Mexico …in small bytes
Explores San Miguel de Allende…a favorite ex-pat town
One other apartment in the building was rented to a young female doctor which only goes to show that then as now, the medical profession here is not always the lucrative field one would assume it to be. Another apartment went to the live-in lady caretaker. The upstairs was home to a young woman from Texas and her six-year-old daughter. Each night the woman's Mexican pimp arrived to escort her out on her nightly rounds. Every so often, a highly enamored client would pound furiously on the door of the building in the wee hours of the morning only to be dealt with firmly by a tremendously annoyed caretaker.
Even for two people used to pretty Spartan living, the lumpy cot that begrudgingly gave the two of us room enough to sleep, the one armchair, the scratched, poorly-made kitchen table and four straight-backed uncomfortable chairs seemed austere. But a degree of perspective was gained somewhere during the month when the woman who came in once a week to wash clothes shared a meal with us around that very table. Her five-year old son ran his hand repeatedly over the chipped and much lacquered surface, looked up at me finally and said appreciatively, ‘Esta es una mesa muy, muy fina. ('This is a really, really fine table!')
At that time, San Miguel's ex-pat population seemed to consist of wealthy dowagers, on-the-move entrepreneurs, students and druggies. The contrast between true glitz and utter degradation was palpable.
But even in 1974, San Miguel was trying to live up to an image that was leagues beyond the reality of most of Mexico . For someone like myself desperately trying to learn Spanish, it was a letdown to realize English could be heard everywhere. Looking at the opulent lifestyle around us as we budgeted our pesos, we felt a kinship with the awe-struck boy admiring our table.
By today's standards, that life was small potatoes, but nevertheless, impressive.
Three of the elegant doors of San Miguel that give an idea of the kind of life lived behind them.
In 2005, however, the minimum wage is still only marginally above 40 pesos a day (about four bucks), although dried porcini mushrooms are available and selling at 526 pesos a small bag.
Long-term residents believe really serious money has been filtering into San Miguel in the last few years and this has changed the complexion of the place both in general and from the point of view of an ex-pat living on more limited means. Rentals under $500 ( U.S. ) are hard to come by and the cost of buying, building and renovating is astronomical.
Real estate is the buzzword of the day. Happen on any conversation and the chances are great someone will be talking about who's buying, who's selling, who's doing the restoration bit and who's doing the spec turn-arounds. There's a big business in vacation rentals of fancy property whose owners spend a few months to half a year abroad. A little furnished casita on one of these properties can easily rent for $1000 ( U.S. ) a month and the main house will go from $2,000-$6,000 (U.S. ) and even higher.
A lot in the center priced from $100,000 - $150,000 ( U.S. ) will not raise eyebrows. Even one advertised for $350,000 ( U.S. ) in a toney area outside of town was no cause for surprise to locals.
In all this hifalutin talk of wheeling and dealing, little if nothing is said about the water situation. People lament about the raw sewage spewing forth into the river but few take up the problem of the area running out of water. Some say that the situation could be critical in five to eight years. Guanajuato has always been a dry state, brown and brittle for much of the year, yet alfalfa is still the number one crop, using a good chunk of the area's irrigation water. It's generally agreed that 85% of the water in any state goes for agriculture.
Luxurious lifestyles become more and more a drain on the water allotted for city use. One fancy house can easily use as much water as a small colonia . This is to say nothing of the snazzy new golf course that is planned. It will be the second in the town and the final lots around the course are being sold as I write which perhaps explains why many folk are pretty mum on the issue.
But if one has the money, it is easy to see why the place is so popular as an ex-pat hangout.
Classes in Tai Chi, poetry readings and other such esoteric endeavors are an incentive to hang around, as well as the language, cooking and art classes that proliferate. Foreigners started to converge on San Miguel in the 40's and 50's first lured by classes at La Escuela de Bellas Artes and later the Instituto Allende . These two venerable institutions still flourish but now must vie for clients with a mind-boggling array of other schools and independent endeavors. One figure tossed around for the foreign population is 5000 full-time residents plus part-timers and tourists. With such a proliferation of classes, it is no surprise that an inordinate number of those foreigners are artists or wannabe artists. It is a locale popular as well with people who have traveled extensively, a fact that gives the town a bit of a continental image.
Classes aside, there is definitely an appeal to a town where one can walk about everywhere one needs to be any time day or night and feel pretty safe while doing it. And SMA is definitely a walking town. It's true that most towns get to be that way because driving and parking are impossible, but confirmed walkers can't get picky.
You can take the morning kinks out actually choosing between any number of swimming holes, some with hot spring thermal water and others with Olympic size pools. None of these swimming spots is located more than a half-hour away by car from the center. Then you can continue to stay loose several nights of the week with classes in Salsa, Tango, ballroom or belly dancing.
The descendents of the same birds we enjoyed so thoroughly in the Jardín at dusk every night in the ‘70's still congregate and blare out a cacophony of sound to greet the approaching night, although the newly placed netting on some of the trees frustrates a number of the flock.
As of July 2005 the Jardín has been under renovation and is surrounded by wire mesh that gives the center of town an eerie look. As opposed to Ajijic, another favorite gringo hangout, whose plaza is mostly deserted, the plaza in San Miguel is a real hot spot of activity. It's hard to imagine what the denizens of the plaza benches and those that promenade around its walkways will do until completion of the project. Work is scheduled to end around the first of September so they shouldn't be too desperate.
