Every Sunday the Nahuatl folks in the towns surrounding Xilitla, Mexico come for market day and to dance. © 2013 Skip Hunt
During his final night in Xilitla, Walter awakened and couldn't go back to sleep. The full moon was so brightly streaming through his windows that it must have tricked his mind that morning had already come. He was also troubled about the Canadians for some reason. Any attempt to get back to sleep was met with futility. It was strangely silent in the night, so he wondered up to the rooftop to admire Xilitla in the still of the full moon light.
It finally dawned on Walter just exactly what was bothering him with regard to the Canadians. He'd been too hard on them and realized that maybe he was a little jealous of their journey. Not so much the chore of traveling by motorcycle and all the distractions of motor maintenance, toll fees, bad gas, and bad weather... but of how they were obviously so excited to be experiencing Mexico for the very first time.
Walter had criss-crossed Mexico several times by motorcycle, train, plane, bus and plenty on foot. He loved this country, but the Canadians's maiden voyage by motorcycle reminded him of how magnificently exciting that felt the first time he did it, and that he'd learned that it would never again feel like that for him. He could find that again in some other country perhaps, but it wouldn't be Mexico ever again. Once he isolated the cause of his general uneasiness, he consciously decided to make his petty jealousy very small, flicked it away into the night, and began to be happy for the Canadians and how they reminded him of how wonderful his own first trip had been.
Walter held his breath a few seconds to fully embrace the quiet solitude and then finally yawned. He could now return back to slumber with a quiet and happy mind. Perhaps he was imagine the Canadians taking those amazing curves down the mountains of Oaxaca to the coast, or perhaps seeing their first glimpse of the Pacific.
During the final ascent into Xilitla, Walter could feel the strange mystic melody that plays on the mountaintops there. The stony streets and rustic market, the charming Nahuatl indian and Mexican locals, the smell of roasting coffee and the dramatic views in any direction, all bake together into a spectacular sensory treat.
Sir Edward James, the famous English surrealist was captivated by the place as well and spend a fortune creating his own private gardens in the jungle called Los Pozos. Gardens isn't quite right though. What he did was to accessorize the already magnificent natural jungle gardens with surreal concrete sculpture that works it's way in and out of the native vegetation and even continues into magnificent waterfalls. An environment where orchids thrive and just adds that extra bit that makes you wonder, "Is this really just a dream?"
Walter has passed through Xilitla several times through the years, but this was the first time without a motorcycle. The hotel he'd come accustomed to is the only place in town that is cheap and also has a garage. The woman who runs the place, Maria Elena, is a bit of a nut job. She mother's all the guests who stay there and frequently crosses the line from mothering to down right nagging. She locks the door at 11pm sharp and if don't make it back in time, tough tortilla pendejo… you'll be spending the night in the street.
For some strange reason, Maria Elena seemed to really like Walter. Some said it was because he reminded her of her son who'd passed away, but most likely it was because Walter was one of the few who kind of felt sorry for her and tolerated the mothering and strict curfews.
The weather was spectacular and the sky rich with deep blues kissing lush green sub-tropical foliage that flowed through valleys and crawled up steep cliff faces. Walter gave the obligatory hug for Maria Elena, tossed his packs and was about to get himself lost in the jungle for at least a little while before the sun set. That was, until he discovered there were a couple of motorcycle tourists from Canada staying at the hotel San Ignacio as well. He didn't really care to chat right away, but the couple just happened by just as Walter was on his way out.
Carl, a stout enough fellow with a haircut he'd borrowed from the 70's and two arms covered in tattoos made the first move. He went on and on about the thrill of motorcycle travel even though Walter had informed him he'd done that same trip 8 times already, all over Mexico. Still he kept on trying to get Walter to admit he was jealous. Walter wasn't the slightest bit jealous, "Look caballero, I'm not on that kind of trip but I appreciate your excitement. How far in are you?" Carl, "We just crossed the Texas border a week ago after trucking the bikes down. You should check out this booklet I got from this fella online that shows all the routes and where all the hotels are that allow bikes. You might want to get one. I'm telling ya, it's the shit." Walter, "I'm not too keen on laid out routes and prefer to just wander and explore myself." Carl, "Well then why ain't ya on a bike this time? Aren't having just a little bit of itch?" Walter, "Nope, it's still cold up North and I'm happy to read and snooze on the bus, nice and dry like." Carl, "Oh, don't tell me about cold, we're from Canada!" Walter interrupts him, "I know, I know. I don't care if you live in an igloo up there in the Great White North, I'm not having it if I don't have to." Carl, "Oh, igloo ya say eh?" Walter, "Oh, here we go… what you gonna show me.." Carl whips out his cell phone and shows Walter some recent snapshots of an igloo." Walter laughs, "Well how about that! An actual igloo. Look, I'm just not geared up for the cold and would rather not pack all the extra clothes." Carl, "When you're just riding free you're so awake and paying attention to every little detail down to the surface of the road. I tells ya, there's nothing like it."
Walter wondered if he'd ever been that bad with his solo motorcycle traveling odysseys and figured he probably had. So, he refrained from repeating once again that he knew well what Carl was harping on about and just let him bask in his own self congratulating and such.
"Well, you two take care now. I'm off to soak up a little jungle vibes before the sun sets. Best of luck to ya." Carl, "Well where do you recommend we should go around here?" Walter tried to offer some suggestions, but Carl just kept referring to his guided tour maps and didn't even seem to listen or be the slightest bit interested in anything Walter had to say. Finally, Carl's lady companion called him away and Walter made his escape.
Sometime during the quiet night, Walter awoke to some very strange howling sounds. Didn't really sound like coyotes or dogs, but more of a higher-pitched drone as you'd imagine might come from a ghost. He shook it off that it might just be a nearby puppy wanting his mother's milk, but he'd just had the strangest dream involving nuns, indians with twisted and deformed faces, and he felt that one of the nuns was his muse in disguise. The troubling part was the mangled indian faces that had been the victims of some demented doctor who was cursed by the same malformations.
