The Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel
Find Chapter 1 HERE Chapter 2 HERE Chapter 3 HERE Chapter 4 HERE Chapter 5 HERE.
Chapter 6: A Rude Awakening and a Savior
The next morning, we were awakened by the tooting of a horn outside our window. I opened the door and looked out. Resolutely and with a fine sense of rhythm, a woman was honking her horn for someone in the room next to us. Undaunted by my stares, she continued to honk. Bob slept on as I fastened Bearcat’s leash and attempted to take him for a walk. I had forgotten that walks are a nighttime thing for cats––the later the better. He resisted and I gave in. By eleven, we were off to find a bank, a real estate agent and a really good map of San Miguel. Unfortunately, all of these items proved to be easier to find than was a parking spot. As we traversed still another circuitous route trying to find a parking space, Bob questioned whether we wanted to rent an apartment here, even for a week or a month. He cursed the tiny cobblestone streets, the lack of signs. The jardin area seemed to be all there was to San Miguel, he complained, and there wasn’t much to it. “Did you like Oaxaca for the first few days we were there?” I asked. “Or Bali?” He admitted that he hadn’t, yet he had ended up wanting to live both places after a week or so of getting to know them.
Bob finally left me off at the tourist office, promising to join me there. After 15 minutes, when he still hadn’t appeared, I moved off to a bench in the park, where I could sit in the shade while keeping an eye peeled on the door of the tourist agency. On the bench sat an American woman who shared her experiences of living in both San Miguel and Guanajuato. Fresh from a three-month course in Spanish, she chatted with the senor who sat down on my right. Did he live in San Miguel? Did he prefer it over Guanajuato? Why? Because it was warmer in San Miguel. Because there was more to do. I was thrilled that I understood most of what they were saying.
Bob joined us, still not too excited to be sitting on a park bench in such a difficult town. We went to the bank. Our time to pay for our tourist visas had nearly run out. The custom at the El Paso crossing seemed to be to go to any bank in Mexico to pay for the visa which was issued by immigration in Juarez. Since we had never managed to get to any banks while they were open for the three days it took us to drive to San Miguel, it was a pressing need for us to pay the fee and thereby amend our status as illegal aliens. Unfortunately, when Bob had presented his visa to apply for the car permit at the customshouse south of Juarez, the woman had detached the carbon copy of his visa application and now, without it, the bank could not accept payment. But the carbon copy was at the customs office south of Juarez, I argued, to no avail. A Xerox copy would not do. I paid for my visa, whose papers were intact, and went back to the waiting area where customers waited for the numbers on their pop-out tags to be called, like customers at a bakery or ice cream store. Bob was deep in conversation with Lisa, a tanned woman who gave him advice on rental houses, classes and the arts community. As her number was called, we moved to the front of the bank and I told him the bad news. In front of the bank was another tanned American lady in straw brimmed hat and a stylish tan linen dress.“No,” she said firmly to the small girl who proffered a brightly dressed cloth doll for sale.
Bob and I were trying to figure out the route to Gigante––a huge market situated somewhere off our limited tourist map. The bank manager had insisted that we must go to immigration and that this was where it was––in an office over Gigante. A pelting monsoon rain had descended while we were in the bank and we stood under a broad overhang, waiting for it to calm down. “Do you live in San Miguel?” I asked the stylish lady. Yes, she did, and yes, she knew the way to Gigante. To illustrate, she pulled out a vastly superior map to ours, then told us where the biblioteca was where we could purchase both this map and the definitive guide to San Miguel. Her name was Kim, she was from Alameda, just an hour and a half from our California home, and she now lived in San Miguel. “Well, here, have my map,” she said, after a few minutes of talking. When I protested, she insisted. When I offered to pay, she refused. It was her gift. She handed us a card, then moved off into the now abating rain.
At the Biblioteca, we bought books and guides and maps and cards and chatted to the man running the gift shop––another expatriate American who gave advice on apartments, cars (don’t keep them) concerts (go to them) and all of the glories of San Miguel. Although the library itself was closed, its restaurant had been recommended to us by Kim, and we ate a nice lunch while eavesdropping on the other expatriate Americans who sat at the tables around us. Small children skipped into the restaurant from the library singing “Happy Birthday to you” in Spanish-inflected English. Someone shushed them, to no avail, and they ran out giggling loudly. Outside the door of the restaurant, in the hall to the library, was a pay phone, where I stood trying to figure out the intricacies of a phone with a card slot and four buttons with indecipherable pictographs. I finally called the number given on the first rental ad on my list. The woman spoke English but didn’t know if she wanted an artist renting her house, which was immaculate, she said. Maybe he could paint in the garage. Would he spill paint on the floor? A meticulous house sounded as uninviting as the $1,000 rent, so I explained we were perhaps not the right renters for her. As I hung up the phone and prepared to make my next call, I saw a man sitting very near by with a phone card in his hand. Was he waiting to make a call? Yes. Would he like to go in front of me? He protested that he could wait, but when I said I was going to make a number of calls, he agreed that he’d like to make just one fast one.
