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.