• Journal

‘Sick In Paradise’, by Beau Patrick Coulon

Into the new year, photographer Beau Patrick travelled to Mexico City in search of a reset of sorts and documented a personal account of his time, messy and hopeful.

Words and Photos: Beau Patrick Coulon
Editor: Beck Levy

Into the new year, photographer Beau Patrick travelled to Mexico City in search of a reset of sorts and documented a personal account of his time, messy and hopeful.

Contaminación

In fall of 2017 I turned 40. That same week, a three year romantic relationship ended, leaving me with a sense of failure and betrayal. In the midst of that dissolution, I had managed to pass the final inspection on an arduous building project: over a period of two years, my crew and I transformed our hulking seven bedroom squat into a permanent, legal, communal house, featuring new plumbing and electric, and modern amenities such as operable windows, doors that lock, and walls that aren’t see-through. And that very same week, I put out a new photo book collaboration with local painter/printmaker Max Seckel and tabled it at the New Orleans Comics and Zine Fest (NOCAZ). It was a time of fully crossed off lists, the end of a chapter in my life, and I needed a change of scenery before the walls closed in around me, before winter set in.

It was a time of fully crossed off lists, the end of a chapter in my life, and I needed a change of scenery before the walls closed in around me, before winter set in ... All the heavy times were adding up and I felt like I was losing perspective. When I finally reached a point where I could walk away from my life, for a little while at least, and reflect on things, I made my exit.

The past couple years had been exhausting. So many friends had died heartbreaking deaths. So many more had been demoralized by the state of the State and this current iteration of socio-political oppression. All the heavy times were adding up and I felt like I was losing perspective. When I finally reached a point where I could walk away from my life, for a little while at least, and reflect on things, I made my exit. I wanted to ride a motorcycle to Tierra Del Fuego, the southernmost tip of South America, like Ernesto Guevara and Alberto Grenada. But it wasn’t realistic considering my lousy grasp of the Spanish language and my total lack of preparation, nevermind that I didn’t own a motorcycle and hadn’t in ten years. But when I heard that a friend was renting out her spare bedroom in Mexico City for most of the winter, and that there was an affordable Spanish language immersion class nearby, I booked my ticket.

Mexico City (CDMX) is around 7,500ft above sea level and built on top of a vast lake nestled between mountains and volcanoes. It’s also one of the most populous and polluted places on the continent. The last time I visited I got sick from the altitude and smog, or the contaminación as they call it. I experienced headaches, shortness of breath, and lethargy. Another time visiting, some bad bacteria messed me up. So this time I showed up with remedies and supplements: probiotics for intestinal fortitude and chlorophyll tablets because I heard they made it easier to adjust to the altitude. And for the first week, aside from being easily winded, I did okay.

Before it was Mexico City it was Tenochtitlan, the cradle of Aztec society. It was thought to be the Axis Mundi, the center of the universe. They had a highly advanced society, mind boggling architecture, and their agricultural knowledge was nothing short of astonishing. There’s this whole rich precolonial history that was almost lost, practically paved over by the Spaniards after Cortez, yet it remains, miraculously. Templo Mayor, the main temple of the Aztecs, lays in ruins right next to a massive colonial church leaning over in the center of the city, their structures sharing some of the same volcanic rocks. Nearby are wide avenues with names like Insurgentes or Reforma, celebrating the Mexican Revolution, barely 100 years old. And it’s these aspects––pre-colonial/Aztec, colonial/Spanish, and post colonial/revolutionary––that contribute to the deeply textured and multilayered landscape I found myself in. I experienced it as a sense of duality and paradox. The temples all seemed to have two main focuses, whether it was the sun and moon at Teotihuacan or the god of war (Huitzilopochtli) and the god of fertility (Tlaloc) at Templo Mayor. And this theme seemed intertwined with colonialism, the duality of the Spanish language, everything broken into masculine or feminine gender, patriarchy and matriarchy at the center of Christianity and Spain’s culture.

