Down In Mexico.
Not Quite Down And Out.
The heat clawed at us through the open window. A dry, draining, heavy heat. Outside, just beyond the air whipped up at speed, sat a silent, sweltering wilderness. All hunched and broken and twisted and gnarled. Unsuitable for children. Unforgiving. There were snakes out there, slithering amongst the shale. Trying their best not to bother anybody.
We’d crossed the border two days earlier, an experience I remember as being distinctly underwhelming. Mexico, the grand adventure! Cerveza and cartel violence. A trip we were warned against by all and sundry. “It’s a bad move if you value your scalps” one said. According to another old fella it was “Where civilisation ends, and hellfire reigns”. Which I thought was a bit strong. But I guess old American men who live life with the good word on their lips and a peacemaker on their hips are prone to a spot of over-dramatisation.
We pulled into a near empty parking lot, shut down and went inside to pay the price. It was a small rectangular room, painted a pale shade of institutional green, reeking of official indifference, and sweat. The guard didn’t even bother to put his hat on. A wet patch that resembled Tasmania had settled between his shoulders. He wasn’t interested in us at all. We handed over the money, about US$50 a piece I think, signed something that said we’d be gone within a few months, then slid the paperwork back across the counter.
The heavy stamp hiccupped three times, echoing off the bare walls. We were in. He handed over our passports and pointed to the door. The truck re-started, but the air-con did not. Perfect timing. It was 10am and the sun had well and truly risen.
Now, here we were, winding our way down a dusty river bed. Listening to what, I can’t recall. At that time it could have ranged from ABC to Zac D. Neil Young was a hit. Either way, there was music in the desert. Our kind. The good kind, naturally.
“Well," Reported the front seat after an hour or so, "Once you’ve seen one cactus, you’ve seen them all".
I was watching a group of Donkeys. They stood, heads bowed in scattered shade. Horses would be fucked here, I thought. And fuck Horses. The Donkey has far more dignity than a Horse. The oppressed, non-unionised workers of the equine world. Belittled and disregarded because their long nosed cousins pull royal caskets and machines of war for better pay. Though not always in better conditions. When a Horse does a hard day’s work, it gets watered, scrubbed, and fed before bed time. If it’s a particularly good horse a well-paid stable boy might even jack it off while a man wearing britches and a tweed hat waits, bucket in hand, dollar signs in his eyes. A Donkey, on the other hand, hauls rocks all day then trudges home, tattered and scuffed, to a raw cactus dinner and a fitful night’s sleep on jumbled rocks. If it’s a particularly good donkey, a toothless local may visit in the night, but there won’t be anyone else about. And they certainly won’t be getting paid. People who perform sex acts on Donkeys are never held in high regard.
“Let me tell you about the bourgeoise…”
Conversation veered that way for a while. The tarmac had long since quit following us. We’d left it after pulling out of a gas station, somewhere near Rosarito. We had a fair idea of where we thought we were supposed to be going. An outpost. Palapas and stunted palms. A coke addled Californian gave us directions. A remnant of the golden age of surf culture, he’d flown pot over the border in the 70s. It was easy then. Four hours south of nowhere, left onto dirt. You can’t miss it. This was a couple of years after the iPhone burst on the scene. Paper maps were still in circulation. Come to think of it, we didn’t even have a cell phone. It was all point and shoot.
We were near the top of a steep rise, or possibly just a little way down the other side, driving through a cutting carved from dirt and stone (maybe with dynamite, probably with cheap labour). It stood about ten feet tall. Just wide enough for us. You certainly wouldn’t want to meet anyone coming the other way. Along its length was a precarious overhang. I didn’t like the look of it one bit. I’ve seen the westerns. It was the perfect place for an ambush.
It was here that the radiator burst. Our truck came to an undignified halt. A big problem.
We climbed out to make an inspection. The dust was deep, similar in texture to one of Mexico’s most famous exports. ‘Twelve pound’a coke’ain up th Garry glitt’ah’, and three grim faces crowded around a still spluttering bastard. After a few minutes pretending we knew more about radiators than we actually did, I retrieved the bottle of tequila from the back seat.
“See you at the bottom.” And round it went.
The effects were not long in coming…
“Look at the colours in this sand wall. Layer upon layer. Like the rings denoting the age of a tree. See this dark, reddish clay? History you can touch. Palaeolithic period I believe. 3.3 million to about, what, 11.500 years ago? Those latter years giving birth to an ancient cultural stage of human technological development characterised by the creation and use of rudimentary chipped stone tools, the earliest known sculptures, and those paintings Werner Herzog crawled into a cave in Southern France to film. In a strangely ironical twist, what we have here is evidence of the period which led to the eventual creation of that steaming piece of shit you see parked over there.”
