure they were not sheets of parchment, but they could have been, in another story. His eyes were gone, into the lost territories of the crack addict or the madman. I had the sensation that something or someone was speaking to him, and he was attempting to respond, talking aloud, although not shouting, and waving the sheets of parchment as though they had a particular meaning. He seemed accustomed to the fact that people turn away from in the street, and dogs follow him nervously, but no longer paid it any mind. Like many homeless people in Bogotá he lives mainly off the things he finds in refuse bins, eating food that people have thrown away, searching the same street or group of streets again and again in the course of the day, occasionally confronting an intruder on his territory, at which point the two will face off, possibly come to blows, and then one will shuffle off. I saw this happen earlier in a park at the top of Avenida Jímenez, where the San Francisco river once came down from the mountain and is now channelled via a concrete waterway, where it accumulates debris and rubbish and plastic bags, and is left that way. The mountain beyond is nearly always covered in mist. The weather is complicated, and the late afternoon and evening, inexplicably, is colder than the night.

bogota cathedral

 

Bogota up the hill

 

 

 

 

On getting lost

24 Aug

wandering

‘For [Virginia] Woolf, getting lost was not a matter of geography so much as identity, a passionate desire, even an urgent need, to become no one and anyone, to shake off the shackles that remind you who you are, who others think you are.’

Having finally got around to reading Rebecca Solnit’s fine book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, I am left wondering how come it took me so long. Not only to find the book, but to find a writer who has reached conclusions – or striven towards them, because a conclusion closes things off and Solnit likes to leave things open to mutation and redirection – that are so much in harmony with my own. I am reminded of that sense of excitement described (in an earlier post) by Patrick Leigh Fermor of ‘realising that nobody in the world knew where he was’, echoed in Solnit’s words: ‘Nights alone in motels in remote western towns where I know no one and no one I know knows where I am’. This is not solipsism, nor even a desire to escape; it is, properly speaking, a contentment merely to be where one is, when one is, without roots, without identity, without destination. Something very attractive to anyone who has ever suffered inclinations for the state that Buddhism calls unbeing, but wants to get there without putting in the long hours of back-straining, balls-breaking meditation.

Wandering, being lost, is a way of losing yourself. As Solnit reminds us, it’s not about being lost but about trying to lose yourself:

‘“Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more,” says . . . Walter Benjamin. “But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for quite a different schooling.” To lose oneself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away. In Benjamin’s terms, to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.’

 

 

 

 

Storms, eggs, everyday corruption, and the Consul’s approaching end

14 May
Another blurry picture taken from a bus and featuring mist and cactus, taken on the road from Saltillo to Monterrey.

Another blurry picture taken from a bus and featuring mist and cactus, on the road from Saltillo to Monterrey.

 

The airport in Saltillo closes because of the fog, so I miss my lunchtime flight back to Mexico City. Julián is laid low by a mystery bug and Mónica offers to drive me to the airport, after picking up little Leo from nursery. We exchange my plane ticket for another, from Monterrey airport, and then set off to the bus station for the two hour journey to Mexico’s third biggest city – and according to Wikipedia the ninth biggest city in the world. I don’t see much of it, however big the place is. The plane leaves at 6.20 pm and I am back into Under the Volcano, picking up with the hideous bull-baiting in Tomalín and the Consul’s vicious set-to with Hugh and Yvonne in the Salón Ofelia (todos contentos y yo también), owned by Señor Cervantes, who carries a black cockerel under his arm: “Nobody come here, only those who have nobody them with.”

Outside the plane passes through a good deal of disturbance as we approach Mexico City, a blood-red sun falling over the mountains and a big storm brooding close by to the north-west, the sky black there with jagged flashes of lightning. The pilot announces – I swear – “With the resounding egg, we make the descent to Mexico City” – and when we are leaving the plane another announcement reminds us: “Please ensure you take with you all your obsessions on leaving the plane.”

At ground level (of course Mexico City is nowhere near sea level, at 2,500 metres) I find a taxi easily enough and we drive through the hammering rain. As usual we overshoot the hotel: this happens all the time, not out of a desire to cheat the customer – the price is arranged beforehand – but because the layout of the streets in this area is pretty complicated and because no taxista can be expected to know his way around a metropolitan area containing twenty-five million inhabitants. So my driver, who is one of those very correct and well turned-out Mexican gentlemen of a certain age does a rather indiscrete U-turn at a big junction, and we are immediately pulled over by a pair of traffic cops, who were lurking under nearby trees.

