On The Plain Of Snakes by Paul Theroux

4 out of 5 stars

The image that Mexico wants to portray of their country is very different to the reality that exists. It is a country that is in the grip of drug gangs who commit all sorts of murders and atrocities with little or no enforcement from the police and army; in fact, in a lot of cases, the police are another arm of the gangs. Given the violence that permeates the country and the border region in particular, there are 30,00 murders a year there, it is probably not the most sensible place to travel, but that has never stopped Paul Theroux.

He begins his journey in the town of Nogales a town of two halves. It is split by a 40-foot high steel fence that separates the United States of America from Mexico and is a microcosm of each country. The US side is prosperous and the Mexican side, run down and impoverished. It fills with people either hoping to make the crossing from south to north or who have been returned from America and have nowhere else to go now.

‘What is the meaning of Coixlahuaca?’
‘El llana de las serpientes.’
The plain of snakes.

He is not there as a tourist though, he wants to try and understand what is the pull of his country to these people and gain an insight into why they risk so much in the hands of coyotes while walking through the deserts of Arizona. To do this, he wants to meet the real people of the border towns, sometimes by taking his American plated car which has its own set of risks as he finds out when he is stopped by an overzealous policeman. He realises that this is not always the most sensible thing to do and often parks it in a secure place and takes the bus instead.

It seems that ever since the border at Reynosa, 1400 miles away, I had been travelling on a royal road through a plain of snakes.

He teaches a writing course for a short while and makes friends with those learning from him. In Oaxaca he becomes a student once again, this time learning Mexican Spanish alongside residents of the town who still maintain their independence from the rest of the country. It feels like a place he could live in. Travelling further into Mexico, he stops in the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas where he meets Zapatistas who are trying to force political change in the region.

One of the greatest thrills in travel is to know the satisfaction of arrival and to find oneself among friends.

I have a lot of Paul Theroux’s books (including a signed one) but as yet haven’t read that many of them for a variety of reasons, the top one being that I have so many other books… So far I have read two, this and Deep South. In that book, he was travelling around the southern states of America to try to understand the people of that region in his own country. In here he has popped over the border to discover more about the country that has been the subject of quite a lot of vindictiveness from the previous administration in the White House, Mexico.

Theroux is prepared to meet the locals in the way that suits him best by spending time in their towns and mixing with them. He is a sensitive and perceptive traveller and this comes across in this book as he describes the towns, people and food he experiences each day her is there. He does not seek to judge them, it is a troubled country, that is suffering from gang violence as well as being fundamentally corrupt. Most of the population are just trying to live to support their families, even if that means earning money in America for a portion of their lives.

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  1. Liz Dexter

    I have read an awful lot of his older books, and Deep South, when was this one published? It does look interesting. I love how grumpy he is …

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