The airport in Veracruz, like many airports in the world, is well away from the city itself. This makes sense as most airplane accidents happen on takeoff and landing, and having large machines loaded with aviation fuel fall out of the sky onto populated areas is a very bad idea, as the city of San Diego learned in 1978. Wes and I recovered our backpacks and boarded a taxi to run us into the city. We told the driver that we wanted a clean hotel but not resort grade, and he took us to a hotel right on the waterfront that matched all of our requirements. We checked into our room and then stepped out to get a good look at Veracruz. Wes and I both fell in love with what we saw.
Veracruz is a very old city. It began its existence when Hernan Cortez landed there and began the Spanish conquest of Mexico. But Veracruz is a new city too. Being one of only two major ports on Mexico’s east coast and being the closest port to Mexico City, the commerce taking place in that city insures that a very modern infrastructure of banking, communication, transportation and the like is available to service those commercial needs. Veracruz is also a major port of call for the cruise ships which ply the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. When those ships are in port, passenger loads of from two to six thousand will be available to debark from the ship and sample the food, drink and souvenir offerings in the city. Much work went into making the city as clean and attractive as possible so as to not scare off the tourists before they dropped impressive amounts of cash into the pockets of businesspeople large and small.
Wes and I noticed a set of very narrow steel tracks running down the middle of one street near our hotel and asked a vendor of fresh fruit juices if it was a working trolley. This was a somewhat difficult task as that level of communications tested my language skills, but the vendor’s limited English and my limited Spanish sufficed to get the job done, and we learned that indeed the trolley ran every day and if we would wait there a few minutes we could board it on its next pass through the neighborhood, I purchased my usual favorite drink, a pineapple/mango concoction which the vendor whipped up on the spot, and Wes got something for himself. We then sat on the curb to enjoy our drinks and wait for the trolley.
Before we finished our drinks we heard the ‘clang, clang’ of the bell as the trolley approached our position. It was still around a corner so we couldn’t see it, but we arose from our curbside seats so that we would be ready to jump on when it passed by. At last the trolley hove into view and I watched its approach with admiration and anticipation. The trolley looked like something out of a Disney movie. It was spindly but not fragile. Low side rails and thin roof supports left a great deal of open space so that the traveller did not feel enclosed at all. The body of the trolley was fairly light in weight which matched the small, thin steel rails set into the asphalt and cobblestones of the streets upon which the trolley ran. It was painted in the red, white and green colors of the Mexican flag with golden pom poms dangling from the edge of the roof all the way around. The operator saw us waiting and slowed the trolley down so that we could jump aboard. We noticed later that he would stop for an elderly tourist, a senora getting on or off with little children and/or packages from shopping, or a young senorita under any circumstances. The rest of us had to time our step to board the still-moving trolley.
We paid our peso or two and found seats near the rear of the carriage. The trolley chugged at one or two miles per hour and we relaxed as we passed through shopping areas and residential neighborhoods, past piers where the cruise liners tied up and along the sea wall, called the ‘malecon’ (pronounced MALL-A-CONE with a long ‘A’), where everyone gathered on the summer evenings to walk along the waterfront, enjoying the cool ocean breezes and beautiful view of the sparkling Caribbean stretching out to infinity in the east. At several points along the way we jumped off to poke our noses into shops or collections of stalls and booths selling just about anything that one can imagine. We bought a couple of the tiny (by American standards) street tacos and some fruit on a stick, and hopped back onto the trolley when it made its next pass through the neighborhood. The operator of the trolley waved off our pesos as we reached to pay again, recognizing us from our first ride. We proceeded in this manner all the way around the loop which brought us back to the point where we had begun our trolley ride.
The rest of the afternoon was spent walking the streets of Veracruz and along the waterfront. We could not see the commercial seaport very well, although the derricks and cranes on the horizon showed us where it was. We would go there the next morning first thing. We decided to have dinner at the hotel, which wasn’t great but wasn’t bad either, and visited the hotel bar for an hour or two afterwards. After that the culmination of twenty four hours on a bus and the better part of a day flying to and exploring Veracruz caught up with us both and we turned in early to get rested up for the next day, since we had no idea what that day would bring.
Morning came and we were out of our beds and dressed in a flash. This day could possibly be the craziest day of our lives and we could hardly wait to begin it. After breakfast at the hotel we caught a taxi to the port, and soon we were standing in front the broad gate which opened into the Port of Veracruz. Wes and I had no idea where we should start asking about work on a freighter so we gambled that you just went up to a freighter, found the captain, and asked. Probably I let myself be influenced by reading Moby Dick and too many Jack London novels. None of the freighters in port had a captain with a large beard, a jagged scar, and an artificial leg carved out of whalebone standing on the fo’c’sle looking to hire rookie seamen for one three hundred and sixtieth part each of the profits of the voyage. In fact, we never laid eyes on a captain of anything that day.
