On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey

by Paul Theroux

Legendary travel writer Paul Theroux drives the entire length of the US–Mexico border, then goes deep into the hinterland, on the back roads of Chiapas and Oaxaca, to uncover the rich, layered world behind today’s brutal headlines.

  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780544866478
  • ISBN-10: 0544866479
  • Pages: 448
  • Publication Date: 10/08/2019
  • Carton Quantity: 12

About the book

Legendary travel writer Paul Theroux drives the entire length of the US–Mexico border, then goes deep into the hinterland, on the back roads of Chiapas and Oaxaca, to uncover the rich, layered world behind today’s brutal headlines. 


Paul Theroux has spent his life crisscrossing the globe in search of the histories and peoples that give life to the places they call home. Now, as immigration debates boil around the world, Theroux has set out to explore a country key to understanding our current discourse: Mexico. Just south of the Arizona border, in the desert region of Sonora, he finds a place brimming with vitality, yet visibly marked by both the US Border Patrol looming to the north and mounting discord from within. With the same humanizing sensibility he employed in Deep South, Theroux stops to talk with residents, visits Zapotec mill workers in the highlands, and attends a Zapatista party meeting, communing with people of all stripes who remain south of the border even as their families brave the journey north. 


From the writer praised for his “curiosity and affection for humanity in all its forms” (New York Times Book Review), On the Plain of Snakes is an exploration of a region in conflict. 


About the author
Paul Theroux

PAUL THEROUX is the author of many highly acclaimed books. His novels include The Lower River and The Mosquito Coast, and his renowned travel books include Ghost Train to the Eastern Star and Dark Star Safari. He lives in Hawaii and on Cape Cod.  



To the Border: A Perfect Example of Thatness 


THE MEXICAN BORDER is the edge of the known world, only shadows and danger beyond it, and lurking figures—hungry, criminal, predatory, fanged, fanatical enemies—a malevolent and ungovernable rabble eager to pounce on the unwary traveler. And the Policía Federal officers are diabolical, heavily armed, stubborn and sullen one minute, screaming out of their furious congested faces the next, then extorting you, as they did me. 


Send lawyers, guns, and money! Don’t go there! You’ll die! 


But wait—deeper in Mexico (floppy, high-domed sombreros, mariachi music, blatting trumpets, toothy grins) are the safer, salubrious hot spots you can fly to for a week, get hog-whimpering drunk on tequila, fall ill with paralyzing squitters, and come home with a woven poncho or a painted ceramic skull. Also, here and there, sunny dumping grounds for American retirees—a tutti-frutti of grizzled gringos in permanent settlements on the coast and in gated communities and art colonies inland. 


Oh, and the fat cats and petrocrats in Mexico City, thirty listed billionaires—including the seventh-richest man in the world, Señor Carlos Slim—who together have more money than every other Mexican combined. But the campesinos in certain states in southern Mexico, such as Oaxaca and Chiapas, in terms of personal income, are poorer than their counterparts in Bangladesh or Kenya, languishing in an air of stagnant melancholy on hillsides without topsoil, but with seasonal outbursts of fantastical masquerade to lighten the severities and stupefactions of village life. Famine victims, desperadoes, and voluptuaries, all more or less occupying the same space, and that vast space—that Mexican landscape—squalid and lush and primal and majestic. 


And huge seasonal settlements of torpid, sunburned Canadians, as well as the remnants of fifteen colonies of polygamous Mormons who fled to Mexico from Utah to maintain large harems of docile, bonnet-wearing wives, all of them glowing with sweat in the Chihuahuan Desert, clad in the required layered underwear they call “temple garments.” And isolated bands of Old Colony Mennonites speaking Low German in rural Cuauhtémoc and Zacatecas, herding cows and squeezing homegrown milk into semisoft cheese—Chihuahua cheese, or queso menonita, meltable and buttery, very tasty in a Mennonite verenika casserole or bubble bread. 


