Hotel Isabel: On the Edge of Time
Postcard from Carmen DelZell
Have you ever read that book, The Accidental Tourist? It was about a man who wrote travel books for people who hated to leave home. He looked for the most comfortable, least threatening hotels and restaurants all over the world so that he'd never know that he was in Paris or Katmandu because everywhere felt like the Holiday Inn.
I'm the exact opposite kind of traveler. I never want to stay any place that even smells like an American motel.
I seek out the places that have stories, places on the edge of time, places that don't have televisions. I also look for places that are cheap.
To give you an idea of what I mean, you need to know that Mexico, where I live and travel, is already cheap by American standars. A hundred pesos is only $10 for us.
That means that if you have been paying as little as $40 for a Motel 6, you hae been paying four hundred pesos a night to stay there. Four hundred pesos in Mexico City is over a week's wages for the average worker - the woman who cleans your room, for example.
That's why I usually never pay more than ten dollars a night unless there's something wonderful about the place.
The Hotel Isabel is that wonderful. It costs 13 dollars. The carpet is a little worn, and the elevator is a little shaky, but it has a roof garden, balconies, and an atmosphere that reminds me of Masterpiece Theater. If you listen, you can hear the saltero -- the harp they play in the cafe next door.
Hotel Isabel was built around the turn of the century, and it still retains an elegance that was brought from Mexico from Europe by Proferio Diaz -- the last president before the revolution.
But it's not stuffy. Years of being mentioned in every student guide book around the world has made it the cool place to stay on your way south for the backpackers in khaki shorts. Everybody there is on their way to some exotic spot where Mayan ruins go down to the sea and mushrooms are in season.
But I'm not one of those tan scholars of ancient civilizations.
I'm Anaïs Nin or Jean Rhys, in my 1940s velvet dress, carrying an old tweed suitcase.
I go to my room, Room 103, on the glass mezzanine and order a gin and tonic to be sent right up. I fill the deep white bathtub with hot water and rose oil and put on my pink satin mules that make me feel like Marlene Dietrich. Too bad I don't smoke.
I was born just after the war and spent many a rainy afternoon watching the movies my mother loved. In those movies, people actually livedin hotels like this. That's the life my mother wanted. I imagined that one day I, too, would lounge around in satin waiting for the phone to ring. But it never did. And my mother died too young -- at 43.
Then my life happened with husbands, children and a lot of funny ideas that didn't include glamour.
I had to wait, but I held onto the fantasy of myself as a writer traveling the world in Chanel suits the way a child holds onto a Barbie. I turned 45, then 50.
Determined to have at last part of my life, I've managed to take it where I find it.
A train to Mexico city from the Texas border is only $17. A taxi to the Hotel Isabel only $3. Tell the driver it's at the corner of Isabel La Catolica and El Savlador streets. Other than that, the only money you need to spend is for a bunch of gardenias and a pocket full of cinco peso pieces to tip the musicians. The'll be playing the soundtracks for the movies you make for yourself in the cafes near the plaza.
You know, Rudy, some women travel looking for a romantic interlude with a Latin lover who looks like Antonio Banderas. But travel looking for the fragments of my mother's illusions and my own, which still live in cheap and lovely old Mexican hotels.
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