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Friday, November 19, 2021
Tuesday, July 13, 2021
Saturday, May 14, 2016
That trip was my first epic journey which really opened my eyes to a new world of unrestrained travel in a country far outside the comfortable, predictable, American middle class harmony I had known all my life, that fantastic crazy road trip we took throughout Mexico.
At sixteen years old, after the 11th grade, I and a friend of mine named Loren Jones, who was fifteen at the time, bought a 1955 baby blue Ford Woody Station Wagon for $200 bucks off of a used car lot in Burlingame California near by to where we lived about 15 miles south of San Francisco.
Loren was still to young to have his drivers license, but I did.
We spent most of the summer in 1966 traveling throughout Mexico, East to West, North to South, through the rugged volcanic mountains of the Sierra Madre Del Sur, through steamy poisonous jungles digging hidden stone tomb ruins of ancient empires long forgotten, we drove nearly all the way to the Guatemalan border and all the way back home.
In spite of the fact that we had our own money, his from being rich, mine from working for $1.25 an hour popping popcorn at sporting events at the Cow Palace where my father was Manager, we were determined to go.
Our parents helped us financially to deter us from our first plan: to go to the Galapagos Islands,
Charles Darwin's field location for his book, "The Origins of Species".
The Galapagos islands are 650 miles off the coast of Ecuador. We had written to the government of Ecuador asking permission to visit and weeks later had received official permission for "Urine Jones and Richard Diran to travel there. At that time there was only one boat, the Christobo Columbo, which would have sailed from the port of Guayaqil and dropped us off at the main island Isla Isabela and picked us up one month later. In 1966 nobody was going to the Galapagos Islands.
Our parents caught wind of this adventure and thinking perhaps correctly that we would never be heard from again, essentially bribed us to go no further than the Guatemalan border for $1,000 dollars each.
Ok, we relented, no further than Guatemala.
50 years after we took that vacation, I have come across my original journals which I have had in storage for over 20 years and will now recreate some of the highlights from that fantastic journey.
A couple of hundred miles from home, we blew a few blistering retreaded tires somewhere outside Needles California in the Mojave desert clustered with rattlesnake nests and angry cactus. There we spotted a Southern Pacific train wreck which was crushed and scattered from a long forgotten derailment. By the looks of it it had been there for years. Tires changed, we reached Phoenix Arizona and checked in to a pale pink motel with a kidney shaped pool and a vacancy sign on the highway. There were a pair of lovely young blonds who were also inexplicably staying it turned out, in the room next door to ours. We invited them over to drink beers. After several cold ones they seemed very amenable, it was, after all, the year before the "Summer of Love" with free sex and raging teenage hormones.
The girl I liked best soon showered naked behind the blur of the glass door. The water rivulets ran down the transparent window, as she arched back and rinsed suds from her golden hair. God she was beautiful. They were our age, I guessed, about sixteen, and alone, what the hell were they doing here in this seedy motel?
After a delightful night of raucous romance and bed board bashing, I slowly woke up next to my golden teen angel. She smiled faintly, as she opened her eyes and drew a sheet around her naked body. We drank coffee, and I kissed her goodbye.
We were on a mission.
Loren and I left the motel on the 4th day out heading for New Mexico. We passed through some town called Gripe Arizona that had one gas station.
After 1212 miles on day 5, we drove through El Paso Texas and somebody pointed out the house where Bobby Fuller had lived. Fuller sang the song "I fought the Law", (and the law won). Fuller was just found dead, we knew, in L.A, murdered, having gasoline poured down his throat. We passed through the border to Ciudad Juarez with letters of permission for travel to Mexico from our parents, and entered gritty Mexico with a radiator grill clogged with monstrous flying insects.
The liquor stores here have no problem selling us beer and we bought a dozen Dos Equis. There was a family who welcomed us to stay with them. There were 15 kids who had never seen binoculars. Slept outside on the porch in a lightning storm. The poverty here is extreme. Along the road was a dead cow with a dozen black vultures, tearing away at what remained.
After about 1,800 miles in the Chihuahuan Desert there was a massive migration of orange poisonous centipedes several yards wide crossing the road for as far as you could see in either direction from horizon to horizon. Came to a town called Jimenez where dirt poor people lived in crumbling orange brown adobe houses. One young woman in a dusty shawl nursed a kid in the road. Loren and I had 6 tacos, 2 plates of frijoles and beers for 62 cents.
