The Chiapas Nightmare : A Love Story

 

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
Villahermosa

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.

My hotel prison cell
My hotel prison cell

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.

Postscript #2

I write this now on my fifth night in the cardiac ward of Scripps Memorial Hospital, Encinitas.

 

 

 

Poor Tijuana: So Far From God, So Close to the United States

The title is a paraphrase of a famous statement made by the malignant 19th century Mexican dictator, Pofirio Diaz. When Diaz wasn’t busy trying to eradicate the Yaqui Indians of Sonora, he was bemoaning the contrast between living conditions in the U.S. as compared to Mexico, without really attempting to do much about it. The statement holds up today when talking about the hellish Mexican border towns, especially Tijuana, Jaurez, and Nuevo Laredo.

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. Downtown Tijuana

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.

But I was booked there for two days whether I liked it or not and planned to make the best of it, by which I mean eating greasy tacos and swilling syrupy margaritas  at a variety of alfresco cantinas,  while observing the honkies attempt to jew down vendors a couple of dimes on made-in-China handcrafted curios. (I  never quite got the “sport” of debating Mexican peasants for 20 minutes in an attempt to get the price of a $4 belt down to $3.75.)

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 prositute, 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. She just looked at me pitifully, called me “baby”, and told me to go back to the room and forget about it.

That night I tried to be philosophical about the whole thing. I told myself that it was just a piece of metal, a material thing, and that at least no one got hurt. But  my mind wasn’t buying the philosophy. It was a valuable piece of metal and it had real sentimental value. I knew then that I couldn’t or wouldn’t ever replace it.

Naturally, I talked to anyone at the hotel who would listen: a custodian, the desk clerks, a nice business man. They all responded the same way, that this could have happened anywhere, especially in the U.S., where you would also be shot and killed. This reaction is a common rationalization among Mexicans. We might slip a roofie into your drink and try to rob you blind but chances are good we won’t kill you like they do in Chicago or L.A. It’s a bullshit excuse but it’s pointless to argue.

It’s been  weeks now but I’m still aware daily that the chain is no longer around my neck. Someone down in Tijuana probably went on a month-long drug binge on my dime, or maybe bought a nice used car. I’d prefer to think that there was at least a moment of soul-searching for the thief and his accomplice but I know this is but a comforting lie. What I’d really like to think is that the Saint Christopher’s is now hanging from someone else’s neck down there, possibly bringing them maybe one little step closer to God and one step further away from the U.S.

Head-Off Collision

cartoon mohammadThis past weekend in Texas, the forces of ignorant intolerance crashed up against forces of violent intolerance. That it should happen in Texas should be no surprise to anyone, given that Texas prides itself on enormity: enormity of meal portions, enormity of cartoonish Stetsons, the sheer enormity of the state, and, of course, the enormity of the collective imbecility of its citizens. Dumb is big in Texas, as big and bright as those stars at night. How else could George W. Bush, Rick Perry, Phil Graham, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and Ted Cruz get elected? How else would they even exist?

The event in question took place in Garland, Texas, at the scene of a bizarre event organized by the infamous 9-11-whore, Pamela Geller. Geller rose to prominence a few years back when she went on a year long hissy fit about a proposal to create a mosque in the same zip code as the World Trade Center ruins. That attention got her the requisite guest gigs on Fox News and the requisite indignation at MSNBC.

Geller’s brainchild last weekend was to organize an event in Texas that would turn back the rising tide of the caliphate: a cash-prize contest for the best, most insulting cartoon depicting the prophet Mohammad. Ostensibly, the concept of the event was supposed to have been in response to the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, but, in reality, it venomously dripped straight from the fangs of Heller herself, who has probably been daydreaming about something like this since even before the Hebdo incident.

I’ll will admit to lately being passive-aggressive on Middle East mayhem; quietly seething with every depiction of ISIL’s loathsome, sadistic blood-letting, while being forever cognizant of my own country’s treacherous duplicity in the train wreck we call the Middle East. As far as I’m concerned, Dick Cheney, Inc. created ISIL.

