Monday, December 13, 2010

Why We Live Here

Why we live here: Janan and I sitting on Stirling Dickinson, waiting for the school bus, Tecate in hand, no sleeves in December.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Riding in the Evening with Mason

Mason and I were driving home from a friend's house, down a steep, steep cobblestone road with the sun setting before us, over the presa and the surrounding mountains.  Light, that sunset light that makes all the yellows so golden and the reds so rose, funneled up the street, making the faded houses on both sides shine and look nearly new.  We made the left from Cuesta San Jose onto Tecolote, an alley so narrow and sharp that the walls are scarred and chipped left and right.  Another turn onto Pepe Llanos and there before us was a wedding at the San Francisco church, the mariachis out in the square in their best white suits, the crowd humming around the church entrance in the dusk, waiting for the bride and groom to emerge.  Music bounced around the square, in and out of our car windows, riding on the warm air and the evening light.  It was one of those magical San Miguel nights, unexpected and wrenching and lovely.

Mason, dipping a candy stick into a three-sectioned bag of chile powder, lime, and sugar, kept up a little patter of random thoughts:  "You know, I am used to the spice of Mexico.  I am used to the heat of Mexico.  I'm used to Mexico.  But not the sour.  That's what I'm going to have to get used to next."  And right on the heels of that, "Did you know some people are smarter than others.  Some people, if they had two jelly beans, say a grape and a cherry, would eat the one they like most first.  But if you were smart, you would save the one you like most and eat it last."  And then he went quiet and I presume was dipping away into his little bag of salts.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Noticeable Exchanges Around Town

Each day there are small exchanges, observations, and interactions that remind me of the vast differences between our life in Baltimore and our life here that are sometimes overlooked.

The doorbell rang.  Mason was very excited, thinking it was his friend, Manuel, coming to play.  He ran to open it, then returned.  "It was a just guy selling wood. On a donkey."

I went to the local gourmet shop, La Cava, to order our Thanksgiving turkey.  The owner asked if I could come back the next day, because the birds were coming on a truck from Chihuahua and he didn't know what sizes he would be getting.  The next day I forgot to go.  Later though, when I arrived back home, Luzma, our maid told me a girl had been by from La Cava, and they had a turkey waiting for me.

There is tapiceria (upholstery shop) out my back door that makes cushions and pillows and reupholsters furniture (beautifully).  I dropped by to ask the owner, Jose Luis, if he could come to the house of a friend to measure some windows for curtains.  Sure, he said, happily.  "Get on the back of my bike."  And the two of us roared off, that instant, through centro, to Hidalgo where Jose Luis spent a while measuring for window treatments and bench covers.  A friend of Bo's from school was walking down the street with his dad.  They spotted me on the back of a motorcycle with a strange man; they stared for a little bit, wondering with whom Mrs. Hillers was cavorting.

I went to a taco stand for breakfast that I had never been to before.  Two tacos (puerco con papas y huevitos con frijoles) were 14 pesos. I tried to pay with a 100-peso note but they had no change.  (No one in Mexico ever has change.  Where does it all go?)   The lady waved me off, and just told me to come back tomorrow and pay.  Which I did.

Twice this fall a note has come home in the kids' backpacks explaining that school is cancelled for the next day.  The school apologizes for the late notice but the government has declared a day off because of "all the festivities" associated with the bicentennial (the first time) and Day of the Dead (the second time).  A second notice is taped to the side of the bus in case you didn't get the word.

New Masonisms

"If someoone shouts in your dream, do you wake up?" -- November 2010

Mason at Moo Duk Kwan, Redding's karate studio:  Redding takes karate classes at a studio five doors down from our back door. At 5:00pm he walks out for his 5:30pm class so that he can get there early and watch the older group before him.  At 6:30pm he walks back to the house down 20 de enero, lets himself in the back door, and sometimes I don't even realize he's gone.  This is my kind of extracurricular.

