Friday, June 01, 2007

The Island of the Shrimp Queen.

In the morning I got up too late to take the 7:00 am combi, which I really wanted, but also too late to take the 10:00 combi. I had slept restlessly in Santiago Ixcuintla. The room was full of skittering bugs of all description and that kept my guard up. The rustic 1950's air conditioner had kept me tolerably cool, but sounded like someone was mowing the lawn around my head. But even a room like that cools a bit towards morning, and the cooler air plus my exhaustion caused me to fall into a deeper, better sleep, the reason why I missed the 10:00 am combi.
I packed my bag and left the room. The lady at the desk asked me if I'd be back, and I said I didn't know. Never, I hope - though the town itself is wonderful and I would have liked to stay longer and dig the natives, but the accommodation choices are dismal and over priced. I got some fresh pastries and some drinkable yogurt from a cool little shop for breakfast, with the intention of eating in the lovely old town square, but all the good shady spots were taken by all the old folk in town and from experience those fuckers can sit all day and not move. With no other option, I had to sit in the broiling sun and sweat and eat. I'm a little tired of being hot. The pastries were wonderful though.
I had found out the previous evening what a combi is (van) and where to catch one, so I trudged to the combi station. The loading and departure of the combis is very Kafkian to say the least, and one really has to be in the know to get the right one. If I hadn't been so persistent, I would have missed the noon combi as well. The van had been fitted with seats running along the sides, rather than the forward-facing seats I am used to in a van. It wasn't too full - only three others, and I thought that was good, but we made another stop and that's where most of the others were waiting.
At the second stop, the driver almost backed over an old man sitting on the curb. The man scrambled to collect his crutches and hobble out of the way. I yelled out, "Ay, cuidado!" just in time. (Yes, I said "ay") Then other locals started piling things into the combi, between the rows of us. Coolers, fish from the smell of it, and buckets holding huge blocks of ice. More coolers were lashed to the top of the vehicle and then everyone piled in, the ever present high decibel Ranchero music started and we were off.
Thankfully once the combi got outside the city, the breeze of our motion cooled us, and the ride was uneventful except for when we had to slow down and cleave our way through a herd of cows. Damn lazy ass cows! The collectivo lancha (small boat with an outboard motor) was waiting to meet the combi at La Bantanga. There was a small flurry when I boarded, and a couple of women insisted on giving me pieces of cardboard to put over the scarred wooden benches before I sat. They said the seats were hot. I appreciated their thoughtfulness, but I also felt a little funny about it. I mean, do I really look too delicate to sit directly on a bench? I guess these people can sniff a faggot a mile away.
There was an orange tarp stretched over a frame to shade us, and as with the combi, once we started moving, the breeze was wonderful. We winded through a channel bordered by mangroves and other bright greenery, while stark white egrets fluttered clumsily out of our path. The water was muddy brown below us, but appeared blue in the distance, or green in the shade of the mangroves - I imagined some gigantic water creature surfacing from those murky depths and capsizing the boat. Occasionally we passed through small openings in what appeared to be sun bleached wooden fences in the water. It was wonderful. Transportation that's an experience in itself.
It was about fifteen minutes to Mexcaltitan, a tiny island that some believe is the original homeland of the Aztecs. The original name was Aztlan, which means Place of the Egrets - makes since, because the place was chock full of egrets - and when I say it's a tiny island, I really do mean it's tiny. My hotel, the only hotel on the island, was on the opposite shore from the main dock, but this was only a three-block walk. The disabled man whom I had saved from further disabling led me to the hotel even though there was no real need. He introduced himself as Nacho - he seemed to truly be doing it out of kindness, and not expectation of a tip. Those are the toughest moments, because people who are kind without expectation of reward are the people you most want to reward, but are also the most likely to be confused and/or offended by offers of money. My room is large, gum-free, and plastered smoothly white. It opens out onto a common balcony that overlooks the laguna. From the desk register, it seems that there have been very few guests checking in during the past year, and most of them Mexican. It is not The Spot, but it may be close.
