Author: McCoy, Maureen
Date published: January 1, 2012
Kindness, the workaday love, rides and cossets the orderly days as expected, and perhaps the minds of those who live in confidence, but kindness also pops up in strange quarters and circumstances, bestowing grace upon menace, for instance. Serendipitous kindness has been known to rescue fools, blunderers, miscreants, and misguided youth arrested in Mexico, all of which describe me at a certain time of life.
Blame the English professor, of course. The same Victorian who pounded Yeats and Tennyson into sleepy minds at 8:00 a.m. one day, apropos of nothing, disparaged the class for not having read Carlos Castaneda. 4T can't believe this," he said. "Nobody here has read him? Nobody?" It was the early seventies. The professor had grown Abbie Hoffman hair and now came the excitability to match. He was, we abruptly sat up and took note, an actual palpitating contemporaneous sentient human being who- shock- lived beyond Victorian ether when not standing before us quoting. Come to think of it, didn't he linger a bit over-fondly on the "Xanadu" poem and its provenance as an opium dream? A knock on the door- his hair shook- the tragedy of interruption! But the Victorian may have prided himself on relevance, a big word then. Bearded and aglow with Yeats 's poem exalting dead patriots, he had lived the sixties as an actual adult, please note. His satisfaction at seizing on Castaneda, a fellow academic who seemed to be having more fun than most, after all, may have been immense. Castaneda c'est moi, and power to the people, right on!
I plunged into The Teachings of Don Juan and got on through Journey to Ixtzlan. How little it takes to ignite romance. Where might exploration of Yaqui territory and ways lead me? And lead me this dream world must. Wasn't Castaneda's vision of transcendence the opposite of Vietnam and, so, desperately needed? Living as steeped in the Carlos Castaneda books as in Ho Chi Minh's biography, Catch-22, Thomas Hardy's torrid tales of rural England, and Rolling Stone and National Lampoon magazines- the great eclecticism of the English major, of a cultural moment- I set out for Mexico, Oaxaca province, the vaguely defined home of the sage Don Juan. Even the greatest intentions, to love and to learn, that which I felt I carried like a sun on my face, could not cover for my guileless privilege of choice, my haplessness- and a bumpkin heart. Misadventure was in the cards as surely as finding Don Juan was not.
We had reached our paradise on the west coast after being in Mexico less than a month, having traveled down the east coast and staked ourselves to Oaxaca. Our defenses were down. My friend Ann was walking doubled over from "turista"; teenage brother Mark had been swindled out of our father's watch by a ten- year-old card shark; I had lost my summer's worth of travelers' checks while learning to drink mescal. In Veracruz we had unwittingly checked into a brothel, and caused an uproar when we, two women and a man, asked for "una cama," the usual, to save money. Still, every day we rose, haloed by youth, consulted the guidebook and our whims, checked our tans and threaded through the markets and crowds seeking new sights and adventures. We might catch a clue to the whereabouts of Don Juan. We would know this world we lived in.
Then, tired of the city, we survived a headachy twelve-hour ride over the mountains from Oaxaca, on roads washed out by a recent hurricane, and arrived at the blue Pacific, at Puerto Angel- a nothing then, pure tranquility. We meant to relax on the beach, then follow the coastline north to the glamour spots. We would catch red snapper in Zihuatenajo nearly bare-handed as the guidebook promised we could do. None of us had eaten red snapper, but we would cook it- boil it?- on the beach and thrive. We gratefully followed two knowing boys from Mexico City to a cliff side paradise reachable only by jungle path. For a pittance we rented a cabana roofed over with huge fronds in a little oasis where Socorro, the owner, would also feed us and watch over our things. What a relief. We were tired of the road and far more timid, after all, than swashbuckling. We had not realized until that moment how much we craved a mother, and quiet. And we would not know that we were canaries in the coal mine of paradise lost, that soon enough hordes of us would swarm the place, that the eighties and beyond would scar the hills with money and development, the mean outlaw commerce of people with a hard edge and very hard drugs, even as Buddhists and nudists laid claim, also, to what was still at our arrival a village so tiny as to barely merit a name: a scatter of shelters spined up a hillside respite from jungle thickness, lacking running water and electricity. Stillness was comfort, our earned reward.
