|Robin Bayley followed in his great-grandfather's footsteps to Mexico, only to find an extended family he'd never known existed; The Mango Orchard tells the astonishing story of his journey. It's a beautifully written travelogue, with evocative descriptions and amusing vignettes that complement the heart-warming story of a family reunited.|
For more information you can check out Robin's website, or catch up with him on Twitter and Facebook:
I really loved this book (read my 5 star review!), so I was delighted to have chance to chat with Robin to learn a bit more about his experiences and hear some anecdotes that didn't make it into the book.
Rachel: I've always wanted to go to Mexico, but reading your book, I just know it's not going to be as awesome for me - I'm not going to find a village full of long-lost relatives.
Robin: Well, you never know! Maybe one of your ancestors went out there - from talking to geneologists I hear it happened a lot more than you'd think. I certainly never would have imagined what I was going to find. There's a phrase I heard somewhere: you shouldn't worry about being a good father or a good husband, you should concentrate on being a good ancestor. It was things that happened over a hundred years ago that affected what I found.
Did you know you were going to write a book when you set out?
I'd always hoped to write a book about this journey, but of course I had no idea what it was going to be about. And the writing of the book actually mirrored the original journey, as well, in the sense that I'd never written a book before, just as I'd never before tried to track down where my great-grandfather had lived. And so in both cases the only option I had was to run from intuition, because I had no other clues. If it felt right, I just went in that direction. So when I went on the journey and found what I found, I guess it justified the hunch that I had over all of those years.
But you said in your end notes that there was about ten years between making the journey and writing the book?
Yeah, that's right, it was the mid nineties when I went, and it was 2004 when I started writing.
And when you retraced your steps to write it up, had it changed much? Were things as you remembered?
Bits had changed. And obviously political situations change, some for the better and some for the worse. A lot of places have actually improved quite a lot. I heard a radio report just before I went to Mexico the first time, which was talking about a revolution, and though that was an exaggeration there was a lot of hardship and lots of people on the streets begging. When I went back in 2004 the country was a lot more affluent and seemed more confident in itself.
How often do you get to see your Mexican family?
I've been back, I think, seven times now. I went twice for the book, to look in archives and interview members of the family, and the result of that is all in the book. Apart from the original journey, I've been on five other trips. I went in 2010 and took copies of the UK hardback for the family. They all had the same reaction: they all looked at it, and they held the book as if it was my newborn baby, and ran their hands over it, and sniffed it, and flicked through the pages, and then they looked up and said "Where am I?" So I'd find where they were, and they'd ask "What does it say?" - because of course it was in English. Although some of the younger generation have very good English, and they've read it.
And have any them been able to visit England?
Some of the family have been over to see me, and Tio Javier's grandson is my godson, now, so he's been across several times. They keep on asking me when I'm going to go back again, and I don't know - but I told them they need to get me a Mexican book deal.
So is there going to be a Spanish translation?
I hope so. I've had conversations, and my agent has had conversations, with Spanish and Mexican publishing houses, and there's been a lot of interest, but it hasn't happened yet. I'm just waiting for it to fall into place. It's funny that it's been translated into Romanian, and French, and Portugese, but not yet Spanish. It is going to be published in Mexico, in English, very soon.
Is your Spanish up to writing it yourself now, or would you get a translator?
No - it needs to be mother tongue. But obviously I'd have a hand in it, whereas there's very little point in my being involved in a French translation when I don't even speak the language.
It must have been a strange role for you to be a translator for your grandmother, when you took her there.
It was a very strange emotion to go back there with her, because that was the completion of that journey, not just for me and my grandmother but for the Mexican family. It sort of completed a cycle, and that was a very important thing for all of us. To be the sole translator, as well, put a lot of pressure on me. But essentially I was just a conduit - I just happened to be the one to walk in that Sunday. When I went back, it was my grandmother they really wanted to talk to. For my Mexican family, it was like my great-grandfather's other daughter had returned to them, because she and my grandmother were quite similar. It was an extremely emotional time for everybody. For me, it was a nice feeling, to realise I was just a small part of it.
I got the impression that the Mexican family was very large, certainly by British standards. Do you have siblings and other relatives in England?
Well, I'm one of four, which is quite big for this country. But in total, of the same line of the family, in the UK there are nine of us. I took my parents and my sister out with me, and for my mum who's an only child, all of a sudden she was surrounded by relatives. I felt extraordinarily lucky to have had that experience, and to see family history in the making. To be able to make it into a book is just a bonus.
What do you think would have happened if Arturo hadn't been forced to leave, with his one family in England and his other family in Mexico?
It's a very interesting question, and I have thought about it, but I really don't know. One of the things which I talk about a little bit in the book is this concept of intergenerational memory - the idea that as well as inheriting traits and characteristics of your forebears, you can also inherit memories, dilemmas, or whatever emotions. And when I was writing the book, I physically felt the dilemma that my great-grandfather had: this issue of having two families, and a sense of guilt which I felt, that I'm sure he would have experienced. When he was playing with his children in England, he would have been very conscious of the fact that he wasn't playing with his family in Mexico - and vice versa. I'm sure it's something he wrestled with a lot, and I've got a feeling he might not have come home, because there was no reason for him to be going back the last time, in 1910. I think he'd lost his job, and it was getting very dangerous - the day that he crossed into Mexico from the States was the day the Mexican revolution began. So the whole thing made absolutely no sense, except for the family.
Do you think you might ever move to live in Mexico yourself, or are the short trips enough for you?
