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.