The Reluctant Curandero - Part 2

There’s a small town at the foot of the mountain that you take a bus to called Teotitlan del Camino, but you’re always too late for the last bus heading up into the Sierra Madres where the Mezateca dwell. So, you’ve got to spend the night and finish the last 2-3 hours of bus ride the following day. It’s not that much further, but it’s a narrow road that’s very twisty. The bus moves at a low-gear crawl, and because it’s a local 3rd-class bus, it’s stopping constantly to let indigenous folks on and off along the way. 

It’s an amazing journey though. The vistas from there are heavenly. You’ll be lost in a cloud with almost no visibility, trusting at least the driver can see well enough, and then you’ll come out of this thick cloud to another world of sub-tropical vegetation, waterfalls, and sprawls of farm crops defying gravity up the mountainside. Every now and then you’ll see a tiny old indigenous local with an impossible stack of firewood balanced on his or her back.

The bus goes all the way up to Huautla de Jimenez, where the mushroom priestess Maria Sabina lived, but I’d met some Mezatecas a couple of years prior to this trip and they live in a small community about 20 minutes before the bus reaches Huautla. I only know the place as “Puente de Fierro”, which means “iron bridge”. This is where you tell the bus driver you want off. As far as I know, that’s what the village is called. Or, more than likely there’s a Mezatec name and it’s easier to just call it by the actual location in Spanish. 

When you step off the bus, there’s there’s a drop to a crooked river down below that’s full of giant craggy borders. You’re sort of nestled between a couple of mountain peaks that are absolutely lush with green vegetation. There’s a dirt road that crosses the paved road. One way goes to some magnificent waterfalls and various caves. The other way goes to the village. 

This place will come up again in future accounts. Some of the most mystical experiences I’ve had in my life took place in this general area. 

One one side of the paved road there’s a small cocina, or kitchen. It’s basically a ramshackle wood hut that kind of teeters on the edge of the cliff with a small balcony to view the river below. On the other side of the road there’s a small tienda, or store where you can buy a few basic things like sodas, candy, bread, fruit, cerveza, etc. 

Grabbed a few items I knew I’d need like a gallon jug of drinking water, some candles, and some snack food. Continued down the dirt road to the village that ends up close to the river’s edge and looked for one of the Mezateca’s, Jaime, who I’d stayed with on the last trip. Didn’t take long since it’s not often that a gringo with a backpack comes lumbering down the old dirt road, but I have seen the occasional Mormon pair of chaps pushing their bikes up the mountain road before. 

Jaime greeting me with warmth and invited me into his home for a cup of atole. Atole is kind of a pasty and thick white drink… that’s usually served warm or hot. I believe it’s made from corn. You don’t really drink it so much, but more of a warm slurping. It’s not my favorite, but with a little chili and salt, it’s serviceable and takes the edge off if you haven’t eaten in a day or so. 

We caught up a bit and then he took me up the hill to a hut that was empty. Jaime said that he expected some others soon but for now it would be all mine. The interior had a wall made of adobe, but the outside walls were a combination of weaved sticks and impacted mud, with the rare bit of adobe brick. The roof was old stacked palm thatch with a few fresh ones stuffed in for leaks I suppose. There were strong enough cross beams to hang my hammock from, and a door made of lashed together sticks on a rope twine hinge. 

Amusingly, there was also a thin chain and padlock on the door… but it seemed more for show. Wouldn’t have taken much to get into this hut, but I guess it made you feel like your stuff was secure. Though, I don’t think theft is really ever much of an issue. Everyone knows each other and it’s a very tight community. However, I did get robbed once there by another backpacker who took some music cassettes to trade for liquor. 

The Derrumbe mushroom experience there is very strong. I don’t plan on being able to even walk much and stick close to the hammock in case my legs just completely give out and I’m laying and writhing on the dirt floor until I get back control of myself. It’s not the sort of thing you could do while taking a hike. They can be so powerful that you can’t move at all. You’re basically laid up traveling in this other spacial dimension. 

