I. Off to Mexico,
the beginning of October, 1973, I learned that Washington County Fire was going
to hire me on April 1. I was unemployed at the time, and jobs were scarce. My
bank account held roughly $300, and with five months until the job started I
knew it wouldn’t last that long, even with my $35 monthly rent. I also realized
that it might be the last chance for me to fulfill a longstanding obsession: to
take a major expedition into unfamiliar territory. At the August family vacation
in the San Diego area I had felt a strong pull from Mexico. Those were the days
of Castaneda’s books on Don Juan, the Yaqui sorcerer, and that trippy fairytale
coupled with the exotic vibe of mystery emanating from beyond the border and my
decent Spanish skills made the call irresistible. It all added up to me leaving
my few belongings with a friend, Marcelle Chiasson, and heading South, with
practically no clue about what I was doing.
took a day pack as well as a duffle bag stuffed with cooking gear, a sleeping
bag and pad, books, including the newly published People’s Guide to Mexico, and plenty of clothes. I closed out
bank account and put the slim result in my wallet. I left my venerable red
Volkswagen, Fearless Fred the Cosmic Traveler, at Marcelle’s, and jumped on a
San Diego I met up with Caroline Dagner, a woman I’d met on the train a month
before. She agreed to take me down to the Mexicali train station in her
drove through the gorgeous mountain scenery of Southernmost California to the
small town of Tecate, just over the border. I had heard that for a longer stay
than two days you had to have a tourist card, but the border police told me I
had to get it in Mexicali, as they did not have an office.
and I drove east through rugged country until we reached a mind-blowing
viewpoint. The highway arrives at the edge of the desert at the north of the
Gulf of California a couple of thousand feet above it, and the vista is awe
inspiring. I got the first strong sense that I was in for an overwhelming
experience. We stopped and meditated there for a long time among huge boulders
poised on the cliff’s edge. The strong wind and ghostly landscape were
beckoning me into a mysterious, unearthly world.
in the car, zigzagging down the escarpment, the lurid landscape rose up to
engulf us. Once at sea level we were in a desolate zone of almost pure sand,
hot but not unbearable. Beyond the desert is a forsaken plain littered with
rocks and withered scrub. We pulled off the road at an abandoned adobe hut to
make camp for the night. It wasn’t easy to clear a spot free of cactus and
sharp stones for our bedding, but I was only 22 and still capable of roughing
it. Caroline, ten years older, was not so amused, but was being a good sport.
into the one-room hut, I was tickled to see pages of a comic book scattered
around. They were cool! Kaliman, el Hombre Increible: Kaliman the Incredible
Man. The pages were a bit crumpled and had brown stains on them, but I thought
nothing of it as I read the outlandish adventures of the hero of the day. It
was only later I learned that old comics served a second valuable purpose as
toilet paper after they had been read. Fortunately, the papers had been there
for a long time, and any bacteria were long expired. I survived my introduction
to Kaliman without illness. I still have a few issues (clean, bought at book
stands) in my collection.
innocence was in some ways beneficial. I am happy that I learned a lot about
the culture by direct interaction, rather than being introduced to it through
books. It helped me to feel much more connected. Before long people would be
insisting I must be half Mexican, one of the nicest compliments I have ever
night was very bright with star shine, as it was far from any town and there
were virtually no cars on the road. We scanned the sky for a first glimpse of
Comet Kohoutek, but it had not yet put in an appearance.
A highlight of that winter across
the globe was the much anticipated arrival of the Comet Kohoutek, billed as the
comet of the century. Every night that winter the whole world scanned the
heavens whenever the clouds parted, but it remained elusive without a telescope
until the very end of its visit. Due to the jazzed up state of the collective
consciousness in those days, there were many predictions of it bringing in the
new enlightenment, the last judgment, or what have you. I’ll save you the
bother of looking it up on Wikipedia, which reads in part:
Because Comet Kohoutek fell far
short of expectations, its name became synonymous with spectacular duds.
However, it was fairly bright as comets go and put on a respectable show in the
evenings shortly after perihelion.
In 1973, David Berg,
founder of the Children of
God, predicted that Comet Kohoutek foretold a colossal doomsday event in the United States in January
1974. Children of God members distributed Berg's message of doom across the
country. The majority of U.S.-based members then fled in anticipation to
or formed new ones, around the world.
or no comet, it was a glorious night, made more thrilling by my eager
anticipation of what was to come. I had no way of knowing how profound my time
was going to be, but I think even we dull humans sense such things, don’t we?
the morning we putted on into Mexicali, and found the immigration office near
the border crossing. I was not surprised when the police gestured me into their
fortress, where I was delivered to the Chief of the Border Patrol.
Chief went on at length of how I needed to pay a fee for the necessary
documentation. I asked for proof, and he ruffled through his desk for a while
without finding anything. He repeated that I needed to pay or I might not be
able to enter Mexico. I might even go to jail. I asked what I had to do and he
looked hopeful, but when he realized I wasn’t going to pay he grew angry and
dismissed me with a bark. It wasn’t until I became more familiar with Mexican
culture of the time that I realized he wanted a “mordida,” a bribe. A small
“donation” would have gotten me a stamped tourist card on the spot. As it
turned out, I never needed one anyway. My cluelessness had carried me through.
lobby of the immigration building featured an excellent free tourist highway
map, which served me well and which I still possess. The population has more
than doubled in the intervening 43 years (58 million to 130 million), and many
of the roadless areas on that map are no longer roadless.
we drove to the train station, where Caroline dropped me and turned for home. I
went in and bought a ticket to Guaymas, the first substantial town on the
shores of the Gulf, over 500 miles south. I checked my duffle bag and the
attendant said something about revisado,
but I didn’t know the word and thought nothing of it. Soon I was in a window
seat on the Gulf side, ready for a day of admiring the views.
was a spectacular ride. In the Sonoran desert, not too far down, we pulled into
what may have been a whistle stop, a tiny village engulfed in the most amazing
cactus forest I have ever seen. An incredible variety of unique plants towered
50 feet or more over the single story dwellings. I was enchanted, and swore I
would return some day. I have just checked all the stops on the route and none
of them resemble that magical spot in the least. It may have been the first of
several inexplicable happenings I observed on my journey. Mexico still had
substantial magic. It seems like the mystical world has retreated farther since
those less corrupt days.
immediately I struck up a conversation with my seatmate, a joven slightly younger than me, on a college break. My Spanish
quite good in those days, with lots of grammar work under my belt, and I have
always been grateful to my high school teacher Mr. Newell, tough as he was, for
forcing us to speak aloud in every class. He insisted the whole point of
learning a language was to communicate, and I knew he was right because my
mother used to complain that she had studied French from the first grade
through college and could barely speak it at all.
I couldn’t come up with the word I wanted, I reached for my pack to pull out
the dictionary but my new friend stopped me. He forced me to describe what I
wanted to say without using the crutch of the little yellow book, and then he
told me the word I wanted. It was easier than I thought, and the dictionary was
put away for good. We talked intensely the whole day, a marathon session that
made my head ache. I learned a lot of terms that hadn’t been covered in the
classroom, some useful swear words, along with most memorably mota for weed and maricón, highly pejorative for
gay. In the days ahead I would
occasionally be called maricón, and I
would have to decide if it was meant as a friendly poke in the ribs or a
reaching Guaymas I had my second magical moment. It was late afternoon and the
sun was at a low angle. I had been expecting to see the Gulf, but hadn’t yet,
as the train runs pretty far inland. Suddenly we came to a gorgeous scene of
rugged mountains plunging down into the sea, bathed in the golden light of
day’s end. Distant waves rippled on to an invitingly empty beach. I was
electrified! It was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever encountered. As
I gazed in blissful thoughts of camping right
there, we entered a long curve of the coastline and the image began to
dissolve. Dry ground emerged here and there from the water, and soon the whole
scene had melted back into pure desert. It was my first real mirage, and still
the best, by far! It remains as a vivid image in my memory.
after dark the train pulled in to Guaymas station, at the time a few kilometers
inland of the city, standing by itself in an empty landscape. I bade my friend
goodbye and went to the baggage claim. The train roared off, but there was no
duffle bag to be seen. With mounting apprehension I asked, and got a shrug, so
I sat out in the nearby field and waited, hoping it would arrive on the next
train. It didn’t. I spent the night by the station meeting every train, but my
duffle bag never showed up. I figured what I had heard is true: you can easily
get ripped off in Mexico, and you’d better watch out. At dawn I gave up on it
and started walking into town.
I soon realized was what a blessing it was to not be encumbered with a bulky,
heavy pack. I didn’t need all that gear. Mexico was so inexpensive that I could
buy meals and still remain within my $2 per day budget, especially if I camped
out some of the time. Best of all I was free to roam. I suppose this could be
considered the third magical happening of the day. I had one change of clothes,
a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s All One God soap, my dictionary, a pocket knife, and
a few toiletries. It was nearly all I would need for the nearly four months I
was to be on the road.
the edge of town I was accosted by a boy of about eight, who offered to show me
around for a peso. I took him up on it. The peso was twelve to the dollar back
then, and I had no idea where to go. He showed me a few of the sights while
leading me to a cheap pension with a fabulous eatery in a home next door. As we
went, we struck up a deal. I would speak Spanish and he would correct me, if he
could speak English and I would correct him. It worked wonderfully, and I used
the plan all through my trip with everyone who wanted to learn English. Both
our learning curves were steep, at least by my standards.
chavo friend also taught me something
I was in the process of discovering: Mexicans on the whole are the nicest,
friendliest, kindest, most considerate people on earth. Of course, every
country has a full range of types, but the ones I met were like old
friends—really good old friends. I was coming to paradise, even if there were a
few bugs in it, both literally and figuratively.
beach was less than charming, so I mainly explored the town and talked with my
diminutive guide about how the basics of life worked there. As a substitute for
my lost sleeping bag, I bought a cheap blanket in the market that I could roll
up and tie at the bottom of my pack, which lasted throughout the trip. My
favorite event was being semi-adopted by the woman who ran the tiny restaurant
next to my rooming house, delighted to have a gringo customer who spoke
reasonable Spanish. She painstakingly instructed me on how to make proper
refritos and chili rellenos. Whether it was my state of mind or reality, hers
were the best chili rellenos I have ever tasted, and I ate them exclusively,
except for breakfast, where I was introduced to the classic huevos revueltos
(scrambled eggs with onion and tomato), beans, tortillas and pickled jalapenos.
And of course salsa, one of the human race’s greatest inventions. I was to be
on a salsa exploration for the entire time, and what a happy fate! Though Deb
has taken over from me in cooking what I learned from her, I credit that
woman’s lessons as the prime reason our home is the best vegetarian Mexican
non-restaurant in Portland, and likely all of Oregon.
had been a sincere vegetarian since the fall of 1970, when my newly met guru
Nitya made a convincing case for it, mainly based on kind-heartedness.
