A Singular Place

5 May

The official name of Mexico is the “United Mexican States” or Estados Unidos Mexicanos.  I didn’t know that.  Nor did I know that Mexico is a federation comprised of 31 states, with the capital, Mexico City, a federal district similar to Washington D.C.  In retrospect it seems strange to me that I know so little of this country, having grown up in Arizona and California, both of which share a border with Mexico.  I remember studying South America in the 4th or 5th grade but I recall nothing about Mexico; having a checkered academic past, perhaps I was distracted during the Mexico module.  I remember going to Tijuana when I was about 8 and as an adult I have spent a week in Cabo San Lucas and ten days on the Yucatan peninsula.  I like Mexican food and can sing “La Bamba” in Spanish; otherwise I’m clueless.  And now I live here, in the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende, State of Guanajuato, in the United Mexican States.

Historically San Miguel de Allende, commonly referred to as San Miguel, was the first town in Mexico to declare its independence from Spanish rule during the Mexican War of Independence (1810-1821).  It is also known as the birthplace of Ignacio Allende, an early leader of the rebellion, whose surname was added to the town’s name in 1826.  Yet in spite of its auspicious beginnings, by the beginning of the 20th century San Miguel was in danger of becoming a ghost town.  In 1937 the seeds of its renaissance were planted by a young American, a Princeton graduate with a trust fund.  A writer and artist, Stirling Dickenson had first come to Mexico in 1934 to research a book, Mexican Odyssey, and then in 1937 found his way to San Miguel.  Although he had done post-graduate study at the Art Institute of Chicago, he knew enough to know that he would never be a great artist.  However his love of art led him to become the first director of San Miguel’s first art school, the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes located in a former convent, and  then, in the early 1940s, to establish another art and cultural school, the Instituto Allende.  Then after the Second World War the United States Congress passed the G.I. bill which allowed U.S. veterans to study abroad; some came to San Miguel.  In 1947 Life magazine published a three page article entitled, “G.I. Paradise:  Veterans go to Mexico to Study Art, Live Cheaply and have a Good Time.”   As a result of this article, more than 6,000 G.I.s applied for admission to the Instituto Allende at a time when the population of San Miguel was only 10,000; 100 were accepted.  The town’s regeneration was well under way as more and more G.I.s, artists and writers arrived spurring the need for new hotels, shops and restaurants.  In the 1950s the town took on a Bohemian quality; in the counterculture environment of the 1960s, hippies arrived, many of whom appear to have remained.  There is a huge population of vintage VWs here, vans and beetles alike, and Birkenstock sandals on bearded aging gringos a common sight.  Americans are credited with having saved the town from obscurity and unlike many other places around the world, Americans are warmly embraced here; it is estimated that one out of every ten residents is an American.  Today there are more than 100 non-profit organizations in San Miguel, all of which are headed by Americans, a fact which is well known and much appreciated among the native population.

The growing attraction of the town and its colorful colonial buildings created a vibrant real estate market which seemed more or less immune to the ups and downs of the Mexican economy since most of the real estate buyers were foreigners.  The real estate market peaked here in 2008 and has been depressed ever since with prices falling 25 to 45 percent.  It is not only the world’s economic woes that have affected real estate but the onslaught of  negative press regarding drugs, cartels, crime rates, kidnappings, etc., none of which are evident in San Miguel.

We have rented a house  just down the way from where we were staying and like many structures in San Miguel, it is narrow and vertical with a small garden and a fabulous book collection including old New Yorker magazines and Stanford Law Journals.  Our landlords are both Stanford graduates and a delight; they live just a few blocks away.  We moved in on Wednesday and had our first guests for cocktails last night.

Walking about in the evenings, one hears music coming from bars and restaurants, the majority of which is live.  In the main square, known as the garden, musicians wander with guitars and trumpets and art galleries abound.  Dogs and children populate the narrow sidewalks, green and white taxis navigate the cobblestone streets, and one hears singing at all times of the day and night.  It is a happy place.

It is tempting to make comparisons between Mexico and Panama but to do so is largely unfair since not only is San Miguel not representative of Mexico, but neither was our residency in a small corner of Panama.  Nonetheless I am compelled to make a few general observations.  First, San Miguel is very clean, as was the road we travelled from Mexico City (a toll road which may have been a factor).  Although it may exist, I have yet to see any razor wire in San Miguel; rather stucco or adobe walls are topped with either decorative rod iron spikes, or broken glass artfully arranged by color.  While safety bars adorn windows they appear more as exercises in rod iron art with decorative flourishes.  Because of the large expat population English is widely spoken and even more widely understood.  And, surprisingly, things seem cheaper.  We have just returned from the “Saturday market,” a weekly outdoor organic market complete with live music (a guitarist/signer and a bass player), and lots of expats in an acquisition mood; we got some fabulous cheese, a quiche, a brownie, and some homemade bread.