One of the key themes in the book is the relationship between intuition and destiny, and basically following your hunches - at all stages, I just try to figure out what the right thing is for me to do, at any given time. At the moment, living in Mexico doesn't feel like the right thing for me to do, but that's not to say I won't do it in the future. I'd never have to stay in a hotel, and I'm always well looked after. The reason I live in London is because I thought this is where I knew the most people, but I actually know more people in Tepic than I do in London - and they're all related to me.
Do you keep in touch online, now, as well?
Most of them are online, although not the oldest generation. I've got quite a few Facebook friends, but a good proportion of them are my Mexican family. One example, which is actually very sad, but a good example of how the relationship has changed with technology. The Christmas before last, Tio Enrique had a heart attack and died, and I actually knew about it before most of the Mexican family, because someone wrote me a message through Facebook, which popped up on my phone as I was doing my Christmas shopping in Leicester Square. It was not nice news to get, but I felt very privileged to be told that quickly.
The extended family in Mexico.
Did you find it a shock to adjust to the Mexican climate?
As I said in the book, when I asked Tio Javier whether it ever rained, and he said it would start on June 24th at about midday. Last time I was there, it was June 24th, and the rain started at midnight - so he was a few hours out, but it's uncanny. When i was doing research I spent a long time in the university library, and one time I was sitting outside eating a yoghurt and spilled some of it on the floor - and two months later it was still there, because it hadn't rained.
And what was your favourite Mexican dish?
I've actually just written a blog for a travel website, about finding veggie food in Latin America, and it's not always necessarily very easy. I think Mexico is the only country in Latin America that really has a good cuisine, especially for vegetarians. When I got to the family and I was staying with Tio Javier, his wife is an absolutely fabulous cook, and she wasn't at all fazed when I told her I was vegetarian. She cooked loads of things for me, including quesadillas, with frijoles (refried beans), sopas (rice dishes), and nopales (cactus). She told me that her mother-in-law taught her to cook, and that my great-grandfather had taught her. He was unusual, in that he did all the cooking for the household. There are various stories about how he and his Mexican wife met, and I think the most likely is that she was the nanny of his daughter, but I was also told that she was a fabulous cook and used to do catering for functions at the mill, and he kept on finding excuses to go into the kitchen.
You must be the most successful accidental drug smuggler in the history of Latin American border crossings.
It was actually worse than I put in the book, because I came back to this country, and before I went home I went to Spain because I had some more investigations to do there. So I went to Spain, and came back again, with this stuff still in my bag.
Did you eventually smoke it?
What do you think?
Only you could have saved yourself quite a lot of trouble by doing that in the first place.
Yeah. It was unfortunate, but it makes for a good story. The most scary aspect was when I was going to the US, and I really did get the third degree there - as I put in the book, that's exactly how it happened. He really did say "That's a slam dunk, man!" (I still don't know quite what that means) but anyway he never got chance. I hope he reads the book and recognises himself, and thinks "damn, I could have busted him!"
You mention one guy whose name you changed, and he wanted you to change it back. How much of the rest of it did you obfuscate?
Yeah, I changed Pedro's name, and his family as well. The guy in Cartagena, I changed his name to CB - actually the name of another guy from the Carribean I'd met, and I just thought it was such a great explanation for being called CB. I wrote a whole chapter about him (which was edited out), he smuggled drugs all over the world and got busted going into Brazil, and last time I spoke to him he was in Germany "supplying the US troops." I think everyone else was by their real name.
Pedro changes a tyre.
Its interesting, because I do a lot of talks to literary festivals and book groups, and one of the questions people ask is "how much is made up?" - and it just isn't. I think I was helped by the way in which the writing was done, as I worked with a writing group, and all the other people in the group were writing novels. I always wanted it to read like fiction. One of my favourite books of any is called The Fruit Palace, and I read a review of that which said it reads like exciting fiction, and that's how I wanted mine to read. I couldn't think of any reason why it couldn't work, once I trimmed out all the days when nothing happened - after all, who wants to read about me buying a pair of shoes? So you take all that rubbish out, and just stick to what's relevant, so the only bit that's altered is the timings.
How long were you away for, beginning to end, on your first trip?
The first journey was two and a half years. In the book I cut it down, so it reads like six months, because that's the part of the journey that was fully relevant. Although there was a purpose to every part of it - I did Asia, China, and Indonesia first, and it was quite deliberate, because I wanted to have my travel legs before I got to Latin America. And then before I got to Mexico, I needed to get my Spanish up to speed. I needed to feel I was ready.
How did you slot back into normal life when you came back?
It's very very difficult. That's the one thing that people don't tell you about, and it's beyond doubt the most difficult part of doing any kind of travel, is coming home. Fitting back into "normal" life is difficult. When I originally came back from the trip with my grandma, I wrote an article, but I never sent it to anyone because it wasn't ready. So then I just got sucked back into corporate life, I'd been working in advertising and I ended up in children's television, until 2004 when I realised the time was right. I gave up my job, sold my flat (again), and went back to fill in the blanks.
I met with everybody I'd met with before, although some of it relied on pure luck or serendipity - like trying to get hold of Pedro. I didn't know where he was, I didn't have an address, and I could only remember roughly where his old house was. I went into a shop and asked, without success, but the guy standing behind me in the line had gone to school with Pedro's brother. He took me to see them and I don't think I've ever received such a big hug - I thought he was going to break my ribs. It was less of a surprise to see the Mexican family again, as I'd been in touch with them, and been back since that first trip.
Thanks for sharing a little bit more about your adventure, Robin. I'm definitely coming to you for advice when I finally get chance to visit Mexico!
* Photographs excerpted with permission from The Mango Orchard by Robin Bayley (Arrow, an imprint of Random House UK). Published July 2012.