Geller and her Zionist, Arab-hating acolytes have no such ambivalence. How else could you put your name behind an event that features a cartoon depiction of Mohammad, his head wrapped in toilet paper, defecating on a pig? But, then again, Geller would claim freedom of speech if she loudly farted at a funeral.

So enter stage left one Elton Simpson and his buddy Nadir Hamid Soofi, a couple of jihadist wanna-be’s from Phoenix, as zealous as Geller in their desire to avenge the prophet’s good name, if not substantially more committed to not fucking around about it. When the dust cleared, both men had successfully martyred themselves on the sidewalk in front of the Garland event center while their alleged target, Geller, was unscathed.

Up until now, I’ve referred to Mohammad as if he were a real person, thin-skinned and easily offended, as opposed to referring to him for who he really is, an imaginary totem-man. That anyone in the so-called modern age would get worked up about this blasphemy bullshit is beyond my capacity to comprehend.

As is the reality that vipers like Geller have made a career out of stigmatizing with impunity an ethnic minority with whom we in America have peacefully coexisted for generations.

Good that nobody else at he event was murdered or maimed, either Geller or the slobs who paid good money to “defend” their own god-fearing superstitious fairy tales . Yes, we’ll have to put up with Geller’s hate-mongering and her phony, profit driven indignation for a while longer, but the last thing this world needs is another martyr, even one as cartoonish as Geller.


On a Quiet Street where Old Ghosts Meet

quiet street where old ghosts meet“I see her walking now, away from me, so hurriedly,,,”

in the words of the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, in his famous poem “Ragland Road”.

God, I always found those words so sad, in that classic mournful Irish spirit, that speaks of  irrevocable loss, of dark destinies, and of ghosts haunting our memories.

But there’s more to the poem than just a love gone sour. It’s as much about temptation and lust as it is about loss.

“I saw the danger, and yet I walked along the enchanted way.”

And yet he walked.

We make choices. Sometimes choices are made for us. Sometimes the results suck.

I bring this up in part because the holidays are upon us, and I have been reminded many, many times recently that not all of us are hooking up a sleigh to the Budweiser Clydesdales,  for that trip to Granny and Pop’s quaint farm house,  radiant with the glow of the warm fire, redolent of the smell of oak, and of fresh baked apple pie.

Many of us at Christmas or New Years will not be basking in the radiance of friends and loved ones, but more likely hoping there’s something better on TV than “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Many will be stoic about this, others will hold hands with the clock throughout the day and night, imagining they heard their cell phones buzz.

Ever since I first heard the poem Ragland Road,  I’ve envisioned that quiet street where old ghosts meet. What a street that must be like! Probably darker and grimmer than the impressionistic painting above? Or maybe not?

Because that street exists only in our minds, are those ghost any less real? Can’t we all close our eyes for a moment and see the faces and hear the voices of those who came before, lovers, wives, friends, parents, brothers and sisters? Isn’t that part of what the holidays are about?

And if you’re not basking in the dim, flickering light of memory this Christmas, if instead you are lucky enough to be in the embrace of, not ghosts, but real family and friends , take nothing for granted.

Put down the cameras. The memories will not perish simply because they weren’t duly recorded in pixels.

We are all going to be here forever.

(dedicated to my great friends Scot Tempesta (of Carlsbad, Ca), Darrell Berger (of Jersey City, NJ), Bob Stein (of Boston MA), Bill Szakovits (of Orlando FL), and David Wallace Johnson (of Ann Arbor, MI) and all my other friends who will likely pause in reflection this Christmas.)

 

 

 

 

 

Phase Book?

scary facebookI read something the other day that stated that, before Facebook, the world had no outlet for expressing the trivial and insignificant bullshit that just pops into our frame of reference. You know,  like your video of the duck being chased by a rabbit around the Christmas tree, or your random thought “Why do so many words have silent L’s? Is it a conspiracy?” , or that great memory of Captain Gorton’s fish sticks, complete with photograph. Continue reading

Stacy Taylor

Radio maverick, writer, escape artist

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