The Mexican Caper- (1976) Part 3: Wayward Journeys
On Day 3 of my bout with the Aztec Two-Step (aka Turistas/Montezuma's Revenge), our group decided it might be wise to head out of La Paz to catch the ferry to Mazatlan and the Mexican mainland. I wasn't sure if I had the strength to carry my pack, but thought it might be a good call to get to a larger centre where I could receive some medical attention; I was in a very bad physical condition.
The boat was docked two miles south of town, so we started down the road. Luckily, a Volkswagen hippy van stopped and the driver offered us a ride to the boat. Such perfect timing! (Later, while hitchhiking through Mexico, I often thought about that kind American couple and their generosity).
The overnight boat to Mazatlan transported both passengers and vehicles and was a real beauty, featuring restaurants, bars, a nightclub, an amazing first-class lounge and staterooms – and best of all, a ship’s doctor. I made a beeline for the medic’s office, whereupon I was examined, and provided with some drugs to help heal. He also gave a prescription to fill immediately upon arrival in Mazatlan; psychologically, I felt a lot better.
The next morning, we sailed past several small islands and gazed upon a great sweep of sand along the Mazatlan coast. Coming into port by ship, Mazatlan fairly gleamed in the bright morning sun. The city boasted spanish-style architecture, but the general consensus amongst our group (including the couple with the Volks), was to head south out of town. The couple heard about a secluded beach south of Mazatlan reputed to have free camping and great waves for surfing.
We passed an afternoon in Mazatlan, mostly at the colourful market. I purchased a pair of the Mexican huaraches, leather Mexican sandals with rubber tire soles. I wore these for over two years in hot weather. And, I was able to get my prescription filled, expensive, but brought me back to 100% health, in combination with the ship doctor’s earlier prescriptions.
After that I was never sick again in Mexico, despite eating everything in sight.
On the Beach, In the Sand
We caught glimpses of the coast as we headed south, but it seemed quite a distance from the main road. After about 30 miles we turned down a dusty track. Jim, owner of the Volks van said: “This road looks as good as any, let’s head for the beach!”
Our foray down the dirt track led to a dead end, so we backtracked to the highway to try another lane. The main highway was largely a one-lane affair, and we had to hug the shoulder whenever a truck or bus came toward us.
We tried two other dirt tracks to get to the sea, but without success: they either died out at some point, were impassable, or both.
It was getting dark as we carried on down the highway looking for another lane. One thing that is not recommended for travelers or anyone for that matter, is driving in the Third World at night, especially on unknown tracks. The hazards are many, including animals straying from compounds, wild truck and bus drivers, hazardous turns with no markings, especially in the mountains, banditos, and the poor state of the roads.
Bearing these things in mind, we decided to risk another lane. It was a long ride, but at least it didn’t die out, although sitting in the back of the Volks, it was quite a bumpy (no fun, given the state of my belly).
And then, darkness fell, but then we saw something, that kind of freaked us out. Down the lane, a ways ahead of us, an object was glowing brightly in the pitch black moonless night. What the hell was it?
Instead of going any further, Jim stopped the van and we all got out to figure out what we were looking at.
"It looks like a flying saucer!" someone whispered.
"It can't be," someone else whispered. "Or, maybe it is?
We could hear the roar of the surf pounding on the sand so we knew the beach was near. We were so tired from the long boat ride and our futile attempts to get to the beach, that we decided to cautiously walk towards the object in the hopes that it wasn't a flying saucer and aliens were about to attack us.
As we approached the light, we started laughing. A Volks Pop-Top Camper with a Coleman lamp shining through the top canopy was our "flying sauce". We decided to drive up next to the van, which we quickly discovered was owned by two eccentric American brothers. Introductions were made and new friendships formed as we began the task of unloading gear and pitching our camp.
Arriving at a destination at night is always a strange experience as one tries to imagine the surroundings. When we awoke in the morning, we were surprised to see such a barren landcsape. While there was lots of beach, which swept away for miles in either direction, the sand was grey, reminiscent of the north shore of Lake Erie where I'm from. But the waves were breaking perfectly and we decided the rumours of great surf must be true.
As I was finally cured from my bout with Montezuma's Revenge, the first thing I did was hit the waves for a morning swim. Body surfing was a buzz and the three of us spent considerable time honing our skills with borrowed flippers. The object was to jump inside a curl then kick out sideways. Later, I would perfect the art of body surfing in Hawaii, but never took up big boy surfing, even though I visited some of the best surfing beaches in the world, including the spot in Fiji where the sport was invented.