Mason I went last Wednesday to see him practice.  The instructor, a tall, lean, elegant Mexican, was calling out all kinds of commands, in Spanish.  Uno, dos, grito.  Cambie de mano y cruza. Dos golpeas y patata de frente, un pie arriba, and a whole bunch of other rapid-fire stuff that I couldn't understand.  I asked Mason, "Do you understand all this?"  "Yes."  "Really?"  And then rather disdainfully he said, "He's not speaking Chinese." -- November 2010

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Slumber of the Haves

San Miguel is shaped like a pasta bowl with its low wide valley and hills sloping up around the sides.  I'm down in the base; from my terrace on the second floor I can see 180 degrees around me: centro, with its church spires and the grand dome of the old convent, is to the north, in front of me.  To the left is my immediate neighbor: Colonia San Antonio, a mix of Mexican families and American artists.  Beyond that, on the western edge of the bowl are the less developed colonias of Independencia, San Rafael, and Guadalupe and farther out the unnamed fraccionamientos of colorless, one-story, unfinished cinderblock homes, rebar poles still rising from the roof.  (As long as a building is under construction, no tax is due.  Thus, a huge concentration of half-built houses.) 

At dawn, and earlier, the hillside to the west is lit up across its wide swath. Every household is awake, with lights blazing, and I'm sure, televisions on, fires lit, tortillas on the comal, beans in a battered pan on a makeshift stove.  In these neighborhoods are all the domestics who work in the houses in San Miguel for the ex-pats and wealthy Mexicans, and in the restaurants, businesses, shops and banks.  And their day starts early, when the bus can take an hour to make its away through all the barrios, picking up the women to bring them to town.

On the east side all is quiet. Up on the high hill are the neighbhorhoods of Balcones, Atascadero and Ojo de Agua, with their million-dollar views at night over the valley, and the sunsets that fall down over San Miguel every night with an awed hush.  Here on the eastern slope are houses with five bedrooms and seven baths, infinity-edge pools, and walls of glass that separate the gorgeous colonial living rooms with boveda ceilings from the long terraces with their beautiful iron patio furniture.

In the morning, all is dark on the eastern slope, the slumber of the haves still undisturbed and ongoing.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Who's Getting Married Tonight?

On a gorgeous, warm November afternoon I stepped out of the door of a hardware store and into the middle of a 10-piece mariachi band, the guys with the crisp white suits and brass horns, who differ from the fellows in black who line the four squares of the jardin at night.  With their cream velvet sombreros safely fastened to their heads, they led a group of well-dressed (though not well-heeled) guests. Each of the male wedding guests wore a sober black suit, a true rarity in San Miguel, and the women were dressed in long, backless gowns and the most ridiculous shoes you can imagine.  Each had a pair of four-inch stilettos, some in that wide-toed, boxy shape with the thick heel that seems to be popular now.  One poor teen had to walk up on the sidewalk hanging onto her father's shoulder below, unable to handle the street.  Her shoes looked like Mother Hubbard's, laced up and black, on a spike that must have been six inches.  

But aside from the shoes, more interesting were the three trucks of federales, each carrying about five well-armed officers following the procession as it headed south down Aldama towards the park.  I was in the middle of the group, noticeable because I was in jeans, flip flops and a sleeveless white t-shirt.  Not wanting to cut in front and go around the mariachis, I carried on with the wedding party, and had time to look around at the crowd.  Next to me was a beefy dude with sunglasses and the curly plastic ear piece you see on bodyguards or secret servicemen.  What made him a little different was the black canvas bag he was carrying, shaped like a violin case, but clearly holding something else.  Next to him was another guy with the same bag.  And ahead of them two more on both sides of the sidewalk.

We walked together until I got to Ancho San Antonio, where they turned left, uphill, presumably headed to the Instituto Allende for the reception.  At the corner where we parted ways were six more trucks of Mexican police, with no less than two dozens cops, and a few guys posted among the jacaranda trees, guns, walkie talkies, and sunglasses at the ready.  Who was getting married tonight?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Jenny on the Block

Jenny joyriding on her quadrimoto.
San Miguel has a lot of strong women.  Sam would tell you that I surround myself with them. It's not intentional. I guess it's just like gravitating toward like.  My friend, Jenny Hensley, who arrived in August with her husband, Pablo, and three sons, is just one of them.  Tonight, after bringing Bo home on her quadrimoto, and getting ready to head back with her son, Will, in tow in the dark, I asked her about driving these things at night.  Last Saturday night she was going to meet Janan for a drum concert in Centro (Janan, another one of these women: a former drummer herself and the financial brains and chief axe at her two Chicago restaurants, Webster's Bar and Grill and The Bluebird).