Subsequently the science, especially Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, the first popular book to
environmental impact of meat production as wasteful and a contributor to global
food shortages, reinforced my commitment. As North American Mexican food had
plenty of meat-free options, I was unaware of how my eating style would be
challenged in the months ahead. Chili rellenos were almost always safe, so long
as you made sure they were stuffed with cheese rather than chicken.
is not the most exciting town in Mexico, so I didn’t stay long. I made one last
futile walk out to the train station the evening before boarding a very early
bus south. I was relieved to find no duffle waiting for me, so I was free to
travel light. This was the heyday of Mazatlan as a beach resort, so I thought
of just going that far, another ten hours or so away. I had heard of mangos but
never eaten any, so I picked up a huge ripe one at the market before taking a
front row seat with a good view. It wasn’t long before I came to know why
experienced travelers did not sit in the “suicide seat.” Bus drivers thought of
themselves as incipient jet pilots, kings of the road, and dressed the part.
Speed was critical. Pretty quickly I was mesmerized with terror, though
everyone else looked as cool as could be. We soared down the narrow, shoulderless
roads, where floods of people were walking or biking. Somehow they all knew
just the right moment to step off the pavement for a second as the bus flew by,
and then calmly stepped back up. Most amazing were the bikes heading the same
direction, and so judging our approach by sound alone. They would swerve off
onto the rough shoulder at the last second without shedding a drop of sweat,
and then use our slipstream to be drawn back up onto the pavement. Eventually I
got used to the mayhem and settled down. It looked like everyone was going to
survive. Was this yet another miracle?
I realized the driver was actually very good at his job, it was time to try out
my very ripe mango. I cut into it and juice sprayed all over me. Of course I
didn’t have so much as a napkin. It was the juiciest mess I had ever dealt
with. By the time I finished I was like a tar baby, coated with sticky goo.
Happily it was a great mango, among the best things I had ever eaten. Licking
it off all my exposed skin kept me occupied for hours.
surreptitiously observed the Mexican style of eating citrus, which conserves
all the juice and is super clean—just a few fingers to lick at the end—and
realized it was a much better choice for bus fare. Next time I determined to
bring a grapefruit.
asked a neighbor about Culiacan, and they wagged their finger at me. “Very
dangerous. The center of cocaine trafficking.” So I stayed on until Mazatlan,
where I got down and bounced right back on board. I don’t think I even bought
an onward ticket, and of course didn’t have any checked luggage. The city
loomed up with a maze of high rise hotels—exactly the kind of place I was
aiming to avoid. It was on to Guadalajara, another seven or eight hours down
the bus was comfortable enough, it was a fairly boring ride, until near dusk we
began to climb into the mountains, going from the dry scrub of the north into
dramatic jungle scenery of the central coast. My wild fantasies from childhood—Don Sturdy with the Big Snake Hunters,
etc.— lent an extra whiff of expectancy to the scene. After growing up in a
family that craved the familiar, I was finally leaving behind the world I knew,
and heading into the unknown.
II. Jalisco to
cheapest places to stay tend to cluster around the central bus station, and the
mile-high city of Guadalajara is no exception. But it is a noisy place, and
with dozens of buses surging through at all hours the pollution was dreadful. I
decided to go back down to the coast immediately.
randomly chose Barra de Navidad as my goal, and it was a fortuitous pick. The
road plunges down through an incredible canyon featuring cliffs hundreds of
feet high bedecked with hanging vines, with spectacular trees clinging to every
niche in the rock faces. Exotic birds soared on the updrafts. I got my first
confrontation of the trip with my fear of heights, as the road wriggled along
the cliff face above giddy drops. I was in an altered state from the
overwhelming beauty, and so paid scant attention to my worries. it helped that
my fate was not in my hands.
struck me as an uninspiring strip of beach next to a small town with nothing
much to commend it. I slept on the beach and talked to other travelers,
eventually hearing of a secluded spot up the coast called Tenacatita. They
failed warn me there was virtually nothing there.
caught a bus north and was dropped off at a miniscule dirt track in the middle
of a vast forest, with no sign of human habitation anywhere around. I wondered
if there was any place known as
Tenacatita, but had to presume that the bus drivers knew where it was. I set
off down the three mile road to the beach. The only food I had brought along
was a spectacular pineapple.
when I began to hear the surf in the distance, a man stepped out of the woods
and greeted me. We struck up a conversation and he walked with me to the end of
the road. It turned out that Tenacatita consisted of two palapa huts on the
horn of a large and pristine bay, just inside a rocky headland. The bay was a
picture of paradise, untouched by civilization. Not a boat broke the water, not
a building was in sight for miles and miles. Only jungle, edged with a narrow
strip of sand. I parked my pack on the beach and waded into the warm water,
grateful to rinse off the dust of my long trek.
new friend, Miguel, said he had to go home for a while but would be back by
evening. I lazed on the beach the rest of the afternoon, and when he returned
we went into the first of the two restaurants. The menu was if anyone showed up
with a fish, there would be a fish. Otherwise there was a small pot of beans
on. Miguel ordered a bottle of tequila, and we set it on the table between us.
hadn’t been drinking alcohol much in those days, due to yoga practice and also
having had a form of hepatitis a few years earlier. The doctors had told me not
to drink until my liver healed, and Nitya had advised the same, with no time
limit. Narayana Guru’s maxim about alcohol was, “Don’t take poison.” So fairly
quickly I got dramatically loosened up. Our conversation ranged over
Norteamericano relations and politics, and I learned a lot about everyday life
in rural Mexico. Miguel insisted I had to be part Mexican, because I was
already very tan and my Spanish was good—and growing better by the sip. Food
soon became irrelevant. A beautiful sunset spread around the point and
enlivened the sky, after which the darkness rapidly intensified. Insect noises
were the only sound, beyond the distant hum of surf on the other side of the
point, where there was a grand ocean beach.
we neared the end of the first bottle of tequila I was in another world. I
think I was half Mexican by then.
Most worrisome, I was picking up enough about the culture to realize that I was
going to have to equally match what Miguel had already provided for our
evening: another bottle of the sauce. The idea insinuated itself with the last
shred of my sanity, as I was already roaring drunk. Yet fair was fair. Not only
my honor, but the honor of the entire United States was at stake.
little eatery featured a single light bulb suspended over the kitchen, which
stayed on as long as we remained. We were the only customers between the two
spots, so the other restaurant closed up early and its proprietor went off to
bed. Visitors must have been very rare in those days. If only it could still be
tried to cheat the tequila toward Miguel, but he was a stickler for equal
opportunity, so in the end we each downed a full bottle. Well after midnight
the last drop was finally drained. I was utterly fried. My thirst was
excruciating, but there was no water, safe or otherwise. I was practically
hallucinating. Tequila is, after all, more of a drug than an alcohol,
especially in massive quantities.
the bottle was empty at last, Miguel slurred, “We sleep on the beach.” I
followed him through the woods to the ocean side of the promontory, and rolled
up as best I could in my wholly inadequate blanket. I was not so much asleep as
unconscious. It became quite cold, and my mouth was so dry I could barely
breathe. The night was less than idyllic, to say the least. The only reason I
didn’t throw up was that I hadn’t eaten all day and had nothing on board.
the morning I was shivering hard with the cold. Miguel sat up and stretched,
and showed me the proper way to stay warm on the beach: you dig a shallow
trench and cover yourself with sand along the sides. Now he tells me! After
that he bid me adios, stumbled off and disappeared.
was far too miserable to even stand up, nursing just about the worst hangover
of my life. The idea of hydration as a cure for alcohol poisoning had not yet
penetrated my awareness. All I had was the pineapple.
got to tell you that a pineapple is not a good source of water. Way too acidic.
While delicious enough, the acid burned my parched mouth. Yet I was so ravenous
I ate the whole thing, literally shredding my mouth in the process.
wasn’t packing any aspirin either. No surprise there.
I wobbled to my feet and faced the arduous return to the main road. If food and
water had been available I might have stayed in Tenacatita for much longer, but
there was nothing. The slog to the road felt like a death march, endlessly
forcing one foot ahead, and then dragging the other to the fore. I didn’t know much,
but I knew one thing for sure: I wouldn’t be drinking vast amounts of tequila
last I rounded a curve and could make out the highway in the distance. And what
was that? A woman standing at the intersection, half hidden in the underbrush,
tending one of those little ice boxes on wheels. I knew she hadn’t been there
the day before, but my heart leapt. As I approached she opened the top and I
walked up and peered in.
solid block of ice filled the cart, with holes chiseled in it, and each hole
tightly gripped a bottle of beer. I drew one out, popped the top, and took a
long pull. It was pure heaven! I had never tasted anything so refreshing. I
took a big gulp of air and then powered the rest of it down in one long swig.
I knew why people, especially male people, worshiped beer. It was truly divine!
I was saved! I resolved to become a dedicated beer drinker from that day forth.
first beer restored my will to live, so I could savor the second more
completely. The coldness alone was unbeatable—it was my first cold drink in
Mexico—and the taste and bubbliness took it to the heights. On top of that it
was made out of purified water. I was converted.
refreshed and with a near-religious appreciation of ice-cold beer, I stood by
the road awaiting the next bus. Buses were few and far between, but before too
long a truck pulled up and offered me a lift. I gave the driver a few pesos for
a ride into Manzanillo, the next big city down the coast, and climbed up in
back. It was the beginning of a period of hitchhiking that turned out to be the
best way to see the countryside ever invented. Sometimes the drivers asked for
extremely minimal amounts of money, less even than the very thrifty buses, and
just as often they let me tag along for free.
were open stake-sided trucks, often with blood or animal parts or some other
residue rolling around in the bed. Depending on how clean it was, I would sit
on my pack or stand holding the railing and have a 360 degree view. In 1973 much
of Mexico was still wild land, and the scenery was breathtaking. As a
hitchhiker I was in the catbird seat for sure.
was a squalid, unappetizing place. Behind a big concrete wall out on a
peninsula loomed Las Hadas, the first of the super tourist developments
undertaken by the Mexican government, and the purported playground of the rich
and famous. Not my style! Otherwise it was a grimy port with nothing to commend
it. There was no coast road beyond Manzanillo, so I hitched another lift up to
Colima, the capital of the state of Colima, 60 miles or so inland, arriving in
was the only place on my trip that I felt uneasy, and it was likely my fault.
After securing a cheap room, I went to a bar nearby to explore my newfound love
of cerveza. It was a hardcore pool hall full of tough characters, the kind
where you pissed on one of the walls if you didn’t want to go out into the
street. I got a lot of hard looks, but I was saved by my obvious poverty—I was
hardly worth rolling. “No, gracias, I don’t know how to play pool.” In fact I
was a decent pool player, but I could see right off those guys were pros. I had
a quick beer and fled back to my pension.
next day I flagged a truck and was off through inspiring mountain scenery. I
made my way on back roads through Colima and into Michoacán. This stretch was
just about the most ruggedly remote place I had ever been. Toward dusk I
spotted a rare hotel at an intersection and got down. Hotel was a bit of an exaggeration. My room cost one peso, and
overpriced at that. It was utterly filthy, full of bugs of all sorts, sporting
a brutal rope bed with no bedding whatsoever. No windows and a dirt floor. Even
though it was hotter than Hades, I had to use my blanket to keep the mosquitoes
off. There was no town nearby and no food was available. It was the Hotel of
Last Resort for the desperate, and I was fully qualified.
