A visit to Veracruz and the Pacific Ocean.
In the summer of 1999, while working on board the barge Europa in the Gulf of Mexico, we were caught cold by hurricane Bonny.
We had heard from the mad radio operator that the US met service was warning all shipping to go for cover. Apparently they issue a 12 and a six-hour warning, and by the six hour warning, any boats in the affected area should be gone.
The master of our vessel did not consider it prudent to heed the warning, so by the time he got around to ordering his crew to start pulling our 6 anchors to leave, we were in trouble.
The sea was very rough, but even so our anchor handling boats got four of the six anchors up before it became obvious that lifting any more was just not tenable. By that stage we were being held by the remaining two, which caused us to be tossed around like a leaf in a breeze.
I had been at sea over 15 years at that point, and I had been in bad weather before, but nothing like that. It was so bad in fact that Tom and I felt that the only place of relative safety was on the ROV mezzanine deck, outdoors, figuring that being eaten by sharks having been washed overboard by a massive wave, was preferable to going down with the vessel and drowning right away.
Every time the anchor wires came up tight the bardge stood up on its side almost tipping us overboard prematurely.
At this point we witnessed the most courageous and insane acts of bravery, either of us had ever seen.
The bosun and an AB (able semen) hauled oxyacetylene cutting gear through the crazily heaving, constantly awash deck over to the first of the anchor winches.
The Russian bosun then dragged the cutting head and hoses up with him, as he clambered to the top of the winch.
Tom and I could only watch in almost open mouth horror as he lit the torch, and proceeded to burn through the restraining cable.
He had to wait until the wire went slack to cut through, but cut through he did, leaving us restrained by one anchor.
He and the able Seaman repeated the process on the last one, and finally we were able to be taken in tow towards the port of Dos Bochas.
It was a decidedly uncomfortable and I would imagine downright dangerous time for us all, but we were relieved to be getting away from the hurricane.
It took a day and a half under tow to reach port, during which time everything on board was well shook up and broken.
As previously when we were ashore, our Italian boss hired a car and entrusted me to run some errands to Paraiso and Villa Hermosa.
He then offered me the car for a week, as repairs to the barge were going to take up to 10 days.
That was my chance to visit Veracruz with Tom if he wanted to come, he didn’t, I think that the trip in, had shook him up somewhat more than it had me, and he just wanted to rest.
I though, jumped at the chance.
Its 480 km from Paraiso to Veracruz, so I was going to be gone for a couple of days, and that was fine with the boss, and my hotels and fuel would be paid for when I got back.
I packed a change of clothes and my toiletries into a small backpack, but left my main suitcase in the hotel room that I would have shared with Tom had I been staying in Paraiso, and I headed off early the following morning.
Paraiso is in Tabasco province which is mainly tropical; to get to Veracruz I had to leave Tabasco and transit across the Veracruz province.
My car was a compact saloon, about the size of a Toyota Corolla, there was no air-conditioning, but opening the windows, allowed the air to blow around inside the car, keeping me cool.
I drove 300 km on the first day, and as I drove out of Tabasco and into Veracruz province, the countryside changed from tropical jungle to coastal plain, with mountains on my left, and the azure Gulf of Mexico on my right.
I ate lunch that day at a roadside diner, and that night I stayed in a motel which cost $10, I could not believe that it was so cheap.
I resumed my journey the following day and reached Veracruz around lunchtime.
It was quite a thrill for me; I had read much about the history of the city, and how the seafront Esplanade was based on the one in Marseille, but it was longer.
Every time Mexico had been invaded by exterior forces, whether they were Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors in the 16th century, the North Americans, the Spanish and the French in the 19th century and the North Americans again in the early 20th, the invasions came through Veracruz. Some invaders were happy just to hold such an important seaport; others were intent on pushing through to the interior of Mexico in search of El Dorado, the mythical city of gold. Each wave of invasion left their mark in terms of cultural and architectural heritage, from Aztec pyramids to Spanish Baroque and French, with a preponderance of Spanish, as with the rest of Mexico and Latin America.
In 1519 Cortes arrived in the land of Montezuma King of the Aztec people’s, and those people would never be the same again.
