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Sliced Iguana: Travels in Unknown Mexico by Isabella Tree

Reviewed by Allan Cogan

In October I reviewed " Miraculous Air" by C.M. Mayo, the story of one woman's journey around the one thousand mile stretch of Mexico's Baja Peninsula. Here's another - which I enjoyed just as much - in that same 'intrepid ladies' genre, where Isabella Tree tells about her solitary travels to various parts of Mexico. Is this becoming a sort of literary sub-category - single ladies taking on the world?

This book largely consists of a half dozen essays covering specific geographic areas that Ms. Tree visited, including Mexico City, Chiapas and Lake Pátzcuaro. My own personal favorite was "Holy Week," the one on San Miguel de Allende.

San Miguel, it seems, is a very religious place, boasting ten times the national average of churches. In a municipality covering less than 600 square miles there are nearly 300 churches. An area one tenth of one per cent the size of Mexico accounts for 1 per cent of Mexico's religious structures. This is where Catholicism put down its deepest, earliest roots.

Visiting one of the 300 churches must have had some effect because the author muses: "I slipped into a pew near the front, surprising myself at how naturally, almost automatically, I had genuflected and crossed myself. It had been twenty years since I last dipped my hand in holy water." What follows is a fairly complete history of the church in the area, almost to the point where the reader is ready to cry: "Enough already!"

Fortunately, relief comes in the form of Patricia, the landlady at the bed-and-breakfast where Ms. Tree is staying. Patricia is just what we need at this point. Here she is describing her life in San Miguel. "I don't ever want to cook a meal or make a bed again in my life. I raised five sons and all I ever did was stand at the kitchen sink. I tell you, it was a bucket of shit…." And: "Patricia was unloading a pharmacy of multi-vitamin horse pills from her bag. Tipping her head back, she washed them down, one by one. 'Don't know if it makes any difference, but I started taking all these when I was thirty-five and I sure as hell ain't gonna stop now. I gotta have the most expensive urine in San Miguel.' "

In between these extremes - the history of the Church and the earthy outspoken Patricia - we get brief glimpses of San Miguel's other offerings such as the fact that it is one of the major centers for American and Canadian ex-pats in Mexico and also a major center for face lifts, tummy tucks, nose jobs, breast enlargements, and buttock-lifts and so on. Or, as Patricia puts it: "Nip it, tuck it, liposuck it - I've had almost everything in the book."

The essay, "A Week of Impiety" takes Ms Tree to Juchitán on the Pacific side of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. (It's okay….I'd never heard of it either.) Anyway, it's located on the Pacific coast in the far south of the country. And it has a rather unique reputation, especially here in machismo Mexico. On her first night there she encounters a basketball game between two teams of transvestites wearing short skirts and crop tops - all legs and giggles and girly hysteria. The players are dripping in sweat but no one wants to smear his make-up wiping it off.

Seems that Juchitán is famous - or notorious, if you like - for its extremely liberal attitude to the gay life. It's estimated that at least a third of the men there are gay. And many more of the menfolk are said to have homosexual experiences but don't consider themselves gay because they take the 'active' rather than the 'passive' role. Wives are never jealous, it seems, of their husbands' homosexual affairs. It's a town where even the Catholic Church takes a more liberal view to the extent of having special masses for homosexuals. There's even mention of a gay priest.

It's not entirely clear in the narrative whether or not the womenfolk are equally gay. However, it is apparent that they're the ones who run the town and exercise a lot of control. My wife asked her Spanish teacher what she knew about Juchitán and was told that the town is known for its "gayness" but, in macho Mexico is actually better known for being a community run by women rather than men.

Another essay, "Visions from the Sierra" recounts Ms. Tree's visit to a Huichol tribe in the northern part of the country. Here she stayed for some time and got involved in the community's activities, making tortillas, preparing meals and taking part in their rituals, even to the extent of getting high on peyote.

In between these specific set pieces we get a fair dollop of Mexican culture and history. Ms. Tree is a diligent researcher. And we also get a traveller's impressions of various aspects of this country such as the treatment of Indians, the effects of all that inmigración to the U.S., Mexican attitudes to death, attitudes to women, the legacy of the PRI, and so on - the kind of things you'd expect to find in any good travellers' tale. And make no mistake about it - Ms. Tree is a good traveller.

And she's a keen fan of Mexico. Here's her summing up: "My concept of Mexico has expanded out of all proportion since my travels began. Mexico, to me, is where the continent begins. This is where the continent settled, grew up, and developed some of the greatest civilizations the world has ever known. This is where her natural orientation lies. Mexico is the heart and guts of North America, its anchor, its solar plexus. This is where the butterflies winter."

In my humble O: Highly recommended.

P.S. I should perhaps add a footnote here about the availability of "Sliced Iguana". When I've finished reading a book I often look in Amazon.com to find out what other readers or reviewers thought about it. Amazingly, Amazon was unable to come up with any reference to it. I think the reason is that the book is published in England and hadn't yet made its way to the U.S. We picked up our copy in Vancouver recently. So you might have to do some searching around to find it. It's worth the effort.

Sliced Iguana - Travels in Unknown Mexico
By Isabella Tree
Pub. Hamish Hamilton, London, 2001. 317 pages.

Available from Amazon Books: Paperback

 

Published or Updated on: February 15, 2003 by Allan Cogan © 2008
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