That night the Mexico City boys offered us fresh honey-dipped mountain mushrooms, strictly a Don Juanian dream, the real thing, at the source, pure experience, not a drug, we said, and we sat out under a darkening sky swarming with fireflies, ready for enlightenment. The ocean slapped land below and sent up salt aroma. Soon enough my fevered brain allowed the black sky's stars to arrange themselves into patterns of pre-Columbian designs and great significance that I could not articulate, as I found my mouth too numb to speak. But so what? I was there, in ancient times, attuned on magic mushrooms. Bonfires were lit and other youthful voices carried along the dark perch. While I dreamed on this sky, from somewhere a bag of marijuana agreeably found its way into our cabana. The boys from Mexico City were, by then, our great friends.
Two mornings later, over a languid breakfast of chilaquiles, a faint buzzing grew steadily louder and finally took form: a beige VW Bug was clawing its way up the jungle footpath we had climbed, as cartoonish-looking as Herbie. "Federales," Socorro breathed before gathering her skirts and vanishing inside.
Three men emerged from the Bug and a gun flashed its long dark barrel at us. Back into the cabana we went, stuporized, at gunpoint, where we had slept well on beds made of thin smooth branches stilted on poles and vowed to live out the summer in peace. The men upended our belongings, dumped our knapsacks and the one, spying a knife, scratched dirt and found the untouched bag my brother had casually hidden. A picture flashed so vividly in my mind it briefly blanked out all else. My parents sat at home in Des Moines, Iowa, in our quiet modest house. They sat, with dogs Muffin and Caramel in the living room of warm knotty pine walls. Their trust in us and ignorance of our predicament filled me with devastating truth: they loved us, and they could not help. They had done everything they could for us and now two out of their three children would die, rot in a Mexican jail, exactly what we had been warned of; and my parents might never know where, how, or why. Our deaths would kill our family. I looked into the unreadable faces of these men, willing them to understand: Please, this is just a mistake. Please, we are from Des Moines, from hardworking people, and not really like this. Please, we love your country; I am learning Spanish and mean no harm.
Stuffed into the Bug we were taken beyond Socorro's, higher and higher, at a chugging crawl, with the two sidekicks forced to walk alongside the car to accommodate us. Our driver, the oldest of the three, a middle-aged man, muttered as he bucked the car forward. We were not on a road at all, rather the driver was ramming our way into the swallowing jungle, now giant fronds slapping at the car with severe vegetative menace. We stopped soon and the minute we were let out, at a perfect place from which to toss bodies over the cliff, the driver, the leader, who wore shades, a green John Deere cap, and a short-sleeved shirt, introduced himself as the commanding officer, as Jorge- adding a muffled last name. He barked at us. "You will not die. No one will die. You will be sent home. Deported."
His precise English, I dared to note even as the word "die" got us all crying, had a self-congratulatory ring to it. The joy of precise enunciation in a language not his own emphasized the profound. But to say that we would not die was to admit death's palpable presence. Death could as easily claim us as not in the huge dispassionate jungle. Until that moment I had never considered that the world was not mine to love and poke at and pet, a daredevil but welcoming place in which I belonged- indefinitely. Ignoring our tears, Jorge was all business. Passports were checked, information recorded in a small notebook. It seemed to take hours.
We then retraced our way, in the Bug, back to Socorro's to pick up our packs, and then began our journey of woozy bewildering days and nights of travel with the federale officer Jorge. Down to Puerto Angel, sweet little beach, and a night spent sleeping outside a small jail, on cement slabs, as no accommodations for women existed. All night, men yelled out the barred windows at us, and we wondered what was in store, and we thought, what, what have we done? In the morning, Jorge and one sidekick took us back into the mountains we had crossed, heading from city to beach.
A round-up operation required that we sit in the car and watch as Jorge and his men- the second sidekick had materialized againplucked more young pie-eyed Americans out of hidden cabanas spotting the deeply still mountaintop area we had bumped past on the bus. Shrewdly, the federales mostly targeted people who owned cars. By the time we descended into Oaxaca, we were a caravan that included one of the new Japanese models, a camper truck driven by a furious young woman who had protested loudly that a mere "roach" was found in her ashtray; also a red jeep that had brought two smoothies down from Tucson; a blue low-slung sedan owned by an L. A. photographer; and another old swayback two-door that carried pink Texas boys, one, we would soon learn, a certified watermelon-seed-spitting champion. Two bilingual high school girls had been captured without a car; and they, like Jorge's sidekicks, would be shuffled into this and that vehicle as mood dictated. The back window of Jorge's VW Bug flaunted the decal University of Texas. We wondered what had become of the student who lost his or her car to Mexico, to Jorge.
Jorge fired up the Bug at the front of the parade and we all took off. He was moody, touchy, with that barking voice, and when he got a flat tire, he turned us all out. He swore at his men, kicked the tire. He pulled his gun and shot several rapid rounds across a ravine. Terror, as well as smoke, lingered in the air.
