Veracruz: traveling the Central High Plains of Mexico
A couple of years ago I wrote a booklet about the Central High Plains with the idea that I would offer my services as a guide. This idea, as a lot of my other ideas, fell flat. However, I was asked if I would present the material, in a series, to be included in Mexico Connect. Since two years have elapsed since the original writing, I am rewriting it, with some changes.
All trips have to start from somewhere, so this time we will begin in the warm tropical area of Poza Rica, Veracruz, which, incidentally, is not in the Central High Plains, but near the Gulf of Mexico. There is something sensual and seductive about this hot, tropical sultry land, and if you stay there too long you may not want to leave. I try to limit my visits to a few days.
Veracruz grows a large variety of tropical fruits: citrus fruits, pineapples, bananas, coconuts and other fruits that you have probably never heard of. If you throw seeds on the ground it is probable that they will be sprouting in a few days. Veracruz also has a long coastline, which supplies an abundance of seafood.
Veracruz was the home of the Olmec, which is considered the mother culture of Mexico. The origin of the Olmec can be traced back as far as 1,500 BC. Perhaps, because of the easy availability of food, they were free to develop their culture at an early stage. A small green stone statue, very oriental in appearance, was found in San Andres Tuxtla (southern Veracruz). It represents a person with human features but with a duck's bill in place of a nose. The unique thing about this figurine is that it had engraved gliphs which date the object at 162 BC and hieroglyphics which imply that the Olmec had a form of writing, a numerical system, and a calendar, which is a product of astronomy. There is a lot of archaeological evidence of their presence in the Central High Plains before the time of Christ.
Near Poza Rica is the archeological site of El Tajin. When I first visited this site, maybe twenty years ago, there was just a gravel, tree-lined road leading to the site and a chain extended over the road at the entrance. A lone guard collected an entrance fee and then you were free to explore the site as you pleased. Now, there is an elaborate entrance and a paved road leading to the site. There is an ample parking lot and numerous stalls where you may buy wares from Totonaca vendors, from indigenous clothing to cigars. Inside there is a nice modern museum and other conveniences. As a side note, the Totonaca believe that smoking a cigar is protection against evil spirits. My mother-in-law, who is very Catholic and a non-smoker, smokes a cigarette after attending a wake, for much the same reason.
El Tajin is a 2,500-acre site. Although much excavation and restoration has been done since my first visit, it is an endless project, as with other sites in Mexico. It was once a thriving metropolis dating back to 300 A.D.. It existed as a religious and political center from 800 to 1150 A.D.. The most famous structure on the site is the Pyramid of the Niches. It is not clear what cultural group originally occupied the site, but the Totonaca dominate the area at this time.
El Tajin lies about 25 miles inland from the Gulf. Between El Tajin and the Gulf lies Santa Luisa where excavations uncovered artifacts dating back to 2900 B.C.. At the nearby site of La Conchita were found skeletal remains of the extinct mastadon, the glyptodont, a giant sloth, and the horse, dating back some 12,000-14,000 years. Three feet above in the excavation were fire pits and broken tools used by hunters around 5,600 BC.
A few weeks ago I visited El Tajin with Javier, my young brother-in-law who lives in Poza Rica. We did not visit the archaeological site, but the village of El Tajin across the highway. We were visiting Pedro, a Totonaca, who makes rain-sticks and sells them at the entrance to the ruins. If I may digress again, I think it was a crime for the Friars to give the natives "Christian" names when they were baptized into Catholicism. It was like taking away part of their identity. And, for those who don't know what a rain-stick is, it is several joints of bamboo or Taro, filled with seeds or whatever, and when it is tilted, the seed fall from one node to the other, creating a soothing sound, like falling rain. They are usually varnished and banded with colorful thread.
We sat outside and chatted. Pedro expressed a desire to replace his corrugated tar based roof with metal and cut down some of the trees. Limbs keep falling down and damaging his roof. He listened attentively when I suggested a roof of palm thatch, which is much less likely to be damaged and more easily repaired. Plus it lasts longer and maybe the trees could be saved. The house itself had walls of split bamboo and a dirt floor. I thought a palm thatch roof would be neat. Much nicer than corrugated metal.
Being somewhat thirsty, I asked if I might eat one of the many grapefruit that were lying under a tree. It was sweet and delicious. I mentioned that it was not like those refrigerated grapefruit I bought in the States. Then, with much agility, he climbed the tree and began picking the grapefruit, tossing them down for us to catch. I assumed that he was taking advantage of our being there to harvest the fruit, but later, when we were ready to leave, he had put all of the grapefruit in a large sack for us to take home.
Our conversation rambled on, from the " Culebra de Cuatro Narices" (serpent with four noses), whose bite had left several people dead in the nearby hills, to artifacts. He had collected a number of artifacts, which he brought out in a small plastic bag. When I asked if he wanted to sell some of them, he said I would have to talk to his wife. There were several pieces I especially admired, two bird heads and a face, approximately four inches wide that had probably broken off from a vessel of some sort. I was concerned about the face not really being "old" because it still had traces of subdued coloring. The Totonaca, from my experience, are generally straightforward and honest people, so I looked her in the eye and asked her if she was sure the piece was 'old'. With some natural animation she pointed to the spot where it had been found while digging a well. I asked her if she wanted to sell the three pieces and how much she wanted for them. Humbly she asked for 20 pesos, about two dollars. Having no change, and feeling somewhat guilty, I handed her 50 pesos.
This morning I washed the pieces and discovered that one of the bird heads, a little over an inch high, was not a bird head. It appeared to be head of the 'god of wind', Ehecatle,"who caused the winds and swept away the clouds to prepare for the coming of Tlaloc, the rain god." While the piece was still wet I removed dirt from indentations near its top with a wooden toothpick and found the hole went all the way through. Since the piece appeared to be whole, I concluded that it was a pendant.
The next day we visited a beautiful hilltop site that the government recognized but had done nothing other than clear away the heavy vegetation, leaving the palm trees. The Amixtlan river ran in the valley below, with little stone structures the women had built, and were using, for washing clothes. Poza Rica was in sight, at a distance. We explored the mounds, but they were covered with dirt and debris. It was a large site. When I got home the next day my wife removed fifty or more chigger like creatures from my body. One can expect the itch from the bites to go away in about a week.