Tag Archives: San Miguel de Allende

Innocents in Mexico, Chapter 21

San Miguel Desert Botanical Gardens (Click on Photos to Enlarge)

Innocents in Mexico

Chapter 21

            For the next three days, we packed as many explorations of San Miguel into our days as possible.  We took another tour of the botanical gardens, this time taking a longer path which wound down to the bottom and to the furthest edges of the ravine.  We explored ancient ruins, watched goats grazing near the water far below, watched boys diving into the water from the muddy banks.  Men stuccoing bovedas on rooftops  across the ravine caught sight of us and waved.  We ended up on the path that wound right up to the huge mansion which clung to the cliffside at the furthest edge of the botanical gardens.  Its inhabitants were the owners of the most popular restaurant in San Miguel.  When other restaurants were empty, theirs was always full.  When the city had prevailed upon him to give the land for the botanical gardens, the owner had complied, but when they had asked for the house, he had refused.  “You don’t give away your dreams,” he said.  Politicians had put on pressure, denied him access to city water for years, but he had held out.  Now the pathways of the desert gardens came within feet of his house, but he was still there.  His view was the best in San Miguel:  The city in the distance, the ravine and aqueduct and ruins below him, around him the beautiful virgin desert, much of it still blooming as we walked its various paths. 

A huge bird circled overhead.  Lizards and a brightly striped snake crossed our path.  Hummingbirds, bees, millions of giant red ants.  The ubiquitous black grackles, moving their widely fanned tails like rudders, swifts gliding and darting,  and those voluminous white clouds in the vivid blue sky.  The neighborhood we had narrowed our wishes down to adjoined the botanical gardens land,  but when we inquired about the price of lots, they were as much as we’d planned on spending for an entire house with lot. What Bob had decided he’d like to spend, that is.  He had settled on $80,000—the price that the stabbed woman had put on her house, lowering it because, after all, who wants to live in the same neighborhood with a man with a knife and a proclivity to use it? I was humoring him, sure that we’d never find anything for that price that we would want to buy. He loved looking at houses, and so did I. I just didn’t want to buy another one before we sold ours!

          A few days later, when Jim offered to rent or sell us his house for a figure within our budget, we switched our focus back again to reality.  We could finish the compound wall, build a studio, finish tiling the house, but when we asked a builder for estimates of what this would  cost, we figured  that it would end up costing about what any of the  places closer to the jardin would cost.  In Jim’s house, we’d have privacy, a larger lot, a bigger studio,  but in a neighborhood where it would be harder to sell in the future.  If we didn’t want to buy, he offered us the option to rent for a year or two so he could go to South America with his girlfriend, and if we couldn’t find another house to rent for a year and a half, this was the option I preferred

            On the plus side, it would get Bob’s mind off wanting to buy a house. On the minus side, our next door neighbors on one side were rowdy, the street in front of their house a gathering place every weekend for men with beer bottles and loud voices.  The neighbors to our rear and other side were both metalsmiths, who often worked into the evening.  One of their sons was a drummer who practiced daily on a large oil drum.  The other was a whistler.  True, so far, we had not been bothered by these sounds of activity, but, who knew how we would feel months or a year from now? 

            We loved the sounds of children playing on the huge empty field across from us.  We loved watching people crisscross the field to and from Gigante.  However, trucks and jeeps also  used it for four-wheeling, and it was strewn with garbage:  Coke bottles, water bottles, plastic bags, old tires, mounds of broken bricks, stone and cement dumped after building projects, tangles of barbed wire, tin cans, burned logs.

             Every unoccupied lot in San Miguel became a repository for the rubbish of the neighborhood.  Everyone drank Cokes and bottled water, and when the plastic bottles were emptied, they were tossed:  out of car windows, into window grids, onto spare lots, onto city streets, into ravines and lakes and rivers.  There was garbage collection and women faithfully walked to the curbs to hand over their household garbage, but when walking or driving or riding, the custom was to toss it.  Highways nationwide––or for as far as we had seen––were rimmed with garbage.  Coca Cola had done more to ruin the scenic beauty of Mexico than any single force.  If it wasn’t their huge billboards or graffiti-like paintings on brick buildings city wide and country wide, it was the solid  expanse of empty plastic bottles which paved the desert, the grass or the shoreline which bordered every road. 

            San Miguel was a beautifully preserved colonial town with strictly regulated ancient buildings, churches,  monasteries and cobblestones.  Its central zocalo––known as the jardin––was the place where lovers met and musicians played and children frolicked.  Here benches lined the square and people sat to watch children, lovers, tourists, toy venders, beggars, neighbors, students, ice-cream eaters, scooter riders, ball bouncers, survey takers, shoe polishers, Spanish practicers and fruit sellers.  Overhead was the dense foliage of trees.  Around the outside of the square were the buildings hundreds of years old. 

            Within the jardin, sidewalks formed a square within a square with intersecting crisscrosses.  Every twenty feet or so there arose a bronze stake.  Antique, curlicued, topped with a rubbish container shaped vaguely like a mailbox, but patinaed, ornamented, lovely until you saw it from the front.  There, emblazoned over the slot where the rubbish went in, in six inch high letters, was that ubiquitous script. “Coca Cola “it said, on each rubbish bin.  Dozens of them marched the jardin like town criers, reminding us, “Never forget.”

             The most constant presence in Mexico was Coca Cola.  On one expanse of road,  I spotted eight building-sized signs for Coca Cola and  two for Pepsi Cola within a one block area.  And in the ditches country-wide lay discarded bottles, like stepping stones between the few blades of grass that poked between them.

            True, there seemed to be some awareness of litter as a problem.  Here and there, you see a sign “No tire basura” (Don’t throw trash) on a spare lot or along the roadway, but  few heeded them.  They had become invisible.  City dumps, more often than not, were located right next to major roadways.  Handier that way, I guess. 

            As we were discussing the possibility of visiting Mexico and then moving there for a year or more, Bob had started reading what material was available in that pre-internet age. In addition to San Migel de Allende, he had been attracted to two areas, mainly because they were situated by very large lakes.  He had often told me that he had always wanted to live by a lake, and now he suggested that in the couple of weeks we had left before we had to be back for my mother’s memorial, that perhaps we should take a weekend off and investigate both of them: Lake Patzcuaro and then the largest lake in Mexico, Lake Chapala, Then, coincidentally, at a restaurant with tables placed too close to each other to avoid becoming conversational with one’s neighbors, we entered into a discussion with a couple from Ajijic who I had heard discussing the fact that public outcry had caused local politicians to decide to move the dump from a much-used cut-off road between two of the most popular towns on the lake to a more hidden location.  They said, in fact, that along the whole expanse of the lake, rubbish seemed to be less of a problem than usual.  As the lake shrank away from its banks, hundreds of yards of lake bottom were exposed.  Here cattle grazed, four-wheel-drive vehicles turned wheelies in the dried dirt, boats lay earthbound, blocks from the nearest water.  On weekends, locals thronged to makeshift palapas constructed on the former lake bottom to drink beer or Cokes or Fanta.  Yet there was very little rubbish.

           In one subdivision, double oil barrels were placed on each block along the road to serve as trash receptacles, but elsewhere, even where there were no rubbish bins, there seemed to be vastly less littering.  Construction crews still piled their leftover stones, dirt, concrete, bricks and rebar  on spare lots, to be dealt with by the next building crew, but piles of stone and brick and wood seemed less intrusive than thousands of plastic corpses of drink containers and shopping bags.  Also in this area, as in the area around Lake Patzcuaro, there seemed to be more people out along the road searching for recyclable bottles.  Why, in this era when so many items––from clothing to deck materials––are made out of recycled plastic, can some program not be started in Mexico, which could make it profitable for people to collect this unsightly litter and turn it from a liability into an asset?
          It seemed a sign. Bob used this conversation as a springboard and once again suggested that we at least quickly investigate the other two towns that had intrigued him in his reading about Mexico.  So it was that we decided to head off for a short sortie into the wilds of Mexico.  First Patzcuaro, then Chapala, before signing the year-and-a-half lease for the San Miguel house. We still had a few weeks before we needed to be back in the states for my mom’s memorial in South Dakota. Why not spend them making sure that San Miguel was really the place for us?


Innocents in Mexico, Chapter 20

Night-Blooming Cereus

Innocents in Mexico

Chapter 20

For three weeks, we spent most of our time looking for houses.  It was confusing.  We saw perfect houses down in town, within walking distance of the parroquia.  We saw houses that were larger, with more space for our money, which were located farther out––near the rapidly diminishing and slightly smelly lake.  We saw houses we’d never consider buying ––the outside of the house Mexican, the inside looking like it had been transported here from a suburb in California or Michigan or Iowa.

