Across the Yucatán with a Ragtag Carny Crew

by Matthew Asprey

16 February 2011

'Huichol Yarn Painting' image (partial) courtesy of Mexican Art  

A Ragtag Carny Crew

One evening in the colonial city of Valladolid I sat down to drink coffee at a late night cafe. I had my paperback copy of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, but instead of reading the book I started talking to two backpackers from Berlin. They were also staying at the Hostel Candeleria. They were on vacation from their studies in New York.

Nadine had thick brown hair and a flat slow German drawl. She chain-smoked. With her right elbow on the table, she held the burning cigarette near her shoulder. Nicola seemed younger, short and big-lipped and enthusiastic, easily surprised, wide-eyed and giggly. Right now, however, she was shaking her head.

“My God, I just heard the worst news,” she said.

“She’s so unlucky,” said Nadine with a slow sardonic chuckle and long draw of smoke.

“Yes unlucky, my flatmates are all leaving the apartment,” said Nicola. “I get back to New York on the 29th and have to move on the 30th. I have nowhere to go.”

“Do you have a lot of stuff to move?” I said.

“I have a big bed,” she said. “A very very big bed. Oh, God.”

“Come on, Nicola, we live this kind of life,” said Nadine dismissively, waving smoke back and forth like a thurifer. “Always moving from place to place.”

“I am not a circus performer!”

“We don’t know where we’re going to be next month,” said Nadine. “I like that.”

Later when the cafe closed we moved to the hostel’s outdoor kitchen. We drank tequila and red wine and cerveza. Nicola cooked omelettes. Music played all night through hidden speakers: German hip-hop and strange Beatles covers and an anti-vegetarian rap song (“fuck you, tree-hugger, I like ribs”). We were joined by a bunch of people including a young Israeli couple: Ari was deeply tanned with a light orange-brown beard, and his girlfriend Malka flinched when a coconut dropped from the trees onto the canvas roof above the kitchen.

“I live twenty minutes from Gaza,” she explained.

Nicola offered to make me an omelette.

“No thanks,” I said. “I don’t eat eggs.”

Nadine lit another cigarette and said, “I buy my eggs from this crazy woman in a village outside the old east section of Berlin. She drowned her husband in the river. Everybody knows.”

“How is this possible?” asked Nicola.

“In those places somebody like that will never be arrested.”

A Dutch guy who now lives permanently in Valladolid told us he was not going back to Holland. “My old friends from school call me and tell me they just spent twenty thousand euros on a kitchen. And now the neighbour has a better BMW. What is the meaning of this shit? My kitchen here cost five hundred dollars. It’s good. I go back to Holland for two days and I am bored.” The Dutch guy looked at our clothes. “Why do you all wear dark, drab clothes? The Mexicans wear yellow and pink, they dance in the streets.” The Dutchman was also wearing dark, drab clothing. “I know!” he said. “I’m just as bad!”

Later, as the night became chilly, Ari and I sat alone drinking beer. He had done his military service. He had finished studying. He did not know if he would stay in Israel. “I can’t see the political situation there will get better for maybe fifty years,” he said. He was on his own global prowl.

The Hostel Candeleria in Valladolid faces one side of a public square. To its right is the Candeleria Church. To its left is the Biblioteca Publica Regional. In the mornings I wrote at the library as the sun baked the red concrete exterior and the hot wind came through the big windows. A couple of people walked in to borrow a book or study. There were no English books on the shelf, but I practiced my Spanish with Anthony Burgess’s El Derecho a una Respuesta (The Right to an Answer). The library had many works by Carlos Fuentes, Mexico’s most respected novelist, and out of revived interest I used the hostel’s wi-fi connection to listen to a recent interview from WNYC radio discussing Fuentes’s newly translated novel, Destiny and Desire.

One night Clare felt like a pizza, so I accompanied her to a little place where one cost 30 pesos. We disturbed the waiter from his comfortable spot in front of a TV showing Rocky III, which seems to be the most popular movie in Mexico. Other nights we went to a supermarket and bought rice, beans, champignons, tortillas, avocado, jalapenos, limes, chillies, sauces, and beer. We cooked at the hostel. You can spend about five or six US dollars on food and drink and have meals for two or three days.

On the morning we left Valladolid, I heard a familiar melody coming from the hostel’s garden. Somebody was playing the old standard ‘Tonight You Belong To Me’ on a battered ukulele. The player, a guy of about 22, had a red beard. Ironic or unironic? I wasn’t sure. He was part of some sort of travelling drama-musical troupe from the US. A tall girl with a long black lace skirt—a New York actress—took the ukulele and played her own sweet song about springtime in Brooklyn.

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