Cortes added the name Villa Rica (rich village) to the name Veracruz, which was already in place, because of the proliferation of gold and silver in the area, and this wealth is what sealed the fate of the indigenous Mexica, who through passive means i.e. disease and aggressive, swords and guns, over the next four centuries would be wiped out, or absorbed into the Spanish hierarchy.
I drove to the port opposite the 16th century breakwater and fort; there I parked the car, took my backpack and walked about hundred metres to the first waterfront café that I came across, where I was served delicious coffee, a cold beer and a filled croissant for lunch.
Huge clouds were piling up on top of each other out over the Gulf, and the air was heavy with water, but the sun still shone brightly on the land, and it was hot.
I took my time consulting the lonely planet guide, enjoying the heat but thankful for the shade afforded by the umbrella over the table. I smoked a couple of cigarettes, drank my beer, finished my coffee, and eventually decided to try the Playa Caracol hotel for my accommodation. The guide said that it was cheap and on the seafront, pretty close to where I was sitting.
When I arrived in Mexico, six months previously I had been less than impressed with everything Mexican.
Everyone (except me) spoke Spanish, it was not like being on a package holiday in Spain, where waiters and receptionists spoke enough English to deal with English speaking tourists; in Mexico people just did not speak English, there was no need for it.
It was so hot and there was nobody to meet me at the airport, then the awful boat Umka with its population of rats and cockroaches, and I had arrived with literally only a maxed out Visa card and a few American dollars to my name.
Not a very auspicious start!
It had been a time of severe stress, there was all the foregoing and then the huge elephant in the room, namely that I knew virtually nothing about ROVs, and I was expected to work with them.
Tom Brown had been patient in his tutelage, and I had learned quite a bit about the particular ROV that we worked with, and over those months and as the various stresses had eased somewhat, I had grown very fond of the place.
I had learned enough Spanish to get by, and I had visited some of the very many ancient Maya and Mexica archaeological sites, and had become fascinated with both the ancient and the Spanish Mexico. I felt comfortable!
After lunch I drove to the hotel parked in their car park and checked in for two days.
It was indeed on the coast, with a view out over the breakwater. The room was comfortable with an overhead fan instead of air conditioning and a veranda, shaded by some palm trees growing out front.
It was $15 a night, which was fine.
In Veracruz I visited the beautiful cathedral and made a sketch of the façade, and I also spent a day at the world Heritage site of El Tajin, a pre-Columbian city which was most likely built by the Totonac peoples around about 600 CE, and which they named for their god of rain.
While there I made a sketch of the extraordinary Pyramid of Niches, which was most likely a site of human sacrifice to the blood thirsty rain God El Tajin.
Mesoamerican artwork and architecture is simply incredible, easily matching the artwork or architecture of any of the ancient or classical civilisations of Europe or the Middle East, notwithstanding of course, the very obvious omissions of the arch from their buildings and any practical application of the wheel. It is possible that the ancient Americans didn’t need them!
In my time in Mexico I never tired of learning the history of the sites, and of looking at the artwork, modern and ancient.
I had come across Frida Kahlo and her partner Diego Rivera in art books when I was in school, and I remember being struck by the vibrancy of the colours used by those two artists. However I hadn’t been aware of the huge part that art and colour plays in Mexico. Many buildings are artworks in themselves, painted with gloriously bright colours, and often with murals depicting the social and artistic life of the country.
At El Tajin I met a beautiful young Mexican lady. We were sitting at the same table in the restaurant for lunch and we got into conversation, in as much as my limited Spanish allowed.
Her name was Josefina Cuterez, which was amazing because in 1980 when I spent that six weeks in Spain on business alluded to in some earlier stories, I met a girl; a schoolteacher called Jean Cuterez.
Josefina Cuterez was from Catemaco a town on the shores of the Laguna Catemaco, two hours south of Veracruz, and she was on vacation.
During those six weeks in Spain I picked up some Spanish, most of it out of necessity because I wasn’t staying in touristic area’s where English would have been widely used, so to stay alive I needed a basic vocabulary.
I remember wanting butter for my breakfast toast and milk for my coffee in the Hotel Aquaria where I stayed in Barcelona, and despite gestures and sign language indicating my need, I just had to learn the words, and then miraculously the waiter knew exactly what I was talking about.
