Monday, 2 July 2012

Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out On Death Beach

THE LITTLE PICKUP truck bounced along the potholed road beneath a midday sun devoid of pity. I sat up front behind the cab, grateful for the rush of fresh air as we picked our way along the road. Brilliant azure alternated with brilliant green as the canopy of trees flashed above us. We slowed to a halt every hundred yards to pick up more passengers en route to Zipolite: hawkers laden with wares, locals heading for town, bronzed surfers beach-bound. A latino climbed in at one stop. I thought I was feeling the heat until I saw this fellow. He swept his long hair back from his face, tying it behind his head. His tee-shirt was soaked with sweat; his face shiny with it. He looked over at me. I winked and grinned.

"Pretty hot, eh?"
He puffed and nodded "For sure."
"Where you from, man?"
"Mexico City."
I laughed "And you can't take this heat? Some Méxicano?"
"Fuck..." he wheezed, shaking his head. "It's fucking hot..."
I offered my hand.
"Mucho gusto."
"Y tu tambien..."

We chatted awhile. It takes a smoker to spot a fellow smoker, and Hector soon asked me if I wanted to come by his place on the beach and sample some hash; he'd come via the mountain village of San Jose Del Pacifico, home to the infamous Maria Sabina, High Priestess Of the Mushroom. In the 60s the likes of Jim Morrison of The Doors made a pilgrimage there to meet her and get high. Oaxacan mushrooms are reputed to be amongst the best in the world. I was tempted to head up that way myself, but Travel Fatigue had set in. But hey, give me a beautiful beach, a ball of hash, fresh fish tacos, home-made ice-cream and good company...I'm going nowhere for the forseable future, hermano. Besides, Hector had passed through and collected enough hash to keep a small army of pot-smokers going, he assured me.

Our bus ground to halt again. A lithe, handsome young black man jumped in, dragging a large package with him. He gave a broad grin and asked us how we were doing in a broad, lazy Californian accent. He was a chiropractor on his way to the Pina Palmera, a non-profit centre in Zipolite which helps disabled people with their problems; these range from people born deformed to those suffering after road accidents, as well as the old and infirm. Friends of his were volunteering there, and he invited us along for a look.

On reaching Zipolite's main junction, we bounded out of the truck. The centre was less than five minutes' walk away, set amongst beautiful gardens and thatched, whitewashed concrete huts. We followed a path to a large open-plan hut where chirpopractors from a multitude of countries were giving their time to help these Mexicans, some of whom had travelled as much as a hundred miles for treatment. Sitting there for half an hour and watching them work reaffirmed my faith in human nature. They were doing an amazing job. I laughed with one Mexican man as his younger brother was being treated. Mentally as well as physically disabled, the cheeky little bugger kept grabbing the tits of the Norwegian girl treating him. She'd gently remove his hands and continue, only for him to reach for another handful seconds later. His brother caught my eye and raised his eyebrows several times. We were both thinking the same thing, I guessed.

The American called my name and waved at the table. He got me to lie face-down and relax while he checked my spine. Rolling me onto my side, he folded limbs, pushed, popped and cracked things I'd always believed shouldn't be pushed, popped and cracked. He finally told me to lay on my back and completely relax. He took the weight of my head and rolled my neck around, fingers probing and testing.

"OK...I think your neck needs a litte adjustment. Would you like me to do this for you?"
This sounded a little like an informal legal disclaimer to me.
"It won't hurt, you just relax, and I adjust your spine for you..."
So I'm laid there, surrounded by disabled Mexicans, my head (life?) in a stranger's hands. The question I really wanted to ask was, obviously, unutterable: I won't end up in a wheelchair, will I? I closed my eyes and relaxed.
"Do it."
This could have been the end of life as I knew it. A fleeting vision flashed through my mind: my being wheeled down a ramp from a 747 at Heathrow while my parents asked me how I could have been so stupid. If I was to spend the remainder of my life in a wheelchair, you can believe that my level  of bitterness and general hatred of the world would be up there with Lieutenant Dan's in Forrest Gump. There was an audible click as he quickly twisted and pulled my head in one fluid movement. A cold sensation washed up and down my spine; my head tingled.

