Odd that I would find myself back in Mexico. Rosarito hasn’t changed much. The same little shops are strung out along Avenida Benito Juarez: the locksmith, the leather repair shop, the apothecary filled with its exotic botanical cures, the tamale joint, the Comex paint store. The frail Indian woman in her long traditional dress and her oddly modern eye glasses still slumps on the sidewalk in front of the Banamex, selling chiclets from a box on her lap.
But now there are also ghosts almost everywhere I turn.
No street is more haunted than the one I’m currently staying on, Calle Mar Adriatico. This was the backstreet that led to the frequent happy hours at Pelicano’s, although not all the time spent there was necessarily happy. There was once a dog who slept on the sidewalk, on the same spot day and night in front of a locked gate on Mar Adriatico. This old, decrepit creature looked like a dog drawn up by committee. The head didn’t fit the body, his wall-eyes didn’t quite fit his head, and the fur was more like that of a Shetland pony than a dog. He was black with white paws so we called him “Botas” and each evening returning from Pelicano’s, Botas gratefully received our left-overs.
I recently learned that Botas had been owner-less and depended on the kindness of strangers to survive. I suspected as much. I also learned that Botas had long since died, so why is it now when I turn the corner onto Mar Adriatico, I see him on the sidewalk in front of the locked gate? Or is that merely the shadow of the yellow bougainvillea under which he used to lie?
I could not bear to go to Pelicano’s now, especially alone, for there even I am a ghost, the ghost that would spike the overly sweet margaritas from a pocket flask, and where we would watch from the terraza the small herds of rental horses on the beach trotting back to their stables at sunset.
I long ago overcame the taboo of dining alone in restaurants, especially if the restaurant is al fresco and there is something to stare at other than my fellow diners. I dined alone last night in a seafood place called Vince’s, at an outdoor table on a second story deck. I was watching a woman across the street scurrying to catch a bus when I was approached by a man with an accordion offering a song for a fee. “Estoy solo!” I told him with a smile. He shrugged and began to walk away, but then turned back for a quick glance. I think he recognized me. I think he remembered me from a time when I was not always “solo”.
But I will not go alone again to Pelicano’s, especially at sunset when the horses are on the beach.
There is also a French restaurant called Bistro Le Cousteau, on Benito Juarez not far from here. It is owned by a burly Frenchman name Phillipe who can often be seen at night standing in front of his restaurant chain smoking and looking worried. Philippe had been a chef in Paris and in Mexico City and always greeted a familiar customer with a bear hug.
The restaurant itself serves up a reasonable Cesar’s Salad and a pretty good wood-fired pizza. The tables are usually filled in the evenings by couples: wives and husbands, but also lovers, talking softly. It is lit by jade lanterns and warmed by the open hearth oven. Philippe does not charge a corkage fee if you bring in your own bottle of wine, let’s say a nice sauvignon blanc from the Guadalupe Valley.
I will not go alone again to Cousteau’s, especially in the evening when the candles are lit.
And I will not go alone to the little Mercado Del Mar, south of town on the free road toward Popotla. I will not search for a new mezcal or squeeze a lime or sniff the fresh guayaba. For if I were to do so, I might embarrass myself by suddenly turning in the direction of her voice and her smile that is not really there.
Today I took a walk along the beach, in the direction of the red and white striped smoke stacks of the power plant north of town. We had taken this walk many times, sometimes stopping on the way for a Pacifico and a shrimp quesadilla at a joint called Tacos and Beer. Often, I would run ahead a few hundred yards then circle back, squinting into the sun in search of that luminous hair, that familiar silhouette, like navigating by a star. Turning back toward the sun today, I thought for a moment that I saw that silhouette again. But, of course, I was mistaken. Perhaps there was something in my eyes distorting the view.
Close by here is a condominium tower called The Riviera. I lived there once. And as I write this now in the gloaming of nightfall, the color of the sea changing from blue to translucent silver, I can hear music playing on the stereo from the apartment on the tenth floor. Is it Chet Baker? Is it Gordon Lightfoot?
The room on the tenth floor where the music is coming from is lit by candle, and there, across the tiled floor, two ghosts dance in close embrace, one of us unwilling or unable to let go.
I’d been planning some kind of a road trip for a few weeks and I needed a motive. I was originally thinking I might drive cross country to visit my home town in Pennsylvania, but the problem with heading east out of Southern California is the 1500 miles of desert that must be crossed between here and anywhere else. You won’t see a tree between Pine Valley and Dallas. And the northern routes are not much better, because you still have to cross Kansas or Nebraska. Los Angeles is too close, Seattle too far (although the idea of driving to Alaska did cross my mind), and the idea of being alone in San Francisco was depressing.
Just an 8 hour drive, and a place with which I’m quite familiar. And camping is cheap.
Now I just needed the flimsiest excuse to go.
Ostensibly , I would just getting away for a few days to enjoy the fresh air and solitude, but I wanted another component to this trip. I decided it was to be a journey of self-examination.
The only problem with that is, I have been examining myself for as long as I can remember, going back, at least, to elementary school. In fact, I consider it my biggest personal fault, constantly second-guessing and analyzing the consequences of my every move, always worrying about how I come across. I would never be described as “care free”. Someone recently had told me point-blank that my head was so far up my ego’s ass that I’d lost track of the horizon. Or words to that effect. And she was a friend.
