A Visual Place

17 May

San Miguel continues to delight the senses at every turn, and finally my camera is operational so I can share a small sampling of what I see everyday.

Although we’ve made a few excursions outside of the central historical district, we mostly hang out in town, wandering the streets and every day uncovering new delights.  In general the layout of the city center is a straight grid, a configuration favored by the Spanish during colonial times, yet due to the hilly terrain many streets are not precisely straight.  There are no parking meters and very few parking lots.  There are no traffic signals or fast food restaurants.  The streets are lined with colonial era homes and churches and the architecture is generally domestic rather than monumental.  The majority of buildings have solid walls against the sidewalks, with facades of ochre, orange and yellow, with windows and doors framed by handcrafted ironwork.  Vines of bougainvillea cascade over walls and fences behind which are hundreds of interior courtyards, generally well-tended and protected from the dust of the cobblestone streets.  Unlike Panama City with its huge skyscrapers and modern construction, San Miguel’s buildings are rarely more than four stories tall and its skyline is filled with steeples and bell towers and dominated by La Parroquia, the parish church of San Miguel.  One of the most photographed churches in Mexico,  it can be seen easily from all over town; we have a fabulous view of it from our upper deck.  Built in the 17th century as a traditional Mexican church, it was modified in the late 1800s by an indigenous bricklayer and self-taught architect, Zeferino Gutierrez, who added a neo-gothic facade thought to have been inspired by postcards of European churches.  You’ll catch a glimpse of it in the slideshow below.

Cobblestone streets will no doubt strengthen one’s ankles, but the flat stone sidewalks can be downright treacherous, having been worn smooth and slippery by millions of traveling feet.  The sidewalks are narrow and I’ve yet to discern the proper etiquette when approaching another person since it often requires one or the other of us to step into the street temporarily.  Some of the streets have cobblestones embedded in concrete while others are embedded in dirt or gravel.  In addition to being hard to walk on, cobblestones appear to be unkind to one’s automobile — imagine the effect on shock absorbers, tires, etc.  One of the pluses is that traffic necessarily moves more slowly and the major streets have speed bumps, also fashioned of cobblestones, so there’s a leisure about the pace of automobile traffic.  As a true California girl, I have never imagined a life without a car, the quintessential symbol of independence and freedom, yet being carless in San Miguel has turned out to be preferable.  The transportation system is excellent with Mercedes-Benz buses and taxi cabs in proliferation.  Buses run all over town, every ten minutes, and cost 6 pesos, about $.60, no matter how far one goes.  Taxi cabs are plentiful and rarely cost more than 30 pesos, about $2.50 to any destination in town; so far the longest we have had to wait for a cab is about 60 seconds.  When we go grocery shopping at the big “mega” store on the outskirts of town, not only does the taxi driver deliver us directly to our front door, but he carries the groceries into the kitchen as well.  Having enjoyed the ease of Panama’s adoption of the U.S. dollar, I was not looking forward to learning about currency conversion, math being my least favorite subject, yet it hasn’t been as difficult as I had anticipated.  Earlier this week the Mexican peso lost 1 percent against the dollar as the Greek fiasco plays out and the current exchange rate is around 13.8 pesos to the dollar; when we arrived five weeks ago it was closer to 12.5.

Discovering the way things work here has its challenges — and charms.  For example, it turns out that the garbage truck announces its arrival on our street by ringing bells.  We erroneously interpreted the charming sound of the bells as perhaps the ice cream man so our garbage piled up until we finally figured it out.  The garbage truck stops in the middle of the block, rings its bells, and everyone comes out with their bags of garbage.  Then we stand it line and take turns handing the bags up to the guy in the truck.  It appears there may be some recycling going on but not much.  We took Oliver for his first haircut — 200 pesos ($16) for bath and cut.  Unfortunately my Spanish betrayed me in that some of my instructions were “mis-heard” — or more likely “mis-communicated.”  He returned with fewer eye lashes and the outside of his ears were shaved so he looks a little like a wet puppy.  Fortunately he doesn’t appear to be embarrassed by his new look and  it will, of course, grow back.  The learning curve continues.  The grooming place came highly recommended and is run by a bi-lingual veterinarian who is reported to be an amazing healer — I’ve heard many stories including one in which he carried a dying toy poodle around in a sling for two weeks, day and night, until it recovered.  He is a show dog enthusiast as well which means he is especially appreciative of Oliver’s handsomeness.  There’s a picture of his new grooming place in the slideshow that accompanies this post.  And speaking of Oliver, he now has a dog walker to supplement our personal travels.  Francisco arrives at our door three mornings a week, just after 7 a.m., and takes Oliver, along with 4 or 5 other dogs, for a walk/run (sometimes Francisco is on his bicycle) for an hour and a half.   After initial reluctance, Oliver now eagerly awaits Francisco’s arrival and already, even after only a few weeks, he is definitely thinner, having gained weight in the lethargy of Panama.

We continue to meet new people and find new restaurants, learning evermore about San Miguel.  Yesterday we visited the Biblioteca, founded in 1954 as a lending library for children.  It is now the second largest private bilingual library in Latin America, holding more than 60,000 volumes.  During its 50 plus year history it has evolved into the cultural center of the city with a theater, cafe, classes, workshops, etc.  The children of San Miguel can take art classes there without cost and they sell their unframed paintings and drawings for 100 pesos (about $8) with half going to the child-artist and the rest to support the program.  And I learned that expats go there in the afternoons between 4 and 5:30 to practice their Spanish with one another.  I think I’ll try it.

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