We saw houses so to our taste in design, from tile to furnishings, that we could have moved in and been comfortable immediately––but at twice the price we wanted to pay.  We saw perfect houses in foreign enclaves, perfect houses in Mexican neighborhoods, houses we couldn’t wait to get out of and neighborhoods we couldn’t wait to get out of but unfortunately, could not find our ways out of.  Bumpy cobblestoned streets ran into dirt roads that finally fizzled out in a rubbish heap or a ravine.  Streets got smaller and smaller until they became walking paths only or wound around and around in an unsolveable maze––even for Bob, who had an inbuilt radar and sense of direction which rarely failed him.

Finally, we found three houses we would consider renting for a year and a half, but now that Bob was more enthusiastic about the possibility of living in Mexico, he had decided he wanted to buy!  I, however, feared the rashness of buying this soon.  We already had a house in the states that we’d need to sell. We barely knew San Miguel.  What if we made no friends?  What if we ran out of things to do?

Bob, on the other hand, needed a project to get him into the swing of life again.  He needed a studio to build or furnish.  He said that he knew me. I needed a garden to plant  and change, to shove pots around in.  We were nesters and not much nesting could be accomplished in a rented house. 

            We decided to take a few days off to explore San Miguel and to try to establish a life here.  We hung out at the Biblioteca.  I even joined and checked out some books.  On the day I joined, we had lunch in the terrace restaurant at the back of the library.  At the table next to us, a woman was writing on 3X5 cards and sticking them onto cassette cases.  Having listened to both of the books on tapes I’d brought with me, I had a sudden burst of inspiration. 

            “Do you have books on tape here?”  I asked her.

            Thus began an hour-long conversation that started with her life story:  (short marriage, daughter, a career in microbiology, lots of travelling, and her present volunteer job at the library) and ended in an invitation for drinks at her house on Sunday.  There we met her 95-year-old flat mate, Trayla, who still taught piano to local children and who was singlehandedly handling the music section of the library:  cataloguing, indexing and filing all of the donated sheet music, listening to all donated records to decide which were of a quality to be transferred to cassette.  When I met her and looked through page after page of the contents of the music library, I asked if she used a computer.

            “Heavens, I predate the computer age,” she said.  “I use a typewriter.” 

            Nancy, her flat mate, who was a youngster of 80,  functioned as her legs, carrying material back and forth to the library, for Trayla never left the house anymore.

            The stories  these women told were varied and numerous.  Their voices interrupted each other like shuffled cards as they filled in details or merely cut in, impatient that the story was being told wrong or less completely than it deserved to be. 

            Nancy told a story about a friend who was a metalsmith.  He had been approached by a company that wanted to lure him away from both his hometown and his employer.  When he insisted that he had no desire to leave California and the foundry where he had worked for 20 years, they first offered to double, then triple his salary.  Then, when he had agreed to take the new job, they admitted that the metal they wanted him to work with was a metal he had not worked with before.  When he suggested that they should find somebody else, they said no, they wanted him only and offered to both send him to school to learn the process of working in  the different metal and to quadruple his salary.  So the man quit his job, went to school, moved his residence and settled down to work.  The Second World War began, and he worked on until its end, when he was finally told that the project he had been working on was the nosecone of the missile that delivered the atomic missile that had been dropped on Hiroshima.

            Trayla  told stories of her parents’ immigration to California––crossing the Isthmus of Panama on foot with six children.  Stories of their own travels down the Amazon, in Thailand and throughout  Mexico. 

            What had brought them to Mexico, I asked.

            “A burglary,” said Nancy.  “I was living in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  It was on Halloween night.  Someone broke in through our kitchen window and took the TV, the stereo, and   everything they could lay hands on.  My purse was on the kitchen table, so they took it.  Inside the purse were my car keys, so they took the car, too.  When I went to buy another car, they were offering a pair of tickets to anywhere the airlines flew, so I found the furthest spot they flew, which was Mexico City.  I asked Trayla to come with me.  In a magazine on the plane, there was an article about San Miguel, so when we got to Mexico City and hired a driver and guide, I asked him if he knew where it was and if he could take us there.  He did, and we fell in love with the place.  A few years later, I called Trayla up in Oakland and said, “Do you want to move to San Miguel?”  “Okay,” she said, and we both quit our jobs, packed up and went.”

            When we moved to the roof to view the garden, Trayla  followed us.  The night-blooming Cereus was in half bloom––with not only one but two blooms readying themselves for that night’s performance.  Succulents and cactus grew in profusion from large clay pots, along with bougainvillea, hibiscus, and other semitropical plants.  I climbed the ladder to the tallest rooftop.  A beautiful view of rooftops, churches, skyline, trees presented itself.  An afternoon mist furnished atmosphere around the lowering sun.  Beautiful.  San Miguel–– a different city from every rooftop.

            More stories, wine, talks of buying and selling houses.  When would they be forced to sell theirs?  For what price?  What had I seen?  What were the prices of houses here, there?  How did this house compare?  Offers of trips to museums, churches, spots they knew.  Nancy would drive us.  When I offered dinner at our house:  “No,” Trayla energetically declined.  “I never go anywhere.  If I went anywhere, I’d just wear myself out.  I don’t leave the house anymore.  Ever.  For any reason.” 

            She was not frail or immobile.  When she perched on the arm of a chair to tell a story or to discipline their  poodle, her face lit up, animated, and she looked sixty.  Her mind was as sharp as ours––-sharper, since all of us kept forgetting dates, names, locations.  Nancy had had what she feared were a few mild strokes lately.  She would be caught searching for common words, forget what she’d been talking about.  For a microbiologist, who lived by organization and mind, it was threatening.  I admitted to frequent bouts of absent-mindedness since turning 50, but not  Trayla.  She was still sharp as a tack, taking care of herself.  Five years before, her doctor had given her three months to live.  Here she was, still so busy there wasn’t enough time in the day:  piano lessons to teach, a whole room full of music and records to organize and catalogue.  So many stories to tell and now, two new people to tell them to. 

            She drained a full wine glass and filled it up again.  They were heavy stemmed water goblets.  Wine glasses were too small and boring, they said.  They preferred these.  She ate another smoked oyster, more dip, more chips.  Taking care of herself.  Still rounding out the fullest of lives.



Innocents in Mexico, Chapter 18

Innocents in Mexico

Chapter 18: Rooftops

            First of all, in Mexico, almost everyone has them:  flat rooftops.  They are reached by stairs or by wrought iron ladders attached to the side of the buildings or by  tightly spiraled metal staircases.  Many serve the purpose of a security system by serving as home for the family “roof dog.”  These dogs, not as plentiful nor as vocal as in Oaxaca, nonetheless exist in San Miguel as well, where they  live their entire lifetimes on the roof.  When people pass by on the street, they bark.  When fireworks go off and other roof dogs bark, they bark back.  Should anyone attempt to climb onto the roof to gain access to the house, they bark louder. 

            Since we had rented by far the tallest house in the neighborhood, we got to look down on all of the other rooftops.  We tended to go up on the roof at least once a day––usually to observe the sunset, or fireworks, or to just look at the incredible panorama of 360 degrees of blue sky dotted with white clotted clouds.  These San Miguel skies astounded us.  We had lived in the California redwoods for too long.  We’d forgotten what it was like to see the horizon. 

            Other people seemed to use their roofs for other things.  On each and every one, there was a stack of old lumber, twisted wire and bricks.  On many were piles of curved clay roof tiles.  From the tops of the brick columns at each side of the house and at intervals along the walls extended the bumpy heavy wires of rebar.  Like particularly tough bristles, they sprouted  from the tops of the houses in clusters, ready and waiting for the next story, to be added as the money appeared to build it.  This was an ever-present activity in San Miguel.  In no place where we’d stayed in the past weeks had we been freed from the sounds of construction.  After men came home from work, they would go to the roof and add a few bricks.  The pounding of their mallets to set the bricks extended far into the evening. 

            The other purpose of roofs seemed to be to store pop bottles.  On most of the roofs spread below us were case after case of Coke bottles.  Why they hadn’t cashed these in, we had no idea, since a considerable amount of the price of each bottle of coke or beer covered the price of the bottle.  For a liter bottle of Corona, a third of the price was the bottle deposit.  Perhaps this was their bank––hoarded Coke bottles on the roof.  Perhaps they were waiting for the price of Coke bottles to go up––like the peso.  Or perhaps they were waiting to cash them in to buy drinks for their next fiesta.

            Other rooftops displayed geraniums in clay pots.  We never saw them being enjoyed or tended to.  They were just there.  For our pleasure, perhaps, since no one else ever went to the rooftops except to shovel roof dog poop.  One night, as we stood watching the sunset, we saw two women climb the stairs up to their own rooftop.  So people did watch the sunset here, too, I thought, but for the half hour they were on the roof, they sat on chairs talking, their backs to the setting sun.