He in fact made one very long call. I stood shamelessly near, trying to encourage him to hurry, but he chatted on. He was talking to a man that his friend Richard had told him he must meet. Yes, he would meet him in the library on Monday. He had a picture of him, so he would recognize him. This phone call came to have all the ear markings of a blind date. After five or ten minutes, he ambled his call to a close and handed over the phone, then stood talking to Bob, as unabashedly listening to my call as I had his. “Are you looking for a house to rent?” he asked Bob. He knew of a house, which he seemed to be describing to Bob as I tried out my laughable Spanish on yet another homeowner.
“Are they speaking Spanish?” He asked, as he heard my garbled string of Spanish tape phrases.
“Yes,” I admitted. “Do you speak Spanish?”
He did, and offered to interpret. I happily handed over the phone.
Toward the end of the phone call, my telephone card ran out and he was cut off. When I tried to call back with another card, he discouraged me. “You don’t want to live there,” he said. “It’s at the end of a very dusty road. It’s too far from the center. What you need to do is find a room near the center so you can park your car and answer all the ads in the newspapers for a week to find the right house.“
He told us his name, which was Ernesto. He told us about the art school where he taught art to poor kids. He told us about art happenings and poetry happenings and music. He told us of a different hotel where we should stay and of a house nearby that was coming up to rent. In the end, he took us himself to the Posada de los Monjes, an historic hotel that was a converted convent, and translated with the front desk, insisting on the room with the best view. As we moved through the front of the building through wooden doors hundreds of years old, the full glory of four floors of terraced stone opening onto a cobbled courtyard where we could park our van was revealed. Broad terraces with crenelated walls jutted out from some of the rooms and wide outside corridors joined them.
We climbed higher and higher until we came to the room chosen for us––a bit small but with a beautiful tiled bathroom with stone shower. Coming out of the room, we moved out to the private patio bigger than the room. Below us stretched the entire panorama of San Miguel. Breathtaking. The church, the tile roofs, the jagged skyline and yellow hills. The rooftop gardens and trees jutting up from courtyards. We were so high that little rose higher above us than our own roof. We had a 300-degree view and all of it was beautiful. Never mind the steps. We could have all of this for barely more than our motel room which was nice and roomy but viewless and near traffic noise.
Do you want to see the room with two beds, asked Ernesto? It’s bigger, but also $10 more a night. We’d see it, we said, but the cheaper room would probably do. I must admit, I dreaded the confinement of the smaller room, but knew we’d probably not spend much time there anyway, and could just spend that time on the most glorious patio on earth. But, we went to see the room, which was bigger, with its own living room, better views from the room itself, but no patio. Or at least we thought so until we ascended the stairs outside the room to the patio on top of the room that had even a better view than the room before it––this one a full 360-degrees!
The view was well worth the extra ten dollars a night. In ten years, we would not miss the money, but we’d never forget the view. We took the room. We would move in the next day! Ernesto took us to the art institute––not his, but the one near the center. In the end, he offered Bob a job at his art school. No salary, but a job just the same. He could use the facilities free in return for any amount of time he wanted to teach. Then, meeting a friend he knew on the street, he faded back into the life of San Miguel. He had made a date with Bob to meet Monday to see about showing us the house that his friend had just built.
The importance of meeting Ernesto? Bob had gone from wanting to move on to wanting to rent a house in just hours.
“How do you like that?” he said. “In San Miguel less than 24 hours and I’ve already been offered a job teaching art.”
Right then and there, we went to Mailboxes Etc. and rented a mailbox for three months. The proprietor of this establishment introduced herself as Annie and she told us the intricacies of sending mail and packages into and out of Mexico. What to do. What not to do. How to send tax papers, magazines, bills, packages. Another stranger popping up to solve our severest problems. Like magic.
That night, we peeked into courtyard after courtyard looking for the right restaurant. Bob, who had formerly hated Mexican food, picked a Mexican restaurant, pronounced his meal delicious and paid the musician to serenade us with a rendition of “Rancho Grande” that rivaled any Oaxacan version we’d ever heard.
“The thing about San Miguel,” he explained, “is that a good deal of it is hidden. You don’t see it by casual observation. You have to look farther,” That night he stayed up hours later than usual, poring over guide books and maps. Bearcat curled on my bed as I sat at my laptop.
“Tomorrow you get to go to your new home,” Bob told him. “You get to go from being an under-bed cat to a roof cat.”
See Chapter 7 HERE.
Such a welcome introduction
“Gigante!” I hear all those Mexican TV ads “GiGANte!”
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