OAXACAN PERCEPTUAL WONDERS

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In late 2012 I found myself in a taxi in Mexico City with a fifty-something year old driver.  Our conversation followed a familiar pattern.  He asked me how long I had been in Mexico and which parts of the country I had visited.  I told him of my travels and he replied  that while that is all well and good, to really “know” Mexico you must experience Oaxacan mushrooms.  When I told him that I had he was quick to congratulate me and affirm that I truly did know Mexico.  

This is the story I didn’t have the time to tell him.   

As many great experiences and adventures are born of serendipity, so too was the madness that ensued in Mazunte, on the Oaxacan coast of Mexico on an otherwise ordinary Wednesday night.

Beforehand, the city of Oaxaca, capital of the eponymous state, kept me in her grips for a week.  I stayed opposite the main market ’20 de noviembre’  which lured me back time and time over for its sensual thrills and cheap stomach fills.  Oaxaca is famous for its moles – thick, intense, heavily-spiced sauces used to accompany chicken, turkey,beef… so I sat up on a high chair while the señoras and señoritas fussed around the kitchen and then brought me one out – steaming. I should have used a bib.

I’ve been in and around markets all over Latin America and the Indian sub-continent and the rest of Asia too and I love them all, invariably the epicurean epicentre of town and life and as they go, Oaxaca has a fine one.  You can go right up to a Oaxacan grandmother (abuela oaxaqueña), direct descendent of a Zapotec or Miztec and pluck crunchy, spiced grasshoppers from giant weaved baskets, munch them up then wander down alleys thick with aromatic smoke of grilling meats and lose your way in the enormity of it before regaining your senses with a free sample shot of another speciality, mescal – an agave derivative, while you chat with the pretty girl who gives it to you and can tell you all about it as well: from the seed in the ground to the mescal itself sliding down your throat. All this and more brought me back there again and again.

Coffee is another Oaxacan treat, served hot and strong and I sat around too many hours on the square watching young families strolling in glee with independence day sunshine beating down, grandfathers smoking their pipes, reading their papers, chess board strategising or simply staring off into the void.  Town drunks asking around, lobbying for coins.  There was so much time to think and ponder.  I sat there absorbed. Sometimes, as the time to think is too much so too is the accumulation of caffeine in the central nervous system and together they cause a sharpness, a metallic curvature in the mind and I knew that I needed to swallow down an ale whole to ease and abate, appease and calm the electricity within.

When the sun dropped and a gentle darkness touched down on that square -like an expert parachutist landing lightly in a cushiony sea – little twinkling lights turned on, shining brightly like tiny fairies to illuminate the trees and it felt like Christmas.  Then, when darkness, in its full force, had descended to envelop the zocalo, a film on Mexican Independence was projected incredibly onto the huge façade of the cathedral and it was highly informative and brilliantly executed. Later, when the re-enactment of that first cry of independence (el grito) had been bellowed and responded with ‘Viva Méjico! Viva Méjico! VIVA MÉJICO!!’ patriotic fervour reached its peak and the gathered masses returned home for a sweet holiday sleep or to toast long into the night with the contentment and solidarity that comes when you say ‘I love my country’.

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Around Oaxaca, there are lovely little villages too, all within easy reach.  I jumped a cheap, second class bus and rode out to Mitla and sighed in awe at the juxtaposition of ancient Zapotec ruins with a red-domed colonial church built right on top and wondered what the devil were the king, viceroy and colonizers thinking (‘proselytise the barbarians!) and felt sad for the ancient indigenes and lamented their loss.

Afterwards I lifted my spirits by soaking and swimming in the mineral-laden, clear, cold natural pools all while looking out at the most splendid vistas of verdant, contorted, egg carton-humped mountains and petrified waterfalls at Hierve el Agua and by gaping at ‘El arbol de Tule’ (The tree of Tule), which, thankfully, was left alone to patiently and silently observe the passing of time, a contemporary of Christ, and to grow into the widest tree in the world.  It survived a plan of insanity to chop it all into furniture and continues to stand stout and grand needing the best part of a battalion to join hands and spread wide to encircle its girth.

This was Oaxaca and for all that the city and its surrounds gave me I was thankful.