And since arriving in Mexico I had made it my business to learn more.
Mainly Josefina and I spoke enthusiastically about the El Tajin site, and the incredible artistry used in its construction.
I spoke in very simple Spanish while Josefina spoke in the effusive, lavish and the demonstrative Mexican version, some of which I actually understood.
In any language the first phrases that I have learnt, are those which explain my need for my interlocutor to speak slowly and use simple words, that’s ‘lento y sencillo por favor’ en Espanol.
However my usage and comprehension were still very much schoolboy level, and with some things I struggled to explain myself adequately.
In the tropical heat of Mexico I picked up a condition called Pityriasis Versicolor, which is caused by the usually benign yeast Melassezia, which lives quite happily on everyone’s skin.
However, the heat can cause the fungus to grow out of control, eating up the melanin (and my tan) swerving around my arms and chest like a drunk driver, leaving meandering white marks on my otherwise dark skin.
I tried to explain the inconsistencies in the tan on my forearms to Josefina, which to me looked like the skin of a leopard.
But when I attempted to explain it using the leopard metaphor, I used the word Lepra, guessing that it would be close enough to explain the Leopard Association.
However, Lepra in Spanish means leprosy, so she fixed me with her dark eyes, whilst giving me a distinctly quizzical look, and saying the correct Spanish word for leprosy, which is “Lepra,” with some distaste and a horrified inflection. So from her demeanour I realised that Lepra probably wasn’t the word for Leopard, and further realising that that was what I probably said, explaining in English that I meant “Leopard” ,and as the Spanish for Leopard is Leopardo, all misunderstandings were laughingly cleared up.
I didn’t know it at the time but in Mexico Lepra is practically endemic, carried by the otherwise inoffensive and adorable armadillo, and so Josefina’s shocked reaction was entirely understandable. Following all that hilarity, I explained that I intended to drive to the Pacific Ocean the following day, and as we talked through lunch, the afternoon and then dinner, Josefina agreed to come to the Pacific with me, if I visited Catemaco with her first so that she could give me the grand tour.
So before I dropped her back to her hotel, we had arranged that I pick her up at 9 AM the following morning.
Right on time, I picked her and her bags up the next morning and we headed off South, pretty much along the Gulf Coast.
Josefina reminded me of Linda Ronstadt, she was darkly beautiful and she wore gorgeous light coloured loose linen clothing which accentuated her tanned skin.
Meeting her was fated, she was a wonderful travel companion and generous with the knowledge of her country, sharing it with me effusively at every opportunity.
If I hadn’t met her I wouldn’t have visited Catemaco, and I wouldn’t have the wonderful memories I have of that place. It was a riot of colour, every building seemed to vie with its neighbours to out- do them with bright colours.
There was no pre-Columbian architecture as far as I could ascertain, but there was some eye-poppingly colourful Spanish American buildings. It was gorgeous and idyllically situated on the beautiful nature reserve and lagoon.
There were alligators, caiman, tropical birds, snakes, lizards and to judge by the number of fishing boats on the lake, lots of fish.
We had lunch that day in a restaurant on the lagoon, which was very similar to the one in Palenque mentioned in an earlier story.
Lizards scuttled through the straw of the ceiling, gorging themselves on flies and mosquitoes, keeping the pests away from the paying guests.
Exotic birds sang and shrieked in the thick green jungle about us, and marvellously coloured dragonflies skipped over the calm water, offering themselves as food for the fish, or more probably looking for suitable egg laying territory.
The nearest town on the Pacific coast was actually Acapulco, but Josefina advised against going there because of its touristic nature, and anyway she’d been.
She advised instead Puerto Escondido, and to be honest, just by name alone that sounded much better, far more Mexican! The word Escondido means hidden and obviously Puerto means port.
It was 5 ½ hour’s drive from Catemaco, so we decided to set out early the following morning.
At 9 AM the following morning with the sun already high and behind us, we set out westward for the Pacific.
The highway cut a swath through tropical jungle, small pueblos and agricultural land where maize grew row upon row in the rich fertile soil of the tropics. Josefina kept up her commentary on this or that pueblo, or this and that small mountain, and we chatted about Mexico and how obvious her love for her country was.