            Aside from Coke bottles, geraniums and construction materials, rooftops were proper storage places for:  old bicycles, extra flowerpots, broken and sound, shovels,  pickup bed covers, folding chairs, half-used buckets of paint, old bed springs, rain barrels, extra tires and purloined shopping carts from Gigante which were upended and appeared to be used as some sort of kennel, although we never saw any animal inside.  It was well into our second week in the house when I thought to go up on the roof during the day.  It was then that I saw activity, for women had stung clotheslines in the bright late morning sun and were hanging clothes.  From rooftop after rooftop, the bright flags of socks, undershorts, pants and shirts hung like fiesta decorations across half the rooftops within vision.


Photo of rooftop washing day by Gwendolyn Anderson on Unsplash

Innocents in Mexico, Chapter 16

Innocents in Mexico

Chapter 16

We decided to go into the city both to shop for more retablo material for me and to see if the fiesta extended into the downtown areas of San Miguel.  Determined not to drive the van through the tiny streets—especially on a weekend—we locked our compound gate and set off down our street to the main road, where we could catch a taxi or bus.  One of the ever-present loiterers in the field across from our house called out to us in English—a first for anyone from our neighborhood, although we had taken care to greet each child, man or woman we passed in the street.  “Hola,” we’d say, or “Buenos  tardes.” 

            “Buenos nachos,” Bob had said several times, and no one had laughed except me.  I could imagine the food imagery floating into their consciousness, wondering why this stranger would be commenting on his upcoming dinner to them, utter strangers.  The thought tickled me so much, but I wasn’t about to share it with Bob, who needed every encouragement to speak Spanish.  Later, when he had said it a third time, he asked me, “Is that right?”  And I finally told him the truth. 

            But no one in this neighborhood had ever spoken to us first––let alone in English. 

            “The fiesta will be today,”  said the tall thin man who leaned against the mesquite tree.

            “Again?”  I asked.

            “We will go to the church.  You should come.”


            “Very soon.”

            “Gracias,“ I said.  That happened often.  Someone speaking to me in English while I spoke to them in Spanish.  It was easier to speak Spanish to someone who spoke English.  Your confidence was bolstered by the fact that you knew you could switch to your mother tongue if you needed to. 

            But we moved off instead down the road to catch a taxi.

            In town, the streets were full.  For the first time, we went into a restaurant and could not find a table.  We walked around doing our errands.  The air was very hot––almost humid.  Then we heard music very nearby.  A police car approached us.  Behind it, a hoard of twisting, writhing creatures.  They were dressed in costumes with masks or large papier-mâché heads.  Men were dressed as women, women as wolves or kittens or pigs.  Masks took the shape of grotesques or beautiful women or animals.  Some of the dancing paraders were tiny—merely babies held in the arms of their mothers or fathers.  Others were massive men dressed up as sexy women.  There were hundreds of them gyrating, calling out, dancing.  Into the crowd they flung hands full of candies.  Some threw oranges.  Children and adults scrambled for the prizes.  I caught sight of a female gorilla with made-up face, blond wig, curled eyelashes, huge breasts.  In front, where her stomach should have been, was an exposed womb with an unborn child curled up inside—as though skin and fur had been removed to show the inner reality.  When I ran after the parade to get a picture, the gorilla whirled and posed.  Then, after I’d snapped a picture, it pulled its skirts up over its head, stuck its butt up in the air, and instead of a female gorilla, it was a male gorilla, snarling and crouched to spring.  I was so surprised that I may have snapped the picture too late, for the crowd quickly filled in around it.  I was later to learn that it was the “Dia de los Locos,” the day of the crazies.

            By the time we returned home, most of the activity on our street was over.  The next day there were no firecrackers, no bells.  The day seemed plain and lackluster without them.  That night we went to sleep early with no disturbances.  Although the banners and streamers still hung in the street, the revelers had gone home. 

            That morning, as went out to open the compound gate to move the van out, the same English-speaking loiterer accosted us. 

            “It was a good fiesta,” he said. 

            “Yes, we went in to San Miguel.  It was good there, too.”

            “Tomorrow, in the house three houses down, there will be another fiesta,” he said. 

            “And they will go to the church again?”  I asked, sorry that we hadn’t followed the last time.

            “No, that is finished.  This time it is a fiesta in the house only.”

            When we returned from our shopping and hours of driving around San Miguel, becoming acquainted with the various neighborhoods, the fireworks had begun.





Innocents in Mexico, Chapter 15

Innocents in Mexico

Chapter 15

            Mexico was a libertarian’s dream.  Although major roads were maintained when the potholes got big enough to cause accidents,  government maintenance of lesser roads were rarely dealt with promptly, if at all.  Here, if a neighborhood wanted a paved road, they got together to buy the cobblestones and hired someone to lay them, or pitched in to build it together.  Rules were few.  Although there were stop signs, few stopped at them.  Not even the police.  Here whole families rode in the backs of pickups, perched on the sides or on the floor with grandma on a folding chair.  Here people lit up in restaurants. (Although smoking laws twenty years later have been changed.)  Fireworks went off every night at all hours––the sign of a fiesta, the death of a child, or any public or private celebration.  Downtown, church bells rang loudly throughout the night.  There was a rule that no one could construct a window that overlooked their neighbor’s property, so all windows were on the fronts of the houses, but there were no rules for noise.  Our neighbors pounded anvils, operated buzz saws and set bricks with a mallet far into the night. 

            Last night, there had seemed to be a fiesta complete with music and firecrackers going on into the early hours right by our front gate.  When we returned from the video premiere,  the number of people who were sitting on the curb in front of our house had surprised us, but we had no clue that  the purpose for their being there went beyond a Friday night stroll and gossip session.  Perhaps they were conducting ceremonies to expel the new foreigners.  We had no way of knowing.  When we told Steve about it, he said, “Oh yes, two fiestas a week.”  His meaning was cryptic.  We would, no doubt, find out what he meant. 

            In the mid-afternoon, Bob motioned for me to look out of the second story window.  From our neighbor’s rooftop, strings of flags and fringed streamers descended across the street to light poles opposite.  Perhaps there would be yet another fiesta tonight.  This time, I would go to see what was happening.  

            It began in the afternoon, when I could hear a band some distance away.  It sounded like a group of first year band students who had assembled to practice both their marching and their music with many false starts and stops.  As it got nearer I went out to the street, but saw nothing.  Then I saw them––a strung out bunch in white shirts wending their way through the field that crossed to the Gigante.  A few men sat on the curb to my left as I left our compound, a few women to my right.  A woman passed and I said, “Buenos tardes.”  She answered me, but I could see her glance at my bare legs.  My Sausalito Art Festival T-shirt was extra-large and extra-long, and covered my shorts.  Just as well, as they were covered with smiling skulls, more appropriate for Day of the Dead, no doubt, than whatever festival was going on.  To her, it probably appeared that I had on nothing under the T-shirt.  More streamers with banners had    gone up in the street.  They were strung from the houses on either side of us out to a wire that someone had strung from light pole to light pole.  It was a few feet lower than the electrical wires and seemed to have been strung for just this purpose.  Now several houses up and down the street sported streamers.  As the day progressed, I could hear the band practicing from some direction far to our right––along the main road that led from town, perhaps. 

            In the very late afternoon, the true activities began.  At first, we heard the music––this time louder and more in unison.  We drew chairs out to the sidewalk in front of our compound.  Along the street, a number of our neighbors were assembled.  In the distance, to our right, we heard wild drums, cries and shouts.  The beat was primitive––more Native American or African than Mexican.  Then around the bend in the road they came––young men and old men in pre-Columbian Aztec dress.  Bare chests, leather loin flaps.  The drummer had so much white face paint on that I thought he was Anglo.  Their heels held high, they executed three leaps to the left, then three leaps to the right, then twirled and twisted and yelped.  In the front were the best dancers.  We tapped our feet and moved our shoulders to their rhythms.  Impossible not to.  At the back of the troupe came the young dancers––one so young that his mother marched along at the side to keep watch over him.  She called out to him as one man veered too close to him.  Behind these modern day reminders of the old religions came the new:  six pre-adolescent girls in white dresses carrying a flower-heaped platform.  Rising up from its middle was a cross.  As they passed us, one girl handed over her rear position on the carrying pole to another girl and rubbed her shoulder.  An older woman supervised the hand-over and kept the girls carrying the cross and their relief squadron, who marched behind them, in line and in sync.  When one girl lowered the pole, the woman reached out to raise the platform to even it out. 

            Behind the girls came the band I had been hearing all day.  They were still not perfect in harmony or rhythm, but they were much louder, which did a lot to improve their sound.  The procession moved by our house and down the street.  As we carried our chairs into our compound, Bearcat dashed out into the cobblestoned street––a daring move for a cat who a week ago wouldn’t come out from under the bed. I called him back in and he minded. 

