GHOST TOWN

GHOST TOWN

A ‘splashdown’ is an evasion technique used by narco-traffickers when crossing the border of Mexico and the United States. When the traffickers are discovered then pursued, they race to the Rio Grande and deliberately drive their cocaine or marijuana laden pickup trucks straight into the river. The resultant crash causes a ‘Splash’. The traffickers then swim to the Mexican bank of the river and the bales of narcotics float away from the American border patrols and back into the hands of waiting co-smugglers. I’m reminded of this as I study a large white pickup truck parked in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. It’s more tank than car. A gas guzzling leviathan with an engine more appropriate for a tractor. It sits atop of 4 bulky, black tyres, has black tinted windows and sparkling mirrored chrome covering the hub caps, bumper and front grill. Its impressive and unlike in Britain where anyone can gain credit for a new car, a new pickup truck still reflects a level of prosperity in Mexico.

Its March 2009 and I’m three months into my latest job as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher. I’ve started to smoke again and I’m dragging on a fag outside my school. In the UK you would be discouraged from smoking outside your place of work, but my current boss actively encourages it. She figures the sight of gringo teachers smoking outside the school is better advertisement than any Facebook advertisement or flyer. My franchised language school is part of large shopping complex named Plaza Sendero in an area called ‘Industrias’ which sits in the middle of a zone of factories, units and Industrial buildings all involved with the international automotive industry.

One of my fellow teachers, Andrew, a gregarious, young American from Portland spies me through the glass, front door of the school and joins me outside.

‘Hey man, you wanna go to the ghost town’ he asks.

‘Ghost town?’ I reply.

‘Yeah man, one of my students is a manager at the San Pedro mine just outside the city. He says It’s also a ghost town, like the movies’

Normally I wouldn’t be interested in a tour of a ghost town or a mine, but I’d been stuck in the city since arrival and needed to escape the city and explore.

‘Cool man, I’ve got classes until 5 though’ I answer.

‘Me too man, ideal’ he replies before slipping back into the school.

 

 

At 5pm I meet Andrew outside the school. We are joined by Robert, a fellow English teacher from Germany and Carlos the manager of the mine. Carlos is a short man in his mid-fifties. His shirt is pressed and starched, but his jeans are baggy and oversized. His slicked black hair and tinted glasses make him appear like a hybrid of Joe Pesci and Diego Maradona. He seems quiet and unassertively ushers us to the large, white pickup that I’d been previously admiring. Robert and I clamber into the back seats while Andrew sits shotgun in front. Carlos starts the tank’s engine then quickly gets us onto the neighbouring highway and roaring past the traffic.

With every kilometre we seem to slink back a decade. The massive highways taper into single carriages then brittle, dusty roads. Buildings become more decrepit and dilapidated, the moisture starved foliage browner and the painted wall advertisements for potato chips and petrol more faded and ignored. As we turn into a dirt road an old man sitting atop a homemade, horse drawn cart crosses the road. Carlos thumps his car horn to clear the way and reaffirm his technological superiority. San Pedro is only 10 minutes outside San Luis but in that time, we have retreated 100 years.

Cerro San Pedro which translates as the Hill of Saint Peter is the ghost town. It feels like we have driven onto a film set. Spanish Franciscan monks arrived around here in 1592, found gold and silver and remained until their language, religion and corruption were embedded so deep that they would never leave. The productivity of the mine created its neighbouring city and contributed to Spain’s dominance over Latin America for the following centuries. Most of the buildings are dilapidated and crumbling like broken pieces of shortbread. The sandy roads are buckled and badly maintained. You could imagine Pancho Villa galloping down these broken streets, firing his rifle in the air to inspire revolution a century before. Little seems to have changed since those times save modern cars and the tangled electricity wires and street lamps above. The main plaza contains an overgrown garden of agave plants and weedy grass and is surrounded by all the town’s main buildings. The church stands proud and tall among the crumbling ruins, its bright yellow walls shimmer in the late afternoon sun while the red blocked trim echoes the colonial past. The church bell hangs aimlessly as a dead snake hung by its tail in the 60-foot tower. There’s a couple of small tiendas and some bare cafes to cater for the scarce inhabitants and tourists that should be wandering around the empty streets. The infrequent locals breeze aimlessly from door to do as if buffeted by the ghosts of their forbearers while we are left to roam the town like wild goats. At the town limits an ancient mine cart acts as a town sign. Its thick, iron wheels are sturdy and well used but well capable of working another hundred years. The old cart has been superseded and is merely a relic much like the town its sleeps in.

