I Dreamt I Swam Among Gardenias: An American’s Vision of the Ruiz Galindo Hotel

It’s amazing how our dreams come true. We are constantly urged to “plan our work and work our plan,” prioritize and establish goals and timeframes in order to realize our fondest dreams. But in my experience, some dreams mostly take care of themselves. I was a neophyte Spanish teacher in a tiny US farming community in the mid-60s, when I was handed an ancient text book and basically told to go for it. My Spanish was bad, in spite of a summer spent in Mexico City. A woeful situation. The book was outdated and had amateurish black and white photos. One, however, caught my attention. The photo in question was of a hotel swimming pool filled with gardenias. You can barely imagine the impression that this fact made on me, even in black and white. Gardenia scent was still highly prized in perfumery, and the flowers themselves had a certain caché attached to their popularity in the Art Deco movement. And of course, I had never in my life seen a gardenia bush in nature. The gardenias that I was familiar with came in corsages, pinned to formal dresses or perched on a wrist band. One or two of them. But an entire swimming pool covered with these fragrant, velvety flowers? Such luxury was simply unimaginable. I dreamt of swimming in that pool!

Ultimately, I met my husband in Mexico and came here to live. And then my daughter, when she married, went to live in Córdoba. One day we were out driving when we passed a hotel and my son-in-law announced, “That hotel belongs to some friends of ours.” And? “It’s called the Ruiz Galindo, and it was very popular with Mexican movie stars in the 1940s and 50’s.” I drew another blank. “They have a swimming pool that is filled with fresh gardenias every day.” My heart jumped with joy! It was as though someone had told me that King Solomon’s Mines were a couple of miles down the highway. Could it be that long-dreamt of pool that I knew only in black and white, but whose velvety gardenias I had, in my imagination, touched with my fingertips and whose inebriating perfume I had inhaled with feverous devotion in those desperate times 25 years previously?

In fact, it turned out that a phone call was necessary to assure that there would be gardenias in the pool. Evidently the hotel kept up the tradition, but not with the same dedication as before. When I got there, alas, no gardenias floated in the pool. “They took them out because they were wilted,” I was told. The next day they put some in again—not very many apparently—but they were soon destroyed by a swarm of children who immediately took to batting them about for recreation. The once star-studded pool was now the habitat of local people on a Sunday outing with the family. I had expected the walls, at least, to be full of photos and mementos of the former, illustrious guests. But no, there was not much to recall the glory days either.

I didn’t miss out entirely, though. The lobby was filled with fragrant gardenias. And I eventually assembled in my mind a vision of how the hotel must have looked in its hey-day, partly from photos and post cards, partly from observing what is left of a once-proud hotel. The postcards show a pool which seems larger than the existing one, and it sometimes has not only gardenias but other plants which make it look more rustic. It is invariably shown with a snow-covered volcano in the background—suitably touched up lest you think it less majestic than the hotel deserves. The hacienda-style hotel is restfully surrounded by palm trees and greenery. And white-capped female swimmers make gala of the white flowers in the pool.

What I never would have imagined is that the train dropped the guests off at the very door of the hotel. The rusty tracks in front of the hotel testify to that, although the steam engine that belched black smoke as it brought film stars from Mexico City has long ceased to use these them. I reflected that on a family trip over 40 years ago, I probably slept my way past the defunct hotel stop as I wended my way to the Port of Veracruz with my two small daughters. So close and yet so far away.

And yet, of that train trip I remember the country women with their aprons and braided hair, how they climbed onto the train to offer the passengers boiled eggs and pieces of fried chicken they carried in buckets. They still wore rebozos like the local women in photos of the hey-day of the Ruiz Galindo Hotel. And I remember that while the train was stopped–in the middle of a field under cultivation–a campesino pulled up some lettuce and handed it to the conductor. Were María Felix and Pedro Armendariz as charmed as I was? I can see her now, in my mind’s eye, shedding her furs as the train descends and the air becomes warm and moist. And then she turns to Pedro, who is reading the Mexico City News. . .

Image courtesy of [panuruangjan] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net