             I spent the day making retablos.  I had purchased the tin and glass boxes in the artisans’ market a few days before, intending to give them as gifts when I returned home.  But after they lay on the living room cot for a few days, I couldn’t resist opening them to see what I’d bought.  The afternoon was hot and I set up my “studio” on the small table of the patio which held the clothes washer.  My tool boxes and cases full of art supplies sat on the patio around me.  By late afternoon, I was surrounded by strips from cut up photographs, cloth, beads, snips of waxed linen.  Each glass fronted box was some degree of its way toward being a retablo.  One was dedicated to Bearcat, another to the Virgin of Guadalupe,  the third a tribute to life in general––seeds, greenery, birth.  With my limited supplies, it became necessary to search the household for things we’d brought that could contribute to the shrines.  A container of popcorn contributed fertility and life bursting forth to the Madonna shrine.  An old peso brought to me by neighbors who visited Mexico in the 50’s, now worthless, was beautiful when the raised parts were buffed with fine sandpaper.  Feathers, beads, charms, seeds, bits of cloth, cut up bits of the photos I’d taken so far in Mexico.  Bob awoke from his siesta in the late afternoon and set up his easel––a tall ladder––in the courtyard.  He assembled his paints, prepared his palette––and the rain started.  Moving his materials quickly to the patio where I sat surrounded by my midden of art supplies, he propped his canvas against the table.  Restful large blobs of color covered the canvas.  They reminded me of the bougainvillea.  His usual bright primary colors had been abandoned for the more subtle colors of the garden and house that surrounded us. 

            By 9:30, we sat on the deck eating our dinner when the band started in again––coming from a direction about half a block away to the rear of our house.  Kids’ voices called out excitedly.  I imagined a pinata being broken.  Then the fireworks started.  They were the spectacular chrysanthemums and huge falling fountain fireworks of  a fourth of July celebration.  At first we went out to the compound to see them.  Then Bob said we should go up on the roof, but by the time we had climbed up the circular staircase with our plates, the fireworks had stopped.  We stood at the edge of our roof, our plates balanced on the adobe pillars on the sides of the patio.  Up here it was cool, and the food lost its heat quickly.  Although it was too dark to see our food, in the moonlight, we could see puffs of smoke ––the ghosts of the earlier fireworks.  We could hear a loud “thwack, thwack, thwack” and children screamed and laughed.  The band started up, died down, started up––like long spaced hiccups. 

            An hour or so later, when we were about to go to bed, the activity again moved to the street in front of our house.  The band, much improved, came marching firmly down the street from our left.  They seemed to have been replaced by another band, for now their music was sure and robust.  They seem to have swelled in numbers, as well.  They came more quickly than before down the street and stopped two doors away from us.  Some of them carried bottles, which they took fast swigs out of before raising their instruments.  They played a rousing song before one of the men pulled a man from the house and brought him out to dance with him.  He encircled his body with his arms and they danced like lovers to the music.  Then the music stopped and the entire band––maybe 15 or 20 strong––streamed into the house.  Earlier, as I stood on the roof, I had seen women in that compound making tortillas in the back yard.  I had wondered why they would choose early evening to do so, then figured it was to escape the heat of the day.  Now I wondered if they were for the musicians, who did, indeed, stay in the compound for the rest of the night, playing music which echoed up the brick walls of their compound directly in through our windows.  It was then that the really loud fireworks started and continued for an hour or so.  We drifted off to sleep.  Was it midnight or 1 a.m.?  It made no difference.  The fiesta was over and we slept.

            Boom!  An explosion like a land mine ripped through our open window.  Then another and another.  Some streamed up into the air, some exploded on the ground.  These explosions were cherry bomb sized, then hand grenade sized, then, to our very early morning ears, \ground-to-air missile-sized.  Amazing that the cat only stirred slightly in the bed.  Just a week ago he would start and run at the rustle of the cat food bag.  Explosion after explosion went off. 

            “What time is it?” I asked Bob, but he couldn’t see his watch.  By this time, at least a couple dozen explosions had gone off.  Since it was still dark, perhaps the purpose was to bring out the sun.  By now the roosters were crowing, so the  fireworks had done their job.  But they didn’t stop.  After one ear-splitting retort, our car alarm went off, adding to the festivites.  Bob rolled out of bed and fumbled in his shorts pocket for the keys.  I moved to the bathroom and by the time I got back, the car alarm had gone off again. 

            “Just turn it off.  I think this is going to go on all day.”  I flipped on the light.  6:15 a.m.  Church bells began to toll. 

            By eight o’clock, all was quiet.  The sounds I could hear seemed muffled––either in comparison with the fireworks or due to them.  Roosters crowing, the acetylene torch sound of the water heater coming on, trucks and buses on the road, the beautiful cries of grackles.  Ceiling fans whirred.  Bob slept on in the huge bed on the balcony across from where I sat in the office.  This bed was the largest either of us had every seen.  It had to be bigger than king-sized.  I could stretch out my arm fully from where I slept and still not find him.  The cat could sleep sideways between us and not touch either of us. 

            “We need another person for this bed,” Bob had said as we slipped into bed the night before. I suggested that we could both just roll over to the middle, so we did.

Chapters 1-14 are availble in daily blogs for the past two weeks. 

Innocents in Mexico, Chapter 14

Innocents in Mexico

Chapter 14


            It was early morning, two days later.  That morning when I awoke and saw the sunset, I got up and climbed the circular staircase to the roof to photograph it.  Around us, roosters competed, yodeling their hoarse cries to the still cool air.  Even after the sun had been up for an hour, their calls clashed against each other in the blue morning.  A fine haze obscured my view of the hills behind Gigante to the south, the city to the northwest.  Behind us was another metal shop, where workers worked late.  Last night the sounds of grinders and metal striking metal did not stop until about 9:30. This morning for the first time I noticed that the very tall antennae that we had seen from our hotel and had at first thought to be a palm tree was practically in our back yard!  I didn’t know whether it was a TV antenna or some other sort of tower, but we already knew that TV had definitely hit San Miguel. 

            Twenty years ago, I had vacationed in Mexico with a man who claimed to be the first to bring TV’s into Mexican hotels.  Now they were everywhere.

            The day before, after buying vegetables and fruit in the covered mercado, we had walked through the open-air artisans’ market.  Accustomed to the feverish attention of stall minders as we passed their stalls in other parts of Mexico, it was surprising that here we were barely noticed.  Upon entering a few of the stalls, I saw why.  Most of the stalls contained small TV’s.  We heard the staccato of Spanish as they watched soap operas or cartoons.  In other booths the TV’s were on but silent, and we peeked in to see the Spanish subtitles of American movies which they were watching with the sound turned down low.  Spellbound, they barely noticed us as we passed by. 

            I knew too well the allure of television.  After going twelve years without TV, we had finally subscribed to cable two years before.  We had told ourselves it was so we could get better radio reception, then decided to expand the subscription to include the independent film channel.  From the first day, we were hooked.  Part of the reason we’d left the U.S. was to get away from it

            We hadn’t turned on the small TV in Jim’s office.  I think Bob didn’t even know it was there.  Its dark screen stood behind my back as I sat at my laptop, staring blankly over my shoulder as I put TV on my “no” list next to pastry. 

            It was 8:15 a.m., our third morning in the new house, when the grinders started again in the shop next door.  We had wondered if Bob’s tools would bother anyone if he decided to do large pieces, but here, they would barely notice.  With our back wall also their back wall, it sounded as though the noise was in the house with us.

            Both Bear and Bob seemed to be falling into the habit of multiple siestas during the day.  Bob awoke for breakfast, then slept again well into the afternoon, when he awoke again and stretched and attached his canvas to a frame.  It was a pattern with him to take some time to get inspired, while I had that Dutch urge to be busy.  The office balcony where I wrote was the most pleasant area in the house to work, while we had not yet figured out where to set up our art studios.  The roof and top balconies were too sunny, the bottom balconies filled with tables and chairs and washing machines, but we would figure it out.  The day before I had purchased some small retablo boxes which I hoped to fill as gifts for friends back home, and I had laid them out on the living room cots , hoping they would collect inspiration from the house’s atmosphere. 

            The night before, we had gone to the viewing of the video.  The crowd in Pablo’s cafe, where the premiere was held, was very small.  As we approached the cafe, we met three women making their way down the street.  They and we were the sum total of the crowd, along with Susan’s children, who were first told to clear out, then furnished with sandwiches.  The woman who had told us about the video came in a few minutes after they started the film.  The waiter asked what we wanted, and I ordered white wine.  They had red wine, he told me, so I had red wine.  We ordered from the menu, but both of our choices were unavailable.  In spite of the rather long posted menu, what they had was leg of lamb, beef sandwich or pasta with chicken, which we ordered. 

            The video, for the first half, was mainly about the churches––a subject which I found less interesting than more human subjects, but the information, what of it I could hear over the cooks in the kitchen, the waiters and the kids, was interesting.  Several times, someone at the Jessica Tandy lady’s table was heard to remark, “It’s really good.  I’m surprised.” 