I’m left wondering why Carlos has brought us to San Pedro first before visiting the mine. Maybe he wanted to show how desolate the town is and demonstrate how the mine provides much need vitality, like viewing a sick man in his hospital bed before being dosed of penicillin. As if predicting my gnawing, contemplation Carlos claps his hands and says: ‘Vanamos amigos’, and with that we climb back into truck and drive the short distance to the mine.

On arrival to the mine we are suited up in red and luminous safety vests and brand-new white, safety helmets emblazoned with the company New Gold Inc, a Canadian company which operates the mine under a myriad of legally challenged subsidiaries. We are then shepherded into a room and offered bottles of water. A projector screen is rigged against the wall and for the next 20 minutes we are treated to a corporate, feel good movie. The whole system of mining is broken down into benign basic systems and functions complete with captions and graphics. At the end of the video, New Gold Inc head honchos are pictured with beaming local children each of which are sporting new football strips and carrying new schoolbooks. I recognise the propaganda immediately and exchange a cynical eye roll with Robert.

Next, we are moved out to a panoramic vantage point of the overall mine. There’s an acrid, chemical smell that nips at your nostrils and tickles the eyes, an unnatural scent amongst the dry sand of a desert. I peer over the massive craters that would take mountains to fill and take in the manmade valley of terraced ridges. There are tiny cars whizzing round the ridges creating small clouds of dust in their wake. It’s only when I focus that I realize that these cars are enormous, dump trucks each about 70 tonnes of iron and engine with a carrying capacity of twice their tare. There’s about 20 of these automated ants tear arsing around the mine shifting loads of soil at break neck speed. With two diesel tanks of 160 litres each they can run continuously without stopping for a full week.

We walk down from the viewing platform to what seems like massive swimming pools lined with thick, black plastic.

‘What is the black plastic for?’ I ask Carlos.

‘So the acid does not go in the land’ he answers with his basic English.

I’m confused on why they must use acid at all and not employ some sort of shaking and separation system. I slowly piece my confusion together like a baffled child working out a sum and I’m stunned.

I later learn that the system is regarded as ‘Heap Leaching’ and the acid used is cyanide. Firstly, dynamite is used (25 tonnes daily in this mine) to blast and rip the soil from the earth. The soil and rock are then dumped on huge beds of thick, black plastic where it is sprayed, soaked and degraded by the corrosive cyanide. The gold and silver are eventually washed and filtered out while the leftover soil – a useless, poisoned chemical mulch – is discarded back into the earth. The precious metals? Well their collected, smelted and shipped out across the west to be fashioned into rings, jewellery, watches and other trophies. Carlos assures us that this process is safe and harmless. ‘Everything is returned to land and the acid and aqua is separated’ he says unclasping his fingers.

We follow him along the plastic lined pits to the large pipes and sieves that collect the acid and water and separate them to be reused. To demonstrate this dubious process there is a tap plumbed into a huge, metal, water vat. Carlos twists the tap head and lets the clear liquid spray onto the concrete path.

‘Look, the agua is puro. You can drink’ he says.

‘You take a drink then’ I tell him in a rare moment of effrontery.

He laughs at my cheeky taunt ‘No amigo, not today, I don’t have cup’

I laugh at his reply knowing that I have called his bluff and seen through the façade. I’m almost triumphant as we hand in our vests and helmets and leave the mine in the pickup truck.

We have one last stop before returning to San Luis and pull into space alongside a phalanx of pickup trucks which are clustered around a large, marquee tent. We are ushered inside and into a seat around one of the many round tables. I ask Carlos what the occasion and he is informs us it’s a quinceanera, or girl’s 15th birthday party. We are introduced to the girl’s father: a Ranchero complete with Stetson and slick snakeskin cowboy boots, then to the birthday girl and in turn half the tent. Beers and tequila are placed in front of us and we are quickly incorporated into the party.

