Our Mexico guidebook described the city of Veracruz in a series of the worst and wankiest metaphors I’ve ever heard. The Man and I read the description, agreed that the writer must be a self-indulgent knob and then decided we must go there as soon as possible.
A few days later, we arrived. Our taxi driver, talking rapidly in a language that did not sound very much like Spanish, deposited us outside our “hotel.” I have inserted parenthesis around the word hotel because it looked nothing like a hotel and I’m still not sure it even was one. Our room, after all, was the only room that I could see and it looked like a car showroom without any cars. Or perhaps a sports centre changing room without lockers and cubicles. Either way it was odd.
“Hello, we have a reservation, my name is Lucy Robinson,” I said to the man at the desk. He looked at me strangely. “jhjkhjghsjhgjshgjsdhg?” he said. It was clear that he hadn’t understood me. (We’d not been getting on very well with Spanish on this side of Mexico. At best we’re both a bit shit; in Veracruz state we apparently do not speak Spanish at all.)
I cleared my throat and tried again. “I said, we have a reservation under the name Lucy Robinson.”
“WHAT?” he shouted.
I began again. “We have a reservation-”
“BEDROOM?” he interrupted. “BEDROOM?”
“Er, yes,” we replied, a bit surprised. Do people come to hotels for things other than bedrooms?
He looked bewildered. “YOU WANT A BEDROOM?”
“Yes,” we said again. He shook his head, apparently astonished.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
An hour later, having witnessed two crimes from the comfort of our taxi, we arrived in the noisiest square I’ve ever seen. Or heard. It was like every musician in Mexico had turned up to take part in a sponsored cacophony. It was enjoyable, mind, so we plunged straight into what we thought was a live music venue. “Let’s get cultured up!” we enthused.
It was a live music venue, but not the sort of live music we were looking for.
In the land of mariachis bands, salsa bands, son-jarocha bands and a trillion other types of musical partnership, we had managed to find a karaoke bar that dealt only in Mexican power ballads.
To say it was a spectacle was an understatement. Firstly, it was rammed. Secondly, everyone was absolutely wasted, even though it was only ten at night. Thirdly, everyone – and I mean EVERYONE – was going completely mad for EVERY SINGLE SONG. I cannot emphasise the going-madness strongly enough. It was like everyone was taken over by this visceral wildness every time a new song started. You know when you go to see your favourite band and the song you’ve been waiting for all night comes on and you nearly wet yourself you’re so excited? That’s how it was for EVERY SINGLE SONG. They hugged, cried, screamed and then smashed their pints of Sol together so hard that they, well, smashed. It was extraordinary.
As with any culture that is capable of producing power ballads, these Mexican offerings were utterly terrible, but that’s by the by. What made this different to your average karaoke fest was the fact that there appeared to be some sort of unofficial X-Factor style audition underway. Song after song came on, bringing with it another young, pretty girl in a tiny outfit, giving it a performance that would stop traffic. These stage shows would take a crap on Beyonce any day. They were immense and quite overwhelming. We’re talking faces screwed up with emotion, dirty dancing, choreographed routines, air-clutching, microphone kissing: the works.
The thing that was weirder still? These girls were there with their managers ! In a rubbish karaoke bar! What the hell was going on? Is this how you get signed to a major label in Veracruz? Go to the noisiest, maddest, shittest bar you can find, crammed with the drunkest, craziest people, wearing the tiniest dress you own and belting out five minutes of lyrical guff?
Good God, I’d get a record deal in seconds! And anyone who remembers the Woodies’ new year’s eve party of 2001 will know that I am not a talented singer.
It was thoroughly bizarre.
Anyway, when we realised that they’d charged more than five pounds for a can of diet coke, we decided to give the ballading a miss and headed off to another square where a salsa band were rocking out for a crowd of enthusiastic street dancers.
Just as we plucked up the courage to dance with them, though, the suddenly stopped and all the lights went out. Then a menacing voice came over the PA system.
