The Eccentric Mushroom Bongo Test

January 13, 2012

Originally Published in Heads Magazine

June 2007

They called themselves the Dirt People and they wanted our souls.  I knew this because their leader, a skeletal, albino hermaphrodite with a Messiah complex, who was wrapped from head to foot in a white bed sheet, his golden dreadlocks sprawled out like Medusa’s snakes, Derek, from Idaho, said, “We want your souls.”

“What do you want with them?” asked Paul, my friend, a pale, bald pygmy who exploded on the scene like a mouthy cannonball wherever he went.  “I’m not using mine right now, but I might need it later.”

“The mushrooms are sacred.  They come from the earth.”

“A lot of shit comes out of the earth.”

“Yes, and it’s all sacred.”

“Uh-huh.  Well, you can take our souls if you need to—just give us the shrooms.  We want to get fucked up.”

We were in Palenque, down south, the Oaxaca region, smack dab in the middle of the rain forest, hot and wet, sleeping with the beasties and the cannibals.  The night before, our Dutch neighbors, Sven and Sven, had found a scorpion in their thatched cabana room, a hideous thing, part insect, part reptile, part demon, and they beat it to death with their wooden shoes.  “Take dat!” they screamed into the night air. “Take dat!  Take dat!  Take dat!”

Actually, I don’t know if their shoes were wooden, or if their names were Sven, but that is neither here nor there.  They were definitely Dutch.  They drenched their french fries in mayonnaise and they had a fondness for windmills.

Palenque was one of the hot spots mentioned in the backpacker’s bible, the Lonely Planet, and therefore travelers from across the globe flocked there like ex-patriotic sheep, hoping to get off the “beaten path.”  Of course, every path we traveled had already been beaten mercilessly, like an altar boy’s ding-dong, but we tried not to think about that.  We didn’t want adventure, not really—we were young, bored, First World suburbanites who wanted to take the guided tour through the Heart of Darkness, snapping pictures with our disposable cameras along the way.

And then there were the Dirt People.  They weren’t tourists like the rest of us.  They were throwbacks.  Cultural cavemen.  The Merry Posers.  The hairy offspring of the beatniks and the hippies.  Forty years ago, they would have been littering the sidewalks of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, living in makeshift communes, gobbling up five dollar sheets of acid, freaking out the squares with their promiscuous sexual habits.  They would have been relevant.

This abominable mind-fuck all began when the so-called counter culture movement died out in the 1970s, almost before it even started.  When the decade ended, our parents abandoned their hideous experiment and left behind an impossible myth about Peace and Love and Flower Power—a myth that captured generations of disillusioned youth, boys and girls all across the American Heartland, confused, depressed, too cynical for pop culture, too passive for punk rock.  They couldn’t go back to the Sixties and they couldn’t stay in the Eighties.  There was nothing left for them in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Cosby Show.

So they packed their passports and their Birkenstocks and moved south.  Not “South”—not Texas or Georgia—south south, down Mexico way.  They said Adios to their parents and their country, turned their backs on reality, and they ran deep into the Mexican jungle, where they could grow their hair long and sleep out in the open, take drugs, listen to Bob Marley, learn to play the sitar.

You find these neo-hippies all across Central America.  You can recognize them by the half-starved look in their eyes and their antisocial behavior.  They know the locals will never accept them and they don’t associate with other travelers, except to sell them jewelry and drugs.  They live between worlds, in the shadows of society, where they have no rights but more freedom.  At least, that’s how they tell it.  Either way, you have to respect their tenacity.  It’s not an easy lifestyle.

Derek and the rest of the Dirt People lived at El Panchan, the camp where Paul and I stayed for three nights.  They slept in hammocks and bathed in the river.  They dressed in odd, colorful clothes made from leftover scraps, making them look like a group of savage court jesters.  They boiled their water before they drank it.  For dinner, they usually had rice with a side of rice.

The Dirt People shunned all practical skills and embraced the absurd.  Not one of them could hold down a straight job sweeping floors or waiting tables, but they sewed their own costumes and juggled fire sticks and wove ornate necklaces out of tree bark and forest seeds.  At El Panchan, they paid their room and board by performing for the customers at the camp’s outdoor restaurant, a surprisingly elegant establishment considering the rustic surroundings.  Every night, after the sun had set and the tables were filled with smiling, satiated patrons, the Dirt People took the floor.  Naked from the waste up, the sleek coffee-skinned boys attacked their bongos, which they always held at crotch level, making it appear as though their animalistic rhythms were a masturbatory act.  And the women, those malnourished sirens, performed their serpentine dance, driving all the repressed spectators crazy with sexual desire.  Later, those same tourists would go back to their cabanas to fuck like they never fucked before, their thoughts dominated by visions of hairy, writhing throwbacks from another world.

