Sunday, 2 June 2013

Desert Flower

THE SOUND OF SILENCE is briefly interrupted as a vulture glides above. I both feel and hear the beating of its wings as they thump the sky. From across the desert plain the lonely cry of a locomotive creeps on the breeze. I stand and watch it run, shimmering bright in the heat, the clatter of wheel on rail reaching me after it has passed into the distance, thundering toward Mexico City some 690km south. It disappears from sight with a protesting howl, and silence descends once more. I move into the shade of a leafless tree in the centre of a dusty clearing. Not a soul in sight. The wind picks up: a soft burr against the dry rasp of unseen insects. I crouch and examine the  peyote head most recently cut. Those already eaten, with slices of orange to alleviate the foul, sharply bitter flavour of the cactus, are already taking effect. Warm energy courses through my body, I feel plugged into my surroundings, into the earth itself. The peyote, small, round and green, topped with a delicate flower, feels  alive in my hand; it seems to throb and pulsate like something alien and knowing. I cut and prepare it, already dreading the taste and texture barely hidden by the citrus fruit. But nothing good ever came easy. The rustle of dry, resisting undergrowth announces the return of the Kid. I cast a glance over my shoulder as he approaches the sanctuary of the tree. “I found more. Lots more” he grins.

I hadn’t made it this far north on my last trip. Though told of the deserts around the mountain hideaway of Real de Catorce, I’d decided not to journey up to  partake after reading about the Huichol indians, and their anger at the peyoteros…travellers who seek the peyote for recreational use. Apparently they were  forced to walk farther and farther into the desert to find enough for their ceremonies. I respected that, and travelled to other regions of Mexico instead. But then I  reconsidered things on this trip. Having been an atheist since childhood, I looked at things the other way around. Peyote is something which grows naturally, and why shouldn’t it be available to all who seek its enlightenment? As long as it is taken for the right reasons, and not just to get high as a kite. I’d known something of the plant’s powers after reading The Doors Of Perception by Aldous Huxley as a student, and had been curious about it ever since. Though LSD and magic mushrooms are readily available in England, mescaline is not. This time around, I was keen to find out what it was all about.

The Kid, a 22-year-old Spaniard, had been staying in the same Zacatecas hostel as myself. We decided to head to San Luis Potosi together, as we were traveling  the same route. There were few foreign tourists around, and I knew this would be good for my Spanish. After one night in possibly the worst–run hostel  I’ve ever had the displeasure to stay in, we were on an early bus to Matehuala, then another to Real de Catorce. A transfer to a smaller bus was required for the hair–raising hurtle through a dark tunnel of rock to the tiny pueblo nestled amongst hills and ravines on the other side. There are few entries to a remote spot as spectacular. Winding, broken-cobbled streets lead down to a small central plaza and tiny churches with pastel domes. Small roads and tracks traverse this central spine up and down the hill on which the town sits. Freshly painting buildings sit alongside derelict neighbours; donkeys bray and church bells chime irregularly; dusty horsemen saunter lazily through the streets. In the early morning and late afternoon, its grey stone buildings glow with a touch of pink in the advancing or retreating light. A truly magical place. Abandoned mines surround Real, and the plummeting price of silver in the last century caused the town’s virtual abandonment. It was only when foreign artists, charmed by its ghostly atmosphere, began to make it their home in the 1970s that the town’s fortunes turned around. The silver industry long–dead, tourism is now its lifeblood. The European–owned cafes and restaurants are a double–edged sword for me. On the one hand they detract somewhat from the look and atmosphere of the place but, if you want a decent coffee around here, you need a European to make it. Can’t have your cake and eat it, can you? Not if you want a nice long espresso to wash it down with, you can’t.

Preferring the surrounding hills to the pueblo itself, the first day was spent trekking up to the Cerro Quemada, three hours walk uphill: tiring at sea level, never  mind at this altitude of 2700m. My lungs were burning by the time we reached the summit. On a clear day they reckon you can see for a hundred miles north. I  can believe it; even on this slightly hazy day, mountain ranges were visible in every direction. My breath would have been taken away had the hike not already  done so. I took the vista in between ragged gasps as we recovered. After a peaceful hour I returned downhill to Real. The Kid decided to go and watch the Huichol ceremony taking place at the top of the peaks. Later he told me that he was approached by one of the group and duly told to fuck off, and warned that the peyote was theirs alone. Not the most pleasant indigenous interaction, judging by the account of the shaken young man. I did try and tell him, mind. After lunch we trekked up to the Pueblo Fantasma (Ghost Town), the ruins above Real, and passed these to view the vast valley beyond from whence we'd come by bus the previous afternoon. A spectacular view.