Our boxes are scheduled to arrive from Panama in the next few days so I’ll find the cord to connect my camera to the computer and my next post will have photos — I promise!

A New Day Dawning

25 Apr

In contrast to Panama when the night sky would recede by 5:30 in the morning and the sunrise seemed to come at warp speed, morning arrives slowly in San Miguel — almost reluctantly.  It is still dark at 6:30 in the morning and there’s a leisure about the way the morning comes on.   This aura of placidity translates to the sense of things here, to the ease with which people move about; one senses a lightheartedness, a kind of joie de vivre.

We have been easing into our new life slowly, having contracted some sort of virus on our third day here, the remains of which continue to linger.  Our one-month rental obtained over the internet, sight unseen, has turned out to be perfect.  It is located in the central district (“colonia centro”) just off of a pedestrian walkway a block from a major (albeit narrow) cobblestoned street.  Steps from our door is the Cafe Monet, a charming restaurant owned and operated by our landlord which serves excellent food at reasonable prices (a delicious omelette is 35 pesos or about $2.60 USD, eggs benedict 65 pesos or about $5.00) and excellent coffee “Americano.”

Inspired by Oliver’s eagerness to explore, on our first morning out he led us to Juarez Park just a few blocks from here down a lovely tree-lined street.  Parque Benito Juárez is a large and beautiful park designed in the French style with fountains, wrought iron benches, old bridges and footpaths.  Established at the beginning of the 20th century on the banks of a river, there is a children’s playground along with a couple of basketball courts.  It is here on these basketball courts that I have encountered a large aerobics class on both Saturday and Sunday mornings, with at least 100 people participating, both Mexican and gringo, mostly women but about 10 percent male.  The garden area is filled with lovely lush plants and trees of the region including large pepper trees and jacarandas, now in full bloom.  Fountains and ponds abound and I’m told to be on the lookout for the numerous white egrets that reside here.  There’s a charming gazebo, the site of impromptu concerts by local musicians late in the evenings.  In the morning hours the park is filled with a combination of dogs on leash, joggers, tai chi practitioners, coffee drinkers, and almost always a pick-up basketball game; it is a delight.  And speaking of Oliver, although I may be imagining it, he seems happier with a new spring in his step and a renewed eagerness for adventure.  Fully recovered from the trauma of his journey, he has responded to the cooler temperatures and lack of humidity that, in retrospect, weighed us all down in Panama.  As evidence of his improved temperament, he has resumed playing a hide-and-seek game with me that he hasn’t played since we left California and many people we pass on the street have commented, “What a happy dog!”

Indeed we are all thriving from the weather which has been nearly perfect.  Cool nights, cool mornings (I usually have to wear a sweatshirt for our morning walk), with warm afternoons (mid to high 80s).  There’s almost always a breeze with extremely low humidity; with the altitude the air is reminiscent of a summer afternoon at Lake Tahoe.  It turns out that April and May are the warmest months of the year with temperatures during the summer cooling into the 70s.  And it is the summer months that bring the rains, generally about 5 inches a month for a total average annual rainfall of around 20 inches

We spend our days looking for a home to rent and have found it to be an excellent process by which to learn about the city.  It is indeed a beautiful city with a well-preserved historic center populated with 17th and 18th century Baroque colonial architecture.  I will take pictures to post here but for the moment I can’t find the cord that connects my camera to my computer; I apologize.  It is easy to see why in 2008 UNESCO designated San Miguel as a World Heritage site; it is reported that the city looks much the way it did 250 years ago with the charm and feel of old Europe.  The cobblestone lanes rise and fall over hilly terrain, not unlike the streets of San Francisco.  There appear to be no zoning regulations and residential and commercial establishments sit side by side.  It is said that there are some 2,000 doors in San Miguel, behind which are 2,000 courtyards.  Unlike the United States where we tend to show off our homes to passersby, i.e., curb appeal, here everything is hidden behind doors of many colors.  We have gone to see a house which appeared unimpressive from the street only to walk into a courtyard which took our breath away.  We’re hoping to make a housing decision by week’s end.