Of course, not everyone performed.  Derek stayed back and worked the crowd, spouting his pseudo-philosophical musings to various onlookers, feeling out the room for possible drug deals.

That was how we met him.  Paul asked him for mushrooms and Derek asked for our souls.  Plus twenty bucks.

The Dirt People believed mushrooms were a spiritual tool used to open the mind.  “I’ve been here fourteen months,” Derek said.  “I was only supposed to stay overnight.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“I couldn’t leave.”

That was all he said.  Not, I didn’t leave—I couldn’t leave.  He handed Paul a plastic bag, then he drifted off to a table filled with wide-eyed Canadian girls, a magical shaman with predatory needs.

There were seven shrooms in the bag, firm, fresh, smelling of leaves and manure, and we took them to our room so we could devour them in private.  We washed them off with bottled water and divided the lot, tearing the largest one in half, a monster that Alice might have nibbled on while conversing with a snarky, intellectual caterpillar.  They tasted stale and earthy, like moldy bread that had been dropped in an open grave, and we savored every last bite before returning to the restaurant to finish the show.

Nothing happened.

There was a warm breeze coming out of the north that raised the hairs on the back of my neck.  The waiter brought food.  The hippies played “Buffalo Soldier.”  I felt good but I didn’t feel high, and I was starting to believe that this drug deal had gone awry.  I was about to suggest that we hunt down Derek and show him the true meaning of The Howl when Paul pointed at the pizza in front of us.

“Look at that,” he said.


“The toppings are dancing.”

The toppings weren’t dancing, of course.  That was ridiculous.  But as soon as Paul mentioned it, as soon as those words spilled out, like an incantation, the peppers and unions began to wiggle back and forth right before my eyes.  They began to jive.  Then they started grooving.  It was a party.  I stared at them for what seemed like hours, entranced, not a single thought in my beleaguered buzzing brain, and when I looked up, someone had taken away the restaurant and replaced it with a Salvador Dali painting.  And I was the artist inside the canvas, controlling time and space with my brush, bending the material world surrounding me as though it was all made of neon Silly Putty.  Oh, what a ridiculous freak-fest it was!  And, oh, how I loved being the Ring Master!

I was tripping.

Every physical sensation had new meaning that night.  There were colors I’d never imagined before and the jungle was filled with an impossible cacophony of forest sounds.  Nothing escaped my notice.  The air ignited with blue electricity that filled up the darkness and illuminated everything.  Suddenly, the beauty of the world was almost unbearable.

After an indeterminable amount of time, I looked up from my musings to discover that the music had stopped and everyone in the restaurant was watching me as I rubbed a bottle of Fanta on my bare chest.  I had no idea when I’d removed my shirt, but it felt so good.  The tourists were giggling and the Dirt People were staring at me in mute anger, offended that I dared partake of their sacrament with such flippancy.  And I pointed at them and laughed and laughed and laughed.

Finally, we decided to leave, because, as Paul said, “I don’t think this room will hold us much longer.”

And he was right.  The ceiling was getting closer.  It was just a matter of time before everyone was crushed under it.  I laughed again.

We went back to our cabana and ripped the place apart.  I giggled while I shed my pants for no apparent reason and then, half-naked, proceeded to break every piece of furniture in the room.  Paul wrapped himself in a bed sheet and tried to keep out of harm’s way.  “Take dat!” I screamed into the night air.  “Take dat!  Take dat!  Take dat!”

Then we slipped into oblivion.

*     *     *

Contrary to the preachings of certain New Age evangelists, it is not natural to eat mushrooms just because they come from the earth.  Hemlock comes from the earth—ask Socrates how natural that shit was when it choked the life out of him.  The earth hates us.  The earth tries to kill us every day.  It’s a war, and I for one plan to come out victorious.

I don’t know where the idea to unite drugs and spirituality came from, but it’s all a crock of shit.  I’ve taken over a dozen different drugs on hundreds of occasions and never once did they expand my mind.  I don’t take them to raise my consciousness.  I don’t take them to cope with the world.  And I sure as hell don’t take them because of peer pressure.  I take drugs because I can.  It’s that simple.  I want to.  I need no other reason.

*     *     *

The next morning, Paul and I woke at the crack of dawn to catch the first bus out of that beautiful, tropical hell-hole.  As we shouldered our backpacks, we saw the Dirt People scuttling about with their morning rituals, washing plates, mending socks, praying to unnamed gods.  They looked like colorful, domestic gorillas in the dawn light, and I felt like Jane Goodall with a penis.

“They still have our souls,” I said.

Paul shrugged.  “Who cares?  They need them more then we do.  Let’s get the hell out of here.”

And so we did.

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