I’m a bit shy about this story, because it comes from a time in my life when I wanted nothing more than to trip my brains out in the wilds of Latin America.
There’s a town in Mexico called Real de Catorce. It’s known for two main things. One is that it was a big silver mining town in the 1880s, with 20,000 inhabitants, and then the silver ran out and the population went down to about 800, so for the most part it’s a ghost town, full of ruined walls with cactuses growing atop them. The second is that it’s right next to the place in the desert called Wirikuta where the Huichol Indians go on pilgrimage to collect their peyote.
In early 1993 I had begun to study shamanism earnestly, though I had not yet met the teacher I would later meet in Ecuador. I was still in Mexico, in the dry hills of the Sierra Madre, trying to get fluent in Spanish and hanging out with Indians who practiced their old traditions. Well, at one point I was invited to go on a peyote pilgrimage. Not, unfortunately, by the Indians, but by a man from a government agency who was organizing transportation for them. He had had one or two too many, and in a grandiose gesture he invited me along.
The Huichols themselves had not been consulted, apparently didn’t want a 25 year old gringo whom they didn’t know to accompany them on their sacred pilgrimage, and simply waited me out, delaying the departure date again and again (too polite to tell me to my fact that they didn’t want me along) until my cash had run so low that I had to head in the general direction of a bank to replentish it.
So I ended up in Real de Catorce about ten days later on my own. Got off the bus in the sunny street with my backpack. Immediately met a woman from the States about my age. We got into a long conversation, as one does when one has been in a foreign country for a long time and meets someone else from one’s own country. She brought me back to the “hotel” where she was staying with her Mexican husband.
The hotel was a collection of run-down buildings around a courtyard. The husband was a little jealous. One enclosure off the courtyard contained a gigantic pig that was being fattened up for Easter. In my room was a glow-in-the dark crucifix. After a little arm-twisting on my part, the husband gave me a peyote button and we all smoked a joint. It was only then that I realized that the Huichols had waited me out, and with perfectly good reason. It occured to me suddenly as I sat there on the warm stones under the bright sun in the company of these two friendly strangers.
I had an odd image of the sun then, too. In my mind’s eye, it appeared to be full of ecstatic people engaged in a collective work party to create heat and light, and delighted that I had become aware of them.
The next morning I met another guy from the USA at breakfast at another tiny (but more upscale) hotel nearby. He was also there looking for peyote. He was Jack, an old hippie from the USA. We planned our strategy. Real de Catorce is at the edge of the hills, next to a desert that’s as flat as a kitchen table, and that desert is where the peyote grows, under creosote bushes. On the following day, from Real de Catorce, we would take one of the rattling deathtrap taxis down to Estacion Catorce, the village around the railway station, and from there, strike out into the desert in search of our quarry.
That night, I was eating alone in a chilly, drafty restaurant, when two other male travelers came in. I invited them to my table, which was the most sheltered from the wind. “We won’t bother you?” asked the younger one, who looked exactly like an Italian version of Bob Marley. “We’ll see if you bother me or not,” I said.
The older one started going off on Jews. “They deserved what happened to them in World War Two,” he said. “They’re dishonest. Plus, look around Latin America. They never travel alone, always in big crowds.”
“Look at me, I’m a Jew traveling alone,” I told him. “And there is good and bad in every group. It’s nothing to commit genocide about.” Or something. I can’t remember the exact words I used. Mauricio and I didn’t have much to say to each other after that.
But the two Italians did decide to join the move to Estacion Catorce the following day, and we all descended the steep road together in the rattling black automobile, ready to jump out if the brakes failed. They didn’t, and we ended up in a tiny hotel that had been recommended to me by the guy who had given me the peyote button. In my notebook from that trip, I still have the map he made me to get to the hotel.
The hotel was run by a Sra. Sabas, an elderly lady with blue eyes whose grandfather had come from Germany. She was all ready to put the four of us up in two double beds because she thought we would want to save money that way. It surprised her that it was not our custom to sleep two to a bed, but she was okay with it.
A Mexican guy in his late 20s named Alberto was also there. He said he had a general idea where the peyote grew, as he had been there the previous year. At about noon, the four of us all headed out into the desert on foot–all of us but Mauricio the antisemite, who was staying behind to photograph the cemetery.
A car was coming and we flagged it down. There was no room inside but they let us stand on the back bumper and grip the smooth roof as best as we could. When the car started up again, Jack immediately fell off, and the driver stopped. He got back up and gripped my arm to help stay on, whimpering. Was he really whimpering in fear? Yes, he was. And he nearly yanked me off as the car gathered speed. But I was feeling cool and my palms had a good grip on the roof.
They let us off and we headed into the mini-forest of creosote bushes, looking and looking. Jack found a single peyote cactus and cut it in the approved fashion, just the top so the root would regenerate. Walking and looking, walking and looking.
I had been fasting that day, as I understood that was the indigenous custom.
After two and a half hours we stopped to rest under a solitary tree. We had found nothing but that one button of Jack’s, and we would have to think about heading back into town before long so as not to be out in the desert when night fell.
This day and night would be my only opportunity to take a good journey with peyote, because I had to take the train out of town the following morning and head back to Guadalajara and then to Mexico City, because I was meeting my mom for ten days in Costa Rica before heading to Ecuador on my own.
So we sat under a tree and shared an orange, then shared a joint. The great moment in international communication occurred when we realized that potheads in every country have names for the butt end of a marijuana cigarette. In the USA, it’s a “roach.” In Italy, something else, in Mexico, something else, fourteen years later I can’t remember the exact terms, but it was a nice moment.
I said, “Look, I’ve been studying the Indians’ traditions, and they all say that the peyote lets you find it if it wants you to find it. And they try to pray and get in tune with the environment, and they talk to the peyote with their hearts and tell it why they want to find it. So what would you think if we prayed and meditated a little?”
They all said fine. The Italian Bob Marley, I can’t remember his name now, took out a flute that he’d got in Bolivia, and he played it some, and I spoke to god and nature and explained who we were and that we wanted to find some peyote to help us get a vision of how we could proceed with our lives. Then we were all silent for a few minutes.
We stood up. Ten seconds later, Alberto said, “Ah, here it is.” He had found three peyote cacti growing together in a clump, and he bent to cut them. After that, we began to find it all around, as much as we wished. I began to eat a button, slowly, savoring the bitter emerald jelly of its tough flesh.
The largest button that Alberto found looked exactly like the face of a smiling clown, so much so that I carefully took a photo of it, convinced that the photo would prove once and for all the existence of the spirit world and the validity of shamanism. When I ran across the photo again two years ago, I could just barely make out the features of the clown.
Maybe I’ll finish the story later. It’s a habit I’ve gotten into: I promise to tell a story, and then go into the infinite tiny details of everything that happened leading up to the story. It’s kind of a “bait and switch” manoever.