An intrinsic problem with self-examination is who, exactly, is examining who.
Ultimately it didn’t really matter because the idea was already set into motion and had taken on a life of its own.
I was packed and out by 8:00 Sunday morning. First stop would be Morro Bay, traditionally for me the jumping off point to Big Sur. I had booked a room for the night at a motel called the Fireplace Inn, but, unfortunately, that was the extent of my planning. I was obsessed with a couple things: would there be any available campsites in Big Sur, and why again was I even taking this trip in the first place.
Being Sunday morning, it was smooth sailing all the way up through Los Angeles on the 405, even through the Sepulveda pass, and the 101 through Ventura County was not much worse. I took the 154 bypass out of Santa Barbara through the Santa Ynez mountains reminding myself that every car coming toward me down the two lane mountain road was likely driven by someone who had just spent the entire weekend drinking wine in Solvang, and probably most of them were either as soused as herring or hungover
When I rejoined Highway 101 in Buellton , the traffic was heavier and angrier, the road clogged with some very aggressive shit-head drivers, the kind that like to get up on your ass, pretending they’re about to push you off the road. So far, not relaxing, not tranquil, and the only examining I was doing was staring at the ominous grill of the SUV who was ten feet off my bumper.
Finally, signs showing San Luis Obispo getting closer, then the cut off to Highway 1 and Morro Bay. I was still obsessing about campsite availability in Big Sur, but it was a relief to leave the 101 traffic behind me. Before checking into my motel, I drove over to Morro Bay State Park and saw that the sign in front of even that cheesy little campground said “full”.
Worry, worry, worry, worry.
After an excellent grilled snapper in a seafood joint called “Born’s”, and a relatively pleasant night in the motel, I was on the road again by 6:00 AM, hoping to snare a campsite early. The signs were not promising. San Simeon campground was booked up, as were several campsites in the Los Padres National Forest, south of Big Sur. With an increasing sense of dread, I arrived at the Big Sur State Park ranger station right before it opened at 9:00 AM. My worst fears were then realized: all campsites in the state park were booked up until labor day, two months away.
What kind of a half-ass trip was this anyway? Poorly planned, poorly conceived, impulsive. And I really didn’t have a plan B. Turn around and head back to San Diego? Drive another 300 miles to the Siskiyou Wilderness? Try and find a motel that I can’t afford in Carmel? Sleep in my car?
And the self-reflection thing was turning out to be bullshit, too. The same unresolvable thoughts, self-denunciations, and concerns were pinballing around in my mind as always. Of course, jamming up the road and worrying about a place to sleep is not conducive to tranquility but so far, not feeling the love. I had cursed several drivers on Highway 101 yesterday and even cursed a seagull in Morro, yelling at it to “shut the fuck up” when it was squawking loudly in the motel parking lot. What kind of person am I? How is sleeping on the ground possibly going to help me? What help am I even seeking? Only one or two people even knew where the fuck I was, and I doubt that they gave it two thoughts.
At that point I remembered a campground at the north end of Big Sur. Several years ago, I found myself in the same locked-out situation but I had stumbled upon Andrew Molera State Park. It is a rustic, walk-in campground, consisting of only 24 campsites, but it’s fully a 1/2 mile walk down a fairly rugged trail from the parking lot on Highway 1 to the sites and there are no reservations. First come/first serve.
I jammed the 6 miles up the road, through the commercialized part of Big Sur. Molera was my sole hope. The sign at the turn-off said “campground full” and my heart sank, but I parked, raced down the trail with my backpack, and it turns out that I practically had the place to myself! I pitched my tent in in the shade of a small coastal oak, site #3, and ambled back up the trail to formalize the deal with the ranger. I was ecstatic.
After preparing the campsite, I walked the mile-long path to the beach and back, then drove back south a few miles to pick up the trail head that climbs up through the Ventana Wilderness. I walked vertically up that path trying to shake off the claustrophobia of the car and my own thought patterns, but it was an arduous and steep climb and I was fucking exhausted, so after a couple miles I returned to my car and then to my campsite. The sun was finally settling into a prolonged dusk. After a couple plastic cups of red wine, I crawled into my tent and fell asleep.
A couple hours later, I wakened to voices. Somebody, several somebodies actually, had come in after dark and took campsite #2. My new neighbors were smoking pot and saying pot-smoking things and giggling for no particular reason, into the wee hours. No drums were being banged, and no banjo was being plucked, and I think the stoners were actually trying to tone it down a bit, out of respect, but it was still obnoxious. I eventually fell back asleep to their murmuring and giggling. And in honesty, even as I grumbled under my breath throughout the night for the kid’s to just shut up, in reality I welcomed their stoned yammering. Theirs were, at least, human voices, and not my own.
When I was in college, I read Kerouac’s memoir ” Big Sur”, and the next morning I reflected on Kerouac’s longing to escape his demons here in the solitude of the flowing water and redwoods. But it doesn’t turn out so well and, as Jack bounces back and forth between here and and his old haunts in ‘Frisco, he suffers a boozy crack-up, vividly and painfully described in the book. In fact, his friends said that Kerouac never quite recovered from his stay in Big Sur and he would soon be dead. With too much alone time on his hands and too much booze, instead of escaping his demons, they devoured him.
With that in mind, I decided to head up to Carmel to find a liquor store. The red wine wasn’t cutting it.