Janan and her new boyfriend, Benjamin Lara.
Ladies Night at Benjamin's.
Halfway to Tio Lucas Jenny was stopped by a San Miguel police officer with a loud whistle and a gesture to pull over to the sidewalk. Right now my heart would have halfway exploded.  I am terrified of the police; I don't know why.   I assume, always, that I have done something wrong.  In broken English he told her she was driving without lights and without her helmet.  (San Miguel instituted a helmet law about six months ago, much to the bewilderment of locals, who aren't used to any regulation of their driving styles.  It is not uncommon to see a small child on the driver's lap; up to 15 people in the back of a pickup truck; or a family of five on one motorcycle, including an infant on the mother's hip.)

On a completely different note, at this very moment I'm typing next to Bo, who as a special treat gets to sleep in my bed because Sam is out and I don't want him waking me up when he gets home.  And Bo wants to test out "the canoe" which is what Sam calls the huge divet on his side of the bed.  (Reddy already had his turn, when he announced, "It's Canoe Night for the Redster.")  So Bo just said, "Darn it, darn it, darn it.  I've got a boner."  "Why darn it?" I casually ask.  "Because it feels so weird."   To which I reply, even more casually, "You'll like it when you're older."  "Really?"  "Yeah."  "OK," he says, and goes to sleep. 

So after Jenny explains, in broken Spanish, that she didn't know there was a helmet law and that her model of quadrimoto (a little 4WD ATV contraption popular here because it's easier to park) doesn't even have lights, he tells her to pull it around the corner, off the main street.  She asks him what she can do because she doesn't want a ticket or to have to go to the police station.  "Put 100 pesos into a piece of paper for me," he tells her.  So she looks into her wallet but only has 70, which she offers to him and which he declines.  "Go the bank," he tells her, but leave your moto here.  So she walks up the street to the OXO, kind of alike a 7-11, with the same really bad hot dogs, and gets money out of the bank. But it comes out all in 500-peso notes, so she stands in a line of about 15 people and buys a bag of M&Ms to get some change.  Then she walks back to her moto to give the cop his bribe. She wasn't even nervous (until she saw that one of his buddies had arrived).  Was she supposed to give him the money in front of the other cop, because obviously they're all in on the game, or was it still supposed to be some clandestine transfer?  He walked away from his friend, and with his back to him, quickly took her paper, and without opening it, shoved it into his pocket.  Then he told her to walk to the bar and pick up her moto in the morning.  Which she did.  And she wasn't even scared.

(Sam and I had our one-and-so-far-only brush with the local cops when we parked illegally outside of a friend's house to unload some goods.  We weren't in long, but when we came out the cop had already removed our license plates with his handy wrench.   This was a Saturday of a holiday weekend; he told us they could impound our car and we could go to the municipal office to get our plates and pay a fine the following Tuesday.  So I asked him if we could pay him to put the plates back on.  He pretended to consider it, then  looked up and down the block, took his wrench back out, and put the plates on the car.  He too told us something about a piece of paper (guess it's just the thing here, this paper deal--does it make it less illegal if you wrap the mordida up in something else?).  So I gave 300 pesos to Sam, who told me this was no time to be cheap, and he added another 200 (or $40).  It's probably equivalent to a week's wage, which is why the cops are all on the take in the first place. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