It went on like this for quite some time.
Eventually, we gave up hope of rescue and sat in silence in the shade. The overhang just as ominous as it was a couple of hours ago, though slightly less interesting. The only thing we knew for sure was that they’d find us eventually, so we resolved to write farewell notes and pin them to the seat covers before succumbing. Bleached bones and leather boots and wisp’s of hair, huddled round a broken Blazer.
It is with deep sorrow that I pen these final words. I couldn’t have imagined it would end this way. If this note should ever reach you, take it as a sure sign that I am gone. Another life lost to this lifeless expanse. We once talked of journeying to the other side safe in each other’s arms, I now fear this will not come to pass, and for that I am truly sorry. I hope you can take some comfort from the knowledge that my final thoughts were of you. Please give my love to all, and tell little Freddy not to be sad. For although I am no longer of this world, I will forever remain in your hearts, as you will, in mine.
They say the Lord works in mysterious ways. And while I’ve never believed in the Lord, I do believe in salvation. Ours came in the form of a 2-litre engine chugging up the hill. The sweetest sound to ever filter into our sand filled ears. One by one we got to our feet. A white station wagon rounded the corner, pulled in behind us and stopped. The sound of happy horns blaring out of the windows (you wouldn’t read about it). Cocktail hour in Cancún. A short, chubby dude jumped out, cigarette dangling from a wide grin.
“Hola muchachos”, he said with his hand outstretched, “Qué onda?”
His grip was firm but warm and we immediately felt at ease.
Our new friend introduced himself as Jorge. Jorge spoke English. Which helped. We explained the situation and settled down to make a plan - the jist of which was this... There were small wells dotted along the road to town (Town? We were on track). Jorge and I would fill bottles with water, then drive back, pour them into the radiator, drive until it spluttered, then repeat the process. He had a friend who was a mechanic. It wouldn’t be a problem. We told him this was a favour we could not rightly ask, but he wouldn’t hear it. And truthfully, what else could we do.
I jumped in the station wagon, clutching a collection of empty receptacles, and the now par boiled (and near empty) tequila. The car stuttered into life and we headed off into the vast landscape in search of a small wet hole. Jorge, our new lord and saviour was smiling and chatting away. I tried to thank him again, and again he wouldn’t hear it.
“It’s ok. This is what we do. It’s a tough place.”
I could see where he was coming from. Knowingly abandoning anyone in this inferno would be tantamount to murder in the mid 40th degree. I don’t imagine we were the first people to be liberated from this place, and we certainly wouldn’t be the last. There was a crucifix dangling from the rear view mirror, and a depiction of Santa María on the dash. Salvation was not uncommon practice out here it seemed.
I guess you could argue this sort of divine intervention is born out of bare necessity. But as we bumped along, listening to old tapes, talking and laughing. I came to believe it was far more than that. This was pure humanity. Something the people of Mexico have in abundance. If you’d read any of the reputable papers at that time you’d have been forgiven for having a critical view of Mexico, and their views on humanity. But our reality was much different. On more than one occasion we were humbled by selflessness and generosity. People who had no reason to help, or to invite strangers into their homes and lives, to share their food, their stories and their few worldly possessions – all without a thought for recognition or recompense. Speaking personally, humanity is one of the most important lessons travel has rammed home. Without it, we’re all lost.
I offered Jorge some tequila, he took a big swig, spat it out the window, and proceeded to tell me I had no idea what good tequila was. Which I tended to agree with. A chuckle came from deep in his belly, rising in shuddering waves and ending on a high, wheezing note.
“Burro piss Gringo. Where did you get this?”
“Ensenada. They filmed Titanic there.”
“Titanic? That was shit too man! Nothing good comes from Ensenada. This tastes like your grandma squeeze her teety milk in a bottle man! No no no. Esta noche, amigo, I will show you tequila.”
He lit a cigarette, handed it to me, sparked another, took a long drag, turned up the stereo and began to sing along. His voice swirling through the cloud of smoke that dissipated and disappeared behind his head. Bernoulli’s Theorem in action, I thought. This mother fucker might gain altitude.
“Aaaaay aaaay ay ay! Canta y no llores!”
“Canta y no llores?”
“Sing, and do not cry.”
”Nice. I saw a mariachi band in a cantina not too long ago.”
A big grin spread across my cheeks.
“Oh fuck man!”
We both laughed and the car bounced and bumped its way along, Pedro Infante’s ‘Cielito Lindo’ blaring out of the dusty speakers.