            It must have been one of the other ladies at her table saying it, I thought.  How rude.  Do they know that she was involved in making it? 

            When the video was over, before the credits had run, Gilberto, the waiter, had put on another video.  “Also about San Miguel,” he said.

            This video was composed of still shots only, but was more interesting than the first.  After it was over, we talked to Jessica Tandy.

            “It’s really good,” she said for the fourth time.  “I’m really surprised.”

In turned out that she had had nothing to do with the making of the video.

             “I must admit,” she said, “I set up this viewing so I could see the video to see if it was any good before I bought it.”

            We walked to the Jardin, where we viewed the parroquia with renewed interest.  Sitting on one of the benches which faced out from the jardin, we watched two pretty young Mexican teenagers flirt outrageously with whichever one of the four boys they were standing with who paid them the most immediate attention.  They seemed to be competing.  When one caught the attention of the young man both seemed to find the most attractive, the other one would fawn outrageously over whatever boy was nearby.  Now and then one girl would walk off with one of the boys, but she always returned.  Then the two young men who seemed to be the ones they were most interested in walked away.  One girl sat down on a bench with a sketch pad.  The other walked away with a heavy young man who seemed to be a fill-in object for her flirtation.  I had forgotten how much fun it was to flirt.  Surely, I had never been as self-confident in my flirtations as these girls, but I begrudged them none of their fun.  They formed part of the entertainment for us all.

            Here, people went out at night.  They stood in groups on the street or around a food wagon, their elbows on the counter as they ate a hamburger or burrito.  They sat gossiping on park benches, played with children or, as we did, sat watching the parade.  One person in fifty was a foreigner, and the foreigners were as intriguing to watch as the natives.  Amazing that most of us came from the same continent.  The variety from foreigner to foreigner was so great.  The great preponderance of people we had met, be they residents or tourists, had been Canadian or Texan.  Then there were the art or language students––young, old, Mexican, North American, European.  We heard of Swiss and Germans, but had met none.  We had heard of the American woman who, answering the door expecting a package, had been stabbed multiple times. 

            “And the man is still free in her neighborhood,” our informant told us.  “They put him in jail for a while but they let him out and she has to live there because everyone knows and now no one will buy her house.”

            We went for ice cream, then moved to a bench facing south on the opposite side of the jardin. We had noticed the birds, which were plentiful, on its other side, but here their cries were almost deafening.  A thousand or more birds nested, perched, flew up, fluttered, glided down to, glided up from the  50 or so trees in the jardin.  They were all black with widely fanned, very long tails.  When we had asked Maria Antoinette what they were, she had said crows,  but we later discovered them to be grackles––much more fragile and slim and exotic than any North American crows.  Their songs were varied, atonal and loud.  They would have furnished great sound effects for  Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”.  We couldn’t imagine what was attracting them.  There were always lots of birds in the jardin, but not this many.  We couldn’t believe that no one else seemed to notice them.  Nor could we believe that neither sidewalk nor people were being splattered.  Now and then a dry leaf fluttered down as a bird alit or took off, but there was no evidence of any bird splatterings anywhere.  The trees were dense, it was true, and seemed to be serving as our umbrellas. 

            Well-behaved Mexican children played with their grandmothers.  Older children entertained their younger siblings.  Elderly women greeted neighbors, young women sat talking to each other, eating ice cream delicately, small spoonful by small spoonful.  The toy vendor stood in one place for an hour, talking to a young woman on the bench near to where he stood.  One arm was pulled upwards by the combined lifting effect of 50 or more inflated mylar balloons held on short strings.  With the other, now and then he would move a horse with spinning sculpted Coke can wheels around him in an arc, but he seemed to be more interested in conversation than in sales.

            A small boy whizzed by on a skateboard/scooter––the first we’d seen in San Miguel.  Then another boy rode by, cautiously, on the same scooter.  He next offered it to a small girl in a pale, loose dress.  I was impressed by his generosity, but the girl seemed reluctant to try it out.  Then she glided a short distance, pumping the courtyard with her free foot.  Eventually, she wheeled by, cautiously, three or four times.  The boys having left, I realized it was her skateboard.  Another small girl craned her neck to follow her progress as she passed her.  A skateboard/scooter was indeed a novelty in San Miguel.

            We had yet to see a misbehaving, pouting or crying child in Mexico.  Everywhere, they seem to be flooded with attention and love.  They were well-dressed, cheerful, playful, outgoing.  Older children played with younger children.  Strangers in the street or on park benches squeezed their cheeks or patted their hair.  Young fathers slung blankets under the arms and across the chests of their toddlers and followed them patiently, around and around the jardin.

             We had met Susan’s three children, aged two, six and eight.  They were tow-headed clones of the black-haired Susan.  “This isn’t really my color,” she had told us, but we were unable to tell if she was kidding or not.  The three kids rattled around, seat beltless, in the back of Susan’s van as she took us to see an apartment, another woman to see a storage space.  They had acquired a magnifying glass which fascinated them all.  They were catching the sunlight and directing it onto paper, their arms.  “You can start a fire with that,” I told them. 

            “We’re going to use it to burn ants,” the eldest told me.

            Then their interest in lenses spread to me.  Theresa, the smallest, wanted to try on my glasses.  The other two wanted to try them on, too.  As we reached our destination, they spilled out of the van.  The boys hit the dirt, in search of ants.  When the lady at the storage space moved up the stairs to show the storage unit, Theresa went with her.  We went into the two-story apartment we were here to see.  Susan came with us.  The kids were free to do what they would in this free place, whether I agreed with their antics or not.

For Chapter 15, gp  HERE.

  All photos unless otherwise noted are my me.

Innocents in Mexico, Chapter 13

Innocents in Mexico

Chapter 13

            That night, I sliced chicken breasts and sauteed them with green, yellow and red peppers, garlic, onion and carrots.  I sliced potatoes and boiled them, then added them to the pan.  While they browned, I made a salsa of the mangoes and sweet onions I’d bought in the market. 

            No bread tonight.  We remained firm in our resolve. We had been very bad about bread and pastries, which were so cheap and good in the town shops and markets and even cheaper and better in the large bakery at Gigante.  Here bread, rolls, pastries, donuts and cakes were piled in bins or displayed on large trays.  Customers walked around with tongs and pizza trays, choosing what they wished, then stood in line to have them bagged and tagged at the cash register. The first time we had visited, we had filled up two bags and the total came to about $2.  The store was so close that we couldn’t even walk off the calories by walking to get them. 

            We tried to eat by candlelight on the unwalled patio off the kitchen.  I kept lighting candles, but the wind kept blowing them out.  We had begun to notice a pattern in the weather.  Hot days gave way to cool windy evenings.  At 9, all the doors in the house blew shut, the trees were swaying, and I pulled on a long-sleeved t-shirt against the chill. Then by 9:30 it had warmed up again and the wind had died down.  By 10, it was dead still and I had discarded the long-sleeved shirt.                       

            Today, Bob went to town to replace the large stretched and framed canvas we had lost off the top of our car in the desert.  Then we went back to town in the afternoon to look at a possible long-term rental and to shop in the market. As we waited for Susan at La Conexion, a continual stream of people ducked in and quickly out again, having grabbed their mail from their boxes. There were several of these mail delivery places in town.  Your address was a mailbox in Texas.  Then they bulk shipped the mail UPS to San Miguel so the mail never went through the unreliable Mexican postal system.  They would also accept faxes and would print out three pages of e-mails a day for customers. 

            Bob pointed out a stack of videos of San Miguel piled on the counter.  We hadn’t noticed them before.  A few minutes later, a small neatly dressed woman came in.  She left and came in again, smiling at us both times and talking to a woman in the computer section of the room.  She had a genteel air, and when she smiled and talked, she resembled Jessica Tandy.  When she came back in our direction, she spoke.  “Have you noticed the video?” she asked. 

            When we told her we were just commenting on it, she said, “We’re having a viewing here tomorrow night at 6.  It’s the first viewing.  You should come.”  She then told us of an earlier video about San Miguel. 

            ‘”Were you in film production before you came to San Miguel?”  I asked her.  Something she had said had given me the idea that this was her video.

            “Oh, no, I’m just a woman who knows how to talk and has a lot of money, so I get things done!”  she told us, giving  me the impression that she had bankrolled or produced the video.

            In the Jardin, we ran into Lisa, the girl we met in the bank our first day.  We told her we’d rented a temporary house, thanks to her, and showed her the pictures we’d taken of it that we’d just picked up from the photo store.  Lisa lived in a motorhome parked at a friend’s house and was preparing for a showing of her works which would occur while we were back in the States.  She breezed away from us through the Jardin, on her way to her daily errands.


***Note: If you are still reading these daily chapters, would you please leave a brief note in comments to tell me so? I am wondering if I should keep posting them or retire them for the time being. If enough people are interested, I’ll keep posting them. 