A full Mariachi band is blaring on the stage at the bottom of the tent playing an ear-splitting cacophony of marching rhythm, booming brass and yodel like singing. It’s wonderful, and they soon have audience singing and swaying in appreciation. I lie back in my seat and savour this most Mexican of scenes. But just as the band have the audience captive a squall rips through the side of the tent.  The wind whirls around the tables spraying dust into faces and gusting up the tablecloths and plastic dishes. The band are pounded by the gale and fire back against its ire, defiant and resolute but they are quickly defeated and the is party ruined. However, it’s during this moment as the guests begin to scatter and the band clings to the stage that I begin to understand Carlos and his compatriots’ dilemma. These mine workers and their families seem to be thriving like no residents of Cerro San Pedro have done before. The girl’s birthday party is as much a celebration of the community’s state of prosperity as it is the girl’s pass into womanhood. In Mexico many live a subsistence life with 42% of population living below the national poverty line. Few can afford a car never mind a brand-new American pick up so any opportunities to prosper, alike what has been provided by New Gold have to be seized. And while the Canadian company’s practices are offensive to my Western eyes and sensibilities the community of Cerro San Pedro simply cannot afford my vaulted morals. What I began to learn after my visit to the mine was that it is instability and unpredictability that are the biggest problems for Mexicans be that economic, societal, environmental or even climatic. If it is impossible to build on shifting sands this is why Mexicans, maybe more than any other nationality, have such a short-termed outlook on life and grab what and when can they can. Paradoxically this may also be why Mexico is so close to a failed state (Drug Wars and Northern neighbour’s not withstanding) and this is also why people will continue to ‘splashdown’ their pickups into the Rio Grande.

 

Note: Following contamination of the local water supply Environmental groups successfully protested and petitioned the Mexican government to cease practices at the Cerro San Pedro in 2016.

The Oblivious Obligation

 

The dog’s howling awakened him immediately. He turned to the clock and noticed it was far earlier than the usual morning rouse so he curled back into the duvet and tried ignore the noise. As hard as he tried to drift off his mind would not rest and he found himself staring at the ceiling his thoughts spinning and reeling without purpose. It was the feeling that he had forgotten something important and pressing, a gnawing sense that an important task had been overlooked or some long ignored debt that had to be repaid. The dog’s whining turned to barking and he punched the mattress realising that he would have to go downstairs. His wife was never disturbed by the dogs wailing, she had taken her usual double diazepam washed down by a bottle of red which sent her into a deep coma until the morning. She was snoring like a farm beast, side-down on the pillow and her saliva was oozing onto the pillow. She was far from the beauty he had managed to snare nearly 5 years ago and in recent times she had let herself go, both physically and mentally, content to stay inside and pickle her stunned feelings with booze and reality TV. He flicked on the bed lamp, threw back the duvet, slotted his feet into his waiting slippers then slung on his old rugby shirt in a long practised routine. Both his daughter and younger son still had their lights on despite his constant protestations, this did not surprise him as both had long lost his respect and ignored him daily. They were spoiled brats who enjoyed the luxuries that he could only dream of at that age: the football strips, clothes, iPads, phones and PlayStations that were updated and discarded on a monthly basis. He sloped his way down the long staircase, sliding his hand along the newly polished bannister, past the many family murals and the garish wallpaper that his wife had chosen. He hated this house and all its ostentatious ornaments of greed, the whole place screamed tacky footballer not the inspired scientist he was. The hall light illuminated the grand open plan base level with all the gadgets and accoutrements a family could ask for, the trappings of wealth which hung round his neck like granite scarf. The huge flat screen television had been left on, as always, to churn out drivel to an absent audience while magazines and empty sweet bags were strewn across the floor and sofa. His dog, Pancho was in the kitchen to meet him, frenzied with enthusiasm and joy at companionship, his only friend in the house. The ageing mongrel was his oldest most dependable pal, always open to conversation and never criticising, eager for company and never ignoring his attention. The man decoded the house alarm, unsnibbed the door and turned the key in the lock letting Pancho race into the darkness, yelping in excitement. As usual there wasn’t a sound in suburbia save distant sirens and the low hum from the motorway miles away, this was his favourite part of the day, peaceful and quiet where a he could feel perfectly at ease with his own thoughts. He was always reminded of his early morning jaunts returning from parties or strange houses as a young man, when the birds were beginning to chatter and sing and were the only witnesses to his nocturnal adventures. The gardeners had cut the grass that day and the fresh smell of clippings together with dew perfumed the night air. He looked at his spacious garden with its huge lawn and grand trees and had a rare sense of achievement like a king assessing his lands, maybe things were not as bad as he thought. Pancho dropped the rubber ball at his feet so he kicked it hard to the top of the garden, immediately cursing his stupidity being only in slippers he was forced to hop then crouch to the ground in an effort to stifle the pain.  As the dog reached the gate at the top of the garden a long whistle immediately halted it and sent it cowering back to the man as if belted by an invisible force. The man peered into the darkness and grabbed a long handled shovel that was lying against the garden shed bringing past his head like a baseball player at the plate.

