I guess it goes back to 2019, before the pandemic was even on the radar, when I got really into learning about Gertrude Stein. I read a couple biographies about her, and tried to read some of her writing and understand what she was trying to do with word repetition. A friend challenged me to give it a try myself, and early this year, before the pandemic, I gave birth to Once Upon a Time, a narrative traveler’s tale built upon the repetition of a key word more than 50 times.
I really enjoyed that exercise, and it got me to wondering about this idea of building upon previous ideas and theories, and how, in movies and music, this type of thing is done all the time with great interest in the form of what we call “covers,” or “samples,” or “remakes.” If a singer can recreate a song from the 1950s, why can’t we do that with writing, too?
It’s funny because, when I tell people in the writing industry about this idea, they sort of look at me like I’m crazy. Like, haven’t you ever heard the word “plagiarism?” And I think about all the songs that are “covered,” literally word for word, and how no one seems to be offended. Movies like “A Star is Born” have been “remade” several times, honoring the original arch but also creating something entirely new. Why are we not doing this with writing?
I decided to give it a try, and figured there was no better writer to start with than Hemingway. I know his style very well, and many of his stories are travel themed. One in particular that I’ve always loved is Che Ti Dice La Patria?, a tale of two friends traveling through Italy back in the day. The story is very political when its original purposes are considered, but from afar here in 2020, the travel theme shines bright, the idea of forming an opinion of a place based on who you meet when there. These people give you an indication of the place, but is it an honest and true representation?
I’ve always loved that component of the story, the irony, and I decided to take that theme and run with it. My version is set in Mexico and follows a group of travelers on a road trip through Chiapas and other parts of the southeast. They begin to form an impression about Mexico based on a few choice experiences, which, like Hemingway, I ultimately find very interesting.
You can read the original story here (page 179), and in my version, you’ll see some sentences lifted word for word, as a way of honoring the original story. I tried to write in the same style as Hemingway, so it feels like his cover, and I kept the same title, simply translating it from Italian to Spanish.
I hope you enjoy the tale. Next up in the cover series is Ray Bradbury. I’m going to try a couple of these – I think, ultimately, they would make a great book compilation. It would certainly be a cool process for me, a way of honoring these writers who have influenced me, one way or another.
¿Y Que Dice El Pais?
The girl from Puebla liked to drink red wine and when we stopped at a gas station she went in and bought herself a bottle, and beers for the rest of us. We had been on the same highway all afternoon, an interstate, going up and over the rugged hills of Chiapas, with rock and jungle rising and falling in the landscape around us. The sun was going down over the countryside and the light was changing. The sun was low and it would, sometimes, around certain curves and from certain vantage points, disappear behind the hills as we drove, or behind a tree as we passed.
Up ahead we would get off the highway and onto the country roads. But before we got off the highway and onto the narrow, one-lane mountain road through the high-country, tree-covered villages, we had to pay the toll.
We took the exit off the highway and hid all the alcohol under the seats. It was a very American thing to do. We stopped in front of the booth. The window of the booth was closed shut and instead of someone inside, two men were standing outside between the van and the window, in front of the booth. One of them was short and well-dressed in a nice shirt, his shoes shined. The other stood behind him, much taller in big, heavy boots, a potato sack over his head. The holes for the eyes were very small and the fabric around each eye was frayed. His eyes were narrow, sharp, intense. In his hand, at his side, was a two-foot-long machete. I was surprised to say the least.
“What’s this?” I asked the driver.
“No habla,” he said. “Don’t talk.”
Everyone shut up. I sat still, at attention, hands visible on my lap, my heels keeping the beer cans from spilling out from under the seat. The driver rolled down his window and the well-dressed, short man came up and said something. The driver did not say anything; instead he handed him some money. It looked like a couple hundred pesos. The tall man with the machete and the sack over his head stood there, looking on in silent judgement, overseeing the transaction – a real-life gargoyle.
The driver eased his foot off the brake and we rolled forward, but the short man held up his hand. The tall man with the mask and machete took a step forward. The driver slammed on the brake and we were snapped back by the seat belts. I watched the short, well-dressed man walk the length of the van, counting the number of us inside. His shoes were impeccably shined. He said a couple things in Spanish, which I could not hear. He was more deliberate this time, his voice firm, and the tall man stood looming above, shifting his hold on the machete, bringing the blade up from his side and across his chest. It glistened in the low, afternoon sun.
