I was reminded on a recent flight in what is now two days I’ll be collecting my motorcycle in Uruguay and attempting to ride it through Brazil, from the Southern border to the Northern coast. It’s easy to forget, that’s why I’m here after all, and it’s the reason I’ve spent the last five months out of the Netherlands. Last year I flew to Uruguay for the sole reason of bringing my motorcycle across the border for 24 hours to renew my permit and now, she sits comfortably in a shed awaiting my arrival.
In Uruguay last year
In a sense, I had never forgotten, but like so many assignments and paperwork I had somehow pushed it into my “later” pile only to become oh-so-crystal-clear as the date approaches.
I can forgive myself for being distracted. I have been busy. I have been in the United States for 3 months, in Mexico for a month or so working at BPM Festival, and most recently, I have been in Australia on an impromptu trip visiting friends and family.
As the image becomes clearer in my head that in a matter of days I will be thrown into the wild world of adventure riding once again, I was reminded of what I consider to be the greatest post on livedeleven written by our good friend Thomas Kuipers about our oil stained pants on our motorcycle journey from Vancouver to Buenos Aires.
The stray dogs start barking at a truck that rolls in and I wonder if I should join them. Tonight, we sleep outside the same gas station.
Sitting on the ground somewhere in the middle of this industrial park, somewhere just outside of Antofagasta, Chile, the contrast with the Bolivian wilderness couldn’t be any sharper. White snow is exchanged for grey dust. Dirt roads for a four-lane highway. Flamingos for diseased dogs. Nature’s perfect silence for the forever ongoing beeping of backing-up trucks.
But we like it here. We’ve had our fair share of stunning landscapes and challenging terrain, and we feel accomplished. The last three hours were spent in the station’s restaurant making up storylines for Italian soap operas, after which we pitched our tent in the dirt. Don’t forget that the subtitle of our blog reads ‘In the end it’s all just jokes’.
Of course, I shared these memories with Thomas and they remain as true as the day that Thomas wrote it down in his notebook somewhere near some shitty truck stop in Antofogasta. We both agreed that night as with many nights before that; Big, bold trips and crazy ideas should never just stay ideas, action is always better than inaction.
It is in reminding myself of Thomas’ post that I compare my recent trip to Mexico. What, if anything, did I do which might have prompted one of these brilliant “questions” to my head? Fucked if I know. To paraphrase Grandmaster Kuipers we never know the question until we find the answer, it’s all jokes anyway.
So how is 3D mapping set up on a bamboo stage?
and how many free drinks can I take from Solomun’s rider until someone shakes their head at me?
How does a gang war start?
Which cartel runs Playa del Carmen?
What are the chances of meeting someone in a hostel and meeting back up as work colleagues years later?
For me? Pretty good for me it seems.
I met Aitor in San Francisco in December 2014.
We met in a hostel in the Tenderloin, we got drunk together and wandered the streets making animal noises, knocking over traffic cones, and generally being rowdy and inappropriate. The lads on tour.
We lost contact of course. For two solid years, we went on our own journeys. Thomas and I finished our motorcycle trip and headed back to the Netherlands, our memory of Aitor coming up occasionally as a funny anecdote we would repeat on occasion when the situation permitted.
It was in September of 2016 when I heard from Aitor, responding to my facebook post about heading to California.
We got to talking and after a few weeks of off again on again streams of messages I found out that Aitor was going to head to BPM Festival as I had been planning to, however, he wasn’t going to pay for anything since he had been working on the stage crew for the festival.
You can probably guess where this is going. This was too good to be true, of course, I asked him if he could check if there was a spot for me. He did, and after a short facebook messenger “interview” with Rodrigo I was told to book my flight, which I did. Before I knew it I was standing there in Playa Del Carmen with my trusty backpack waiting to be taken to my new home for the next month.
A JE TO!
Introducing the Crew
Along with Aitor, I worked with (clockwise from my position) Jacobo (El Gordo), Miguel, Rodrigo, and Tassinari (Dams Huntsman). Four Mexicans who would turn out to be some of the most fun and hilarious people to work with that I could imagine.
