Saturday, 17 May 2014

Iguana Nights 4

“So what about Orion, Uncle Wink?” Said Sam, peering over his hands on the picnic table. A shooting star whizzed by the Southern Cross.
“Oh yes, Orion. Well, first of all, there are two Orions, Orion the constellation, and Orion the myth.”
“What’s a myth?” Asked Millie.
“A myth is just a story about the wisdom that comes from life and death, Millie. Myths teach us how to live and die, the right way, and the wrong.”
“What good is that?” Asked Sam.
“Myths connect us, Sam. To the heavens, to each other, and to the sweet mysteries of being.”
“Being what?” Asked Millie.
“Just being. People need instruction in how to be, as much as they need to learn how to do.”
“Are you going to tell us about the constellation or the myth?” Sam asked.
“I’m going to tell you about both. But guess which one came first?” Asked Uncle Wink.
“The stars?” Millie guessed.
“Well, the stars were there first, and many people other than the Greeks saw other patterns in them, but Orion the Myth actually came before Orion the Constellation.”
“When can we hear his story?” asked Sam, now a little impatient.
“After Uncle Wink makes a cup of tea.”

Friday, 16 May 2014

Iguana Nights 3

“One of the biggest troubles hitchhiking is having to talk to innumerable people,
  make them feel that they didn’t make a mistake picking you up, even entertain
  them almost, all of which is a great strain when you’re going all the way…”
                                                                      Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Carlos had invited me to his parent’s house in Guadalajara so, early next morning, Klaus drove us out to the highway, and I introduced him to the fine art of hitchhiking. It took half an hour to get a ride, but fortune smiled. Standing in the wooden bed of an old truck, we drove through endless high rolling hills of giant slate blue agave hedgehogs, the contrasted volcanic soil underneath blood red, from all the tequila gods of Jalisco crash-landing on their radial spear blades. We were tossed on an ocean of two metre high mescal pineapples, each one having to wait a dozen years, until it’s heart would be cut open in a Sauza sacrifice. After baking, it tasted like yam candy. When a maguey heart is fermented it makes a light foam white wine known as pulque. It was sacred before the conquistadores arrived, but sanctity changed forever after that. The Spaniards put an edge on everything, and they put pulque through a still. You just can’t do that to a plant that is pollinated by bats, without becoming batshit crazy. One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor.
Carlos’ mother was delighted to see both of us, and quickly conjured up a feast of frijoles, carne, sopa, tortillas, and limonada. I was embarrassed later when I found she had raided Serendipity, and secretly done all my laundry. That evening, Carlos took me down to the Plaza de los Mariachis, where I ate the best vanilla ice cream I’d ever had. Roaming charro-outfitted bands of violins, tongued trumpets, vihuelas, guitars and guitarones sang out, and shouted other distillations of Mexico, God, and their own suffering- love, heroes, machismo, politics, cockroaches, betrayal, and death. By now I knew how close death was in Mexico. ‘Ay ya yay ya!’ rolled out from under sombreros waltzing under the stars. And very late, after too many Bohemias and Negra Modelos, Carlos and I rolled on home to dream.
After a breakfast of sweet rolls, milk and frijoles next morning, Carlos took me downtown, for a tour of the municipal attractions. We visited the Museo Guadalajara, and the churches of San Francisco and Santa Monica (with it’s breathtakingly ornamented Baroque porch façade of grapes, corn, and angels). Carlos showed me the Clock Tower, and the bullet hole that Great Grandfather Pancho had shot into it one night, after too much blue agave. The highlight, however, was the murals of Orozco at the orphanage. What teacher worth his salt would have neglected to show me these? The man blew off his left hand with gunpowder in an accident, and went on to paint with the blood and charcoal and colours of the Mexican soil his wound healed into. One mural of conquistador engines raping Aztec culture went through me, like the same 25,000 year-old bull pigments would in the Altamira cave, two years from now. The mosquitoes made sleep impossible that night. I got up around five. Carlos escorted me to the edge of town, and bid me ‘buen viaje.’ An hour later, I was bouncing along the pretty little countryside just outside Tepatilan, merrily sewing my own space-time continuum.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Iguana Nights 2

