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Hecho en Mexico

Mexican Days Journeys Into the Heart of Mexico Tony Cohan Broadway Books: 276 pp., $24.95

May 28, 2006|Joy Nicholson | Joy Nicholson is the author of the novels "The Tribes of Palos Verdes" and "The Road to Esmeralda."

A gorgeous aimlessness permeates Tony Cohan's "Mexican Days: Journeys Into the Heart of Mexico." Hassled in his once-dreamy Mexican town by a pushy American film crew, Cohan is offered a travel writer's dream job: Go on a series of journeys in hopes of finding an answer to the question, "What's new in Mexico these days?"

This could be an addled goose chase, a travel writer's hyperspree, but, thankfully, Cohan chooses to handle it in a languorous, sensual way. It's not, he points out, that there are new buildings, monuments and tourist attractions to explore in Mexico (of course, one will find all of these in such a vibrant country). It's the enduring, inexplicable beauty of Mexico that a traveler can discover anew, even for the umpteenth time: the smell of lime-chile corn, the ocher-washed stone walls, the cheeky art pranks of Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo, the soft, starry nights of hurricane-prone Caribbean beaches. We hear of romantically desperate honeymoons, eccentric tunneled cities built like rabbit warrens, the cultural contexts of weaving and dyeing with snail-shell-based ink. In short, this is a disparate collection of tales.

Halfway through, the reader might ask, "What's the central frame of reference here? What's the exact point?" Cohan's previous book, "On Mexican Time," had such a goal-oriented approach: Gringo arrives in Mexico, refurbishes a dream house. A very American Cinderella story. A sense of beginning, middle, end. Lessons learned. Life changes accomplished, wisdom gained.

"Mexican Days" does not offer this linear neatness. A more circular, perhaps more sophisticated travel ode, it wanders and wafts back and forth through mountains, jungles, strip malls, fruit stands, pyramids and coffee plantations. There is a longing for connection; there are wistful moments of loneliness. Already temporarily exiled from his chosen home of San Miguel, Cohan hears a beloved friend tell of her decision to leave their ever-growing town. The pain and shock of her "defection" -- "[i]n a small (expatriate) town, people want confirmation that this is still the good place, that their choice is holding up" -- makes the author acutely aware of the good days that have gone by. This disaffection continues when he visits his artist wife, Masako, from whom he is seemingly amiably and lovingly estranged, in Oaxaca. There the couple visit artistic, interesting friends and traverse teeming, colorful markets before separating -- to "miss each other" again.

Cohan continues on, in what seems to be a happy, haunted sleepwalk, to Xalapa, Yucatan state, Mexico City, the otherworldly Tlacotalpan -- the phrase "magical travel realism" keeps springing to mind. The descriptions of Mexico are suitably lush and inviting. A gifted escritor, Cohan can make a reader smell the orchids and coffee, feel the mist and shrouds of jungle fog. We can taste the black coffee with dollops of sweet milk.

However, many writers are able to paint pretty, descriptive travel pictures. It's not for this that "Mexican Days" is a standout -- and a standout it is.

An experienced traveler of a certain age, Cohan has already discovered and digested the fact that there are broad differences in cultures and geographies. He's lived in Mexico, toured churches and museums, consumed and experienced delicious foods, political folderol and spectacular religious rites. Here, his journey seems to be more like a quest to connect with the hidden soul of Mexico: to revel in its embrace of life and death, its connection to the fantastic and the phantasmal. Why, he seems to ask, is Mexico so darned enchanting, so darned maddening and so full of confusion all at the same time?

"We North Americans," he writes, "tend to dismiss anything smacking of futility or defeat. Latin Americans, half-children of Don Quixote, understand [that] little or nothing comes of things anyway, it is the noble gesture, not the result, that redeems a life."

Such noble gestures include embracing the choked, gaudy danger of Mexico City, the moss-covered ruins of Palenque and the bizarre, mummified remains of long-ago humans so beloved in the town of Guanajuato.

In travel, as in life, one tends to quickly sort experiences into good and bad. Worthy or pointless. The scorpion in the serape, the waterfall at dawn, the brightly colored costume so different from one's own manner of dress. All are categorized, labeled. But in all-embracing, magical, maddening Mexico, Cohan seems to say, good and bad are not so easily classified. Point and pointlessness interconnect. Life happens quite mysteriously, and the journeyer is left quite alone to sort out implications.

For instance, in the faraway, misty jungles of Xilitla, Cohan comes upon an old friend from the United States and shares an awkward moment of youthful reminiscing. Is the encounter good or bad? Embarrassing? Ridiculous? Or is it a dream?

In verdant Xalapa, he's almost immediately implored to rent a stranger's house. And, although he has no intention of putting down roots in yet another strange city, he does so anyway. To negative effect? To life-changing effect? Neither is the final answer.

It is this sense of unneatness, of I's not dotted and T's not crossed, that carries the narrative so beautifully. Cohan conveys what's new -- and old -- about Mexico. Life is strange and beautiful here. The center won't hold, but that's OK. Drive, fly, take a rickety bus. Keep stepping forward, another stone will appear.

A good adventure is a series of vignettes (and probably not an orderly one).

That is, if you're traveling Mexican-style.

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