Mural of Mexico: panoramic but poor
On the road in Mexico
In Lars Gustafson's recent novel, ''The Tennis Player,'' a Swedish professor who teaches in Texas marvels that, to his students, ''the world outside of Texas is meant for war and tourism.''Skip to next paragraph
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Well, to most Americans, Mexico is no longer for war. We got over that during the last century. Now it's for tourism.
Mexico is the closest thing to us that's really foreign. It has always beckoned crafts-hungry tourists looking for a sleepy seaside in which to dangle their winter-weary limbs or a picturesque, fountain-centered village where they can forget for a moment that the Buick was ever invented or that Ed Koch presides over New York City.
Mexico occupies such a space on the United States' immediate horizon: The country hovers in the near distance like a hot cloud, full of romantic portent. We have seen a thousand images of the place in movies, books, poems.
Strange that we so little understand it.
Who can account, for instance, for the savage beauty and undefinable differentness of this country? ''It's another civilization,'' muses John Womack Jr., a Harvard professor and Mexico specialist. ''Get off a plane in Mexico City, drive for a couple of hours, and you might as well be in North Africa or Southeast Asia.''
Many people are simply not prepared for that. Nor are they ready for the realities of modern Mexico.
The travel posters promise a country that is ''Memorable. Mysterious. Monumental.'' And Mexico is all of that. But it is something else, too; especially right now.
Mexico is poor.
And for those who agree that poverty is not picturesque and squalor is not quaint, the country will offer more to contend with than Hispanic missions, siestas, manana, pyramids, and a cheap sombrero.
This is the third world. Somehow you don't put that fact together with your glossy travel brochures and dreams of sleepy little villages and Dolores Del Rio in a black lace shawl romancing Cesar Romero.
Change that to a dusty little square with a 1958 pickup truck and a man on a burro blocking your way while you bake in the heat and yearn for a McDonald's, and you have something closer to the reality of rural Mexico. Urban life, such as you find in Mexico City, means traffic jams and pollution and the usual pressure-cooker existence of modern city life.
So why come?
One reason is that the land is powerful in its topographical austerity. The imagery of this place surrounds and engulfs you. The architecture, colonial and Indian, provides a constantly shifting tableau of things to gape in wonder at: darkness settling over Guanajuato, a trembling of lights and a russet color on the earthen mountains; Mil Cumbres (A Thousand Peaks), the mountainous road between Morelia and Mexico City that snakes and swerves through thick pine forests and lofty dwellings; the rugged foothills of the Sierra Madres, a sudden upheaving of the earth, silent and majestic and immovable; the eerie, monumental earth forms echoed in Mayan and Incan art.
Coming here to see such sights is probably what tourism in Mexico is about. But there is a better reason to come: to understand something about the people. Therein lies the real drama and pageantry of this place - the beautiful, polymorphous, culturally rich, diverse, basically lethargic populace.
Only don't come with any romantic illusions. The mass of Mexicans (to paraphrase Thoreau) live lives of noisy desperation. Life is hard here. People who could afford burritos now eat only frijoles. People who once subsisted on frijoles now eat fewer frijoles. The dogs look anxiously over their shoulders.
This has always been the background for travel here. Only these days it has become harder to keep your eyes glued on the bell tower of that 18th-century church while neatly ignoring the poor man in broken shoes sitting on the curb.
A walk through Queretaro, birthplace of the Independence, for instance: You follow the winding streets back into the middle of a colonial backwater where the stucco walls loom old and endlessly quaint around you. A small church with a rugged courtyard sits invitingly on a corner. Back in the courtyard, an antique wooden bench invites you to sit down and wipe your hatband. Soon, an old woman wrapped in a dark shawl joins you.
In Spanish, you ask how she is.
''Very nervous, Senor,'' she answers, rubbing her eyes.
''My husband died. My children only have money to support my grandchildren. There isn't enough left over for me. It makes me so nervous. You understand, don't you?''