There is only one way to sleep in the coach class of a modern aircraft. Face down on the tray table with your spine curved unnaturally like a serpent, and your knees pulled up into the fetal position in some vain attempt to recapture the forgotten comforts of the womb. If there are no disgruntled infants near by, and you have enough alcohol in your blood, you can have some of the greatest sleep of your life. This is how I spent my entire journey eastward across the bottom half of the country, zipping over forgotten mesas and landscapes stolen from the imagination of John Ford.
I awoke five hours into the six hour flight feeling like a junkie on the third day of rehab. My shirt was soaked in the toxins of two days of teenage drug excess and my head had swollen to the size of a large pumpkin. Being unleashed on the godless streets of L.A. at age 17 with cash and a fake I.D. belonging to one Melvin Rodriguez, had set me on a path for total self destruction. It was a senior trip for my older peers and I had tagged along to learn a few things about the world. This one weekend of chemical warfare on my formative body may be the reason to this day with a full beard I resemble Gimli Son of Gloin. My parents had foolishly funded this trip on the condition that I would end the festivities early and join them for a family vacation in the Yucatan. This is the reason I had taken those last three shots of So Co at 5:45 AM, saluted the few remaining degenerates, and headed out for L.A.X. I told the kindly old codger sitting next to me that flying from L.A. to Cancun hungover is like being whipped while you have the flu. His cold blank stare in return could only have implied total agreement.
Or perhaps not, perhaps he knew. Maybe he could smell my sins and disapproved of my entire existence. My underpants were after all filled with contraband of varying degrees of criminality. Nothing dangerous mind you, but too much cash for international travel, and medications that could be deemed experimental by some foreign governments. This was the pre 9-11 golden age of travel, where a man could walk through airport security without removing his briefs and passing under the eyes of an S.S. Officer, who pierces your every orifice while seductively rubbing the trigger of his A.K. 47. I made it unscathed through Mexico customs somehow declaring nothing but my diarrhea to the Agent. His cold blank stare could only have implied some language barrier to my hilarity.
I was too busy looking for the bar to think it strange that my parents were not waiting outside customs. The only cure for The Sickness induced by strong beverages is even stronger beverages. I also had to try out the powers of my pubescent goatee on these foreign liquor peddlers. If there was any trouble I could always flash my legal identification indicating my age as 22. What self-righteous Mexican is going to question the credentials a pale Chicano from Virginia named Melvin Rodriguez? Little did I know that not even the most militant bartender would card a 12 year old in this country. Mexico is a place so hard that even a child sometimes needs a stiff drink to forget the troubles of the day and wash down the dusty grit of hard work.
The special of the day was Tecate in a bottle and a shot of tequila. Tequila comes from the blue agave plant and this fiery concoction will cure anything from the common cold to gonorrhea. I slapped down a twenty and felt like a gringo saying "Especial!" This king of a man did not stop bringing especials for a few hours. I never bothered converting my money for this trip because of the way this bartender looked at Andrew Jackson like some Hollywood Jesus. I also didn't bother worrying about my missing parents during these forgetful hours of joy, as they were obviously side tracked by some tourist trap horseback riding boat expedition, or at the edge of a savage village trying to convert the natives.
From my barstool lookout I could see the pick-up area of the airport and watched with mild amusement the thousands of travelers headed for their big tropical expedition. Ten thousand versions of the same family passed without sign of my strange blood line. They would be the same as all the others with just one unnameable thing violently askew. Your typical faceless automatons, but with an intense light of dysfunction burning within, and immediately recognizable as alien in any environment. I waited and I drank but saw no sign of this vicious light.
It took about four hours of this happy malfeasance before the fearful doubts began to grow in my mind. My parental units were obscenely late picking me up and Northwest Airlines only made one flight into this city per day. My parents worked for this company, they certainly knew the time of my arrival, they knew the day, yet they were suspiciously absent. It dawned on me that I was in the land of a people whose grandfathers use to bathe in blood and decapitate their in-laws for sport. No not That. They outlawed That years ago. My family was most likely alive; they just were not coming to pick me up.
