In 2005 I backpacked around the Yucatan Peninsula. I had arranged to be there on November 1st and 2nd to witness, and hopefully participate in, the Day of the Dead celebrations.
I had thought it ideal to take in the celebrations in a place like Oaxaca, the mountain town with perennial spring. I shared my plan with other backpackers and, in accordance with backpacker tradition worldwide, I was soon getting tipoffs of more authentic, underground ways to celebrate the event. Everybody seemed to be saying that Mexico's smaller towns were the Place To Be on Day of The Dead. And if I wanted a truly spiritual experience, there was no place quite as ideally suited to it as San Jose Del Pacifico.
San Jose is located one hour from Oaxaca and 2,200 metres above sea level. It has a population of about fifteen people, all of whom are shamen and / or guardians of the mystical Teonanacatl mushroom. What, you didn't guess that the most authentic experience was going to involve taking drugs? What kind of backpacker are you?! Another bonus was San Jose's proximity to Oaxaca city. I figured hey, if it doesn't work out with the mushrooms and the magical view, I can always come back to the city for a big party in the cemetery. (I had been a gothic teen once so I could totally get down with that scene.)
Around sunset on October 31st, the night before Day of the Dead, I arrived in a town which was so small that you could literally miss it if you blinked. I found this out the hard way and then had to hitch one mile back into town along a road that was literally hanging off the side of one of the biggest mountains I'd ever seen. The views were spectacular but part of their beauty was surely due the adrenalin rush I got from realizing that one false step would send me hurtling into the pink bank of clouds 100 metres below my feet.
Indigenous Mexicans like those who live in San Jose del Pacifico, believe that the spirit world is freed from its usual constraints on November 1st and 2nd. On those nights, the dead arise to the Earth and seek out their friends and relatives and after all that time underground, they quite naturally want to party. To prepare for the reunion, Mexican families spend the night decking out the local cemeteries with brightly coloured sand paintings, loud music, funky candle light. In retrospect, taking magic mushrooms was probably not the best idea on a night like this, when the dead spirits were wandering the earth without constraint. The mushrooms are normally only sold to shamen because it is believed that they enable the user to see the underworld, and spirits of the dead and damned.
The town of San Jose Del Pacifico consisted of a few wooden-planked houses perched on a very high mountain ridge. There were two restaurants on the main road. One of them was closed and the other had three people inside who turned to stare at me as I passed by the window. The wind was fierce and wild, beating vegetation and forcing people to creep low to the ground. I'm sure it was all very charming in the spring but during this time of year it was a fiercely elemental place to be. The rough, angular terrain itself seemed to reject anything but the most desperate inhabitants.
I found a little b n' b perched on a cliff face, housed in yet another clapboard hut. The owner was an old lady who looked like someone's grandma. She listened and nodded sympathetically when I told her my request in dodgy Spanish: Where can I find magic mushrooms? She held up one finger and wandered off. Was I crazy to be asking an old grandmother for drugs? Not when you consider that she was one of maybe fifteen people who I could ask. If there were mushrooms in this town, she had to know who was selling them. Hell, she had to be related to the person.
When she came back a half an hour later with a jar of what looked like honey I thought, bless, she misunderstood me and brought back some preserves. I prepared to tell her that I didn't need any honey but as I took the jar in my hand I saw strange grey stalks floating in it which were, in fact, magic mushrooms. Flabbergasted, I paid her 100 pesos and said thanks. I tried the mushrooms out, watched the sun finish setting. I felt very blissful for a few hours and then I slept.
After awaking the next day to fiercely bright sunrise and the sound of tearing winds, I decided to skip town. The local bus station was located at the restaurant that had been shut up tight the night before. Now that it was open, I could see that it also moonlighted as a hotel and souvenir shop. A local was selling piles of these grey, woolly knitted toys on keychains. They were obviously handmade, the seller was obviously poor. I knew I ought to buy one, if only to support the local non-drug economy.
The keychains came in three basic designs: a man wearing a sombrero, a flower, and a magic mushroom covered in fairy spots. And over in the corner, occupying his own bizarre little niche, there was a fourth design - Hongo the Shroom. He was a weird hybrid of the magic mushroom and sombrero man, with a humanoid face and a chubby, armless, legless torso which may or may not have been a stalk. Hongo immediately hypnotized me with his oddness and his black, penetrating eyes. His oblong nose and ambiguous grin seemed to sneer knowingly. He was also one of a kind. I had to have him.
Back in Oaxaca, I found the magic mushrooms to be weak and uneventful compared to what I had experienced from them in San Jose. About a week later, I caught a fever and spent the next three weeks in bed, not really sleeping but not really awake.
When I returned to my home town in Canada, I started to recover from the fever but I kept on returning to Mexico in my dreams. It was as if I had unfinished business there because in the dreams, I could still sense the rough-edged mountains around me, and feel the relentless wind. At some point, I unpacked my last Mexico bag and found Hongo sitting at the bottom of it. I was flooded of memories of all that had happened before I bought him and as I thought back, I realized something: Hongo's sneery little face was the last thing I'd seen before my luck in Mexico had taken a turn for the worse. All the same he was the only real souvenir I had from my trip, so I put him on the mantlepiece.
The fever persisted and I took too much time off of work, eventually losing my job. But even while spending all day in bed I didn't recover, because I could not sleep. Everytime I closed my eyes I could hear something heavy and massive being moved around my bed. At first I thought it was coming from the flat upstairs: What are they moving around up there, I'd wonder, a grand piano? Solid blocks of granite? It was always the same: as soon as I shut my eyes and started to dream, I'd hear a slow, muffled thud, thud, thud which mounted in volume until I found myself fully conscious. At that moment the sound would completely disappear, but whenever I closed my eyes again, the sound returned, louder than ever. It was as if someone, or something, was sending me a message and wouldn't let me rest until I got it. That something had to be able to see inside my apartment though, which was impossible.
Eventually, one night at 4 a.m., I was awoken by a sharp crack, crack, crack which sounded like it was coming from right inside of my head. I still had no idea where it was actually coming from but if it was the neighbours then man, were they taking the piss. I got out of bed and walked around outside of the apartment, listening at the neighbours' doors on either side, both upstairs and down. Not a single peep was coming from anywhere in the building. It seemed unbelievable that anybody make so much noise one minute and then be dead silent the next. There had to be another explanation.
I looked around my flat, checking pipes, electrical equipment to find the source of the noise. Again and again, my eye was drawn towards that little grey toy, grinning at me from its spot on my mantlepiece. I couldn't shake the idea that Hongo had something to do with this. He was too knowing, too alien and laying there with the moon reflected in his beady little eyes he seemed almost.... sentient.
My mind went around in circles: magic mushrooms, shamans, the underworld, Day of the Dead. And Hongo, my weird little one-of-a-kind toy. What if he wasn't just a toy? What if some dispossessed spirit, just-released from the Underworld by the combined powers of November 1st and Teonanacatl, had been attracted to Hongo's quasi-human shape and had decided to take up residence in it? Sounds paranoid to say it now but at 4 a.m., in a state of mild delerium, surrounded by the moonlight, it seemed utterly plausible that my Hongo was possessed. Hands shaking, I grabbed him off the mantlepiece, opened my front door, stepped outside and chucked him into the garbage.
Call me paranoid if you want to, but I was never wakened by that sound again.