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The Mexican Caper – 1976

pyramids

Mexico, 1976

Sunday morning, bright beautiful Mexican sunshine. Standing by the side of the road outside Guadalajara, solo hitchhiking through Mexico, thinking how easy it had been to arrive at this place. Big mistake.

For the next couple of hours, no one stopped. Mind you, it was still pretty early in the day, but one of the great hazards of hitchhiking is sooner or later a waiting game must be played.

I was totally burnt out- crispy in fact. I hadn’t had any decent sleep for over three days (one night on the train partying with the Americans from Nogales to Mazatlan, another aboard the Mexican fruit truck). Road weary, non-stop movement for 3 full days and nights since leaving Tulsa, not to mention the consumption of much liquor on the train down from Mazatlan.

In other words post-toasty. Cars whizzing by at over 80 miles an hour (the normal speed limit for Mexicans). After a couple of hours, I became despondent, and wondered what in the hell I was doing in the middle of no-man’s land when I could easily be sitting by the sea in Puerto Vallarta.

I came to a realization: I was in Mexico, enjoying my adventures, and after all, what was the rush? I didn’t care if I had to walk to Mexico City- without a schedule to keep, I started walking down the road…

Out of nowhere, a tall Mexican-Indian walked up to me. He started rambling at a rapid fire pace in Spanish (whereas my vocabulary limited to “beer”, “washroom”, “water” and “thanks”). He had the wildest eyes, a special fire seemed to burned inside of them. It felt a scene from the pages of Carlos Castenada (which I was reading at the time) and here was Don Juan come to life!

Tried as I might to communicate, all to no avail. I did catch on that he felt hitchhiking would be better down the road a piece. So I flipped my oversized pack onto my back and started trucking. I walked for about a mile, things were getting pretty hot.

Suddenly, a car stopped about a quarter mile up the road. I figured they would take off as soon as I ran toward it, an old hitchhiking joke some drivers like to pull. But they backed up the car, and as I climbed aboard, a more grateful passenger they had not met.

It was a small car, and there were already four young Mexican males inside. I had to put the pack on my lap, but didn’t care, because I was headed toward another destination. The great affair is to move, according to an old traveller’s yarn.

Communicating was difficult at first, until someone tried on Latin/English. It wasn’t so bad, as we communicated half Mexican-half English. It seemed they had just come from Puerto Vallarta, which he described as fantastic. And the good news was that they were going to Mexico City; in fact, they all lived there.

One of the guys handed me a cigarette. “No fumas”, I said, casually handing it back.

They started to laugh, and of course, I didn’t get the joke. As it turned out, it wasn’t a cigarette at all, but a joint that had been cleverly rolled in papers with fake cigarette filters printed on them to look like cigarettes.

“This is to fool the Federales,” said Alfredo, the one who could speak some English and seemed to be the ring leader.

And this wasn’t your average cucaracha. Oh no, this was the notorious Acapulco Gold, Michoacan Mex, Pueblo Red. After a few puffs, it was goodby John, my head’s gone. I thought, I’m in Mexico, and it’s only polite to act as the locals do. After all, I’m an ambassador representing my country.

We sped on through the countryside, and in my reefer daze, found the landscape most peculiar. Maybe it was the smoke, but it seemed to me that the hills were shaped like pyramids? They weren’t really round, they were more pointed. Maybe these hills were really ancient pyramids? This was, after all, Aztec country, and the possibilities seemed endless. Reading Carlos Casteneda and Don Juan provided fertile ground for metaphysical thinking, and who was I to argue with a Yaqui Way of Knowledge?

Onward we drove the afternoon, passing Mexican villages and towns. Soon, I could tell we were on the outskirts of a great city. The road turned into a four-lane freeway, and we climbed over a high mountain pass. Mexico City sits on an extinct volcanic lake bed, and the people who live there are truly living on the edge.

As we neared the top of the pass, there was a delay in the traffic. Ahead, a car was ablaze, and as we passed by, it looked pretty grim for the anyone aboard. This seemed to quiet everyone in the car, and we rolled right passed that tragedy into the great city in silence.

