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How alt-right is Nietzsche really?

Hitler considers a bust of Nietzsche

I wasn’t a big reader as a youth. I was more of a jock and a class clown. It was only around the age of 17 that I suddenly became a moody adolescent book-worm – it was both a quickening and a sickening. In one term, I read Hamlet, King Lear, Heart of Darkness and Freud’s Five Cases of Hysteria, and also watched Blue Velvet. Strong medicine! I had a sudden horrifying and fascinating sense of the dark subconscious bubbling beneath civilized appearances.

The book that made the biggest impression on me, by far, was Friedrich Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. I was transfixed by his description of the play of two opposing forces in ancient Greek culture – the Apollonian, which seeks limits and moderation, and the Dionysian, which seeks excess and ecstasy. I started to see these forces everywhere. Every essay I wrote weaved its way inevitably back to the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The obsession continued at university. Fifteen years later, I wrote my first book on the Socratic path to flourishing, and my second on the Dionysian path. How long a shadow that book has cast!

Strangely enough, I never read other books by Nietzsche. I got my Nietzschean philosophy second-hand, from the novels of DH Lawrence. But recently I was sent a new biography of Nietzsche by Sue Prideaux, called I Am Dynamite. I devoured it – it’s a beautiful, moving, and very absorbing account of a heroic and pathetic life. And it inspired me to read more Nietzsche, and consider his influence on our time a little more deeply.

Nietzsche grew up in a fairly well-to-do German family in Prussia, but the family fortunes took a turn for the worse when his father – a Lutheran pastor – died of a degenerative brain illness in his 30s. The family became hard-up, but Nietzsche lifted them up through his academic brilliance. He was appointed a professor of philology at the age of 25, but he dreamt of being a composer. He managed to befriend Richard Wagner – already a European celebrity – and spent the happiest days of his life at the Wagner castle, where he was embraced as one of the family. For a few years, he moved in the exalted atmosphere of Chateaux Wagner – all high ideals and swooning ecstasies.

But his 30s were not as glorious as his 20s. He wrote The Birth of Tragedy at 28, but it was greeted with ominous silence by the press and academic peers. It was so over-the-top in its ecstatic style, compared to the average plodding academic work. Then he fell out with Wagner, and fell in love with a 20-year-old Russian, named Lou Salome, who ultimately rejected his advances and humiliated him. He was prone to terrible migraines and digestive troubles, and was often confined to bed for days. He found himself tramping across Europe, from city to city, self-publishing his own books, and almost always alone.

Nietzsche in a humorous photo with his friend Paul Ree and 20-year-old Russian tearaway Lou Salome. The three lived in a sort of Platonic menage a trois for a while, before Lou and Paul abandoned the besotted Nietzsche. He became markedly more misogynistic afterwards. ‘You go to women?’ he wrote. ‘Do not forget the whip.’

Yet somehow, out of these inauspicious circumstances, his ideas burst forth, more and more confident and radical. He was certain that he had an entirely new vision of existence, which would destroy the last 2500 years of morality, and pave the way for a bold new adventure for mankind.

When one reads the great prophets of moral philosophy – the Buddha, Plato, the Stoics, Christ, the author of the Upanishads – one notices that they all preach self-knowledge, self-examination, self-control, sobriety, chastity and asceticism of the body. Only through this self-denial, we are told, can the virtuous person go beyond desires and appetites, beyond appearances, beyond impermanence, and arrive at some transcendental resting place – the One, God, the Logos, Buddha-nature, Brahman.

Nietzsche, through his great ‘transvaluation of values’, turns all these systems on their head. Their morality is not virtue and health. It is sickness, weakness, pessimism, nihilism, a symptom of decadence and decline. It is the consolation of the weak, the broken and the disappointed, those who turn wearily from life and ‘put their last trust in a sure nothing rather than an uncertain something’.

He writes, perhaps with the Buddha in mind: ‘They encounter an invalid or an old man or a corpse, and straightaway they say ‘Life is refuted!’ But only they are refuted, they and their eye that sees only one aspect of existence.

These famous moral systems are really an outgrowth of ‘slave morality’. The slave-philosopher Epictetus is a perfect example. He has no power over external things, so he says that true power, true freedom, is power over one’s thoughts and desires. How convenient. Then, like Socrates, he preaches this acceptance-of-weakness to strong aristocratic youth, and ruins them.