“What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we
  are so far from our own country we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive
  desire to go back to the protection of old habits. This is the most obvious benefit
  of travel. At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest
  touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being. We come across a cascade of
  light, and there is eternity. This is why we should not say that we travel for
                                                                           Albert Camus, The Notebooks

I bid them ‘adios’ next morning, and hitched a ride with David and Luis, to 55 miles north of Tepic. David invited me to stay with his family in Mexico City. I bought some sour milk to finish off my Los Comales tortillas. Two guys with a baby in a pickup drove me south. The sign said La Ciudad Mas Amigable en el Mundo, The Friendliest City in the World, and the three guys on the beach who stole my watch must have read it too, because they gave it right back when I told them to. I was in Puerto Vallarta and, back then, it was drop dead gorgeous. Even earlier, in the 16th century, it was a Manila Galleon trade harbour for smugglers avoiding the nasty tax collectors in San Blas, a hundred miles up the coast. A few 2000 ton Philippine hardwood ships, carrying African ivory, Banda spices, Chinese porcelain and silk, and a thousand passengers, would make the four month run from Manila, once a year. The cargoes were then transported overland to Vera Cruz to be loaded onto vessels heading to Cadiz in Spain. The currency was, as it will always be, ‘plata o plumo,’ silver or lead.
I ate my first meal of tripe in my first taco stand. I followed it immediately with my second meal of tripe in my first taco stand. Nixon was here in Puerto Vallarta in 1970 for treaty negotiations. He likely missed the tacos.
Belly full, I needed a place to stay. It was right across the cobblestone street and it still stands on Basilio Badillo. Serendipity and I waltzed through the iron gate of the Posada Roger, into a large shady courtyard, filled with white noise and cool oxygen from the dripping fountain. There were clay lights and chairs tilted forward on round tablecloths. It smelled of mangos, bananas, frijoles, and marijuana. A girl’s laugh echoed off the terra cotta in soft French. Sunbeams caught the smoke through the subtropical trees. I got a five-dollar room and ventured out again. By the time I found my way through the rocks and thorny bushes, to the market and back, my feet were aching. I prepared some frijoles and plantano with my tortillas, and shared them with Carlos, a student from Guadalajara, and a great grandson of Pancho Villa. I lit up my pipe, and let Carlos tell me the story:
Pancho was a 16 year-old sharecropper supporting his mother and four siblings in San Juan del Rio, when he came home one day in 1894, to find the Hacienda owner trying to rape his younger sister. Pancho shot him dead. He fled into the mountains and became a bandit. He robbed trains and stole cattle to survive. During the Revolution of 1910, he became a General. Pancho redistributed land to the poor, printed his own money, and even attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico. The thousand soldiers the Americans sent to hunt him down, spent a year in their saddles. They never found a trace. In the end, Pancho made a bad deal with the government devils in an attempt to retire- but you can’t go from Robin Hood to Al Capone without going through the forty dumdum bullets they put into his Dodge Roadster, on the day he went into town to pick up some gold. His last words were ‘Don’t let it end like this. Tell them, I said something.’ In 1926 somebody stole the skull from his grave. I told Carlos that his relatives were far more flamboyant than mine. As were the four gay caballeros sitting across from us, listening intently. Two were goliaths. One of the little guys spoke.
“Ju see theeze beeg men?”
It was hard to miss them, sitting entwined in their white cotton pajamas.
“They are lovers.”
I held off on the pink coffin joke.
“Deed you know that Puerto Vallarta ees the ‘San Francisco of Mexico?’
Now I did.
“Are you ACDC?”
“Si.” Trying to remember Ohm’s Law.
“Que Lastima.” I looked up it quickly in Steve’s dictionary. What a pity.
Don’t let it end like this. Tell them, I said something. I didn’t say it, but it was rolling through the skull I still had.
Carlos and I graciously backed out of the courtyard, and took in the more biodiverse nightlife at Capriccio’s. It was there we met Klaus, a German traveler who had rented a jeep, and invited us to go with him to Mismaloya the following day.
I woke up quickly in the cold shower next morning. Carlos and I met Klaus outside, waiting in an orange and white VW Acapulco. with running boards and a surrey top. We jumped in the back.
Pedestrians began running for cover down El Camino Real, as Klaus hit lightspeed.
There was no road to Mismaloya when John Huston made The Night of the Iguana here, in 1963. He had to barge the cast and crew down the coast for filming. From where I sat there was still no road, but that didn’t seem to bother Klaus, as he played with the chickens along the cliff edges.
“Do you think God drives one of these?” Asked Carlos.
“No, but you can probably ask him from here.” I said.
Iguana was about a man’s weakness for flesh and alcohol. True to the plotline, Richard Burton was drinking large, and having an affair with Elizabeth Taylor on the set. He played the role magnificently. Klaus was clearly an admirer, and in a party mood. Within an hour we had a table with two Peruvian girls, an American dancer named Leslie, two Norwegian girls, and Monica and Patty, wherever they were from. They all had hibuscus flowers behind their ears. You couldn’t see the tablecloth for piña coladas. The swimming was fine, as was the lunch of grilled snapper with salsa, limes and pineapple, under the palm thatch palapas. It was late afternoon when Klaus piled all ten of us into the Acapulco, and drove back to Puerto. The added ballast likely saved my life.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Iguana Nights 1


