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Archive for the ‘Mexico’ Category

The Oaxaca Times recently asked if they could reprint the article I wrote for Traveller magazine last year to coincide with the release of the English language release of The Mango Orchard in Mexico, and seeing as it’s pertinent to today’s date, I thought I’d post it here:

I arrived in Oaxaca in the half light of an early April morning. Still stiff from my journey, I stretched out on a bench outside the bus Central and watched an old man walk by, bent double with the weight of the basket of pineapples he was carrying on his back. Small clouds of dust rose from his every sandaled step, as though his feet were disturbing spirits desperate to be released from the earth. I arrived in Oaxaca shattered and broken hearted; damaged after a thirty hour bus journey, away from Juanita, the Guatemalan girl with whom I saw my future, in pursuit of the ghosts of my past.

Even years later, I cannot fully explain what compelled me to make the decision to leave Juanita and follow in my great grandfather’s footsteps through Mexico. It certainly didn’t make any sense to me that morning; I was too exhausted and bereft of understanding to appreciate being anywhere.

En route to my hotel I passed a cemetery, its giant tomb stones like a skyline of gothic skyscrapers. Even at that early hour, I saw people replacing flowers and dusting headstones. It seemed fitting to begin my Mexican adventures in a town famed for its celebration of the departed; a place where the past is not so distant from the present.

I slept until mid-afternoon, when I was woken by an earth tremor. There was something ghostly about the low groaning rumble from beneath the surface of the earth. In my sleep-hazed state I wondered if Juanita was sending me messages through the elements. Or if someone else was.

One of my great grandfather’s photos from Oaxaca

Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I opened my bedroom window on to a meadow of roasting roofs and domed towers glinting in the sun. There was hardly any breeze and the heat of the afternoon had the hue and unhurriedness of treacle. There was something both unsettling and reassuring about being woken from a heavy sleep to find the wakeful world not so different from the one I had just left.

A Storm Brewing over Monte Alban

I spent a couple of days visiting Mitla and then Monte Albán, the ancient capital of the Zapotec people, for which Oaxaca is rightly famed. These were both places that I knew my great grandfather had visited. His sepia photographs of the head scarfed women standing in front of Mitla’s mosaics had helped to colour my boyhood image of Mexico. I felt no trace of his presence though. The closest I came to a spiritual encounter was a fierce storm that whipped up such whirlwinds of dust and grit in the causeways in between the Monte Albán pyramids, the staff had to close the site several hours early.

The next day I visited several of the 17th century baroque churches left by the Spanish. The air was infused with incense, cool and dark; the bright sunshine filtered by blue stained glass and weak candle light reflected in gold leaf. For all their grandeur however, I found the churches more impressive than beautiful, and more awe inspiring than nourishing for the soul.

My search to discover my great grandfather’s secrets had so far led me to tombs and temples which failed to move me. I needed to try a different tack, or abandon my quest and return to Juanita. The next morning, remembering my favourite travellers’ maxim, if you don’t have a map you can never get lost, I left my guidebook at the hotel and set out into Oaxaca once more.

Opposite the hotel a Jacaranda tree had carpeted the street with purple. Whistling and kicking his way through the blossom confetti was a man carrying a tray of cigarettes and two flasks of coffee. I reckoned that anyone with anything to sell would gravitate to where people communed, so followed him down high-walled side streets, flowers reaching across telegraph wires like bunting, and on to wider avenidas. I noticed a man with armfuls of washing up brushes and another weighed down with eggs whisks, oven gloves and several dozen boxes of women’s tights, and another pushing a wheelbarrow full of popcorn. All were heading in the same direction. They crossed a small patch of wasteland and weaved their way through a collection of VW colectivo minibuses that were gathered like cows congregated in the corner of a field. Beyond was a tianguis, an unofficial market in which people displayed their random wares on plastic sheets: second hand self-help books, plastic guns, bird cages, coat hangers, car batteries, spanners, keep fit videos and painted replicas of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the Seven Dwarves.