And a great city it was. In 1976, Mexico City was already fairly bursting at the seams. I was fortunate to arrive on a Sunday, the holy day, when the city was relatively calm.

I didn’t have a clue where I was going to stay in town (without  itinerary or travel guide book). I asked Alfredo about a hotel, and he just laughed and mumbled something in Spanish. We pulled up to an imposing 5 story building at the end of an unpaved subdivision, which I presumed was a hotel. As we got out of the car, there was a brief firework display over the neighbourhood. The scene was pretty surreal, in light of all the travelling I’d done of late. After smoking weed all day, my brain had switched to auto-pilot, and I was having a difficult time processing my environment.

Alfredo grabbed my pack and I asked if this was a hotel. He laughed again and said: “Esta mi casa,” or something to that effect. I knew casa meant home (I actually was picking up Spanish quite quickly, as I am fluent in French). So, it appeared I would be the guest of Alfredo in this luxurious palace on the foothills overlooking the city.

I was shown through the mansion that would be my home for the next two weeks.  I was soon shown to my room, which was quite posh, all to myself, complete with traditional furniture and Mexican crafts, an ensuite bath, with a toilet that was reputed to be the best one in the house, and a hot shower. For a road-weary traveler, this was a different slice of paradise.

I awoke the next morning feeling quite refreshed, considering I spent about 12 hours sleeping. Alfredo came in and led me to the kitchen, which was the main gathering place for the family and the center of life in the house. Alfredo had four sisters and two brothers; his father was a wealthy industrialist who ran a furniture factory. Alfredo’s job was to hustle around for his father, making deliveries and picking up documents.

A giant table on one side of the large room for eating. A big stove where pots of something delicious seemed to be bubbling. I was a little late for breakfast, but Alfredo’s step mother cooked me up something anyhow. I ate some righteous meals in that kitchen, real down home Mexican food, and there was always something to eat, even when we came in at two in the morning after partying half the night.

Thus began my time in the big city in this very comfortable mansion. I was given a tour of the facilities; the place was enormous, two squash courts, on the roof, a garden terrace featuring a swimming pool with a great view of the city, which could only be seen on clear days (probably about one quarter of my time in the city).

Mexico City was a bustling place, full of activity. Driving around town with Alfredo was always an adventure. This was my first real experience in a Third World capital, where the rule of the road seems to be: no rules. A two lane street always expanded to fit at least three cars and about five motorcycles. The roundabouts us off in any direction and was especially invigorating, and we came within inches of cars on all sides. They didn’t need amusement parks; driving was exhilarating and death-defying.

I was able to see quite a lot of the city as Alfredo made his rounds. I convinced him I was interested in archaeology, so he took me to the great Museum of Archaeology. It featured a waterfall in centre courtyard, and more Aztec, Mayan and other native artifacts than I could imagine. This piqued my curiosity about the Maya, the Indian group who built pyramids as fantastic as those in Egypt. On this and later adventures, I would visit the great temples of Palenque, Tikal and Copan, which convinced me the Maya were fascinating characters.

Mexico City had its share of problems, and I shudder to think what it must be like today. There was abject poverty, which I seemed to become imperious to; it was overwhelming and quite easy to become cynical as a defence mechanism. When one drives through mile after mile of barrios, the problems of the Third World seem far removed from those of developed nations.

We did many other interesting things, including climbing a volcano high above the city. At the top, we looked down into the belly of the beast, a dry bed of a great lake. I believe we were about 13,000 ft above sea level, and at twilight, Alfredo, his companions and I gazed down upon the great city. I remember thinking how vast LA seemed from high above the city after dark, as the lights seemed to go on forever. Mexico City made LA look seem like a borough from the top of the volcano. I can’t imagine how they fit more people in, but still they come from the countryside, trying to strike it rich in the big smoke.

We also toured the great Aztec pyramids of Teotihuacán, also above the city. We made sure to visit at full moon, which added to the special effects sound and light show. To the east stood the pyramid of the Sun; to the west, the pyramid of the moon. In between were the remnants of a great city, decimated by the conquistadors. I was captivated by the sight of the pyramids, and although I had not gazed upon the great pyramids of Cheops in Egypt, I thought these must be at least as impressive.

