Mary Jo McConahay was born in Chicago and moved with her family to California, where she came of age in an era when On the Road was a bible for young people. She traveled in Mexico and Central America before moving to the Middle East to work as a reporter on the English-language Arab News. In the 1980s she became a correspondent for Pacific News Service in San Francisco, covering the wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and the U.S. invasion of Panama. She lived in Guatemala in the 1990s, where she began work on her travel memoir, Maya Roads: One Woman's Journey Among the People of the Rainforest.
How did you get started traveling?
When I was a child, our parents took my five siblings and me all over the American West every summer vacation, sleeping in tents, eating over campfires, awed by the beauty of canyons, desert and mountains. Traveling became an assumption, a need.
How did you get started writing?
I always wrote, encouraged by my parents and the nuns at school, from the grammar school paper beginning in sixth grade, to high school paper and yearbook. When I spent a year abroad during college, I took along my portable typewriter (typewriter!) as I traveled through Europe and wrote stories about what I saw, pretending I was on deadlines. I never sent them anywhere, but I still have some.
What do you consider your first "break" as a writer?
I was struggling along writing and taking pictures in Mexico for a small travel magazine, being paid in chits for hotel rooms and restaurants. I heard that many Americans were jailed in Mexico City for running drugs, mostly real amateurs with a dream of fast money -- grandmothers, students, young couples looking for a stake. I visited the prisons for weeks doing interviews, and the story ran in Rolling Stone. That opened doors, which opened others.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
When I'm lonely, I wonder what I am doing far from home, missing people I love. Most of the time, however, the biggest challenge is honing in on the story is out of a wealth of possibilities, choosing one place and not another. Even the most easy-going travel writer inevitably faces the reality that time and money are limited. Will readers be more interested in colonial Merida or off-the-path ancient Maya sites? The buzz of Sao Paolo or small Germanic towns farther south in Brazil? If I follow my own personal curiosity, it usually works out well.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Over-research! I love the history of places, their literature, what they meant in other people's lives. The trick is to absorb all this and let it inform the writing of a particular story, not to get sidetracked. Otherwise, the story never ends. There will always be another to write.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors? Finances? Promotion?
I had no idea what "promotion" meant before writing Maya Roads. Now that the book is out, good reviews are really helping, but unless you are a household name, I've found the book author must do 95 per cent of the legwork to grow and nurse her networks, make initial contacts with booksellers and other venue managers for events, pursue the thousand and one avenues to getting her book out there. (This is even with responsive publisher's associates who follow up and send press releases.) If you had told me six months ago I would be the one to create my book's website, I would not have believed you. I've had to stretch and learn new skills, but that's the business end of what I love doing so it's learn -- or else.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I worked as a model and a flight attendant to help pay for college. But soon after I promised myself I'd live -- even meagerly -- from writing, no matter what kind. I wrote a lot "on spec" at first, and created student orientation booklets in Mexico in exchange for language school lessons. Selling travel photographs helped. Finally I began to work as a journalist, including free-lance for Time, Newsweek, Vogue, the Los Angeles Times Magazine and more than two dozen other periodicals. Most of that time the work was as a foreign correspondent, which fed my desire to travel.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
I admire Pico Iyer for his intelligence, and Bruce Chatwin for his use of language. I love reading novels set in places I want to visit; recently it's been Jorge Amado's Pen, Sword and Camisole and Michael Sledge's The More I Owe You, about Brazil, and The Price of Escape by David Unger, set on Guatemala's Caribbean coast. At school I studied eighteenth century English literature, and acquired a taste for classic old travel writing. TheTravels of John Mandeville, who lived in the fourteenth century, is delicious reading even though it might be partly imagination, like the dragons and sea creatures drawn on ancient parchment maps. No one writes about Arabia like the great explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who describes some places gone forever, like the southern Iraq of The Marsh Arabs. On the other hand, John L. Stephens' several travel volumes on the Yucatan, Chiapas and Central America, still best-sellers even though published in the middle 19th century, can almost be taken along as guidebooks in some places, so little has changed. I found myself re-reading them as I wrote Maya Roads.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Before boarding the plane, make sure you have a stash that will support you if you make no money from travel writing for a year. Otherwise there can be a strong temptation to take a non-writing job just to survive. I've seen that situation unravel the dream for more than one person.