The tianguis morphed imperceptibly into an official market, goods arranged on wooden stalls: net curtains, carpets, clothing, machetes, penknives and kitchen utensils, computer games and pirated DVDs, tethered goats and boxes of frogs.

On I walked, to the in-door market, housed in a giant tram shed of a building. I was greeted with the smell of roasting meat and powdered spices, shouts of pasele, pasele, the rhythmic smack of the butchers’ cleaver, competing mariachi bands and a display of watermelon sliced open, the blood red flesh crawling with bees. Beyond it were brightly illuminated pyramids of passion fruit, mangos, prickly pears and kumquats.

Children in school uniform sat on the stall steps doing their homework with satchels at their feet, or spooned their lunches from plastic containers as their parents negotiated over their heads.

I took a seat at a food stand in the heart of the market, run by a thick set woman with ruddy features who stirred a vat of black mole with a wooden spoon the size of an oar. She passed me my order of quesadillas, which I ate happily listening to her sing along with a lone mariachi strumming his round-backed guitar. The lyrics to their melancholic song cautioned a lover not to go back, but to follow his dreams. Sitting there in this cathedral to daily life, I knew that my Mexican adventures were only just beginning.

 

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Grand, the leading grandparent magazine in North America, asked me to write a short piece for their Memories of my Grandparents column.

Princess Margaret after a fall

I could have written about my grandmother telling a policeman who had stopped her for driving thirty miles an hour over the speed limit, to check her tyres, or my grandfather knocking over Princess Margaret.

Instead, I wrote about how my grandmother reacted to the news that her father had sired a secret family, now numbering over three hundred, in a small village in western Mexico. To read the article, click HERE

Robin’s grandmother

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I became a vegetarian the day I began my journey in the footsteps of my great grandfather around Latin America. My grandmother had told me wonderful stories about her father’s adventures in the Americas; wild jungle journey’s, gun fights, hidden treasure in a mango orchard and a daring escape from the Mexican Revolution with the help of bandits. She had never said anything about the near impossibility of avoiding starvation if you are a vegetarian. Mind you, as you’ll see, there were a lot of things she didn’t tell me…

To read the rest of this article on YTravelBlog, click HERE

The only non-meat option when my great grandfather was in Mexico was a hard stare

A food stall in Cartagena, Colombia, serving fried meat and plantain. The stall’s name is ‘He who criticises, sufers’

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I’m at Broadcasting House, the new home of the BBC World Service, for an appearance on Outlook. I am, I will admit, a little nervous. This is not just a national broadcast, it’s the Whole World. And it’s live.

With ten minutes before we’re on-air, I am taken through to the studio by a producer called Jane, to meet Jo Fidgen, the presenter. She is charming, has a remarkably soothing voice, and eyes almost as blue as her hair. We talk briefly about how she plans to tackle the complex story of The Mango Orchard in the seven and a half minutes allotted.

I am escorted to the sound booth, where there are four producers, each at their station, like naval officers at the bridge of a ship. There is an air of ordered panic. There are three minutes until we go live “We’ve lost twenty seconds” calls one, “Twenty seconds of dead air. I think it’s in Nigeria.” Phone calls are made.

There are two women in the corner with electronic stop watches and clip boards. “We’ve shaved seven seconds of the first piece,” says one. One of the producers turns to me and says, “That’s good, seven more seconds for us.”

We’re in to the news and then the programme begins. The first item on the programme is a pre-recorded interview with three Irish women. Jane turns to me and says, “This is a bit depressing”. It is an understatement. The women discuss, in the most explicit detail imaginable, how, behind the façade of a respectable Dublin existence, their father groomed, abused and raped them. For years. There is absolute silence in the control booth, broken by one of the producers: “I feel physically sick”. She then turns to me and says, “We’re looking to you for some light relief!”

“I know some great jokes about the Pope?” I offer. As one, the four producers and the two women with stop watches turn round with panic on their faces.

Perhaps not.

The main producer turns round to me when it has two more minutes to run and says with a cheery smile, “You’re on!”

I feel like a Vaudeville act, asked to follow a performer who had got up on stage and read an autopsy report.

