Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Brilliant Blue Sky

Flipped on the light in my swanky $8 a night room and waited a few seconds for all the cockroaches to seek new refuge (most likely within my backpack). Showered, packed my mochilla, stowed my pack and computer at the hotel desk, and headed out to the metro to get some video shots of chilangos being over-stuffed into metro cars for their daily pilgrimage to work. Got some great shots of human sardines until I was told I needed a permit to make a movie in the metro. Already had my shot so I just excused myself and off I went.

Went to exchange an expensive camera filter for another that was 300 pesos cheaper and the one I really needed. I'd been told I could swap it out for the right one if I returned it within a couple days. Soon I was greeted by an harsh Senora who wasn't about to let a single pesito leave the shop. I explained I was promised I could exchange or return for my money back by the young fella standing next to her. He naturally denied any such conversation. After the cordial approach failed, I decided to give my weak Spanish a real test and began to start making demands, etc. Especially since the Senora (if you could call her that) seemed to be taking such pleasure with my mounting anger. Next thing I know, there's and armed guard gripping my arm. As my temper rose, my efficiency with Spanish quickly declined... much to the amusement of the shop's staff and patrons. I decided it was all futile and that they'd already robbed me of a good hour. So, I snatched my over-priced merchandise, stuft it into my bag, and for my own satifaction, ripped into them in ingles (knowing of course they didn't speak a word) and stormed out like a good American. ;-)

Still pretty steamed, I stomped down the avenue rounding corners at random until I happened upon the park near the Palacio Bellas Artes. Grabbed a bench, lit a smoke and tried to put the incident out of my head. A Mexican fellow, out for a stroll in the park looked my way. I acknowledged him with a nod, and the next thing I knew he was parked beside me. Went through the usual small talk questions, then asked which hotel I stayed in. I told him, but he wasn't familiar with it. I said its only 4 or 5 blocks away. Then his hand was on my leg and started to caress it as he suggested we take a walk to my hotel for a complimentary suck. Ok, now the photo shop incident was nearly forgotten history at this point! I explained, although flattered, I certainly wasn't interested and after a good hour, I'd managed to give'm the shake.

Back to my aimless wandering until I found an interesting exhibit near the National Museo with all sorts of devices used for human torchure during the inquisition. Gruesome stuff, but I ashamedly imagined a few being used on the evil photo shop lady.

On to more rambling. I found a cine a few blocks from the Bellas Artes that was showing a John Malkovich flick called "El Amigo Americano" I think its called "Ripley's Game" in English and the ticket price was only half what the big Cinemex theaters charge. It's started to rain pretty heavy so my mind was set to wait it out in the theater. I asked the doorman which theater gallery it was showing in, but he didn't seem to have a clue. Neither did the concessions woman. I thought that was kinda odd. But after a bit of exploration, I found the correct gallery.

The film started abrubtly without trailers, and they didn't turn the lights all the way down for the entire film. Only low, bluish lighting. On top of that, the projection and sound were terrible, but with the Spanish subtitles I was able to peice together most of the dialogue. Great flick by the way.

Anyway, a half and hour or so into the feature I noticed the huge ancient theater was only populated with male patrons. And, most of them seemed to keep getting up and wondering around the theater paying absolutely no attention to the film. It was when one of the gentlemen stopped briefly in front of me and stared that I began to get a clue. At first I thought, "now surely a gringo in a theater isn't such an odd occurance, that a local would be driven to stare....." Then I remembered my amorous buddy from the park nearby and it all came together. Strange they'd pick a newly released, Italian directed, Malkovich film to use as a gay cruising film, but not much else surprises me in Mexico, so why not? Film ended. No credits. And, the patrons seemed to all mill about waiting for another film to start. I made my way for the exit.

It was getting late and after a stroll around the Zocalo, decided to make for the hotel, grab my gear, and get an early start through the metro maze to the bus station. A block or so from my hotel, I was stopped by a frantic gentleman who asked if I spoke Ingles. I told him I did, and he explained that he'd been robbed by a taxi driver. He'd been using the same driver for a couple days and was paying him well. The fellow decided to see some of the sites before heading back to New York, when the taxi driver left him taking his laptop, jacket containing his passport and wallet, etc. He asked if I spoke Spanish and if I could ask the operator for the number to American Airlines. I still had a little time on my hands and agreed to help.

