The first time I camped in Mexico, I was scared.
I was with my brother, Kevin, and close friend, Vasili, preparing to sleep under a seemingly abandoned shelter. We had ridden bicycles together from Kansas, camping along the way. Days before entering Mexico, I received an ominous text from a friend who lived on the border.
“Change your plans. Mexico is a war zone. I’ve been hearing gun shots across the river. They just found four children in a dumpster with their organs cut out. You can’t go. Seriously. Everyone is involved. You can’t trust ANYBODY.”
On the Mexican beach, with my tent pitched and evening approaching, a dust cloud appeared inland. My head began to churn. The cartels found us. They are going to kidnap us. My heart was hammering as I stood beside Kevin and Vasili and watched a white jeep stop next to our shelter. An old man stepped from the vehicle, a large grin and crinkled eyes dispelling all of my fears.
He was short, with a tan wrinkled face and a shock of white hair accentuating healthy white teeth. He was curious about our journey, and began hanging a hammock from the ceiling while we spoke. He told us that he built this shelter to be a home away from home. I was apologetic, but the man laughed, introduced himself as Nacho, and welcomed us warmly.
Nacho sat with us for over an hour as we swapped stories. He beckoned towards my guitar and asked me if I was a musician. I told him not really. Nacho said that music makes him very happy. He broke into song.
I had never heard such a rich and melodic voice in such a tranquil setting. His only accompaniment was the crashing ocean, a cool breeze rustling the palms, and the trill of birds. His voice rose solidly like the mountains behind us, then wavered into silence before beginning again with the waves. Nacho later told us that the land and sea were his inspiration. Through many stormy nights he sat in this shelter, singing alone as the world boomed and cracked around him.
Eventually, it was time for him to depart. He expressed his pleasure in knowing us, emphasizing that “when” we return, we must come visit him. His jeep disappeared down the dirt road, leaving us alone.
My stomach growled in spite of the warm feeling Nacho had given us. As we began discussing dinner we were faced with the bleak prospect of rationing water. We were thirsty, hungry, and very short on supplies.
Just before we fired up our stoves we heard another engine approach. This is it, I thought. This has to be the cartels. I knew that we couldn’t get so lucky twice. I watched another dust cloud approach, wondering what it was going to feel like to have my head removed from my body.
The dust cloud neared. It was a rusty pickup truck. The bed of the truck was filled with people. Gravel crunched as it skidded to a halt. A large man jumped out of the back and stepped towards us. He brandished a machete.
Then, his children jumped out of the back. An old woman climbed from the front, and the children began unloading piles of coconuts from the back, carrying them to us. The old woman and a younger woman brought spices, salsa, and limes. The man with the machete nodded to us, walked to a log, and began chopping the coconuts open with his machete. The younger woman took our water bottles and filled them with coconut water. The older woman scraped out the coconut meat, mixing it in bowls with the salsa and limes.
Kevin, Vasili, and I stood speechless in the midst of this activity. We had each expected to be fighting for our lives by this point. Instead, we were being offered a delicious meal and welcomed wholeheartedly to Mexico.
I sat with the women and asked why they had come. They were close to Nacho, they explained as sat together. This family was related to Nacho and worked with him on a small independent coconut farm. Nacho suggested that they bring us some coconuts as gifts.
The family stayed with us for the ocean sunset. The glowing surf lapped at my ankles while I attempted to teach the children how to throw a frisbee. Finally, with warm hugs in the approaching darkness, we said goodbye. The family left.
Later, I sat with my brother on the beach, sipping sweet coconut water while Vasili slept in the palm shelter. The stars appeared to be aflame in the black canvas sky, burning so fiercely that they almost cast shadows on the waves. I smiled. Mexico was a place where the stars cast shadows and strangers bring coconuts.
That night, brimming with optimism, I realized that in places where the world tells you that you will be killed by cartels, you are more likely to be gifted coconuts.