On the Plain of Snakes by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux is a jerk — but still my favourite travel writer of all time.

He’s age-81 as I post. Still going strong.

Theroux says he’s mellowed. And I’d admit his most recent books are much more positive than his scathing critiques of the past.

In 2015, he published “Deep South” detailing four road trips through the southern states of the United States. Excellent.

In 2019 he published On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey, his account of his extensive travels in his own car throughout Mexico.

In some ways it was a continuation of his Deep South investigation.

Near the start he recaps the deaths and damage done by the drug trade. The insatiable American market. The brutal competition in Mexico to supply it.

He does a terrific overview of illegal immigration before the pandemic. Mexico a net zero. Now mostly more desperate folks from Central America as well as many from India, the Caribbean, and even China.

Over the decades it’s gotten more and more difficult to cross the border illegally. And not because of any wall. Walls are considered a joke in Mexico.

In another instant, his comments come across as self-serving, as when he longs for a simpler Mexico with “inexpensive meals that were delicious, cheap motels that were comfortable, and friendly people who, out of politeness, seldom complained to outsiders of their dire circumstances: poor pay, criminal gangs, a country without good health care or pensions, crooked police, cruel soldiers, and a government indifferent to the plight of most citizens.” …

I was amused to read of all the time Paul paid bribes to crooked cops. An conspicuous car with Massachusetts licence plates — a sitting duck.

Theroux is mostly critical of ReTrumplicans. I like that too, of course.

“The per capita income in Oaxaca is the same as in Kenya and Bangladesh,” Theroux says.

“You’re dealing with people who have very little money and get very little help from the government. But they have a great culture they’re very proud of, their family values are very strong, and they’re very self-sufficient and creative. They mend their clothes; they fix their shoes; they’re actually able to take something that’s broken and repair it; they have a lot of cottage industries.

I admire that, and I admire the ones who pick up and go to the border. Most of the people I’ve met who crossed the border just wanted to earn some money to send back and then go home; they weren’t here to go on welfare or be the parasites they’re identified as.”

In fact, Theroux says, “the book was inspired by everything that Donald Trump and other people were saying during the presidential campaign about Mexico, Mexicans, and the border—their uninformed opinions and stereotypes.”

He adds, “One of the great reasons for traveling is to destroy stereotypes, to see people and things as they really are, to see the dynamics and the complexity of a country. As soon as he started saying things like, ‘There’s too many of them, they’re coming over the border, they’re rapists,’ I had a great reason for taking a year or two to get to the bottom of it.” …

Publisher’s Weekly interview

Personally, I’ve given up on travel in Mexico though I had a condo there for 20 years.

It’s gotten more expensive for the tourist. And on recent trips I found it too American. I’d rather go to Nepal.

However, reading this book has sparked some interest in getting to the far south of Mexico. I’ve never been.

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