Entering Oaxaca, Jorge said he would dump us in the jail, we would be processed and let go. We all trailed him into the entryway as instructed and watched as there he argued with officials. They stood firm: there was no room for such a gang as us. Jorge yelled for us to go back outside.
Jorge emerged a bit later, perhaps in need of re-asserting his authority. He went into a military stance and with all detainees and sidekicks assembled, he demanded that I karate-chop his stomach, to prove its steely strength. I laughed my new dazed prisoner's laugh. "Sir. Señor. I can't," I said. "Now," Jorge said in full command mode. "Hit me." I suppose I had hit someone, somewhere once- in my toddler days, but that would cover it. "Hit me."
Jorge was serious; everyone else stood back, some turned away. His gun lay holstered. I stepped forward. I tried to whack my hand's edge against Jorge 's abdomen with enough flourish to prove my earnest desire to obey, even as I showed deference to the fact that I was obviously committing an offense against an arresting officer who might order my execution at sundown. Hitting him in the gut- charges of illegality could escalate! But timidity insulted Jorge. He would have none of that. "Harder," he said, hands on his hips. "Hit me. Harder." Jorge was lost in the enjoyment of the moment, allowing a thin smile beneath the John Deere cap and shades. I would consider later that he had been so abruptly released from his plan to dump us in Oaxaca, he was handed the freedom to improvise and feel lavishly in charge of a mission entirely his own now. After I hit him enough, "I am Jorge," he announced for the sake of those who had probably not thought past federale to an actual human being. An Elvis in his world, king of all of us, for Jorge one name sufficed and he wanted that known. "We will drive to Mexico City."
That night on the edge of town Jorge cheated a campground out of its fee, hustling us in late and out again before dawn, like an excited kid at a drive-in. Now florid with authority, shirt still crisp and energy high, he led his sleepless charges into the dawn.
As the great Frank O'Connor story "Guests of the Nation" dramatizes, proximity in situations of misgiving and opposition tends to humanize adversaries. In the encapsulated world of the VW Bug at the head of the reprobate parade, Jorge eased up a bit. He remained curt, not genial, but asked us ordinary questions about ourselves. He kept to the John Deere cap and shades that hid his eyes, nodded, did not sweat. We were glassy from shock, stress, long days lacking food and shouldering through yet another sleepless night.
But we were a group now. We were allowed to scare up food at the odd open-air stand in remote villages, which meant staying alive on Twinkies and bottled orange Fanta. Jorge would have none of it, food being the crutch of mere mortals. We captives talked to each other, warily at first, then eagerly, and the federales paid us no mind. During such interludes, while the cars gassed up, Jorge talked with locals, indicating the size of the caravan, thus the scope of his fine work apprehending "stupidos." Appreciative nods were in order and quickly forthcoming. How seldom federales or any drama must have swept through their days. Before one such warmed-up audience Jorge went into the military stance again and called me to him for the dogand-pony show.
"Harder," Jorge commanded as I whacked away at his abdomen. I wrung my hand. "It hurts," I protested. Jorge laughed the laugh of the conqueror.
After that stop Jorge began cultivating Ann, Mark, and me as his audience. We girls in back were fairly superfluous but here beside him rode a young man, my brother Mark, obviously in need of instruction on the glory of manhood. For his benefit, Jorge reeled out tales from his life and philosophical pronouncements. Sporadically as we rode we learned about his ways in the world: a wife; his mistress with the cold drinks awaiting his arrival. Ann and I jeered at the mistress situation but Jorge's flamboyance only increased. "This is a man," he declared, after expounding on the details of visiting the secret woman, his rollicking life. We became familiar enough to tease him, to protest and argue politics. We even ventured to ask, "Should we have offered you money?" He scoffed at that one. He even let Mark drive for long stretches and laughed at his reckless speed on hairpin mountain turns. "This is aman!"
Jorge's job, it would seem, was a pleasantry, a frontier patriot's undertaking akin to rounding up rustled cattle. Sporting and proprietary he was, and I cannot think that Jorge felt himself in danger from the kind of drug cartel violence directed at law enforcement officers in Mexico today. He seemed possessed of a dignity of engagement that we of the "be here now" era surely could appreciate in more mundane circumstances. Perhaps in his way Jorge was as guileless as we. But when we asked him about sightings of Don Juan he knew his stuff. His response would be echoed by the many scholars soon to flay at Castaneda for being a fabricator. "Don Juan. This is not a man!"