Be prepared: Learn as much of the language as possible of the lands where you want to go. Make contacts with half a dozen travel publication editors before leaving, with a prospective story idea if possible, and re-contact them again as soon as you're on your feet abroad. Keep your name in front of them, even if they pass on the first stories. It will happen!
Writers are expected to take photos, which fortunately is easier than ever. It's still important to develop the eye, however, which can be practiced before leaving, too.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
I'd say the biggest reward comes in small, transcendent moments rather than finally standing before the post card-like image of a world-famous castle or waterfall. In Brazil the American poet Elizabeth Bishop asks herself in "Questions of Travel," if she should have stayed at home, whether it was right to pursue a life determined "to see the sun the other way around." Then she lists what she sees and hears -- small moments that describe the place, that she might see or hear nowhere else: a line of stunning trees blooming pink; a fat brown bird singing above a broken gas pump in a bamboo church; two "disparate" notes of clacking wooden clogs which "in another country" would be quality-tested and each sound the same. I love this poem. That's how I feel, that noticing the small elements which characterize a place is a practice for the mind and the imagination, a reward any writer might value.
Mary Jo McConahay Talks About Maya Roads and the People of the Central American Rainforest
Today I am going to interview Mary Jo McConahay, author of Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest. The book was published this month by Chicago Review Press and has been receiving rave reviews. Don George of National Geographic Traveler said in his review: “Every once in a while I stumble upon a book that is so beautifully written and infused with so much intelligence and heart that it leaves an indelible mark on me. Mary Jo McConahay’s Maya Roads is such a book. In its hungry passion and wide-eyed wonder, it’s an extraordinary literary journey and a moving testament to a region and a life.”
Mary Jo has led an extraordinary life. She was a correspondent in Latin America during the Eighties and covered the insurgent wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. All of her work, but particularly Maya Roads, is imbued with her love of the region and its people and a fierce and courageous commitment to social justice.
Andy: Mary Jo, will you describe for us in your own words Maya Roads?
Mary Jo: Maya Roads is my story of falling in love with the rainforest and things Maya as a young woman, then returning to them after a career as a war correspondent, seeing the world of ancient and modern Maya in Central America through my own new lens of experience, investigating their recent history of violence, but never losing my wonder at their world view, customs and resilience as a people, and new discoveries about their beginnings.
Andy: What led you to write this book?
Mary Jo: I had been “saving string” on the Maya for years, reading and writing, listening, travelling to their places, much as anyone might do with the object of an obsession. But as a freelance journalist I felt I never had the time to put it all together in a book. One day I woke up and said, “When exactly do you think you will start this book?” Hemingway said if you answer the phone you can stay in journalism forever. I stopped answering the phone. Fortunately, it worked out.
Andy: What strikes me most about this book and what differentiates it from so many other “travel books” is that it really has a political bite to it. Tell us a little about this.
Mary Jo: I am a journalist by profession, and where others may see politics I see history. The reader can’t be expected to understand the context of the violence in some chapters without knowing about key events, such as the 1954 C.I.A.-organized coup that overthrew a democratically elected president in Guatemala and began a 30-year nightmare reign of the military. The reader won’t truly understand the significance of the revolt of thousands of Maya peasant farmers in 1994 — Zapatistas — without some account of decades of official Mexican corruption. We can’t speak honestly about the current drug networks operating in Maya geography without saying they exist to serve the United States market. I don’t consider writing about such facts politics, but as providing the whole picture.
Andy: But what is even more remarkable is that the book is never preachy and and your observations about the exploitation of the Maya is always told along with your amazement at the beauty of the land and your love and fascination with the sadly disappearing indigenous culture.
Mary Jo: Should the indigenous culture truly disappear it would be a tragedy, but I don’t think it’s inevitable. Now that certain dangers of the civil war are over, some Maya in Guatemala are more open about their identity. In Mexico, there is pride among many indigenous, Maya and not, in the Zapatista uprising and the way some communities are progressing independently of the government. When I interviewed Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu, a K’iche Maya, on the day she won the prize in 1992, she told me there was no reason why Maya could not enjoy the good things of modern life, even participate in scientific and technological advancement, and still maintain their ancestral culture. “Look at the Jewish people,” she said.
Andy: Do you think there is a possibility of a “happy ending” to your story?