The key to this problem was that I had no idea what hotel those neglectful bastards were staying in. This was early 1995 and cell phones were still the size of a small space station and only the most hardcore yuppies carried them. I had attempted to use the Mexican payphone but it was covered in strange dials and buttons and may have been a time machine for all the sense I could make out of it. I had no one to call anyways. My entire family was in downtown Cancun somewhere drinking virgin margaritas out of the cleavage of midgets and buying Sci-Fi spray paint art, while I sat abandoned like some disheveled wretch of a drunkard in a foreign airport. I decided it was a good time to consult a cigarette and think over my predicament.
I learned early in life that the best method for transporting marijuana illegally across international borders is in a pack of Camel Wide cigarettes. You just empty out the toxic narcotic of evil, preferably over a toilet, and refill the empty cylinders with your herb of choice. Then simply place a thin layer of tobacco on top, re-pack, and you've got at least one ounce, of high grade, legal intoxication. After arriving at your final destination, use your evolved paranoiac sense of righteousness to identify a suitable locale for such a controversial activity, break off the unnecessary filter, and banish those demons of doom from your mind. Remember, the proper way to use illicit drugs in public is nonchalantly. Do not hide like a diseased leaper.
I walked outside into Mayan country for the first time and the humidity hit me in the face like a wet diaper. All I could see was a decrepit parking garage and the glowing tree tops of a surrounding wilderness. My nose was blissfully clogged with the thick earthy smell only found south of Texas. I wandered slowly away from my fellow abandoned travelers and reached into my pants for the disguised pack. As I pulled out the first sweet stogy and lit up, I cringed at the sight of a shiny yellow pill hiding at the bottom of the pack. I knew this pill, I also knew who had placed it there, and I knew with shamanic precision the consequences that were about to be painfully afflicted upon me by this laughing yellow bastard. I ate the mescaline with shame and realized that my problems were just beginning.
It wasn’t the drugs that scared me. I come from a long line of entheogenic drug abusers, the 10% of Northern Cheyenne blood fighting for power in my white body was kept alive by these ancient remedies. Plants containing high amounts of psychoactive entheogens have been used safely for tens of thousands of years by the oldest known native cultures of the globe as a medicine for the spirit. I have as much fear of carrots. Never trust a group of people who demonize an ancient plant while slanging the latest narcotic concoctions of a profit motivated corporation, who will cure your insanity, sadness, social retardation, and even those pesky leg twitches, if you just buy their drugs and don't mind anal leakage or the possibility of your penis falling off. This wasn’t an action of carnal lust for melting clouds and Journey laser light shows, my soul was lost, and I desperately needed some wisdom of the ages. I owed a debt to the Karma Beasts for that greasy stack of cash stuffed in my crotch. My crimes had caught up with me and my missing parents were the first blow in a severe beating to come, I was sure of it.
The one thing I had going for me was my Sony cassette walkman. I had but one tape that summed up the entire history of rock music as of 95'. Side A was The Beatles’ White Album and side B was split between Thriller and Run DMC’s Raising Hell. I finished my smoke deciding to take John’s advice to Prudence of looking around, round, round, round. I had roughly an hour to get somewhere before my vision quest began so I decided to investigate the strange Herbie inspired Yucatan Transportation System.
I forgot my troubles for a minute as I watched multi-colored Volkswagen Bug Taxis swerve in and out of formation to The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill. If lives really had soundtracks, the scene outside of this airport was reserved for The Beatles. An entire city of Beetle taxis piloted by the angry gnome people of the jungle, who cursed all day and insulted each other in hypnotic rhythm. My only experience with hailing taxis came from movies like Taxi Driver, so I walked up to the street grabbing my crotch and giving a fierce Travis Bickle whistle.
