Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Following in the Footsteps of Neill James

Sign on the Neill James tree at Lake Chapala Society

Was she rich? 

Was she a spy? 

Was she friends with the glitterati of the world?

Just who was Neill James?

Those are just a few of the questions surrounding Neill James, a woman of some mystery whose spirit hovers over the small, Lake Chapala village of Ajijic, Mexico. She left her home and gardens to the Lake Chapala Society which is the first stop most foreigners make when they come to Ajijic, as well as a continuing source of support to them as they move here. 

That’s where I first heard about her and when I went looking for more information, I found a book … Kokio: A Novel Based on the Life of Neill James … which left me more puzzled than enlightened. The book claims to be fiction but uses real names, dates, and events. The author’s main question, and reason for calling it fiction apparently, was about whether or not she was a spy (probably was). The book left me with many questions. One of the main ones is why this adventurer/travel writer settled here in this small village.

LCS Garden, begun by Neill
When she came here in the mid-1940s to recuperate after two life-threatening encounters with volcanoes, it was a backwater place … pretty, but here’s how she described it ...
"We have no means of refrigeration, and indifferent, jittery electric light for three hours at night only. Nobody can call me by telephone, because our village has none. The one telephone in the post office closes at 7 o’clock at night, and it is impossible to call a doctor or send a telegram after that hour."
Almost nothing an American world traveler needed could be found here … plus, there were bandits in the mountains! Why did she stay?

As her body mended from a multitude of broken bones, she wrote a book about her travels in Mexico: Dust on My Heart. At the end of the book she says:
My projected six months’ Mexican jaunt, by force of circumstances, stretched into nearly four years. Now that my fractures are practically healed, I can walk well once again, and my book is finished, there is no real excuse for remaining in this private little paradise. I must be on the move.
By that time, Neill James was almost 50 and had been a world traveler all her life. She called herself a gadabout, an explorer, and a “Petticoat Vagabond” in her travel books. She was always conjuring up new trips. 

What changed her mind? What made her stay in this small village where she would wind up making such a lasting impact?

 Teomichicihualli by Jesús Lopez Vega
Inquiring minds want to know

Bette Brazel and I have launched a project to discover Mexico through the eyes of this adventurous writer/traveler, and hope to answer a few of the questions about this woman who started libraries, a children’s art program, a women’s embroidery business, and seems to still touch everyone who comes here with her generosity.

This wall mural "Goddess of the Lake"
was done by one of the highly respected
artists here in Ajijic ... Jesús Lopez Vega,
an artist mentored by Neill James. 

Neill was a magnet for foreigners and helped turn this area into a tri-cultural experiment (Mexican-Canadian-American). Some people are a bit doubtful about whether or not it's working. However, local people often remind us to look at what she created and the generosity she brought to this village. 

We asked one local artist about his memories and what he thought about the increasing numbers of foreigners coming to his village. He talked about the new jobs and prosperity that came with the immigrants, stating, “If it weren’t for them, we would probably still be eating roots and chayotes.” 

Mural at the lake - by Efren Gonzalez and students
Of course, progress comes with things like stop lights, traffic, increasing rents, and Walmart, so many residents have mixed feelings about where things are going, and many have no idea who Neill James was or what she brought to this community.

Popular Mexican artist, Efren Gonzalez, was another young artist mentored by Neill James

We expect this project to go on for some time, however, we’ve already concluded that Neill James was not a saint and that she often added dramatic touches to her stories. Still, she is called the “godmother of Ajijic,” and was awarded the “Woman of the Century” designation in the February 19th, 2012 edition of the USA Today’s weekend feature La Voz de Mexico. 

We expect her to surprise us many times on this journey and we invite you to join us on this fun project of following in Neill’s footsteps and getting more acquainted with this unique spirit through her words and the memories of the people who are here and interacted with her from the 1940s through when she died in 1994.

Each of us will be blogging our experiences and insights. You can see Bette's stories and impressions at her blog Neill James Footsteps.

Mine will be collected under the "Neill James" tab at the top of the page.

Plus, of course, there is a Facebook page: Neill James Footsteps Facebook page

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