South of the Border
by Dan Coffey, 11/30/2001
Inspired by the Bob Dylan song "When you're lost in the rain in Juarez, and it's Easter time too," in January of 1970 my college roommates and I drove non-stop from Columbia, Missouri, to Juarez, Mexico, where we spent a week at the Hotel Diamante, drinking continuously. A beer was one peso, or about 12 cents at the California Club. The pesos were the size of silver dollars, and if you changed $20 into pesos your wallet wouldn't close and your pants would sag with all the coins. I've been back 18 times since that first trip.
Mexico was the first place I ever tasted free-range chicken. Having been brought up on processed food, I didn't recognize it, and thought maybe it was goose or turkey. It's the first place I ever saw or smoked a Cuban cigar.
In all my weeks of driving and wandering around, there were some scary incidents and some wonderful ones. I remember camping on the slopes of the Copper Canyon and hearing drumming coming from way down at the bottom. The drumming kept going for hours, getting gradually louder. I thought "the Indians are preparing their attack." Finally, a boy of about 14 showed up. He was hiking to the next town and keeping time with a drum. He had already walked a distance of about 20 miles and was going another 20. He seemed to think there was nothing extraordinary about this. At one point, I found myself sitting on a cliff, looking at sheep grazing thousands of feet below me. There were clouds floating between me and those sheep, and I could hear the tinkling of their bells, so faint they were almost inaudible.
Once I impulsively drove down a sandy road toward some palm trees, and suddenly arrived at a pristine beach. It seemed empty except for an old man in a khaki suit who waved hello. As I walked toward him, I gradually realized when I got closer that he was naked, and evenly tanned a nut brown all over. He said he used to be an alcoholic but had stopped drinking and was now living the natural life. Later, he offered me some un-refrigerated cheese. When I hesitated, he assured me that cheese was alive and needed to be out in the open air. So I ate it. When I awoke in the middle of the night, projectile vomiting, I vowed to add another rule to the book by which I lived my life. "Never accept un-refrigerated cheese from a naked alcoholic in Mexico." To this day, I've lived by that rule.
Finally, on our last night there, we decided to get dressed, go into town and eat a real meal. We sat at a little outdoor restaurant on the beach and found they only served one thing, fish. I actually saw the fisherman pull the fishing boat up onto the sand and hand the cook my meal. I think the bill came to $2, including beer.
Since the financial crises of the early '90s, the $2 meal has gone the way of the nearly extinct California Condor. On my travels in Mexico, I saw one of those condors. It was lying in the middle of the highway in a remote part of Northern Mexico, and it's wing tips stretched way off the pavement and into the mesquite. It was like coming upon the Japanese monster bird "Rodan", asleep on a narrow desert highway. As I approached, the giant bird flapped those enormous wings and, seemingly in slow motion, took flight.
That's one of the reasons I keep going back. Because unexpected things always seem to happen every time I go to Mexico.
Dan Coffey, also known as PRI's "Dr. Science" and going back to Mexico next week.
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