I left Mazunte happily, not because it’s an ugly place – it’s achingly beautiful – but because it’s fucking sweltering, and I was burning through two t-shirts a day just to not be constantly soaked in sweat. Next stop: San Jose.
I took a collectivo – a little open truck – out of Mazunte to a town called Pachutla, and from there I used my stinky garbage Spanish to sequester a minivan to San Jose. The journey was pretty intense: the road into the mountains is never straight for more than twenty metres, so you’re constantly winding around cliff edges. The local Mexicans in the van didn’t seem to give a toss; they were asleep within minutes. I spent the four-hour duration staring out at the blank sheet of fog that hugs the mountainsides, wondering how big the drop would be if our driver should sneeze and veer two feet to the right.
At 4pm I was dropped off in San Jose, and the minivan rumbled away to leave me standing alone in the chilly mountain air, still in my shorts and t-shirt from Mazunte. A thick fog had rolled in – or perhaps simply a cloud; the town is 2000 metres above sea level – and I couldn’t see further than a few paces ahead of me. The fog sapped the noise from the air and deadened every sound: I could hear nothing but my own slapping footsteps as I ducked inside a little shop to buy cupcakes and ask the elderly owner where La Cumbra hostel was. He pointed up the hill. I set off.
I can’t emphasis enough how little I could see. It was as though I was walking through a janky old Playstation 1-era video game, where the computer wasn’t powerful enough to render anything beyond my immediate area. A couple of shops lined the path, and beyond them – nothing. Just a silent, smoky void. It was creepy, and I loved it. I pretended I was in a video game – Silent Hill or Resident Evil – exploring some abandoned town infected with an unknown evil. I made my way up the hill in the silence, breathing mist, and passed an old lady feeding clothes through a creaking press. A dog hurried past, its claws tick-tacking on the road. A young boy on a bicycle whooshed out of the smoke, stared at me as he passed by, then was reclaimed by the white and vanished.
Winding up the hill I passed shacks with writing on boards in Spanish, and murals of anatomy and animals from Mexican folklore. At the top, sweating and out of breath from having heaved my rucksack uphill for fifteen minutes, I found a tiny wooden sign, tucked away, which read ‘La Cumbra’. I followed the sign up a staircase hemmed in by wire fencing, and another hundred metres later I arrived at the hostel: a mountainside jumble of shacks, all in different colours, materials and elevations, interspersed with pine trees, interconnected by a criss-cross of staircases so baffling and impossible that it would have made M.C. Escher snap his paintbrush in half and wang his easel into the nearest skip.
It smelled like pine and I could hear ghostly children’s laughter through the fog. I followed a hand-painted sign that read ‘RECEPCION’ down into a courtyard with a tree in the middle. Six Mexican children were playing tig, squawking and laughing around the tree. I went over and once more demonstrated my breathtaking multi-lingual abilities.
“Hola chicos. Donde esta recepcion, por favor?”
The two boys I’d asked ignored me, little shits, but a girl with spectacles replied to me in Spanish. I caught something about stairs, and followed her pointing finger. Down a flight of rickety stairs I found the reception, where I purchased a room for two nights. The man spoke only Spanish, and he led me through the treehouse fever dream to my room: a cabin for one. They don’t have dorms here – I wasn’t sure why at first, but on reflection sharing a dorm with eleven other people all tripping balls on mushrooms probably wouldn’t make for the smoothest night’s sleep.
The man left me to my cabin, and I put my bags down and read the graffiti on the log-cabin walls: little murals, psychedelic doodles, and sweet phrases: ‘You’re okay’ and ‘Relax, enjoy the experience, breathe’. The ghosts of past mushrooms trips huddled close in the room. I went out onto the sheltered terrace outside my room – a wooden, hammock-laden platform jutting out over the void, from which I could see nothing but swirling white clouds, with tendrils that crept up and over the hostel to wreath everything in stagnant quiet. I had no idea what vista may or may not have been concealed by the cloud.
I wasn’t sure what to do or where to go. I didn’t fancy shlepping back into the town – there didn’t seem to be much there. And as far as the mist allowed me to see, the hostel seemed to be all alone on the hill. Instead, I relaxed in my chilly cabin for an hour or two, reading. When I emerged it was dark, and I went up six flights of lop-sided wooden stairs to reach the restaurant that crowns the hostel. There was a fire burning up there, and a dozen silhouettes sat around talking in the warmth. I was too tired and intimidated to join them, so I went inside the little café and ordered several tacos for dinner. I ate them alone, watching a dubbed film on a small television inside, then went to sit on one of the innumerable terraces around the hostel and stared into the empty space beyond the mountainside.