Innocents in Mexico, Chapter 12

Although I can’t find any of the photos I took in San Miguel, the background of this retablo I made while living there shows a shot of the courtyard of the hacienda where Ernesto wanted us to live.

Innocents in Mexico

Chapter 12


  The next day, I awakened early.  We were unsure whether Theresa, the housekeeper, came at 8 or 11.  Susan had told us one time, Steve the other.  I sat in the office in the balcony across from the master bedroom, watching Bob sleep as I started my laptop.  The sounds of the neighborhood flew in over the tall wall that I could just see over there on the second story of the house.

            When Theresa did not come by 11, we decided she was not coming, but we left one door ajar for her, just in case.  She had the key to the compound, but not the house.  We walked to the main road and caught a taxi to the Biblioteca, where we were to meet Ernesto and Dirk to go on a tour of the hacienda and Ernesto’s new school.  Everyone was on time and in fact, everyone had arrived early and gone somewhere to wait, mistakably expecting everyone else to be on Mexican time.  When I told Ernesto we had rented a house, he seemed crestfallen. 

            “Why would you want to rent a house for a month?”  he asked.  “You could be staying at the hacienda for $16 a night.” 

            We explained that we loved the house and that we needed space and privacy to work. 

            “At the hacienda, you could ride horses and use the kitchen,” he answered, still looking disappointed. 

            The tour took much longer than either we or Dirk had anticipated.  Dirk had brought his wife, Maria Antoinette, who was with us as we started out viewing the hacienda.  Everything seemed to be in a state of flux there.  In one large library , a computer stood on a table  and paintings were stacked ten deep against the walls.  They had been taken from the walls, said Ernesto, and replaced by other paintings.  The pool table had been taken from one room and sat, covered, in another.  Piles of mattresses lay in corridors or the corners of rooms.  In the kitchen, something bubbled on the stove:  a pot of beans and a succulent smelling joint that Ernesto insisted was being cooked as dogfood for the dogs.  A large room adjoining the kitchen was available for fiestas, explained  Ernesto.  We saw no one.  Eventually, a distinguished looking older man walked into one of the bedrooms we were inspecting.  He was introduced to us as the Don and he shook our hands politely, but did not seem too pleased to have us there.  In a rapid exchange, Ernesto seemed to be asking him how much it was to stay there.  It turned out that it was $16 per person, so at $960 a month,  it would have been more expensive for us to stay there than in the house we were in.  The Don left and we moved  through arched courtyards and gardens, and ruins partially intact left for atmosphere.  We saw a huge pool, apparently long drained, which Ernesto insisted was still functional, but too expensive to maintain.  They would convert it to solar and then refill it, he said.  But come.  This was the small pool.  Come see the large one.  I started  to feel like we were wandering on a private unauthorized tour through San Simeon prior to its restoration.  Below the “large” pool was a two-story house presently going through restoration.  The views from the patio––of rolling hills and green fields–– were breathtaking.  At one time the hacienda spread as far as the eye could see.  This was before the revolution.  Ernesto’s school was situated in the Armory, where troops used to guard gold and silver shipments, but first we must see this house.  We might want to rent it, he told us. 

            The house seemed to be partially occupied.  There were clothes and toiletries in the bathroom, food and pans in the kitchen.  Half-packed boxes lined the stairway.  Ernesto told us that the people had moved out, but it looked more like they were in the process of moving out.  As usual, there were many mysteries in the world as presented by Ernesto.

            Dirk, worried now that he would not get Maria Antoinette to work on time, asked when we would see the school.  He had expected this to take two hours, he said, and it had been that long already without seeing the school.  We must drive to the school, said Ernesto.  Slowly, since the road is bad.  We would drive most of the way and then walk, but first we must have some refreshment. 

            We pulled over in front of a tiny adobe casa by the side of the main road.  A bus drew up, disgorging schoolchildren home from school.  They scattered like wild kittens.  One small girl entered the courtyard we were entering.  We tried to crowd into a tiny shop, but there was not room for more than three.  Bob and Dirk went in to order Coronas for Dirk, Ernesto and me, juice for Maria Antoinette, Coke Light for Bob.  The Senora who lived in the small house behind the shop and who was the shopkeeper found chairs for all of us and we pulled them into a circle in the bare dirt courtyard.  A huge mesquite tree cast shade over half the yard.  The small girl picked a flower from it and handed it to Maria Antoinette.  If unfurled, it would resemble an hibiscus flower, but its petals were pulled down into a bell.  It was variegated tangerine, gold and orange––the exact colors of Maria Antoinette’s blouse and hair and skin.  We sat in the courtyard and told stories.  Bob, who was given to introspection before speaking, did not fare well against the talkative Dirk and Ernesto.  Maria Antoinette, who was originally from Mexico City but who could, she told us, now pass for a native of San Miguel, entered the house and fell into conversation with the Senora, who eventually pulled up a chair and joined us.  Dirk speculated on what Bob might be thinking, and Bob admitted he was anxious to see the schoo––what we all came here for.  Dirk again expressed worry that Maria would be late to work, teaching English at a private school, but Ernesto insisted we all have a second Corona.  In the end, he and Dirk had another Corona.  I  was already feeling the need for a siesta after one beer.  The hot sun and the lulling effect of far off echoes from the broad landscape had  made me content but sleepy. 

            We were very lucky, said Dirk, to be seeing the real life of Mexico.  Not many tourists saw  what we had seen today, he told us.  Not feeling like a tourist, and feeling like this is how I always traveled or lived in the countries where I have visited, nonetheless, I agreed.  Eventually, we drove on a bit, then parked under a tree after removing several large rocks from the road.  Ernesto unlocked the gate in the tall compound wall.  Towers rose above us––where armed soldiers once guarded the shipments of precious metal.  To our left was a huge bank of blue, glittering in the sunlight.  Next to it was a mound of goldish red, another of white.  They were like a rubbish dump where all of the refuse had been sorted by color.  As we got closer, I saw  that they were mountains of glass.  One was deep cobalt blue––like the color of Mexican blown glass tumblers.  The next drift was broken Pepsi bottles––clear for the most part, but here and there we could see the blue and red of the logo.  Mounds on the other side of the compound were of raw semiprecious stones still in their matrix.  One was of opals, the other chalcedony––what Bob and I knew as poppy and picture jasper.

             We went  first into the room where Ernesto had set up lapidary equipment.  The good equipment was in Texas, he said.  Most of this equipment was used or gerrymandered, but 20 or more stations had been set up. 

            Maria Antoinette sat down on a couch at the entrance and promptly fell asleep.  Ernesto  turned on a fan and directed it toward her and we left her to dream.  He showed us the faceting  tool and the opal grinder.  He showed us the ghastly clay fountain which he sought to mass produce.  It was a wet bar, a fountain and a lamp.  He could sell it very cheap, he said.  He showed us several wax sculptures that they would cast in bronze.  One was by a Swiss lady who wanted to study there, he told us.  His plan was to set up a mobile home park in the center of the compound, where people could come from the States for lapidary and casting workshops much cheaper than those in the States.  They would have school for poor and crippled children, as well.  They would feed them lunch, Ernesto explained.  We moved into another building.  In it were mounds of pot metal molded trinkets––cats, dogs, women, crosses, flowers, every conceivable shape.  Piles of circular molds covered a table.  He pressed the “on” switch on the machine used to melt pot metal. He wanted show us how quickly  this could be done.  He pounded talc onto the molds, fit the two pieces together, and put them up against the snout of the pot where the metal was being heated.  Poof, that quickly the mold was filled and placed to cool.  Then another and another.  You could do twenty in one minute if they were all prepared, he told us.  When he peeled the mold apart, we saw a circular chain of trinkets––perhaps thirty or more––ready to be separated, tumbled and gilt or silver plated. 

            Hanging from the ceiling was a large toy plane––perhaps five or six feet long.  It looked like it had been constructed from old soda cans or recycled tin siding, but Ernesto said it was very expensive.  Strapped to its bottom was an infrared camera.  It was a remote-controlled plane  (the predecessor to the now-ubiquitous drone) which he could send up to locate water and minerals, he told us. 

            Next, we moved to a side compound filled with slab cutters and diamond saws.  Most were rusty, but all functioned, he told us.  Earlier, there was a flood and all were underwater, but they may all be made to work. 

            Bob suggested that more than a resident artist, Ernesto perhaps needed a production manager.  Whereas Ernesto insisted the school would be open in two weeks, it looked more like two years to us, and it looked more like a sweatshop than a school, although Ernesto insisted the money would go to the kids with only enough going to the “school” to keep it functional.  When I questioned Ernesto about the artistic side of things––most of these designs were just being mass produced and were less than esthetically pleasing––at their best pure kitsch––Ernesto insisted they would also do their own designs.  That would be where Bob came into the picture, he insisted, but I could feel Bob’s interest fading.  Years ago, before he himself had built diamond saws and slabbers and drills and worked with stone, perhaps it would have been challenging, but at this stage it felt like going backwards, not forward.

