Mystic in Mexico Part I: Connection

handicrafts-huichol-design-thumb21793453I visited Mexico for the first time in 2001. It was the trip that led me to move to Baja California Sur in 2002. Before I arrived in Baja, however I flew into Puerta Vallarta, on the other side of the Sea of Cortez, and traveled North to San Blas in the state of Nayarit, to a hotel claiming to operate one of Corky Carroll’s surf schools. I use the work “claiming” because upon arrival I discovered there was no surf school and I was on my own.

In between surf sessions undertaken on a yellowed surfboard with La Sandia (the watermelon) painted across its ample width, I explored the area around the tiny village San Pancho. One day, I stumbled across a small art gallery filled with brightly colored tapestries made of yarn and objects covered in brightly colored beads depicting different animals, suns and moons, plant life, and a symbol I was not familiar with that appeared in most pieces. It looked like a flower, with tear-drop shaped petals, but it’s coloring was always green and I sensed that while it may have been a plant, it was not a flower.

As I stood looking at the artwork, a gentleman working in the gallery approached me. He was dressed in loosely-fitted white cotton clothing with a brightly-colored woven belt around his waist made of the same material used in some of the tapestries displayed on the gallery’s wall.  He had a friendly, round face, dark skin and even darker, deeply-set eyes. He struck up a conversation with me in Spanish and although my knowledge of the language was very rudimentary, I discovered that we were able to make ourselves understood quite well. He explained that he was a member of a tribe of native Mexican Indians, the Huichol (‘wee-choll’), who made the unique art that surrounded us, depicting a culture of nature worship. He patiently explained what each of the symbols meant – that the Sun is father and master of the heavens, and the Eagle, Werika, is his wife, mother of the sky and goddess of life; that the deer, Kauyumari, is a spirit guide who leads the shamans on their visionary pathways. The strange symbol that I thought was a plant he explained was peyote, or Hikuri.

My ears pricked up. I’d always been curious about this plant and it’s reputation as a hallucinogen and spiritual teacher. I’d read Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan and was intensely curious about plant-derived psychotropic compounds as a means of evolving spiritually. This despite the fact that I’ve never been much into recreational drug use.

He said, “Peyote is powerful medicine. Peyote is a gift to the Huichol from the gods. It shares wisdom and is a way to connect to the gods.”

As he spoke I felt a slight shiver run through my body. With this we began discussing religion and things of a spiritual nature in general. It was an intense conversation in which I felt a strong level of understanding and connection to the man. I left the gallery feeling energized, buoyed up. I’d just engaged in my first spiritual conversation in Spanish! Later the same day I was struck by the realization that I didn’t speak Spanish well enough to have the kind of conversation we had and again, a shiver ran through me as I wondered if perhaps there hadn’t been some magic involved.

One of the pieces I ended up buying.

One of the pieces I bought.

The next day I returned to the gallery to buy a couple of pieces of Huichol art. The man greeted me warmly. He went into the back room of the gallery and returned with something in his hand.

He said, “I want you to have this. My wife made it for you last night.”

He placed a round shell, a little larger than a silver dollar, in my hand onto which the peyote symbol was carefully laid out in tiny beads.

“It is hikuri,” he explained, “peyote.”

I looked down at the tiny symbol.

“I remember,” I said feeling my heart swell in my chest.

I’m a plant biologist, but there was a time when I wanted to be an anthropological botanist – a scientist who studies the plants used by indigenous cultures for curing illnesses, imbalances, and for spiritual purposes, like the character Sean Connery played in the ’90s movie, Medicine Man. I wanted to, that is, until I realized that almost every indigenous culture in the world is patriarchal and their shamans don’t generally share their knowledge with white chicks like me. When I discovered that the entire Huichol spiritual doctrine is centered around a plant, I felt connected to them somehow. There seemed to be some kind of grace or Divine connection inherent in our meeting, like I was being contacted on some level, told that I was on the right path. That first encounter with the Huichol and peyote left me wanting to know more about them both. I’ve been drawn to them ever since. For whatever reason though, I haven’t had the chance to interact with them much. Once in a very little while I run into someone working in a gallery much like on that first occasion, but my interactions with them have not led to the same level of connection.

More than ten years later, in November 2012, that all changed.

Find out what happens when I meet a Huichol shaman and his apprentice in Part II: Meeting Hikuri.

Sneak Peak

The author on the beach in Cabo Pulmo

On the beach in Cabo Pulmo

After I stopped working in science in March 2005, I didn’t think I’d ever publish another academic article. However, when I was asked to contribute an essay to the the November edition of the online journal Anthropologies, despite some misgivings related to the academic nature of much of its content, I agreed. While The Challenges of Community-Based Conservation is a far cry from the peer-reviewed scientific articles I once published, it describes, in very short, somewhat antiseptic form, the complicated and painful story of my experience conducting a community-based conservation project in the village of Cabo Pulmo in Baja California Sur. It is essentially the Cole’s notes version of the memoir I am writing minus the surfing, sex, and adventure. 😉

I hope you’ll take a peek and that the story will pique your interest in reading my memoir. I’d love to hear your impressions of whether this is the basis for a good story.