I had some peanuts and a bottle of soda water with me. I usually allowed myself
one small bottle per day to brush teeth and sip a bit. I got out of my
hell-room at the first sign of daylight and stood for a long time waiting for
any kind of transportation to come along. I was prepared to go any direction
just to get out of there. Apparently I had been dropped off on the other side
of the middle of nowhere. Yet practically all vehicles would stop at a wave, so
when an open-bed truck finally appeared I was invited aboard. It was actually
headed northeast, the way I wanted to go. The thrilling mountain scenery and bright
sunshine were somewhat offset by several intestines littering the bed. For this
leg I stayed on my feet, wearing my pack. The fresh breeze and sunshine quickly
restored my joie de vivre.
was seriously heading into the wilds now. I caught a number of rides through
gorgeous countryside, arriving in the late afternoon at hard-bitten Los Reyes,
Michoacán. I had heard of a volcano in the area, Paricutin, that had erupted
out of a cornfield in 1943, just 30 years previous. It was one of the few
volcanoes witnessed from its inception in historical times. My map showed me I
could get a look on my route the next day.
Reyes was a kind of Mexican Wild West town, with not even a plate of beans to
be had for a vegetarian. I wandered all over looking for any alternative food,
but found nothing, not even fruit. It was very hot and dusty. I couldn’t
imagine what manner of kings had lent their titles to the place. The market
featured several food stalls with various unidentifiable roasting carcasses
swaying over tables of tortillas. I was very hungry, so it was time to swallow
my pride and eat some meat. I chose a well-done one that may have been goat and
got a small plate for my dinner, afterwards sequestering myself in my tiny
was suffocatingly hot inside, and I writhed for a long time before dropping
asleep. I had a memorable dream that seemed to last the whole night long, all
in red. There was a nuclear war going on, and I knew I had to get from the US
East Coast to my safe zone in the West. I was armed with a machine gun, and the
entire nation was filled with enemies. I blasted my way through the East,
Midwest, Great Plains and the Rockies, shooting everything that moved. I awoke
in a fever, covered with sweat. Then I remembered what I had been dreaming, and
burst out laughing. So that was what eating meat did to your psyche! Ah! All
that invisible suffering did actually have an impact. I resolved to never
forget the lesson, and I never have: a lifelong pacifist converted to a lethal
murderer, at least in his mind, by what he ate, once upon a time.
was exhausted after my nuclear holocaust of a night, but early in the morning
grabbed a bus going to Uruapan, figuring I could sleep on the way. I was just
settling in and relaxing in my uncomfortable seat when a huge rooster I had yet
to notice, hanging upside down in the seat right in front of me, crowed and
beat his immense wings in my face. It was so startling I was instantly flooded
with adrenaline and all chance of sleep was banished. The ride was a rare
experience in itself, though, one not to be missed. Everyone else was an
Indian, dressed for market day and carrying their goods, including lots of live
animals. Probably it was Sunday. The road wound up and up, and at the high
point Paricutín was visible not far off to the south, still steaming and barren
of vegetation. I might have been in the Andes.
Uruapan I changed buses for another plunge to the coast. All through Michoacán
I had been having trouble understanding the brand of Spanish spoken, and my
seatmate was truly impossible to follow. I kept saying please slow down; slower
please; and every time I did he actually sped up. We did a lot of talking, but
I was guessing the whole time. My confidence as a Spanish speaker was severely
dented that day. Unfortunately I have a pretty decent accent, so I sound like I
speak Spanish much better than I actually do.
was soon to be treated to another Mexican miracle. The highway was a narrow
two-lane track that descended to the coast through yet another canyon
wilderness. Though not as jungly as Jalisco, the terrain was similar. My fear
of heights was aggravated by the thousands of feet drop off, luckily on the
other side of the road, to the left. A vertical cliff rose up on our side, but
I did have a ten foot separation with the sheer, unguarded drop into the
canyon. I tried not to look, but how can you not?
were the days when the New York Times had a filler they used whenever a column
came up a little short: the bus plunge. There were bus plunges reported in that
paper all the time, mainly in East and South Asia, but also Central and South
America too. It was a kind of sick joke. You could hardly get through any issue
without a bus plunge notice tucked somewhere. And no one ever survived a newsworthy
bus plunge. They all died. This did not improve my state of mind as we whipped
along at breakneck speed above all that empty air.
highway was curvy enough that you could never see very far ahead. All was
tolerable until we got behind a slower moving bus—probably it was hampered with
a sane driver being reasonably cautious. Our personal aviator hesitated not a
moment but swung out to pass, even though we were approaching a sharp curve to
the right, the road disappearing behind the cliff. Our wheels were just on the
edge of the precipice, and since we were going downhill the bus was moving at a
good clip. I could feel tension shoot through the passengers, and they all
began babbling excitedly. I was not the only one nervous about this insane move.
We inched forward only slightly faster than the bus we were overtaking, still
not even with it, and suddenly there was another bus shooting up around the
bend, not fifty yards ahead. Everyone screamed at top volume, including me, and
I shut my eyes tight, preparing for the end. Did our driver back off? Never!
There was the screech of a gunned engine, and then unearthly stillness. Were we
plunging through empty space? I opened my eyes. We were alone on the road. All
was well. The passengers looked at each other with astonishment. Were we alive,
or was this heaven?
rest of the trip was sheer anticlimax. I can only think some magic must have
happened, and we flew over the oncoming bus to touch down on an empty stretch
somewhere else. I’m sure what I experienced did take place, and yet, and yet….
It was impossible. I know I’ll never be sure.
Azul was very basic, but had a decent beach and a decidedly tropical feel. I
was utterly grateful to be alive. I strolled down to the ocean and sat in the
sand, reveling in the warm sunshine, and most of all of not being in a moving
vehicle. Fairly soon I was approached by a young man about my age who struck up
a friendly conversation. He invited me to sleep at his house nearby, and I
agreed. It was a tiny, one-room structure. We sat outside while his wife cooked
us a simple dinner. I asked where I might get some mota, and he told me to
wait. In a few minutes he was back with a lovely big bag of a close relative of
Acapulco Gold, what the dopers in the US called Mish ma Khan, for Michoacán.
For a few dollars it was mine. (I already had rolling papers and matches.) He
told me there were check points on the road south, but if I carried it on my
person I would be safe, because the soldiers were mainly looking for arms and
they didn’t do body searches.
My friend showed me where I could
throw down my bedding for the night, on the other side of a rude fence from a
gigantic hog, under a palm frond roof. She must have weighed many hundreds of
pounds, and was immobile, just lying there flattened out, a couple of meters
long. I made friends and stroked her ears. She grunted contentedly to me. After
visiting with my friend for a while more, I turned in, nodding off to the sound
of the surf and the gentle sighs of the sow.
woke early in the morning in a peaceful state. The gentle hum of the surf and
the musical birdsound was accompanied by a pungent odor, which I began to
recognize as I came more awake. Blood. Sangre. Mixed with manteca de cerdo.
Lard. My sleepmate had been butchered while I slept, and her sweet presence was
knew that butchering a hog was a rare opportunity for poor folk to make a few
bucks, but it convinced me more than ever of the righteousness of being a
vegetarian. I lived in a world with plenty of plant foods available, and they
would do for me.
had it that Zihuatanejo was the hippest place around, and only a few hours down
the coast. Ten years before it had been ground zero of Leary and Alpert’s LSD
gobbling International Federation for Internal Freedom (IFIF). I bade my friend
goodbye, after being cautioned that the next state, Guerrero, was in rebellion
and was being hammered by the Federales. I wrapped my stash in an extra plastic
bag and tucked it under my belt before I made my way to the edge of town and
prepared to flag my next ride.
in a truck bed was unbelievably exotic and beautiful through those parts. I was
beginning to feel like I was getting to where I wanted to be. The beaches were
more and more spectacular and the vegetation more lush. There were a couple of
checkpoints, but the soldiers just waved us through with a peek in the front
seat. An empty truck was not a threat. Pretty soon I found myself in
Zihuatanejo, Zee-wha for short.
ride dropped me at the edge of town, and I walked down the dusty main street
toward the little bay it’s situated on. There was not much beyond the one
street, with a little more extensive development around the waterfront. As I
neared the bay I heard a shout, and then another. I turned and saw a young man,
not any older than me, hoofing it down the street, panting hard. He ran right
by me, turned left at the waterfront and disappeared over a slight rise. A
block behind him was a cadre of about ten soldiers in full pursuit. They sped past
me over the rise, and in a few seconds there was a fusillade of shots.
took it as a clear sign to move on. Zihuatanejo was not safe. I slunk back to
the main road and caught the next friendly truck going my way.
III. La Barrita and
traffic was light in those days, there were bound to be empty trucks sooner or
later, and these were almost always happy to have a crazy gringo ride in the
back. About an hour down the road I discovered my first truly great spot, where
I could finally hang around for an extended period. The road swept down near a
magnificent beach bracketed by low rocky headlands. Two open-air restaurants
stood on the verge of the sand, with no other domiciles nearby. They were
little more than palm frond roofs over a few tables on the sand adjoining a
small kitchen. I yelled “Bajar!” and my ride pulled over to let me climb down.
Almost before I could say thanks it roared off in a cloud of exhaust.
stood for a moment beside the road rapt in awe. The hot afternoon sun irradiated
a pristine setting. A scraggly, flower-bedecked forest spread to within a few
meters of the beach, its trees low enough to permit grand vistas up and down
the coast. High mountains sprawled over each other into the receding distances,
the abode of Acapulco Gold and anti-Federal revolutionaries. The beach was
another kind of burning gold that could blister your feet in mid-afternoon.
Modest waves rolled in, breaking far out and arriving at the shore as exhausted
ripples. Dipping my feet in the shallows, the water was the perfect
temperature—pleasantly cool—and the views inland were unobstructed. The
restaurants looked deserted, though they were clearly still in business. Once
in a while a vehicle would swish by like a distant insect, otherwise it was delightfully
still. I felt embraced by the immense wonderfulness of our amazing planet.
walked a little way down the beach from the restaurants and set up camp. There
wasn’t much to it. I had my flimsy blue blanket, with the blue day pack for a
pillow. The pack now reeked of Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap, because the top
hadn’t stayed shut and the whole bottle had run out and soaked everything I
owned, dictionary and all. (This led to a wacky future encounter with Dr.
