A Soldier’s Work – Mexico

I had almost given up trying to be a travel writer. Two years of financial insolvency, social isolation and editorial rejection had taken their toll. It was time to get a haircut, have a shave and hang up the walking shoes. Time to return to the factories, too, if they’d have me. Then came this e-mail from Rough Guides. Next thing I knew they were offering me a job working on their Mexico book.

“What qualities make a good guidebook writer?” I asked Andrew Rosenberg, a Rough Guides executive editor. He groaned. My question was unoriginal in the extreme.

“There are three things involved with guidebook writing,” he said. “Firstly there’s the research side, for which you need an obsessive eye for detail. Secondly, there’s the actual writing, and you should definitely have a certain level of technical skill. Finally there’s the travelling side, which needs patience and savvy. It’s rare to find someone who can do all three.”

You could add "athletic stamina" to that list. Writing a guidebook involves long, difficult days with little rest. Forget about indulging yourself with "experiences". Forget about hiking through rainforests or swimming with dolphins. In fact, forget about time off. This is soldier’s work.

The mission
All Rough Guides are comprehensively updated every two to three years, when a writer, or team of writers, are dispatched to check the facts. In this case, the work was divided between several of us, each author tackling a different chapter and region.

Pancho Villa, hero of the North

Pancho Villa, hero of the North

Northern Mexico was my assigned territory; a rugged, lesser visited world of seamy frontier towns, desert expanses and mountainous backwaters. Ranching culture reigns supreme in the north. The quintessential emblem is Pancho Villa, that gun-slinging hero of the revolution, storming through on horseback.

My journey covered over thirty five destinations from highland villages to industrial metropolises. Aside from the flight, all travel expenses came out of my wages – a one-off payment in two parts. I had five weeks to complete the job. The pace was relentless.

An inauspicious start
It began in Tampico, Mexico’s gulf coast: hot, humid and shivering with the delirium of a thousand drunken sailors. I set out under the 5:00 a.m. twilight, having travelled some 36 hours from London via Mexico City. My brain was a mess of jet-lag, culture shock and physical exhaustion. The city’s simple grid plan was utterly bewildering. As the sun rose to its meridian, a deeply oppressive heat bore down. Sweat cascaded from my face, my back, my palms. In my confusion, I accosted the locals. Their pained looks seemed to indicate I was butchering the language. I struggled, I gestured, I flapped. I nearly wept. No one understood me. The whole city was upside down and the guidebook was wholly inaccurate. My first day went badly.

“That’s Tampico for ya,” said Mike Nelson, four days and four cities later. “There’s something psychic about it. Something wild. Same thing happened to me when I was updating it for Sanborns." Who the hell wrote this? I said to myself. It’s completely wrong. Then I realised: Oh yeah, that was me. I wrote this.”

Mike Nelson, Mexico Mike as he’s also known, is a veteran travel writer and Mexico specialist. He wrote the Sanborns travelog series, among other guides, and acted as a professional travel consultant for MTV. I met him at his house in McAllen, Texas, just over the border from one of my assigned destinations.

“My ego got me in the end,” he told me, sucking deeply on a Cuban cigar and sinking into the steaming waters of his outdoor jacuzzi. “That’s what usually happens with travel writers.” he laughed. “Still, I had some great times. I was famous for a while. The name of Mexico Mike was a legend among hoteliers and restauranteurs.”

For the present, I left my ego at the door and headed south to Monterrey, Mexico’s third largest city. Industrial, bohemian and commercial by turns, Monterrey is a bold, modern city replete with daring architecture. In terms of work, it was vast and daunting. Fortunately I was growing accustomed to the drill.

The glorious march
Essentially, updating a guidebook requires verifying the text and its countless details – accommodations, restaurants, museums, cyber-cafes, banks, tourist offices, post offices, costs, opening times, addresses, phone numbers, websites – and more. You need to ask questions constantly. Is this accurate? Can this be clarified and improved upon?

It requires planning and meticulous re-planning. I pored over maps, scribbled notes, diagrams, endless lists. I spent my evenings holed up in cell-like rooms with nothing but militant cockroaches for friends. I was a-wash with business cards and tourist brochures, keying changes into my laptop.

