I was lucky to make it back from Mexico alive.
It all started out innocent enough. It was just a little two-week foreign exchange program between my high school, and a local high school in Torreon, a small mining town in Central Mexico.
Richard and I were going along with twelve other Seniors, chaperoned and led by our Spanish teacher Mr. Fitzgerald.
We left nearly two weeks before Halloween and Richard and I had thought about getting mushrooms to trip on our trip down south, making it that much more of an epic adventure, but it turns out we wouldn’t need them. At least I wouldn’t.
I had my bags packed complete with Stephen King's "The Stand"to read throughout the trip, a whole gang of those softer than soft Banana Republic T-Shirts, and of course my lucky yellow Abercrombie and Fitch hat. I loved that hat and I wore it everywhere. Little did I know it would be responsible for getting me home safe and sound.
We flew into Monterrey safe and sound, Thank God! This was my first time out of the country and immediately I was enamored by the little differences; the way the air smelled, the way the advertisements looked, the colors used on the road signs, the infrastructure, the landscape, we were in Mexico!
The majority of the trip passed by in a blur of excitement and exuberance as Richard and I luxuriated in our freedom, spending our days skipping school, playing pool, drinking in bars, and working out at the local gym.
There were a few things that stuck out to me, the first was the way Mexico seemed to be just a touch behind us pop music wise, the majority of the songs on the radio seemed to be Guns N Roses, Aerosmith, and Bon Jovi, whereas back in the States Britney and the Backstreet Boys ruled the airwaves. But the Mexican movie scene seemed to be neck and neck with us. One night Richard and I along with our host families went to see Ben Stiller's breakout hit Something About Mary, which had also just come out in the US. The next thing was the level of romantic gestures, this was a culture that valued the dance of the courtship, something I had always been awkward at, but here it was ritualized to such a beautiful extent that you couldn’t hate the player or the game. For example, serenading your girlfriend, or a girl you wanted to be your girlfriend was something we did multiple nights in Torreon. We would pull up in one of the guy's cars, he would cue up a nice love song, open up his hatchback so the subwoofers could do their job, and then play along with the song on his guitar while he sang sweet nothings up into the window of his beloved. And then instead of the girl leaning out the window or coming down to chat, she would simply and coyly turn her light on and off one time to signal to her lover that she had heard his song and they would be moving on to the next segment of the dance. It was a beautiful thing and although I never did it, I had visions of bringing this cultural ritual back with me to America and making it a thing, I thought it would be so fetch.
This trip to Mexico was one of many personal firsts for me including my first trip to a strip club, my first foray into a discotheque, as they called them in Zacatecas, and my first time skating a half-pipe but other than that nothing of mind bending eventfulness occurred, that is of course until the last night.
To make a long story short that last night, we ended up at yet another night club. This one with bottle service, another first for me, as we got bottle after bottle of Absolute delivered to our table. We drank and danced the night away. Richard and I lost our hosts and the group of friends we came with, not good for two strangers in a strange land who barely speak the language.
The next thing I knew, we were outside the club piling into a Volkswagen Beetle, Richard was making out with some chick with no front teeth and I had this little Mexican fatty sucking on my neck and pulling me into the car. I had to heft her up and in through the window because there were too many people in the car to reasonably open the door without everyone falling out like marbles. Needless to say everyone was blind drunk, including the driver. And then we were off into the Mexican night singing Eagle Eye Cherry’s recent hit Save Tonight.
About ten minutes into the drive I had to piss like a racehorse, I considered holding it, but then I realized I had no idea where we were, where we were going, or how long it would take us to get there. So I quickly transitioned to thinking about just pissing myself. It would be warm for a minute but then it should cool down everyone in the car, at least the nine other knees currently touching me…but then I thought that was just an asshole move and opted to start yelling like a madman for the driver to pull over, because I had to pee! I couldn’t hold it. Pull Over! I yelled.