I passed on the number to him, and he alledgedly was told that if he paid cash for his ticket, they could look up his reservation and let him on the plane. He was told if he paid by credit card, they'd need the passport for the holder of the card and the person flying, etc. After a call to his wife, he asked if he could have her Western Union money to me since I had identification. Hesitant, I obliged. Off we went into a passing taxi. We had some conversation in the taxi and he explained that he was a tax attorney for PriceWaterhouseCoopers, and that he had to be in court the next day. He offered to put me up in a nice hotel on his corporate expense account, but I declined.

When we arrived at the Western Union office, it was closed. The taxi driver said no charge, and that he just wanted to do his part for tourism... or something like that. That should have been my first clue, because a free ride in a Mexico City taxi is a mighty rare event. He made another call to his wife, and I pretty much knew what was coming next. No I.D. No way to get cash at 11PM at night, and a flight leaving in an hour and a half. At this point, I'd missed my window of opportunity to get my gear and make it to the bus station, so I was stuck in Mexico City for another night.

Now I'm not the kind, trusting, good samaritan type. If anything, I'm rather wary and pesimistic. But for some loco reason, I decided to trust this complete stranger. A man I met on a late night avenue in Mexico City, claiming to be a Jewish tax attorney for New York in dire need. He said the money would be transferred into my account the following day and left me his info. I was only able to get $250 in pesos from the ATM, but I had an additional $260 in dollars. I handed over the $510 (he had said for $500 he could get to Dallas since I couldn' get the $800 he needed for a last minute flight to New York. From there he could have his wife buy the connecting flight and he wouldn't have to deal with all the immigration hassles.)

It all sounded fishy, but the guy was wearing a pressed monogrammed linen shirt, nice business slacks, and fine Italian shoes. For some insane reason I decided to go completely against my nature and trust a fellow human being, a stranger I passed in the night with no identification and apparent need. Off he went in a taxi for the airport, and I made my way back to the hotel for a fresh room. Hoping perhaps to get one with at least a few less cockroaches. I finally drifted off to sleep replaying the event over and over... unfortunately finding too many inconsistencies to be legit. For instance, he was able to give the taxi driver an address for the Western Union, but not able to get a phone number for American Airlines? When the taxi driver said the short ride was gratis, he insisted on paying. He asked how much, and the taxi driver answered in Spanish "Cincuenta!". He replied "No. Treinta". This is all coming from a man who claimed to not speak Spanish well enough to get a simple phone number from information. I began to feel sick, foolish, and $510 poorer.

Here I sit the following day. I checked the address he gave me for his office at PriceWaterhouse and it doesn't match the addresses listed for New York on the PWC website. I haven't recieved the confirmation email he promised to send. He also told me his picture could be found on the PWC website, but no picture exhists. The whole scam seemed so complex and unlikely that I felt trusting the guy was worth the gamble. And, I wanted to see how it felt to completely give in the blind trust, and help someone out. Now I find it feels a little sickening.

I sent a test email to the address he gave me and it hasn't been kicked back yet, but I don't have high hopes. So, off I go for another interesting day in Mexico City until its time to catch the night bus again. Hopefully, today will be a little more profitable than yesterday......

