I met him late one Saturday afternoon when the bus I was travelling in stopped at the city of Guadalajara. The person who had been sitting next to me got up and left and he plumped himself down in the vacated seat.
He must have been in his mid 30´s. He was good-looking in a dark Spanish way – head of black wavy black hair, olive skin, moustache, regular jaw line. From the way he was dressed – neat shirt and trousers – I would have picked him as a public servant or a teacher.
We made small talk for a while.
The end stop of the bus was the town of Tequila and he was going there because he worked as a security guard at a tequila distillery; this week he was on the night shift.
I was on my way there because it seemed only natural to visit the town where Mexico’s famous national drink was made. Besides which, it wasn’t easy anymore finding destinations in Mexico to travel to which were still relatively safe.
It was in 2013 and I was nearing the end of my two weeks in Mexico. It was unlikely I would return, which was a shame because Mexico was a unique country and quite unlike other Spanish speaking nations in South and Central America. But facts were facts: the country was sliding into anarchy. Organised crime gangs were running entire provinces and forming a threat to the central government. Murders, assassinations and kidnappings were so commonplace they had become almost banal. The notorious El Chapo Guzman, the most notorious leader of a crime gang exporting cocaine, marihuana and meth amphetamines to the U.S. and Europe, was constantly in the news. Murders and ‘disappearances’ were everyday events.
The number of areas which the Mexican government advised tourists not to visit was far greater than during my last visit in 2007.
The journey to Tequila as it turned out, my last glimpse of Mexico and as fate would have it, it was a strangely and quintessentially Mexican experience. And it began with Marcos, a man who had ventured beyond the borders of Mexico and returned, fully realising the dangers he ran…..
As Marcos and I chatted, the bus took us through the outskirts of Guadalajara and a seemingly endless belt of shanty town dwellings and then into dry barren hills reminiscent of somewhere in outback Australia – with one difference: many of the dry hills were covered in fields of the blue agave cactus plants.
We were entering tequila country.
The agave cactus is a series of tall spiky fronds radiating out of a thick bulb in the ground. It is left to grow for eight years before it is harvested, when the fronds are slashed off with a machete and the bulbs, resembling giant pineapples, are collected and taken to a factory where they are cooked, pulped, fermented and then distilled.
There are four kinds of Tequila and each one is quite different to the other: white Tequila or ‘blanco’, which is clear and has a strong taste of the blue agave plant; gold or ‘d´oro’, which is Tequila blanco with sugar and caramel added to tone down the blue agave flavour; ‘rested’ Tequila or ‘respado’ – white Tequila aged for at anywhere between 2 to 10 months in oak barrels; old Tequila or ‘anejo’ – white Tequila aged in oak for anywhere between 1 and 3 years.
There were two big distilleries in Tequila – and a Tequila museum – which I was planning on visiting. There were also tequila tastings on offer but I had no interest in these because I didn’t like tequila; my interest in it was purely cultural.
What I didn’t realise was that there were many small niche tequila distilleries at the outskirts of Tequila. Talking to Marcos, I learned that these two big distilleries had been bought up by big American concerns. Only the smaller ones were still owned by Mexicans and it was at one of these that Marcos worked. These smaller distilleries he explained were niche distilleries. Each of them produced a different kind of tequila within the four broad categories. There were tequila connoisseurs all over the world who had their own favourite distillery – and who regarded all other tequila as inferior. Pretty much like the wine industry, in other words.
Besides speaking good English Marcos was well-informed: ”get to read a lot of newspapers and books at nights’ he told me.
We talked for a while about the crime problem. About El Chapo.
He was rather cynical about the notorious crime boss.
‘They’ll catch him one day or kill him. What does it matter? There will be others to take his place. As long as there’s a market for drugs, there will be drug lords.’
That indeed was the problem. As long as there was a demand, there was going to be a supply.
I asked Marcos if his job ever got dangerous. I had in mind a Mexican crime gang. A few thousand gallons of Tequila would be worth a lot. His answer surprised me.
Sure he said, there were dangers in his job alright. A robbery by a crime gang, not unthinkable, wasn’t his main concern however.
It was the other security guards where he worked. In Mexico he said, you didn´t need any kind of training or diploma to be a security guard.
‘In the U.S., in Europe, you can’t work as a security guard unless you’ve done a course and passed it. You can’t even start unless you got the necessary papers. In Mexico any damn fool can work as a security guard. The day after the damn fool is signed on he’s given a semi-automatic rifle which he’s got no idea how to use.’
Marcos lived in fear of his work colleagues – as well as being untrained he said, they were also grossly overweight. Instead of chasing after a suspect they were more likely to blaze away with their rifles and ask questions later.
He didn’t seem to think that this constituted a safe work environment.
But he didn’t want to go back to America either.
There was a lot of violence there too. Being a security guard was a high risk job in whichever country he worked. The pay was better there of course, but …money wasn’t everything.
He had a brother and sister living in Los Angeles who were permanently settled in the U.S. and came back to Mexico now and then for a visit. He had spent five years in LA where he had rolled into the security guard business and got himself a diploma. Then he´d come back home, bought a house and got married. He lived with his wife and two children and he and his wife’s elderly parents; other members of their extended families lived nearby.
Clearly, he was a man who needed to belong.
He drank two shots of tequila every day he said, never more: tequila blanco.
At a stop before the main town of Tequila he got out.
Before he got down he said:
‘It’s Sunday tomorrow. Make sure you look around town especially in the evening….don’t just visit the distilleries and museum….there’s more to Tequila than that…’
I said goodbye and watched him. He crossed the road. On the other side was a high white washed wall and behind it, a graveyard: a jumble of vaults and crosses and angels and cherubs, some of them askew due to the ground sinking. Behind the graveyard was a row of trees and set back behind these, the Tequila factory, white walls and red tiles.
Marcos walked past the graveyard and disappeared from view.
Did it ever cross his mind that one day he might end up in that graveyard?
Between stops, the bus to Tequila was plied by buskers.
That morning not long after leaving Mexico City, a middle aged man had got on the bus playing an acoustic guitar and singing. He was surprisingly good and I gave him a hefty tip wondering at the same time how a man of his talents could have wound up amongst the ranks of the destitute.
But that was Mexico.
On the final leg of the journey to Tequila, a young urchin faced boy got on a sang at such a high pitch that it hurt my ears. I gave him a tip to encourage him to get off the bus. But he didn’t, he took it as encouragement and kept singing.
By the time I got down at Tequila I was exhausted and had a headache.
Was it worth it?
To have come all this way to visit a town whose main claim to fame was a drink I didn’t even like?
Yeah, it was.
Marcos was right.
Tequila I discovered was a lot more than its museum and famous distilleries…..