Archive for February, 2012

The Black Bear Burn

It’s a matter of wandering down to the Jardín, or central square, between 8 and 10pm. Sometimes everyone’s piling into vehicles: the Mexicans – mostly boys – trying to organise the mob of gringos – foreigners, mostly girls – into some semblance of order so we can begin traipsing off to the activity for the evening. Sometimes it’s everyone’s wandering in and out of corner stores buying vodka and beer. Sometimes they’re sitting around on the benches around the square. Sometimes they’re up in Steven’s bar.

One night, not long after Christmas, I wander down and everyone’s packing into the back of Big Abraham’s ute.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“Get in,” Hermano tells me. “Don’t make questions,” and he laughs.
Everyone loaded, we roar down the road to Miguel’s. It’s walking distance – maybe 5 or 10 minutes – but no-one walks here. The house is on the other side of the narrow little bridge and Big Abraham makes of point of accelerating over it so that the girls scream and everyone has to duck and hang on.

Most of the white girls in La Manzanilla are there because their parents are. Most of them are from Canada or the Northern parts of American, and many of them come every year. Some have a house here and La Manzinilla is where their families come to escape the North American winter.

As for the Mexican boys, most of them live here. Otherwise, they grew up in the town but have moved to bigger cities for school or work and come home for the holidays every year. They collect white girls like playing cards, just like their brothers did before them, approaching them as they circle the Jardín in pairs or trios and invite them to come join in on whatever might be going on that evening. The girls hesitate, paranoid by the stories and stranger danger lessons, but it’s the holidays, and the boys are charming and enthusiastic, and everyone seem nice enough.

And so the mob grows and changes every year, everyone engaged in new and exciting ways to binge drink. This night, at Miguel’s, starts like most others: someone collects a few pesos from each person and takes off, returning later with several bottles of Oso Negro vodka, some mixers, and a few bags of ice. At 70 pesos – $5 or so – for a litre bottle, Oso Negro is the cheapest, nastiest vodka around. Someone starts up the music. On the front patio, Hermano starts setting up a drinking game. He find a deck of cards and balances it on the neck of a bottle. We then take it in turns to blow cards off the top. If you blow none off, or only one, or all at once, you are handed the vodka and ordered to take a straight, searing swig.
“Feel the Black Bear burn!” Ipo yells, cackling as someone pulls on the bottle and flails for a mixer to chase.

Everyone is drunk fast. Plastic cups are filled with ice and mixer and great dollops of vodka and sucked down quickly. People eventually lose interest in the game and Hermano stops collecting up the cards from the ground to rebalance on the neck of the bottle, and starts roaming the party, pouring straight vodka down the throats of anyone who tips their head back and opens their mouth. I keep my head back for particularly long time and don’t need a mixer. “Tough,” Hermano tells me, and this is a good compliment because it’s only my third or fourth time hanging out with these guys and I want them to think well of me.

“Everyone needs to be drunk!” someone commands. “Are you drunk?” I’m asked. And I am. But I’m woozy and cottony and starting to feel slightly ill. But I must not look it because Hermano doesn’t believe me and keeps urging me to drink more, that I need to get drunk, everyone needs to get drunk.

But although I have my father’s alcohol tolerance, I have my mother’s weak, two-pot-screamer stomach, so I usually tolerate for a while, and then I throw up. As a result, I’ve never been blackout drunk, never lost my memory to alcohol. I like getting drunk, but I’ve never been thorough about it like some of my friends, never been able to guzzle alcohol indefinitely until I pass out.

So at this party, vodka bottles circling and people I barely know drunk as sin around me, I nod my head each time the question is posed, try to act drunker than I am, and finally go tell Hermano I’m heading off.

“You can’t go! You’re not enough drunk,” Hermano says, motioning with his bottle that I should tip my head back. I do and swallow the vodka and feel my eyes water.
“There,” he says. “No going.”

The night blurs into bad music and unintelligable conversation. I stop taking sips from my mixed drink. People sit or stand in circles, smoking and nodding their heads along to the beat. Some dance.  Mexicans talk to Mexicans in Spanish, the rest of us speak in English about nothing, slurring and swaying.

Eventually, I find Derrick and the two of us slip out together. His sister, Lauren, wants to stay so we leave her there. We start walking, and conversation is hard, but I’m lucid enough to hold one, and lucid enough to think and walk reasonably straight. Derrick leaves me at the mouth of the path and I stumble heavily up, thinking only about bed.

