When I was 21 years old and learned that one of Martha Gellhorn’s favorite places on earth was Mexico, I was disappointed. It was nothing against Mexico itself – it’s just that of all the places in the world that she’d gotten to travel – China, Israel, the Caribbean Islands – I’d just assumed she would have chosen somewhere further away than Mexico. Martha (war correspondent, travel writer, third wife of Ernest Hemingway, object of a somewhat unhealthy obsession on my part) grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and lived in Mexico during the 1950s. I know there is a quote about her loving it but I don’t currently have her biography with me (I will carry it at all times from now on.) and Google isn’t cooperating. Just trust me, she was happy there.
Now, having been to Mexico twice, I guess I can sort of see what she meant. It’s certainly not the most glamorous place in the world, but there are beautiful things about it. I have not been able to accurately describe the forty minute drive from the Ixtapa airport to the coast of Troncones Beach whenever anyone has asked. It was somewhere between a field and a forest, perfectly green, with trees tall enough to shade the road but short enough that you could still see over them, back to where they ended and the hills began, everything still perfectly green. See? All I can think to say is “green, green, green.” I should have taken a picture, but, then again, we have seen how limited my photography skills are.
In general the people are quieter than I thought they would be, at least in the small towns I’ve seen. One of my best friends is Mexican and I’ve heard stories of her epic family gatherings attended by dozens upon dozens of relatives, everyone eating and talking and drinking and dancing. She alone operates on her own volume scale. Everyone here, meanwhile, seems pretty busy and it definitely isn’t uneventful or unfriendly, but it certainly isn’t loud. Maybe it’s the humidity. Maybe I’m confusing a slower pace of life with a quieter one.
My favorite places have so far been Troncones Beach, where I spent a week this past November, and the little town of Palenque, known as the main stopping point for the Aqua Azul waterfalls a short ride away. Troncones is made up of “resorts” like the one at which I stayed – eco-friendly yoga retreats meant for meditation and relaxation. I expected expensive, tourist-trapping restaurants and markets but there was barely anything surrounding these half-dozen resorts, just a few dilapidated buildings that served as both houses and restaurants. On my third day there my friends and I ate at one of these little restaurants – a simple, cheap, and delicious meal of fresh fish tacos and ice cold Cokes.
This is really presumptuous of me but I don’t care – I like to think that maybe Martha liked Mexico so much not only because it was Mexico, but because it was the exact place she needed to be at that particular time. She wanted a quiet, exotic place in the middle of nowhere. She was starting off a new phase of her life, with Hemingway behind her and a new adopted son to keep her company.
My current need is different: having become extremely familiar with the museums, roads, and especially the train tracks of Europe, I needed to see a place in the world that is completely different from all of that. Somewhere I couldn’t rely on my passable French or wear my favorite shoes everyday. As much as I love museums and art, I think I’ve seen enough in the past few years to last me for at least as many years into the future.
And so, instead of Picasso and Magritte and Berthe Morisot, I have seen the Agua Azul waterfalls, the beaches of Tulum, and the tiny, quiet town life of Troncones. In Nicaragua I have seen (and climbed [and boarded!]) the volcano Cerro Negro. I’ve spent a barefoot, sandy week on Little Corn Island. This week I hope to climb the ruins in Tikal to watch the run rise and swim in the clear pools at Semuc Champey in Guatemala. This is probably not impressive for most other travelers, but it’s a significant step for me. It’s a new corner of the world.
Although, I must say, I’ve never had to dig volcanic rock out of my arm after visiting the Musee D’Orsay.