Then the music started. A huge brass marine band started warming up. Two men set up a marimba next to our table and punched out a flute-like song on its carved wooden keys, while a saxophone lilted along in dark harmony. A loud traveling mariachi band drew near. The bawling singer was shaped like a bell; his jacket stuck out a full foot away from his trousers. Next came a soulful cowboy band from the North with a wailing tenor. Two tables down, a man with a ten-gallon hat and a posse of friends held his cellular phone up toward the lamenting tenor. The unseen listener on the phone was serenaded for countless songs. I hoped it was a senorita.
Meanwhile, out in the square, dancing to their own musicians, a folkloric ballet company began to put on a show, stamping and twirling. Resplendent in skin-tight pants, the young men pranced between the spinning skirts of their partners. The women's final costume was wedding white with a slash of blood red at the waist. After the ballet was over, several hundred people drifted off into side streets and children danced on the abandoned platform, gyrating like the mechanical toys sold by the man next to the ice cream vendor. We decided to go have dinner.
We took a taxi to one of the city's better restaurants, Albatros, where, surrounded by deep red mahogany and beveled glass, we ate mushrooms with garlic and chiles, stuffed oysters with the ubiquitous tart lime, shrimp with chipotle sauce, black beans with dry, tangy cheese and fish so superbly fried that it was redolent only of salt and the sea, with not a hint of grease.
We strolled back to our hotel and fell asleep to the sound of the whistles of the ships tooting mournfully in the harbor. In the morning, we noticed that several ships had sailed during the night and a new one, from Russia, was anchored just across from us. On the horizon, the distant ice-capped cone of a volcano towered above the shell-pink clouds of dawn. Next door to the hotel, cadets in snappy white uniforms marched out to the brassy sob of a band playing reveille. Out in the harbor, tugs yanked freighters this way and that, terriers at the heels of cows.
The beachfront promenade just to the south of downtown glowed in the slanting morning light. White, lacy cast-iron benches and rows of coconut palms faced the sparkling ocean. Families splashed in the shallows, kicking up the tiny waves that ankled around them. The \o7 zocalo \f7 was shining wet, the debris from the night before already washed and swept away before our first cup of coffee.
All of our early mornings were spent at the Gran Cafe de Parroquia, just across from the \o7 zocalo\f7 . It's a fluorescent-lighted cafe covered in white octagonal tiles, with more than 100 tables, mostly full by the time we arrived. Huge polished espresso machines line one wall, right next to a constant flow of white-coated waiters. The occupations here are conversation, food, newspapers, deals and, above all else, coffee. Much of Mexico has bad coffee, watery and thin. But in Veracruz province, its serving and drinking is nearly reverential. At the Parroquia, the first shot of thick black coffee comes in a clear glass. Then the customer hits the side of the glass with a spoon with a sharp thwack. A boy holding a huge pot of scalding milk rushes over. As intense as an altar boy waving incense, he puts the curving spout next to the glass, then lifts his wrist and arm with a flourish. The milk cascades out in an arching stream, too high and alarming to be believed. And then with a flick of his wrist, the stream stops, the coffee swirls to a rest, mere millimeters away from the top. There's never a drop of coffee or milk spilled and then he's off to answer the next insistent ring.
In the late mornings, we walked through the markets. Bananas and mangoes were stacked yards high. Glistening mountains of fish and shrimp smelled all salty and clean. The morning light shone through bright pink cutout papers hung along the windows. The duenna of one eating establishment wore a dress of salmon and green that exactly matched the flowers on her oilcloths. Her counter was decorated with foot-high blue and gold Virgins; in fact, Guadalupe was everywhere, even featured on plastic shopping bags.
To get a feel for a different part of Veracruz, after a few days at the Emporio, we moved a few miles south of town to the Art Deco Hotel Mocambo--a '40s ocean liner of a hotel with carved wooden palm trees arching over the indoor pool and filigree iron vaulting many stories above the outside pool. The bar is lined with Honduran mahogany and sea glass portholes. A giant ship's wheel placed incongruously on the foyer ceiling sent us into spasms of giggles. On the beautiful beach, where we spent our noon hours, we sank into ice-blue Adirondack chairs while white-coated waiters rushed to bring us seafood and beer.