I’ll let you in on a secret about book reviewing. It’s simply this: it’s much more enjoyable to review a book you don’t like than one you like. Dishing out dirt is a helluva lot more fun than singing praises. When you really don’t like a book, it’s wonderful to be able to go to the keyboard and roundly kick an author’s butt. Which, I have to confess, is why I’m having a little trouble reviewing “The People’s Guide to Mexico”. My problem is I admire it so much.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting the authors when they visited Ajijic and I was rather shocked to discover that something like 300,000 copies of this book have been sold in the quarter century it has been available. In fact, I’m amazed I’ve lived five years in Mexico and never knew it existed until recently.
So even though it’s new to me, I have to keep in mind that a lot of people reading this review may be quite familiar with this multi-award winning paperback.
I have to be careful, too, to add that rider about this being the 25th anniversary edition. The Guide has been around since 1974, and deservedly so. It has been updated eleven times in that quarter century. According to Lorena Havens, this edition is the one that has undergone the most revisions and the most extensive updating. Among the major additions is a comprehensive listing of web-sites about Mexico as well as an updating of other information sources such as newsletters, magazines and books.
It’s not a guide book in the traditional sense. As Carl Franz states in his introduction: “This book is about Mexico – about living, travelling and taking things as they come in a foreign country. It’s about driving conditions and health and how to cross the border. It’s about drinking the water without getting sick… It’s not about which hotels to stay in or the most interesting villages to visit. The purpose of the book is to teach you how to find out those things for yourself.”
Also, as Carl Franz tells you right out front, on page 3: “I find historical monuments only slightly more interesting than bridges and tunnels.” So you’re not going to be inundated with the kind of material that you find in some of those other Mexican guidebooks. His purpose is to give you a guide you can consult, refer to, dip into when you need it. In other words, the authors are providing you with a valuable travel companion for years to come.
Okay…having said all that…what makes it so useful and interesting? Well, for starters, it covers all the topics you’d expect, such as: crossing the border; travelling alone; holidays and feast days; exchanging money; souvenier shopping; tipping; driving; taking taxis and trains; going to restaurants; best places to visit; best places to live; dealing with beggars and street pedlars; staying healthy and coping with Spanish and so on.
There’s a lot of information on camping, for those who want to save a dollar or two. There are tips on dealing with the police, including bribing the police, just in case you run into those kinds of problems. There are also discussions of favorite recipes and the use of slang expressions and how to deal with machismo. And – heavens to Betsy! – there’s even a short dissertation on brothels! (Page 326, if you’re interested.)
Interspersed with all this information is a collection of short essays, travellers’ tales, anecdotes and recollections– many of them very funny – on a variety of subjects like how to sashay up to a bar and order tequila, or on going to a bullfight for the first time, or dealing with police and army roadblocks. The authors have been exploring this country for a quarter of a century. They’ve seen a lot and they have a bunch of stories to tell within the 574 pages of The Guide. In fact, it’s really two books in one set of covers: a factual guidebook, filled with useful data, together with a collection of anecdotes about Mexican customs and culture. And it’s nicely organized.
I will admit to not having read The People’s Guide from cover to cover. It’s not that kind of book. However, I did read about the area where I live and I found something rather puzzling. In the chapter on Live and Retire in Mexico, page 496, I came across the statement: “The Lake Chapala area is definitely worth a serious look, as it already has more than a hundred thousand American and Canadian residents.” Admittedly, there are days when it feels like we have that many gringos around, but I think, in truth, you’d have to divide by about ten or more to arrive at the right number, even at the height of the winter season. Or is that hundred thousand number just meant to be a figure of speech? (There! – I’ve finally found something to criticize.)
One rather useful inclusion my wife and I appreciated is in the back of The Guide in the ‘Vocabulary’ section. This consists of several pages with all kinds of useful expressions you can use when travelling on buses, or dealing with officialdom, or buying odds and ends or coping with slang. They’re the kind of words and expressions you won’t necessarily find in dictionaries and Spanish language books. Included are three pages of expressions and terms referring to automobiles and auto repairs. We now keep a copy of those three pages in our van simply because we occasionally have problems when we go to the local dealership for routine maintenance. The service people don’t always understand the terms printed in our Canadian maintenance manual. There has been at least a couple of occasions when that was a problem. But now we have a means of communicating more effectively with the mechanics in the dealership. It’s that kind of unexpected inclusion that we found most useful.
Verdict: If you’re coming to Mexico, as a tourist or a potential resident, include a copy in your travel kit.
(There! – now that wasn’t so difficult, was it?)
The People’s Guide to Mexico – 25th Anniversary Edition
By Carl Franz
Edited by Lorena Havens and Steve Rogers
John Muir Publications, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1998
Available from Amazon Books: Paper Back