June 2, 2009

First Impressions – Jan. 13-15, 2009

My Continental flights to Houston and then to Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico, were on time, both departing and arriving.  Both flights were about one-third empty, the poor economy making a statement, I’m sure.  After I went through immigration and customs (a piece of cake), and spied my clean-cut, attractive young driver, holding a sign with my name on it, all anxieties disappeared.   As an added bonus, Efrain spoke fluent English, using words like “topography” with ease.

I was so impressed with the cleanliness of the cities of both Leon and Guanajuato (both of which are in the state of Guanajuato, as is San Miguel).  It was so different from some of the places we drove through last March on my Copper Canyon Elderhostel, where there were miles with nothing but low, scrubby plants, all flying a tattered plastic bag flag.   There is a huge GM plant in Guanajuato city, which is the main employer.  Efrain told me that some of the biggest, baddest GM cars used to be assembled there, but they’ve switched to more reasonably-sized ones lately.

Efrain kept up a steady, entertaining patter of information and observations about the region we were driving through and the city of San Miguel de Allende, our destination, during the 1 ½ hour drive there.  He was a careful driver and knew the winding road well; he told me that he makes the airport run on a very regular basis, sometimes twice a day.  We pulled up to my rental house in the center of San Miguel a little after 10 p.m., only one hour earlier than Philadelphia time.

From the outside, the houses in most old Mexican towns don’t look like much, but just open the old, wooden, creaking doors, through which you can see light through the crevices, and you will be shocked.  Knowing this, I was not, but I was mightily pleased with the looks of my rental, which I had found on the Internet.  It is quite modern with very eclectic original artwork.  There are two particularly disturbing pieces, one a mask with a snake coming out of the person’s eye and going into his mouth, and a painting of the face of an older bride — close-up — as she lifts her mouth into a smile with her fingers.  Also, in the downstairs powder room, there is folk art with highly exaggerated anatomical characteristics on both a man and a woman.  There are outside spaces on both the first and second floors, separated from the rooms by glass doors, and there is a large roof-top patio with flowering plants – bougainvilla, geraniums, impatiens, etc..  When you come up the stairs to the second floor, you actually have to open a glass door to a central small patio area, off of which are two glassed-in bedrooms and their own bathrooms.  There are curtains to pull across the see-through doors for privacy.

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I chose the smaller back bedroom, with the smaller bathroom, since my rental is right smack on a very busy street, Hidalgo.  After setting up my computer, checking the wireless Internet connection, and e-mailing my daughter – first things first! – and then a quick look around the house, I went right to bed, and I’m happy to say that with some distance and several sets of glass doors between me and bustling Hidalgo – and earplugs – I slept soundly.  I awoke before the 6:30 bell, which rings daily only two blocks away from the tower of an immense, gorgeous church, the parroquia.

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Upon waking, I realized that it was pretty cold in the house.  There is no central heat (or A/C) as there is no need for either in this climate, where it never gets either too hot or too cold.  I found a space heater and got it going while I did my morning yoga practice on the yoga mat I brought in my luggage laid on top of ceramic tiles, which are the floor surface in the entire house, with a few vibrantly-colored throw rugs.  Major irony:  I used up about one-third of my suitcase to bring my yoga mat, and I discovered not one, but two, in my closet in the rental!  I then unpacked and got situated.

I was starving, as all I had to eat the day before were the two snacks provided by Continental and some energy bars I had brought with.  Swaddled in a fleece, a light jacket, wool scarf and gloves, I found a lovely bakery, just bringing out their goods hot from the oven, and bought two apricot pastries, even though I ascertained – using my Spanish – that they were made with lard (I knew going in that this was a distinct possibility).  Now under normal circumstances I wouldn’t touch anything made with lard with a ten-foot pole, but I was really starving and I didn’t know how soon I’d find something else.  I think I’ll survive that small infusion of lard into my body, but there will be no more.  BTW, they were delicious!  I walked some and found a nice coffee shop on the Jardin, the central focus of city life in San Miguel, and had a delicious hot chocolate made with a touch of cinnamon and a croissant, which was cut – I can’t imagine how — the long way and served toasted lightly with butter and strawberry jam on the side.  I could only eat half the croissant, so put the remainder in the bag I’d gotten my apricot pastries in, and proceeded to walk all around, taking everything in.

San Miguel is a busy place.  Tourism is their big industry.  As I was up earlier than most businesses open, I got to see the town come alive.  Again, the place is immaculate (it puts Philly to shame!), the people clean, well-fed, well-groomed, and seemingly happy.  The children were particularly endearing in their school uniforms.  As the morning progressed, I started peeling off layers of clothing.  Efrain had warned me that all San Miguel mornings in the winter are overcast, due to the collision of daytime heat and night-time cold over several reservoirs which surround San Miguel.   As the sun becomes higher and stronger, the clouds burn off.  I walked for a very long time, and returned to my house around 11 a.m. to meet the maid, Eleonor, who comes three times a week for five hours each time.  This may seem an incredible luxury – and of course to me it is – but in Mexico, it’s just the way things are done, and her ministrations are included in my rent.  When I told her that my mother’s name was the same as hers, it was an immediate bond and ice-breaker.  She speaks not a syllable of English, but we did quite well (thank you, my dear Spanish tutor, for all of your patient  instruction these last several months!).  Eleonor speaks very slowly and distinctly, thank God.  By this time, I already needed a rest.  San Miguel is at 6500 feet and I’d really walked my feet off.  I went up to the roof patio with a book, and immediately realized that I had to change my clothes, as it was hot, hot, hot up there!  I changed to ¾ length pants and shoes without socks.  Actually, up there, I could have been in the bathing suit I brought and been just fine, it was that hot.  What a difference several hours of sunshine makes at that elevation!  I slathered myself with sun block and settled in to read.

After finishing “Water for Elephnats,” the Jan. selection for my book group, whose discussion of it I’ll miss, I set out again to do some food shopping.  Eleonor told me of Super Bonanza and a great fruit place, both near-by.  It took me a very long time to find the fruit place.  I came home again after buying fruits as I didn’t think I could also carry my purchases from the supermarket (not looking anything like what you’d expect, but having an amazing array of products nonetheless).  Eleonor volunteered to take care of disinfecting the fruit, an absolute necessity in Mexico for us gringos, and flew out to buy the necessary drops.  I noted when I bought the gala apples that they were a product of the US, but I had her add them to the mix anyway.  Again I rested for a short time and then went to Super Bonanza, again taking far too long to find it.  Would you believe that I spent 1 ½ hours to buy the peso equivalent of $40 worth of groceries?  I had to read labels – in Spanish, of course – and look up many, many ingredients listed there in my dictionary.  I was positively exhausted and went back home to rest yet again.  At 5 p.m., I had a glass of red wine (Riunite, which I bought at the supermarket), and some tortilla chips and salsa up on the roof patio.  It remained warm.  Everything in San Miguel – cobbled streets included – is made of stone and they absorb that heat all day and then continue to radiate it out for hours afterwards.

At 6, I went out to El Tomato, a “naturalista” (vegetarian) restaurant I’d spied, with an entire window plastered with cards in dozens of languages, extolling the food, mentioning particularly their skill using tofu.  (Was I seeking redemption from eating the lard?)  At this early hour, I was the only customer.  I had a small bowl of a soup of chard and chick peas, and a spinach, cornmeal, tomato and cheese gratin, both of which were incredibly delicious and cheap as dirt. I’ll definitely return to eat there, as I want to try some of the six varieties of vegetarian hamborguesas they offer, including tofu (probably not), spinach, and eggplant.  I went to the Teatro Santa Ana at the Biblioteca, the center for the ex-pat cultural scene, to try to get a ticket for a premiere of a play that night.  Alas, it was sold out.  I’ll go later this week.  But I did get to meet several folks from the US – one even from Philadelphia (well, Drexel Hill) – and they couldn’t have been nicer.

Back home, I did some computer work, scoped out the next day’s activities – finding my school, which I’ll begin next week; the place to buy tickets for the every-Friday-morning guided walk about town, for the benefit of an organization that aids children; and the place to buy tickets for the Sat. Adventure (I’ll let you know); and a place to check out for lunch.

It’s now early morning on Thursday, and it’s so much warmer in the house today, I can’t believe it – a welcome change.  Yesterday’s early cold must have been a fluke.  Again, I slept well, hearing not a sound (I expect it’s a different story in the front BR, however).  So I’m off on this two-month adventure and feeling very safe, very secure, very happy, and soon I expect, I’ll find my way around more easily than yesterday.  I know some of you are experiencing bitter cold temperatures at this point, and I do feel for you.  I hope this account can radiate some of the warming rays I’m soaking up.

Meeting folks – Jan. 15-17,2009

First, a word about the sidewalks here.  They are only as wide as one person carrying a parcel, large handbag, backpack, etc., and that would be all of us, so when you encounter another person coming toward you on the same sidewalk, it is necessary to either plaster yourself against the building (tough wearing a backpack, as I always do) or step into the street.  You have to make a determination of your course of action every time, based on the person’s size, what they’re carrying, his or her age and/or ability or disability.  Most people routinely step into the street for the elderly or those walking with a cane or with difficulty, but otherwise, it’s tough for me to figure out the local custom as to who should give way.  Some teenagers give way to me; some don’t.  Anyway, however it winds up being, everyone is very good-natured about the whole thing.  Of course stepping off the sidewalk into the street presents its own hazards.  San Miguel is a colonial town and all of the streets are narrow and cobbled; cars were never meant to drive on them, and yet they do, and some big ones, too, not to mention trucks and smallish buses.  Most streets are one-way by necessity.  So when you make the decision to step off the sidewalk into the street, you have to check behind you, if the traffic is moving in that direction, to make sure you’re not stepping into the path of a vehicle.

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From the “Only in San Miguel” department:

1.     At 5 p.m. today is the 3rd Annual Blessing of the Poodles (I’m not making this up!) at the Oratorio Church (an extremely old, historic church).  What, are the other breeds supposed to fend for themselves in this world?

2.     Name of the week:  Cristobal Finkelstein Franyuti, who is the city secretary, and just resigned (with no details!).

I had my first encounter with an ATM machine Thursday.  Result:  I got pesos, but at quite a cost.  My daughter and son-in-law had been to Mexico right before Christmas and used their credit card to rent a car.  Almost immediately, a charge for airline tickets appeared on their credit card, and they didn’t purchase them.  My daughter suggested that I not use my credit card at all in Mexico, and I decided that was good advice.  However, I’m not used to a cash economy, as at home I always use my credit card since I get money back on every dollar charged.  So the 1500 pesos I entered the country with just flew through my fingers.  (For example, my grocery shopping foray cost me 429 pesos; I almost didn’t have enough on me.)

Anyway, I got to the ATM machine, which I’d scoped out on my first morning walk, and it’s a totally different system than I’m used to.  I was getting frustrated and anxious, but a helpful young Mexican woman walked me through it, even though there was a warning on the machine not to accept help from strangers.  Who else but a stranger is going to teach me?  When it came time for me to tell the machine how much I wanted to withdraw, I couldn’t tell if they were asking me in dollars or pesos, so to be on the safe side, I put in 500.  It turned out to be pesos, and thus not nearly as much as I’d wanted.  So I went through the whole thing again, and got another 1000 pesos.  Right before I left home, Wachovia told me that it would charge me $5.00 per transaction at a foreign ATM, so to get 1500 pesos cost me $10!  Bah, humbug.  I’ll know better next time.  And then, instead of dispensing small bills ($20s, as in Philly), I got a 500 pesos note and other large bills.  So then I had to go into the bank to get smaller bills.  But all was well in the end, as I got my pesos and I still have possession of my ATM card.

I took my money back home and put it safely away, then walked to the library to donate “Water for Elephants,” since I certainly don’t want to schlep the books home that I read here.  Turns out there’s a sale of used English books at the library every Thursday!  That book is probably in someone else’s hands already!  About the library:  I think I indicated in my earlier e-mail that it’s the center of cultural life for ex-pats in San Miguel.  Honestly, this whole town is like a Chautauqua.  There are plays, lectures, movies, dances, tours, concerts, and on and on.  As the saying here goes, “It’s hard to be bored in San Miguel.”  So I’m continuing my “culture vulture” Philly lifestyle here – and in a similar downtown living situation.

Then it was on to check out the Spanish-language school I’ll be attending starting next Monday.  In my usual obsessive/compulsive manner, I had mailed my registration form and check last August, and never heard a word back, so I took a copy of the form and the cancelled check to the front desk of El Centro Bilingue.  And it’s a good thing I did that, since they had no record of me.  They were very accommodating, however, and immediately set up a file for me.  The copy machine wasn’t working and the receptionist wanted to keep my documents until I came for class on Mon., but since that was my only proof, I said she could copy them on Mon., and I took them back.  It’s not that I didn’t trust her, but….  I filled out a personal information form and said I felt my Spanish ability lay somewhere between “poor” and “fair.”  (The only other designation was “good,” and I knew that wasn’t it.)  The receptionist said, based on our conversation in Spanish, that I was definitely “fair.”  I just beamed!  Perhaps to compensate for not having me registered, I was invited to join a cooking class to start momentarily – gratis.  It was fabulous.  It was quite a large group, about 8-10 students who had just been dismissed from their classes.  We were given aprons, asked to wash our hands, and we congregated with a chef and a teacher, in a small kitchen in a building just across the street from the school.  I understood about one-third of what the chef said.  We made guacamole a different way than I’d ever seen it made, using roasted peppers and tomatillos instead of lemons.  I chopped the cilantro for that recipe.  The funny thing is, I don’t like avocados and so have never enjoyed guacamole.  However, this appetizer, scooped up with tortilla chips while we made the other dishes, was just fabulous!

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We went on to make two types of chiles rellenos (stuffed with cheese and a meat mixture), and crepes in a sauce made from dulche de leche, thinned with milk, then heated.  The chef talked a lot about how, for many festivals, the food is made from or decorated with red, green and white, to represent the Mexican flag.  Indeed, the rellenos were green, with a white pecan sauce and decorated (usually with pomegranate seeds, but they’re out of season) with maraschino cherries.  The children of two of the couples in the class returned from their “camp” experience and joined all of us for a lunch of these dishes, plus a rice pilaf and re-fried beans, and birthday cake, as it was the birthday of one of the school staff.  We toasted each other with piña coladas, in which were floating tiny chunks of piña.  Everything was so delicious and I stuffed myself.  The other students in the class have obviously bonded as they were making plans to meet for dinner that evening.  They invited me to join them, but I had a ticket for a 7:30 concert.

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I stayed a long time afterwards chatting with S, a Japanese woman, about age 45-50, who is also in San Miguel on her own.  She has travelled the world doing international development, and speaks many languages.  She has spent a long time in Africa.  Since I’m not sure what international development entails, I will ask her to elucidate on our next get-together.  And happily, there will be one, as we really hit it off and agreed that it would be fun to go on excursions and eat dinner out together.  The library publishes a newspaper every Friday called Atención, which has a pull-out section entitled ¿Que Pasa?, that lists everything there is to do in San Miguel.  We both agreed we’d get copies and e-mail each other with suggestions of things we could do together this weekend.

I went home for awhile, then appeared at the library at 5 p.m. for Conversations with Friends, a free, informal program where locals who wish to practice their English and visitors who wish to practice their Spanish come together to talk for an hour and a half twice a week.  Since I was a little early and spotted a man who was also, I struck up a conversation with him.  We spoke in English until the time came to speak in Spanish, and we just continued our conversation.  We found we had much in common, even though A is a doctor, born and raised in England, but who recently retired from his medical practice in Alberta, Canada.  We are both renting here for two months; we each lost a parent to Alzheimer’s; and our level of proficiency in Spanish seemed identical.  We were soon joined by others, including a retired American couple who travels around Mexico and South America as volunteers, helping to sterilize dogs and euthanizing obviously sick ones (really, there is a job for everyone out there!).  (BTW, I’ve seen only one street dog in San Miguel, and it looked pretty good, compared to the dozens of curs I‘ve seen in other Mexican cities over the years, including, especially, during my Elderhostel last spring to Copper Canyon.)

I had to beg off from the group at 6:30 as I had a ticket to a folklore guitar/flamenco harp concert by Sergio Basurto at 7:30 – at the library, naturally.  I thought I’d eat a quick dinner in the library’s charming café.  A asked to join me, since he had a ticket to the play at 8 p.m. at the library that I hadn’t been able to get into the previous night.  The concert blew me away.  The musician was the first man I’ve ever seen playing the harp.  I have a real thing for harp music, and so bought his CD afterwards.

