It’s hot and sticky in Veracruz. It’s as if the sun stalled out overhead and someone placed a bowl over the city, causing the evaporated ocean air to hang heavy, clinging to hair, skin, clothes; even the buildings seem to be drooping slightly under it’s weight. Winter is over and a tropical spring is well underway. After the thrill of the little fair in Catemaco the children were fairly buzzing with excitement as we neared Veracruz. Add to this the $100 pesos (about $7 USD) burning a hole in their pockets, a gift from Daddy, and the city couldn’t come soon enough. We did our best to rise above the hum of their chatter, mile after mile, as they plotted and planned their expenditures. Treasure boxes ranked high on everyone’s list. Hannah was determined to find a dress. Gabe was still weighing his machete options, “This year? Or next?” Elisha, characteristically, was quietest, not to be swayed by peer pressure, balancing his own wants with a sincere desire to take a little treasure to his best friend at home. Ezra, on the other hand, had spent about $200 pesos in the first fifty kilometers rattling off his list of wants. I’m just hoping for some peace and quiet!
We found our hotel with surprisingly little drama, for us. Of course we parked illegally to unload our, decidedly non-hotel-friendly, load of gear into a spare room (ours was not ready.) Then we made our traditional three laps through downtown attempting to find the entrance to the big pink parking garage, all the while, Tony was lamenting how Mexicans could manage to make EVERY street one way the wrong way and reminding the kids (a little tersely) that unless they were talking to report a policeman flagging us down for an infraction, he’d thank them very much to remain quiet, and asking me where to go. As if I’ve been here before. This is our normal routine for getting settled in a new city, the boys try very hard to be quiet, and Hannah sometimes giggles inappropriately when it gets just TOO funny for her thirteen year old sensibilities.
In Tony’s defense, I have, in fact, been here before. But it’s been a very long time. I was eight and we were traveling in my Dad’s old “Vagabunda” van that he’d painted two tones of brown… with a paint roller. He tricked it out by cutting a huge hole in the side and installing a plexiglass window and on the inside with a plywood fold down table and a tiny bed across the back for my little brother, and a narrow couch along the side for my Mom. I slept across the front seats with a boat cushion on the driver’s and passengers seat to make it flat across the engine block, which was between the seats and our coveted daytime perch. Who needs seatbelts? It was a great place to sleep; the engine kept me warm (especially on the days when it caught fire and burned the insulation on the inside of the casing) but I had to be very awake before sitting up, as I’d bang my head at least once a week on the steering wheel. Dad slept on the floor. The dog slept on Dad. This was my childhood.
I have good memories of Veracruz. There was a fair in town for that visit too. I rode my very first ferris wheel in the dark on the Malecon (the long park like strip near downtown.) I remember looking up and being amazed at how enormous it was and having sticky fingers as I held onto the basket and was whisked up into the air. We made friends with a couple of men from Mexico City, who seemed impossibly old to me at the time, they were fifty, maybe. They toured us around town, treated us to part of the fair and smoked. I remember them smoking. Josh and I sat for a long while on a curb while my folks negotiated the purchase of a ridiculously large model ship, nearly three feet long and almost as high, which we then had to carry all over town and juggle for a couple thousand miles on the way home. It stands in the basement living area of their house now, a tangible reminder of the night our van was stolen, by the police. The dog was still in the van and Josh and I did more sitting on the curb (and some crying) while Dad negotiated his way out of homelessness and back into our van. It’s kind of a long story. He put us to sleep that night telling us the story of Villa Rica de Veracruz, “the rich city of the true cross,” and of the city’s importance in the silver trade throughout history. I retold these stories to the children as we crept through the beachside traffic on our way into town. Elisha wondered aloud if I thought the police might steal our van too. Ezra, in classic checked-out-seven-year-old fashion, mused that the waterfront in Veracruz reminded him of the Adriatic. Hannah laughed.
It didn’t take long for tragedy to strike, less than a day. The discovery was made as we exited the hotel for our first major shopping day: Ezra’s wallet was missing, and with it, his hundred pesos and a few American green backs. Through the yelling (Ezra always yells first, cries later) we deciphered that he’d put it in the drawer of the bureau in the room we’d stored our luggage in the night before, while waiting for our room to be ready. Naturally, the room was now rented. Sympathetic to crocodile tears the receptionist broke into the room and Ezra retrieved his wallet… noticeably lighter… his money was gone. Enter the crying.
Having pocket money is a big deal in our family. We don’t give our kids allowances and we don’t hand out cash. Neither do we buy “stuff” outside of birthdays and Christmas. If a kid has money it’s because he’s worked and worked hard, usually for someone else who pays more than the fifty cents an hour or so that is our going rate. A hundred pesos for Easter was like winning the lottery. Tony and I exchanged glances, did our best to comfort Ez and started walking. Everyone felt bad. “I’ll give him a little back later,” Tony whispered, “After he’s learned the lesson.” “Not too quick,” I whispered back, “We might learn something about our other kids, here.” He nodded. Our sullen little troupe moved on in search of breakfast, all happy talk of shopping had evaporated.
About three blocks later, it started to happen. Gabe asked to talk to his Dad privately and there was manly murmuring at the head of the pack. Ez plodded heavily next to me, sniffling a little. Hannah and Elisha began whispering behind us and I strained, unsuccessfully, to hear. Quietly, without making a big fuss, Gabe slipped Ez a little wad of money. His eyes widened in amazement. So did mine when I saw Gabe had shared a third of his Easter money with his baby brother. They held hands and started discussing what little things they would each have money left for. Tony slipped me a side long glance. Two blocks later two more blue bills passed quietly from Hannah and Elisha’s combined hoard into Ezra’s little green wallet and everyone was smiling. Seventy of his hundred pesos had been sacrificially replaced by his siblings. Everyone was smiling and laughing now, shopping could begin in earnest. Tony squeezed my hand; every once in a while we get a glimmer of encouragement that we’re not completely botching this parenthood thing.
It was a major shopping day. In and out of several markets, round and round the zocalo. I tried to stay out of it as much as possible and let them all drown in their emerging Spanish, even Tony, who bought his own Cuban cigar to smoke while watching the dancers in the square. Mistress of the upsell, the little lady talked him into five instead of one when she saw his hundred peso bill… “This ONE is thirty, these FIVE are only a hundred!” She flicked her lighter open with nimble fingers and snatched that pink bill into the front of her blouse with lightening speed. Gabe practiced all day to gain independence with “How much is this?” and “I only have ten pesos,” which has become his opening line for negotiations. I stood and watched the dancers whirl, closing my eyes and letting the drum beat of their clogs on the wooden stage beat a new memory of Veracruz into my mind. The children free-ranged around the square, returning periodically with cotton candy and foamy lizard pets on long wires, “I named mine Azul!” Gabe proudly announced. The boys each got their treasure box. Hannah got her dress: a cream colored, smocked sundress with red flowers embroidered around the skirt and a lace hem. “This is my FAVORITE dress I’ve ever had,” she swooned, with the bag clutched to her chest, “Well, except my dress for Miss Vanessa’s wedding… I’m going to buy a red coral necklace and a red fan to go with it!” I smiled, remembering the years I got out of the pink dress I bought the winter I was thirteen; I still have it somewhere.