Across the Yucatán with a Ragtag Carny Crew

'Huichol Yarn Painting' image (partial) courtesy of Mexican Art

A Mexican dispatch, by the sea and on the road with students, musicians, actors, wild children, and juggling LSD dealers. On the backpacker trail from Cancún to Mérida, we discovered we were not the only ones on a global prowl.

Late one night in the coastal city of Tulum an American girl named Tilly offered me a sip of her cocktail.

"Guess what's in it," she said.

I drank. "Mango? Orange? Rum?"

Tilly crossed her skinny, sunburnt knees. She was slightly cross-eyed and wore heavy glasses. "Right. I bargained with the guy at the liquor store for that bottle of rum. I talked him down. And I mean way down," she said. "I love to bargain."

We were in Mexico on the backpacker trail across the Yucatán Peninsula. My quest? A global prowl for places where a writer can afford to live and work. Tilly, on the other hand, was just wandering.

"I've been in Mexico three months," she said. "Didn't speak a word of Spanish when I got here. Now I'm pretty fluent."

"How did you wind up in Tulum?"

Back in Oregon when the weather turned bitter, Tilly had fallen off her bike and grazed her skinny knees. Screw this, she thought. She hitchhiked south to L.A. The cheapest flight out of the US was a $99 fare to the city of Oaxaca. After buying the ticket Tilly was left with just $300. After a few days in Mexico she was scammed and lost every cent.

"I was naive," she said.

Nevertheless, she decided to stay on in Oaxaca. She would make money somehow. She found a small apartment for 2,000 pesos (US$166) a month, no bond. A few days after moving in with a cat, a turtle, and a fish -- "I make friends fast," Tilly explained -- a pipe burst in the apartment building. A foot of water flushed through Tilly's living room. The turtle and fish didn't have too many problems, but the cat had to scramble for high ground. The landlady arrived and began to scream. She insisted that Tilly owed 300,000 pesos (about US$25,000) to compensate her for the destruction of the apartment.

"But I don't have three hundred thousand pesos!" said Tilly.

"Go to a bank," said the landlady, "you're a rich American."

"No," said Tilly, "I'm a poor American."

"No such thing, pendeja!"

Tilly ran into the street and grabbed the first bilingual person she met -- an American exchange student -- and dragged him into the apartment to translate the landlady's screams. The landlady asked to see the student's passport. He obliged. The landlady put the passport in her pocket, said she was confiscating it, and would call the police if the 300,000 pesos was not presented that day.

"What did I do?" said the student.

The landlady took Tilly's arm. "You give me the money."

Tilly shook her head. "No way. Too much."

"Okay, okay," said the landlady. "You pay two hundred and fifty thousand pesos."

"Still fucking unreasonable," said Tilly. "Why don't you just call the police?"

"Wait!" said the landlady. "Maybe we say two hundred thousand."

Anyway, Tilly managed to talk the landlady down to a settlement of three hundred pesos or US$25 dollars.

"I love to bargain," Tilly explained.

She also got the American's passport back.

Still, the flooding left Tilly penniless and in debt. She cooked a huge batch of rice bubble cookies in the swampy ruins of her apartment. Meanwhile the turtle flapped around with the fish and the cat slept on top of the half-submerged TV. For days Tilly walked around Oaxaca selling cookies. Locals would pay three pesos per cookie. Gringos had to pay ten or 15 pesos. Sometimes they gave more when they heard Tilly's story. She quickly raised enough to pay off the landlady.

Tilly moved out of the flooded apartment. She kept selling cookies to raise a stake. She sold one cookie inside a dance club and followed the Mexican buyer and his friends out of Oaxaca to a rave that lasted four days. As the only English speaker, she had to learn Spanish fast. She learned the numbers first so she could bargain and save money. After the rave, Tilly and the Mexicans juggled in the street for cash and food. She made a trip to Mexico City, bought a large quantity of LSD, then resold the tabs on the road to finance a hitchhiking trip to the Yucatán. A few of Tilly's satisfied customers joined her trip through the hot dusty country. Her crew finally reached a deserted beach on the Caribbean coast. Tilly raced into the water to cool off. Unfortunately she could not swim and was dragged out to sea. One of her LSD customers, a square-jawed German backpacker, swam after her. He held her above water as they were smashed across the rocky coast for half an hour. They emerged bloody and bruised from the surf.

So what next? Back to Oregon? No. Tilly wants to travel to South America. "I want to open a free school for kids," she said.

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