Young Traveler—Bronze: Bien Gringo

by Kawaii Luna

“Puerto Escondido está bien gringo, Lunita,” my friends from Oaxaca City warned me, so I expected a big tourist bus like others I’d been on–chilled cans of Fanta and Manzana Lift, chile-covered cacahuetes, movies popular decades ago on the static-laced TV screens. Instead, I am stuffed like ham in a torta, between cold window and snoring el gordo bread, no condiments, no air conditioning, his white shirt pressed and clean, the smell of laundry and perspiration and sunlight, a forgotten picnic blanket. His weight presses down on me with each curve of the road, squashing the wind out like helium from a pink balloon, the bus worming through mountains, trees misshapen paper triangles cut by kindergartners.

The other smells of the bus simmer; people’s dream-breath, rich with cilantro and café con leche, lingers in the air like lady’s perfume, while a bulging bag of oranges leaks out bursts of citrus oxygen. The driver whistles over fuzzy radio, signal so broken the beats are inaudible over the sleep noises people make–praying, percolating wordless requests, fabricating the portraits and landscapes that they decoupage into sueños. Those creative threads, those leftover slivers of afternoon gingham and morning velvet that we quilt together into our dreamland. The air is stuffed, like a turkey, like a house full of Christmas, all pine needles and cinnamon, and I am just a teabag steeping in all of its warmth.

***

I awake from licorice tea sleep to darkness, only a couple of street lights sticking out like buck teeth. I grab my backpack, mochila , from the bottom of the bus, and a German guy asks me, “Hey. Do you know a hostel in town?” He wears a scruffy maroon t-shirt that needs to go to a lavandería, hair staticy and fluffed up, face puffy.

“Uh…yeah. I highlighted one in the Lonely Planet. Want to split the taxi?” So we wake up a driver with a rat-tat on his window.

“Ay,” he seems startled to see gringo ghosts lurking outside of his dreams and windows. “Sí. Where do you want to go?” And we pile our big mochilas in the trunk, drive a few blocks. I know we are close to the ocean, but everything outside the taxi just looks thick and black, like an oil spill.

We chat about the normal things, the questions we can answer like simple arithmetic, too early in the morning for much reflection:

“Where are you from?”

“California.”

“Oh. I’m from Berlin.”

“Cool. You been here long?”

“A few months. How about you?”

“Just a couple of weeks. But it isn’t my first time in Mexico. I try to come whenever I have a little money saved up.”

“You’re lucky to live in California…you can come as you like. Are you alone?”

“Yeah. I usually travel alone. My boyfriend doesn’t really like to backpack like I do.” I catch a glimpse of my face in the window, sleep creases like wrinkles.

The taxi pulls up outside the hostel and a guy snores at his desk, illuminated by light from fridge full of refrescos, slices of telenovela across his eyelids. We shake the spiky iron gate to pause his dreams por un ratito, and he welcomes us with a groggy hola , puts us in a big room with several beds. Soon, we all put our dream cassettes on play again, and slumber concocts our webby mindscapes, ripped apart every hour on the hour by church bells. I bet a lot of people go to la iglesía here , I think in my half-dreams. I can just imagine them in bed, “Ya, ya, me voy,” defeated by the clanging that sounds like pots and spoons quarreling in their sueños.

Eventually unable to reinvoke my dreams, I lie contentedly on the top sheet soaked in my sweat, pondering. Backpacking is a long lucid dream I hope to never wake from, giving me distance from disturbing childhood memories, the ones so repressed that they can only surface in murky nightmares, like bloated corpses. Dreams then, for me, can be sips of ambrosia or black coffee, these fields of promise, sunlight, and poppies, or these artifacts of youth I don’t want to dust off entirely.

Recently I have felt a need to just think for hours, to understand why, why anyone would have to deal with the abuse I did if the world is a just place, if karma exists. Thus I came to Puerto to enjoy a beach spot turned ghost town during the rainy season, but this hostel doesn’t quite seem the place to contemplate life with my early morning metallic mariachis. I throw my belongings in my mochila once again and decide to wander to a different spot.

“Where are you going?” the German lady at the front desk interrogates me, a Euro villain straight out of an eighties film–crew cut hair bleached Caribbean sand pale, glitter puff paint t-shirt knotted on the side, matching stretch pants, hot pink lipstick and fingernails, a Pomeranian on her lap.

“To find a cabaña on the beach.”

“Not in rainy season. You’ll get lots of bugs.”