                          “He’s got that sort of jungle essence that one can sense.”
                                                   Elizabeth Taylor, on Richard Burton

I crossed the Sea of Cortez to the Land of Cortez on August 20, 1980. Dolphins jumped alongside my frijoles, rice and res beef dinner. I tried to sleep on deck but, between the heat, the fluorescent lights, and the dancing gay Mexican girls, it was not my Destiny. Joel and Manuel, two new friends, tried to help by working us up through the rehydration food chain, from leche to gaseosas to cervezas to Seagrams. I ended up drinking the boat water. It took two hours to get off the ferry the next morning. After brunch in Los Comales market, I set up Diogenes in the Mar Rosa campground on the beach, for two dollars a day. After a siesta I cooked some tomatoes and peppers, and ate them with some leftover tortillas from brunch. It was coming on dark when I took a walk down the beach. An inebriated Oaxacan tried to sell me some marijuana, on the waterline. As if. A little further along, at the Oceano, I got involved in a poker game with Doug, Stuart, and tequila. The two Americans lost. When they began spilling their drinks I suggested an alternate venue. We ended up in a line to get into a nightclub called Rockies, but it didn’t look good. Until three Mexican girls queued up behind us. There was Margarita and Rosa in front, and an apparition so deliciously dark chocolate behind them, I initially didn’t see her.
Over on the other side of Mexico and history, to replace the small pox extermination of the indigenous population, 200,000 African slaves arrived on the docks of Vera Cruz, to work the Yucatan henequen plantations. They were called ‘Los Lobos,’ the wolves. A band with the same name did a classical rendition of the most famous song in Mexico, ‘La Bamba,’ a place in Angola that many of them came from. Africa had sent another colour along for the ride. The first epidemic of yellow fever occurred in 1648. They called it the black vomit. There were over two dozen subsequent outbreaks, one of which drove George Washington out of Philadelphia. One of the last occurred in Mazatlan, in 1883. It killed Angela Peralta, the world famous opera diva, shortly after she arrived in port from Europe. She was known as the ‘Mexican Nightingale’ and, after giving one last aria from the Hotel Iturbide balcony overlooking the Plazuela Machado, she fell into a coma. One of the singers from her company helped complete a hurried wedding ceremony to her paramour, by moving her unconscious head, in nods of assent.
The Africans had long melted into the rest of the cacao, by the time I made out the rest of the Luz Maria. I moved my head in unconscious assent. She was, indeed, the ‘Light of Maria.’ Oriental eyes, long black hair and an elegance that, had I been with Cortez, would never have allowed me to return to Spain. She smiled at the doorman, he bowed, the waves parted, and we were inside.
I asked Luz Maria why she kept referring to Doug as ‘Perrito.’
“Ju say hees name ees ‘Dog’, no?”
I started calling him Perrito. We danced all night.
Luz Maria brought me breakfast in Diogenes next morning. We spent the day swimming, playing chess and guitar, and eating in Los Comales. We spent most of the night in Diogenes. About four in the morning, a horrendous thunderstorm washed a torrent of sand through the tent. I ran her back to her hotel through the downpour and finally fell asleep, after evicting the hive of insects that had sought refuge while I was gone.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Bajada 2

