Yeah, I was stupid--I admit, but it sounded too exciting. The prospect beat shoveling horse stalls at the brood mare ranch where my girlfriend and I lived. My buddy from south Texas had called me one night and proposed a trip to the southern end of Mexico. He explained that we could get rare falcons, Toucans, and green parrots and bring them to the U.S. and make some money. It seemed like a plan; he and I had had adventures before.
So I bought 'The People's Guide to Mexico', read it in one night, and considered myself an expert. I was taking second year Spanish and that's how I justified the trip to everyone. My girlfriend and I spent the next two weeks getting ready for the trip, which was to last no more than a month. We'd come back to the states with a considerable investment, on our way to riches. Yeah right....
On a Thursday night in the middle of June, we packed up the Volkswagen, little realizing how far Eagle Pass, Texas really was. We left the next morning before dawn. It took us all day with no air conditioning and with a head wind thrashing us around to reach Eagle Pass. There we met up with our friend.
Having survived the trip of almost 1000 miles, we encountered our next challenge--Mexican customs. In those days Piedras Negras was no more than a village. But the customs officials were quite savvy. With all the camping gear we had stashed, our first order was to get through customs with something left intact. Who knew that camping gear was contraband in Mexico? Our bolsas were lightened by about $30 each, and we were finally permitted to proceed to the interior.
The first day in this unbelievable country was full of surprises. My second year Castillian Spanish was less than useless. Furthermore, the existence of various dialects of Mexican Spanish had never even occurred to me. By the time I realized that everyone was NOT speaking some kind of Spanish pig Latin, the dialect would change again and then again. I gave up trying to speak perfectly and ended up sounding like some gibbering, retarded Mexican midget with a frontal lobotomy.
One good thing happened that first day. After leaving Saltillo just before sunset and hitting the flat basin between two mountain ranges, we stopped to empty our bladders. There was barely enough light to see, but I walked about one hundred yards from what passed for a highway. As I stood there I noticed that the splattering I was hearing was not my piss hitting the hard caliche earth. I was, instead, watering peyote plants. The stuff was everywhere. I went ape shit gathering up as much as I could carry, and ran back to the car. I figured it would be fun once we got to Palenque.
It was shortly afterwords that my next brilliant realization occurred. Driving at night in Mexico is absolutely suicidal, and driving at night as fast as you can is beyond suicidal. Mexicans drive without their lights on in pitch darkness! I soon learned that this was a game of survival of the luckiest and a form of "chicken" that is played throughout the country.
We did manage to avoid head-on collisions, but still had to contend with pedestrians, herds of goats, dogs, horses, and donkey carts in the middle of the highway. I later found out that if I had hit someone and stopped to lend assistance, I would have been put UNDER the jail--no questions asked. That's just the way things work in Mexico. At any rate, tensions were high in our little group. It didn't help that some of us had begun to develop violent, explosive shits. Now there were as many hazards inside the car as outside of it.
An aside on that subject--bottled water in Mexico is a joke, so don't even bother. It is just tap water, and shit liquefying organisms live in that water. The only safe drinks are Cokes and beer. After a couple of weeks I started noticing that NO ONE in Mexico drinks water. Most visitors' first day in Mexico will probably be like mine. They will drink some 'bottled' water or brush their teeth in it and at that point it will be too late. Two weeks later their guts will turn to gravy, and they will be on their backs calling for their mommy.
The first day finally got us to Palma Sola on the Gulf Coast half way down Mexico. We stayed on the beach there. We noticed how weird the crabs looked and we fell asleep.
The next day we woke up to this wonderful smell of tropical trees flowering. Such sweetness it was. I helped fix breakfast and we packed and headed out for another day of Avoiding Suicide. As we drove a few miles down the highway, off to the left I noticed a nuclear power plant. At that moment, I understood why those crabs on the beach looked like spaghetti monsters. Like everywhere else in Mexico, environmentalism was not much of a concern. But for some reason, begging, being a Jehovah's Witness, and walking in the middle of the highway with your goats were of considerable concern.