The ‘slave-morality’ was first invented by the Jews, Nietzsche says, out of their weakness and domination by various more powerful races. Judeo-Christianity pretends to be a morality of meekness and forgiveness, but underneath that mask lurks resentment and passive-aggression. ‘I forgive you’, they say to their conquerors, but what they really mean is ‘I’m better than you’. And the Romans, alas, fell for it.

Against the slave-morality, Nietzsche champions the masters, the ‘blond beasts’, those strong, carefree warriors who maraud across the world from time to time, like the Vikings, the Teutonic knights, the Mongols, the Indian Kshatriyas, the Greek aristocrats. They were young, healthy, vigorous, laughing, cruel and violent. They basically did what they liked, and called it ‘noble’, and had a gay old time of it until Socrates, Jesus, Lao Tse and the Buddha came along and ruined everything.

Nietzsche thought that liberal democracy was really an extension of Christianity, with its sympathy for the weak and the rights of man. He looked across late 19th century Europe, with its campaigns for universal suffrage, gender equality and the welfare state, and saw the triumph of slave morality, the triumph of the herd, the masses, the little people. It made him sick. He railed against the plebs, and especially against female suffrage – ‘the struggle for equal rights is a symptom of sickness’, he wrote. Healthy women loved to obey men. Only barren women fought for equality.

Democratic, plebeian, mediocre Europeans had lost any sense of greatness. They’d lost even the memory of God and of their predecessors’ heroic struggle for transcendence. They just wanted comfort and ‘well-being’. Nietzsche was no fan of well-being:

You want, if possible—and there is not a more foolish “if possible”—TO DO AWAY WITH SUFFERING; and we?—it really seems that WE would rather have it increased and made worse than it has ever been! Well-being, as you understand it—is certainly not a goal; it seems to us an END; a condition which at once renders man ludicrous and contemptible—and makes his destruction DESIRABLE! The discipline of suffering, of GREAT suffering—know ye not that it is only THIS discipline that has produced all the elevations of humanity hitherto?

Instead, he lays out a new vision for humans, a new project: the Ubermensch, or Superman. He writes in Thus Spake Zarathustra: ‘I teach you the Superman. Man is something that should be overcome.’ We should seek to transcend ourselves not in the service of ‘super-terrestrial hopes’ like God or Nirvana, but rather in the service of self-actualization. This self-actualization – becoming what we are – does not involve the disciplining of the body, the emotions and the desires, but rather letting the desires, emotions and body sing and dance. It does not mean a weary obedience to rules and precepts handed down by priests, but rather the bold creation of new values. Man creates meaning, he does not receive it from God. And this self-actualization will be here and now, in this body, on this Earth, or it will be nowhere. We must resist the urge to find consolation and security in fake metaphysical dreams like God or Nirvana, and instead learn to dance with uncertainty and chaos.

By 1888, Nietzsche felt he had blown his way clear of the old morality, and was euphoric with the new prospects he saw for mankind. He wrote four books in nine months, they poured out of him. He was filled with joy, and even lost control of his face and his emotions – he couldn’t stop grinning. He saw coincidences in everything. ‘He only had to think of a person for a letter from them to arrive politely through the door.’ His letters to his friends became increasingly manic. He started to allude to himself as Dionysus, or ‘The Crucified’. ‘I shall rule the world from now on.’ ‘In two months time I shall be the foremost name on the earth’.

In January 1889 he had some sort of breakdown in the streets of Turin. It is said he saw a man whipping a horse, and he clung to the horse’s neck and wept. How poignant if this is true – the man who condemned pity breaks down in pity! He retreated to his apartment, where he screamed and danced naked. His friend Franz Overbeck was contacted, and found Nietzsche cowering in a corner, trying to read his writings but obviously unable to comprehend them. He never recovered his mind – never seemed to know who he was or what was happening.

He was 44, but lived for another 11 years. His sister Elizabeth, who sounds an evil and selfish anti-Semite, took care of him, and cashed in on his growing success. She ran salons celebrating his work in the living-room, while Nietzsche howled in his bedroom upstairs. She controlled his estate, and turned him into a prophet of Nazism. Hitler came to visit, and emerged from their conversation bearing Nietzsche’s walking stick.