Got stuck in the bone-dry puebla of Estacion Catorce 8km short of my destination, Wadley. I baked for 2hrs waiting for another bus to carry me the last leg, but kept myself occupied watching two older campesinos install a new metal door into an adobe entryway that was about an inch too narrow.
At last a rusty 3rd class Bluebird arrived in a cloud of dry dust. No too many passengers except a dusty dread-coiffed couple. The young fella looked as if he might be Mexican, but his companion was Japanese. I generally avoid these types because they're fairly cliquish if you don't sport the same rasta uniform. And, they tend to attract the policia.
We arrived in Wadley and the rasta-boy asked me in English, "Is this Wadley?". Couldn't make out the accent, but it sounded Israeli. I confirmed, and said, "See ya 'round... It's a small place.", then bolted for the hacienda of Don Tomas. The camp compound was deserted so Don Tomas helped me remove some piles of metal rod and wood planks that had taken up residence in my preferred larger tin-roofed cinder block room since my last visit. As always, he re-reminded me not to carry peyote into the town and to keep it out of the camp. He advised to just eat it in the desert and you'll have no problems. In the last ten years I'd rarely seen la policia, nor encountered anyone who'd been busted in the desert, but the 3rd party stories were always rampant so I usually heeded the advice. Off I went into the desert, called Wirikuta by the Huichol, to get my first vomit laden "break-in" trip over with. After the first peyote induced bout with severe abdominal distress, I tend to acclimate and can avoid the whole ugly digestive mess on subsequent journeys.
I started out heavier than I should've. Ten plants, but I paid dearly. I won't trouble you with the details, but the ill portion of the excursion lasted 3hrs. After paying my dues, the rest of the evening was quite pleasant. Mescalito finally gave me a break and I was able to drift off into Technicolor dreamland.
The next morning, after I'd stocked up on fresh goat cheese, tomatoes, tortillas, and water the young hippy couple stopped by the compound. They'd also taken a room from Don Tomas, but he'd put them up in the camp closer to the railroad track. A less desirable locale since the train passing feels like a mechanized earth quake every hour or so, but you get used to it.
The introduced themselves and we made a bit of comparative travel small talk. After I realized these were the new arrivals that earlier Don Tomas was asking me if I'd indoctrinate in the harvesting and dining of peyote, I asked if they'd be ready to head off in an hour or so. They seemed nervously thrilled to have an English speaker run them through the ropes as they didn't speak a word of Espanol. We all parted to pack the essentials, ie. a few oranges to choke the plants down, a good knife, water, smokes, etc.

I was a little apprehensive about volunteering to hang with a couple of dread-headed neo flower children, but I'd recently misjudged the character of one alleged American attorney in D.F., so I figured I'd give these two a chance. As the afternoon blazed, and after we'd all made it past the complimentary nausea hump, we built a nice fire and drifted through loose conversational threads as we gazed at occasional stars shooting down from the milky way. I told stories, that looped back into other stories, and they shared as well. Turns out the young fella had spent his 3 years in the Israeli army, had to do a bit of fighting except he said it wasn't much of a fight, "They had rocks, we had guns." The memory seemed to weigh heavy on him and I asked if he'd ever had to kill anyone. I could actually feel the pain in his eyes, and it hurt me to know such a gentle character had to endure such a horrible experience. He said he thought he probably had, but he couldn't be sure. I changed the subject as much for his benefit as mine.
It was a beautiful night and I was sad when they had to move on. I'll miss them, but will look forward to catching up to them one day in India where they now make their home in between trips to Japan to sell handicrafts and jewelry.

Like a changing of guard, a young French fellow arrived as the rasta couple departed. He'd stayed in the compound just three months prior and came heavily equipped for a four month stay. As I was reading the lovely letter, complete with little smiley hearts and such that†my friends had left, the new arrival popped his head into my cuarto to introduce himself. As we quickly went through all the usual introductory small talk, sizing each other up to see if the conversation would go any further than general identification, we mosied to the little compound concina to make some Nescafe. Vincente pulled out the sections of a long three-piece bamboo Indian pipe with a little terracotta bowl in the end. He loaded it with some bright-green powdered ganja he'd cultivated himself in Southern France. Several hours later, and many looped and cross referenced stories, I had a new desierto pal.

Because Vincente had recently spent a good of time in the desert I asked him if he'd heard of Peyote Brujo. I'd identified the plant a year ago and knew that it was only for Huichol shamans, but I didn't know if you ate it or smoked it. He knew of Peyote Brujo, and knew that it was smoked by Huichol shamans and that it was "too much from the dark side for him..." I also discovered that the Huichol consider it evil and won't touch it. However, I also discovered that the Tarahumara Indians eat the plant and don't consider it evil. I'd tried eating it a year prior, but was so nervous that I evidently didn't get a sufficient dose. I tried smoking a few†bits of the spiney triangular plant†and liked the smoke and fragrance, but got very little effect.†Although,†my imagination did produce some rather sinister looking androgenous brujos†grinning and snickering at me.†Apparently, you have to†dry the†bits until you can make a powder and then smoke much larger quantities. So I tore off all the triangles and began the drying process.