You do encounter some fairly twisted birth defects in these more indigenous regions, but Walter figured the strange theme was likely more a result of too much spicy chorizo right before hitting the sack. Eventually he drifted back into the same twisted dreamscape until he woke to someone stomping around the roof of the hotel early the next morning. Carl was up there cooking on a camp stove and hanging some laundry out on the hotel's clothesline.
Walter went up for a courteous visit in case Carl was actually interested in any advice about the area, but he wasn't. Just a replay of the say before.
Maria Elena came over and started yelling at Carl. I could understand most of what she was saying, but I don't think Carl really did. Being the sort who knows a bit more than anyone else in the room, he started translating to Walter. He said, "I think she's telling you that you can't do laundry in the bathroom. And that she wants you to know this is a hotel. I think she's just giving you some shit Walter." Walter, "No, actually she's not saying any of those things, and she's not saying saying them to me… it's all directed at you. Is that your laundry on the line." Carl, "Yes." Walter, "Did you ask her if you could cook up here on the hotel roof?" Carl, "Well, she saw my stove." Walter, "What she's saying is that you can't do laundry in the shower of your room because it clogs up the drain. She's telling you this isn't a campground for cooking." Carl, "Oh yeah, she's just teasing me because she's saying this isn't real camping if I'm cooking on the roof?" Walter, "No, she's telling you that this isn't a campground or a posada. It's a hotel and she is offended that you're treating it as otherwise." Carl, "Oh yeah, well tell here that I have special dietary needs and so does my girlfriend. And that we have to.." Walter, "Look Carl, she's a bit crazy and nags a lot. Just smile and say you're sorry and respect her hotel. It's all good. Oh, and I wrote out a couple places you might want to check out while you're here." Carl, "Will do. Thanks amigo."
Winding down the steep streets of Xilitla, you gradually find yourself alone and meandering amidst tall palm trees, lush ferns, and quiet farmland. The sound of waterfalls comes in and out of ear shot as you continue your easy descent. Once you've reached the bottom, you'll notice strange architecture to the side of the dirt and stone road that seems to have no purpose at all. That's because it doesn't. You've reached the magical gardens of Sir Edward James, and eccentric fellow who built these amazing surreal structures in the jungle and around the waterfalls with no other purpose than his own pleasure. They were never intended to be publicly viewed. Strange cat eh?
Evening was closing in and Walter just wanted to stop in at the Casa Caracol, a trippy little hippy place where you can rent a teepee to sleep in. Only these are fairly sophisticated teepees with air circulation systems, electricity and a small bed. Indian music can be heard as it dissolves into psychedelic trance music. The caretakers greet their old friend Walter and catch up on the last few years since he was last here.
They tell him that the old "Captain" who drank too much and was plagued by severe depression, had improved just shortly after Walter had given him a few peyote buttons. Rudolfo, Casa Caracol's current caretaker, told Walter that the Captain said he ate the plants just after Walter left and had the most significant, powerful, and beautiful experience of his life. Walter paused and remembered the old Captain, and smiled.
Rudolfo introduced his fiancé, Paulina from Mexico City to Walter and he felt a strange connection with her instantly. Her eyes had a certain spark to them and her general demeanor projected an elfish quality that intrigued him. Walter shared the powerful, perpetual deja-vu experience with Rudolfo and Paulina because it was Rudolfo who'd told Walter about a magical city called Tepoztlan near Mexico City. It was in Tepoztlan that Walter first experienced the deja-vu sensations and he wondered if Rudolfo had heard similar stories.
Rudolfo, "Yes, this place is very powerful. Many friends have felt these things in this place. Paulina had a strange experience there too." Walter, "Really? What happened? Same deja-vu?" Paulina, "No, but I have met others who had a similar experience to yours but not nearly as powerful. Mine was when I visited this cave with this shaman. I'd hit my head on this rock and fell down to the ground. While on the ground my hand felt something plastic and I pulled it up. It was my college I.D. and I'd never been to this place before. I'd lost it many years ago, and all of a sudden it's on the ground in this cave I was visiting for the first time." Walter, "Did you ever figure out what happened and how it got there?" Paulina, "Yes, my twin sister had taken it from me years ago and she'd visited this cave a year before. She was thinking of me while she was there and buried it in the dirt as an offering." Walter, "Wow, that's really bizarre. I was afraid something had gone wrong with my brain chemistry when I was there, but it went away as soon as I left. But, ever since then I seem to have this new sensitivity that kicks back in from time to time. Just like it did recently in Tampico. Strange isn't it?" Rudolfo, "It's that place… there's a power there."
Walter bid his friends a good night and started his way back up the mountain to Xilitla. As he passed by the mostly empty plaza in front of the church, there were some women milling about with very athletic figures. They seemed so out of place that Walter decided to climb up to the second platform of the main plaza gazebo to see what was going on.
The women started doing some stretches and limbering up. Walter noticed they were wearing ballerina costumes, but that's wasn't the strangest thing. When one of them moved more into the light, Walter noticed they weren't women at all. They were Mexican transvestite ballerinas preparing for an impromptu show for just the handful of locals who were milling about the plaza. They didn't ask for money or anything. They just started some music playing on this very large boom box and proceeded to perform a beautifully choreographed piece for nearly half and hour.
When they were finished, they said nothing. The locals applauded, and the troupe gathered their things and disappeared just as quickly as they'd appeared. The locals acted as if this sort of thing happens all the time and immediately went back to their casual milling about the plaza. A few dogs howled and Walter noticed a fine mist began to fall.
