mexico for christmas

The next morning after my headlong 15-hour drive from Real de Catorce back to Austin I could still see the colors of the town when I closed my eyes. Washing hanging on the line, the kids’ clothes, the indian jewelry and knitted hippie sweaters for sale, the colors of the mountains.

A long drive, with 3 hours in Nuevo Laredo, a harsh and seedy city. I forsake the new Colombia bridge for the “experience” of Nuevo Laredo, and spent 40 minutes in an unmoving line for el puente #1 before giving up and making my way across town through traffic and traffic lights to puente #2 where another man who had been in the line for #1 told me that the authorities turned everyone away from the first bridge just after I gave up, so that was a good decision. but it still took more than an hour to get across the river and into Laredo, where I spoke spanish like everyone else in a convenience store and english like everyone else in Logan’s Roadhouse where I had caesar salad and all the kid servers were hispanic but definitely American and all the shoppers at the Mall del Norte were Mexican. The flags were half mast on the American side, so I called and learnt of the passing of Gerald Ford and James Brown. Gotta say that the death of the Godfather of Soul affected me more.

saturday i set off driving from the farmers market on cesar chavez st in austin to the fiestamericana in monterrey, nuevo leon. had to have my pastries from brasil for the journey along with two lebanese eggplant filo pastry things. Then I headed onto the highway south, still slightly in disbelief. At Laredo I took the toll road to the new bridge at Colombia under thick billowing gray clouds, crossed the border easily, found the banking building, changed money with the good old HSBC and followed the signs to the “cuota” to monterrey. i had visions of driving on some lonely highway across the empty plains of northern mexico but instead found myself in a line of traffic from illinois, wisconsin, kansas, south and north carolina, and of course texas, bmws, pickups and cadillacs, all heading home for christmas through blinding fog and rain lashing across the road and through the mountain passes. there was an hour queue to pay the toll, and all of this meant that i did not get to monterrey until nearly dark. following sings for the zona centro, i found myself in the center of a city that certainly was not monterrey, and spent over an hour in cairo-like traffic driving across the waterlogged city to find the center. finally i saw the tower of the fiestamericana but… it took another forty minutes of frustrating driving around the maze of one-way streets and pedestrian areas before I parked illegally, ran to the hotel, and they pointed out the tiny lane that leads to the valet parking area. the room was worth it, though, very swish, with a beautiful view over the city to the mountains. had an awful elevator ride returning from the car where i could not find my passport and green card – what would i have to do, drive to mexico city to try and get a new passport from the british consulate, beg the ins to let me back into the states, but, thank God and luckily it was in my backpack. Monterrey was very quiet on the night before Christmas Eve, and the weather was Manchester-like, cold and wet and drab. I ate an elegantly presented pizza in the huge, classy restaurant in the Sheraton, which had an amazing ceiling. Only one other couple there. I experienced a profound peace and gratitude in the Sheraton, and happily consumed the ch food groups – chicken and vegetable soup (your honor, the chicken was not mentioned on the menu, but i ate it anyway), cheese pizza, and chocolate.

the next morning was still rainy and drab, but the clouds cleared as i drove west out of town towards saltillo and the cuota south between the stunning high mountain ranges that flank the city, which looked very sparkly and cosmopolitan in the morning, very European (think Spain twenty years ago). It even has a bridge that looks like a calatrava, but is in fact a knock-off. The road west twists and turns up the pass towards saltillo, but the turn-off for the cuota south to Matehuala and Mexico City comes before the town, so i only saw saltillo from a distance. A long featureless easy drive south – arid mountains and dry valleys, the sort of landscape that is familiar from west texas, except that in mexico the yuccas grow as tall as trees, and the nopales grow into great thickets of cactus. Though in Mexico you can’t almost doze as you can driving freeways in the US – there’s always the chance of a donkey or very slow-moving pick-up, or an unexpected bump or curve. La musica del viaje – Gomez (thought it was appropriate to listen to an English band with a Mexican name, and i had just bought the recent cd that was on a few best of 2006 lists), Bob Dylan (the masterful modern times), Springsteen’s Seeger sessions, Cheik Lo.

Suddenly after a few hours – in fact i nearly missed it – was the sign to Cedral and Real de Catorce. Cedral is a regular small town lying on the dusty scrubby desert plain – you pass through – i got gas here – and follow the signs to Real de Catorce until you turn off onto the road that leads straight as an arrow up into the mountains, its cobbles laid with equally Roman precision. Some dramatic bends lead to La Luz de Catorce, where vendors, whose luck in life has banished them to this dusty collection of shacks at the wrong end of the tunnel, try to sell you huge sweet gorditas and trinkets. 20 pesos gets you through Ogarrio, a tunnel apparently built by chance when two groups of silver miners met underground, and into Real de Catorce. By the tunnel there are more vendors and lines of blue plastic sheets cover little stalls in a bare market area and parking lot. note: take lots of cash to mexico – you’ll need it for the tolls and all kinds of ancillary items – like France, it costs a few pesos to use los baňos in some places, and a lot of the gas stations don’t take credit cards.

the main street is narrow – well, all the streets are narrow – and lined on either side with stalls and thonged with shoppers so i parked and walked to find the hotel before inching my way down over the cobbles to the hotel, where i parked on the side street. Pictures of Real de Catorce make it look as though it is on a kind of plateau, but in fact it is perched on a mountainside and the up down streets are slippery and steep. The hotel, the méson del refugio, owned and remodeled by a mexican architect, a woman who is apparently currently living in the UK, was stylish and simple – very nice. the town is filled with cute little hotels – the one that Julia Roberts stayed looked, of course, particularly cute.

