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Birds and Brujas of Catemaco
-by Glen Roberts

Saludos Amigos,
from the sultry shade of enchanted Catemaco
"where it is always afternoon,"
Early May, 2005,

     Between green curtains and columns and sprays and fans, a white egret sailed over the visible fragments of the lake surface. It sailed behind a wide clump of coconut palms and... 1, 2, 3, 4... emerged right on time, proving it was flying in real time, then flickered white, white, white, and white again through a lattice of hanging green palm fronds, until, where potted plants on the terrace rail mingled with drizzling lakeside vines and branches, it vanished again... 1, 2, 3, 4, 5... Where was it? It must have turned south behind the green curtain, or saw a fish and dove, or never was real.
        Outside the restaurant terrace rail, though, the lakeside trees were alive with fat and cunning birds, mostly very large black birds, falling, shifting across shimmering spaces, wading in the artistic riplets framing the beach, climbing trunks and branches, sometimes swooping under the woven palapa roof of the restaurant. One looked like a black woodpecker, another had thick black tail feathers like a squirrel. Que plumaje! And what a racket! A collector's barrage of whistles and chirps and trills and squawks urged me to stick around. The orchestra was just warming up.
        These birds, you understand, were either witch's birds or witches turned into birds. I had places to go in the Mexican sun, three more hours to Vera Cruz, but a witch's brew of weariness and heat and beauty held me there in the green shade of Catemaco.
        A month and a half before, I'd driven 530 miles south in one day, from a basic beach hotel on the Costa Esmeralda below Tuxpan all the way to Palenque. So, heading north again that morning, after crossing from San Cristobal the day before, leaving Palenque at 8:30, the mere 350 miles I meant to drive that day to Boca del Rio just south of Veracruz seemed easy. But going north, there're more soldier stops, for one thing. At the first one, after I'd crunched and halted, crunched and halted slowly forward for 15 minutes while one car or truck at a time was searched, a grim soldado carelessly swung his AK to wave me by. At the second one, after another long slow approach, a fat bulldog waddled over, after waving three Tabasco plates and one plateless junker through, and bellowed "Californio...Eh?"
        "Si, y por eso, you're going to harass me while you let all the Mexicans with no plates through, right?" Listen! It was hot and getting hotter - too hot to sit there motionless - too hot to endure another phony search for drugs - too hot for international good will. I needed the breeze I could only get through a fast-moving window.
       "Where you going, Californio?"
        "I'm going north on this road."
        "But it's no bother stopping to chat with us?" I translate platicar as chat.
        "It always bothers me to chat with people with guns, and I don't think these goddam checkpoints make many tourists want to come back and chat again."
        "So where you going? Eh?"
        "I don't know. North up this road, like I said." Listen! I don't like soldiers in a country with too many soldiers and no enemies except its own people. And it was hot.
        "Well, good. Go ahead."
        North of Villahermosa, the freeway starts and, instead of soldier stops, they have toll booths. The first was 14 pesos, the second 18. The third toll plaza wanted 55 pesos. The prices were climbing with the temperature. "I hope that pays my way to Veracruz," I wearily smiled at the dark-eyed beauty in the booth.
        "Yes," she said, "Cierto."
        "Didn't your mother tell you it's a sin to tell a lie?" I'd already reviewed my notes for the same stretch going south, which showed tolls of 18, 34, 131, 14, 73, 18, and 35.
        A soldier with his finger on his AK trigger slid around from behind the booth and poker-faced me. "Mexico has a reputation for banditos, like this guy," I told her, " but instead it has toll booths." Since she laughed, he sort of did, the boom went up, and I drove to the other end of the plaza and stopped again to write down the damage.
        At a coffee stop, I saw in my new map book that it's a lot closer to Boca del Rio and Vera Cruz by the old toll-free coast road past Catemaco than it is by the expensive, mainly Mexico City bound freeway. Closer, but...
        And then I made a wrong move in the brain-baking sun and took a turn-off too soon, 25, 30 kilometers south of the Acayucan turn-off I'd picked off the map, and I crawled northward up a rough and deliberately bumpy truck trail through 10 small towns, each defending its children from an endless smoky traffic invasion with locally made topes (speed bumps), before I even got to where I should have started. Pretty towns in pretty country, but slo-o-ow, humid, sweaty, bumpy.
        Concentration, resolve, patience, and clear thought melted and ran down my face and under my hot clothes in streams and I worried about my car's temperature and forgot my front-lid-snap problem. The snaps are like crab-leg pairs, one latching onto a metal lip under the top, one latching onto the windshield frame, joined by a round hinge bearing - tight but free so the two crab-legs can swing on it. It's not capped or stopped at either end, so on Mexican bump and bounce and dip and thud roads, it slowly slides out of position until it lets go. I first found this out coming south, when the top came loose on a freeway with no shoulders and threatened to blow off in the wind if the other side got loose, too, which it was about to do. Luckily, the parts all fell inside the car, and the emergency didn't climax before I found a tiny space to stop. Since then, I'd kept my eye on it, periodically squeezing both ends of each pin flush again, but, like all gremlin infested inanimate things, it always waited until I'd forgotten about it to slip apart again.
