Vogue’s Spotlight: TRAVEL

Hotel Playa de Cortez
Hotel Playa de Cortez

By Joan Didion

It had rained in Los Angeles until the cliff was crumbling into the surf and I did not feel like getting dressed in the morning, so we decided to go to Mexico, to Guaymas, where it was hot. We did not go for marlin. We did not go to skin dive. We went to get away from ourselves, and the way to do that is to drive, down through Nogales some day when the pretty green places pall and all that will move the imagination is some place difficult, some desert. Come back from the desert and you will feel like Alcestis, reborn.

To fly is to miss the point

After Nogales on Route 15 there is nothing but the Sonoran desert, nothing but mesquite and rattlesnakes and the Sierra Madre floating to the east,Sierra Madre no trace of human endeavor but an occasional Pemex fuel truck hurtling north and once in a while in the distance the dusty Pulman cars of the Ferrocarril del Pacifico. Magdalena is on Route 15, and then Hermosillo, where the American ore and cattle buyers gather in the bar at Hotel San Alberto. There is an airport in Hermosillo, and Hermosillo is only eighty-five miles above Guaymas, but to fly is to miss the point. The point is to become disoriented, shriven, by the heat and the deceptive perspectives and the oppressive sense of carrion. The road shimmers. The eyes want to close.

And then, just past that moment when the desert has become the only reality, Route 15 hits the coast and there is Guaymas, a lunar thrust of volcanic hills and islands with the warm gulf of California lapping idly all around, lapping even at the cactus, the water as glassy as a mirage, the ships in the harbor whistling unsettlingly, moaning, ghost schooners, landlocked, lost. Guaymas SquareThat is Guaymas. As far as the town goes, Graham Greene might have written it: a shadowy square with a filigree pergola for the Sunday band, a racket of birds, a cathedral in bad repair with a robin’s-egg-blue tile dome, a turkey buzzard on the cross. (Yes. On the cross.)
the wharves are plied with bales of Sonoran cotton and mounds of dark copper concentrates; out on the freighter with the Panamanian and Liberian flags the Greek and German boys stand in the hot twilight and stare sullenly at the grotesque and claustrophobic hills, at the still tow, a curious limbo at which to call.

For a week we lay in hammocks and fished

Had we really been intent upon losing ourselves we might have stayed in town, at a hotel where faded and broken turquoise-blue shutters open onto the courtyard, where old men sit in the doorways and nothing moves, but instead we stayed outside town, at the Playa de Cortes, the big old hotel built by the Southern Pacific before the railways were nationalized. That place was a mirage, too, lovely and cool with thick whitewashed walls and dark shutters and bright tiles, tables Guaymas Squaremade from ebony railroad ties, pale appliqued muslin curtains, shucks of dried corn wrapped around the heavy beams. Pepper trees grew around the swimming pool, and lemons and bananas in the courtyard. The food was unremarkable, but after dinner one could lie in a hammock on the terrace and listen to the fountains and the sea. For a week we lay in hammocks and fished desultorily and went to bed early and got very brown and lazy. My husband caught eight sharks, and I read an oceanography textbook, and we did not talk much. At the end of the week we wanted to do something, but all there was to do was visit the NASA tracking station or go see John Wayne and Claudia Cardinale in Circus World, and we knew it was time to go home.

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