what to do in Real de Catorce? Hike, ride horses, read, visit the ruins left over from the mining operations of the nineteenth century, eat, visit the churches, enjoy the architecture and the light, people-watch and take photographs. Most of which is what I did for the next four days, very happily and pleasantly. The first day was freezing cold, but the following days were much warmer, so much so that my nose got very sunburnt hiking. But it got cold again when the sun went down. the first night i had dinner at the meson de la abundancia, a hotel and restaurant on the main calle. it was bustling with christmas eve activity, in fact there was a pageant that evening with people dressed and the three kings and angels, and a woman playing mary who rode on a burro through the town to the church, accompanied by her costumed retainers and others, all chanting and singing, which continued on their return to the restaurant. All very charming, and familiar
– the singing, homespun pageantry and cold weather reminded of Christmases of my youth. Most of the restaurants in Real de Catorce served, inexplicably, an italian menu of pizza and pasta, including what i half-grasped from the menus was a local version of ravioli, along with more mexican offerings like torta. No enchiladas, though i got very nice chips and salsa in one place. The stalls on the street sold tasty little gorditas and tacos. and Real de Catorce is the city of desserts, more specifically el pay – yes pie, along with flan and other yummy baked goodness. I recommend the pera y chocolate pay at la meson de la abundancia, or the chocolate and crema crepa at cafe azul. Anyway, I was eating a very nice pizza, but at the first bite I cracked a tooth on an olive, in fact half of it came out in my mouth. I was waiting for the pain and and wondering where to get dental care at Christmas in San Luis Potisí, but the pain never came and I still haven’t been to see Dr Root the dentist yet. Another chance for celebration and thanks to the angels that watch over me. Lots of nice colorful clothes hats and scarves, and artisanal jewelry for sale in the little hippie boutiques all over town. A happy mix of hippies, locals trying to sell horse rides mainly, Indians, and tourists.

The mountains look like west Texas, dry and bony, colors bleached to pale greens and grays in the sunlight, and are covered with agave, whose stalks are harvested by the locals. Old mining buildings and roads are everywhere. I hiked around around enjoying the views, and looking for the perfect photography vantage point of the city, which I think is up above the tunnel towards the tel-mex cellphone and tv tower. Somewhere is the sacred ground where the Huichol Indians perform a ceremony every year, but I could not find it, though I was not that concerned. On the last day I rode down the caňon to Estacion de Catorce, like Cedral a more normal Mexican town – a group of young Mexican families and me rode down the rough road on one of the fleet of vintage Willys jeeps that are used for turista and local transport, me and others sitting on top of the jeep in the luggage rack, hanging on tight as we wound our way past steep drops and looking out for overhanging branches, while baking in the sun. Not much to do in Estacion de Catorce, but the ride is fun. When not hiking I wandered around the town taking pictures of people, churches, and the light – the Indian vendors were the most colorful people with amazing faces, but wary of having their pictures taken. Quite a mix of people in the town – Richer tourists from the bigger cities along with more working-class folks, it seemed, from local cities like Matehuala. Quite a few Hispanic people talking English, visiting from USA, but no other gueros like me. A very lovely place. I read three books, the Age of Kali by William Dalrymple, a history of London working class style from the 50’s to the 90’s by Robert Elms, the Face writer who was very involved in the eighties new romantic scene, which was fun, and Alistair Cooke’s account of his journey around America just after the country joined the Second World War, and engaging and well-crafted piece of journalism, with a good section on Texas. The Age of Kali is a great piece of darker travel and political reporting, which describes horrible atrocities in the name of caste and politics in India, mostly in the nineties, a decade in which I was happily engaged in life in Austin, without a great deal of cares. In any time, someone somewhere is being murdered or tortured by someone else.

The whole experience of being and driving in Mexico was easy and fun – roads well sign-posted, etc, no sense of danger, just people going about their lives. Driving down to Monterrey I had exactly the same feeling as the first time I drove a semi across the drab rolling plains of northern France, as foggy most of the time as Mexico was on the trip down. And that feeling was – exhilaration and sense of adventure, together with this feeling of amused relief at the fact that it was so uneventful. So now I feel very comfortable about going again. At a police checkpoint on the way back, a cop pointed out that I had neglected to stick the permit I got at the consulate in Austin onto the windshield (which I immediately affixed in the wrong place, according to the instructions on the back that I did not read until the thing was stuck on there) but was very nice and friendly about it. In the lines at Nuevo Laredo vendors were selling huge Jesus figures on the cross and toy drum sets and candy peanuts, and one guy was selling a foam map of the U.S. and Mexico, with all the states marked, Coahuila and Nuevo Leon taking their place with Nebraska and Maine. He wanted 70 pesos and I did not buy it, but it summed up how I felt about Mexico after this trip, not as a frightening foreign place but as simply a part of the world we live in. The border seemed more like the imposition. Driving back to San Antonio whenever I passed a Mexican car I mentally extended a welcome to the U.S.

Before I woke up on the morning after I returned to South 5th St, I dreamed that I went to a party, a perfect party where all my friends were, I saw Brent and Seymour riding a bike, and Leslie was there, as I rode on a big motorcycle with the lights off. I don’t think this has any meaning, but the vividness of the image and the feeling of happiness stuck in my mind, as though the trip and my tiredness had freed some currents in my subconscious.

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