The room I rented was in Guerrero, a centrally located working class neighborhood. It was simple and clean, with a window that brought in afternoon light. Amber, whose apartment it was, had a dog, a cat, and a rat, and many friends who frequently stopped by. I felt welcomed by them all and was happy with the accommodations.

One of the first nights in my new room, while laying in bed, I received a message on Signal from an acquaintance who was calling out a good friend of mine for sexually assaulting her. The friend being called out was a person I had worked closely with, someone I admired and trusted. I kept my angry feelings at him in check as best I could while trying to draft a thoughtful and kind response to her. I let her know that I was incredibly sorry this had happened and I offered to help in any way that I could. It felt insufficient, but I didn’t know what more to say. I reflected on my relationship with my friend, the assaulter, and I was overcome with a familiar sense of failure and betrayal.

Inmersión

My friend Nate, another stray New Orleanian, was living nearby in a punk house. He and I tried to enroll in the same Spanish language immersion class but I did so poorly on the placement exam that I couldn’t get in. They simply didn’t have enough people at that basic A1 level to form a class. Nate was already a fairly good speaker, so he was able to start in the intermediate class.

As I was settling in to my new surroundings and looking for other Spanish schools, a long-time crush of mine flew down from Oakland to spend a few days with me and see the city. Wanting privacy and more space for the two of us, I rented a loft near Chapultepec park for the weekend. My anticipation level was on high. This would be the first weekend with real romantic potential that I’d shared with someone new in a long time. Checking in at the room some hours before her, I relaxed and thought of things to do and places I’d like to show her around town. Unfortunately, she arrived destroyed by the altitude and with a terrible migraine. She spent much of that night either delicately resting or violently vomiting. People from the US don’t always realize that Mexico City is 2,200ft taller than Denver, so altitude sickness is a very real hazard for some visitors. My friend coming from the Bay Area, essentially sea-level like New Orleans, was fucked over by it. We took it slow and while she recuperated we managed to go on some outings.

People from the US don’t always realize that Mexico City is 2,200ft taller than Denver, so altitude sickness is a very real hazard for some visitors. My friend coming from the Bay Area, essentially sea-level like New Orleans, was fucked over by it. We took it slow and while she recuperated we managed to go on some outings.

We went to a goth fest that I heard about online called Post Punk Not Dead [sic], but we only lasted through two bands before heading back. The next day we went to Teotihuacan outside of the city, and Nate joined us. We managed to hike up one of the steep pyramids, but even Nate, who is a Kung Fu instructor, was winded by it. The following day I took my date to some of the big mercados around town and that evening we walked around the centro historico, checking out the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Zócalo. By the time we made it home we practically collapsed. Overall our weekend together was sweet and fun, but the physical maladies were a real damper. This set the tone for the next month and a half, as my whole love affair with Mexico was continually put in check by physical limitations.

When my weekend date left town I returned to my room at Amber’s and promptly caught a head cold that lasted five days. When it finally passed I enrolled at a different Spanish immersion class and settled into a routine. Each morning I’d get some fruit or a breakfast torta from a local market or street vendor and head to class. In the afternoon I’d wander around with my camera in the Centro Historico, often meeting up with friends to see museums, and in the evening we’d eat delicious street food and see if any shows were happening.

Los Niños Están Bien

The following Saturday was Bici Muerte––over the years I’ve been to a lot of similar events, usually Bike Kill events that the Black Label Bike Clubs throw around the United States, such as Ridin’ Dirty in New Orleans every New Year––it’s an underground freak bike gathering that typically involves punks, grease, blood, music, and good times. This one was being held on the northern outskirts of town. Amber, Ilsé and some other friends I’d met were going to ride their bikes there. Nate and I didn’t have bikes so we were going to take the Suburbano train. But Nate was sick with the same cold I had just gotten over so I went alone. I got off the train in a quiet residential neighborhood and walked up the hill to a big soccer field across from a squat called Casa Naranja. Like any squat worth its salt and lime, it had murals on the walls and a growing mountain of bikes out front. I love how squat art is universal: Mexico City, NYC, or Berlin, it all usually looks like it came out of Slug and Lettuce zine circa ‘91. Inside the double-gated entry I found my friends right away. Lo and behold, we were there before it started. Much like New Orleans, in Mexico City when you show up an hour late, you’re probably still a couple hours early.