Bronner and his wife a year later at his home in Escondido, California—a story
for another day.)
for a swim. I slipped on my Speedo and sprinted over the hot sand to the
blissful water. I was raised as part fish, and I reveled in the creamy sea,
spinning and plunging like a porpoise. Though the waves were breaking quite far
out, I enjoyed riding them after they had broken, still strong enough to give
me a decent ride. I had finally arrived in paradise!
thoroughly rinsing off the grime of the road, every nerve keyed to an intense pitch
of joy, I returned to my humble campsite. And now for the crowning touch:
inhaling a stupendous joint in the first paranoia-free setting of my life. The
lovely buds, at home in their natural setting, furnished a unique and glorious
high. I eventually came to realize that, in addition to the absence of fear,
the very presence of a mental sphere absolutely empty of anyone else being in a
place like mine made for an untrammeled psychic space. Mexico was perfect in
that sense, because very few people actually used marijuana. It was a cash
crop. Wherever I went the feeling of expansive mental openness prevailed, more
readily sensed with a buzz on. Later I would notice how congested the airspace
was becoming back in the States, as more and more people—not all of them
enlightened hippies— turned on regularly. Here it was virgin territory, all
mine to explore. A spectacular sunset only added to the uplift.
of my neighboring restaurants had gotten any customers that day, and in fact in
my ten days or so stay there was seldom anyone else on the beach and only
rarely anyone dropping in for a meal. Occasionally one or two locals would walk
by, but otherwise the place was my personal preserve.
to save money I often dined on the odds and ends in my pack. I had my daily
bottle of soda water, and usually a few cents worth of peanuts or pepitas and a
couple of luscious fruits to keep a bit of flesh on the bone.
darkness set in the insect chorus behind me intensified to a shrill psychedelic
vibrating wail, almost like I was tripping. It was a bug’s world. I was
ensconced in a womb of sensory extravagance.
being in rather short supply, I rolled up early in my blanket and lay down.
Getting comfortable on the beach is tricky. The sand packs harder than you
might think, and every time you move the ripples you’ve made are all wrong.
Plus my spot was kind of… itchy. Back in Tenacatita, Miguel had shown me how to
scoop out a shallow depression to stay warmer, but it only helped a minimal
amount. By predawn light I was cold and itching like crazy. Paradise had faded
into something less exhilarating.
the nearer restaurant began to show signs of life I went over to see what they
had to offer. I enjoyed a simple breakfast practically for free, while staring
out to sea from under the sheltering palapa. Several nice hammocks looped
through corners of the dining area for customers to use, and before long I was
trying one out.
proprietors made me a proposition. If I ate dinner there, which would run about
a dollar and was invariably excellent, I could sleep in one of the hammocks and
leave my pack in the kitchen for safe keeping whenever I went out. Moving in to
the new digs took about five minutes. Soon I was lying in a hammock gringo
style—straight on—until my hosts showed me how to lie at a diagonal so I could
be flatter. It was much more comfortable that way. Once you got it just right a
hammock was heavenly: cool, rocking gently in the light breezes, out of reach
of the crawling insects, at least. It was a psychedelic experience all its own.
Meals were always “catch of the
day.” Locals would come by with whatever they had just caught or pried loose
from the rocks, and the deal was made with a nod. Red snapper was superb. The
most memorable meal was a net full of oysters that a boy brought straight up
from the rocks. Fresher than fresh: he and his bag were still dripping wet when
they came up to me. The cook shelled the oysters and doused them in freshly
made pico de gallo with a handful of limes on the side. Although I’m not an
oyster lover, it was among the most delicious repasts of my entire life. An
inveterate Oregonian preached to me some years later that the best seafood came
exclusively from cold waters. I flashed back on my experiences from this trip
and politely demurred. He huffily dismissed me as a know-nothing, practically
an infidel. So it goes.
was of course impossible to remain purely vegetarian there, though some
mornings there were eggs and beans to supplement the seafood. I figured line
caught single fish were at least eco friendly and reasonably humane. Fish were
obviously aware to some extent, but oysters could be classed under my loose
category of “sea vegetables” without much of a stretch. Concepts like
environmental, sustainability, ecology, and so on were not yet in the popular
lexicon. Earth Day had begun as a small gathering in April 1970, and was still
mostly a fringe phenomenon of the hippie culture. The planet was in the process
of changing over from a nature-centered world to a human-decimated one, and in
this region nature was still vastly predominant.
residing in the area attracted the notice of several young men about my age,
and I soon became friends with the inseparable threesome of Juan, Martín and
Pantaleón. Pantaleón was slightly older and the leader. We hung out together
for hours on end, joking and insulting each other. I was being fully admitted
into the bathroom humor and crudity of Mexican male culture. We called each
other cabrón (old goat, with very negative implications) and even pinche
cabrón, about as strong as swearwords get. Being friendly in this way got me in
trouble later, because you had to know someone well before daring to use those
terms, and I was quite free with them. With strangers the words were highly
provocative. Dropping them thoughtlessly would get me a startled or horrified
look, before the person would (hopefully) realize I was kind of in the club, so
no offense meant.
the four of us cussed each other up and down all day long with high hilarity.
Pantaleón noticed I was itching a lot, so he would ask “Tiene pulgas?” Do you
have fleas? and then burst out laughing. It took me a couple of days of this to
realize I did have fleas, ever since
sleeping on the ground the first night, and they were driving me nuts. An hour
or three in the ocean didn’t seem to faze them. I couldn’t see any fleas, try
as I might, so maybe they were no-see-ums. After a couple of weeks the itching
thankfully faded to insignificance.
than how to swear with gusto, I picked up one other good trick from my buddies.
Martín stepped on a glass shard and opened a two-inch gash in his foot. A lime
was quickly called for and squeezed straight into the wound. I can still hear
him gasping at the sharp sting as he hopped around. I thought we should go for
medical help, but they assured me that lime juice was all that was needed. His
cut healed up vey quickly. I tried it myself a couple of times. It does sting
like holy fury, but the healing is fast and without infection. All the bacteria
must get slaughtered.
(I went back and found Juan and
Martín on my next visit to the area, in 1976. They told me Panta had been
stabbed to death in a bar fight a few months before. Even paradise has its
Toward the end of my halcyon stay I
proposed to try and actually catch some of the waves breaking at the lineup. I
waded a long way out into the shallow bay. As I drew even with the point of the
rocky headland to the north the bottom started to drop off a little steeper. It
was still farther out to where the waves were breaking, but I had all day.
past the point, a couple of hundred meters out, I noticed a circular area about
100 feet across that was darker than the surrounding water. I was just on the
edge of it. It was a mesmerizing anomaly, and I was puzzled as to what was
causing it. The area seemed to swirl and be choppier than the calm sea around
it. It didn’t make sense. All of a sudden about twenty fins burst to the
surface, plunging in all directions. It was a feeding frenzy on something big,
and the coloring was blood! I could almost reach out and touch the nearest fin.
Feets, get moving! Although the water was almost waist deep, I sprinted for
shore, practically walking on water, leaving a rooster tail of spouting water
behind me. I have never been so grateful to reach the shore. It was time to
upgrade my naïve tropical beach philosophy: there were sharks out there!
even perfection loses its edge, and so there came a day when I plodded back out
to the road, buoyed with advice from my amigos about Acapulco, a hundred miles
or so farther on. Soon I was zooming along in yet another open truck, king of
the road, with scintillating beauty in every direction.
had of course been Mexico’s hottest tourist spot for many years, yet the city
center was a world away from the glamor. I found a very inexpensive room with
plenty of economical, healthy food nearby. The market was far and away the best
I had yet encountered. The first order of business was to buy my own hammock,
and there were many good ones to choose from, all brought up from the Yucatán.
I was getting the hang of bargaining, which was absolutely expected—in fact, if
you paid the asking price it meant you were a dumb tourist, worthy of thinly veiled
disdain. I observed vendors asking many times the fair price of an item with a
guilty grin, and then being astonished by a gringo paying it without question.
Bargaining was a game to be played, and the rule of thumb was to arrive around
half the asking price, after some friendly give and take. You could go lower,
but that seemed excessive to me. Half was just right for a foreign intruder.
took my new hammock and a clutch of fabulous fruit back to my stuffy room,
where I immediately realized I needed some rope to make the hammock adjustable
to the gaps between the hooks. Once I had added a couple of meters at both ends
I was properly outfitted at last. Plus, I was getting around with ease,
speaking good Spanish, even understanding a lot of it. I’m sure it helped that
for a large segment of the population Spanish was their second language also,
so they mainly used very simple forms of speech. Still, Mexican Spanish is
filled with slang, and is vastly different from the language of Spain I had
been taught in school.
Acapulco public market, with its excellent food stalls, became my primary
hangout, and I soon met another gringo there who would become my traveling
companion for much of the rest of the trip. Nicolas Blair, from San Francisco,
was a year or two younger and an inch or two taller than me. He had curly
blonde hair like a proper beach bum, spoke fairly decent Spanish himself, and
sported compact cooking gear in his backpack. He was living as cheaply as me,
eating almost exclusively fruit from the market and oatmeal he heated up in a
little pot on his stove. We hit it off right away, and a doobie cemented the
market was chock full of iguanas, which were a substantial part of the local
cuisine. Vendors walked around bedecked in strings of the two to three foot
long lizards, which were sold alive and chopped up for dinner later. It was
interesting to see them, but sad to contemplate their fate.
time Nicolas and I were arrested by the sight of a very small, very old woman
standing patiently between two burly guys, who were wrestling with a giant bag
of potatoes—at least fifty kilos. They slowly, slowly inched it higher, and
then plunked it on the woman’s head. She immediately strode off, ramrod
straight, as if the bag were filled with cotton fluff. Our minds were blown. It
was another kind of magic.
had heard of a special place down the coast called Puerto Escondido, about 400
km. farther on, in the state of Oaxaca. He headed down to check it out, with my
assurances I’d join him before too long. It took me a couple more days to get
my fill of Mexican Acapulco. I had saved so much money lately that I figured I
could splurge on a bus, which might have set me back three or four dollars, I
don’t recall. I clambered aboard with barely a second thought about the thick
wad of prime reefer under my belt.
I hadn’t realized was that I was entering the true war zone, and every 15 to 20
miles the bus was stopped at a for-real checkpoint. I was utterly unprepared
for the first one, where several heavily armed Federales pounded up the front
steps and began poking through everything. Suddenly the illegal packet against
my stomach seemed huge and obvious, and I began to seriously sweat. This was
not a joke. I had already been treated to stories of Americans rotting in
Mexican jails, said to be among the worst on the planet. I had also seen what
fast Federale justice looked like, back in Zee-wha. My life didn’t quite pass
before my eyes, but it went through a rapid reassessment.
grimfaced soldiers inched closer, and I aged faster. I was about two-thirds of
the way to the back, so I had plenty of time to suffer. They were going slowly,
relishing the intimidation their position inflicted on the passengers. When
they finally arrived they passed me by with barely a glance at my pack, which
was too small to hide a weapon anyway. I guess I didn’t fit the profile of who
they were looking for. And my friend’s advice had been correct: Mexican
soldiers never search your person. (I don’t know whether this is still true.)