The driver is asked to step out and negotiations begin. I can hear the young cop citing the precise name and number of the traffic regulation we have infringed, but I suspect that this is an irrelevance. After some discussion the driver returns inside the cab and reaches inside the glove compartment for money. How much? I ask him. One hundred and fifty, he replies (just under seven pounds sterling). Here, I say, take a hundred. After all, I am at least partly responsible for this, as I allowed him to take a wrong turning. He thanks me, pays the cop and gets back in the cab.

This is not a fine, but a pay-off. Most drivers pay the police rather than go through the rigmarole of following through with an infraction of a minor kind. The police officers’ argument goes like this: it’s easier for both of us if you just cough up. In fact I’m doing you a favour, because you’d have to pay more if we went through the proper process. When I ask the taxi driver if he ever refuses to pay a bribe he says something about the pervasiveness of corruption and shrugs. This is how the law works in this country, he says.

Back at the hotel and back into Lowry. Cervantes, the owner of the Ofelia is offering the Consul, Yvonne and Hugh some dinner – eggs is evidently a recurring theme of the evening: “ . . . You like eggs, señora? Stepped on eggs. Muy sabrosos. Divorced eggs? For fish, sliced of filet with peas. Vol-au-vent à la reine. Somersaults for the queen. Or you like poxy eggs, poxy in toast. Or veal liver tavernman? Pimesan chike chup? Or spectral chicken of the house? Youn’ pigeon. Red snappers with a fried tartar, you like?”

Hungry now, I borrow an umbrella and head for the nearest restaurant, El Califa, in Condesa, where the waiter, who seems to know me, greets me warmly. They are not serving spectral chicken, and nor do I order poxy eggs, but a bowl of broth and a couple of veal tacos. At the table in front of me two young people – he in a very shiny suit, she laughing too enthusiastically at everything he says – share a dessert, spooning ice cream into each others’ faces. On the way back the sky cracks with thunder and the heavens open once again. In El Califa they have given me some little sweets with my bill. I open the packet with difficulty and am confronted by some tiny things that resemble hundreds and thousands. I have not met with these before, so I give them a try. There is an explosion of sugar and chilli pepper inside my mouth, which is not at all agreeable. I throw the remaining sweets in a bin and head back to the hotel, prepared for the Consul’s disastrous denouement.

 

 

 

 

Veracruz by night

4 May

 

Veracruz night

Leaning over the balcony of my room in Veracruz on a Saturday night. It is hot and the air is dense, the sky laden with clouds that have not broken all day, suggesting, to me at least, some faintly tragic element– as if a foreboding – to the festive sounds emanating at full blast five floors down. Why foreboding? Because this much noise must be a cover for something, full-blooded defiance of some kind. The son band has started up, and couples are dancing in the Zócalo, moving with slow steps, a synchronised animal of multi-hued and diverse features. And all of a sudden I turn around, almost certain someone has entered the room behind me. Of course, there is no one there. The door is locked. But I am in a strange hotel, in this noisy, sweaty city, after the relative quiet and familiarity of the coffee-growing uplands in Coatepec and Xalapa. I venture downstairs and sit outside the bar attached to my hotel.

When I say the band has started, I am not being strictly accurate, as if implying there is only one band. There are currently several bands playing in the square, which, to use a common analogy, is the size of a couple of football pitches. In addition there is a group of bikers from San Luis de Potosí, who have parked their machines in the southwest corner of the square and planted massive speakers alongside them, from which blasts heavy metal at a volume which overrides most of the other sources of sound, the throbbing bass lines producing a physical response in the pit of the belly. As in the UK the bikers are predominantly middle-aged men wearing inscribed black t-shirts barely covering bulging bellies. They rev the engines of their Harleys, sending out a direct challenge to the mariachi band playing closest to their patch. There are at least four other mariachi bands playing, and a larger band for the dancers. To add to the cacophony hundreds of birds, occupying the many trees around the plaza maintain a shrill and manic chirping, flitting frantically from perch to perch, sometimes singly, other times en masse, dislodging a rival group from a neighbouring tree, who fly away squawking to find another haven. Police sirens and an unremitting blasting of horns from the bumper-to-bumper traffic add to the great noise. A fresh contingent of mariachi trumpeters arrives to my right, offering a more local assault to the eardrums.