City Weekend / Country Weekend

Last weekend loomed long: the boys had friends, Alya and Will, sleep over, and the predictable late-night revelry left everyone sleep-deprived and grumpy in the morning.  So even with a late start we decided to hit the road and visit Leon, the leather and shoe capital of Mexico, a city of 1.1 million northwest of San Miguel.  (During WWII factories here outfitted the US Army fighting in Europe.)  I thought it was about an hour and a quarter, a fact that made the trip more attractive when we set out.   Two hours later we arrived in an odd town which bore no resemblance to my mind's image of it.  Where was the leather market?  The bovine theme?  The huge display of shoes?  The cool, leathery Mexican place I was picturing?   Instead there was block after block of Plasti-Mundo places, selling cheap trinkets, hairbands, keychains and the like.  Sam dubbed Leon "one big Dollar Store."  Happily, the boys did find some wonderful cowboy boots, a bargain at $32.  And I found a great bag whose authenticity I'm still trying to prove: is it real, or is it pleather?  We passed the airport on the way home, and I tried to convince Sam to pull in and just see when the next flight left, and to where.  The kids could wear their new boots and we could buy clothes when we got there, wherever that was.  But daylight was now fading and it seemed perhaps a waste of time at this hour.  So we kept driving, missed our exit, and spent two and half hours on some back-country roads through Irapuato, Salamanca and Celaya, making our way home.

Sunday arrived and we needed to make up for the Leon misstep with some in-town fun. An American volunteer named Elsmarie Norsby works with kids in an impoverished part of town called Ojala.  They come to her house a couple of times a week to create art in her studio.  She started out with a handful, and now has 70 kids, many of whom come from homes without running water or electricity.  She says that they are so happy to be able to wash their hands and use her bathroom.  Some sneak cookies out in their pockets to give to their siblings at home.  For the first time she decided to sell their artwork, with all the proceeds going directly to the child who created the piece. The setting, her studio and home, is just ten minutes from our house, but feels like another part of the world.  Each of the boys picked out a piece they liked: Bo got a bookmark with a squirrel drawing by Balthazar; Mason, an unsigned sponge drawing of a fanciful cat; and Redding, a pencil can by Enrique.  I found a mosaic tile and another sponge drawing of two cats, and Sam grabbed a very realistic drawing for the kitchen of an avocado and a bunch of radishes, each between 30 and 80 pesos ($2.40-$6.80).  Feedback from the sale reported the kids over the moon.

Walking down the road to the art sale in Ojala.  The sprays of color in the greenery are paper flowers tied to corn stalks.

A boy emerges from the field with his herd of sheep.
This is Brenda, who made the mosaic tile I purchased.

At the art sale we ran into our friends, Tom and Janan MacDonald, their kids, Will and Alya, and Janan's parents who are visiting for 10 days.  A plan was hatched to meet at La Gruta, the first hot springs we ever visited when we came to San Miguel five years ago.  For some reason, we had never been back.  A shame, because it's a fantastic place.  Lots of outdoor pools and greenery, and then this fantastic cave that you access through a long, covered tunnel with chest-high water.  Once inside, the only light is from a small hole bored through the top of the dome. The water temperature, heated naturally by underground springs, is about 100 degrees.  You sweat for a while, get a massage under a pounding stream of water when the valve is opened, then swim back out into the sunshine.  There are plenty of waiters, plenty of tables, and plenty of space for the kids to run around.  It ended up the perfect day---culture, country, sunshine, swimming, and micheladas (beer with lime juice, salt, worcester sauce, and chili powder.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Another Sunday in the Country

Everyone knows someone who hates Sundays.  My older sister Amy has never liked them. My good friend Marian in Los Angeles self-medicates on Sunday nights.  Something about the end of the weekend, an uneasy nervousness about the week ahead, gives many people the Sunday night frights.  But this Sunday was amazing, in that unexpected, unplanned San Miguel way, when someone mentions something casually about some kind of get together. So you make a couple of side dishes, throw some beers in a cooler and you go.  You never quite know what to expect because everything here is so last-minute and so spontaneous and so open (bring your friends, bring your kids, bring something to share!).  You never believe it can come together, but it always does, partly because the settings are invariably fantastic, and partly because the people you meet are always rather un-ordinary and pleasing people with whom to spend a Sunday.