El Gordo falls asleep in weird places a lot. He told me a story once where he was working on a construction site near Mexico City and would strap himself to the scaffolding and fall asleep without worrying about plummeting to his death. When not helping to build stages of BPM Festival he organizes rock festivals around Mexico City.
Jacobo (El Gordo) and Tassinari / Dams Hunstman
Miguel loves to party, and once the build was over, we would spend many a night being the last men standing of the group raging on the dance floor until sunrise. Equal parts psy-trance, dark techno, and minimal we shared music together and danced, danced, danced.
Rodrigo is the captain of the ship, the man with the plan. His dog Jazz is from the Czech Republic and doesn’t speak Spanish. Jazz would join us on the builds, sprinting around the site securing the area.
Dams Hunstman will be heading to France soon to join the French Foreign Legion, and served as our runner. He would start our morning techno routine before work, which turned out to be a tradition that would follow until our last days in Playa.
About A Day’s Work – Make Me A Stage-Builder
I’ve stopped setting my alarm, Rodrigo will wake me up when its time to leave. I won’t take long to be ready anyway, and at least for the last few days, we’ve still had to wait an additional hour until we’re out the door. El Gordo takes the longest to get ready usually, the man is impossible to wake up. Dams will be cooking us scrambled eggs soon, or if we’re lucky, Miguel will be feeling adventurous and cook us up something crazy. Both are fine by me, I just try to eat as much as possible.
It’s scrambled eggs, Gordo has clomped his way down the stairs and we are all eating. Aitor doesn’t eat meat, which can be a problem working on a team of carnivorous Mexicans, but luckily this morning Dams has remembered to cook Aitor a bacon-less version of our meal. Aitor isn’t always so lucky. Rodrigo has finished eating and is showing Miguel a model of the stage on his computer and discussing what we need to do today. I keep up with about 80% of what they’re talking about, but eventually, I tune out and continue eating. I’ll figure it out when I get there.
We arrive at the jungle stage. This is by far the largest and most complicated stage at BPM, set “in the jungle” on a private property on the outskirts of Playa Del Carmen. I took the scooter today, none of the dials work and its way too small for me but I don’t mind, it’s nice to be riding. The last part of the road is quite rocky but I don’t really slow down, the boys are ready to start working. The bike bounces and rattles over the rocks and I cut the engine and glide towards the group and after a quick cigarette break, we’re ready to start working.
Main Stage early stages
I walk over to Dannboy and Mario, who along with Karley make up “Green Future”, a non-profit organization that holds classes on how to make everyday items out of organic materials. Dannyboy and Karley are also organizing SOL festival towards Veracruz, a three-day techno festival on the beach. They are working with Jeff, the head lighting engineer, on bamboo lamps which will be hung up and placed around the festival in certain clubs.
Pile o lamps
Dannyboy and I like to make up fake memories about each other dating back to the 1930’s. Mario and I invented our own radio station, Radio Caguama (We have a poorly kept facebook page), where we give live commentary on drinking beer in Spanish and in English. It turns out I need a working buddy to help build the entrance tunnel and Dannyboy volunteers.
My oldest and dearest friend Dannyboy
Our beautiful tunnel under construction
Building the tunnel is a pretty simple job, local builders set up a bamboo truss, and our job is to get bamboo and fill in the gaps to make it look like a tunnel. The bamboo is heavy, and the sun is hot yet Dannboy and I power through. He is a fearless climber and often stepped off the crane to climb and tie something or cut something down. We talk and make up more memories about each other into the afternoon.
On top of the crane, above the stage
It’s lunchtime. I’ve done a bunch of other things since doing the tunnel with Dannyboy and I’m starving. Mr Hunstman has been gone for hours getting us food, god knows what he was doing, but he’s just arrived back. The food is always delicious and is usually made by an old lady in a local shop about 5 minute drive away.
Dropping our dishes back to our cooking lady, hungry Jazz.
I stuff myself with as much food as possible when I hear snoring over my shoulder. El Gordo has fallen asleep. He sometimes does that during our lunch break, it’s funny, but we all feel like sleeping as well. We take our break with “Los Hippies”, a group of 15 people traveling around Mexico in an RV meant for 7 people. They met the production manager for the festival somewhere and he offered them free tickets for their help, so they came. They are doing mostly decorations, and they are damn good at it. They weave and do woodworks. They work hard, yet in a cyclic motion, with always one or two chilling and smoking a joint, or playing with their dog which is the size of a small horse.
