By Kate X Messer
JUNE 1, 1998: Slowly, carefully, she opened her hands. The bird emerged, jittery but ready to take flight and claim the afternoon sky once again. Nic smiled as the tiny trembling hummingbird fluttered into the air. Just a few days ago, Nic and I had no idea where we'd be or what we might find. Just months ago, we had promised each other in many private e-mail missives - like secret clubhouse kids swearing a blood oath - that together we'd hoist tequilas high and meet somewhere on some beach in Mexico.
"Read it! Read it!" I shrieked giddily. Nic was doubled over in the loft, laughing herself silly, cackling like a grackle. She was here in the States for six weeks to check out me and UT. We were determined to get to Mexico, find a beach, and uncork some cheap hooch. After two days of pissing around purportedly preparing for this adventure, we still had no set destination. The Greyhound with our names on it didn't care. It was leaving for the border at 1:45am, in just a few hours.
This didn't make us any more serious about the task at hand. "Okay! Okay!" She cleared her throat and grinned as she read aloud in her most formal of British South African, sounding like some poncey narrator of a BBC travelogue, "Sweaty, smelly, at times seedy but always jolly, Tampico detains few travelers!!" She exploded in laughter again.
We might as well have just closed our eyes and tossed darts at a map. What were we thinking? Crimony! The name Tampico had such a nice ring... and it was on the coast... and that's where the finger landed, dammit! This random selection method wasn't working... that is, until we dragged the finger south.
By all rights, the chosen point at the end of our virtual dart could have amounted to a big bust. Nevertheless, we decided we'd honor its selection: Tuxpan, Veracruz.
Forty-eight hours later, the ADO rolled out of Poza Rica and careened eastward down the bumpy, jaunty Highway 130 toward Tuxpan. Nic and I barely noticed the dense vegetation and brewing humidity outside. We were too busy enjoying the busdriver's Prez Prado tape and imagining what Tuxpan had in store. So we set noses to guidebook to determine our first few steps in our temporary seaside home.
Settle in the hotel? Eat? Explore? The first two options held greater appeal than the third.
Pent-up and road-weary, traveling straight through for two days, we were looking forward to getting our asses out of the seats for more than a stretch and a smoke. The side trip to Mexico City was the corker. Going to Tuxpan from Austin via Mexico City is sort of like going from Austin to Waco via Houston. So much for throwing caution to the wind. Not that our turbulent trek to the coast - involving three different buses, a variety of VW bug taxis, a subway, and one frigid choo-choo train - was disappointing. Hell no; part of the fun of any holiday is getting there. But by this point, we really wanted to get there.
Tuxpan (TOOKS-pam) is a small city which wraps around where the mouth of the Rio Tuxpan empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Just 150km south of sweaty, smelly, seedy (but always jolly) Tampico, Tuxpan is home to both a naval base and oil port, so trade and tourism from within Mexico is brisk. As the bus pulled into the station, we could see that the city was still alive. Even at 9pm on a Tuesday night, the air was filled with the buzz and fumes of bumper-to-bumper sedans lining the narrow cobbled streets. Only the strains of lust and fast Latin dance music hung in the air more heavily.
A few steps from the friendly Cafe Mante, where our cabbie dropped us for a quick sup, lay our final destination for the night. We skipped through the rain-soaked streets.
The Hotel Florida wraps around one entire city block and is only that far away from the Rio Tuxpan. Our fourth-floor balcony looked out on the slow-moving sea-bound river. Diagonally across stood the ruggedly elegant belltower of La Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion, a warm white stucco parrochia next to one of the town's center squares.
The next morning, as the bells of the parrochia rang out, the sun played hide-and-seek behind wisps of partial cloudiness. That was just too bad, because nothing was going to stop us from soaking in the surf. So we hopped on one of the many crusty old repainted (Mondrian orange and yellow) school buses for the 12km jaunt. The "Partridge Family Special" deposited us right on the firm white sand of the Gulf.
Tuxpan's Playa Norte - a flat sandy paradise with dense stands of Australian slash pines and tall, lanky coconut palms, still heavy with fruit - was near deserted. The beach was dotted with palapa after palapa serving mariscos y pescados and Sol y Tequila.
The gulf was calm and we had plenty of space to be alone. Nic swam like a dolphin, finally shedding her suit to take in all of the water's healing powers. Less relaxed than my carefree companion (mostly due to warnings from friends about the safety of Mexico's remote beaches) I cautiously flopped in the foam with top pulled down. My anxieties washed away for a bit, as I remembered for the first time in six years how much I longed for the feeling of warm sand on my back as I lay basking in the sun. It is high treason for a native Floridian to be that long without surf.