Was Nietzsche’s collapse a divine punishment for his hubris and over-reaching? Some kind of psychosis or spiritual emergency? Or a neurological illness, perhaps inherited from his father? We don’t know. But, just as he prophesized, in the years after his collapse his influence grew and grew. His dynamite philosophy blew a hole in Victorian complacency, and created a space for the fierce experimentation of modernism.

For some years after World War 2, Nietzsche was understandably out of fashion. But he’s been rehabilitated since the 1970s, and is now one of the most popular subjects for philosophy PhDs. Scholars have clarified that, unlike his sister, he wasn’t anti-Semitic – he admired Jewish culture. Nor was he a nationalist – he thought nationalism was a cheap intoxicant, despised German militarism, and called himself a ‘good European’. He was a key influence on Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and helped to create what Paul Ricoeur called the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ which is so popular in left-wing humanities and social sciences: what secret interest lurks under an ideal? Aren’t all claims to ‘truth’ or ‘beauty’ really disguised power-grabs by particular interest groups?

This new biography will add to his good reputation – what a heroic man we meet, what a stylist, what a humourist! Who else has chapter headings like ‘Why I am so clever’! Who else can tear apart an entire philosophy (like Stoicism) with a few hilarious sentences. What brilliant psychological insights he threw up in his inspired frenzy – on the unconscious, the ego, projection, the wisdom of the body.

It’s awkward, then, that this new, sympathetic, rehabilitated Nietzsche should prove to be so popular with the alt-right. The American neo-Nazi Richard Spencer has said he was ‘Red Pilled by Nietzsche’, and many other angry young white men on alt-right or Red Pill websites have nothing but praise for Nietzsche. They don’t get him, insist liberal or leftist defenders of Nietzsche. They’re misappropriating him. They’re making the same mistakes the Nazis made.

Oh come off it. Foucault is right that there are many Nietzsches, but one of the most consistent notes one hears is contempt for the masses and hatred of liberal democracy, equality, and the rights of women, workers or the weak. As I read his books this week – particularly Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals  – I thought how well it fit with the alt-right worldview: Liberal democracy is a monstrous cacophony that seeks to shame and emasculate strong men. It is a dictatorship of the offended, the resentful, and the easily bruised, who seek power through victimhood and hurt feelings. This conspiracy of the weak will only work if strong men fall for it – if they become cuks or ‘white knights’, in alt-right and Red Pill terms – if they are so credulous as to believe that women or minority groups really are interested in ‘equality’ and ‘fairness’ rather than simply power and domination. But the strong man, the Alpha male, will break the bonds of liberal guilt and roam free, just like Trump, Bo-Jo, Bolsonaro, Orban, Duterte, Erdogan, Berlusconi, and every other blond or not so-blond beast now strutting on the world stage.

How could the alt-right and Red Pillers not thrill to passages like this, where Nietzsche gets nostalgic about the good ol’ days of rape and pillage enjoyed by the ‘blond beasts’:

They enjoy freedom from all social control, they feel that in the wilderness they can give vent with impunity to that tension which is produced by enclosure and imprisonment in the peace of society, they revert to the innocence of the beast-of-prey conscience, like jubilant monsters, who perhaps come from a ghostly bout of murder, arson, rape, and torture, with bravado and a moral equanimity, as though merely some wild student’s prank had been played, perfectly convinced that the poets have now an ample theme to sing and celebrate.

It reminds one of Kavanaugh – it’s all just student pranks…just bants!

There are passages where Nietzsche even sounds like Trump – in his insults against women, and his absurd boasting: ‘At no moment of my life can I be shown to have adopted any kind of arrogant or pathetic posture’, he says, before continuing: ‘Anyone who saw me during the seventy days of this autumn when I was uninterruptedly creating nothing but things of the first rank which no man will be able to do again or has done before, bearing a responsibility for all the coming millennia, will have noticed no trace of tension in me.’ It reminds me of Trump’s immortal line: ‘I’m much more humble than you would understand’.

