Dusty, noisy, and sweat-suckingly hot – those were the first, ignorant ideas that clattered through my mind about Mexico when I was invited by the British Council to visit the Guadalajara International Book Fair this month. I’d never really considered the country in much detail; never wanted to visit. I’m a notoriously terrible traveller, particularly when I’m destined for warm countries. I’m a pale Welshwoman, after all. I manage, just about, with the heady heat of British high summer, so long as I have access to shade and numerous ice lollies and midday doesn’t crest twenty-five sticky degrees. This year, however, I have been gifted various unexpected opportunities, and so I have begun to make my trepidatious way around the globe. And Mexico – as new places are wont to do – managed to surprise me.
Guadalajara is a city of contrasts. Historic buildings sit amongst modern shops and cafés, their soft sand-coloured stone juxtaposed by splattered street art. Sprawling markets, stuffed with stalls selling leathers and guitars and singing birds in little wooden cages, encroach upon air-conditioned indoor shopping centres, the scents spilling from the food stalls to compete with the larger restaurants.
The Mercado Libertad, one of the largest traditional markets in the country and situated in the oldest part of the city, was an overwhelming experience. Squeezing through the narrow walkways, I was trailed by traders who called out about their wares in their racing Spanish. The heat shoved at me. Steam from simmering, sputtering cooking clouded above me. But I was compelled to explore every corner, picking through the piled up trinkets, smiling ‘no’ at the persistent traders. There, I treated myself to a yellow ukulele I will no doubt spend Christmas annoying everyone with as I pluck my way towards a new knowledge of the notes.
Between visits to the Mercado Libertad, the Cathedral, the traditional streets of Tlaquepaque, and chatting a temperate evening away at a cocktail event at the Hospicio Cabañas – a beautiful structure built in the early 1800s which functioned as an orphanage – I each day attended The Guadalajara International Book Fair. The Fair is a monstrous undertaking, which hosts, I’m told, over a million visitors in its one week of existence each year. It’s a bustling site of meetings and deal-making and cultural exchanges. And whilst there, I was able to listen to a number of excellent authors – Tessa Hadley, Owen Martell, Irvine Welsh, John Harrison, Mari Griffith – speak on panels. It was particularly thought-provoking to hear Mari Griffith speaking about our native Wales, introducing the Mexican audience to our native tongue, and I’ll admit to feeling more than slightly homesick as she described the landscape, the history, the pride of the place. From 5,000 miles, sitting in flip flops in pleasant December heat, I could practically smell the heavy damp of a Welsh winter morning. I can be the most sentimental of home birds at times.
Incidentally, I devoured Mari’s very interesting novel, The Root of the Tudor Rose, on the plane home. It’s a moving, thoughtful read.
What impressed me most about these panels, though, were the audiences. School children filed in to listen to talks which must surely have been extremely difficult to follow, especially in translation. And yet they remained perfectly attentive throughout; they raised their hands to ask questions of the authors; they evidently flowed with enthusiasm for books. One young girl, on listening to Owen Martell speak about his novel, immediately took the microphone to ask, “How much does your book cost?” And if there’s anything I hope for as a result of the connections made between Wales and Mexico last week, it is that some of this true enthusiasm for books, in all and any shapes and forms, might be translated to our school children; that those Mexican children’s stories might find their way into our British children’s lives.
Because Guadalajara was a city of stories for me: stories stone-worked into the architecture; stories spray-painted onto scraps of city space; stories blasted out by car horns, and parcelled into foods; stories babbled by taxi drivers, and made vibrant by so many intense colours; stories told through the repeated wish, on every meeting, of “Good day!” Guadalajara seems to me to be a city which knows and values its history, but which is keen to march forward, smiling and calling out “Buenos dias”, and carrying with it art and culture and books, books, books…
I was lucky to visit. But I’m glad also to be home, in cold, dark, Christmas-lit Swansea, so that I can cwtch up in my office and start writing all those stories a week in Mexico began to thread together for me.