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 On a Tuesday morning in late September I decided that it was time to move again and I set off towards the sea.  I sat silent, pensive and reflective amongst my fellow passengers as we passed through outlying pueblos and the road continued to climb, higher and higher and I sat with my eyes glued to the passing vistas, hundreds and hundreds of hours on the road gazing through clean or smeared or dusty or foggy or rainy windows have not wearied me from what I feel must surely be the greatest show of all, the landscapes of this earth.  I love it, I love it, I love it and feel privileged to see it all, nose pressed up against the glass and just watching it all race by.

The driver pressed his foot down and forged on.  It astounds me that I have not been in nor witnessed a major road accident in my traversals all over the American continent as many, many drivers tempt fate and this one was no different, seemingly approaching each curve with accumulated, exponentially increased vigour to tackle it with more velocity than the last and one would hope or pray that, at least, in this case he would give his full and undivided attention to the rushing tarmac before him and while I sat amongst the other passengers in the rear of the van and thought this way the driver drove and simultaneously peppered questions at the lone passenger riding up front.  And so it was that I came to know, through inevitable eavesdropping, the indefatigability of the driver’s questioning and a (willing?) trapped subject, that the number of kidnappings in Tijuana had gone down recently, that with special deals and promotions you could fly Tijuana, Oaxaca return for as little as two thousand pesos as well as innumerable other titbits of information concerning the subject of this highway inquisition.

The bus stopped for a break and I climbed out to stretch my legs and to find my jacket for the mist had descended and temperature plummeted as we had wound our way up to almost three thousand metres above sea level.  There I met she of the endless questioning, Yaretzi, and we chatted a bit and she said that she was going to San Jose del Pacifico, a village that I had heard about from an itinerant artisan a week or so before – that it was the place to go for cheap and good mota (weed) and also for its zany fungi and it was for this reason (‘mushrooms’, she said in English to avoid the arousal of suspicion of those around) that Yaretzi wanted to stop off for a night, get hold of some mushrooms before continuing to the coast to enjoy the fruits (fungi) of the labour.

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 It didn’t take me too long to make up my mind and not long after that Yaretzi and I were standing on the side of the road in San Jose and looking out over a sweeping valley ensconced beneath a thick pine tree forest and beyond, glorious mountain ranges, in triplicate rising above and afar.  I knew that I had made the right decision.

As we entered the village I spied three hippie artisans, looking to thumb a ride and if there is anything that I have learnt in my rambles through the western hemisphere it is that two pieces of important information seldom elude the minds of those who ramble from town to town with packs full of wire and yarn and semi-precious stones to lay out their wares and look to sell at least enough to pay their way and to pay their day.  Almost certainly they will know the cheapest place in town to stay and where to source unrefined illegal substances as well so when I went back up to ask it was no surprise to hear that these three craftsmen from the north of Mexico knew both these pieces of vital and precious information.

So started another little segment of life that will certainly be indented on my mind for time to come. Jose, one of the artisans, would actually come with us, show us the way as he wasn’t actually hitching with the others but waiting and looking for a ride all the way back to Mexico City that he had already been offered.  So, he would be that often much needed intermediary in exchanges of this kind and I was happy about it all as I wasn’t so sure that I would be able to follow the elaborate and detailed, meandering directions that they had given me.

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We started the ascent, this time on foot, with my constant pack on back -a necessary burden – but one to which I was more than accustomed but it could not prevent that little skip you get in your step and flutter in your heart when you’re on your way to score and in this case it was nothing less than the famed mushrooms of San Jose, revered by trippers all over Mexico and beyond.

Finally, after following the road up and beyond the pueblo, down muddy tracks and veering around puddles verging on lakes we arrived at a wooden shack with another glorious view.  Barnyard animals populated the surrounds; a plump sow spooking Jose’s newly acquired canine companion, roosters and hens pecking and scratching and crowing and turkeys too with their ragged and flabby red neck skin hanging down and even guinea fowls ‘de tu pais’ (from your country) said Jose and inside that half dilapidated shack with no electricity huddled three generations around a glowing fire and a tortilla griddle.

It was an interesting scene for the transaction.  Everything went along fine enough and Jose said that it was the ‘champis’ (‘shrooms) that put more food on their table and shirts onto their backs – that they were happy for us to be there and he told the señora that we wanted to buy two ‘viajes’ (trips) and she came out, a sixty five year old sweet little indigenous lady.  She reminded me of María Sabina, the Oaxacan curandera who became known far and wide for the healing vigils she carried out using psychedelic mushrooms.  She said that the she didn’t have any fresh mushrooms – it wasn’t the season – but she had little jars of psilocybin mushrooms, conserved in honey which we took, handing over our pesos as she told us with complete casualness of the expected strength and length of the pending journey.

