What to do When You Spend all Your Money on Cocaine in a Foreign Country
There are brown, sun-cracked fields in every direction marked by clumps of small, rocky emanations that pop like moles in a fairground “wack-a-mole” game. But we can’t see any of that. It’s nighttime and the queue to get through the large, Jurassic Park-style gates into the festival wouldn’t shrink until dawn.
I have already a) finished all the cocaine brought with me and, b) been burned buying more off some Portuguese ne’er do well. It’s 2008 and the financial crisis is raging like a tsunami through the bank accounts of the world which probably explains the increase of grifters this year. They spawn like mosquitos in the infested puddles left by the passing wave.
They probably operate with friends they met growing up in the impoverished farming communities that surround the nature reserve and lake where the festival takes place. In the previous fortnight they have mixed their batches, preparing for the hippy influx: two parts crushed Paracetamol to one part baking soda and a sprinkling from a clear Ziploc bag full of white powder – benzocaine, a harmless numbing agent that mimics the numbing effect of cocaine when applied to gums as a quick test of authenticity. It was the tingling sensations in my gums and the nerves of my teeth that convinced me to exchange 100 Euros for a wrap of this crap.
That guy would be one of many charlatans at the festival hawking a universe of fake drugs, from tiny, star-shaped LSD masquerading as mescaline, to dangerous concoctions of amphetamines sold as ecstasy. The grifters will probably escape into the night, unpunished, pocketing their ill-gotten gains. With a bit of luck, their success will make them over-confident and they will eventually learn the error of their ways at the fists of an irked customer, finally coming to regret their ersatz production as they lie bleeding into a Lisbon gutter.
The portents are ominous, even before the tarot cards of the festival fortune tellers begin to turn. My friend Andy, Layla and I scout out a campsite near the top of a hill, beneath the shade of a scrubby Mediterranean tree. Unfurling the tent Andy and I try to erect it. But the frame is wrong and doesn’t fit. “Shit, I think I picked up the wrong bag,” said Andy shaking useless metal poles from the canvass. Exhausted, we wrap ourselves in the canvass of the unleavened tent and fall asleep.
The next morning is surprisingly cold; we are soaked in dew. This hot country is apparently not as hot as expected. Indeed, at this elevation, the nights can be expected to be damp and chilly. We stare at the abandoned poles and shiver with despair.
Layla allows us to share her tent for the next few days until she meets a smooth-skinned boy and turfs us out. I find myself homeless, ambling around the site in the dark, a celtic-patterned throw as a sleeping bag. The morning light hits my face and someone is telling me to leave. I walk out of the public marquee in a state of dishevelment as well-slept and slim women file past to begin an early morning yoga session.
The only real cocaine I later find is strong and expensive. I buy from a dreadlocked Peruvian beneath a tree decked out in day-glow mobiles dangling from its branches. I somehow (perhaps conveniently) fail to notice that the last of my money is being handed over. The next day as I awake, shivering in a tent with a head that feels like a rotten bookshelf, I realize that I have less than 50 euros left, three days to go and a long trip back to the airport to fund.
Worried, I walk along a row of wooden food shacks. Smells of curry, hearty chorizo and barbequed pork prick my hunger pangs. Stalls sell nuts and berries rolled into balls; flaked in coconut dandruff. Plumes of steam rise with a whoosh in front of a hungry hubbub of hippies – half naked and dazed. The longest line runs up to a stall where, behind dining table-sized pans of primary-coloured curries, a heavily pregnant Thai woman leaps from pan to pan, ladling the curry onto portions of soft rice. Despite the skin around her eyes drawn tight with effort, she smiles sweetly at every customer. This looks like a good place.
The Thai woman and her French husband employ me at minimum wage and I join a mother and her son who is around my age. For some reason the mother insists I call her “mumma” too. What they were doing there I forget, or never ask, maybe they are homeless… The last three days of the week-long festival I spend in the back of the wooden stall chopping crate loads of vegetables to the pulsating sound of Psytrance bassliness. I don’t miss the party. Our small crew is a family – an oasis of safe routine in the hedonistic haze.