Sunday, January 30, 2011

Above the Tide

Forty minutes north of the port of Veracruz, an inviting sweep of dark sand stretches along the coast before disappearing into rolling dunes. Chachalacas, as the beach is known, is like much of Mexico's coastline: at once pristine and stunning, yet simultaneously as hectic as any public plaza in Mexico City. Small family-run restaurants jostle for space on the sand, staking out territory with umbrellas and palapas, while the roar of rented ATVs blends with the crash of the waves. As late afternoon settles on the beach, however, this bustle subsides into an odd sort of serenity.

The vendors who ply the beaches selling shovels and buckets and the lancheros who hawk boat rides are reminders of the precarious economies sustained in these tourist communities. Away from huge hotels and resorts in Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, the steady trickle of visitors seeking some measure of solitude keeps alive a multitude of isolated beach communities.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


One of the most difficult aspects of field research is knowing when you're done. The final shape of the project is a great unnerving unknown, only faintly glimpsed through smudges in the fog.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Highlands

Leaving Mexico City to the east, the road climbs up past the summit of Iztaccihuatl, before descending past Puebla and crossing a dry, open plain. At the end of that plain lie the verdant highlands of Veracruz. Amid the sharp hills of this dramatic landscape, coffee grows in abundance beneath the broad fronds of banana plants. The region's economy is based around these small red beans, and in towns like Coatepec, the air is redolent with the smell of roasting coffee. Farther into the mountains, picnickers drive past vendors hawking cream liquors to reach a spectacular chasm cut through the lush forest.

Water flows plentifully out of these mountains, running down to the coast in great clear rivers. At the end of the highlands, this water bubbles up warm and sulfuric, a reminder of the restless geologic processes that formed the great range above. Tucked in the foothills, the hotsprings at El Carrizal attract families of tourists to a rustic hotel reminiscent of a fading summer camp. An hour east and descending to the coast, Veracruz, Mexico's great Atlantic port, is a whirl of activity, but amid the huge mossy trees at El Carrizal it feels much farther away.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Las Flores de la Vida

The eighth block of Calle Colima, between Merida and Frontera, where I live, is the local florist district. In Mexico, on the whole, flowers are found in abundance. They are sold at plastic street stalls and blossom on unkempt bushes in public gardens. They bloom year round, adding to the already colorful palatte of daily life.

Monday, January 17, 2011

On the Edge of Time

Puerto Vicente Guerrero is the sort of place Hemingway would have loved. Pinned against the tinder-dry brown foothills of the Sierra, the town opens onto a twinkling expanse of Pacific ocean. The harbor, though little more than a jetty-wrapped nook of protected water, is the only such berth along miles of sandy coastline, and it is around this harbor that Puerto Vicente Guerrero lives.

It is the sort of place where life follows simple routines. In the dim pre-dawn, a fleet of low white launches speed seaward, past the bobbing disembodied lights on the boats of commercial fishermen, carrying visiting anglers to pursue their quarry in rich offshore waters. By afternoon, both sets of anglers will return to the harbor to spend the remainder of the day swaying in a hammock.

It is the sort of place where children rush down to the pier to meet incoming boats, clamoring for attention and the opportunity to carry a rod or bag in exchange for a few pesos. For fishing, in Puerto Vicente Guerrero, is the sole purpose of the harbor and the town's lifeblood.

In some ways, Puerto Vicente Guerrero also feels like the kind of place where dreams come to die, or if not to die, at least to fade away, floating down an unpaved street to be lost behind a mound of half-mortared bricks.  Not because life here is hard or hopeless, but because grand visions seem so attainable and are simultaneously so easily swallowed by a pressing lack of urgency.

Yet it is also the sort of place where pods of dolphins race under the bows of boats and leap through the wakes, where sea turtles still hatch on the beaches, blue-green surf pounds on rocky headlands just outside the harbor and a tangerine sun peeks above the horizon to begin a glorious dawn. Immersed in these rhythms of nature, time seems to move more slowly, knowing that tomorrow, at half-past-six, the pangas will once again slip from their moorings and turning the corner of the breakwater, glide out into the ocean.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

El Año Nuevo

New Year's Eve in Tlaxcala, the capital of Mexico's smallest state, was a long way from the excitement of Times Square.  The town center was quiet all day, though the evening was marked by church bells and hourly masses that drew small crowds.  But any place where professional-grade fireworks are sold on the side of the highway is bound to be a little lively on holidays, and throughout the evening their crackles echoed across the city and reverberated off the hillsides.  At midnight, bells rang and rockets whizzed and snapped in the dark sky; the smell of gunpowder and clouds of smoke drifted through the chilly air.