Driving through the cities of Mexico, trying to find where the highway I had just been on had disappeared to was like being in a Mario Brothers video game. I ALWAYS got lost in Coatzacoalcos, Vera Cruz, and Tampico. Even if I had understood Mexican pig Latin, getting directions to anywhere from anyone was like trying to understand a red dirt fundamentalist speaking in tongues. Generally, I felt like a 10 year old driving on the wrong side of the street, riding the brake. While lost in Tampico, I called for my mother many times as I bounced off the curb like a pinball.
Finally, I had to find the so-called ferry to get across the river to get back on the highway. Mexico's idea of a ferry boat is to weld 55 gallon drums together in some alley, strap plywood on top of that, and power it by an old '56 Dodge hemi. True macho is getting on one of those for the one mile or so stretch of river to get to the other side. Once we had crossed, we continued our trek south.
After getting stuck in traffic in Coatzacoalcos during rush hour for an hour and a half I finally realized that we were at the beginning of the end to our destination, Palenque. It was early twilight and the car was literally starting to smell like crap and I shuddered at another night of driving. Off in the distance I saw a thunderhead that did not get any bigger the more we drove towards it. I found out too late that was because it was a HUGE STORM. I also noticed that the highway was raised about 10 feet or so off the ground and that the edges on each lane had a curb! I am convinced the Mexicans do this to get rid of bad drivers. If you leave the road you're screwed. Regardless, 2 1/2 ton Mexican trucks did everything possible to pass me.
So now it was dark, and sprinkles were hitting the windshield. By now I was used to driving at night--once I had corked every orifice in my body. Then the impossible happened. One of those 2 1/2 ton trucks strained to pass us, flashing his lights, and blasting his horn within 3 feet of our bumper. So I slowed down to let him pass. A car fight with my girlfriend and friend ensued as to whether or not to let him pass. I won and the truck went around me. Five minutes later the bottom of the sky fell out. It rained like I had never seen before, serious tropical rains. It was so hot and so humid I could have drowned INSIDE the car. Once again my guts turned to liquid, everyone started farting and we couldn't roll the windows down.
For the next 4 hours I kept thinking we were on the speed ball to hell as we entered the land of the Maya--the place where even the Federales don't go. The place where Catholics couldn't convert many Indians, and where there is a good reason why there are armed Zapatista guerrillas there--Palenque, Chiapas, the capital of the once great Mayan Empire. Now it was a stronghold of the future Zapatistas and Subcommander Marcos.
The Feathered Serpent, the Pirate, the Celtic Witch and the Jaguar Priest
We finally arrived in Palenque that night, sore, smelling like farts, and with our nerves shot. I wanted something alcoholic to drink. I stepped out of the car and it was like someone had thrown a bucket of water on me. At least I started smelling better. My companions, The Celtic Witch and the One-eyed Pirate, returned to calm.
A night's rest, more beer for breakfast, and I had my head screwed on straight once again. The morning came with a clear bright sky. We packed our gear and set off down the highway we came in on, to scout out the falcons that nested in the highest trees in open savannas. The minute we got on the highway we understood why the roads were 10 feet above everything else. On both sides of the highway, the open savanna had turned into a torrential river flowing north to the Usumacinta river. It was scary. We had to drive to a small village called Emiliano Zapata. It was here I realized that, given the proper circumstances, things could get ugly and bleak. Short, squatty, machete-wielding Mayans are intimidating.
The asking-for-directions problem nailed us once again. Only this time no one could speak Spanish. "Wattle wattle, clacked kwatle" is what Mayan sounds like. I felt as if I were in the land of the Three Stooges. We turned around and headed back to Palenque. We needed to search for birds in the mornings or evenings if we were to have any chance of getting any.
Palenque is a little bigger than Zapata, so we found a "motel" that had a "restaurant" attached. We paid a few pesos, unloaded our gear, and noticed no beds but plenty of hammock hooks all around. I also noticed my girlfriend, the Celtic Witch, eying the hammock hooks and saying with determination "Let's get some hammocks." I recognized in that very instant, with the clarity of white light, with the vision of the ancients, that we were in trouble, that this could get ugly. I knew her too well. Up to this point, we all had been wearing tee shirts and khakis, I knew she could only tolerate that dress for just so long. It was only a matter of time.