Soon my feet fell into a marching rhythm. Left – right – left – through the countryside. One, two, three – four hundred kilometres. The campaign advanced under the sound of trumpets – Mexican trumpets – five, six, seven hundred kilometres and more. In and out of cities and towns, hit-list in hand, scouting for targets and interrogating potential informants.

Bus journeys were my downtime. Seeing the land from a moving vehicle always fills me with a mystical yearning; more so in Mexico, my spiritual home. There I was, living the dream, journeying through the country I love, being a travel writer. What incredible luck. The mountains laughed, the deserts smiled and the vultures devoured the sky. My gringo heart turned somersaults.

Canyon country

Canyon country

The copper canyons
By the third week, the scenery was unsurpassed. I arrived in the Copper Canyons – an immense labyrinth of gorges, ravines and wildly undulating slopes. Four times larger than the Grand Canyon in the U.S, this rugged and unforgiving terrain posed new kinds of challenges.

Regional destinations included obscure highland villages, luxurious ravine-perched inns and isolated nowhere towns that could easily have been something out of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. These places could only be accessed by long, winding and often unpaved roads. Dawn starts and precarious chicken-bus rides were in order.

I made my base in Creel, a dusty mountain town turned burgeoning tourist centre. Until then, I’d been treated with indifference by the hoteliers and restauranteurs I’d met. Suddenly, in a place where tourism was the principal economy, I was lavished with attention and flattery. Now I had the power to make or break businesses. I was the conductor of tourist dollars – a God, no less. Travellers hear me and obey! Hoteliers bow down to my presence! Verily my justice is harsh but fair, and my words are like laws etched in eternal stone. Ah, the ego. It was just as Mexico Mike had warned.

Hanging out in the plaza

Hanging out in the plaza

Border towns
After the wild beauty of the canyons came the seething horror of the U.S. border. Border towns were a recurring feature of the trip. Ciudad Juárez on the Texan frontier was the worst – a living crime scene, an ugly whore-ridden den of iniquity, famous for serial killers and drug trafficking. And through it all, good old Texan boys out for a good time.

“Hey man!” Foamed a gringo by the Santa Fe international bridge. “Can you spare me a dollar! Some guys in a bar, they robbed me!”

“I don’t have anything.”

“Hey man, they’ll rob you too!”

I worked through the city fast. As I high-tailed it out by dusk, a song by Beck sounded through my MP3 player:

Tonight the city is full of morgues
and all the toilets are overflowing.
There's shopping malls coming out of the walls
as we walk out among the manure.
That's why I pay no mind,
That’s why I pay no mind,
That’s why I pay no mind…

Winding down
Finally I arrived on Mexico’s west coast. I advanced south, visiting a string of beach resorts, ports and fishing towns. Most memorable was Mazatlán – part glossy resort, part seamy port. It would be a fine place to write a novel.

I imagined some cracked and crumbling room in the steamy historic quarter, a revolver and a bottle of tequila by the typewriter, my lover sprawled on sheets in torn black stockings, a cigarette burning between red painted lips. But I was not writing a novel, I was updating a guidebook.

I concluded my research in the peaceful town of Mexcaltitan, a tiny circular island floating on a lily-strewn lagoon. This was the legendary Aztec homeland – Aztlan – from where the tribe set forth on their pilgrimage to the Valley of Mexico. Today, the island’s population numbers around 400. There is sparse tourist infrastructure: a single inn and a handful of cheap, local restaurants.

I sat in a restaurant overlooking the water, alone, watching small birds dart through holes in the walls. Five weeks had seemed like five months. How travelling ages you. I was now a professional travel writer. My feet ached. My backpack was brimming with flyers, brochures, printouts, notes. I wondered about the people I’d met, about how many kilometres I’d covered, about my hourly rate, but not too much. I drank my coffee, paid the señora and wandered outside. The pavements were filled with pink shrimps drying in the sun. I watched a group of fisherman loading a boat with crates of beer. I approached the water and followed them on board. Time to go home.

Read more about the author at his website.