Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Christmas in Mexico 1963

Three Kings: Mexico City Christmas

CHRISTMAS IN MEXICO 1963

1963 was a big year for me. I had passed all my exams at Stanford and was beginning my thesis work under Walter Meyerhof using a small particle accelerator in the basement of the Physics building. With some lady friends from the Psychology department, I had just experienced my first acid trip which opened up for me new worlds of possibility. In this excitable mood I decided to spend my Christmas in Mexico, packed my gear into a big duffel bag and hopped a bus down to Guadalajara.

Where I met a fellow American named Dave Whitaker, who was married to an anthropologist in Wisconsin, and was, like myself, looking for adventure. Both of us were bearded and scruffy and attracted a lot of attention. Since 1963 predated the hippies, we were called "existentialistas" or sometimes "Fidelistas". In Mexico City we met several young men from the University who were eager to practice their English and wanted to show us the hot spots. Dave & I lived in a hotel a few blocks from the Paseo Reforma park right in the center of the city, within walking distance of the Metropolitan Cathedral and several other famous landmarks. We had been warned not to drink the water so we subsisted on beer and food we bought from the ubiquitous street vendors. At one of these stands, I was served slices of goat cut right off the animal and stuffed into a big tortilla.

Mexico City taco stand.

One day Dave and I decided to see the ocean and took a bus to Mazatlan where for the first time I was able to swim in ocean water as warm as a bathtub. The Mazatlan beach is crowded with expensive hotels, but behind the hotels sits a typical Mexican village. We stopped in a cantina and immediately became the center of attention. At a table inside, four Mexicans invited us gringos to play a drinking game. They produced a "shock box" made of a lantern battery, an automotive spark coil and a rheostat for controlling the voltage. I had played with such devices in my physics class in high school and knew how they worked. In this cantina game, you would hold a tin can in each hand and see how much voltage you could endure. The loser buys beer for everyone. This game was a nice way to interact with good-hearted guys who didn't speak your language. And after buying three or four rounds of beer for the Mexicans, we gringos shook hands with the winners, happily took our leave and traveled back home to Mexico City.

Pulque is a peculiar Mexican beer brewed from the agave cactus and sold only in special bars called pulquerias. Pulque is the color of milk and is known as the drink of the working class. As luck would have it, there was a pulqueria right across the street from our hotel. Each of us dared the other to try this exotic brew and I would taunt Dave by calling him Señor Pulque in hopes that he would try it first. That never happened. And I am still ignorant of the taste of this working-class brew, a situation I very much regret.

Dave did introduce me to another exotic substance -- not pulque but "speed". As that time you could go to any pharmacia and buy Dexadrine in various forms without a prescription. (Even though every bottle was clearly labeled "Not for sale without a prescription".) I loved speed. It made me feel as super smart and as fearless as I knew I really was. And I could stay up and party all night. "This is a drug I could get addicted to," I said. But unlike acid, which seems to give you insights into the nature of consciousness, the speed high is completely empty, a mere revving of the engine of ordinary awareness. And when the drug wears off, the downside is horrible -- like somebody has been using your body for weeks. After this brief experience in the streets of Mexico City, I said goodbye to amphetamines as a future drug of abuse.

Tenochtitlan, the Temple of the Sun

While Dave was busy with something else, I decided to take a trip to one of Mexico's most famous archeological sites -- Tenochtitlan, the Temple of the Sun, which is located a few miles north-east of Mexico city. I rode a bus, complete with people carrying live chickens, to the site, ignored the little kids trying to sell me "authentic" clay figurines, wandered around the various buildings and then decided to climb to the top of the Sun Temple.

I was almost to the top and flanked by two women, when one of them turned to me and asked me one of the strangest questions I have ever heard. "Did you know," she asked, "that this temple was built by Jews?"

Actually I didn't know that. But I was informed by the two women, who happened to be Mormon archeologists, of their belief that one of the Lost Tribes of Israel had sailed to the New World and founded new civilizations of which the Temple of the Sun was one part. Since I was a mere physicist I could come up with no facts to refute their claim so I listened intently to their story. And eventually after reaching the top of the Temple, the women led me down, across the yellow tape, to meet their Mormon colleagues who were busy excavating some new walls covered with paintings of jaguars and other exotic ancient Jewish iconography.