How could fascists not grin at Nietzsche’s Strangelovian denunciations of the superfluous dwarves of liberal democracy, who don’t deserve any sympathy – in fact, it is just this sympathy which has led to the ‘DETERIORATION OF THE EUROPEAN RACE’? How could they not cheer at his calls for ‘the higher breeding of humanity, together with the remorseless destruction of all degenerate and parasitic elements’, at his yearning for ‘the harshest but most necessary wars’, at his praise of violence and cruelty as the source of all higher culture, at his endless comments like: ‘The weak and the failures shall perish. They ought even to be helped to perish’.

I could give many such quotes. Nietzsche can’t be called a fascist or alt-righter, because he never stayed in one position long, and he rejected any political action as ‘filth’. But the alt-right can find a lot to love in him. I’m sure sometimes he is being provocative – just bants! – but words and ideas easily slip off the page and kill people.

And this champion of strength and virility was a sickly and weak man, a failure in the army, a loser in love, who claimed not to need public attention yet became more and more megalomaniac until he claimed to be a god. He’s right that there can be something morbid and unhealthy in Stoicism and other philosophies of consolation – but there is also, surely, something morbid and resentful in him, the impoverished and humiliated Prussian constantly insisting on his aristocratic rank. One can find him interesting, funny, fascinating, even sympathetic, and still be honest about the toxicity of his ideas and the damage they do.

Huautla, hippies and hongos

A mural in Huautla commemorating Maria Sabina

I’m travelling in Mexico, researching the indigenous culture of magic mushrooms, or hongos as they are called here. Last weekend, I visited Huautla de Jimenez, a town eight hours drive from Mexico City, in the state of Oaxaca. It’s a remote mountain town, mainly populated by Mazatec Indians who speak Mazatec and also communicate through whistling. This little town was where Westerners discovered magic mushrooms. It was the spark that started the fire of the psychedelic counter-culture in the 1960s.

I should say at the outset that I’m no Mexico expert, nor an anthropologist or ethno-botanist. I travelled with two historians of Mexico – Ben Smith of Warwick University and Nathaniel Morris of Oxford – who are researching an AHRC project on the war on drugs. In the meantime here are my early impressions (I’ll correct my errors if you point them out).

There are records of Indian tribes taking mushrooms since at least the time of the conquistadors. Friars write disapprovingly of the Aztecs taking a substance they called teonanacatl, or ‘flesh of the gods’, in order to prophesy and discover the will of their gods – perhaps it was through mushrooms that they arrived at the uncanny prophesy that bearded men would come from the East and rule over them. They also took mushrooms for fun – there’s an anecdote of the Aztec aristocracy consuming them at a wedding dance.

Western ethno-botanists assumed that teonanocatl was peyote, which western scientists discovered was psycho-active in the 19th century. But in the 1930s, several scholars suggested it might be mushrooms instead – a theory finally proved in 1938 by famed ethno-botanist Richard Evans-Schultes, when he visited Huautla and identified the shrooms. He realized there are as many as 30 types of Mexican mushrooms which contain psilocybin, a psychedelic drug. The Mazatec Indians still consumed them in ceremonies called veladas, in which female shamans called curanderas used them to cure people of illnesses, physical and spiritual.

In the 1950s, a New York banker called Gordon Wasson made numerous laborious journeys to Huautla, driven by a passion for mushrooms and a desire to become the first Westerner to consume the hongos. In 1955, he got his wish. A curandera called Maria Sabina allowed him and his photographer into a velada after Wasson made up a story about needing the hongos‘ help to cure his sick son.

He was amazed by the experience. ‘For the first time, the word ecstasy took on a real meaning. For the first time it did not mean someone else’s state of mind.’ He drew on the theory of Aldous Huxley that psychedelics give one temporary access to the core mystical experience attained by religious virtuosos like St John of the Cross, and this experience lies at the esoteric core of all religions.

Although Wasson had said he would protect the secrecy of the sacred ritual, he sold the story and photographs of the velada for several thousand dollars to Life magazine, where a sub-editor coined the phrase ‘magic mushrooms’. He also gave enough clues in his writing for the curious to be able to identify the village as Huautla.

His article, published in 1958, was a smash hit and opened the floodgates for an extraordinary influx of hippy spiritual-seekers in the 1960s, who camped outside Huautla. Initially, they sought out Maria Sabina for veladas, but soon the locals were selling them the mushrooms and they were taking them wherever and whenever they felt like it, in the day, in the fields and rivers, with other substances, even dancing naked in the streets, thereby breaking Mazatec taboos about the proper way to treat the sacred medicine.

