Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Visit to Huautla De Jimenez

My visiting father in law expressed interest in visiting Huautla de Jiminez, the remote mountain town in the northeast corner of Oaxaca famed for it's magic mushrooms. I've been living in Oaxaca for 2.5 years, and of course I'm well aware of Huautla and it's sacred mushroom rituals. I have been in no rush to get there and gobble down magic fungus, as I approach them with respect and a wee bit of caution these days. Past experience with them has generally been wonderful. I consider that the 'shrooms themselves have a sense of humor and important information for human beings. This being the case, I figured I'd get to Huautla when the time was right, no rush. David inquired as to whether we might visit Huautla, and my wife Serena offered to keep the home fires burning with the kids, so the adventure was set.

Early last Saturday morning we set out in the Toyota RAV4, headed north on the Cuota, the super highway toll road towards Mexico City. After about a couple hours, we exited and headed back south a few miles on local roads to a town called Teotitlan before turning east towards an imposing range of near mountains, climbing steeply from the valley floor.

I gulped when I saw these hills, as I noticed the ribbon/shelf of a roadway winding precariously up to the ridge. Yup, guess where we are headed! It was vertigo inspiring to say the least driving up out of the valley, but rewarding—once at the top, in the space of twenty meters, we traversed the ridge and were greeted with a splendid vista, ridge after ridge of rugged green hills bumping across the landscape to the east.

In the city of Oaxaca, we are at the start of the dry season; things are getting brown and dusty pretty quick. But after cresting the ridge out of the dry valley last Saturday, we were clearly in a more temperate zone. When I saw all the verdant mountains, I was hopeful that we might score some fresh mushrooms, even though we were going in the off season.

David and I chatted and listened to some Bluegrass as we negotiated more than an hour of tight curves up against sheer drops. We spied a verdant valley below spotted with houses around a small village, watched over by undulating peaks, some of which were planted, while the sides of some of the hills were terraced with farms.
At long last we rounded a bend and came into sight of Huautla de Jimenez, a sizeable town that looks like it was spilled out of a giant bucket down the side of a mountain, dripping into the valley below. Huatla itself is on the north side of a great bowl formed by a loosely connected ring of mountains, facing south and covered with green, a moist wonderland.

The town itself seemed to have been designed by a Mexican Dr. Seuss, narrow switchback streets bounding up hills, clogged with people, cars, market stalls and stores. We hoped to find one Ines Cortes, a curandera who is famous for conducting a sort of folk Catholic healing ceremony utilizing psychedelic mushrooms.

After a surreal few moments of asking directions, driving up and down impossible narrow, insanely steep streets, and being forced to back down at least one, we found the house that Ines and her husband live in. David exclaimed in wonder at my ability to drive under these conditions, and the amazing feat we performed by finding Ines in this rabbit warren of a town on a hillside. Me, I've learned that if you are just a bit patient in Mexico, everything happens in due course.

Ines' husband invited us in, the door was ajar and he was peeking out as if he was waiting for us. They rolled out the welcome mat with an easy grace. We discussed the prospects for a ceremony that day, only to find that no fresh mushrooms were available, as it was the off season. Ines offered us the opportunity to do the ritual with dried 'shrooms, but warned that we would not experience visions. We were game to give it a try.

The ceremony was set to begin that evening at 10 p.m., so David and I poked around Huautla and then took a siesta at Ines' house. We rested in the cozy ground floor room where the ritual would be held. Ines has a gorgeous improvised altar at one end of the room, festooned with every Mexican chotchke you could possibly imaging, with pictures of various versions of Christ, the saints, the virgin, and other mythical images and photos of people.

Ines and her husband had left David and I alone to their house while they tended to business, so after we awoke from our fiesta, we sat in the cozy room, with it's earthen floor, and chatted about anything and everything. There was a dull light and a candle burning as we talked, but suddenly the light went out. It seemed an auspicious moment, seeing that we were about to knock on the door of the unknown. Minutes later the candle burned out and we were left in near total darkness. We chatted more and noted that the whole adventure, the drive through amazing emerald territory and the plunge into darkness all seemed very surreal and psychedelic.

