Tuesday, November 18, 2008

(S)OUT(H) of (B)ORDER (Part 1)

"The fox has many tricks; the hedgehog has one. One good one."
-African proverb

The April humidity at midday almost succeeded in making the lethargic citizens of Guadalajara keel over and faint right there on the streets. Observing these people, these faceless businessmen, shoppers, beggars, as they lumbered about the crowded downtown section of the city, I remember thinking how it looked like they were trudging through puddles of melted tar. Needless to say, and I don't know why I'm saying it, I was uncomfortably hot, too. The blistering sun seemed only ninety-three miles away. I tugged at the damp collar of my shirt, buckling under the weight of my backpack.

I was too preoccupied to worry about the asphyxiating meteorological conditions. Instead, I was remorseful. Here I was at the bus terminal and I was about to bid Luis, the first amigo I had made south of the border, a reluctant adios. During my three week visit to Guadalajara, I had developed a very intimate relationship with Luis, his family who fed and sheltered me, his friends who treated me with respect and admiration (why, because I'm a gringo?), and the enchanting city. But soon, Mexico's second largest metropolitan area got to me, enchanting or not. Two days ago, on an unpremeditated whim of my restless soul, I had decided to leave. The ocean was beckoning me, urging me to respond. At the ticket counter I paid one-hundred and fifty pesos for a ticket and warmly embraced Luis, assuring him that we would re-unite again, somewhere, somewhen. Then he turned and left me all alone. I boarded an air-conditioned first-class bus bound for the Pacific Ocean hamlet of Zihuatanejo.

Even though it was a first-class bus, it still wasn't in very good condition. The difference between a first-class bus and a second-class one is hardly worth the extra twenty pesos. Anyway, that was my first confrontation with the Mexican Public Transportation System. People told me what to expect, yet I still had problems adjusting to four stereotyped characteristics: (1) buses and trains rarely depart at the scheduled time; (2) buses and trains are claustrophobically overcrowded; (3) buses and trains break down, or wreck, frequently; and (4) buses and trains are not reserved primarily for human cargo. It's not an uncommon sight to see some peasant with his chickens or roosters take a seat opposite you. Everyone has the privilege of exploiting the services of the Mexican Public Transportation System. But, in my estimation, your best bet is a burro. Steady, slow, easy.

My bus left the terminal an hour later than scheduled, courtesy of an unmotivated bus driver or something. The delay didn't annoy me. In fact, it gave me a chance to relate to some of the passengers, a colorful bunch of people who seemed to guard interesting life stories. In front of me was an old woman who looked like she was about a thousand years old and put on this earth to be nothing but a haggardly old wizened apple. In the aisle across from me, I kept staring lewdly at a stunningly beautiful senorita whose silky black hair spilled provocatively to her shoulders. In the seat beside me sat an oppressively loquacious fatman who insisted that I could make a million pesos if I would only become his partner in some obscure business enterprise. But after a while his coagulated Spanglish flew by too fast for my bio-computer deciphering units to handle. At this point, I simply nodded my head up and down or sideways, maybe throwing in an occasional "Si" or "Muy bien," wishing all the time he would please shut the fuck up. And then some brat in the back of the bus started bawling.

I wanted desperately to say something, anything to her. I could tell she knew that I was watching her. She looked upper middle-class, full of aplomb, almost arrogant. But to me, she was the girl with gardenias in her hair, the mysterious beauty in every romantic ballad ever written about Mexico. Hell, I was even too timid to ask her for one of the Raleigh's she was smoking.

Finally, we were off and running, as my father used to say. Preparing for a long haul, I situated myself in the seat so I could stretch my legs in the aisle. The distance between Guadalajara and Zihuatanejo was (still is) only four inches according to my Triple A road map of Mexico, yet each inch corresponded to roughly four hours of traveling time. Contending with perilous mountain roads zig-zagging wildly across the raw expanse of the land, and tolerating pompous herds of unfenced-in farm animals roaming the highways like those intimidating bestial Federales can lengthen the time of any cross-country trip. I was cramped and crushed, anxious and sleepy. Indeed, it was quite a mortifying sixteen hours.

The distorting time vacuum allowed nostalgic memories of this stretch of road to surface and haunt me. Burl and I, neophyte travelers combing the continent, had explored this region seven months earlier in our epic journey with the crippled Opel. For a complete, graphic briefing on these absurd escapades, lose yourself in the 147 pages that comprise that narrative, "Pleasantly Warped". Then, I was not the same person I was now. I couldn't discern why, but being here this time, alone and independent, seemed so much different.