A few further cups of Swiss–made coffee later and we’d had enough of town. It's very quiet. A couple of backpackers passed us, wearing indigenous clothing and haughty “I’m a better traveller than you” expressions. A few too many of those on the road for my liking. Autenticos, we call that breed. I'd be interested to know if they wear the gear back home. My mates would never let me live it down, I'd be torn to shreds. We agreed we’d head off in the morning. Tempting as it was to hire a guide for the trip into the desert, we both believed it was better to go it alone. Besides…they say that you don’t find the peyote, but that the peyote finds you. Like a lot of things in life, if it’s meant to be, it’ll be. The only thing I was slightly nervous about was the presence of both the police, and the activity of narco–traficantes who use the desert to move drugs and weapons. And to murder rivals. So the police didn’t worry me too much, as they are only looking for a bribe rather than to throw you into jail for a few days. The narcos are a different matter. I doubt that, had we stumbled across a group packing a truck full of cocaine, we would have been allowed to back away with a polite “Whoops. Sorry to disturb you, chaps…but you wouldn’t happen to know where the peyote is around here?” No chance: we'd have been shot where we stood and buried in the desert.

And so, after various conflicting time and distance estimations from locals, we set off walking downhill. A complication of travel in Asia and the Americas is that  nobody likes to admit that they don’t actually know where a place or street is, or indeed how long it takes to get there. So we were walking to Estacion de Catorce knowing that it was 4, 6, 7 or 10km away…and that we’d arrive somewhere between half an hour and half a day later. If we’d wanted a real Mexican town with none of the  tourist trappings of Real, then we certainly got it here. It was downright unfriendly, verging on hostile. We found a basic cocina in which to eat a lunch of  scrambled eggs and beans, and asked the owners about transport to Wadley, a smaller town 12km away. Again, misleading information and sometimes deliberate misinformation. The woman behind the counter at a dusty bus transport office told us that there were no trucks or jeeps going to Wadley, and yet outside on another wall there was a timetable of sporadic services? I was beginning to feel uncomfortable under the gaze of the locals, and the hostile glares from passing  pickups full of rural workers. We picked up our packs and decided to walk in the noon heat. Anything was better than hanging around here and waiting for nightfall. Or death.

My anxiety levels were higher than usual as we jumped down from the pickup truck. A nice old gentleman in a huge hat had picked us up halfway down the  highway. The only people we’d seen besides him were a few dark–skinned men hugging the railway tracks as they headed North. Illegal immigrants. The train that plies this route is nicknamed La Bestia, and she has earned her fearsome moniker. As many as 1500 immigrants ride it daily from Central America into  Mexico and beyond to the US, trying to escape poverty and find work. What they are sure to find on the way are violence, extortion, rape, disfigurement and  murder. The gangs of Maras and Zeta cartel members in Mexico extort $100 for the simple ‘privilege’ of riding the train. Charitable hostels sheltering the  immigrants in the southern state of Chiapas, on the Guatemalan frontera, have been closed down with intimidation and violence. People fall from the train, or are  thrown from it; they die or lose limbs. It has been reported that 80% of women riding the train from Honduras and El Salvador have contraceptive injections prior to leaving, such is the level of expected sexual assault. I cannot imagine the desperation which forces someone to undertake such a life-threatening and harrowing journey. I’m glad I didn’t find all this out until we arrived in Wadley, as seeing them scurrying alongside the train would have made me feel quite depressed.

So we ambled into town from the highway, through dusty alleyways and across a deserted, dustbowl of a central plaza, to the main street with it’s fifteen buildings. Faded pastel-painted concrete facades. Wooden signs on creaking  hinges swinging gently in the breeze. An eerily deserted railway station. Old men sat in shaded doorways beneath pristine white hats. Shoeless drunks hiding from the sun, fast asleep. Bony stray dogs skulking around the streets in search of scraps. The skeletons of forgotten pickup trucks bleaching in the sun on flat tyres. Locals who smiled or grinned at mine. I liked the place immediately. This was the real Mexico. Just needed the poncho and the cigar-stub.