The scenic route up the coast was jammed with traffic and every view spot parking lot was crowded with tourists taking selfies, but Carmel was as I remembered it and the liquor store was where I’d left it 20 years before. But now the challenge: 3 days sleeping on the ground, no TV, no internet, no cell phone, just me alone with my thoughts. But, at least, a bottle of tequila.
I spent my second day in Big Sur hiking trails. The trail to the beach was about a mile long and, once there, there were plenty of trails along the bluffs overlooking the ocean. I took them all and, when I was done, I took them all again. Then I took trails through meadows and trail through woods along the Big Sur River. I was just trying to tire myself out. The intractable sky was vast and cloudless and blue and the day seemed to go on forever.
I’d heard before the term “walking meditation”, as if merely to be locomoting had the effect of quieting the mind. Didn’t work for me. My mind was a dumpster of senseless detritus: whirling inner monologues, half-forgotten memories, regrets, worries, and looping bits and pieces from old songs. The soundtrack that day was “Sunny Afternoon” by the Kinks and, of course, “Kodachrome”.
I heated up some Trader Joe’s chicken chili late that afternoon, and fiddled around the campsite killing time. Dusk, or at the very least, shade finally arrived. Tequila helped usher in nightfall. I crawled into my tent and read, my coal miner forehead lamp illuminating the pages, but too often my thoughts intruded. Sleep could not come fast enough and eventually it did.
Late that night, I wakened to muffled voices. New neighbors had arrived in campsite #2. At least these assholes were trying to be quiet.
I met Ben and Jake the next morning. Ben worked in a bike shop in Gainesville, Florida and Jake lived in the Twin Cities. I have no idea of how they knew each other, but they were bicycling together from Vancouver, British Columbia to Tijuana and had been on the road for over twenty days. We chatted while they packed up their gear. “How the fuck do you get through L.A. on a bike?” I asked. Ben said “We have maps.”
Day three was an exact replica of day two: hike, sit, hike some more, fiddle around the campsite, heat up more canned chili , drink a little tequila, wait for the sun to fucking drop out of view. My neighbors that night were Yuan and Jasmine, med students at U.S.C. At the risk of coming across as a creepy old man, I hesitantly struck up a conversation. They were heading up to the Bay Area to visit their parents before resuming their studies. I ask them if I could take their picture. “Only if we can get into costume,” Jasmine said. We chatted until nightfall, than the coal miner returned to his little, nylon mine shaft and fell asleep to the sound of girlish laughter.
The next day, Thursday, I broke camp and loaded the car, but I was in no big hurry to leave Big Sur. There was a huge, ancient sycamore tree across the way that demanded my attention for a couple hours. My inner journey had taught me one thing at least: being left alone with my own thoughts, no matter how pointless, repetitive, and depressing they might be, would not kill me. (And thank god for a quality sleeping pad.) And I’d somehow managed to do it without the internet, cellular service, YouTube, Facebook, Netflix, baseball scores and all the other time-sucks that devour our daily lives.
I sailed down Highway 1, stopped for some terrific fish-and-chips on the wharf in Morrow Bay, and rejoined the 101 in San Luis Obispo. By Santa Barbara the traffic had thickened and I began cursing aloud at the lame-ass motorists, tapping their brakes needlessly, slowing down a half mile of cars. By the Sepulveda Pass, traffic had screeched to a dead halt, a six-lane parking on the 405. It would be a good two hours before I even got to San Clemente.
Stuck in traffic, I turned on my cell phone for the first time in 4 days and, after a minute, it began to buzz with missed messages.
I only saw four murder victims in the two and a half years I lived in Rosarito. One was on the beach directly below my condominium where a neighbor of mine was murdered. I wrote about it in a previous blog. In June of 2013, there were two more fresh bodies, uncovered, lying on the edge of Avenida Benito Juarez in front of a taco shop called Asadero Pepe’s in the middle of town. Then, a few weeks after, coming back from the movies, I saw a small crowd gathering around another body in front of a car stereo installation joint, just a few blocks north of Pepe’s. The victim there was a stereo installer who was working on the truck of the intended victim, a man who goes by the nickname “Poison”. Poison was also shot 9 times, but somehow survived the attack. The two shooters, described by witness as both bald and tattooed, sped from the scene and escaped.
The press declared that “antagonistic groups” were settling “differences”. The antagonistic groups, of course, are rival drug gangs and the differences are territorial. The Tijuana weekly tabloid Zeta reported at the time, in a story entitled ‘Invasion of the Independent Criminals”, that a new dynamic is appearing in the drug wars south of the border: gangs with very loose or non-existent relationships with the traditional drug cartels are doing most of the heavy lifting these days. These are freebooters that exist and operate lawlessly outside even the perverse “code” of the established cartels. In other words, these gangs are free to attack and kill without orders from above and are offered no protection from the cartels. According to Zeta, they often advertise their services on Facebook.
In any event, it’s difficult to put dead bodies on Main Street into the proper perspective. At least in the United States we have the decency to commit murders behind closed doors or in neighborhoods where respectable people don’t travel, not right in front of Asadero Pepe’s taco stand, or McDonald’s, for that matter.
The U.S. and its drug war policy are complicite in this fraudulent, murderous charade. And if you are not actively opposed to those policies, you have blood on your hands too.