I took a walk to the roof, up on the third floor, to use the bathroom there. It was twilight and the fading green of the valley was subtle and stunning just the same. A half moon smiled from straight above and cast a shadow at my feet. Jupiter, Venus and Mars blinked from their corners of the sky and I watched in delight as twilight waned and the stars poked their heads out one by one. I felt relaxed, happy and ready for the ceremony.

Inis and her guy came back and jokingly asked what happened to the lights. David and I both wondered if they had turned them out on us for fun, a little test. They got the lights back on and Ines made ready to begin. She gathered a quantity of herbs and set them on her splendid altar, then lit an incense burner that was filled with copal.

She began praying and chanting in both Spanish and Mazateca, the local indigenous tongue. She blessed both of us by name and brushed us with herbal leaves.
The preliminary invocation done, she handed each of us a little bowl brimming with dried mushrooms and poured a small amount of water from our personal bottles over each, instructing us to eat them. I looked at the 'shrooms and thought, “Shit I'm in trouble, this is the biggest pile of 'shrooms I've ever seen!”. It reminded me of the time in Summer '79 when I finished the thick remains of a mushroom milkshake that I'd split with friends. My eagerness that day saw me on the up escalator a mere 15 minutes from ingestion, traveling too fast to the outer limits. David mumbled similar sentiments about the quantity, and I said, dude we just gotta go with it, trust Ines.

We ate 'em up, and they tasted pretty bad. I really wish she did not put the water on them, it sort of made them f-r-e-a-k-y nasty, I woulda done better if they were just dry!

Regardless, we got them down in good order and settled in to wait for the boost, the beckoning to almost literal other worlds, and the A-HA moment provided by mushrooms: “Oh yes, now I finally see, this is how it REALLY IS!!!!!!!!!!!! I always knew it, I just forgot! The knowledge of the ages under my big dumb nose the whole time, and I never noticed! Etc., etc.”

I could go on about time and simultaneity, and other matters the mushrooms have whispered cosmic joke about into my psyche, in the past, but I'll wait on it, that's for some future post.

Ines continued to chant, and gave way to improvised blessings, songs, and banter. To say she made us feel welcome and at ease is a huge understatement. Here is a women who well knows what the mushrooms reveal, and she offers them in the spirit of healing, calling them “little saints”.
David and I were content and affable as we waited, chatting and feeling profoundly relaxed.

At one moment in Ines' song, I felt a wiggle in my gut and stood up, approached the altar and stretched out my tall frame, reaching for the roof. A quick shimmer worked from my center to my top—I was knocking on the door to “the other”, ready to tumble in. But the inner light dimmed, and I lay back down to relax.

Ines reminded us again what she had said that afternoon, that we can't expect visions from dried mushrooms. I freely admit that David and I both hoped to trip out anyway, but alas it was not to be. Still, we went to sleep content, open and relaxed, having had a most interesting day and evening.

The following morning, our hosts served us a flavorful breakfast of local coffee and eggs with a mountain root vegetable folded into them, and hot tortillas.
We headed back to the city of Oaxaca perhaps slightly disappointed at not finding the fresh mushrooms, but I can guarantee you I will visit Ines again in the rainy season!

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Food on the Road

Tuesday night. First day's drive over, somewhere in New Jersey. With the wind chill, it's bloody zero degrees out. I'm pumped to be setting out on my road trip to Oaxaca, but on my plate is -- nothing! So the task is to put something on my plate. The old boy's gotta take on some nourishment.

I leave my warm, slightly downmarket fifty nine dollar hotel room and hit the all American strip mall strip to see what might be the least offensive meal I can find.

