By Robin Bayley
There were lots of reasons not to do it. I had a comfortable life, a nice place to live, lots of friends and a good job. Also, I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, or where it might be. But for as long as I can remember, I just knew that following in my great grandfather’s footsteps around the Americas was something I had to do.
As a child, my grandmother regaled me with the most wonderful tales of her father’s adventures. She told of his wild jungle journeys, gunfights, hidden bags of silver in a mango orchard and a daring escape from the Mexican Revolution with the help of bandits. It was this last story that particularly captivated me. Why did he have to leave Mexico in such a hurry? Why would he have been killed if he’d stayed? What, I wondered, had he left behind?
I started on the old Cunard pier in New York harbour, where my great grandfather, Arthur “Arturo” Greenhalgh, first stepped on to the continent of America. It had taken me six hours to fly to JFK. Arturo had to endure twelve storm-tossed days to reach this point. His ship was buffeted by forty foot waves, so high that at times the ship’s propeller came out of the water. He suffered badly from seasickness and didn’t eat for the best part of the week. I felt a bit queasy as I had over done it on the complementary drinks they’d served on the flight.
Arturo’s onward journey also conjured romantic images of a travel era long-passed. He took another steamer, through the Caribbean, to the Mexican port of Veracruz, caught a train to Mexico City, a horse-drawn carriage to Guadalajara and travelled on by horseback and even by sedan chair, before he arrived at his destination in western Mexico. The exact location of the mango orchard where he had left his bags of silver was a mystery. All I knew was that it was close to a small village near a small town, about five days’ riding from Guadalajara. It wasn’t a lot to go on.
I confess that it was irrational even trying to track down the mango orchard, but this was not a quest built on logic. At the end of the Cunard pier was a piece of graffiti that I took to heart: Throw your shit away and start living. I had to leave the mentality of my London media job behind. My guides were intuition and serendipity and I hoped to have some fun along the way.
Before I began my search in Mexico I felt I had to get my Spanish up to scratch, so I spent a few months in the famed language schools of Antigua, Guatemala. From there, I followed the best bit of travel advice I was ever given: you can’t get lost if you don’t have a map. I didn’t have a map and I went wherever it felt right for me to go. I flew to Colombia to meet a history professor who, I was told, would be able to help me focus my search in Mexico. When he wasn’t there, I went on a road trip with a man called Pedro and his family. We met witches, were attacked by bandits, encountered shamans and guerrilla fighters. I was having way too much fun to bother with the details of renewing my visa and was told I would be deported from the country. Having deportado de Colombia stamped in my passport would have meant I’d not be allowed into Mexico; my whole quest was in jeopardy. Pedro organised for a group of beautiful, scantily-clad women to accompany me to the visa office to plea my case. Beauty won the day.
When finally I felt it was the right time to go to Mexico, Pedro left me at the “world’s most dangerous border crossing” on the frontier with Venezuela, where I spent a night paralysed with a bad back, in a brothel with a dead body. Really.
I doubled back to where my great grandfather had begun his Mexican adventures, in Veracruz, and then followed his route as closely as I could, hoping that I would get lucky; that fate would deliver me to where I needed to be. Along the way I had a gun pulled on me by a bald-headed Tasmanian devil, was offered advice by an ex-Nazi diamond trader and even found myself judging a village beauty pageant. For some reason, because, or perhaps despite of these and other encounters, I felt I was heading the right way.
A month into the Mexican leg of my journey, I found the Small Town close to the small village, near to where the mango orchard had been. A week after that, I found the Small Village. There, I discovered the real treasure that my great grandfather had left behind: a secret family, now numbering over three hundred people. I also found out that not only had he narrowly escaped from the Revolution, he’d also played a part in starting it.
I’ll never fully understand why I felt so compelled to give up my home and career to follow what must have seen to many, as a whim. I’m just glad that I listened to my intuition; that threw my shit away and started living.
About the Author
Robin Bayley had a successful career in children’s television, when one morning he decided to leave his job and sell his apartment to travel and follow his muse. As well as uncovering the story told in The Mango Orchard, he has written many articles and articles and is currently working on the screenplay for a feature film he has been commissioned to write. The Mango Orchard has been published in several languages and has just been released in North America.