Gringos were scarce in Oaxaca. The few I saw were greying, spinsterish women, traveling in groups of two, decked out like they had just stepped from the pages of a geriatric Banana Republic catalog. I took these women to be retired school teachers and the few with whom I had struck up a conversation confirmed my suspicions. I’ve seen these women all over Mexico, especially in all the colonial cities where quaintness and charm are advertised. They are the ones who can afford the art and the hand made designer clothing in the high end boutiques along Avenida Garcia Vigil.
There is also a new breed of young Mexicans strutting through these tourist meccas and populating the designer boutiques, looking like they just walked off the set of a steamy telanovela. Perhaps they have existed all along, in securely gated enclaves in Mexico City or Cuernavaca, but I doubt it. These guys don’t have the harried look of the traditional Mexican businessman. They are not bank managers, restaurateurs, or plant managers at a Maquiladora, or anything else for that matter that we associate with the Mexican upper-middle class. By appearances, what work they do put in is likely at a fitness salon. The bloodline is purely European.
The cynic in me is convinced that this new social strata has been created by drug money, the angel investment that has launched a thousand telecommunications and computer software start-ups, to say nothing of hotel, high rise, and resort construction in recent years, in a country where 60% of the population has no purchasing power and the peso has tanked on the world currency market.
Cartel profits are in dollars that originate in the United States and at any given moment there are tens of millions of them floating around, all looking to be invested in “legitimate” businesses like construction and real estate.
This new, wealthy breed in Mexico does not traffic in drugs or murder their competition or post decapitation videos on Youtube. But they know that they wouldn’t exist if somebody wasn’t.
Playas de Rosarito
The vatos lived a block behind my building, halfway between the beach and the main drag, Benito Juarez. They lived in a row of tiny one-story cinder block houses, 5 of them crammed into half a block.
The vatos could be more accurately described as deportados as all of them had committed crimes in the U.S. that had gotten them banished across the border, despite having lived in the U.S. since they were small children.
Alfredo went by the nickname “Shorty” and he told me that he had spent over 20 consecutive years in a California prison. I never ask him what he had done and he never volunteered the information. Now his life was funded by the occasional contribution from his sister, brother, and parents, all of whom were living in the states. Shorty had recently applied for a job at the huge Sanyo assembling plant on the edge of town but was turned down, he said, because of the tattoos covering both arms from wrist to shoulder.
Shorty got around town on a bicycle as did his friend Junior. Junior was considerably younger, a nice looking kid despite the knife scar that ran from his left ear to his chin. Junior would not allow me to photograph him because, he told, he was wanted for some shit in the ‘States. Shorty and Junior hung around with their neighbor, a huge gringo I’ll call Randy. Never quite figured how Randy fit into all of this, but I assumed he was on the run from something. He spent most of his day sitting in his doorway playing heavy metal power chords on an electric guitar. Between the three of them, they couldn’t rub two dimes together.
I got to know Shorty the best. He was funny and surprisingly well-read, he claims because he had so much idle time in the can. Some days, I’d hit the Don Pisto liquor store on the corner, buy a couple of Pacifico Ballenas and a pack of smokes, and Shorty and I would relax on his patio, whiling away the afternoon. Shorty’s patio consisted of a bench seat pulled from the rear of an old car that sat on a fenced-in, shadeless concrete driveway outside his front door.
Shorty’s biggest complaint was the way he was treated by the Mexican government, which is to say completely ignored and cut off from any government-sponsored safety net. “I can never go back to the states,” he told me, “and I can never have a life here.” Shorty was a man without a country.
He was preoccupied with establishing contact with his adult daughter who was living in Colorado. She had been cut off from him while he was serving prison time, and now was further estranged because of his squalid situation in Rosarito. But I had made a Youtube video about another neighbor, Ismael, and his struggle to get a taco cart up and running. The video was called Ismael’s Grand Opening that featured Shorty in a co-starring role. He was hilarious in the video.
Shorty had his daughter’s email address but was trying to figure out a way to break the ice and contact her. I suggested that he email his daughter a copy of the video so she could get to know him a little better while he worked up the nerve to call, which he did. And then he called. And then, like that, Shorty had a daughter again.
Ismael began acting weird a few weeks after that. He had witnessed, not a murder, but a murder suspect escaping past his house one morning and was asked by the police to make a statement. Ismael was completely spooked to be in that position. He sold his taco cart, hit me up for 200 peso, and disappeared with his wife in the middle of the night.
Then a few weeks after that, Shorty’s junkie sometime-girlfriend, Pattie, died of an overdose in his apartment. The authorities were notified and Shorty was put on notice by his landlord. Landlords don’t tolerate much and they certainly don’t tolerate dead bodies in their properties, Shorty and I commiserated over a couple of ballenas on his patio that afternoon and by the next morning, he was gone.
Soon, Junior and Randy were gone too, but one day a few months later I ran into them riding their bikes through town. I ask about Shorty and was told that they had heard he had moved to an Ejido outside of town. And they had tried to find him there but he had disappeared again. Somebody told them that he had left Rosarito, maybe heading for his home town in Sinaloa to find work.
Shorty, Ismael, Junior, and Randy are among tens of thousands of deportees living in the streets of Rosarito and Tijuana, many sick and homeless, including an estimated 2500 U.S. military veterans. They don’t consider themselves Mexicans and they are not citizens of the U.S. either. They are forgotten Americans, living in limbo.