In late afternoon sun, poised high above the plain that would lead us to Mexico City, Jorge made a show of stopping the caravan to change drivers. It would not do to have the teenage scofflaw Mark chauffeur us to our big city lock-up. We got out, stretched and returned to the car, Jorge at the wheel. No other car dared move, of course, until Jorge gave the signal, of revving his sputtering lead car to action. He sat still for no apparent reason, and everyone waited. As we looked down on the flat sweep of land skirting out steeply below us, Jorge announced that, unfortunately, Ann, Mark and I had been caught with too much marijuana to be let out of the country with ease. "Unlike the others," he added with a nod to the waiting cars behind us. He let that news sink in, perhaps satisfactorily noting the female whimpering from the back seat, before adding that Mark, having been nabbed as a minor traveling with "adults" helped our case. Still. Listen carefully. When we are brought downtown for reckoning we will see as the evidence of our stupidity one fat marijuana cigarette. That will be all. No bag, understand? "Here is your story," Jorge began. He started the car as he spoke. "One night two boys came to our cabana. We did not know they had a marijuana cigarette. They left this marijuana cigarette. We did not know this."
Our responses were stumbly: "Oh," and "thank you." We had been cramped in the car for days, sleeping hardly at all, eating little; we had grown especially hot and dizzy since we had come out of the cool mountains. Why would Jorge say this? Could we trust him? He had arrested us, after all, and was this declaration some sort of gruffly realized fondness for us, a kind of buyer's remorse? The concoction sounded as granthose as his shooting of the gun early on. In a miniStockholm syndrome kind of way, we began to feel weak in the hours ahead, weak with hope, and we clung to our captor. We laughed when he wanted us to and tut-tutted at other times, but with restraint. The drive seemed more endless than ever now, yet we now feared its conclusion. Abruptly, Jorge would quiz us: "Tell the story!" We would recite, "One night two boys came to our cabana ..." "You must tell this story! It is the story I will report first. Do you understand? This is your story."
Late at night we streaked into a surging, bright, rainy Mexico City smeared with color, crowds, and whipping lines of vehicles. Here we had meant to visit museums, behave like young sophisticates, buy gifts and eat at all the cheap restaurants we had circled in the guide book. We stopped talking as we rode under the archways, through large opened gates, to the great brick jail. The massive dark seriousness of the place cowled meekness over us, instant obeisance. Jorge disappeared from the check-in without so much as a goodbye, scary for the moment, though we knew we would see him in the morning, downtown, where we would recite our story of the marijuana cigarette and then go home. Still we felt a shiver as we were delivered into the hands of strangers, quickly split up, male and female to different doors, hallways. Mark disappeared with a backward cry, calling my name. We girls were locked in a dark room, a light from beyond, from a tower, dimly letting us grope toward bunk beds.
In the morning our door was unlocked and we met the other women in the corridor. They showed us to the cafeteria for breakfast, for there was such a place. These women- so very few inhabiting this great jail, I wondered why- had heard that Americans were coming. Americans! We woeful miscreants were hailed as a possible liberating force. No harm would come to the Americans. We had the might to gather everyone up and go forth; we had connections; we could take names, make calls; fix everything. Two gorgeous Argentinean women wearing off-shoulder white blouses and swing skirts pressed their case. They told us they had plucked rat dirt from the rice that morning as always, and they deserved release- now. A grandmother and a young girl from Guatemala said they had no idea why they had been stopped. A heartbroken woman from Belize cried for her fiancé in L.A whom she was traveling to join. The scary woman everyone avoided as if her plight was catching was the "loca," known to steal what she could and making little sense. This "Frenchie," an older American, no less, claimed she had been snatched from a beach. She had been in for eight months, wearing every day a little shorts set of blue seersucker, with cuffed hems. The "real" Americans, that is, Ann and I, the two teenage girls, and the seething woman with the Japanese camper truck, turned away from all of them. We had carelessly done the one thing no young American dared do in Mexico, acquire drugs. Our anguish was of a different, shame -tinged order, and we knew that we would leave later that day and bury our discomfort.
But then we did not leave. We would leave the next day, that was the plan, and so we all chatted and visited a bit. All day our cell doors remained open on the corridor and we could wander into a small courtyard, too, if we wished. By daylight we noted that our cinderblock room, outfitted with steel bunk beds, had its walls painted pink, perhaps as someone's idea of gender-based apology or cheer. Beans and rice were served again at noon, and then in early evening. Natural light, if grayed from the walled courtyard, filled the room. Before sundown we were locked in and all night the far guard tower's lights shone in on us again.
