Editor’s note: this story is linked to Bonetti’s EP, Dos Mescal para vamanos, out now on The Audacious Art Experiment. Order here.
I came in to the west, riding buses from state to town as far east as Tulum, Quintana Roo. The depot was filled with local hermanos, flamboyant sombreros and a blazing sun so wretched my eye was leaking, and a permanent squint ached the wrinkles in my forehead. Each guy had an instrument in tow and, although most were hidden in their cases, some preferred to get right down to work. As each coach pulled in to its bay another musician would stumble through its doors, tune up in the luggage queue and hit the high notes before the last bags were reclaimed. Perhaps I’d underestimated the volume of the folk repertoire, but there were so many free roaming instrumentalists playing almost the same tune, I assumed my canting struck the illusion of double, even triple the reality. This bizarre scene is how I’d dreamed Mexico would be; warm men playing guitar in the sun, constantly, or perhaps, eternally. It’s how I’d remembered the whole of Mexico historically and Oaxaca’s main bus depot help realised this crude Old El Paso Fajita Kit imagery. To see it was to be an unexpected witness and I believe there was something unusual about this herd of Mariachi.
Two Amigos; the hostel sounded friendly and as I’ve got two mates it seemed to fit my demographic. It was an unfortunate and vile complex. Every object dirtier than the last, every bed a city of bugs. It was only a short term lease we were after – a night, two at most. Just a place to restock and refuel before taking a bus to the Pueblos Mancomunados, a series of eco-villages connected by long hikes through dry forest. Part of the restock included some smoke for the journey, and part of the journey includes finding something to smoke, and the right place to smoke it. The pyramids of Tikal in Guatemala, the valleys of Solento in Colombia, under the shining stars by a Honduran river. Hell, even through a used can out the back of a 4×4 in Costa Rica is a sound spot. The question of when to smoke is buried beneath the question ‘where.’ Only once the place has been identified can the skins and papers appear, and sometimes we find that the correct spot can involve even those who wouldn’t normally partake in such an activity. The search for the perfect spot is endless, surprising, and at its best, inclusive to unparalleled levels.
The hunt for it can be equally as compelling and on this occasion my friends and I heard of a Caribbean boy paying a cheaper rate for a spot on the hostel roof. It was rumoured he was flush with the stuff so without hesitation we ploughed up the steel stairs to the terrace and into the embrace of Mexico’s warm evening air, where we found his head in the clouds and his sleeping bag concealed safely under a trestle. We were not there to piss about so there would to be no greasing up, no small talk, just right down to business.
“Ey up pal, ¿Cómo está? Do you know where we can get some verde around this el hostel?”
The guy began his response with that radiant, white beam, synonymous with African smiles worldwide. We knew right there that we were bound to be in cahoots.
“Ahhhh dunno, man. How much you need? I got some shit but I don’t wanna sell.”
He pulled a bag from his sack under the trestle and fumbled around for a minute. It was right then I realised he had only one hand, his right arm ending at a high wrist, leaving just a rugged stump. Eventually he pulled out a fair whack of the good grain and let us have a sniff. It was some bad shit. Brittle, flavourless and disappointing. We’d take what we could anyway, but not before the lad pulled out a tissue an inhaled with extreme vigour. He began to dance a Caribbean dance to the sound of a car stereo outside the hostel. He beamed at us once again and decided right then and there that he didn’t intend to sell. He replaced the bag of green in his good hand with a can of furniture polish, and laced the tissue with more of the same.
“Look pal,” I said. “We’re going on a really long hike tomorrow and we could really do with a little smoke for the journey. We only want a little and we don’t know the city so you’re our only hope…..yada yada…”
I had basically turned into the guy outside supermarkets whose only gone and lost his wallet, only needs 20p, he’s sorry to ask but I’m his only hope…yada yada. The only difference here is that I was actually willing to give money for basically nothing. The guy listened to our pleas, took another sniff, and smiled.
“I dunno, man.”
“Come on,” I replied.
He took another sniff, smiled larger and raised his voice.
“I dunno maaan.”
“C’mooon,” I pleaded, a bit louder than before.
Again came another big sniff, an even bigger grin and a loud cry.
“I dunno maaaaaaaan!”
This time the boys joined in, too.
“COME OOOOOOON!” we hollered in unison, sensing that the tide had finally turned.
He took another astounding sniff of that battered, stained tissue, smiled at the sky and continued dancing, only this time to the sound of the evening crickets. He took a lung busting breath and shouted.
The deal was done right there and then. He swapped the polish for the bag and rested it on his forearm. He plunged his large hand into the opaque plastic and reappeared with an overall unsatisfactory piece of merchandise. One by one we queued up to thank him. He offered each of us an extended shake of his arm and a sniff on his favourite piece of tissue. We took the stump but left the rag, headed downstairs and made for the city.
The city of Oaxaca is beautiful. It’s not necessarily any more so than the rest of Mexico or any of Latin America, I just like the place and I’m pleased to have spent a small portion of my life wandering the streets. Perhaps it was the endless flow of Mariachi stalking the town. We had stumbled into some sort of fiesta in the centre, explaining the abnormally large presence of musicians. Every turn was a photogenic delight of fresh head-wear, a new pan-pipe or rusty trumpet. It was unfeasible to eat mole in the market without a group of local lads riffing through the classics, and it was impossible for me not to enjoy it. I don’t normally dine out in a-minor, but as they say, ‘when in Rome…’
The night came to a close with a smoke on the terrace, beneath the stars and next to the trestle, the sound of Oaxaca city still very much awake in the near distance. The boy from earlier had gone to a party with his rag of fumes and one pal would later wake up with around two hundred bug bites from his vile mattress. In hindsight this wasn’t the romantic smoke we hoped to experience and this time that pal chose not to bother.
Words: Loic J. Tuckey