“So?” I’m not fond of this lady I haven’t even met telling me what to do.

“In the summer, they’re fun, but you should really stay here.”

“No. I’m cool. Thanks.” I couldn’t trust her, could I? Of course she’d want me to stay at her hostel. On the other hand, I am not a Buddhist partly for my fear of creepy crawlies.

Nevertheless, I walk out the door, cross the main drag which is totally muerto, to the beach with coarse yellow sand and a surly ocean, rabid mouth edges. There are not many hotels right on the playa, but I find a little patch of cabañas. Rickety and simple, literally on the sand, and for three dollars a night, I’ll take it. The best part is that they are gated in, and two guys, Pepe and Gustavo, watch the place, so my stuff is safe. I dispose a sigh of relief, all the stories of people digging into cabañas to steal, not that I have much for someone to take.

I go out to the beach to enjoy the view, and it is deserted. The waves flop aimlessly, without folks to entice in and wring their legs into subordination. The rip tides are vicious in these parts, but there is no one to victimize.

Then I hear hip-hop music coming from a nearby palapa, and I glance over to see a little Mexican girl, “No quieres una cerveza?” she yells to me.

“Sure,” I say and sit down in a plastic chair. What else am I going to do in this town? I spot some street dogs gang banging down the beach. They all look related.

“Do you smoke weed?”

“Uh…” all of my brain says to say “No.” I have heard so many stories about drugs in Mexico, I don’t know her yet. It is different if I know someone. Or if I am in their casa. “Yes,” I say because despite all that, I want to get high.

“Chido,” so she pulls a joint out of her pocket, as if it is a cigarro, lights it up on the beach.

I puff on it nervously, scoping things out, will there be a police officer?

“Calm down. There’s no rush. You’re in Puerto.”

And suddenly the bud kicks in. “Cual es tu nombre?” I pregunto.

“Chula.” She has those types of eyes that crinkle up into pinholes when she smiles, a face sprinkled with acne like freckles, a gigantic smile that contrasts with her tiny frame.

And we spend the whole day listening to her mixed hip-hop tape from Isaac from Texas, the guy who she gets the mota from. A few travelers come and sit at the palapa, have a smoke and a round, just enjoying the sandy relaxation.

***

Before we know it, the sky becomes neon, like the lights in some Japanese arcade, a child who spilled his watercolor brushwater all over the clouds.

Isaac appears. “Qué pedo?”

Chula giggles, “No tienes hongos, carnal?” Do you have mushrooms, friend?

So Isaac and I are briefly introduced as we move on to more important business–making joints and eating mushrooms. Isaac pulls one out of his brown paper sack, fresh and mushy, just out of the ground, smelling like earth and grasses. It seems bigger than a kitty’s cabeza, the cap a big vaquero hat over the thumb-like stem.

“Here you go, amiga.” He winks at me, “and adiós,” suggesting my viaje will be fierce. Chula also consumes some hongitos, smaller little guys, pinky fingers with tiny Advil-cap hats.

As we create a shroud of smoke with our joints and cigarettes, chatting in the darkness, only a small candle flame to accompany us, a couple of German guys, tall, pale, blonde appear like fantasmas. Spotting them, Chula smoothes back her hair, adjusts her top, and smiles wide.

“Quieres cerveza?” she asks.

“What?”

“Do you want a beer?” I translate. Talk about no Spanish whatsoever.

“Oh yeah. Sure.”

And before long Chula is chatting it up with one of the Germans, Lars, massaging his neck despite the fact that he speaks no Spanish and she speaks no English. The other dude, Gregor, smokes cigarettes nervously, too shy to talk to us much.

After a couple hours Chula demands, “Vamos al Wipeout,” bored with the setting of the palapa. “Vamos.” She blows out the candle and walks away. We follow.

At the Wipeout Bar, we drink Tequila Sunrises with too much grenadine that taste like melted cherry popsicles. The German guys are not paying much attention to Chula, instead whispering a lot in each other’s ears, putting their arms around each other, and giggling. Chula gives them a strange look, takes a big swig of sweet sunrise and frowns as if she’s been poisoned.

“Are they ‘gay’?” she shouts at me over the music.

“What did she say?” Lars, suddenly listening, asks me, the appointed translator. Why didn’t Chula speak quietly, or use another Spanish word, one that didn’t sound exactly like the English one?

“Nothing,” I try to cover up, embarrassed.

