Mexico Travelers’ Tales

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Reviewed by Alan Cogan

Cogan’s Reviews

A Mexico book by James O’Reilly and Larry Habegger

This, to my way of thinking (and my wife’s, too), is one of the really superior anthologies of articles and stories about Mexico. Heaven knows!….there are plenty of those volumes around.

It’s made up of some 48 items about the country taken from a wide variety of sources. And they’re almost all interesting. The topics cover the gamut of attractions and delights from a dissertation on mariachis to Carlos Fuentes’ essay on Mexico City’s main square. Nothing is more Mexican than the mariachis’ songs of bad love, loss, pain, idyllic landscapes and death for the sake of honor, authoress Alma Guillermoprieto suggests. Yet while the population becomes more and more North Americanized, with mortgages, car payments and sitcoms, ranchera music continues to prosper. And Fuentes’ meditation on Mexico City’s zocalo takes us through a complete history in a handful of pages of that unique piece of global real estate where – he convincingly maintains – the gods still abide.

Well-known Mexican places are covered in abundance, like the Copper Canyon, which is like a description of another planet, to John Steinbeck’s meditation on the Wild Baja, with its whales, seals and deserted beaches. And “Traveller’s Tales” doesn’t confine itself to just good news. There’s an item on pollution in Mexico City and an article on the various gringos spending time in Tiajuana’s jail.

I particularly liked Jeff Greenwald’s “Welcoming the Spirits on Janitzio Island” which is the best explanation of the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations that I’ve read. As the author tells us: “Dia de los Muertos is one of the most unusual celebrations in the world. The pagan rituals of Aztec myth combine with somber Catholic dogma, producing a unique homage to death – not only to the spirits of departed family and friends, but to Death itself.”

For my taste, the Aztec verse he quotes says it all:

We only come to sleep,

We only come to dream;

It is not true, it is not true

That we come to live on earth….

At the other end of the scale is an amusing article on Puerto Vallarta by Pete Hamill, titled, “A Healing Place” which is about those times in 1963 when everything changed in what was then an isolated, sleepy fishing village. That was the year John Huston arrived to shoot “The Night of the Iguana”, complete with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Before then there were simply no decent roads connecting PV with other parts of the country. After that time, Puerto Vallarta definitely was on the map. “We’ve got more reporters here than iguanas,” said one excited official. The town’s future was assured.

There’s a dissertation on riding on Mexican buses and a hymn of praise to Guadalajara – “Golden Guadalajara”, together with a piece on studying Spanish in Cuernavaca. And there’s lots more.

This isn’t the kind of travel book that sets out to cover every city or every attraction. Rather it provides accounts of other people’s experiences in various parts of the country or their encounters with the folkways and customs of Mexico. In taking that approach, the editors have created a very special portrait of this unique land.

Another feature of “Travellers’ Tales” that I liked were the hundreds of small quotes from a huge variety of sources that are spread throughout the book, virtually on every page, usually adding another angle or viewpoint to whatever feature article you’re reading at the time.

VERDICT: A winner! Definitely one for the permanent shelf.

Mexico Travelers’ Tales
By James O’Reilly and Larry Habegger

Travellers’ Tales Inc, 1994.

Available from Amazon Books: Paperback

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Published or Updated on: March 1, 2000 by Alan Cogan © 2000
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