The Mexican Caper (1976) Part 5: The Golden Key
In Search of Don Juan
“You have everything needed for the extravagant journey that is your life.”
― Carlos Castaneda
In 1976, I spent about two weeks in Mexico City living with a wealthy family in a beautiful mansion. Despite my luxe accommodations, I had been doing some research on where to next travel in Mexico. Although I was welcome to stay with Alfredo and his family as long as I pleased, (they'd adopted me as one of their own), the city was closing in on me. As in LA, thick clouds of pollution from cars and industry, obscured the skyline. This cannot be a healthy environment, I thought.
And while lounging by the pool reading Carlos Castenada was fairly pleasing to the senses, it wasn't quite the same as being on a beach. The possibilities for beachcombing seemed endless in Mexico. My desire was to get back to the Caribbean; my mind kept replaying scenes from beaches of Jamaica, which I'd visited the previous year.
Checking my map (the paper kind!), I noticed the Yucatan Peninsula nestled along the Caribbean coast. And lo and behold, Jamaica was the nearest land mass due east. This must be the place, I decided, so made plans to head out of the city to Merida, capital of the Yucatan, then on to tiny Isla Mujeres.
I asked Alfredo to call the train station to determine when trains departed for Merida. He said it departed everyday at seven,stating I could buy a ticket at the station, no problemo.
Famous last words... The appointed hour arrived. The family cooked a special meal in my honour, which was very touching. Hugs and kisses all around, soon my bag was packed into Alfredo's Volks van. A couple of sidekicks, whom I met when they picked me up hitchhiking in Guadalajara accompanied me to the station. I'd made some very good friends in a short two week span, and was a bit sad at the thought of leaving.
But it was time to vamos a la playa. As fate would have it, the attendant at the ticket counter told me the train was long gone, the next one tomorrow at six, not seven. So much for Mexican time, the main saying in Mexico is manana, so I wasn't concerned. Alfredo announced he and his three companions were headed south to the state of Puebla that very night to pick up a supply of motta ie- marijuana. I wasn't given much choice in the matter, for they were literally leaving from the train station.
The journey was about six hours to a very remote region of Mexico. Well, I figured these cats knew what they were on about, so andele. They suggested I take amphetamines to keep me up through the long journey. I don't indulge in chemicals; even during an almost non-stop trek from Detroit to LA, I resisted taking speeders, staying up all night with little difficulty. However, they were pretty insistent I eat a couple of pills. I later understood I'd actually been drugged with a sedative, probably to keep me from figuring out the route south. I passed out in the back of the volks, and slept like a log. When I awoke some time later, the van was still. We were greeted by an old Indian straight out the pages of Casteneda's Don Juan character I'd been lately reading. Sporting long straight white hair, a cowboy hat, and a gunbelt with a pearl handled pistol that would make Wyatt Earp proud. As my mind tried to focus on our environs, I noted we were at the bottom of a very deep canyon, parked on the edge of a babbling brook. I was introduced to our host. He spoke very softly in Spanish, was glad I was Canadian not American. Mexicans love Canadians, but are cool to indifferent about their direct neighbours to the north. A full moon beamed down the canyon wall; everything was surreal. I was supposed to be on a train headed to Merida, and now, I was starring in a western movie! The old man took the pearl-handled gun out of its holster then fired two rounds into the air. The blast reverberated through the canyon; when the noise abetted, the silence was deafening. We marched along the rocky river bank toward a small hut in the distance. All the while, my head was splitting from a nasty migraine headache, likely from the "speed pill" I had been given. Inside the thatched hut, we sat on the ground in a circle as the Indian stoked a small fire on a primitive stove, the only source of light along excepting the full moon streaking through the front door, and a small flashlight one of the guys brought along. What happened next was remarkable. The old man produced a burlap flour sack then deposited its contents in the centre of our circle. The bag was filled to the brim with high-grade Mexican Puebla reefer. My eyes bugged out as giant buds spread out before us; "this shit turned my eyes red just lookin' at it!" The boys quickly moved into action to pack up the weed. They used water to make it malleable, proceeding to manufacture bricks, with the aid of a homemade press. When this was accomplished, we hauled it back to the van by moonlight, where they proceeded to remove panelling in the roof and sides; the van was then stuffed with contraband. I began to feel a tiny bit uncomfortable about the prospects of being in a Third World country with a reputation for locking gringos up then throwing away the key, an unwilling participant in this clandestine mission.
I sure hoped the boys knew their business.
After all, I rationalized, they were from prominent backgrounds; the elites receive special treatment in Mexico, what me worry? We bade goodby to Don Juan's second cousin, paid the ridiculously low sum of $100 for his crop. Of course, this was much more than he would have received if he grew corn or some other product, but I still felt that the deal was very one-sided, the guys coming out winners. I was wide awake for the return trip. We bumped our way along the canyon, then a couple of hours later, came down out of the mountains. As we reached the main highway, we were forced to stop by the military at gunpoint. Security was no tighter in this region than anywhere else in Mexico; military checks were common throughout the country. I pretended to be asleep, then was given a shove by a gun-toting soldier. I sat up on a bench at the back of the van, blearily watching two soldiers perform a cursory search. The boys weren't exactly meticulous when they packed la motta into the van. The soldiers found small buds on the van floor, then held them up to the light for their cronies to inspect. They pointed to me, questioning what I knew, but I pretended to be very sleepy, merely shrugging, as if I had had no clue what they were on about. Behind my blasé veneer, my mind was racing: busted in Mexico, tossed in jail for life, all because I missed a train to Merida! One of the guys stepped out the van, then put his arm around one of the soldiers. They walked around to the back of the van, whispering in quiet tones; re-emerging, he said we'd have to pay a "duty" on the spot.
This is going to be a big shakedown, I thought, as I prepared to sign over my meagre supply of travellers checks. But amazingly, all the soldiers wanted was 100 pesos, or 20 pesos per; the equivalent of less than two dollars! I subtly pulled out some cash, we paid, and were sent on our way. We all breathed a sigh of relief, and drove into the dawn toward Mexico City. There were no more stops by soldiers; at daybreak, I jumped in the front seat to co-pilot into the city. We arrived back at Alfredo's; his whole family came out to see the sight. Here was the Canadian who was supposed to be gone, returning somewhat bleary-eyed back to the ranch. Alfredo concocted a story about the train and staying out all night to party. So it was back up to the room I had recently departed, for a nap. Alfredo, however, was gone, as he had to divvy up the quarry with the guys.
That afternoon, we had a final reunion before I was set to catch the train (this time, I would get there early). The guys were pretty excited about how the deal had gone down, happy with the small role I had played. Only then did it dawn on me how they were actually pretty freaked out about the close encounter with the soldiers. This caused considerable anxiety, but at least we'd pulled it off.
As a parting gift, they provided me with the some primo buds from the haul, enough to last a few weeks in the Yucatan. In the end, I boarded that train, third-class, to Merida; as we pulled out of the station, I breathed a sigh of relief that I wasn't sitting in a dark Mexican jail, waiting for the bribe money from home to bail me out.
"Sends lawyers, guns and money, the shit has hit the fan…"