21 April 2016

Two Years Already?

Jerash, Jordan

Two years is quite a long time in a writer's world. In a few days it will be two years since this blog began. Bloggers tend to mark that sort of anniversary thing, taking ourselves seriously once a year ... if at all. Makes us feel efficient. Or anxious. Will I run out of camel stories before the next one rolls around?

One gets addicted to travel. Not of course to the dreary, practical details (weather forecasts ahead; packing to be hands-free; airport torments) but to the idea of being there, somewhere significant and wondrous, somewhere pulling seductively at your curiosity. What will I have in common with them? Are they much different from us?

Add in a family history addiction and target lands become obvious. Thankfully I have fulfilled most yearnings for the old family origins but it's difficult to decide between ancestors and other attractions. I have no connection to the stunning landscapes of Vietnam or the ancient people of Ethiopia and yet I long to see them.

Then again, my personal travel agenda looks for camel opportunities (oh really?) which further complicates travel decisions. After all, the budget is limited and the body declines. Cruising has become a (not entirely satisfactory) means of exploring new places; comfort becomes an unapologetic necessity at my age but day-long excursions are seldom quite enough.

Well, a few past favourites (actually, all from land trips):

Dutch camel - http://camelchaser.blogspot.com/2015/05/dutch-camel-love.html
Pushkar camel - http://camelchaser.blogspot.com/2014/08/pushkar-india-2008.html
Tozeur camel - http://camelchaser.blogspot.com/2015/10/tozeur-tunisia-2013.html
Shaolin camel - http://camelchaser.blogspot.com/2015/11/shaolin-china-2014.html
And the unforgettable camel show at the docks in Djibouti. Even a panoramic shot would not be wide enough to show the extent of the sheds and the liveliness of the young beauties.
Djibouti camels - http://camelchaser.blogspot.com/2014/04/djibouti-east-africa.html

My draw to a particular part of the world is clear, and is coming not just from the magnificent beasts I admire but also from the mysteries of the Rift Valley origins of mankind and monuments of age-old civilizations.

Since the earth will drastically change in the next few generations is changing now! already polar bears are swimming for their lives to find sanctuary I am grateful for whatever historical/archaeological bits I can still see. Regrets? Oh yes. Not going to Syria in 2007 before daesh(1) began destroying humanity's heritage! Not having the suppleness of a 30-year-old to undertake an extended camel safari!

Nonetheless, forging on. Estonia, you are still on my list!

(1) See http://www.northeastern.edu/news/2015/11/3qs-what-using-the-name-daesh-rather-than-isis-or-isil-really-means/.

© 2016 Brenda Dougall Merriman

06 April 2016

Tecolutla - Part Four

Zocalo rehabilitated
It was November the last time I was there. Slowly over several years the town is recovering from the flood. But Hector was bedridden and the hotel had that sad look of seen better days. Daughter Sylvia was here more often. The hotel is not up to snuff because Rosario has her hands full looking after Hector and her (by now) two small boys. A Boyfriend appears to be living in; what was his name? Ostensibly he is here to help run things, be a practical resource, a strong pair of arms.
And new ventures for high season

Juan Carlos took us to meet Turtle Man: Fernando "Papa Tortuga" Manzano. For years the man has been rescuing and nurturing the seasonal eggs of an endangered species Tortuga Loras, or Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtles. Juan sees a future in eco-tourism for Tecolutla. He is contacting biologists and government officials. [In fact, the Tecolutla Turtle Preservation Project became a reality a few years later, with programs and an education centre now underway.] One of the regular El Rincon patrons suggested Mr. Gringo might enjoy going to a cock fight in Poza Rica, which he might have ... nasty repellent idea. Thankfully that never materialized.

Typical Teco restaurant flyer
One day The Boyfriend is on a ladder at the side of the hotel with Rosario desperately wringing her hands. Our hydroelectricity has been cut off. Unpaid bill, it seems. Boyfriend tinkered with things on the hydro pole; at any moment we expected his hair to burst into flames, charred body plummeting. But he managed to make it work. Otherwise he made himself scarce and Mr. Gringo became the default handyman.

We went to a parade in Zamora after enjoying the weekend bustle of its market. Sure as fleas on a Mexican cat, I've forgotten which feast day or festival was being celebrated. We found "my" restaurant too. One time Tecolutla erected a stage on the beach for a night of music and dancing, with fireworks as a highlight. It was a bit unnerving to watch showers of sparks falling into the dry thatch of the palapas. But when Tecolutla has a party no worries spoil the boisterous fun. 

