A Not-So-Literary Tour of South-Central Mexico

Travel Stories: Peter Ferry made the trip based on a story he'd heard about Hemingway's Lady Brett Ashley, but in Taxco, nothing was quite what it seemed.

06.27.15 | 4:11 PM ET

Taxco, MexicoPhoto: Angeloux via Flickr, (Creative Commons)

I was spending the winter in Cuernavaca, Mexico, studying Spanish and trying to be a writer when I decided to visit Taxco. Actually, I didn’t decide alone, but the woman I’d decided with changed her mind. As I recall that all had something to do with my being an asshole, and rather than cancel my plans and try to work things out, I stubbornly went on my own. I think that was the asshole part.

Why Taxco? Well, for one thing, I was young and it was old and beautiful with colonnades, cobblestones, courtyards, red-tile roofs and white, sun baked walls—an ancient Mexican town entirely and carefully preserved in colonial glory. For another, it’s Mexico’s silver capital, once known for its mines, now known for its silver workshops. Also, despite its beauty and tourist legacy, Taxco is in the lawless state of Guerrero between Mexico City and Acapulco, and there are often U.S. State Department advisories against traveling in the area.

Then there was the tantalizing bit of gossip I had read somewhere that Taxco is where Lady Duff Twysden, Hemingway’s model for Lady Brett Ashley in “The Sun Also Rises,” had died. According to the story, her pallbearers, all former lovers, had dropped her casket coming down the steps of Santa Prisca Cathedral and her corpse had rolled out into the street. The story isn’t true, but I didn’t know that at the time because it had not yet been debunked and, besides, it’s too wonderful not to repeat even though it’s apocryphal. Duff Twysden did live and travel in Mexico and there are several accounts of the pallbearer story, but she in fact died quietly of tuberculosis in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at the age of 45, and was cremated.

I should have known. There were hardly any steps leading up to the cathedral; it was not the stage setting for such a spectacular debacle. In fact, Taxco on the whole turned out to be a pleasant but quiet town in which there wasn’t much to do but buy silver, and only after I had wandered into and out of a dozen or so silver shops did I discover that I wasn’t much interested in the stuff. I went back to my hotel, which was a bit threadbare and almost but not quite rescued by its modicum of colonial charm; it had a fountain and some bougainvilleas in an interior courtyard. It was there in the late afternoon that I set up shop on the only bench with a six-pack of Negra Modelo and a copy of Malcolm Lowry’s amazing novel “Under the Volcano,” the most amazing part of which was that it was set in Cuernavaca. I had started reading it in the zócolo there, sitting at a table in the Café Universal; in the very first scene two characters cross that plaza and go down the opposite hill. They seemed to do so right in front of me. And while none of the story happens in Taxco, I was still close enough in fact and closer still in feeling to make the whole thing seem immediate and personal. Besides, “Under the Volcano” is monumental and beautifully written, if those things can be said of a story about the last day in the life of a down-and-out alcoholic.

I had just opened a beer and settled in when someone sat down beside me. Have you ever noticed that when people from the United States come into a room for a meeting, they sit down at every other seat? Not everyone in the world is like that. This guy was practically touching me, and then he asked by gesture if he could have one of my beers.

“Of course. Por supuesto.”

His name was Carlos, and despite the fact that he spoke very little of my language, and I was only beginning to learn his, I found out a couple of beers later that he had big plans for us. “You, me,” he said, “ongos!”  Then he made an expansive, bombs-bursting-in-air motion using both of his arms. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I didn’t think he was making a pass at me, but I wasn’t sure. I excused myself, careful to leave my beer and book and went back to my room to look up “ongos” in my Spanish/English dictionary. I couldn’t find it. Had I known that it was spelled “hongos,” I’d have known he was talking about hallucinogenic mushrooms. Thus the bombs bursting in air.

Even then, I probably would not have taken him up on what seemed to be an invitation because, while I was quite interested in hongos, I was not at all interested in spending time in a Mexican prison. I had visited the one in Cuernavaca with my language school. Its courtyard was set up like a village market with vendors selling everything from tacos to carvings to canaries. It seemed somewhat charming until I learned that this was how the prisoners earned money to buy the food they ate. I doubted that I had the requisite marketable skills unless Mexican prisoners or their visitors were willing to pay for Elizabethan sonnets or half-baked literary criticism.

Fortunately, Carlos and I ran out of beer and the hotel dining room opened at about the same time, and so with some difficulty and extended regrets, I excused myself. This might have been a mistake. The dinner was mediocre and brief and afterward I had nothing to do. I wandered around until I found a cantina, the Mexican version of a western saloon complete with swinging doors, a foot rail and no women, please.