Baja is both swanky and poor, the frontera is owned by the cartels and border rats on both sides, Guerrero state is run by narco gangs, Chiapas is dominated by masked idealistic Zapatistas, and—at the Mexico margins—the spring-breakers, the surfers, the backpackers, the crusty retired people, honeymooners, dropouts, fugitives, gun runners, CIA scumbags and snoops, money launderers, currency smurfers, and—look over there—an old gringo in a car squinting down the road, thinking: Mexico is not a country. Mexico is a world, too much of a mundo to be wholly graspable, but so different from state to state in extreme independence of culture and temperament and cuisine, and in every other aspect of peculiar Mexicanismo, it is a perfect example of thatness. 



I was that old gringo. I was driving south in my own car in Mexican sunshine along the straight sloping road through the thinly populated valleys of the Sierra Madre Oriental—the whole craggy spine of Mexico is mountainous. Valleys, spacious and austere, were forested with thousands of single yucca trees, the so-called dragon yucca (Yucca filifera) that Mexicans call palma china. I pulled off the road to look closely at them and wrote in my notebook: I cannot explain why, on the empty miles of these roads, I feel young. 


And that was when I saw a slender branch twitch on the ground; it lay beneath the yucca in soil like sediment. It moved. It was a snake, a hank of shimmering scales. It began to contract and wrap itself—its smooth and narrow body pulsing in the serpentine peristalsis of threat, brownish, like the gravel and the dust. I stepped back, but it continued slowly to resolve itself into a coil. Not poisonous, I learned later. Not a plumed serpent, not the rearing rattler being gnawed by the wild-eyed eagle in the vivid emblazonment on the Mexican national flag. It was a coachwhip snake, as numerous on this plain as rattlesnakes, of which Mexico has twenty-six species—not to mention, elsewhere, milk snakes, blind snakes, rat snakes, pit vipers, worm-sized garden snakes, and ten-foot-long boa constrictors. 



The joy of the open road—joy verging on euphoria. “Behind us lay the whole of America and everything Dean and I had known about life, and life on the road,” Kerouac writes of entering Mexico in On the Road. “We had finally found the magic land at the end of the road and we never dreamed the extent of the magic.”


On the Plain of Snakes is fierce and poignant . . . This declaration of common cause with our southern neighbors offers a sharp rebuke to the idea that Mexicans who come to the U.S. are rapists bringing only drugs and crime.” 

Wall Street Journal 


“Theroux extracts such life-affirming joy from the road that you hope it keeps unfurling before him and, even more, that the wonderful people he writes about would be so graciously received during their own journeys to El Norte.” 

The Washington Post 


“Paul Theroux is an undisputed master of travel literature. He has traversed Mexico with such dedication that he knows its roads as he knows the lines on the palm of his hand. His curiosity does not recognize borders. Nor is he a stranger among us: he is Don Pablo, a wise man who never stops learning.” 

—Juan Villoro, journalist, playwright, and author of Herralde Prize-winner The Witness. 


“On the Plain of Snakes couldn’t be more vital, informed, inquiring or big-hearted. Anyone yearning for an in-depth look at the actualities on the ground will savor this complex, contradictory, empathetic picture of our southern neighbor… Whether you’re a longtime Theroux fan or just curious about Mexican realities beyond the headlines, On the Plain of Snakes offers deep satisfactions.” 

The Boston Globe 


“A trip worth taking.” 

Los Angles Times  


“Illuminating, literate, and timely—a must-read for those interested in what's going on inside Mexico.” 

Kirkus Reviews (starred review) 


“A textured portrait…Theroux does not hesitate to articulate his point of view on a number of topics as he unapologetically takes into consideration context, anecdotal evidence, and his on-the-road experiences to arrive at his prescription for improving the Mexican situation.”—Booklist (starred review)  


“[A] dark-edged but ultimately hopeful travelogue . . . Theroux’s usual excellent mix of vivid reportage and empathetic rumination is energized by a new spark of political commitment. Armchair travelers will find an astute, familiar guide in Theroux.” 

Publishers Weekly 


“Tourists headed to Mexico and those interested in the current migrant situation will learn a great deal.” 

Library Journal 


“At 78 years of age Theroux admits that he may not have a great deal more travel in him. On the Plain of Snakes, should it be his last major work, is a fitting capstone to a long and illustrious literary career.” 



“A complex, interesting, and unpredictable read.”—Pedro Ángel Palou, El Herraldo