            I asked Ernesto what his goal was.  He said that the metal and gem crafts of Mexico for generations had been centered elsewhere, in towns where they had been passed down in families, from father to son.  He wanted to open up the crafts to everyone and to establish San Miguel as a center where people could set up their own studios and establish their own crafts.  This was the beginning part only.  The school had first to support itself to enable the students to go on and become independent.

            When Ernesto talked like this, I believed him.  He told us he had sold his Mother’s house in New Orleans to enable him to buy two factories and  two mines.  This was where the tools and the raw minerals had come from.  The glass was from a glass factory which he rented out space to here in the armory, but they hadn’t paid rent for a year, so he had locked them out .  That is where the glass came from.  They would use it to make enamel. 

            “How many people have been working on this school?”  I asked him. 

            “One,” he told me, and pointed to himself.  “Sometimes two.” 

            Although the don had offered him lodgings in the hacienda, Ernesto said, he had a very nice apartment and girlfriend in San Miguel, where he preferred to stay, but when I went in search of a bathroom, I saw in a back secluded corner of the workshop a cot covered by a tarpaulin.  On the tarp were several piles of neatly folded clothes.  By the side of the bed was a refrigerator wrapped in chain with a padlock. 

            Later, I confided to Bob that I wondered if Ernesto was indeed living in the armory.  Bob admitted  that he wondered the same thing.

            Dirk, who was a retired dentist and lapidarist, confided to me that he was tempted to stay in Mexico and get involved in Ernesto’s project.  It was the first thing that had peaked his interest and made him want to get active again in years, he said.

            Sweat shop or school?  Mass production or art studio?  Visionary or Con Artist?  Who could know?  But Ernesto continued to intrigue us with his tall dreams and his big stories.  How did people discover the truth about each other?  One part of me wanted to believe in his dream, but intuition told me we were being gently conned.  Well, manana.  We would wait and see.


Chapters 1-11 can be found in earlier blogs published in the past two weeks.

Innocents in Mexico, Chapter 8

We passed under this arch to get from the Plaza Principal to our hotel.

ind Chapter 1 HERE  Chapter 2 HERE   Chapter 3 HERE  Chapter 4 HERE  Chapter 5  HERE  Chapter 6 HERE Chapter 7 HERE


Innocents in Mexico

Chapter 8

          Today we met several interesting people and reconnected with the young woman we’d met our first morning in the bank.  All of these connections led to houses to look at. Clello, the woman who owned the shop where we posted an ad for a house, sent us first to look at an apartment, which was nice but much too small.  Then she sent us to a house.  Its entrance proved to be too low for the van, but she assured us we could park at her sister’s hotel a half block away.  We went to the hotel and found what the fee would be, then ambled through the artisan’s market and the food market, which were a stone’s throw from the house we considered renting.
            It was interesting that all of the homes of foreigners seem to be decorated in the best colonial or traditional Mexican style with massive furniture and folk art, whereas the Mexican owned houses and apartments were furnished with western furniture.  Having looked at pictures in the windows of several (closed) real estate offices, we found this house plain in comparison with the pictures of houses that resembled movie sets with lush gardens, art, rugs and furniture.  Today Bob was off to immigration and I was to meet Ernesto to look at still another house.  Then I would make more calls and visit hopefully open real estate offices, renew our car insurance, collect our e-mail, send e-mail.  Bob thought we could get out of our present hotel (which in the states would have been called a motel) by tonight, but I didn’t think so.  He also thought he was going to meet me back there at noon, but I thought he was naive about the length of lines he would encounter at immigration.
            The night before, we had eaten at Ziwok, a delightful restaurant operated by Juan Pablo, a half Mexican/Spanish, half Swedish man with a passion for Frida Kahlo and Remedios Varo.  The front room of his perfectly decorated cafe was devoted to Frida––her self-portraits, photographs and a massive shrine assembled in a niche along one wall.  Basket chandeliers and neatly potted plants accented  the walls, which were beautifully faux painted in light and dark terracotta.  Tablecloths, cloth napkins and napkin rings were all in yellow and green.  The back room was a dark green and was totally devoted to the work of Remedios Varo, a French surrealist who moved to Mexico during the second world war.  Frida, who thought one female surrealist was enough in Mexico, saw her as a rival and hated her,  Juan Pablo told us.  Along with Varo’s exquisite bizarre prints he had displayed his own work: elaborate constructions of parts of animal skeletons, plants, sea life, seeds––any natural object he could find––which he had assembled into fantasy animals and covered with sand cemented in place with cyanoacrylate glue.  The effect was surreal, but although the assemblage animals seemed to come out of a nightmare  (a winged frog, a blowfish with snout, legs and an armadillo tail) they were curiously believable, thanks to his meticulous craftsmanship.
            After a close inspection of the art in both rooms, we went back to our table and watched him in his small open kitchen, cooking our meal in four woks.  Bob had tempura shrimp and vegetables, I had vegetables and rice.  Our plates arrived, along with a cruet of mango sauce and another of ginger.  The food was as different and delicious as the decor.  Prior to leaving, we had spent a half hour or so poring over his book of the work of Remedios Varo and listened to the story of first her life, then his. Every detail here was perfect and immaculate, down to the decoupaged menus and the hand-fashioned box of matches he gave me as we left.
            This night at Ziwok was another flower plucked from the bouquet of San Miguel.  We had found a new favorite restaurant––our most recent favorite having been the outside terrace where we had breakfasted that morning on frittata of eggs, potato and bacon with black bean sauce, fresh baked rolls with butter and jam or a delicious white cheese, pepper and avocado sauce in oil.  Every restaurant  we had  been to here we had wanted to go back to, but there was always a new one to try and we always liked it better than the last.  I had been amazed that in our hour in the restaurant, we were the only customers, but someone had told us that in San Miguel, there were 7,000 restaurant seats and on any given night, an average of 500 diners to fill them.  With odds like this, the restaurant market was a competitive one.  We didn’t think we would find one we liked better than Ziwok, but part of the pleasure was variety, so we would try others on our list before returning.  As we left, a young couple and child made their way to the back room.  “More customers,” I said.  “No, they are my friends,” he said.  “She plays the accordion in Mama Mia’s.”  It was another restaurant that would come to be a favorite.
            Apartment hunting continued to fill our days.  Meanwhile, we were piling up hotel bills at the rate of $100 every two days.  We began to think we might be ahead just getting a $1000 apartment.  At this rate, our hotel bills would mount up to the difference, anyway.  A few days before, we had run into Lisa, our former acquaintance from the bank, while checking out a bulletin board in a small cafe.  She was sitting with the owner of the cafe.
            “Wine?”  he urged, “Something to eat?”  When we said no, we had just eaten, he insisted, “It’s free.”  A large table in the back room was spread with food.  People moved around it, filling their plates.  A few more people moved around the small room, examining paintings on the wall.
            “It’s an opening.  See the woman with the large flower in her hair?  She is the painter.”
            When he urged wine on us once more, I asked for white and we sat down to talk.  Bob, impatient to read the bulletin board and be on to apartment hunting, seemed a bit exasperated.  At this rate we would never find an apartment, he insisted, but in the end, this is how we found one.  Lisa’s friend Pancho, the owner of the bar attached to the gallery, insisted that we must see Susan, the woman who ran a mail agency and internet service, at the front of the cafe and gallery.  “She knows many good apartments.  She knows everyone,” he told us. We sat and talked for a short time while I finished my wine.  The waiter urged more wine on Lisa.  “He’s trying to get me drunk so I’ll be a bad girl,” she laughed.
            The next day, we called Susan and made an appointment to meet her later in the day.  She took us in her car to see the house of a friend, but the inhabitant did not answer the door.  Then we went on to see a house which she assured us was a steal at $85,000.  Although we were not in the market to buy a house, Bob was sold by the huge studio.  I didn’t like the location or the house.  The owner had built it in an area quite far from town––an area chosen because it was far from the foreign enclave, where people might find objection to the large jewelry production studio which was attached.  Here, 15 employees made jewelry which she wholesaled in the States.  Because she had built her house in a poorer neighborhood, she had no problem finding workers who could actually walk to her studio to work for four dollars a day.  As we went into her patio, a huge Doberman rushed up.  All of the doors and windows were locked, even though the house was surrounded by a tall wall.  I didn’t think I would like to live in a house this luxurious in comparison with the neighborhood around it.  If real estate was location, location, location, then this seemed to be a poor choice for real estate investment.  Susan assured us that in 5 years this house will have tripled in value, but the spirit of the house seemed wrong to me.
            Later in the day, we went to see the house of Dirk, the man I’d met through Ernesto.  He had plans to spend a year in the States, and wanted to rent us his house.  It was in an enclave of extremely large and expensive homes, but it was equally as far out from the center.  I liked the house, which was esthetically more pleasant than the last house, with arched brick ceilings and tile more to my taste.  It was surrounded by patios and plants and had a large rooftop patio where Bob could work, but now that he had seen the house with the large studio, nothing could rival it.  He found this house too small.
            When we had moved to Central California from L.A. fourteen years ago, it had taken us a year of driving back and forth each weekend to find the right house;  but we had neither the time nor the energy to do so now.  The double task of finding a place to live for a month and a place to return to for a year was wearing us down.  I just wanted to try to get into the swing of life here––to see what it would be like to live and work in San Miguel.  But all we were doing was business–– like at home.  Visas, permits, money changing, setting up accounts, looking for houses, finding internet servers, finding personal mailboxes––these details ate up our days.  Bob had predicted that the annoying minutiae of dealing with the details of living would follow us here, and he was right, but I hoped that after this interim period we could settle into a simpler life.