We met a few beach bums who were free camping on the beach. I had noticed there were at least two types who congregated at these off-the-beaten-track spots: the laid-back group whose only goal was to lie in the sun, hang out and party, and the surfers, who wanted to do all the above, plus dedicate themselves to surfing. Muscle-bound jocks congregated in surfer cafes all over the world, while freaks hung out in their hot spots; the twain seldom met.
On this stretch of the Mexican Pacific Coast, life was good. We hung out on the beach, until, with no place to buy supplies anywhere, we had to head back to Mazatlan to stock up; our group had decided to stay on this beach for a few days and chill out. Free to camp, with a good supply of cheap Mexican liquor ... yes indeed, life was quite comfortable.
A bonus came in the form of a nearby commercial prawn factory. Delicious jumbo prawns were only $3 a kilo: boiled, peeled off the shell, and dipped in Mexican mayonnaise (with a lime juice base) absolutely delicious. Cold drinks were provided by a local who ran beer to us from a nearby cantina for a small tip. My appetite had returned with a vengeance ... I was always hungry! I must have eaten a thousand prawns.
It seemed like we were a million miles from anywhere, and having the time of our lives. One day, another vehicle appeared with two surfers from, where else, California. They were in search of the really big rollers, and were scouting beaches. They camped out for a few days with us, and would get up before sunrise and hike for miles with their big boards down the beach to find the perfect wave.
I followed them one morning, fascinated to learn how they counted the breaks to decide if they were rolling right, based on the tidal pulls ... these guys were real pros. When the time was right, they’d rush into the water like madmen, boards held high over their heads. Paddling out beyond the break, they would sit for a long time, and then suddenly, they’d begin paddling in a frenzy, jump into a wave and shoot up onto their board. A good ride could carry them for long distances. It was fun to watch, so I can imagine how amazing they felt. Whenever I tried to surf, I failed miserably; it was much easier to be a surf watcher so that's what I would be.
We really enjoyed getting to know the two "UFO" brothers. They were quite eccentric and I wondered if maybe they really were from out of space. One claimed to have met the Dalai Lama in Tibet before his exodus; he had a bunch of books by Lopsang Rampa.
They were headed up to Arizona and asked me if I wanted to tag along. The other four in our group: Roland, Walt and the Volks couple, were headed south to Puerto Vallarta. I felt it was time to strike out on my own so I decided to go up to Tucson, Arizona for a quick visit. Unfortunately, this plan turned out to be largely a waste of time.
A few things stand out on the wayward journey north to Tulsa then back down to Mexico. We drove up to Mazatlan, sat at a great seaside cafe, drinking cervezas and snacking on free Mexican treats (bars provided food if you drank their local beer). The beer was served in 5 ounce bottles, nestled in ice buckets, and popped opened when ready to drink. And drank we did ... into a stupor. We definitely had a lot of fun.
We seldom stopped on the ride north. We travelled across wild desert terrain, mentioned in the Carlos Castenada books featuring Don Juan. I'd begun reading the first book of what was then a trilogy, so it literally went with the territory. (Soon enough I would be having my own real-life experience with the “Yaqui Way!”)
Talk about culture shock returning to America! All those fast food restaurants,the conspicuous consumption, all the fancy houses, as opposed to Mexico with its omnipresent poverty. After a very short stay in Tucson, I decided I preferred the harsher realities of Mexico so decided to head back down there. (Later I enjoyed Tucson very much but at that time I was more interested in Third World travel.)
I took my leave of the brothers and crossed the Mexican border at Nogales, Arizona without any hassles. I heard a train was headed south, so I made my way to the station. A car stopped, offered me a ride; a gentleman who spoke perfect English explained about the train, then deposited me at the station, which was a surprisingly long way from the border.
The train, an overnight affair, was much preferable to the bus. I sat with a group of real characters that hailed from Oregon. Naturally, we drank a lot of Mexican beer and didn’t get much sleep, which was starting to become a familiar theme for me,
When we landed back in Mazatlan the next morning, hung over and weary from lack of sleep, I decided I would hitchhike toward Mexico City. Not sure why I decided to head that way, except it seemed like a good idea at the time. I never really had an itinerary in mind while travelling in Mexico that winter, nor did I have a travel guidebook; I just let the road decide where it would take me.