I typically would wait a day or two before taking part. I’ve been involved in the ceremony with the Mezatecas, but this time I was going solo. My Mezateca host will usually offer a guide to sit with me in case I had any trouble, and also cleanse me with the smoke of copal incense smoke while chanting a prayer. I’ll typically have a single bees wax candle, some calla lilies, and  a small picture of the Virgin with some copal incense smoldering  atop a campfire coal in a small stone mortar and pestle. 

I’m not sure what the significance of these items is, but it’s what the Mezatecas always have for a ceremony, so I figure “when in Rome” or Oaxaca… might as well respect the culture. 

This evening though, I wasn’t quite ready. Decided to hold back and clear the mind for at least a night while I acclimated and felt ready. I’d hopped a pickup truck full of locals and headed up to the town of Huautla de Jimenez in the afternoon to get my altar supplies and a few more food items. 

That evening, sitting on a large stone outside of my hut under a night sky, I tended a small fire just in front of my entrance. I put a couple of hot coals in the stone mortar and pestle that Jaime had loaned me, and then a few pieces of copal incense on the hot coals to smolder. 

Copal is used for many spiritual practices and is often the incense you smell burning from the Catholic churches in Mexico. It looks like little crystal rock candy, but it’s hardened tree sap. In the market sometimes it’ll have more of an amber color, but the more clear ones are considered better. I’m not sure why, but I’d guess it has something to do with the age and how well it smolders with the coals. I just love the fragrance. 

As I sat watching the flames flicker and the copal smoke catch the heat of the flames and rise up, I began to think of my ol’ compadre Manny Gammage back in Texas. Wishing I was a medicine man or had some kind of shamanic power to lend him a hand with his cancer battle. My imagination wondered to how one receives that kind of medicine knowledge. Figured it likely just gets passed down over generations. 

I traveled backward generation after generation. With each transition I imagined an old medicine man or woman passing down the knowledge to the chosen younger recipients. 

Eventually I reached the end of the line… the very first medicine person. It dawned on me that there had to be the very first shaman and medicine person who didn’t have anyone to receive the knowledge. They had to go with intuition and more of a gut feeling I suppose. 

I wondered if I could just try making up my own spiritual intent. Figured it couldn’t hurt to at least try. 

Sat myself in a comfortable position by the fire so that my concentration wouldn’t be distracted, and I focussed on the fire flames flickering as I let my eyes go a bit out of focus. The copal smoke was strong now and swirling in with the flames and being carried upward. I closed my eyes and imagined myself blending with the smoke and sort of catching a weightless right up along with the copal smoke. 

(The Conclusion in the Next Post: The Reluctant Curandero - Part 3) 


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The Reluctant Curandero - Part 1

The day before I was to board a bus from Austin, Texas going South… deep into Mexico… I called up a local hatter who I’d done  some photographic work for, Manny Gammage, owner of Texas Hatters in Buda, Texas at the time. 

Manny had been around the block a time or two, pretty gruff, but  he also had a peaceful, monk-like demeanor. We chatted off and on about my Mexican backpacking adventures off the beaten path. Manny to let on too much, but you got the impression he was very familiar with the strange experiences one can have if they dive deep enough into the interior.

We hadn’t chatted in a good while, so I gave him a call to let him know I was once again wandering South. 

His daughter Joella answered the phone:

“Texas Hatters, how can I help you?”

“Oh hi Joella, it’s Skip, is Manny in?”

Joella’s was quiet for a few moments, then answered low:

“Skip… I guess you haven’t heard…”

“Heard what?”

“Manny was diagnosed with cancer a few months ago. Not doing well at all. They’re not even sure if he’ll make it through the week.”

You could tell she was fighting pretty hard to be strong and not get choked up, but she was mostly failing.

“Oh no! No… I hadn’t heard… I’m so sorry Joella. Where is he?”

“We’re just grateful for the time we’ve had to say our goodbyes. He’s down at the San Antonio VA hospital… you could try to call but today wouldn’t be a good day… he’s hurtin’ pretty bad.”