Later that evening, we were joined my Mauricio, a silversmith Mexican from D.F. who†makes him home in the desert several months of the year. Over Nescafe, Vincente passed the peace pipe around the table and our converstations wondered from Astronomy, to desert legend, to politics, and back to Astronomy with a few U.F.O.'s thrown in. Vincente had invited me to join him out into a part of the desert I hadn't harvested before that was supposed to be sacred. I'd passed by the locale the year prior†and knew there was a small grove of Mesquite trees with cool bed soft green grass underneath†nearby where we could get some protection from el Sol.

The following morning we each packed provisions for the afternoon and I†stuffed a plastic bag†my drying Peyote Brujo. I figured it'd be a good while before it was dry enough to make powder and since Don Tomas had warned me about bringing plants into the camp, I figurred I'd just hide it in my pack before I set out, and left it on a small table by my bed.

The walk wasn't too difficult and we were there in less than two hours. We rested in the small mesquite grove and Vincente, a cultivator of not only ganja but various cacti species, found a rare specimen to photograph. When he joined me in the grass he showed be a dried horny toad lizard he'd found that had sacreficed its lower section to some desert creature and had a comical grimace petrified into its face. I'd asked him if he'd ever read Carlos Castaneda and reminded him about the part where Carlos is instructed to eat peyote and sew the lips of a lizard together. Vincente's eyes lit up as he remembered and he took his find as some sort of sign. After a refreshing agua refueling, we departed the cool grass for the blazing desert broiler and set out for the afternoon harvest. As we scoured the desert floor I told Vincente that about another hour or so from the sacred area, there's a pyramid shaped mound covered in dark green vegetation and black meteor stone called something like "Vernalejo." I mentioned that I'd heard this location was known to the Huichol as the birthplace of peyote and that it is the location where an ancient meteorite had crashed. He'd heard the same and we agreed the implications were fascinating to say the least. This launched us off into a dialogue about Man's origins until we spotted the first plants.

The first plants were small and with all the preparation involved, I usually try to find plants at least 3-4 inches in diameter to save time cleaning. Or, if I'm concentrating intensively enough, one that "speaks" to me. Suddenly, I spotted the most enormous peyote plant I'd ever seen. Wider than my hand with all my fingers spread and my search was over. Vincente seemed pleased, but a bit envious as if this plant were really meant for him. I had a little trepidation with what sort of trip a plant this size would bring, but I was game as soon as I sliced into the plant's edge and he oozed bright-green sangre. Soon Vincente found an acceptable specimen and after covering the amputee with soil, he lit a sacrificial vela atop the mound and burnt copal incense as an offering. I shouted to Vincente that I'd found a huge family of peyote plants, each flowering. I figured with Vincente being the cacti aficionado and all, he might want a photo. And surely, his eyes lit up as he began capturing digital images. We'd agreed the small mesquite grove would make a nice place to prepare the plants and lay in the cool grass as we gave ourselves unto Mescalito. Vincente mentioned he'd met an Argentinean girl in the puebla who invited him to join her band mates to camp in the desierto. He asked if I wanted to join, but I was content to go it alone. Actually, I just wanted to sleep in a firm bed instead of atop a bed of rocks, but I told him it wouldn't hurt my feelings if he took off without me.

My plant was so huge that I decided to cut it up into smaller, thick potato chip sized pieces in order to get it down a little easier. Vincente had already finished his plant before I'd finished cutting all the hairy white spines around the edges out of the center of mine. I've been told this portion contains strychnine and naturally wanted to get every bit of it out, but the massive size of my plant through me off somewhat regarding how much of the white part to cut away.