Walter got back to the San Ignacio just before the rain started and just under the curfew gun. Maria Elena was pleased and quizzed him as to where he'd been. He told here he just went for a hike to Los Pozos, and told her about the ballet troupe in the plaza. Maria Elena just shook here head and accused Walter of being loco. She quizzed him harder about where he'd gone and smelled to see if he'd been drinking. Walter shook his head, laughed, and then wished Maria Elena a good night.
Just as soon as the Canadian motorcyclists had left, three more American motorcyclist pulled in for the night. They said they lived in San Miguel de Allende, which barely qualifies as Mexico anymore. It's basically an expat outpost where most of the people speak English and dollars are exchanged.
Walter tried to strike up some conversation, but they didn't appear interested in chatting with anyone. They looked mostly frustrated and tired. And, Walter thought they seemed awfully rude as well. He wrote it off to them likely having a challenging day riding, since Maria Elena went on and on about how they claim to live in San Miguel but not one of them speaks a word of Spanish.
That afternoon the Americans were back at the San Ignacio grabbing their gear they'd stowed while exploring Los Pozos. They finally opened up a little to Walter but said they were moving on to Jalpan with hopes of finding higher quality hotels. Walter thought San Ignacio was fairly nice by most standards, but I suppose if you're used to 5-star U.S. hotels, San Ignacio and a motherly patron imposing a curfew, might not be ideal.
After the sound of their bikes had faded down the mountainside, Maria Elena turns up and is furious. "Do you know what those American did?!" Walter, "No, they just left. Did they not pay?" Maria Elena, "No, they paid, but while I was gone to the market they just let themselves into my apartment and through all their bags on my bed! They just walked into my living room and through to my bedroom as if it were their own!"
By this time the maintenance man and housekeeper were standing by listening. Walter asked, "Didn't they get permission first?" Maria Elena, "No! They just went in like they owned the place and when I got back from the market, one of them was in my bedroom changing his bathing suit into his motorcycle clothes. Can you believe it?" Walter thought a moment and figured they likely thought it was just another hotel room, but it looked obviously a private residence to him. He answered loudly, "Pinche Gringos!!!" (fucking gringos) Maria Elena briefly looked in shock as she looked over at the maintenance man and housekeeper. Then they all burst out laughing uncontrollably. Walter laughed too and thought they'd all lose their cheerios as he heading back out to find something to eat.
The days went on like this for a few days. Walter was waiting for the big Sunday market day to catch some of the festivities and dancing that overtakes the main plaza every week. He'd gobble up some of his favorite local grub, zacahuil (sort of a giant tamale thing about 4 feet long and filled with chicken, pork, masa, and a variety of spices wrapped up in banana leaves and tamale husks), wander about the countryside and swim at Los Pozos, then he'd move on. The next stop was likely going to be the cascades of Tamasopo.
Just before the big Sunday market and dance, Walter was invited to a small dinner party by the former front PAN party front-runner for Presidente of the district. He explained the differences between the two main parties PAN and PRI, and about the corruption and all, but this was precisely the sort of talk he was hoping to escape from the U.S. for a little while. He pretended to be interested until he realized this dude was a politician. And politicians don't seem to last very long in Mexico, but since he lost the election Walter figured it didn't count. At least, that's what he told himself.
The politician and his friends told him about what's really going on and how much of it's just hype. But they also told him everything he's heard so far is absolutely true, its just that it gets told so often that it sounds like its happening all the time. They used the incident in San Fernando where the cartels pulled everyone off of buses, killed the old people, raped the girls, and told the young men they were now working for the cartel. If they showed the slightest sign of resistence, they were killed too. And they also found a trench full of bodies near where the bus incident occurred. They said this all happened just the stories Walter may have heard along the way. However, they explained it only happened that one time about 4 years ago, but it gets repeated so often that you'd think it happened last week.
Walter mentioned heading up to some cascades around El Naranjo that he'd not seen before, but they said that area is really pretty dangerous with lots of violent heat recently. Walter remembered passing through that region on previous motorcycle journeys and remembered it felt like the wild West even a few years ago.
Walter, "So, everything beyond Tampico is going to be a bit safer by comparison right?" The politician, "No, actually Ciudad Valles where you have to go to get your bus is even more dangerous than Tampico. It was bad there for the last couple of years and still is, but much of the cartel violence has been happening in Ciudad Valles lately." Walter, "Dios! Out of the frying pan into the fire. Do you have to worry about this all the time?" The politician, "We just learn to live with it like they do in Israel. It's just the way of life here at the moment. I have a plan to get my wife and kids out and to the U.S. if it gets any worse, but did you know some of the cartel people are living in the U.S. now?" Walter, "No way!" The politician, "Yes. They look just like anyone else now and you can't tell the difference between the regular people and the cartel people. The biggest targets have houses in the U.S. where its harder for the rival cartels to find them."
Walter, "I was just about to relax again until you folks just managed to terrify me again." They laughed and the politician said, "Don't worry. It's only dangerous in the places where the cartels are fighting each other and only if you happen to get in the way. They are mostly pretty careful to only hit their rivals. The stories you hear about the kidnappings and such are mostly just thugs taking advantage of the situation." The polician's wife chimed in, "They mostly just make me laugh because they rarely have their story very well researched. They say they are some second lieutenent or something idiotic and try to get information like a telemarketer. I just hang up on them mostly. What are you going to do? Stay inside in bed with the door locked the rest of your life?"
Walter, "Have you folks ever had any actual clashes with them? I mean, as a politician I would think you'd get plenty." The politician, "I thought so too, but there really wasn't much. No one approached me at all. Maybe that's why I lost." He laughed and added, "Myself and my colleages are architects. We are especially vulnerable because we have to go to these small towns and everyone sees us coming and going everyday. Some have been followed to the bank on payday and have had to pay up to the cartels, but we've here all been lucky so far. Really, you don't have much to worry about. If anything happens at all it seems to mostly happen late at night. Just don't linger in the hotspots long, travel only in the day, and try not to get in the way on the wrong side of town and you should be just fine."