The bus from Mexico City to Oaxaca smelled of urine and dirty socks, and the city itself was almost unrecognizable from what I remembered from 20 years before. Then, even the zocolo seemed smaller and more intimate, quaint even, a few gringos snacking at one of the al fresco cafes, a few lovers holding hands and strolling, kids kicking around brightly colored soccer balls.
Twenty years ago, over the course of a few days, I had befriended one of the kids. He called himself Cristino and he appeared to be in his mid-teens. One morning, Cristino sought me out in the zocolo. He had with him two small paintings he wanted to sell me. They were painted in the primitive style, one showing an anthropomorphized sun rising beatifically over a terraced field populated by peasant laborers, Holstein cattle, and a handful of white bunnies, with an azure stream flowing through the center of the field. The colors were bright and surrealistic and the perspective was intentionally two dimensional, like a child’s drawing. Each painting was inscribed “Cristino”.
The companion piece was the exact same scene, except with a rising moon replacing the sun, turning the blue stream platinum. I bought both painting for $20 (U.S.) and still have them both today. Cristino even threw in an official Vera Cruz Mexican soccer league ball, as a bonus.
It’s hard to imagine striking up that kind of connection with a ragamuffin teen artist in today’s Oaxaca. The residential neighborhoods south of the zocolo are now crowded with people and dense with diesel smog. The zocolo itself seems to have been enlarged. Certainly there are more cafes and cantinas surrounding the square, with far more patrons.
But there was another big addition that distorted the entire zocolo out of perspective: a roped off tent city occupying the middle 3/4 of the square. Occupying the tents and under many strung together canopies were teachers, the notorious maestros radicales, and their families.
The radical masters were there, and in fact had been there for several months, ostensibly to protest an educational reform package proposed by President Enrique Pena Nieto (in a feeble attempt to distract the public from his administration’s abject failure to control the barbaric and murderous drug cartels) that would require college degrees for public school teachers. But the protest had turned into something bigger and more captivating: around the perimeter of the tent city hung a dozen large banners picturing the missing normalistas of Iquala, Guerrero, 44 leftist students who had disappeared without a trace in the autumn of 2014.
The disappearance of the normalistas had rocked the country. Huge demonstrations were staged in Mexico City, Guadalajara, and other major cities to protest the disappearance. You have to hand it to the Mexican people just for suffering the indignities of being Mexican. But, despite generations of being pissed on by an cruel, corrupt, mercenary government and a stifling, impenetrable bureaucracy, la gente was demanding answers. Answers, of course, they knew would never come.
The Mexican authorities usually accommodate these kind of protests. They see it as a safety valve: the peons blowing off steam as opposed to taking up arms.
The teachers occupying the plaza let it be known that they, at least, weren’t dicking around. They blockaded the government run Pemex gas stations, effectively cutting off fuel to the entire city (and thoroughly pissing off the taxistas) , and they promised to monkey-wrench the up-coming elections, to be held the following Sunday.
Thursday night, the skies over Oaxaca were bursting with the arrival of military helicopters and transport planes. By Friday morning, the city was in full military occupation mode, swaggering federales along with Mexican army troops taking up positions throughout the city, residential side streets lined with armored personnel carriers. Adding insult to injury, the Mexican government banned alcohol sales from midnight Friday to midnight Sunday. Thankfully, they gave us plenty of warning.
Sunday, I found myself in Parque Juarez El Llano at the outer edge of El Centro, where a huge protest march was terminating. I started snapping pictures of the crowd until a man who’s face was obscured by a bandana ordered me to stop. I complied. There must have been 5000 or more protesters. Even the communist party was flying the hammer-and-sickle banner. Some loud fireworks exploded near the park. No cops were in sight. The peons were just letting off a little steam. After all, marching is easy, revolution is hard.
By Monday morning the elections in Oaxaca were declared successful and official. The government of Pena Nieto received a vote of confidence. The normalistas, last seen in the hands of the Guerrero State Police, are still missing a year after their disappearance.
San Miguel de Allende
The central plaza in San Miguel de Allende is known as the Jardin Principal (main garden), not as the Zocolo like in other Mexican towns. Relatively lifeless during the day, it comes alive later in the afternoon as the evening bells of the neo-gothic cathedral, La Parroquia begin to toll. By then, the afternoon rains would have come and gone, cooling the city and leaving steam rising from the cobbled street.
Each afternoon we would walk north of the Jardin, hike up a busy commercial street to an art school/gallery called Instituto Allende, a citadel perched on a bluff overlooking the city. There on the mezzanine level, past an elaborate mural by local artist David Leonardo, was a small cantina with al fresco tables protected by an over-hanging balcony. It opened up into a large, tiled terraza where prominent weddings are held. And there in the late afternoon we would drink tart margaritas and watch the towering thunderheads rise over the city below, the color of the clouds changing from bruised peach to gun metal grey. And soon the skies would open into a downpour and drenching San Miguel, and I never wanted to leave.
Playas de Rosarito
Twice in my life I have been intentionally poisoned. Once was in a hotel bar late one evening years ago in San Francisco that resulted in cracked ribs, a smashed 2nd floor balustrade, and me blacking out on the floor next to my bed. The other time happened recently in Rosarito Beach.