On Friday morning, I went on a 2 ¼ hour walking tour of downtown San Miguel, led by volunteers from Patronato Pro Niños, an organization that provides free or very low cost medical and dental services to poor children in San Miguel and the surrounding countryside.  Other organizations provide medical care, but this is the only group also doing dental.  They have a mobile dental unit, also – pretty cool!  The tour was very good and we covered a lot of ground; I took a lot of photos.  After we were dismissed, I had a personal pizza lunch in the café at the Bellas Artes, and doggie-bagged (I wonder if there’s a Spanish idiom equivalent?) half of it.

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When I returned home, Eleonor was still there, so I bombarded her with my many questions that had come up.  I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the TV and cable to get the channels I wanted  and the instructions for turning on the gas fireplace were so intimidating that I didn’t even try it.  Turns out the pilot light wasn’t lit on the fireplace, so even if I had tried it, I wouldn’t have had any success.  Also, the lighter Eleonor used was out of fluid, so it was a no-go from the get-go.  Eleonor called the rental agency office and they dispatched a maintenance man who spoke good English and he got it going and taught me how to work it.  The only weird thing is that it is suggested to open a window when it’s running, as otherwise it will suck all of the oxygen out of the air and then automatically shut down.  But isn’t that self-defeating?  Anyway, I’ve been running it ever since and all has been well, and I can now also watch CNN in English.  I’m psyched to hear Obama’s MLK day speech and see his inauguration.  I love it that they referred to Obama’s family on CNN this morning as the “Obamily.”

Then it was back to the library for another light café dinner and a performance of “The Death of Reason,” which was quite good, with marvelous acting, and – believe it or not – live klezmer music as an integral part of the action. I met a couple at the theater who had been on the walking tour with me and they invited me to sit with them.

At 11 this morning, S will come to collect me and we’ll be off to see the Instituto Allende – a world-famous art school – and an art show at the Parque Juarez (I’ve not been to either place yet), and then have lunch together.  I have a ticket for 5 p.m. tonight for a flamenco concert at the library.  Tomorrow, we’ll meet for brunch at the library café and then go on the House and Garden Tour for the benefit of the library.  Some people here who have fabulous houses open them up to the public on Suns.  We’ll see three tomorrow.

I probably won’t be able to keep up this volume of reporting once I start school – and this may actually be a relief to some of you!  Stay warm, all you east-coasters and Finns!

The Fun Just Doesn’t Stop – Jan. 17–18, 2009

My day with S yesterday was just great!  Turns out she is renting fairly close by.  When she came for me, I gave her a tour of my rental, and she was properly impressed.  We started our walk to Parque Juárez, but it took a long time to get there (even though it’s no more than a 15-minute walk), as we stopped in many shops, took many, many photos, and gawked at the preparations at the Jardin for the band concert coming up that night.  S and I have matching aesthetic tastes, and so enjoyed going into the same stores.  We laughed and said that our photos would be identical, since we each found the other’s choice of photo subject appealing.

When we finally got to the very large Parque Juárez, we headed first for the art show/sale, which wasn’t easy to find (there were absolutely no directional signs anywhere that we saw).  We did locate it, however.  It was quite small – perhaps six artists displaying.  It was mediocre, in my opinion, except for one artist’s primitive work, which captured S’s and my hearts. We spent a long time speaking to the artist and appreciating his work.  Both of us really wanted to buy one of his paintings, and they were quite reasonable, but I didn’t have that amount of money on me, and I just didn’t know how the fairly large canvas would fare in my suitcase on the ride home.

Parque Juárez is in the “high rent district” and we enjoyed walking around, gaping at the charming facades.  I took way too many photos of old – and the occasional new — wooden doors and picturesque windows.  I am such a sucker for an old wooden door!  I’ve decided that next year’s calendar (which I prepare from photos for the family for Christmas presents) will be entitled “Las Puertas y Las Ventanas de San Miguel.”  There were many houses for sale (the result of the poor U.S. economy?).  We looked high and low (mostly high – we kept walking up and up and up pitched streets and stairways, and I was often out of breath from the thin air) looking for El Chorro, a spring near a church where some local women still do their laundry by hand.  We were very close – we were on Calle El Chorro for Pete’s sake, and saw the church, but we never located the spring.  By this time, we were getting hungry, so we headed for the restaurant we’d agreed on beforehand, El Meson de Terraplen (the name of the street it’s on) for – wait for it – Lebanese food!  We’d both spied its ad in Atención and were both equally intrigued.  What a good choice it was!  When we walked in, there was a couple who had been classmates of S’s at El Centro Bilingue, so we had a good chat with them.  S and I both chose the mezze plate with five different Lebanese specialties, which change daily, so I’ll be sure to return. The mezze yesterday included hummus, babaghanouj, felafel, a grated zucchini fritter, a lentil dish, a bit of Lebanese cole slaw (don’t worry, no mayo in sight)  — that’s six, but who’s counting? — with lovely pita triangles.  We finished off with baklava, of course.  During our meal, two laden burros and their master walked by and we nearly broke our necks getting to the doorway to take their picture.  Actually we had plenty of time, as one took one of the longest pisses I’ve ever seen; it was oceanic!

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S and I had a long time to talk, and she is a most fascinating person.  She has worked and vacationed in so many countries!  She even worked in Kabul in 2004-06!  I asked her what was her favorite cuisine in all the world, and without hesitation, she said – Italian.  She told me that she was somewhat disappointed in a seafood pasta she’d had in a quite upscale place here in San Miguel, although she was successfully able to get across the concept of her wish for “al dente” pasta.

We never did get to the Instituto Allende, and that’s fine.  Perhaps tomorrow (already I’m on Mexican time).  We walked back to my house, again bopping into all manner of shops to look, then went up to the roof-top patio at my place to read and rest.  We parted ways at 4:30, and I went to the flamenco concert at the library.  Astonishing is the only term I can use to describe what I witnessed!  I am so impressed with the calibre of the entertainment here.  There was a cajon (box drum) player, a guitarist, two dancers (one a man), and a singer/dancer, who performed in various combinations.  I had never seen a male flamenco dancer before, except as the rather staid partner of a flamboyant female dancer, and OH. MY. GOD!  First of all, he was gorgeous, and then he danced like nothing I’ve ever seen before.  I may have to go back to see this group again!  The energy and complexity were incredible.

From there, I walked up to the Jardin, where things were getting crowded.  I had supper on the patio of a restaurant overlooking the action, and had my first margarita of the trip (it’s been too cool to really appreciate one), which didn’t disappoint.  Then I joined the crowd for the very surprising Symphonic Band of the Mexican Navy (who knew?).  It being Allende’s 240th birthday (on Jan. 21), I was expecting patriotic music, perhaps, but instead we were treated to many selections from “Carmen,” the well-known “Guadalajara,” and many upbeat selections by Mexican and other Hispanic composers.  It was a rousing evening.  A nice touch was that before each selection, one of the sailors read – in Spanish, of course – a brief biography of the composer, so that in addition to being enjoyable, the evening was educational.  The bandstand was set up right below Allende’s home on the Jardin, a fitting tribute.  But the band was nearly drowned out repeatedly by bells chiming the quarter hour from at least six different churches.  It was really quite humorous.  On Allende’s real birth date, there is going to be a military parade, and then the installation of a plaque to commemorate the naming of San Miguel by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.  I’m feeling proud on their behalf!  I hope I’ll be able to see the parade as I’ll be in class right then.

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On Sunday, S called for me at 11 a.m., and we walked to the library to get our tickets for the House and Garden Tour at noon.  There is a stable of 300 houses available for the tours; two or three are visited every week.  It’s a gigantic operation, all run by volunteers and it’s super well coordinated.  I was very impressed!  Our first names and hometowns were written boldly on our tickets, which we affixed to our chests.  This was to facilitate conversation, and it certainly worked!  And what a mob scene!  Over 200 people eventually gathered in the patio of the library, along with a mariachi band to entertain, and there were displays and sales of photos (proceeds to a local charity that the photographer works closely with), jewelry, and a couple of book-signings.  We met A and a woman, Sue  (a UU!) from S’s Spanish class.  We were loaded onto an endless stream of small buses to be taken to the first house.  Actually, in that house, we didn’t go inside.  The garden was the prime reason for going.  The second house was really over the top.  It is hard to imagine what these people spend on these places.

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What a very small world this is! There are many, many volunteers at the houses on the tours to block doorways where you’re not supposed to go, to keep people from pocketing “souvenirs,” etc.  At the final house, one of the volunteers stopped me to ask where in Philly I was from.  Would you believe that this man used to own the huge, $1million+ home right around the corner from me?  My backyard abuts his back wall.  I mean, what are the chances?

After the tour, A, S and I went out to lunch together at a fabulous place, Bugambilia, just a few doors down from my rental. It was delicious and we had a great time.  I had a chicken dish with a mango sauce.  Since we were so close to my house, I invited A over to see it (S has been there several times already, but of course she came too).

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After A left, I got changed for the evening’s activities, then I went to S’s place with her so she could get changed.  We met friends of hers from her complex, and talked to them for about two hours.  Turns out they’re UUs.  They talked about going to church that morning, and I just knew, so asked them, and sure enough, they are!  They were great folks, but sadly were leaving the next day.  S and I went to a second concert commemorating Allende’s birthday, this one with choral music, mostly opera arias.  I’m so impressed with the music in this place.

The peso is way down against the dollar, and I‘m getting 13.98 pesos for each US dollar.  As recently as last August, it was 10 pesos to the dollar. Good for the tourists, but not good for Mexico.

I’ve had a couple of irking events, like my lost camera case on the house and garden tour (but on my second try at the library, I got it back), a very hard time buying rechargeable camera batteries, necessitating me taking unopened batteries back to two different stores (don’t ask), but it was accomplished with no problemas at all.  And I can’t tell you of the energy and time I’ve wasted looking for emery boards.  They seemingly do not exist in San Miguel!

Heating Up – Jan 19–23, 2009

A few random thoughts and observations before I get into my daily activities:

Name of the Week – Ghengis Mamedov, viola player at a concert I attended

Laundry – The maid, Eleonor, washes the sheets and towels, and offered to do my personal laundry, but the instructions that came with the house cautioned against it, plus my personal preference is to do it myself.  I’ve done it twice, both times on the weekend, when Eleonor is not at the house.  I know that she would be scandalized that La Senora is “hanging” her laundry on the frames of the chaise lounges on the roofdeck and not using the dryer.  It  makes absolutely no sense to me to use a dryer when there is more than abundant sun for free on the patio.  I don’t use a dryer at home, so why would I do that here?

The whole maid thing – I’m having a lot of difficulty with this, as are other Americans and Canadians with whom I talk.  Yes, I have someone clean my house for me at home – once a month – and I don’t even like to be home when he’s there.  Eleonor is at my house for over five hours a day, three days a week.  I just cannot stand to be in the house while she’s working.  I feel guilty.  We were raised to do things for ourselves.  I will have to work hard to feel more comfortable with this cultural difference between the US and Mexico.

The weather – It was quite cold (relatively speaking, of course) when I arrived, plus there were a couple of cloudy days.  Since then, the weather has steadily improved, so that now in the mid-afternoon, it reaches 80 degrees.  However, since it’s so dry, you would never know it, and if you’re in the shade, you’re actually a tad cool.  I used to need the space heater in my room as I prepared for bed, when I got dressed in the morning, and to do my yoga.  I’d wear a light fleece and a light jacket with wool scarf to go out in the morning and at night.  Compare that to now when I don’t need the space heater at all, and I did my yoga up on the roofdeck this morning.  It was the first time I’d ever done yoga outdoors, and I have to say, it was a totally different – and delightful – experience.  I am typing this on my laptop, also up on the roofdeck.  Ain’t wireless grand?

Meeting people – It seems that whenever I meet someone, I then immediately see them  again.  For yet another example, I went to a mariachi concert at the Instituto Allende on Thursday evening (more about that later), and I sat next to R, a charming woman in her 80s from NYC.  The very next evening, I went to a guitar concert at the library, and there she was, so we sat together again, and she introduced me to another woman from her building.  Also at the mariachi concert, I had noticed a Mexican man and his gringa wife really enjoying themselves.  The next morning in Atención, there was their picture – he in his “Barack My World” t-shirt — with a quote from them about what they thought of the Inauguration.

To eat ice cream from a street vendor or not – S badly wanted to try an ice cream cone from a vendor at the Jardin.  I told her that if he put the ice cream scoop into a bowl of water after scooping hers, I would not be partaking.  I was sure that the water would not be purified.  Well, lo and  behold, in a brilliant move, this vendor had a scoop for every flavor, and each one resided in the stainless steel container its flavor was in, so there was no need to put them into water in between scooping flavors.  So I indulged, with no bad results.  I was repeatedly warned, in written materials, never to eat salad or seafood in Mexico, and yet here, abundant quantities and varieties of both are on menus.  I have started to eat salads (again with no bad results), but there is just no sea anywhere near here, and I can’t make the leap.

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Trash pick-up – Because the sidewalks are so narrow, there is no way trash could be put out in anticipation of the trash collector.  So – again in a clever move – a young boy walks through the streets ahead of the trash truck, blowing some kind of signal that lets everyone know to come out with their trash.  It’s funny to see all of the doors along the street open and a maid step out with trash in hand to wait for the collection.  They are just starting recycling in San Miguel.  Another person who walks along the street making a noise to signal his arrival is the knife sharpener.  Every morning on my way to class, I see that the sidewalk is wet.  That is because the maids/employees in every house/business scrub the one step and sidewalk in front.  It really helps to keep the dust down.  Also at the Jardin.  Early in the morning, as I go to class, all of the sidewalks around the  jardin are wet, as they’ve been scrubbed down to lower the dust factor.

Last Monday, I started my Spanish classes at El Centro Bilingue.  It was certainly a unique experience for me to be on the other side of the desk from where I have stood for close to 15 years as an ESL teacher.  When I arrived, I was handed a four-page written test to see into which level I tested.  After I completed only about two-thirds of the first page, we were stopped and I was put into an un-named level with a couple from Toronto (formerly from England – this seems to be a theme here).  They were the same couple S and I had spoken with in the Middle Eastern restaurant.  Things are somewhat loosey-goosey in this school, to put it kindly.  Letty, our teacher, is lovely,  and really knows her stuff – as well as English.  But, as an example of how things operate there, we spent a great deal of time mentally walking through all of the rooms in a home, while she wrote the names of all the things you’d find – and we’d dutifully copy them – instead of what I would do, which is to hand out copies of a drawing or picture of the various rooms with all of the items identified.  I know this sort of thing is readily available.  It seemed a sad waste of time – not to mention exhausting for Letty — to do it this way, and at $18/hour, I was feeling a little ripped-off.  The kicker came when she needed to make copies of some pages from a workbook that only she has, and we learned that the school does not have a copy machine for the teachers (there is one in the office, but you feed individual sheets in; it won’t copy from a book).  At the end of class, we trailed Letty up the street about a half block to a stationery store and waited while copies were made.  We students marveled at this inefficiency, and I apologized to Letty for being so “American,” but I told her I thought it was ridiculous!  (As I’m typing this, a small plane is going overhead screaming something out of a loud-speaker.  This has been going on for several days — not non-stop, of course — and when I asked Eleonor what it was (political?), she said it was an advertisement for a circus that has come to town.  That seems like a pretty expensive way to advertise.

After that class, in which we were given lots of homework, I met S for lunch in a cute little place, favored by gringos, right across from the library.  And in usual fashion, there we ran into the UU couple from her building, who were having a bite before leaving San Miguel.  From there, we walked to the Instituto Allende, a world-famous and world-class art institute.

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At 5 p.m., I went to a service at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church for both MLK day and for the Inauguration of Barack Obama the following day.  It was an extraordinary experience.  The place was packed; they ran out of orders of service early on, and we happily shared; chairs were hastily put up in the aisles.  Of course I ran into Sue (the other UU I’ve met).