Walter excused himself with just enough time to get back before Maria Elena would lock the gate. The politicians wife laughed, "Why do you stay with that crazy woman? Everyone complains about her mothering. There are other hotels here." Walter, "I know, but I don't think I could bare to see her hurt face when she saw I was no longer staying with her. She's mostly very sweet to me. My own mother died at a young age. She was never a crazy loon like this woman is, but maybe I don't mind being mothered for a few days every now and then... for old times sake."
The big Sunday market day came and the entire town of Xilitla was transformed overnight into a pulsing indigenous free-for-all with food stalls, music, dancing, drunk indians and wild children. Walter soaked as much of it up as he could, including a bit too much chorizo and zacahuil. He moved along with the stomping indian dancers as they all broiled in the scorching noon-day sun in front of the church where services were going on at the same time. Some of the drunk dancers would take breaks and go sit down in the church to cover their bases and get a little shade before stumbling back out to dance in Hell fire stomping. Walter wanted the day to last longer. He wasn't looking forward to the next leg of his trip, but he felt good that he at least knew how to increase his odds a little and hopefully avoid stray bullets and roadside shakedowns by phony cartel punks.
Local Nahuatl Indians dance the afternoon away during Sunday market on the main plaza. © 2013 Skip Hunt
A couple time-lapse sequences around Xilitla, Mexico. The clouds didn't cooperate on the second one, but it still shows the dramatic landscape of the area.
© 2013 Skip Hunt
Waterfalls near Xilitla, Mexico in the Los Pozos gardens of Edward James © 2013 Skip Hunt
Walter laid staring at the odd shaped ceiling about 15 feet above that looked like a small arch pattern. The peach walls, the pink curtains, the 8 electrical sockets on the walls, the second small room with an elevated bathroom and the unused 8 feet or so above the bathroom that could be used for storage… he'd been in this room before. He thought, "Any one of these elements could have been in any number of Mexican rooms I've stayed in the past, but this combination seems so very familiar."
He'd noticed this upon entering the room and didn't hesitate to take it. Something had led him directly to this room for some reason. He hadn't even checked other hotels. He got out of the cab, walked one block, asked for a room, and that was that. Even the clerk seemed familiar. Walter was all ready to move on to the next town, but something beckoned him to stay just one more day. Maybe he was just being lazy, or maybe there was something to the intense familiarity he was feeling. He'd had this incredible sensation before, mostly in Mexico and it troubled him a bit. Where was it coming from? Was he slowly beginning to lose his mind? Or, perhaps all the years of local mystic plant experimentation had taken it's toll.
Whatever it was, he was feeling again and it was strong. He figured he had the spare time and decided the buses would be too packed with locals returning to their pueblos after a weekend in the city, so he figured he'd stay on one more day.
Walter paid the hotel clerk for another night and asked, "Excuse me, but do I look familiar to you?" The clerk, "Yes sir, you're staying in room 203 and you've been here for 4 days." Walter, "Not this time, but another time perhaps. I've been to Tampico few times but have only stayed here twice. Once I stayed in a hotel on the plaza, and the last time I stayed in a room by the bus station. Yet, this place seems so familiar to me. Even you look familiar. Have you seen stay in this hotel before." The clerk, "No sir. I have never seen you before in my life before this visit." Walter, "Ok, just curious. Gracias."
Walter grabbed a coffee at an OXXO convenient store and continued down the street looking for something interesting and a reason for the urge to stay another night. What was it about his travels in Mexico that sometimes produced this extreme sensation of perpetual deja vu? It's true he'd been all over Mexico over the years and it's likely there was plenty memories that could easily blend into each other, but there was something different about this particular sensation. It had only happened a few times and a couple of times it wasn't in Mexico.
There was a bright yellow wood shack on the corner with bright green trim. The sun was a bit intense, but the contrast and texture was nice, so he tried to get a photo while still balancing his coffee.
Just as he'd managed to switch hands, get a couple photos, then re-pocket the camera without spilling his coffee, a Mexican man came right up to him from behind and started greeting him loudly. Walter startled and almost lost the coffee as he tried to figure out what he was saying.
The man introduced himself, "Hello and welcome to Tampico. My name is Vincente Lopez. Do you speak English?" Walter, "Yes, I do and thank you. Is this your building?" Vincente, "No, the next one is. I have a school where we teach English, computers and cooking. Are you enjoying our city?" Walter, "Yes, I am. I've been here before but this is the first time I've stayed more than a night. It seems like there is an awful lot of police and military. Is it dangerous here?" Vincente's eyes lit up, "Oh, let me tell you, it's just terrible. I have friends from Texas who used to come every year, but after they saw the bodies hanging from a foot bridge one time, they have never come back. I don't know how you say in English, cordon? with ropes." Walter, "Like with a noose?" Vincente, "Yes, and not the big bridges either, the foot bridges where pedestrians cross the road so that everyone can see."
Walter, "I've read about that, but honestly, I've been here 4 days and it seems kinda calm." Vincente, "Well, it has been kind of quiet for the last week, but that's how it goes, it starts and stops. Haven't you seen all the trucks with machine guns?! They aren't doing that just for show." Walter, "But no one looks really nervous. Seems normal for the most part." Vincente, "That's because we are used to the pop, pop, pop and boom. It's just part of our lives now. They keep it out of the news but you can read about what's really going on by reading the Narcos blogs. They have photos of the bodies and everything. It's really bad." Walter, "Well, I figured if I wasn't involved with the cartels, drug tracking, etc. that I was ok. What do I have to worry about?" Vincente, "First of all, we're standing on this corner which is an important corner for the taxis. They turn here to go toward the main plaza. For sure one of them has called someone and reported that there is an American wearing a light colored cap, black vest, shorts and sandals who has been talking to an older Mexican man on such and such corner. Or, maybe those two guys over there on bicycles are calling someone right now. They have people everywhere reporting everything. Who comes and goes and what they're doing. You know who I'm talking about?" Vincente leans over to say quietly under his breath, "There are two, cartel de Golfo.." Walter, "And, Los Zetas?" Vincente, "Yes, they control everything. They control the police and make all the businesses pay. You asked me what you have to worry about. What they do is just pull up in a truck and force you in."
