Gloomy. But how freshly Jalapa sparkled when first I arrived! The mountain haze persists, however. A shroud. Dour. And such a clean city, immaculate, reminding me somewhat of Queretaro, my favorite. I was even pondering in the beginning a way to travel to Jalapa more often, a way to stay here one month out of the year. The warm colonial atmosphere stirred these dayvisions. The impressive parks. Large. Wooded. But the skies. Skies of lead. Heavy. Leaden. They weigh me down. Dampen me. They dull my purpose, my vigor. Such it was that drove me to the southwest United States, to the sun, that bright sun, its clear sheer bouyance. I worship the sun.
A bird died as I was taking my lunch today. I'm not sure what species the bird was. I'm not sure, for that matter, what species my lunch was. I typically pick something from the menu I've not heard of. Today this something appeared to be a kind of pork cutlet in a kind of red sauce. Something "adobada," I think, if I recall the word correctly. I did the same yesterday in that restaurant below my hotel window. I ended up there with milanesa. I couldn't remember what milanesa was. Had I remembered what milanesa was I would not have ordered it. I still can't tell you what milanesa is. A meat of unsavory texture, I'll say. Right now I sit before a delicious café con leche in the same out-of-the-way Jalapa cafe as two days ago, on Zaragosa. The abovementioned lunch was ingested at that El Buscador restaurant in the middle of that far-removed rain forest. I spent several hours today again at the foot of that powerful waterfall below that restaurant in a second study of that holy scene. The bird died in a cage hanging near me as I lunched afterward. I was actually chewing when it died. I actually saw it fall from its perch. It made no sound. There was no drama. It just fell, like some ill-set figurine. Ominous, it seemed. I glanced to the round-faced waiter. He noticed my misgiven look. The popular Ranchero tune was playing. The one from the bus ride to Jalapa from Veracruz. The one I heard in this very Jalapa cafe two days ago. El Buscador had exactly eleven birds hanging in small cages at the western perimeter of its canopied dining area. They were each very colorful and, presumably, indigenous to that forest. Now it has exactly ten birds hanging in small cages at the western perimeter of its canopied dining area. The waiter came reverently to inspect the birdless perch. I asked for fried bananas in cream and a coffee for dessert. He nodded. He left with my order. A moment later I heard him tell someone out of sight that a bird had died. He mentioned the bird by species, not by name. "Se murió el something," he informed. Then, for the first time, I saw the cook. He appeared from around a soda refrigerator in a clean apron. Reverently he came to the birdcage. Then the cook peered at me. Square- faced, he was, unkempt in his elder-age, with a thick mustache. He seemed angry, accusing. But it wasn't my fault. The cook strode away rigidly. The waiter blinked at me warily. Warily, he blinked at me, with suspicion. But it really wasn't my fault. I was lunching as inoffensively as I sit here in this Jalapa cafe sipping this delicious café con leche when that bird died. Maybe it was ominous to them, too. A portent. In any event, the waiter brought to me then my fried bananas in cream with coffee. And I thought about how the notes I had just taken at the falls were effective. I think now, in fact, those notes are even pungent. I think, too, I should probably have Domingo visit these Veracruz waterfalls instead of those of the Puebla highlands. I'm very satisfied with the notes I took today. And this plot change obviously improves. But it is never encouraging to watch an animal die as you eat your lunch.
When you do not belong people look at you. This is not a phenomenon particular to Mexico. But if you go to Mexico as a fair-haired American you will experience it. In the United States the ethnic mix is diverse enough that to encounter evidence of any given nationality in any given locale is not that surprising. In Mexico this is not the case. Largely a homogenous population, the predominant ethnicity is "meztizo," or, a "mixture" of Spanish and indigenous blood. A tawny complexion, this means, and undiluted blackness of the hair. When you do not fit this description you will be reminded that you do not fit this description. Walking along any street you will feel the eyes of those around you fall on you. For an instant, they fall. And then for an instant more. They do not intentionally seek you, these eyes. But you are different. So naturally they note you and then hold. An object of idle curiosity, you become. A passing novelty. A break in a circle. A blemish on a wall. It can feel hostile at times. For scrutinized, you feel, examined. And you are always watching indifferent even laggard looks sharpen suddenly at your appearance, at you. So, exposed, you are. Singled out. Sometimes to the point of violation. It takes a good month to wear in a desensitization to this habit of the homogenous. But then there come the young people--a circle of whispering girls, maybe, or three boys. "Hey, güero," they tease. And it's harder to ignore this. Just the other day when I sought to find my way back by foot to the Jalapa centro from that outlying bus stop, I experienced this. As I tramped through a close old neighborhood, someone, from some one of the many windows crowded up against the empty lane, whistled to me. With effort, I did not look up. Then they crooned to me ghostily: "güüeeero." Still, I did not look about. Always I feign deafness or ignorance through such episodes. For while I understand being noticed is natural, even inevitable, that does not mean I have to offer myself as the butt of their jokes. And if you can convincingly "not hear" these heckles, then it is the heckler who is made the fool by them.
Another aspect of this conspicuousness is how it affects encounters with the opposite sex. For women it would still be a liability, I suppose, since Mexican men can be forward and seem only to become moreso before a conspicuous gringa. For men though it is a great boon. Mexican girls are notoriously reserved and one's foreignness can help draw them out. I once had three young women invite themselves to sit down with me on a bench in a Nuevo Laredo plaza. They chatted me up and then invited me to share with them a pizza. I was horribly poor, and, prevising the awkwardness my poverty would create, I simply declined. I did not command enough Spanish even to invent a gallant excuse. They were offended. They would not have made such an offer to a young Mexican male sitting alone. I met another young woman, too, for this reason--at a discotheque, in Guadalajara. Dating a foreigner, she explained, frees a Mexican woman of all the posturing and obligation that even a hint of a flirtation with a Mexican man can involve. Lety told me this quite candidly. Lety and I engaged in a light romance for a good six weeks then. She was a folkloric dancer. The big colorful dresses and all, the stomping steps, sombreros. I sat on her parent's front porch for ninety minutes every night and fielded stories about performing, about day-trips with the dance troupe into the hinterland of Jalisco state, about festivals. I learned a lot of Spanish from Lety. And I've never kissed a woman before or since who was so fiery a kisser. Then I left that city.
The women of Guadalajara are extraordinarily beautiful. This will no doubt be mentioned later. "Tapatias" the Mexicans call them. Deborah is probably my last chance at an American girl. If she does not meet me in Albuquerque in July, if nothing happens with her, I will probably move to Guadalajara after finishing my unfinished novel. There I will marry one of these "Tapatias."
Tomorrow I continue on to Puebla. I will be in Puebla only one full day. This means I have one traveling day to get into Puebla. One day of work. And then one traveling day to get out of Puebla. Feels like a vacation. Sedulously I've applied myself since crossing the border. And I face a mountain of work in Mexico City. So I'm looking forward to this short break. I'll tour a small neighborhood in Puebla. That's all. That one around the old Santa Monica convent, I think. Right now though I will quit this cafe and forage some tortillas and tequila and sangrita and lime. I'm betting alcohol will help me sleep through the street revels, through those marimbas outside my hotel window. And I'm ahead enough in my budget to afford it.
I can still remember the apple smell of Lety's hand lotion.