Before the words of objection came screaming out of the Pirate and me, she stripped naked, put on her tiniest halter top, greased up a pair of her shortest cutoffs in order to get into them, put on a pair of sandals and started out the door. The Pirate and I pissed our pants, shook our heads, mumbled vague obscenities and quickly followed after her. We began pleading. No, we began whimpering and begging her to come back so we could talk reasonably about this. Only the modern and the rich Mexicans do this and they DON'T do it among razor-sharp-machete-wielding warriors. You simply cannot let their barely over five foot stature deceive you.
In Yanqueland, her fashion statement would not as much as batted a casual eye. Parading like this, in a Mayan village, in the middle of Chiapas, down the whole length of the main street to get to the market, would evoke any number of ugly nasties. This fact is especially true if there are two Yanques, pleading, whimpering and begging behind her in language every bit strange and unearthly as the language of the people of the Maya.
And it was not only what she wore either, and maybe this is what saved us, but to walk down main street like this with frizzy, shoulder length orange hair, the whitest of pale skin covered with freckles, and THEN say to the Pirate and I, 'What are these people saying? Why are they staring at me? What's the matter with you guys anyway?'. This would indeed, invoke the wrath of the Jaguar Priest.
Every Mayan Zapatista in Chiapas with a machete, stopped, dropped their slack jaws, made what we presumed were cat calls, and carried grins that the Pirate and I could only consider to be sinister. You just don't do this in remote villages, in the mountains in the heart of the land of the people of the Jaguar.
It was little wonder then, why we gladly paid a premium for the hammacas familia. And no, we did not barter or quibble. And little wonder too that I didn't remember our conversation over a breakfast of beer, scrambled eggs and chopped habaneros. It was only after I had convinced the Celtic Witch that we needed to head back to stretch out and prepare the hammocks that my stomach settled down. Reversing the direction of habanero chilies after having just eaten them is ghoulish and nightmarish. I was only relieved, when as I stepped out the door of the cafe, I saw 30 odd Mayans in a 2 1/2 ton 'people' truck leaving the village in the opposite direction, heading for the cane fields.
I queried the One-eyed Pirate as to whether or not we should just wrap her up each day in one of the hammocks, to prevent ourselves from getting our throats slit so that she would not be whisked off and sacrificed somewhere. "No," he said, "They just think we're a couple of barbaric and rude heathens." Oh great, that made me feel much better, thanks for that. The One-eyed Pirate was always right.
The One-Eyed Pirate
The One-Eyed Pirate got that way from a childhood experience. As all little boys will do, he ignored his mother's warnings of "Don't do that! you'll poke somebody's eye out!" We all played "Zorro" and "The Lone Ranger," emulating the popular children's TV shows of the time. So it wasn't strange that one day the Pirate was playing The Lone Ranger with a friend, and much to no one's surprise, got his eye poked out with an arrow. For years, the Pirate just left the 'dead' eye to wander around in its socket. Increasingly, over the years, it troubled and irritated him and he had it removed. Disliking the idea of a glass eye, he decided to wear a black patch. He liked being The One-eyed Pirate.
As the sweltering, oppressive heat grew more stifling, I noticed the village simply shutting down. No one was moving. Every one was asleep or simply laying about. Time was drawing near to search for nests. Checking the sky we noticed great clouds swelling up over the mountains. We thought we might have time to check a few nests. Throwing our tree climbing gear into the car, we got on the road to Zapata and headed for a few of the nests we had spotted earlier in the day. The once flooded savannas were now a soggy, mucky mess. Our target was the tallest tree in the middle of the pasture.
Armed with rope, a climbing harness and tree spikes, we sloshed across the field to the imposing tree. As we approached this ancient lone sentinel, it was hard to imagine that it once stood in among other giants. Looking up we saw the flash of a Toucan, a bird that always appears to be pushing a banana. And then we saw the aplomado. She was beautiful.
I watched as he started strapping the contraptions on himself--first, the climbing harness and sling, and then the climbing spikes. The complete outfit was outfitted with numerous carabiners and snap links. Finally, he slung the rope over his arm and started up the tree. There was a good fifty feet or so of no branches. As he approached the nest I heard a whoop from him and he yelled that there were 3 downy chicks. He grabbed two of them and climbed quickly down the tree while I watched, belaying him on the rope.
