By Jeanine Kitchel
Michel Peissel died in his sleep in Paris on October 7 at age 74. His brother Bernard emailed me this information a few days afterwards. I’d failed to see his obituary in the New York Times. Apparently Bernard located a copy of the review I wrote of Peissel’s incredible journey to Quintana Roo in 1958, and he wanted to let me know about Peissel. I was glad he did, as Peissel’s book was a life changer for me and countless others who were lucky enough to locate a copy. I found the book in the mid-80s, couldn’t put it down, and shortly after reading it, booked a flight to Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico.
In the mid 80s, Cancun was not the sophisticated resort city it is today. It definitely wasn’t a backwater because even then the hotel zone had pizazz. Cancun had a Club Med and had been picked to host the Miss Universe contest in 1983. That put a spotlight on its luscious beaches and turquoise waters. But venture five miles south or north, and you would find adventure. I know I did.
Although I was a seasoned Mexico traveler I’d never ventured to the Yucatan Peninsula, and the Maya pyramids were a real draw. Peissel’s world was penned in 1958 when there was barely a road in Quintana Roo. It was hard for me to imagine a place as desolate and rustic as he described, but I soon discovered that Quintana Roo was truly wilderness. My husband and I wanted to see Tulum and Coba and we started out on a local bus. Back then you just hopped a bus and when you saw a sascab road heading towards the beach you asked the driver to stop and let you off. We did this frequently and found unpopulated, uncluttered beaches with nothing on them but coco palms. (Today these same beaches house all-inclusive resorts). Jumping off was easy, but finding another bus –sometimes not so easy.
That’s what led to our next adventure, as we were standing on the side road to Coba. While waiting for a bus, we were given a ride by the man who became our connection to living in Mexico. He was a contractor, and one thing led to another. We eventually built a house in Puerto Morelos, started a bookstore, and later visited Paris where someone told us we simply had to see Shakespeare & Company on the Left Bank, as it reminded them of our humble store in Quintana Roo. A far cry to be sure, but we did find a kindred spirit in George Whitman, owner. When he asked where we were from, I thought I’d throw him a curve and said, “Quintana Roo.”
“Aaah, Quintana Roo,” he sighed. “What a place. I loved it there.”
“You’ve been there?” I said, surprised.
“Oh, yes, in the 30s I was traveling through Mexico. My visa ran out and I helped them build a bridge between Chetumal and Belize to get my papers in order.”
“I first heard about it in the book The Lost World of Quintana Roo,” I said, “by Michel Peissel, a Parisian.”
“Michel, of course.”
“You know him?”
“Oh, yes, he came into the store while he was a student at the Sorbonne, and I’d tell him about my travels in Quintana Roo.”
This coincidence led to a fine friendship with Mr. Whitman, who invited us to tea, and then to stay with him in Paris as he always had a place, he said, for writers and travelers.
So Peissel had heard of Quintana Roo through George Whitman, and that changed his life. Whitman was his game changer as he was mine. I’d come full circle, from finding the out-of-print copy of Lost World of Quintana Roo in California to the source of Peissel’s desire to head to Mexico, George Whitman telling Yucatan tales at a bookstore in Paris. Peissel went on to write 15 more books and produce 20 documentaries. His life was a tapestry of travel and adventure, and after Mexico he shifted direction to the Far East where Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal became the passion that would consume him for the rest of his life.
As his brother Bernard said in my email, “He always lived his life his way, never had an employer and never ran out of ideas.”
May the rest of us live life so well.