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 The following morning, after a freezing night in San Jose Del Pacifico, we kept on our way with the little glass jars carefully stored away.  The road down to the coast twisted and turned, uncoiling itself and shedding metres like skin from its altitude – a black serpent.  Finally it delivered us to sea level and after descending so many metres and with the changing climate and landscapes it felt like we were in another country.  We were in Pochutla , a gritty Mexican town. We hadn’t made it to the coast proper but soon enough we got whizzed over by a shared taxi to the little hamlet of Mazunte, where the water glistened and beckoned in the afternoon sun.

After an afternoon swimming in the shallows of the angry ocean we thought it wise to buy some beer and went back to the wooden structure where we’d found our room and sat on the deck and let the ale cascade down our throats and felt relaxed and happy in the warmth after passing the previous night so cold.  By the time a few bottles had emptied their contents into my corporeal receptacle and tingled and tickled my brain I was in the mood to let the mushrooms weave their magic on me too and I told Yaretzi so.

We went up to the room and unscrewed the little caps from the little jars and sniffed them and inspected them and we noticed that they differed a bit, one to the other, in smell and also in sight so I suggested that we mix them together to hedge and homogenise the effect.  I mixed them in my saucepan and we took turns to spoon them one by one into our mouths to chew and suck and swallow them down and we scraped up all the honey and spooned that down our throats as well.

After we had ingested all the melliferous mushrooms we went back down to the wooden deck and sat next to the railing to peer out at the relentless Pacific unleashing its tempestuous energy over and over again.  Soon we reached that strange in-between zone, somewhat akin to the border region between wakefulness and sleep when you teeter on the brink between polarisations of consciousness, cuspate, or even oscillate between the two.  We felt cold, then hot, then cold again so I climbed back up to the room to look for our jackets and I noticed that an army of ants had mobilised and set out in earnest march to reach the two overturned jars, still with remnants of honey.  They had sent forth their scent to the ants effectively making themselves beacons to the ants.  I bent over to inspect the ants’ form and approach and it was then that I became aware that the warping of my perception had begun.

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I rejoined Yaretzi and we looked out at that horseshoe coast as though seated before a feature film and I was transfixed as the show had surely begun.

The breeze increased and the thickly clustered swaying trees set off in the middle distance were what powerfully called me and demanded my gaze for amongst and within their trunks and limbs and foliaged reaches a supernatural assembly of creatures had convened and seemingly no invitation had been declined.  Wizards and goblins and ogres, (I deemed them to be none other than the guardians of the greatest secrets of the universe) whispered to each other, gloating in pretentiousness and self-importance while gnomes, trolls and imps gathered together hobnobbing in circular solidarity with warlocks, necromancers and sorcerers.

I shifted my focus and peered at the outline of the craggy, jagged headland, which gave limit to the eye’s scope -jutting out- descending from occupancy in oxygenous nothingness to the surface of the Pacific, glimmering in the setting sun.  Then, it morphed into the perfect profile of a pharaonic visage and behind it, moving inland, cascading in incredulous exactness -ringing dead to the original form – only diminished in size, the face of the Egyptian pharaoh anew, over and over, again and again, as if in wooden format to be packed one inside the other like Matryoshka dolls.  Evidently the psilocybin was taking hold of my mind.

I looked up into the sky, that beautiful dark blue and grey shade of twilight and there – ominous, spheroidal, globular and grand faces of cantankerous cloud gods eyeballed me with circular bulbousness like cushiony round ottomans that know no bound to their depth.  There they hung in the aether, in solemnity, puffed-cheeked and dignified, staring at me with too much intensity and forcing me to look away.

My gaze diverted to the broad screen of the horizon and then downwards, to the beach below, the sand a canvas and the waxing and waning foam wash applied the lightest, deftest brush strokes to leave behind the most intricate, spider-web patterns and leave me in astonishment and awe and proclaiming the boundless wonder of the world.

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So unrolled the first phase of these fungi’ effect on my mind- varied and riveting hallucinations, thoughts arriving to the brain that had never occurred or arrived before and whilst still in pending contemplation fluttered off to be replaced by another and spiralling into uncontrollable fits of giggling at our surrounds and the insanity and inanity of it all- simple and mere conversation.