OK, robbing nests means the parents will "double clutch" a new set of eggs. They will breed and a new set of downy chicks will once again emerge, nature's way of replenishing itself. We expected that the birds we had robbed would do that.
Rushing back to our camp with our treasure, we found that hunger was blunting the edge of our excitement. We also had a strong interest in the bag of peyote I had gathered on our trip. We were not sure what we would do with that yet.
So, we slid into the "Veranda Cafe." I call it that because it was nothing more than a huge thatched hut with scorpions falling down from the roof occasionally. We strode in, the One-eyed Pirate, a Celtic Witch in cutoffs and a generously filled halter top, and me in fatigues. We picked out a table, sat down, and stared at all the fake Mayan statues being sold. I began to feel there was something odd about the place, but I kept telling myself "There's nothing strange about this." Then it hit me square in the forehead. I noticed everyone was ordering two of everything. I pointed this out to my compadres. They shrugged. Each table had two of everything, two beers, two soft drinks two waters, two pulques. Too strange.
We all looked like turistas, but mainly there were only Mexican turistas in the restaurant, with Zapatistas waiting in the wings looking somber and always carrying machetes. We ordered a round of Coronas, which in Mexico, is the absolute cheapest beer you can get. Every village with electricity, a parrot, and a refrigerator has Corona for sale, if nothing else. It sold for fifty cents a bottle and it was that expensive only because we were nortenos. It is amazing what marketing can do. Now thirty years later, it is one of the most expensive imported beers you can buy in the U.S, mainly because....we are nortenos.
I felt a sharp, insistent nudging on my leg. At first I thought the Celtic Witch wanted to discretely show me something indiscreet. I ignored the nudge and swilled another swallow of Corona. "I am getting chicharones," the Pirate said idly after looking at the menu (with his one eye.) "I am going for the bifstek," said the Celtic Witch. "I...am...," I said as I looked down at my numb leg that was still being continuously nudged.
I saw what I at first thought was a saber-toothed pig! Actually, it was a javalina, AKA a collared peccary. I shooed him off and to my amazement he seemed to be waiting for that, because he politely left. He went to the next table. Once there, he nudged another person. The person sitting at the table then took the Coke bottle or cerveza and lowered it beneath the table and tipped it. The opening of the bottle went right into the javalina's mouth and in about 2 seconds the Coke or even quicker the beer, was gone. He nudged the diner again and received a handful of fried corn tortillas and then moved on to the next table. I showed this to the Pirate and the Witch and they each quickly ordered another round of beers.
"Shit," I thought. "Now I KNOW what they are going to try. Um... a drunk javalina might be unpredictable. Shit, they are unpredictable when they are sober!" The piggy went to another table. This time they gave him beer. It continued like this as the piggy hit up each table in quick succession. He finally showed up again at our table. Wham! He quickly killed our two beers and continued on to the next table. This continued for 3 rounds. My mind was racing. "This is scary. Bad stuff could happen here. Call a Zapatista. Get some machetes in here. Does he really have tusks?" To my surprise, he just laid down and slept. Ha! We finished our meal and went back to the room. I don't even remember what I ate.
The next day we had to begin finding birds to feed the birds. This is easy in Mexico. Just find a small village, drive to the edge of the village, and you will find garbage of all kinds dumped just off the side of the road. It is here that you find the source of food for our aplamado falcons. Birds of prey must eat meat. Not hamburger, not spam, not lunch meat, but red, warm, bleeding meat, freshly killed. We had come prepared. In our arsenal was a pump action pellet rifle and pellets--the only legal "weapon" in Mexico. Now hanging around garbage dumps causes curiosity from the village kids and sure enough we attracted a youngster on a bicycle. We recruited him to fetch the birds we would kill and negotiated a dollar a piece for each one he fetched. He told us in Spanish, "They are good roasted." No doubt....
