MEXICO OF MY MIND

It was exactly as it should have been. So after a while there was no reason ever to leave

WILLIAM STRANGE February 1 1972

MEXICO OF MY MIND

It was exactly as it should have been. So after a while there was no reason ever to leave

WILLIAM STRANGE February 1 1972

MEXICO OF MY MIND

It was exactly as it should have been. So after a while there was no reason ever to leave

WILLIAM STRANGE

The truest charm of Mexico is her infinite variety, unwithered by the centuries and never in the slightest staled by custom. It is the stuff of her whole history. It is built into her astonishing geography: the vast array of mountains, some with high volcanic peaks; the lovely tropic beaches; the central tableland they call the mesa; the plunging coastward slopes, some richly forested, some rock bare, and others where the fruits and flowers seasonally dance in gay unbroken cycle through the year. There is variety in racial nuance, in local culture and in custom, providing spice to the lively, friendly people’s lives. All these are Mexico, a very great enchantress.

You come down for a visit and find yourself involved in an affaire. You extricate yourself and go back home, but you have to come back. There is so much you didn’t see. Three warm wintertime flirtations and I was hooked. I live in Mexico now, and shall be happy ever after.

By far the best way to see Mexico is by car, which is much easier than one might expect. My wife and I have driven thousands of miles all over the place without once landing into trouble that caused the least anxiety. Our first trip was the longest, and in retrospect still remains the best. We wanted no escorted tours. We let the siren beaches wait for some time later. We dodged the posh and excellent hotels whose aim, directed at the pocketbook, is so unerring. We went for medium places, where two can sleep in comfort for eight dollars or less and share a first-class dinner with a drink or two for just about the same. We also sought out offbeat places not listed in the guidebooks, which can be much more fun and cost quite noticeably less. And since we

journeyed from the Texas border right down to Yucatan, where the fantastic Maya civilization once flourished, we saw a great deal of the variety. All went so well that we enjoyed the lot.

The drive down to the capital across the mesa was a cinch. From industrialized Monterrey, where the traffic’s fierce, we climbed about 3,000 feet in something like an hour on a splendid winding highway, engineered with skill, through gorgeous scenery unspoiled by billboards, and then were on the mesa. Once there, you just sit back and go. The road is good and very nearly straight the whole 500 miles to Mexico City. The scenery is not entirely unexciting, either. Forests of weirdly shaped cactus catch the eye, while on either hand are distant mountains, range on range, reaching sometimes into cloud, shaded wonderfully in browns and blues or fading into grey, massive yet curiously evanescent.

We could have made it in a hustling day . . . but in the land of mañana, why the hustle? Instead, we tarried for the night at a lovely, rather modern, small motel at a place called Matehuala, surprised to find we were at 5,000 feet. The air was clear, the sunset was a dream, and we sat in a flamboyant little bar and sipped our first tequila cocktails; later we ate our first completely genuine Mexican meal. The flavor of those enchiladas lingers, generously stuffed with tender chicken, spiced not hotly but with delicious cunning. You find such places easily down here.

Mañana was Mexico City, which thrilled us, as it always does. It has so very much of everything. The choice of what to see is dazzling, so much of it so different from what you’ve seen before. The museum, of its kind perhaps the finest in the world, is a must. It is no monolithic stuffy building, but a place of light and air, superbly planned and architected, wherein with clever care and understanding artistry the whole quite fabulous past of really ancient Mexico is beautifully spread before the eye and mind, and the story is told by charming guides, some English-speaking.

We saw the gay and gorgeous folklore ballet, with its accomplished soloists and chorus, its regional bands and dances. We went out to the fabled pyramids and temples at Teotihuacan (it takes a little time to get used to Indian names) whose tale is now unfolded nightly in a stunning show of light and sound and speech. We visited the great cathedral built in 1667, and the presidential palace which occupies a city block and has, they say, 1,100 windows. We took in a couple of night spots, one brilliant and brassy, the other gracious with guitars, but both we thought a little steep in price.

We then gave up. We hadn’t scratched the surface or even begun to. So we went completely off the beaten track and took a rough day’s drive up into the pass between the two great snow-clad volcanoes through which Cortes led his small adventurous ragtag Mexico continued / band of men to conquest in one of history’s boldest strokes. This put a different complexion on this first affaire with Mexico, for it took us backward through the centuries. It took us far away from all the modern bustle, the tall new buildings jostling old colonial structures of far greater charm, the obvious evidences of wealth cheek by jowl with no less obvious poverty. With imagination’s eye, we tried to see the city as it had been all those years ago, with all its buildings shining white like silver (which the Spaniards, at first sight, thought it was) and its brilliant flowered courtyards.

continued on page 46

Next, in a glorious single sunlit day we glided (so it sometimes seemed) downward 7,000 feet or so to the sea at Veracruz, a city of salty brightness, of church spires and masts, of trees and wharves. Land, sea and sky seem here somehow all blended into one — a clean, tidy and busy port, yet one where the tide of life seems to flow quite gently. We paused to photograph the frowning Spanish fortress of San Juan de Ulüa, which has sat there on the water for hundreds of years, and then sought shelter for the night. But we never found it.

