Family Travel–Bronze Winner: The Journey Home

By Tracy Barnett

Family ties and a mysterious force call writer back to rural Veracruz

04/22/2007 SUNDAY Travel 01L

Veracruz has been calling to me for a number of years, ever since that moonlit night a decade ago when I disembarked from a humanitarian aid caravan en route to Chiapas to soak my sweaty self in the warm, gently lapping waters beyond the seawall.

My memories of the coastal highway, traveled quickly and in sweltering heat, were sketchy at best. Of the Emerald Coast, I remembered the tiny town of Nautla, where my motherly heart ached at the separation from my young daughter, who had recently left home for a backpacking expedition across Europe.

This time it was a brother’s face that followed me down the coastal highway — that of my young cuñado or brother-in-law, who spoke longingly of this countryside that he had left for better opportunities in the cold and unforgiving Norte. It’s been six years since he crossed the Rio Grande and made his way to Missouri, where he met my sister. Now married and the father of two sons, he works two restaurant jobs to make ends meet, and he doesn’t know when he will be able to go back home, if ever. So I went for him.

Armed with two phone numbers and a set of photographs of my two little veracruzano nephews, I headed for his hometown of Xalapa with great expectations. The city was everything Alex had said it would be, and more.

Fresh mountain air imbued the lively spirit of a college town-type atmosphere, with coffeehouses and open-air restaurants everywhere. Street performers competed for space on every block; here a marimba player, there a pantomime artist, and here a man playing a vintage instrument that looked something like a calliope.

Doña Constantina, Alex’s grandmother, answered the phone as though she’d been waiting for my call for a week — which, in fact, she had been, as we made our way down the coast and back up again. Her home was in the Emerald Coast town of Santa Ana, a little Gulf pearl with baby goats and children in the streets, a palm-lined beach and a seafood stew to die for.

Sadly, the family had dispersed after the holidays and gone their separate ways; Alex’s sister was in Xalapa, but her cell phone had been disconnected and there was no way to reach her. His mother had gone back to the city where she lived and worked in a maquiladora factory, sewing blue jeans.

Doña Constantina was home, however, and happy to receive us, however tardy we might be. So we said goodbye to beautiful Xalapa and headed back down toward the coast to find her.

We stopped and photographed the beaches we imagined to have been Alex’s favorites.

We stopped in colorful Palma Sola and made our way to the beach; it was lovely and unspoiled, with a little café selling mariscos, a boy digging for clams and a cluster of girls jumping in the waves. The breeze refreshed our spirits and we headed on.

“Make a left at the stop sign and ask for Doña Constantina’s house,” she had told us. It seemed directions enough once we got there, and sure enough, when we inquired at the Mini Super Candie, the old men seated in front of the store pointed westward.

“Over there,” they said laconically.

And there she was, waiting for us on the porch, laughing as we puttered along in our beat-up dirt-covered Toyota, scrutinizing every house on the block, followed by the children we had met at the Mini-Super. It seemed the whole town was taking note of our arrival.

First there were the photos to admire; little Omar looked just like his daddy when he was a baby, she told us, and reached for a framed collection on the shelf. Sure enough, little Alex was a dead ringer for my curly-haired nephew. And these were the first photos she’d seen of baby Christopher. She listened attentively to stories of the birth, shaking her head quietly. It was a life so different, so far away from her own.

Then it was time for dinner, and Doña Constantina had a treat for us that we would never forget: Veracruz-style cazuela de mariscos, a fresh stew simmering with flavor and every type of seafood imaginable, from crab legs to scallops and mussels to octopus. It was delectable, especially with Doña Constantina’s fresh-made tortillas hot off the comal, and I didn’t want the meal to end.

But the sun was drawing close to the horizon, and there was one more thing we wanted to see before we headed on.

Alex had told us about San Luis, a mysterious place where a magnetic force caused everything to go backward. Doña Constantina confirmed that such a place did, indeed, exist, and it was not more than 10 minutes away. She offered to show us the spot herself. So after dinner, she filled a soda bottle with water and brought it along.

The town quickly petered out and the trees opened up to reveal a lush volcanic vista on the left. Soon she gave a signal.

“Aquí!” she said. “Here it is. Stop!”

The car rolled to a stop, and we disembarked and watched as she uncapped the soda bottle and poured the water on the ground. Sure enough, it began to trickle and then run up the hill — even more quickly than one would have expected with such a mild slope, and even if it had been in the other direction.

As if that weren’t enough, Doña Constantina wanted to give us one more demonstration.

Following her directions, Altug put the car in neutral and we waited. Slowly it began to roll — but backwards and uphill! We were stunned. It was true.

Suddenly it began picking up speed and veering toward the drop-off on the side of the road. Altug grabbed the wheel and wrestled the car into submission. For a breathless moment, it seemed the Force — whatever it was — was going to get the best of him and pull the car right off the road.

Being from the Show-Me State, however, I wanted to feel this phenomenon with my own foot on the brake, and I took the wheel. Sure enough, as I lifted my foot, the car began to move uphill — slowly at first, and then more quickly. I was convinced.

Not that I had ever challenged the veracity of my cuñado’s many entertaining stories — although some of them, admittedly, did stretch credulity, chief among them this one.

“You’re not gonna believe it, when you see it!” he had exclaimed.

So this story is for Alex, the Veracruzan folktale spinner of our family: You got me on this one, hermanito. Ya te creo — I believe you now.

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