Monday, November 24, 2008

Veracruz Musings

Now I know what pretty girls must go through.

I stand out here. In all of Mexico, but especially here in the port city of Veracruz, where most folks are dark. I'm blond with fair skin. And people notice it. One example--I can't walk down any street without cab drivers beeping at me. Just a short honk, "Hey, (obvious) tourist...sure you don't need a cab?" And it happens almost every block. A Mexican lady walking the other direction said in English, "Good morning, how are you?" So, it's pretty clear I'm an English speaker. But I've also been mistaken for German.

"Ambulantes" is the term for street vendors, and they are thick here, especially along the waterfront streets. And I am an especial target. "Meester, want to buy_______, bracelets, candy, crosses, sunglasses, cigars, (you name it)?" What was surprising to me is that these vendors are allowed to come right into the restaurants. There you are sitting having dinner, and a vendor walks through stopping at EVERY table. Sometimes it's a local Indian woman with a baby strapped to her back. Other times it's just some hustler. You either say, "No, gracias," or simply ignore them. It's really intense at some times. But you can't get angry....this is how these folks make their meager living. If I were the restaurant owner, though, I'd be plenty upset at street vendors walking through my establishment selling food (candies). I saw one guy yesterday at lunch offering a large round tray of sweets. Then, 5 hours later at dinner, I saw the SAME GUY offering the SAME TRAY of candies at a different restaurant. Guess how many flies landed on that thing over the course of the afternoon?

Here's an example of why people don't get a much done here as in, say, Switzerland:
Efficiency is a stranger to these shores. I have had to reach into deep, hidden reserves of PATIENCE of which I was unaware I even had. My main reason for staying an extra day in Veracruz was to get my laundry done. When you're out of shorts, it's time. That should be easy, right? So I asked the front desk clerk where there was a local laundry. Just as I've done in towns all across Mexico with no problem. She gave me directions. I couldn't find it. So...take a breather and sit down for breakfast, says I. And I did. Afterwards, I found the official tourist office on the downtown zocolo (town square). They just weren't sure where I'd find a laundry. I suggested, "why don't we look in a phone directory?" They thought that was a brilliant idea. So I got the addresses for 2. The first was simply gone. Big metal roll-down shutters covered the front of the place, where it's name was spray painted on the metal. One down. Number two laundry was exclusively a dry cleaner. So I asked here for another recommendation. She said, "Oh, yes, this same chain has another shop about 10 blocks away." So, with 3 plastic bags of dirty clothes, I go for my (long) morning walk. With achy knee flaring up, I finally found laundry Number #3. Yes, she said, they do do laundry by the pound. BUT (isn't there always a but?) wouldn't be ready until Wednesday (2 days). I had no interest in staying in Veracruz for 2 more days. "We can, however," she said, "do a same day rush job for you and have it ready for you this afternoon." Wonderful! "It's double the cost."
No thanks.

Patience, patience, where are you? I took a cab the many blocks back to the hotel.
Along the way, the driver did the usual and asked where I was from (obvious gringo). I told her U.S. She, like many, many folks I've talked to in Mexico, volunteered that she used to live and work in the U.S. One driver in some town (I've forgotten which, there have been so many)...said, "WHERE in the United States are you from." Phoenix. "What part of Phoenix." He'd been working in Mesa. Small world. Really. Mexico and the U.S. are linked by so many many stories like this.

Back to the laundry saga. OK, so I can't get the damned clothes washed in Veracruz, apparently. Fine, I'll just do it on my next stop. I went out and shopped for a couple more pairs of sox and shorts to tide me over. No Woolworth's here, apparently. I found an appropriately cheap clothing store, however. And I found the bargain bin. Great! Made my selection and took them to the register. The girl was on a cordless phone stuck under her chin. The same call she was on when I walked into the store. She never so much as missed a word in her conversation. BUT (another but), there was no price on the underwear. Yeah, it was in the bargain bin. She had to call a male colleague to go do a price check (still on her phone call). He took about 5 minutes, came back....nope, can't find a price. So she sent a different male colleage to look. All this time, she's waiting on about 10 other customers and talking on the phone. Helper #2 returns and says that the pair of shorts I had selected was part of a 3-pack and couldn't be sold individually. Well, DUH! If you had the other 2 pairs, it wouldn't be in the bargain bin. Oh, to hell with it. I grabbed a different pair off the rack and paid for my purchases. She sensed my impatience and gave me change in all 1-peso coins. That's a sweet little touch, don't you think?

By that time I was breathing deeply, counting to 10. All this when I just wanted to get my laundry done. Now I understand what an American lady living in Oaxaca told me last year when I was down there: "Every day, we don't do much. If I go over and pay the gas bill (in person), that's a full day." And I can see why.