Day 6: Woke up in the station wagon under 3 concrete fading chipped walls in a Pemex gas station where swallows zoom in and out from every angle. Had breakfast and turned on to highway 49 to Torreon. Single human graves with white cross markers line the roadside near where a very thin horse had died of exhaustion. Tonight we will stay in Torreon in a nice room for 100 pesos or $8 bucks. We found a night club with very tough swarthy mustached Mexicans watching several strippers on stage, undulating in colored lights, dressed in dazzling sequins. One girl was about 18 named Sylvia. I got her address. We didn't get back to the room until 3:30 am.
Sylvia was an angel with a pony tail.
Left the hotel at 1pm and went over to find Sylvia who stayed with her mother in an adobe house.
She and her mom dressed in long skirts and modest aprons which brushed the ground. How different from last nights attire! Her mom made us some tortillas and beers and after a bit of innocent flirting, we left Torreon for Tampico. Loren didn't put any water in the radiator and it blew up 25 miles out of town along with a snapped fan belt in the middle of some nowhere desert. We patched the radiator holes with soap and it seemed to hold water. Soon the car completely stopped dead and some truck came along and pushed us 6 miles into some small town.
The whole village came out to help and yanked out the radiator with the help of the head lights from
the same truck which had pushed us.
On the 9th day we left for Tampico and crossed over the Tropic of Cancer. The countryside is lush sticky and emerald green. Thousands of multi colored butterflies swarm. Tampico was a shit hole so we left to go to Mexico City. Somewhere along the route we stopped in a town named Zimapan at some very old colonial style hotel with a stagnant green algae filled fountain in the court yard inlaid with locally mined opals.
The interior of the hotel was dark and spooky with thick walls and an empty fireplace so large you could sleep in there. Some lanky guy in a shinny black suit came in and asked for our order. I said something like "Oh, how about a 1961 Chateau La Tour" as a joke. Ten minutes later he returns from the shadows with the dusty bottle. A 1961 La Tour! Where did he find this very rare wine? He twists out the cork pouring in to the crystal, and says "Will the two be staying the night?" Guy Is creepy.
We said that we wanted to check out the rooms first and went upstairs where there was a rotting moldy overstuffed chair pushed up against wall, the only thing keeping it from falling to pieces. It seems no one had stayed here for years. Down the dusty hallway where nobody had walked in ages was a room on the right which we entered. The bed was unmade as if someone had just thrown off the covers and climbed out. There was a cigarette still burning in an ashtray on the side table. If anyone had been in this room recently there would have been footprints in the thick dust.
There were none.
How the hell did this happen?
Loren and I went downstairs where the spidery waiter said again in English, "will the two be staying the night?". We finished off the last drop of that magical vintage and man, we peeled out of that place with gravel flying off the back of our tires.
Passed by a another dead rotting horse with a cautious dog chewing its carcass. We rose into the high mountains through the clouds skirting cliffs with no road barriers to keep you from crashing over. Came around a turn too fast and heard this horrible squealing as I ran over a pig, ripping the exhaust pipes from the engine. In the rear view mirror I could see the pig tumbling along on the road with the hot tail pipe.
It began to rain and coming around a turn too fast, I crashed into the mountain. Suddenly people appeared from banana groves above the road as if they expected us, and plied the left side front of the car up like a wing so the car wheel could be steered. Surely if we had not crashed in to the mountain but went over the other side, we would have been goners.
We checked into one of the best hotels in Mexico City for a night of well deserved sleep. Loren ordered a tray of fancy cocktails with little umbrellas and we drank all of them. The next morning we drove off to our auto insurance company Sanborne to have the car repaired. Loren was driving and the gas petal got stuck. Mexico City is congested and terrible for driving. Stalled out again and a huge truck rammed into the back of us without even slowing down and pushed us aside like scrap metal.
In 1964 my father booked a group of magnificent sombrero clad Mexican cowboys called the Charros for the Grand National horse show at the Cow Palace. Their leader was a very prominent businessman from Mexico City named Senior Antonio Gil Ortega. My father wired him 26 air tickets
for the men and women, and sent the horses by rail. 1964 was the year my father brought the Beatles to San Francisco as well as the Republican National Convention.