The driver arched his back and reached into his pocket for more money. He handed it out the window to the short man. That seemed to settle things, and he motioned for us to move along. The man with the machete returned the blade to his side and relaxed his shoulders. I could see his eyes through the frayed holes, focused and fierce and fixed on us. The driver nodded his head and we passed through onto the country road.
“What was that about?” I asked the driver. We were all adjusting ourselves in the van.
“Villagers,” the driver said, looking into the rearview mirror.
“They run the toll?”
“A veces,” he said, “Sometimes.”
“Where are the tollmen?”
“They run them away.”
“The government stole the land for the road.”
“Why don’t the tollmen call the cops?”
“They do,” the driver said, “It takes long time for them to arrive.”
“So they give the money to the people in their village?” I asked.
“Maybe,” the driver said.
We turned onto the country road and could see the big trees on either side, the land overtaken by jungle. The road climbed through the hills and through the trees we could see the small houses, some with big bananas bunched up in front of the windows, others with goats inside small fences. Beyond the houses the jungle was thick again and the earth was hilly and rugged. We were entering the village.
Everyone was pretty quiet. Someone had made a comment about wishing we had bought double the beer when up ahead I saw something in the middle of the road. It looked like a stop sign floating in the middle of the road. The driver did not slow down. We were on track to run right into it. We got closer and I saw it was a homemade stop sign, circular and red. It was tied to two strings, one on either side, and along the sides of the road there were kids holding it taunt.
“What’s that?” I asked.
The driver did not answer and he did not slow down. I braced and listened for the bang; nothing came. I heard the slap of something and saw the string fly across the windshield. Turns out it was only cardboard. I turned back to look at the kids. They were all standing in the middle of the road, waving their fists and shouting in Spanish. I leaned forward into the front of the van.
“What the hell?!” I said to the driver.
“Sorry,” the driver said, shaking his head, “I cannot stop for them.”
“When you stop, they block.” He held the wheel with his knee and demonstrated it with his hands, looking at us in the rearview mirror.
“What happens if you stop?”
“It’s okay, no worry,” the driver said, waving his hand, “They only want money. They don’t kill here.”
We climbed the next hill out of the valley and away from the village. The sun was making the hills and the trees glow, and as we climbed we could see back down into the valley. By the time the sun was set and the stars came out we had drank all the beers. The girl from Puebla had finished the entire bottle of wine. We were all very impressed. She had drank it straight out of the bottle with her back against the window and her elbow propped up on the seat.
A MEAL IN TULUM
We came into Tulum looking for a place to eat. We followed the signs to the center of town. The main street was lined with shops and restaurants. The side streets led down to the water and the ruins. It was bright and sunny and the local people were all dressed up for Sunday. The cafes were empty, waiting for the masses to let out.
“Drop us somewhere you would eat,” I told the driver.
“Better to go here,” he said, rubbing his stomach. “For you.” He pointed at us and nodded his head. “Better for you.”
We got out of the van in front of a restaurant. There were no Mexicans at the tables.
“We want to go somewhere else,” I said to him through the passenger window.
“Better for you here,” he said. “Back soon.” He drove off down the road, leaving us there on the curb. We had no idea where he was going, but we knew that, eventually, he would be back to get paid for the day. He never wanted us to eat anywhere good.
I tried to make the best of it and ordered a couple fish tacos. We stood up along the railing at the edge of the restaurant and drank a cold beer. I ate my tacos standing up and looked out at the street. The girl from Puebla did the same. My friend sat on one of the stools and talked with the man next to him. He was badly sunburnt.
“We love the food down here,” he told my friend. “We always like to venture out of the resort and check out the local spots.”
After lunch we split up for a while. The girl from Puebla went off to mail a postcard and shop for something. My friend and I went to the beach. The sky was clear and the sun was hot, but the breeze was strong and you did not sweat much. The beach was crowded, dotted with umbrellas and chairs and towels and many different colors. I looked and saw all the people laying down, and all the vendors walking over them, their carboard holders filled with sunglasses, jewelry, and magnets for sale.
“Uh oh,” I said.
“No gracias,” I said.
“Just keep saying no gracias,” I said to my friend. “And for God’s sake keep moving.”
We walked through the crowd, stepping around chairs and towels and toys. Many vendors held up their products as we passed through. Que quieres? What do you want? They held out bracelets and rings from the cardboard holders and under their breath they offered us weed.
“No gracias,” I said.
My friend repeated it. “No gracias.”
We walked with intent and weaved through the groups on the beach to an open slice of sand. We could see the water if we looked past the umbrellas and the big chairs. We laid out our towels, and I took out a book to read. My friend laid down flat on the blanket to nap. He had closed his eyes, and I had begun reading, when a man came and stood over us, casting a shadow upon our towels. He set his board down in the sand. It was full of sunglasses.