Much like New Orleans, in Mexico City when you show up an hour late, you’re probably still a couple hours early.

We helped set things up in a basketball court flanked by a cemetery and a soccer field. It had high cement walls that were getting muralized by some graffiti artists as we approached. Gradually, punks and curious neighborhood kids showed up. Someone had a shopping cart front-loader bike that was a big hit. The immediate difference I noticed between Bici Muerte and similar Bike Kill events in the US was how much more family friendly this one was. There were so many kids, mostly under the age of ten. The bike punks hosting and attending the event—thorny looking, spiky jackets, chains, facial tattoos galore, drinking huge micheladas—all seemed to make a point to include the niños in the bike-oriented activities and look out for their fun and safety. It was cool to see.

There was all kinds of merch set up, including the usual punk sundries: bootleg patches, zines, stickers, tapes, vegan tortas, spikes, and buttons, you name it. I was happy to see that several friends of mine from the US had their art bootlegged and for sale on stickers, I clocked Ben Passmore, GATS, Swampy, and less surprisingly Juan Diego from Columbia. I have few tangible goals in life, but making something that gets bootlegged by punks in other countries is right up there.

The PA was set up and the bike events started at sunset. The kids jousted on mini bikes, outfitted with helmets, knee pads, and elbow pads. Some of the big kids jousted on the tall bikes. Later bands played, the music didn’t really stand out to me but I enjoyed it all the same, some indiscernible screaming with rambling political diatribes in between songs, it wouldn’t have mattered the language, it was like any basement or backyard show I've ever been to. Careful not to miss the last train, I left the party around 11. Amber, Ilsé, and a couple other friends walked their bikes with me down the hill toward my train, waving bye and riding off into the night as I entered the station.

Even though they might have a wild lifestyle, the bonds of family are strong enough to absorb that difference.

Back at the house I had a conversation with Amber about how people in Mexico City, punks especially, often live with their moms well into adulthood, usually out in the ‘burbs on the outskirts of town. Even though they might have a wild lifestyle, the bonds of family are strong enough to absorb that difference. Venues like squats provide a place for people to come together, but aren’t a receptacle for discarded punk kids like they are in the USA. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part, if you're from Mexico City, even if you're punk, you can still live with your parents well into your 30s without anyone batting an eye. I moved out to live on the street when I was 13 and never had much of a stable home life, so it was eye opening for me to meet punks in their 20s and 30s who still live with their families.

Amber explained to me if you’re young and live alone in Mexico City, people think you’re weird or wonder if something’s wrong with you. People don’t usually move out of their family home until they start their own family. Even among a modern urban landscape, traditional families still manage to function. It made me reflect on the ways that capitalism as practiced in the USA has destroyed the family unit. Marx was kind of a piece of shit to his family, but Engels was super interested in the impact of the economic system on interpersonal relations. He theorized that first monogamy and then ultimately the formation of the nuclear family was "not founded on natural, but on economic conditions: the victory of private property over natural collectivism." In CDMX, it seemed like punks were integrated into families, and families into community life, in a way I don’t really experience in the USA.

Reconstruye

After Bici Muerte, I skipped my classes for a few days and linked up with my friend Diana—a Chicana artist/designer/musician/activist who I know from Los Angeles and NYC—to help her and her friend Isis deliver a big truck full of supplies to a puebla called Tetecala in the state of Morelos. Like most cities and towns in the region, Tetecala had been ravaged by a horrible earthquake a couple months earlier. There we linked up with folks from Cuatro Patas, a collective that provided kids in the community with cultural development, tutoring, art classes, food, and a safe space to just play and be kids. The beautiful colonial hacienda they had been using for their arts and crafts center was destroyed in the earthquake. When we arrived they were running makeshift classes out of a backyard belonging to the mother of a collective member. From Diana’s personal fundraising, the supplies we were able to deliver went directly to those in need, the kids and families affected—no non-profiteers, no middlemen.