The strolling jailer shrugged off our questions the next day with "No se nada." Another day and another came and went. To catcalls from the tower, Ann and I walked together in the shaded courtyard, rehearsing the story we feared we would never get to tell: "One night two boys came to our cabana ..."
Twelve long days later we were commanded out of our room and at last we rode in a car, in three cars, actually, the whole American lot of us being driven downtown, to be charged, fingerprinted, photographed, and severely admonished. We waited to be called and formally charged, sitting in a room whose walls were scarred with graffiti pleas and slurs etched by our forebears in folly, all in English. Audaciously, Jorge popped his head in and beckoned Ann, Mark, and me out. In the hall, he opened one palm quickly to reveal a fat marijuana cigarette, the promised evidence of our disregard. When our turn came, we faced two interrogators across a table on which lay the cigarette. My Spanish could not handle this situation, so through the translating efforts of one of the bilingual teen girls we began. "One night two boys came to our cabana ..."
Jorge, we would realize later, had redistributed our bag's contents among the others' "evidence." The woman found with only a "roach" in her fine new Japanese camper truck was shown at her interrogation a good amount of marijuana that she had supposedly been toting around when nabbed. She accused us of cutting a deal with Jorge, and our truthful denials that nevertheless felt false even to us disgusted her. Our cabana story was false, of course, but Jorge had imposed it upon us for our own good. In our relief at finding that he had carried through, we guarded that strange truth like the gold it was. The instinct toward survival was the primal truth, something new to face in life, in ourselves.
Back to jail and more limbo days, waiting and worrying. Days and nights later we were all put on the road north, caravanning again, traveling through the night and into the desert's lavender dawn, passports in hand, escorted by genial low-level employees holstered with guns. In the border town, before gaining freedom, we all sat down for tequila and toasted our escorts and Mexico itself. "iViva Mexico!" Our money had not been taken from us at Socorro's or in the jail; no belongings from our packs were missing, not even some ceremonial machetes bought in Oaxaca. We were, essentially, intact. Our escorts enjoyed themselves as did we jailbirds just moments from freedom and warmed by tequila. The L.A. photographer took a group photo"iViva Mexico!"- and promised to send copies, though he never did, and we regretted losing his last name. Our escorts wished us luck, disappeared, and there we were, the threesome without a car, Mark, Ann and I let out to walk over the bridge to Laredo, to the freedom and resumption of lives we wished to run to, open-armed. We walked, shadowed by people below who stood alertly waiting for an official's back to be turned, or for cover of darkness, to gamble on wading across the Rio Grande, sprinting through a gate to the U.S. where their treatment at the hands of U.S. law enforcement, and society, might be anything. Their determination, cunning, need, and knowledge of the world at the gut level were so much more consequential than ours as to shame and hurry us on. We made a pact; we would tell no one of the quirky and disastrous way we left Mexico.
But over the years, with the safety and perspective of time, we began to go over it all among ourselves. We laughed at our utter ineptness and, uneasily, at our adventurous good luck. Once, national news showed a group released after eight years in a Mexican jail, bearded young guys and women in peaked bandannas, one holding a five-yearold child who was born inside, all of them waving like the feral creatures they had become, as we did when our photographer had snapped our group photo. The TV group might as well have been Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich, though. We would not imagine our lives as any other than what they had been. Quirks of fate and personality had led us out: the Oaxaca jail being full; Jorge being Jorge.
Youth is the time of invincibility, after all, and every day of it borders on mayhem of some sort. Older, we marvel at and give thanks for having been allotted our endless chances to survive it. On our Mexican trip, the blunders of excitable young spirits were accorded crucial recognition as such, no more, no less. Random cosmic generosity singled us out for unscathed return. And we were, after all, such easy invaders to send back home- and to instruct.
Jorge had declared that our parents were not notified; our secrets would be ours to bear. We had come of age in a way that our friends had not, and, in consequence, we held serious secrets. Jorge had revealed his secrets, something no adult had done in our lives, and he had handed us ours. Jorge was in charge of his world, after all, and he knew that we were not. He liked his job which, in our case, anyway, served as more of a catch-and-release outing than anything else. No real harm done. Status quo upheld, if with subterranean tremors. Back into the ocean of ourselves we went. Puppies in grace, lulled on the road, we had even said, "Come and visit us, Jorge" and "we'll write" but of course these things would not happen. With the joy of pronouncement and reiteration of authority we had come to know, Jorge at the wheel reminded us in his firm precise diction, "You can never return."
Maureen McCoy is the author of four novels: Junebug, Divining Blood, Summertime, and Walking After Midnight. Her story "Navy Whites" is forthcoming in Epoch. She is a professor at Cornell University.