Coming back to life in Mexico

At the end of summer, to get our Español in gear, we took a trip to Cuernavaca, Mexico. It was the first family trip ever outside the country, and, in a measure of how little we travel outside the familiar rotation to grandparents’ houses, we all needed passports. These we applied for from a bored and tattooed student worker at the UC Berkeley rec center. With competitive swimmers in the background, we dutifully smiled and paid our fees on a gray day in June.

I was sort of resenting the intrusion of a complicated vacation into a life that had become all about meeting deadlines and remembering to pack my son’s soccer cleats. For Grant and me, it was the end of a long, grinding year. But slowly, over the course of two weeks, I did come back to life – reading deeply again, noticing things again.

From my Mexican vacation, I can highly recommend J.M.G. Le Clézio’s “The Mexican Dream, Or, the Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations” which I read in the shadow of a conquistador’s church built from the stones of destroyed pyramids. And this brought back to mind a doomed screenplay attempt I once made, trying to scale the story of La Malinche, the complicated woman who was instrumental to the Spanish conquest and became mistress to Cortes. Who was she, really? As the minatory clouds built up each afternoon over the Cortes Palace, we sipped coffee and pondered her character.

xochicalco pyramid

Cuernavaca is the setting of my second favorite book of all time, “Under the Volcano,” where Malcolm Lowry wrestled with his mezcal-soaked demons to produce the most amazingly moving chronicle of a man reckoning with his past mistakes and failures. It’s an incredible book that once you’ve read it, always stays with you. The home where Lowry once lived is now a hotel, by the way. We wandered through its picturesque desuetude taking photos on our phones.

There were the countless, invigorating moments of dislocation, wonderful mashups of context. Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” blasting down the crowded Calle Tacuba in Mexico City. Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” heard in a Mexico City taxi caroming through the streets at 5 in the morning.

Also great was seeing “Mi Vilano Favorito,” aka “Despicable Me,” in a movie theater off the zocalo. Or even better, seeing “The Great Gatsby” as part of a small evening cinema series in the Robert Brady museum in Cuernavaca. Brady – an artist and collector with a great handlebar mustache, a furry chest, and loads of money – was apparently *the* guy to know in town. After living in Venice he decided to relocate and bought a place that backs up against the 16th century cathedral. There he displayed an amazing folk art collection and threw fabulous parties. His house is now a museum where even the bathrooms are exquisite and everything is staggeringly colorful. Frida Kahlo with a monkey on her shoulder stares with her confronting glance from a wall in one of the upstairs bedrooms, holding her own in a space crowded with paintings and objets. Anyone who has been to the Museo Robert Brady will understand that I now live there in my dreams.

Or maybe my dreams will go live in the Jardin Borda, the gardens said to be haunted by the ghost of Empress Carlotta, the sad, mad, ill-fated wife of Maximilian. You can easily believe in ghosts as you explore the long, moody walkways, fringed with all kinds of exotic plants, and stumble upon melancholy fountains that are silent, shut off until some future, better day.

I’ve writen a self-indulgent lot, but it’s not even the half of it. Mexico was wonderful – full of elegance, life, mystery, struggle, 400-year-old crimes, and much older temples. Plus, incredibly excellent papaya. I am saving my centavos to return.



  1. Greg DeForest says

    Didn’t know you were such a big Under the Volcano fan! One of my top ten books too. When you say second favorite book, makes me wonder what #1 is…

  2. Heather says

    Hey it’s so great to encounter UTV fan! Now I’m curious about your list, too. For #1 I have to put Remembrance of Things Past. When we were in grad school I took a seminar on it and reading it was the most incredible experience. If not for that seminar though I don’t think I would have attempted it.

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