I end up, of all places, at the local Applebee's. It's sort of a sports bar on steroids inside. The cute little Jersey gal who seats me has the most elaborate combo of mascara and eyeliner I've ever witnessed. She's overtly overly friendly, as per the Applebee's training videos, no doubt, but I just want to say, "How the hell did you get all that stuff on your eyelids?!". She shows me to a tiny high table with a tiny high stool, bares her teeth one last time and sprints away, spouting salutations as she goes.

Now I'm confronted with a high tech panorama of sports programming on six or seven enormous flat screen TV sets. A quick scan of my tiny round table turns up some sort of small digital box, giving me the ability to turn up the volume on the TV of my choice (each is tuned to a different station, of course). Football, basketball, ESPN, more ESPN, CNN, FOX "news", and more. I'm a bit tired from the road, trying to grok this new digital wrinkle, when my waitress arrives and begins pitching her script at me.

She is by degrees more earthy, warm and genuine than the amazing eyeliner/mascara hostess girl, in fact she's a sort of robust Amy Winehouse (only sober). My new best friend, she runs a dizzying sales pitch by me to drink and eat enough to stagger an adult rhino, and get it pretty drunk too. I plead with her for a few minutes to look the menu over.

Everything on the menu is bigger than my head. By a lot. I'm hungry, but fuck I'm only one guy! Allow me to insert a little aside here. I've been living in the city of Oaxaca, Mexico for a bit over two years. I might be biased, but I believe Oaxaca has the best food in Mexico. The plates are meticulously put together -- a lot of thought goes into creating the right combo of foods on your plate, complimentary items that enhance each other. They are beautifully served in portions that are filling but not overwhelming. The cost is such that you can always order more if you need to.

For example, take La Biznaga, a Oaxacan/fusion restaurant in central Oaxaca, about a half mile north of the zocalo (the town square). I like to order a salad that includes red leaf lettuce, a garnish of fresh seasonal veggies, and some grilled salmon. It's delicious and filling, but not overwhelming. Sometimes it's enough. If not, I can always order a Sopa Azteca to go with it, a tomato based tortilla soup with avocado in it that is truly delicious. It has a strong flavor of tomato and peppers, but still there are a bevy of delicate flavors competing for my attention. I'm no professional food writer, I'd be lost trying to identify the complicated flavors of the Sopa Azteca at La Biznaga. Every sip of the hearty soup is pleasing to the depths of my soul, no lie!

Back to Applebee's in New Jersey. Now, I know it's not fair to compare a chain restaurant/sports bar in the U.S. to a hipster, slightly upscale restaurant in Oaxaca. But I can't help it. I'm already doing it! Let us continue.

Amy Winehouse's sober sister comes back to take my order. I inquire, "Can I get this here spinach/shrimp salad without the bacon?" Her look says it all. She's thinking "Dude, with your skinny ass, I should double the bacon on this salad"! Since she is wicked nice, she does not say this. She will bring me the salad, but she is gonna leave the damn bacon on it. Fuck!

OK, so I can pull the bacon off. They bring the salad. It's actually really delicious. Que sabrosa! The shrimp is huge, plentiful, and grilled. It occurs to me that the fixation on serving piping hot food in the U.S. is a sort of fetish. I've been eating lots of lukewarm/room temperature foods in Oaxaca. OK, it seemed weird at first but it sort of grows on you. Now, I dig it. What the hell, maybe I've gone native.

Time to eat the shrimp/spinach salad! I put the bacon aside as I'm able. I'm sure I ate some. Yes I am a vegetarian, but I just thanked the immortal soul of the poor pig and probably ate a few morsels of his big butt.

This damn salad was still like five times the size of my cabeza (head)! I was ready to slide off my chair and take a long nap after eating the son of a bitch. So, sober and friendly Amy Winehouse returns, to offer this nugget of wisdom: "That wasn't very much food, you need coffee and a dessert!"

I didn't, but I tipped her twenty percent, so she would know that I loved her.