A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Odyssey  – ★★★★1/2
“The first impact of Mexico City is physical, immensely physical. Sun, Altitude, Movement, Smells, Noise. And it is inescapable. There is no taking refuge in one more insulating shell, no use sitting in the hotel bedroom fumbling with guide books: it is here, one is in it” [Bedford, 1953: 39].
Sybille Bedford wrote about her year-long adventure in Mexico in 1953, and her book, initially titled The Sudden View: A Mexican Journey, became a classic in travel writing. In it, Bedford portrays colourfully her stay with her friend E. all over Mexico, taking journeys from Mexico City to Morelia and Guadalajara, and then to Oaxaca. At one point, Bedford visits a hacienda of one Don Otavio, situated near Lake Chapala, a place of both natural beauty and local intrigue. This is no ordinary travel writing, however – the book is written with humour and certain pathos, and Bedford ensures that there are many insightful observations on the history, geography and social conditions of the area. Even though now dated, A Visit to Don Otavio is still a very pleasurable read, not least because it often reads like an exciting adventure novel set in Mexico, rather than one’s usual travel log.
Upon stepping onto Mexican soil for the first time, the author immediately starts “to soak up” the natural beauty, splendour and the hectic social life of the place, comparing Mexico to places in Europe she knows well, including Italy. Travelling around Mexico, Bedford tries to retrace the steps of conquistadors and early travel writers, making observations on the history, religion, architecture and economics. Some of the challenges for Bedford and her companion in Mexico are to endure long and uncomfortable train journeys, and to find suitable hotels to stay in. When Anthony, E.’s dashing young cousin, joins them in their journeys, his recent contacts take the trio to the colonial villa of Don Otavio, where they glimpse past colonial life and marvel at stunning natural environs, including Lake Chapala. At his hacienda, Don Otavio employs seventeen servants and has some rich and eccentric personalities as his neighbours, meaning that Bedford and her companion soon find themselves in the midst of some high society satire.
Bedford makes rich, sumptuous descriptions of her surroundings, and the beginning of each chapter is especially well-written: “We wake to a fawn-coloured desert of sun-baked clay and stone. This is indeed a clean slate, a bare new world constructed of sparse ingredients – here and there a tall cactus like a candle, adobe huts homogeneous like mole-hills, and always one man walking, alone, along a ridge with a donkey” [Bedford, 1953: 31] or “As the train moves through the evening, the country grows more and more lovely, open and enriched. There are oxen in the fields, mulberry trees make garlands on the slopes, villages and churches stand out pink and gold in an extraordinarily limpid light as though the windows of our carriage were cut in crystal” [Bedford, 1953: 36].
As the author details her interactions with local people, much humour and comic situations emerge. Bedford and her companion E. become “lost in translation”, even though Mexican people they encounter speak English. At one point, Bedford starts a conversation “with the officer from Monterrey” [Bedford, 1953: 36] and it takes this form: “- Where do you come from? [the officer asks]; – America [she answers]; – This is America; – From North America; – This is North America; – From the United States; – These are the United States [the officer says, adding – ] Estados Unidos Mexicanos. Our trio of travellers also get the full meaning of such phrases in Mexico as “it’s regular” and “it lends itself”. Not all of the author’s observations are kind, however. There are expected references in the book to tortillas, tequila, tobacco and maize, but, when the country is described as the one where “the sky is always clear” [1953: 47], the author also adds that “a vertical sun aims at one’s head like a dagger” [1953: 40]. Bedford also states that “in Mexico everything is cheap and everybody is underpaid” [1953: 65], and her description of Mexican wine is in these terms: “cheap ink dosed with prude juice and industrial alcohol, as harsh on the tongue as a carrot-grater…” [1953: 51].
Needless to say, A Visit to Don Otavio is still a product of its time. This means that the book does present the usual Mexican stereotypes and there is even a well-camouflaged condescending behaviour shown towards those who are apparently “beneath” the author’s standing (after all, she did write her book from one “privileged” point of view). However, the book’s charm and light-heartedness mean that much banter with the locals does not come across as irritating. Bedford is forced to make surprising detours on her journey, veering off from her planned route, thereby making the reading of her journey even more exciting.
It is easy to see why A Visit to Don Otavio became a classic of travel writing. Bedford’s book balances well its informative, insightful aspects with comedy and a sense of adventure. The result is a charming book that captures the liveliness, colour and contradictions of Mexico in the 1950s.