I felt honored to spend a couple days with my friend Diana, Isis, and collective members Guillermo and Aré and the Cuatro Patas kids. Considering the damage and the trauma the quake had caused, the kids seemed strong, and appeared to be processing it well. They knew what was up. When the quake hit they were in school, but miraculously they were all outside doing an earthquake drill. This was chilling to learn while they showed me their collapsed schoolhouse, the center of the building filled in with bricks and rubble right where the kids would have been sitting. Many schools were doing earthquake drills that day because it was the exact same date and almost the same time as the terrible quake that struck central Mexico 32 years earlier, instantly killing thousands of people and injuring countless others. As we toured Tetecala accompanied by a small parade of children, we stopped at several buildings that were destroyed by the quake, including their school and their teachers house, to spray paint large stencils of a young girl planting a flower shaped like a house. Underneath read “RECONSTRUYENDO,” which means rebuilding.

If I make an effort to look around and ask where the struggle is, so I can be sensitive to it and try to learn about it, I find that it makes my presence less intrusive or obstructive or oppressive.

When I’m new in a place I try to confront my ignorance and accept that I don’t know what life means to the people there, what the struggle is like, or what the values are in the area I’m visiting. Even though there may be great similarities to or crossover with my own culture, when I make an assumption in my analysis I usually miss an opportunity to learn, and maybe I miss an opportunity to be of any help. If I make an effort to look around and ask where the struggle is, so I can be sensitive to it and try to learn about it, I find that it makes my presence less intrusive or obstructive or oppressive. Or at least I hope it does. I just know I don’t want to be like a colonizer or a shitty culture vulture tourist when I’m travelling.

With that approach I observed a lot of nuanced attitudes and ideas within Mexican culture regarding colorism, gender, and patriarchy that I otherwise would’ve missed, attitudes that were both difficult and refreshing for me to encounter. I’m coming from a place where most of my friends are trying to raise awareness of various elements of identity and experience–like race, sexuality, and gender–in hopes of forming strategies to counter socially-constructed oppressions and hierarchies. Being committed to that work and taking those values into a different context entirely, without knowing how those values or ideas function or operate, often requires a perspective shift.

Consultorio Médico

Diana got pulled over when we got back to CDMX for driving with the wrong permit or some such nonsense. It was a shakedown and there was no way around bribing the cop. It was an unfortunate end to an otherwise great trip. After Diana gave the cop the equivalent of $80 USD, she pulled over by the metro and dropped me off. I thanked her for everything and we said our goodbyes. Getting on the subway I started to feel congested and feverish. I had experienced some indigestion over the past few days but this was different. When I got home I was sick for a week with flu-like symptoms and I couldn’t attend my classes.

I’m the type of person who hates hospitals and the healthcare system. I only go to the doctor if I think I might die, otherwise I wait it out and suffer. But after a week of feeling like an old shoe that stepped in a pile of dog shit, Amber suggested I see the doctor. “It’s only 40 pesos, and there’s a consultorio a block away,” she said. I did the math and realized I could see a doctor for the price of a snowball back home. I went and was given an examination, a shot, and prescriptions that were filled on the spot. The doctor diagnosed a sinus infection and it cleared up shortly after my consultation. I felt foolish for suffering in bed for a week from being conditioned by the awful healthcare we have in the US when seeing a doctor was that easy.

Around then, Nate had a birthday party down in Xochimilco, a beautiful part of the city that is mostly farmland and has used the same agricultural methods for hundreds of years. You can rent a colorful boat and cruise along canals (kind of like our bayous) between the floating gardens or artificial islands called chinampas. There’s a place there called Isla De Muñecas or Doll Island, where an old farmer has been collecting creepy dolls and toys that wash up in the canals and affixing them to trees and fences for decades. We glided in our boat along the water as a dozen friends were getting drunk, singing songs, and acting goofy. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the birth of my friend, who, like me, didn't even drink.