‘Who the fuck is that and what are you doing in my garden’, snarled the man in the direction of the whistle.

‘Long time, no see boss,’ said a deep voice from behind a big beach tree.

The man was instantly on his guard, furious but petrified at this intruder.

‘Show yourself, you cheeky bastard,’ roared the man.

‘Come, come boss, don’t be like that. I’ve come a long way to see you,’ said the voice.

A tall, black man stepped out of the shadows and into the illumination of the full moon. He was wearing a light, tan suit with a sky blue waistcoat and yellow tie, an outfit more appropriate for the 19th century than now. His greying hair and white beard were well trimmed and his teeth beamed in a strange, crooked smile. He was carrying a silver walking cane with what looked like duck’s head for a handle, the man immediately took this for a potential weapon and so tightened his grip on his spade.

‘You don’t remember me boss, I’m disappointed. You spent a good few ours putting de world to rights all dem years ago,’ said the stranger.

It was the term boss that jolted his memory together with the recognisable West Indian or Jamaican accent like the Bob Marley or Usain Bolt. He racked his brain for some friend or work mate from Jamaica but couldn’t find anything, not even as far back as University. And then it all came back, flooding into his consciousness like a tidal wave.

A few years previous he had gotten bogged down in his job and had decided escape the stress and toil of his position. He had served at the same company since leaving University but couldn’t get ahead despite being the star of his research department. He had longed for a break and not being confident enough to backpack around Asia and having exhausted the Mediterranean he decided to set off on an all-inclusive cruise around the Caribbean. He spent most of his time on the high seas emptying the mini-bar and watching re-runs of American detective shows in his double bedded room. His only opportunity of escape came when the ship berthed in a harbour and could disembark and escape into the local nightclubs and beach bars. It was on one of these nights, docked in Nassau that he had met a stranger sipping on a tall drink at the end of the bar. At first he was reticent to strike up a conversation but as the booze increased so did his courage and he began to add in little pieces of chatter the stranger about the football on TV. Their mutual admiration for Spain’s La Liga spiralled into a full blown natter about the beautiful game and its merits and weaknesses. The stranger seemed to be a local but had obviously seen a bit of the planet, interjecting small tales and anecdotes from his many travels. He was quick with a nod and a laugh and actively persuaded the man to sample the local spirits behind the wooden bar. The 80 % rum was particularly potent and harsh to the throat however the more you drank the easier it was to take. As the night progressed the man found himself opening up and sharing the type of fears and desires he had only previously divulged to his close family or friends. The booze fuelled conversation quickly descended into a wallowing diatribe of self-pity and woe mainly directed at the man’s boss of many years and his inability to climb his career ladder. He bitched and moaned like a teenager for most of the night.

‘If only the wanker would just fuck offf, and leave me his job, if only, then everything, evv-ree—thing would fit into place,’ slurred the man, barely managing to sit on his stool.

‘I’m sure sumthin will turn up, de Lord works in mysterious ways boss,’ said the stranger.

‘Yeah, well I wish he would work something out for me,’ whined the man.

The stranger listened closely, puffing the occasional cigarette and necking back the Red Stripe beers and rum like a veteran. He was older than his drinking partner and had the battle scars to prove a life well lived. At the end of the night, the stranger thanked the man for the conversation and entertainment, paid the bill for all the bar in full, tipped the barman and disappeared into the night before anyone could offer their thanks. The man returned to his room, retched into his sink and toilet bowl then collapsed into his bed beaten and burst from the brutal rum shots. In the morning he woke with headache like a haemorrhage and a mouth that tasted like the remnants of a campfire. The next day was filled with more trips to the toilets and fitful sleeps punctuated by recollections of his embarrassing outbursts and admissions from the night before.  And that was that. Until tonight.

 

‘What the fuck, what are you doing here, in my garden at 3 in the morning?’ asked the man.