Is the Kid Really Dead?

Icy surfing in IcelandIt’s the day before Summer Solstice and it’s only 79 degrees Fahrenheit outside. I’m considering whether I need to put a sweater on because there’s a brisk breeze blowing in off the sea that is chilling me as it hits my bare shoulders. A week ago, I had to put a lightweight hooded sweater on over my t-shirt in the middle of the day and resorted to donning full length yoga pants because I was so cold. The mercury didn’t get much higher than 77 degrees that day. Normally at this time of year I’d be sweating in shorts and a tank top. Conclusion? This is possibly the coldest June in the history of Baja’s East Cape. However, before you accuse me of being melodramatic, and in the absence of any definitive long term historical proof, let me say instead that it is definitely the coldest June I’ve personally experienced in this region.

Admittedly, this is only my eleventh June in Baja. Eleven is neither a big number, nor is it small in the context of time passage. But it is more than a handful and a decade plus one. Never before in the month of June have I needed to put a sweater on in the middle of the day. Remove my t-shirt? Definitely. Change my sports bra because it’s soaking with sweat? You bet. Take a shower and lie down under a fan on high in the middle of the day because it’s 105 degrees outside? Several times. But put on more clothes at what is the hottest time of day? Never!

Air temperatures have been uncharacteristically low because they reflect sea water temperatures, which have been near frigid. Since the middle of May, they’ve fluctuated wildly between extremes. From 84 degrees Fahrenheit one day to 62 degrees the very next – that’s a whopping 22 degree drop.

The colder the water, the thicker the wetsuit a surfer needs to wear. Wetsuit thicknesses are measured in millimeters (mm) and water temperatures of 62 degrees mean wearing a full-length wetsuit of at least 2mm thickness or going out for super short sessions in which your muscles tend to seize up. I don’t own a 2mm full suit.  My shorty suit wasn’t up to the job and on more than one occasion I got out of the water with blue lips and legs that were numb from the knees down. By the end of several sessions, I had to blow into my cupped hands between sets in an attempt to warm my frigid digit. It took all my willpower to put my hands back in the biting cold water and keep my arms paddling for the next wave. Back on land again it took almost an hour of sitting in the direct sun to warm up again. While I know that there are many a surfer who experiences this regularly and to an even greater extent, bear in mind that we’re talking about surfing in the normally tepid, turquoise waters of the Sea of Cortez.

I have furthermore never seen the sea turn green. Two weeks ago, I thought I’d been teleported and was surfing in South Central California when overnight the water changed from its characteristic turquoise and azure blues to a brilliant emerald green.  Apparently the colder water resulted from an upwelling event that brought nutrients from deep down in the sea to the surface causing a serious algal bloom. Then there were the jelly fish, or, as I like to call them, the Helly fish, feeding on all that phytoplankton. At the risk of being repetitive, I’ve never seen so many large gelatinous jelly fish in the water here. The water was amuck with them and more than once I managed to squeeze their fire-wielding tentacles between my leg and my surfboard to produce the kind of stinging you only wish upon your worst enemies. The resulting welts were impressive and the itching lasted for days.

It’s not just June weather that’s been strange. May was uncharacteristically cool and foggy too. From the middle of May onwards we’ve had the equivalent of what Californians call June Gloom in the East Cape – fog, wind, and shockingly cold water.

So what gives?

At first I thought it was because it’s a La Niña year. La Niña is a period during which sea surface temperatures across the equatorial Eastern Central Pacific Ocean are lower than normal by 3-5 degrees Celsius (6-9 deg F). In the United States, an episode of La Niña is defined as a period of at least five months of these types of conditions. The name La Niña is Spanish for “the girl,” analogous to El Niño meaning “the boy,” the term used for periods when sea surface temperatures are abnormally high. The only trouble is that according to meteorologists the period of La Niña weather conditions that began last year ended in March. In other words, La Niña is dead.

So I’m still scratching my head. If this weather can’t be ascribed to La Niña (abnormally low sea surface temperatures) then what is causing these cool sea breezes the temperature of which seem so abnormally low?

Poon Poon’s Shame

A litter of eight puppies was born in Cabo Pulmo. One looked like Bravo, Ricardo’s brindle pit-bull, another like Charlie the rottweiler, one looked like Kiri, Juanito’s old golden retriever cross and so on. A clear example of the infidelity of dogs and that “littermate” does not translate to full brother or sister.Poon Poon was the handsome, sandy colored puppy apparently fathered by a beige pit bull owned by Señor Jesus Castro. El Pelon (Baldy), as Jesus was known, lived with his blue-eyed wife Clotilde and their two children in what was the original ranch at the heart of Cabo Pulmo. He kept horses, chickens, cows and peacocks. And there were dogs for security and cats to keep the mice and rats at bay. El Pelon was a locally renowned horseman, a caballero or cowboy in the literal sense of the word. It is not without irony in the case of Pelon that caballero also means “gentleman.”

