I do not know why I keep on loving Mexico. In each brief love affair I have had with her I have ended up an embarrassed loser; still I am a sucker for her charms. On my first visit to Mexico, long ago, in a matter of two days I got dysentery, was bitten by a dog and was arraigned before a local alcalde for swimming through the shark traps off a public beach. Shortly thereafter I was picked up at the border on the suspicion that I was somehow involved in the murder of Leon Trotsky. At the Hotel Del Prado in Mexico City two summers ago, after three days of drinking only bottled water and thinking only the purest thoughts, I suddenly awoke in the night with a storm in my stomach. One hour later an earthquake shook the whole city, driving me half-naked to the lobby, where I sat, swaddled in a window drape, until the rumblings in the earth—and in my stomach—subsided.
Now here I am in Mexico again, recovering from another love affair. It is a Sunday, a timeless sort of day. I am lying on the roof of a small hotel called the Manzur in the town of Villahermosa in the Mexican state of Tabasco. The scowl of dark clouds that hung over this part of the land for the past week has dissolved, and the town now basks in soft winter sun. In the streets the children of Villahermosa are in full voice, celebrating the Virgin of Guadalupe. Someone is setting off firecrackers, and in the distance, against the clean sky, I can count 40 buzzards riding in a single thermal.
It is a very decent day, but I am not altogether up to it. There is a pain in my leg and a crick in my back and a buzz in my head. My mind is a riot; my memory is in tatters. I know what day it is, and where and who I am, but I am not sure how I happened to wander so far off the usual tourist track into this remote pasture where Conrad Hilton cannot comfort me. A moment ago, while I lay here on the roof, a hotel maid charged up and gave me a prolonged scolding. As best I could catch her torrential Spanish, she was objecting because I had hung my torn, dirty and wet clothes on a line sin permiso (without permission). "In the name of Jesus, please pardon me, Miss Torquemada," I apologized in poor Spanish, "for I have just escaped from a Protestant leper colony." While there was no truth in this remark, it was sufficient to drive her away.
I lost my passport a few days ago in the jungle near the Guatemalan border 150 miles to the south and east of this town. I have about $8 (even American Express has temporarily forsaken me). On a bright day such as this the proper place for a tourist is down in the streets, drinking in the atmosphere and buying out the town. With neither the desire nor the means, I am lying instead on this roof, sorting through the fragments of a diary—and through the fuzz in my head—to find out where I have been and what I have been up to for two weeks. (When I get back to the border the damn immigration clerks will want to know, for sure.)
From the scribbling on a hotel bill I know that around the end of last month I landed in Tuxtla Guti�rrez, a jewel of a town that sits among eroded hills about 100 miles south of Villahermosa in the state of Chiapas. I had gone to Tuxtla Guti�rrez from New York City because Rodney Rodd, an overimaginative New York friend, suggested that I should get out of the rut we were both in and try a different kind of vacation on a Mexican jungle river. (If I ever get back in the same rut with Rodney Rodd, we will have a few words.)
Before I came out—or rather, was carried out—of the jungle two days ago, I had filled two stenographic pads with an account of my travels. Many of the pages have been lost or destroyed, alas, and much of what remains of my writing—never too lucid—is now barely legible. For example, on one torn page I find the following obscure and fragmentary account: "Awakened before dawn by the din of a military band and much bugle blowing. When I opened my door to see what was up, two attractive ladies walked down the hall with nothing on except tennis...."
Lying here on the roof, I have tried to dredge up the memory of two ladies wearing only tennis shorts, or tennis sneakers, while bugles blow in the predawn, but the details elude me. I have no recollection of when the incident occurred, or of its outcome, but I suspect it took place during the four or five days I spent in Tuxtla Guti�rrez.
Fortunately, near the start of one pad some meaningful but disconnected passages about Tuxtla Guti�rrez are legible. On one clean page, under the dateline "Monday, I think," I can pick up the following thread: "Two lizards have taken over a corner of my hotel room, and on the floor by the window there is a three-inch-long creature that looks like a cross between a praying mantis and Bl�riot's first midwing flying machine. Every now and again, after flexing several hind legs, this Bl�riot bug takes off, flies straight into the far wall, rebounds the length of the room and falls to the floor exactly where it started. I am reluctant to do away with the bug. It may be one of a kind....
"There are 19 of us gathered here to go down the Usumacinta River. As Rodney told me in New York, running rivers in rubber boats has become a big thing, particularly among U.S. Westerners. Jack Currey, the Salt Lake City man who is leading us down the Usumacinta, has guided more than 1,500 voyageurs on U.S., Canadian and Mexican rivers in the past three years. In fact, I am one of the few novices in this party, and the only Easterner. There is one near-Easterner here—a Canton, Ohio hardware wholesaler named John Brothers, who is about 60 and has itchy feet. John Brothers has trooped over a good bit of Central America, visiting the comfortable spots with his wife and prowling alone in the bush. He has been on stretches of the Usumacinta before, paddling with Indians in a cayuco. He is back now in Tuxtla with us because he saw a TV film of the Usumacinta last summer. Apparently the film so aroused the river-rat fever in him that he was impossible to live with, so much so that his wife told him to go down the river again and get it out of his system. Personally, I think John Brothers is incurable. Without a drop of Ron Rico or a Margarita to loosen his tongue, he often starts ranting about the river, spouting jungle facts and lore about the Maya Indians...."
The next page in the diary contains the cryptic note, "Dr. Clyde—$5—beer," followed by several ancient Maya glyphs that I sketched crudely for some reason. Then the decipherable narrative continues: "In the past three days we have visited Tuxtla's zoo and a Maya museum, and have driven 12 miles into the hills to look down into the ragged guts of E1 Sumidero Canyon, a scenic wonder of the sort you do not see often outside the
. But most of our time has been spent at the Tuxtla airport, sitting, waiting and wondering. Two days ago we were scheduled to fly 160 miles to a jungle airstrip called Tres Naciones on the Usumacinta. Originally we were to make the trip in a B-18, a big-bellied plane that was built along the lines of a sperm whale in the late '30s and proved to be such a bad actor that it was not allowed to fight in World War II. There are two B-18s still operating out of Tuxtla. The one we chartered lost a motor, so we must wait until the other is available. A curator of the Smithsonian Institution would go simply wild among the old flying machines at the Tuxtla airport. In addition to the cast-off B-18s, there is an oddball craft that a Mexican pilot tells me is a DC-1�—one of the few still in the air. There is also an aged, wooden-framed Avro buzzing around on borrowed time. Two or three times a day the Avro appears out of the blue over Tuxtla. Sideslipping in, sometimes upwind, sometimes downwind, it lands with a bounce and a screech, quickly disgorges bags of native produce, takes on boxes and bales of God knows what and staggers back into the sky, bound for somewhere.