Novel advertising experiment
November was not a good month to be there. The weather was cold at night thanks to el Nortes. I was attacked by sand fleas, not knowing they flourish at daybreak and dusk on the beach. Our friend thought there may be bedbugs!
Cristobal, magic mechanic
Plans were afoot to convey some used cars from Canada to Tecolutla whereby Mr. Gringo and Juan would Make a Profit. Here we must acknowledge that neither's language skills had improved vis-á-vis the other. Small old pickup trucks were highly valued and with the attentions of an excellent mechanic would keep running forever. Lord knows, Cristóbal kept our old car in working order. Mr. Gringo set out southward on his own one day in such a vehicle, towing another, to end up stranded in Reynosa. The incoherent story received on my end involved an intermediary in the Reynosa jail and an impound car lot. Don't ask. I immediately dropped the cross-examination.
New highway sign at the turnoff near Zamora
  Then life intervened as they say, and contact was intermittent. Sadly, word came that Hector died. Instead of being described as a fishing village now, I see that Tecolutla has indeed morphed into an eco-tourism destination. The place has grown exponentially; I scarcely recognize the size of it now. Garabatos is still on the hotel directories ... brava Sylvia!

© 2016 Brenda Dougall Merriman

27 March 2016

Tecolutla - Part Three

Not many months after after our first visit, to our dismay we learned from Juan that Tecolutla had been hit hard with floods during a deadly fall storm. Being on the flat basin between river and sea, Tecolutla was under water. Every building was damaged; many flimsy structures had been destroyed, especially those along the riverbank that slid into the rushing Rio Tecolutla. We can easily imagine the wreckage it would have wrought on San Pablo in the mountains.
Our preparations to return included boxes and bags of donated clothing and other household items. How we would get this ragtag collection through two sets of international borders was slightly intimidating (only to me, apparently). Fortunately it was before 9/11 occurred with all the paranoia that followed. In 2000 neither the American nor the Mexican border authorities were much interested in us. At the customary roadblock checkpoints along the highway in Mexico, however, the police were more curious to poke around. We figured out their greatest interest was the contents of our ice chest, so distributing ginger ale ("Canada Dry!") and coca-cola proved to be satisfactory in lieu of a bribe. Actually we know they think we are crazy and perhaps they are right.

Yes, poor Tecolutla was still recovering months later. At Garabatos, Hector was not looking well but greeted us joyously with a Canadian flag. At El Rincon. Juan Carlos was depressed. But he brightened when he saw our overloaded car. He was glad to take us 'round to different families with our second-hand goods. We held back some blankets and other items for our friends in San Pablo.
The hotel itself needed repairs. Palm trees had been destroyed. Palapa huts near the beach were gone. The beach was somehow narrower. But truckloads of workers would arrive in the morning and cheerfully set to work at various venues. Mr. Gringo threw himself with zeal into the repairs, dwarfing his colleagues. Rosario is pregnant again. We are gradually cluing in that Hector is possibly not the father but we see no sign of a boyfriend.
Slowly the town came back into shape, not just then but over our following visits. Juan Carlos maintained his enthusiasm for promoting Tecolutla. We goggled at the Coco Festival's attempt to make the biggest coco candy in the world for the Guinness Book of Records. No-one is quite sure if the goal was reached, but it sure was fun watching that coco-taffy being pulled and pulled as everyone celebrated by firelight. El Rincon produced a real floor show one night. Patrons seemed to appear out of nowhere including other gringos we'd never seen.

Hector's brother came to visit from Manzanillo. We met Hector's daughter Sylvia from Zamora. We all could see that he was failing somewhat. Anyone in want of a doctor, a bank, a lawyer, and so on, must head to Zamora. Only a small nurse clinic existed here for non-emergencies. Long discussions about attracting more tourists from farther afield; the hotel needed more consistent business.

 Francisco became a friend. He greeted one of our arrivals with a huge pail of chicken tamales his wife had made. Once on our way home we gave him a ride to Matamoros so he could visit his daughter. The weather was extremely hot and for once our car's air conditioning was functioning. Happily ensconced in our back seat, Francisco farted ... All. The. Way. No matter whether the A/C was on or window open, either way I thought I'd suffocate.

Friends and relatives came to visit us. We went to Papantla where the Voladores flourish. The nearby ruins of El Tajín are little known outside the country. They are small compared to some ancient sites in this country but beautifully kept. Again we had a perfect up-close view of the performers.
A day was set aside to see the Museo Antropología in Xalapa, capital of Vera Cruz state. Marvellous drive for a few hours south along the Costa Esmeralda of lovely beaches and colourful villages, then turning west into the mountains. The street up to the university and museum in Xalapa is quite steep, altogether a picturesque city. And oh my! I can't say enough about how impressive the museum is! Featuring pre-Colombian artifacts of Olmec, Totonac, and Huastec cultures all found in this state, its awesome collections are the second largest in the country. The museum design is a knockout; the exhibits were a thrill.
The hotel has been spruced up with a new recepcion area but still, never any other guests when we are there.