“Amigos, cual quieres? Which do you want?” He waved his hand, palm open and up, in front of the board.
“Nada,” I said, reaching up and tugging on my sunglasses. “No gracias.”
“Come,” he said, “You want a pair.”
I pulled again on my glasses. “Ya tengo. I already have them.”
“No,” he said, “You need new.”
“No gracias,” I said. “No gracias.”
He looked at my friend. “Amigo. Cual quieres?”
“No gracias,” my friend said. He was also wearing sunglasses but he did not tug on them. He waved his hand above his head as he laid there. “No gracias.”
The vendor snapped up the board. He walked away, mumbling so we couldn’t hear.
“What’s with these people?” my friend asked, raising his head.
“They’re like mosquitos,” I said.
“I’m tired of it.” He put his head down on the towel again. “Let me know if they come by with gin and tonics.”
“They had weed,” I said.
“Yeah, it’s probably another trap.”
“I don’t know man,” I said, “They seem like nice people.”
We looked around at the vendors, which was a bad idea. A woman saw the two of us lying there and came up to our towels. She stood over us and repeated the word over and over.
“What does she want?” my friend asked.
“She wants to give you a massage.”
“Donde?” I asked.
“Here,” I told him.
He lifted up his head. “How much does it cost?”
“Cuanto cuesta?” I asked.
“One hundred pesos.” I translated it to him.
“For how long?”
“Cuantos minutos?” I turned back to him. “Twenty minutes.”
“Eh.” He put his head back down on the towel.
“Sorry,” I said to her. “No gracias.”
She smiled better on one side than the other and she turned the good side toward us. “You want massage. Feel good for you.”
She knelt down and put a hand on my friend’s shoulder. She started to massage his shoulder with one hand. “See, mister, feel good for you.” She placed another hand on his back. “See, you like me now, mister. You like me?”
My friend turned away and propped up on an elbow, hiding his back. “Tell her to go away,” he said.
“Que dice?” she asked me, her butt on her heels, her hands on her thighs. “What’s he saying?”
“He adores you,” I said, “But he doesn’t speak Spanish.”
“I speak English,” she said, rubbing his shoulder. She did not speak very well.
“Speak to her in English, man.”
“Where you come from?” she asked my friend in broken English.
“Tell her we have to go,” my friend said. “And that we have no money.”
“No understand,” she said to me.
“He’s from America,” I said in Spanish, “And he really likes you.”
She reached out to rub his shoulder. My friend put up a hand to stop her, so she settled for his arm. She rubbed his forearm and wrist.
“Tell him I like him,” she said, still on her knees in the sand beside the towel.
I told him.
“God dammit will you shut up and get her out of here?!” He popped up to his knees and ripped his arm from her grasp. “No gracias!” he shouted, “No gracias!”
“Lo siento, sorry,” I said to the woman, shrugging my shoulders, “No gracias.”
The woman sat there with a look of surprise. The sunglass vendor overheard what was going on. He was trying to sell his sunglasses nearby. He came back over to us.
“Don’t bother with these two,” he said to the woman, standing tall above us. “They are worth nothing!”
“They want a massage. He wants massage.” She pointed at my friend.
“No gracias,” I said, “Sorry, no gracias.”
“Trust me,” the sunglass vendor said in Spanish, “They are worth nothing.”
“Dinero,” the woman said to my friend. “Give me money for the massage, five minutes time.” She tapped her wrist.
My friend looked at her, then at me. “What?”
“She wants you to pay her for rubbing your shoulder,” I said.
“I’m not going to pay you for that,” he said to her. “I said no gracias.”
The woman stood there looking at him. She did not understand.
“Lo siento, no dinero,” I said to the woman. “Sorry. No money.”
The sunglass vendor laughed. “Nada! They are worth nothing!”
I looked at my friend. We had had enough of the beach. We picked up our towels and made a beeline for the street. The vendors watched as we walked away. Before we got off the sand I turned back and waved to them. They did not wave, but stood there looking at us.
AFTER THE RAIN
It was raining hard when we came back into Campeche. The sandbags had been placed along the edge of the beaches, and the malecon was virtually empty as the waves crashed over the concrete. We drove into the center of town to drop off the driver. The sides of the buildings were wet from the rain, the bold colors of yellow and pink muted by the overcast sky. The people walked on the stone sidewalks with their umbrellas, popping into and out of the shops, or the cathedrals, and we drove slowly, avoiding the big puddles on the side of the road.