"All good?" the upside-down face above me asked, grinning?
I waggled my fingers.
Scrunched my toes.
Swung my legs off the table and sat up.
All still working.
"All good" I smiled back, nervously.
"You ready for that smoke, chico?" Hector laughed.
"Oh yeah..." I took a deep breath "...definitely."

It's always fortuitous to meet someone like Hector whilst on the road; the local who knows the best places to eat, the secret bars, the nicest stretches of beach. He lives on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala these days, but comes here to stock up on good hash while renewing his visa at the same time. Kill two birds with one stone(d). Leading me through town towards the beach, we stopped at El Chaman, a juice bar run by some bearded fellas he knew. I ordered a Vampiro at his urging, a delicious mix of ginger, honey, various fruits and a dash of beetroot. I'd never been a fan of beetroot when younger, but the stuff in 70s and 80s England was always the pickled variety in a jar: nasty. Eaten fresh it's a different, and delicious, story. I started eating it again a few years back. Without going into too much detail, suffice to say that I once spent an anxious Sunday afternoon in my London flat, disturbed by the dark red contents of the toilet bowl that morning. It was a few hours before I remembered I'd had beetroot with my salad the night previously; so it wasn't blood in the toilet and no, I didn't have bowel cancer. That was a relief, I can tell you.

But enough English Toilet Humour. We followed the sandy path onto the beach, avoiding the hot patches. Zipolite's beach stretches out across a 2km arc of golden sand. It's a walk through shallow water to the breaking waves, but this beach is not an ideal one to swim on. Circular currents and a deadly undertow have claimed many lives over the years. Red flags designate the safe areas, and zealous lifeguards patrol the area; these have been called into action 180 times between 2007 and 2009 alone. A week before I arrived, a newly-wed man had died in Mazunte...apparently drowning through a cramp. Being in such a beautiful place had clouded his thinking, and he had reportedly eaten lunch with a couple of beers before deciding on a swim. A tragic tale, and I can't imagine how his poor wife felt, widowed within days of marriage. And in such a lovely place.

The story made me think more about sudden death abroad. For the tourists the incident will be talked about for a while afterwards, but the holiday goes on. The locals may feel it more. A life passes for someone, but the world continues to turn. The dead man is forgotten; sometimes sooner than is seemly. I recalled my Dad telling me about the man who'd died, despite Dad's best efforts in swimming out to rescue him, on the Welsh coast some years back. People on the beach had continued enjoying their day out despite the man going under and not resurfacing, his body claimed by the sea for some days afterwards; some even sat on the sand enjoying their ice-creams and cold beers as the coastguard helicopter swept up and down the shoreline searching for signs of the unfortunate man. Shameful. The beach should clear itself within minutes as a mark of respect, in my opinion.

Hector's place was a palm-frond covered wooden shack on stilts, one of fifteen in a row right on the beach. We climbed the steps, the whole structure wobbling. Sat out of the breeze, the sun baked us. We slapped on some of the sunscreen we'd bought from the small shop at Pina Palmera: they re-sell half-empty bottles people leave behind for a few pesos. A great idea, I thought. My eyes lit up as Hector showed me his stash. A huge bag of grass, and several balls of pungent-smelling Oaxacan hash. "Oh man" I grinned "I need to be your neighbour." He rolled, and we looked out to sea. Silent for a while, it was a few joints before he spoke.

"They call this Death Beach" he said. "Best not to swim here."
I told him I'd heard that it could be dangerous, and would be swimming in the small cove at the north end of the beach, not on the main strip.
He nodded.
"I hear a man died a few weeks back in Mazunte?"
"Yes. A few die. They don't respect the sea."
"And not many are given a second chance."
He shook his head.