Mexcaltitan is supposed to be the Venice of Mexico - as during the months of September, October, and November - the streets fill with water and residents row themselves from place to place in little boats. The first thing I noticed walking through the town to the hotel was that there was no water in the streets - there are narrow concrete sidewalks skirting the houses and dirt in the middle, but it was completely dry. That was kind of a disappointment - the Venice of Italy is Venice all year round - but I were soon distracted by the second thing I noticed.
There were layers of shrimp in the shell, and a few fish, drying in the sun on almost every sidewalk. They were pinkish, so must have been cooked, and they were just lying there. Everywhere. After I checked into the hotel and explored my room - as every good traveler should, I went back out to dig the scene. I had to walk in the middle of the dirt roads because the sidewalks were covered in shrimp - there are no cars on the island, so this was no problem.
I saw a guy messing with some of the shrimp - I crept up to watch - he was eating them. When he noticed me gawking - cause he was cute, too, always had a soft spot for handsome Mexican Indians, he waved me over. His name was Jorge. He passed me a shrimp and showed how to eat it: pull off the head, legs, and tail and pinch off some of the shell covering the back (the shell on the sides is fused to the shrimp flesh) and eat. "Cacahuates," he said. (Peanuts.) It was good. Chewy, from being dried in the sun, with a pleasant crackliness from the remaining bits of shell. When I smiled and said I liked them, he gave us a whole handful. But after I gobbled them, I was still hungry and went and found a restaurant for lunch.
The restaurant had big open brick arches onto the lagoon on two sides and the breeze was nice. (Mexcaltitan is very, very hot, so whenever I felt a breeze, I stopped everything so I could appreciate it to the fullest.) Service was very, very slow. It turned out that my waitress was also the chef and she was running around trying to cook for and serve two large parties besides myself - but really, enjoying the breeze and watching birds fishing in the lagoon and sipping a cold fresca, what was the hurry? I recall sitting in one or two restaurants whose walls were painted to look like the genuine crumbling concrete walls and water views of this one. It's worth sitting in the real thing for as long as possible.
My room turned out to have a bit of a flaw - some kind of leak in the bathroom that caused a large puddle to form on the main room's floor. I fixed the leak - being good with my hands, but the island is so humid that the puddle never, ever dried. No big whoop because the room was large enough that I could easily avoid the puddle. But still, it's an interesting effect of my staying in problem-ridden, rock-bottom-budget accommodations for the past few weeks that I just shrugged it off and didn't even ask for a mop, let alone complain to the management. To give another example of how humid the island is: I washed two of my t-shirts in the sink and hung them outside on the clotheslines stretched across the common patio. There was that nice breeze coming off the lagoon, and it was pleasant to sit out there, but those t-shirts were still damp twenty-four hours later.
Everyone on the island is just so nice. To be fair Mexcaltitan is, like Mazatlan, somewhat dirty and crumbling, but it upsets me to write that because unlike Mazatlan, it's so much more than that. It has beauty and charm and as I mentioned, the people are incredibly nice. I get a thrill greeting people and so every few feet I was saying "Buenos Dias" or "Buenas Tardes" or "Buenas Noches" and everyone always responded. Once I went out and noticed a sea of shrimp through a doorway with some really cute guys tending them. I asked if I could take a photo and found myself invited in for ceviche. They took me up to the roof and showed me even more shrimp and out back to where a group of women were cleaning raw shrimp and where shrimp was cooking in a giant cauldron. I found out later it was a cooperativo, and that most the island's shrimp pass through there.
But I really got into the shrimp when I met Francisco. I were walking through town looking for water and approached a group of young guys. We started out our Gringo and Costello routine and had managed to get across that I was looking to score for abarrotes which means provisions/groceries.
Then one of the guys asked me, "Whada you wanna buy?" in a regular old American accent. I think
I gasped and took a step back. It's not that I was surprised he spoke English, it´s just I hadn't met a fluent English speaker yet, besides my guides. It's that once he opened his mouth he was so clearly a regular American kid. I kind of got the feeling he liked doing that to people. Anyway, he helped me find some water and we talked for a bit, and he promised to come by the hotel the next day to take me around a little. Hmm - wonder what that is going to be like? The best of the best was that the little grocery shop had telephones and two computers with Internet! Woo-hoo!

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