Pelon adopted Poon Poon and presumably gave him his odd name, a common practice in this part of Mexico. Shortly thereafter, Poon Poon’s presumed father disappeared from the ranch and, when I asked one of the ranch hands where he was, they explained that Pelonprobably took him out to the dump and killed him. Pelon had done this before.

Out with the old, in with the new.

Like I said, while he may have been a horseman, a gentleman he was not.

Poon Poon grew into a big strapping, muscular dog. Despite his macho appearance, he was everyone’s friend and spent more time on the beach with tourists than he did at the ranch. He was a people dog and wanted to be where the action and attention was. Gradually he became the constant companion of one of the more gregarious dive instructors, Roger. As far as I could tell it was generally understood that Roger had formally adopted him.

Maturity and musculature, a sign of testosterone coursing in the veins, meant that Poon Poon became a fighter. Each time one of the village’s many female dogs came into heat, great dog fights were inevitable. Formidable adversaries in these fights were Bravo the pit bull and Charlie the Rottweiler. Even Kiri the old golden retriever would get his licks in where he could, but more often than not he came out on the losing side. Poon Poon typically returned from each battle with minor wounds, a scratch here, a puncture hole there, but one day I walked into the dive shop and was horrified to see him with large holes ripped into his neck.

“Wow Roger, those are serious wounds!”

“Ya, I know, but what can I do? He likes to fight.”

There was a spay and neuter clinic coming up and I was already taking two dogs to have them fixed. I figured it was worth a try.

“If he keeps up like this he’s going to get killed. That wound could have been fatal. You know he’s fighting over bitches don’t you? He’ll stop if you have him neutered. Why don’t you let me take him to the free clinic this week?”

The last line was said hopefully, but with the knowledge that most Mexican men abhor the idea of neutering a male dog. They see it as a direct reflection on their masculinity and as something unnatural, even sacrilegious.

To my surprise, Roger agreed. “Okay, do it. I don’t want him to fight any more.”

A couple of days later, Poon Poon, his brother Lobo, and a little black bitch named Nookie were loaded into the back of my truck and were off to Los Barriles and the free clinic.

The operation went off without a hitch and Poon Poon returned to Roger that evening showing little indication of the life-altering operation, his usual happy, energetic self despite the transformation his testicular sack had undergone, which now hung flaccid between his legs, empty as a poor man’s wallet. Roger’s eyes betrayed the regret and shame he felt for his dog. I asked him to keep the dog quiet and at home for the next 48 hours.

The next morning, as my tea steeped, there was a knock at the door. “Who could that be at this hour of the morning?” I thought.

At the door stood Clotilde, Pelon’s now widow. She looked perturbed, angry perhaps.

I began, “Buenos dias, Señora Clotilde,” but the words were barely out of my mouth before she cut in, “Can you please tell me who had my dog fixed?!”

Confusion. Shock. Misunderstanding because of my limited Spanish? No, I heard right.

“Your dog? Which dog?”

“Poon Poon.”

A very bright light illuminated above my head, a blindingly bright torch.

“Oooooh…Poon Poon?…uh, yes, um… I did…uh, Roger gave me permission.”

At the mention of Roger’s name, her eyebrows shot skywards and she replied “That is what I thought!” She spun on her heel and strode away. For a second I thought, “Is that it? Aren’t you going to yell at me?” But then I realized she was reserving her wrath for Roger. I tried to intervene.

“No wait! Clotilde. Why are you angry?”

She turned to listen, her blue eyes cold as steel. I continued, “Didn’t you see the wounds on his neck? He was going to get killed. Now he won’t fight with the other dogs.”

Lifting her head high, she glared down her nose and revealed my ignorance, “No! Now he will be lazy and wander. And he will not protect the property. He is ruined!”

I tried to explain that he would stay closer to home now and be a better watch dog, but she had made up her mind. She shook her head, turned, and headed off, a woman on a mission.

“Oh God! Roger! She’ll be on the war path for him and out for his manhood!” I gulped down my tea and ran to the dive shop to warn Roger.

His downcast face told me I was too late. We shrugged it off, recognizing there was no going back, comforted by the knowledge that Poon Poon was better off.

A little later that same day, as I bicycled past the ranch, a curious sight caught my attention; Six Mexican caballeros dressed in jeans, cotton shirts and cowboy boots, some in white cowboy hats, stood in a loose circle, with hands cupping chins thoughtfully, attention directed at something on the ground. They wore serious expressions – disappointment, pity, maybe shame. Some heads shook disapprovingly. Then as I rounded the corner, the focus of their attention came into view. It was Poon Poon. There he lay, on his back, in the middle of their circle, tail wagging contentedly, begging for a belly rub, innocently exhibiting to all present what was evidently considered his shame.

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