At the conclusion of the shows, Senor Gil rode several times around the arena in full gallop, saluting and waving his sombrero. They had been a smash hit and every year thereafter, my father would find a gold embossed Christmas card in the mailbox.
Naturally we contacted Senior Gil soon after arriving in Mexico City. From the 14th day in Mexico City till the 21st, we stayed and were royally treated at Senor Gil's opulent house with his family. At meal times each one of us had a personal servant standing behind their chair. Somewhere I acquired a very old weathered human skull.
When we left Mexico City Senor Gil gave each of us a chrome plated, pearl handled 38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver with hundreds of rounds of ammunition, the perfect gift for two underage juvenile delinquents heading south with a human skull rolling around the back seat.
Driving out of town I decided to try out my new pistol. I shot through the open window of our speeding car at a vulture tearing apart the carcass of a desiccated dog corpse. I missed. We drove through Puebla and walked through the market place both of us wearing our guns.
On day 23 we woke up and had a pineapple for breakfast and drove off to Oaxaca. In some little town we filled up the tank out of some gas cans by flashlight.
In Oaxaca we walked around the market place with our loaded guns and two guys grabbed me by the arms and said they were police and that we couldn't just walk around armed. They asked for money and Loren pulled out his biggest bill, a 100 peso note or $8.00. They removed the bullets from the cylinders and gave us our guns back. It didn't matter, we still had hundreds of rounds in the car.
Afterwards we drove up the mountains and chased a terrified cow for a mile or so. The road was so narrow the poor cow had no place to go until the road widened.
I turned off the engine and we coasted 12 miles down hill on a dirt road. We stopped at a small town three and a half hours from our destination, Puerto Escondito on the coast and had a few beers. Very humid. We have traveled 3,600 miles. Somebody told us that the roads are flooded below. The engine blew a spark plug attached to the cable right out of the motor. Fixed it and were off again. There are many landslides here in the mountains making the road near impassable.
Finally we got into Puerto Escondito, good beach, crashing waves and warm water.
We swam and then slept on the beach.
The next morning we went to have breakfast and were told the road was definitely washed out. About 15 minutes later we came to a river, the Rio Grande. It was about three and a half feet deep. We convinced a truck driver to try and pull us across for 50 pesos. Half way across the rope broke and water began to leak in under the door. Retied the rope, started pulling, and it broke again. Finally we made it across and soon found another river, the Rio Verde which was not as deep but much wider. The current is much too strong to attempt a crossing. We drove to another part of the river which we were told is more than 20 feet deep and 50 yards across. Tomorrow supposedly there is a raft capable of transporting a car and will come and take us across. The raft is called La Balsa.
The water was rushing very fast. We woke up when six or so Mexican men were leaning on our car talking loudly. We went to the pier, no boat. Everyone says Manana. We are hot and sweaty and there are many mosquitoes. The raft, La Balsa, seems to have gotten stuck about a mile and a half up river from here.
Told again it comes tomorrow. Manana, Manana. The car runs fine except there is no power steering. There is a small basic cafe with hammocks where we will sleep tonight. The air is aglow with fireflies.
On the 29th day we woke up at about 8am. There were many birds in the trees. I grabbed my gun.
Loren caught a snake, some kind of constrictor. There was a bird above me with a long flat beak.
I shot it. We tore the antenna off the car, peeled off the feathers and cooked the bird over a fire.
We made friends with a Mexican man named Pablo who lent us 20 pesos because we are broke.
Finally La Balsa arrived but was on the other side of the river. We have got just enough money to get across but not enough for any food. We went to some outdoor movie, projected on a sheet, the credits began to roll but the generator that powered the projector ran out of gas.
Tonight we slept in a jeep. Woke up sore all over. Had a terrible cup of coffee with a thick layer of mud on the bottom, then drove 10 miles of bad dirt pot holed road back to camp where there were now many trucks waiting for La Balsa. My guts hurt badly, probably that scrawny jungle bird I ate. I fell asleep on the hood of our car exhausted and sick. We have been here in this rotten jungle for four days. I lost consciousness apparently and Loren continued to write the journal.