Vincente climbed one of the Mesquites and perched above me as I choked down most of mine, but left three large slices remaining. I just couldn't eat another bite of this extraordinarily more bitter than usual specimen. Usually, the queasiness doesn't hit me for at least three hours or so, but this plant had me reeling within fifteen minutes. I grabbed my abdomen and winced with pain. Vincente commented that I didn't look so hot, but said he decided he wanted to try and hook up with the Argentineans. I waved him on and said I'd rather endure the pain and vomiting alone. I assured him I'd be fine and that I'd catch up with him later. Three hours later, I was still doubled over in pain, rolling in the once heavenly cool grass, and wanting nothing more than this plant OUT of my body. I tried spinning myself around several times to help induce expulsion, and even tried jamming my soiled fingers down my throat. Nothing worked and it felt like I was digesting broken glass. I began to get very concerned that once Mescalito was finished with me, I'd be expelling chunks of cactus mixed with a heavy flow of blood.

The hour was getting late and since I knew the moon wasn't rising until after midnight I decided to try and drag myself down the long sandy path back to the puebla. I made the compound just as the sun was setting and found Vincente sitting in the cocina with Mauricio passing the pipe. Apparently, the Argentineans had smoked too much ganja and decided to scrap their sojourn into the desert night. Vincente had already told Mauricio about the gargantuan plant I'd imbibed and I let him know that I'd been in severe pain ever since he'd left, but it was finally starting to subside and I was finally starting to feel the mescaline. Mauricio added that within an hour or two my head was really going to take flight. I refused the pasta and ganja Vincente offered and went to my quarto to put on some music, light some velas, †and lay down while Mescalito took me away.

I don't know if I hadn't cut enough of the strychnine away, or if I'd become too careless with my respect for Mescalito, but the pain was finally gone and I was "off".

The next morning, I remembered I still had the three chunks left in a plastic bag with an orange. I figured I'd eat it as I was harvesting a few plants to take with me the following day for a couple friends I'd meet along the way. I threw a fresh bottle of water in my day pack, along with my harvesting knife, orange and left over peyote chunks and told Vincente I was off to gather a few plants for my journey. He said he may take the bike he'd purchased for his long stay for a spin and join me to look for meteorites and arrow heads. I told him where I'd be, but was going to grab a Coke at the tienda before heading out.

There'd been three young Mexican guys from D.F. who'd parked their new Renault car in the compound while they went off into the desert for a couple of days hiking. Evidently, they were really harvesting large quantities of peyote plants to drive up to Real de Catorce with hopes of selling it off to other backpackers. One of them had just made it back to the compound as I left for the tienda. He looked appropriately dusty and well lit up and was drinking a guava juice while he waited for his compadres to catch up.

I had to pass back by the compound on my way into the desierto. From a distance I noticed what appeared to be a small crowd gathering around the entrance of my cuarto and compound. When I got closer, I realized there was a white policia truck parked outside and three burly policias standing by. Two of the young Mexicans from D.F. were handcuffed and the third was still being searched. The compadres had been picked up along the road smoking a joint when the policia searched their peyote laden packs. My stomach sank and I remembered the bag of forbidden drying peyote brujo I'd left on the table next to my bed. I tried not to panic and casually sauntered into my room.

One of the policia asked where I was from. I answered Americano and he reached for my day pack and demanded my passport. I explained it was in my cuarto and in the seconds before I was followed into my room, I stashed the bag of peyote brujo (witch) between some old wool blanket piled atop a rusty rollaway bed in the corner of my room. Before the head policia could get the third Mexican handcuffed and follow me into the cuarto, I'd already pulled out my passport. He searched every inch of my room, under the mattress, all bags, etc. while I calmly explained I was working on a movie script. He accused me of hiding mota (ganja) and eating peyote. I explained that I didn't "smoke" nor use peyote. Then he saw a small tuft of the hairy white center peyote spines laying on the floor. His eyes widened as he pointed and the white tuft on the floor. I acted as if I didn't know what he was talking about, and said the room was pretty dirty when I moved in.