My jaw dropped as a lime green 1968 Superbeetle screeched to a halt at my feet. I heard the Tito Puente blasting down the road long before this vision appeared and enthusiastically jumped in the back of what appeared to be some kind of Cheech and Chong inspired submarine. The driver was most certainly the lost Latino cousin of Buddy Hackett. I had no doubt that the song was Mambo Diablo. A nasty joke by that no good Hackett driver no doubt.
He gave me a sickly look saying, “Donde amigo?”
Donde amigo indeed I thought. This question had not crossed my mind in the few moments it had taken me to decide to flee the airport. I let the mambo guide me.
I said it without thinking. A word I was taught a few hours earlier to use in case of extreme emergency. In hindsight I realized you should never trust the wisdom of someone who refuses to tell you the meaning of words they demand you use. This caused a vile twitch in the driver’s neck and he turned slowly grinning like a mythical demon.
"Si Mr. Gringo.” he laughed.
He punched the vintage bug into gear and we sped off in a haze of diesel fumes and Mambo beats. What had I just told this man? Why had he smiled like that and licked the edges of his moustache like a pre-war pimp? How long was I going to be trapped in this Nazi hybrid with a deranged Hidalgo Hackett at the wheels, driving to some destination sold to me by a suburban dope addict? Was this really the appropriate time for confronting the Karma Beasts, in a foreign land, with a head full of concentrated peyote?
Whether I wanted it to be or not now was the time. I sat back and laughed along with the beat that lead us deeper and deeper into the jungle. Large tropical bugs bounced off the car like small seagulls as Senior Hackett maneuvered the lime beetle into the enclosing jungle with machete precision. I was starting to regret not paying attention in those middle school Spanish classes. How do I ask him where the fuck are we going? Donde a chinga… Damnit! It was no use. I was drifting into hopeless negativism. The intense humor of this situation was slipping out of my grip. I spent a few tense moments seriously contemplating if it was the drugs, or sound logic, that was insisting I bail out of this psychedelic death Herbie at 40 KPH. My plunge into madness was cut short by mi amigo Hackett.
“Do you have money Mr. Gringo?”
How could I have been so foolish? Of course the Mexican Buddy Hackett speaks English. The large scar on his forehead indicated that he could have been the Shaman of Light I had been searching for since I left Salt Lake City a week earlier. A common man bestowed with the ancient wisdom of his fathers by surviving one of God’s randomly placed lightning bolts. Only one sent to lead me would drive a lime green Superbeetle and blast Guantanamera at ear splitting levels.
“Si Amigo, bastante para el viaje”
I pulled the phrase from some dark corner of my mind. The mescaline was defiantly taking over as we pulled out of the dark jungle and into the flaming coastal sunset. “Yes, enough for the trip,” is what I had told the man. But what trip? The driver seemed to know. Watching the sun sink into the ocean on hallucinogenic drugs is like watching a unicorn give birth. A painfully unique experience, especially when Quimbara is playing. He shot mysterious glances at my glazed glee. Night approached so I decided to speak.
“Where are we headed Hackett, and what is all this?”
“To the Lady Maria Mr. Gringo, like you spoke.” He smugly replied.
“Who is this Maria? What does she want with innocent gringos? I asked.
“You requested the company of Maria Sabina when you said the word Teonanácatl, I am a driver, I drive where I am told, I know not the evil desires of your heart.”
“Fair Enough” I said, “Lead on strange Hackett.”
“Who is this Hackett?!” He barked.
“He’s a hero in the States.” I lied. “A racing champion and comedian, who you resemble Senior Hackett.”
“My name is Oscar!” he scowled.
“As you wish Oscar. Who is this Maria and what does she do?” I asked humbly.
“The ceremony will cost you sixty dollars.” he said, giving me a yellow smile.
“The Ceremony of Teonanácatl.” He replied.
“And what is the meaning of Teonanácatl?” I asked nervously.
“If you know not, I am forbidden to tell you.” His smile faded as he said this and he began to slow down the car.