I tried to tell her of Ireland, but starting out from her understanding that we were part of England and somehow attached to Europe, I had my work cut out for me, explaining in Linguaphone level Spanish, 700 years of occupation and occupation politics, even though Mexico mirrored the history of Ireland somewhat, with their very own occupation politics, having been so occupied by the Spanish, the Americans briefly, the French briefly (but longer than the Americans) and their own revolutions against the corruption of the various governments along the way, until full independence was achieved early in the 19th century.
We had Michael Collins and Dev, and the Mexicans had Zapata and Pancho Villa, we had a lot to discuss.
We stopped for lunch at a cantina in one of the small pueblo’s through which the road meandered, and we had genuine Mexican chilli (just like I imagined cowboys eating in the countless cowboy movies that I had watched over the years) with tortillas and salad washed down with ice cold Gran Sol beer.
After lunch we set out again. The time was about 3 PM and the sun had overtaken us, now shining brightly into our faces as it began its descent into the Pacific Ocean, which was a mere two hours away.
After that good lunch and with the heat of the sun big in the car, Josefina fell asleep, so I listened to the radio, 100% Spanish Mexican music, vacillating between modern pop, the romantic songs of Trio los Panchos, Mariachi galore and a lot of Juan Gabrielle, a singing superstar in Mexico at that time.
Asi Fue (that’s the way it went) was his huge hit song in the charts then, a beautifully melodic romantic ballad which one could be guaranteed to hear at least twice an hour on the radio. As I listened to the music driving towards the Westering sun, I mused on times past at home when I pointed the shark nose of my Ford Capri into the West of Ireland, to visit my biggest customer in Co Mayo when I worked in shipping in the 70s and early 80s. Or to see Emmylou Harris, Chrissie Hind and the Pretenders, Jackson Browne, Thin Lizzy and many other great bands of the time perform at the Castlebar music festival which ran for three years from 1979 to 1982, attracting huge crowds with the stellar line-up’s on show.
When I moved off up the west facing Long mile Road in Dublin, I was always aware that I was moving in a Cardinal direction, much more so than if I was going north and south.
My spiritual home was where the sun dipped into the ocean at the end of the day.
On my childhood excursions to the beach in the family car, I always knew that we were near the sea when we ran out of horizon. Suddenly there was nothing in front after the low hill in front of us that was because we were at the seaside!
I had a similar experience on our drive to the Pacific coast of Mexico.
About an hour and a half out from the cantina, I ran out of horizon and through the open car windows I was sure I could smell the ocean.
Right on cue Josefina woke up and exclaimed excitedly “El Océano Pacífico” we were that close, suddenly it was there, huge and azure.
It was close to 5 PM and the great orb of the sun hung over the ocean ready to dive in, and plunge the earth into darkness.
When I worked in Angola in the 90s, the back of our workshop was right on the coast of the wide Atlantic Ocean, facing Brazil and at the top of a cliff. And at around 530 each evening we would gather with our neighbours Fugro survey, for sun-downer gin and tonic’s on our west facing decking, to watch the great orange orb drop below the horizon.
There is a distortion of light as it descends which makes it look like the sun is flattening out at its bottom edge, and I was actually asked once in all honesty by one of our group, was it flattening as it hit the ocean?
Well there in Mexico it was doing exactly the same thing, it was some sight.
As we drove down towards Puerto Escondido the sun disappeared into the ocean with a light display which has never been captured adequately in photos or paintings.
The ocean was set on fire with the orange and yellow dying ripples of the sun exploding in a riot of dapples.
Puerto Escondido wasn’t very well hidden, we found it even in the dark, and we found a nice hotel on the coast, over a small tropical beach complete with palm trees, to enjoy our trip to the Pacific.
In the morning I would have to drop Josefina back to Catemaco, and her life there whatever it was, and I would have to go back to Cuidad Carmen, and my life, whatever that was.
But that was for tomorrow! That evening after alfresco dinner on the veranda overlooking the ocean, under a sky bejewelled with sparkling stars and a sliver of moon, we walked hand in hand down to the beach and paddled in the Earth’s mightiest ocean. It was warm and soft!