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We sang some great, rousing hymns, such as “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,”  “I’ve Got Peace Like a River,” “We Shall Overcome’ (sung holding hands and swaying – is there any other way to sing it?), and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”  Truly, there was not a dry eye in the house.  When I first sat down and read through the program, I began to cry.  Since I had (and unfortunately still have), a pretty bad cold, I had used up all of my tissues, so asked the woman next to me for several when I saw her getting them out; I knew I’d be needing them.  There was a prayer for the President of the United States which we read in unison in both English and Spanish and then we heard a recording of Nina Simone’s “The King of Love is Dead,” written by her right after MLK’s assassination, and performed at his funeral. Then there was a most incredible recitation by Olivia Cole, with a slight British accent, of a very long poem, “Dark Testament” by Pauli Murray, basically telling the entire story of African slavery in America, up to the present-day ills we inherited from this terrible institution.   Afterwards, I walked back home with Sue.

S and I had agreed to meet for dinner at 7:30.  I dutifully went to Tio Lucas, a well-known and well-respected jazz restaurant.  As I was sitting on a bench outside, I suddenly remembered that we had agreed that she would come by for me at 7:30, not that we would meet at the restaurant.  But all the while I was running back home, which, happily, wasn’t far, I was questioning myself.  I remembered her telling me how to get to the restaurant from my house, so why would she tell me that if we weren’t to meet there?  When I got to my house, she was just arriving.  The way I had walked home, I would have met her had she given up on me at the house and decided to walk to the restaurant.  We had a good dinner, and the jazz that started at nine was splendid.

I discovered a great bagel place, The Bagel Cafe,  on the way to my class.  Naturally it’s owned by a gringa (for the past 12 years), named Jessica, who could not have been more welcoming.  I had a bagel, lox, cream cheese, tomato slices & capers, and I enjoyed it!  I asked her where she got the bagels, as they were world-class, and she said they were made in-house; she said she had to bring in the lox and corned beef for the Reuben sandwiches from NYC.  The next day, S and I met at the bagel shop and I had a huge bowl of about the best chili I’ve ever eaten.

On Tuesday, in class, I found out that the woman of the couple had quit, finding it just too stressful at her age (same as mine) to be learning a foreign language; her husband, however, was still gung-ho.  After class, which runs M-F, 9-11 a.m., I again had lunch with S.  We then went on a most incredible – and exhausting — walk (that word doesn’t nearly cover it – trek or quest might be better) to the top of the highest hill in San Miguel, El Mirador.  We walked straight up (my calves and thighs were screaming) streets that make those in San Francisco look flat, until finally, exhausted and out of breath, we reached the top and saw the panorama before us that made it all worthwhile.  It was an overview of the entire town of San Miguel and all of the out-lying areas, all the way to the river.  We took a lot of pictures, went into a couple of great little shops up at that point, and just rested for the descent, which was also surprisingly difficult, the streets being so very steep.

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We parted ways and I went to the twice-weekly bi-lingual Conversation with Friends at the library, where, of course, I met Sue.  She and I and another woman originally from Italy conversed a while in our halting Spanish.  We were then joined by two Mexicans, a man in his 30s, who came in from Dolores Hidalgo for this experience he coveted of speaking English to Americans, and a great 14 year-old kid, whose English was good enough for him to make jokes.  Here we were with these two young, intense Mexicans, who were speaking with and helping three viejas.  It was very endearing.  The older guy told us he’d been in Texas for many years as an illegal, working in a salsa factory.  He now sells soccer shirts and gear to Mexicans in his brother’s shop in Dolores Hidalgo (where I plan to go later on a day trip; it’s known for its ice cream in outrageous flavors and its Talavera pottery).

On Wed., at 5 p.m., I saw the video, “Lost and Found in Mexico,” which won Best Documentary at the 2006 Boston Film Festival.  The film-maker was a former high-powered psychotherapist (she had 18 therapists working for her) who, after visiting San Miguel just once, decided to chuck it all, sell her house & furnishings, buy a house here, and settle in permanently.  Her husband, who was present for the Q&A afterwards, as the film-maker was in DC with her son for the Inauguration, seemingly had come along kicking and screaming on the move to San Miguel.  He seems to have made his peace with the place, however.  The film-maker just went around with a video camera and asked gringos why they had moved here.  Many of the interviews were incredibly touching, such as the woman whose husband had committed suicide, leaving her alone with a young daughter.  She spoke of how it totally knocked her off her pins to know that someone she loved and thought she knew would do something like that, without any signal that she was able to pick up on.  She said after a year of grieving in the states that many people thought she should “get on with her life,” but she just wasn’t ready.  She found the time and space here to continue that grieving process.  Then there was an extremely successful lawyer, with a to-die-for house and one day he came home and just sobbed that this was not what he wanted out of life.  His wife seconded the motion.  Within three months, they were here to stay.  He was incredibly articulate.

I had a quick supper in the library cafe and then went to a piano concert, which – like everything else here – was extraordinary.  The pianist played his three favorite classical pieces, tons of Gershwin, and some jazz.

On Thursday, after class, I again attended the free cooking class.  Felix, our chef, is the chef of the restaurant El Campanio.  I saw in their ad that they’re closed Thursdays; that’s the day Felix does the cooking classes!  What a workaholic!  I staggered to a mariachi concert at the Insituto Allende filled to the gills with enchiladas, another type of guacamole, flambéed plaintains and peaches, and the ever-present rice and beans, all washed down with sangria.  I ate no dinner that night.  The mariachi were stupendous.  There was one kid playing the bass whose voice hadn’t even changed yet, and he could hold a note for the most incredible length of time.  He was the sweetheart of the group, especially with all of us grandparents in the crowd.  Their outfits were really spiffy, with large silver “charms” sewed onto the side of their pant legs.  Each of the charms (all the same on each musician/singer’s leg, but each man’s decorations different from the other’s) had some movement to it, which really captured your eye, as did those handsome, skilled musicians.

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On Fri. evening, I attended a guitar concert, given by George Worthmore, a wild and crazy guy!  It was the last dinner together for S and me, as she is off to Guanajuato on Sat., and onto her flight back to MA on Sun. to resume her Ph.D program.  I will miss her good-natured company!

Trouble in Paradise – Jan 24–30, 2009

First off, you’ll be glad to know that I finally found an emery board!  As with so many other things and experiences here, it’s nothing like what I was expecting (it’s shaped like a tiny boomerang and is about 5 times the thickness of the ones we’re used to, and has black grit on it).  But hey, it works!  The only other thing I’m missing is twist ties.  They are not used here!  They use rubber bands, which do the trick just fine, but take about 10 times as long to put on and take off.  Of course, one could probably just leave the packages open in the cupboard as it’s so dry here, nothing would happen.  There are also no bugs (no, really!).  Twist ties were on a list I’ve been keeping to ask S&G to bring down to me when they come to visit, but it looks as if they are not going to be able to come.

I made a joke in Spanglish in class the other day that my classmate and teacher really enjoyed.  Here it is:  If you go to a panaderia to buy your baked goods, to the zapateria to buy your shoes, to the carneceria to buy meat, to the tortilleria to buy your tortillas, and to the cafeteria to get your morning coffee, do you go to the ferreteria to buy ferrets?  Actually, a ferreteria is a hardware store.  I’m assuming that the “ferr” root comes from ferrous for iron.  Anyway, ferreterias are everywhere, and seem to specialize in hardware for various needs:  plumbing, cars, household, etc.  I chuckle to myself whenever I see one.

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I am going to copy here the e-mail that I sent to my rental agent last Monday morning, which will tell you about the “trouble in paradise” part of this installment:

Dear Laura – When I first opened the door to the small back bedroom at my rental, when I arrived almost two weeks ago, I was immediately aware of a strong mold smell.  Since the place had been closed up, and I have never experienced any allergies, I didn’t give it much thought.  Each day, I would keep the windows open to air it out, and each night, when I slept in the room, I shut the door between the bathroom and the bedroom.  On the third morning in the house, I began to experience what I thought were cold symptoms.  These symptoms became increasingly worse, until yesterday, I was so miserable, I could barely function.  And then it dawned on me:  I didn’t have a cold at all; I was experiencing a severe mold allergy.  I went online to the Mayo Clinic site and indeed, every symptom that I was experiencing was listed there:  headache, coughing, sneezing, itchy eyes, extreme flow of mucus, etc.

So yesterday I moved to the front bedroom (I had stayed in the back bedroom to avoid the noise from the street, and it worked very well), and already, after only one night of not breathing mold spores, I am feeling a little bit better.

I would ask that you forward this e-mail to the owner of the rental, as I’m sure he/she would be interested to know of this problem and the misery that I have suffered because of it.  I honestly believe that as it stands now, the back bedroom is uninhabitable.  There is no way that I would rent this place again next year, when I plan to return for an even longer stay.

Cynthia

Writing this after six nights in the front BR — where the sound from the street is absolutely no problem, as I had feared (what an irony!) — I am about 80% better.  The headache, sneezing, and itching eyes stopped almost immediately.  My horrible cough stopped within 2-3 days, and slowly but surely, the volume of mucus coming out of my nose is lessening.  It’s really remarkable how much has been manufactured and expelled from my sinuses!

Last Sat., in spite of feeling totally vile, I kept to my program and in the mid-afternoon, attended the chili cookoff (3rd annual, I believe).  It seemed to be an event run primarily by Texans.  The whole, huge, over-the-top affair was to raise money for a local charity.  (Gringos of all stripes are incredibly good about supporting these charities.)  When you entered the extremely extensive grounds of a hotel a bit out of town (really, it could have accommodated a state fair), you paid the entry fee and were given a little Dixie-cup sized styrofoam cup, a small plastic spoon, and a plastic shot glass.  You were to use these to go from table to table and sample all of the different chilis and margaritas that folks had made for the two competitions, and then you were supposed to vote for your favs.   I never figured out how to do the latter, nor frankly, did I care that much.  The food and drinks were good, there’s no doubt about it, but some of the entertainment was something else again.  There were best-dressed dog, cowboy, and cowgirl contests.  There were lots of folks dressed in full cowboy regalia (though I’m sure none ever herded a single head of cattle) and women in big hair and big jewelry, with tea-cup-sized dogs also dressed to kill (and looking like they’d like to kill their owners).  One Chihuahua sported a tiny cowboy hat and a many-stranded rhinestone collar with a huge jeweled cross hanging from it.

There were some interesting acts in the horse ring.  There was a group of six very young Mexicanas, dressed beautifully and all alike, who sat side-saddle on their horses and did a sort of combo of equine ballet and Rockettes moves with their steeds.  Then there were some real Mexican cowboys, doing impressive lasso moves on and off their horses.  There were lots of vendors selling all kinds of neat and kitschy things.  I met An, my classmate, and his wife J, who had bowed out of the Spanish class earlier.  J rides horses and so was interested in the horse events; she also wanted to talk to people about boarding her horse when they come next year for six months.  I also talked for a long time with a charming Canadian couple (I’ve actually met many more Canadians here than Americans!), whom I met again coming home from school during the week.  As I’ve said before, and will undoubtedly say again, since it ALWAYS happens — when I meet someone, I WILL see them again, and usually very soon after the first meeting.  I have to try to quickly recall where it was that I met them.  Someone told me that this happens because all of the gringos are doing exactly the same things.

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That evening  I attended Stravaganza!, a performance of a chamber orchestra and two opera singers – a tenor and soprano – from Mexico City, which was held in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.  They have a Pro Musica international concert series each year.  I hate to keep talking in superlatives, but this performance was so extraordinary that I can hardly describe it.  Several encores were required before the audience would let the performers go.  My friend, A, sat with me and we went for dinner together afterwards.

On Sunday, I attended the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Miguel de Allende (UUFSMA).  There is only one UU church in Mexico, and it’s in San Miquel.  It is an aged congregation, but an incredibly vibrant one.  They hold their Sunday services in a large 2nd floor room in a hotel with killer views, and afterwards adjourn to the 1st floor restaurant for brunch together.  During high season (this is it, obviously), they average 120 at a Sunday service, which I think is pretty incredible.  They couldn’t have been more welcoming.  As a part of the service, we were asked to introduce ourselves and, if visiting from another UU congregation, to name it and its city.  Another interesting feature is that attendees are asked to stand if they’re leaving for the US in the coming week, as others give them their pre-stamped US mail to post in America.  The Mexican postal service is a huge joke!  Many services have sprung up to provide Americans and presumably Canadians, too, with daily mail delivery.  You give a change of address to your home post office of the address in Laredo, TX, where your service has an office.  Drivers go daily back and forth to Laredo to take and bring US mail.  I’m told it works wonderfully, and for the price of about $22/mo.

But I digress.  The congregation is lay-led (for the uninitiated, this means that there is no minister).  However, they have visiting ministers about 10 Sundays a year, and I was fortunate enough to catch one in the pulpit.  He was a young UU minister from Tennessee, visiting with his wife and two very young children.  He was an engaging guy, quite funny, and had a good message.  These visitors agree to preach and perform other ministerial duties (weddings, funerals, etc.) in exchange for room and board, which various of the congregants are able and pleased to offer.

At the brunch afterwards, I sat with K, a woman about my age from Ottawa, who was attending a UU service for the first time in her life, and a lovely couple, also our age, and I think also from Canada.  I bonded with K right away.  Sue, the UU whom I kept meeting at various places, had invited me to join her at Escondido, one of the hot springs, the following Wed., and said I was free to invite others, so I asked K.  She couldn’t reply right at that moment, because her neighbor and friend, N, was coming the next day, and she had to check with her.

After brunch (nothing special), I went to a huge arts and crafts exhibition/sale at the Institute Allende, but I was feeling so completely awful from my not-yet-diagnosed mold allergy, that I didn’t buy anything, and went home.

On Monday morning, I went to my 2nd week at El Centro Bilingue, and was introduced to a new teacher, Miguel.  My classmate was still An.  I liked Miguel’s style right away.  He was organized, had his hand-outs already copied and ready to distribute, spoke a little more slowly and distinctly than Lety (or was my ear more in tune by then?), and over the week’s time let his guard down a bit.  He told us that his girlfriend is from Thailand.  What a very small world this is!  Anyway, over that week, we three really bonded and had a good time.  We also learned a lot.  Miguel never gave us homework, whereas Lety always did.  I’m still not sure whether I liked that or not.

That afternoon, I met Eleonor’s niece, Carla, whom she seemed to be caring for after school while she worked.  She was about five or six, wearing her school uniform and looking at a princess book.  With prompting from Eleonor, she showed me her schoolbook in which she was learning to write her letters.  I missed my grandchildren very much at that point.  I am going to try to find some princess books on my travels and leave them for Carla on my last day.  I hope I’ll have another opportunity to speak with a child, as my sentences are about on that level and I don’t feel so tongue-tied.  After that, I attended a video presentation at the library of the opera Madama Butterfly, filmed at the Sydney Opera House.  I want to tell you that seeing that opera up close and personal rather than from the nose-bleed seats at an opera house, as I usually do, is a very different experience.  A sat next to me; the performance was extraordinary, and we sobbed our way through it.   I don’t ever remember being that emotional at a public performance, except maybe for the movie “Brokeback Mountain.”

Since I was having various vexing technological problems – with Skype, with the DVD on the 1st floor and with the whole TV/cable/DVD set-up on the 2nd floor — I asked A if he wouldn’t mind coming to my house (right around the corner from the library) to see if he could be of some help.  He was a bit of a help with the Skype problem, but not much more.  The following day, I asked Eleonor about the TV/cable/DVD problems.  She couldn’t help, but agreed to call the office and let me know what to do, which she did, and now I can watch everything.  The only problem is that I have no time!  I do watch CNN while I eat my breakfast, and I have to say I’m getting a mite tired of hearing about nothing but the economy and the various proposed fixes, and everyone’s take on them as that channel follows Obama’s First 100 Days.  I have come to despise Lou Dobbs.  But CNN is the only English game in town for news.

On Tues., in the afternoon, I went to a lecture at the library (natch!) by Robert de Gast, who was born in the Netherlands, came to America in his early teens, and has lived in SMA for the past 12 years.  He has written several books about SMA (he was one of those, I realized, doing a book-signing on the library patio before the house and garden tour), and is a great photographer.  His lecture title was “Adios is Not Goodbye; Tomorrow is Not Mañana.”  He opened his presentation by posing the question, “San Miguel is not near any airport; it’s not near any beach; it has no casinos; so why do throngs of Americans and Canadians come here?”  He also mentioned that there are no earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, bugs, or fires, since all of the houses and shops are made of adobe or, more recently, of concrete.  He then proceeded to answer his own question, which was rhetorical, as we all knew the answer.