But when I get there, I can’t hold the world still, the semi-dark pivoting in halting semi-circles. Undressing is hard. It takes a few attempts to get my shoes off. Eventually, I lie down and turn the light off, holding my eyes partially open to pin the world into position. But it doesn’t take long before I am up and bent over the railing, dressed only in my underwear, vomiting heavily into the forest on the other side. Then dry retching. And I can’t stop it.

I try to go back to bed but I’m too sick. And then I find I can’t stand still, or upright, and then I can’t think anymore and suddenly I’ve never been sicker than this. I’m 24 years old and so out of control I can’t stand or sleep or do anything at all except feel very sick and disgusted with myself and very, very scared.

I try showering but it’s only more disorienting. And where before I was drunk and sick, now I’m wet, drunk and sick. Putting on a shirt is nearly impossible. Everything has fucking buttons and I can’t find one without but eventually there’s a singlet and I’m on my way up to the house, barefoot, hammering my steps into the ground. Progress is slow and I’m concentrating harder than I ever have on this simplest of tasks. Finally I’m inside the main house, through the kitchen door, and Brian, who  has been woken up by the sound of someone pushing open his gate and stepping heavily into his house, is standing naked by the dining room table with a machete. And it’s so fucking funny, but all I can manage is, “I’m so sick. Man, I’m so sick.”

Then Jeanne is there as I dry retch into her toilet, though I don’t remember if her hand is on my shoulder or if she’s holding my hair or rubbing my back or whether she’s just there. I can hardly talk now, but I tell her I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened. I’m so sick. And it’s true – I don’t know what happened. This is so far beyond the drunk I’ve been before that it’s hard to think that half-an-hour ago I was coherent enough to have a conversation as I walked home. But her and Brian just tell me to stop apologising, that it’s completely fine, that they’re just so glad I came up for help.

They drag a mattress into the bathroom, to where I’m half-passed out on the floor. But I don’t have the strength or the stomach to climb up onto it, so I just stay where I am and try to pass out all the way.

When I come to, I find I can make it to the mattress. It feels like I’ve been out ten minutes but in the morning, Jeanne tells me it was an hour or two. They’ve been up the whole time, checking on me, making sure I’m OK. She brings me a pillow and a blanket. I find I can talk a little. I tell her I’m alright now. She believes me. Finally, after being up two or more hours, Brian and Jeanne wish me goodnight and go back to bed.

I wake up and it’s light but only barely. I find I can sit up, stand, move around. My head’s clear but constricted. I fold up the blanket, pile up the pillow nicely, and retreat back to my treehouse.

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The Sound of Mexico: A Few Scattered First Impressions

The first thing I notice about Mexico is the sound of it: constant and unrestrained. There’s no such thing as noise complaints in Mexico. Noise and activity, like many other things, isn’t something that seems like it should register as an annoyance. In fact, Jeanne explains to me that a lot of Mexicans would probably be uncomfortable without it.

I arrive in La Manzinilla – the little town where Jeanne, Brian and Glen spend their winters – on Christmas Eve, and everyone is celebrating. You can buy fireworks at a little stall in the Jardín and people do, and they go all night – loud and sudden as gunshots, coughing out more noise than light. My walk into town on Christmas Eve night is flanked by music from houses and shops, from the loudspeakers on the roof of the church. Dogs bark, roosters wake and crow, people call out.

Mexicans here don’t seem to get drunk and go roaring violently through the streets like Australians do, they get drunk and celebrate: play music, joke and laugh, dance, sing – celebrate. Their mode of celebration seems cleaner, less restrained and caught up than the usual Australian modes of celebration too; unconditional and clean. Unselfconscious. This is my first impression, anyway.

* * *


Jeanne, Brian and Glen’s house in Mexico is huge and open, decorated much like their house in Canada: with colour and a million statues and paintings and wall-hangings collected at a million different markets or shops. There is no real consistency outside quirk and colour, so the effect is one of dense, almost chaotic detail and playfulness. It’s the house of grown-ups who have never really reconciled with the idea of growing up. Here, like in their house in Canada, I notice new things every day.

The house is set high on a hill. The main living area is enclosed only by a roof and a few thick wooden pillars in place of walls, with the dining and living areas set forward and the kitchen set back. This means you can stand at the stove or sit at the dining table or lie around in the cane armchairs and enjoy an uninterrupted view of La Manzinilla’s valley, the tall hill opposite, and a triangular slice of the bay to the right.