I had deliberately not looked up World Service audience figures. It’s obviously a lot, but when you are talking on live radio about a book you have taken five years to write, and don’t want to screw up, you really don’t want to know numbers. As we go to the studio, Jane says casually, “There’ll be about 40 million people listening.”

Yikes.

I am trying to imagine what forty million people looks like. If they all linked arms, could they reach the moon? How impressive would the tsunami be if they all jumped up and down at the same time? If they all called the same pizza take away restaurant, how long would it be until everyone had their meal?

Jo is looking at me. It’s time to answer the question. That I didn’t hear. I guess what it was and talk for a while. She asks me some more questions and I try to answer them as concisely as I can and before I know it, our seven minutes thirty-seven seconds of talking to 40 million people comes to an end.

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My great grandfather just before leaving Mexico

I wonder if anything will happen this weekend to cause people to look back in a hundred years’ time.

Exactly one hundred years ago, it was also a cold Easter weekend. I know this as when I was researching The Mango Orchard, I spent weeks in archives looking into my great grandfather’s escape from the Mexican Revolution.

At the end of March 1912, following a tip-off from a local bandit, my forebear left Mexico in a hurry. Counter-revolutionary forces were encircling the town; his life was in danger. He had to pack and leave the country which had been his home for 13 years, in an afternoon. He kissed his Mexican family goodbye on March 26th, and fled to San Blas, where he boarded a ship bound for San Francisco. He would never see his Mexican family again.

Mississippi Flood 1912

He probably thought he’d had his share of trauma, but a storm was blowing across the US. He stayed in New Orleans en route to New York, where, after days of heavy rains, the levees broke. The city was flooded by “the greatest volume of water in the history of the Mississippi”. My great grandfather himself was nearly swept to his death. The New York Times reported that one man only escaped the rising waters by cutting a hole in the roof of his hotel room with a can opener.

In the same edition of the newspaper, very likely one that my great grandfather read, were the ads for steamers sailing for Liverpool. If the floodwaters subsided, he was aiming to be in New York to catch the Cunard ship, the Caronia, on April 10th. If they didn’t, there was another ship he was considering. It was scheduled to sail on April 20th at 12 noon: the Titanic.

New York Times Shipping ads April 1912

More in a few days…

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How factually accurate does a non-fiction story have to be? It’s a conundrum for every travel and non-fiction writer, and is hotly debated by readers and writers alike.

The latest Issue of Traveller magazine

I was not to worry, she said, someone had already written a sidebar with all the facts and figures of how to get there and what to see. From me she wanted a mood piece to accompany some beautiful photos she had of the city. “Something made hazy with the passing of time might work well.” She was also after a strong visual and sensory idea of place, with a clear narrative. So, I was to write a poetic vignette, hazy yet with a clear narrative… about a place I couldn’t really remember.

It was a tough brief. I tried to construct the piece around the few facts I could really remember, but it just didn’t work. It only started to come together when I allowed myself to remember the emotions I had felt when I was in Oaxaca.  Two days before I arrived there I had left Juanita behind in Guatemala. My heart was raw and I experienced everything through the sensation of loss.

Suddenly, the words came easily and the article was written. But how is it possible, you might ask, that my stay in Oaxaca – so ripe with emotional drama – didn’t appear in the book?

I had always intended on writing this scene in The Mango Orchard, but didn’t include it in the end because it didn’t make narrative sense. I cut it out to make the story read better.

This leads to a question I am often asked: is The Mango Orchard all true? Yes, it is. Everything really did happen; I just changed the order of some events. In real life, I left Juanita not once, but twice. To have included it exactly as it occurred in real life however, would have been confusing. It might have also made me look like a bit of an idiot.

If someone asks you about your day, you edit it down. If, for instance, during your day you bought a cheese and ham sandwich, paid a bill at the bank and then saw the Queen water skiing naked on the Thames, my guess is that you would probably neglect to mention the bank and the cheese and ham sandwich.

Bruce Chatwin

I know of non-fiction writers who create composite characters and invent key sequences to enable them to tell the story. Even a travel writing great like Bruce Chatwin was accused of fictionalising significant portions of In Patagonia. Some writers go to the other extreme and transcribe every word of every meeting, even to the extent of pretending to have diarrhoea so they can run to the bathroom every five minutes to jot down conversations verbatim.

