Flandrau was a rich young American with an individual sense of humour, and no prejudices except against Western uniformity. His travel book, first published in 1908, is more than a ramble among the Mexican people. Based on his brother’s coffee plantation, he spent the best part of five years in a country which he describes as ‘one long carelessly written but absorbing romance’. His insights into the customs and character of rural Mexicans, and expatriate gringos, apply to this day.
‘... probably the best travel book I have ever read.’ - Miles Kington, The Times
‘A portrait that is both humorous and profound...’ - Stanley Olson, TLS
‘His impressions are deep, sympathetic and judicious. In addition, he is a marvellous writer with something of Mark Twain’s high spirit and Henry James’s suavity.’ - Geoffrey Smith, Country Life
Format: 296pp demi pb
Extract from Chapter One
NEITHER TOURISTS NOR persons of fashion seem to have discovered that the trip by water from New York to Vera Cruz is both interesting and agreeable. But perhaps to tourists and persons of fashion it wouldn’t be. For, although the former enjoy having travelled, they rarely enjoy travelling, and the travels of the latter would be pointless, as a rule, if they failed to involve the constant hope of social activity and its occasional fulfilment. By tourists I mean – and without disparagement of at least their preference – persons who prefer to visit a country in bands of from fifteen to five hundred rather than in a manner less expeditionary; and persons of fashion I am able even more accurately to define to my own satisfaction by saying they are the kind of persons to whom the wives of American ambassadors in Europe are polite. Probably to neither of these globetrotting but alien classes would the voyage from New York to Vera Cruz appeal. For the tourist it is too slow and long. There are whole days when there is nothing for the man in charge of him to expound through his megaphone; whole days when there is nothing to do but contemplate a cloudless sky and a semitropical sea. Thoroughly to delight in the protracted contemplation of such spacious blueness overhead and of so much placid green water underneath, one must be either very lazy or very contemplative. Tourists, of course, are neither, and while persons of fashion are sometimes both, they are given to contemplating the beauties of nature from points of vantage favourable also to the contemplation of one another.
Emphatically the deck of a Ward line steamer is not one of these. A preliminary investigation just before the ship sails rarely results in the discovery of what a certain type of American classifies as ‘nice people’. When nice people take sea voyages they usually go to Europe; and so there is an additional anticipatory thrill on embarking for Mexico in the certainty that there won’t be any merely nice people on board. The ship will be crowded – so crowded, in fact, that at Havana and Progreso (which is the port of Merida in the Mexican State of Yucatan) the company’s agents will distractedly swoop down on you and try to convince you that it is to your everlasting advantage to abandon a lower berth in the stateroom long experience has enabled you to select, for an upper berth in a room you happen to know is small, hot and near the steerage. If you are amiable you laugh at them, but if, as is customary, you and the company have had a fierce disgusto before sailing and you are therefore not amiable, you express yourself without restraint and then run to the rail to watch the agents depart in their launch, with gestures that more literally resemble the traditional tearing of hair, wringing of hands, and rending of garments than any you have yet observed.
The ships are crowded, but not with the kind of people who set sail in search of pleasure, or the Bayreuth festival, or health, or the London season, or clothes, or the Kiel regatta, or merely because they are temporarily hard up and have to economise for a time by dismissing the servants, closing all three houses, and living very simply in nine ballrooms at Claridge’s or the Ritz. With people bound for Latin America, Fate somehow seems more actively occupied, on more intimate, more intrusive terms than it is with people on the way to somewhere else. Most of them are going, one gradually discovers, not just to see what it is like, or because they have seen and have chosen to return, but because circumstances in their wonderful, lucid way have combined to send them there.
My room-mates – I can’t afford a whole stateroom – have usually detested their destinations from experience or dreaded them from hearsay. One, a silent, earnest-looking young man who was fond of playing solitaire and reading the poems of Edgar Allan Poe, always spent his winters in the hot countries, not because he liked them, but because his profession of ‘looping the loop’ on a bicycle could be continuously pursued only in climates salubrious to the circus. Another, a grizzled old Wisconsin timber cruiser, was being sent, much against his will, to make a report on some Cuban forest lands.