So far we’ve met several interesting people including Barry, a retired ad executive from New York; Beverly, a widow from Newport Beach; Joseph from Raleigh, North Carolina; Peggy from Austin, Texas; and “Hutch” and Mary from San Francisco.  We’ve already been invited to a dinner party and met up with some other folks this afternoon for cocktails (and ginger ale) at Harry’s Bar, a fabulous place complete with Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole for musical accompaniment. To quote a line from the Disiderata, “no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

The Departure / The Arrival

11 Apr

10 April 2012.  The Republic of Panama

The alarm was set for 3 a.m. but we arose before it went off, having slept fitfully.  We dressed, had a quick cup of coffee, and zipped up the last duffle bag in preparation for our 4 o’clock airport pickup.  Oliver, our beloved English Cocker Spaniel, was edgy and nervous, pacing the floor and looking anxious. The car and driver arrived on time and after loading our bags and Oliver’s travel crate, we started out on our next adventure with Oliver sitting on my lap in the back seat. The darkness prevented us from seeing much of the road we had come to know so well as we journeyed for the last time down the mountain toward the sea.  During our 13-month sojourn in the township of Sora, District of Chame, Republic of Panama, this was the road that had led us to everywhere and anywhere we had wanted or needed to go.  We saw lights coming on in the houses along the road and the car headlights spilled over small groups (mostly students) waiting for the bus that would take them down the mountain.  As the dawn began to emerge we turned onto the Panamerican Highway and noticed increasing numbers of people awaiting bus transportation for their trip to school or work place, many seemingly headed into Panama City.  The darkness had evaporated by the time we passed over the Bridge of the Americas which spans the Panama Canal, that 51-mile waterway that changed the ways of the world, and we passed the multitude of skyscrapers, including the one in which we have lived when we first arrived in Panama nearly 14 months ago.  Then the 15-mile drive along the Pacific, passing the high-rise towers of Costa Este, shimmering as the sun rose out of the water, arriving at the airport in the morning light at 6 a.m.  The Tocumen International Airport is known as the gateway to the Americas and in 2011 it served over 5 million passengers; the check-in line was long.  But after about an hour we watched Oliver, ensconced in his crate, go the way of all baggage and we were left to sit and wait another hour before boarding our 3 hour and 50 minute flight to Mexico City.

The Benito Juarez International Airport, located 8 miles east of the historical center of Mexico City, is one of the busiest airports in all of Latin American and handles over 21 million passengers annually.  Currently Mexico City is ranked as either the second or third largest city in the world with over 20 million residents.  The airport is huge and it took us over 10 minutes to taxi to our gate.  It is attractive in appearance and efficient in its procedures; nonetheless we experienced unforeseen difficulties since Oliver’s “papers” were not considered to be in order.  We were delayed a few hours while we negotiated a solution that resulted in a veterinarian coming to the airport to administer some medication.  Finally we were underway just after 5 in the afternoon and commenced the 180 mile drive to San Miguel de Allende, in the good hands of Estaban, our driver.  Located at about 7200 feet elevation, midway between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean, Mexico City lies in a valley forty miles wide and sixty miles long, known as the Valley of Mexico.  It was through this fertile valley that we traveled, surrounded by mountains and volcanoes that rose to elevations of over 16,000 ft.   It reminded us both of other places — many other places.  At times it seemed like Napa Valley, or parts of California’s Central Valley, or perhaps New Mexico, or Northern Arizona.  Although south of the Tropic of Cancer the landscape that greeted us seemed anything but tropical.  Having left the jungle of Panama, we now saw pepper trees, willows, flowering jacarandas, oaks and laurels.  We drove by grasslands, acres of grazing cattle, dairy farms, fields of alfalfa and many other crops.  Occasional rain showers passed overhead and more than one rainbow came into view.  The road took us northwest into an absolutely stunning sunset.  I realized then how long it had been since I had seen a sunset; where we lived in Panama the sun went over the mountain and set somewhere in the Caribbean.

6 o’clock, 7 o’clock, and the sun remained visible in the western sky.  It seemed strange to us for during our time in Panama the sun always went over the mountain around 5:30 and set somewhere around 6:15 or 6:30, day after day, month after month with very little variation providing approximately 12 hours of daylight all year long.  Panama is on Eastern Standard Time and only 8 degrees north of the equator whereas Mexico City is on Central Daylight Time and 19 degrees north of the equator.  Even though the clocks reveal the same hour in both places, the quality of the light is markedly different.  The sun finally set around 8 o’clock as we continued our journey, drawing ever nearer to our destination.  Shortly before 9 o’clock, having descended nearly 1,000 feet in elevation, we saw the first lights of San Miguel de Allende.  As our driver negotiated the narrow, hilly cobblestone streets, we were enchanted by the sights and sounds:  people out for an evening stroll, dogs being walked on leash (a rarity in Panama), outdoor cafes, the sounds of guitar music.  We found our way to Casa Paloma, the home we rented for a month while we search for longer-term accommodations.  Happy and exhausted we fell into bed, Oliver included, and all three of us sleep soundly until 9 o’clock the next morning.  So it begins.