We descended the Sierra Madres into Xalapa, the inland capitol of Veracruz State in fading afternoon light…the encroaching darkness being a challenge to anyone even with a good sense of direction, trying to make sense of its disorienting gaggle of streets and neighborhoods. Besides if any of the road signs might have been helpful, they were in Spanish. We kept impatience on a low boil, hoping that the next turn, or the one after that, would reveal the hotel. But the city, resisting directional order, was a worthy foe. Hunger, no doubt, pushed our impatience, as well as the day’s agonizingly slow ride through the nearly impenetrable smoke in the Sierra Madres from brick kilns and a stop by a country cop, wanting a bribe far more than keeping order on Mexican roads.
We were on a wide boulevard entering the city. Not realizing how large the city was, we thought we could make a couple of intuitive zigzag turns and magically find ourselves face to face with the city’s main plaza, cathedral and municipal buildings which were near our hotel. Old cities don’t work that way. There is no logic to centuries of growth, especially for a city that was on the route Cortes followed on the way to the Aztec capitol (now Mexico City) in the early sixteenth century and was added to haphazardly, up hills and down, over time. It wasn’t going to give up its confusing layout just to appease a couple of Gringos.
Two forays off the boulevard brought us into unknowable neighborhoods and we realized we needed help (GPS was still a few years away). By no mean stroke of luck we found our way back to the boulevard. At a red light. I opened the car window and put on a pathetic pleading look at a passenger in a beat-up pickup next to us. She opened her window and I asked in primitive Spanish…”donde esta” and then gave the name of the hotel…as the light changed. Her husband motioned to follow them to the next red light. He got out, slightly bedraggled from his 9 to 5 labors, in old jeans, a hat as beat-up as his truck and pointy toes-up scuffed boots and said in half English, half Spanish, that his wife knew the hotel, but it wasn’t nearby. He would take us there, but first he needed gas. Just follow him, he asked, to the gas station and then he’d take us there. If you’re guessing that he was going to put the bite on me for gas money, you’re wrong. He got gas, checked that we were still behind him and motioned us to follow.
The way to the hotel was a maze of turns on narrow streets, main streets, some lighted, some not, in darkness now. Twenty minutes later he rolled down his window, pointed at our hotel and with a wave sped off. If you wonder why I kept going back to Mexico, aside from its fascinating culture and history, it’s people like them.
Another of the wonderful incongruities of Mexico…not knowing what you’re going to happen upon. We walked on a main road in Xalapa, going to a new cultural center and on the way came upon a lush park with pathways through topical vegetation and sculptures, Mexican symbols, waterfalls, pools with turtles and fish. A bit farther on we found the cultural center…new, glass, modern…nothing Mexican about it. That night it was hosting a performance of Carmina Burana, a bawdy romp of medieval European satiric poems set to music…nothing Mexican about it. But here it was in Mexico, land of mariachis and Ballet Folklorico.