I was prepared to go back to school, but it was closed for the weekend and then for Christmas. That Friday I caught a stomach bug and was either puking or pissing out my poophole for the next 24 hours. Besides the diarrhea, nausea and dizziness, loneliness and self pity started infecting me. Over half my time in Mexico was spent sick in bed or feeling under the weather. Maybe I’d been so busy recently back home that my body never had a chance to do its thing and had been saving up two years worth of illness, waiting for me to be in a place where I’d have the time to be immobilized. And there I was: sickness had finally caught up with me.

Navidad

After I recovered from that, I went to my roommate’s boyfriend’s house where he and his sister were throwing a Posada. Posada means inn, and it's a holiday tradition where they celebrate the nativity, Jesus’ birth, by reenactment. During the reenactment, the posada hosts act as the innkeepers while the guests act as the pilgrims. Holding lit candles, each group takes turns singing to each other. It goes back in forth for a while in a lighthearted fashion until the hosts let you in and you enjoy the party. Being that this posada was half-filled with punks, our reenactment looked more like a bunch of hoodlums trying to rush the gates at a Los Crudos show. Once inside, it was time for cumbias, some spicy sweet punch, and a piñata, after which an ‘80s dance party broke out.

On Christmas Eve I spent most of the day alone in meditation and missing my family. In the evening I went to a potluck with Rocky, a mutual friend of a lot of my friends back home. We’d been invited to an orphan dinner at the house of my friend and fellow photo obsessor Hanna Quevedo. Her place was in Coyoacan, the famed neighborhood of Frida Kahlo, where Leon Trotsky lived his final years before being assassinated by an ice-axe-wielding Stalinist. I’d visited there a couple years earlier with my then-girlfriend who was one of Hanna’s best friends, and it wasn’t until I walked in Hanna’s front door that it crossed my mind that she might not know we broke up. In fact she hadn’t, and it came out somewhat awkwardly while she made me an herbal tea in the kitchen. After dinner, Rocky and I said our goodbyes and were just in time to miss the last train home. We walked for miles on empty avenues before finally finding a cab.

On Christmas Day I went to a huge shopping mall alone. Malls and fast food are two things I normally abhor, but in lieu of being with family and friends, I wanted to eat Chinese food and watch a movie. Unfortunately the Chinese buffet in the food court looked rancid, so I ended up getting a McDonalds value meal and a milkshake. Then I watched the new Star Wars in the mall’s theater. This combo of loneliness, junk food, and cheesy Hollywood sci fi felt supremely nostalgic and miserable in an appropriately festive way.

Beside finding myself in a megamall on Christmas, most of the shopping I did while in Mexico was in open air markets. There seemed to be a mercado for everything. There was the punk rock open air market called el chopo, where you could get a bootleg t-shirt of any band that ever existed. Or you could get a button or a patch or spikes or bondage belts, you could get vegan tortas and anarchist zines–all at a good price. And there was the Sonora witch market I’d taken my date to, an endlessly sprawling market of botanicas. You could find Santa Muerte statues, potions, hexes and hex-lifters, herbs, candles, and you could even buy animals to sacrifice. They sold them in a sad little pet store in the middle, which was kind of a bummer. Or maybe I’m misinterpreting things? Maybe it was just an unfortunate place to have a pet shop? All I know is they got pissed at me when I tried to take a photo.

Lagunilla was my favorite market. There you can find used cameras, old crosses, antique paintings of the Virgin Mary and so on. I wasn't into shopping so much as just looking at all the weird junk and snapping the occasional portrait. Once in a while, out of a sense of obligation, I would buy something to justify my existence there, some old postcards or candles. I loved how these open markets functioned as informal economies, it was all bargaining and cash business.

