I reasoned that surely there would be a little stand somewhere near the highway selling coffee. There was a campground in Puertecitos, Mexico, a tiny fishing camp with garbage, loose dogs, and tires littering the dirt streets. Surely some locals would be selling basic foods to people passing through.
Those assumptions were wrong.
I didn’t get any coffee that morning before I left Puertecitos. I continued to drive the 5, a run down, broken, and missing-in-places highway, winding across the desert-to-sea land, mountainous and cactus-filled, zigzagging between lush green and pink swaths of terrain and lush blue vistas of the Sea of Cortez. Detour after detour. The whole peninsula had felt new and wild and old to me yesterday–exciting, but today, the 5 was too cranky and complicated.
As I reached yet another desviacion sign, detouring me yet again off road and around a giant hole, I saw a spray-painted-on-a-tire arrow pointing in the direction of a destination: Coco’s Place. I couldn’t tell if the detour was to Coco’s or around the broken 5 with Coco’s on the way. I had read on the web that Coco’s place was a place that should not be missed. Supposedly Coco had what you need (said the internet) and I needed coffee. The GPS woman’s voice started to squeak as I went off off road and followed the spray-painted-on-a-tire arrow pointing in the direction of my destination: Coco’s Place. I was impressed that my GPS tracked my movement from what it deemed as the 5. She sounded as cranky as I felt as I rode past a metal barricade with shoes lying next to it.
Minutes that felt like hours went by. The ride was bumpy AF.
Then I saw a roof appear in the distance. I was sure that it was a roof and not just a power station or rotted out, half-built concrete building (of which there seemed to be many in Baja) because it was too square. Too defined. Too much different from the soft rolling ridges of cactus. The desert mirage effect had set in long ago, and perceiving across distances was a dubious affair. I approached at full dirt-road-speed (30 mph) and slowed as I went over the topos—speed bumps—ubiquitous and annoying and everywhere–even in the middle of nowehere–in Latin America. I shook my head as I continued on to the side of the building and saw in more hand-painted letters: Coco’s Place.
I saw a man sitting in a wheel chair in front of the beer-can-laden fence and yard. A few telephone poles with TVs on top perched. It didn’t look like there had been a visitor in months.There was a pick-up truck, a newer model, parked next to the ramshackle shack with the decal “Friends of Coco” on the side.
I turned to my own Coco, a brindle chihuahua dog sitting in the passenger seat of my truck, and asked, “Whaddya say, Coco?” as she turned her head. She was good at ignoring my crankiness. I opened my door and she immediately jumped out, springing to sniff and pee and sniff and zig zag her way across the dusty parking lot.
The man in the chair announced himself as Coco. I introduced my dog to him and as he said, “Hey, I’m Coco, too.”
The shack was covered in women’s panties–mostly thongs and the ones you don’t wear for more than an afternoon. I guesstimated 100 alone on the wall facing my truck. I had read about this feature of Coco’s via the dubious internet, but seeing it first hand made it concretely gross.
But Coco had coffee (supposedly). I wasn’t about to let panties get between coffee and me in the barren Baja landscape.
It was only 10 am for fuck’s sake.
“Hay cafe?” I asked.
“Sí,” he replied.
He started wheeling toward the door, and I was immediately struck that he didn’t ask anything else. I thought surely no one had been here in months. Yet, he acted like he was of service.
I took a quick visual inventory: outhouses across the dirt lot, beer cans strung up on barbed wire, and an ex-Mexican cop who likes women’s panties sitting in a wheelchair and repeating his name Coco like a geriatric parrot but wheeling in to (supposedly) make me coffee.
I called to Coco (the dog) who I suddenly realized went chasing Coco’s cat (gaunt and white and scared-looking). And then I heard Coco (the man) tell the cat to run. I didn’t know how he heard that–
“The cat is afraid of dogs,” Coco (the human) said as I walked through the door with Coco (the dog).
It was 10.03 am.
I didn’t think the strangeness could mount until the human Coco said, “Come in. Don’t be afraid.”
That doesn’t help, I thought. I looked at the side of his wheelchair—guns or knives would be easily accessed if they were strapped to the side, right?—and I didn’t see any.
I cautiously went through the main room to the kitchen, not because I feared for my safety but because I was literally walking through the modest bedroom of a modest man in his 80s living out the rest of his days “away from people because too many people cause too many troubles,” he told me. A modest man who collected women’s panties.
I was surprised to look down and see he had placed a ceramic cup and a styrofoam cup next to two glass jars of instant coffee on a tiny 12” by 12” countertop: “Do you want decaf or regular? To stay or to go?”
“Regular, please. To go.”
No alarm bells were going off. But this might be the most dubious roadside encounter I’ve ever had.
I excused myself to use the outhouse and when I returned, I saw water boiling in a small pot on the dirty gas burner. He mixed the coffee and water in the cup and handed it to me. My Coco sniffed the floor for crumbs.
Coco (the human) kept talking, and his dialogue sounded rehearsed. Well oiled. His thick voice and accent made it follow to follow along with the slur of his old mouth. I was wondering if I would write about this as a tour of Coco’s place—
when I noticed the Guadalupe painting.
It was a massive four by four piece taking up landscape in the panty desert.
“What’s that from?” I asked Coco, jerking my head back. I was heartened to see it, but utterly gobsmacked by his reaction:
“Oh,” came out of his mouth. “La madrecita!” exclaimed with adoration. His demeanor and expression changed. He suddenly had the look of a child in adoration. “There’s another!” he said, motioning to a smaller picture hanging about the door I used to enter the small, dust-light-filled shack. “I saved her! I saved them!”
He launched into the story about how he had acquired both Guadalupe paintings—“Can you believe that?” he asked me, noting that someone had thrown out both paintings. “You don’t just throw out the Virgincita!” He added, “and now is the part where women give me panties. I have a collection of 15,000.”
The child left; the old man returned.
The connection and quick switch between panties and Guadalupe was lost on me.
I briefly wondered if I should acquiesce, but because I liked the cotton boy shorts I was wearing (which were so hard to find in stores), I ignored his question.
I asked him how much for the coffee—20 pesos (one dollar)—and I gave him 40 pesos.
A no-miss stop my ass, I thought as Coco (the dog) and I climbed up into my truck. She jumped over to the passenger side, and put her paws on the arm rest as she looked out the window at Coco’s Place. But, the coffee wasn’t bad, and the bathroom was convenient. He didn’t fuss when I wouldn’t pantie-out. And as I started the truck, I reluctantly concurred with the internet: Coco’s is not a place to be missed, especially if you need something when you’re on the 5 and exploring—
in an old and new and strange beautiful land.