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.