We passed an abandoned cinderblock lighthouse and before I could catch my breath, Nic was up top, waving furiously like a kid on a carousel as I marvelled at her courage and finesse. Deep gulp. I realized that if I didn't attempt to ascend the decrepit spiral of stairs, I would regret my shitty cowardice for the rest of my life.
Now, I'm easily twice the size of lithe monkey Nic. A knee recovering from recent surgery didn't make me any more elegant. Nevertheless, I ducked through the narrow doorway and looked up. Small rocks and sand dusted my face as I heard Nic cackling and whooping from up above. I fumbled up the crumbling concrete stairs, held together only by rusted metal rods jutting from the center column. Every other step disintegrated just a wee bit as I added my weight to its inevitable decay. I could hear the pebbles fall.
My fat ass got to the top step. Big deal. You would have thought I'd climbed Everest, by the look on my sweaty, smelly, but jolly face. We celebrated later that night with too many camarones and way too much tequila.
Since my Southern Hemispherian had just been through an African summer, Nic already had skin the color of slow steeped tea. My olive complexion, however, had not yet cured for the season, so our many hours lolling on the beach toasted me plenty. That evening, under gooey sheets of aloe, we decided that the next day's adventures would be clothed and kept indoors. Thumbing through our book, we remembered mention of some archeological museum nearby.
As I was lying face down, letting the aloe work its magic on my burn, the words Cuba! and Amistad! leapt from the guidebook page. Right under the listing for the archeological museum read: Museo Historico de la Amistad Mexico-Cuba. Whoa!
"Nic!" I almost fell off the bed, "Look! The museum of Mexican-Cuban Friendship!" I began to read, "On the south side of the river, commemorates Fidel Castro's 1956 stay in Tuxpan, when he planned and prepared for the Cuban Revolution!" I was giddy.
We headed out early that next morning, scarfing a quick breakfast of jamon con queso and fruit pastries. Then we ran across the main drag to catch one of the four lanchas across the river. The lanchas are small, flatbottomed motorboats capable of holding 10 adults or so. The three-peso toll seemed ridiculously cheap for the pleasure of seeing the town from the river's view, with cool tropical gusts licking our faces.
We landed on the residential side of the city. The streets were dry and dusty, but became more shady and green as we got close to the museum at river's edge.
A friendly handpainted concrete wall made an unlikely welcome mat. Splashed in colorful Seventies fonts, the museum name belied the harsh realities of Capitalism vs. Communism and the modern Cold War. And really, the museum had little to do with all that nonsense. Amistad was, in fact, its middle name.
Once within the walls, we traipsed carefully across the lovely well-kept grounds. The concrete-tile walk led to the home of Castro during his Tuxpan stay. Frank Lloyd Wright's influence was certainly evident in the building's pitch, sharp angles, and walls of glass. Turquoise panels lined the black rails of the second-floor balcony, where the main entrance to the small bungalow opened. A wrought iron and concrete spiral staircase led up.
The museum featured a modest display of black-and-white pictures - mostly of young Fidel, his brother Raúl, and the handsome Ché Guevara - which sketchily documented the events. Eighty or so supporters comprised the brigade which launched its historic epic from this humble compound.
Under the main floor, a striking mural depicted Castro, his crew, and the small ship which almost sank on the journey. A replica of the historic "Granma" - which looked to be the size of a large pleasure yacht or a small PT boat - was supposedly docked nearby, but from what little we could gather, it fell apart and was hauled away.
Left alone, we attempted to understand the story of Castro's stay as best we could from the few peeling captions under each photo. I held the ship's flag, a red, black, and white banner bearing M-26-7 for a picture; then, Nic begrudgingly posed under the well-known portrait of the chiseled-jawed Guevara, while I stifled a giggle. The resemblance wasn't striking, but the firm jaw of her disdain made it seem so.
I went back downstairs to trace my fingers over the lines of color on the inspiring political mural. Nic lingered above on the spiral stairs for a quick smoke of a filterless sweetpapered Alita. A minor scuffle upstairs broke the peace. Nic's giggling sealed it. I leapt up the staircase to find her with cigarette dangling from huge grin and hands clasped tight around her prize. Nic's bright eyes sparkled; she could barely contain her glee, "Look, Kate!"
Slowly, carefully, she opened her fingers. Inside her warm hands, a hummingbird, jittery but ready to take flight, peeked out to get her bearings. Nic and I smiled at each other as the tiny, trembling bird began to flutter.
Who knew what the future held in store? Who knew if we could ever keep the promises we made to each other to visit this magic place again?
The hummingbird sailed away.
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