Watch Out for Topes
By Helen Murray White
Reviewed by Bill Frayer
The title of Helen White’s new book, Watch Out for Topes, is really a metaphor for living happily as an expat in Mexico. When driving to dine at Viva México in San Juan Cosalá, we know we need to watch our speed to protect the undercarriage of our vehicle as we experience the numerous topes . Of course, just living in this beautiful country requires us to slow down, adjust our expectations, and take our days one at a time.
White, who has over forty years’ experience living and traveling in Mexico, offers a detailed memoir which will appeal to Lakeside residents and Mexico neophytes alike. She offers a very educated gringo’s-eye-view of Mexican culture, food, and travel opportunities. Even though many of us are familiar with many of the places she has visited, she brings considerable research and often dry humor to her detailed descriptions.
For example, she first visited Mexico City in 1968 with her husband, Bill. Although she was not sure she wanted to see a bullfight, she did not want to miss the experience. She writes, ”While we were watching the intricate movement of the bullfight, Bill heard a little trickling sound behind us. A spectator was urinating in a paper cup, apparently too engrossed in what was happening to take time to go to the baño.”
Later, on the same trip, they decided to hire a guide do drive them around the city, ”It was unnerving to watch Tony put his hand out the driver’s window, waving for other cars to stop as he made a U-turn on Paseo de la Reforma. Tony told us he ate raw eggs and oysters every day to make him manly and that women came from the United States just for him to guide them around the city. He looked at me; I looked away.”
White’s writing is rich with detail and captures the joy she has experienced living at Lake Chapala and developing close relationships with many of her Mexican friends. She shares many of the aspects of Mexican life which endear her to this community, but she does not ignore the difficulties of adjusting to another culture. Her commentary includes many anecdotes about the beautiful spirit and generosity of her Mexican neighbors. She also makes it clear that living in this country requires an acceptance of different customs and occasional “surprises,” which can be disconcerting.
The book includes large segments describing the many fiestas celebrated in the community, trips “never seen in guidebooks,” and the preparation and enjoyment of the many types of Mexican food she has enjoyed over the years.
Taken as a whole, the message seems to be: This is a unique and wonderful culture, very different from the US and Canada. To enjoy living in this special community, immerse yourself in the experience, make friends with your Mexican hosts, and make necessary adjustments in your expectations. “You’re not in Kansas anymore!” Watch Out for Topes would be an excellent book for Lakeside residents to read and share with their friends who may be unfamiliar with Mexico. White’s extensive experience, wit, and pithy, honest observations will delight readers interested in learning more about this community and about Mexico in general.
The book can be purchased from Amazon in paperback or e-book editions. It is also available from Dianne Pearl’s Collections on Ocampo and at The Nueva Posada.