Leaving our car, Loren and Pablo carried me, out cold, to a small boat which took us across the river to a town where there was a doctor. I came back to consciousness with my trousers bunched around my ankles, two nurses holding me up under my shoulders, and the doctor, his knee in the small of my back pulling a bent syringe out of my ass. The nurses thought it was hilarious.
Soon I felt OK again. We took the small boat back across the Rio Verde and found that somebody had broken into our car stealing our travelers checks. We are broke again. La Balsa still wasn't running so we left our car locked up inside Pablo's truck, took the small boat across the river again, and caught a bus to Alcapulco. I can't stay here any longer, this jungle is killing me. We got as far as Pinotepa Nacional a town about 4 hours from Alcapulco and would catch another bus tomorrow. All the dogs down here are in terrible shape, missing legs, tumorous bumps, one eye, no hair or all the above. One poor critter got his back run over by a truck tonight, awful scream. We slept in a cheap hotel, no soap, rainy with a leaking roof. One bed for the three of us.
Finally caught the bus to Alcapulco along with Pablo and a bunch of squawking chickens. Loren is sick. As we sat there, some old woman shoved a tray through the window into Loren's face shouting, "enchiladas", and he vomited. Pablo's place in Alcapulco was on top of a hill. Took the first shower in 5 days by candle light in cold water. I called my mother and she said she would wire $50 bucks.
We went to a restaurant high on a cliff where incredibly brave men dive into the ocean. There is a small altar with a crucifix and the divers kneel, say a prayer, and wait for an incoming wave to dive into. Survival is all in the timing. The place is called La Perla. It was very expensive so we left to find a cheap bar. Tried calling Loren's dad but the phone lines were down. Got drunk and met a complete crazy named Jesus Krump. Says he is past Kripes, his nephew is is Crunch and John the Baptist stole his pants because they wanted to "straighten things out" at the Ritz lobby but couldn't because John had to leave to baptize guys in the street. He told us about the vigilantes who burned down his house on the beach because of his nude pictures.
He says he moved up with Campbell Soup and Batman but got mad at them and put them in a crate jail and feeds them beans once a day every thirty days. The reason he is down here is because the government threw him out. He gets a pension check and asks for a raise. He likes President Johnson because he got it, of course Eisenhower recommended it because he wanted an extra $9 bucks a month.
The phone lines were back up so I called up my dad to help Pablo get into the USA. He said that he would send a letter stating that Mr. Pablo Besaril Ramos has work if he can enter the United States. Pablo almost cried. Later that night we bought a fifth of vodka and a bottle of orange juice. We went to an open air cafe and drank all of it. We got completely drunk. Loren got on a swing and cracked into the side. We limped down the street and I ran into a construction sign, fell into a hole, climbed out and fell into the gutter. Took a taxi and I threw up on the side. Got back to Pablo's and slept.
Lost a few days somehow. Pablo left to return to the jungle and get our car. The lady next door is terrific. She fixes our breakfast, washes our cloths and cares for her 9 kids. Pablo got back the next day with our car and Loren went down to pick up $150 bucks his dad sent. Just outside Alcapulco is a beach called Piedra la Questa where big waves roll in and it is perfect spot for body surfing. I was swimming quite far out when a wave returned from the beach pushing me backwards in to the sea. I looked up at a huge wave, 15 or 20 feet tall that came crashing down on top of me. It churned me around and held me down under the water, washing me up on the beach, my swimming trunks filled with sand, like discarded driftwood. Scared the hell out of me.
The next morning we would leave for Taxco. Counted our money and were short. I must have lost some in the ocean. We have gone more than 4,000 miles. We picked up a hitchhiker and his girlfriend. They had no money. I asked them how they made it and he said she sells her body to rich Americans. We drove through the mountains pouring rain which comes in through the door. Taxco is a beautiful city with cobble stone roads. Near the center of the city, the Zocalo, is the famous church. Checked into a hotel for $3 bucks and had the first hot shower in many days.
