If you give me a book that concerns traveling in Latin America, you can be assured I’ll read it. If it’s written by a woman, you’ll know that I’ll love it. And indeed that is the case for Marry Morris’ Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone. I read the book after I returned from my first ever international experience to Mexico (which is also where the book begins). At sixteen, being a teenager filled with inordinate amounts of traveling wanderlust, I was in absolute awe of Morris’ adventures. In high school, Spanish was my favorite subject and reading about all of the places she travels to that had been described in my Spanish textbooks made me want to take my meager earnings from my part-time job at a local charcuterie and head south of the frontera.
To the reader Morris comes across as adventuresome, ready to take on and try anything that may come her way. But you also detect a sense of tentativeness in her, fear of the “foreign unknown.” In Chapter 1 appropriately titled “The Desert,” she writes:
“Coming to the old Mexico, a lawless land. It is a landscape that could be ruled by bandits or serve as a backdrop for the classic Westerns, where all you expect the Mexicans to say is hombre and amigo, and si, senor.”
Morris’ adventures begin in San Miguel de Allende, a gorgeous colonial city, and also a place I visited while an exchange student in Mexico one summer. She writes when at the bus station she “just sat and looked at the destinations headed north. The names of the border towns-Laredo, El Paso, Nogales, Tijuana-made me think how close I was to home. In truth I couldn’t have been further away.” I have felt this every time in Mexico, even when vacationing in ritzy Cancun. A destination that is essentially in our backyards is also the place furthest away in terms of American culture, society and life.
What I love about this book is that it reads like a checklist of items one must cross off when young and traveling abroad, and Morris succeeds in checking off just about every item. She starts to date a native but finds issues of cultural differences getting in the way of anything serious developing between them. She grows weary of her traveling companion after having been in her company exclusively for so long (I sure have been there). She witnesses the tragic drowning of a local boy at a waterfall she had swam at only moments earlier, in a country where life went immediately on after it happened, no search and recovery teams existed. She travels throughout a region without a thought to her safety when most people would have avoided it like the plague. (During her travels, the Contra War raged in Nicaragua while the people of Guatemala were on the brink of civil war).
Perhaps my favorite part of the book is Morris’ relationship with a local woman in San Miguel, her neighbor essentially, who lived in a shack without any running water or indoor plumbing. The friendship that Morris has with Lupe made me immediately think of Elizabeth Gilbert’s relationship with Ketut, the Bailnese medicine man in Eat Pray Love. Although Morris does many things for Lupe and her immense broad (teaching the illiterate Lupe how to read, letting Lupe and her children take baths at her house when she’s not there, having Lupe clean her house to provide her with small earnings), it is Lupe who does so much for Morris and Morris is acutely aware of this. When she is sick, it is Lupe who cooks and takes care of her, not her rich, local gringo friends. When she is feeling the effects of traveling alone in a foreign country, it is Lupe who provides her with friendship , with a sense of home and kinship. Lupe reminded me of my incredibly warm and kind host mothers, Flora in Costa Rica and Maria Elena in Mexico. Their hearts must all be monstrously big to have taken in and cared for two gringas so kindly.
Although traveling alone has come a long way in Mexico and Central America since Morris traversed those parts, Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone, is still a fascinating read and I’m pretty sure that some of the things there are still the same (the absurdities of border crossings, the expatriates who live in a delusional and prejudiced world, the incredible people you meet when you step outside of your comfort zone). So track down a copy, read it for yourself, and see if you aren’t desirous of throwing caution to the wind and heading south of the frontera too.