Another taco stand

Later, after my trip to Tenochtitlan, Dave and I were walking in Mexico City with a bunch of locals who were testing out their English (which was much better than our Spanish) when we ran across a guy in a vacant lot who was selling marijuana. I was curious because I had never tried this substance but one of the Mexicans warned us: "Don't try that stuff. It make you crazy. Let's go get drunk instead." Ignoring his warning I bought a bag of it to take back to our hotel. Most of the Mexicans left but two followed us back.

Our room was on the third floor with a window facing the main street. And to make the scene complete, a neon sign outside our window was flashing lurid colors across the bed.

We rolled the stash up into a big cigar using a page from a Mexican newspaper and passed it around. The two Mexicans were lying on the bed and Dave and I were sitting on the floor. The neon light was flashing off and on. It looked like a typical sordid drug scene you might see in the movies. It was my very first time smoking marijuana.

Dave and I both saw spiders. Big spiders crawling all over the ceiling and across the walls. But they were comical spiders like something from a Disney cartoon. We burst into laughter at this shared hallucination. There were spiders running all over our room. And they were really very very funny.

Meanwhile the Mexicans on the bed seemed to be having a bad trip. They had stopped speaking English and were screaming in their own language about Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Perhaps they were having a religious experience but it seemed not to be a pleasant one. Perhaps they had "gone crazy" as their comrade had suggested might happen with this loco weed we bought in the street. We had no chance to assess their condition because as soon as they calmed down sufficiently, they ran out the door and we never saw them again.

These days, most people interested in experimenting with drugs start out with marijuana and graduate to the "harder stuff" but for me it was just the opposite, For Nick Herbert, on Christmas Eve 1963, in Mexico City, for better or for worse, LSD became a gateway drug to marijuana.

El gringo existentialista








7 comments:

Lynden Stone said...

Very interesting Nick. I enjoyed your account of your Mexican Christmas. Did you ever meet Richard Alpert (Ram Das)? He and Leary were in Mexico in '63.

Unknown said...

What a trip! Thanks for that, Nick.

nick herbert said...

Lynden--Tim Leary ironically got busted bringing (a tiny amount of) marijuana INTO MEXICO. After he was released from prison, I was part of a benefit called Scientists for Leary where I met and became friends with Doctor Leary. Ram Das I have enjoyed as an audience but never personally met.

Mark Crosby said...

In 1976. a few years after you! it was still possible for a teenage boy to take a solo trip across the Sierra Madre, and sleep in train stations with los indios, while not getting killed by the cartels! In Mazatlan, after the Christmas market, with a freshly copped bag of bud, this gringo retired to the chaparral It was NOT a hallucination when the head of a huge steer suddenly appeared above the bushes and watched intently until his cows had all passed by. Not a hallucination but an omen! The next day I was robbed and had to make it back to the border with $20 found in a hidden pocket. Prospero ano y feliz edad! P.S. ELEMENTAL MIND was a favorite of mine.

nick herbert said...

One big event I left out of this story was what happened on Christ's Birthday itself. Dave had found a party he wanted to go to. And I decided to take in midnight Mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral (I had only recently stopped being a Catholic) to check out the Old Splendor in a new context. I unrolled a white polyester suit from my duffel, had it pressed and headed off to Mass -- which I found to be just as ordinary as a Mass in Palo Alto. Dave took a few days to show up at our hotel. His taxi driver had stopped at a bar to pee, came out with a second guy, dragged Dave into a vacant lot, beat him up, stole his wallet, boots and passport and left him in the dirt. I was leaving the next day so I gave Dave all the money I could spare and wired him more at the American Embassy once I got back. Dave swung by my house a few months later but I was away and we never did manage to connect again. Feliz Navidad, Senor Pulque, wherever you are.

Jungle Girl said...

What a wonderful story to share, Nick, thanks! I'm sorry that you never had a chance to try pulque. Oh, it's probably a good thing you were a sport and played that drinking game, and lost. lol

Btw, the Mormon bit is weird...did you know that they are fascinated with Jewish people? Here is the wiki on it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judaism_and_Mormonism

Birgit Menzel bmenzel@uni-mainz.de said...

thank you, Nick, great travelogue, I would love to see a few more pics of you from 1963, bearded and scruffy... Birgit - from Germany