We visited many small jewelry shops. Silver is the reason for Taxco's wealth from the time of the Spaniards in the late 16th century. We bought several pairs of earrings, silver plates and rings. We left Taxco for Cuenavaca and all along the road Mexicans sell a variety of animals. Loren bought an armadillo and I bought a long green iguana. We drove through a check point and my iguana jumped up on the windshield. We had to pay 5 Pesos extra and got through. Now he just sits in the back of our station wagon and gives me the evil eye. So here we are with less than $2 bucks going into Mexico City. Broke again. A car was tailgating us and honking. As they passed by we flipped them off. They were four very tough looking guys who began swinging metal pipes out the window. I loaded up my 38 for trouble. We bombed up the highway trying to get away and as we passes them, I leaned out and fired off a few shots at the front their car. I must have hit something because their car slowed down with steam coming out of the hood.
We got into Mexico City but there were too many of us so Senor Gil put us up in a fine hotel, two rooms. The next morning we went off to Senor Gil's for breakfast. He told us we couldn't get the guns through the border so we returned both of them. Too bad I had really become attached to mine. Although Loren's armadillo didn't do much, my iguana was lead around the streets on a leash. We said goodbye to Senor Gil and his wonderful family and thanked them for their kindness. In the meantime the letter my father sent offering a job to Pablo had arrived.
We left Mexico City for Guadalajara about 10 hours away. Driving through forests, instead of Smoky the Bear, the Mexicans have Simon. The country turns to corn fields and it began to rain. Passed through Toluca and Pablo told me about his life. His parents abandoned him when he was very young. He got married and has a four year old daughter. When his wife left him she took any saving he had, he was broke except for an old truck which he drove day and night. He doesn't smoke or drink and prayed for a saint to end his life of misery and bad luck when into his life Loren and I came along. We passed through Morelia which has many ancient aqueducts. I wanted to take pictures but it was too late at night. I drove through Zamora at 4:30am. The road was curvy and dangerous but I want to make it to Guadalajara.
Finally made Guadalajara and went into a place to eat. A very young woman looking very old and grey asked if we were American. "Yes", we said, we are. She said she was broke so we paid for her meal. She said she needed money and when I looked at her arm I noticed what for. She had abscesses and chicken tracks from injections. She stashed the money in her bra and scuttled away. Poor woman.
On the outskirts of town is a glass blowing factory. They use glass from huge bins of broken coke bottles. I bought Mom a green decanter with 6 matching glasses.
We left for Mazatlan. a few hours out in the state of Nayarit is the town of Tepic. To the east of here in the Sierra Madre are a tribe of Indians called the Huichol. The Huichol are known for their peyote rituals and for their multi-colored intricate embroidery. We pulled in to a gas station to fill up and an old Huichol man in a straw hat ringed with feathers came over and offered me his shoulder bag lovingly made by his wife. I bought it and have it till today.
We drove through some black lava fields from an ancient volcanic eruption. Pablo drives through the treacherous mountains with rain so hard that it was difficult to see. Torrents ran off the sides of the hills. We stopped and fed Loren's armadillo some water and corn. We have almost no shock absorbers and the exhaust pipe was torn off by that pig I ran over. On the plains palm trees sprout up.
The sun sets red and orange behind the tattered black rain clouds behind us. We have driven over 5,000 miles. Slept in the car.
We left the beaches of Mazatlan in the morning and crossed the Tropic of Cancer. The rains began again and as I passed some trucks, mud flew off them splat on the windshield blinding me. Loren hung out the window and wiped it off with a tee shirt. I was driving 80 miles an hour when a tarantula stepped out of the dashboard. We pulled over and let Loren's armadillo go. Poor guy is getting weak. The engine keeps stalling out. I have driven 500 miles today through Culiacan, Los Mochis, and Guaymas, I just want to get home. Sick of Mexico. We have about 300 miles left to the border at Nogales.
Just woke up with only $10 bucks to our names. We won't eat today only enough to keep the car on the road. We drove to the border at Nogales and they wouldn't let Pablo across. We walked around for hours asking people how we could get him into the States. I showed them my fathers letter but we were denied.
Turns out we can't.
We all cried. Pablo had surely saved my life in that jungle. I held him and patted his back. We gave him all the money we had along with my address. Passed the border and got to Tucson with only 2 pesos and no American money. Mom wired me $50 bucks, enough to get home.
I figured we could drive all the way. First I got a ticket for no tail lights, no brake lights, and another for speeding. We lost the car registration so they checked us for a stolen car or to see if we were wanted. We weren't but had trouble starting the car. Finally it starts and we are off to California.