“Oh I know” I lied. “I’m just curious to hear the proper Mayan translation.”
“This tradition has been preserved by the Mazatecs.” He said proudly. “In our language Teonanácatl means Mushroom of the Gods.”
Mushroom of the Gods I thought with terror, Mother of God! Even the most inexperienced entheo-botanist knows it is never wise to combine the powers of the intergalactic mushroom with those of the earthly cactus. Nor is it wise to be headed to see an honest to god shaman with an unpaid karma debt. Mexico is the ancient hub of Shamanism on this side of the globe. It is the oldest religious practice, and the most intense. The fact that I was headed to see a female shaman doubled my fear. Although most scholars believe we live in an ultra-modernized society that would not allow a true shaman to exist, if there were a few remaining, they would undoubtedly be female, and residing in ancient shamanic capitals like Siberia, Australia, and Mexico.
As darkness crept over us we left the glorious coast and began climbing steadily uphill. We passed through a few small and harmless forests before entering into what could only have been a city. I didn’t come to this conclusion with my eyes but with my nose. The pleasant smell of earth was suddenly replaced with the stagnant reak of humans. Despite my young age and suburban upbringing, I had a relatively well rounded worldview by this time as the result of a lot of traveling. I was born and raised in rural Utah but had seen and experienced the hidden ghetto wonderlands of Philly, Queens, and D.C. long before I ever kissed a girl or smoked a cigarette. You have few remaining delusions when as a child you witness a grown man relaxing in a puddle of his own piss, shooting smack and singing old timey railroad tunes on a street corner. But I was a new explorer to the third world ghetto. This place was far more primitive. Nothing was to be seen of modern architecture. It was a strange tin Legoland bursting out of the jungle like a bacterial growth. The only thing I could recognize on a surreal cognitive level was a familiar blue square of light flickering like a ghost in these mysterious structures. Television. What could these poor bastards be watching I thought? Price is Right? Their walls were made out of mud and old Tecate billboards, yet was it possible they could still enjoy the antics of Toni Macelli and Captain Kirk. What kind of god would allow satellites to project Beverly Hills 90210 into a black and white T.V. sitting on the dirt floor of some shantytown condo?
I had little time to ponder these thoughts as we came to a screeching halt on the outskirts of town. A shack stood apart from the others and with its jungle backdrop appeared like a warped plantation mansion in this place. Someone important lived there.
My driver, a man of few words said “Eighty.”
“You said sixty!” I argued.
“Yes, twenty for the ride Gringo! Sixty for Maria.”
Something seemed criminal about paying to see a shaman. Had this luxury ghetto penthouse been built from the wallets of gullible gringos looking for escape from the shame of their race? The fresh goat head staked in front of the house told me I was dealing with some serious customers, and at the least, I was in for a good show. I paid my man and waited in the car as he ran inside to make some sort of explanation no doubt.
“I’ve abducted a child of the white devil muttering about the holy Teonanácatl and laughing at out goat head landscaping. We must drug him, and pilfer his cash and designer drug loaded undergarments.” This had to be what he was telling this Maria, apparent queen of the Yucatan Billboard People. The driver clearly resented me for those Buddy Hackett comments and was planning to do me in. My only hope was to escape into the jungle and pray my raw courage and Boy Scout training pulled me through to the other side.
Before I could make my move Oscar came out of the hut smiling that villainous saffron grin, saying I was in luck and that Maria would see me right away. I exited the Mambo Bug with great fear. He took off without a word and left me standing in the dust to face my eternal fate. The wind had picked up and was tossing the encroaching jungle like a rough green sea. The chrome house bounced happily around in this chaos, and I desperately tried to purge my mind of the lingering Mambo rhythms so I could make any kind of respectable approach. Suddenly the wild goat head spun around and spoke to my mind.
“Why have you come here?” It demanded.
“I was following the path.” I replied.
“You may proceed.” It said gravely.