This is, quite simply, the noisiest place I have ever been, its orchestral totality rendering the Plaza Castillo in Pamplona on the opening night of the San Fermines into sedate chamber music by comparison. But here there is no fiesta, it’s just a normal Saturday night in Veracruz.

I was told to expect a lot of noise, but nothing could have prepared me for this aural onslaught. It is beyond sound, it is a dense, geological layering of noise upon noise, of massive dimensions.

Outside in the street, a big red Ford truck pulls up, and six very fat men pile in. I look around to see if anyone else has noticed this strange occurrence, but perhaps in Veracruz this kind of thing happens all the time. At the table in front of me, a smartly dressed man with European features is writing in an A4 pad. What is he writing? Amid all this noisome, somewhat seedy racket, could there be a second scribe, a cover version of Blanco, doing exactly what Blanco does? Could he, at this very moment, be describing how there is this person seated behind him, who is a cover version of his own alter-ego?

There is always the other one, doing exactly what you are doing, thinking your thoughts, writing your story, singing your song.

At the table to my right sits a small, slight gringo who bears a certain resemblance to Stan Laurel and wears a forlorn moustache and camouflage cargo shorts and a t-shirt with an inscription that I can’t quite make out without standing in front of him and peering, which I have no intention of doing. He is talking to his Mexican friend, in English. The Mexican begins every other sentence with the words ‘one day’. One day I this one day I that. Esto y esto y esto. The other tables are filled with Mexican holiday-makers or weekenders.

My other gets up to leave. He reaches down and fetches from the floor a hard hat, of the kind worn on building sites. I see. He is probably a surveyor or building site manager, and he was filling out a report. Never mind.

The Mexican who is sitting with the gringo is doing most of the talking. He says, or I think he says, ‘one day you will see where went the elephant’. Then he says, I think, ‘one day you want talk up the history of conscious memory’ – but that cannot possibly be right. Then he says, especially loudly: ‘One day she will say I work every day every day every day. Shit! Some days I don’t give passion. Shit!’

The bikers amble by in a group. They are wearing a uniform: sky blue shirts and black leather waistcoats, or vests as they say in the U.S. In the square itself I can see jugglers and clowns and drag artists and con artists and little stalls selling cigars and wooden toys and junk of every possible description.

A very young woman, attractive and haunted-looking, with a sweet child in a sling on her back comes by selling knick-knacks made from woven thread. The pair to my right, who are both quite drunk by now, each give her a twenty peso note (about £1), the gringo pointing to the child insistently as he hands it to her, as if to say, it’s because of her, your child, that I am bestowing such munificence on you. Alcohol-driven largesse. The woman in the group directly in front of me hisses loudly to catch the waiter’s attention. He ignores her. She tries calling ‘Joven!’ (Young Man!) instead, which works, and he half-turns, careful not to dislodge any of the bottles and glasses he carries on a tray high above head-level. The light on the black wooden surface of my table is refracted by the revolving overhead fan above me, turning the shiny table-top into a swirling vortex, inviting me in. I realise at this instant – with the gratification that accompanies every minor epiphany – that I don’t truly know anything, and probably never will. But at least I have the salvation of continuity, and the exquisite tension of the unfinished journey.

The gringo and his friend leave. When I get up to pay, I notice that the gringo has left his small backpack leaning against the wall beside his table. I tell the waiter, so he can keep it behind the bar for when the poor fellow realises he has left it somewhere.

I take a last turn around the square. An old man with no shoes, extremely drunk, takes a slim bottle of cane rum from his back pocket, swigs the remaining dregs and slings the plastic bottle away with an angry gesture. He is so drunk that he is taking part in one of those hallucinatory boxing matches that certain drunks get into, and he staggers on, fighting his imaginary enemy.

One of the last performances of the night – it is after 3.a.m. by now – is underway: a tight-rope walker, who has planted his rope between a tree and a lamp-post. He is pretending to be drunk, and is supping from an identical bottle of cane rum to the one the man with no shoes just threw away. The man with no shoes abruptly stops his shadow-boxing, and stares in evident confusion at the tight-rope walker for a few seconds, before letting loose a string of profanities, and stumbles on his way across the square.

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