Walter, "Do I look like an American? Some have mistaken me as being from Europe. One man asked if I was from Holland." Vincente, "It doesn't matter. You don't look like you're Mexican, so you're a foreigner and you are probably rich." Walter, "But I'm not rich. I carry a backpack and stay in a cheap hotel." Vincente, "I know that, but to them you are foreigner and it doesn't matter where you are from. You likely have more money than them and the economy has been very bad here." Walter, "Now you're talking about the danger being poor folks wanting to rob me. That's not new. What I'm asking about is the danger of cartel violence." Vincente, "Well you have to worry about that too. A few weeks ago some guys were dragging a body out to the street that they'd killed. Some people were walking by and saw them, so they called someone and then this truck comes by and shoots them with machine guns. Then, another night there were these 3 guys sitting on the corner just drinking some beers. They were told to leave this corner. Why, they didn't know. The others left but one refused to leave. He just sat there drinking his beer because he didn't want to be told what to do. You know what happened then? A truck comes from around the corner and tosses a… I don't know in English a grenada?" Walter, "A grenade?!" Vincente, "Yes! That's it. It explodes and completely removes the guys whole face." Walter, "Did it kill him?" Vincente, "My gosh, are you kidding me?! Yes, of course it killed him! It took off the whole front of his head!" Walter, "Jesus! But I haven't heard anything much at night at all. Just something that sounded like some fireworks and a man that was screaming a bit, but that was it."
Vincente, "One night there was a lot of pop, pop, pop and boom. People were running everywhere. They even sprayed my building with bullet holes I can show you. That night my brother-in-law called because he had been hit in his shoulder by a stray bullet. We came in a car to take him to the Red Cross, but they wouldn't let us in. They said it was too dangerous and were all closed up. Then we go to the police station and they draw their guns to shoot us. We waved our arms to tell them we were just looking for help for my brother-in-law who was bleeding all over the place. They said there was nothing they could do to help us and told us to go to the hospital a couple miles away. We got him there and thought everything was ok, but the next day we got a call from the doctor who said that he'd lost too much blood and the arm was dead. Now my brother-in-law is amputated because no one would help us. They didn't want something bad to happen to them too. People on the street saw who did the shooting but no one said anything." Walter, "That's incredible. I had no idea. But it just seems like I would at least hear a little something at night. I've heard nothing and everyone seem to be just going about their business as usual."
Vincente, "Like I said, it's been quiet lately. Here's another one, just about 2 months ago, just down the street from here there's a seafood restaurant." Walter, "Yes, I know the one… by the lagoon?" Vincente, "Yes, that one. Well the woman who owns that restaurant has a college age daughter. One day she's contacted and they tell her that they have her daughter. They demand she pay them 3 million pesos or they will cut her daughter up in little pieces. But, she don't have 3 million pesos so she tells them she has some real estate that she will sign over to them and to please not harm her daughter. They tell her they don't want real estate, they want 3 million pesos. So do you know where she was supposed to deliver the money?" Walter, "No." Vincente, "The police station!!! So she doesn't have the money and a few days later, someone drops off a black garbage bag with someone cut up in little pieces. One of my clients is a doctor for the teeth. I think you all a dentist?" Walter, "Yes" Vincente, "They call my dentist client in to identify someone by the teeth. And it was her… the woman's daughter. The animals cut her up into little pieces just like they said they would."
Walter, "Oh my God! That's horrible! I've been coming to Mexico for many years and I didn't used to worry about it, but am starting to notice it really is getting bad. What do you think happened to take it to this level? And, do you think it's ever going to get better if they control the authorities?" Vincente, "I think something happened after September 11 when the United States started making it much harder to get into the country and to get the drugs through. So much of the drugs coming in from South America get stuck and stay in Mexico. This has polluted their minds I'm sure. And when they can't get drugs through they try other smuggling businesses like guns and people. Anything they can. But, you asked if it's ever going to get better. Yes, I think it will. Most of the killings are the cartels fighting each other. I think eventually they will kill each other off. And the corruption in the police, government and military is getting much better now than it was."
Walter, "Wow, I like to wander around and enjoy the culture. I love Mexico, but you've really got me paranoid now." Vincente, "Oh, don't worry. Just be careful. They aren't targeting the tourists. Just keep moving and don't hang around any one spot too long. I have friends who work in the market who take 3 different colored shirts with them to work every day. That way, whenever they leave one location for the next, they change shirts. They're everywhere and they might radio someone that this guy just left his shop and is wearing a red shirt. Well, he just changed his shirt to a green one, so they can't find him. I don't know if that helps, but that's what they tell me they do. I have a friend who's son works at the OXXO. You know OXXO?" Walter, "Yes, the convenient store chain. That's where I got this coffee." Vincente, "Well my friend's son tells us that one day these people come in and say tomorrow you will have one more OXXO employee. But this new employee won't get paid like other employees. So the next day there's a new guy and he already has the uniform and everything. He helps out, sweeps, loads drinks into the fridge, just like a regular employee, only he's also got a radio and he calls in every now and then to report someone he's seen come and go. I'm telling you, they know everything and see everything. Don't be worried though." Walter, "What?! How could I not be worried?" Vincente, "You just have to trust in God. That's all you can do. Don't worry. Keep moving and have a nice visit." Walter, "Trust in God? Where was God when they were chopping up that poor girl into tiny pieces?"