As he explained in his talk, “mañana” is an indeterminate point of time somewhere in the future, and if you can’t live with that, you have no business being in Mexico.  While his talk was entertaining, his slides were a hoot.  He prefaced them by saying that he wasn’t showing them to poke fun at Mexico or SMA in particular, because he loved Mexico, Mexicans, and San Miguel in particular, but his slides showed the very particularities and peculiarities that make SMA the city that it is.  Literally, he had us rolling in the aisles.

As I left the talk, I met one of the women who had been so welcoming to me at the UU service.  When I told her I was going to one of the hot springs, Escondido, the following day, she gave me some very good advice.  One has to take a taxi there, and because it’s 25 km from the center of town, there will be no taxis to bring you home.  Here’s what she told us to do:  Agree with your taxi driver on a round-trip price and then tell him that you will pay him the full amount when he returns to pick you up at an agreed-upon time.  I would have never known that!  This is how I learn so many different things here:  by dumb luck, by just speaking to the right person – who always seems to present him or herself to me at the right time – and telling them what you’ve been doing or are planning to do.

So on Wed., in my class, I asked Miguel what would be a fair price to and from Escondido, and exactly how to say what my UU friend had told me.  Armed with that knowledge, I met Sue and K and her newly-arrived friend, N, in the Jardin, and our adventure began.  Actually, that’s wrong.  This whole trip is a wonderful adventure!  (At this point, the wife of the UU minister who had preached on Sunday came by to ask us what time it was; the three of us who had been at her husband’s service engaged her in conversation.  See what I mean?)  I told the women about the taxi plan and I was immediately appointed the speaker for the group.  Happily, the price the taxi driver offered us was what Miguel had said, and he agreed to the return-trip plan, so we were off, with me riding shot-gun, not a favored position.  Mexicans do drive differently from Americans, let me leave it at that.  Robert de Gast had told us that when he applied for his Mexican driver’s license, they wanted to know only three pieces of information:  his name, his address, and his blood type.  That surely doesn’t inspire confidence!

Anyway, we arrived in one piece at El Balneario de Escondido Place.  We were welcomed, given maps of the place and paid our entrance fee (about $7.50-$8.00 at the current very-favorable- to-Americans exchange rate).  We four highly intelligent women were unable to figure out the aerial maps.  We couldn’t locate the changing rooms, so changed in the shower.  We did eventually find the changing rooms at the very end of our stay, but we were never able to find the lockers, so we schlepped our stuff all around with us, taking turns watching it while the others went into the various hot springs.  At Escondido, they have 10 lakes (in which you do not swim), 6 pools, fed by natural hot mineral springs (with no odor), a small café with an even smaller menu, a small store, which we didn’t get to go into, showers and bathrooms.  The changing rooms, showers and bathrooms were all far from each other.  Don’t ask.  Things are very specialized here.  And presumably the lockers were in yet another place.

We had a nice little lunch, changed into our suits, and tried five of the six pools (one didn’t have any water in it).  One pool that was a stand-alone was lukewarm.  Some of the pools were interconnected and we followed the narrow inside passages to successively hotter and hotter water.  There were pipes pouring out at great volume, so you could position whatever part of you was hurting under that gushing hot water to help relieve whatever was going on.  The place was immaculate, but lacked any safety features whatsoever, such as railings to hold onto as you stepped into or out of the water.  There were just a few families there besides us, so it all felt very safe and friendly and pleasant.  One little boy was commenting to his father about the “viejas” (old women) – that would be us – and his father was shushing him.  We ended a very pleasant afternoon bathing and getting to know each other over bottles of beer (a piña colada in my case).  The taxi driver actually arrived a few minutes early and I kidded him that he had arrived “en punto” – like an estadounidense, not like a mexicano.

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We had decided that we would ask the driver to let us off at Mega, a Wal-Mart-type store on the edge of town, which he did.  Sue had asked us at one point in the day to join her in a (UU) prayer that her glasses, which she was having made at Mega for a fraction of what they would have cost in the US, would be ready as she was leaving soon, and they had been promised the previous Mon. (see comments about mañana above).  Well, it worked!  We parted from her at that point, and wandered the aisles of Mega.  They are selling some really, really bad food in Mexico!  I bought some light chocolate soy milk, which I have come to adore, some Oaxacan string cheese that Sue had introduced us to, and nothing else.  The baked goods, which looked absolutely delicious, but which were open and available to every child’s grubby hands and sniffles and God knows what else, were undoubtedly made with lard, so I passed them up.  In order to take the pastries you want, you go to a table nearby, where you are given a large metal tray and tongs and you go about, picking what you want.  Then, you take your tray of goodies to be bagged, weighed, and priced.  K and N bought quite a few.  Their rental was not so far from Mega, so we crossed the six-lane highway via a bridge, they put me on a bus toward El Centro, and they walked home.  I soon recognized where I was, and got off at the arabe market to buy the hummus, etc. that they had said was coming in the previous day, and it had, and I bought!

On Wed., I attended a movie, made in San Miguel, called “Love Is…”  I was glad that I saw it after being here awhile, as I was instantly able to recognize most of the places shown.  It was light and cute and charming.  That night, I went to a performance of the play, “War of the Roses,” and who should be taking tickets but the two stars in the video I had seen that afternoon!

On Friday, I received an unexpected – and wonderful – invitation from my classmate, An.  He and J invited me to go with them in their car to Atótonilco to see the 260+ year-old church there, which was recently recognized, along with San Miguel, as a UNESCO World Heritage  Site, and then to go on to La Gruta, another of the four or so hot springs in the area.  I ran home after class to get my suit and towel.  We had great fish tacos (which I acquired a taste for in San Diego) at a little shack near an RV park where they park their car (they can’t park near their rental for reasons I didn’t understand), and then we were on our way.  I am in total awe that An and J can drive through the streets of SMA and out into the countryside.  I would never attempt it!  At Atótonilco, there is literally nothing else there besides the church, other than a few stands where religious objects and tortillas and soft drinks are sold.  The frescoes are being totally re-done, so much of the unbelieveable interior was covered with scaffolding and drop cloths.  Because of this, it wasn’t as rewarding a visit as it might have been.  I’m thinking this restoration may take years.  I wonder if funds come with the designation as a World Heritage Site.

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Then it was off to La Gruta.  This time, I left my money in their trunk, so I didn’t have to worry about it.  At a little window, we paid the same entrance fee as at Escondido, walked four feet and gave our ticket to another person.  Well, it provides employment.  We changed in a set-up that was completely weird, and went on to a lovely pool.  Again, you swim/walk through covered passageways to the next and then the next level of hotness.  We met and talked to some fascinating folks from all over the world, one even from Tasmania!  The restaurant at this place is a tiny bit fancier, and you can get a drink served to you in the pool, not of any interest to me.  They also have masseuses here (that’s what it said in both Spanish & English on their shirts, although they were in actuality masseurs).  I didn’t see that service offered at Escondido.  The scuttlebutt is that Escondido is for the locals, and La Gruta is for the gringos, but we saw both at each.  Very relaxed and happy, we headed back to SMA and they invited me in for a drink, which led to us to going out to dinner together.  I had a large bowl of chicken posole (a fav of mine, but I’d never had it made with chicken) for about $3.25.  The glass of red wine I had cost almost as much!  An had a pig’s knuckle, which he said was pickled in brine, was gelatinous, and served cold.  It must have seemed like a good idea at the time he ordered it.  Gag!

I have bought a great purple hat with a large brim, and all manner of people – even one gringa child — stop me to tell me what a great hat it is!  I ate in a Sri Lankan restaurant.  It was weird to order in Spanish and then have them bring “raita” and “naan,” Indian foods that I know well.  It was a great vegetarian meal, and a welcome change from Mexican cuisine everyday.  Not that I don’t like it, but the ingredients for almost every dish are pretty much the same, and I yearned for a bit of a change.  There is a place, Café, Etc., favored by gringos because it is right across the street from the library and has great coffee (I’m told), baked goods, and breakfasts and lunches at a cheap price.  The owner of this café screens almost-first-run movies every afternoon for a low cover price which includes a drink.  This week, it’s “Revolutionary Road” and “Slum Dog Millionaire,” among others, so you can see how au courant his selection is.

I’m Feeling Very Much at Home Here Now – Jan. 31-Feb. 6, 2009

On Sat., I went to the Fiesta de Candelaria at Parque Juarez.  I remember commenting to Sa weeks ago that they were in no rush here to take down the Christmas decorations, and I found out that it’s because the season really extends to Feb. 2, Candelaria, the beginning of the planting season.  There is the blessing of the seeds, and a very complex religious ritual of taking the Jesus figure from the home crèche to the church (and I believe the man of the family carries the baby lovingly and tenderly) for some sort of blessing, and then the crèche is packed away for another year.

Anyway, at Parque Juarez, endless numbers of plant and container vendors had their wares set up.  Wherever you walked, you were surrounded by beautiful plants, both for indoor and outdoor gardens.  Boys zipped around with wheelbarrows to transport your purchases to your nearby home or parked car or even a cab.  I wished I could have bought some of the lovely flowering plants.  And my God, I have never seen so many planters in my life – thousands upon thousands of them stacked up in every size from thimble to bathtub!  And they all had to be hand-carried in, and presumably, since there is no way they could all sell, hand-carried back out.

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This fiesta lasts all day (about 9-9) for 10 days!  Each evening, there is a different type of entertainment on a large, raised stage.  I saw dancers from different Mexican states, doing their traditional dances in traditional costumes.  Lots of fun.  But just yards from the stage was a gazebo where a very loud mariachi-type band was also performing, so the music from the two almost-adjacent places was in competition – a bit disconcerting.

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I also went to a sort of private arts and crafts sale at a home/display area somewhat near my house, and bought a lovely Oaxacan table runner for a song.  The continuing deterioration of the peso against the dollar makes for very enticing prices.  Finding the address was an adventure, though.  The numbers on one side of the street often bear no relation to those on the other, such as, while looking for this place, 41 Quebrada, I was on the 60s on one side, and into the 100s on the other side!  This is not uncommon.  At least there were some numbers!  Often there aren’t.  Seemingly, the only places with numbers are those where the owners want you to find them, such as a business.  And then there are the times, that I think I told you about from the lecture by Robert de Gast, that there are two and even three different numbers on a house/business.

The streets are actually extremely well-marked, except for one small thing.  Some years ago, they tried a new street identification system, and the word for block is manzana (same as apple; don’t ask), so every street sign says Manzana and a number, very confusing to visitors, until someone explains it to you.  Basically, now that that system is defunct, one is to ignore those lovely tiles and just read the name of the street below.  Streets frequently change name as they meander through town.  And people often just paint the words, “Se Vende” or “Se Renta” on the front of their houses.  Only those able to hire a real estate firm put up actual For Sale or For Rent signs.

On Sun., I cried a lot.  (I actually like that as an opening sentence for something I hope to write some day; I’ll remember it.)  The first place was at the UU service.  Instead of a sermon, since there was no minister in the “pulpit” that Sun., four members read to the congregation, in its entirety, Obama’s speech on race, which he delivered at the Constitution Center in Phila. while he was a candidate, as a response to all the flap about Rev. Wright.  I had listened to it then, and was deeply moved, but this time, the feelings were even deeper.  We were encouraged to discuss it during the brunch afterwards.

I hung around the hotel after the brunch, reading the selection for the Feb. meeting of my book group, since an event I was attending at 3 p.m. was in the same space as the UU service.  The UU congregation, as an institution, supports five different local charities.  The event that afternoon was a performance by the girls of Casa Hogar Santa Julia.  The girls at this “home,” run by the Dominican Sisters of Mary, cannot live with their own families because of various dire circumstances – illness, poverty, abuse, etc.  For the first six years, the organization had no sustainable support outside of taking the girls begging on the streets.  Their buildings were in terrible disrepair, and the girls were underfed and underperforming in school, and totally lacked self-esteem.  A group of volunteers visited the school, wrote an article in the local paper describing their plight, and miracles began to happen.  They now have a safe home, a computer lab, healthcare, goals, and self-esteem for sure.  Two members of the UU congregation, both Julliard-trained musicians, volunteer at the school, teaching them violin and English, and leading a choir, along with Spanish-speaking musicians, other teachers and volunteers.

So the concert was about 25 girls, ages about 3 to 16 or 17, and they sang lots of songs in both Spanish and English with hand and body movements, and some of the older ones also played the violin; they are being taught by the Suzuki method.  Every girl had a different, beautiful hairstyle, done by the nuns (they call them madres).  They were in immaculate school uniforms with brilliant white knee socks (which is a tough thing to manage here in San Miguel with all of the dust and dirt).  I cried through most of the performance.  To know where these girls had been – and where they are today and the fact that they do have a future, thanks to the incredible work of the nuns and the incredible generosity of a lot of gringos, was overwhelming to me.  Also, knowing all of the advantages I had growing up, all those my children had, and those my grandchildren are now experiencing, compared to these girls and millions more like them everywhere in the world, was a heavy burden for me that day.

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On Mon., I reported to El Centro Bilingue for what I thought was another week of instruction with Miguel.  However, even though we saw Miguel, with no explanation we got Marysol as a teacher.  We were in yet another room, and the way the sun was coming in the door made reading the white board nearly impossible, plus the somewhat rowdy niños’ class was next door.  I rebelled.  I said that there was no way I could learn under those circumstances, so we moved to yet another room, where An couldn’t even stand up fully!  It’s really difficult to describe the school building, which was undoubtedly someone’s home at one time.  You walk in a door from the street and past the office into the usual central patio, off of which all the rooms open.  The students from all the different levels appear around 9 a.m. and mingle happily for a few minutes while getting coffee.  Then their teachers appear and sort of herd them to their respective classrooms.  If ever a fire inspector had seen this school, it would have been shut down instantly.  There is tons of extra furniture – bookcases, tables, chairs, etc.  — stacked everywhere, some precariously.  There are frequent interruptions to the class.  Other teachers, aides, cleaning people, whomever come into the class with deeply polite apologies for barging in.  They need a book that’s in a cabinet in this room, or the teacher needs to sign a paper, or someone just needs to deliver a message to the teacher.  It’s really quite comical.  Anyway, Marysol is probably the best-trained teacher in the school, having a master’s in linguistics from UNAM, the finest university in Mexico City, and probably the country.  She will leave shortly for six months in Vancouver to teach for Berlitz.  She told us that the educational system in Mexico is top-notch, with free education through university, but there are no jobs for the graduates (or for others who don’t go on to further study, as witnessed by the desperate migration of Mexicans north to work and try to provide for their families).  Highly-trained Marysol said she had to go outside of the country to get employment; otherwise she would have had to work as a maid to supplement the pay she got from El Centro Bilingue.  As it is, she moonlights as a bar-tender.

That night, I went to a benefit guitar concert, but the performer didn’t show up.  So José Luis, the educational/cultural director of the library, asked another guitarist, who was performing next door, if he’d play for the combined group.  I had heard this man before, but was happy to hear him again.

On Tuesday night, I went to a play-reading of “Maggie Getting Married” at St. Paul’s Church.  Their little theater group puts on these plays with minimal props, sets, costumes, etc.  throughout the year except in the summer months, when there are not so many visitors   It was the 7th work by this well-known (although not to me) Canadian playwright that they’ve staged.  They were well rehearsed and good amateur actors, and you quickly forgot that they had scripts in hand.  It was a light, slightly naughty play and I enjoyed it tremendously.  For 20 pesos (1 USD = 14.20 pesos at the moment), it’s the best deal in town.  They have a very small performance space (they don’t use the sanctuary), and don’t sell tickets ahead of time, so you have to arrive about 45 minutes before show time in order to get a number.  I think they have 60-some seats.  When all of the numbers are given out, that’s it.  And they only have three performances of each play, on three successive nights.

At 2 p.m. on Wed., I attended the Wed. Comida, a mid-week gathering sponsored by the UUs at a fabulous restaurant called Hecho en Mexico.  It’s owned by a young Lebanese man, who looks Mexican.  He admitted that it’s a problem, since everyone expects him to speak flawless Spanish, which he doesn’t.  There were about 10-12 in attendance, including the president of the congregation and his wife, and we had our own little room off to the side of the main dining room.  I’ve been struggling with eating the two things every article I read about Mexico warned me against:  lettuce and seafood.  I mean here in SMA, we are not anywhere near any sea, and yet there is lots of seafood on menus around town.  I had seen gringos eating lovely salads, and so I dipped my toe into that pond, but I was holding out on the seafood, but at Hecho en Mexico, I caved.  I had shrimp en brochette (the brochettes being stalks of rosemary), with a balsamic reduction.  The sides I chose were a sweet potato casserole (filled with pecans and to die for) and creamed spinach (again, not anything like what you’d expect, but delicious).  I have had absolutely no digestive upsets at all.

