Moses Iten: Because I Was Brought By the Road (2)

22 May 2003
“To pull up their boats under the safety of the coconut palms”

“Come and have beer,” shouted my friend Jesus, waving me over to a chest-fridge just metres from the shore. The local cantina: a corrugated-iron roof with a full fridge, an assortment of plastic tables and chairs occupied by a handful of fishermen. The chicken-feet joker was swinging in a hammock stretched up between two poles. Grabbed a beer and paid the owner, Don Julio, sitting on his throne of five stacked-up chairs. Crowned by large straw hat, with his sceptre – a walking frame – standing in front of him.

Pieces of cardboard filled with poems waved in the wind under the roof like Tibetan prayer flags. Many were hardly legible; years of wind and sun having faded the texta texts. The fresher compositions with punctuation missing, misspellings, the letter S inverted. But all imbued with the wisdom of Don Julio, a man looking eighty years old but most probably younger than the years of sun and rum have made him.

Didn't carry my notebook to write down the philosophies mainly about work and women. Didn't memorise them. Like Jesus, I will be returning to Villa Rica. Perhaps pick up some of Don Julio's wisdom through personal experience.

Jesus fell in love with Villa Rica twenty years ago, and since his first visit from Mexico City has been coming regularly to “just eat fish and drink beer. Nothing more”. The fishermen – whose whole lives largely consist of eating fish and drinking beer – saluted him with hearty hugs, like a long lost relative having returned to be with his brothers.

The coast of Veracruz, unlike the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Mexico has no tourist resorts. The north and south of the Gulf of Mexico provide much of the country's income in the shape of oil platforms. The blackish volcanic sand and the occasional crude oil washed onto some beaches by careless oil extractors has so far kept tourist development at bay, leaving the coconut palms swinging in the breeze, peacefully, and small-scale fishing feeding the villages.

The last boat of the day came in and we bought its small catch of little fish, inviting all the fishermen within earshot to come and eat with us at the beachside cantina. Sitting with our feet in the sand at a plastic table under a thatched roof the cantina; cut up onions, tomatoes and chillies to throw into the large pot of crab soup. One of the fisherman, Camelia, started up a fire to fry the fish and boil the pot. Apparently he used to tease another local by calling him by the girl's name 'Camelia', but when this guy one day packed his bags and left forever all the other locals turned to call him Camelia. So now he is stuck with a girl's name. Justice.

The owner of this place, Capi, lives in a two-room cabin off which the thatched roof hangs. One room is his kitchen, dining room, beer warehouse and bedroom of his sole employee, a former bricklayer from Xalapa.

In the other sleeps Capi and watches the football. With the amount of partying done outside his cabin, there is hardly a need for a lounge room. Another small building nearby houses his shower and toilet, but the drinking guests use the urinal on the side of the building.

Whilst the pot was boiling got out my fresh pack of Mexican cards. Offered the cards to Jesus and went to the urinal. Walked into the opening in the corrugated iron-wall of the public toilet. Empty. You just piss onto the sand. Returned to see Jesus starting a game with an wiry elderly man wearing a clean white long-sleeved shirt and a straw hat. Five years ago his fellow villagers had sent him to an anti-alcoholic institution to cure him of his addiction, a place apparently tougher than jail from which former alcoholics return never wanting to touch a drop again.

“I have this lovely donkey at home, uggh, I swear she feels better than a woman. I take her by the ears like this and*,” proclaimed the elderly gent in his best Sunday shirt and hat. The man played with a poker face but his tactic seemed to be to shock the other players into errors by spewing out a torrent of vulgarities. But Jesus won the game. “Look mate, you know what I'm gonna do to the donkey you love. Take your donkey by the ears like this and,” said Jesus getting out of his chair and moving his arms and hips.

Inevitably, much of the day's conversation was centred on topics like this.

Jesus' car was under the thatched roof, Mexican cowboy music blaring from its speakers. Vicente Fernandez, Mexico's most famous ever immortal cowboy singer-actor, once said “all a real cowboy needs is a feisty old lady and a strong donkey. Just have to make sure the donkey isn't too much of an old lady and the woman too much like a donkey.” Like Australia's Crocodile Dundee, Fernandez – with his trade-mark slamming back of Tequila's and generally living the life of a cowboy ladie's man on the silver-screen – can be held largely responsible for the stereotypical Mexican man.

“The fishermen are totally great people, all my friends. Its a shame they can't talk about nice things; ask you interesting things about Australia for example. But remember not all Mexicans are like this,” said Jesus when we left the fishing village the next morning. “There are Mexicans with culture, with education”. I told him not to worry, that I feel more at home with the fishermen than many so-called intellectuals. “I've been part of many conversation like this, there are people in Australia and the whole world speaking the same language”.

Whilst there were always full glasses of beer on the table – “to not have a full glass is a crime,” said Camelia – I left to help some fishermen to pull up their boats under the safety of the coconut palms. This time not joking, a fisherman said “it's a village crime not to help pull up all the boats”. 'Hurricane Isidore' was in the area, and although Veracruz was largely left unscathed large areas of south-eastern Mexico were hit badly later that night and are still left without electricity and homes now already a week later.

Like the ancient Easter Islander's once moved their huge stone sculptures, the fishermen use logs to roll their boats up the beach. Some pushing and a large group using a rope to pull from the other end. Whilst my hands got rope burnt, unused to this sort of work, I was careful not to slip out of my thongs and step onto the hot sand. After half a dozen boats a friend pulled some coconuts of a palm with a large bamboo stick, which I then took back to the cantina and opened on one side with a machete. Add some potent sugar cane liquor, fresh lemon juice and sugar for a cocktail of completely local ingredients.

As the sun set, the last fish bones got eaten by the dogs and our beer budget for the day dried up we decided to make a move to a relatives' holiday house close by. “My home is your home. Please stay in my house,” offered every fisherman. But to take up an offer of one proud fisherman, as his friend wishing to give you everything even though he has nothing, would mean making all the others jealous. So we left with Camelia, to meet his mum he hadn't seen in days and then drop him off in his nearby village.

Moses Iten is a Tasmanian-Swiss writer and producer. He recently joined SBS Radio as international music contributor and co-producer of the Monday Alchemy show, after returning with a tonne of stories from a year in Mexico, including this one.

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