Alfredo was the perfect host, taking me out into the countryside and going out of his way to show the gringo what the region had to offer. One Sunday, we drove down to the stunning city of Cuernavaca, capital of the ancient Kings, in full bloom, flowers everywhere, and beautiful cafes in the city centre. We visited his friends in a very swank home surrounded by walls (in the Third World, walls are a sign of wealth, used for privacy and also to keep the vermin out). Cuernavaca was one of the most beautiful places I visited in Mexico, and is favoured by city dwellers as it sits at a higher elevation, a bit cooler and a lot quieter. On that Sunday, it was very crowded, but also, quite exotic.

Searching for Don Juan

I decided to do some research on where to go next in Mexico, instead of simply wandering about. Although I was welcome to stay with Alfredo and his family as long as I pleased, (they adopted me as one of the family), the city was closing in on me. As in LA, thick clouds of smog, mostly from cars but also from industry, obscured the skyline. This cannot be a healthy situation, I thought. And while lounging by the pool reading Carlos Castenada was fairly pleasing to the senses, it wasn’t quite the same action as being on a beach.

Of course, the possibilities for beach lounging were endless in Mexico. But my desire was to get back to the Caribbean, and my mind kept playing back scenes from the beaches of Jamaica. Scoping out my map, I noticed the Yucatan Peninsula was actually on the Caribbean coast. And lo and behold, Jamaica was the next land mass due east. This has got to be the place, I decided, so I made plans to head out of the city to Merida, capital of the Yucatan, and on to Isla Mujeres.

I asked Alfredo to call the train station to determine when trains departed for Merida. He informed me that the train left everyday at seven, and that I could buy my ticket at the station, no problemo. Famous last words…

Finally, departure day. The family cooked up a special meal in my honour, which was touching. Hugs and kisses all around, and soon my bag was packed into Alfredo’s Volks van.Three of his sidekicks accompanied me to the station. I felt like I had made some very good friends in a short two week span, and was sad at the thought of my departure- sweet sorrow indeed. But I was determined to get to the beach, which fueled my resolve as we entered the train station.

As fate would have it, the attendant at the ticket counter informed us that the train was long gone, and the next one tomorrow was at six, not seven. So much for Mexican time, but of course, the main saying in Mexico is manana, so I wasn’t really worried.

Next, Alfredo announced that he and his three companions were headed south deep into the state of Puebla that night to pick up a supply of motta, or marijuana. I really wasn’t given any option in the matter, for they were quite literally headed south from the train station. The journey took about six hours into a very remote region of Mexico.

Well, I figured these guys knew what they were about, and so “andele.”  They suggested amphetamines to keep me awake during the long drive. I don’t indulge in chemicals, and even when we cruised from Detroit to LA, I resisted taking the speeders, and stayed up all night without difficulty.

However, they were pretty insistent that I swallow a couple of their pills, and who was I to argue at this point. I later realized I had actually been drugged with a sedative, probably to keep me from remembereing the route south. So, after about a time, I passed out in the back of the volks, and slept like a log.

I awoke some hours later, and the van was still. The door slid open, and we were greeted by a very old Indian, straight out the pages of the Castenada book I was reading. He had long straight white hair, wore a cowboy hat, and had a gunbelt that would’ve done Wyatt Earp proud. To top it off, we were in the bottom of a very deep canyon, on the edge of a clear running stream.I knew this because we were under a full moon, and the entire scene was a seductive blend of show and light.

After the customary greetings, I was introduced to our host. He spoke very softly in Spanish, and was glad I was Canadian and not American. Mexicans really love Canadians, but are cool to indifferent about Americans. As the full moon rose above the canyon wall, it occurred to me that I was meant to be on a train headed to Merida, and now, I was starring in a western movie!

The old Indian slowly removed the pearl-handled six shooter out of its holster and fired two rounds into the air. The blast reverberated through the canyon, and when it grew quiet, the silence was deafening. We marched along the river toward a small hut. All the while, my head was splitting from a nasty migraine headache, probably as a result of the “speed pill” I had taken earlier.

