I have to admit there were moments during my reading of the first hundred or so pages of this book when I wondered if I would finish it. Rereading the notes I made along the way I see that at one point I wrote the question: Who are the intended readers of this book? Train buffs? History buffs? People who want to read about Mexican politics? Or people who simply like to read a good travel story? Probably the answer to that one is: All of the above. One had the sense that it was really three or four narrative streams going along at the same time and the various pieces didn’t always fit too smoothly. Later, once I perceived the overall pattern of the narrative, which isn’t too apparent at the outset, I had no problem finishing it. In fact, it’s definitely one that belongs on the permanent shelf.
Author Pindell and Dr. Lourdes Ramírez Mallis, who served as Pindell’s interpreter, collaborator and researcher, set out together on a lengthy train journey covering all of Mexico. I should also add that Terry Pindell has written similar books about train journeys in Canada and the U.S. As they travel, we’re treated to dissertations on the various locales as well as a fairly serious coverage of Mexican history and the character of the people.
In the Mexico City area we learn a great deal about the Aztecs and the meetings between Cortés and Moctezuma. A visit to the Copper Canyon is a jumping off point to tell us about the fate of the Tarahumara Indians. In these sections, for example, we’re given quite hefty chunks of history. Also, as we read on it becomes apparent that everything is arranged in chronological order so that we are in fact travelling through the centuries from the early Aztecs to today’s political scene. But I should emphasize that this isn’t necessarily a history book. In their coverage of other areas, such as the coast around Cancun, the emphasis is more on the place itself as a present day tourist would find it.
The authors have done thorough research. Whether they’re talking about Mexican family life or the differences between Spaniards and Indians, or the Mexican attitude to death or Mexico’s politics of recent decades, the result is usually thoughtful and authoritative. And it’s not all heavy going. On page 150, for example, there’s a recipe for what the author considers the best margarita he ever tasted. I’ll have to try one of those soon.
The authors should also be commended for venturing into areas that most of we foreign residents never see. They visited Mexican homes and traveled on a few trains where the expected facilities simply weren’t present. They went out of their way to talk to as many Mexicans as they could. Their aim was obviously to come away with the most complete picture of this country – and they generally succeeded.
In general the tone of the book is understanding and sympathetic. Here’s one of the overall comments that I liked:
“If the story of America’s northern neighbor is a crisis of national identity and material success, the story of its southern neighbor is a crisis of national identity and social tragedy. Mexico has made tremendous economic progress as a nation; it has stepped out of the third world to become a partner with nations it once feared and envied. But the stubborn fact is that nothing in five hundred years of the country’s history has ever lifted its huge poverty-stricken masses to anything like the prosperity they enjoyed before the coming of the Europeans.
“There are benighted places in the world that the cynical Westerner might be tempted to write off. Their problems are too great, their potential contribution too slight. Not Mexico. That same clash of cultures that engendered Mexico’s horrific problems also germinated the flowering of humanity at its best. There were times during our travels in Mexico when we felt as though we were sojourning through Eden. Mexico is what happens when you put a mix of particularly creative people on a fertile piece of the planet. Mexico is a garden that has not yet been paved over or chartered into modern commercial wrack and ruin. It is a place where, as I found for myself, one can learn again how to live and love, each bell-toned morning can be a reminder to us soulless Americans: This is what it is to be human.”
I should also add that on the level of a straight travel narrative Pindell has some great descriptions of the countryside he is journeying through whether it be desert, mountain, coastal or farming country. Mexico is obviously a land that impressed him.
Yes, there is a certain “chunkiness” to their telling of this story. Towards the end some of the dissertations on recent politics went on a little too long for me and the account of Cortés’ expeditions made me wonder when we’d ever get back on the train. But, now that the journey is over, I come away with many happy memories and a great respect of the authors’ efforts.
P.S. Dear reader: you’ve come this far…..you deserve a reward. Here’s the recipe for those best-ever margaritas.
A shot of tequila, a shot of orange liqour, freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, the juice and pulp of a whole lime and a splash of soda over crushed ice – “stirred, not shaken, like James Bond.”
In my humble O: Good one! I must start looking now for a copy of Pindell’s other book about my other country: “Last Train to Toronto.”
Yesterday’s Train – A Rail Odyssey Through Mexican History
By Terry Pindell, with Lourdes Ramírez Mallis
Henry Holt & Company. 1997.
Available from Amazon Books: Hardcover