Wes and I stood outside the gate to the port of Veracruz for a short while and finally realized that taxis don’t usually come there unless to bring a fare. I returned to the big building to ask if there was a bus or some other form of transportation which would be able to return us to the city. After a difficult exercise in overcoming a language barrier I learned that buses came and went at shift change but not during the day. The man at the counter told me that we could get a taxi at the old stone fort which was about a mile down the road. I remembered seeing that fort on the way to the port and thought then that it looked like it would be an interesting place to visit. Now it looked like we would indeed be visiting it,
We began to walk down the road towards the city, jumping into a ditch from time to time to avoid the trucks carrying cargo to and from the port. Wes and I both picked up medium-sized rocks to launch at dogs if they should menace. The line between a Mexican stray and a Mexican pet can be a little blurry, and although Wes and I both like dogs we didn’t necessarily feel like being bitten by one. Or ten. The precaution was unnecessary and soon we were walking into a broad area in front of the fort which contained parking for cars, a taxi loading and unloading area, and several outdoor concessions which included one business selling tacos, carnitas, and more to the point, beer.
We ordered our food and beers and took up a couple of seats at a long table under a large canvas tent-like top. Soon the food and beer were in front of us and we wolfed it down in a few minutes. We had not really noticed how hungry we were. While we sat at our table we had time to get a good look at the stone fort, or ‘Fortaleza’. The polygonal building is massive, made out of huge carved stone blocks and standing a good twenty or thirty feet high. Wes and I decided at that table that we would spend a day enjoying Veracruz and then return home. We wanted to purchase our airline tickets – we had experienced all of the Mexican buses that we cared for – that day so that we would be certain to be able to get home. That would turn out to be a rare bit of good sense on our part.
But first we wanted to get a look at the Fortaleza. We bought our tickets and began a walking tour of the building, and it is huge and extensive. We walked in hallways built within the massive walls; in some places five or six feet thick. The fort was begun by Hernan Cortez at the beginning of the conquest of Mexico and it was the last Spanish foothold when Mexico rebelled and expelled the Spanish in 1825. The walls were lined with maps, drawings photographs, and historical notes in both Spanish and English. Wes and I were fascinated and stayed there longer than we had planned. At one point we did feel a little nervous however. One display of photos with their historical explanations concerned the capture of the city in 1914 by U.S. Marines and Navy personnel as part of a complicated affair involving German arms shipments to the Mexican government in the midst of a revolution. On the wall were several photos of Mexican soldiers and civilians defending their city as the battle waxed and waned through the streets and from behind buildings. Wes and I began to feel a bit uncomfortable as we stood with a group of Mexicans looking at the exhibit. We wondered just how gringo we looked.
At length we had seen enough of the fort and flagged a taxi to take us to the airport, where we purchased two of the last five tickets available on that flight for the return trip to Ciudad Juarez the next afternoon, and then returned to our hotel to settle up there as well. We then counted and pooled our money and set out to enjoy what had turned into being a vacation as well as an adventure.
We began the rest of our stay in Veracruz by walking to a rum shack on the waterfront which we had seen the day before from the trolley. Seated outside we began drinking rum and cokes, but the drinks became progressively more rum and less coke. I was twenty eight years old at the time and for the last ten years had lived anything but a temperate and sober life, so I could soak up a good deal of rum and remain functional. Next to us was a Mexican boy of about ten years of age who was selling coconuts. When a customer came along he would neatly lop the top end of the coconut off with a machete and send them on their way refreshed with the milk of the coconut. I purchased a coconut and asked if I could try to knock the top off myself. The kid agreed and I whacked away with the machete but failed miserably to even dent the shell. I returned nut and machete to the boy and he took off the top with one clean, effortless swing. Wes told me he was certain that I would cut my hand off and under the circumstances it was probably a miracle that I didn’t. I poured my rum into the coconut and drank the mixture of milk and rum with a straw. Soon after that Wes and I wobbled out of the rum shack in search of someplace to eat dinner.
