May 7, 2021 | OPINION | By Hank Bedingfield | Illustration by Xixi Qin

The Tuluminati, a wandering tribe of serial over-payers and plastic surgery addicts, dance and fuck in the Mayan jungle for a 12-hour, 9-to-9, EDM-fueled binge. Undisclosed locations, aimless shuttles, buckets of cocaine and the hired paramilitary supplying it: welcome to Set Underground. 

I wandered from my Airbnb to the recently WhatsApped location where my night was set to begin. A mile on foot from the center of Tulum to the supermarket and I’d be on a shuttle to the jungle, ready to dance, sweat, and drug myself into a frenzy for the acclaimed underground cenote rave. 

I stumbled, drunkenly, into something much more vile and cruel: the dark, illicitly trafficked underbelly of international rave culture. I was a lightweight and a fool, completely naive to the ugly surrealness of this operation.

The vans were packed with giddy Europeans, each sweating out their own combination of MDMA, LSD, booze, weed, and enough cocaine to make Joe Biden lucid, at least in appearance.

The driver was silent, and the shuttle was tense with an awkward anticipation of the night to come; there was questioning and concerned jabbering in a handful of languages I could barely make out.

The van rumbled off, out of town and out of service, stabbing its way through the jungle — after two or three unmarked exits, the venue was finally met. 

Past paramilitary checkpoints, the exchanges of walkie-talkie commands and a few lonely fireside, gun-toting mercenaries, we had finally made it.

A couple of pat downs and machine gun sightings later, and the paranoia was rearing at me already: that Fear and Loathing I’d read of but only felt a number of times. I had to strap in and keep things level as the jungle and my company traced in and out before me, chasing after a stray puppy in a drug-fueled frenzy, and the ground dropped, tipped, and reappeared at random.

What a cruel trap I’d walked into. Checking my phone was no help — a reminder that without service, in the middle of the Mexican jungle, I was doomed to the swine. I had to break for the bar if I was to beat back the evil tonight. And that’s what I did.

I weaved through mermaid body suits, mesh dresses, near-plastic faces, and surgically altered and enhanced everything-you-can-imagine, with a wonky gait and rabid stare. I knew I had been taken somewhere foul and foreign, a land where I was woefully outmatched.

I had no idea where I was, but looking around I was suddenly surrounded by the disciples of Coachella and Burning Man, the Aspen-goers, the Hamptons-owners, the cocaine lovers.

And there was plenty of cocaine. Duffel bags full of it, served out in overpriced dime bags by the same security force that patted me down and lingered a little too long around my bits. The paramilitary mercenaries were conveniently monopolizing the market and taking full advantage of the money around them. Drugs were everywhere, music was loud and psychedelic, and Mayan-esque patterns illuminated the cenote which we circled — and the jungle backdrop behind.

I blew 60 USD immediately on palomas, desperately trying to ground myself in the comfort of a reliable drunk. That comfort too would elude me, no match for the oppressive forces already spinning my head. I was truly forlorn. The paranoid reality of it all would soon slap me in the face, leave me crying for my bed and stumbling home.

A couple of hours in that thick perverse dream and I’d had it. Apart from one beautiful moment with a Miami contractor — tweaking off of molly, sheets of sweat pouring from his face and babbling unintelligibly — who gifted me a vape and darted off in some light up, hype-beast style mask (not COVID related at all) with a parting spew about his need to dance.

The fear and disgust gripped me like a vice. I, at the same time, realized the dire weight of my situation. I’d left on a shuttle from a grocery store to an unknown location in the middle of the jungle where I now stood with $20 to my name, in a country that runs on cash an unknown number of miles from home. What would my mother think? How would I get home?

As influencers and lip fillers poured in, surrounding me, I clawed for a way out. I was a fish swimming upstream, and the current of nouveau riche millennials was crushing, inescapable, and purely repulsive. 

I circled and circled the venue for an exit, clawing at humid air and swatting away the beasts of the night, trapped by the same vendors, faces and should-be-sterilized counterparts in desperate search of an exit.

There was no exit.

Instead, where the bougie and depraved funneled in, I hailed a security guard, foaming at the mouth and begging to see the shuttle that had dropped me off so easily.

They spoke no English, and through my broken Spanish, I pleaded with audible desperation.

“I have no money. I won’t be taken to an ATM. I’m not the crowd here; I’m not enjoying the Colombian sugar or $20 joints. I’m a man who doesn’t belong here and can’t afford to get out.”

A taxi appeared and a $50 ride was offered. Even in my state of total, upset vulnerability I wouldn’t take that ride.

After a few angry exchanges — and the taxi man realizing this wasn’t the money pit he was promised — I returned to the strung-out and disinterested security guard in search of a more economically feasible alternative.

After much waiting and confusion, one appeared. As the rusted-out minivan pulled up, so did The Fear, and I realized the cab might’ve been a better call, at any cost.

I knew now what kind of a racket I had foolishly walked into. Take the rich tourists from a shuttle in town and drop them in the middle of the jungle with no way back except some sleazy taxis. 

Whoever had planned this event was weaponizing fear and exploiting the drug-riddled and vacation-happy. I couldn’t blame them: I would be smiling, too, to be fleecing such an undeserving and undesirable crowd. 

But for me, someone who clearly didn’t belong, I was far from home and stranded.

The van before me, I realized, was a garbage truck of sorts, packed with the unlucky, unendowed (financially) and the incoherently drunk. My only company, hastily shoved into this glorified minivan couldn’t support his own weight or say his name. He was literally a body to be disposed of and his cheery friends, eager to rejoin the party, dumped him in without a parting word. God knows where that ride ended up.

Stepping in, the van was perfectly casted for a True Crime podcast. My new driver was fat and drooling, with some kind of Big Gulp equivalent in his holster. He slurred a spit-blurred dialect into a tightly clutched radio as I climbed up on his dilapidated minivan. 1920s lullabies filled my ears from the staticky CD he had just popped in, and I knew I was fucked. This was the end. 

Forget about sex trafficking and the Tuluminati, I’d end up in this man’s basement paralyzed by ketamine to be dressed in dolls’ clothes and repeatedly raped until, after months, my heart would mercifully decide to stop.

The doors clicked and locked and the fatal nature of whatever I’d unknowingly signed up for became all-too clear.

After making it only a couple hundred feet down the dirt road, a panic set in and I demanded the doors be unlocked. That just couldn’t be the end. I got out of that van for good. And with a strange soul and full head, I knew exactly the kind of nightmare I’d be subjected to if I hadn’t.

So, I went back to cry and plead with no money, no backing and a name worth forgetting, desperate to get back to the town from which I had kidnapped myself.

Eventually, sufficiently exhausted by my ranting and pitying the unique misery I’d subjected myself to, I found my way onto a shuttle and made it home. 

My girlfriend and I collapsed onto our bed, paralyzed by equal parts shock and fear. Life seemed beautiful and violently ephemeral all at once. Finally emancipated from the horrible comedown, and a worse realization, we vowed never to dance with such swine again.

What did I learn? What’s the moral here? The world is uglier than you can imagine and the closest thing to reality are the nightmares we write off as fiction. EDM just isn’t my kind of music.

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