I almost didn’t see them at first. Their old beat-up half-ton was the colour of the twilight. It came to hard metallic stop and I squeezed in beside them. Baseball caps. They smelled of fish. Raul drove and Alex, in the middle, in silence, passed me an open bottle of tequila. We drove off Highway 1, until we arrived at the ocean. I could just make out a small square whitewashed cement hut with a slanted roof of sticks. It was where Alex lived, and would probably eventually die. In a box no larger than a bus shelter. It had one crooked doorframe but no door nor window. His kitchen was a propane burner; his bath was a bucket. He took one, and I took one after him. We ate some old tortillas, frijoles, and some of the sardines they caught that day. We slept. In the middle of the night came the sound of a truck motor. His wife, Gloria, and their two niños arrived. We pretended to give them room that wasn’t there. In the morning I awoke to a dozen skinny cats. I thanked Alex and Gloria. I wondered how a fisherman kept his white pants so white. Raul gave me a lift back to the highway.
There wasn’t much traffic in those days, but what did come down the road was undeniably authentic. I didn’t put out my thumb for the first ride that day, because it was weaving across both sides of the road like a sine wave on an oscilloscope. It stopped anyway. I got in the back. They were all still drunk from the night before. Thankfully they drove slow, stopping frequently to urinate and show off the gringo to their friends. As we came over a hill and accelerated into the descent on the other side, the driver fell asleep. I looked around. Everyone else was asleep as well. I reached over the driver from the back seat and grabbed the wheel. There was no steering. Somehow I managed to climb into the front seat and bring us to a stop, before we became one with the cactus and the rocks. Everybody woke up to my cursing. They insisted it wasn’t their car. I asked whose it was. They didn’t know.
“Es robado, hombre.”
I looked it up in Steve’s dictionary. It said ‘stolen.’ Jeezuz. I left them sleeping on the side of the road.
What I left them for was an expansive alien forest of cardon cactus around the corner. Among the mesquite and the palo verde, on a rocky slope to infinity, stood a fifty-foot army of ancient grey green sentinels playing their own accordian flesh. The bats that would come to pollinate them at night needed their amino acids for lactation. Turning thorns into milk in this kind of solitude is the ultimate Mexican metaphor.
Then came Hair Trigger Ray, a 50 year-old mobile post-traumatic stress disorder, who made his living by bribing the Federales, smuggling vehicles to sell in a used car lot in Constitucion. He likely started off as a sensitive Mexican kid, but the Americans fixed that for him. I noticed the evil in his eyes when he told me about the thousand men, women, children and animals he shot in Korea and Vietnam. His Californian wife had deserted him, upon his return from the last tour. He spoke continuously of God and the Bible, but most of his nouns, verbs and adjectives began with ‘f.’ He complained about racism against Hispanics with the same bitter herbs he used to curse every other ethnicity. Yet, underneath all his easily triggered hostility, I saw the vulnerable little boy. He really wanted to be nice. It was just too late. We stopped for a lunch of frijoles and eggs, during which Ray devised a plan to have me drive past the checkpoint in Santa Rosalia. He didn’t ask if I had a license. We drove all night, and then I slept in the car. The roosters crowing and barking dogs woke me at dawn. After my cold shower and shave, Ray’s wife, Olivia, fixed me a breakfast of coffee, biscuits, and eggs with diced nopales- prickly pear cactus prepared properly this time. We ate quietly under a carmine bougainvillea. Ray slept and Olivia drove me to the highway. It was only after she kissed me goodbye that I realized she could have kept on driving.
The sun grew white hot, and melted the asphalt. Another Raul picked me up, taught me a few more words of Spanish, and took me to the Mazatlan ferry terminal in Pichilingue.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Bajada 1