Walter thanked Vincente for the information and continued down the street a bit more tense than he'd been before. He started to question that intuition that urged him to stay in this city another day. But maybe the reason he was supposed to stay was so he could hear that warning and not be quite as careless in his wanderings.
He made another round of the lagoon to check out the crocodiles and kept further from the road in case one of those trucks pulled up. He saw a military truck pass by with a roof-mounted large machine gun with a soldier at the ready. He looked away toward a bright green iguana by the waterside to distract his attention. Just then a much larger brown iguana about 5 times the size of the green one, stomped quickly out of the bushes and pounced aggressively on top of the green one. The smaller green one struggled under the weight but managed to wriggle itself free. Walter continued back toward the bayous and stopped to get another photo of some textured, decaying wood but remembered to keep moving. As he approached the bayou he noticed a Mexican man who looked like he'd lost his mind and was yelling to himself out loud and sniffing on a plastic container of something. He eyes caught Walter's and he stopped to stare him down with an intense rage. Walter picked up the pace and turned the first corner he could find. He wasn't going to get that photo of the bayou he wanted. He thought about being alone under that bridge to get the right angle. Then he thought about the man insanely sniffing some strange chemical. And then he thought of that larger aggressive iguana pouncing out of nowhere on the smaller green one, and decided he'd best keep moving.
The plaza will filled with families enjoying their Sunday. Children road bicycles and everything seemed right with the world. How could the things Vincente told him be true? Wouldn't the people just stay inside or leave the city altogether if it was really that bad? Maybe Vincente had just read one too many of those Narcos blogs? Or, most likely it was all true but the folks here, like the fellow drinking his beer on the corner have simply refused to be told what to do and cave in to fear. They were going to live their lives the best they could and they were determined the animals would not win.
Walter awoke the next morning and once again tried to figure out when he might have forgotten that he'd stayed in this room with the pink curtains. Then, he got up, packed, and made his way to the bus station to catch the first one out and toward the Huasteca indigenous mountain village of Xilitla. As the bus lumbered it's way down the narrow streets and then down the main boulevard in the business district, he looked again at those pedestrian bridges and thought of the poor girl who's mother didn't have 3 million pesos. The bus crossed over the bridge separating Tampico from Veracruz, but Walter didn't look back. He knew by the strength of the intuition that'd he'd return one day and hoped by that time the forces of light might have found a way to beat back down the darkness that strangled the city.
Soon, the twisted concrete gave way to gentle farmland and peaceful vistas. Walter lost himself in the lush scenery as the flatlands gradually morphed into dramatic valleys with giant boulders crowned in vibrant sub-tropical foliage. He pondered how such beauty could be so near and yet so seemingly far away.
The first military checkpoint came up and it was just two easy-going fellows drinking sodas. No bullet-proof vests, no machine guns mounted on trucks… just a stack of old tires and a lazy wave through. The next checkpoint wasn't even manned and Walter felt he could really just let his mind wander out into the low hanging mist mixed with burning season smoke until his spirit was somewhere lounging amid the palms and majestic crevasses. The bus chugged it's way through the daring curves at an easy pace all the way deep into las Huastecas and onward toward the stony mountain village of Xilitla.
Walter was awakened around what must have been around 3AM or so by something that sounded like gunshots following a man screaming. He only bothered with it for a couple minutes. He knew these sounds were not that uncommon in the Mexican night... he was in a concrete hotel room with walls thick enough to stop a stray bullet, and Hell... it was Friday night and it was likely just some ol' boys having a good time is all... no reason to not slip right back into dreamland.
The next day he kept thinking about the sounds every time he'd see another one of those heavily armed military trucks with the giant machine guns mounted on the roof. He wondered how thick the concrete would have to be to stop a round from that behemoth. Then he just let the thought fade back into wherever it'd come from and just kept walking.
Walter wasn't generally the skittish type, but he'd read one too many gruesome reports of drug cartel violence in the region and a friend had recently told him about his friend's aunt's husband had recently been kidnapped and murdered. He said the aunt and children were now living in Texas, "You know, there are exotic places you can go that aren't so dangerous. Be careful down there man. It's some real serious shit going on."
Walter thought, "Why does everyone want to jinx me? I know it's not the safest place on the planet, but the safest places tend to be boring and how am I going to get inspired at an all-inclusive?". He tried to shake off the jitters and keep moving... dogs can smell when you're afraid and he'd bet a peso or two that cartel punks could too.
Just as he started to relax a bit and make a few snapshots of some interesting paint texture on the wall of this dingy alley way, he caught site of two men trying to stuff a body into the back of a small car. The hair stood up on his neck as his throat tightened. Could that be one of those poor chaps who couldn't raise the ransom? He looked back again quickly and noticed the whole body was covered blood-red.
Walter, "Ok. Don't panic. They haven't noticed you yet. Just keep walking and avoid eye contact." Just then his eyes met with the outside man. The other man was now pulling the body from the inside. Walter felt a little dizzy but tried to look cool as he hurried by the open car door. He didn't want to look but he couldn't help himself. There it was... just lifeless and mostly blood red. And, a little blue wearing a mask. He almost dropped to his knees as he exhaled and tried not to laugh as he wondered when they started making life-size Spiderman piñatas?
Why was he a little disappointed? It seemed he was looking for that adrenaline rush, or something else. One of these days he was going to find something for real and its not going to be like the movies. Still, he found himself wondering down alleys that he knew he shouldn't be on. There's the rationale that the most interesting textures and strange light are always where no one else is looking, but he knew there had to be more to it than that.
Tampico is an old rusty port city with dank and polluted canals snaking throughout to control flood waters and likely move sewage too and fro. There's a dark green channel that hugs the South end of the city and alongside the rail yard. Walter figured if there was going to be some nice rust textures, that's where he'd find them.