We had gone to the annual Tequila Festival on Benito Juarez, near the fairgrounds, and ordered a platter of lechon (shredded, barbecued suckling pig) and a margarita. After the meal we had another margarita and mingled with the crowd. Moments later, things began to swing violently out of control. I had not only lost track of my friend, but had lost virtually all muscular control as well. I was in a fast spiral towards oblivion.
I had just enough of my wits about me to know I had to get out of there pronto, and try to manage the 10 blocks back to my condominium. I remember staggering through the venue swinging laterally a good 12 feet back and forth.
I also remember looking into the laughing faces of young Mexicans working the tequila fest, greatly amused by the cliche of the drunken gringo barely able to stand. At one point I remember yelling in Spanish “I am not drunk! I have been poisoned!”, resulting in even more robust laughter from the workers.
From that point on, everything I know about that night I learned second hand over the next few days. I have no memory.
I didn’t make it very far because a neighbor, a man I call El Gaucho because he owns a small Argentinian restaurant in Rosarito of the same name, found me passed out in the middle of the street barely a block away from the tequila fest. El Gaucho loaded me in his van (he had been a vendor at the festival, perhaps even had seen me stagger by), brought me back to my condo, and put me to bed. I must have insisted that I had to go back to the Tequila Festival to find my friend because El Gaucho gave explicit instructions to the security guard to not allow me to leave the premises.
But somehow I did. I made it about 4 blocks up a dark street called Mar Adriatico, a street paralleling the beach that I would not likely walk alone at night. There I was found again face-down in the street by another samaritan, a total stranger to this day, who must have recognized me from the neighborhood and hauled me back to my condo and again put me to bed.
It’s a little later that some of my memory kicks back in: trying desperately to get to my feet, desperately trying to get back to the festival, only to slump back into my bed, unable to move. It might have been hours or it might have been minutes but, at last, my friend, like an angel, appeared over my bed and I could finally surrender.
The next morning I was in a nearby private hospital losing consciousness again, this time to a medicinal drip while having my badly dislocated right shoulder reset.
It was a year before I could raise my right hand over my head. As it turns out, that shoulder would never be the same, nor would my memories of Rosarito.
I recently had the misfortune of spending a couple nights in Tijuana. A hotel down there, The Valero, was pimping a deal: a month in a “suite” for $600. The pictures showed a postmodern look to the rooms, clean lines, uncluttered spaces, and smooth surfaces. Being, as I am at the moment, between fixed addresses, I thought I would head down and check it out, so I booked a 2-night stay.
Let me get this out of the way: while it’s certainly not a fleabag, I would not recommend the Valero to anyone unless their idea of amenities are cold showers and a surly staff . At one point there was no water at all for several hours, news that was regarded at the front desk with detached amusement, and then resentment when I tried to force the issue. The only window in my room faced inward toward a walkway that encircled an atrium, but it didn’t matter because the window had been blackened out. Natural light probably hadn’t entered that room since it was constructed. Within the first 15 minutes I had divested myself of the idea of staying there for a month.
I never have spent a lot of time in Tijuana. In the 80’s I would occasional head down with friends for dinner and drinks, or to catch a bullfight at the old arena. I’ve had a Cesar’s Salad at the famous Cesar’s Hotel bar and I know where you can get some pretty good street food, but I’ve never hung around long enough to know, for example, where the really good donkey-on-woman sex clubs are located. For me, Tijuana is a place totally lacking in charm that you have to drive through to get to the border.
And, of course, the place has gotten exponentially worse in recent decades, due to the vicious competition to control the drug plaza after the ill-conceived take down by the U.S. of the Arellano Felix cartel. So despite the presence of the new “gastronomical district” with famous chefs like Javier Plascencia whipping together over-priced “Baja Med” fusion meals, and despite the presence of a handful of decent, gringo-infested high-end condos in the “Zona Rio”, Tijuana remains the quintessential shit-hole.
One thing I failed to mention about the Valero is the location. Even though it’s located only one block off the main drag, Benito Jaurez, the hotel is located smack dab in the middle of the red light district. Whores of every variety, male, female, and tranny, prowl the street desperately seeking out eye contact with their hollow, predatory stares. On my second afternoon in Tijuana, I was returning to the hotel after spending a few hours in a cantina when a fat, middle-aged prostitute tried to strike up a conversation. She was pointing to the gold chain that I was wearing around my neck and she said, in decent English, that I’d better take it off and put it away if I was to be walking on that street.
Now, the gold chain in question is thick and high carat and is attached to a gold Saint Christopher’s medallion the size of a nickel. It was a gift and had not been off my neck for over 20 years. I told the woman that I was only 2 blocks from the hotel and I would remove it there. But in the time that it took me to turn away and walk five steps, the whore apparently had signaled an accomplice. I heard foot steps closing fast from behind me and before I had a chance to react I felt the chain being ripped from my neck. I sprinted after the thief for two crowded city blocks but by then he was out of sight. Of course, nobody stopped him.
I was furious. I returned to the room but left almost immediately, back down to the street. The fat prostitute was nowhere to be found. I grabbed a cop and told him what happened and he responded with a what-do-you-want-me-to-do-about-it shrug. I approached another prostitute, an attractive blond gringa who I had noticed before. With tears of rage in my eyes I told her I would reward her a thousand bucks in cash if she would help me get the jewelry back.