We found a restaurant not too far away which featured foods from all over Mexico. There is much more to Mexican food than tacos and enchiladas. I don’t remember what Wes ate, but I had red snapper in a local red sauce with all the trimmings. While we ate we enjoyed a mariachi band which would circle the room, playing for anyone who would pay. My weak grasp of the Spanish language precluded my following their lyrics fully, but it sounded as if they were sort of a comedy act as well as singers. They seemed to be making fun of their patrons, but in a good natured way. Sort of like a celebrity roast, but less nasty. The patrons were laughing uproariously at some of the lines, and the singers worked hard to keep a straight face during their performance. After finishing our meal we walked for a while on the downtown sidewalks and then returned to the hotel bar where we sat nursing drinks for another hour or two before retiring for the evening.
The next morning we awoke early and hung over. It was a Sunday and most places where one might get a breakfast were closed, including the restaurant at our hotel. We exited the building and walked towards the center of old Veracruz, but still found nothing but closed businesses. Upon entering the large plaza in front of the old cathedral we lapsed into tourist mode, examining buildings and fountains and grassy miniparks with bleary eyes. As we walked through the plaza we saw a sight which caused hope to surge through our addled brains; a cantina boasted a sigh which said ‘Abierto’, or ‘open’.
A little hair of the dog which bit us seemed like good medicine so we veered to the right and made for the cantina. As we approached it our spirits soared even higher, for another sign announced free tacos for paying customers. This piece of luck cheered us greatly and we sat down at an outside table and ordered beer and tacos. Our order came straightaway and we dug into the rolled tacos with gusto, washing mouths full down with the cold Mexican beer.
After a short while of eating with abandon I happened to look over at Wes. He had been looking pretty green since he had crawled out of his bed that morning and now he looked a little greener. “What’s wrong, Man?” I asked around a large mouthful of half-chewed taco. “Do you know what we’re eating?” he asked, putting down his half-eaten meal. “No, and I don’t really care. It’s pretty good whatever it is. You should have seen some of the things I ate in Vietnam” I told him, although I really had no idea what I had eaten at some places in Vietnam. It could have been just about anything. Wes unrolled his half-eaten taco and showed me the white, honeycombed substance within. “It’s tripe.” I looked at the filling of the taco and sure enough, it was tripe, or ‘menudo’, the lining of a cow’s stomach. That is a very cheap bit of meat, which is why it could be given away for free. “I don’t care” I said with my best machismo, and finished my taco. I couldn’t quite bring myself to eat another one however.
A young Mexican lad was watching this drama from a short distance away from our table. I have no doubt that he’d seen this all play out before and knew the probable outcome of two gringos eating menudo tacos. After a few moments of seeing our hands remaining wrapped around our beers and not venturing close to the tacos he approached our table and asked in pretty good English “Are you going to eat those?” “No”, we answered in unison. “They’re all yours” said Wes, and the kid gathered up the tacos to go and eat them somewhere else, happy to have a free breakfast. This left Wes and I with our original problem; where could we get something to eat?
Just about as we were finishing our beers the answer to our dilemma came walking across the plaza. An old man carrying a basket of shrimp was approaching our table and we called him over. The shrimp that he was carrying was fresh, caught and cooked in some manner that very morning. The little sea bugs were still in their shells but were ready to eat. We bought a half-kilo of them and ordered two more beers, and for the next half hour popped those shrimps out of their shells like peanuts and feasted on them. Slowly a pile of empty shells grew on our table as we plowed through our stash of still-warm shrimp.
That breakfast held us over for the rest of the morning, and we did not eat again until we arrived at the airport as the sun was beginning to set in the afternoon, We counted up our money and found that after our taxi ride to the airport and dinner at a restaurant there, we had just about ten dollars left. Our taxi from the Ciudad Juarez airport to the bridge over the Rio Grande took all but about two fifty of that and the El Paso bus to the gates of Fort Bliss, where an old friend from our neighborhood was stationed, just about cleaned us out. A call from our friend Benny’s quarters to my brother resulted in two bus tickets back to Albuquerque where we would strap on our tool belts and begin making some money again in construction, but that is a story which must be told at some other time.