And the driver did. I crawled out of the window with what remained of my six pack of Modelo, 4 beers to be exact, and boy was I glad I had enough sense to keep an iron grip on those babies, because no sooner had I let the horse out of its barn, and began the insanely relieving exercise of unleashing my bladder, then the Volkswagen, pulled off screeching into the night, everyone laughing and singing. I guess Richard didn't care, or maybe he was just too drunk and down the throat of his toothless girl to notice…I didn’t blame him, this was my own fault.
And so, I did the only thing I could think to do, I started walking. After about thirty minutes I cracked one of my beers and sipped it, letting the filling flavor of the bitter brew alleviate some of the stress that had started to crawl into my mind and heart.
Where was I?
Where was I going?
I had no idea where home was much less what direction to start walking, for all I knew I was going the wrong way. This was before the time of GPS 'sand Smart Phones. I didn’t even have a cell phone at this time. And so I was really and truly lost both physically and existentially in ways that just aren’t possible today due to the unfathomable explosion of technological advances.
This is where things get weird.
I’m not sure if someone slipped something in the tequila, or if those skater dudes at the last house really did put some peyote in their weed, or if what I’m about to describe actually happened, but what happened next changed my life and will forever keep Mexico at the forefront of my heart and mind.
As I walked in the dirty dark of that Mexican night I heard a strange sound like a gallop coming up from behind me. As it grew closer the sound began to take on more meaningful form and shape in the ambient pre-dawn light and what emerged from the darkness appeared to be a lone Aztec Warrior riding a shaggy old buffalo down the side of the highway I was currently stumbling down.
The Warrior pulled the buffalo up next to me, his face painted white and black in the unmistakable skeletal style ubiquitous in Mexico during the celebration of the Day of the Dead, November 1st, the first day after Halloween…of course, that night was Halloween, that’s why we had gone so crazy, or at least that’s ostensibly why we had gone so crazy. The real reason was because we were young and free and unsupervised for the first time in our lives, but the Holiday of Halloween made a convenient excuse as well.
The Buffalo strolled up as a chill went down my spine. The warrior sat ram rod straight, tall and proud atop the Buffalo as he stopped and we stared at each other. His clear golden eyes sparkled in the light from the full moon which bathed the plain in a luminous ivory and made the white paint on his face glow mystically.
The buffalo snorted and I saw steam rise from his nostrils, alluding to the fact that he felt the sudden cold as well. A strange thing in this latitude seeing as how it was 85 degrees that evening when we headed out and started our celebration.
I stared at the young Aztec and then did the only thing I could think to do, I offered him one of my three remaining Modelo’s.
Despite our apparent language barrier, the painted warrior hopped down off his buffalo, which I noticed he'd been riding bare back and stepped over to me to accept the proffered libation. I cracked open the beer and handed the frothy can to him.
He took it, smiling as he nodded in my direction and then he chugged that beer like a champ. I was pretty impressed.
“Where are you going stranger?” The young Aztec asked me.
“Torreon.” Some friends of mine are having a party and I just need to make my way to their house to keep the festivities going. “Yourself?” I asked as a polite return of his inquisitiveness.
“Torreon, that is a strange name for a place, and one I have never heard of before where is it?”
“Straight ahead, I hope. I’m actually a little lost. Where are you going, maybe we could go together?”
“I’m off to the Festival of the Day of the Dead in those hills just over there.”
“There’s a Day of the Dead party at the ruins I asked?” My class had visited the old Aztec ruins as part of one of our cultural excursions the week before. I was fascinated to see how this group of people, developed completely independently of Western Culture, had devised their own unique ways to engage with and interact with the world.
Our guide had told us about the pagan rituals that had been proliferated here and how after the Spanish Conquered these hills the native people had accepted and incorporated the teachings of the Catholic Spanish into their own religion, creating a kind of jambalaya of belief, but at the same time not letting their own beliefs completely slide away…and our guide, it was all rushing back to me now, had said that one of the interesting hybrid beliefs that was a result of the Spanish mixing with the Native people was the celebration of the Day of the Dead, a day the Catholics called All Saints Day. A day that also happened to correspond with the pagan holiday of All Hallow's Eve. Either way, the general belief across cultures and countries seemed to be that this was a day when the veil between the living and the dead became a little bit thinner, a little more permeable. The membrane that separated the two dimensions got so thin in some places that it broke and the living could cross over and engage with the dead and the dead could cross over and engage with the living. I thought it was a good story and nothing more, but now I wasn't so sure.
