Talking Time Travel Border Bashin’ Blues 1983
April, 1983 Tecate, MX: We’re sitting on a remote border between the USA and Mexico, waiting on midnight, waiting for the night shift to come on at US Customs up the hill. I’ve got a pickup load full of stuff, handicraft stuff, mostly textiles, from Guatemala, and Oaxaca, far to the south in Mexico, not as far as Chiapas, but almost. Lu and I went there, too, San Cristobal de las Casas mostly, and all over Oaxaca, including Huautla, home of the famous shaman Maria Sabina, and the psychedelic mushroom capital of Mexico, or so I hear.
This was after spending a full month in Guatemala itself, including the remote war zone of Nebaj, part of the ‘Ixil Triangle’, where much of the fighting in the Guatemalan civil war took place. Of course we didn’t know many details of that at the time, most of which came out later, over the next decade. We knew it was weird, though. You just gotta’ chill, not my partner Lu’s specialty.
The first thing that happened on our entry to Guatemala was not a good sign. We stopped at a small city close to the border to spend the night—no problem, until the fireworks warehouse next door exploded. Ouch! I hate when that happens. No problem. I’m on top of it. I do a quick reconnaisance mission, and prepare to evacuate. Then the lights go out—brilliant. Now I know why Guatemala is number one in most measures of human intelligence….
Farther down the road, we turn off the coastal highway and start heading up to Lake Atitlan, the world-renowned volcano-ringed lake, where we ended up spending most of our time, buying handicrafts, chilling and grooving. There’s only one problem as we pull up on to the highlands: there’s a military batallion marching down the road toward us—with tank! I stop the truck and let them go around. They do some perfunctory checks of paperwork, and let us go. Lu is not happy, though; I can tell; call it a sixth sense. They don’t do things like this in Oregon. She needs a chill button.
The military themselves weren’t quite so chilled on the trip north to Nebaj almost a month later. That time they crawled into the canopied back of the pickup—with guns slung over shoulder. They’re drunk, too; I don’t blame them. Lu is about to go ballistic. I don’t know which is the bigger problem, she or the military, the military that consists of seventeen year-old conscripts. By this time the civil war is in full swing and reports are coming out of scorched earth. It’s hard to know what to believe. Buses aren’t running; that’s for sure. There are people lining the road, trying to flag a ride.
It looks apocalyptic. It probably is. Much of what I’ve been buying over the last month is Mayan Indian traje—typical Indian costume worn mostly by the women. It’s been selling at wholesale lately, cheap and in bulk, as Indians scramble to survive, gathering what few dollars they can, while hiding their indigenous identity; you know. God knows. We only stayed in Nebaj a few days, and it was secure enough, but there were helicopters flying sorties constantly, committing only God-knows-what atrocities out there in the outback.
Finally we’ve had enough—mostly boredom—and head for the border, this time by the highland route to Chiapas, through Aguacatan from Sacapulas, and on to Huehuetenango, where there has been much violence, also. I’d like to go up to Todos Santos, where some of the most righteous textiles come from, but the drive sounds pretty hairy for my old pickup truck. We forewent it choosing instead to wend our way on to the border. The Mexican border is no problem. We buy more handicrafts in Chiapas, though, and then start picking up goods already selected from Oaxaca.
We’re getting pretty loaded down, by the time we start up the hill to Huautla. There’s a celebration going on, too, Benito Juarez’s birthday, to be exact. Imagine hearing the ‘Ballad of Davy Crockett’ all day and all night for 2-3 days. It’s fun, though, with fireworks and fireside chats with day-trippers who’ve come to sample the mushrooms, see what all the big fuss is about. But Lu and I are just there to sample the atmosphere. Funny thing is that the ‘facilitators’ use the same concept to describe the experience as is used up north—un viaje—a trip. Such is life. I rebuild my carburetor in the parking lot of my hotel in Mexico City and we continue north.
But the best part came only last week, when we ventured out into the Copper Canyon region of Mexico only a day or two back down the road. I left the truck in a parking lot in Los Mochis, loaded with goods, and we took the train up into the mountains all the way to Creel. We spent the night there, then headed down the road to Samachic. It goes down one day, back the next. There’s nothing much there, usually, but with the Holy Week festivities going on, it’s quite active. There’s even a European film crew there. I guess the word’s out.
I wish they had an eatery. Subsisting on sardines and crackers is not pretty. Sleeping in a cave is, though. Watching the festivities is, too. We try to strike up conversations with the local Tarahumara Indian women, but they’re really shy. The guys wear an outfit straight out of the past, no more than a breech-cloth, really. They herd sheep past the entry to our cave, but no one bothered our stuff in three days.
The finale to the festivities was a big wrestling match, ‘feats of strength’ I guess you could call it. They all want to wrestle me, but I decline. This could get ugly. I’ll just drink tesguino instead. It tastes like stomach acid; I wonder why. It’s nice here. I’ll be back one day. Back in Los Mochis, we continue our drive back northward, even taking the ferry over to the Baja peninsula, back when it was cheap. Fortunately we’ve got gas, because others are waiting in the lone Pemex station waiting for the truck to show up.
In Tijuana I realize I’ve got way too much merchandise to just slip across the border unnoticed, so I develop a plan. First I’ll ship a package or two back by mail, then hand-carry some items first to spread the bulk of it out. So that’s what we do, carry as much as our little arms can hold. We tell the Customs guy that we’re not selling, just taking gifts to friends. He ain’t buying it. We stonewall, assuring them we have LOTS of friends. They make us sign a form, attesting to the facts as we know them, assuring us that if we sell them we’ll be thrown into jail for the rest of our natural lives.
OOOHHHhhh, now I’m scared; a little bit, anyway. We have a design problem, Houston. So we continue on to the bus station via Tijuana Trolley, and stash our stuff in the luggage lockers there, put our lives on 24-hour hold. There’s only one problem. I’ve still got a truck load of stuff back on the other side. What if I get the same agent on the second crossing? What if they cross-reference me with the previous encounter. Fortunately in 1983 computers are in their infancy. The deal is: I don’t want to pay Customs duty, true, but mostly I just don’t want to hassle with it. But it’s too late to change my mind now.
So I got the brilliant idea to drive down the road thirty miles to cross the border at Tecate and cross there. So here we are, waiting for the sun to go down, to better obscure our circumstances. Darkness can cover a multitude of sins. Finally: “Let’s do this.” They search the truck sure enough, but by then I’ve got things so scattered around that it hardly looks like a load of merchandise anymore, more like a hippie haven. Right about then a load of wetbacks are herded in for processing. Customs has better things to do. We’re in. And I’m in business, BUT… next time I’ll do it differently. There’s got to be a better way.