The blond whore just looked at me pitifully, called me “baby”, and told me it was best to go back to the room and forget about it.
The day before the huge election day demonstration, Parque Juarez El Llano in Oaxaca was tranquil. Young couples eating ice cream cones strolled leisurely down the walkways, some pushing baby strollers. A Zumba class was taking place near the entrance to the park, near a huge, cooling fountain.
It was there while sitting on a shady park bench that I met an American, a woman probably in her early 70’s, and struck up a conversation. She told me she was a writer with a memoir of her time living in Mexico that was not quite yet available on Amazon. She had lived in Oaxaca for several years and felt at home there with both the locals and the ex-pat community. Her furnished apartment, only a few blocks from the park, only cost her $200 a month.
I ask her if she felt safe, a single woman living alone in a foreign country, and she assured me that she did. “So nothing at all threatening has ever happened to you here?” I asked. She thought about for a minute and then describe one incident to me.
A few months before, the woman had taken a bus to visit friends in Puerto Escondido, on the coast about 6 hours from Oaxaca City. On the bus, a Mexican man had struck up a friendly conversation and eventually offered her a cold drink, which she accepted.
The next thing the woman remembers is crawling out of a black hole and regaining consciousness, sprawled across her seat in the Puerto Escondido bus station. The bus was empty except for her and she had no idea how long she’s been there. Her purse, her luggage, her jewelry, and her latest manuscript were missing.
The smitten Armand Duval ( to Marguerite Gautier): Have you no heart?
Marguerite: I’m traveling light!
(from Charles Ludlam’s Camille)
Why am I in Villahermosa Mexico?
A green stench permeated the darkness on the cab ride from the airport to my hotel. The cabbie was fat and taciturn, a man who had spent too many years sitting on his ass breathing fumes. Several times he twisted in his seat and I thought he was turning to say something to me, but he didn’t say a word the whole way into town.
We passed through several miles of low profile jungle swamp land, kept more-or-less at bay by primitive slash-and-burn techniques, just so it didn’t overrun the elevated roadway. Eventually we crossed the fat, gelatinous Grijalva River, the sole reason for the existence of Villahermosa, flowing as it does 100 miles to the sea, and back in the old days a mere 3-day banana barge trip to Vera Cruz.
I was in Villahermosa because it was the cheapest place to fly into Southern Mexico. The plan was to spend one night there, rent a car, and drive 6 hours to San Cristobal de las Casa in Chiapas, and from there, who knows? I had reserved the car for 10 days.
I had spent the previous night in a Tijuana hotel, near the airport. It was a totally spleepless and horrific night, shortness of breath and violent coughing keeping me awake. The coughing attacks had begun the previous weekend, and I had considered postponing the trip, but ultimately wrote it off as nothing more than a chest cold that would pass.
It was well after dark when I arrived at my hotel on a seedy side street off the seedy main drag in downtown Villahermosa. I checked in, hit the bed, and spent a second consecutive sleepless night coughing and trying to catch my breath.
Villahermosa by day confirmed my suspicion that this is not just a provincial shit hole, but a world-class shit hole. I needed to find a Banamex for a cash infusion which required me to walk about 10 blocks through the center of town. I searched for sparkling fountains, leafy shady parks, perhaps a festive cantina, perhaps a friendly face, but instead found sullen cops, suspicious looking people, dust, heat, and used musical instrument stores. Turning up a street back toward my hotel, I was punched in the face by a hot blast of wind. I smelled dry pig shit, chemically treated sawdust, diesel particulates, and graphite.
Villahermosa was the backdrop for the classic Graham Greene novel The Power and the Glory, set in the 1930’s when a zealous “reformist” governor of Tabasco, Tomas Garrido Canabal, declared war on the Catholic church, banned the sale of alcohol, and organized one of the earliest death squads, the Camisas Rojas, to enforce the law by burning churches and executing priests on sight.
Greene’s Villahermosa was a rotting cesspool of giant beetles exploding underfoot, black clouds of mosquitoes, and vultures hovering over the heads of the drunks and the soon-to-be-dead. Obviously, not much had changed.
Cash in hand, I took a cab back out to the dingy little airport to retrieve my rental car and begin my journey to San Cristobal. I approached the Eurocar desk where I had made my reservation, showed the man my confirmation papers, filled out the necessary paperwork and said “Where’s my car?” The man replied that there was still the issue of insurance. He jabbed at his computer keyboard, then turned the screen to face me. The insurance tab ran to $660. The cost of the car alone for 10 days was only $232.
That’s insane, I told the clerk, who shrugged indifferently and announced that there was an alternative. Instead of buying the insurance, I could put up a $5000 cash deposit. “Fuck it”, I said, walking away, “I’ll take the bus.”
“How often do the ADO buses run to San Cristobal?” I asked the next cabbie. He replied that he thought it was, like, once an hour. “To the ADO station then!” I said.
We arrived at the bus station around 1:00 PM and I proceeded to the ticket window and asked when the next bus left for San Cristobal. The agent told me the next bus left at 11:30 that night, 10 hours away.
I stepped outside to the curb and had a what-the-fuck-am-I-going-to-do-now moment, the first of many such moments to come in the days ahead. I had been sleepless, starving, dehydrated, and coughing up blood for 3 days and I didn’t think I had the physical stamina to sit in a bus station for 10 hours, much less endure an 8 hour bus trip.
