“Let the mind beware, that though the flesh be bugged, the circumstances of existence are pretty glorious.”
Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums.
“Just follow the road to Ixcateopan,” the old lady said, flipping blue-grey tortillas on a smoking road-side griddle. “Don’t worry. You’ll find it.”
I could barely pronounce it, much less find it. Barely a mile past Taxco’s city limits, I felt lost—again.
Lost was an understatement for the way I’d been feeling.
For most tourists and expats, Mexico is a colorful smorgasbord of culture, or a one-stop shop for sun, sex, and booze. At first I enjoyed the best of both worlds, but as they say, familiarity breeds contempt, and after four long years I had come to face this place with alternating waves of crippling fear and boiling hostility. Why was I still here?
I can’t pinpoint the exact point in time when things changed for me. Maybe it was when a transit official demanded a bribe to register my car (I paid it grudgingly)… or when an alcoholic neighbor came to threaten us with a wrench (we sent him away stumbling)… or when a mysterious SUV followed and opened fire on my friend Owen’s car (attempted carjacking? case of mistaken identity?)… maybe it was the general honking madness or the leaky septic tank, the kidnapping attempt or the window smashing, the taquería robbery dishonest veterinarian absent-minded waiter telephone extortionist goddamn charlatan plumber opening floodgates of Ayotzinapa massacre there’ll be hell pay Peña you sonofabitch fuck you and your vice—
“Theo, are you okay?” My boyfriend Ramon looked over from the driver side, furling his brows with concern.
“I’m fine.” I wasn’t. I was drowning in bad headlines and bad personal experiences again, a rapid-fire stream of anxiety. I just couldn’t understand what had happened to the Mexico I used to love. How could such a rich and beautiful country could be so incredibly fucked up?
Mexico had shown me its dark side, and so had I.
Ramon and I fixed our gaze on the road, searching for another sign we were on the right track.
“The first sign said 25 kilometers, how many has it been?” I always read the signs.
Ramon glanced down at the odometer. “Around 20 I guess?”
Our friend Vinnie leaned forward between us, sticky-note directions in hand, trying to reconcile its crumpled contents with the winding road and endless green horizon before us.
“Keep going.” Vinnie’s typically firm tone contained a hint of doubt. I could tell he didn’t want to disappoint us.
He didn’t want to disappoint me.
While I puzzled over the loss of my glorious Mexico hey-days, my boyfriend and my friends struggled to understand what had happened to me—the biting sarcasm, the unanswered messages, the disappearance from social events.
Yet they continued to show me the kindness I refused to show Mexico, dragging me out of the house kicking and screaming, hoping someday the Theo they knew and loved would come back.
Today they’d convinced me to ignore the State Department’s Travel Warning and head deep into the hills of Guerrero, Mexico’s most dangerous state, in search of crystalline liquid relief and rustic enchantment.
I would not be disappointed.
About a month ago Vinne’s sister tipped him off to a place called Pozas Azules—mysterious blue springs in a mountain village near Taxco. He showed me just one photo.
I was instantly captivated, just not instantly motivated. For that I relied on Ramon and our friends. A few lost weekends and spontaneous lazy Sunday phone calls later, we were on our way. Ramon and I. Vinnie (also hermit-like as of late), Ramon’s teenage sister Yamila (on release from being grounded) and our friend Lorenzo (still licking his wounds after a break-up).
Apparently I wasn’t the only one feeling a little lost.
Still, spontaneity boded well for our excursion. The best days in Mexico are always unplanned, last-minute throwings of caution to the balmy wind. Planning is the surest path to disappointment.
The jungles of Guerrero spread across curvaceous hills like a dewy carpet, as abstract and impenetrable as Owen’s vast backyard on our last weekend excursion. The road seemed to stretch for miles, with no exit in sight.
Yet sure enough, a few minutes later we spotted another sign, and followed it down a narrow twisted road, lower and deeper into the forest.
Less than a mile in we found ourselves in a beat little village.
- Square concrete houses with thatched roofs in grassy sun-drenched clearings.
- Stick-and-barbed-wire fences.
- The occasional horse or goat.
A miniature corner grocer—the kind that sells little snacks and sundries, spicy pork rinds and cane-sugar Coke (what supermarket gringo hipsters nowadays call “Mexican Coke”)—boarded up with dusty two-by-fours.
“Should we have bought snacks in town?” Ramon wondered aloud. He was always hungry.
Yamila and Lorenzo were silent in the back seat, still reeling from a barbacoa food coma after lunch at the Taxco market.
I lied and said I wasn’t hungry. Buying something implied the burdensome process of stopping at a run-down little shop, asking the shopkeeper for something appetizing through a tiny window of wrought-iron bars, being told the exact thing I wanted wasn’t available, settling for something less appetizing. For my weary mind, this was all too burdensome, the risk of disappointment too great. I preferred grumbling certainty of hunger.
A cloud of dust swallowed the village behind us, endless jungle once again filled the horizon. I thought surely we’d missed the next turn, when half a dozen dusky boys swarmed the middle of the two-lane road, shouting with gleeful waving arms and white shining teeth.
Ramon slowed the car to a crawl while the boys trotted along.
“Señor, are you going to the waterfall? We can take you there.”