The big, hulking freighters were tied up at the docks, and the gangways were down connecting dock to deck. There were no guards or any other official-looking people regulating who went up the gangway onto the ship but we were reluctant to just walk onto the ship in search of its captain. Dock workers were loading and unloading cargo but we weren’t allowed to interfere with them, so we located a large building and went inside to look for a harbormaster or whoever ran the place. Inside we found a small counter with nobody present behind which were doors which led into the interior of the building. To the left was a row of rather worn chairs in front of a dirty window. Wes and I went to the chairs and I moved one around a little which caused the metal legs to squeak on the floor. I reasoned that the noise might alert somebody to our presence. I don’t know if my stratagem worked or not, but soon a man appeared in the doorway and moved over to the counter. He looked surprised to see us.
“Buenos dias, Como estan?” “Buenos dias. Habla usted Ingles?” “No, no lo hablo.” The man did not speak English, and so this deal would have to be done in Spanish, which ensured that it would take a lot of time to get it right. At first the man had no idea what I was trying to communicate, and then he thought that we were merchant seamen looking for a particular ship. Finally I made it clear that we were two young American men with absolutely no experience at all with working on ships who wanted to sail somewhere. He never really did get the part about Saudi Arabia and the oil fields. Once he understood the main point however he motioned for us to wait and disappeared through the doorway, returning shortly with another man in tow. This person was dressed a little better and in general looked a bit higher on the food chain. I felt like I was buying a new car.
“So, Guillermo say to me you want work en un barco, uh, on ship, but you no work before?” “Yes” I said, and in the best Spanish I could muster continued to say “we work hard. Building houses. We know hard work, but never on ship.” At least I think that’s what I said, although I could have said “My mother’s tool belt shot fifteen birds” as far as I knew at the time. Eventually we both felt like we had the conversation right and he told us that the chances were not good, but to wait. Both of the men retreated into the interior of the building, probably to have a good laugh at our expense, and reemerged shortly to let us know that we wouldn’t be shipping out from their port.
It had not occurred to Wes and I that we would fail to find work on a ship in Veracruz and now we had to regroup. As I wrote earlier, I must have filled my head with romantic notions of ships always being shorthanded and having to shanghai sailors to fill their duty rosters. The reality appeared to be that there were plenty of capable sailors available and the rosters were all full. Wes and I thanked the men for their time and assistance and returned to the dusty yard outside of the building.
At that point we had no idea what to do next. The only reason for coming to Veracruz was to get on a freighter and forget the unpleasant world that was behind us, and that plan now looked like it was going nowhere. I looked back at the ships tied up along the dock with their gangways wide open and unguarded and said “Come on Wes, Let’s go and see for ourselves.” “No, man” Wes responded. “We don’t know the rules here. You know how you are always saying ‘remember where you are?’ Well then, remember where you are.” “I know man, but I just traveled a couple thousand miles, and a bunch of that on a Mexican bus, to do this and I don’t want to bag the whole thing without one more try” I handed my money belt and a pocket knife to Wes, retaining a small amount of money in my wallet. If I got into a bind I could try to buy my way out of trouble with the smaller amount of money which I kept on me. I would make the case that it was all I had. Failing that, Wes could come to my rescue with the bulk of my money. “Wait here” I said, and began to walk up the gangway.
The clatter of my shoes on the metal stairs seemed as loud as a snare drum to me but did not seem to draw anyone’s attention. I reached the deck and saw nobody in the passageway which ran along the side of the ship. I began to walk toward the bow of the ship, looking in the metal doorways as I passed them with the hope of seeing somebody to ask about the whereabouts of the captain. There was nobody in sight as I emerged into the open area of the front part of the ship. I don’t know nautical terms, and so you must be patient with me, dear reader.
As I looked around I saw a man bent over something on the next deck above me. I considered calling to him but then decided that a personal touch was needed, so I sent to the metal stairway which led upwards to that deck. When I got there the sailor began to straighten up as I walked towards him. It seemed like he had removed something from his shoe. “Excuse me” I said. “Can I ask you a question?” The man jumped a little, surprised by my presence. He was a brown person of slight build, who gave me the impression that he might hail from somewhere in Southeast Asia. He also didn’t speak a word of English or Spanish. He did seem to understand ‘KAP EE TAN” however and held up a hand for me to wait. The sailor disappeared and five or ten minutes and later returned with a ship’s officer of undetermined rank or ethnic origin who was more familiar with English. “Are you the captain?” I asked. He answered in the negative and I continued. “I know that you are busy, but I wanted to ask if you needed any hands to work on your ship for the next cruise.” It took the officer a moment and some clarification but eventually he understood my question. “No, we have all of the hands that we need. We don’t hire people right off the deck anyway; we usually go through the harbormaster shoreside and only use skilled hands.” “Is it that way with the other ships?” I asked, and he nodded in the affirmative. “I think so. We can all find skilled hands when we need them, and as far as I know we all do it pretty much the same way.”
I hung my head for a moment, trying to think of any other angle I could pursue and also letting my disappointment show, just in case the officer took pity on me. Neither approach bore fruit. I thanked the officer and returned down the stairs and down the gangway to a waiting Wes. “No luck” I told him. “It looks like this is as far as we go.” Wes handed back my knife and money belt and we began to walk back toward the gate through which we had so recently and eagerly entered the port. The old plan was now finished, and the next order of business was to make a new one. We decided to find a place to have a little lunch and a couple of beers and figure out what we should do next.