“Now if anybody asks, if anything happens — which it won’t — you don’t know anything, you hear? You know nothing. You’re just a friend of mine, hitching a ride.”
“Yeah ok. I’m a hitchhiker you picked up.”
“No c’mon now, girl! You’re smarter than that, I know you are. Don’t go telling lies. You’ll need ten more lies to cover it up and one day you’ll forget it all and then you’ll really be in some hot water, you know? OMISSION,” he said, shaking his pointer finger at me while I worried his hand had left the wheel. “O-MISS-SION. Now that’s how it’s done.”
These were some of the first words of wisdom from Tito,* the 74-year-old Louisiana gentleman turned Mexican Papi who was, as he spoke, taking hairpin turns through the Sierra Madres as if he had been born to drive them, which — for all intents and purposes — he had. Tito, born Timothy Beaufort Laurent in a wealthy Louisiana family, had been living part-time in Mexico for nearly 40 years, full-time for the last 12. Twice a year he made the pilgrimage through the barren Oaxacan desert, dotted with mezcal plants and cartoon-inspiring cacti forests, to stock up on marijuana that he purchased from his friend in Mitla. “There’s mota in Tonala, of course,” he said. “But not like they have in Mitla.”
The truth that Tito was encouraging me to tell, if (in the off-chance, he assured me) the authorities stopped us and they found the pound of marijuana he was planning to carry back in his underwear, was that I was a friend of his. The friendship was albeit a very new one. I had only met Tito the week before, through the people for whom I was volunteering on a mango farm in Chiapas. Never one to turn down a road trip in a vintage Westfalia van with a man who had more stories than Hemingway, I had decided to accompany him on the trip.
It was 7am when I hopped into the rattling, unassuming Volkswagon, just as the sun was beginning to stretch her golden legs across the Sierra Madres. The bustle of the early-rising pueblas slipped away behind us into saffron morning light as the van rumbled through the largest windmill farm I’d ever seen. Tito lit a joint as soon as we passed the first military checkpoint, and turned up José José’s crooning. “Now we’re on our way, girl,” Tito shouted over the music, smiling and nodding. “Now we’re really on our way.”
The Sierra Madres look like a cross of rural Southern California and South Dakota’s Badlands, but with bizarre patches of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni. Tito recounted stories of driving through Oaxaca in a red Corvette in 1960, diving with the first Mexican scuba diver in Cancun, flying politicians to Acapulco in his private plane just weeks before the first luxury hotel opened on the beach, and how lawless Tonala had been in the 1970s. I soaked in his stories and the colors of the Mexican desert; sweet winter air whipped my hair and chapped my cheeks.
“Girl, this is where Mother Earth just really ground it all up, you see that? Ground down, spit up, crumpled that soil. This is her warm-up to the mountains,” Tito pointed out the window, again making me nervous he didn’t have both hands on the wheel. “See that creek-bed there? Now just wait ‘til we get to the mezcal fields. I can guarantee you haven’t seen anything like it.” He was right.
We stopped at a roadside stand where a woman prepared the best damn quesadilla I’d ever had (being from New York, I had assumed I “knew” Mexican food — how wrong I was). Across the valley, red and purple flowers lilted idly in the dry breeze. Hens clucked in a hand-made cage behind me as old women served horchata to truck drivers making the daily haul through the hills. Somewhere in the distance floated the sticky sweet romance of traditional Mexican ballads. There was something simple and unassuming about Mexico that I hadn’t felt in South America, or in any of my travels in the East — something pure and colorful and clean.
When we got to Mitla — a quaint little mountain town with typically colorful adobe construction, plastic flags that look like rainbow paper snowflakes spanning cobblestone streets, tuk-tuks lazily cruising the strip for passengers — Tito made his phone call and confirmed plans to meet his man at the pool hall later that evening. Like most Mexican pueblas, the streets of Mitla are lined with concrete walls, behind which are multi-house compounds where several generations of one family live. The modest cement walls betray what’s behind them: these compounds are usually immaculate, decorated with rich vegetation, framed in flawless and often intricately carved wood. The pool hall was the entranceway to one of these compounds, and we laughed with Eddie in the late afternoon sun under a hibiscus tree, sampling his product and sipping Coronas. After shooting a couple games of pool, Tito’s mission was accomplished.
The next day we got back into the old Westfalia and took a day trip to the Hierve el Agua, a natural rock formation outside of Mitla that resembles a frozen waterfall, calcified over thousands of years by drops of mineral-rich water streaming off a cliff. At the top of the cliff are several manmade pools the color of polished turquoise, buffered by delicate salt formations akin to those in Death Valley, pockmarking the mountaintop like the surface of the moon. In all my travels I’d only come across such a bizarre landscape a handful of times.
The area is extremely remote; when we arrived in the early morning we were the only visitors. Tour buses from Oaxaca showed up midday, and gringos in wide-brimmed hats sat out the heat in one of the handful of taco stands set up around the entranceway. Eddie’s wife had packed us a lunch at Tito’s behest, and we wandered past the food stalls to an abandoned group of cabins, a project Tito claimed was the result of government graft. We ate fried pork sandwiches slathered in pickled jalapenos and avocado, toasting cold white wine under the shade of a straw palapa.
“This is the life, girl, I’m telling you,” Tito said, stretching out his feet and surveying the purple tints of the valley hillsides.
That night we sampled mezcal at Alejandro’s shop, where his family had been distilling for nearly 100 years. Alejandro took us out back to show us the antique distillery that still functioned; how he’d take the giant seed of the mezcal plant and how to extract its juice. The warmth of the liquor and the stress of the sun mixed in my tired bones and rocked me immediately to sleep that night, despite the wire boning poking through my lumpy mattress.
We weren’t asked to stop once at any of the many military checkpoints on the ride back to Tonala. “Ahh, jefe! Buenos tardes, permiso por favor?” Tito said through the window, barely slowing down, either oblivious to or uncaring of the guards snickering at his poor accent. The risk of the business and the instruction of what to say “if when” never came into play.
“You can have all the brains in the world but if you don’t have experience, you have nothing,” Tito told me, as he pulled into the mango farm to drop me off. “And this, girl, let me tell you, THIS was an experience.”
I couldn’t agree more.
*Names have been changed for the safety of characters involved. The author’s name is her real one.