Mid-afternoon we drove east out of town on the road to Queretaro, turning right just past my favorite junkyard/iron shop onto a perfectly straight and pot-holed road lined with cosmos in bloom to a  rural community called Jalpa.  Following us were Janan and Tom MacDonald, and their two kids, Alya and Will.  Janan and Tom moved to San Miguel from Chicago where they own two restaurants called Webster's Wine Bar and The Bluebird.  But that's another story.  We were heading to some land owned by Ronnie and Rose, two folks we know from Waldorf, the kids' school, who are very involved in the green movement in Mexico through their stewardship of a group called Organic Consumers Society.  Their house was described to me as being about six kilometers into Jalpa, on the left, up the hill between two big houses, one a California-style rancher and the other Mexican Mediterranean.  After more than an hour of searching, and driving through the completely buckled and washed out dirt roads of Jalpa, passing a pack of feral dogs, a few muchachos riding their horses bareback, and one family picnicing under the trees in a field full of purple and yellow wildflowers, sectioned off by low stone walls reminiscent of rural Ireland, we turned around when we reached a T in the road and started back.

Figuring at this point we had nothing to lose (and having pulled over and thrown our three boys into the car with Tom and Janan because they were driving us crazy with some incessant nonsense about lugies--what color they are, what constitutes a lugie, who hocked up a lugie on whom), we studied the hillside, now on our right, to see if there were any houses somewhere in the green mountains that we had missed.  An lo and behold, there was.  The camouflaged Via Organica recycling bag that Rose and Ronnie had hung from an acacia tree at the entrance to their house was now slightly visible. But more importantly, high up on the bluff we could see figures moving around under a stone palapa.  A third of an uphill mile later we parked the car under some scrub and carried our cooler up a few more steps to find an outdoor firepit in full burn, a comal atop of it with a pile of vegetables roasting.  And a 30-mile view over the campo on all four sides.

Because the house is so far from anything else, there is no running water and no toilet (except for the nifty compost one they installed in a stone outhouse).  But there are a cistern to catch rainwater from the roof, an indoor sleeping space with a wood-burning chiminea and room for cards and legos (spread out on a big sheet on the floor), and an extension cord or some such thing running from a neighbor down in the valley to their place. So while there's no electricity per se (Ronnie said they're waiting until they have more money before they can get their own power line) we had music and, as night started to fall, a light.

The kids took off through the cacti to find a field in the valley below, the perfect pitch for a baseball game.  Fernando, the eternal host and our buddy from Mexicali, threw turkey arrachera on the firepit while Rose made quesadillas with chipotle flor de calabeza cheese, and Pablo and Jenny put a pot of beet soup on the coals.  Later we wandered down hill and met Manual and his wife, Rosa, the family from whom Rose and Ronnie bought their land.

They own hectares for as far as the eye can see, but have sold a few parcels here and there to Americans, who aren't farmers and prefer the un-tillable land with the great views on top of the mountain (a far more reasonable purchase than land below that can be farmed). Manuel gave us a walking tour of the property, proudly pointing out the bordo, the livestock's watering hole; his turkey and sheep pens; and his overgrown stand of maguey plants and pomegranate trees.  He and Rosa have nine children, seven of whom moved to the States to find work.  Though he looked about 40, he said his two youngest boys, ages 16 and 17, are still at home.  I imagine it's just a matter of time before the call of the American dollar lures his last two over the border.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Caras en La Calle

Every morning on the block of Orizaba between 20 de enero and 28 de abril a woman about 60 years old sweeps the street for about 50 yards on either side of her door.  She looks to have just woken up.  Her hair is a pile of frizz, and she wears a poly-cotton house dress that goes from the neck to about mid-calf, printed in either blue and white checks, or a pink and white floral, with a row of snaps from top to bottom.  On her feet are grey socks bunched up around her ankles and a pair of dusty, gray men's loafers.  We pass her at 7:37 every morning, as we head to the bus stop on our new route up 28 de abril (less incline, wider sidewalk, fewer unbroken cobblestones).  When cars come down Orizaba, she stands on the sidewalk, guarding her pile from blowing away in their exhaust, then she resumes the gathering of the night's bougainvillea leaves and snack wrappers.    