        Just such an incident had added a quart to my sweat production when, after almost 6 hours of hot, mostly slow driving from Palenque, I finally came in sight of the lake, big, full of landfalls and islands, surrounded by jungle, a swell scene for a Mexican Tomás Sawyer, only a few miles from the sea but maybe 1000 feet up.
        Tracing the west side of the lake along an in-and-out jungle road, approaching Catemaco there's no junky sprawl. Catemaco, known all over Mexico as a place where witches live, is a neat lakeside resort town with neat edges. When you get there, you get there - turning abruptly right off the woodsy highway, down a short steep offramp, and onto the town's malecon just like that.
        I was still 100 miles from Boca del Rio and the huachinanga estilo Veracruzano I'd been saving my stomach space for - 3 more hours - maybe, and it was only 2:30. If I could stand more heat and sweat and stops and starts and bumps and frustration, I could make it easy that day, but I couldn't just drive by Catemaco.
        "Courage," I cried to my crew of one, "This downward turn will bear us to a shady parking place soon..."
        All you do is turn off the hot bumpy road and down and you immediately land on a calm, smooth, shady street, gliding along under the malecon trees between small family hotels and lakefront restaurants, where the mild eyed melancholy restaurant barkers stand, beckoning weary travelers in...
        I drifted along as slowly and quietly as a dream within a dream under the town's tame jungle giants - leafy green arches and some dark leafless limbs thick hung with huge cotton balls and studded with huge sitting black birds - straight trunked oaks with thick shiny leaves - low sprawling trees with more mum-like pink blossoms than leaves. And millions of purple bouganvillia blossoms cascaded over all the porches, laughing at the pink mums. There were palms of course - and birds everywhere. Barely disturbed by one slow drifting car, white egrets took off from and then lit again on the quiet street before and after my passage.
        It was almost too easy to park anywhere along the empty, shady curb, and on a lush, shady lakeside terrace, I staggered to a lakeside table and ordered coffee, meaning only to look and rest - just rest and look. But there - in the rich cool shade - the menu whispered of small shrimp tostaditas for only 25 pesos. "Just one," I said, seeing tampiqueña on the menu, too. The tostadita was better than I expected. A cold, beaded Negra would surely be better than coffee. Just for information I asked about hotels with safe parqueos and about lavanderias that might wash and dry my T-shirts and the Levi's I'd been soaking with sweat for two days - in maybe - a couple of hours?
        A little later, two black-eyed Circes led me this way and that up the hot, sunny, shady hill between houses and shops to a laundromat, which was closed, then lured me on, deeper into the village, across a rustic main street on top of the hill and down the other side and, smiling triumphantly, into a shady backyard where a white-picket enclosure full of bulging bags spilling clothes, two washing machines, two dryers, and a hard working young woman was identified by a small sign as "Lavanderia Lore."
        Circes 1 and 2 nodded knowingly to each other as Lore pushed her hair off one of her dark and sparkling eyes and murmurred, "Mañana....No, not today - mañana, maybe by noon, mañana, maybe later."
        "Eleven? How about Ten?"
        "Well, maybe." A local guy came in and left a bag. "Four o'clock tomorrow," she told him. She weighed mine, "That's going to be 23 pesos."
        "OK. Hasta las diez mañana."
        "Las once!" her eyes flashed.
       As we wandered back over the hill to where they lived at the top of the slope above the lake, My guides asked if I'd been there before. "Yes, but all I know is that there're witches here."
        "There're only good witches here," they told me, "We won't hurt you." We? But they said brujos. I told them the words for female and male witches in English are completely different, but that I had forgotten what they call the males. I only knew it's not witchos.
        Threading my way back to my hotel, Hotel del Lago, I saw another hotel called El Brujo. I also heard a speaker car squawking that Vicente Fernandez was coming to town (I thought he was dead, but maybe that doesn't matter in Catemaco). Almost back down to the lake, I passed the Krakatoa disco and then several small cafes run by fat señoras that looked good for leisurely breakfasts next morning, since I'd be getting up late.
        Catemaco - a clean, brightly painted real Mexican town on a hill by a lake - with a Mexican church and plaza several blocks uphill surrounded by a labyrinthine Mexican village bounded by a casually winding malecon along a European lakefront, where fishermen and their sons fling nets from small boats with colored sails and family-outing boats with colored canvas awnings over their double rows of seats line the clean raked black sand beaches between the lake terrace restaurants.
        The town itself is a witch, built by witches and inhabited by witches. I wondered if I'd ever be permitted to leave if I stayed overnight. The die was cast. My ropa was in Lore's Lavanderia. My Negra was on the terrace table; my tampiqueña was coming. I'd already slipped half consciously into a decision to stay and see.

-Glen Roberts