Once again he found himself slinking down a dark alleyway behind two men on bicycle. They hadn't seen him as they made a quick transaction in the shadows. Walter thought, "Not again! Am I just attracted mystically to this shit?" Just then the men saw him and looked nervous. One man tried to look cool and started talking to Walter as the other one leaped behind a wall at the waters edge. "You looking for something friend?" Walter, "No, don't worry. No problem here. I'm just looking around the river." The man,"You work at the shipyard?" Walter, "No, I'm just a tourist having a look around. Seriously, no problem. Don't worry."
The other man overheard and felt safe enough to come out from behind the wall. "You been to the beach?" Walter, "There's a beach here?". Both men started laughing and said there was a nice beach and easy to get to also. They told Walter not to bother with paying for a taxi as they were too expensive. All he needed to do is go back across the rail yard tracks to the large two-lane boulevard and look for one of the collectivos that said "Playa" on the front. Only $8 pesos each way. Each man looked at each other relieved and very happy to help the lost stranger find his way to some surf instead of snooping around where he shouldn't be.
Walter strolled along the mostly empty beach and really let is mind relax and let his vision blur with the mantra of ocean waves. He went as far as he could and then followed a fishing malecon running along a ship channel to a small lighthouse. There was a large colony of raccoons scurrying in and out of the rocks. He figured he'd keep his distance as the raccoons approached without fear. Likely the fishermen would toss them scraps so they no longer feared humans. He then saw a striking black cat licking its tail. He approached the cat assuming it too was friendly when it turned its bright green eyes and hissed like the devil, he knew it was time to put the guard back up.
As he turned to head back toward the beach, he noticed large smokestacks with fire pouring out with black smoke. To the left, the harsh reality of polluted oil refining, and to the right a lovely peaceful beach. He decided, the looks of Tampico were deceiving him once again and maybe he should think about moving on. He'd already found his favorite coffee spot and was starting to walk the same routes. After he made the same photo a day later only with better light, he decided it was time.
Walter took a bench and wondered why he seemed more wary of the others waiting in the Greyhound bus station. It wasn't just that Greyhound bus station, it was pretty much any bus station he'd waited in the United States over the years. He never felt anxious in bus stations in Mexico. There, everyone just looks like folks of various social levels just trying to get from point A to point B. Mostly average-looking folks for the most part.
The more he thought about it, and studied the others waiting with him this time in this Austin, Texas Greyhound station, he began to notice a pattern. Most folks in U.S. bus stations look like they're either going to or coming from prison, their pimp, rehab, or the military. He figured he too likely fit at least one of those profiles.
The bus pulled up and everyone slowly took a place in line. It was coming on midnight, but most looked beaten by something else in addition to the hour. No one looked thrilled to say the least, but they slowly shuffled onto the bus.
Walter headed straight for the back and asked himself, "Why do I always tend toward the back of the bus? Could be it's closer to the bathroom? No, that can't be it. The door always seems to be broken and the stench is always wafting out. Not to mention the constant opening and closing of it all through the night. Maybe I should take one closer to the front this time?"
He looked back toward the front and noticed it was already pretty full. There was a couple wrangling a baby crib into one of the seats in the middle, so once again... back of the bus.
Just as he'd settled into his seat, a very large Hispanic man sitting in the last row and just behind Walter, started hacking, sneezing and coughing like he had the plague so bad that he might not even complete the journey at all. He made such an exaggerated effort trying to rid himself of his viral-mucal disease into the general breathing space that it seemed like he planned on taking everyone else with him.
Walter grimaced that of all the seats he could have taken... then he started to smile. Getting the seat right next to the sickest passenger had been such a regularity, that he'd told himself he would get one of those surgical masks to wear for the next time. Every time he'd forget, but this time he hadn't. He quickly dug into his backpack and whipped out a fresh, bio-surgical mask and had it strapped across his face before even the second round of dramatic mucus dispersal. No one could see, but Walter was smiling ear to ear.
The border crossing was the first hurtle. In the past, he'd been harassed plenty by the generally corrupt Mexican immigration officials. Never a huge deal, but they usually tried to tump up some bullshit issue with his passport or some fake new charge they'd just made up on the spot. Most of the time they didn't pilfer anything from Walter, but every now and then he'd just pay the extra $20 or so just to keep moving.
This time, the immigration officer asked him why his passport wasn't stamped for re-entry the last time he'd been in Mexico. He thought, "Oh boy, here we go again." The first order of defense is to let it be known you speak very little Spanish to the point that it's going to be difficult to describe just how you are going to rip-off the poor gringo. This would require more effort with this gringo repeatedly replying "No comprende. I'm sorry, my Spanish is very bad. Can you please repeat it more slowly?".
It was only 6AM and Walter could tell he was breaking down the officer quickly. He told him he did turn in his visa the last time, but the fellow didn't stamp anything. The bus driver was getting anxious to keep moving, so the officer just told Walter everything was fine, "No problema. You can get your visa at the bus station in Matamoros. There's an office there too."
Walter figured he'd call ahead to his buddy at the bus station office to get ready for a nice "fine" from a fresh gringo heading his way with a passport that didn't have an exit stamp. To his surprise, there was no issue at all. The other officer was as pleasant as could be, and even filled out the visa for him. How could that be? This was going way too easy so far. Maybe the other boot would drop at the first checkpoint? Or they were laying off the tourist rip-offs since most of the tourists were too afraid of all the cartel violence and they needed any tourist that was willing to take a chance? Who knows, but there had to be something waiting down the road, it was never this easy.
There were plenty of armed military vehicles along the way. Mostly regular army, but with large caliber machine guns mounted on the hoods of trucks. There were also the more intimidating ones dressed all in black with black military swat helmets and body armor. Those were likely federal police. There were a lot more military check points than had been in the past, but most were cordial and non-intimidating. None of the forcing all the males to get off the bus and forcing their way through everyone's luggage on the side of the road. Everything was nice and polite.