Mary Jo:The Maya view of time is cyclical, not a straight line as we might think of it. Thus there is no “ending,” happy or not, to the greater Maya story, but moments of transition and change. What is clear is that the Maya have survived not only the decimation of the European conquerors, but centuries of racism and violence, and in Guatemala, recent incidents of genocide perpetrated by their government, which was supported by ours. Today the Maya have recovered their pre-conquest numbers. They participate in political life and go to university. In southern Mexico, indigenous Zapatista revolutionary communities are raising a generation of literate young for the first time in history. This is all “happy” stuff, but an ending it is not.
Andy: Are there any works of travel journalism that have particularly influenced you? Any that have as much focus on social issues the way Maya Roads does?
Mary Jo: I think it was a certain era of travel writing, rather than any particular book, that put me on the track. In college I studied English Literature with a focus on the Eighteenth Century, which among other things was the period of trade and empire expansion. Readers were fascinated by descriptions of new lands and cross-cultural encounters, and in the best work, led to examine who they were in relation to other people and landscapes. Think Johnson and Boswell, Captain Cook, educated women on the Grand Tour. So from the beginning, I never considered travel writing a secondary genre. I believe in what I call deep travel, knowing as much as possible about the people I’ll be among, especially their recent history. To me it makes for a richer experience, a way to make connections with other ways of life.
Mary Jo McConahay's GlobeWatch
Living in Central America we can tell from first hand experience that there is a large population of indigenous peoples of Maya, Nahuatl and other groups. Sometimes they are easily recognized by their colorful traditional dress. Other times they look and speak exactly like all the other Central Americans.
In Maya Roads, Mary Jo McConahay draws upon her three decades of traveling and living in Central America’s remote landscapes to create a unique and mesmerizing chronicle of the people, politics, archaeology, and species of the Central American rainforest, the cradle of Maya civilization. Captivated by the magnificence and mystery of the jungle, Mary brings to life the intense beauty, the fantastic locales, the ancient ruins, and the horrific violence. She witnesses archaeological discoveries, the transformation of the Lacandon people, the Zapatista indigenous uprising in Mexico, increased drug trafficking, and assists in the uncovering of a war crime. Over the decades, McConahay has witnessed great changes in the region, and this is a unique tale of a woman’s adventure and the adaptation and resolve of a people.
What’s Up El Salvador was lucky enough to grab a few minutes of Mary Jo’s valuable time to provide an interview with her about her new book which just became available on August 1st. The Maya Roads book is interesting to us as we are former Bay Area natives and now we are living as Central American expats. It tells the true stories of a great and amazing people while highlighting the problems and solutions of foreign and local policy in the region.
Whats Up El Salvador (WUES) asks: Your book seems to be a unique intersection of hard journalism, personal journey, and love of the Mayan people. What were the three most intriguing things you learned about the Mayan people in this journey?
Mary Jo McConahay: Far from being a people who disappeared when their great city-states fell by the year 900, the Maya live and thrive today. They have regained their pre-conquest numbers. The natural respect and deep love that exists for Mother Earth in the Maya cosmology may be the key worldview for a moment when we face irreversible destruction of the natural world, and thus, ourselves.
(WUES) asks: If you could only get one key message of this book, across to your readers what would it be?
Mary Jo McConahay: Instead of thinking in terms of message, I prefer wanting the reader to feel the experience of a world of a struggling, resistant people living in a stunning and precious corner of the earth, which must survive.
Mary Jo McConahay, author of Maya Roads
(WUES) asks: Who was the person you met in writing this book who had the single greatest impact on you?
Mary Jo McConahay: I remember each person in this book vividly, and each for a different reason. The person I know best is the Maya priest I call Ramona, because I’ve known her longest, and she has always opened doors on Maya life to me, as a friend.
(WUES) asks: Your book has some political overtones in a sense in dealing with the affects of US “influence” throughout Central America. How do you see the US’s involvement changing in the region over the next decade?
Mary Jo McConahay: My writing about U.S. involvement in Central America and Mexico is not political but historical. You cannot understand the last thirty years in the region without an awareness of events that have shaped its politics and development. Che Guevara lived in Guatemala during the Guatemalan Spring (1944-1954) with its flowering of culture and literacy, and saw the democratically elected administration of Pres. Jacobo Arbenz overthrown by a C.I.A.-orchestrated coup. The lesson he learned is that a government or movement truly intolerable to Washington will come under attack from the United States in one way or another. The most recent example is the Honduran coup only two years ago. Nothing has changed in the big picture to alter this relationship between the United States and the countries to its south.