Well, I had the talking goat head’s blessing which was all I needed to approach with confidence. I was perfectly aware this had only occurred in my mind, what Mexican goat head speaks fluent English with a Brooklyn accent, but I decided it was a good sign either way. The door was black, and hung awkwardly in a hole far too large for it. Knocking seemed inappropriate somehow so I pushed my way in.
The house was a box with three walls concealing a large ominous cave. The only light came from a small fire at the cave entrance silhouetting three female figures who sat like monks in the lotus position. The air was thick with intoxicating incense my soul had never known. It pleasantly filled my nose and mouth which hung in total awe. Here were Macbeth’s weird sisters in the flesh. They had long black hair that hung over their lifeless faces like an old rug. Each wore a simple white dress that had never been cleaned and concealed a shriveled body that no man would ever want to see. Their age was unknowable. What horrible visions were they about to reveal to me? Could my feeble mind handle this experience or would it be crushed in a meteor shower of cosmic revelation?
The eldest woman spoke to me in my language without speaking. “I am Maria Sabina. I am the granddaughter of an endless line of shamans which stretches back to Eve. Our ancient wisdom has been preserved in the hills of Mexico for thousands of years. This is the power that taught man to speak and to think. It has survived all the great wars and the atrocities of both the Spaniards and the Gringos. Is it true that you seek this wisdom?" She asked opening her eyes for the first time and I felt them grind against the back of my skull.
“Es verdad” I said softly.
The eldest stood and floated back into the cave. The younger apprentices rose in a trance and slowly approached me, taking me gently by the hands and leading me back to the cave. My heart was rising slowly up my esophagus with each step closer to the cave and I realized these women only held my hands to keep me from tearing open my throat and letting it free.
The women knelt me in the center of the cave, never releasing their soft grip on my hands and singing like pixies. The eldest lifted the pot reverently and floated over to stand in front of us. She removed the toadstool lid to reveal a thick brown stew, dotted with little floating islands of grayish-white mushroom tops. My eyes instinctively closed as Maria came closer and I heard an incomprehensible chant that eased my terror as she brought the steaming pot to my lips.
The first sip was a warm chocolaty explosion of alien tastes and sensations that my tongue had not known in this life, and was only relatable to a cup of real hot chocolate on the coldest of childhood sledding days. The second sip was like being hit by a dump truck dropped from the top of Mt. Chimborazo. I forgot all that I ever was and my identity was stripped down to a meatball of matter and thought. The third and final sip caused my brain to disconnect from the spinal column, leaving a lifeless ball of flesh on the ground and rising to the limits of the cave ceiling. My minds eye shook open like the hatch of a rusty sea barge. All that remained of the cave was the glowing writing and drawings on the walls. They began to pass over me with increasing speed and rapidly changing color. Words and pictures morphed smoothly into geometric shapes and astrological symbols as my velocity or theirs reached the speed of light.
With a blinding flash I found my brain remorsefully back in its carcass of an earthly cage. I was alone, puffing and cursing up a steep and lonesome jungle path. The deafening silence of this trip was suddenly filled with the noise of the wild night. My eyes nearly burned out as I burst out of the dark tree tunnel and was assaulted by an enormous moon reflecting structure.
All I could see was stairs. I knew that it must be an ancient Mayan temple, but because of its size, it appeared to be an infinitely long wall of stairs. I climbed, like any man would. It was like ascending a fast downward escalator that was made of monstrous stone steps. My body should have been physically exhausted at this point, but I was driven upward with a fever I could never explain or justify. After about twenty minutes of fierce labor I flopped myself on the summit like a Chinese beggar.
I looked around me and saw that I stood on the only object in a dark engulfing forest. A simple six foot structure stood atop this lonely temple like a glorified pill box. I openly trespassed into the resting place of Xochipilli. He towered over me, a frighteningly real stone effigy, smiling casually, and holding a long feathered pipe in his outstretched hands.
“Take this Nathaniel, and know.” He laughed.
