On Thursday, it became apparent that it was time to do laundry. Our hotel gave us the name of a lavanderia a few blocks over, so we gathered up our dirties and took a stroll down 59, turning south on Calle 12. At the corner, we stopped to gape at the former Templo de San Jose, the former Church of San Jose. It was built in the late 1600’s at the request of a brotherhood of carpenters and shipwrights from San Román in honor of their patron saint, San Jose. It’s known today as one of the most beautiful buildings in Campeche and even centuries later, its weathered glory is breathtaking.
As we’ve come to expect in Mexico, the lavanderia was an aromatic, tidy place. A smiling woman took our clothes, weighed them and wrote up a receipt. She said that we could have our clothes that evening, but it would cost double. Or, we could have them manana, a cuatro por la tarde (the next day, at four o’clock in the afternoon) for the regular price. We figured we could wait a day to save a peso or two, so opted for the latter option – which ended up being 30 pesos ($2 USD) for 1 1/2 pounds of clean, delicious-smelling clothes, hand-delivered to our hotel room. Fantastico!
After dropping off our clothes, we headed back to the town center, where the plaza was in typical, cheery form. The sun was high in the sky, so it was the perfect time to have an air-conditioned lunch at El Bastion, off of the zocalo. El Bastion is a very nice place, with large, antique photos of Campeche in its early days plastered on the walls surrounding the dining area. We ordered a simple meal of tacos de cochinita pibil and tostadas de pollo accompanied by cold glasses of our new favorite Mayan beverage, agua pina con chaya(pineapple juice mixed with chaya juice).
That afternoon, we met up with Emilia, a new acquaintance who owns some Colonial homes nearby which she and her husband have restored. She gave us a tour of one located near the Baluarte de San Carlos. Her house is a fascinating mix of old and new. The entrance, alone, is captivating–a spacious anteroom that flows into a courtyard with curtains draped across the open space above (we later found out that they keep the fruit bats at bay in the evenings). We marveled over the home’s original floors, doors and tiles dating from the 1800’s, (all of this complemented by modern appliances, even a media room and an outdoor pool). Overall, a very graceful combination of aged patina outfitted with modern convenience.
WORTH THEIR WEIGHT IN … THE WAIT
Later, we decided to make a stop at Coppel, a nearby electronics store to pick up some headphones. This quickly turned out to be a fool’s errand, as they say. Or more accurately–we foolishly believed we would be able to complete this errand quickly. After picking out the $20 (US) headphones we wanted (which were behind glass), we asked one of the store representatives if we could buy them. He nodded and instead of taking out a key to retrieve them, whipped out a pen and pad and proceeded to fill out a receipt, handing it to me with a hurricane of Spanish as he pointed to a line in the next room that seemed far too long to be real.
As we queued up, I silently deciphered the various signs over the cashiers at the counter. It seemed we were in one that would take efectivo, or cash. When we did reach the counter, however, the woman there seemed utterly convinced that I was in her computer system and insisted on several minutes of typing my name into different fields. Mentally accessing every Spanish flashcard I had ever seen, I kept trying to explain that I was not in her system, and that I did not want to open a store account, credit card or put our headphones on lay-away, but simply wished to pay in cash for them. Finally, after several rounds of charades and “Lo sientos,” (apologies), she accepted my withering fan of pesos and printed out a ticket, simultaneously pointing to yet another line on the other side of the room.
The sign above this line read, “engresas”, which we now know means, “deliveries”. As we approached the booth, our ticket was deftly snatched by a young man who seemed to be all business. Progress! Or not. First, he compared our ticket to a clipboard that was sitting on a nearby stack of boxes. Then, he set the clipboard down and ambled back into the warehouse and walked up and down a row of shelves. After that, he stopped to have a leisurely chat with some friends. Then, from his vantage point, Tor could actually see him in the back area, opening what appeared to be a refrigerator and rubbing his stomach thoughtfully as he pondered the contents, our ticket still clutched absently in one hand. The best part was that our headphones were right there the entire time, sitting innocuously next to the clipboard he had been studying earlier.