On Thursday, my Spanish class was combined with a higher level and taught by Marysol while their teacher was on business in Mexico City.  The key for our room was nowhere to be found.  We all concluded that the absent teacher probably had it in his pocket!  That was not a particularly memorable class as both An and I agreed that it was definitely pitched to the higher level.  But I have to say that near the end of the two-hour session, I was understanding virtually everything Marysol was saying, and she was speaking more quickly then she had to us in earlier classes.

After class, I met K for lunch and the afternoon together.  We went back to El Buen Café, where I’d had a great meal with Sa, to take advantage of their special daily comida menu, which are also found in many other restaurants.  These are special fixed menus for the day, generally cost 98 pesos ($6.90), and consist of an appetizer (that day a lovely bowl of cut fresh fruits with lime to squeeze on top), an entrée (spinach and mushroom crepes with a small side salad), a beverage, and cake for dessert.  For $6.90!  Who would bother cooking?  And you really don’t have to eat again that day.  And whom should we meet in the restaurant but one of the actors from “Maggie Getting Married.”

We walked through a couple of joyerias (jewelry stores), just looking.  We stopped at my rental so I could show it to K.  On our way to Fábrica Aurora, sort of like the Design Marketplace in Philly, we stopped off to be given a tour and low-key sales pitch for a gated condo community just across the street.  I truly hate the concept of a gated community, and if you stopped up your ears, you would swear you were in California at a lush condo development.  We saw three or four different units which were fabulous: 2 BR, 2 1/2 baths, balconies or patios, or on the 3rd/top level, huge terrazzas, starting at only $200,000!  The units were cleverly designed so that you could rent them out in any of 3 ways in your absence:  the whole unit; the large BR with the kitchen, DR, LR, laundry; or just the smaller BR, which had a nice seating area, and bath, if you didn’t require anything more than just a room.  And of course in any configuration, all of the amenities of the development were available:  pool, gym, clubhouse, yadda yadda.  The salesman thought that K and I were a couple.  We took their literature, refused to give anything but our names, and continued on to La Fábrica Aurora.  We didn’t have that much time there as K had to be back at her rental by 4:30 to await the cable guy, as she and everyone else in her building had lost their Internet connection.

La Fábrica Aurora is astounding.  It was formerly some kind of huge factory (fábrica), now re-purposed as designers’ work spaces/showrooms.  Many of the pieces were gargantuan, made to fit in the huge haciendas the very rich come here to furnish.  But there was also exquisite hand-crafted jewelry, paintings, and other home décor of all descriptions.  I will definitely return to see more of it.  Of course, there is also a charming café and a restaurant, and there is always an opening or a reception or some sort of event going on there.

It was a more than a half hour almost straight uphill hike to K’s rental.  It was just like going to El Mirador.  K said she sometimes did that hike three times in a day.  In addition to being high up in the town, K’s place was on the top floor of her building, and had a $1 million view, plus she had a terrazza of her own on the roof.  Her place is totally different from mine, and also just great.  (I’ve also seen An and & J’s place, which is different from either mine or K’s, and also great, so I think there are lots of really desirable places to be had.)  We were relaxing on the terrazza with a glass of mango juice when the cable guy appeared – on time!  And he fixed the problem!

K and I then went back downhill to Parque Juarez for more evening entertainment, which had been advertised in Atención, but the joke was on us; there was none.  So we walked over to Hecho en Mexico for their beet salad and a margarita, and each took home enough food for lunch the next day.

Friday was my last class at El Centro Bilingue, and was probably the best in the three weeks I studied there.  Because both A and I are frustrated with the Tues./Thurs. Conversation With Friends group at the library, for a variety of reasons, we decided to plan our own conversation group.  So I met him at 1 p.m. at the library and we talked Spanish non-stop for 2 ½ hours.  We are just about on the same level of proficiency; we both feel totally un-self-conscious about speaking to each other in Spanish, and we have pretty darned interesting things to say to each other, plus we enjoy each other’s company.  So we’re planning to continue this.  Also, A has a private tutor (he despaired of El Centro Bilingue, as he never felt he was at the correct level) who might be able to take me on.  Plus, the wife of a friend of his, who is a native speaker, will lead us in a 1-hour conversation two mornings a week.

Friday night, K and I had dinner at an interesting organic place, Bajo Fondo, and then went to a gypsy voice and guitar concert at the library.  The man was incredibly soulful, and played like no one I’ve ever heard or seen before.  I know I always give top ratings to everything I attend, but honestly, there is nothing that hasn’t been just the best ever.  And so cheap!

I came home to an e-mail telling me that S&G were coming to visit after all, which made me very, very happy.  I was so excited that I woke up at 4:30 this morning and couldn’t get back to sleep.   So I came up with the idea of A and me taking R out for dinner for her 88th birthday this coming week.  I think I’ve mentioned R several times.  She keeps appearing in my life, and has become a role model for me.  She is here in San Miguel alone, and she’s 87 years old.  When she’s not here, she lives in Lincoln Center in the apartments originally built for the Julliard students.  She is incredibly cultured and a great conversationalist.  She attends virtually everything here in San Miguel, and knows lots of important info.  A concurred and I tried to call her twice to set things up, but she was never home, of course.  Not 10 minutes after my last call, I met her on the street on my way out for an Indian lunch.  I issued the invitation, she demurred, saying she wouldn’t let us treat her, but she did agree to have dinner with us next Thursday.

The Seduction is Complete! – Feb. 7-15, 2009

On Sat. evening, I attended another in the Pro Musica series at St. Paul’s, this time the Carlos Chavez Quartet, along with a very famous guitarist, Roberto Limón, which made it a quintet.  In addition to some other pieces, they played a world premier written by a Mexican, Samuel Zyman, who lives in Manhattan and teaches at Juilliard.  The piece was commissioned by Pro Musica along with the Chavez Quartet.  Pro Musica commissions a piece for their series every year, and always uses a Mexican composer.  Señor Zyman was present, along with his wife, and told the audience that he had finished the piece only three weeks earlier!  St. Paul’s is a nearly acoustically-perfect venue, and the place was packed.  Wine and hors d’ouevres were offered afterwards at a reception, and were included in the ticket price (top price, about $10.50 USD, lowest price, about $5.50), and while speaking to many people afterwards, we all agreed that, had we attended this same concert in the states, it would have cost 10 times as much.  The caterer was top-notch, as the wines and apps offered were fabulous, as were the servers, who wished each person, “Salud!” as they were handed their drink.  K was seated in a different section from mine, as we had bought our tickets separately, and she met a couple from her hometown, Ottawa, and I met them when we hooked back up for the reception.

If it’s Sunday, it must be time for me to cry again.  At the UU service, instead of a sermon, the chairpersons of two of the five organizations the congregation supports, Mujeres en Cambio (Women in Change) and Jóvenes Adelante (Young People Moving Forward), gave brief synopses of the work and successes of their respective organizations, and then they introduced two students each, three young women and a young man, who are recipients of scholarships offered by their organizations (among many others, of course).

One young woman desperately wanted to study medicine, but even with the help of the scholarship from Mujeres en Cambio, she was not able to afford it (just as in the states, it’s prohibitively expensive).  So she decided to study law, because she said, in either profession, she would be able to help her countrymen, which was her only desire.  She is taking a double load in law school so that she can finish more quickly.  She said that perhaps, when she has become a lawyer and is making sufficient money, she can then study to become a doctor!  I had no doubt that this would transpire.  What these jóvenes had to say – some in basic English, some in translated Spanish — was so incredibly touching.  The young man, who really wanted to study to be an opera singer, but is not, started to cry when he started to talk.  He spoke of the congregation as his angels.  All offered their heartfelt thanks, and said they had no doubt that without this help, they would not be in school.

These scholarships are given directly to the students, not to the schools.  As I said earlier, the education is free, but of course there are many other expenses such as books, transportation, room and board, etc., and on the high school level, uniforms.  If there is any money left over after their expenses, they are free to give it to their families for food or healthcare.  They must all maintain at least an 8.5 grade level out of a possible 10.   Every student who spoke also works, many nearly full-time, in addition to being full-time students.  The program assigns a mentor from the congregation to each student.

I stayed for brunch in the hotel and then made my way on foot to a part of town I’d never visited, the suburb of Independencia, which is much poorer than El Centro, although there was the occasional lovely home.  My reason for going there was to attend a matinee of Woody Allen’s “Central Park West” at the Iguana Festival de Artes, also performing “Mixed Nuts,” “a zany gathering of one-acts” by such luminaries as Woody Allen, David Mamet, Eric Bogosian, Joseph Bologna, and many others.  They have morning play-readings, with bagels and coffee, something called “Secrets of the Heart,” which is a one-woman show combining liturgy, opera, and tango, and other fun things.  “Central Park West” was a riot, and very well acted.  Everyone else in attendance called cabs to return to El Centro, but I hoofed it, and got myself lost, which was actually good, as I saw many neighborhoods I wouldn’t have seen any other way.  I purposefully bought matinee tickets as I wanted to be able to walk each way, and I definitely would not have felt comfortable walking home in the dark through some neighborhoods I saw, although no one was threatening to me in any way.  I stopped in a small notions shop and asked the young woman there where we were on my map.  Was I surprised!  I was really way off track, so I re-traced my steps, and after making only two turns, saw where I was, and continued home.

On Tuesday, I began a twice-weekly conversation group with a native speaker at the library.  We are three folks my age:  myself, A, and a woman named P, who writes astrology books.  Our one-hour conversations just fly by, and we have a lot of fun.  C, (a nickname for our tutor’s beautiful name) has introduced us to some naughty Spanish words, and cautions us against using some words we’d been taught, as they have double meanings and sexual innuendo.

S&G arrived right on time Tuesday afternoon.  We immediately went out on the town, and I showed them some basic landmarks so that they could find their own way around.  We had dinner in an Italian restaurant I’d wanted to try, when the Mediterranean place we first went to, Mare Nostrum, was closed (only on Tuesdays, as are many other restaurants).

On Wednesday afternoon, I attended an eagerly-anticipated meeting of US ex-pats and visitors like myself with the US consul.  There were to have been two meetings:  one at 3 p.m. in a room in the library, and the second at 6 p.m. in a theater in town, with entertainment afterwards, both free.  The 3 p.m. meeting was billed as a discussion of relations between the USA and Mexico under the new administration, and the 6 p.m. time slot was to be a meeting about security in SMA and US Social Security for those living out of the country.  First of all, they way underestimated the interest of the community in this meeting, and every chair in the room was taken by 2:45.  People stood, sat on some weird things (I was one of those, as I sat on a small platform some musicians use when they perform, but at least I was sitting), and some people were forced to sit on the floor, which I considered scandalous since they were quite far along in years.  Then when the consul and his lackeys spoke, they had no microphone, again, showing little consideration for their audience of viejos.  And then, to top it all off, they spent the afternoon meeting time talking about security and a new thing called Virtual Video Post, an online presence to answer most questions you would ordinarily have to go into the consular office to have answered.  They said that there is currently no US Ambassador to Mexico, as it’s traditional for political appointees to tender their resignations when the administration changes, and it will be at least four months until a new one can be chosen, approved, and trained.  The info about security in Mexico served only to scare the living daylights out of us.  Drug violence in some border towns (Juarez – next to el Paso, where I was just a year ago on the Elderhostel trip to Copper Canyon, and Tijuana, where I was two years ago when I was in San Diego) is at its highest level in a very long time.  Things remain incredibly safe in San Miguel, however.  I know that the populace and the police are highly invested in keeping things safe, because if things become dangerous, the gringos will flee, and they are much needed – and wanted and respected – here.  I decided to skip the evening consular event.

On Thursday night, A and I took R to dinner at Bugambilia for her 88th birthday, and we just had the best time.  And in the end, R allowed us to pay for her dinner.

On Sat., I went on a trip called Saturday Adventure.  Each week, the group is taken to a different place in or close to town that tourists would not normally get to see.   A brick-making facility was the first place on the schedule.  There, we were to be invited to take off our shoes and help to mix the brick “dough” into the right consistency (sort of like stomping grapes).   The mixture is then set to “ripen,” is then poured into molds for bricks, tile roofs, etc, dried, and then baked in a gas kiln.  These products are then shipped to the US.  However, when I arrived at the meeting place, that was no longer in the offing.  Instead, we were given a paper that listed an amber mine as one of two places we were to visit.  But, alas, that, too, was cancelled.  I was really disappointed as either of those things would have been of real interest to me.  The leaders of these trips said that this happens all of the time.  They’ll get everything all set up and then they’ll get a frantic last-minute phone call, saying something happened that prevented the group from coming that week.  Then it’s scramble time.

So we were loaded into a couple of small buses and went to a two-year-old house in a gated golf community (pardon me while I gag!) that was for sale for $695,000 (how convenient – a free open house).   The house was lovely, although the community lacked life, in my opinion.  So far, I was feeling gypped.  Then we drove for about a half hour out of town to one of the most fabulous places I’ve ever seen.  It was the weekend home of a NY couple who also had a place in San Miguel.  They found this place about 10 years ago, almost by accident.  In the 16th century, the Spanish priests had set up a huge number of chapels all around the area in which to convert the local Indians to Christianity.  Almost all of these chapels are now in severe disrepair, however, the one on this property is in excellent condition.  It has frescoes in very good shape.  Anyway, when they found the chapel, there were squatters living in various out buildings around it.  They bought the property and paid the squatters to move elsewhere.  When they returned the following weekend, they found that the squatters were removing all of the stones of their shelters in order to re-build elsewhere, so once again, they had to pay them off to cease and desist.  The couple thinks that in addition to the chapel, that the whole site was for some sort of more elaborate religious ceremony, such as the stages of the cross.

They built a house onto an existing ruin, and now have a total showplace.  They rent the place out when they don’t need it, offer horse-back riding and lunches, weddings in the chapel, and also lunches for a chef-led cooking group from town.  They even grow their own corn for the tortillas!  (Well, of course, this couple is not out in the fields planting corn; there are workers to do that.)  A man had been hired to bring a cooler full of drinks and some cookies for the group to enjoy in this couple’s huge outdoor living room overlooking a pastoral scene.  Honestly, no one wanted to leave.   BTW, this weekly adventure benefits Centro de Crecimineto, a facility for handicapped children.  I plan to go again on another Sat.  I’d still like to see the amber mine!

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On Sun., we went on another of the house and garden tours.  The first place was so completely over the top that no one could believe it.  It was like a pleasure palace of Kubla Khan.  It was quite a way out of town, and seemingly in a “development” of other homes of like extremes.  It also was for sale, for $3 million, which, considering what it was, seemed way under-priced.  It was done entirely in Moroccan style.  They had brought home more huge, magnificent light fixtures than you could ever imagine (actually, I did like them a lot), and things like opium beds.  But the second place, not far from my rental in El Centro, was worth the price of admission.  The homeowner was a down-to-earth younger woman.   Her home had been featured in the Rizzoli book, “Haciendas” in Oct. 2008.  It had undergone several reconstructions over the past 10 years.  One of the more spectacular features was a hand-carved wood fireplace with a map of the world in the 1560s.  The outdoor living room with an enormous chandelier, fireplace and comfortable seating areas overlooked the walled-in garden, pool (!) and a guest casita.  It was truly a dream home.

When S&G arrived, a lot of changes happened. First, G was tall enough to open the cabinet above the stove hood, and we discovered a toaster (although my use of the griddle between the burners had been working just fine), and a juicer.  We immediately went out to buy juice oranges, and have been having fresh-squeezed juice every morning.  I may have to buy a juicer at home and continue this.  G got the “waterfall” going in the downstairs “atrium,” and now we can hear water trickling gently onto stones, if we want.  He brought down a folding chair from the roof terrazza so one can sit in the atrium when it’s too hot and sunny to be on the roof mid-day.  We’ve played musical bedrooms, since I wanted them to have the larger front BR and I refused to return to the smaller back bedroom after my mold allergy.  I (happily) slept on a blow-up mattress in the den for a week, then one day, when the plumber came to fix the toilet in the powder room (which G said he could easily fix, but I said we should use the maintenance man), Eleonor told him about the mold problem, and he said he’d return in a few days to clean out all of the pipes, which hadn’t been cleaned a single time since the renovation of the place who knows how many years ago.  He was as good as his word.  That cleaning process produced  sewage odor for a couple of days until he could return to fix that.  But, with the two bathrooms now relatively odor-free, we changed again, with S&G moving to the back bedroom and I to the front bedroom.  Everything has been fine since then.