From where I was sitting I could hear English people talking – they seemed to be on a terrace above me. Their conversation sounded fun and friendly, and part of me wanted to go and ask to join them. I didn’t, however. There was no doubt they would say yes – everyone always does. It was just that I didn’t have the energy to endure everyone’s gaze and questions turn my way all at once. It makes me very self-concious, and I feel like I have to act – to be on my best, brightest, sunshiniest behaviour, amiable and generous. I wasn’t in that mood, and I don’t like to be insincere, so instead I took myself to my bed and my book, wondering what the hell I would do with the next two days.
I woke up to a different world. Wrapped up in thick winter blankets, I rolled over to see my curtains glowing. I pulled on my clothes and went out on the terrace, and gasped at the change. The fog had cleared. I was gazing down at an enormous, sweeping valley, lush green, with mountaintops meeting the bottoms of little white clouds at the horizon. I watched tiny ant cars a thousand metres below weave along twisting roads, passing through clusters of ramshackle homes. The sunlight warmed my face and my bare feet, and I leant against the wooden railing for a long time, breathing it all in.
Up at the café I took a coffee and a Mexican-style breakfast – scrambled eggs with refried beans, chorizo, and spicy salsa. The sun was so strong that I took two layers off, eating only in a t-shirt. Beside me, facing out at the view, were a group of four people around my age. From their accents I recognised them as the people I’d heard the night before but not dared join. I said something innocuous to join their conversation – “gorgeous view right!” – and before five minutes were up, we were laughing and joking like old friends. They were two duos who had met in Oaxaca and made friends: there was Cole, a 28 year old girl from southern England; Joey, her best friend, from the midlands; Sam, 27 years old, from Leeds; and his friend Liam, 26, Leeds.
It’s funny meeting people from Leeds: unlike meeting someone from, say, Nigeria, where you would have a lot of questions to ask to further the conversation, when I meet someone from Leeds (or England, to be honest) I just sort of say: cool. Like, I wouldn’t meet someone from Leeds in Leeds and be all ‘tell me about where you live’, because that would obviously make me sound fucking insane. Same goes for when I’m travelling, I guess.
They were a funny bunch. Cole was very intelligent and told us interesting stories about her autistic cousin who gives everybody he knows the names of planets. Cole is known to him as Europa, his best friend is Mercury, and his favourite teacher he refers to as The Earth. Joey was full of nervous energy and could drop into seemingly any accent on a whim. Sam was cool and relaxed, choosing his moments carefully to drop a one-liner that would have us all rolling around laughing. Liam, the youngest, was a banter-y guy in a bucket hat whose jokes invariably involved bodily fluids and reproductive glands. The dynamic was great, which was the reason I answered the way I did when Cole made me a proposition:
“Hey, what are you doing today? We were gonna do shrooms if you want to join.”
I told her I wasn’t planning on doing it unless I met a cool bunch of people – so yes, I’d very much like to join.
We went away to take showers and reconvened at midday. We bought the shrooms (I won’t say where for fear of dropping anyone in the shit) and took them on the hostel terrace. I’ve done it a few times, as had Cole and Joey. Liam had done it once, Sam never. We took a conservative amount each to begin; always better to err on the side of caution. While waiting for them to take effect, we hiked up a little trail into the forest, and for thirty minutes we dossed around chatting. It’s always awkward when you’re waiting; it makes me cringe a little bit when everyone gets a mini-placebo effect and starts being all ‘whoa mannn look at these flowers, so pretty!’ but they’re still sober.
Sure enough, it kicked in after an hour, just as I was strolling through a clearing. There was a small hill on one side, and I was suddenly overcome with the mental image of me slipping and sliding silently away into the forest when the others weren’t looking, and everyone turning around like ‘where did that new guy go?’ I told Cole this, and she doubled over laughing – which me laugh more, until my eyes were streaming.
Fully in the swing of things, we pootled around in the forest a bit more, but it was very hilly and not a great place to sit for long. We headed back to the hostel and claimed the hammock terrace as our own. Joey put on music – old soul tunes – and for hours we sat chatting and tripping and falling into hysterics at absurd scenarios. Joey, at one point, casually sighed, “I’m really glad we’re here and the clouds are out there.”
Cole caught this, and cracked up as she asked: “What, as opposed to the clouds sitting here eating biscuits and us floating over the mountains?”
The Leeds boys told a story that killed me: of a girl from Yorkshire they’d met elsewhere in Mexico, who got hypersexual when drunk. She was hooking up with Sam, and when Sam told her that he was sharing a room with his friend Liam, she nudged him and said ‘Oop, two cocks’ with a dirty wink. The absurdity of it made me wheeze with laughter. Like – imagine somebody so broadly, haphazardly horny that they get turned on by the idea of two men simply existing in the vicinity of one another. For the rest of the day the phrase came out in increasingly ridiculous situations. ‘Oop, two socks’. ‘Oop, two rocks’. ‘Oop, two clocks’. I dunno – maybe you had to be there, but I was crying.
(Alrighty this post is getting long now, so I’ll split it into two parts. Oop, two blocks!)