This story is set thirty five years ago. The only part of Mexico that I have visited recently is Baja California, a narrow peninsula that sticks out into the Pacific Ocean, with the Sea of Cortez on the inside. There are some delightful tidal zones to explore there.
In the early seventies, Mexico became a popular destination for North American hippies. Over from the UK on a three month trip, I heard from the people I met in the US that you could get magic mushrooms in Oaxaca, southern Mexico. I shacked up with another traveler, a French Canadian called Pierre, and we decided to try our luck south of the border.
Oaxaca was a three day drive on bad Mexican roads but we were hitchhiking, so we could sleep while someone else was at the wheel. In the city of Oaxaca, we easily found a very cheap hotel with a shared bathroom. The city was fascinating – full of markets that offered a barrage of color, sound and smell that was stimulating, exhilarating and a little exhausting for westerners used to a more staid pace of life. We quickly took a bus out to a small village beside a lake. Here, another hippie told us, we would be able to get a boat across to the area where the magic mushrooms grew.
It turned out not to be so easy. Every day we asked in the local village if anyone was going over, and every day they said, no, maybe tomorrow. We were staying in a shack near the water, which was very quiet and beautiful. This was monsoon season in the jungle, so it rained every day, making the profuse vegetation around us an intense green. I didn’t mind the rain because it was so warm. But after four days we decided we would try to get to the village of Huautla on the road, since we were going nowhere staying here.
A great deal of mystique had grown up around Huautla, where a native shaman, now very elderly, had been curing sick people while under the influence of the mushrooms, for many years. Because of her legendary healing abilities, tourists had begun to visit the area to see her. More recently, hippies had been going there to sample the mushrooms, which grew wild in the jungle. The more hippies grew hip to the magic mushrooms, and flocked to the area where they grew, the more the Mexican authorities tried to prevent them. Now, we had heard, there were roadblocks, and if you didn’t look ’right,’ you would not be allowed through. Pierre definitely didn’t look right, with his long hair, and I would be unlikely to pass inspection although, as a woman, I invited less immediate suspicion.
We took a bus that dropped us off at very deserted T-junction in the jungle. We sat there for half an hour seeing no traffic at all, thinking this didn’t look hopeful. But Mexico is a country of miracles; a van drove by, turned up our road and pulled over immediately as we stood up with our thumbs out. We spoke in limping Spanish to the smiling driver, trying to explain that we would be thrown out at the road block ahead if he didn’t hide us. He knew more about it than we did; nodding knowingly, he led us to the back of the van, unlocked the big double doors and waved us inside. Grinning broadly and thanking him profusely, we settled ourselves amongst the boxes. The driver closed the door and we were ensconced in darkness.
It was a slow journey, the vehicle winding round and round, roaring in low gears as it went up and up. I wished I was able to see the scenery, but after an hour or so, the van pulled over, the engine was switched off, and we heard voices. This was the moment of truth – would the driver turn us in? Would the cops look in the back? Would they arrest us, throw us in jail, beat us up, steal all our belongings? We sat rigid and silent, barely breathing. Men laughed, a door banged, the voices receded and then returned. Another door banged. Had the driver got back into the vehicle? Nothing happened for an interminable moment. Then the engine roared into life. Pierre and I laughed quietly in the darkness, gripping each other’s hand in delight. A few miles further on, when the driver pulled over again, we both tensed. We heard fiddling with the lock, then someone flung open the big double doors, and light flooded in. We screwed our eyes, suddenly blinded, then we saw the driver standing there smiling, beckoning us out. Now that we had passed through the roadblock, we could sit in the front. I watched the steep lush green hills unfolding and refolding as we drove, the clouds rolling by overhead, the occasional startling view down to a valley far below. The road turned into dirt. Finally, high enough to be inside the cloud, we were enveloped in a wet mist that stayed with us for the rest of the ride, obscuring anything more than a couple of hundred feet ahead, although wisps of fog came and went, sometimes trailing around us, sometimes clinging to slopes above or below.
He dropped us off a few hours later at a T-junction where a shack hung onto the edge of a green clad cliff falling away into mist. We sat on rickety chairs in an open sided area, and an unsmiling woman brought us tortillas and chili for a couple of pesos. The village was a few miles further on; we were reluctant to go where there might be police, or people who would report our presence to the police. While we were eating, two young men with shoulder length hair came in, also ordering food. Since they were clearly US hippies, we were soon chatting with them.
“How long have you been here?” I asked.
“A week. We’re staying in a shack down the road.” The one that spoke was relatively clean shaven. His friend sported a short and untidy beard. They both wore jeans and T-shirts, covered by see-through ponchos to keep them dry. We came to know them as Mark and John.