If you could pack a cruise missile under your shirt, you could smuggle it
anywhere you wanted.
were quite a few checkpoints, none of them casual. Sometimes everyone had to
get down while they combed the bus thoroughly. But nothing ever matched that
first one for sheer terror. After we crossed into Oaxaca the searches became
less unnerving. Oaxaca has a totally different culture, and there was no armed
resistance. It was a world of its own, whose folds and fringes held the
vestiges of shamanic culture, the wisdom of the ages. In my naïveté I would
pass by those subtle aspects with hardly a second thought, which is just as
well. Seclusion is essential to preserving cultural authenticity.
a lunch stop I was introduced to one supreme aspect of Oaxacan culture,
however. The only vegetarian item on the chalkboard menu of the day’s
offerings, along with brains, intestines, chopped organ stew, and all the rest,
was tortillas smothered in something called mole (mo-lay), sprinkled with
cotija cheese and chopped onions. It blew my mind—sooo delicious! I kept my
eyes peeled for more mole ever after. Still do.
two-thirds of the way to Puerto Escondido, past the town of Humedad (Humidity),
the bus slowed again. I figured we were in for yet another soldier shakedown,
but the forest opened up to reveal a wide river, the Rio Verde. There was
bustle all around, and out toward the ocean were pilings where a bridge was
under construction. It was the last unfinished link of this stretch of the
coast road. Passengers were transferred to an oversized dugout canoe with an
outboard motor and slowly ferried across. I suddenly felt like I was
practically in the Amazon, braving the wilds. It was exotic and exciting, but
with the completion of the bridge within a year it instantly came to an end. It
was the only boat ride of my trip. On the far bank we boarded another bus and
pressed on to the tiny village of Puerto Escondido, also known as Puerto or
simply P.E., my next installment of paradise.
Escondido lies all by itself on a long pristine coastline. In 1973 it pretty
much consisted of a one kilometer long unpaved street with paths leading uphill
to a scattering of shacks with lovely views toward the ocean and the tumultuous
Sierra Madre mountains. There were a handful of restaurants near the water, and
one small hotel at the far end, where the big beach began. Just before that was
a small swimming beach guarded by rocky outcroppings that reduced the wave
intensity to a fun level.
out of the bus I hit the beach, and immediately ran into Nicolas, who was by
now an old hand. He had rented one of the shacks above the road, with room for
two hammocks, so I was all set. Our humble abode was a slatted rectangle built
of loosely joined horizontal poles with big gaps between them, dirt floor, no
windows, a rickety door with a fifty-cent lock on the hasp, and two barely
surviving wooden chairs. An outhouse nearby was the only facility. I think we
paid a couple of bucks each per week.
a hundred yards up the hill we did catch the occasional breeze, which was
essential in the very tropical climate, and we would wake up in the fresh of
the morning to a comical version of reveille from the military base beyond the
town, mixed in with the neighborhood’s donkey brays, pig grunts, bird calls and
restaurants down on the ocean side of the street charged real money for
delicious meals, so we never went near them. Our haunt was the Blue Fly or
Mosca Azul, on our side of the road, so named because every surface was covered
with flies. Its real name was Blue Heaven, I think it was. It was an open air
joint with a bench along a counter. The specialty was hot cakes (pronounced
“Ott K’s”) piled with fruit and drizzled with local honey—had to be the most
delicious honey on the planet, distilled from the welter of fragrant
wildflowers and bushes growing in all directions. Hot cakes and fruit was our
brunch every day. Then we’d hit the beach for some serious lolling and body
waves in the little cove were gentle but often decent sized, and you could get
a fine short ride there. Occasionally we’d see fins just outside the lineup,
and I now knew they were not affixed to dolphins. Seeing them meant it was time
to dry off and catch some rays until they moved along.
time there was bigger surf than usual, really perfect waves. I could stay out
for hours in conditions like that. A set came in that was out just a little too
far, and I planned to dive under the first one. As it surged toward me I could
see a very large shark smack inside it, looking straight at me. Was it licking
its chops? Change of plan! I took the wave, caught it late and was rolled all
the way into the beach, but that was okay. Way better than being somebody’s
past the tiny cove where we bodysurfed was the spectacular two-mile long beach
beyond a hand-lettered sign reading Danger Zone - No Swimming. Waves broke
beautifully there, and looked eminently rideable, though no one was ever out
surfing. One day when they appeared about six feet I finally got up the courage
to give them a try.
studied the currents for an hour or so and kept a lookout for fins. All was
clear. As usual there was no one around. I swam out into the bracing surges. My
adrenaline level rose rapidly.
the horizon a ridge appeared and swept toward me—a perfect wave! I positioned
myself just right. It looked substantial, and was growing fast as it poured
into shallower water. The tide began sucking me out toward it. I started
swimming hard. Finless, of course.
as it reached me the wave leapt up, probably the biggest I had ever ridden, but
the shape was good, so I aligned myself in a sweet spot and took off.
did I ever take off! The wave hurled me up and out, into a free fall: fifteen
feet that felt like fifty. I just had time to take a full breath before I
crashed down into shallow water, covering my head and rolling over and over on
the sandy bottom. The wave blasted down on top of me like the Washing Machine
of the Angry Titans. I had no idea which way was up. Just as I ran out of air
my head popped out for a flash and I grabbed a short gasp before going under
again. This time when my air ran out I could just manage to push up to the
surface and stay there. The next wave was almost on me, but I did catch my
breath before being rolled under again.
let the backwash carry me toward shore and staggered up on the sand. I was
seriously humbled. I could easily have been killed! And no one would have had
the faintest idea what had happened to me. Of course that was true for my whole
trip. I was in touch with no one, and could not have been contacted by my
friends or family for any reason. Although it was a marvelously freeing
sensation for someone my age, this was my moment to stop and think about it.
isolation and sense of personal empowerment of being on my own I see now as a
valuable rite of passage into adulthood. One aspect of becoming more adult,
however, was an incipient awareness of what other people might be feeling.
a week or so of beach bumming together, Nicolas caught a ride with some gringos
up to Oaxaca City, where we figured on meeting later on. I was still enamored
with the place, and couldn’t get enough of it. Every minute of every day was
perfect. Being on my own added to the contemplative withdrawal I was undergoing
without consciously realizing it.
other incident added to this feeling and reinforced my intention to make a
break with the past. I was reclining in a hammock under a magnificent shade
tree down by the beach, without a care in the world. I went into a profound
meditation, sinking deep into my psyche. It was a heavenly ananda feeling that
kept expanding. I began to hear distant music. As I focused on it, it became jingly,
and suddenly I was listening to advertising jingles from my childhood, long
buried, but obviously ready to reappear in all their manifest absurdity. I was
outraged. They were still detracting from my peace of mind after all these
years! Most of those products didn’t even exist anymore. I took resolve to
block the entry of jingles and slogans into my memory banks as ferociously as I
could. Once I did I began to notice how much more ubiquitous they were than I
had realized—cleverly designed to clandestinely insinuate themselves into my
in Puerto Escondido were a special time. I would typically take a joint up onto
a low promontory jutting out into the ocean and sit there and watch the sunset.
The sky was always engaging, and the ocean invariably turned to liquid silver
as the light faded, a color I have never seen anywhere else. It was as though
the light was shining out of the water more than reflected by it. Blame the pot
if you want, but the water seemed to glow with a silvery radiance, drawing me
into a deep trance to end my sun-baked days.
long hours on the beach had an unexpected bonus. I had had lots of small warts
mostly on my arms and hands since adolescence, and one day they all just went
away. And they stayed away for maybe thirty years, until another high stress
period of my life, when a few new ones tiptoed back onto my skin. I’ll never be
sure if it was a mental change or the chemistry of sea salt and fragrant air,
but I was glad to be free of them.
a while I met up with a group of fruitarians living free and easy a little ways
down the beach. All they ate was fruit, supplemented with sunny air and water.
They believed that fruit was the ideal food granted by God, and that Mexico was
the home of the best fruit in the world. That second part was certainly true.
In my wanderings I was introduced to dozens of varieties of edible fruit I had
never heard of, many of them delectable.
new friends were wacky in a charming way. I was fine with simple vegetarianism,
and had more energy than they seemed to have, though they were doing pretty
well. I sometimes wonder what became of them when their fantasy wore off.
of them had planned an excursion up to Juquila, an isolated town at the top of
the Sierra Madre. The Virgin of Juquila was one of the major pilgrimages of
Mexico, and one of the most remote. I paid the trip’s organizer a modest fee to
guide us on the four or five day outing. He had been to it the year before. The
plan was to bus up and find a place to camp, then hike back down through the
jungle to Nopala, where we could catch a bus back to Puerto. I was super
excited over the prospect of getting so far into the wild.
rough dirt road to Oaxaca City consisted of a brutal series of switchbacks. In
those days the trip by bus to Oaxaca took about twelve hours to cover the
approximately 150 miles. Getting to the top of the mountain range took us about
five hours, and was not unlike a carnival ride that never ended. Carsickness
was almost guaranteed, at no extra charge. Windows had to be kept closed
despite the heat, because you drove through your own dust cloud after rounding
each hairpin turn. The closed windows proved a bonus when one of the goats tied
on the roof let go and urine poured down the side of the bus next to my seat.
band of four brave and naïve adventurers got down at the Juquila junction. In
those days there was an extremely rough dirt track that dead-ended in the town,
some twenty miles and two hours in. Shuttle pickups ran back and forth all day
during the festival, sloshing through endless mud puddles and gigantic
potholes, interspersed with tire-biting stretches of sharp rocks. By the time
we pulled into Juquila we were all frazzled and exhausted.
guide found us a family who allowed us to sleep in their yard and could keep
our packs secure in their house. We planned to be there two full days and three
was truly a place apart, very far from any other town, and for most of the year
having little contact with the outside world. The church was the only building
of any stature. Sanitation was not remotely adequate, as many thousands of
pilgrims were crowding in with little space to quarter them. A fair-sized
stream ran directly through the town and supplied it with its water, while at
the same time a series of outhouses were suspended over it to accommodate the
I managed for dinner was a Bad Idea. By morning I had a mounting fever and
tender innards, and by midday I was full on sick. I spent the rest of the time
wrapped in my blanket in the hillside yard of our host family, purging over the
side of the embankment. When the day arrived for our hike out, I had no choice
but to stumble along. Diarrhea was hitting about every ten to fifteen minutes, so
riding a bus was out of the question. My temperature was probably about 105°
and I was shaking violently.
Sierra Madre is incredibly rugged. Juquila is over a mile high, and the steep
trail back toward Puerto Escondido passes through untouched forests lining deep
canyons. My one clear memory was of a group of Indians playing brass
instruments on the edge of a cliff, blasting their horned harmonies into the
empyrean. It was quite enchanting. I was struck by how drunk they were from the
beer they were sipping: barely able to stand, yet playing fairly coherently. It
was only later, in Oaxaca City, that I learned the solution to the mystery:
locals take their empty beer bottles to the mezcal dispensary and fill them up
very inexpensively. That way those compact containers really pack a wallop!
little group made slow progress, as I repeatedly held us up. The first day we
got a bit more than halfway down to Nopala, at least descending to a somewhat
warmer climate. Camping was a nightmare. I was still shaking continuously and
tearing into the bushes several times an hour. Two people slept with me between
them to try to keep me warm, and without their help I might well have died. We
had no water, so I was completely dehydrated, and yet the purging never stopped.