“Ask them,” she insists, looking at me like a mother does the first time her teen daughter calls her a bitch. Apparently she doesn’t want to waste her time with gay guys. There are other gringos at the bar.

“She wants to know if you’re gay,” my face sunburned with vergüenza.

The guys laugh and insist, “No!”

Chula gets two shots, one for Lars and one for her, doing body shots with lime and salt to show that she is glad he isn’t gay.

Gregor isn’t finding any ladies he fancies, nor Isaac many buyers, so they mope to their respective cabañas, and the rest of us drift to the Pancho Villa bar, but not before Chula walks into a shop, grabs a chela out of the refrigerator, pops off the cap, and keeps walking without leaving a peso, stops to chat with la policia about the weather and what bars are open until what time, downing her stolen cerveza en la calle.

Once at the Pancho Villa, Lars manages to spill an entire table of beer on me in one fell swoop, my skirt drenched in cerveza, but he apologetically buys us several rounds more, and we dance to Manu Chau and Amerikan Top 40; I shake my soggy skirt and thighs, admiring the murals on the walls, animated courtesy of the gigantic hongo I ate earlier. The mushroom gives me a mellow high, moths in the belly and fingertips, one of those trips that alters perception, but doesn’t produce anxiety.

After Lars’ pesos run out, we meander along the sand that shimmers opal, rainbows of moonlight and wine waves, my cabañas the first stop. It is pretty late and everything is coffee black.

“How am I going to get in?” I don’t have a llave.

“We’ll wake the chavos up,” she replies simply; Chula works and lives at the palapa right next door, so she knows Pepe and Gustavo. “PEPE! PEPEEEEE!” she calls shaking the fence, holding the “e” on the end out like a guitar chord, shaking the gate so loud everyone in the entire area must now be awake.

She howls and howls insistently with Payaso the perro for Pepe to let me in, this gringa she hardly knows. Somehow in that moment I see her wolf spirit, calling to the moon to help someone in her pack.

Lars interrupts her, impatient, using gestures to translate, “Should I go or stay? Are you going to come home with me tonight?”

Chula kisses him sloppily, then pulls away, “Tengo novio.” A boyfriend? She hasn’t said anything to me about that .

“PEPEEEEE!”, her e’s like searchlights scraping the night sky, like salt taffy on a machine pulling and pulling.

Lars goads her, massaging her shoulders, soft breaths on her neck: “But you could spend the night with me. He doesn’t have to know.”

At this point in the evening I don’t have to translate. I can tell Chula has had this conversation with at least a few guys backpacking through Puerto.

“Quiero, pero, no sé, no puedo…” Chula mumbles. “PEPEEEEE!” Without Chula, I’m sure I would spend the night on the beach, too meek to make such a scene in the medianoche, but she carries on persistent.

“C’mon Chula,” them kissing like high school kids at break behind the gymnasium.

Finally Pepe hobbles over to the gate, “Ay, California!” as he calls me, “I forgot you were out. Disculpame corazón, preciosa,” buttering me up like fresh bolillo bread, probably for making me wait so long, or perhaps still in some dream-reality where gringas crawl indiscriminately into strangers’ camas.

I leave Chula kissing Lars, “Adiós amigos,” I say and walk to my cabaña, unlock it, and step into its shadow comfort.

I use a flashlight to find my pack, shining beams to see little crawly troops wandering around sheets, mosquito enemy planes hovering, but I don’t mind. The sound of the ocean fuses with sleepiness to create artwork behind eyelids; the turquoise of an ocean I once dipped my toes in, the fuzziness of algae, the yellow of a plátano peel; all muddling in my mind like the sugar-mint bottom of a mojito glass. And the world of my dreams is the consistency of sand, always crumbling and shapeshifting, the Sirens of the ocean say sssshhh.

***

I have passed another lazy day of smoking and chatting it up with Chula and a few random backpackers in town. Chula meets a different set of German cuties that she fondles and fusses over. It seems that almost every tourist I meet is German, something to do with the time of year.

Trevor, Chula’s novio who is also from Texas, comes to the palapa where she works, and she starts to fuss with his sandy hair, “Es muy guapo, no?” she comments. It is just past sunset. Trevor and I do our “Me llamos” and “holas” and proceed to smoke our way through a chunk of mota wrapped in old newspaper.

“You guys don’t worry about the police here at all?” I ask.

