May 2003

May 19th, 2003

A True Story Based on Lies

A True Story Based on LiesI first picked up Jennifer Clement’s novel A True Story Based on Lies one late afternoon in San Miguel de Allende last autumn while browsing in the excellent ‘Tecolcote’ bookshop just around the corner from where noisy long-tailed grackles were roosting in the jardín. Of course, I’m now back in the UK where Canongate published a paperback edition earlier this year and I read it last week.

The story explores the overlapping lives of masters and servants in a well-to-do Mexican household that rapidly unravel after a sexual relationship between Leonora, a young servant with a smattering of a convent education, and her ‘master’ leads to the birth of a daughter, Aura.

At 164 pages, the novel is short (but still made the Orange Prize ‘longlist’ in 2002) and the reader is given scant detail to help build up a picture of the house, and we learn that Mr O’Conner is a lawyer who often “does not come home until very late” but not much else. Instead, the dual narratives and unsentimental prose poetry draw the reader into a world of rumours, lies, pain and injustice, as well as exposing the darker issue of violence against women behind closed doors – something only beginning to be recognised in Mexico.

Equally set in her ways is the kindly “middle-aged” cook, Sofia (“who smelled like garlic, cumin and oregano”), with whom Leonora shares a room on the roof. Predictably, she is reproachful after Leonora reveals that she is pregnant, but it was Leonora’s mother who had instructed her three young daughters “always to say ‘yes’…” as she had packed them off to convent. Of course, it suits the O’Conners that Leonora stays, and that her daughter, Aura, is brought up as their own. The alternating chapters track Leonora’s induction into domestic work and the consequences of the encounter with Mr O’Conner but is particularly effective in subsequently exploring her daughter’s innocence and unique freedom to wander both ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’. Leonora, however, must silently savour every scrap of the child’s affection until this becomes too much for her to bear.

Jennifer ClementClement is a poet, biographer and novelist raised in Mexico City, which is where she now lives and her work has appeared in numerous anthologies. She is director of the San Miguel Poetry Week, which she founded in 1997 with her poet-sister, Barbara Sibley. Canongate will publish this paperback in the US next month but it is already available from Amazon (UK and US). 

Filed in Books

May 14th, 2003

Bush fires rage in Yucatán, Oaxaca…

For more than a fortnight, soaring temperatures and tonnes of tinder-dry branches left behind by Hurricane Isidore last September have contributed to the rapid spread of dozens of wildfires in the Yucatán. The recent fires have scorched an estimated 150,000 hectares (370,500 acres) in different areas of the country, with land-clearing fires started by farmers running rampant in Oaxaca, one of 3 southern states – along with Campeche and Chiapas – declared “disaster zones” by the federal government.

May is normally the hottest month of the year, but the unusually intense heatwave has seen some parts of Mexico wilt with temperatures approaching 50 degrees C (122 degrees F) with advancing fires so far claiming the lives of half a dozen people, including 4 volunteer fire-fighters.

Yucatán has been particularly badly affected, with villages threatened by blazes being evacuated before they are engulfed by fires whipping through the low-scrub forest. As I reported in March, the big southern sky smudged with plumes of yellow-black smoke from slash-and-burn agriculture and stubborn ground fires has become a familiar sight for travellers setting-out from Mérida.

The extremely dry conditions and dusty forest floors have created especially smoky fires, creating a haze that has drifted north and even reached into Texas. We all hope the rains arrive early this year triggering an end to the devastation, although meteorological experts say the extreme weather may be a result of the El Niño phenomenon that could continue until August.

Travel should be largely unaffected although travellers should heed the advice of army fire-fighters if advised of road closures and (as always) drink a lot of liquids.

Filed in Yucatán weather

May 12th, 2003

Total Eclipse of the Moon

Although a lunar eclipse may not have the “wow” factor of a solar eclipse, it is still a spectacular event that shouldn’t be missed.

The first total lunar eclipse of the year – and the first of this kind visible from Mexico since 21st January 2000 – can be seen throughout the Republic on Thursday evening, 15th May.

An eclipse of the Moon can only occur at full Moon and only when the Earth is exactly between the Sun and the Moon.

Incidentally, we’ll have to wait another two decades to witness the next solar eclipse visible from the Mexican mainland: about 1 o’clock on the afternoon of 8th February 2024. Put it in your diary

Filed in Events & Festivals

May 7th, 2003

Tope-landia

Chevy registrationWe’ve ridden one last tope (speed bump) and swerved to avoid a final bache (pothole)… our marathon journey through seventeen Mexican states has come to an end after logging 24,716km (15,448 miles) driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.

All told, we pumped £731-worth of petrol into the tank of our economical Chevy, which, averaging out the exchange rate over the entire 8-month trip, works out at just under £3 per each 100km travelled (£4.73 per 100 miles in ‘old money’).

For comparison, this is roughly half what it would cost to travel a similar distance around the coastline of the British Isles (more than once…); roughly the equivalent of London to Sydney and half way back again.

No punctures.

No accidents.

Not that the journey was without incident mind you – I’ll be writing something about our experiences very soon: the good, the bad and the very ugly (aka Mexico City traffic cops).

Filed in Getting about