In the morning I slogged ahead in a dream. By the time we reached Nopala I was
thoroughly emptied out, so I could join the others on the bus for the last
two-and-a-half hours to Puerto. I thanked my companions, whose trip I must
surely have spoiled totally, and slunk back up to my old hovel on the hill.
retrospect I must have contracted amoebic dysentery, and it was many months
before I was truly well again. A painful abdomen persisted for years afterward.
After pulling myself together for a couple of days, I knew it was time to head
up to Oaxaca. If I needed a doctor, that was my nearest option. I shrugged off
the alluring stories of naked stoned hippies frolicking in the sun down the
coast in Puerto Angel and bought a bus ticket to the City.
a long day of hairpin curves, I didn’t eat ahead of time. My condition had
improved, but still wasn’t totally trustworthy. I bid a fond farewell to my
slice of paradise, which was soon to be discovered and would never be the same,
and clambered aboard the torture vehicle.
went all right for the first couple of hours, but soon my guts were on fire
again. I contemplated ten more hours of continence, and gritted my teeth. I
felt worse and worse as we swayed around the endless bends, eating our clouds
of dusty exhaust. Finally, high up into the mountains, I could hold on no
longer. I leapt up and shouted to the bus driver to stop—I was sick. “Parar por
favor! Estoy enfermo!” He screeched to a halt and I dashed to the back corner
of the bus, where I squatted and let go. Such relief! I was there a long time,
knowing I was holding up at least sixty people. When things settled down I
looked up into the capacious side view mirror and realized I was in full view
of everyone on the bus, closely watching me with embarrassed but sympathetic
amusement. I swore to myself that next time I would get properly out of sight
behind the bus. Thankfully they did not give me a round of applause when I
stumbled back on board. They were too busy biting their lips to keep from
rest of the ride was a pure survival exercise. It seems I made it.
arrival I discovered I had gone from beach paradise to another kind of
paradise. Oaxaca was a superb, quiet city, warm and peaceful, with very few
tourists. The magnificent zocalo or town square was the center of activity, yet
with only a light scattering of visitors. You could sit for hours in its shady
park without harassment. Its claim to fame with the hippie set was that under
the gazebo in the center were several stores, a couple of which sold actual
cigarette rolling papers. Since the papers were ostensibly illegal, most joints
had to be rolled in strips of Kaliman the Incredible Hombre or any other paper
ready to hand, which spoiled the taste something awful. Proper rolling papers
were a distinct luxury. And of course there were amazing buds of true Oaxacan
weed around to fill them with.
had a small town feel, with few cars and a very relaxed atmosphere. Pretty
quickly I ran into Nicolas again, and he led me to a hostelry a few blocks from
the center, with dirt cheap rooms up on the roof. We lived on the roof, which
was shaded by tall trees and even sported a view of sorts. One special feature
was a shower out of a device standing vertically like a typical hot water
heater. It had a small brazier at the bottom, and the water pipes crisscrossed
throughout the rest of the insides. You built a tiny fire with four or five
tiny twigs, and voila! instant hot water, enough for a decent shower. It was my
only hot shower of the trip, and doubly appreciated since I had not had one for
many weeks. Swimming in the ocean had literally been my only cleansing act
since crossing the border, almost two months earlier.
market was one of the greatest of the planet, heaped high with dozens of
varieties of chilis and other exotic fruits and vegetables. Delicious,
reasonably trustworthy food abounded in the stalls, and staying vegetarian was
a cinch. Well, once I did enjoy a cheese tamale, and somewhere near the middle
bit into a large chicken bone. Hmmm. Maybe not pure vegetarian, after all…. But the daily breakfast of Mexican
style scrambled eggs with onion and tomato, tortillas and beans, salsa and
pickled jalapenos never failed me, at least until San Cristóbal, which was the
next stop. Fruit and peanuts and pepitas covered the rest of my dietary
requirements. Sometimes I could beg the cook at a food stall to leave off meat
from more substantial dishes, too. Plus, the inveterate Nicolas would whip up
his main sustenance of oatmeal with powdered milk and a shot of raw sugar,
which we ate until it was coming out of our ears.
time is the Radish Festival in Oaxaca, where the roots are carved and decorated
in thousands of clever ways to celebrate the birth of Jesús. Everywhere we
walked were radish-bedecked dioramas, somewhat like the window displays in
department stores in the US, but without the commercial underpinnings. It’s
quite a unique and amusing festival.
City was where I discovered the mezcal dispensaries, with their gigantic
barrels of the potent brew. You brought in your container and they filled it
out of the tap. Not having anything with a lid I bought a small, properly
sealed bottle in the market with a lovely picture of Oaxaca City on the front.
I still have it in my archives. Unfortunately the top was fused to the glass,
and all I had was my little pocket knife to try to open it with. I spent most
of one evening working angrily at it, taking care not to eviscerate myself in
the process. As my frustration mounted, so did my impatience. I finally gave a
big thrust and the top flew off, along with a sizable glass shard that went
deep into my hand. I never did get it out, and waited for years in hopes it
would encyst and pop out somewhere. I wondered if it would affect my piano
playing, if I ever got back to a working instrument. In any case it was time to
try the lime cure on the bloody wound, and yes, it definitely stings amazingly!
I applied a bandage, and it did not get infected. Possibly the pain is intense
enough to mobilize the immune system. Undoubtedly the mezcal was also a potent
was so pleasant to lounge around in that Nicolas and I only took one excursion,
to nearby Monte Alban, the ancient Zapotec capital, one of the largest and best
preserved sites in all Mesoamerica. A bus took us up to the breathtaking
hilltop location, and we spent the day exploring and toking around the ruins. A
handful of other tourists were on hand, but we had the place almost to
were scheming to hide out near closing time and spend the night there, with
visions of dark skies and ancient ghosts, but the soldiers guarding the place
must have had their eyes on us. Just at closing they found our secret spot and
chased us out at bayonet point. Okay, okay, we’re going! They couldn’t know we
were not going to despoil the place in any way, so they were in the right.
Although camping up there was a great idea, all thoughts of doubling back had
to be abandoned, as a grim-faced soldier followed us down the road for a couple
of kilometers to make sure we were really gone for good. The last bus had long
since left, so we had a serious march ahead of us into the dusk. Just before we
reached the edge of town we found a perfect field to hang our hammocks in and
whip up a nice bowl of oatmeal for dinner.
Oaxaca felt like the kind of place I could live forever, wanderlust eventually
set in. Nicolas was bent on going all the way down to South America, and I was
seriously considering something along those lines. It seemed like world upon
world of new beauties and adventures lay ahead of us—and we knew the language
all the way to Tierra del Fuego! The Yucatán, where lost cities were still
regularly being discovered, beckoned most invitingly. It was said to be totally
flat, so that every mound on it was a buried temple or palace, and there were
thousands upon thousands of mounds. Plus Palenque, on the way, was girded about
with magic mushrooms, with hippies wandering the fields every day tripping out in
happy, romantic dreams of fairyland. Though I wasn’t big on mushrooms yet,
preferring the pristine intensity of LSD, I was up for sampling the experience.
The cow pastures adjoining Kruse Way back in the Portland suburb of Lake Oswego
(now next to Thomas’ Christian High School) were filled in season with freaks
gobbling ’shrooms. So it made sense for us to spring a few bucks for the
overnight bus to San Cristóbal, in the next state south, Chiapas.
and I took the overnight bus from Oaxaca to San Cristóbal de las Casas,
arriving early in the morning. In those days it was a quiet, remote colonial
town with cobbled streets, cute but not particularly exciting. We walked from
the bus station to the centro and found a promising breakfast spot. I ordered
my favorite, huevos revueltos a la Mexicana, and dug in eagerly. Arrgh! It was
like biting into a red-hot coal! I looked closely, and the dish was brimming
with generous slices of what turned out to be habanera chilis, around 100 times
as intense as jalapenos. Despite being used to eating lots of spicy dishes for
a couple of months, including straight pickled jalapenos at practically every
meal, it was flamingly furious, and I spent the rest of the meal carefully
picking out every shred of the pepper.
my perambulations around town I met a man from Mexico City whose business was
to scour rural Oaxaca and Chiapas for top notch indigenous art and clothing to
resell. Rene Bustamante was traveling with two Austrian women, and they took me
in his car up to the nearby village of Chamula. The dirt road wound high up
into the lovely mountains, through uninhabited country. (Today, in 2017, it’s
suburban sprawl all the way.) At one point we stopped for the Austrians to take
a picture of an old woman walking beside the road carrying a heavy burden. As
the sight of the camera, the woman’s face contorted with rage, and she picked
up a big rock, ready to hurl it at us. With a shriek we all ducked back in the
car and drove away. I don’t recall ever having seen a more frightening visage.
Chamula Indians are well known now for their anathema to photography,
considering it a way for devilish strangers to steal their souls. That shocking
moment is the only part of the long day trip that has stayed vividly in my
mind. Another casual gringo assumption blasted to smithereens.
told me that there was no road to Palenque unless we backtracked hundreds of
kilometers, but it might be possible to hike over to it from an area to the
north. Nicolas and I decided to give it a try. We headed out with virtually no
concept of how we were going to accomplish it. We gathered some
supplies—primarily oatmeal, of course—and took a bus 150 kilometers up to
Yajalón, near the end of the road and quite literally in the middle of nowhere.
still had only my day pack with blanket roll and hammock, a little clothing and
reading material, and my venerable hiking boots to complement my huaraches. The
huaraches were the classic version: strips of leather holding up a sole of used
car tire that would never, ever wear out. I was in possession of a lovely hand
drawn map of the state of Chiapas, with almost no detail for this region. Of
course we had no compass.
had dinner at Yajalón’s only restaurant, a quiet patio with several tables. I
hung my pack on the back of my chair and set the boots down by my right foot.