It took about 20 minutes to reach the well, a circle of stones hidden amongst the scrub in the bottom of a gully. Agua de vida. More precious than gold. We filled up the empty bottles, washed our faces, and headed back.
Radiator refilled, death notes rescinded, we started off. Jorge and his horns leading the way.
After 4 or 5 stops we limped into something resembling civilisation. A small town at the end of the world. To be honest with you, I can’t remember the name. It was a spartan settlement on a long point, surrounded by the glistening Pacific Ocean. Skinny dogs lay sleeping in doorways, sand blew across the streets and piled up in the gutters, bronzed surfers with boards tucked under their arms moved about unkempt and unhurried. Above an old hotel a sign hung unevenly on heavy chain. Bold red lettering worn away by the grit and wind. All around us the shimmering desert, spiked and dangerous. Menacingly quiet. Waiting for the next hapless fool to come test.
Jorge’s friend lived in a scene from Mad Max. A junkyard chop shop with bits of old things strewn about. Incomplete cars, ramshackle outbuildings, a door creaking in the non-existent breeze. I’m sure you get the idea. It was the kind of place you expect to find a gang of grizzled bandits spitting into brass buckets, drunkenly firing pistolas in the air, and passing women in tattered dresses from room to room on their shoulders. A scene of unhinged fiendishness and dastardly filth. Instead, we found El Mecánico. He was sleeping in a chair under the iron, but seemed happy to help, and in no time he’d patched us up.
We met Jorge down the beach that evening and headed out for a surf. For a portly man, Jorge was an athlete of startling ability. At one point I watched in admiration and disbelief as he attempted a handstand on the nose of his longboard, stuck it, and rode it all the way in. After, while towelling down, we presented him with five boxes of beer. One for every run.
You’ll have to forgive me, things got a little out of hand at this point and I can’t quite remember the particulars. I do have a vivid recollection of how it started though. We’d agreed to meet at a little taco shack, a street or two back from the beach. Upon arrival we found a scrawny Australian sitting alone in a plastic chair, ramming cold cerveza and tacos de pescado into his face. Stef was his name, and roaming Mexico in a van searching for the perfect wave was his game. We hit it off immediately. (I travelled with Stef for a little bit in the following weeks, but it’s not something I can afford to get into right now. Too many witnesses, too little in the way of wordcount.)
Eventually, as the setting sun turned everything a deep ochre, Jorge, El Mecánico and a couple of other chaps turned up. One looked like Charles Bronson. I think they’d made a good dent in those beers too, because they all tried to park in the same spot, at different angles, and ended up denting each other. One had to exit his truck upside down, via the window.
The sun was gone now and the only illumination came from a string of flickering bulbs, the cantina kitchen, and an open fire – upon which fresh pescado and pollo and carne was tossed at ever increasing intervals. Beyond that, local wildlife snuffled and scurried and scampered and wriggled about in the inky blackness, just out of reach of the light. It was, as T. E. Lawrence put it, ”a place seemingly inexpressible in words, and indeed in thought”.
Jorge made good on his promise and produced a large bottle of strong smelling tequila. It was the colour of buttery urine and the first few shots were bad. But somehow, the more we had, the less it burned and the better it tasted. I saw double, then triple, and moments later I went half blind. I remember excusing myself from the table, staggering left, then right, toppling a crate of beers and narrowly avoiding the glowing pit of embers. I heard laughter and raised voices and then fell face first into the road giggling and muttering ‘One tequila, two tequila, three tequila floor’.
Eventually strong hands pulled me up and plonked me back in my seat.
“Almost lost you there for a minute.”
I don’t know who said it, or how long I’d been laying out there, in the middle of the street. What I do know is that soon after, a fight broke out. But I believe only pride was hurt.
From that point, everything dissolved into a swirling palette of colour, magic, local liquor, cigarette and wood smoke, tacos, cerveza, good friends, new ideas, old songs, and lengthy discussions in Spanish, English and Gobbledygook. It went on in this fashion until the sun finally rose over the desert and lit the restless ocean. Not long after, we were all fast asleep in the sand.
…squalor, degradation, self-loathing, salt water and someone kill me now.
I spent most of the next morning wandering about aimlessly with a concrete block on my head. Huevos Rancheros, strong coffee, a lengthy dip, a suspicious cigarette, a brief scorpion hunt, and a snooze in the shade did little to drown out the Mariachi band who had somehow moved from Jorge’s car and taken up residence in my head.
Later that day we limped out of town in a lifeless convoy. Shades down. Heads bobbing in silence as we bumped, and jerked and lurched back into the barren, shimmering wilderness.
What a trip man. Canta y no llores.