‘They were something remarkable’, remembers Lleno, a Huautla local who was a boy in the Sixties. ‘With their long hair, crazy clothes and rock music, always saying ‘peace and love’. Some of the locals were scared of them, although they also influenced the culture here – young people started growing their hair and listening to rock.’ Eventually, the municipal president had enough and called in the army in 1969, who shipped out the hippies in buses. The arrival of the army changed the town forever, bringing the little Mazatec town under the control of the national government.

The Army booted out the hippies in 1970.

There are tall stories about all kinds of celebrities descending on Huautla during that brief mushroom frenzy – John Lennon, Simon and Garfunkel – but we do know for sure that the psychologist Timothy Leary visited Mexico, took shrooms, had a mystical experience, then returned to Harvard to establish the Harvard Psilocybin Project, which spread the gospel of psychedelics throughout western culture.

Leary and Wasson helped to shape the idea that psychedelics lead to a mystical, ecstatic experience, an experience of unitive consciousness beyond time, space and culture. This idea is still very influential in American psychedelic science – in 2006, American researchers at John Hopkins University started to study psilocybin again after a hiatus of 40 years, with a paper called ‘Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences.’ This mystical experience of being one with all things helps free people from their habitual ego patterns and releases them – according to recent trials – from depression, addiction, even fear of death.

There’s much to celebrate in recent Western psychedelic research, but it’s problematic to claim that psychedelics always – or even usually – lead to mystical experiences of unitive consciousness. The problem with this theory, as cultural historian Andy Letcher pointed out in his book Shroom, is that it ignores the way different cultures treat psychedelic substances, and reduces the weird variety of freaky experiences people can have into one box, called ‘core mystical experience’.

The idea psychedelics take us to some mystical state beyond culture is itself culture-bound – it’s the product of the culture of American transcendentalism, of William James, and of Aldous Huxley’s perennialist mysticism. The participants in John Hopkins’ trials have mystical experiences partly because that’s what they’re expected to have –  the mind responds to the expectations and theories we bring to it, through what the philosopher Ian Hacking calls ‘looping effects’. People in Pentecostal churches encounter the Holy Spirit because they expect to…and so on.

Other cultures frame psychedelic experiences in different ways, leading to different mental outcomes. The anthropologist Nicholas Langlitz has shown that European psychedelic laboratories, like those of Zurich and Imperial College, tend to be more secular and Freudian, and to use phrases like ‘ego-death’ or ‘psychosis-imitation’ rather than ‘mystical experience’. Participants in their labs obediently report fewer mystical experiences.

The Mazatec think about hongos in their own way. They naturally do not take mushrooms for an ecstatic release from the disenchantment of Western modernity. Sabina said: ‘Before Wasson nobody took the mushrooms only to find God. They were always taken for the sick to get well.’ The mushrooms were a form of medicine for those without access to proper healthcare, let alone psychotherapy or psychiatry. ‘We didn’t take them out of curiosity’, says Florencio Carrera, an elderly former teacher in Huautla. ‘We took them out of necessity’.

Rather than an ecstatic connection to the cosmos, ‘ultimate Mind’ or some such lofty transcendental goal, the Mazatecs took (and occasionally still take) mushrooms to connect to local saints or local spirits, to help with local problems in their relationships, work or health. As David Luke of Greenwich University has put it, theirs is a horizontal transcendence, rather than the vertical individualist transcendence of Wasson, Leary, Huxley et al.

They also have a different model of illness, believing that some illnesses or accidents are caused by sorcery, by external enchantment. You could claim, as some anthropologists do, that while Westerners think emotional problems are caused by trauma in their past which are resolved through acceptance and insight, Mazatecs are more likely to think emotional problems are caused by external events – curses by your enemies or offences against the local spirits – which are resolved through magic.

However, you can over-emphasize the differences between Mazatec and Western healing cultures. Today, one also notices some similarities.

