England-native Robin Bayley had a successful media career until one day he decided to quit it and leave for Latin America. His goal was to retrace his great-grandfather’s footsteps and learn more about the family history.
Robin knew that a century earlier, Arthur “Arturo” Greenhalgh had traveled to Mexico for a job at a cotton mill outside Guadalajara. Growing up, he heard many stories of Arturo’s adventures in Mexico, but always felt that some facts were missing. As an adult, he became determined to discover them.
The project took Robin to Guatemala, Colombia, Venezuela, and eventually Mexico. The account of his and Arturo’s journeys is detailed in “The Mango Orchard,” part travelogue, part family tale. Originally published in the United Kingdom in 2011, the book has since been available in several countries and languages.
On the eve of the US release of “The Mango Orchard,” Robin talked to Jetting Around about his Latin-American experiences, traveling for an extended period of time, and his new career as a full-time writer.
Tell us about arriving at the decision to quit your job, sell your apartment, and venture out to another continent.
Looking back now, it does seem an illogical and extreme thing to do, but I was just governed by gut instinct. It seemed like the right thing to do. The biggest lesson I learned on the journey, and from writing the book, was to trust my intuition.
How did you prepare for the journey?
I signed up for a rigorous body-conditioning program and underwent special orientation training before having colonic irrigation and chakra realignment. Okay, not really: I bought a plane ticket, a notebook and a good pen and set off.
What made you first make a stop in Guatemala to study Spanish?
I knew that I needed to get my Spanish up to speed if I was to find anything at all. I went to Antigua, as a friend of mine had seen a TV program about the language schools there. It’s in the most gorgeous setting –a colonial beauty with cobbled streets and 16th century monasteries and churches, flowers running riot everywhere and a perfect climate – and the language schools are generally good and very cheap.
Can you describe some of the other places you visited, for example Guadalajara?
Guadalajara, like many cities, is really a collection of small villages, most of them with extraordinary names like Tlaquepaque and Zapopan. Most of the stuff that the visitor will want to see is in the colonial heart of the city. There you’ll find the plazas, markets, street entertainers and, in Plaza de los Mariachis, you can be serenaded by the thousands of musicians who go there, any night of the week. Tlaquepaque is excellent for artesanía of all kinds.
Cartagena in Colombia is the most perfect Caribbean colonial city. It has an inner and outer wall, and its narrow streets – with their fruit sellers and empanada salesmen – are unchanged since the 17th century. Imagine Havana in Cuba without the fifty years of communist rule and economic sanctions, and that is Cartagena. Tourism has increased a lot in recent years. When I lived there, there were no hotels in the historic centre other than a couple of down-at-heel “love hotels.” Now there are some of the most sumptuous five star properties I’ve ever seen.
What was your biggest challenge on the road and what was easier than you may have expected?
The most wonderful surprise of being on the road is the kindness of strangers. I think the biggest challenge is to have faith that, in those difficult moments, it will come along to help you out of your hole.
Do you have any new favorite dishes or customs?
I fell in love with Mexican food. On the Nayarit coast, in the west of Mexico, they have a special dish called pescado zarandeado, which is a whole fish roasted over a mangrove wood fire. It’s to die for.
As for customs, I think the siesta is the height of civilization.
What is your favorite memory from the trip?
I think it was my first sight of Latin America. I had fallen asleep on the plane. I woke up as we were approaching Guatemala City Airport. I looked out of the window and saw two smoking volcanoes. That, and the moment I discovered that my great grandfather had left a secret family of over three hundred people in a small village in western Mexico!
After the initial journey, you went back to do more research for the book. What new observations did you make?
It was interesting to see how quickly places change. Almost everywhere in Latin America is getting much wealthier. When I was first there, the little speakers I had for my Walkman were a cause of constant amazement. Now, everyone seems to have an iPhone.
It’s been now years since you discovered your Mexican family. Have you all kept in touch and visited each other?
A number of my Mexican family have visited me in London, and I have been back to Mexico 7 times now. Of course, with Facebook, email etc. it’s so much easier to keep in touch than when I first returned home from there. One of my cousins, Javi, is now also my Godson. He’s been writing to me on What’s App already this morning (I think he’s having a slack day in the office).
How is your Spanish nowadays?
I’m in Chicago at the moment and I just had some friends call in a panic from a mountain in Spain as they needed to get a Spanish vet to understand that their dog had tapeworm. I had to look up the word for tapeworm, but was able to help them out.
Mexico and UK are seemingly very different countries. Are there any commonalities you can think of?
Sarcasm and football… and my great grandfather!
Which places in Mexico, Guatemala or Colombia would you recommend to travelers?
Mexico: Guanajuato, Guadalajara, Morelia, El Lago de Santa Maria del Oro (a beautiful lake set in an old volcanic crater), Cuernavaca, Querétaro, San Miguel de Allende, the Nayarit coast is also worth a slow explore – it’s not yet been exploited and there are some great little places. I could go on, there’s so much!
Guatemala is the perfect holiday destination because the country is so small you can see nearly everything in a couple of weeks. Antigua is a must, as is Lake Atitlan and Tikal.
Colombia: If you want to dance, go to Cali. Bogota is where all the museums are, and also has a pretty good night life. Santa Marta and the nearby Parque Tayrona are other highlights. And Cartagena, of course.
What is your advice for people who would like to travel for an extended period of time?
Don’t make plans you can’t change, and go where the wind blows you.
“The Mango Orchard” gets its US release this month. What other plans do you have for the book?
There are now four different language versions of the book, and I’m hoping more come along, not least Spanish. I keep on being asked to do talks about “The Mango Orchard,” which I love doing. I’m also working on a treatment for a feature film of the book.
What is your next project?
I am working as a script writer on a number of films at the moment. I don’t think I’m allowed to talk about any of them, but it’s great fun.
(Photos provided by Robin Bayley)
About the Author (Author Profile)Pola Henderson is the founder and editor of Jetting Around. She grew up in Krakow, Poland, lived in North Africa, and has called Chicago home since 2002. Traveling internationally has been a part of her life since she was 3 years old. When she isn't busy in her day job, Pola ventures out to explore cities and their culture. View more...
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