It has gotten unusually warm – OK, hot, but again, because of the dryness, it’s certainly not unbearable, but we always walk on the shady side of the street and seek out shade whenever we can.  I really did not bring sufficient quantitites of clothes for this extreme weather, so I went on a long search for some lighter clothes, and finally hit the mother lode at a place called Girasol, which sells nothing but women’s gauze clothing, all cotton and all made in Mexico.  Would you believe that I was able to buy six pieces of clothing (two skirts, a pair of ¾ pants and three tops) for a total of $138 USD?  The peso is the lowest it’s been against the dollar in 15 years.  This is so great for us tourists, but very bad for the Mexican economy.

I saw a full-page ad in Atención which proudly declared that the chili cook-off I’d attended earlier attracted 1600 people and raised $20,000 USD for the charity it was supporting, one for children with disabilities.

Valentine’s Day turned out to be huge here.  We were shocked.  All of the stores were displaying Valentine’s merchandise weeks before the event, and because it fell on a Saturday, tons of Mexican tourists poured into San Miguel (probably from places like Mexico City), and the traffic in the already-overburdened streets was in total grid-lock much of the weekend.  We had decided early-on not to try to eat dinner out that night, so had a big, delicious meal out for lunch, and then S bought a rotisserie chicken and fresh-made tortillas from 2 different stalls, and we made yummy tacos.  We went up to the Jardin after dinner to check out the scene.  The balloon and flower sellers were doing a brisk business, and there were competing mariachi bands in different corners of the Jardin serenading couples.  It was a happy, loving, exciting place to be.

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I wanted to start looking for a place to rent for next year.  Of course you can go through a rental agency, as I did online for the place I’m in this year, but now that I’m here, I see that the way to do this – and to find out about virtually everything else going on – is word of mouth.  We had gone for about the most delicious breakfast I’ve ever eaten, to a place called Casa Crayola, and yes, it was a riot of colors.  In addition to a breakfast-only restaurant, there are seven casitas for rent.

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We took their brochure, and I began to get more and more interested in them, so, after a very depressing appointment with the rental agent from this place, where the 18 or so places I liked from their Internet site were whittled down to a total of four (and possibly fewer) because they’re all already rented for next winter, I began to panic.  We went over to see the available casitas at Casa Crayola, and determined that they would probably be too small for an extended stay (although they were totally charming), plus they seemed pretty expensive, and for the same money, one could get something much bigger.  So the woman showing us around (not the owner, Carly, she was away somewhere), told us that Carly’s dad, David, had some casitas for rent at his place.  She called him, he said to come over, so we went.  He had a fabulous, fabulous house.  We saw his casitas, and while lovely, again, they seemed quite small for an extended stay.  Then he told us that he also had a house for rent, so we walked over there.  Oh My God!  It was fabulous, but way too expensive, but it’s actually 2 places in one, separated by a charming, large garden, and he said they were thinking of putting a kitchen onto the back BR and thus, it could be rented as two separate places.  So he was going to get back to us as to prices.  Perhaps I could rent half of it for the 10 weeks I want to come next year, and S&G could rent the other half for the five weeks they want to come.  Staying in the front half of this guy’s house was the author of a play I saw when I first arrived, “The Death of Reason,” and she’s just a little older than S&G, so she gave all sorts of hints of places they could go to meet people their own age.  Then when we were up on the roof-top terrazza, David pointed to a charming place across the street that is also for rent by a friend of his, and we eventually made our way over there, but the owner was not going to be back in town until Feb. 25, the maid said.

We finally found out that David was the husband of the video-maker of “Lost and Found in Mexico,” and I just couldn’t believe it.  You would never guess that it’s the same guy shown in the video.  On screen, he seemed to have followed his wife to San Miguel kicking and screaming.  He was totally un-enthusiastic.  In the flesh, he’s charming, helpful, funny, erudite, cool, in short, someone you’d absolutely want to know well.  We milked his brain for the best places to go, to eat, etc., and he was thrilled to share his knowledge.

One night, in the Jardin, we met a woman who is renting right across the street from me, whose husband is from Tiberius (I mean, how does one get from Tiberius to San Miguel?).  I had met her in the library one day when I was meeting A for a Spanish language chat; they were talking.  Her husband has since gone home, since he’s not retired yet, but she told me that her son, who is S&G’s age, is arriving on Thurs.  She has hooked him up with the playwright and will have him get in touch with S&G.  This is all sooooo incestuous, but it’s the way things are here.  It’s ALL word-of-mouth.  And if you know one person, you will be introduced to all of their friends and relatives, and it goes from there.  It’s a quite remarkable society!

We asked David about the safety of the neighborhood around the house he showed us, and his humorous reply, after thinking for a moment was, “Well, if you walked down the street at 2 a.m. naked wearing a lot of jewelry, you might have a problem.  Otherwise, no.”  That about sums it up here.  I went to a lecture on Living in San Miguel, and the realtor of 34 years here said that the police protection in SMA is about 7 times the level of that in other Mexican towns, and it’s to protect the financial interests of the town.  If there is violence, the gringos won’t come, and the locals need their presence to create jobs, and also for the dozens of active charities the gringos heartily support which change the lives of so many for the better.

I needed a haircut, and had the name and location of a place from R, so, on a whim, late one afternoon, I popped in and was immediately taken.  I had two shampoos with a delicious scalp massage for about 10 minutes first.  I was pretty tranquil by the time I got to the stylist’s chair.  With minimal instruction in half English/half Spanish, I threw caution to the winds – and got a great haircut that I’m very happy with – and in only 10 minutes and for the peso equivalent of $7.71!  Of course I tipped both the stylist and the shampoo girl, so I maybe spent $9.00, but compare that to the hour it takes me to get my hair cut in Philly and the charge of $42, plus a $10 tip.  It is so much cheaper to live here.

Unique Experiences – Feb. 16-21, 2009

My Tues. morning conversation class was cancelled because our teacher, C, was ill.  We didn’t find this out until she appeared at the appointed time to tell us.  S&G were to have gone to the Tuesday Market at about the same time, and I had a ticket for a lecture on the monarch butterfly at 1:30.  The other members of the group wanted to stay and speak Spanish without C, but I badly wanted to go to the Tuesday Market, and it being only on Tuesdays, I wouldn’t have had another chance since all of my Tuesday mornings were taken up with this group.  I excused myself from the group, ran into the ticket office at the library, and asked to use their phone.  I called the house and S&G had not left yet.  I told them I would be joining them.  Then I sold back my lecture ticket.  S&G met me at the library, and we took a cab to the market.

I didn’t know what to expect from the market.  It was absolutely gigantic!  Happily, there were tarps over all of the stands, so it wasn’t hot.  It would have been unbearable without them, as it was held in a huge open lot under the blazing sun on a particularly warm day.  The shade was better for the foodstuffs being sold there, also.  There was everything and anything for sale that you could possibly ever want or need.  I bought a princesa coloring book and crayons for Eleonor’s niece, to leave for her as a parting gift, and we bought a small serrated knife, since we were all frustrated with the sharpness (or lack thereof) of the knives in the rental.  S&G got quite hungry and were tempted to eat at one of the stalls.  Good sense prevailed, however, and they didn’t.  We were told by others afterwards that that had been a wise decision.  We saw vendors cooking large pieces of pig skin in vats of boiling fat.  This is a favorite snack of the Mexicans here.  After about two hours of roaming and gaping, we caught a bus home, and headed to the fish taco stand for a late lunch.  The thought of them putting up and taking down that immense market every single week is mind-boggling.

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On Tues. night, I went to a female version of “Glengarry, Glen Ross,” David Mamet’s scathing play about the real estate business filled with really obscene language.  I saw the stage play years ago, although not the movie, and I totally hated it.  I guess I misunderstood that the play would be re-worked for female actors.  It was not.  The actors just wore skirts instead of pants, but other than that every word was exactly the same, and I hated it even more.  The things the women said just weren’t how women (at least not any I know) talk on a regular basis.

On Wednesday, we got serious about looking for places for next year (we will rent two different places then, rather than be together).  We went out with a rental agent by cab to look at three places that are available.  The cab would just wait while we saw each house.  None seemed right for either of us, although all were nice.  One in El Centro was gorgeous, but huge, and the other two we decided were too far away from the center of town.

Late that afternoon, I went to a lecture at the Instituto Allende about the two trips they were running the coming weekend, one an overnight trip to see the monarch butterflies in the state of Michoacán, and the other a more local day trip to the cities of Guanajuato and Dolores Hidalgo.   The presenter, César, had an absolutely  encyclopedic knowledge of just about everything Mexican, and gave “the history of Mexico in one hour,” and literally, he had me on the edge of my seat; he made it that interesting with no visual aids, just his voice (speaking English) and vast knowledge. Much of Mexico’s revolutionary history took place in the state we’re in, Guanajuato, and right here in SMA and other nearby towns that we’ll be visiting soon, Querétero and Guanajuato City.  Because of this, SMA has lots of Mexican tourists in addition to the gringos.  I imagine them coming to SMA is like Americans (and interested others) coming to Philadelphia to see the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Betsy Ross House, and other sites related to the early history of the US.  We decided to take the two-day trip to see the migrating monarch butterflies at Santuario El Rosario.

On Wednesday night, I queued up early to get a ticket to the St. Paul’s playreaders’ current show, “Firefox.”  As was explained, in the ‘40s, oral histories were taken from residents of Appalachia to capture their lives before too many changes came to that part of the country.  A playwright, reading the histories, created this play.  Firefox is a type of lichen, which, though dead, still has phosphorescent properties.  It was quite an apt title for this work, and it was masterfully done, although again, with script in hand.  In one scene, the old woman/mother is boiling a pig’s head, and there was an actual pig’s head in a pot on the stage.  I immediately thought of the Tuesday Market!

On Thursday, I went to a luncheon for the benefit of Mujeres en Cambio, a group supported by the UU church here (and others, of course), which I’ve written about in the past.  They have many fund-raisers throughout the year, but this is their annual big do.   This charity raises $75,000 USD each year!  Translated into pesos, that’s a heck of a lot of scholarships.  This charity also got a group of women set up in a hooked rug business, and samples of those rugs were for sale.  They sell in the states for quite a pretty penny, and have enabled some families to farm with a tractor for the first time in their lives!  I was proud to have played a small part.

We boarded buses and were taken about a half hour or more out of town to the rancho of the former mayor of SMA and his charming, vivacious wife, who is an enthusiastic Mujeres en Cambio supporter. They have a huge spread, but their actual home is quite modest.  She is an artist and her studio is there, too, as well as a guest casita.   Tables were set up and shaded with umbrellas.  A mujer en cambio was seated at each table.  The mayor’s wife gave a warm welcome and introduced two of the mujeres, who spoke briefly about how much their scholarships mean to them and their families.  We were invited to stroll the grounds after lunch and go into any of their buildings.

Following a delicious lunch of chicken mole, beans and rice, a selection of salads, and fabulous cookies from Petit Four, a French bakery here in town, we went into their home and other buildings for a peek, then re-boarded the buses to go to the home of a couple who owns, purportedly, the world’s finest collection of Mexican folk art.  It was truly extraordinary, as was their house.  Behind the house, they have a shop with incredible things for sale.  The woman of this couple is Susan Page, the author of many books on relationships, such as “If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still single?”, “Why Talking Is Not Enough,” “The 8 Essentials of Couples Who Thrive,” and many others I found on Amazon.  We didn’t roll back into town until 6 p.m.

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While I was gone, C, the wife of the man from Tiberius, came over to ask S&G if they wanted to join her and her son, T, who was arriving that day, for dinner.  She obviously was expecting me to join them.  However, I was too full and too wiped out, so I begged off.  Turns out S knows one person in their home town, the son of one of her sales reps, and she didn’t even know his name, and it turns out that he’s a really good friend of Ts!  The San Miguel scary magic continues!

I had been having a hard time connecting with an agent from another rental agency, MH – someone I’d been referred to but had never met — and after several phone calls, two e-mails that she said she never received, and a third sent to a new e-mail address she provided, which I asked her to confirm that she’d received, and a somewhat fuzzy appointment time with no follow-up, I took it upon myself to go in person to the real estate firm, and told my long story to an exquisite Mexican woman working there.  When I finished, she said, “Well, I’m MH.”  There was a tiny voice in my head telling me not to come off too strong when I was relating my frustration with this agent’s seeming lack of interest and responsibility, and am I glad!  Anyway, we decided to let by-gones be by-gones and start all over, so we set an appointment for the following Monday to see many houses of possible interest to both me and S&G.  Actually I wouldn’t have spent so much effort on this firm, as there are dozens of others, but a place I really, really want to rent is handled by them, and it’s only through them that I can get in to see it.

We had to be at the Instituto at 7:45 Sat. morning for the butterfly trip.  The group numbered 27 and we traveled on a bus.  It seemed to me like an Elderhostel, and S&G said it was like their worst nightmare.  However, by the end of the trip, they were exchanging phone numbers and e-mail addresses with a totally cool couple my age from NYC who told them where they could play tennis on a clay court (!) and said they could use their rackets.  Because it’s a 3 1/2 hour ride, we stopped frequently at points of interest along the way, including a museum with evidence of a spectacular civilization in the area 3,000 years ago, and in the city of Acabaro, Guanajuato, to see the Convento & Templo de San Franciso.  Hanging from the second floor balcony of the usual open courtyard were dozens of caged birds, their sounds adding to the beauty and peacefulness of the place.  We had a good lunch at a restaurant in that town, and then were given free time to wander around it.  What a sad town; it had no charm, especially compared to San Miguel, and absolutely nothing we wanted to buy.

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We arrived at our hotel at 4:45 p.m. (“a four-star hotel with all the amenities of the big city in a rustic area”).  Don’t believe everything you read!  On the way to our rooms, we passed a small grassy area where there were no fewer than nine different types of sliding boards.  We were all pretty punchy by this time, and S dubbed it the Sliding Board Museum.  We were given time to settle in and rest until our 7:30 dinner.  My toilet did not flush.  I went down to the front desk to report this, as there were no phones in the rooms, and watched while the clerk dispatched a workman to my room.  However, when I returned after dinner, the situation was exactly the same.  G to the rescue!  The food in this restaurant was not good.  Instead of serving us some delicious Mexican specialties, they gave us bland renditions of American food.

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The next day, after a bad breakfast, we were on our way to the santuario by 8:30 a.m.  It is at 10,000′ and we were warned it could be quite cool.  During that 20-minute ride, surgical masks were distributed to block our noses and mouths from the dust stirred up by the high wind.  When we left the bus, it was indeed very cool and very windy.  Vendors were selling knitted wool hats, some with only the eyes showing, gloves, and walking sticks, and were doing a brisk business.  I had the right clothing, but did take a bamboo pole for the long climb up.

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The brochure promised a “leisurely high-altitude walk.” HA!  Formerly you could rent a horse to take you to the top (which of course I wouldn’t dream of doing), but we were told on the bus that just the previous week, there had been a bad accident involving the horses, and they were no longer being used.  One woman in our party in her late 80s and with asthma paid $60 USD to four men to carry her on a litter to the top.  She was able to walk down by herself.  We walked through a phalanx of vendors selling more of the wool hats and gloves, all kinds of snacks and drinks, even full meals, and every item you can imagine with a butterfly theme.  Two other women my age and I had a somewhat difficult time dealing with the stress of the high altitude and the straight uphill climb.  One woman was an absolute scream.  She spoke abysmal Spanish with an even worse accent, and she had us and any other people we encountered along the way laughing until our sides hurt.  I told her to cease and desist as there was no way I could climb and laugh at the same time.  We called ourselves “Las Tres Abuelas” (the three grandmothers).  We met up with a Mexican abuelo our age and his son and walked and laughed with them partially in Spanish and partially in English all the way to the top and the butterfly viewing.   The climb took over 1 ½ hours, and the wind thankfully subsided the higher we got in the forest.  Samuel was a handsome guy, a retired professional, and I think he really enjoyed the attentions and the company of the abuelas.  His son, who knew English well, laughed as hard as we did at the chistosa (funny one).