“I’m actually bussing it to Mexico early in the morning. I just wanted to call and let him know before I left. He always seemed to get a kick out of my Mexico adventures.

“Yes, he did… I’ll tell him you called.”

We said our goodbyes as Joella gave up trying to hold back breaking down. 

Before the call, I’d been elated to be about to embark on another adventure. After the call, I tried to get some of that back, but couldn’t get the sad news out of my head. I mean, there’s nothing I could do and we weren’t really close friends or anything. Just a couple of people who shared some similar interests and had enjoyed swapping stories a few afternoons over about a years time. 

The bus trip down was a little brutal. I’ve since learned it’s not worth it to knock out long distances in one shot. Much better to take little breaks along the way. Back then it was all about powering through all of the miles at once… then suffering the overwhelming fatigue for a day or so after you get there.

I remember leaving Austin, a layover in San Antonio where I was once again reminded of Manny’s lousy luck, then a bus change with all the border hassles, long layover in the Monterrey, Mexico station… even longer layover in the Mexico City station… then an all-nighter on a rough 3rd-class bus, just to get to the foot of the mountain below Huautla de Jimenez, Oaxaca. 

Huautla de Jimenez, Oaxaca is known for a strange indigenous practice of consuming a particular hallucinogenic mushroom that only grows at high altitudes. There’s a name the Mezatec Indians call the mushroom, that roughly translates to “God’s Meat”, but most just call the mushrooms Derrumbe, or “Mud Slide” which is where they grow. They have very powerful psychoactive effects and the Mezatecas believe that consuming them allows them to commune with God. Even the little children eat them on certain birthdays, with a guide, as a rite of passage. 

The main mushroom priestess Maria Sabina was visited by a fellow  named Gordon Wasson who was doing research on the drug referred to as “Soma” by the ancient Indus people (their texts are what Hinduism is based upon). Nobody knows what Soma actually was, but it was allegedly brought here from the heavens by Vishnu. It was supposed to make the poor man feel rich, and the sick man feel well, etc. Many speculate this Soma substance, depicted in Vedic texts as a tree shape, was possibly a psychoactive mushroom instead.  

The Indus people dwelled in the mountains, and the Derrumbe mushrooms only grow at high altitudes. The idea that the drug Soma was possibly a mushroom, and possibly the same species that was imbibed by a Oaxacan, Mexico indigenous mushroom cult was also speculated by Gordon Wasson.

After Mr. Wasson had journeyed up into the mountains to verify this mushroom cult real did exist, and partake in ceremonies with Maria Sabina, he had several of his papers published by a friend who was the head editor at Time magazine. This was round the late 60’s and early 70’s I believe… right around the time that the article would inspire many hippies of the day to make a bee line for this mystical mushroom cult in the mountains of Oaxaca. 

Many popular celebrities in the late 60’s like Donovan, Bob Dylan, Timothy Leary, and even the Beatles… all visited this mushroom priestess named Maria Sabina as well. And then even more hippies flooded in. The trouble was, that this was a spiritual ceremony involving a fungus the Mezatecas believed to be God’s meat… given to them in order to commune with the great creator. Unfortunately, the hippies didn’t get that memo and all hell broke loose, with deranged young people fighting each other, running around naked, and… well, you can imagine what else! And, that it didn’t go over so well with the Mezatecas. 

There’s more to tell of this incredibly exotic and magical place… and I’ll tell you more about it too, but this is just to let you know what some of the backstory of the place I was headed to.

(To be continued...  Next Post: The Reluctant Curandero - Part 2) 


Patreon is now fired up again! Some posts will be public and some will be for Patreon subscribers only. I'm also going to start posting a much larger mélange of artful expression here in addition to travel stuff from the road. Content like audio experiments, stories in short chapter form, video art, and maybe something called "Psychogeography" projects... more on that later. 

Please sign up to be one of my regular Patreon subscribers today!

You can always unsubscribe if you want to take a break, then hop back on later. :)