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On the Road to Tetlama: Mexican Adventures of a Wandering Naturalist.

Midway through this journal of a botanist's stay in rural Mexico, Jim Conrad writes, "I sit here remembering five weeks ago standing in the Greyhound bus station's parking lot in Madisonville, Kentucky, aching to escape my life up there, that life as a gringo, a fair-skinned guero. Now I have." But he hasn't.

Conrad is too much the scientist ever to be absorbed by the unquestioning superstition, often slavish traditions, and terrifying history of rural, poor Mexicans. But he is also trying to take a vacation from his own culture, including the objectivity of science. He accomplishes neither, but in trying he delivers a gritty slice of Mexican society and character that will cure many romantics of naively wanting to escape their gringo lives. It is also one of the most readable explanations of why so many Mexicans find it easy to leave for America, but difficult to leave their culture.

In his effort to leave hisn own culture, at least for a few months, Conrad commits some of the sins common to such futile efforts. At times he engages in a silly cultural relativism where all vices and thus the cultures in which they originate, are equal. The Mexican habit of spitting on the floor equates with smoking around nonsmokers. He equates the physical violence of Latin machismo with the fact that in the U.S. women sometimes get less pay than men for similar jobs.

To this unfortunate extent he has escaped his own culture. Nevertheless, throughout the book he cannot resist running little experiments among the people around him. Annoyed by their fear of him and their aloofness, he pairs friendly hellos with stony indifference as he passes among them. It is this kind of honest self examination that will appeal to anyone who has ever been confused about how to behave in a foreign land.

In the end Conrad returns to the U.S. without finding "that deeper stream" of human nature he wanted to write about. Ironically he might have come closer if he had used more enthusiastically his talents as a botanist and a scientist. Ina a backhanded sort of way this book validates the very culture the author tries to leave.
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Kaufman, Wallace
Publication:American Forests
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1991
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