He finally made his way back to the booth, realized that our precious headphones were there and handed them to us rather unceremoniously. We nearly shed tears of joy. A truly momentous occasion. However, it may be awhile before we are in the mood to buy electronics again…
For dinner, we ate at Chocol Ha, a comfy, intimate place on Calle 59. It has a warm, woody atmosphere, and was like eating in a chocolatier grandmother’s living room. Couches line the walls along with antiques and sewing tables. It’s a great place to taste some local chocolate and they also serve delicious crepes. We tried one stuffed withchaya con queso and another filled with cheese and mushrooms.
After dinner, we walked south and fell in with a large group walking to the Baluarte de San Juan, in the southwest corner of the city. We meandered slowly along its huge walls, peeking inside the lantern-lit spaces of the inner wall that lay behind huge, foreboding doors. As we ran our hands along the rough stones and looked up at the stars, it was as if we were in another era.
It was near the Baluarte de San Juan, on a nearly-deserted side street that we had joined a solemn line of people earlier in the day: four men, and two women. We accidentally cut into their group when we had to veer off of the raised sidewalk to avoid construction work. As we fell into step, I suddenly heard a sharp intake of breath from a woman who was now behind us. She pushed the young man who was with her forward, whispering, “Dale, dale!” (“Go ahead, go ahead!”), and they swerved around us with an urgency that seemed very unusual. Especially in a town where most people take their time doing everything.
We watched them run, heads down to catch up with the others who were ahead of them. I noticed that none of them carried anything except for two of the men, one who clutched a convenience store bag with several bottles of water and another who grasped a single plastic bag with what appeared to be a sweater, a tube of toothpaste and some socks. The women had no purses. These things all struck me as strange, and as I watched them move like stealthy shadows down the block, I noticed that they were quite obviously being led by one man, with a second man loosely bringing up the rear, sometimes lagging back, sometimes moving closer. His head swiveled constantly from left to right, ahead and behind. As if he were looking for something, or keeping a lookout. We trailed them casually until the edge of the historic district. They turned the corner at the Pemex Station and disappeared from sight.
We felt subdued as we continued our walk. It seemed quite possible that we had just caught a glimpse of polleros, or guides, at work. Also known by the predatory nickname, coyotes, these “guides” offer impoverished Mexicans their services to help them cross illegally into the US for between $1000 – $2500 US, per person. An astronomical sum for a rural Mexican. Many of these paying “clients” end up abandoned, robbed, assaulted or even murdered during the journey north. Often, they are left by the polleros to fend for themselves in the desert, where they die of dehydration and exposure. Regardless of one’s stance on illegal immigration–that’s a sobering thought for even the sunniest of days.
*Pronounced “Dah-lay, dah-lay!”
BALLAD OF THE DOGFISH BREAD
Although Friday was a long work day, we finally got out for dinner and returned to El Bastion, this time for a seriously Mayan meal which consisted of more chaya juice, an aperitif of Xtabentun de las rocas (honey anise liquor on the rocks), Poc Chuc (pork fillets marinated in achiote and orange sauce) and Pan de Cazón. We noticed our waiter’s approving smile as he took our order. All foods that are very locale, very Maya. How nice.
As we sat, chomping happily on complimentary tostadas with spicy habanero slaw, visions of piping, hot Mayan culinary delights danced in our heads. And our meal was indeed, delightful. Or perhaps, enlightening would be a better word…
The most memorable dish by far? The Pan de Cazón. In some hazy, post-work stupor I ordered what I thought was something akin to lasagna, of all things. At least that’s what it looked like in the picture on the menu. What I had really ordered, it turned out, was a dish known as “dogfish bread”, a layering of tortillas, cheese, tomatillo sauce and loads and loads of (wait for it)–baby shark meat. Mmmm, shredded and all. This regional delicacy is also charmingly known as “Baby Shark Casserole”. In the back of my brain, I knew about this dish, but somehow had forgotten what it was called. Aware of its stature as a revered Yucatecean meal, I did manage a few, faltering bites, but was unable to soldier on. The taste wasn’t altogether bad, but something about it just didn’t hit the mark for me.
The good news? I had plenty of room for a piece of Pastele Imposible at the plaza, later on.
Next stop: Palenque, in the beautiful state of Chiapas…a land of mountains, jungles and ruins. Stay tuned! A Feliz Ano Nuevo (Happy New Year) to all!