The trouble was our dog, an amiable German shepherd bitch who is the friend of all mankind. “The dog’s too large,” the desk clerks said. “He is also black, and looks dangerous.” “It would be impossible to hide this dog,” the managers regretted. There was a city ordinance forbidding them to accept dogs, and it was very strictly enforced. No dog, and that was that.

This sent us worrying off down the road until we stumbled on a whacking great palace of a place which, on investigation, turned out to be a hotel. Being outside the city limits the ban on dogs did not apply. It had two ballrooms, five swimming pools, six cardrooms, and a general air of belonging somewhere early in the 19th century. (Furthermore, there was scarcely a guest in sight.)

After a fair stroll down an extremely long corridor, we were deferentially ushered into a very large antiquely furnished bedroom where everything was fine and comfortable. Also clean. The only trouble was the plumbing in the adjoining bathroom, which is not an entirely abnormal situation in the offbeat places. We tried all the taps for 15 minutes. No hot water. The john was quite cantankerous. Only careful coaxing made it work at all, and this had to be done every time we used it, for on each occasion the machinery broke down again. We

now know about this hazard. Our rule when taking a room is: try out the john first.

The next day was a corker. In a single rapid rush we drove 500 miles down to Campeche, a fair-sized walled city on the coast which the pirates used to raid in Henry Morgan’s day. We crossed water on alarming ferries, photographed iguanas sunning by the roadside, traveled miles beside stretches of deserted beach, waved at people in tiny thatched-roof villages, and eventually came upon Campeche’s great walls looming in the dark.

We lodged in a clean but shabby inn built around a courtyard whose flowers were gloriously brilliant in next morning’s light. This time, our room contained three double beds, and set into the walls were hooks from which hammocks could be slung to accommodate children. Mexicans are apt to travel en famille, and families are large. Down here, and farther south, many people never use a bed, the hammock being preferred.

The plumbing was superb. No silly little tank above the john with all that delicate machinery. Just a valve. Turn it on, and you have Niagara Falls. Turn it off, and revel in the sudden silence. No flushing system in the world is more efficient.

The food was royal — if you like fish. Campeche is a famous fishing port, and cooking the catch is Campeche’s art. We stayed an extra day because of it, rambling around the walls and inspecting ruined fortresses. Backward into history once again.

Next day, an easy morning’s drive took us back another 1,000 years. We were now in Yucatan, well into the Maya country, where perhaps 2,000 years ago there arose the greatest of this continent’s early civilizations. It covered Yucatan and other states of Mexico, most of Guatemala and reached down to San Salvador. It pulsed with vibrant life for centuries, but had mysteriously faded out before the Spaniards came. Yet many of its great cities still stand, silent sunlit monuments, rivaling ancient Egypt in their beauty, each one a miracle of sculptured art and architecture, yet no two quite alike.

We took in half-a-dozen such cities down in Yucatan, marveling anew at each. We went out into distant villages, guided by a friendly anthropologist whose mother tongue was Maya, and found the people living as they have for centuries in daub-andwattle thatched-roofed huts, planting corn and beans, and hunting for their meat. It seemed a lot more civilized

than what we take for civilization, for they are happy people, content with little, full of laughter, untouched by the turmoil of the world.

We didn’t want to leave, but time ran out on us in this unexpected and gracious world of gentle folk and empty palaces; and we had to rush back northward to the daily roughand-tumble. But we knew we’d come back. With Mexico, you always do. ■

How to go, where to stay

You can get any general information you need by writing the Mexican Government Tourist Bureau (85 Richmond Street West, Toronto 110, or 3 Place Ville Marie, Montreal). You’ll need a tourist card to get into Mexico, and any travel agent can arrange one for you. It’s also a good idea to carry a Canadian passport.

If you’re driving, as we did, you can pick up tourist cards at your point of entry. Once in the country, the best guide for motorists is the American Automobile Association’s Mexico And Central America. You can get it from any branch of the Canadian Automobile Association. It lists almost all hotels and motels and their rates, contains route maps, provides a useful collection of Spanish words and phrases, and gives lots of interesting — and pretty accurate — information about good places to visit.

The Mexican Department of Tourism maintains a special highway patrol on the most popular routes. They’re green - painted jeeps, equipped with standard spares, first aid and walkie-talkies. They’re manned by trained patrolmen who speak English. They charge for the spares at cost and the service is free.

Hotel rates vary from cheap to outasight, but two people can find accommodation almost anywhere for about $10 a night, if they’re careful. Good motels are usually about eight dollars. You can, of course, pay $50 a day — and more — in Acapulco. But even there you can find a comfortable place to stay for half that, sometimes less.

There are more than 50 tourist department offices in Mexico, all of them listed in the AAA guidebook. With a few exceptions, they’re very helpful.