There was something odd about the bus driver and his back up driver. Every time there were military or police checkpoints, he'd wave feverishly like a 3 year old excited to see a firemen. I noticed too that every time the bus would slow down for a check point, the back up driver would start scanning the side of the road slowly with a steely stare. His hand would move very slowly up his side and start to reach for something attached to his belt. He'd rest his hand there, until we were flagged through. His shirt was mostly covering whatever it was, but it looked like the butt of a small pistol.
The route took much longer than it was supposed to and went off the main roads onto rough dirt side roads. There wasn't anything Walter could do if something fishy was being loaded onto the bus when the bus driver would stop for no reason in the middle of nowhere and mess around with something on the side of the bus. He had to just try to relax and try to sleep a little.
When they finally arrived in Tampico, Mexico, they passed under a series of bridges on the main drag in the financial district. Walter had read that just a week ago, 4 bodies were hanging from one of those bridges as some sort of statement in the heated war between the de Gulfo and Los Zetas drug cartels. He wondered which of these bridges was the one.
Even though the city crawled with heavily armed military and police vehicles, Walter's well-honed travel danger sense alarms were no longer going off at all. Maybe he was delirious from lack of sleep? Or, maybe he just chose not to be afraid, or was just hungry. He took the first cheap room he found, and set off onto the streets to have a look around.
It was a bit of a chill in the air, so the sidewalk sign for hot tamales and coffee looked attractive. That was, until the woman with the most severe face and even more severe makeup beckoned Walter to take a seat. Walter asked if the coffee was instant or made in the pot? The woman said it was made in the pot and insisted he take a seat. She noticed his accent was off and asked, "Where to you come from?" He replied, "I'm from Austin, Texas." She smiled seductively and shifted her harsh voice up into a pseudo-sexy baby talk that just didn't sound right coming from that severe face. "Oh, why don't you come right in and have some of my tamales love?" Walter, "Not tonight. Not as hungry as I thought." Tamale lady, "Are you here for business or pleasure love?" Walter, "A little of both I guess. Look, I'm going to be here a couple days or so... maybe I'll come back later." The tamale lady smiled and tugged down on her smock to reveal most of one bare breast to Walter and said, "Ok love, I'll be waiting for you to come back and try my delicious tamales." Then blew him a kiss.
The next day Walter passed by the same tamale shop by accident. The tamale lady locked on his eyes and headed to catch him on the street. He smiled and waved, but was too fast for her and was already around the block and disappeared into the crowd.
Walter meandered along the banks of the crocodile-filled lagoon only a few blocks from downtown. The banks of the lagoon are also crawling with large iguana and white cranes flit about fishing and avoiding the crocs. Walter strolled along the edge of the lagoon keeping one eye on the crocodiles, and the other on the frequent military vehicles loaded with heavily-armed men wearing black masks. In between the two and oncoming toward Walter, was a large hispanic man riding what looked like a small pink bicycle. Jogging alongside of the man was a chihuahua wearing a Superman cape. Walter took the whole scene in, laughed and thought, "Yep. I'm definitely back in Mexico again. Think I'll stay here a few days."
This wasn't going to be Walter's first Mexican adventure, and it certainly wouldn't be his last. This time felt different somehow… like a culmination of past adventures into a focussed mission. What that mission would be, he could only speculate. He told himself that it was all about just moving and trying to make something creative out of it, but there was something else at work here. He wondered to himself…
Why am I even doing this? I've got a nice little groove going on here right now. But that's just it… a groove. A groove can easily morph into a rut and before you know it, another year has passed in a blink. I've noticed that as long as I can keep moving and keep the images passing before me reasonably alien, I stay distracted enough not to notice the time. Or, something actually happens to the perception of time that slows it way down. Either way, I don't have to dwell on race eventually ending without having achieved some level of life satisfaction.
Walter had this idea a week ago, that if he could just get back into the zone again, he'd actually finish something spectacular this time. He had to at least try. A couple of days studying the map and weather forecasts and he'd found himself uttering the words, "One ticket to Tampico, Mexico please." The clerk, "Looks like you'll be on a nice bus all the way to the border. That is, if you get one of the blue ones." Walter, "I'm not too concerned about the Texas side. Have there been any problems in this route on the Mexican side? I just read a report about a few bodies hanging from a bridge in Tampico… just a few days ago." The clerk's eyes open a bit wider, "Yeah, I've seen that stuff on the news too. We haven't had any problems at all in that root"… as the clerk leans over to knock on some wood. The clerk, "One way or round trip?". Walter, "One way."
Membrane: Mexico Winter 2013
The first of a new collection of travel reali-fiction I'm calling "Membranes". Travel fiction from the road that mixes actual events with fiction. The line between each (the membrane) blurred.
This is an experiment I'm playing with and first one may be renamed after the journey. My name is Skip Hunt, but my legal name is Walter Stockton Hunt. To continue the blurring of real and fiction (realifiction) the main character will be called Walter Stockton.
Various street and abstract photos taken along the way, as well as possibly some audio and video will be used to illustrate the story.
There's no outline or plan. This will all be free flowing from the road and mostly unedited. Some will be truth, some will be exaggerated truth, and some will be born completely from the imagination.
Follow along via this blog and lets see where this thing goes. Be warned, I have a twisted since of humor and favor the dark corners of the macabre in general. However, there will be no initial theme other than the main character is leaving on a journey. Everything else is up to fate.
I will also notify of updates every now and then via a special mailchimp email subscriber list. If you'd like to subscribe to the list to get an email note when I've made a few updates to Membranes, you can subscribe below. This list will ONLY be used for Membrane story updates and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.