I saw her two days ago on Calzada de la Aurora, about a mile from home, on the other side of town.  Incredibly she was dressed: in a colorless suit and stockings and the same flat, black slip-ons that all Mexican senoras wear.  I don't know that I would have recognized her outside of the neighborhood.  But she had the same lopsided smile from a cleft palate that never got repaired.

In Spanish immersion class at Habla Hispana, my teacher Enrique speaks of voces en la calle, street slang or literally, voices in the street, as he tries to teach us to speak less academically and more like a local.  I love this phrase.  It makes me think also of the faces in the street, caras en la calle, that I see regularly.  San Miguel is a small town; its eccentrics and vendors and beggars and street sweepers become familiar very quickly.  Here are a few of the people you will see if you visit San Miguel, if not the first day, by the end of your week.  

The knife sharpener on his bicycle.

Everisto, our favorite horse cop, dressed as a Wise Man for Navidad.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Hearse in the Neighborhood

A black hearse waited in front of the neighbor's door for at least two hours.  When I left to get the morning's hot rolls and a small bag of eggs from the Farmacia Guadalajara, it was parked at the curb, engine off, silent and disturbing.  In Mexico no one departs by hearse.  You are sent off with a somber file of townspeople, dressed in street clothes, carrying a clutch of red and white carnations, all on foot snaking through the dry streets to the cemetery behind the Dragon Chino and next to the circus grounds.  I arrived back from my errands at nine o'clock.  Still the hearse sat at the curb, grotesque and ugly, taking up more space than it deserved.  Finally four well-dressed men and women came outside, got into a car, and turning slowly to the right, and down the block, made a left and disappeared from view.  No one came out to the hearse.  What could take so long?  They should come for the body, take it away.  No need to linger, when they should know the sight of their vehicle is a jolt, particularly when it's parked outside your front door.  What if they got the address wrong, and they actually meant to come for you?

I leave again, walking to the plaza to buy Friday's newspaper from the portly vendor who measures nearly as wide as he is long.  His voice is like dark chocolate in a cement mixer, full of rocks and a bit of dulce.  Everyone in town greets him--he is our link to the outside world--though he is gruff in return, but means nothing by it.  This you can tell by the way he wears his striped wool scarf wrapped twice around his neck, the frayed ends hanging down on either side of his face, all year long.

When I return I walk into my barrio.  And there is the hearse, parked three streets away from my house.  There is no one in the driver's seat, and now the baby-blue curtain that covered the back window is ruched and pulled to the side.  The backseat is filled by a matching blue coffin, its heavy metal corners poking against the glass.  The back window is cracked about six inches, enough to let in a little air on this hot afternoon.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Color of Mexico

Agave in the fields of a sisal plantation in the Yucatan (photo taken through my new polarized sunglasses)

"Must be surreal surrounded by all those colors all the time," wrote my friend Jorie today in an email from the States.  She was commenting on some photos we had taken during our summer in the Yucatan. It never really occurred to me, beyond the gorgeous blue mornings, the terracotta and mustard buildings, the huge clouds--see-through yet so very white--and all the red, white and green trappings of nationalism, just how right she is, just how much color there is in Mexican daily life.  Here there is almost no black--not in dress, not in storefronts, not in fabrics.
Building and star on Tenerias in San Miguel de Allende
Our friend's baby napping at the water park (the fork is so that no one steps on him)
The boys with local weavers in Zinacatun, Chiapas
Graffiti in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas
Beans in the market in San Cristobal
Typical shop on the andador (pedestrian wallkway), San Cristobal

Fruit stand in San Cristobal
Harvesting sisal at a plantation outside of Merida, Yucatan
"Tahiti" in the town of Bacalar, Quintana Roo
Roadside chicken in Bacalar
The pastel houses of Campeche
A church in the Yucatan
Everyone's favorite view in San Miguel, looking north on Aldama
Beaded bracelets at the artisans market, San Miguel
Cinco de Mayo Parade in Puebla
Random saint in Puebla
Castillos (fireworks towers) in the jardin in San Miguel