A Mexico many of us have never seen

One writer's trek beyond the quaint villages and glitzy beaches of tourism.

It was during my first stint reporting on the US-Mexico border that another proposed immigration reform - President Reagan's 1986 Immigration Reform & Control Act - took me to Zacatecas, the capital of a Mexico state by the same name that was sending many of its sons to El Norte.

I had never been deeper into Mexico than some grinding border towns and a couple of gringo-favored beaches. What I encountered in Zacatecas stunned me - a colonial city whose cobblestoned streets, gold-leaf churches, and cool, flowering courtyards inspired by distant conquistadors hinted at something much more complex and mystifying than the gritty streets and palapa-studded beaches I had known.

It is this ability of Mexico to surprise, to intrigue, and to enchant that Tony Cohan captures so well in his new book, Mexican Days: Journeys into the Heart of Mexico.

Mr. Cohan is known to enthusiasts of travel writing for "On Mexican Time," his earlier book that chronicles his move from California to San Miguel de Allende, a jewel of a Mexican colonial town favored by foreign artists. In fact, the combination of Cohan's Pagnolesque style in describing his adopted home, and similar affinities that colonies of Americans have with San Miguel and Provence, France, have earned him a reputation as something of the Peter Mayles of Mexico.

But Mayles enthusiasts beware: "Mexican Days" is nothing of a sequel to Cohan's introduction to San Miguel, no light-hearted romp through Mexican villages and valleys.

Cohan's new book is written in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and with America's march to a new war as a backdrop.

Unable to forget that, Cohan suffuses his visits to remote towns and encounters with Mexican (and expatriate) eccentrics with broodings over everything from American bellicosity and globalization to fading love and the conflict between travel and a sense of place.

Part travelogue, part exploration of wanderlust in the 21st century, "Mexican Days" takes American readers to a Mexico most of them know little about - even as it questions why we want to know such places in the first place.

The book opens with Cohan feeling sour about his beloved San Miguel. Hollywood has come to town, with Johnny Depp and "La Salma" (Hayek) every bit the invasion the gringo army was in its 1846 march from Veracruz to Mexico City. (Remember "the halls of Montezuma"?) Tourists and Internet cafes are everywhere, and once-sleepy haunts have gentrified and now offer international cuisine.

Fortunately, a magazine assignment to explore out-of-the-way Mexico comes along to take Cohan out of San Miguel and to parts of Mexico that he hadn't visited for years or that he simply didn't know existed.

The result is a series of vivid and engaging accounts of Cohan's sojourns. The places include the misty and coffee-scented Jalapa, the vividly paletted Oaxaca, the musical Tlacotalpan, the rebellious Chiapas, and the Sierra Gorda - site of Junipero Serra's first missions in the Americas, predating those he would later establish in California, from San Diego to Sonoma.

What Cohan does for the reader is scratch the surface of a Mexico that, at cursory glance, can seem to be evolving into something increasingly like the United States.

He takes us "beneath a thin patina of chain stores and cybercafes," he writes, where "a layered culture stretched back 20,000 years, maybe more."

Cohan scratches at some of those layers, visiting Palenque, the great Mayan ruins that rise from a steamy jungle; Oaxaca, with its wealth of indigenous customs and folk art; and Guanajuato, a vestige of postconquest Mexico's grandeur.

After living in Mexico for nearly two decades, Cohan still seems surprised at how thin that patina of modernity can be.

But that is Mexico. Reading his descriptions of the eternal side of America's southern neighbor reminded me of my own encounters with this stubbornly anachronistic side of Mexico.

I still remember the day I saw an Indian woman outside the neighborhood open-air market we frequented in our Mexico City neighborhood. A baby was wrapped in a shawl and anchored to her back. Her small hands were patting tortillas to cook over a small charcoal fire.

I had passed by such women many times before. But this time, as I saw her, I realized that if I had been Cortéz himself, I would have come upon the very same scene.

Cohan captures and explores this - an exploration that perhaps unavoidably leads to an undercurrent of the melancholy of Mexico. At one point, he calls his musings a "bleak reverie."

Referring to the travels that prompt his new tome as "my restless fiesta," Cohan chronicles a Mexico that is "hardly the place to work on your tan," as he writes at one point.

The Mexico he paints for us is a "boundless canasta [basket] of riches ... experienced ... less as a catalog of attractions than as a succession of illuminations, discoveries, and encounters with a necessary Other - myself, of course, in new guises, revealed in reflection off the alien surfaces travel provides."

If you want a happy read offering a romp through the conventional Mexico of beaches, Frida Kahlo bags, and big- sombreroed mariachis, this probably isn't your book.

This is about a different Mexico, one Cohan calls "permanently exotic."

If you like "discoveries" - of both the archeological and personal sort - and those mixed with deeper contemplation on such questions as why we travel or what globalization means for one's identity, then "Mexican Days" offers a basket of riches.

Howard LaFranchi, who writes on international affairs for the Monitor, was the newspaper's Mexico City correspondent from 1994-2001.

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