Suddenly the radio just stopped. We pulled in to a gas station and the car started rolling backwards in park with the emergency brake pulled back. Our transmission is bad cause we have a leak. Fill her up with fluid. Got stopped again by the police. He was going 110 miles per hour and almost crashed into the back of us as we have no tail lights. Somehow he let us off.
We rolled in to another gas station in Indio and we stalled out again. Some cop came over to check us out. He radioed in and another 2 cops come. Soon another squad car pulls up and all 5 of them ordered us out of the car. They tore the car apart looking for the big find but all that they found were a few firecrackers. They weren't interested in the sun bleached human skull.
They huddled together deciding what to do. One of them told us to follow him and he escorted us to a place to get our brake lights fixed.
We passed San Bernadino California as the sun rose. The car can only go 35 miles per hour top speed on the freeways.
Before reaching Fresno a rear tire ripped apart. We bought another retread for 5 bucks.
Finally after 43 days and more than 8,000 miles, we got back home safe and sound from our first thrilling adventure. The question "What did you do this summer", could be answered enthusiastically.
Who would believe us? Getting back to high school a few days later, we were the envy of our friends and for those skeptics who didn't believe our stories, we had the photographs to prove it.
Sunday, November 23, 2014
What kid hasn't wanted one of those creepy heads for themselves?
You kidding? Where can I get one?
Replicas were so popular that hobby shops sold shrunken rubber heads with stitched lips and eyelids.
In former times perhaps as little as one generation ago, two very different ethnic groups chose to
hunt human heads in Burma. One group are the Naga tribes of Burma's north west whose settlements straddle the border of India. Particularly the Konyak Naga were feared for taking heads in combat as a way to display their fierce courage. Arrows were driven through the eye sockets to prevent the spirits from finding their way back home.
That is one impressive set of trophies on your wall, Buddy.
Beats the hell out of bowling.
The other group of headhunters are the Wild Wa from northern Burma bordering China's Yunnan Province whose autonomous region boasted of whole villages whose walkways held human heads in various degrees of decomposition in stone lanterns. One such village was said to have an avenue of 300 such heads. Was it still there? Was it possible to visit?
Of course I had to find out if it was possible to find them.
Years ago in 1984, I was invited to a meeting by Abel Tweed the Foreign Minister of the Karenni Tribe deep into the jungle close to where the Moei River meets the mighty Salween River. Four hours in an 8 wheeled truck led to a river bank, the last outpost before we needed to take a long tailed boat maned by armed camouflaged soldiers up the turbulent river.
Karen children ran on the banks amidst fluttering butterflies with lengths of yarn hanging out of their earlobes.
Arriving at the camp, I was told that every one of the rebel leaders was here at this meeting of the National Democratic Front. General Bo Mya of the Karen, Brang Seng leader of the Kachin Independence Army and Ma Ha San the Prince of Vinghun, the leader of the Wa.
I wanted to meet him and to ask him to write me a letter of introduction so I could take photos of the Wild Wa.
I was told who to contact.
Every member was there.
"And he is here?".
"If you want to meet him now you can go along, he is staying in the house of my brother".
Walking over to a bamboo hut raised on wooden stilts, I walked up the stairs and entered a room silhouetted with figures sitting cross legged around a small fire drinking tea.
I sat down with my interpreter and was offered a cup.
Turning on my Sony Professional recorder I asked permission to record.
What followed was a remarkable interview with Ma Ha San, President of the Wa, one of the last living headhunters.
For those of you who have my book "The Vanishing Tribes of Burma", a new interactive edition has been published in Apple ibook. Utilizing the latest technology, we were able to combine 70 photos of more than 35 diverse Burmese tribal groups along with explanatory text from the Exhibition Edition
which was launched by Nobel laureate Aung San Su Kyi in Rangoon and combine that with short audio clips of tribal music including the 11 minute interview with a headhunter as relayed above.
Also the ibook has video clips of Aung San Suu Kyi's speech, and my speech at the opening of the exhibition as well as a video of me visiting the source of the Worlds Finest Gemstones, Mogok Burma in March 2014.
The brand new interactive ibook, The Vanishing Tribes of Burma can be purchased here for $4.99.
Order one now for the experience, the sights and sounds of a cultural world, which has, in many ways, already vanished.
Richard K. Diran