                   “Hitchhiking is an open road
                    Hitchhiking is window without glass
                    Hitchhiking is loneliness
                    Hitchhiking is drifting through time and space
                    Hitchhiking is finding a corner to call your own
                    Hitchhiking is not unlike the seasons, the tides
                    Hitchhiking is believing you’re Walt Whitman
                    Hitchhiking is being told you’re nothing but a bum
                    Hitchhiking is learning to cope
                    Hitchhiking is getting it all together
                    Hitchhiking is seeing it all fall apart
                    Hitchhiking is knowing no words but “Thank you”
                    Hitchhiking is discovering how dark is dark
                    Hitchhiking is discovering your name whispered in forests
                    Hitchhiking is rolling out of ice cream wagons into moonlight
                    Hitchhiking is losing your last pair of pants
                    Hitchhiking is going naked
                    Hitchhiking is hearing something crack in the bottom of your pack
                    Hitchhiking is poetry
                    Hitchhiking is only a dream
                    Hitchhiking is falling skywards
                    Hitchhiking is finding doors locked
                    Hitchhiking is learning combinations
                    Hitchhiking is a constant erection
                    Hitchhiking is a royal pain in the ass
                    Hitchhiking is the sort of thing that makes you long for chicken soup
                    Hitchhiking is food for thought
                    Hitchhiking is nourishment for the soul                                                      
                    Hitchhiking is leaves in the wind
                    Hitchhiking is an open road”
                                      Paul Coopersmith, Hitchhiking Is, Rule of Thumb

A born-again Christian took me five miles, to the corner of thirst and tedium. The shadows of lizards on adobe walls were the only thing that moved for an eternity. Finally, an 80 year-old retired machinist named Chris, pulled over in his Oldsmobile. Red, white, and blue. Shirt, hair, and jeans. He dropped me at a cantina and wished me ‘buen viaje.’ The yellow and carmine exterior sported two Carta Blanca beer logos, and an open ‘abierto’ sign on the restaurant door. I pushed through the swinging doors like I was entering an old western. Three drunken campesinos sat drinking noisily at the bar. I picked a table as geometrically far from them, and as close to the exit, as I could calculate. A gum-chewing senorita came over sooner than I expected.
“Si, Senor?” She said.
Hungry, I had to respond fast in a language that was not my own. What could I order that was safe, easily understood, and available anywhere? I had a tuna sandwich epiphany.
“Un sandwich de tuna, por favor.” Thinking myself rather clever.
There was a pause I didn’t like, punctuated by shrieks of shrill laughter from the hombres at the bar. Only Mexicans can laugh like that. The waitress looked puzzled, and amused at the same time. Not a good sign.
“Serio, Senor. Un sandwich de tuna?”
I should have backed off, but there was now honour at stake.
“Si, Senorita. Un sandwich de tuna.”
She shrugged her shoulders and left. The howling at the bar only got louder. It echoed in the kitchen a few minutes later.
The sandwich eventually arrived. The colour was all wrong. I looked up ‘tuna’ in Steve’s dictionary. It said ‘atun’.
I looked up ‘tuna’ on the Spanish-English side. It said ‘prickly pear cactus.’ I asked for the fish.
“No hay.” She said. We don’t have any. I would hear it a lot before I broke the code to eating well in Latin America. Bread is called ‘Bimbo’ in Mexico. It would prove to be a long study. Before this trip, I had been a vegetarian. In Latin America, it was a synonym for ‘communist.’
I left the cantina in time to flag down a supercharged Dodge Dart brown and white Super Bee muscle car, containing two surly looking bandits flying at speed. The Pancho moustache on the passenger side had nasty narrow eyes; the driver was husky with a feathered Las Cruces cowboy hat, and a gold tooth. I shared the back seat with a leather truncheon. The radio was up loud. I knew what shit was. It went along with that masa corn tortilla smell I couldn’t get out of my head since I crossed the border. And I was in it now. Gold Tooth pulled out a large handgun and placed it on the dash.
I reached for Steve’s dictionary, channeling ‘O.’
“Occupacion?” I uttered.
“Policia.” He replied.
“Si. Policia Especiale.”
And then, as if to assuage my incredulity, Gold Tooth reached under his seat, pulled out a flashing light siren, thrust it onto the roof of the Super Bee, and buried his right boot to the floor. The siren was almost as loud as the radio. Within a few seconds, we had pulled over a loaded pickup truck. Gold Tooth grabbed a pair of handcuffs and sauntered over to the driver’s side. He returned a few minutes later, counting pesos.
“Policia Especiale?” I inquired.
“Si. Muy Especiale.”
I looked up ‘muy.’ It said very. My vocabulary was improving, a word at a time. I probably knew enough now to get stabbed.
They dropped me on the other side of a washed out bridge and wished me a “pleasant churney.”
The sun slowly melted my afternoon into a syrup of long walks, lengthening shadows, tumbleweeds, and tailgate truck rides. Somehow, I got engine oil all over Serendipity. The smell of the earth grew strong in the desert dusk. I begin to anticipate a scorpion and spider sleepout under the stars. But just when you have resigned yourself to your zig, along comes a zag.
Third Rule of Hitchhiking: Wait a bit longer.