I am the only young person in the house, with pretty much everyone else being in their late fifties or early sixties. Even though these aren’t the most grown up grown-ups, there is still the tension that comes from interacting socially, and from accepting the hospitality of, people a generation older who aren’t my parents. The status and authority of age, although not really cemented into modern Western interaction by overt practices and language, is none-the-less deeply ingrained into society. Although I would consider Jeanne, Brian and Glen friends, and good friends, they will always be friends of my parents first.  This isn’t necessarily bad or good, it’s just an aspect of the relationship and another way of relating to people.

Even though they’re happy to have me, and all the other people who come to stay, I’m still very aware that I am living in their house and eating their food for long periods of time, both in Canada and in Mexico. Probably more aware than I would be with people my own age. But there’s always that sense when you’re accepting favours from people, which is one of the exhausting things about travel. The only thing to do is the dishes, I find. Help out where you can, enjoy it, be grateful, and help other people out whenever your in the situation to do so. It all works out in the end, I reckon.

* * *

On my Christmas Eve walk, I notice a large nativity scene out front of the church. Mary and Joseph take centre stage, flanked by a few farm animals, as well as a shepard and a milk maid who are both a few sizes smaller than the others and must have been from a different set. Between Mary and Joseph, the bassinet for baby Jesus is conspicuously empty.
“He hasn’t been born yet,” an American woman, also examining the scene, says to her partner. “Tomorrow. He gets born tomorrow.”

Christmas Day, sure enough, there he is: bright-eyed and loosely swaddled. Mary, who before was turned conversationally out towards her guests, has now been turned to face him and only him – her full, ceramic attention on the Newborn King.

* * *

At Gene, Brian and Glen’s, I am sleeping in the studio at the bottom of the garden. It’s two stories with a bedroom up the top and a toilet and storeroom at the bottom, and Brian’s workshop on the deck. The bedroom is open and set under a palm roof, like a fucking tourist brochure photograph. All four walls are mosquito screens so sleeping in there has much of the visual effect of sleeping outside, which suits me just fine: the temperature, most of the time, is amniotic. The separate bathroom is the opposite of the bedroom in that there are walls but no roof, so I shower and brush my teeth under an uninhibited sky.

Christmas Eve night, I fall asleep to the chorus of celebration radiating up the side of the valley: firecrackers, dogs, music, everything set over the substantial hum of crickets. When I wake, a little after dawn, it is like every living creature within earshot is greeting the light with its voice – announcing that it has awoken alive and ready for the day. Roosters scream in the dawn, a new shift of dogs bark out their existence; birds call, people yell. The gas truck man and the water truck man battle with their loudspeakers for superiority in the soundscape: the water truck with a Tarzan like cry and then “Agua, agua,” the gas truck with a short jingle and then, “Globaal Gaaaas”. More music plays from different houses. Radios chatter through windows. It is the constant clatter and gabble of Mexico – something that is blaring and noticeable now, but will soon ebb down into normality, until anything less would seem loud in its silence.

Mexico for Christmas

Alright, so. It’s Christmas night. There are a little over twenty of us, mostly Mexicans, packed into three cars. The Toyota probably has only two or three over normal capacity but there are around eleven clinging to every available surface of the jeep. I’m in the tray of the ute, hanging on for dear, glorious life, which is exactly what I’m living all the way to the fullest right now. It’s maybe a little after midnight. I’m facing forward, standing stomach against the cab, jostling shoulder to shoulder with three or four others, and we’re hurtling some stupid speed in neutral down a dirt road through the jungle to some beach in the middle of nowhere, Mexico. I’m dressed for Christmas: nice shoes, earrings, wearing a fucking dress of all things, which has ripped neatly along a seam on my way into the tray. Wind in my hair, lungs, face, chest.

Finally, we get to the beach. A few of the Mexican boys, a Canadian boy called Derrick and myself start to gather driftwood and dried up palm fronds to light a fire. The beach is kinda shitty, with a lagoon in the way of the real beach and a mess of driftwood and sticks along the edges. The girls want to go back. They stage a protest in the jeep while the rest of us get the fire ready. But there’s not really enough wood and we can’t get it big enough, and it’s actually pretty cold out here with the wind blowing off the ocean. We persist anyway and eventually the girls give up their protest and stand shivering around our pathetic little fire with us. Someone hauls the eskies out of one of the cars, filled with ice and cheap mixers, and we stand around drinking tequila and vodka out of plastic cups.