When my corpulent seat-mate wasn't trying to capture my attention with emphatic gestures and garbled words, I also devoted some time toward reading. Ironically enough, the book I was reading ws a tattered copy of Stranger in a Strange Land which I had borrowed from Luis. At times the words didn't register. Instead, I was day-dreaming about the psychological discomforts of being alone, really alone, in the untamed badlands of a foreign country for the first time in my life. I put the book down as a cowardly fear settled in me. At midnight or so I became fatigued from my ridiculous apprehensions. I slipped into a contorted dream phase as the bus streaked through the eroding night.

When it got to be sixish, just after the bus screeched to a halt on a street lined with gorgeous palm trees, the crack of dawn split wide open. Disoriented from a restless sleep, I squinted my eyes and forgot momentarily where I was. I turned to ask the fatman if he knew, but he had gotten off somewhere in the middle of the night. Then I saw a sign attached to the door of a run-down shack, informing me that I was at the Zihuatanejo bus station. I quickly gathered together my senses, much faster than I could gather my belongings which were stuck in the overhanging baggage compartment. I anxiously exited, waving good-bye to the driver.

The day was already warm, intensifying the amalgam of strange odors that permeated the now tropical atmosphere: a salty smell from the ocean spray; a rotten stench from the market; the aroma of fresh fish. My empty stomach growled like a starving bear - but more pressing problems were on my mind. I was pathetically tired, and totally uncertain of what to do or where to go. I felt self-conscious as hell in this isolated village, with my fancy A-frame backpack and my anonymous gringo ubiquity.

I walked down what appeared to be the main street. I stopped in front of a small cantina befoe making my strut through Mainstreet. The washed-out road was upaved and littered with all sorts of garbage. Chickens and pigs, intimidated by packs of emaciated dogs, scrounged in the rubbish, mingling with the shopkeepers who lazily performed early-morning chores. I kept thinking: in the big city the sight of an American backpacker is hardly worth noticing. But what about in a small peasant villa like this? Most of the people whom I passed smiled at me warmly. For me, this was a big event, and I'm glad I felt like I was accepted.

Walking a short distance farther, I encountered a small boy clothed only in a pair of shredded cut-offs. He was throwing pails of water on the dusty ground in front of a sleazy taco stand. Everything seemed so filthy in the squalid serenity of Zihuatanejo. I tried to imagine my Grandmother here: impossible. I was engrossed with a new type of fascination, and could hardly help from identifying with a book I was recently reading.

I felt unnerved, despite the good vibrations (buena onda) of Zihuatanejo's rustic charm. It was a completely ludicrous notion that bestruck me. In Guadalajara, I had mastered enough of the fundamentals of Spanish grammar to feel relatively confident during picayune conversation. With a little perseverance I was soon able to connect certain phrases to certain words and make them into sentences. I'm not implying that I could engage in an intellectual discussion on the role that transfer ribonucleic acid plays in protein synthesis, or rap eruditely about ontological theories recapitulating phylogenetic evolution by any means, but I could get along with amazing proficiency after only three weeks of study. But at this moment, in this remote corner of Mexico, not knowing why, I felt paranoid and insecure. All that Spanish I thought I knew now seemed as useless as tits on a boar, another dear-old-dad expression. These foolish sentiments clouded my rationality until I was distracted by a soft, familiar sound: the organic mechanical lull of the ocean. Like a crazed hound on the scent of fresh prey, I tracked down the distinct onomatopoetic crash of powerful waves elegantly genuflecting on the receding shores of Zihuatanejo.

I gaped at the incredulous panorama, much like Balboa must have done ages ago. I removed my backpack and collapsed upon the sand, letting the tide play with my bare feet. The town was awakening as the sun climbed into the sky. And while I meditated upon the wonderful soothing sound that is more captivating than the legendary Sirens, I eventually regained my sense of well-being.

The pleasant memories of my pit-stop in Zihuatanejo are ripe in my head. I suppose the reason why everything is so memorable is because it finally dawned on me that I was a free, independent person, together, and not a confused, unsure latent psychotic with no capabilities to my name. Magically, many reserve qualities surfaced in me which aided my indomitable will to be in control at all times. Qualities which were untapped before I went to Mexico alone. Gradually, I became self-reliant, fattened my confidence, improved my self-image, shorthand techniques to survival on the streets came naturally. In a very short time, I had become a fuller, more complete person.

My initial fearof "being alone"dissipated shortly after a couple of gregarious Mexicans approached me and wondered if "fumo mota." At seven in the morning? Before breakfast? At first, I was suspicious of them, convinced they were out to rip me off in some dastardly way. I trusted no one, especially when drugs were involved. The last R.S.V.P. I wanted was one from the warden at a degrading Mexican prison. I backed off and played it cool.