We pulled up in front of the office and the driver got out. He told us to hold on, went inside his office and came back out with a rag. He cleaned the windshield and wiped the mud off our license plate. We thanked and tipped him, and he stood in the rain on the sidewalk, waving to us as we pulled away. It was lunch time, but the girl from Puebla wanted to be dropped off at the bus station first. The three of us sat on the ground under an overhang outside the station. We drank two bottles of wine and watched the rain. By the time we had seen her off it was late afternoon and we had no time for lunch.
We filled the gasoline back up to a half tank and returned to the rental agency. We pulled into the lot and the attendant came out. I handed him the keys. He walked around the van, kneeling down to inspect every scratch, then checking it against the log book to see if it was there before. The procedure was far different than when we picked it up. All of a sudden they were very interested in how everything worked. The attendant tried all the controls, the blinkers and the headlights, and he opened and closed the sliding door several times. Each time he would open it and slam it shut once again, testing the latch. He bent down to inspect the license plate.
“Accidente?” he said, wiping off the plate.
“No accidente,” I said.
“Que es? What’s this?” He pointed at the plate. There was a small bend on one of the corners.
“It was already there,” I said in Spanish. My friend stood looking on. “What now?” he asked.
“He’s trying to find something wrong,” I said.
“Nothing happened,” my friend said.
The attendant stood up and took the keys in his hand. He opened the driver’s door and got in. He started the van and checked the gauges. Rain fell softly on the windshield.
“Senor,” he said, “You are missing fuel. I have to charge you.”
“Impossible,” I said. “We just filled it.”
“Mira,” he said. “Look.”
I leaned inside the door and looked over his shoulder. Sure enough the gauge was below half, almost down to a quarter. My friend joined me in looking at the gauge. We stood in the soft rain.
“What the hell?” he said.
“We filled it half way, right?” I said.
My friend looked at the clock on the dash. We had a flight to catch.
“What’s he want to charge?”
“How much will you charge?” I asked the attendant.
“Dos cientos pesos,” he said.
My friend slammed his palm on the side of the van. “Tell him to get out.”
I asked the attendant to get out of the van. After he got out my friend got into the driver’s seat.
“Get in,” he said.
We drove around the block back towards the gas station. As we drove we watched the needle move, up and over the halfway mark to where it had been before.
“Fucking liars,” my friend said. “They’ve got us parking on a slope.”
We pulled back into the car rental lot, and the needle began to drop back toward a quarter tank. We watched with wide eyes. The road was not very steep in general, or really at all, but there was a small slope to where they made you park out front of the office.
“It’s not even that steep,” I said, noticing.
“They’ve rigged the gauge too,” my friend insisted. The attendant came running out when we pulled in. He came up to the driver’s window. It had mostly stopped raining.
“Can we park somewhere else?” my friend said.
“Now he can’t understand,” I told my friend.
“Buddy,” I said to the attendant in Spanish, speaking across my friend from the passenger seat, “Can we park somewhere else?”
“No,” he said, “The return is here.”
“Where’s your boss?” I asked.
He smiled at me. “I’m the boss,” he said.
I tried to explain to him about the hill and the gauge. All of a sudden my Spanish was not good enough. He said he could not understand what I was trying to say. He said he could not call us a cab until the bill had been settled. He took out a receipt book, made in duplicate, and perforated, so one side could be given to the customer, and the other side filled in and kept as a stub. There was no carbon to record what the customer’s receipt said.
“Two hundred,” he said. “You don’t want to miss your flight.”
He wrote in indelible pencil, tore out the slip and handed it to me. I read it.
“This is for a hundred.”
“A mistake,” he said, and changed the hundred to two hundred on my slip. He was planning to keep the other hundred for himself.
“And now the other side,” I said. “Make it two hundred in the part you keep.”
He smiled a beautiful Mexican smile and wrote something on the receipt stub, holding it so I could not see. “Two hundred,” he said.
I handed him the money. After we paid he called us a taxi to the airport. When we got in the driver refused to turn on the meter. When had to get out of the cab and take our bags out of the trunk before he relented and turned it on. We arrived at the airport and everyone there seemed very tan and happy and refreshed from their vacation. We sat at the bar with them and drank a margarita. We had driven from Campeche to Villahermosa, down through Chiapas to Tuxtla, across to Tulum, and then back to Campeche through Merida. The whole trip had taken only seven days. Naturally, in such a short trip, we had no opportunity to see how things were with the country or the people.