The Mountain (Shall) Pass
Before I could fully evaluate my hitchhiking plans, a truck stopped; next thing I knew, I was heading south. I didn't understand much of what the driver said, but he was friendly and I did figure out he was hauling sacks of potatoes to Guadalajara.
We departed the barren landscape into thick jungle and at a truck stop north of Tepic, we dsicovered cages filled with colourful, exotic birds and monkeys. I hadn't ever seen so much wildlife, except in zoos. I figured these animals were destined either for the States or to some rich Mexican’s home.
We'd come to a fork in the road; one way veered south to Puerto Vallarta, the other southeast to Mexico City. I almost jumped off and headed south, but in those days, the road was a dead end. South of PV was a dirt track; since I'd just backtracked from Tucson, Arizona, the thought of backtracking again wasn’t appealing .
Departing the Pacific coast toward Guadalajara, the truck began its ascent into the mountains. In those days, Mexican drivers had an intricate system for passing slower vehicles along dangerous mountain roads. Oncoming vehicles would flash their headlights at vehicles three or four turns ahead to let them know the coast was clear. Then, drivers would pass the slow pokes ... sometimes around blind curves that didn't have guard rails. This was absolutely terrifying!
Surprisingly, this system worked fine – most of the time. As we rounded one curve, we were forced to stop; a truck had tipped over after colliding head-on with a car. The car was completely demolished and the truck teetered on a precipice. Its load of fruit had rolled down the side of the mountain ... a drop of a few hundred feet. The driver in the car was dead, the trucker only shook up.
As we inspected the carnage, something else by the side of the road caught my attention: an icon of the Virgin Mary, votive candles, and a list of names. A makeshift memorial had been left by relatives in honour of the dead at the spot where their car had careened off the edge, killing all aboard. I started noticing these markers all over the country as we carried on our journey. Often, my driver made the sign of the cross as we passed specific markers. This was disturbing and didn’t instill much confidence in his gringo passenger.
This was my first experience with one of our travel mottos: "no atheists on a Third World mountain highway."
Later that evening, we took a break at a Mexican truck stop. My intrepid driver kindly paid for a dinner featuring regional cooking. I began to appreciate the great diversity of Mexican cuisine, and enjoyed a range of meats, chicken and the ubiquitous beans at every opportunity.
A taco stand seemed to be perched on every corner, where one could eat a fine meal for about 50 cents, washed down with a refreshing fresh fruit drink. I had stopped worrying about catching any diseases after my battle with Montezuma's Revenge; in fact, I never felt stronger in my life!
We drove on for a few more hours, and finally, my amigo pulled over. He said we could sleep in the back of the truck on top of the potato sacks, a Mexican-style motel for truck drivers. I climbed into my sleeping bag, as the driver lay on top the sacks in his underwear, hitting a bottle of Tequila.
As he got drunker, I noticed he was fondling his member, and kept looking over at me.
“Great”, I thought, “of all the truck drivers in Mexico, I get stuck with one who's queer!”
I pretended to pull the sleeping bag over my head, but could hear him mumbling “Amiga, amiga." I took this to mean he thought I should be his girlfriend. I forcefully said , "No!" and casually reached into my travel bag for my knife, hoping this wasn't going to get ugly.
Fortunately, that was the end of the conversation, as he'd passed out after drinking a few more slugs of the booze.
I awoke the early the next morning to an incredible racket. Blinking my eyes against the bright daylight, I realized we were bouncing along the highway. There wasn’t a muffler on the truck, and the noise was unbearable. I tried to yell at the driver, and pounded on the cab wall, but it made no difference. We travelled this way for over another an hour, bouncing and bumping while I fruitlessly attempted to block out the earsplitting noise. Eventually, the driver stopped, and with a giant grin on his face, let me climb back into the cab.
We had arrived at a plateau, an agricultural region covered in massive pulque plants, neatly lined in endless rows like fields of corn. The juice from these plants was destined for the cocktail bar: it was extracted to make pulque, a rich milky substance that forms the base for Tequila. These fields went on mile after a mile, and I kept thinking, “Man, they sure must drink a lot of Tequila in this country!”
Eventually, we came to the outskirts of Guadalajara. As I was on my way to Mexico City, I decided to give it a miss. Later I discovered Guadalajara is popular with foreigners, a beautiful city, and regretted that I hadn't stopped.
