From the November 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler
When I looked out the window and saw a pilgrimage line of shirtless men flagellating themselves with rope whips, I knew I was in alien territory. Flocks of snowy egrets nested in the swaying tops of trees, and kitty-corner below was the desolate Benito Juárez park, where women still washed their clothes in a stone trough. After years in a marriage gone sour, I was traveling alone. Like others before me I was an escapee into Mexico, a good place to stand between one’s past and future. I rented a house for the whole summer in San Miguel de Allende. Then it was not full of foreigners and gussied up, as it is now. Then it was more Mexico as you dream it—someone playing guitar on the church steps, stoic faces, women making tamales at the market, battered buses, fiestas with fireworks, blue doors open to leafy courtyards. Let the marriage burn off me, I thought. I will translate myself into a new language, a new place.
I made friends with a woman who had a child by a matador but she did not tell the father. A stream of friends came and went. I didn’t confess to them that I’d seen a mouse run under the guest bed at night. I bought armfuls of tuberoses that scented the shuttered house. A man on a donkey delivered warm milk from a tin jug. I bought it and then, fearing undulant fever, poured it out. My guests and I loved the thermal springs, the mummies in Guanajuato, the promenade in the jardín at evening, the spare beauty of Querétaro. I jumped on and off rickety yellow buses with religious icons dangling from the rearview mirror.
Every day for five hours I went to Spanish class. My teacher, Raoul, was a tiny man in cowboy boots. Soon we became friends and started taking field trips to practice Spanish in larger settings. He had a friend with a worn taxi who drove us to old churches with elaborate painted walls—and more pilgrims whipping themselves. We stopped at stands selling roasted corn with lime. We drove off road, through hard fields, and searched for pottery fragments from the early inhabitants, the Chichimeca people. I found a terra-cotta plate with only a pie-slice piece missing. My Spanish, I thought, was becoming fluent.
One day, wandering in an abandoned cemetery, we saw four boys playing. Their ball was a human skull. I grabbed it away from them. The skull was a small child’s, permanent teeth still embedded above baby teeth. The jagged fontanel looked like the graph on an EKG.
Raoul began to confess that he was trapped, would never get out of teaching Spanish to people who only visited like locusts in season. He cried over the fate of the lost-to-time Chichimecas. The house behind mine was torn down, and droves of mice exited the foundations. When I came downstairs one morning, the kitchen counters were covered in mice. Maria, the housecleaner, came in clapping her hands and shouting for poison. We cleaned the house until the tiles gleamed and the wood shone. I was ready to go back to California to face my new life. I packed the skull in the center of my suitcase and brought that lost soul home with me.
Frances Mayes’s most recent book, co-authored with her husband, Ed, is The Tuscan Sun Cookbook: Recipes From Our Italian Kitchen.