Postcard from Campeche, Mexico: Sittin’ on Campeche Bay

Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun
I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ comes
Watchin’ the ships roll in
Then I watch ’em roll away again, yeah
I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooo
I’m just sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time

“The Dock of the Bay,” Otis Redding

Sometimes a song refuses to leave you. A marimba melody would be more appropriate, or the operatic chorus of the tamal vendor or the chant of the man pushing the cart hawking pulpo for sale.

But every time we left the house in Campeche, Otis Redding’s tune insisted on inserting itself in my mind. Of course, this meant I ambled along slowly. I was considerate enough not to let the Mister know lest he also would catch the musical infection.

This affliction does not mean a visit to Campeche is wasting time, but the city is so amazingly laidback. Even the major patriotic gathering to counter abusive trumpeting coming from El Norte in January resembled a family picnic more than a protest march.

When you ramble somewhat aimlessly, omens sometimes cross your mind. Sitting in a bayside seafood restaurant, a bird suddenly plopped down dead right next to our table. Unsure of the meaning of the occurrence, I decided it definitely was a lot closer to the adjoining table. If the omen was bad, it must belong to them.

And, then, in this time of post-election uncertainty, there was the inverted “El Viejo” boat seemingly symbolizing our retirement plan gone awry…. Surely, they won’t take away the healthcare benefits of these particular viejos not yet eligible for Medicare?

Soaking up the sun, the Crayola colors and the warmth of the people easily trumped these possibly ominous omens. And the trust. The painter at the top of a ladder placing his faith in his fellow worker perched on a quivering board below. The glowing Virgin of Guadalupe protecting the fishermen headed out before dawn.

It was almost Lent, and I mentally treated worries about gringolandia the way they kick off Carnaval in Campeche. The pre-Lenten festival begins with a festive  funeral procession. An effigy of a pirate is placed in a coffin and burned – the symbolic burial of all bad moods as the celebration gets underway.

Relaxing completely for three weeks, omens mellowed out and merged into positive signs for the coming year. Surely that bird signified ending one chapter in my life and the start of a new phase. This was strengthened by the typewriter fixating my gaze.

Returning to San Antonio, I finished work related to the manuscript on the history of the Coker Settlement and transformed from a nonfiction writer to one once again hearing her characters converse while soaking in the tub. When you involve as many characters as a Russian novelist, their conversations extend baths to toe-shriveling lengths.

One day, I will finish this epic tale of Hedda Burgemeister and San Antonio’s beer baron.

But along the way to completion, I might have to take a trip or two to seek out more good omens. A girl can never have too many of them.

And, hey, it’s the weekend. Go ahead and let this mellow melody wash away your worries:

Postcard from Campeche, Mexico: With abundant seafood, an ideal place to spend a meatless Lent

For anyone giving up meat for Lent, Campeche City would be an ideal place to spend the 40 days. Seafood is inexpensive and abundant. Finding fresh ceviche is no problem, and the huge shrimp are wonderful. A local favorite preparation is coconut shrimp, but menus offered many other options. Likewise, pulpo was prepared in vastly varying recipes.

My absolute favorite seafood dish was the stacked salpicon de mero (a fish confusingly translated sometimes as grouper and sometimes as Chilean sea bass) offered at La Parrilla Colonial. Our top vote-getter for shrimp was a grilled wheel of shrimp topped with a cheese and spinach sauce served at Bavit 59. Other standouts included the cubes of ahi tuna topped with avocado at Bavit 59; camarones de coco and tostadas topped with pulpo al achiote at Restaurante Don Gustavo; and the achiote tuna tacos at La Parrilla Colonial.

And then there is dogfish. Americans have been slow on the uptake to eat dogfish, even though the small shark is commonplace from Maine to Florida. Fishermen harvesting them on the East Coast ship them off to England. The English apparently do not possess the same degree of seafood snobbery and gobble them up in pubs frying them for fish and chips. This lack of a market in the United States probably is a good thing because it takes a long time for these spiny dogfish to make babies; their gestation period is 18 to 24 months.

In Campeche, however, dogfish or cazon, is celebrated and used in numerous traditional dishes. Pan de cazon resembles stacked enchiladas. Black refried beans are spread on multiple layers of corn tortillas, topped with stewed, shredded dogfish and then covered with a tomato sauce prior to baking. Another centuries-old recipe features chiles xcatic, a regional yellow pepper, filled with stewed cazon. Although flavorful, we were not bowled over by either of these complex preparations. But this was not because of the flavor of dogfish. The cazon dish most to our liking was the simplest one – fresh dogfish tacos. We enjoyed these as an appetizer at Los Delfines, one of a strip of casual seafood palapa restaurants clustered together on one end of the malecon, a concrete boardwalk stretching miles along the bayfront.

We did eat meat several times. The Mister was smitten by the chicken with chaya, Mayan tree spinach, at La Parrilla Colonial. In addition to an elevated preparation of cochinita pibil, the kitchen turns out a flavorful taco al pastor for less than $1. Luan Restaurante Café offers a remarkably good milanesa telera, similar to a bolillo, but the cafe’s hours varied wildly. We broke away from regional specialties several times to enjoy Italian food at Scattola 59.

Both Luan and Scattola 59 endeared themselves to us because they carried multiple bottles of reasonably priced red wine. Some of the best restaurants in town made us feel as though they were conning tourists, as in us. They regularly claimed to be out of wines we ordered, with the only ones available as substitutes priced $5 or even $10 more. This touristy treatment made it hard to feel at home in the place we were staying for three weeks. A waiter at a boutique hotel should not be expected to beg customers to post positive reviews on TripAdvisor. And, in addition to upselling wine at another restaurant, the Mister had to endure a 15-minute parade of expensive Tequila offerings before finally being served the one he originally requested, strangely presented perched in a Johnnie Walker glass.

Aside from warning you to beware of or prepare to endure those peeves, we’d recommend any of the mentioned restaurants. The food in Campeche is distinctively different – in a good way – from any other place we have been in Mexico. Sure wish I’d encounter salpicon de mero in San Antonio.

Postcard from Campeche, Mexico: A glimpse of her churches

The simple profiles of some of the colonial churches serving different neighborhoods in Campeche City resemble Missions Espada and San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio, but peeking inside reveals ornate and colorful surprises.

The Black Christ on the crucifix in Iglesia San Roman is heavily visited by the faithful who credit the figure imported from Italy in 1575 with a multitude of miracles. The festival in honor of the figure is one of Campeche’s largest, aside from the far less reverent celebration of Carnaval.

We were in Campeche on February 2, El Dia de La Candelaria or Candlemas in English. Celebrated to commemorate the day Jesus was presented at the Temple in Jerusalem, El Dia de La Candelaria is the final day of the extended Christmas season in Mexico. During the evening mass, the pews of Iglesia de San Francisco were filled with parishioners accompanied by the figures of Jesus Nino dressed in new finery waiting to be blessed. So wished we could have taken photos of ninos. Numerous families had their doors wide open to their living rooms to welcome friends and neighbors to view their nativity scenes and eat tamales provided by those who found the baby in their slices of roscas de reyes, kings’ cakes, on January 6.