Isaac chimes in, “Nope. Mi familia, the people who own the palapa and hotel over there, has got my back. One night, the cops came, handcuffed me, I almost pissed myself. Then they all started laughing, uncuffed me. It was a big joke. They said, ‘Guey, if you ever get in trouble around here, just pass over 200 pesos and you’re a free man.’

“Imagine if you could do that in the States. $20.00 no speeding ticket, no drug charges, whatever trouble you get yourself into.” Isaac seems to fit right in with Mexico and Mexico time. He tells us cuentos about picking mushrooms and opium poppies.

After awhile, Chula is bored. “Fuck man…” the two words Isaac taught her in English, “Me voy a la cama.” She huffs off to bed, up to her room.

For awhile Isaac, Trevor, and I all sit around smoking joints together.

“Whoaa…” Isaac says, looking at my face as if something about it terrifies him, then cracks a smile, “trippy.”

“Huh?”

“That is some crazy ass glitter around your eyes, Luna. It changes color with the flames on the table,” a typical stoner observation.

“Poco madre,” Cool , I say, having forgotten all about it. And we wrap ourselves in cottony smoke to clear away unpleasant thoughts and find brilliant memories like forgotten Easter eggs, to make words flow like sand in an hourglass, like drip coffee, puffing away cells and enlightening ourselves at the same time. Several porros later, I stumble to my cama without the theatrical production of the night before.

For all of my traveling “alone,” this is one of the few times on my trip that I actually have been, these sips of nighttime tranquility, full of nature’s static; I crawl on top of my bed, tuck my mosquito net in, a useless fortress for all these ravenous beasts; the ocean breaths ooze into my ear drums, and I hum a Fiona Apple song as I crawl into a hallway of Willy Wonka wallpaper, down a dream threshold, slithering through an ecotone of sleeping and waking.

***

I wake to loud knocking on the door of my cabaña. “LUNA!!! LUNAAAA!!!” Chula’s a’s are like someone at the dentist, popsicle stick on the tongue, aaah. Not unlike a horror-movie scream that gnaws at your oídos internos.

“What do you want hon?” I am still half awake.

“What did you do with Trevor? Did you fuck him?”

“What?”

“I found your brillantina on his face this morning.” My glitter.

“Well, we were sharing a joint, it probably got on his face that way, that’s how glitter is. I didn’t even kiss him on the cheek goodnight. Tranquila, eh?”

“I don’t believe you! Slut!”

And just like that I am out of the pack. She huffs off in a streak of black hair, like a horizontal exclamation point, and doesn’t look like she’ll return. I don’t really know what to say. I slump back into bed, not sleeping, let the ocean sounds drool across my soul.

Later that day as I sit and drink cerveza with Gustavo and Pepe, talking about “felicidad,” about our blubbery beer “Buddha” tummies.

Chula interrupts us: “You guys didn’t do anything?”

“Of course not!”

A long sigh. She wants someone to smoke joints with, so she forgives me, for the crimes I didn’t do. She rolls a big gallo to make amends and we all smoke a bit more.

Part of the pack again, “Luna, I’m going to make clothes just like yours, all black,” Chula gestures to my black tank top and skirt and does an exaggerated sexy walk as she grabs a round of cervezas for us. “Luna,” she says imitating my Amerikan accent in a way that is certainly not an insult, more like a little girl in her mother’s heels.

It’s not that I’m a goth, far from it, nor a widower, nor a woman who imagines herself elegant in black: “I always bring black clothes backpacking because they don’t get dirty as quickly,” I explain practically, but she doesn’t seem to care, she is caught up in a vision of herself, all in negro.

Chula asks me, “Did I tell you I have a son? He lives with my parents in Guadalajara. He’s named Jonathan after the singer from Korn. I haven’t seen him in a year or so.”

I don’t ask questions, it’s none of my business if she has a son she doesn’t take care of, yet parties with me on the sands of Puerto. There is something so intriguing about Chula, like a cryptic Dali painting you can’t peel away from, me a human rind.

I only stay a couple more days, hanging out with Chula, splashing around in the waves when the sky is clear, but it isn’t the last time I see her. The next time we will smoke a joint with several others in a stranger’s docked lanchita, boat . The time after that she will steal my purse with 600 pesos and my favorite lip gloss.

But for today I’m on another bus, swirling in the atmosphere of expectation and longing, girls who’ve left their families to work in a city, husbands going on “business trips” to meet their mistresses, women going to shop for things they can’t find in Puerto, I can almost touch their daydreams, but instead I weave my own, long and wispy like threads from my belly, umbilical cords to my destiny.


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