When I got up after the meal, the boots were gone. I kept looking in
astonishment, but they did not reappear. My size footwear was not available
anywhere, not for love nor money. Huaraches it was going to be from then on.
found a secluded spot on the edge of town to hang our hammocks, and were lulled
to sleep by the loud blasts of New Year’s Eve firecrackers. The New Year dawned
brightly, inviting us to a day of adventure. We had a vague idea of where to
start, and off we went following a footpath into the wilderness.
me 1974 was to be an amazing year, starting my career as a firefighter in
earnest in April, and having Deb return to be with me for good in August. Nitya
would be an even more important factor, and his disciples Bill and Nancy, still
dear friends of ours after over forty years, would be married by him that
of this was suspected on that New Year’s Day. It was thrilling enough to embark
on the streamside path into the dense forest, with only the Unknown drawing me
on. It’s about 60 km as the crow flies between Yajalón and Palenque, but the
route we managed to follow would have made crows exceptionally dizzy. The
region was roadless and sparsely inhabited. From the perspective of advanced
years, our cluelessness about where we were going seems astonishing, but
necessary. Like having children, if you know what you’re getting into, you
probably wouldn’t, though afterwards you can’t imagine life without the
following the stream for some distance we clambered up and down a number of
steep ridges. We covered a lot of ground, arriving at the village of Tumbalá by
afternoon. Set on another good-sized stream, it was filled with orange trees
whose perfectly ripe fruit lay thickly on the ground. Respectfully, we asked
the locals if it was all right to take some oranges. They looked at us in great
puzzlement, and then held a conclave. They asked us again what we wanted, and
we said oranges. Finally a young man, with a look of comprehension, said, “I
know what you want. Come with me.” We followed him up the one street to a tiny
shop. It looked like we were going to have to buy the fruit after all. He took
us inside, opened the icebox, and pulled out two orange sodas.
hit us in a flash that the very concept of buying something that nature
provided in abundance to everyone was alien to the citizens of Tumbalá. They
couldn’t conceive of the oranges as “theirs.” We laughingly declined the sodas
and returned to the trail, loading our packs with free fruit on the way out of
town. We found a comfortable spot nearby to spend the night, close to the
gurgling stream. There were no motor vehicles within earshot, just insects and
other natural music. Our expedition was promising to be a wonderful adventure.
the morning we followed the stream for some distance before the trail headed up
over a high ridge. In the steep sections there were well polished stone
staircases—an incredible and ancient feat of engineering. The steps had been
worn concave with the centuries. Although our packs were fairly light, the high
elevation and steep going forced us to stop frequently to catch our breath.
remember forging slowly upward and being passed by a very old woman with a huge
load of firewood on her head, zooming past us barely breathing hard at all. She
did not acknowledge our presence, but she did make a lasting impression. Other
than a deep sense of what we as “civilized” humans had lost with our comfortable
lifestyles, I was struck that the woman had to be of Chinese ancestry. She was
darker skinned, but her features were utterly East Asian. I sensed immediately
that there must have been some other communication between the continents in
addition to the land bridge during the ice ages. At least I was sure that we
didn’t know the half of what was really going on. In this region there was a
surprisingly broad range of features, but the East Asian look was undeniable,
and it’s decidedly different from other Native Americans.
we descended the other side we entered a magical land of tiny plots of maize
scattered through a charming natural jungle forest. Each plot had its own
palapa hut a couple of meters square, walled to about halfway up, where the
harvested corn was stored. Most of them were filled to the top of the walls
with unhusked ears. It was gorgeous corn, much of it mottled purple and white,
but with many variations of color.
began to rain, and we took shelter in one of the sheds, where we ate our lunch
of oranges and peanuts. It felt primeval, sitting on top of the corn listening
to the musical percussion of raindrops, with no other humans anywhere around.
The sense of welcome was palpable in the beautiful natural surroundings. The
few people we had encountered had ignored us, beyond the mandatory Buenos dias
when passing on the trail. We felt like we were alone in paradise.
lunch we were faced with a problem: trails led every which way, without the
least indication of where they were going. I had a vague sense of the direction
we needed to go, northeasterly, but there was no longer any main route, and the
sun was obscured by thick clouds. We had figured we could just ask the people
we met, only we hardly met anyone. The first grouping of huts we came to showed
the time this was an extremely isolated area, and most of the villages were
tiny settlements with only a dozen or so one-room dwellings, often circled
around an open common area. As we entered the first compound, we caught a brief
glimpse of a few women hustling a flock of little children out the other side,
looking back at us with obvious fear. Innocent youngsters that we were, we
hadn’t realized how weird two gigantic white guys with brightly colored packs
would be to the local inhabitants. It dawned on us now. Our strange garb belied
our peaceful intentions. Through this whole area we came upon the same
evacuation in progress. The sobering realization hit us that for finding our
way, we were on our own. We still had a little food, and plenty of buoyant
spirits, but we were beginning to wonder whether we were ever going to find our
way back to known territory.
darkness came on we selected a particularly nice-looking corn crib to sleep in
and built a small fire next to it to heat up some oatmeal. We were packing some
of Mexico’s finest buds (obviously!), and had a lovely evening listening to the
whirring insects and the dripping drops. The sense of being ensconced in our
own secret world was luscious.
on corncobs is not exactly comfortable, but it was dry and clean, a worthwhile
tradeoff. The cobs are easily sturdy enough to support a couple of gringos
without suffering any damage. It was among the most unique nights of my life.
There was not a sign of any human habitation in the vicinity, and waking in the
dark to the occasional downpour was magical.
broke clear and the day beckoned us cheerfully. The country was becoming
flatter and more open. We walked on a broad plain surrounded by substantial
mountains. Each village we came to was deserted, though the bushes were still
rustling on the far side, and once or twice we glimpsed a flash of clothing
before the pervading emptiness reasserted itself.
midday a small plane appeared overhead, breaking the exquisite stillness of our
trek. We both stopped and stared in surprise. The plane wheeled around and
headed right for a nearby mountain. It looked like a sure disaster. At the last
moment it cut its engine and disappeared onto what must have been a small shelf
many hundred meters up the mountainside. From our angle it looked like it
crashed right into a sheer wall, almost a cliff. While we were still shaking
our heads in surprise, the sound of the engine was revived, and within a few
seconds the plane shot off the cliff and dropped like a stone toward the plains
where we were walking. As it picked up speed the engine roared louder and
louder, and before it blasted onto the ground it made a graceful arc, swung
parallel with the ground, and began gaining altitude. Just another day in the
wilderness: it was the biweekly mail delivery for the small community nestled
out of sight somewhere up on the mountain. No need for a runway if you can land
on a dime and perform a free-fall takeoff.
continued on in roughly the direction of Palenque, following the biggest trail
we could find. The sun was shining, which helped a lot with our reckoning. The
country was now fairly open, with sweeping vistas to the south and west. We
still were finding clusters of recently-abandoned communities, occasionally
catching a glimpse of the face of an astonished child in the arms of a scooting
mother as she disappeared into the bushes.
midday a young man with a sizable pack came up behind us, and we were finally
able to ask our way. He gave us amazingly complicated instructions, and warned
us we could get very lost if we didn’t follow them exactly. As he went on
explaining, he could see we were getting more and more confused. He very kindly
said, “I’m going there myself—I will show you the way.” It was a lifesaving
suggestion we agreed to immediately.
told us his name was Pedro, and he may also have given us his actual Mayan
name, but I’ve forgotten it. Indians in rural Mexico often adopt an arbitrary
Biblical name for interaction with outsiders.
we trotted along trying to keep up with our new friend, he told us most of the
people around there had never been more than 15 kilometers from their homes. He
was one of the few who sometimes went into the Big City of Palenque (pop. 3 or
4 thousand) to trade for supplies. As proof of his assertion, we didn’t see
another soul on the way until we neared the finish line.
sits smack in the middle of the rainiest area in Mexico, at the foot of the
hills on the edge of the flat Yucatán peninsula. As we descended from the
higher country the mud gradually became ubiquitous. For a while we could skirt
around some of the wetter spots, but soon it was everywhere. The underbrush
grew denser with all the water, and we began to encounter big trees, which
would soon merge into a jungle forest. My huaraches were sinking in deeper with
each low spot, and I had to pull hard in the sucking mud to take each step.
With perhaps ten miles to go, slogging through mud up to my knees, the straps
on one foot gave way. I dug out the shoe and could see at a glance it was done
for. I made another short stretch with the one remaining sandal, and then it
gave out too. Now I was walking barefoot through a sea of mud, with sharp rocks
and sticks lurking all through it. The joy ride was rapidly turning into a
have been in a number of situations where I entered an altered state in order
to complete my assignment. The human body seems to have an automatic setting
where our deep strengths are activated, with which it can accomplish much more
that we imagine. One of the best examples I know of on film is Humphrey Bogart
and Katherine Hepburn wading in exhaustion, towing their boat through the
leech-filled marshes of the Ulanga River in the 1951 movie The African Queen.
Soon I was in one of those states.
knew my feet were cut and bleeding in multiple places, but the thick mud also
made a kind of compress. Luckily Pedro knew where to find a ford across the
wide and deep Rio Xanil, or we might have been stopped right there. When we
waded across rivers the mud covering our legs would wash off and I was
confronted with a gristly scene of my lacerated soles, but very quickly on the
other side my mud bandages would build back up. I pressed on—had to. There was no
alternative. Amazingly, likely because we kept moving, no leeches climbed
aboard. Or perhaps they were content with the blood I was leaving behind.
what seemed like eternity we arrived at Palenque’s big river, a tributary of
the Usumacinta, at a wide spot we could wade. It wasn’t much over our knees. On
the far bank, Pedro left us and shot off toward town. Without him, we would
likely still be out there somewhere. I reflected that not a soul knew of our
location or intent. We had gone totally off the grid, and had luckily made it
unscathed, however. We ran into some hippies on the outskirts of town and began
to tell them of our adventures. At once a girl interrupted and said, “You waded
the river with those cuts on your legs! My boyfriend went swimming in it with a
cut, and within a day it was seriously infected. They had to emergency fly him
to Texas, and he got there just in time, or else they were going to have to
amputate his leg.”
But the patron saint of stupidity must have been on the job, because though I
watched anxiously for several days, no infections set in. The reward for our
trip was an abiding sense of accomplishment, and an in-depth visit to the as
yet unspoiled ruin of Palenque. We wandered around for several days through the
jungle-covered hills that everyone knew were pyramids waiting to be restored.
We could walk unmolested into the tomb of Pakal and wonder at the
astronaut-like bas-relief on the sarcophagus lid, which has now been removed to
the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City. We could share a joint sitting on the
steps of the Temple of the Sun, offending no one. Down nearer our hostel we
wandered the fields eating mushrooms in hopes of getting the right ones. We
never did. Our patron saint also protected us from eating any poisonous ones,
so while we never got high, we never died either. On the whole, a memorable
experience. Gracias to the gods.