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The butterflies all cling in bunches that look like grapes (S said, “So this is what’s known as a swarm.”) to a special tree, the oyamel pine, at a metabolic level just slightly more vigorous than hibernation.  As the sun rises and warms them, they begin to shake off their wings, making the trees appear to undulate.  As the sun rises more and warms them more, they fly from the trees, and we were told that at this sanctuary, we would see upwards of seven million Monarch butterflies.  I heard from another tourist earlier that the locals had been cutting down the oyamel pines for firewood, thus destroying the butterflies’ habitat, but that recently, the federal government had stepped in, and this practice is now strictly prohibited and “vigilantes” (it actually says this on their shirts) are on duty to enforce the law.

When I reached the top, where the butterflies were, I immediately started to cry (it was Sun. after all).  I’m not sure whether it was because of my relief at finally being able to stop climbing or because I was so overwhelmed by the sight of the monarchs, more likely a combination of the two.  At that exact moment, one of them lighted on Samuel.  He had it transfer to his finger and then he presented it to me.  It being a weekend, the viewing site was quite crowded, but it was truly incredible.  We spent well over an hour at the top watching the butterflies detach from their clusters on the trees and fly about, mate, and of course some dropped to the ground and were probably going to die.  Only the photos can give you the true picture; words fail.  It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  I would never repeat it, although I am very glad I went.

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We returned to our hotel for a very bad lunch about 3 p.m., and then began the exhaustingly long bus trip back to SMA.  Now that the thrill was over, it seemed unending.  We were anxious to get back in time to see the Oscars.  We did get to see the last two hours.  We were served margaritas on the bus around 6 or 7 p.m., and that smoothed everything out.  Today, as I write this four days later, my calves still ache when I go up or down stairs.  G made a great joke about the supposed four-star hotel we stayed in.  He said there were two stars on Sat. and two stars on Sun.  That about summed it up.  Even by Mexican standards, this was no four-star hotel!  There had been a big formal party Sat. night in a fiesta room, and some members of our group reported hearing horribly loud music until all hours and folks throwing down shots of tequila at 4 a.m.  Happily, I heard none of it and slept soundly.

I saw on this bus trip the real poverty of Mexico.  This is truly a third world country.  They have so much they need to do to rise to the next level.  In the higher elevations in which we were some of the time, there was great agricultural activity going on, as it actually rains there.  There were acres and acres of crops being grown under plastic, I guess to get a head start on the planting season.  What can we do to help our neighbors to the south to be able to enjoy some of the riches we take for granted?

Already Planning for Next Year – 2/23- 2/27/09

On Monday, S, G and I went to look at a number of properties for next year with another rental agent, since none of the ones we had seen with my current agent were a good fit.  I’m going to stay for three months in 2010.  I’ll come 1/12-4/6/10 and that will include Semana Santa (Holy Week), since Easter is in early April in 2010.  I’m really eager to be here for that.  I’ve heard that the ceremonies and street processions are really something to experience.  And S&G will rent their own place for a month, from mid-February to mid-March.

Of the ones we saw, I narrowed the choice for myself down to two:  a huge studio apt. with a gorgeous terrace right around the corner from my current rental and thus right in El Centro, where I like to be, or a little 1 BR, 1 bath casita with a ton of charm on a very quiet, upscale lane right near my current rental.  I had been trying to get in to see that one for weeks.  There were issues with both places.  The issue with the studio is that the owner has been applying for a permit to build an extra bedroom and bath on part of the terrace (it’s that big that she could do that and the terrace would still be fine) to make it a two bedroom, two bath place.  She applied for the permit 18 months ago, but because she’s in El Centro, she has to conform to various historical rules for additions.  She told me when I looked at the place that when she finally receives her permit, she will get to work immediately.  My question was, what if the permit comes through the month before I’m to rent?  I don’t want any construction going on while I’m there.  There is no access to the terrace except through my apt.  She either has to be totally finished or not started yet when I arrive.  I certainly don’t think that’s asking too much.  The rent will be one price if the extra bedroom and bath aren’t in place and a slightly higher rent if they are.  Either way is fine with me.  Either I’ll be able to have a guest or I won’t.   I’ll be paying about half of what I’m paying this year, since I now have half the money I did when I first rented this place.  (Gasp!)

The issue in the casita is that there is a slightly rickety spiral staircase up to the roof-top terrace.  I like to take my meals up onto the terrace, and it would be tricky to do so there.  Also, the terrace is shared with the adjoining main house, which contains four bedrooms and four baths.  But they have other terraces, so I imagined they’d use one of them and leave the shared one to me.  There is a sort of boundary between the two to delineate space, but you can look right over and see the other folks.  But that’s OK.  That place is also around half the price of my current rental.

I decided that if the owner of the studio would sign a lease that said that there is to be no construction on her place while I’m in residence that I’d take that one, and that if she wasn’t, then I’d take the casita.

S&G really hit it off with MH, the new rental agent.  She’s their age, is very cool and dressed very cool, is Mexican, but was raised in California, and has returned to San Miguel because she likes it here so much.  She recently got married to a man from Texas, whom she met on eHarmony.com.  He is a professor of equine science and also coaches the college’s football team.  She speaks perfect relaxed English in addition to her Spanish, and we decided that she should do very well in her business as, having been raised in the US, she knows what gringos mean when they say something.  She also knows what we want in a rental.  And of course she can communicate easily with all of the Mexicans providing services that she has to deal with as a property manager.

Then I was looking online at www.vrbo.com (“vacation rentals by owner” – no fee for the agent built into the rental price) and found a perfect place for S&G, who will be working much of the time they’re here, as they do now.  The vrbo place has a 13′ desk in a cool den that they could use as an office.  It’s designed by a famous Norwegian/Mexican architect and there’s a gourmet kitchen and other neat features.  We e-mailed the owner in California and she referred us to her property manager, Guillermo, and we set up an appointment to see it the following day.

I went to see a documentary called “The End of Suburbia” presented by the Center for Global Justice, a very active and committed organization down here, about how the dwindling worldwide oil supply will make suburban living not only impractical, but impossible.  It was quite chilling.  I had dinner with a new friend from the UU church, SB, from NYC, in a restaurant I hadn’t tried before, El Correo, right across the street from — you guessed it — El Correo, the post office..  I was pleased.  We talked for hours about our lives.

I find that I am drawn strongly toward older women here, and there are certainly plenty of them!  Of course this is also true at home.  My analysis of this situation is that because my mother died at quite a young age, I am looking to these strong, smart, independent women as role models for how to live the next phase of my life.  I so enjoy their company, their stories, their wisdom.

On Tuesday, I had my Spanish conversation class, and then S, G and I went over to see the vrbo house.  They loved it and decided to take it!  When we returned home, S e-mailed the owner.  She was just leaving to go out of the country, and promised to send them a lease when she returned.

That night I went to a Circle Dinner, organized by the UU church.  For those who don’t know about these, they are a very popular way for folks to share a delicious cooperative meal and to really get to know each other on a different level than is possible on a Sunday morning.  You sign up with a coordinator, and hosts and hostesses volunteer (OK, so it’s almost always a hostess), to whom people are assigned.  The hostesses contact their guests and ask them what they’d like to bring.  In this way, each course of the meal is covered, and no one has too much of the work.  I was assigned to a woman in an interesting apartment/casita complex quite near to my rental, Quinta Loreto.  I volunteered to bring appetizers, so I went on a search for a nice selection of cheeses and crackers, and also for hummus and pita.  I was successful, and they loved them.  The rest of the meal was divine.  We nine women had a rollicking good time.  This woman’s casita was charming.  When I asked her how I could rent one like it in the complex, she said I’d have to wait for somebody to die.  There are only a few of the casitas; they are very much in demand, and there is a long waiting list to rent them.

As “place cards,” the hostess had bought cascarones and put a bit of tape on them with our names on.  Cascarones are a charming pre-Lenten tradition in Mexico.  Starting around Christmas time, people carefully break their eggs by cutting off the tops, and after emptying the contents, rinse and save the shells.  Close to Ash Wednesday, they are then filled with either confetti, gold powder, or – horrors! – flour, and a small piece of tissue paper is glued over the opening.  You then catch a friend or family member unawares and break the egg over their head, showering them with the contents.  (This reminds me of the Divali custom in India of throwing colored powder at friends and family members.)  Unfortunately, the teenagers in town have taken this formerly harmless custom to a new, unfortunate level.  They actually crack the eggs on your head, not over it, and often with quite a knock.  While they usually do it only with their friends, a number of gringos told me they got “egged” in the Jardin.  We all stayed clear of the Jardin during those days.  At night, we could hear the teens running up and down in front of the rental, laughing and screaming, and in the morning, sparkles and confetti littered the streets and sidewalks until it could be cleaned up by the beleagured cleaning people and maids.

I was particularly happy to have my own cascarone because Carla, the niece of our maid, who often spends some time with her aunt in my rental after school, and with whom I had grown close, had asked her mother if she could break a cascarone on “la senora’s” head.  Her mother unequivocally said no.  When Eleonor, the maid, reported this, I was disappointed.  I wanted Carla to do it to me if she wanted to.  So when Eleonor came the next time, I excitedly told her that I had a cascarone for Carla to break over my head.  Carla was thrilled to do it and did it the proper way.  My egg was filled with gold powder, and Carla wound up with much of it on her hands.  She was so enamored of it that she wouldn’t wash her hands.  I was afraid she’d get gold dust on everything her aunt had just cleaned, but just then, her mother came to collect her, and the last I saw as she was going out of the door was her showing her mom her golden hands.

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On Wed. morning, I went to mattress-making at St. Paul’s Church.  What, you might ask, is that?  Well, it’s a win-win-win if there ever was one.  Many of the children who live out in the countryside are very poor, and sleep directly on a dirt floor in their homes.  This mattress-making program uses clean, discarded plastic bags to make mattresses for these kids.  They are collected at the church and at about a half dozen other sites throughout the town.  About 20-30 people show up on a Wed. morning.  The bags have been brought in to a large room set up with long tables with chairs on either side.  Also, an upholsterer donates odds and ends of the unusable foam rubber from his business, which is cut into chunks.  You put a chunk of foam rubber or balled-up plastic bags too small to roll, in each corner of the plastic bag, then roll the bag down from the top like a pair of stockings in preparation for putting them on, then, holding the two ends, twist the bag many times, and then fold one ball of foam/plastic into the other.  This creates a tight, hard little ball.  Someone else sews colorful, heavy-duty mattress covers with handles to hang them up by day, and then the plastic bag balls are stuffed into the covers and the mattress is “quilted,” that is, it is sewed through in various spots to keep the bags from shifting.  It takes between 1200-1500 plastic bag balls to stuff one mattress!  This group generally completes two mattresses per session.  Solicitation is made for funds to buy a pillow, blanket and additional cover for each mattress which can be washed, and then the whole package is wrapped with ribbon.  The woman who has been running the program for the past seven years said today that during her tenure, more than 500 mattresses have been made and delivered to families in the campo for their children (they are only made in a child’s size).  It was easy, mindless work and the conversation was good.  There were fewer people than normal, I was told, since there was an Ash Wednesday service going on in the church at the same time.  I left feeling light as air!  It felt so good to do something so simple which will really make a difference to a child and to the enviornment.

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After that, Ca (the wife of the man from Tiberius, who had already gone back home) and I took a cab to meet A at a place about 15 minutes outside of town called Los Sendores.  A “Kiwi” (what the Canadians here call a New Zealander) has purchased a huge number of acres with the idea of developing them into some sort of resort.  As of now, there is only a lovely restaurant, stables with horses to rent, and bikes that are free to be used to ride around the property and check it out.  A jogs there.  We had a fabulous, long, relaxing lunch.  A said that the stables are so nice – the nicest he’d ever seen and new, too – that he was tempted to ask if he could rent one for himself next year.

That evening, I met up with Ca again, along with her son, T, and we had a light supper in the café at the library before seeing the play “Deathtrap.”  It was just so-so.

On Thurs., after my conversation class, where we bid goodbye to A, as he was leaving for home the following day, I met a woman named J for lunch.  I had met J at my Spanish language school weeks and weeks ago, and we had exchanged contact info.  Unfortunately, I had lost hers, and was feeling most guilty, as she had called me some time ago to invite me to accompany her to something and I wasn’t able to accept.  She called to invite me and S&G to her farewell to SMA party on Fri. night, and I was so glad to hook up with her again that I immediately set a lunch date with her.  She had a friend visiting, so we all went out to lunch together.  At 2 p.m., I had an appointment with MH to sign the lease for the studio apt.  As we were conducting our business, I asked if she and her husband would consider getting together with S&G, as they were having trouble meeting people their own age.  She said she’d enjoy that and promised to call.  She told me that the owner of the studio apartment had just received her building permit in the mail that day and would be starting work immediately, so there are no worries about construction in early 2010.  But we wrote in a sentence about it anyway.  In a couple of months, I’ll e-mail MH and ask for photos of the newly-completed second bedroom and bath, or maybe they will be on the web-site.

Lots of folks are now leaving for home.  The Snowbird Season is pretty much over at the end of March.  During April and May, we were told, is not a fun time to be in SMA, as it gets pretty hot and dry right before the rainy season sets in, June-August.  Then, there is another season, called the Sweatbird Season, which brings Texans, and folks from states like Alabama to SMA to escape their triple-digit temps.  In the summer in SMA it rains torrentially for about an hour every day in the mid- to late-afternoon.  Wherever you are when it starts to rain, you just stay there, because the cobblestones are treacherous during the downpours, and the streets run with water.  Then the clouds depart, the sun comes out, the place sparkles, and people resume their daily activities.  The dust is kept down, and the countryside, I’m told, just comes to life in a riot of blooming flowers.

On Friday, in the late afternoon, S, G and I went to see “The Reader” at a local café.  On successive days, the owner is screening all of the Oscar winning films.  We all liked the movie, although it was certainly heavy-duty.  We then ran over to J’s party, and saw yet another interesting rental, part of a huge compound that a number of siblings have inherited from their deceased parents.  There, among others, we met a young couple from Maryland that I’d come to know at El Centro Bilingue.  The man, a carpenter, recently lost his job; his wife, a Spanish teacher, was on sabbatical; and their two young boys were on a leave of absence from their school.  It was nice for S&G to get to talk to people their own age, if only briefly.  From there, we scooted over to a fusion restaurant called Nirvana to meet Ca and T for their farewell meal, as they were leaving in the morning.  It’s been a sad series of goodbyes to people we’ve really come to enjoy.

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Ca and T walked me home because the day was not yet over for S&G.  MH had indeed contacted them, and invited them to dine with her and her husband at Mama Mia, an Italian restaurant which is a real “scene” (the salsa dancing BEGINS at midnight!). Because of our earlier dinner plans with Ca and T, they agreed to meet for drinks after dinner.  They enjoyed each other’s company and MH said she’d try to get them together later on with another bi-cultural couple who own a breakfast restaurant here in town.

S and I went to check out a shoe shop where “Martha” shoes are sold.  These shoes, which were designed by a woman named Martha exclusively for the difficult walking in San Miguel, are jokingly called “cocktail combat shoes” by the gringas who buy them, because they are so stylish and colorful, while still providing excellent ankle support.  We met Martha, now quite elderly, but dressed, coiffed, made-up, and bejeweled to stop traffic.  She sits in her shop, surveying all, while much sprier (is that a word?) clerks run to fetch shoes for customers to try on.  S bought a beautiful pair of sandals there, although not of the cocktail combat variety.

The Days are Dwindling Down Now – 2/28-3/10/09

On Sat., I attended the final arts and crafts fair at the Instituto Allende before meeting SB for lunch at the café at the library.  It’s a beautifully staged fair with exquisite goods for sale.  I bought turquoise earrings and a necklace at two different tables, and several gifts for family and friends.

After lunch, I walked back up to the Iguana Festival for the final performance of “Mixed Nuts,” a compilation of various scenes from plays by Woody Allen, Eric Bogosian, David Mamet, etc.  By this time, I knew one of the actors, David Cross, who had shown us his properties as possible rentals for next year.  S&G had re-met him innumerable times around town, especially at the coffee place David recommended, which G immediately made his own.  David’s acting was quite good, as was that of the other actors, and I enjoyed the scenes immensely.  There I met another single woman, who had almost completely lost her voice ever since she had arrived, saying she thought it was some kind of allergy.  Of course I met her again in the Jardin the next day and we had another long talk, even though she could only rasp out her words.