After a while, some strange light appears on the horizon over the ocean, and another on one of the hills, which may be some rich fisherman with floodlights or it may, someone says, be the military. A few people seem to thinks it’s the latter, which could be a problem considering we’re not really supposed to be there. Suddenly there’s a flurry of activity as we flee back into our three vehicles, up the private road and the fuck out of there. We stop half-way up the road to unlock one of the gates and notice that the Toyota is not following. The jeep turns back. When they arrive, they find the Toyota bogged and that the occupants have lit another fire and are standing around it, smoking and drinking and hanging out, waiting casually for rescue.

Finally, all three are up on the main road and the ute’s run out of fuel. The Toyota takes off to Melaque to get some more and the rest of us crack out the liquor and cigarettes and just start a new party, right there on the side of the road, blasting music from the speakers of the jeep. The Toyota comes back, they siphon the fuel down a hose from a juice bottle and into the tank, and off we go home again home again.

Thus ends my third day in Mexico.

Down the Coast 8: Yuma, AZ


Yuma, Arizona: Nothing but caravan parks, American flags and Christmas decorations as far as the eye can see. This is where the debris of America goes to die – people, animals, things. This is death’s waiting room: retirees heading south for the winter to sit among the sand and wait. This is desert and apocalyptic wind, bargain warehouses and personal utes the size of granny flats. This is grotesque consumerism played out in double-bagged groceries and all the cheap plastic the population can lap up. This is dead streets and old people, new houses and deeply mundane conversation about nothing at all. This is where weather-talk was born.

In the caravan (RV in American lingo) the TV blares constantly from the far wall: reality TV, commercial news, daytime soaps, holiday specials and ads upon ads upon ads. Christmas has risen like a bile in my throat and I don’t want to see another snowman or flashing light for as long as I fucking live but there they are anyway, lining the dead streets, cluttering front yards, blinking plastic against the whitewash.

The sun has soaked this place through, no-one even notices it’s up there any more.

It’s like I’ve finally hit America – the America I was expecting anyway – and it’s all concentrated on the border, like they’ve pooled all their forces around the edges to keep other cultures the hell out and American culture in, to slow the process of osmosis as much as is possible.

Cards are important here. In the evenings, Marcel plays game after game of Solitare on the computer while Colette reads or watches TV. In the afternoons, Colette plays bridge in the clubhouse, while Marcel smokes and walks laps of the RV. At 3 or 4pm, they all gather – RV park friends, retired and waiting – in lawn chairs on the clean white gravel, drinking together in the what’s left of the sun. My youth here is a novelty so I am the centre of conversation when I join them. They tell me over and over how dangerous Mexico is, tell me stories of theft and murder and swindle.

I’m here to leave my car. It’s too dangerous and too complicated to drive over the border, so I’m leaving Roger with relatives and flying to Puerta Vallerta, then taking the bus to La Manzinilla, where Jeanne and Brian and Glen have their house. Colette is my step grandmother. She married my grandfather after his divorce and my mother says she saved him. She was there to help him as he grew old and she was there to help him as he died, and then she married Marcel and is now growing old with him, south for the winter, bridge in the afternoons, TV in the evenings, early to bed, up and at ’em late. It doesn’t take long for the photo albums to come out. There I am, two years old, white blonde hair and pixie features. In some, my brother’s a baby. In some, Mum is pregnant and huge, Dad proud and young and making faces for the camera. And then my grandfather in others, who I never really knew, and I search for signs of Mum in his face, for signs of me.

Inside, the RV is spacious and comfortable. I sleep on the sofa, some blankets and my jacket against the night-time desert cold. There’s a fake fireplace under the TV, a small table, a sizable kitchen. The flat, musty Arizona water is reverse-osmosis filtered. Coffee is plentiful. The days are bright white and impossibly clear.
“The RV park where my cousin stays. It has some trees,” Colette tells me.

I take off on my own for as long as I can. I drive past RV park after RV park, past places that repair them and places that sell them. I go to the markets for Christmas presents, and when they turn out to be barns of cheap plastic, I find some antique stores in the centre. It’s the Wild bloody West out here, deserted and dusty and dead in the streets, a few old men watching me from under their hat brims in the shade.

In one of the antique stores, a particularly messy and cluttered one, a slightly askew man goes up to the guy at the counter and asks him if he’s heard of Dan Brown.
“He’s really good,” he says. “I like him a whole lot. Have you heard of him?”
The man behind the counter asks me if he can help me with anything.

In the next store, the strange man has arrived ahead of me.
“Have you heard of Dan Brown?” he asks the lady behind the counter. “I really liked Inception. That was a really good book.”

I drive into the desert. The interstate is a dead straight scar carved into the yellow and heat, a perfect dissection of nothing. I fly away from here and into Mexico tomorrow. It’s three days before Christmas.