© 2016 Brenda Dougall Merriman

18 March 2016

Tecolutla - Part Two

The place with the tongue-twisting name: not all the warmth came from the sun by any means. The residents exhibited nothing but pleasure in greeting two gringo visitors. Many of them are clearly descendants of the ancient Totonacan region around us. The native language heavily influences their Spanish pronunciation. Tecolutla was always a fishing village, both sea and river. It has two or three main streets intersected by small side streets, very easy to navigate. Of course it has the expected central plaza, or zocalo as they say.
Part of the zocalo with the municipal building
typical art

As the days went by on our first trip, we got to know middle-aged Hector ... sort of ... according to jumbled communications. His domestic arrangement was a mystery. The sweet Rosario, who looked about seventeen, appeared to be his wife; the word esposa may have nuances! While Hector took care of hotel business, which was none, since we were the only guests, Rosario cooked for him and took care of him. She was also the general factotum for hotel cleaning. The two of them were gaga over the toddler Hector Jr., affectionately called Torito.
Rosario was excited to have us meet her parents in the mountain village of San Pablo. It's the same mountain range we had followed in southern Tamaulipas state. Her father had an orange "rancho" there, we understood. Her Spanish was so heavily accented that for ages I thought his name was Chili-choro. Hello, Teodoro! Who was actually a labourer for an orange plantation owner. Like any grandparents, they were thrilled with a visit from Torito, not to mention the gringos. 

San Pablo is a (literally) dirt poor village. The huts are vulnerable to the elements, constructed of cement blocks, boards, and sticks. There is no water running from a tap, no plumbing or electricity. They only had about two chairs. Recent rains had washed downhill, turning the paths into mud. Reaching the outhouse, slipping and sliding past the prized family pig, was an epic journey.
And yet these people were warmly hospitable despite the language barrier, giving us their best meal, tamales cooked on a very large pan over a kitchen fire. They take corn to a mill on the river to have it ground for their staple corn meal. Rosario proudly showed us the village church where we assumed, in our faltering ignorance, she and Hector had been married. Some time later we established that this is where little Hector was baptized. We never did resolve the marriage question.
Meanwhile, we spent a lot of time on the beach. No beach vendors. No hard sell anywhere. We were ahead of Easter when the town experiences one of its booms; other prime times are Christmas, their large (ocean) fishing derby in May, and summer holidays. The first thing on the beach that attracted us like a magnet was El Rincon de Don Juan ... Juan's Place, a restaurant and bar, occasional night club. It was then we met the irrepressible Juan Carlos, chief booster for all things Tecolutla.

El Rincon became a daily destination as we listened to JC's ambitious plans for the town to become a destination for NorteAmericanos. We spent hours weighing options and logistics, trading stories. A sociologist by training, he "came home" to help develop local interests, environmental concerns being a big part of it. Sometimes his musicians would show up for lunch or dinner. Sometimes even the cook would show up.

Otherwise the little town fast became familiar. And because it was off-season everyone got to know us, even though some businesses were not reopened yet for the expected Easter rush. We could put names to passersby. There were casual restaurants to try, veracruzeano cooking. It was like eating with a different family each night. Shops that were open had few local crafts and no souvenirs. But natives of Guatemala were arriving to sell their crafts on the street. 

Telephones were utterly unreliable. Television was patchy at best. The internet was still years from having an impact here. The only sign of outside life was an occasional helicopter flying in to the one grand hotel (surrounded by a privacy fence). Whereupon Juan would shrug, "gobierno políticos." Watching the river fishermen throw their nets; a visit to the tiny museum; trips to the larger town of Zamora to explore; it was a world unto itself.

One day we were entranced by a visit from the voladores, practitioners of an ancient Totonacan ceremony. They come from nearby Papantla, the centre of preserving this heritage. It is believed to have originated as a performance begging the gods for rain. Part of the mystique may involve the spring equinox which was then approaching. Five men in elaborate costumes danced along the street to the zocalo. They climbed a very tall pole and four performed the flying ritual while the fifth played a flute and small drum. As the men slowly descend and whirl, they represent the four elements earth, air, fire, water and also the four directions. Meanings and symbolism have changed over time.

 Mr. Gringo always found some local project he could help withbuilding, measuring, painting. By the time we left, that first time, Mr. Gringo had invested in Garabatos to Hector's delight.

© 2016 Brenda Dougall Merriman