“How did you find it?”
“You just walk down that road -” he waved his hand – “ and you’ll find one by the side of the road. We’re in the second one you come to, you could have the first one.”
“And ze mushrooms,” interjected Pierre with his French speaker’s lisp, “Where do you get ze mushrooms?”
We all smiled. Mark told us, “It’s easy, a man will come by your shack and offer them to you. You can get one trip for five pesos.”
“Yes,” added John, “Sometimes less. You should get four or five mushrooms for five pesos. That’s a good trip. But it depends how big they are.”
“You’ve tried them, I assume? How are they?” I wanted to hear what they thought.
“Oh, they’re great! They are a really nice trip!” said Mark with fervor, and his friend nodded, smiling.
“What about the police, have you had any trouble with them?”
Their expressions sobered as John replied, “There is a green VW beetle that occasionally drives around, with two soldiers – or police, I don’t know. You want to watch out for them.”
When we’d finished eating, we set off down the track with our packs and found the shack they’d spoken of half a mile later. It had a thatched roof, walls lined with bamboo slats, and three wooden cots placed around the walls. A couple of candle stubs remained from the last occupants. There was no door to close, and no windows, but we were pleased enough to have a dry place, and the cots made up for a lot. Since it was already getting dark, we went to bed right away. I slept well in spite of waking up several times to rain drumming on the roof, and strange noises outside – some were the eerie calls of night birds, others were someone or something moving through the undergrowth. Who knows what kind of animals were prowling around? Nothing bothered us that first night. In the morning we feasted off unleavened bread and tomatoes we had carried with us. We had no sooner finished than a brown face appeared at the door and a voice said, “Quiere ongos?”
He was small and muscular, like many of the Indians around there, and carried a two foot machete strapped to his waist. His long sleeved shirt was brown, his baggy knee-length pants a dirty white. He seemed a little anxious, which made me realize he was in danger of getting into trouble if the police or any law-abiding locals found out he was supplying the hippies. As soon as we paid the negotiated price, he vanished into the undergrowth.
Pierre and I grinned at each other conspiratorially, very pleased that we had finally obtained some of these prized mushrooms. They were in two clumps, oddly shaped brown and white, with a slightly reddish tinge, each clump no bigger than the palm of my hand. We ate them right away; they were chewy, with very little taste. Then we set out to explore the area.
Mushrooms, peyote, LSD, and other similar psychedelic drugs, were made famous in non-hippy circles by Timothy Leary, who maintained that they should be legalized because they are a useful tool for developing self-awareness. I agree with him completely. Like any drug, they can be abused, and it is never desirable to use them on a regular basis. But something really profound occurs with these drugs: you see the innate beauty in everything around you, and you experience, firsthand, the connectedness of everything.
Peyote and magic mushrooms are used by shamans in various parts of the world, understandably, since they facilitate a deeply spiritual level of consciousness. The ’normal’ limitations of our existence fall away, and we don’t recognize all of the rigid physical boundaries that usually prevent us seeing the vastness of all-that-is. We understand the magnificence of ourselves and the world around us
These mushrooms were mild, which suited me, since I didn’t want to be completely incapacitated. Very few paths allowed us into the impenetrable jungle, but the main track took us to a raging river, with a view of a waterfall that must have been more than three hundred feet high. We wandered along a stony beach, admiring the power of the white crested standing waves, curling back on themselves, the intricate beauty of the rocks on the shore and in the water, the mysteriously opaque underworld visible in eddies at the river’s edge, obscured by glinting light on the surface. These things, and many others, fascinated us for hours. This spot was a favorite playground for tripping hippies – Mark and John were here, two other men from the eastern US, and two from Mexico City who were traveling in a white VW Beetle. Along with the others, I climbed on some rocks that took us almost under the waterfall itself. Its fine spray soaked us through, which was no great problem as the air was so warm. The roaring of the glistening falling mass filled my whole body, creating an overpowering vibration in my chest, so that I felt relieved when I finally walked away down the beach. The waterfall was a stunning sight to observe from a distance, and I wanted to listen to the smaller things, such as the clear notes of birds singing. Although I rarely saw more than a flash of color, since the vegetation was so thick, their calls – a variety of whoops, warbles, cackles and songs – delighted me.
Our mushroom supplier came by every morning. On our second day, we walked a few miles down the track. Every time we heard a car approaching, which was not often, we stepped into the undergrowth until it passed, though it never turned out to be the dreaded green VW. In the evening we went to eat at the shack by the T-junction where we could also buy some bananas and tortillas to snack on during the day.