I took, and I knew. The pipe felt like what you might expect three feet of hollowed out stone to feel like.
“Why have you come here Nathaniel?” He demanded.
“I was following the path.” I remembered.
“Nonsense!” he cried. “You travel no path! You come seeking the Cosmos with an unpaid debt to Earth, do not speak to me like a headless goat! Penance comes swiftly, and from the east.”
The first blow came swiftly, and from the east. My heightened consciousness sensed the violent disruption and I turned in slow motion to witness the menacing arc of a police baton. I ducked the first attack using Tae Kwon Do training I must have absorbed during youthful Karate Kid marathons. This insolence was repaid with an expertly placed rifle barrel to the soft tissue between my second and third vertebrae. I collapsed to the floor in time to witness La Policia bust into the sacred temple like a pack of rapid dingo gone mad with the smell of baby flesh. After a few relatively painless boots to the face I blacked out and was spared the agony of witnessing such a brutal scene in the house of Gods.
The most insane aspect of U.S. drug policy is not the hypocritical moral legislation, it is not the racially biased enforcement practices, the daily Fourth Amendment rape, nor is it even the millions of American drug fiends forced into a life of crime simply because they like to get high. It is a fundamentally corrupt system because it allows for the creation and propagation of drug profiteers. Any juvenile with a few bucks and a healthy capitalist spirit, can cut one pound of Arizona dirt-weed, with two pounds of catnip, and sell it piece by piece to unsuspecting Los Angeles teens for a profit margin unfathomable in any other business. I had successfully turned three-hundred of my parent’s honest dollars into six-thousand dollars in a matter of days and I felt like Benedict Arnold. The Karma Beasts had been hot on my trail ever since I left that pet store, and here they were, in the form of El Loco Policia Dingo, taking no prisoners and cruelly devouring the hearts of any living thing in their path.
I awoke on the ground like Bottom, with the words of Shakespeare in my mind. “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was.” I opened one eye and looked into a vividly blue sky. The peaceful rhythms of the sea were soothing my battle scared body. My left eye was completely swollen and sealed shut with blood. I was not a doctor but one or two ribs were definitely broken. I was lying comfortably on my back in what had to be sand. Blue sky, sand, surf, these were not the loathsome characteristics of a Mazatec dungeon.
I sat up to a beauty and pain that is uniquely Caribbean. White white sands and ridiculously blue water, accentuated by the feeling that I had a small polar bear trap attached to my lower jaw. The Karma Beasts had been kind. A few ribs, one eye, and wait for it… yup, one wallet. I dove my hand anxiously into my pants. Yes, one penis, a fat wad of drug money, one pack of Camel Wide Especials, and one passport belonging to Nathan Stevens, age 17. The twelve-hundred dollars and Melvin Rodriquez I.D. in my wallet had bought my freedom. I would have to squint for the rest of my life to see correctly, but I was alive, and not waking up on the floor of some shit reeking Mexican Jail.
It was most likely the cash, but perhaps my Latino heritage played an even bigger part in my narrow escape than I could ever imagine. Maybe these thugs didn’t want to deal with Melvin Rodriguez the son of an important Colombian Diplomat. Is it possible they were aware of Virginias close vicinity to Washington D.C. and assumed it was a land of important South American government officials? Or maybe it was the cash.
I will never know. I was hit in the gut with a sick wisdom of the events that had just transpired. The fundamental problem with third world society is that when a powerful group brutally assaults an innocent man, they stop short at the wallet and a minor beating. In my country they will find your secret crotch stash, it's the first place they look. After skinning you alive they will suck every ounce of marrow from your bones.
I spent the next few weeks drinking lime Corralejo Margaritas, trying to pick pieces of reality out of my oatmeal like recollection. If your wondering how long a teenager can last in five star hotels on the shores of the Yucatan with almost four g's and a family of raging monkeys on his back, the answer is three weeks and four days. Strangely enough, this is the exact amount of time you should let your parents think you are dead if they ever abandon you in a foreign country.