OUR trusty workhorse
After lunch, we smoke some weed and get back to work. I walk over to the main stage, it looks more impressive every day. I stop for a chat with Rodrigo, who is taking pictures of the construction with his DSLR. We have to zip tie hundreds of bamboo splits all over the stage to make it enclosed and we stand there for a while and discuss that.
A shitty car comes roaring around the corner with a man in a gas mask blasting an unknown pressurized smog all over the worksite. I get a whiff of the smoke in my lungs and begin coughing, as does everyone else in the general area. We step back, let the dust settle and everyone goes back to work. It seems the only non-Mexicans, Aitor and myself, are concerned and confused.
Rodrigo explains that that toxic gas was to kill mosquitos, and it was only really effective for about 5-10 minutes. The car makes several laps around the site spraying us with the gas and then tears off to another site.
“You know man, this is Mexico”
On Cartels and Drugs
Work continued like this for a while, not only at the jungle but at Martina Beach Club, and Cannibal Royale, two beach clubs in the center of town. We liked the jungle stage because we were by ourselves, but we liked the beach clubs because we could walk barefoot in the sand and have a nice breeze from the ocean.
Nightime at Martina Beach Club
Martina would be where we would see them. It was possible to drive right up to the beach and for several days we would see a white sedan pull up with four guys drinking beers in the car and listening to music. I could tell they were watching us because every time I looked over there I made eye contact with someone, it wasn’t always the same person and they weren’t staring us down, but it was enough to make us aware of their presence. That was the whole point, Dams and Gordo explained. They were not there to watch us, but for us to look at them.
It was a bit unsettling, but not scary. I couldn’t imagine what some gangsters could care about our small build crew mounting a stage. Work continued anyway, things like these are surprisingly easy to forget about when you have things to do, like dig a huge hole.
Sand is heavy
Anyone who has ever been to BPM Festival would be lying if they told you they have never noticed a gang presence in Playa, it’s hard to miss. Blue Parrot is where it is most obvious, but in any club on any night you will see the same people, selling bad pills and worse cocaine for huge amounts of money. They do it openly next to security guards, and in many cases, the dealers are security guards.
I found it hard not to imagine at least some level complacency from the organizers. Phil was an owner of the festival, and if he wasn’t a gangster, he liked to look like one. He drove a sporty range rover with tinted windows and had one or two women with him most of the time. He always wore techno black-on-black-on-black and talked like he was in charge, which he was. He always seemed busy with something, although I was never sure what. I could have guessed that most of the time he was high on cocaine, and I probably would have been right.
Finishing touches on Martina
All of this was, of course, a topic of discussion among the boys, and we all theorized who was paying who and for what. Was BPM a money laundering operation? Most seemed to think so. Canadian gangsters cutting deals with local cartels for the right to throw a 10 day techno festival sounds like the beginning of a cool movie script which made the whole conversation that much more surreal. It was fun to talk about at that time, but it didn’t really matter, we still had to hammer away, or there would be no party.
Miguelon going monkey mode
Partying Until The Party Stops.
It was when the party started that this gang-activity went into full swing. This is what they’ve all been waiting for. It becomes impossible to walk the streets without being offered drugs, or sold a tour (in exchange for buying drugs). For the cartels, BPM is like Christmas, with some 70,000 pill-hungry fiends landing directly on their lap. There is no competition, no-one is stupid enough to challenge their power, so Playa Del Carmen becomes an open drug market.
Some degree of care is taken not to shock the families, who go for their morning strolls right outside clubs as steady streams of wide-eyed foreigners exit, some shouting at each other for the next afterparty, some delicately grasping a bottle of water, staring out at the ocean and wondering where the night went.
Completed Jungle stage and 5000 ravers
Sunglasses? T-Shirts? Massages? Tour? The annoying chorus of tourism shouts in my ear as I walk through the Fifth Avenue, the main hub of all things annoying in Playa. The party has started, that much is clear, and I have been out with the crew already on a few occasions. I’ve managed to make some party friends, and I can usually guess where they’ll be. They like to stay out of the big clubs, where the crowd is pumped on steroids or silicone, and groove to the less known clubs where the crowd more resembles a legitimate techno gathering.
