When once the dust of Mexico has settled upon your heart, you cannot then find peace in any other land. Neill James, lesbian writer/adventurer/ philanthropist penned this in her 1944 travel book, Dust on My Heart. She was on a supposed six-month tour of Mexico, writing the fourth of her books in the “Petticoat Vagabond” series about her adventures in cultures around the world. Little did she know that she would spend the next fifty years in the small, mountain village of Ajijic until her death at the age of ninety-nine. Her residence on Lake Chapala, was donated to the Lake Chapala Society and became a hub serving Lakeside foreigners as well as the Mexican community for more than fifty years.

Here is the first paragraph of Neill James’ Dust on My Heart:

I am by instinct, a global vagabond. I cannot rest from travel. Glamour of the unknown has lured me thrice up and down and around the world. Alone, I have shared the home life of peoples in extremes of latitudes, longitudes and altitudes. I have tented on arctic snows beneath the Northern Lights with fur-clad Laplanders who follow the reindeer, have supped with gentle Fiji Islanders, and tattooed Maoris, and have breakfasted on seaweed in the grass huts of the Ainu. I have worshipped in a Malay Snake Temple at sea level and joined Buddhists at prayer on lofty Fujiyama. Restrictions imposed by a world at war (WWII) foreshortened my horizon, and guided my eager footsteps south to Mexico. 

She was much-maligned (a single woman, ah ha! and a writer! must be crazy, a prevaricator at the least! cantankerous! a provocateur!). She was a mystery woman, much-praised and most probably a US intelligence agent. Most of all, she was her own woman. A year ago, a blogpost of mine called Female and Fearless spoke of women writers before me here in Ajijic, and included my beginning glimpse of Neill James.

Since then, I have heard some first-hand stories of her ferocious way of life. I am glad to have a sense of her that sees past the sanitized and sainted version recalling only her splendid philanthropy. She was an inventive woman, belonging to herself, a person who was whole. And women becoming whole shift the planet’s paradigm.


Books by Neill James, 1885-1994:

Dust on My Heart:Petticoat Vagabond in Mexico
Petticoat Vagabond In Ainu Land
Petticoat Vagabonds Up and Down The World in Asia
White Reindeer
Atlantic Rendezvous
Penkerth, Journey’s End

Fearless and Female: Maud Paunceforte to Mary Blair

Maud and Esther and Ethel, Frances and Mary, just a few of the adventurous women here at Lake Chapala before the turn of the twentieth century, intrepid writers whom, had it been the 1980’s instead of the 1880’s, I would have immediately recruited to join The National Feminist Writers Guild.  Later came Neill James, legendary adventurer and travel writer (1885 -1994), who contributed so much to Ajijic. My sisters have loved this place before me and have left their imprint of wonder. With gratitude, I follow in footsteps of writers who were fearless and female.(Information from Lake Chapala Through the Ages by Tony Burton)

Honorable Maud Paunceforte 1862-1919. Writer of the earliest published lakeside travel article, Chapala the Beautiful (Harper’s Bazar, December 1900) from which this excerpt is taken: “…The lake is surrounded by mountains, which in that lovely atmosphere, so high and rarified, take every shade of violet and pink and blue. The coloring is magnificent and the sunsets and starlight night are things to dream of. The Southern Cross is seen, and every star seems bigger and nearer and the sky more filled with gems than one ever imagined…”

 Esther Tapia de Castellanos, 1842-1947. Poet, Author of 5 Poetry Collections. In 1869 she wrote the first poem published about Lake Chapala, A Orillas del Lago




Ethel Brilliana Harley 1867-1940. Author, Photographer, Painter, Travel writer.

A sampling of her novels:

Essay: Women and War Economy (The English Review April 1916)

Frances Christine Fisher, aka Christian Reid 1846-1920. Novelist. Prolific romance writer born in Salisbury North Carolina, her novels include Land of the Sky and The Land of the Sun, On Lake Chapala, from which the following excerpt is taken:“…Before them spread the lake, a sheet of shining silver, while the mountains on its shores, clearly revealed by the brilliant radiance, were yet so ethereal and unearthly in tint, that they looked like hills in a dream. On one side, the lake seemed completely enclosed by these heights that rose immediately from its margins and formed a frame, with their crests against the hyacinth-blue sky, and the silver water washing their feet… Near at hand, a dark bold shadow was thrown over the water from the mountain that rose immediately above the town— the abrupt and rocky face of which, owing to the humidity of the air, was covered with a wealth of tropical vegetation…”

Mary Blair Rice, aka Blair Niles 1880-1959. Travel writer, Feminist, Geographer, Birder, Novelist, and Founder of Society of Women Geographers.

Non-fiction by Blair Niles:

  • Martha’s Husband: An Informal Portrait of George Washington (1951)
  • Passengers to Mexico: The Last Invasion of the America’s (1943)
  • The James: From Iron Gate to the Sea (1939)
  • Peruvian Pageant, A Journey In Time (1937)
  • Black Haiti: A Biography of Africa’s Eldest Daughter (1926)
  • Colombia: Land Of Miracles (1924)
  • Casual Wanderings in Ecuador (1923)

Fiction by Blair Niles

  • Strange Brother (1931)
  • Maria Paluna (1934)
  • Day of the Immense Sun (1936)
  • East by Day (1941)
  • Condemned to Devil’s Island (1928) – turned into the 1929 film Condemned

Neill James, 1885-1994.

Books by Neill James:

Dust on My Heart:Petticoat Vagabond in Mexico
Petticoat Vagabond In Ainu Land
Petticoat Vagabonds Up and Down The World in Asia
White Reindeer
Atlantic Rendezvous
Penkerth, Journey’s End