For the record, my policy on writing non-fiction is this: events have to really have happened, characters need to exist. But if changing the order of events or highlighting a particular aspect of a character’s personality helps the story to flow better, I don’t hesitate. Also, while I quote people as accurately as possible, I don’t think the reader will complain if I edit out the ums, I don’t knows and non-sequiturs.

Finally, I have a confession to make. Amy, the editor of Traveller magazine didn’t ask me to write the article at the launch party. In reality, it was eight days later, after a phone call and an extended e-mail correspondence, following a conversation we started at the party. Would you really rather I had put that at the beginning of this blog?

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I arrive in Manchester to film a short documentary for the BBC about the story told in The Mango Orchard. I hadn’t prepared for the night time dagger-like icy wind that rushes in to the carriage when I open the train door at Piccadilly station.
In the morning I am collected from my hotel by the person due to interview me, Judy, who happens to be an old friend of mine. She remembers my complaint about the lack of a hospitality suite when I have previously been on the BBC and very sweetly picks me up from my hotel with a bag full of fresh fruit, which of course, I don’t touch.
She drives me to Helmshore Mill, a working mill and museum, where we join the rest of the crew and I’m introduced to Christine Taylor, a local historian, invited to add some expertise on the area where my great grandfather grew up. I have lots of questions for her but every time I ask anything, Ged the producer stifles the conversation; he wants to capture my reactions to what she’s saying on film. It takes time to set up the shot, organise the lighting and microphones. I’m standing with Christine in front of a trestle table, on which are arranged photographs of Tottington in days of yore. I begin to leaf through them but am again told to wait until the cameras are running.
We talk about the weather.
                The team is ready and just as the record light lights up on the camera, Ged says, “By the way, Christine has a surprise for you.”
I have no idea what this surprise may be, but as I spent years  investigating my great grandfather’s story, I can’t believe that anyone has managed to uncover any document I haven’t yet seen, so I brace myself, ready to feign amazement. The camera is zooming in on me and I’m beginning to feel self-conscious. I realise that my face has frozen into a most unconvincing smile and as I suddenly don’t know what to do with my hands I wedge one into my back pocket. This must look very camp but I hold the pose.
                Christine hands me two sheets of paper. “I found a letter your great grandfather wrote on his way to Mexico.”
“What?!” I no longer have to pretend to be amazed. I am overwhelmed. I spent months looking for this.
I read the letter, and forget that cameras are aimed at me. I read about the storms he endured – just as I had imagined – but then I see where he wrote the letter: Jamaica. What the hell was he doing in Jamaica?? And it’s not just Jamaica. He describes going for a drive along the side of the abandoned Panama Canal project “hundreds of railway waggons and scores of engines rotting away…” He talks about passing though the Virgin Isles and Haiti, where “the natives worship a god called Omar, and it is a common thing for mothers to eat their babies as a sacrifice to this god.”
                Not for the first time, my great grandfather has dumbfounded me. His journey to Mexico didn’t take five weeks, as I had understood; it took over seven months! What was he doing? Did he leave scores of other secret families scattered around the Caribbean?
Maybe I should pop over and have a look.
The filming continues at a handful of other north Manchester locations. Judy and I are filmed walking around the mill in Tottington where my great grandfather worked. The mill is now a carpet factory and there’s little evidence of the mill that there once was. Forklift trucks with enormous, spikes on the front like jousting sticks, speed around carrying roles of carpet from one end of the factory to another. I have rarely been in a factory before. It is deafening.
How do I feel? Judy wants to know. It’s always a tricky one to answer. I’m not sure. I mutter something about my great grandfather and Judy is nodding.
“That sounded like a close,” says Ged.
“That sounded like a close to me,” confirms the cameraman. I am not sure what I’ve just said. To find out, I guess I’ll have to tune in in the New Year when it is screened.