With Aitor at Cannibal Royale
Parties at the Jungle stage were always the main event for the crew. We had all put in the most amount of work on that stage and it was the by far the most impressive venue at the festival, finally finished in all its glory. We smuggled beers into the venue and when they ran out, dipped into whatever was left backstage. We had earned it, our work was finally on display for everyone to see and enjoy.
Carl Cox at the Jungle Stage
We had managed to sneak in Anne, a friend of mine from Amsterdam into Diynamic in the Jungle where Solomun played until the AM by getting in early and driving straight backstage. Miguel got a friend in as well and we bounced around through the crowd, the VIP area, and boogied at the secondary Palapa stage on the other end of the terrain.
Glitter Obligatory, we adopted SF Glitter queen Tanya at Diynamic and stayed until close
I attended Day Zero in Tulum, about 60 kilometers south of Playa at one of the wildest parties I’ve attended since leaving Amsterdam. I went with Anne and Paul, whom I had met in San Francisco a few months earlier. We met up with other friends from San Francisco and danced, taking breaks to swim in the natural pools on the terrain.
I returned from Day Zero for the last day of BPM, wrecked from the previous days of dancing but feeling some vague sense of duty of being there with my friends for the ultimate day of the festival we had all worked so hard to build. The party was in the Jungle of course, and we arrived early to sneak in a few friends before the event began.
Upon arrival on the last night of BPM
Somewhere around 3 o’clock in the morning, I was at the Palapa stage with four friends from California and the rest of my crew when the music stopped. It didn’t cut out as you would expect from a DJ error or equipment malfunction but was slowly faded out as if the end had already arrived. I looked over to the main stage where Hot Since 82 was playing and there too the music was cut. The scene was simply a disgruntled rabble of some 3500 party-goers swaying about as if awaiting some sort of drop that would never arrive.
With the Cali crew shortly before hearing the news
Word got around quickly that there had been a shooting although it wasn’t clear at that time what exactly was going on. Security didn’t know and just told us to make our way to the exit. A rumor spread that there had been someone shot out the entrance to the Jungle, another spread of an active shooter inside the venue. I found out through Aitor, who had spoken to the lighting engineer of the real situation. A shooting at the Blue Parrot had occurred, probably drug related, unknown deaths.
It’s worth mentioning how quickly the atmosphere changed from 15 minutes prior. Although I was drunk myself, I was glad at least I was not like most of the crowd, many of whom had just dosed MDMA or even acid before the music cut off and they were about to be taken on a trip much different than they had expected. The energy in the air was one of fear, love, excitement, panic, and confusion as thousands of eager ravers tried to figure out what would happen next. For me, there wasn’t really another option, there was no other venue open, every club in Playa had shuttered their doors after hearing the news.
I got a ride back with Rodrigo out the service entrance when we spotted my friends from California walking among the masses. Many taxi services had of course not been told about the premature closing of the party and the road was filled with thousands who had no other choice but the clog up the road and stumble to wherever they were heading. Rodrigo invited my friends in the car to drop them off at their hotel. Plans were being discussed in the back.
Drinks in the hotel room? I made a last-minute decision to join them. I had to be at Martina club at 9 am to begin taking the stage down and I promised Rodrigo I’d be there in one state or another.
We went to the rooftop of one hotel where there was a swimming pool and drank raided mini-bar supplies. It didn’t feel right to party after what had happened and we spent most of the time just talking about the events and trying to find out what had happened. The streets were dead, BPM facebook page had suggested the shooter was still active and urged everyone to stay inside, so we did. We talked with people who had been at Blue Parrot and heard first-hand accounts of what had happened at the venue. No-one had any idea what was going on.
We moved to the Grand Hyatt and chilled there for a while, and decided to walk to the beach to see the sunrise. I had to be at work in an hour and took a taxi back to the apartment for some attempt at sleep, which was never attained. I stumbled down the stairs to see the headlines.