On Saturday night, we had a rare treat.  We made reservations at a restaurant called Fellini at its new location, which was quite a bit out of town.  As you might have guessed from the name, it was an Italian restaurant and billed itself as part of the “slow food” movement.  The directions in their ad in Atención were a bit cryptic, and as our cab driver hadn’t a clue where it was, we were left to try to interpret the written directions and then translate them into understandable Spanish.  The place was incredibly difficult to find, particularly at night, but when we finally did pull up, wow, what a place.  It was an old ranch and the restaurant owner lives right there.  Dining takes place on her large, wide porch, and the door to her immense living room – complete with a white grand piano – was open, as she carried the dishes prepared in her also immense kitchen through her dining room and living room to the porch tables.  It was a very windy night, and I soon grew cold in the light jacket I had brought. ¡No hay problema!  Out she came with a heavy white wool poncho which reached to the ground.  I bundled up and was cozy and happy for the rest of the meal.  Through the various courses and after our meal, this owner’s story slowly unfolded.  She and her husband, Italians both, had run this restaurant in another location until his death, at age 50, only five months previous.  She now ran the place with the help of her teen-aged daughter and several employees.  Her husband had been visiting in Italy when he died, shortly after arriving.  She had put him on a plane and less than a day later, his brother was calling to tell her he was dead.  I imagine that they had lived in this place while they ran the restaurant elsewhere, and the owner decided to combine everything in one place.

They are only open three nights a week, on weekends, and reservations are a must.  On the other days, she said that she tends to the animals she raises for meat for the restaurant.  She seemed somewhat beleagured, as she said her daughter was out at a party, and she was handling the serving on her own.  She kept apologizing for the waits we encountered, but we were fine, and assured her so.  As we looked out at a sliver of moon and brilliant stars, we enjoyed a superior meal.  Another guest went into the dining room and played the piano.  What a special evening!

On Sun. at the UU church service, I heard a most unusual female minister talk about her frequent trips to places like Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, particularly on the Line of Control.  How she often was able to get there, I’ll never know.  Americans are supposedly not permitted there, but she just goes.  She spends most of her time with the troops, who, she said, are just kids, boys in their mid-teens on five-year stints, who endure terrible hardships and are incredibly homesick.  She spoke of being a mother substitute for them.  I was not even able to relate to the person that she is and the things that she is able to do.  She and they are completely out of my realm.  She reminded me of a female Greg Mortenson, of “Three Cups of Tea.”

At the brunch afterwards, an elderly man came over and during introductions, asked where I was from.  When I said, “Philadelphia,” and named my congregation, he asked if I knew a parishioner from there.  Of course I did!  He had come to San Miguel with his wife a year earlier to study Spanish, and, tragically, died instantly from heart failure on the street.  He was a man of extraordinary intelligence and dedication to the right causes, and he is sorely missed at USG.  This man told me that he is his uncle.

Since Mon. dawned a cooler day than most, we decided to visit the botanical garden, El Charco del Ingenio, on the edge of town.  We got an early start with a cab ride there, during which we saw some gorgeous homes and neighborhoods we hadn’t known existed.  Unfortunately, many, many houses had for sale signs, a harbinger, I believe, of the money crisis.  The botanical garden, established in 1991 for the conservation of nature, especially Mexican flora, comprises 220 acres and features many outstanding species of cactus and succulents.  Plants and wildlife are distributed in three zones:  the dry chaparral, the canyon, and the wetlands, which include artificial islands in the reservoir.  The garden is also a recreational and ceremonial space for the community.  It’s my new favorite place in SMA.  We walked the grounds, snapped photos, and looked through binoculars for 2 ½ happy hours.  It was just beginning to get uncomfortably warm in the open fields when we called it a day.  They have a charming little gift shop, and a lovely place to eat lunch, but we had leftovers at home from our meal the previous night, so we had them call us a cab to return home.

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Late that afternoon, I got a second haircut from the same place as the first, but from a different stylist.  The cut wasn’t quite as good, but it will do just fine until I can get home and make an appointment with my regular cutter.

On Tuesday, I attended two presentations at the library.  The first was on “Walking Open,” recommended by G, who had attended some weeks previous, and was a lecture and demonstration of the proper way of walking “with joints open.”  Because the walking can be treacherous in SMA, this was the perfect place for this, and the venue was full to overflowing.  I believe I learned something and am trying to walk better.

Later, I went to a screening of the documentary, “Longing,” which was about people whose families had been Jewish, but who had been forced to become Catholics during the Spanish Inquisition, and who had fled to South America during the diaspora.  Their true religious identity had been handed down orally and they felt a deep need to become Jewish.  However, the Jewish communities in their cities would not have them as they had been baptized Catholic.  A rabbi from – of all places – Kansas City, who spoke perfect Spanish (I missed why/how at the beginning of the movie) had corresponded with this group of people for two years by e-mail and sent them books and other materials to study.  He then travelled to Quito, Ecuador, as did they (they, however, rode on buses for days) and they had a tribunal to see if they were fit to be converted to Judaism.  There were twists and turns in getting two members of the local synagogue to join the rabbi to form the tribunal.  Then the questions and answers of each person were shown.  It was incredibly moving.  All passed and were given many gifts – prayer shawls, kiddush cups, etc. – by the visiting rabbi.  Then they had an epilogue.  Because some of the people lived where there was no Jewish community, they were having a very hard time maintaining their new identity.  One man sent back all of the gifts as he just couldn’t do it.  One teenaged girl, who was converted with her mother, reported having a great number of problems at her all-Catholic school.  The rabbi evidently goes on these trips several times a year to different places in the world, primarily in South America, but also in Europe.

I was invited for drinks before dinner out at the rental of An (my former schoolmate) and his wife, J, so I stopped home after the movie to pick up the hummus and pita bread I’d bought earlier, and headed over there.   After the cocktail hour or so, we headed over to a restaurant called Berlin, which is quite a scene for ex-pats, and particularly younger ones.  Of course I met the playwright who was living in one of David Cross’ rentals, and just as we were finishing up, in walked S&G!

On Wed., I returned for another session of mattress-making at St. Paul’s.  As soon as I walked in, the woman in charge told me to go look in the kitchen.  Wow!  A couple had recently driven their van down from Texas stuffed to the roof with plastic bags that their congregation had been saving seemingly forever.  There would be no shortage of plastic bags in the near future at that project.  A woman and her high school-aged daughter (the latter in Mexico doing research on immigration for her senior project) were there helping.  The mother is an upholsterer, and so she got right in the groove stuffing and sewing up the mattress cover.  She said it felt so good to be doing that work as she was really missing it.  On my way home, I picked up my contract for my rental for next year which had been signed by the property’s owner.

That evening, S, G and I had dinner at Mi Casa, the restaurant at the Instituto Allende with “the best view in San Miguel.”  After dinner was “Salsa Night.’’  There was a live band and many people danced.  Again, it got cold, and blankets were produced for S and me by the waitress.

S and I shopped early Thursday morning for our final fruits and veggies.  As we left our favorite shop, she asked me if I’d noticed that the prices had been coming down during our time there.  A gringo behind us heard this and told us that that is how they do business here.  He said that you should pick a shop and stick with it and as they see you regularly and get to know you, their prices will come down.

Thurs. was my last Spanish conversation class.  I hope to hook up with these people again next year.  That afternoon, S and I went to see another documentary, “Match and Marry,” about matchmakers in the orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn.  It was fabulously interesting.  The matchmakers use some techniques that are now found on Internet dating.  There is a huge amount of research on the prospective partners that goes on before any dates occur.  The young people must agree to a minimum of two dates with those chosen for them to meet.  A statistic was offered that these marriages result in a divorce rate of under 5%, whereas the divorce rate in the secular community is around 50%.

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On our way to dinner, we came upon the dancers for the Feast of Our Lord of the Conquest just getting started in front of the parroquia. Their marathon religious celebration is carried out annually on the first Friday in March.  This Thursday night part was just a warm-up to the all-day drumming and dancing the following day.  It’s a celebration I totally don’t understand.  It represents the acceptance of Christ by Mexico’s indigenous peoples at the hands of the Spanish invaders.  “Acceptance”!?  How about “coercion”?  It sounded very much like the Jews’ problem during the Inquisition.  Convert or die.  I asked my conversation leader about it.  She said that the indigenous people simply overlaid Catholicism on top of their own beliefs and ceremonies to create a unique amalgam.

Anyway, there were hundreds of dancers from all over Mexico in plumed headdresses, brilliant costumes, and body paint and make-up. There were no two costumes alike.  I think the Philadelphia Mummers would kill to look like these dancers, and in fact, I was reminded of them over and over.  They burn incense and dance nearly non-stop to loud drum beats.  The faithful recite 33 prayers – one for each year of the life of Jesus.  I was mesmerized.  It was difficult to take photos because they were in constant motion.  Some, I noticed, got into an ecstatic state.  It was truly a highlight of my trip here.

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Early, early Friday morning, the whole town was awakened by the sound of hundreds of firecrackers.  All of the guidebooks about SMA warn of this phenomenon, saying they’re not gun shots and the revolution has not begun.  For any holiday – civic or religious – firecrackers are set off way early.   Later, I beat it back up to the parroquia as soon as I heard the drums start again, and spent probably three hours just watching the scene.  There was an odd side show, so to speak, to these dancers, and it was various people dressed as a bull, a cowboy, an old man, the devil, and caricatures of women (most were men), dancing near the religious dancers.  It was quite odd, but funny.  I still don’t know if they were a part of the festivities or just a group looking for a captive audience.

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As is so often the way here, one celebration is not enough.  On top of all of these dancers – not to mention all those who were there to see them – there was a bicycle race starting at the same exact spot.  I mean, really!  Talk about poor planning.  These dancers do their thing only once a year.  And weather is certainly no problem.  Couldn’t they have had the bicycle race on another day?  (I asked my driver back to the airport about this.  He told me that Lance Armstrong had been present and that it was a very prestigious national bike race that couldn’t be re-scheduled.)  I was surprised not to have read anything in Atención about it.

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In the early evening, we all went to a fascinating lecture on art fraud at the library, and then went to dinner at a restaurant near the parroquia with a roof-top terrazza, from which we could see the fireworks that signified the conclusion of the festival day.

Sat. was a lazy day.  I was experiencing a little turista and was taking it easy and sticking close to home, as well as taking some medicine, which worked instantly.  S&G were packing to leave the following day.  They were not flying to Philly, as originally planned, but instead were going to Dallas and then transferring to LA.  The problems they were having with their business were excerbated.  Their candle manufacturer in Minnesota declared bankruptcy three days before Christmas, laying off all of their employees.  Several of the key employees were trying to buy the company and continue to serve S&G’s (and others’) businesses.  S had given them until March 1 to see if they could get it together.  They weren’t able to, so it was on to Plan B for S&G, and that meant flying to LA to establish a relationship with another huge candle pouring business.  They had tons of work to do to get ready for this initial meeting, and S said it will be like starting the business all over again.  However, they felt that once things were set up and going in LA, that their business would be in better hands than before.  They were so glad that they decided not to cancel their trip to SMA.  Had they been just sitting at home, stewing, waiting for the March 1 deadline, it would have been excrutiating for them.  This way, while they were still on tenterhooks, at least they were in great weather and having good times squeezed in around doing their regular work at two computers at the dining room table and using my Skype connection to make cheap phone calls all over the US.

Saturday night we had a fabulous final dinner together in the restaurant of the Sierra Nevada Hotel, right across the street from El Chorro, the ancient laundry place of the women of SMA that my Japanese friend and I had tried in vain to find so many weeks before.  I vowed to return to see it in the daylight.

S&G were picked up on time by our great airport driver, and I went to church.  Once again, the musicians from the weekend performance at Pro Musica at St. Paul’s were our guests.  This time it was the José White String Quartet.  I felt sad to be taking my leave of this vibrant organization, but I know they’ll be waiting there for me next year.

Walking home after brunch with the congregation, I came upon a charming scene in the Jardin:  there was a great little band (two marimba players, a guitarist, and a man playing those tall, narrow Caribbean drums, along with an “MC”/vocalist) playing all different types of music (salsa, Cuban, Mexican, even rock ‘n’ roll) and all manner of folks dancing and having the best time ever.  An older Mexican man asked a friend of mine to dance and I held her things for a long time.  Finally, I had to excuse myself as I was roasting, and returned home to change into cooler clothes.  But I hurried right back as I just lapped up the ambience of this gentle scene.  The dancing went on for two hours, and was to be repeated in the evening from 6-8.  The MC wasn’t a native speaker, I don’t think, because he spoke very slowly and clearly and I could actually understand most of what he was saying, which was a big plus.

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On Mon. morning I packed up, and in the afternoon, when it was really quite hot, I played with Carla on my computer at the pbskids site.  I’m sure there was a way to make it be in Spanish, but I couldn’t see it quickly, so we just played lots of kids’ computer games.  I would see what was required, show Carla and explain as best I could, and then she ran with it, picking up the mouse action incredibly quickly.  She absolutely adored it and the time flew by.  The week before, I had let Carla use my camera to take some photos, and G printed out two that I had taken of her (yes, they brought a printer with them!), and I gave them to her, along with the peso coins I had left over that I didn’t want to bother taking home with me.  I also gave her the box of crayons and princesa coloring book that I had bought for her at the Tuesday Market as a parting gift.  A little later, I said a teary farewell to Eleonor and thanked her profusely for her work in the house on our behalf.  She told me that some of the renters do not leave her a tip – which is a requirement of the lease and is repeated in the instruction book in the house, and that some do not allow her to bring Carla over after school until her mother can pick her up.  I was shocked and saddened to hear this.  I promised to come visit her – and hopefully Carla – next year even though I’ll be renting elsewhere.

After 4 p.m., when it had cooled down a little, I went to see El Chorro and to try to see the nesting herons near there that S&G had discovered and told me about.  Sure enough, right across from El Chorro were several trees filled with the giant birds and their equally giant nests.  And while I was photographing them, who should walk by but the playwright, whom I had seen dancing in the Jardin the day before.

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Then I went for a final lap around the Jardin, and who should be there, reading, but R.  I had planned to call her to say goodbye, but I was thrilled to be able to do so in person.  She gave me her address and phone number in NYC and invited me to come visit her there, and I will!  She said she doesn’t do this with just anybody, so I felt honored by her invitation.

I had a farewell dinner with SB at a restaurant called Casablanca that I had wanted to try, and we had a very nice meal of crepas.  I gave my little bit of remaining food from my fridge and cupboards to SB, as I hate to just throw perfectly good food away.

The same airport driver picked me up punctually on Tuesday morning, and every part of my trip home was smooth.  My house in Philly was in fine shape.

Epilogue

As I write this part, I have been home for a week.  Re-entry was not too difficult.  I worked non-stop for three days to get my tax preparation materials in order for my accountant.  The weather has been quite spring-like and there were crocuses and helibore (Lenten rose) in bloom in my backyard upon my return.  The flowering cherry trees in the neighborhood are ready to pop.

On Mon., I had my first post-SMA Spanish lesson with M. She said she could detect a big change in my speaking ability.  I’m going to return to the twice-a-week schedule with her.  The previous Sat. I went to the Spanish-language meet-up in the food court of Liberty Place.  It was hard for me to hear, as usual, in a group setting, plus they had live music playing downstairs.  And there was nobody in the mall!

Three comments that I either over-heard or read in and about SMA come to mind as I wrap up my experience there.  When we were on the Sat. Adventure, a woman asked the homeowner a question, and she answered that she had lived in Mexico on and off for her entire life, and she still didn’t have any answers.  She said that there are so many mysteries in Mexico, and I found this to be true.  At a totally different time and venue, I over-heard a man say, “You don’t find San Miguel; San Miguel finds you.”  This is true for me.  I honestly don’t even remember how I discovered San Miguel, but it has definitely found me and now holds me captive.

And finally, this from Caren Cross, the maker of the video “Lost and Found in San Miguel,” as quoted from the magazine “Inside Mexico.”  It resonated with me.  “While interviewing almost 40 expats, I was struck with how many of them said, about San Miguel, ‘I felt I had come home.’ This was an alarming response to hear over and over and over. The photographer and I would just look at each other in amazement. I can’t say that I totally understand this but here’s my theory: I think that expats come here and are no longer a part of the US culture. We can give up all the pressures that are put upon us (mostly unconsciously) by that culture. Furthermore, we are not a part of the Mexican culture. In this position we are now free. We can be more true to ourselves. In this sense, we are home.

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