The dump was filled with boattail grackles, which were quite large and had lots of meat on them. One, two, three and we had our catch. We now had to prepare them. The Pirate had that down pat too. Feeding these downy chicks amounted to: pulling grackles' heads off, plucking the feathers, and chopping them up with a very sharp knife, bones and all. Messy....We fed the little chicks by hand bit by bit. By this time the locals were showing considerable curiosity. The little boy had ridden into the village and apparently told people what weird things these Yanques were doing. Eventually a crowd gathered and the people gave us poor Yanques all sorts of recipes. Roasted grackle, grackle with habanero sauce, grackle hamberguesa, hamberguesa-helper and grackle, grackle marinara, fettucini grackle and so on. It almost turned into a grackle fiesta party. We had to go through this twice a day to feed the birds. It became an interesting ritual.
The Pirate had brought along a folder that had a half-inch stack of papers inside it. I began looking through them and was curious as hell as to their purpose. They were each official looking with stamped seals, ribbons, and the works. "What's this?" I inquired with uncertainty. "I didn't know we would need all this red tape." The Pirate laughed, "Not to worry, this will get us through Mexico with no hassles. All we need to do now is to find a Mexican agricultural official and have him sign all these--he'll feel important."
As it turns out, Mexican officials love official looking papers. If you sound serious, and flash around papers that look official and lots of them, they feel like they are doing their jobs. At least, that's all I could figure out. So we drove around the countryside looking for an official looking Mexican vehicle. Because of the Zapatistas and mean looking machete wielding Mayans, this wasn't so easy. It was rare to see Fedarales in Chiapas.
We finally found one dressed in an official looking uniform with a "Departmento de Agricola" badge. He even had a side arm. Things could have gotten ugly. Fortunately, he was very friendly and very impressed with all the papers he had to sign. We told him we were students at a U.S. university and were conducting research. For no other reason except to appear as if he knew what he was doing, he asked us to show our university ID's. We went through this nonsense for what seemed like an hour, and we left with all the papers signed. I was amazed.
I pondered the wisdom of eating peyote and being stoned in a foreign country in the jungle mountains with Zapatistas hidden all around. Even drinking slimy pulque in a local bar can turn into wild craziness. People will begin looking two-headed drinking that stuff. It was time to drive up into the mountains and view Mizola Falls. I scratched the peyote idea, got rid of it, and we headed for the mountains.
The falls were magnificent. No one came up here much, at least no turistas. Solid jungle--Mayan ancestors must have been all around. The effect was just too mysterious for me. The falls were filled with something numinous, silent, and solemn. Even the Pirate and Witch felt it. The Witch was paler than pale and The Pirate was darting his eye. I was focusing on the strange beauty of the falls.
"We need to leave," The Pirate said urgently and with weird body language. I knew he believed all the stories we had heard about this place. I ignored him, and the Witch whined, "Why do we have to leave?" The Pirate abruptly pushed her into the back seat. I began to think things could ugly really quickly, and I said no more. We screeched out of there and down the mountain. "Look to your right," the Pirate said with a chuckle. There, on the whole mountain side was marijuana as far as you could see. Out of nowhere came dozens of fierce Mayans carrying those famed razor-sharp machetes and looking at us grimly. I will never discount these stories ever again.
The Little Feathered Serpents:
I'm going back to New York City I do believe I've had enough.
After several days we had our birds and were ready to go back. The trip back was hurried, because we did not want to keep the birds confined too much. Getting home was also an ordeal.
After driving continuously all day, except for filling up with nasty smelling Mexican gas, we stopped early in the evening. All the beer I had drunk made me need to pee. We found a place to pull over and I hopped out. Across the highway was a huge pasture that went on forever. It looked like a half chopped down palmetto forest. I ran about 20 yards into the field and peed on the fallen palmetto branches and leaves. Even before I finished, I noticed a curious tickling on my ankles. I finished my pee and ran back to the car.
After about 10 minutes, the tickling had progressed up my leg to my calves. "Oh my gawd!" I thought, "What the hell is THIS?" I told my compadres about it, and The Pirate said calmly, "It's ticks, dumb ass." "TICKS? Jeez I am gonna get a disease now!," I yelped. "We'll stop in a bit to set up camp, you can get rid of them then," he replied, laughing. Jeez, these suckers were itching me and now I could feel them moving up! This was getting ugly. I grabbed a flashlight to see where they were, which by now were my thighs. The flashlight revealed nothing. But every hair follicle was jiggled enough that I KNEW THEY WERE THERE. Before we stopped for the night to camp, they had moved all the way up to my genitals. Now I was freaked out. What nasty disease would I be getting? How was I going to get rid of these things?