My head was buzzing nicely from the hash. I asked him where the owner lived, and set off to see if there was a bungalow for me. The one-handed dueno was a friendly chap, and we haggled til we reached a price we were mutually pleased with. He'd asked how long I wanted to stay, and grinned at my open-armed shrug. Quien sabe? I knew the Mexicans from the cities would be arriving in the next few weeks for their Xmas holidays, and I wanted to be away before then. I'd heard enough stories of people being hit by cars driven on the beach by drunken Mexicanos at 4am. Besides, I had a plane to catch in Cancún. Unfortunately.

I returned the next morning, having said my goodbyes to the Mazunte gang. I'd miss this place, and the La Isla owners. They made me promise to return. And I keep my promises. I was happy to see my friend Elias on the way out, a small Mexican I'd watched a few English football games with. He'd given me a very warm welcome when I first arrived in Mazunte. I'd only enquired at his house after seeing a sign advertising Barcelona v Real Madrid. It had been just for his friends, but he insisted on sitting down and chatting, sharing the leftover ceviche with me. Lovely bloke. And another who made me promise to come back as he waved me off.

It turned out that myself and Hector would, literally, be neighbours: I had the hut next door. I lugged my gear up to the base of the steps. An old American dude was sat besides his car, and awning tied to the stilts of the bungalows, him beneath it on a canvas chair. Stark bollock naked.

"Eyup, mate" I greeted him, maintaining careful eye-contact.
"English, huh?"
"Why you gotcha clothes on, man? We're in Zipolite..."
I laughed.
"I'm modest. Besides...I've got a grower, not a shower."
He chuckled. "Nobody cares here, just let it all hang out..."
I could see that.
"Don't forget the sunscreen" I told him as I climed the rickety stairs.

Since to 60s and 70s, Zipolite has been a name synonymous with hippies and American counterculture. Around town you're more likely to hear strains of the Doors, Grateful Dead, Beatles or Stones than contemporary music. Suits me fine. The old hippies, and some new ones, have been coming here ever since, but there doesn't seem to be much new blood as far as the nudists go. And certainly not many females. It seems to be a crowd of old duffers walking around with their ballbags swinging in the breeze. Some brazen; some comically but respectfully covering their offending parts when local women pass them on the beach. One fellow in particular was adept at it: the handkerchief would come out when the women walking towards him were within 20 yards; as they passed, the hanky was passed around the waist to cover the arsecheeks for 30 seconds until they were a discreet distance away and normal service would be resumed. Nice of him to make an effort, I thought?

I dozed on the beach one afternoon, a sheltered cove to myself. I'd read, drunk mango juice, swum awhile, and had nodded off in the sun. I rolled over onto my front to continue reading my book, and cast my eyes up the beach to the treeline. My retinas were seared with the sight of a middle-aged man's hairy arsehole and nutsack, flopped on the sand between his outstretched legs and below the twin peaks of his hirsute bum cheeks, not five metres away. I groaned aloud. Why couldn't I have been gazing up at some curvy, cocoa-toned Méxicana nymph in a bikini, patches of sand clinging to a peach of a derriere, raven hair blowing in the breeze? Life's not fair, is it? It certainly put me off my fish tacos, I can tell you.

And so another evening over. Another amazing fish dinner for peanuts. Another joint of some of the finest Mexican hash, to rival the Indian and Afghan varieties in Amsterdam. I swung in my hammock watching the sun go down, blowing scented smoke at the insects buzzing around the dim, naked bulb at the apex of my roof; the wind whispered to me through the palms, telling me secrets. I read the graffiti inked and carved into the wooden walls and ceiling of the hut. Hippies. Surfers. Lovers. Loners. Drifters. Hundreds of people here before me. Thousands. Just the hut, the vibe, the sunset and the battered bed in common. I thought of the couples who must have shared this view before me, retiring to bed after a heady mix of sun, surf, smoke and beer. And all that would come later, their night just beginning. Where was the beach nymph when I needed her? I allowed myself a wry smile, pinched out the joint, doused the light and retired for the night. Tomorrow is another day.