A Man Called Ali Mongo.
“An unembroidered wise man who had somehow found the key to contentedness”
I met Ali Mongo in a hostel in the southern Mexican town of Oaxaca in the spring of 2014. My first perception of him was of an old, solitary, wise looking man who spent the majority of his time painting on the roof at very odd hours. He disappeared in the evenings, retiring early, not partaking in the evening festivities of beer drinking and dancing with the rest of us. Yet, come 4am he could be found on the roof again, painting away, absently musing whilst puffing on a marijuana infused pipe, or perhaps swigging from his bottle of mescal.
I asked fellow hostel members about him; they said he was 77, that he’d had the most amazing life on the road, travelling from place to place, never staying more than 3 months in any given country due to post-9-11 emigration laws. His childhood was one of hardship; he was born into a war-stricken Japanese village and orphaned at a young age. I don’t think he knows his real name, thus he became simply ‘Mongo’, presumably a name acquired from his Mongolian origins. I met him as Ali Mongo, but I know that others call him Sammy. His name, like his presence, was transient, fleeting.
He seemed like a mystical being to me, an unembroidered wise man who had somehow found the key to contentedness that all travellers seem to be restlessly searching for.
One morning I woke early, 5am or so, and unable to get back to sleep in the sticky morning Mexican heat I wandered out of bed for a glass of water. I passed Mongo, who was sat engrossed in his art, and we smiled at each other. I went over to have a look at what he was painting, maybe even buy a few prints to take home with me. As I came over he offered me first the pipe and then the bottle of mescal, both of which I politely declined. It was a little early in the morning for mind-altering substances, and besides, I just wanted to look at his paintings. They were beautiful; mystic and surreal like him, and the best insight I think anyone will ever get inside this crazy old mans mind. Some of them were actually quite disturbingly raunchy. We sat for a little while, and talked about strange stuff. Well quite ordinary stuff really, but the conversation seems peculiar in my head when I recount it. We talked about Berlin, I told him I was born there. He smiled and said ‘Ah yes, the Berlin wall’. I guess that was the last time he’d been there. I had to explain that the wall had come down a long time ago, before I was born even. I’m not sure if he really understood what I was saying.
The thing with Ali Mongo was that he seemed to have great understanding and very little understanding at the same time. It was as though the world was moving all around him whilst he stayed static, a foreigner in a distant land. He spoke about a dozen languages but all of them in broken sentences. He couldn’t hear too well either, having lost most of his hearing as in an infant. Sometimes it was easier to write what you wanted to say down for him. I showed him my hearing aids to explain that I was partially deaf too, he seemed really happy, pointed at his own hearing aids and we both laughed.
Mongo didn’t shower in the entire time I knew him. He went into the pool once and told us that was his monthly bath. We laughed, good-humouredly, but I don’t think he was joking.
One night he did come out with us, we all went dancing in a local bar, drank a lot of mescal. The night is a bit of a blur. I got a taxi home with him and another girl who was staying at the hostel and he told me I should come sleep with him in his bed that night. I politely declined. I don’t think he even thought it was strange that a 77 year old should ask an 18 year old to share his bed. I know typing this that some might think this perturbing but I don’t really see it that way at all. He asked, I declined and nothing had changed between us, it wasn’t weird or worrying, it was just Mongo.
I say that Ali Mongo is a static being, at least compared to the rest of the world moving around him, as though he’s playing by his own rules or merely ignorant to the fact that a game is even being played, but he surprised me when he asked me to add him on Facebook. In fact, he’s got over 1,800 friends from countries and places all over the world.
It’d be hard to forget Sammy Ali Mongo, he leaves quite a lasting impression and his carefree attitude certainly inspired me, reminding me not to take life too seriously. I’m not sure if he remembers me but we are still Facebook friends.