We were approached by a shabby local man who said he could fix us up with a room and a peyote guide. I wasn’t keen, but the Kid marched on ahead with him, saying he seemed like a decent bloke. The  rooms he took us to were in a windowless outhouse belonging to an impossibly tiny old lady with unnervingly black teeth named Juanita. Cheap, but I didn’t fancy it, as I wouldn’t have put a dog in there. Even the peso-pinching Spaniard wrinkled his nose. I’ve had bedbug bites once, and once is enough. We found a battered old hotel in town, run by a fat man who chewed a match: the same match every day...he could have sold the place as an eco-lodge? He gave us a cheap room downstairs. I pointed out that there was a pane of glass missing from one of the windows. Air-conditioning, I was told with a humourless grin. We’d stay a night and see. A Mexican upstairs introduced himself: Elizar, a 50-something man from Queretaro. With three wives. And two matted, stinking poodles. Over a beer he told us that he came here regularly, and had been doing for years. His method was to open doors in the minds of his favorite women with peyote trips, and then add them to the harem. Good plan, I thought. The Kid was getting the eye from one of the wives, and Elizar asked him to visit them in Queretaro. I sniggered to myself, as a mental picture of The Gimp from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction popped into my head. The wizened fella told us where to head in our peyote search, and which trails the police usually patrolled.

Moving rooms next day, we were installed at a finca (small farm) on the edge of town. Just us staying there. Solid metal doors, locks and a gate out of the courtyard to the street. Secure and perfect, unlike Hotel Fat Man, although the bathroom was a horror show. Double espresso, that vile grass stuff you can drink and moist carrot-cake is not coming to Wadley anytime soon, believe me. Juan, the owner’s whiskered brother, didn’t have a key for the outside door, but showed us how to leave the barred window on a latch so we could open it to reach through the bars and open the door. Simple. Juan then proceeded to give us directions for a good spot to seek peyote. Four hours of walking to a white patch he indicated in the middle distance, bracketed by two larger ones, he said. We should just navigate towards that one, he told us. I turned and took a few mental pictures on the mountains behind us, their shapes and roads, for the return journey. Didn’t want to end up back in Estacion by mistake…especially if high on peyote. It'd be like Deliverance on a bad trip. Not fun. So we set off, the dog from the  corner shop following us. It was a mid-sized black thing, scrawny and lean, and went by the name of Vino…which means “he/ it came” (or wine) in Spanish. He belonged to nobody and everybody, we were told...hence the name. A boisterous, friendly little chap.

Morning broke. And so to the desert. My Dad had asked me exactly what the attraction was with the place. “Why do you want to see the desert? Once you’ve seen one cactus, you’ve seen them all..” Two words: Clint Eastwood. Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, though shot in Almeria in  southern Spain, started a lifelong fascination with these arid vistas and windblown towns in the middle of nowhere. These films were first shown in England on BBC2 in the 1970s. I was around seven years old. I’d seen the listing, read the write-up on The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and was desperate to watch it. But it was on after 10pm. No chance. Mum despatched me to bed at 9pm. “Give your Dad a kiss first.” I sulked my way over to Dad. A kiss. A hug. A whisper in the ear. A wink. I’d run upstairs and get into bed, watching the luminous hands tick their way torturously slowly around my bedside clock to ten as I listened for Mum’s footsteps on the stairs. Twenty more minutes, and a creak on the landing: Dad. Watching that film with him left a big impression on me. Eli Wallach. Lee Van Cleef. Clint. That poncho. But whenever I hear the theme tune, I think of my Dad. I watch it with a smile and think of him. Being able to stay up past 10pm on a school night is no big deal for kids these days, but it certainly was back then. Only a few kids the next day could say that their Dad let them stay up late, too. Mum and my siblings didn’t have a clue: it was a secret thing  between me and Dad. And that’s cool when you’re little. So that’s why I wanted to see the desert, Dad. You and Clint Eastwood. Now I could digress and tell you about  another amusing secret episode with my old fella, but that’s for another time. What’s that? Oh…go on, then.

