“¡Goal Veracruz!” roared the radio behind my ear as Rachel, my girlfriend, and I stepped into the taxi outside the bus station on the outskirts of Veracruz. Once the driver found out we were from England, our driver switched from Spanish to English, looking over his shoulder and cupping his hand over his mouth as he did so, as if were telling us a secret. Had he really wanted to confide something in us, he would have had to shout at the top of his voice to make himself heard over the football. He had been a stevedore, he was telling us. He had worked at the docks for twenty-five years, which is where he had learned his English. He looked back at the traffic, trying not to give his Nissan any more dents than the ones it already had. ‘Baseball!’ exclaimed our driver into his hand. ‘I used to play baseball, when I was a young man, five hundred years ago,’ he said, taking his other hand off the wheel to turn the football down a bit.
Veracruz has more atmosphere than almost any other city I’ve ever been to. It’s the kind of humid, sultry, sweaty atmosphere that hits you in the face the moment you step off the air-conditioned bus that brought you there, reminding you that this is a city totally unlike the rest of Mexico. It had been a spectacular bus ride, too, the most spectacular of my life: a seven-hour descent from Oaxaca over mountains, through deserts and past plantations of sugarcane and bananas, the road almost falling off the plateau of central Mexico through a canyon whose sides were so steep it was impossible to see the traffic on the other carriageway.
Not only was our taxi driver a polyglot ex-baseball player, he was also an atheist – his was the only taxi Rachel and I travelled in in Mexico that didn’t sport a rosary dangling from the rear view mirror or a picture of the Virgin Mary on the dashboard. Soon enough he dropped us off at our elegantly shabby hotel, across the road from the sort of ugly, concrete building that would be a multi-storey car park in Britain, but which turned out to be the fish market. In our room, the fan whirred noisily as it sliced its way through the thick, humid air.
It’s not hard to see why Veracruz is different to anywhere else in Mexico. Until the railways came in 1873, the only way to get to Mexico City was on foot or on horseback along a remote ancestor of the road I had just come down, 400km away and more than 2000m higher in altitude. Cuba, by contrast, was a couple of days away by sea across the placid Gulf of Mexico. This was the way the Spanish came, first under Juan de Grijalva in 1518 and then under Hernán Cortés the following year. The grey mass of San Juan de Ulúa, the fort the Spaniards built to protect the harbour from pirates, serves as a constant reminder of the Spanish presence in Veracruz.
Today, Veracruz is still one of Mexico’s most important ports, and its harbour is dotted with vessels from Piraeus, Singapore and other places. It’s also the sort of place Mexicans go for their holidays: a sort of Mexican Blackpool. The harbour front, or malecón, is lined with souvenir stalls. My hunt for a stick of rock with the word ‘Veracruz’ written in it went unrewarded, however.
On a Saturday night, Veracruz’s central plaza, the zócalo, is the sort of place for which the word ‘cacophony’ was invented. Mariachis jostled with each other for a good pitch among the tables of the bars and cafés that lined the zócalo. A family at a table not far from ours had hired six, who sang and played throughout their meal. Couples danced the tango in the middle of the plaza. On the malecón a brass band was playing. It seemed as if each was trying to outdo the others in an unspoken contest of volume. Without thought, like a pair of flies drawn to a light bulb, we edged our way through the crowds to the source of the loudest noise.
The winner of this unusual competition, even if she was probably unfairly helped a couple of big amplifiers, was a young woman singing. She cruised her way through the crowds on a truck adorned with posters of her and banners exhorting Veracruzanos and Veracruzanas to Vota Marla. A small army of those who already had followed the truck, waving more posters and banners and making their own contribution to the noisy excitement. It took us a few seconds to realise that Marla Marrón, as her posters declared her to be, was a contestant in Mexico’s own brand of Pop Idol*. Then she went off for a couple more laps, leaving us with an odd feeling that perhaps the world isn’t as big as it looks.
*Unfortunately, Marla was voted off the very next week.