Two Englishmen in 1930s Mexico

Mexican Family ca 1930

Two writers who influenced my travels in Mexico are Aldous Huxley, who wrote Beyond the Mexique Bay in 1934, and Graham Greene, who wrote The Lawless Roads in 1939. Both writers were there during a rough time. The Mexican Revolution was theoretically over in 1920, but there were not only widespread disturbances, but there were not, as there are today, a safe system of intercity roads. Plus Huxley spent most of his book on his travels in Guatemala and Honduras.

Greene’s book was my guide to a trip my brother and I took to Mexico in 1979. We flew to Mexico City and transferred to a flight to Villahermosa, which at the time impressed me as the armpit of the republic. Greene then then made his way to the Maya ruins at Palenque. From there to San Cristóbal de las Casas was lengthy journey over the Sierra Madre on muleback. For Dan and me, it was an all-day journey by second class bus during which we passed a bus from the same company (Lacandonia) that had run off the road and encountered an army inspection just outside of Ocosingo. From there we visited Oaxaca and rode an all-night bus back to the Mexico City airport.

Old Penguin Cover for The Lawless Roads

Greene had considerably worse experiences during his trip over forty years earlier. In the middle of his journey, he broke his glasses:

Just short of our destination a sudden blast of wind caught my helmet and the noise of cracking cardboard as I saved it scared the mule. It took fright and in the short furious gallop which followed I lost my only glasses. I mention this because strained eyes may have been one cause for my growing depression, the almost pathological hatred I began to feel for Mexico. Indeed, when I try to think back to those days, they lie under the entrancing light of chance encounters, small endurances, unfamiliarity, and I cannot remember why at the time they seemed so grim and hopeless.

Why the author went to Mexico with a single pair of glasses is a mystery to me. Fortunately, I never felt any pathological hatred for Mexico, based on the many subsequent journeys I took there.

The Edition of Huxley’s Book That I Own

I have also been to most of the places that Aldous Huxley described in Beyond the Mexique Bay during my trip to Guatemala and Honduras in 2019. Unlike Greene who saw only the Maya ruins at Palenque, Huxley traveled to Copán in Honduras and Quirigua in Guatemala.

Like Greene, Huxley also had a problem with the people of Central America. At one point, he lets it all hang out: “Frankly, try how I may, I cannot very much like primitive people. They make me feel uncomfortable. ‘La bêtise n’est pas mon fort.’” The French expression could be translated thus: Stupidity isn’t my strong point.

These two civilized and (perhaps) sticky Englishmen did manage to write interesting books which engaged my interest through multiple readings over a period of more than four decades.

Now why would you want to read books written almost a century ago when there are more current books on the subject? My answer is a simple one: The best recent books were written with a knowledge of what went before. And when it comes to Mexico, one could easily go back to the books of John Lloyd Stephens written in the 1840s. (In fact, I will do just that in a follow-up post.)