By: Alejandra Olguín Estrada

A couple of years ago I learned that there was a book town in the Welsh valley. A town with less than 2,000 inhabitants and more than 24 bookstores where the Hay Festival has been held every year since 1988. One of the largest and most important literature festivals in Europe.

So I took a plane, two trains – which I barely managed to board during a UK-wide transport strike – and a bus to get to Hay-On-Wye, the book town in Wales. Suddenly I recognized all the images I had seen on the internet, it was all there: getting off the bus at Hay Castle, walking along Oxford Road and turning right on Church St. to have the first breakfast at Hay Cinema Bookshop surrounded by signs that advertise “All Books £1 each”. Walking along Brecon Road until a tent in English and Welsh greets me: Hay Festival. Croeso/Welcome. He had looked for it and had found it. And now I felt enormous gratitude to be there.

I began my days at the festival with the presentation of the book “Old Babes in the Wood”, by Margaret Atwood. I barely joined the line and a group of friends (who would later tell me that they have attended the festival since its inception) joined me in their talk. One of the biggest advantages that I have found traveling alone is the ease and openness to meeting people all the time. I told them that I was traveling from Mexico, that I had arrived in the United Kingdom the night before, that I had been planning this trip for a year and that all I was looking for was to read, listen to new ideas and walk through every bookstore in town. They did not hesitate to give me recommendations that I wrote down in the free spaces of the tickets and loose sheets that I had in my bag. They were my first minutes there and I already had 5 new titles on my list to read, places to go and 3 names and faces for my travel stories.

My plans for the next few days included more sessions with Margaret Atwood talking about literature and grief, her love of watching Captain Underpants on airplanes, and the blue-dressed ghost that lives in her house. Realizing that I missed Dua Lipa’s concerts in Mexico, but now I saw her 2 days less than 3 m from my seat recording her podcast, At Your Service, with Douglas Stuart (Booker Prize 2020), I was writing down the recommendations of his favorite readings and told us about his bookshelf at the Festival. I spoke with Irene Vallejo and saw in both of them the relief of hearing our language in the midst of so much English and Welsh; We talked about her visits to Mexico, I gave her a postcard from my city and I was “genius” enough to turn her book upside down when we took a photo. I listened and learned from Katy Hessel’s enthusiasm when talking about women in world art and was moved when she exhibited the work of Artemisia Gentileschi, my favorite artist. I felt like I was in an episode of How I Met Your Mother while she was singing—screaming—“I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” at The Proclaimers concert. I ran for a glass of rosé to the festival bar to get to the conversations with BBC experts: astronomy, philosophy, climate change, music, meditation. Everything fits in those tents. In that town. In all minds.

I camped in a yurt a field away from the Hay Festival. My neighbors were a horse that galloped every day punctually as soon as the sun rose at 3:00 am and a group of sheep that gathered under a tree. My routine consisted of having tea and a buttered scone in the morning, walking across the countryside to the Festival, attending the first events of the day, walking into town at lunchtime and stopping at every corner—really every corner— to enter a new bookstore.

I have never seen so many titles in my life. The impression of seeing that each bookseller knows exactly the location of the book you are looking for and listening to the recommendations they make to other customers. Every day after lunch, I took the time to sit in the gardens of Hay Castle, whose façade reads in illuminated letters: “Love detonates this distance between us to ash holds your flooded heart in the fire of night ”, by the poet and sculptor Robert Montgomery. Some days, on my way back to the Festival site, I would pass by Tom’s Records, a small music store; others, he took the long way along the banks of the River Wye. This was life invading my heart, body and soul.

I said goodbye to Hay-On-Wye – how could I not? – spending the afternoon reading in front of the castle, with my backpack much heavier, but full of new books and stories. Now I understand when Alma Delia Murillo wrote: “My life changed the day I understood that everything that happens, happens to be told.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *