guanajuato and san miguel de allende

May 21, 2013

Of late I have been basking in the golden-hued, cobble-stoned, old-world charm of Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende. I have been wandering the laneways, devouring books, eating well. It`s been everything that I was trying not to hope for from Mexico. Horribly tedious stuff to read from a travel blog, I know.


Right now I´m in San Miguel, a place that is known as something of a Disneyland for American retirees, and there`s truth in that description. The picturesque laneways and fashionable shops on the south end of town are crowded with ageing foreigners; men with skin tanned to leather, women with plastic cat faces and perfectly round and buoyant breasts. The bookshop is filled with mid-life-crisis memoirs, self-help books and `Gringo`s Guide to…` series. The local newsletter advertises 12 step programmes and support groups aplenty. I´m not criticising though. If I end up here in the twilight of my life with a new set of youthful features, a villa overlooking el Jardin Principal and a pretty young man to come and clean the pool once a week well that would be just fine.

Maria y Alejandro

I am halfway through a two week Spanish course in San Miguel. It feels good to be learning and I feel like my Spanish is getting somewhere. I`m staying with a family and this extra aspect of immersion has pushed me further. It`s satisfying to be able to joke, converse and have actual relationships with people exclusively in another language.

I live with Alejandro and Maria, a couple in their 50s. Maria is jovial and friendly; patiently negotiating and drawing out the jumbled Spanish of her lodgers. Alejandro works on a ranch close to San Miguel, growing alfalfa among other things I assume. Somehow the business of alfalfa seems incongruous with his tall, masculine presence. Alejandro is less effusive than Maria, but equally patient and friendly. He wears his cowboy hat even at the dinner table and this, combined with his deep voice, big moustache and sideburns and tanned and strong forearms, impresses me greatly.

Alejandro and Santi

Dinnertime is my favourite with the family as we often watch novellas on the television. Each night our empanadas are accompanied by convoluted storylines featuring gory deaths-by-coyote, illicit marriages, surprise pregnancies, montages of kissing/crying/kissing and crying/kissing while lone saxophonist performs a solo in the background.

Hostage roll call:

We`re an eccentric and unlikely bunch at the Habla Hispana Spanish school. I´ve been reading Bel Canto, a book set in an unidentified Latin American country telling the story of a hostage scenario gone awry. It`s put me in mind of our own group dynamic and how a hostage scenario might pan out among us. Allow me to introduce the kidnapees:

LUKE also lodges with Maria and Alejandro. Luke is 29 and used to earn his living touring rodeos. Now he lives in Eagle, Colorado and works as a ski patroller during the winter (helping people who get into trouble in the snow, inducing avalanches and other acts of daring) and as a river guide in the summer. I like the fact that he works with the same water all year round but in different manifestations. Luke may be the only really sane student at Habla Hispana, so I feel pretty lucky to have ended up lodging with him. We had a nice couple of days this weekend, visiting the nearby hot springs and the botanical gardens and negotiating cultural differences – turns out that Australian and American English are worlds apart.

LEVI is a bright-eyed, gentle and nervous guy from Tennessee in his early twenties. He is very sweet and earnest and very committed to his church. Levi is a Seventh Day Adventist and fully ensconced in the missionary and `soul-winning` aspect of his faith. He is learning Spanish in order to further his missionary work. Levi feels that he and his god are in regular dialogue and talks about this in the same way that I might talk about regular Skype dates with a friend. Levi bases most of his life decisions on these communications.

JOSEPH is in his early 40s and lives with his two young children and wife in a small New Mexico `pueblito` called Lama, named after the Dalai Lama. They live an essentially hippy lifestyle, growing much of what they eat, with their kids attending a school that teaches practical things such as milking a cow or planting crops in amongst literacy and numeracy. This is all great, and good on them, but I WANT TO KILL JOSPEH. He habitually expresses basic ideas (`buy quality, not quantity`, `don`t live an excessive lifestyle`) in a painstaking and profound way, as if what he is describing is something novel and interesting and not something relatively mundane, unambitious and fashionable. It`s possible that the lack of nuance he has in expressing himself has something to do with fluency in Spanish and not arrogance. BUT IT DOESN`T AND I WANT TO KILL HIM.

FELICE is a student in her late 50s. Felice has spent her whole life sucking it up and doing the right thing. She was a dutiful daughter. She was a good wife, leaving her native New York to live in a sleepy coastal town in Maryland when her husband took a job there, even though the place bores her. When her husband left her five years ago she continued to be a good mother to her 20-something year old son and eventually a good partner to her deadshit rebound boyfriend. She was a good employee in a social work job that wore her down. Felice was a very good woman to everyone who needed her. She was all of this until four weeks ago when she quit her job, ended her relationship, sold her house, offloaded her cat onto the local crazy cat lady and her dog onto her son and fucked off to Mexico. In one fell swoop. This process of dismantling took Felice just twelve days. TWELVE DAYS to put her house on the market AND sell it, to cull her belongings and pack her suitcase. Felice now lives in a state of elation, liberation and panic. She is suddenly homeless, unemployed and stripped of responsibility. Felice is quite delicate and seemingly overwhelmed by the about face that her life has just taken. She spends a lot of time praying to the Virgin of Guadalupe for guidance.

LISA is a 22 year old flight attendant from Canada who has struck up a very unlikely friendship with Felice, to the point that they are almost inseparable. Lisa is hyperactive and prioritises being ´free`. When not breaking up Mile High Club escapades in the washrooms of airplanes she is hitting rave festivals. Hard. Lisa can`t get over my ignorance when it comes to electronic music. I can`t get my head around how much she loves the soulless drone of the stuff. I suspect Felice might have found in Lisa a freedom and devil-may-care attitude that she desperately wants to embody yet fears.

DARIUS is a 30 year old of Polish origin who has been living in the States for the past 20 or so years. Darius is eccentric, outspoken and idiosyncratic. He`s studying social work at a university in North Carolina and seems to like me because I have a nose ring. Darius told me that he used to wear a nose ring as a symbol of his alternative nature. He wore the nose ring until someone pointed out that he doesn`t have to signpost his individuality with a piercing because this characteristic makes itself abundantly clear as soon as he speaks. Darius agreed with this observation, immediately removed his nose ring, and has not sported a piercing since.

VICKIE is more or less a member of the San Miguel expat retiree crew. She`s a 65 year old Arizonan who is living here with her boyfriend. Vickie is emphatic that she hasn`t retired, that she`s still working. Her `job` is to own and receive an income from the seven properties she rents out in the States. Apparently this occupation can be very taxing. It`s hard to be Vickie.

Getting this all down I`ve realised that we might be in better shape as a group of hostages than as students. As students there is a fair amount of butting of heads and mutual incomprehension. As hostages we`ve got quite a practical assortment of people. Joseph can fashion us a house out of some twigs and cow dung. Darius, Felice and I can mill around and try to practice capacity-building and a strengths-based approach like good social workers should. Lisa can cook us up some mood-enhancers from the native cactus plants when we get bored in our captivity. Luke can tend to our wounds and administer CPR if our kidnappers get out of hand. Levi can save our souls (just in case). Vickie can finance the ransom to get us out of there.


One Response to “guanajuato and san miguel de allende”

  1. Julie Crawford Says:

    Such a good chuckle ms e. x

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