The Lost Weekend
a journey to a place that is entirely itself
11 Feb 2022 Gatwick Airport announces the reopening of its South Terminal after almost two years. Travel restrictions are lifted on many routes and bookings surge.
Like many people I've been wondering what I want from travel now that possibilities are opening up again. My conclusion is, experiences like this one in Mexico in November 2016. The sheer alien magic of passing through a place that refuses to do anything by the standards of elsewhere, a place that is entirely itself. Those are the places I want to go to.
(late last night rummaging through hard drives, I failed to find many pictures from this trip. I know they exist and I want you to see them. If and when I find them, I'll post an updated version)
Also. If you like these stories and want them to continue, please do encourage friends and contacts to subscribe…
The pharmacist in Cuetzalan used to be paid in snakes. I am standing in front of an ornate counter backed by shelves crammed with jars of them. "My father studied them," says the current pharmacist, "And encouraged the poor campesinos to pay for medicines with snakes that they caught in their fields."
Cuetzalan is 150 miles east of Mexico City, a stop-off on our journey to the Caribbean port of Vera Cruz. Leaving the pharmacist's, we head down a cobbled street where farmers in big hats are shopping for cheap plastic toys to take home for their children, their wives are in embroidered smocks and carrying shopping bags held by a tumpline around their forehead. I'm with Firmin, local man, and Angela who lives in Mexico but is originally Spanish. We pile into a bar where all the drinks are home-made: weird jars filled with dark threatening liquids and hand-written labels. Firmin insists that we try dorito which is a cocktail of sugar cane alcohol, milk and peanuts. After five minutes in a blender you get a foaming pint of delicious destruction that leaves you feeling like you spent the previous five minutes in a blender. It loosens Angela's tongue like a dream. She tells us how she once spent a summer selling ice cream in Cornwall and, getting bored with the job, began renaming the flavours. "I told people that the chocolate ice cream was Full English Breakfast flavour, and vanilla was human breast milk. I couldn't believe how angry people became. One man shouted, 'All women are fucking liars!' and started smashing things. So unfriendly!"
She moved on to working in a café and every evening was shocked to see they threw away the leftover fruit scones. "I could not allow that waste." She piled them on a plate with a sign that read, 'Free Scones. Please Help Yourself' and put it on the wall outside her flat. But it did not have the effect she hoped for. "Nobody took a single scone. Never."
"Coarse knot," I say, taking another deep slug of the dorito, "They thought you were a crazy foreigner trying to poison them."
This drink is dynamite. We order another round, but Firmin changes the tastes to celery, oats and coffee. I'm beginning to wonder if there is also a trace of LSD, but Firmin assures me it is a perfectly natural organic concoction.
We get talking to a local musician who tells us that he was once in a band that somehow were invited to play Glastonbury Festival. Coming from Cuetzalan and never having been abroad before, he found the experience disorienting. "England is a weird country," he says, shaking his head. "They eat fish covered in some stuff, like a thick yellow skin, then potato chips without any spices on them. It was... how can I put it...?" He struggles to find the right word.
"Horrible?" I suggest.
"No." He frowns. "Incomprehensible."
We drink cold beer for a while. I ask if we should go back to the hotel, but Firmin waves the suggestion away with one word, "Ahorita."
This marvellous expression is the diminutive form of 'now', but the true import is 'in a second, or possibly, 'not now', or plausibly, 'absolutely never, even over my dead body'. Once I've been taught it, I hear it all the time. What astonishes me is that a word whose original meaning has been lost in a miasma of subtle evasions, opposites and downright contradictions of itself can still remain so very useful.
Later in the evening I find myself standing in front of the bottles of cloudy liquids with fat worms in the bottom, wondering if they might taste good. Firmin steers me away and we drink micheladas, a refreshing cocktail largely consisting of chilli powder and lager.
After two of these, Firmin is dripping with perspiration. "Me enchile," he says, which translates as, 'I'm chillied up.'
Next day we set off for Vera Cruz on the coast, but at the state boundary we are stopped by eight burly men in black uniforms, carrying assault rifles. They are police. Apparently the state governor, Javier Duarte, has absconded in a helicoptor with all the public money, including their pay. As it happens Duarte's disappearance is good news for most people. In six years he has presided over a massive increase in violence: over 3,000 murders, including six journalists in the year before my arrival, collateral damage in a drugs turf war between the Zetas and Gulf cartels who both want control of Vera Cruz's useful port facilities. The police, however, have lost out. After searching the car, one of them leans close to Firmin and whispers apologetically: would we like to donate something for refrescos? Firmin thinks that $20 is appropriate and they agree.
Arriving in Vera Cruz, we go down to Hueca, an area near the port that is built from shipwrecks and flotsam, a wild fantasy of colour and DIY craziness. Every door and window is open and, with Firmin's friend Bianca leading the way, we wander through people's houses and shared patios saying hello.
Bianca shows us where the famous Mexican singer Toña la Negra was born. "She was amazing. She sang our local style which is son music. Later you will see."
Before night falls we eat 'moors and christians' which is rice and beans, then head to the square where the dancing is starting. Itinerant sellers of sunglasses, perfumes and cigars weave through the pavement cafés. The sunglasses man brandishes a pair of Raybans, "Special offer. One hundred per cent pirated!" Mariachi bands strut through the crowds and at one café, they spot a woman drinking with her family. She is, it transpires, a famous singer and is persuaded - without too much effort - to deliver a song which turns out to be an epic tour de force full of wild expansive gesture, full-throttle emotion and sobbing dimuendo. When it is over, the crowd roar approval while the woman goes back to her ice cream. I cannot tell what flavour it is.
Firmin orders a michelada of volcanic intensity. He cannot speak for several minutes and is fully encile. When he finally regains the use of his vocal chords, he waves to one of the itinerant amusement pedlars, beckoning him over. "You will like this guy."
The man has a pair of portable electrodes connected to a lorry battery. You pay a few pesos and he connects you up. I let Firmin demonstrate. He takes hold of the electrodes then the current is switched on.
Immediately there is a sizzle and crackle of voltage. Firmin yelps in agony, but hangs on. He stands up and the hairs on his arms stand out straight. His face contorts and his hands start shaking uncontrollably. People at neighboring tables cheer and clap, although everyone is careful not to touch him. At last, before he loses consciousness, Firmin throws the electrodes away and chucks himself back down in his chair.
"What is that?" I ask. "I mean. Why?"
Firmin calls for more micheladas. "It's for fun," he says. "Now, your turn."
I wave the eager electrode man away and deliver, with studied nonchalance, my new favourite word. "Ahorita."
The electrode man persists, and so do I. Eventually he gives up, but exacts an immediate and shocking revenge. "You not watching the television?" he asks, casting a glance into the bar. "Elecciones americanas? New president is declared."
We rush across. No one seems at all interested, but CNN have called a Trump victory. Now the absurd self-inflicted pain of electric shocks and chilli drinks no longer seems quite so incomprehensible.
Thanks for reading backstory! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.