From 2000 through 2019, I taught an annual writing workshop abroad called Traveler’s Mind, which quickly became associated with the state of Veracruz. There tropical coastal lowlands curve around the Gulf of Mexico and rise quickly to jungled forests of the Sierra Madre Oriental. The city of Veracruz, halfway down the gulf, is Mexico's most important working port, a city with a proud legacy of having repelled invaders from Spain, France and the United States.
Veracruz is famous for its unique variety of musical traditions, including the witty jarocho songs played on jarana, requinto and harp; the romantic boleros of Augustin Lara, a Veracruz native who became Mexico's most famous popular composer; and several tropical dances of Afro-Caribbean origin, such as the sensuous danzón, danced nightly in the plazas of the port.
Traveler's Mind has taken students to the colorful, raucous and historic port; to the lazy river town of Tlacotalpan, with its brightly painted houses and Arabic-style arcades; and to the vanilla-growing center of Papantla, where Totonac culture flourishes in language, ritual and art.
When the drug cartels came into Veracruz, I was obliged to teach elsewhere. After a workshop in Fort Cochin, Kerala, India, we traveled to the old Colonial capital of Sucre, Bolivia; the next year to Valparaíso, on Chile's central coast; in 2012 to Granada, Spain, where we traced the life of Federico García Lorca; the following year to Jodhpur, in desert Rajasthan; and in 2014 to Cádiz, the luminous white city that sits off Spain’s southwest coast.
In 2015 we braved the bureaucratic barricades created by half a century of U.S. animosity and traveled to Cuba, where we wrote tucked away in the charming and untouristed provincial capital of Sancti Spíritus; and in 2016 we spent New Year’s in León, Nicaragua, the incubator of the Sandinista revolution that finally prevailed in 1979 over Somoza tyranny. The following year we worked in the Colombian Andes, both in picturesque Villa de Leyva and in La Candelaria, where Colonial Bogotá began.
In 2018, we lost our first-world safety and remove: just as Traveler’s Mind was meeting in Calcutta, a sewer line broke unseen beneath a city street and E. coli (which does not respond to the big industrial water filtration systems) contaminated the water supply. Along with thousands of local people, we fell ill.
The final workshop was scheduled for Denmark long before the Calcutta catastrophe. We had seen up close the myriad effects of poverty around the world, and I wanted to introduce American writers to a culture that grapples directly with some of the problems that afflict most of the world, including climate change and income inequality.
Veracruz: Left, Rosario Hall; Center, Porfirio Castro Cruz
Bolivia & Cádiz: Martha Gies
Calcutta & Denmark: Left, Emily Thayer; Right, Mark Lammers