Ever since Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortez set sail in 1519 to find a world of gold and riches hidden beyond the sea, curious travelers have been coming to this land in search of the "real" Mexico. Like all timeworn myths, such a place remains just out of reach. Over the years, countless novelists and travel writers have claimed to have found something real while strolling the sun-parched cobblestone streets of Mérida, nesting in the steamy jungles of Chiapas, or swooning in the arms of a Mexican lover.

My grandmother's Mexico was a ranch in California's Central Valley, where her Mexican parents and grandparents carved out a decent, if laborious, life when the land was Mexico's northern outpost. My introduction to the country as a child was a day trip across the border while visiting my uncle in El Paso, Texas; all I can remember is a horrifying bullfight that I am still trying to forget. Was that the real Mexico? Ten years later, I drove the length of the Baja peninsula on the newly completed Hwy. 1 and found dusty crossroads where hastily erected prefab buildings next to bodeguitas served as hotels -- and then La Paz, with its leafy tropical languor, beguiling malecón, and air-conditioned hotels. The real Mexico?

The answer, of course, is all of the above, and more. But my "real Mexico" lies in the generosity of its people, which is extended liberally to visitors. I have been adopted by farm families who gave me tent space under their palapa in return for paying a meager sum to share their meals, ushered by an office worker to his family's home for siesta so that we could continue our conversation, and left gape-jawed while watching as a campesino scaled a 12m (40-ft.) palm to fell a coconut and hand it to me with a straw after I casually asked what he grows on his farm. I have been stopped by policemen and then escorted to my destination 32km (20 miles) away when I confessed that I was lost. The one constant within this mosaic of experiences is a warmth and compulsion to share, recognizing no regional or economic boundaries and defying hardship, corruption, and natural disaster.

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