Thursday, February 25, 2010


A short jump back to San Miguel, this time thankfully in the sunshine. What a treat being able to lift my head and look around instead of walking around hunched over, dodging puddles and downspouts. We spent a lovely couple of days with my parents, doing nothing more than enjoying each other's company. We had some lovely meals and managed to get some good quality time in despite the fact that my folks were both feeling a bit under the weather. San Miguel may be full of older folk but it is not a city that is kind to people who aren't at the peak of their physical abilities -- the sidewalks are an obstacle course, sometimes narrow, sometimes wide, sometimes high, sometimes non-existant. The cobblestone streets are no better, beautiful but fairly impractical. I can't even imagine with a walking stick.

I got to sit in on my mom's daily conversational Spanish class with Elvira, a tidy, handsome little woman with two long black braids that loop down and up her back. In a blue and white crocheted dress with matching serape and skin-colour stockings she sits and waits for her group of five to congregate in the sunny courtyard of the Instituto Allende at noon every day. She takes turns asking people questions about themselves, getting them to say something, anything in Spanish and then very tactfully correcting, illuminating. If our experience in San Miguel was anything to go by, this class could easily be the only Spanish many of her students speak in a day. I got to attend one of her classes last year and it was really satisfying to find that I finally have enough Spanish to at least describe the words I don't have. I only wish I had someone like her in Abercorn.

On our walk down the hill to dinner we walked into a moment stolen from an earlier time. Three grey burros stood on the narrow sidewalk, their backs laden with dozens of canvas bags. Downhill from the donkeys stood a woman in her late sixties, dressed in a hundred layers, beautiful round face brown and leathery from exposure, her hand on a rough rope knotted on the halter. She stood in the late-day sun (which is really something to behold in San Miguel) waiting with the animals as her husband crossed the narrow street to knock at a door with his walking stick. Too close quarters to pull out the camera but it is an image that will stay with me for a long time.

We had our last dinner on a gorgeous rooftop terrace, the sun setting over the mountains on one side, the steeples of the parroquia and a couple of tiled domes on the other. The wine flowed, Wil dug into my parents' past, drawing out tales of their early days together, stories I'd never heard before. After dinner we walked over to the jardín and sat down to watch a mariachi band do their stuff. Their main audience was a middle-aged couple sitting on the low stone wall sharing a snifter of tequila. The guitars and violins made a half circle around them. The trumpets, which were as flat as pancakes, stood ten paces back to balance the sound. After a couple of tunes, the couple got up to stand with the band and the man began to sing -- quite well -- sometimes being prompted by his wife when the lyrics eluded him. When the songs were done the man pulled a wad of money out of his pocket and handed it over to the band. His comfort with the notion of paying for music is a state that seems to elude non-Mexicans, who for fear of paying too little or too much or of bearing the discomfort of being the centre of attention, deprive themselves the joy of being truly and properly serenaded.

We said goodbye and walked the sad walk home. I think we also said goodbye to San Miguel which, as gorgeous as it is, is just too full of gringos for us. If it weren't for my parents I don't think we'd ever go back, the flavour of Mexico so diluted as to be almost unpalatable for us.

One of the reasons the town is so easy to look at, like many of the its colonial sisters, is the lack of garbage everywhere. Mexico has a weird relationship with trash that I find hard to understand. There are piles of it along the highway, in some places fields of trash, the beaches are littered with plastic bottles and bags. The streets of so many of the towns we've been to are strewn with garbage. I can't count how many times we've been driving behind someone and seen a hand emerge from the window of a car or bus only to launch a handful of litter on to the road. In Chetumal when we were filling up our little cooking tank with gas, the man took our receipt, ripped off the perforated printer edge and just dropped it on the ground. Wil and I looked at each other, aghast, and then looked around -- at the hundreds of streamers of green and pink printer paper scattered in the grass and the bushes and the trees for hundreds of feet around. In Puerto Arista, one of the men's chores of the day was to burn the garbage, plastic bottles and all. When we were in Troncones, using the internet at the school library, a girl who sat in front of a computer finished a lollipop, walked to the door and threw the stick on the ground in front of a dozen friends, none of whom said a word. All this despite the very active campaign of education and fines to counteract the reflex. Someone told Wil that it harkens back to colonial days when Mexicans were the labourers but never the owners (or caretakers) of the land, a situation that in no way encouraged a sense of responsibility. Ceci dit, it sucks. For us, it is the only consistently negative element of Mexico and it's tragic that one bad habit (and the lack of political will to reform) is allowed to mar the incredible physical beauty of this country.

In the morning we hit the road for Guanajuato, going first through Dolores Hidalgo. The map seemed very clear and yet we managed to get completely spun around, entering Guanajuato from the south when we were meant to be hitting it from the north. We weren't sorry to have done the extra mileage. The scenery was, dare I repeat myself, spectacular. Rolling hills of pale brush, the soil pale and pink, dried up rivers, donkeys scattered in the hills. Most of the trees were so dry they looked like they were full of dust bunnies and, with no undergrowth to speak of, the trees that DID have leaves looked like the fake clusters you find dotting an architect's maquette.