I visited a local curandera called Profesora Elodia, who lives in a concrete bungalow on the outskirts of Huautla. As in a Harley Street surgery, I waited outside while Elodia finished a consultation with a local. Then Elodia guided me in to her tiny shrine room, sat me down, and asked how she could help. Like Wasson, I made up a story to get access, claiming I was suffering from low energy and poor sleep (I was half-worried she would misunderstand me and give me a herbal cure for impotence, leading to unintended results). She asked me to write down my name and birthplace, and then began to ask the spirits for help for Julian from the country of London. She said prayers to the saints in Spanish, and prayers in Mazatec too, perhaps to the local spirits or duendes. Then she rubbed an egg all over my body, pushed some pressure points, blew water in my face, sucked the air around me, lit a candle and said a prayer to protect me from my enemies. So far, so magical.

But she also offered therapeutic advice that wasn’t so far from what I’d be offered by a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist or mindfulness life-coach. She told me to have faith in myself, to believe I can succeed in my work. She told me not to think too much about the past or future, but focus on the present. She spoke in parables – see how this water runs down the hill, be like that, let the past go. When I spoke a bit about family troubles, she told me not to let my parents’ problems ruin my life, or I’d transmit them to my own children.

I asked her about the mushrooms, and what they can do, and she said: ‘They help you realize things you haven’t been paying attention to, in your soul.’ Again, that’s pretty close to what you’d hear from psychedelic therapists working in western research labs. Rosalind Watts, an NHS therapist who works at Imperial College’s psychedelic lab, says mushrooms help you confront and accept your shadow – a Jungian term for the parts of the psyche you have ignored or repressed.

Local Mazatecs also spoke of how mushrooms helped them confront and integrate trauma from their past – Florencio said mushrooms helped him overcome emotional problems after he was in a car crash, while another lady (whose name I’ll keep confidential) told us that she first took mushrooms when she was 14 after a trauma: ‘Something bad happened to me and I needed help. It helps young people find a reason to live. It can be scary, especially if people have been raped. You feel very afraid but afterwards you feel better. You can let it go.’ Elodia said: ‘The mushrooms let you remove the weight you have been carrying and pick yourself up.’

Both Westerners and Mazatecs also speak of feeling more connected to nature through mushrooms – Maria Sabina spoke of how, when she first took mushrooms as an adolescent, she felt all of nature was filled with God and speaking to her. That’s not so far from a Western-style mystical experience.

I don’t know to what extent contemporary Mazatecs have incorporated Western psychological concepts into their healing discourse. If so, it shows that cultures aren’t hermetically sealed, but leak into each other. Or perhaps certain healing mechanisms are universal – curanderos, like CBT or mindfulness coaches, emphasize the importance of concentration, discipline, integrity.

And most medical procedures rely at least partly on the faith and hope of the patient. ‘Those that believe are healed’, said Sabina. Sadly, she felt the mushrooms lost some of their power once the hippies had desecrated the secret ritual. She became something of a pariah in Huautla, although once she was dead she was almost canonized, and is now celebrated in a large statue of her standing on a mushroom as you enter the town. Florencio likewise laments: ‘The arrival of the hippies swept away the old ways, and the mysticism and magic of Huautla.’

It’s interesting to wonder if the same will happen with Western psychedelic medicine, as it goes from being the latest new wonder drug to something familiar, standardized and commodified. Even as rational a therapy as CBT no longer works as well as it did in the 1960s, when it was the new wonder therapy. Will the miracle results of psilocybin therapy level off in a decade or two?

Today, Huautla has mushroom regalia festooned all over the town in a bid to bring the tourists back, but we hardly saw any – the town is too far away from Mexico City or Oaxaca City. Instead, the new mushroom Mecca is San Jose del Pacifico, a tiny town of 700 people conveniently located on the main highway from Oaxaca City to the beaches of Puerto Escondido.

The first hippies arrived here in the early 70s, perhaps after having been booted out from Huautla – the locals say they arrived after a solar eclipse. They bought huts in the hills, and found a local curandero to sell them mushrooms. Gradually the village became a New Age hot-spot, offering tourists a menu of therapies like Reiki, hydrotherapy, sweat lodges and mushrooms.

‘The gringos mainly take them in the day, and wander in the forest or by the river’, says a local young woman. ‘Sometimes they laugh, sometimes they cry, sometimes they stare at trees. They don’t bother anyone.’ I asked her if the locals in San Jose ever take them. ‘Oh no’, she laughed. ‘Only the gringos.’