Sunday, 11 May 2014


      “South of Tijuana, the highway settles down to a single winding tape of
        asphalt... and the country opens up. You don't have to worry which road to
        take. There's only one.”
                                                                                     Jeopardy, 1953

Steve and Charlie drove me from the First World to the Third World, via Sunday brunch in Capistrano. We ate at the El Adobe, Richard Nixon’s favorite Mexican restaurant. I got to sit in his nougahyde chair. I ordered the ‘President’s Choice.’ It turns out that the El Adobe had originally served Continental cuisine but Nixon, desperate to appear like he routinely dined among the common folk, promoted the place as having the best Mexican food in the region. The chef at El Adobe made the switch. The food wasn’t bad, but I was going to Mexico, and the notion that I was leaving behind the barrio of the boy who poured ketchup over his cottage cheese as he bombed Cambodia, was going to work out just fine. By the time the swallows came back to Capistrano, I hoped to be well on my way to their snowbird home in Argentina.
After we stopped in San Diego so I could run into the ocean, Steve steered the Honda across the border, into Tijuana. And didn’t my cozy little world view change in a hurry? It may have been the birthplace of the Caesar salad, but the delivery room was cluttered with tattoo parlours, jumping beans, donkeys in zebra paint, stilettoed short brown girls leaning outside rooms you could rent by the hour, cheap pharmaceuticals and other drugs, Cuban cigars, and Mariachi madness- an assault on all the senses. We had a farewell beer at a little cantina. Steve handed me his pocket Spanish dictionary, ‘just in case.’ They dropped me on a narrow tape of asphalt south of the city, where Mexico began and they ended.
Poor Mexico. So far from God and so close to the United States. There was a kaleidoscope of plastic litter along the sand shoulder of pavement, against the rocky purple hills and the silence. I was alone with sixty pounds of Serendipity and, even though I had planned for what I thought was any contingency, there was an unnerving shimmer on the horizon. Two guys came over the rise. I saw the sun catch the glint of metal blades flicking open. The long sigh I heard was mine. As they approached, a smoke and dust cloud overtook them, and I aimed my thumb at where I thought the cockpit should be. The bearded driver of the old Ford truck veered over, just long enough for me to toss Serendipity in the back and crack open the passenger door. We were off and running before I hit the seat.
“You looked like you needed a lift.”
“Oh yeah.”
His name was Hartley, a nice Jewish boy going to med school in Ensenada. Naval reserves. Football player. Saving lives, one gringo at a time. Back at his trailer, Hartley and his classmate, John, started pouring vodka tonics. Too much later, we went for a walk around town. Around the first corner lay a dead dog, in the middle of the street.
“At least he won’t have to live in Mexico anymore.” Hartley might have been happier in an American school.
The next morning I attended a tutorial. The professor taught in Spanish about tuberculosis. He looked like he had it. After class, I asked Hartley for directions to the highway south. He said he would drive me.
"They don't put up signs in Mexico. Mexicans tear them down and make houses out of them”.