By: Scott Neilson
The soldier seemed confused. His brow was furrowed and his gaze quizzical. The man's hat had an enormous upturned brim and his impressive black mustache obscured his mouth almost completely. Across his chest were two ammunition belts in a perfect X and he wore a revolver slung low on his right hip. Only a moment earlier, I had bolted upright in bed, somehow sensing that Tiffany and I were no longer alone in the dark room. Heart pounding, I scrambled for my glasses then furrowed my brow as I strained to process what I was seeing. My brain’s diagnostic software returned no errors. Yes, I was awake. No, I wasn’t drunk. Yes, there really was a spectral-looking Mexican soldier standing by the cabinet in the corner of our room.
But let me back up.
By this point, we had been traveling for a little over a year. Our stressful careers had begun to threaten the things that really mattered to us so over dinner one night we decided to make a big, sudden change. With almost no planning, we quit our jobs, put everything in storage, and simply fled, arriving at the airport with only love, our backpacks, and a thirst for adventure. We set about finding a flight, repeating our criteria to agents at each airline counter. “We would like inexpensive tickets to somewhere warm today, please.”
Several hours and remarkably few dollars later, we were eating fish tacos from a street vendor in La Paz, Mexico and joking with the man about which was whiter, us or the fish. We hopped aboard a big rusty boat to Mazatlan a few days later, then spent many months on a leisurely ramble down the west coast. Tourist centers were actively avoided as we sought out authentic, quiet places where families, dogs, and donkeys lived simply and happily in relative poverty. We took real time in each place, seldom less than a week, exchanging truths with the people we encountered. We quickly discovered that language barriers are no match for genuine openness, good will, and human connection.
“Let’s all go to Solo Dios!” Celeste said, excitedly. Celeste was that free-spirited Australian traveler one seems to find in all remote places, the kind who immediately makes you wish you were that free-spirited and/or Australian. Shortly after watching the sunset, sharing a joint, and splitting a bottle of Mezcal three ways, we were by the side of a road holding out our thumbs and then climbing onto the bed of a decrepit flatbed truck headed south.
Solo Dios is a beautiful beach in Chiapas not far from the Guatemala border. It’s so remote that only a few surf pilgrims and other barefoot hippies bother to seek it out. In our three or so weeks there on the beach, we did very little other than surf, drink beer, eat grilled Dorado, sleep in hammocks, and exchange stories with our fellow travelers. The few Solo Dios locals who made their living providing surfboards, beer, grilled Dorado and hammocks became friends too. It was paradise on a pittance and it took a great deal of willpower for Tiff and me to say goodbye and continue our journey.
San Cristobal de las Casas, high in the inland mountains of Chiapas, seemed like another world after so long by the ocean. This was no longer the relaxed Mexico of sand, surf, and cerveza. The quiet, misty town felt much more ancient and mysterious. Tiffany said it felt as if jaguars were watching our every move from the surrounding jungle. People there were much more reserved, as if they had deep secrets or at least truths they knew visitors wouldn’t understand. For the first time in over a year spent in Mexico, we felt just a little bit unwelcome.
Gabriella and Veronica were sisters who operated a simple, four room B&B on the edge of San Cristobal. The rooms surrounded a common courtyard where breakfast was served on chipped white wrought iron tables. Our room served double duty as guest quarters and, when there were few guests, a studio where Gabriella painted heartfelt, if somewhat gaudy canvases. After a few days there, we began to find the rhythm and quirks of the place. Las hermanas (the sisters) were quiet and polite when interacting with their guests, but when they were out of sight, they bickered loudly in tones that led us to believe they were at least a little bit nuts.
One evening, we ate dinner with a Dutch couple that was staying in one of the other rooms. The four of us shared notes and trajectories the way travelers do. We exchanged knowing glances when one of Veronica's crazy staccato tirades echoed into the courtyard from the kitchen. By candlelight, the Dutch couple taught us how to elegantly remove all the hard parts from a pineapple with just 2 spiraling cuts. Before retiring to our rooms, we blew out the candle and enjoyed a dessert of fresh pineapple and delicious coffee. The four of us fell silent and tilted our heads back to marvel at the sky, filled with so much starlight that it cast shadows under the terra cotta eves.
Later that night, Tiffany and I were reflecting on the strange but beautiful energy of this mountain town as we drifted off to sleep in Gabriella’s studio. It was here that I woke with a start, sensing that someone else was there with us. I didn’t have any of the responses one would normally expect when seeing an apparition. My blood didn’t run cold and I didn’t cry out in terror. My mind had more of a “What the fuck?!” reaction. I didn’t sense any immediate danger because while the man seemed a little perturbed, there was nothing aggressive about his posture. Despite his pistol and ammunition belts, he was somehow powerless. “Hey, wake up.” I said, gently shaking Tiff’s hip while maintaining eye contact with the man. “Don’t freak out but look over there and tell me what you see.” “What the fuck?!” she shrieked, voicing aloud the thought I’d just had. Now the soldier’s eyes darted nervously between us as we sat transfixed, hearts in our throats.
We corroborated what we were seeing by quietly asking each other about the man's appearance, gestures, and other traits. We quickly covered the big things like hat, mustache, ammunition belts, and old-timey pistol and moved on to details like “How tall is he compared to the cabinet?” (Answer: same height) and “What’s on his right knee?” (Answer: a dark stain of some kind). If this was a hallucination, we now knew it was a shared one.
Forcing myself to breathe, I managed a choked, “Hola, amigo.” The man leaned forward as if to say, “¿Que?” His mustache moved, indicating that he was trying to speak. We leaned forward too but heard nothing except our own racing pulses. His presence seemed tenuous and gauzy, like a sputtering home movie projected on an invisible sheet billowing slightly. I reckon it was about a minute from the time I awoke to the time the soldier turned, took a step, and, with a final glance over his shoulder, dissolved.
It was just a little after three in the morning but we knew there would be no more sleep that night. In a daze, we shuffled out to the courtyard, laid down on the cool tile, clasped hands and stared up at the dazzling night sky. Clear night skies always put me in a state of awe. I'm inescapably aware of how infinitesimal and improbable I am and how little I understand. As Leonard Cohen bluntly put it, “…he knows he’s really nothing but the brief elaboration of a tube.” As the starlight faded and the sky began to lighten, we had formed an untestable hypothesis about what we had experienced that night.
I pointed out the complete lack of empirical evidence to support the idea of a soul or spirit. Tiffany took a less committed but wiser tack, saying that it’s hubris to claim certainty either way. In the end, not even her liberal arts background could get her to believe that what we had seen was a ghost. It seemed to us that the soldier was a very real part of the same place, but in a different time. That was it then. That’s what we decided. We could never know for sure, but in the back of our minds, we would always suspect that on that night in that room in San Cristobal, the three of us had seen across time.
Scott Neilson is a Seattle-based user experience designer, photographer, and traveler.