Just then. a young man approached me and asked me where I wanted to go. He must have read the terror-stricken look on my face or smelled the desperation seeping through my pores. I told him San Cristobal and he said “follow me”, which I did to a side street about 2 blocks from the bus station. There, in a tiny, darkened office, a woman told me the trip by car to San Cristobal would be 600 pesos (about $45), and in a minute I was sitting in the front seat of a late model Hyundai, and on my way out of the god-forsaken hell hole known as Villahermosa.
The outskirts of town were as unappealing as the city itself: window-less derelict houses, exposed rebar, burned-out fields. dense stands of bamboo, the only color the occasional milpa splattering green against a brown hillside. But shortly, the scenery changed dramatically as the road ascended toward the central highlands of Chiapas, and within another 1/2 hour we were riding along a high crest, looking down at a vast plain called The Central Depression (the irony was not lost on me) at least 6 thousand feet below the roadway. It was spectacular and it took my mind off my misery for a few hours.
We eventually arrived in San Cristobal, and I found my way to my hotel and the bed, where I spent my third consecutive food-less and sleepless night, hacking and trying to catch my breath.
When dawn broke Thursday morning, I was in full-blown panic mode. I could not breath and could barely move. I thought of Harry, the doomed central character in Hemingway’s Snows of Kilimanjaro , who lie dying of gangrene in Africa on a cot beneath a mimosa tree. Harry sensed death had arrived at the foot of his cot, and could smell its rotting breath. Slowly, death moved closer, up the cot until its entire weight was on Harry’s chest.
I now felt death at the foot of my bed.
I struggled to get dressed, made my way down to the lobby, and told the clerk that I needed a private hospital. Moments later, a cab arrived and drove me 5 blocks to Sanatorio Dr. Bonilla. There, after a few tests, Dr. Bonilla declared that I was suffering from an extreme bronchial infection, and prescribed a heavy protocol of intensely strong antibiotics. Then it was back to the hotel room for two more nights that were exactly the same as the previous four.
By Saturday morning, some of my strength had reappeared. I felt well enough to shower, dress myself, and hike 2 blocks to a French bakery, where I bought an almond croissant and a cup of cappuccino. I ate and drank on a park bench across the street. It was my first nourishment in 6 days.
Now, back at the hotel, I knew it was do-or-die time. I had booked a one-way ticket to Villahermosa, but now I knew I had to fly out as soon as possible, under any and all circumstances. On-line I found an Aero Mexico flight the next afternoon out of Tuxtla Guttierez , the nearby capital of Chiapas state. I booked the flight but there was one major problem: I could not pay for it with my debit card even though I knew there was enough money in the account. I checked my email. The anti-fraud department at Citibank had detected some unusual spending patterns and had blocked my card. After 90 minutes of panically dialing a series of 800 numbers, my flight to Mexico City and Tijuana was finally booked and payed for. Now it was just a matter of waiting.
My flight did not not leave from Tuxtla until late in the afternoon on Sunday. I mustered the strength to pack, shower, and dress, and took my backpack to the lobby for safe keeping. I had already booked a ticket on a collectivo to the Tuxtla airport and had found a pedestrian boulevard, lined with park benches, a few blocks from the hotel. I picked a spot across from a pozole stand, determined to wait out the next few hours without budging from my perch, where I sat and watched Mexican families promenade past.
By and by, a middle aged man and his wife ambled by. He was pushing his 20-something down-syndrome son in some kind of over sized stroller. I avoided staring at them as they past, but turned to watch them as they descended down the boulevard. I didn’t have any particular conscious thought about this family other than “solid Dad. Lots of sacrifices.” probably the same thoughts that everybody else had about them who had watched them stroll past that day.
But just at that moment I caught a sudden whiff of ammonia in my nostrils, and from behind my sunglasses, for some reason, I began to cry.
Postscript # I
The evil winds of fate still had a couple of dark surprises awaiting me. A half block from the bus station, I watched in horror as my bus to the Tuxtla airport pulled away without me. It was yet another what-the-fuck-am-I-going-to-do-now moments. I had no hotel room and my plane departed in just a couple of hours. Now under the weight of a 35 pound backpack, I chased the bus up the street, screaming the whole way, but eventually lost it in traffic. I was running on pure adrenaline now, as 2 days before I could barely make it to my hotel bathroom.
But by now, I’d learned, when it came to transportation in southern Mexico, there was more than one way to skin a cat. I hailed a cab. “Tuxtla airport!” I said and we were off. It was a late start, but the the slick, young taxista was a great driver. He drove that crest highway across the Chiapan Highlands like a crazed moonshiner, passing cars on the left and on the right, and got me to the Tuxtla airport with time to spare.
The airport was like everything I’d read or heard about the city of Tuxtla, neat, clean, orderly, almost antiseptic. My gate was close by and I settled into a comfortable slab of naugahyde, and breathed a sigh of relief. Soon I’d be home.
But that was not to be. The flight was way late arriving in Tuxtla, and even later arriving in Mexico City. I missed the flight to Tijuana by a good hour. I slept that night for the first time in a week stretched out across a bench in the Mexico City airport. My flight touched down in Tijuana at 5:00 AM.
I write this now on my fifth night in the cardiac ward of Scripps Memorial Hospital, Encinitas.