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Archive for the ‘Mexico’ Category

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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There’s a Mexican phrase: No hay nada que no se puede arreglar con tequila – There isn’t anything you can’t fix with tequila.

For the launch party of The Mango Orchard, I take this advice to heart and order several gallons of the stuff. And just in case the tequila doesn’t do the trick, there are cases of wine and several hundred bottles of Corona beer, kindly obtained by the Mexican Embassy.

Whether or not it’s the tequila that does the fixing I don’t know, but all seems to go swimmingly. The night passes a blur of flashbulbs, handshakes and hugs in front of my eyes. As well as publishing and media people, there are friends and family from all over the world, some of whom I haven’t seen for the best part of twenty years.

The speeches go well, despite my reservation about looking a bit like a dictator, speaking from a flag-dressed balcony. Shortly afterwards, arriving out of nowhere, I hear the familiar sounds of a Mariachi band. They had been organised secretly by some of my friends. It’s a touching gesture.

My only real fear before the party was having sudden amnesia when signing books.
“Who would you like me to dedicate the book to?”
“To me.”
“How are you spelling that?”

All goes well however, until I see Trevor, my publisher, approach with a tousle-haired chap clutching a copy of my book. Oh crickey, who’s that? Is he an old school friend I’ve erased from my memory? Is he a relative I failed to include in the book? Is he that bloke who helped me in the National Archive, whom I forgot to thank in the acknowledgments? I’m stumped.

Trevor cuts through the crowd. “This is Steve,” he says when he reaches me.
I still have absolutely no idea who he is but hope that my lack of recognition goes unnoticed. “Help yourself to a drink,” I say as I hand the signed book back to him.

Trevor finds my discomfort amusing. “I found him outside,” he says, when Steve has disappeared. “He was just walking by. I told him about the book, so he came in to buy it.”

Steve, whoever you are, I hope you enjoy the book. And if for any strange reason you don’t, have a tequila.

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It’s Saturday morning and I wake before dawn. It’s only my second morning in my new flat and I walk into the living room to look out of the window at the still unfamiliar sights. The sky is still a dirty amber and the lights still shining brightly on the London Eye and BT Tower.

I’ve rarely been up this early before; I’m tempted to say that the view is worth getting up for, but that’s not quite true. The sight of a still, quiet London glowing in the half-light is most certainly beautiful, but not as beautiful as a deep and restful sleep. I’m only up because I have a radio interview to go to.

The marvellous Emma, the publicity guru at my publishers, phoned me when I was in the middle of moving flat last week to tell me I had been booked to appear on Excess Baggage on Radio 4, the daddy of all travel programmes. It’s live at 10.00.

I have always assumed that guests would need to be there hours before, and would sit in the green room like Roman noblemen feasting on enormous bowls of fruit while production assistants run around after them to satisfy their every whim. This is why I am up so early. I want my bowl of fruit.

It’s 9.45, just fifteen minutes before we’re on air and I am standing in the BBC canteen with the other two guest, Chloe Aridjis, who’s promoting A Book of Clouds, and Mark Carwardine, a well-renowned zoologist . We’re sipping ice cold water in plastic cups. There’s no fruit. Not even any biscuits.

Ten minutes before the programme goes on air, we are shown into the studio. John McCarthy, wearing a very fetching floral shirt, greets us warmly and invites us to sit round a carpet-topped table. It has four microphones sticking out of a hole in the middle where there are multi-coloured cables and a computer keyboard. I am handed another glass of water and I can’t help wondering what would happen if I accidently dropped it. Would sparks fly? Would Radio 4 go off the air?

I’m gripping my water so tightly that I barely notice a green light go on. John begins his very smooth opening. He then pauses as they play a recording of a TV programme Mark made about whale-watching with Stephen Fry. I realise this was a programme I saw, though I don’t say anything as I’m not sure my microphone is switched off.

John’s brilliance is that he lulls you into thinking you’re just having a chat, which we are, I suppose, it’s just that we have a million or so people listening. I all but forget my nerves, so much so that I hear a voice inside my head say “Go on, say ‘titty turd’”.

Gosh, I hope that thought wasn’t out loud. John is looking at me, millions are listening. He’s asked me a question. What was it again, something about why I set out in the footsteps of my great grandfather?

I clear my throat and begin to talk, and try to keep the words ‘titty turd’ away from my mouth. (Where on earth did they come from anyway? Who the hell says titty turd?) John nods encouragingly and asks another question and I tell the story about Wilson, the loon who pulled a gun on me during the journey from Veracruz to Mexico City. The version in the book has a fair number of words a lot more offensive than titty or turd, but judging from the smile on John’s face, I think I’ve managed to avoid them.

John directs some questions to Chloe and then more to me and as a final question asks if we intend to go back to Mexico. We all say we do and it’s the end of the programme.

We have a brief chat as we put on our coats and within ten minutes I am in a car heading home. For a bowl of fruit.

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