“Amigos,” the man said. He appeared to be part of the salsa band. “We want your money. We went to play a tourist town in the Yucutan and everyone pretended they couldn’t understand us when we asked for tips. We now hate tourists! Hate them! Make up for our hurt and give us your money!”
They would not switch the lights on and start playing again until everyone had given them money. At this point I realised that a child was weeing next to my leg so we moved on.
Arriving in another square where mariachi bands were playing, we took a seat on the wall while The Man went a bit mad and bought a cuban cigar. “I don’t like cigars,” he said, choking back the smoke and trying not to cry. I grabbed it and had a few tokes. Sadly, cigars have not got any nicer than last time I tried. They’re disgusting. I’d rather suck a toad’s face.
After a while The Man and I got up and had a little romantic waltz around the square. It was rather lovely, until a pot-bellied taco-seller came up to us and started roaring with laughter. She stood there, next to us, and hooted with mirth.
We slunk off back to our empty car showroom.
The next morning we rose early to sample a classic Veracruz breakfast. We thought we’d take a bracing walk along the sea-front although it didn’t turn out quite as nicely as we’d hoped. Firstly, we were followed the length of the waterfront by a hopping man who emitted strange noises every few seconds. It was early, the seafront was deserted, we were both a little uneasy. Secondly, there was an alarming number of masked, gunned men wandering around. I don’t know about you but the sight of a machine gun and balaclava is not – to me at least – conducive to a relaxing Sunday breakfast. Thirdly, I had read that Veracruz recently had an outbreak of dengue fever. Dengue mosquitoes bite during the day in heavily-populated areas. I am a mosquito magnet so I was shrouded, head to foot, in clothing and deet. Veracruz is boiling hot even at nine in the morning so I within metres of the hotel I began to sweat like a bastard. (The idiom ‘horses sweat, men perspire but ladies merely glow’ is not applicable to me.) Worse still, I was wearing so much deet that my sunglasses began to fall apart on my face. First the plastic paint on them started to melt and then the frames literally just shattered.
(I acknowledge, not without embarrassment, the fact that one of my sunglass lenses fell out and I didn’t actually notice. It was only after many people, including The Man, laughed in my face that I realised I looked like an unbelievable pillock.)
Our not-quite-as-planned Sunday stroll completed, we marched into Vercruz’ most iconic breakfast spot. It really was marvellous, actually. To order a coffee refill you bang on your cup with a spoon and, given the fact that the place is huge and Veracruz state is famous for its coffee, the place was awash with teacup sound effects. The coffee was excellent and the food was incredible. Like, so good that we ordered our breakfast three times; first as breakfast and then as takeaway lunch and then, after an intense conversation, as takeaway dinner. (Although I did abandon my ‘porridge’ which was a large bowl of cinnamon-flavoured milk that had once sat near some oats. That part was a bit of a shame.)
In the time it took to eat a Spanish tortilla in a turkey and chili broth, we saw the following from our table:
1) five live music performances
2) around fifty masked, machine-gun-clad men
3) four men having their shoes shined without looking – even once- at the poor old table-side shoe-shining dudes
4) a film crew and about fifty reporters interviewing some poor bloke about the best way to do breakfast eggs (It’s a good question but I remain unconvinced that it required that level of attention)
5) an ancient man pouring steaming hot milk into an espresso cup – with absolute precision – from a height of two metres
6) Lucy Robinson storming off to the toilet because she thought her boyfriend was accusing her of eating too much, even though he was doing nothing of the sort. Oh no, sorry, I didn’t witness that, I actually did it. Christ, I’m a knob. I don’t deserve The Man.
By the time we got back to the empty car showroom to pack our bags and continue our journey (sadly we were only passing through) we were madly in love with Veracruz. It was noisy and brilliant and yummy and colourful and most of all it was completely bonkers. And so it came as no surprise that in the thirty minutes it took us to pack, the streets suddenly filled with water and it became Venice. A truly remarkable performance that required us to make complex gymnastic dives into our taxi from the empty car showroom’s lobby.
If you’ve got twenty-four hours to kill, I highly recommend Veracruz.