The Three Maniacs
Boca de Cielo, Chiapas, México
The photographs are thumbnails.
Boca de Cielo is about 15km down the coast from Puerto Arista. To get there you take a bus to Cabeza de Toro and catch a taxi the rest of the way. The road slides through verdant farmland even greener than what you pass through on the way to Tonalá. After Cabeza de Toro is a town called Belisario Domínguez where Brahman cattle are raised and the trees are full of carzas-white egrets. A short distance out of Belisario you turn and head towards the coast and almost immediately arrive at Boca de Cielo. Boca de Cielo, "mouth of heaven," is where Laguna La Joya meets the sea. The inlet is about 25km long and slowly winds its way through miles of mangrove trees. Toward the ocean, about half a kilometer across the shallow water, is a sand bar separating the ocean from the lagoon. Locals and vacationers visit the sand bar to enjoy the day eating and drinking at one of the many palapas lining the lagoon-side shore. A boat can be hired for $5 (pesos).
When I arrived at this place I had heard so much about, I was very disappointed. Directly in front of the restaurants on the mainland was a wide, ugly gray, puddled expanse of packed sand with the water one hundred meters away. I walked across and took a boat to the sand bar. Over the course of the day the tide came in and the water rose to the retaining walls of the mainland restaurants. Then I understood how this place came to be called the Mouth of Heaven.
From the palapas on the sand bar, you look northeast across a narrow stretch of the lagoon. The water is like glass and palapas nestle in the cocoa palms and mangrove trees on the opposite shore. The Sierra Madres rise sharply a few kilometers beyond this tropical landscape. The mountains are craggy, and today were crowned with billowing clouds. It is a spectacular setting to look upon as the light changes hour by hour. It is peacefully silent on the sand bar, except for the sounds of nature and the motors of small fishing boats commuting from shore to shore.
* * *
I went again to Boca de Cielo, this time with Brigid and Suzanne. They have been traveling together for seven months in Suzanne's van. Suzanne is a 31-year-old blond, boyish and wiry Canadian. Brigid is 21 and from New Zealand. She is a big-boned gal who handles herself as if everything is conquerable without exuding anything that could be misconstrued as a threat. They are wonderful people. They are also lovers.
They had been invited to an island owned by a man from the States (Weird guy. Beautiful long, empty beach. I was totally alone again with not a person in sight. Brigid and Suzanne stayed with the man's helpers who are building his house on the lagoon side of the island and got the skinny on how he mistreats them. I joined them later and got a few horror stories of my own.) After the visit, we returned to the mainland and stopped for a beer in Boca de Cielo. There we met up with three guys the girls had met a couple of days ago in Puerto Arista. I didn't know what to expect when I saw the black Cadillac hearse they were driving. We passed around quarts of beer beneath a palapa on the edge of the rising water of the lagoon. The sun went down hot orange-red as silhouetted men standing in fishing boats dug long poles into the shallow water to move their lanchas toward shore. Beyond the boats, outlines of palapas that stood on packed sand during the low tide were reflected in the high tide, black against the sky. And further out the line of palms and restaurants on the sand bar were engulfed by the blazing sunset fire behind them.
Wilson McCray is a thirty-year-old New Yorker who lives in Brooklyn. He is a painter who has "never made a cent" with his painting but has shown every year for the last ten. He said that the most important thing was to become better at his craft so that in ten more years it might begin to become important. He is clownish and funny and, I sense, emotionally tender. His gregarious nature is contagious.
Simon Mayle is British by birth and has lived most of his thirty-one years in New York. He is a writer whose first book came out in England and is entitled Bum Jobs. Hopefully this trip will be his second book. He has already considered several titles but as the trip continues, and he talks with clever ones like Brigid, the title becomes an illusive bird that everyone loves to chase. He is tall and thin, whereas Wilson is shorter and more sturdily built. In reality, Wilson is about 5'9" but looks shorter next to Simon's 6'2". Simon is an ex-pat, or so the jokes allude to, and is paying the gas money for the guzzling black carroza on their wild adventure.
Johnny Bradford is the old man of the trio. At forty-one he has lived or traveled outside of England to many places around the world. He met up with the other two in México City and is the navigator for the group. He is the driest of the two Brits but laughs like an excited child sometimes. His eyes are the lightest blue of the other three- his eyes look like the bright sky at midday, Simon's are a little deeper and Wilson's are like cool water. Johnny has stories from Borneo, northern Thailand, Papua New Guinea, South America and many other places.
* * *
We left Boca de Cielo, returned to Puerto Arista, and had dinner at a restaurant on the beach where a young man has a wonderful pet raccoon. The six of us ate 10 dozen camarones and a kind of large, light, hard tortilla called totópo which we piled with cabbage lettuce, tomatoes, onions and chiles. During the course of the meal, Simon offered a description of Wilson's Michael Jackson imitation, saying that maybe we would get an opportunity to see this marvel later. Wilson was animated and said many had seen this performance.
After a couple of beers in the restaurant, we went and hung around the hearse because the guys wanted to hear some music. The carroza was parked at the edge of the sand on a dirt side road between the ocean and the main street of town. They opened the doors, started the engine and the blasting began. Our high spirits were augmented by a bottle of mescal. We were all enjoying ourselves like kids on a hot summer day in a brand new inflatable plastic swimming pool and Wilson offered to give us that famous Michael Jackson imitation Simon had blustered about. The song was "Man in the Mirror". He queued it on the car tape deck and cranked up the volume. When the music started, he jumped up onto the huge dusty hood of the black hearse and began to lip-synch and dance. Johnny, Brigid, Suzanne and I stood in front of the behemoth in the dusty beams of the headlights swaying, singing and clapping like a bunch of possessed groupies while Simon took flash pictures of the event.
The music continued and Wilson really dug into his act. He spun and swerved, gyrated and flailed wildly, and jumped onto the hearse's black textured vinyl top. We clapped and screamed appreciatively. Then he spun around and leaned backwards. The last we saw of him were his legs pointing towards the sky like he was going to walk on the stars. He disappeared over the edge of the hearse behind the opened driver's door. We were deliriously amazed, thinking this was the highlight of his show, and ran around the side to congratulate him. Wilson had fallen solidly on the back of his right shoulder, and in the light from the interior of the car had turned the color of vanilla ice cream. He was moaning, sprawled in the dirt. The road we were standing in was very rocky and apparently, he had chosen a big one to land on.
He finally caught his breath and was poked or questioned by everyone. It seemed fairly serious, but the jokes flew around between concerned remarks. When he could finally stand, Johnny put him in the hearse and removed his tee shirt that had ripped in the fall. There were deep purple and black blotches where he had contacted the ground. A few of us, including the mangled one himself, thought he had broken something, but Johnny moved the groaning guy's arm around and thought otherwise. I offered that if things got worse later we could take him to Olga, who is a healer; I didn't think there was a doctor in Puerto Arista and she would probably help him. When we were all convinced he wasn't in critical condition, we left him in the hearse to get some rest.
* * *
In the morning, the poor guy showed up at breakfast with a sling Johnny made from the tee shirt he had flown in. We had seen the last Michael Jackson routine he would be doing for a while. And what a show it was.
So the three maniacs stayed another day and then headed south. They want to drive the carroza all the way to Chile and Argentina if it lives that long and their money holds out. ¡Que te vaya bien!
[Postscript: Simon did write and publish the story of the Maniacs and their odyssey in the hearse. It is called The Burial Brothers - from New York to Rio in a '73 Cadillac Hearse and is available through Balantine Publishing Group.]