Paraíso

The day after Christmas, my friend Rachel Speck flew in from New Orleans just in time to join Amber, Roman, Javier, Nate, and myself on a roadtrip to Acapulco. I was over the tail end of my last lingering sickness, and was looking forward to being out of the city, away from the altitude and the congestion. We all loaded up in Amber’s 4runner, all six of us, with two dogs, and made the seven hour drive to Acapulco. It was 2am by the time we got to our rooms. There was a huge scorpion on the patio that one of the dogs almost tangled with. I slept on top of the covers, sweating in the humidity, the overhead fan looked like it was going to fly off its hinges and land on me.

For the next several days we spent all our time, from when we woke up to when it was dark, at a beach called pie de la cuesta. It was exactly what I needed at the time. The hustle and bustle of the city, the energy of that had been too much of a bombardment, too overwhelming. I needed to decompress and absorb things. I wanted to reflect on the reasons I left in the first place, my breakup, what it meant now that various projects were over, what exactly I was returning to. It had been five weeks and I hadn’t begun to digest any of this.

The ocean was the perfect temperature. The waves undulated consistently around head height. Every once in awhile there would be subtle changes and a big wave would come through. I tried to body surf and got my ass kicked by waves a couple of times. I relaxed into being a weightless floating head, watching my friends have ceviche and cervezas on the beach, rising and falling with the ocean, reaching a meditative state, looking back on everything that happened over the last two years... it felt healing. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to be there suspended like that indefinitely. But you can't do that. It got cold. It got dark. I stayed in the ocean so long that my nipples got burnt by the salt water. We spent the evenings back at the hacienda, barbecuing and telling stories.

The last day we were there, we got out of our rooms and loaded up the truck. We saw that there was an old cemetery on the beach and wandered around it for a while, till we got chased off by the keepers. They probably thought it was disrespectful. They don’t understand how punks gravitate toward cemeteries and have a natural respect and affinity for the dead. We spent the rest of the final day on the beach. We had made friends with the people harvesting oysters, they'd bring us fresh ceviche and oysters from the ocean. Sitting in the sand, feeling balance between the warmth of the sun and the cool ocean breeze I felt like my heart was healing and filling back up. This is what I had wanted. I thought I wanted to have escape and adventure, but really I just wanted connection and peace, and on that last day I had exactly that. It was nice to end on that note, knowing that I had not much time left—initially I had thought I was going to stay in Mexico City for a couple more weeks, but because of being sick so much I decided not to. The final deciding factor was I got offered a job on a film set in Los Angeles that would pay well and give me a chance to visit my mom and siblings.

We stopped at a taqueria in Acapulco on the way out of town, which turned out to be a bad idea and caused us to get stuck in traffic for hours. Having eaten nothing but seafood the past three days I opted for a burrito. I ate half of it and instantly felt like I had heartburn. We loaded into the vehicle and I sat way in the back next to all the luggage because I didn’t feel very talkative. After some navigation mixups we got on the highway. The heartburn evolved into mild nausea. Going higher and higher in elevation along windy mountain passes didn't help. At the top I had to yell to pull over. No sooner than the truck stopped and the hatch window opened, I puked up the burrito. I felt a lot better after that.

That was the only time I puked on that drive, but my stomach took a long time to recuperate. I don’t know whether it was the food or a parasite, but it took me halfway through my job back in LA before my gut felt better. A close friend of mine offered her take on it. She suggested that after having my boundaries tested and violated for three years, my psychic/emotional immune system had been suppressed, and my physical immune system was now going through a necessary reckoning.

Mardi Gras was well underway when I landed back in New Orleans. I was thrilled to be home but I soon realized that all the the stuff I'd tried to opt out of––the winter, the betrayals, the failures, the loss, starting over again––had just been on pause when I was in Mexico. It was all waiting to be unpacked when I got home.

We spent the rest of the final day on the beach. We had made friends with the people harvesting oysters, they'd bring us fresh ceviche and oysters from the ocean. Sitting in the sand, feeling balance between the warmth of the sun and the cool ocean breeze I felt like my heart was healing and filling back up. This is what I had wanted. I thought I wanted to have escape and adventure, but really I just wanted connection and peace, and on that last day I had exactly that.
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