“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.
* * *
“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 pleasure.”
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.
* * *
“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.
* * *
“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.”
* * *