Nothing to Declare:
Memoirs of A Woman Traveling Alone
by Mary Morris (Picador, $13.00, 250 pp.)
reviewed by Gale Randall
Mary Morris is one tough cookie. In the late 1970s the author set out on a journey of self discovery that took her from the high desert of northern Mexico to the steaming tropics of Honduras, the Guatemalan highlands, and into a Nicaragua controlled by Sandanistas. Nothing to Declare, her 1988 memoir of that trip, was instantly recognized as a classic of the travel genre, and just recently placed on National Geographic Traveler’s list of travel classics.Nothing to Declare is a fascinating account, not so much for Morris’ insights into the places she’s visited – which she describes well – but more for her interactions with the people she meets along the way. When she arrives in San Miguel de Allende, her main destination, Morris discovers a sleepy colonial town of 60,000, mostly populated by Mexicans, most of them poor, with a loosely configured expatriate colony of about 1,000 – the retirees, the would-be writers and artists, the dropouts, and the “losers” – the mother of ten who’d left them all and “had never been happier in her life”; the fashion model who’d become a veggie fast-food junkie, living on avocados and doughnuts; a wealthy widow carrying on a serious affair with a campesino; and the Vietnam vet with little apparent talent writing the great American war novel. Eschewing much involvement with this group, Morris rents an apartment in the poor barrio of San Antonio, a long trek and light years away from the rich, fashionable side of town.
What I have found most compelling about Nothing to Declare – and I’ve read it several times – is Morris’ relationship with a woman named Lupe, a mother of numerous children who lives in a shack nearby with an openly unfaithful man, the father of her youngest daughters. A beautiful friendship develops between Morris and Lupe and when Morris discovers Lupe is illiterate, she teaches her to read and write. Through a character named Dexter, she also meets Alejandro, a handsome and sensitive Aztec-looking fellow from Mexico City. But neither her relationship with Lupe nor the one with Alejandro can prevent Morris from eventually returning to the United States and her former life. In her travels through Central America, Morris visits the impressive Mayan ruins of Palenque, Copan and Tikal and has a bizarre encounter with a subcommandante of the Sandanistas in Nicaragua. Winding up her journey, Morris describes the animals she encounters at Tikal: “I stood in the jungle of Tikal, surprised at how easy it was to be with myself.... I looked up and saw the trees filled with monkeys – howler monkeys and spider monkeys – screeching at me, jumping from branch to branch, disappearing into the haunted ruins.... The animals that had eluded me for so long were there, raucous, wild, mocking. They hurled fruit and laughed and performed wonderful acrobatic feats for me. I stayed and watched them until dusk, when it was time to leave.”
Travel writing doesn't get much better than this. Morris, who teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College, has also written House Arrest, The Night Sky, and Angels and Aliens: A Journey West.