MOST OF US have neighbors. We observe them washing their cars fanatically, we know they order pizza every Friday night, we've seen them in their bathrobes fetching their morning newspaper--yet it's a false sort of intimacy, created merely by virtue of proximity. It's all too easy to live side by side with people yet never really know them.
In Dancing Alone in Mexico: From the Border to Baja and Beyond, Ron Butler presents our neighbor to the south as one worth getting to know. Butler is a Tucson resident and seasoned travel writer. He's written for such publications as Travel & Leisure and the well-known Fodor's guidebooks, among others. He's been all around the world, yet his preference for Mexico, and his love of all things Mexican, is genuine. It's hard to read this book and not be disarmed by his zeal.
According to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, it's best to "begin at the beginning": The author's beautiful yet restless (of course) wife leaves him, and takes their two children, a son and daughter, with her to Guadalajara to live. This departure starts a relentless commute on Butler's part as he attempts to maintain a long-distance relationship with his children. Without hearing both sides, his story is convincing, and I found myself rooting for him as he takes his pre-adolescent daughter on train trips across Mexico, getting to know her and the country simultaneously. Everyone wants something out of travel, maybe adventure, maybe escape; Butler finds solace. He views the countryside around him, with his children close by, as nurturing, awe inspiring, maternal.
It's an interesting way to introduce Mexico. Given the prevailing stereotypes of rampant corruption, rising crime and habitual poverty, you might wonder if you're taking the word of a dyed-in-the-wool Pollyanna. Granted, it's a book meant to pique interest, not deter it; halfway through the book I had a top-10 list of places to visit.
Butler has a keen sense of atmosphere and wastes no time pointing out the best places for authentic experiences. He's not afraid to make sweeping statements: "The world's best cup of coffee ... can be found right here in Veracruz. ... Vienna coffeehouses, so pretentious and dainty, are for sissies." Nor does he shy away from answering his own question: "Who would choose to live in this sandy middle of nowhere? Defrocked priests, embezzlers, criminals on the lam, IRS targets, victims of failed marriages?"
Every city Butler visits seems as if it were a discrete country, such is the sense of personality he ascribes to each one. He deftly sums up the essence of such places as Mexico City: fine art, elegance; Morelia: approachable, the "candy capital of Mexico"; Veracruz: la musica! He reveals where to buy silver (Taxco), probably the only place to enjoy a radish festival (Oaxaca), and the best restaurant in all of Mexico, Las Mañanitas, in Cuernavaca.
Butler is an ardent art lover, and for those readers who know their Mexican artists, his digressions on some of his personal favorites--Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, Rubén Morales--will satisfy. For those who don't, it's a quick study, pepped up with interesting trivia. For instance, the well-known muralist Diego Rivera was married at one time (he had four wives in total) to one of his former models, Lupe Marin, who had an uninhibited temper. Rivera was a well-known philanderer and Marin, not willing to be cheated on without causing a fuss, once "smashed two of his favorite pieces from his pre-Columbian pottery collection and served them to him at dinner that night in his soup."
For those of you who suppose that, by traveling to Mexico, you'll effortlessly assimilate into a stupor of "mañanas" and rural romanticism, think again. Butler points out the encroaching influence of Mexico's neighbors to the north: Turkey is served for Christmas dinner, Julia Roberts is revered, and Las Vegas's evil dopplegänger has been spotted in Cancún--the city most likely to make you feel as if you haven't left home. Cancún's central boulevard is known as the "Tourist Zone," and more hotels keep filling the empty spaces. In stark contrast to "Old World" Mexico, Butler draws our attention to an incomplete high-rise hotel, with a "prematurely installed toilet and bath ... silhouetted against a naked blue sky."
There are some surprises. In a country travelers visit to embrace a more relaxed lifestyle, there's a suspiciously familiar law in Puerto Vallarta (a city of 250,000) that all homes must be painted white. Then, as if to reassure us, there's another law that allows "starving artists" to pay their taxes with the equivalent in paintings! Mexico City has a museum devoted to these "payments" called La Colección Pago en Especie (The In-Kind Payment Collection). How can you not want to visit a country like this?
Butler captures Mexico's charm best in an exchange with his daughter. "Once, when visiting in early March, I was surprised to find Christmas decorations still up. I asked Alexandra, who must have been all of nine at the time, how long people kept the decorations up. 'As long as they enjoy them,' she said."