Inside the hut, we sat in a circle, our gaze intensifying as the Yacqui stoked a small fire on a primitive stove, our only source of light along save the full moon streaking though the front door, and a small flashlight being held by one of our troupe members.

What happened next was remarkable. The old Indian picked up out a burlap sack lying against the wall and emptied its content on the little shack’s floor in front of us- high-grade Mexican Puebla reefer. My eyes bugged out as the giant buds were spread out before me; it turned my eyes red just lookin’ at it!

The boys quickly moved into action to pack up the weed. They employed water to make it more malleable, and proceeded to manufacture about five bricks, with the aid of a homemade press. When this was accomplished, we marched back to the van by moonlight, and removed the panelling from inside roof; the van was soon stuffed to the rafters with contraband.

Suddenly, I felt more than a little uncomfortable being in a Third World country with a reputation for locking gringos away, participating in this clandestine operation; I hoped my boys knew their business. After all, I rationalized, they all came from prominent backgrounds, and as the elite get special treatment in Mexico, what me worry?

Soon, we bid our fare thee wells to the Yaqui-Don Juan lookalike, who had been paid the ridiculously low sum of $100 for his crop. Of course, this was much more than he would have received if he’d have grown corn or some other crop, but I felt that the deal was too one-sided, with our boys coming out miles ahead. Third World economics 101.

By now, I was wide awake for the journey back. We bumped our way along the canyon, and a couple of hours later, came down out of the mountains. We could see lights below, and when we reached the main highway some time later, we were forced to stop at a military check-point. Security was no tighter in this region than anywhere else in Mexico, as military checks were a common phenomenon throughout the country.

I decided to play possum and pretend I was asleep, and was given a wake up shove by a rifle-wielding soldier. I sat up on a back bench, and intently watched as two soldiers scoped out the van. Of course, the boys weren’t exactly neat and tidy when they packed the motta into the van. The soldiers soon found seeds on the van floor, and held them up all to witness. They asked me about them, but I pretended to be very sleepy, and merely shrugged, like I didn’t have a clue what they were on about.

Behind my blasé exterior, my mind was racing: busted in Mexico, tossed in jail for life, through away the key- all because I missed my train to Merida! One of our compatriots slowly excited the van and put his arm around one of the soldiers. The pair walked behind the van and and a conversation ensued in hushed tones; he re-emerged and said we had to pay a “duty” on the spot.

This is going to be a big shakedown, I thought, as I prepared to sign over my meagre supply of travellers checks. But amazingly, all the soldiers demanded was 100 pesos, or 20 pesos per; this was the equivalent of less than two dollars! I quickly got my cash out, paid our fine, and were on our way.

We all breathed a sigh of relief, and drove on into the dawn toward Mexico City. There were no more roadblocks, and by daybreak, I jumped in the front seat to co-pilot into the city. We arrived back at Alfredo’s, and the whole family came out to see the sight. Here was the Canadian who was supposed to have departed, returning somewhat bleary-eyed back to the ranch at 6am!

Alfredo concocted some story about the train and how we had stayed up all night to party. So it was back up to the room I had recently vacated for a nap. Alfredo, however, was gone, as he had to divvy up the quarry with the guys.

That afternoon, we had a final reunion before I was set to catch the train (this time, I would get there early). The guys were pretty excited about how the deal went down, and were happy with the role I had played. I realized that they were actually pretty scared during the encounter with the soldiers, that it was a pretty close shave after all for all of us. This didn’t make me feel great, but at least it was over and done with. As a parting gift, they provided me with a bag of some premium buds from the crop- enough to last a few weeks in the Yucatan.

At last, I boarded the train, third-clas, to Merida, and as we pulled out of the station, I breathed a sigh of relief that I wasn’t sitting in some dark Mexican jail, waiting for the bribe money from home to arrive for my bailout!

“I’m the innocent bystander
Somehow I got stuck
Between a rock and hard place
Send lawyers, guns and money, the shit has hit the fan…”
Warren Zevon

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