We pulled up to a rest area. The Pirate broke out all the camping gear and I was on top of a picnic table, spread eagle while the Celtic Witch with a flashlight in one hand and a pair of tweezers in the other, giggled. The only thing to be done was to pick them out, one by one from not so fun places. (I tried dousing them in white gas. Don't try that!) The ticks were now gorging on my blood and she could see them. This witch was now meticulously picking off each one with a sometimes misguided hand and putting them in a half-filled bottle of white gas. She was counting them too, and making a sport of me. Two hours later, much to my relief, she actually got all 300 of them. I spent a restless night. I woke up next morning hearing a steer being butchered across the road at the public open-air slaughter slab--meat for the day's market in town.
The travel next day was boring and grueling. We were now in a rush, a race for time, a contest to see how numb we could make ourselves in order to make time pass fast. Then the Pirate went totally brain dead. He pulled off the road and went down into the bar ditch. His explanation was an emergency stop to relieve himself. I guess he just didn't want to attract attention considering what we were transporting.
Now in the dry season, pulling off the road like this wouldn't be a problem. But it was plain to me that the ground was soaked and we were bound for a mud slide trying to get OUT of that bar ditch. We were not far from the Port of Entry of Laredo. So down in the ditch we went, and we got stuck. We got to the shoulder and the rear tires started spinning in sticky caliche mud and no matter what we did we spun our tires and high centered.
But here is where Mexico and Mexicans shined it on. We started attracting a crowd trying to help us. Six Mexicans and a truck with a rope couldn't get us off center and onto the highway. I started to panic, and so did the Celtic Witch. Finally, two donkeys pulling a cart come along. With very little effort, and to our amazement, the low tech solution pulled us out of the ditch. We gave them twenty dollars and a thanks, and off we went to the next surprise.
The Pirate had planned this all along. He had schemed us into this. I, losing confidence moment by moment, had visions of spending years in a federal pen. In order to get the birds past customs, we had to do something with these birds. We had a bird problem, an "exotic" bird problem. This was hardcore.
We stopped just outside Nuevo Laredo at a roadside pull over. "What do we do now?" I asked The Pirate. He ripped through his gear and pulled out three pairs of panty hose. "Birds make no sound in darkness. They stay perfectly quiet and still," he calmly announced. "We take each chick, put them in one leg of the panty hose, and then you just put the panty hose down your leg inside your fatigues." Amazed, I thought this might work.
We traveled through Nuevo Laredo and I tried to act calm. I was calm wasn't I? As we approached U.S. Customs, I felt sick and my mind raced. For the thousandth time during this journey, I thought, "This could get ugly." It was hot and humid and I looked and felt like a wet dish cloth. The Pirate was completely nonchalant, and the Celtic Witch was mentally occupied elsewhere, oblivious to what was about to happen.
The line was long and I was filled with dread as we approached the customs inspectors. We parked and waited. The inspector came over and asked us to step out of the car. We did and they began poking around things as we unloaded our gear. He was not amused at the chopped up bird meat and bones stuffed in a bag inside the iced cooler. "What's this?" he asked, not waiting for an answer. "This can't be taken into the U.S." I felt ready to puke my gall bladder.
Then as quick as it came, it went. "OK, you can leave now," he told us. I felt the panic and freak-out leave me like pulling the drain plug from a tub. We quickly threw everything into the car and shot out of there. As soon as we could we pulled the birds out of our pants, and placed them back in their nest. We continued down the blue highway, in the lonely Texas deserts.
I do believe I've had enough....
I had this adventure in 1977. The falcons we brought back to the states were donated to an aplomado breeding project after a brief period of quarantine. These aplomados became part of a larger breeding project and have long since passed on. However, some of their descendants number among the thousand that have been bred in captivity. Many of the aplamados from this project have been reintroduced to their former habitats in the southwestern U.S., where they were once extinct.