After confirming with a guy at a gas station that our van would fit through most of the tunnels, we made our approach. I wasn't feeling that confident about navigating the town without getting lost, especially with a hangover that made map-reading decidedly unpleasant. We waved off the half-dozen offers of guides and eventually managed to find the campsite which hangs over the valley that is the town, a cubist's colourful dream laid out on the opposite hill.

We walked down into the centro, through a tunnel that seemed to go on and on, with forks leading off in every direction. We emerged near the Mercado Hidalgo where we sat down for a yummy torta milanesa. Built in the Victorian era as a train station for the railway that never came, the building is full of gorgeous ironwork and sadly little else but cheap tourist souvenirs.

We walked up to the Mummy museum, a ghoulish display of preserved corpses. Apparently the deceased whose families couldn't keep up the perpetuity payments for the burial got dug up and relocated to a mass grave. When the bodies were being pulled out of the ground, the diggers found that many of them had remained unexplainably intact. Lacy frocks on the bodies of newborns, a pregnant woman beside the unborn child mummified inside her, socks hanging loose on shrunken legs, shoes and boots in leathery pieces, mouths agape, the body of a woman mistakenly buried alive, arms thrown across a face contorted in agony. I'm expecting nightmares tonight.

While Wil and I nursed our hangovers in the van, the kids explored the little alleys around the campsite, unearthing all sorts of "treasures" and building a "shelter for a poor person" out of bits of wood, an old t-shirt, a frying pan, a car freshener. They chose to do it fairly close to the middle of the road but, hey, it kept them quiet for a couple of hours. They talked about how they hoped that someone would be able to use it. Afterward we walked back down into town, this time veering left into a long stretch of squares. What a beautiful place. The windy little roads and alleys make you feel like you're on an adventure because you never know what's going to be behind the next corner. Narrow passages open up onto lively little squares lined with absolutely square ficuses and iron benches. We spent a few minutes visiting the Juarez theatre, with its bar full of wood panelling and stained glass, the smoking room with red velvet circular banquettes, the majestic staircase reserved for the VIPs, the five levels of balconies that curve toward the stage, the ceiling carved in a million hand-painted designs, the heavy velvet curtains sagging on the stage. It felt like I could step back in time -- standing in the smoking room, in some long black number, with a cigarette in one hand and a cocktail in the other, flirting shamelessly with the men in tuxes until the lights flashed. A sad reminder of the scores of theatres Montreal once possessed. We stopped in to a pottery store with the loveliest dishes and pitchers and pots. I would've been happy to buy up the whole store but we restrained ourselves. The owner couldn't have been lovelier, a woman in her sixties who literally sprinted around the store giving us the prices of every item. When we commented on how expertly she wrapped our purchases, she tapped the table she was working over and said that her career started at this very table by her father's when she was eight. She told us both her parents had passed away two years ago. When I told her I felt lucky to have found her on my birthday she asked me to choose anything I wanted from a shelf of pretty things and then wrapped it very carefully for the drive home. She wrote Happy Birthday on one of her cards, making me promise that I would keep the gift for myself and gave me a big kiss on the way out. The kids were kissing away my tears on the street.

We poked around a few of the city's jardíns, being wowed at every turn, before climbing a hundred steps to our dinner spot. They set up a table for us in front of a pair of folding doors that opened on to a spectacular view, the city laid out before us, layer upon layer of primaries and pastels, like a lego city with domes. Our lovely evening ended with the familiar hunt around the restaurant, and then the neighbourhood, for change (cambio). Aside from toll booth attendants, no one in this country ever has cambio! You may be purchasing something for 45 pesos but if you hand them a 100 peso note they roll their eyes like you just kicked their grandmother. Then the long drawn-out, usually very dramatic search for change that inevitably entails screaming up or downstairs, through a door, sometimes followed by a dash to another stall or store which invariably triggers a whole new round of eye-rolling. Everyone hoards their small bills. When you ask if they have change or they ask if you have change it's often just a matter of stalling, bluffing until the other party reveals their secret stash of twenties.

We jumped in a cab for the ride home, back to our rocky, magical aerie. It was freezing when we woke up, the kids in tears because they'd slept so poorly because of the cold. Wil had opened the side door of the van to enjoy the view of the lights and to watch the morning sun slip down into the valley. It felt a bit like Rear Window, a glimpse of daily life from across the valley, seeing people set off to school, women sweeping their yards, hanging clothes out on the line, each of them oblivious to each other in their private spaces, the walls and streets that separated them seemingly collapsed in our view from the other side of the valley.

1 comment:

Joan Graham said...

Oh Sarah, what a wonderful adventure you are giving your children. It is a treat to read of your adventures. Great to see a photo of Jan and Jack with you all in San Miguel. Every time I read your blog I'm overtaken with hunger for the Mexican food you're eating - you'll have trouble finding similar goodies in Montreal. Joan Graham, with admiration!