Thursday, May 14, 2009


I'm still working through a bunch of old prints from my Mexico days - boy, do the memories come back with those pictures!

In the last post I mentioned a series of photos that I took on a magic mushroom adventure in the Mazateca mountains of Oaxaca way back when I was somewhat more rambunctious than I am now. You'll see a few of them below.

I was working as a stringer for Newsweek and the New York Times in those days, having befriended the two Mexico correspondents from those publications. At the time, there was a lot of fascinating and strange news coming out of the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca regarding a continuing flood of hippies finding their way into the mountains to eat and trip on "magic mushrooms". Unfortunately for many of them, they often got their heads busted not by the fungi but by the army or local police, who were getting fed up with the horde of bizarre gringos getting into things that were none of their business.

I had been planning on checking it out myself, as a matter of fact, when my two friends decided to do some investigative reporting. It wasn't hard to convince them they needed a photographer to assure the trip's success. Besides, I had an old '53 VW van that would probably get us there and back.

Our first stop was a little town at the base of the Mazateca mountains called Teotitlan del Camino. The asphalt gave out there and it was clear my van was not going to make it all the way up. I parked it in front of the police station for security (big mistake) and we went to get tickets on the next rickety bus headed up the hill. To our dismay, the only bus out had already left but my friends urgently wanted to get up there so we began to look for another way.

As we were walking down the cobbled road from the station, two local gendarmes appeared in front of us, one about as tall as John Wayne and another more like Mickey Rooney. Both wore pistolas on their belts and official stars on their chests to boot. They were about as unlikely a pair of law enforcement officers as I had ever seen in Mexico. But the little one did manage some dramatic English: "Stop! I am the Law!" he boasted. Both of my friends, one an attractive young blond, couldn't contain their laughter. These guys were astounded at such disrespect and before we knew it, the guns were out and we were being marched to the local jail, a mini fortress taking up a whole block.

We were dragged into the constable's office there who began his interrogation. He and his friends were feeling pretty proud of themselves for the catch they'd just made. While we were answering his questions, a deputy came in the room and very clearly dropped a baggie of marijuana in Lynne's purse. Immediately, the chief demanded she pour out the contents of her bag onto his desk. His eyes popped wide as he grabbed the baggie and asked "Y que es esto, por favor?" (And what is this, please?)

Well, what it was was an open and shut case. We were booked for possession of marijuana, drunk and disorderly in the streets, resisting arrest, and carrying venereal disease to the Indians. (I thought it curious that I was the only one to be charged with the latter.) So into the calaboose we three went, Lynne to the women's prison on one side of the fortress and Uli (the guy from the Times) and I to the men's side. Here's a picture of my cell mate.

At the time I wondered why the heck they let me keep my cameras, but I was sure glad they did. I did my first "undercover" photo reportage of a Mexican jail as a result and, thank God, my last. The fellow above was typical of most of the prisoners, a Mazateca Indian who had probably had one too many drinks in town. He didn't speak much Spanish so I never did really find out much about him, not even his name. He was a nice guy, however, and I won him over forever when I presented him with my small pocket knife. The cottage industry of these guys was carving little mushrooms for the tourists and my sharp knife gave him quite a boost. I still have that broken little triad of magic mushrooms he carved for me too.

On my negs I also have a picture of myself behind the bars, looking rather dramatically forlorn. I was scared.

Rather than frightened, however, my friends were outraged and, as far as they were concerned, heads were going to roll when they got out. We could have bribed our way out of it, but they would have none of that. The idea of it: two self-important international correspondents for a couple of the world's most read and respected journals being thrown into the slammer by a pair of two-bit tin badges in the hinterlands of Mexico! I didn't have their chutzpah, however, and I just wanted to get out anyway I could.

I took this shot the same afternoon we were locked up. We must have been quite the novelty item for these guys! The fellows in the background are leaning up against the wall of the women's cells. It had no windows or doors on our side so we had no way of knowing what was happening to Lynne. Our stroke of good luck was that the girls' cells had windows that opened up to the street. She caught the attention of an American hippie passing by and gave him a phone number in Mexico City to call with our predicament. That unknown hero came through for us, and by 9 A.M. the next morning we were all called back into the office, given our gear and very sheepishly apologized to. The number she had given turned out to be the Press Secretary of the President, a man not without some power in the scheme of things. These guys really had their tails between their legs and couldn't fawn enough over us. The boom must have really been lowered on them! The best part was that we were given carte blanche to do whatever and go wherever we wanted with no more interference. All was well again!

So that afternoon we hitched a ride on the back of a flat bed truck with a bunch of Indians up the muddy and slippery road to the magical capital of all magic shrooms: Huautla de Jimenez.

The place wasn't Can Cun but it had its attractions. To be fair, this was the road leading out of town up the mountain where we were being led to Maria Sabina's little place and not the downtown. (Of course, there wasn't a heck of a lot of difference between down and uptown anyway.) Way up the hill you can see Uli and Lynne walking with our guide and interpreter.

Huautla is high up in the coffee growing regions of the mountains and it rains a lot, thus it boasts a particular abundance of psylocibyn mushrooms. Maria Sabina (google her, why don't you!) was a very famous shaman who used the mushrooms to heal and cure with a ceremony that probably dated way before the Spanish. She was venerated in Mexico's "hip" subculture and to partake in a mushroom ceremony with her was considered about as good as it could possibly get. My friends hadn't decided yet if they wanted to partake. I was incredulous! Come all this way, get thrown into the hoosegow, and trudge up this muddy mountain to see and interview an ancient sorceress without going all the way?!!!

Well, it didn't take much leaning on them to decide to go for it so I was about as excited as I could possibly get. Her very humble shack was at the top of the mountain, above the clouds obscuring the village below. Several kids and relatives and a lot of dogs and chickens running around made it appear a typical Mexican Indian home. Through our interpreter we arranged for her to guide us on a ceremony and she immediately sent her daughter out to gather fresh "hongos" (mushrooms) for us. I busied myself taking pictures while there was still light.

This happy fellow was Maria's great grand son, I believe. Sometimes I think that big smile was because he knew what was in store for us.

By the time Dona Maria's daughter had returned with our dinner, the light had fallen and we had all sat on some woven straw mats. The women were lighting candles and cleaning the mud and grit off our hongos and I pushed my Tri-X to the max to get the next two photos:

I think this was the second to the last shot on the roll that I was able to take. She was giving us some light as we arranged ourselves around a central candle and a stone bowl of smoldering copal, a very aromatic incense made from the sap of a tree. The shaman began her incantations in her ancient language, the invocations of "San Pedro" being the only words I recognized. As she did so, she began to rub gray, crumbling rocks into the inside of our forearms, ending with mine. She matched Lynne and Uli face to face and then she sat in front of me. Later I learned that the masculine/feminine balance was crucial during the ceremony and because of this I had the immense honor of pairing with Dona Maria herself!

She's blessing a handful of magic mushrooms here and this was the last picture of the day! Shortly thereafter, it all began and we didn't leave her place until sunrise the next morning. But therein lies another tale!

(Don't forget to visit David Ryan Photography; I just posted some new Vienna photos!)