‘It is a queer, strange thing,’ he confided in me when we parted in Havana harbour, ‘that a man of my age and morals won’t be able even to get drunk without the help o’ that’ – and he nodded towards the ladylike little interpreter who had come out to meet him and take charge of him during his stay.
Still another struck me at first as a provincial and tedious New Englander until I found out his mission. His inside coat pocket was stuffed with photographs of his numerous children, and he had a horror of snakes and tarantulas that he often expressed much as one of Miss Wilkins’s heroines might express her horror of mice. Like all persons who share the same dread and are about to make a first visit to the tropics, he conferred on reptiles and poisonous insects a kind of civic importance that they themselves under no circumstances assume. He had a haunting idea that the entire toxical population of Guatemala would be lined up at the railway station to receive him. But when it came out that he was being sent twenty-six hundred miles for the sole purpose of splicing a rope – a matter, he said, of a few hours at the most – I was compelled to see him in a light not only different but almost romantic. Somewhere in darkest Guatemala there was a rope four and a half miles long. It broke, and my room-mate, who had never been farther south than Summer Street nor farther west than West Newton – localities between which he had vibrated daily for many years – was, it seemed, the one human being among all the human beings from Guatemala to Boston who was capable of splicing it. As the rope had cost three thousand dollars it was distinctly less expensive to import a West Newtonian than to import another rope.
Then, too, I once between Havana and Vera Cruz had as a roommate a ‘confidence man’ – a broadening and therefore a valuable experience. One is not often given the privilege of living for five days with a confidence man on terms of confidence. He was a tall, lank, sandy-haired creature of about forty, with a Roman nose, a splendid moustache, unemotional, grey-green eyes, a diamond ring, and braces, as well as a belt; the sort of looking person whom twenty-five years ago British playwrights would have seized upon as ‘a typical American’. In a bloodless fashion his whole existence was ‘a carnival of crime’ – a succession of scurvy tricks, heartless swindles, lies, frauds and, now and then, candid, undisguised thefts. Sometimes, as when he sold jewellery and bric-a-brac at auction, his dealings were with the semi-intelligent well-to-do, but more often he exerted himself among the credulous poor, as when he unloaded brass watch cases filled with tacks on negroes at Texas fairs. His marked playing cards and loaded dice, which he showed and explained to me with much amiable vanity, were very ingenious, and I found our long, cheerful discussions on the technic of his art most helpful. His contributions to them, in fact, threw upon certain phases of sociology a brilliant and authoritative light that I defy anyone to get out of a book or put into it. From instinct, from habit, from love of the work, he was an almost thoroughly consistent scoundrel, and it was a shock to discover by the end of the voyage that the thing about him I most objected to was his wearing braces as well as a belt.
There is always a brave and hopeful little band of actors on board – usually an American stock company on the way to its financial and artistic doom in the City of Mexico. And it is invariably named after the beautiful young lady who has hypnotised some middle-aged Mexican patron saint of the drama into guaranteeing everybody six weeks’ salary and a return ticket. If it isn’t the Beryl Smith Company it is sure to be the Company of Hazel Jones or Gladys Robinson, and Beryl (or Hazel or Gladys) is so beautiful that she can stand unhatted and unveiled in the midday sunlight of the Gulf – beauty knows no more merciless test – without making you wish she wouldn’t. Furthermore, you continue to think her hair the loveliest colour you have ever seen, even after – with an extremely elegant gesture – she tosses her chewing gum overboard and languidly tells you how she does it.
But her tragedy, like that of her more hard-working associates, is a great inability to hold anyone’s attention except when she is off the stage. If actors could only arrange in some way to charge admission to their semi-private existence, acting as a profession would be less of a gamble. For it is an unexplained fact that, however obscure, inconspicuous and well-behaved they may be, actors and actresses excite, when they are not acting, more curiosity, speculation and comment than any other class. Start the rumour on shipboard that a certain quiet, unattached young woman, who wears a shabby mackintosh, common-sense shoes and a last year’s hat, is a third-rate actress, and the centre of the deck at once becomes hers.