Shit was real, but there was still work to do. Digging through rock and sand in the sweltering heat in my sleep deprived state was bad enough but it got a whole lot worse when we moved to Martina Club and Jessie, the production manager, pulled us aside and showed us a picture on his phone.
It was a sign that had been put up at the entrance to Playa del Carmen the night of the shooting. It read:
“This is a sign that we are already here because you didn’t align. Phillip from BPM, this is the beginning. We are going to cut the heads of the Golfos, Pelones, and Capulines. [Signed] El Fayo Z from the old school”
This was the BPM organization, of which I was a part, being called out by a drug cartel. Phil had fled the country in the early morning as well as almost all of the office of the BPM organization, of which Jessie was now the most senior member. Having worked since the beginning at BPM, in one night he saw the entire organization evaporate, and with it any plans for “next year”, which only a 12 hours prior we had been gleefully discussing over beers as the closing party took shape.
“Don’t wear your passes guys, I’m telling my guys they can’t work after dark”
He was scared and rightly so, with the office gone or fleeing he was the last man standing from the upper-level of BPM management and whatever grudge was being held with this new cartel and the organization. His colleagues had fled and left him to clean up the mess. I wouldn’t have blamed him for leaving, I had thought about it myself as well.
Playa del Carmen changed that day, everyone had left and there was felt like a thick cloud of tension floating above every person, business, and street in the city. The tourists had all but left and what was left were those picking up the pieces, and a cartel hell-bent on making sure there would never be another party in the area. This was an open attack on not only BPM and its organizers, but the entire party business model of the town which this cartel felt had ignored them for too long.
The next day there was a news report of a man shot and killed in broad daylight on the 5th Avenue, and later that day cartel members stormed the state prosecutor’s office in central Cancun and killed another four people.
A war was breaking out, and we all wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. The work remained, and we continued taking down the Jungle stage the next day. We removed all signs of BPM from our clothing and vehicles and kept at it. If there was a silver lining to be found in the whole situation it was that with the party being cut short, there was an excess amount of drinks available which had simply been abandoned. With no office crew to tell us off, we helped ourselves to cases and cases of beer and Fiji water.
Bud light, but free beer is free beer
With each passing day, the mood improved. The cycle was becoming complete. From an empty jungle a month prior we were returning everything back to its natural state as much as we could. Security, as always, was outside the venue but the threat seemed less with every day. The shooting a few days prior had started a war, and with the end of BPM, this new cartel seemed to be focusing their attention on Cancun. We kept a positive energy and blasted our music, getting everything over and done with so we could finally leave Playa del Carmen.
What was left of the Jungle Stage
It’s a lot faster to take things down than to put them up. We carried and loaded hundreds of bamboo poles onto trucks and sorted through the mess. We roamed around and took everything in. This was the last ever BPM in Mexico and we were all that was left of the organization. We drank beers, and played golf with bottles of Fiji Water.
Tiger Woods aka Dams Huntsman with his coach Aitor
The day eventually came, and we loaded up the truck to take Rodrigo’s bamboo back to his storage space in Tulum. It was in the late afternoon that day that we called an end to it, and cracked a cold, stolen beer to celebrate.
It was a big night
We headed to the beach and had a party, as you would expect. The crew stuck together throughout the whole ordeal and suddenly there was a huge weight off our shoulders. We spent that night drinking at Rodrigo’s house and then headed out. Life could resume in whatever direction each of us had planned. For me, that involved heading to Bacalar where I would meet old friends and spend several days with Aitor, I headed back to Tulum to visit Rodrigo before my flight to Australia.
And that’s where I sit now, back as a somewhat of a tourist in my home country, on a one month-ish stopover to continue my mission through Brazil. I leave in two days after a year away and I ask myself the same question that Thomas wrote down in that truck stop in Antofogasta,
Did I change?…fucked if I know
My experience in Mexico, as with anywhere else, only gave me more questions than answers.
How safe do I think Mexico really is?
What are other parts of Mexico like?
When can I work with the boys again?
When can I see my favorite 60 year old English madman Miguelito again?
I guess these answers will come in due time. For the moment I’ll continue not buying things I need for my trip and sitting on the couch in preparation for the mad dash to stuff my backpack with whatever I can find before I head to the airport.
It’s nice to remember it’s all jokes anyway.