I used to smoke a lot of weed when I was younger, and later with my kid brother. I rolled him his first joint. We actually got on a lot better for it: we'd fought so much previously that some friends nicknamed us The Gallaghers. Anyway…we were nicked by my Dad when he found a bag my brother had stashed for me. We’d both imagined that Dad, being a long-haired sailor in 1960s Liverpool, would have been a pot-smoker? Wrong. Dad was a quite angry, pretty-bloody-obviously-not-a-smoker. Anger subsided, and it was  agreed that we could smoke in the garden and garage to prevent us mixing with the wrong company. Though we were the wrong company around our way...but we jumped at the chance for police-free smoking at home. So we’re in the garage one day, and the old fella comes in looking for a tool. After finding it, he continued to potter and glanced over from time to time, watching what we were doing with the joint. I looked at Scott, my brother, and winked. We knew what was coming. “Is that that stuff you’re smoking there? Your...err...wacky baccie?” We offered him a little, and he took a few tentative puffs. It went around again, and he had a little more, though he complained about the taste of tobacco. We had a pipe ready, and began smoking some dark, soft Moroccan hashish. The good stuff. Dad was coughing his lungs up after a couple of rounds on it.

He’d been out long enough, and decided he didn’t want Mum busting him, so he left to go back to the house. Ten minutes later my sister, Emma, came into the  garage with a huge grin and twinkling blue eyes. “What have you done to Dad?” It turned out that Dad entered the lounge to find my sister and Mum watching TV.  He complained that everything seemed dim in the house, and did it look that way to them? It didn’t, obviously. Cue much amusement and bemusement when he  fetched step-ladders and proceeded to clean every lightbulb in the house with a soft cloth because “they’re dusty”. Obviously this secret with Dad had lasted all of about twenty minutes, because it was plain even to Mum that he was off his rocker. Rather than berate him, though, Mum would just torment  him if he went over the edge. I remember another occasion Dad smoked in the garage with us before we left for a night out. We crafted him a joint in case he  fancied a smoke alone in the evening. According to Mum, he went out in the garden an hour later and stood and smoked the lot, grinning in defiance at her disapproving looks. The next thing she knew he was calling her from the garden. She left the kitchen to find him on his hands and knees, trying to crawl over the door jamb into the conservatory. He wanted help getting up the stairs to bed, but my cruel mother insisted that he make his own way up, or else. He ended up sleeping at the foot of the stairs, though Mum did graciously throw a duvet and pillow down to him. Or at him, more likely.

I went off at a tangent there? Anyone would think I’ve been eating psychedelic plants in the middle of nowhere?

For four hours we walked. Struggling through spiny desert plans tearing at our clothes and bare arms. Beyond the dried husks of trees, collections of bleached bones  spread out below them. The floor felt hollow beneath our feet, so dry was the earth. Vino came running back after scouting ahead, with three large cactus spines in his snout and mouth. I called him to me and he approached, head down and tail wagging near the ground, nervous. He knew what was coming. I told the Spaniard to grab him, and I secured his head beneath my left arm. His head thrashed about as I tried to grab the spines, and it took fifteen minutes to pull all three out, but boy was Vino pleased afterwards. He disappeared soon after, and I was praying he knew his way home. Not much shelter or water out here for a small black dog. The piles of whitened bones we happened across frequently hardly reassured me about the little black chap's chances.

A solitary palm tree appeared in the near-distance. Two smaller ones nearby. “Las Palmas Borracheras?” I asked the Spaniard. “The place Elizar was on about” he confirmed. We walked a little farther. He suddenly looked down and pointed. “Is that it?” He was indicating a small clump of dusted discs of cactus below a dried, thorny plant. I looked around…similar plants had excavated holes beneath them. “Must be, yeah...” The pair of us cackled with glee. The indigenous people in these parts do not pick the first peyote they find, but move onto the next one, leaving the first as a tribute to their ancient gods. For the sake of tradition I followed suit, and sought my own.