“No, we’re looking for the Pozas Azules,” Ramon replied.
Realizing we weren’t heading their way, the boys backed off and pointed down the road, somber and disinterested. “Ahh, keep going then. Just twenty minutes down the road.”
Our adventure was just getting started.
Speeding onward, we suddenly spotted a magnificent white finger tracing the side of the wooded mountain. A waterfall!
Yamila and Lorenzo awoke from their barbacoa torpor. “Wow! Who would have thought there’s a huge waterfall out here!”
A few seconds later we passed a small, stony clearing on the right—the end of the falls, a foamy pool that reached up and up, past the top of the jungle to what seemed like the entrance to heaven itself.
“Nice of those boys to offer to take us a few paces down the road to this obviously visible waterfall,” I added with sarcasm, an unpleasant habit I’d acquired to mask my vulnerability state.
“Don’t start.” Ramon lanced a cautionary glance.
Twenty minutes down the road, just as the boys had said, we found another sign and another gang of ruffians eager to show us the way.
“Pozas Azules! Pozas Azules!”
With a nod we hired a young guide and followed him down the path to a fenced-in dirt parking lot in the tiny village of Atzala de la Asunción (population 835). A coin for the boy—wait not yet!—and a coin for the lady dozing in the shade—are they related?—who briefly rose from her nap to cover our wheezing Honda in a blanket to protect it from the sun.
The same guide offered to take us all the way to the entrance to the park. This seemed a little unnecessary. Was this another scam?
Maybe it was the thrill of seeing the waterfall or the sheer relief of arrival, but I was feeling strangely generous and care free, so I nodded to him in agreement.
We followed our teenage guide on foot, lanky limbs bobbing down a bumpy, muddy cobblestone path that wound around and dipped down even deeper into the forest, all sun-kissed leaves and misty clouds. Bright red flowers and odd-shaped bugs dotted our paths. A crush of butterflies swirled around a puddle of water then into the sky.
The forest inhaled our worldly troubles, exhaled pure vitality.
An unfamiliar lightness began to take hold of me.
I puzzled at an ugly tangle of hoses and thin PVC pipes following our path.
Our guide explained: “Those are the catchments pipes for our village. Everybody has one, our water comes straight from the pools, which are a natural spring that originates high in the mountains.”
Seems like a pain in the ass to run your own water line… wouldn’t it be easier if the village just built one big pump?
“Imagine having fresh mountain spring water come straight out of your tap!” Ramon’s characteristic enthusiasm tapped me out of my momentary relapse into negativity.
Breathe in, breathe out.
Past the entrance booth (25 pesos per person—exact change is recommended), over a rickety bridge, and around the bend we reached our destination.
Two large pools sparkled turquoise and jade in a cradle of rock formations jutting into the sky. A mighty waterfall surged past a now-shattered bridge, filling the crystal pools below. A large bird clutched the face of a rock, jutting its face into the waterfall mist to drench its thirsty feathers.
Our guide retired, pocketing his tip with a smile, and we rented a few plastic chairs from another boy nearby. I took a moment to admire the surroundings.
Barrel chested men and sun-ripened wives soaked their feet in the bright-blue pools while earnest little kids in life jackets kicked and splashed.
Giddy teenagers jostled and brayed at the foot of the falls, got swept away in swirling foam, returned against the current, got swept away again—a Sisyphean joyride.
Wizened old women and wide-eyed children straddled wooden benches, munching on tuna sandwiches and tostadas. I realized we’d missed our last chance to buy snacks at the site’s entrance. It didn’t matter.
The scene was like a Mexican version of a Norman Rockwell painting: the unbridled joy of beat down working class relief, the perfect hot summer vacation, smiles smug with the discovery of their own little piece of paradise on lazy Sunday afternoon.
I thought about the contrast between this idyllic scene and my anxiety-ridden everyday life.
Why can’t Mexico be like this every day? Nonsense, of course it is, this place is here all the time. There are other places like it. The problem is your life is caught in a different current, torrents of capitalist accumulation and cancerous growth, trafficking souls for dollars and pesos, the Faustian bargain of the twenty-first centur—
“Hey Theo! Aren’t you going to swim?”
Ramon and Yamila were calling up at me all squinty-eyed in the sun. I tossed my t-shirt on the chair and tiptoed into the pool, gingerly, self-conscious in a brazen hemp-flower speedo… Great fucking choice, Theo, as if people don’t stare at you enough as it is…
The cool water was electricity to my toe-tips. I would have to jump.
I ready-set-cannonballed into the air, plunging into the surprisingly deep water. The icy cold jolted my system and when I came up—this air, these colors, those people, this place—everything seemed more vibrant than before.
I suddenly felt light, free, alive.
Greater than I had in a very long time. Not to mention sober.
My anxiety melted away, drop by drop, in the cool, rushing water. The paranoia that propelled me every day, head bowed, down gritty streets of Mexico dissolved. Nobody paid any attention to the lost gringo in paradise. I forgot about the drug gangs that may or may not be patrolling nearby jungles, about the killer cops working for the cartels, about neighbors brandishing heavy wrenches. Far from the noisy city, reckless drivers and pot-holed streets lost all relevance.