VI. Yucatán and Back
and I boarded a train from Palenque to Mérida. In those days second class
trains were incredibly cheap—they practically paid you to ride them. The
atmosphere was a lot like the buses: very colorful, chaotic, and often
including domestic animals. Nothing like a nearby rooster crowing at supersonic
volume to wake you up from a nap!
was a quiet, clean city with a terrific market, where I picked up a new pair of
huaraches in my size (I had been getting by since Palenque wearing cheap
plastic sandals three sizes too small), and upgraded my hammock to a superb
matrimonial, theoretically large enough for two to sleep together. The state of
Yucatán is where Mexican hammocks are made, and the market was packed with
fabulous options. Throughout Southern Mexico the bedrooms have hooks in the
wall where you can hang your hammock and stay off the hotter and harder beds,
which serve instead as sofa and storage area.
highlight for us in Mérida was a squeaky-clean licuado stand nearby. I
discovered mamey: a large, otherworldly fruit that tastes like a date. We lived
mainly on mamey-date shakes and the ubiquitous oatmeal cooked en situ.
than the wonderful serenity, which may no longer exist there, my only other
memory of Mérida is of being lectured by a gringo evangelist who assumed
(rightly) we were pot heads, and therefore (wrongly) that we were clueless
gringos mooching off the hardworking and pious locals. In fact as we meandered
we had been reading up on the history of Mexico and the whole of the European
conquest of the Americas, and were quite sensitive to the plight of the
indigenous communities. Moreover, I was not ignorant of the positive role that
Catholicism’s liberation theology had played in recent years in Central and
South America. Our self-righteous haranguer meant well I suppose, but it was a
classic example of how people make assumptions and then deny reality, not
realizing how they are distorting the situation. Sadly, that type of tunnel
vision has reached epidemic proportions, particularly in public life. People
all too often judge without listening. Jesus would not be amused. He might not
have been amused by us libertines, either, but for young Americans we were way
above average in our sympathy and consideration for the people around us. Yes,
it’s a low bar, but the fellow would have taught us more by finding out a
smidgen of what we actually were like before preaching to us. His prejudice
against marijuana blinded him to any other considerations.
and money were running short, but I had to see Chichen Itza before turning
around and heading north. Nicolas had plans to go all the way down to South
America, and it was tempting to cast my fate to the winds and go along. I
vaguely sensed that it was a turning point in my life: I would either be a
wandering seeker of truth or “settle down” to a job and fixed domicile. I chose
the latter, and hope that my two children, at least, will forgive me. There was
a lot of buzz in those days about the “free” lifestyle of the unattached,
especially in New Age fantasies, but something in me knew I could learn and
contribute more from a solidly grounded place. In this respect I’m a true
Taurus. I figured by having my basic needs met, I could pour more of my
energies into creative contemplation and service of Guru Nitya, rather than
being “proud about scrounging my next meal.” A lifetime of oatmeal looked
rather bleak. Give me a tostada any day!
a nice stretch of time in Mérida we caught the bus to Chichen, about 120 km.
east. Yes, we were irreverent types, so we started to call it Chicken Eats-a.
But it is truly amazing even to lighthearted youth, at the time being by far
the most restored and largest site in Mesoamerica south of Teotihuacan.
had the place largely to ourselves, and roamed freely throughout the complex.
For lunch we brewed our oatmeal in a secluded spot in some bushes behind an
outlying pyramid, without anyone noticing. As at Monte Alban, we schemed to
find a hiding place to spend the night. And as at Monte Alban, the soldiers
guarding the place found us during their closing sweep and drove us out at bayonet
point. So much for our communing with the gods….
the time we were shown the door, the parking lot was deserted, and there was
nothing for it but to start walking toward the small village a few kilometers
back toward Mérida. On the way we passed a low hotel under construction, tucked
into the edge of the jungle, and wondered if we might sneak in there and save
ourselves the hike. A watchman appeared and beckoned us, so we went over to him
with some trepidation. He was very friendly, and without coming right out and
saying anything he made it clear we could overnight there for free.
place was nearly finished and easily the most elegant hotel we’d seen on our
entire trip. We hung our hammocks in the commodious dining room, and cooked our
oatmeal out on the stoop, sharing with our new friend both some food and our
high grade Oaxacan weed. Feeling incredibly blessed and content, I gazed into
the sky as sunset came on. My eye was repeatedly drawn to one particular spot.
Soon Venus appeared. We could just make out the tops of the highest pyramids
over at the ruins, and there was no one else anywhere around. I don’t recall a
single car passing the whole evening. It was our own private universe, circa
my eyes kept gravitating to one spot in the sky. It looked exactly the same as
the rest, but…. Wasn’t that a very faint streak, or was I hallucinating? As the
darkness grew, a distinct line appeared, with a slightly brighter head: we were
tuned in to Comet Kohoutek at last! After sunset it dominated the crystal-clear
sky, not super bright but with a very long tail. It was headed into the drowned
depths of space, not to return for another 75,000 years or so.
may have been a disappointment to those hoping for a more vivid event or the
end of the world, but reclining safe and warm on the fringe of Chichen Itza, it
was a magnificent sight. From the little we knew about them, the Mayans had
worshipped the heavens, and Kohoutek sounded more like a Mayan word than the
name of the Czech astronomer who discovered it. I shared the manias and
longings of the Psychedelic Era to some extent, despite being apprenticed to a
very skeptical guru, so I wondered what it might mean in cosmic terms. Were we
on the verge of a new age? Was I? Or were we all making something out of
nothing. I had no answers, but sitting on the warm steps gazing into the sky in
a lost world setting was a soul-stirring evening. And it was a most inspiring
point to turn my steps toward my future home and an eventual role as a teacher
of humane philosophy, or what I prefer to call Liberation Psychology. I see
that now, looking back, but at the time I was only taking it all in with every
ounce of my being. That’s as it should be.
next morning we took our leave, compatible friends who had shared a unique
adventure. Nicolas headed down toward South America and I thumbed my way back
to Mérida. I had had three very rich months in Mexico, and that was enough for
now. Nicolas and I stayed in touch for a couple of years. Many months later I
got a nice letter from Colombia with two coca leaves tucked inside, and I
visited him in one of those labyrinthine San Francisco hippie houses, after he
came back from his yearlong swing through South America: a maze of little
subdivided rooms, highly decorated, filled with all manner of debauchery. I
imagine he’s still partying on somewhere….
hitchhiked into Mérida and caught a second class train to Mexico City for $6 I
think it was. It left Mérida in the evening and I woke up at dawn somewhere in
Tabasco, stopped next to a train of hopper cars filled with burned sugar cane,
the first stage of refinement. I eyed the cargo hungrily. Soon other people
began to wake up, and instantly all the windows shot open, hundreds of arms
stretching across to the treasure. We could just reach the closest canes, and
everyone on board feasted on raw sugar for breakfast. It started our day in
we approached Puebla the views of the Pico de Orizaba (Citlaltepetl) were so
dramatic I decided to get down there. It’s the highest peak between Mt. Logan
and Denali in the north and the Andes in the South. Puebla centro was quiet and
clean, and I noted the firefighters relaxing on chairs in the park near their
station, waiting for a call already dressed in their coats and boots. It struck
me as the ideal way to wait for business, and a foreshadowing of where I was
headed as a career firefighter.
was obvious that I had had enough traveling, as I didn’t feel any inclination
to explore yet another new place, so I soon continued on to Mexico City and
found my friend Rene’s apartment. I bought a couple of fine pieces of Oaxacan
clothing that just fit in my pack. I went to the Inca gold exhibit at the
Anthropology Museum, a major event, as it was the first time the artifacts had
ever been out of Peru. After a brief side trip to Cuernavaca with Rene, I was
ready to head home to El Norte.
was enthusiastic about a “primitive” artist he was sure would someday be
recognized, and he waved his favorite work under my nose. I had enough money to
either bus all the way back to Portland, or else to buy the painting and make
it just across the border. I chose option 2. The painting is the one in our
entryway, and I’ve never regretted my decision. The artist’s name has faded
away with time, but it remains a special work and a fitting memory of my life
before family and career took center stage.
dropped me at the bus station, and all my remaining pesos were enough to buy a
second class ticket to Santa Fe, New Mexico. I figured I could hitchhike home
from there. It was February 2, Groundhog Day, 1974.
got a peek out the window at several of the major cities of northern Mexico,
including Queretaro, with its spectacular aqueducts. Then a long night through
the desert to the border at El Paso. There was no hassle at all over the fact
that I had no Tourist Card, just “Welcome to the US” and over I went to pick up
a sister bus on the other side of the river. I still had over three hundred
miles ahead of me, but the ride was significantly more luxurious.
Albuquerque the weather degenerated and I began to grow apprehensive. It looked
very cold, and heavy clouds were piling up. Soon we were in a full on
snowstorm, and I didn’t have to wonder any longer if I was in trouble.
got down in Santa Fe in my short-sleeved shirt and huaraches, without a dime or
a peso to my name. It was like stepping straight into a freezer. I put on
everything I had and wrapped up in my trusty blanket. Luckily a pair of heavy
socks had made it through. I wandered down toward the main road in what had
become a full-on blizzard. There was no shelter anywhere. Eventually I found a
culvert under the highway and crawled into it for the night. The temperature
dropped into the teens by morning. Somehow I made it through, though it was a
rude comeuppance from the easy living I had been enjoying the whole winter.
was up with the first brightening that professed the arrival of another day. It
was still snowing and blowing very hard, with visibility around twenty feet
much of the time. I stood by the road in hopes of a ride to Denver—actually a
warm car would be a life saver, so any direction would do. The only car on the
road that day luckily pulled over for me.
driver was crazy, but weren’t we all in the mid-Seventies? He was headed to
Denver, going via Albuquerque, where we could pick up the Interstate highway.
It was snowing so hard I don’t know how he stayed on the road. Maybe he didn’t,
because it seemed like we had driven an excessively long time south. Finally we
could just make out a sign through the blasts. He cursed and swung around,
muttering, “We’ve gone about 60 miles past the exit.” We were halfway back to
Mexico! So it turned out to be a long, long drive to Denver.
eventually emerged from the snowstorm and the driving improved. And the speed
commensurately increased, though I never had much confidence in my chauffeur,
who wandered from lane to lane and spewed a stream of incomprehensible
muttering. My near misses on the roads of Mexico had inured me to the fear of
death, however, so I just sat still and hoped I would arrive alive.
I did. I was dropped off in Denver and luckily remembered Deb’s phone number.
After a surprised silence, she agreed to come pick me up. Although she had
terminated our relationship three years earlier, our friendship had rekindled.
It was a politically touchy moment, but it worked out okay. In fact, we grew
close again during my short stay, and that August she rejoined me in Portland
as my life partner.
begged enough money from my parents to bus back to Portland and get by until
the paychecks started arriving in mid-April. They forgave my debt for my
birthday present in May. I’m sure they were relieved I finally had a steady
job, even though it was not what any of us had expected.
a final note, after I had been working for a while, out of curiosity I looked
up the word revisado in my battered dictionary that still smelled faintly of
Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap. Ah, inspected.
They had wanted me to have my duffle bag inspected
before loading it on the train in Mexicali. It made me wonder. I rang up
Caroline and she agreed to go back down to the station and look into it for me.
A couple of weeks later she called to say that she had recovered the bag, and
it appeared to have never been opened. Everything was in it in good condition.
I sent her some money and she shipped it up to me on the bus. So all my camping
gear came home at last. No one had ripped me off. In fact it had been kept for
almost a year without being discarded. I had just been spared a heavy burden,
literally. It was one more blessing in disguise. From then on I knew in my
heart that traveling light provided more opportunities and fewer constraints,
and we have very, very far to go.
© Scott Teitsworth 2017