We cut it, washed and cleaned it. Sliced oranges. Opened bottles of drinking water ready to wash it down with. Obviously, it being the first trip on peyote, we’d take it slowly. Didn’t want to go too far over the edge. I put some peyote buds into my mouth and chewed. A revolting, acrid taste filled it, and I was frantically reaching for a piece of orange. The Spaniard laughed "Your face!" Until he tried it: he soon had a grimace to match. It’s pretty fucking nasty. But after a while you learn to bear it, and we consumed several cactus heads. It didn’t take long for the effects to begin. I was mildly concerned when the Spaniard told me that it was his first experience with  hallucinogens, but then, out in the desert there’s no-one to make you paranoid or potentially send you on a bad trip. Well…the police and bloodthirsty narcos, yes. But apart from them. He took a walk alone, I relaxed beneath our tree.

Peyote was more of a body trip for me, rather than anything too visual. You feel relaxed. Warm. The light appeared different. You feel in tune with nature. I watched birds settle in the tree and call across to mates. The vultures above. Always vultures. I stood and stretched, feeling every sinew in my body singing. Senses are heightened: drinking water, I could feel it trace its route from my throat to cool every cell in my body. The sensations are very pleasant. And lots of laughing. I'd take a little more next time for the visual effects. Walking, I found a clump of peyote…eight flowers in all: beautiful. Knife out, I was prepared to cut the first when an insect landed amongst the flowers. Ants crawled in and out of the cacti. I crouched and watched this little society function, and could’t bring myself to destroy it. I walked a little more and found another. Plenty for everyone.

The Kid was gone awhile, and I stretched out in the sun. The clearing around the tree felt like the centre of the universe, and I was at one with it. Closing my  eyes, long-lost images and sequences from my life flashed before me; people forgotten from my childhood drifted by; standing on a Welsh beach as a boy, surrounded by thousands of huge orange starfish washed up on the sands, my younger brother in blue shorts with white anchors; playing golf with my Grandad and Uncle Barry on a shabby municipal course in Liverpool in the 70s; a school disco; Dawn Fawthorpe…my first kiss; Dad running over my foot in his car on a Boulogne quayside; crashing my first bike. I looked up at the clouds. The winds were blowing banks of them above in different directions. I thought that the clouds were like us drifting through life…it can look like you’re on course to meet another, before a breeze carries you away on another track, and you don’t cross paths in the end. Life seems to be a long process of casting off, especially when you’re on the road. Endless goodbyes. I thought about my route through life to this exact point and place. I’d been driving a delivery van around the English Lake District just fifteen years before. Several people, connections that did happen, and before I knew it I was in London. Life changed. A friend of mine took a year out to travel, and came back with stories and photographs…and the rest is rootless history for me. Of course, there were things that looked likely to happen in my life yet didn’t, but different doors opened because they failed to. The girl that never was. If I’d been with her now, would I be sat in a tree watching a sunset over a Mexican desert? Maybe so. But more likely not. You just never know, and life takes a different route with every way you turn. Every bus you miss. Every extra five minutes in bed before work. And that is the random beauty of it. Play the hand that you are dealt, and just be happy that you have cards at all…and the chance to play them. As John Lennon once said “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” Beautifully put, John...you should write songs.

Sun was setting now, the lilacs, blues and purples stunning over distant ranges of hills. The Kid was approaching and I called down from the tree I'd climbed on impulse...I've always loved climbing trees. He was ready to go. I jumped down and gave him a bear hug. He laughed "We did it, man." What a day. We watched the bloody orb finally sink behind the hills and headed for town. If there were narcos about, they’d likely be more active at night. I wanted to sleep in my bed, not a shallow hole in the desert. We reached the pueblo and had to walk beyond the finca to get the front door key: Juan hadn’t left it open as promised. The old lady in the corner shop called her errant brother, and he set off  to open the door. She set my mind at rest, too: Vino had come back for his lunch. We reached home and, in typical Mexican manner, Juan still hadn’t opened the window in the front door. I didn’t fancy walking back into town. Leaping up, I took hold of the concrete slab above the gate, and scrambled over the wall with my legs, being careful to avoid the broken glass set in the concrete. “Pinches ingleses” (the fucking English) laughed the Spaniard. I straddled the wall and paused. “You can take the boy out of  Liverpool…” I winked and, dropping over the wall, opened the gate “…but you can’t take Liverpool out of the boy.”