For those whose idea of late night carousing is something beyond an ice cream, there is a plethora of entertainment possibilities stretching into the wee wee hours. There are films, theatre, music and dance as well as seminars and talks to intrigue even a jaded New Yorker. If you can afford to eat out, many menus feature some of the most imaginative creations found in restaurants within the country.
Even though residents complain bitterly of the garbage, the city seems to me really rather clean.
Outside of the bus station, four lanes of heavy traffic come to a halt to let maybe 30 sheep guided by an arthritic septuagenarian cross the road. Two rowdy cantinas across from our hotel shut down the Friday before Palm Sunday to allow their neighbors to set up their altar to La Virgen de los Dolores, a time-honored tradition in Guanajuato. A man weaves a bicycle through backed-up traffic in an intersection near the center of town. Five enormous sacks of cheese curls are strapped to the back of the bike (larger than 100 lb. sacks of corn though mercifully lighter). Two more such sacks are attached to the front of the bike. Hovering above the driver and somehow miraculously connected to the bike is a selection of fairly large piñatas. An out of tune mariachi group in the Jardín performs in front of a rather self-conscious looking tourist foursome.
As more of the emphasis shifts to real estate and high-buck living, it becomes harder and harder to see these little vignettes of a by-gone era.
The emphasis tends toward the other side of the spectrum. Super priced restaurants are found in profusion rubbing shoulders with the spas for the wealthy. Houses and Bread & Breakfasts whose interiors have found their way into glitzy coffee table books abound. Boutiques are everywhere, selling anything and everything. For a price, of course. Artwork is displayed at myriad galleries. It would be a rare weekend indeed without someone hosting a wine and cheese opening somewhere in town. Prices are high but one supposes the art sells at those prices. After all, the artists have to eat too and living in this town ain't cheap.
It truly is a Shoppers' Paradise . If one is of the ‘shop until you drop' persuasion, this passion could be indulged every single day here no matter how long your stay.
For the person fond of a fiesta, San Miguel is definitely a town that loves to party. Without much effort, one could find a celebration (if not more than one) going on every day of the year.
The Italian in me is tempted by the tiny fresh veggies, the organic produce, the fantastic variety of fresh lettuce and the proliferation of fresh herbs found in town. The Montefalcone genes from my grandparents jump with joy at the fresh ricotta, arrugula, Parmesan cheese and crusty bread. Few places in Mexico can supply you with hoisen sauce, Thai coconut milk, fish and oyster sauce and other goodies for fixing up international cuisine.
The Tuesday Market outside of town by Gigante is a great avenue for bargain hunters, especially for clothing. The gringo influence means it's easy to buy used stuff since there's a profusion of garage sales.
Despite all of this, the image of the town that remains for me is the tiny Indian girl maybe five years old. Her eyes are stereotypes of a Keene painting. The rendition always seems so trite on canvas, yet the reality is haunting. She is selling homemade embroidered dolls...an ambulatory endeavor one doesn't see much of in San Miguel. Vendors sell out of boutiques, not out of sacks.
This particular evening we are eating in an Italian restaurant that professes to have the best pizza in all of Mexico . Although the downstairs is crowded, we are the only clients in the upstairs section, reached by an open metal, spiral staircase, rather difficult to maneuver.
Yet we see the little girl trudging up the stairs, her baby brother strapped to her back, lugging a sack of merchandise, holding one doll outside for viewing and all the while, balancing a slice of ‘the best pizza in Mexico' in the palm of her hand. Someone eating downstairs or one of the staff had obviously given her a slice as she made her rounds from table to table.
After hosting three give-away parties before we left Minnesota to part us from our worldly goods, we have developed a deep reticence to the idea of accumulating more ‘stuff'. A smile, a polite comment on how nice the merchandise is but a firm ‘no' are all second nature to us. Sometimes a smile and the comment, ‘ Otro día ,' work. We also use the more abrupt but also more effective wagging index finger to indicate that we aren't interested in buying. They have all become our armor against the onslaught of ‘things' that are offered for sale everywhere you turn in this country.
It takes a strong resolve to adhere to this policy this night. The doll itself is actually rather shoddy in a land of carefully made articles. Yet the picture of this tiny child so encumbered with items and all the while juggling a slice of ‘Mexico's best pizza' is somewhat overwhelming, especially as we watch her make her precarious way down the winding stairwell after finally believing our last ‘no.'
Later we see her outside the restaurant looking down at the slice of pizza that had somehow slipped from her palm and had landed upside-down on the sidewalk spreading its ingredients in a small arc on the cement.
San Miguel. For me, it will always be a mystery wrapped in an enigma. It is a town that gives the impression of having been constructed, albeit in stone, for a movie set.
It's true the place seems to send out a siren call every now and then urging me to return. Like any good movie, it demands repeated viewings. But after a week or less, it's time for me to walk backwards out of the Looking Glass.
If I stayed, I might even come to believe it's all real.
At the end of this month, we're off to a wedding of a former student who will tie the knot under the Brooklyn Bridge (actually in the nearby park). It seems a once in a lifetime opportunity that should therefore not be missed. From there we hope to head off again to Latvia. Mexico...in small bytes will be resumed upon our return.