See Chapter 9 HERE.


Innocents in Mexico, Chapter 7 Posada de las Monjas


Find Chapter 1 HERE  Chapter 2 HERE   Chapter 3 HERE  Chapter 4 HERE  Chapter 5  HERE  Chapter 6 HERE

Innocents in Mexico

Chapter 7: Posada de las Monjas

It was Sunday, May 13, at 1:30 a.m. It was our first night in our new room, and someone was setting off fireworks.  They soared up into the air and exploded with ear-splitting booms.  Dogs barked from half the rooftops of San Miguel.  There were too many lights in town, even at this late hour, for the stars to be visible.  It was a shame as our room was so high that we had a panoramic view of the city and the sky.  Below us, tin roofs broke the spell, but we had occasional glimpses into courtyards full of plants and trees.  A cat yowled below and Bearcat stood and stretched but did not scoot under the bed as he had that afternoon when he heard the same caterwauling.  He was getting braver every day, but a car backfiring a block away or a door slamming across the courtyard could still send him into hiding.  We had no yard now for our midnight walks.  All of the courtyards  and terraces in this hotel were of cobblestone or cement.  He was an illegal alien here.  When we sneaked him out on his leash at night for a walk through the deserted outside corridors, he was calmer, walking as close to the curtained windows of each room as though eavesdropping for any possible news of his new environs. Although the management didn’t know we had a cat, some of the staff knew but they never told. This first night, we settled to bed, finally, by 2 a.m.  and  I penned this poem  a mere four and a half hours later:

San Miguel Morning

The sounds of rooting cats
like infanticide
tuba music
in 4/4 time.

Donkey brays.
6:29 in the morning.

All’s right with the world.

Today was Mother’s Day.  It was the first in my life where I had no mother to send flowers to.  The same was true of Bob.  On our way through Tucson, we had stopped to see my mother’s crypt for the first time.  I had meant to bring flowers, but I could see that they didn’t allow fresh flowers, and I couldn’t bring myself to leave plastic ones.  Some of the crypts had metal flowers attached, and I decided to try to have something special made in Mexico.  Those would be the flowers I sent this year.

On this day, we took the van out of the courtyard of the hotel to go look at an apartment.  It was a bother to do so, because it meant getting a man to open the portal––not only the one that could be reached from ground level, but also the high one 8 or more feet off the ground.  Today, the guard used a tall metal pipe to pry the hatches open, Yesterday he had attempted to climb up on the lower lock to reach the top one, but it was a tricky maneuver and he had fallen off..  Then we scraped the bumper of a new yellow pickup trying to back out.

The apartment we saw was a depressing empty house in an extremely poor neighborhood.  On the floor of the bare living room was a pair of men’s slacks, rumpled as though he had climbed out of them and left them as they were.  Half-full bags of grout  lay abandoned.  In the shed, there was the overpowering smell of oil paints.  What had been described as a garden was hard baked earth with a few abandoned flower pots.  Even the weeds were dried and skeletal.  The house described as furnished in the newspaper ad was dark, in poor repair and completely empty.  The woman told us she had no money to buy furnishings, but maybe they could get one bed and a refrigerator.

That afternoon, we had been looking  at  pictures  of rentals in a rental office near our hotel.  The apartments and houses were all picture perfect––decorated, furnished with art and gardens complete with gardeners.  The contrast was so depressing that it made me again question whether I wanted to stay here.

The disparity between the gringo sections of town and the local sections was so great.  And yet in the restaurants and galleries, I saw the majority of people were Mexican––well-groomed and prosperous looking––eating the same food and drinking the same drinks we were drinking.  Our hotel, too, was filled with Mexican travelers, so the difference was not so much one of nationality as of level of prosperity.  The same economic differences existed in the United States, but there, as here, we were shielded by the distances between our living areas.

Even in the U.S, there were places we never went.  Why would we?  In those places there were no restaurants, theaters, gyms.  In those places, there were none of our friends to visit.  Our kids didn’t go to school in those neighborhoods, so for us, they didn’t exist.  Every American we talked to said not to have a car here––to depend on public transport or walking,  but public transport did not take them through these neighborhoods, so for most, I am sure they did not exist.

By the time we got home again, we were exhausted from trying to negotiate the maze of unmarked streets. To compound our frustration, we found that  the lot that had been  nearly empty when we left was now completely packed––with all cars double parked.  The guard fit us diagonally into one corner of the large courtyard in a place where we blocked four cars instead of two.  He refused to take our car keys, so we imagined an early knock on our door to get us to come move it. We had already made the decision to keep the van in the compound for the rest of our stay, but this cinched it! On Monday, we would take a taxi to immigration and the real estate office.  Already, our new van had rattles in every part of its chassis from two days of bumping over cobblestones.  The side was scraped and the running board dented in.  If we had to count the number of streets backed down or tight spaces we had turned around in, it would reconfirm our decision.  A car in this town was crazy.  A full-sized van was lunatic.  People drove vans the size of ours as buses here.

It was a moral struggle to sit in the Plaza Principal.  Every time I sat down, an old woman came to sit next to me to tell me she was hungry.  When I told her I didn’t understand, she sighed.  She sat for fifteen minutes, sighing every few minutes or so.  Finally, she asked me the time.  At first, I didn’t understand.  I thought she was pointing out the dark freckles on my arms.  Then I understood the word “Hora.”

Seis?”  she asked.

Siete,” I answered.  I knew some Spanish.  Now she would suspect I really understood her.  Well, I guess I did, even without words.  On our first day, Bob and I gave money out to most who asked.  When the same people approached us later on their next round, we realized that it was endless.  To encourage the woman and children selling cloth dolls meant no time ever in the jardin when we would be free to read a book or watch the strollers or the church facade changing colors as the sun moved across its face.  It meant constant interruptions to the peace and tranquility we had come here to find.

It was a major conflict that all of us face in this world.  Were we here to enjoy the world or to confront and deal with its miseries?  Was it fair to choose the ways in which we tried to make the world a better place?  Was it making the world a better place to encourage begging?  Was there any alternative to begging for those who did so?  I remembered the old woman who fell down in a faint in front of the church in Oaxaca.  Kind tourists  helped her into a sitting position,  fanned her, pressed coins upon her.  Then one of the locals laughed and told us that she was one of the richest women in town––so good at her daily act that she made more than most wage earners.

I remember the children in Bombay whose parents had cut off their arms or legs to make them more successful at their begging.  Where were the easy answers?  There were none.  If we taught at the free art school, would it make a difference?  It would make a difference for us, ease our guilt.  But would it do enough to ease the suffering in the world?  The answer was clear.  We would do what we could do:  try to be kinder, try to notice instead of reacting the same to every person who asked for our help.  We would live here not quite adequately, as we had lived in every place.  We were not Mother Teresa, nor were we Hitler.  We were fugitive Americans trying to find a better way.  We were trying.  Looking.  Tomorrow we would see what happened.

Again, the old woman sat by me in the Plaza Principal.  I was no longer sure that she remembered me as the same person every time she sat down.  This time she asked me if I lived here and when I said no, she asked me where I lived.

“El Norte,” I told her.  Bob and I were sitting on extreme ends of the same bench because each end had a tree which sheltered us from the brief afternoon rain.  She crowded with me under my arboreal umbrella.

“You have beautiful hair,” she told me, which I did not understand until she pulled at her own hair and said, “Amarillo.  Bella.”

When I pulled out a bottle of water.  “Ah, Agua” she sighed, and pulled out a plastic bottle of Pepsi from her string bag to take a drink.

Ese es su esposo?” she asked, pointing at Bob.


For the next ten minutes or so, she sighed, now and then, asking me for money for food under her breath, but I could feel that her enthusiasm had waned.  Occasionally, she commented on those who passed us.

Buenos tardes, senora,” I said, when we got up to leave, but she was already moving to another bench.