After he spotted my laptop, camera gear, and tripod he started to lighten up a little and motioned for me to go back out to the policia truck while he documented my passport. The first policia was still searching my day pack when I remembered the three large chunks of peyote still in the plastic bag with an orange. Again, my stomach sank and I motioned to the policia to make sure he checks the hidden bottom compartment as well. Anything to divert his attention from the compartment containing what would surely buy me a free truck ride to the Real de Catorce jail house. First pulled out my harvesting knife and placed the open blade across his palm as he eyed me. I thought I was busted until Vincente, standing by with his bicycle, told me that the blade was over the acceptable length. I relaxed slightly until he pulled out the orange plastic bag containing the "evidence" and and orange. For some reason, he wadded it back up and threw it back into my pack and proceeded to zip everything back up. I couldn't believe it! After confirming he'd indeed finished his search, I offered the chief one of my new business cards for which has a small icon of a movie reel on it to further support my alibi. The chief was very pleased and wanted to know when production of the movie would start and let me know that if I needed any assistance with the film he'd be at my service.

Soon the policia truck was pulling away with two of the very saddened perps in back. The third followed in the shiny new Renault accompanied by the chief on their way up to Real de Catorce for what was surely going to be a very rough night.

Vincente and I were both trembling and elated with our near collision with Mexico's finest. He showed me where he'd stashed two large bags of mota and his pipe. He said that maybe it was a sign that my plan to carry plants with me to friends might not be such a good idea. I said, "On the contrary. The policia will be tied up with the Mexicans for the next couple of days and won't be around for awhile. They'd make a nice take from these obviously wealthy Chavos and we were in the clear for awhile." I'd told him about my unfortunate experience with a Mexico City scam artist and added, "looks like my luck is turning around! I thought a few seconds whether or not the harvest would be worth the risk, ate my leftover peyote chunks, and headed out for a final harvest.

Before the sun rose the following morning, I'd packed my bag with the contraband stashed inside a bag of soiled clothing, and caught a couple hours sleep before heading off for Zacatecas. I'd been told a shorter route via San Tiburcio and that the usual seven hour trip could be done in four hours. Once the bus had left the Huiricuta area, I figured I could chill out a bit from my natural paranoia. The bus pulled into a bus depot at a "T" that is the highway running between Zacatecas and Monterrey. After the bus driver took lunch, the crowded bus pulled away leaving only myself and an older Huichol Indian man waiting outside the depot of San Tiburcio. The only evidence of any town at all was this small bus station and a truck stop on the other side of the highway. The Huichol and I had been assured the connecting bus to Zacatecas would be by in about a half an hour. The stern-faced Huichol staked out a spot of shade near a power pole and stared out into the desert. Over the next hour or so, we both paced about in the white hot afternoon, checked our watches, and tried to dodge the frequent dirt devils that'd whirl into us covering us and filling our exposed orifices with in dusty desert soil.

Another hour passed. We'd both been kind of avoiding eye contact although I really wanted to chat with a real Huichol who was most likely returning from his annual peyote pilgrimage. I finally tried to break the ice with a cigarette offer, but he said he didn't smoke. I replied, "Good! They tell me their really bad for you." I noticed the deep lines around his eyes as he squinted hard from the afternoon blaze. I remembered I had an extra pair of terminator style, brushed metal sunglasses and offered them to him as a gift. He gladly accepted my offering and put them on. I tried to contain my amusement with the site of an old Huichol man in full traditional Huichol costume sporting wrap-around terminator sunglasses.

Finally, he began to make some small talk and his stern face soon softened. In the midst of our conversation, a Mexican tourist traveling with his family in a suburban walked over to introduce himself to the shamanic looking Huichol. After a brief greeting, he held out a handful of small packets containing chicle gum and offered some to the Huichol. He then looked at me, hesitated, then put the rest of the packets in his pocket and drove off. As I guarded my eyes from the cloud of dust the suburban left behind, I looked over to the Huichol who was about to pop the last chicle into his mouth. I said, "Humph! No chicle for Gringos..." The Huichol hesitated, thought about offering me his last chicle, then popped it into his mouth and let out a huge laugh as his stoney face broke into a smile almost as bright as the desert sun suspended in the brilliant blue sky.  


At 9:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 5:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you get your money back from the Tax Attorney?

At 7:13 PM, Blogger skiphunt said...

Nope. Turns out he's an Israeli dude who's been conning people for years. Apparently well known for his skill and has been at it for nearly 15 yrs. Live and learn. ;-)


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