The stranger dipped into his waistcoat pocket and pulled out a small, battered tin which he opened with a metallic pop. Inside were tobacco, rizla papers and a small amount of grass. He pulled three papers from the pack and set about joining them together with a few licks of the gummy sides. He added a few pinches of tobacco then sprinkled some grass on top the finally rolled it all into perfect cone. The stranger sparked his lighter to a flame and ignited the end of the joint, inhaling deeply before blowing a white, grey cloud into the night sky.

‘You owe me a favour boss, and I’m ere to collect,’ he said before passing the joint to the man.

‘Oh, aye and how do you figure that one out?’ replied the man.

‘Well, I eliminated your problem which created de ah-por-toon-itee for you to progress and flourish. Look at you man, you have all de trappings of a wealthy man. De trophy wife, big house and gaahden and the top of de range Mercedes Benz man. You got it all boss. All tanks to me,’ said the stranger.

‘And how exactly do you figure that one out then?’ asked the man while taking the joint from the stranger.

‘Your boss man, I got im out of da picture and let you movie in just like you wished,’ said the stranger.

‘Just like I wished, what the fuck are you a fucking genie? And my boss was killed in a mountaineering accident in Bolivia years ago,’ replied the man.

‘Haaa Haaa, that’s the spirit boss. Actually it was Ecuador, and it was no accident and I’m no Genie man, just an investor who recognised an ah-por-toon-itee’

The man reeled at the strangers corrections. His boss had indeed died in Ecuador, falling into a gorge on assent up Mount Pichincha a few months after his Caribbean trip. The man had gone to the funeral, cajoled his boss’s wife and grieved with his workmates at the elaborate wake. Now this stranger was telling him that his boss had been murdered at his behest, all because of some drunken bout of confessions.

‘You’re telling me you arranged the murder of my boss based on pissed conversation years ago in a beach bar?’ asked the man.

‘Now, you’re getting it boss, you it’ de nail on de head,’ replied the stranger.

The man stared at the stranger in disbelief. He was still trying to comprehend this strange reunion but now with this bizarre confession to add to the mix it was difficult to comprehend.

‘So what do you want in return for this kind service?’  Asked the man.

‘Well….after I left you at de bar dat night I went back home and googled your business card you gave me and found out dat you were some big shot scientist in London. And I taught to meself, dis man’s going places….with a little bit of help,’ said the stranger grinning.

‘Ahhhh, so its blackmail then? You must be wanting a bumper pay-out for all your hard work?’ asked the man.

‘Man’s gotta eat boss, and I’ve put a lot of money into you.’

‘And what do you do if I tell you to fuck off? What then?’ Asked the man.

‘Well, den I go and tell me story to de Poh-lees tomorrow and de take all this away,’ said the stranger, motioning his hand towards the car and house.

‘Well that would be a bit fucking stupid wouldn’t it, you’d be admitting to a crime’ said the man.

‘Obviously, I’m not going tie de noose around me neck boss there’s ways of informing da

Poh lees anonymously.’

‘Why have you waited so long for this? I was in Bermuda over 5 years ago, why wait till now?’ asked the man.

‘All investments have to mature boss, I had to wait until you were ready’ said the stranger.

 

The man sucked on the joint and held the smoke in his lungs. He felt the harsh vapour soak into his brain and wash through his sleepy head. He gazed at the black, saloon car in the driveway and the six bedroom palace all his labour had garnered. He stared into the bedroom where his wife lay comatose and at the lights left on by his kids, he felt the wet grass seep into his slippers then looked down at Pancho who was waiting impatiently with a ball.

‘You know what, you can tell the Police whatever you want, I couldn’t give a flying fuck. I’ll even drive you down to the station in the morning, until then, unless you want this shovel round the back of your skull, I suggest you take this joint and get the fuck of my land’ said the man.

The stranger took the joint from the man, turned without a word and walked to the gate. It was only when he had left the garden that he looked over to the man watching him pick up a ball and throw it down the garden for his dog to scramble after. Normally his targets would pay up or at least return a favour, normally they would relent in an effort of self-preservation but this guy simply didn’t care. He could tell that he wouldn’t be getting any money from this guy and creating any trouble would be too risky for himself. He pulled a small black notepad from his waistcoat pocket and scored the man’s name out with a pencil. The next mark would pay up, they always did.