There was a prize fight on TV and two local guys watching it. We nodded to each other. In time it became apparent that we were rooting for the same boxer. By gesture, facial expression and some words in each other’s language, we admired our fighter’s prowess and valor and expressed disapproval of the other’s dirty tactics, and when the verdict went against us, we commiserated.

They bought me a beer. Then I bought them a beer. They were both named Carlos. What are the odds?
“We are good guys,” said Carlos #2.

“I too am a good guy,” I said.

The next fight was brief and ended in a knockout. We celebrated by buying each other more beer. When the cantina was closing, Carlos #2 asked if I would like to come with them in a cab to a bar outside of town.

“No reason for a cab,” I said. “I have a car.” So it was that Carlos #2, Carlos #3 and I ended up in a kind of Mexican road house on the lip of a canyon a few miles by winding mountain road from Taxco. It was hopping. There were sparkling lights, a band, a long bar and some pretty women. We were shown to a table and I bought a round of beers.  Some of the women joined us; I assumed they were friends of the Carlos’s. They were certainly friendly.

“They are our girlfriends,” said Carlos #2 over the music. “Gordita and Delgada,” he said. The girls laughed and slapped him. 

“Gordita, Delgada,” I said shaking their hands. They laughed more and harder. I think they liked my manners. I think they liked me. I seemed to be the only gringo in the place and as such was something of a novelty. A bottle of chilled champagne arrived in a bucket of ice. A great to-do was made of popping the cork, which flew up and hit the ceiling.

Then the band began playing a fractured version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” that came out “Yum Peen Yak Flatch.” I turned to the Carlos’s to see if they were as amused as I was, but they were singing along and clapping their hands, so I turned to the band and realized the leader was looking right at me. He raised his hand in salute; the number was apparently in my honor. I raised my hand back and then my glass, and then the whole place was toasting me. It was quite a moment.

Carlos #2 and his girl friend left for a while and Carlos #3 and I had a tortured conversation made more tortured by alcohol and music. Then Carlos #3 and his girl left for a while and Carlos #2 and I had a somewhat less tortured conversation; his English was a little better. When I complimented it, he said rather proudly that he was a teacher of English. That seemed unlikely.

All the while one of the women across the way had been watching me. I seemed to have caught her eye and, I daresay, she had caught mine. I’d heard of this happening to other people especially late at night across smoky dance floors, but it had not happened to me, so I was surprised that she seemed taken with me; she was tall, willowy and strikingly pretty. She was also of African descent, and while there are black people along the Gulf of Mexico in coastal towns such as Veracruz and Tampico, there are precious few in the western part of Mexico. I had read somewhere that slaves had once overthrown the crew of a ship that was transporting them, run aground off Guerrero and settled there in a village very much like the ones they’d been kidnapped from in Africa. I thought that I’d also read that the story had been a source for Herman Melville’s novella “Benito Cereno.”

I quickly became convinced that Graciela, for that was her name, was from that place, and I tried to tell her so when she came to sit at our table, and despite the inadequacy of my Spanish, it seemed to me at the time that she was flattered and perhaps impressed by my knowledge. She nodded eagerly. When a new song started, perhaps her favorite, she jumped up, cocked her hip, put one hand there and beckoned to me with the other.

“Well,” I thought. We danced hard. I did a few steps they obviously hadn’t seen before. Then when a slow number began, we held each other tight. I breathed in the earthy, sweet, wonderful scent of her hair and skin. I felt her squirming and pressing against me. I was aroused. I wanted to pour out my heart and soul to Graciela, so I told her how much I loved Mexico. She held me tighter, so I told her how much I thought of Africa and Africans. She nuzzled me, so I expressed my admiration for Herman Melville, his artistry, his understanding of history, culture and the sea, and his encyclopedic knowledge of whales and whaling. It was then that I lost her, that she abandoned me.

Back at our table I told the Carlos’s, who I think now had been watching Graciela and me. They listened sympathetically. “Perhaps, I said something to offend her,” I speculated. “I just don’t know what went wrong.”

“You like her?” asked Carlos #2.

“Well, yes, I like her.”

“You want her?”

“Want her?”

The Carlos’s conferred.  Then Carlos #2 said, “You see, Peter, this is a brothel.”

“Oh,” I said.

“These girls are for sale.”

“Oh,” I said.

“These girls are prostitutes. Graciela is a prostitute.”

“Oh,” I said.

And it really was a brothel and she really was a prostitute and fortunately the Carlos’s really were good guys.

I’m not sure how I got back to the hotel that night.

I’ve always hoped that I didn’t drive.