It’s hard not to fall in love with Papantla. It’s way off the beaten tourist track and the entire town is vanilla scented. Totonac men stroll the streets in white pants and white shirts with white cowboy hats on their heads pulling donkeys up the steep hills in a city without one flat road, as far as we can tell. My Dad says there’s one flat parking spot in the city and that we camped in it years ago… but I can’t find it.
Papantla’s claims to fame are its voladores and vanilla. The famous “flying men” originated here in pre-Colombian times. It’s one of the few truly ancient rituals that has been preserved, much as it was in antiquity. The ritual is performed all over Mexico and we’ve seen it lots of times (you can watch the pod cast from Mexico City) but no where is it as perfect as it is in Papantla. For one thing, the voladores here actually stand and dance atop the ridiculously high pole and they only sit and play their drums and flutes elsewhere. There is nothing for heart stopping action like watching a man stomp and jump up and down at a height equal to the bell tower on the cathedral while playing music with his head nearly between his knees. “Are they praying, Mom?” one of the boys asked. “I certainly hope so, hopping around like that!” I enjoy the dichotomy of this pagan ritual being performed in the courtyard of the Catholic church. It is so classically Mexican in blend.
Vanilla is a picky plant, it’s an orchid, actually. It doesn’t grow very well much of anywhere outside the mountains around Papantla and in Tahiti. Before artificial vanilla flavorings were perfected Papantla was the vanilla capital of this half of the world and it remains an important producer to this day. The plant has lime green leaves about six inches long and two inches wide, one leaf spaced every six inches or so along a vine. The orchids are white and after the flower fades a narrow black bean is produced between four and eight inches long and it is from this bean that vanilla extract is made.
The last time I was here it was raining frogs. I remember standing under one of the arched walkways that lines the zocalo, dripping, while my Dad negotiated with a fellow selling beans. We bought some beans, but what he was really after was an orchid plant. He had a hard time, but in the end, the guy agreed to sell him a start off his plant. So began one of the all time great Mexican adventures of my childhood. It involved a wild taxi ride, a long walk in pouring rain up a hill that was ankle deep in mud and who knows what else (well, we know, we just don’t WANT to know) locals peeping out of damp doorways to see what these crazy gringos were up to. Soaked to the skin we were entertained in the dirt floor home of the vanilla salesman. His wife took down chairs from their hooks on the ceiling for my mother and I to sit on in the house while the men went out and did whatever men do that results in the clandestine sales of goods. Mom made small talk. I stared, wide-eyed and the chickens and other livestock that ambled through the front room, along with barefoot children. Against all odds, we smuggled that plant home and it grows vigorously all over one corner of my Dad’s sunroom, but it’s never flowered; the vanilla seller warned us that it wouldn’t.
The night is clear and starry over the zocalo in Papantla tonight. We put the kids to bed early, tired from their weekend in Veracruz, and headed out to stroll the square, eat a cone of vanilla ice cream (is there any other kind in Papantla?) and do the last of our shopping. My friends are expecting vanilla beans and they won’t be disappointed. We marveled over the vanilla bean artwork, ranging from flowers and scorpions and crucifixes crafted out of glossy black beans to earrings and rosaries. I spent a long half an hour listening to a group of mariachi playing to the universe and watching a little boy, not more than two blow bubbles and chase them down, stand a water bottle on its nose, chase a ball around and then refuse to give it to its owner, and run from his mother whenever she called sharply to him. Some things don’t need translation; seen one toddler, seen ‘em all.
It was with some reluctance that we packed up along with the balloon salesman and headed for our hotel. This will be our last good Mexican night for a long while. Tomorrow we’ll just stop to sleep in Victoria and the day after that we’ll be over the border if all goes well. Of all the places night has found me, I think Mexican nights are my favorites.
(sorry there are no vanilla pictures! Tony says he’ll take some in the morning!)