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First of all, an apology to all those people to whom I promised I would write regularly during my recent trip to Mexico. Initially I was just enjoying the holiday; for the first time in several years, I was not spending every waking moment trying to carve copy out of what I saw round me, and then, after a few weeks of not doing very much, the only thing of interest that was going on was something which I couldn’t talk about. Still can’t. Maybe I’ll explain in a few weeks.
Apart from kicking back and doing very little with the sun on my face, the main purpose of being in Mexico was to visit the family, and take The Mango Orchard home. The family held the book like a newborn. Their faces shone with excitement and pride. And then they flicked through the book to see what I had said about them.
The BBC took advantage of my trip by giving me a camera to film some scenes for a documentary, due to be aired later in the year. They asked me to film some typical Mexican scenes, as well as me talking with the family, and visiting the cotton mills where my great grandfather worked… and from where the initial sprouts of rebellion that became the Mexican Revolution began.
After a few weeks with the family, I went on a road trip around the country, often finding myself in Cotos Privados – gated communities with identical houses, arranged round swimming pools, pristine lawns and 24 hour security. These places are safe, that’s why people like them. Children play in the street, doors remain unlocked, but I couldn’t help feeling I was on the set for the Truman Show.
Staying in these new, posh estates gave rise to the Great Dilemma. Not about whether or not it is morally right to have great swathes of urban space from which the general public cannot enter. No, something of much greater importance: this is the ultimate social quandary… about toilet paper.
In most bathrooms around Mexico, and indeed of all Latin America, next to the toilet is a wastepaper basket. Everyone knows not to throw paper (or anything else) in to the loo.
But surely the people who had built these state-of-the-art houses in which I was staying had bothered to install modern plumbing, no? It’s not a question you can easily ask, though.
You are suddenly faced with a predicament: what would be more embarrassing, to be responsible for blocking the pipes with paper they weren’t designed for and flooding the house with raw sewage, or to put your soiled toilet paper in a bin normally used for cotton buds and empty shampoo bottles?
It’s a question I pondered long and hard. I generally felt that flooding the house with raw sewage would be marginally less embarrassing.
Any thoughts?

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 The day does not begin well.
When I stumble out of bed I get a sharp, stabbing pain in my lower back. It’s a familiar pain which afflicts me every six months or so, and over the years has kept several osteopaths, chiropractors and acupuncturists in gravy.
The most painful part is always getting dressed. I hop around my bedroom, swearing loudly for about ten minutes, trying to get my trousers on. What I really want to do is swallow handfuls of strong pain-killers and go back to bed but I have to get up. I have things to do.
I rub in some deep heat cream and hobble to the bank to order my travellers’ cheques for my trip to Mexico next week, and then hobble back in time to be interviewed over the phone by the Manchester Evening News.
Interview over, I set about tidying the flat in preparation for the arrival of a film crew from Televisa, Mexican’s biggest TV network. And just in case they want some tea, I pop out to the shops to buy some milk. I have never known any Mexican to drink tea, but you never know.
The rushing to the shop and bending over to pick things off the floor does my back no favours. I swallow some pills and rub in more deep heat cream. I realise the flat is beginning to smell like a rugby changing room.
It’s five minutes until Televisa are due to arrive and I remember I need to send a text to someone I am due to meet this evening. But where is my phone? I looking on my desk and in the kitchen, I pat my pockets, look in the jacket that I wore to the bank. It’s not there. I call my number from the landline so I can track it down. It goes straight to voice mail. That’s what happens when someone steals your phone: they take out the SIM card so they can sell the handset.
I swear again. And again.
It’s now 3pm. The Mexicans are due to be here, but I need my phone so I can concentrate on my interview. If I have left it at the shop, the sooner I get there, the more likely I am to find it.
My mobile is not at the shop. That must meant that unless I dropped it on my way to or back, my neighbours, the ones I have only seen once, when I asked them not to make so much noise in the mornings, must have broken in to my flat and stolen it. The bastards.
When I get back, there is a Mexican film crew standing at my front door, looking at their watches. I lead them upstairs and try to forget about the phone. It’s my first interview in Spanish, and I am a little apprehensive; in any interview one needs to be pithy and concise. That’s tricky enough in English, much more so in a second language.
We are standing on the roof terrace and I am talking into a Televisa microphone that the journalist is holding towards me. I try to imagine my Mexican aunts and uncles eating their breakfast sometime next week, and what their reactions will be when I suddenly appear on the screen.
“Ay, mira, es Robiiiin!”
After the interview they film me sitting at my desk pretending to be fascinated by what’s on my computer screen, looking through the photos of Mexico, and finally, of me walking out of the door with my rucksack, pretending to go to the airport. The pain my rucksack gives me when I sling it over my shoulder for the camera does not bode well for my trip to Mexico.
I now have to sort out my stolen phone. I spend over an hour cancelling and replacing the SIM card and convincing the insurance company to give me a new handset. They eventually agree, but say they can’t deliver it straight away. I won’t receive it until July.
It’s 5.30pm now and I remember I am meant to be meeting someone at 6pm. Her number is of course on my phone which has been stolen and the SIM cancelled. I send her a mail, hoping to reach her before she leaves the office. My laptop has gone into hibernation mode and as I wait for it to warm up, I move some papers. And my mobile phone falls on the desk.