On a bright beautiful Mexican Sunday morning, I found myself standing by the side of the road, with my thumb out, thinking how easy it had been to hitchhike this far so fast.
For the next couple of hours, no one stopped. Mind you, it was pretty early, but this was one of those times when hitchhiking was a real waiting game.
Talk about torture. I was burnt out. I hadn’t had any decent sleep for over three days (one night on the train partying with the Americans, another thanks to that crazy Mexican truck driver). I was road weary, and had been travelling non-stop since leaving Tucson.
Cars were whizzing by at about 80 miles an hour (normal speed limit for Mexicans). After a couple of hours, I was despondent and wondered what in the hell I was doing in the middle of no-man’s land when I could easily be sitting on a beach in Puerto Vallarta.
Then I came to a conclusion: here I was in Mexico, so after all, what was the hurry? I didn’t care if I had to walk to Mexico City, I'd get there somehow. So I started walking down the road.
Out of nowhere it seemed, a tall Mexican-Indian walked up to me. He started rambling at full speed in Spanish; my vocabulary at that point consisted of "beer, washroom, water and thanks". The guy had the wildest eyes, and it seemed a special fire burned inside of them. I felt like I was within the pages of Carlos Castenada and Don Juan was coming to life!
I managed to gather that he thought the hitchhiking would be better down the road a piece. So I flipped my huge pack on my back and kept on trucking. I walked for about a mile and it was getting pretty hot since it was almost high noon.
Suddenly, a car stopped about a quarter mile up the road. I thought they would take off if I ran toward it – an old hitchhiking joke some drivers like to pull. But they backed up the car, and as I climbed aboard, never a more grateful passenger had they ever met.
It was a small car and there were already four young Mexicans males inside. I put the pack on my lap, but didn’t care; I was moving again!
Communicating was difficult at first, until one of them attempted some English and we were able to communicate in half Spanis/half English. It seemed they'd just come from Puerto Vallarta, which they raved about. And the good news was they were headed to Mexico City; in fact, they all lived there.
One of the guys handed me a cigarette.
“I don’t smoke – no fumas," I said, casually handing it back.
They found this quite funny, but I didn’t get the joke. As it turned out, it wasn’t a cigarette at all, but a joint cleverly rolled in a paper with a fake cigarette filters printed to look like cigarettes.
“This is to fool the Federales," said Alfredo, the guy who spoke some English.
This wasn’t your average cucaracha these guys were smoking. Perhaps it was Acapulco Gold, Panama Red, or some such breed. I decided it was only polite to do what the locals do. After a few puffs, it was goodbye John, my head’s gone.
We sped on through the countryside; I found the landscape most peculiar. Maybe it was the reefer, but it seemed to me that the hills were shaped like pyramids. Instead of being round, the hills were more pointed. Maybe they were actually ancient pyramids?
This was Carlos Casteneda/Don Juan country, fertile ground for metaphysical thinking.
Onward we drove though the afternoon, through countless Mexican villages and towns. Eventually, we came to the outskirts of the great Mexico City. The road became a four-lane freeway, and we climbed up a high mountain pass. As we came to the top, there was a delay. Ahead, a car was ablaze, and as we passed by, things seemed pretty grim, quieting everyone in the car. We drove on into the great city in silence.
I was fortunate to arrive on a Sunday, a holy day, a day of rest, when the city was relatively calm. I didn’t have a clue where I was going to stay in town (no itinerary/map or plans, of course). I asked Alfredo about a hotel and he just laughed and said something in Spanish. We pulled up to an imposing five-story building, which I presumed was a hotel.
As we disembarked from the car, a brief firework display blasted over the neighborhood. It was all so surreal, in light of the long road I'd been travelling and smoking weed all day had shifted my brain to auto-pilot; I was experiencing some difficulty processing my surroundings.
Alfredo grabbed my pack and I asked again if this was a hotel. He laughed again and said: “Esta es mi casa aqui." My ears perked up. I understood casa meant home (I had picked up some Spanish from the car conversation, as I was fluent in French). I squinted up at the towering building.
"Holy shit!" I thought.
It appeared I was to be an honoured guest of Alfredo in his luxurious palace in the foothills overlooking the city.
In my frazzled state of mind, my next thought was: “I hope he’s not gay!”
My adventure continued in: Part 4, Cuidad de Mexico.