“Ruins?” the man asked quizzically.
"There are no ruins that is our capital city, and I’m off to celebrate the victory of our ancestors and celebrate those that came before us, for through them we are able to live the lives we have today. It is the greatest of celebrations for us. My grandfather was a great warrior one of the valiant men of the King as was my father and as am I. There will be much dancing and singing and our women will be especially joyful to celebrate with the strong men of valor. Please come and be my guest."
I looked off into the distance, and what seemed before to be the cold dead silent sea of sand now glowed with the red flames of many fires.
I thought, why not? As the warrior jumped back onto his buffalo and held down his hand to help me up. I leapt up, careful not to knock my hat off or drop any of my remaining two Modelos. In the distance the sound of drums and dancing grew louder. I had no idea what I was getting into. Part of me was terrified, was I unknowingly going off to be sacrificed and to my certain death, or was this just going to be another epic party...there was only one way to find out.
That night turned out to be one of the wildest nights of my life. It's all a blur of fire light, wild dancing, moving speeches, delicious food, wines and liquors of a strength and flavor I'd never experienced before, and have yet to taste the likes of since. The women were gorgeous in their festival garbs, and everyone had the face paint of the Dead. One memory does stand out in particular, as I was caught in the moment of one of the dances having completely lost myself to the ecstasy of the drums. One particularly beautiful Native woman pulled me aside and in the shadow of one of their homes, she began to paint my face, caressing the corners of my cheekbones and the high parts of my forehead. She gently removed my lucky yellow hat and looked deep into my eyes as she finished painting my face, one thumb still on my lips. And then mesmerized by her beauty and the intensity of the moment, we kissed. Her lips were soft and supple, just as they looked under the layers of white and black paint covering her face just as it now covered mine. But, her mouth was cold, and the kiss while rapturous, left me with a chill I can't explain. After that kiss the whirlwind of the night continued but things got a little spotty as they tend to, around 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning.
The next thing I remembered, I was walking down the highway. I'd lost my shoes somehow in the night's adventures, but fortunately I still had my lucky Abercrombie hat and two untouched Modelo's, both of which surprisingly enough were still cold to the touch. I was walking along looking at the vastness of the desert and trying to get the swirling in my mind to settle down enough to try to get my bearings and make sense of what happened to me last night.
I eventually decided that I must have just passed out somewhere near the road and was lucky that I hadn't been hit by a car or gnawed on by Coyotes. The Native Festivities from the night before must have just been a liquor induced fever dream, from too much booze and not enough sleep. I had decided on this reasonable approach to the mysterious events of the night before when I heard someone call out my name.
"Chris! It's him! Thank God! Chris are you alright?"
It was Richard and his host student, Jorge.
I raised my hand as a way of saying both "Hello" and "Yes, I'm Fine" but apparently I was a little worse for wear as the simple act of putting my arm skyward threw my body off balance and I stutter stepped into the road.
Jorge pulled his truck over and I jumped up and into the cab as Richard leaned down and gave me his hand, much as the Warrior on the Buffalo from last night had helped me onto his ride.
"Dude! What happened to you last night? I felt terrible about them leaving you on the side of the road like that. I'm sorry. What happened to your face, you look like a corpse? Thank goodness you were wearing your Abercrombie hat, that was the only reason I had Jorge pull over. I recognized that ugly yellow dome piece 5 miles down the road."
"Es la verdad" Jorge chimed in, uncharacteristically, I think those might have been three of the ten words I heard him speak the entire trip.
I was still too stunned to speak, and I only barely stumbled out with the words. "It's all good Richard. Thanks for picking me up." I offered him and Jorge my two remaining Modelo's and as I leaned back in the cab, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror. My face was covered with black and white paint and looked surprisingly like a skull.