That evening when we came back from our walk, we found a young Mexican hippy in our shack. Jose had softly delicate features, quite beautiful to look at, and he seemed very pleasant. When he politely asked if he could have the third cot, we readily agreed. I was happy to have a third person around, since Pierre and I were not getting along particularly well. We chatted for a while, then as we were all climbing into our sleeping bags, about to extinguish the candles, we heard a car draw up. Seconds later, we were blinded by a bright flashlight and a harsh command in Spanish to show our identification. The policemen had found us. My heart was pounding as I stood by my cot. Would they arrest us, order us to leave the area, bundle us into their car and take us away? When I realized there were only two of them, I felt some slight relief; it evaporated quickly when I saw that they both had guns. We silently pulled out our passports and the smaller man examined them expressionlessly, his flashlight under one arm. He handed them back curtly, without any comment, and turned round to Jose. For ten minutes, they bullied him, shouting at him and pushing him around. They emptied his belongings on the cot and rifled through them. I watched in horror, wondering if Pierre and I were next in line for this treatment. But we were westerners, and the officer evidently had qualms about harassing us. They left with all the money Jose had in his wallet, without giving us another glance. As soon as their car started up and drove away, I burst out indignantly, “How can they treat you that, those fuckers! Are you all right? Did they take all your money?”
He shrugged wearily. “I am all right. I have more money.” He pulled a small wad of notes out of the front of his jeans.
“Oh, good for you! Do you keep that there as a precaution against the cops stealing from you? Those fuckers! How can they get away with that?”
He shrugged again, seeming almost embarrassed. “This is Mexico.”
I swallowed my outrage. There was a haunting sadness about him, and my ineffectual desire to help was only contributing to it.
The next day, we went to the waterfall. Mark had scored a whole bag of mushrooms which he was passing round, and I got very stoned. The endless brilliantly foaming white water mesmerized me, rushing by in a constant unmitigated frenzy, desperate to reach the sea: a very fast, unstoppable dance of power. Since my legs were not properly obeying my commands, I sat by the water, a short way from the falls, while all the others played on the rocks. I watched them in amazement, hardly able to credit that they could be so agile, sure that one of them, or all of them, would fall in. Occasionally I was distracted by elaborate patterns and delicate colors on the rocks around me, or the sensation of a pebble in my hand. Because I was sitting further from the fall than anyone else, I was the first to see the two policemen walking towards us. The sound of their car had been swallowed by the roar of the frantic water. I glanced anxiously at my friends, leaping around on the rocks, quite unaware of the menace approaching. How could I warn them without attracting attention to myself? Then the smaller of the two, the same rotund man with a pistol strapped to his belt who had visited us in the night, yelled some command in Spanish. The hippies all turned round, falling silent and somber. The taller of the cops, who was armed with some kind of automatic rifle, walked towards them gesturing with his weapon. He turned towards me with the same imperative movement. The rotund one, who was apparently in charge, stood with his thumbs in his belt while we slowly and reluctantly formed a line on the beach. None of us were smiling now.
Thankfully, Jose had disappeared earlier in the day. The officer quickly picked on the other two Mexican guys. He started snapping orders at the one who was carrying a shoulder bag, until he grudgingly handed it over, with a surly expression which clearly said, ‘I hate you.’ The taller policeman lifted his belongings out of the bag one by one. I saw a camera, and thought to myself, that’s a goner.
It was unpleasant to stand there helplessly watching this painful spectacle, and it seemed as though the two cops were thoroughly occupied. I was standing at the end of the line; would they really notice if I wandered away? The events of the previous night indicated they were unlikely to shoot me. If they yelled at me, I could always return. I began to step casually backwards and sideways, keeping my eye on our captors. They were very involved in what they were doing. Soon I was hidden from view in the trees. I sat down on a log to watch the proceedings from a safe distance. The other foreigners had noted my departure and one by one they followed suit, until only the two unfortunate Mexicans were left. I felt very sorry for them but there was nothing I could do. After twenty minutes or so, the soldiers left with the camera and a few of their other possessions. We all gradually wandered back to continue our frolicking by the water, a little subdued. I chatted with the man whose camera had been taken.
“Is there any possibility of getting it back? Could you make a complaint to their superiors?“ I asked.
He laughed without humor. “No, there is no chance, they would never admit it.“ His eyes narrowing with fury, he added, “They are thieving scum!” His tone held heartfelt hatred, which was less alarming to me than the deeply fatalistic hopelessness I’d felt from Jose.
We stayed two more days there, and visited the village of Huautla, but my joy in the boundless beauty around us was tainted now; I did not sleep so well at night, knowing that I might be woken at any time by the uniformed bullies. And I did not trust that the restraint they had so far exhibited with me would continue. So Pierre and I took one last trip before we said goodbye to the others, and set off down the mountain in a rattling truck.