(WUES) asks: What do you hope that this book brings about? (political change in Central America, the US, economic changes?)
Mary Jo McConahay: As a journalist I do not think in terms of promoting change, but reporting the story. My job is to provide information, and readers decide how they will use it.
(WUES) asks: How do you feel that your unique combination of living both in the Bay Area and in Central America has helped to shape you?
Mary Jo McConahay: The Bay Area historically has been one of the most connected and alert U.S. populations with regard to Central America, so I have been able to go beyond the basics in my reporting and know there is an audience for it. I know journalists who feel they are shouting in a desert because they get no feedback or reaction when they write about Mexico or Central America. I never had to worry about that when writing for Bay Area readers.
(WUES) asks: How did both living this story and then writing it improve you personally?
Mary Jo McConahay: I don’t believe living this story and writing it made me a better or worse person. However, as with any such intense travel experience, what I have seen has given me a degree of understanding about the lives of some fellow human beings I would not have otherwise known. And I think that’s always a good thing.
(WUES) asks: What are the challenges of living as an expat women in Central America for you?
Mary Jo McConahay: I’ve lived as an expat in Saudi Arabia and Europe, too, and it’s not much different from living as an expat anywhere. Life improves to the degree you know the local language, have local friends, and throw yourself into a place’s history and culture. Otherwise, why are you there?
(WUES) asks: You brought your daughter to live in Central America at a young age. Many of our readers (and us!) are living or are considering living in Central America with our young children. What are the three key pieces of wisdom you would offer us?
Mary Jo McConahay: I don’t know about wisdom, but here are a few things I’d tell a friend moving to Central America:
Relax about school. Don’t give in to constant comparing “where she is” with kids of the same age in the States. It comes out the same in the end, or the child who went to school abroad may even get a better education.
Don’t speak Spanish to your child unless you’re a native speaker. She will be immersed in Spanish everywhere, especially at a local school, but probably nowhere else will she learn to use proper native English except at home. It’s eventually a real gift to the child to be truly bilingual, and bicultural.
In Latin America gender expectations — and what you want in regard to them for your boy or girl — can be really different from those in the United States. Ojo
WUES asks: The book takes place mostly in Guatemala and Mexico, what are your thoughts on the indigenous of El Salvador?
Mary Jo McConahay: I’d really like some day to write about the indigenous of El Salvador. They do not wear the traje or openly express their culture in the way Guatemalan indigenous do — the Salvadoran Matanza of 1932 took care of that. But the glimpse of ceremony and other events I experienced in corners near Izalco during the war intrigued me, although there was no opportunity then to follow up. The intrigue remains.
Support Mary (and What’s Up El Salvador!) and buy this book right now. This is a great book that will open your eyes and your heart. Send one to a friend who you know would benefit from learning about this amazing region and these brilliant people. It also makes an inspired gift- And Christmas is right around the corner!
Mary Jo McConahay's GlobeWatch
"Dramatic life-and-death experiences in a clear prose style that flows with immediacy -- a profoundly moving document"
--Jon Lee Anderson, Staff Writer for The New Yorker and Author, Che Guevara, a Revolutionary Life
I'll be "In Conversation with William Carlsen, Author of Jungles of Stone," the great new book about Maya world explorers John L. Stephens and William Catherwood at Litquake, Mechanics' Institute, San Francisco, Oct. 8, 2016, 11:00 a.m. Free!
And coming: Tango War, about the WWII struggle for hearts, minds and strategic resources in Latin America. From Macmillan, 2018
Writer and journalist Mary Jo McConahay watches the globe, near and far. She is author of the award-winning Maya Roads: One Woman's Journey Among the People of the Rainforest (Chicago Review Press), and Ricochet, Two Women War Reporters and a Friendship under Fire (Shebooks). Mary Jo is the current Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year. Her reporting has appeared in Time, Newsweek, Vogue, Rolling Stone, Ms., Salon, Sierra, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Parenting, The Progressive, National Catholic Reporter, and many others.
As a documentary filmmaker, she co-produced and co-directed Crimebuster, A Son's Search for His Father, and the award-winning PBS documentary, Discovering Dominga, writing its original story. She is producing a new half-hour documentary: Father Bill, Revolutionary Priest, about the late Fr. Bill O'Donnell, who was arrested 245 times for nonviolent resistance to incidents in which "my government misbehaves."
GlobeWatch continues the column by the same name, formerly published by Pacific News Service and New America Media.