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“The Enigma of Arrival”

One of My Favorite Paintings by Giorgio de Chirico

One of My Favorite Paintings by Giorgio de Chirico

I remember the first time I landed at the Manuel Crescencio Rejón Aeropuerto in Mérida, Yucatán, in November 1975. It was my first real trip out of the country (I don’t include Niagara Falls and Tijuana as being quite outside the U.S.), and it was a real eye-opener. It was night, and the vibe was tropical. In the cab to the Hotel Mérida, I passed a huge Coca Cola bottling plant before we took the turn to the right toward Calle 60. So many businesses were open to the street, and families were seated at card tables with beers and sodas. The local men were all dressed in white; and the women wore colorfully embroidered huipiles.

What was different between this and all my previous travels was that I was alone in a strange land and feeling an unusual sense of the remoteness of all my previous experience to what I was experiencing in the moment. I felt like the two huddled figures in Giorgio de Chirico’s painting, “The Enigma of Arrival” (shown above)—except that the streets of Mérida were crowded. I didn’t get much sleep that night, much of which was spent leaning out of my sixth floor window onto Calle 60. All night long, figures walked up and down the street, occasionally stopping in mid-stride to stare right at me. (How did they do that?)

The next morning, I had breakfast at the Restaurant Express, which was right across the street from a 17th century Franciscan church and the old Gran Hotel, which used to be the only one in town around the turn of the century. Eventually, I grew used to the crowds, the food, the warm, humid, floral air. I loved Yucatán and went back there four or five times.

In 1987, V. S. Naipaul wrote a novel entitled The Enigma of Arrival, which discussed the strangeness of his life (he was born in Trinidad) in the English countryside.

I have grown to love the actual enigma of arrival in a different country. I am more alive to everything around me. It is a good feeling.