It was all a great series of stages, the twisted arrangement of internal consciousness and thought, of diversions into the realms of perceived different contexts and compartments of existence and possibility in constant battle with exterior stimuli. I talked to Yaretzi about it and she concurred, ‘si, muchas etapas’ (many stages).

After all the grand illusory delusions I reached a point where I sat in quiet pensiveness, mind swimming as the sun deceased and rambled off to the afterlife of other segments of the globe and with the darkness that it bequeathed I had a sudden feeling that my time to decease had come too.  A wave of über illness washed over my visceral being and I got up, all dizzy-headed and confused and staggered off to an oblivion-what I judged to be my last dying steps.

I sat down with my head in my hands, for how long I do not know, and my heart continued to beat. Yaretzi found me and said it was time to go back to the room.

We ascended the damp and sandy stairs and got to the final narrow and darkly shadowed passageway that led into the rustic little half-room that we had rented with a thatched straw (palapa) roof over the bed but open to the elements.  I couldn’t go on.  A fear, more accurately an immense and sudden terror preyed on my mind, devouring whole any last remnant of calmness I had within, and to my ocular sense that passageway was simply and nothing but a corridor of certain death and I would not, could not, go on so I halted and told Yaretzi so.  She was persistent and adamant that we continue and she led me with my hands trembling to guide me into the room and while I still felt afraid, arrival to the room gave me a palpable sense of relief and I sighed and exhaled so.

I endured another half hour of this fear.  In my mind it was a certainty that falling asleep would mean entry into the permanence of the afterworld and so I resisted any temptation for slumber.  Several times I had the urge to vomit but was only able to cough up yellow, elastic pebbles of phlegm and spat them onto the damp floor of our concrete enclosure.

Finally the stage of fear drifted off into the nocturnal hinterland, recorded in time only by my mind and the meek whimpers of fear that had left my mind and mouth to etch the night.  The constant and ugly thoughts of death and the immediate need to seek medical attention were whisked away with the maritime winds and I wandered across to peer out into the vast and dark oceanic void and my scattered brain rejoiced the passing of such an intense phase.

As I looked out the corvine sky was suddenly punctuated by the wrath of jagged, electrical bolts of lightning followed by the boom of a thunder so loud and hollow that it seemed to reverberate across the universe.  Great gusts of wind delivered sand and leaves in copious quantities to our palapa shelter and all this stormy ire triggered the arrival of the zenith in Yaretzi’s own stage of panic and fear.  She became frantic and manic and was convinced that we were doomed.  She paced around then buried her head in the mattress then paced around some more and declared that the situation was hopeless, that there was no escape and that the end was nigh.

Fortunately I had passed into a much mellower and more contemplative frame of mind and I tried to reassure her that it would be just another fleeting stage- ‘we’ve just got to wait, be calm and let it pass’ and sure enough and luckily enough, it did.

At one point we were hungry but had nothing to eat and resigned ourselves to wait until the yonder morn but in fact there was an apple that Yaretzi had fashioned into a cannabis pipe so we cut and gnawed around the smoky and ashen passages and gobbled it up – a feast of floury and smoky pale flesh.

In the acquisition of language, babies go through a babbling stage and in this night of lunacy so did I. I babbled on and on and journeyed through many and varied subjects and topics and left too many conversations, thoughts and ideas in only a partial or embryonic stage of completion, pending, still pregnant, to be returned to, it seemed like the time to talk would go on forever but one subject kept returning to my mind over and over again- the last hours and the crucifixion of Christ, three nails or four?

After so much journeying through so many stages of madness the final destination of the night was a return to a kind of normalcy.  It is to say that I didn’t feel under the guise of drugged existence anymore, it was almost like I hadn’t consumed anything at all.  My mind ran over the elapse of the night with a startling sharpness of clarity and I lay back, breathing deeply, in reflection on the great and vast insights served to me, the burrowing of new sensory perceptual tunnels into the core of my mind.

As I lay my mind drifted of its own accord like a flag left to ripple in a friendly zephyr, gently opening and closing.  Those little mushrooms were the zephyr and after the tempest of the storm each gentle flow of air brought another peaceful thought and guided me into a calm and deep sleep.

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