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I am up early. A journalist and photographer from The Times are due this morning and the flat is a tip. I also realise that I have no biscuits to offer them. Or milk, or tea, or coffee.
While I am out, my agent calls me to tell me that a radio station, having seen an article about the book in a newspaper, is interested interviewing me about the film version of the book.
“Fine,” I say, not really concentrating as I try to decide between All Butter Flapjacks or Luxury Chocolate Chip Cookies.
I go for the Flapjacks and fret all the way back to the house whether I have made the right choice. I am plumping up cushions, and wondering whether I should pop out for the Chocolate Chips when the journalist arrives. I take her coat and offer her a cup of tea or coffee and hope the biscuits are acceptable.
“Just a glass of water, thanks,” she says as she gets out her notepad and Dictaphone. I knew I should have gone for the Chocolate Chips.
The Dictaphone is as big as an old mobile phone and squeaks as the spools turn. Somehow, I find this reassuring.
I am impressed by the thoroughness of her interrogation. She drills down deep on the parallels between my great grandfather and me, and our attitudes to relationships, family and commitment. Afterwards I feel like I have been on the psychiatrist’s couch and just hope that my answers make good copy. Being interviewed in the press is a bit like being in an exam; you never really have any idea how you have done until the results are published.
Shortly after she leaves, the photographer arrives. I was hoping for a coterie of make-up and wardrobe assistants, and that I would get a whole season’s worth of free clothing, but it’s not that type of shoot, apparently. It’s just the photographer and me. He photos me on the roof terrace, the landing and the stairs. “Stair wells often have good light,” he says.
As he is setting up the last shot, the researcher from BBC Tees phones to make sure I’m okay to be interviewed for the primetime show. I say I am and go back face the camera.
An hour later and I am on the phone, listening to BBC Tees. I am staring out of the window, my mind drifting. Suddenly, I’m on.
“And we’re now joined by the writer of The Mango Orchard, which is about to be made into a Hollywood feature film.”
I have to answer briefly, and positively, about the movie which is far from being finalised. I talk about the conversations, rather than the inconclusive nature of them.
“Why do you think your book will make a good film?” she asks.
I tell the story. I talk about the tales my grandma told me as a boy, about the bandits and the bags of silver and the narrow escape from the Mexican Revolution. Then I talk about my journey, about how I tracked down the small village near a small town near Guadalajara… Over five minutes as gone and I haven’t heard a word from the interviewer. Is she still there? I carry on talking about the factory where my great grandfather worked, about my newly-found uncle who greeted me… I still haven’t heard a thing and I wonder whether it is more pathetic to be speaking to a dead telephone line, or to say “Hello? You there?” in the middle of a live broadcast.
Finally she interrupts me. “Who would you like to play you in the film?”
“James McAvoy,” I say. I like Martin Compston, who recently starred in The Disappearance of Alice Creed, but I momentarily forget his name.
I hang up and open the packet of All Butter Flapjacks.

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