These fellows turned out to be okay, I guess. But I still had a communication barrier to contend with - I think Jorge kept asking me if he could buy my sleeping bag. I didn't like his overbearing attitude; malaise hit me.

Sergio, a little runt who looked like a bulldog, reached into a cigarette package and pulled out a long, thick joint. With a devious smile, he waved it enticingly in front of my face. I felt like a silly parrot wating for my cracker. When I expressed my concern for safety, he made a funny, indifferent noise. So the three of us smoked - cautiously. The cannabis perked me instantly. After two or three tokes, I was convinced that sleep was impossible, food was necessary, and solitude inevitable. I excused myself awkwardly with a "gracias" and went off in a daze to scrounge up something cheap to eat. Moments later I met crazy Tim.

Monday, November 17, 2008


"He who travels far will often see things
Far removed from what he believed was Truth.
When he talks about it in the fields at home,
He is often accused of lying,
For the obdurate people will not believe
What they do not see and distinctly feel.
Inexperience, I believe,
Will give little credence to my song."
-Herman Hesse, Journey to the East

Dear Diary,

The next time somebody asks me if I play a musical instrument, I refuse to forlornly shake my head and say, "I wish." Instead, I'll say that I play the electric typewriter - and then sit back and smile at the confused expression that my response elicited. With my electric typewriter, I am able to create my own music: verbal symphonies of an exotic land called Mexico.

Yet sometimes, Diary, I get extremely frustrated when the words and poetic descriptions become constipated in my mind. I know the talent exists inside of me to create wonderful works of literature, but getting it to come out is the big problem. It's like that small dab of elusive peanut butter at the bottom of the jar. Unquestionably, the peanut butter is there, enough to make a super sandwich. But do you ever notice how damn hard it is to scrape it out to make that sandwich? Alas, me and my peanut butter words.

I know what it feels like to be an exploding human volcano. My lava will engulf you.

The first questions that most people ask me about my travels are really silly questions. "Where do you eat?" "Where do you sleep?" "How do you wash your clothes?" I despise answering them. About the only valid response I can offer is something to the effect of "I make do." They shake their heads sympathetically. What these people do not understand is that not knowing where or what or how or why is the most essential part of the gratifying spiritual quest that traveling the Marriott circuit blanks out.

So, Diary, my garbled words comprise the fragmented prelude to an earlier story about magical shenanigans at Chichen Itza. Sorry for being so negligent of chronological details; this story should have preceded my last one entitled, "Weird Business at Chichen Itza." Somewhere in the introduction I mentioned that I had just come down out of the primeval Oaxacan highlands, after munching magic mushrooms witha local Indian who caused Javier, Hugo, Herman and myself to reshuffle our everyday view of reality. Him and the surroundings.

Here is where you enter the picture, Diary. Through you I am now prepared to relate the events of my ninety day visit into Mexican territory which culminated when I found myself completely lost up in the Olympian peaks of the Sierra Madre mountains. After a year-long sleep, the adventures are finally coherently (at least I think) organized in my mind.

The time is now, today, this moment when the motivational forces within me are dynamic, to unsuspend the images which have been percolating inside of me for too long.

This story, like its predecessor's, is based upon factual incidents that, believe it or not, did occur as far as I am able to rationally ascertain. Which isn't too far. Don't fret over what's true and what's not; the basic skeleton plot is classically autobiographical. However, due to the meandering imagination of the confounded correspondent, and to the fact that at the time most of these circumstances transpired I was in an altered state of mind and not capable of distinguishing between what was real and what was not - the script of this account, your personality, Diary, will probably be exaggerated, warped, peverted, and possibly even well-written.

My tale begins after I divorced myself from Luis' protective tentacles and arrived in Zihuatanejo as a naive gringo full of wonderment and awe in the year of our Lord, 1975. And the rest is personal history.

I'm tuning up my instrument by reflecting upon my dream-like experiences in Mexico, by trying to re-envision with some clarity the reality of my uproarious adventures, by trying to capture my feelings, thoughts and emotional disorder during that time of my young life. It's difficult to somersault myself back there, to project myself into the frame of mind I was in while traveling in Mexico. How can I effectively describe something like the warmth of the people, the eternal power of the Pacific Ocean, the herculean forces responsible for the creation of mountains, or what it's like to be a foreigner when my inferior means of communication is words? Diary, I feel frustrated, sitting here recapitulating . . . almost like recalling a vague dream that barely eludes the memory.

I am deeply in love with the sprawling chunk of land that is beneath the Rio Grande. I want to take my relationship with quixotic Mexico and present it with real feeling, with raw intimacy. If I can do this, and if the reader can wade through it, I know I will have transplanted a part of my love affair with that country into the hearts and minds of aspiring suitors.