We Will Miss San Miguel

When we stayed at the Red Tree House in Mexico City, we talked with many people about the relative merits of Oaxaca, Guanajuato, and San Miguel.  For us it is no contest.  We would choose San Miguel in a heartbeat.  Following in no particular order are some of the things that we are going to miss when we leave for home on Thursday.

The jacaranda trees.  They have been in full bloom since we arrived on 1/Mar and they are still in full bloom.  This is just one of over ten I can see from our roof top terrace.  And roof top terraces and courtyards are other things we are going to miss!
The burrows.  These two burrows are tied up just down the block from our house.  Perhaps the owner had ducked into the nearby gym for a little exercise.  Mostly you see burrows in town as part of a wedding procession.
The fountains.  This fountain outside of San Francisco church had been decorated for a wedding.  The water in the fountain is covered with white petals.  Fountains with floating red rose petals are very popular around town.
The churros and hot chocolate.  A churro is similar to a long, sugared donut.  We live only a few blocks from the favorite churro restaurant in town.  This is the lineup to get into the restaurant on a recent holiday weekend.  It is so popular that we have yet to get in this month.
The garbage collection system.  Three times a week a man comes down our street ringing a gong to announce that the garbage truck will soon be here.  People bring their garbage down to the street and chat until the truck arrives.  They then hand the garbage up to a man in the truck and he passes it on to the sorters in the truck who divide it up into recyclables and garbage.  There are at least four people riding in the truck.  This picture was taken from our roof terrace.The entertainment.  There seems to be non stop entertainment in town.  There is first class chamber music most weekends in winter.  We have heard live folk, jazz, new age, country, and popular music.  We have seen a one man play.  We have seen a program of ten plays of ten minutes each.  We have attended lectures and movies.  This event is the garden party held at a private house at the end of the chamber music season.  The performers were a brass quintet from Western Carolina University.The parades and fiestas.  This was a parade we had no idea was going to occur.  It went down the street next to ours and appears to be another Saint Joseph’s Day Parade about a week late.  You may recognize the person in the front of the picture.  He is also a very popular subject for piñatas.  I would guess that ten to twenty percent of the expats in town are wearing anti Trump buttons.The margaritas and mojitos.  Susan needed two hands to lift this margarita at another wonderful restaurant we discovered.  This one is family run in a beautiful house away from the tourist area.  There are so many good restaurants that we are not going to be able to get to all the ones we wanted to visit despite being here four weeks and only eating dinner home four times.You have to love a city that lets a tree limb come through the brick wall instead of cutting it off.

The doors and windows.  This door is outlined with real flowers. We suspect it was done as part of a wedding reception.The wedding processions.  San Miguel is home to 500 to 600 destination weddings each year.  Since most of these are on the weekend, it means you don’t have to wait long to see one if you go to the Jardin on the weekend.  Most involve a burrow, giant bride and groom dancing puppets and a mariachi band.The colorful Spanish Colonial streets.The buildings.  If we do ultimately buy a house here, we are going to paint it this blue color.Old and New Friends.  This has to be the best place in the world to make friends.  We met Susan and Peter from Ottawa, Canada through playing bridge.  The picture was taken with my iPod and I am still learning to hold it so my fat finger doesn’t get over the lens.  Sorry Peter!

Thanks to all of you for following our adventures this winter.  And a special thanks to all of you who have taken the time to comment.  Our quest for new experiences will resume this summer with a Baltic cruise, a week in Provence that we hope will coincide with the lavender bloom, a self piloted boat trip on the Canal du Midi in France with friends from Pawleys Island, and time in Vienna.  We hope you will join us.

What Lies Behind that Door?

The streets of the centro area of San Miguel all have stucco walls separated from the street by the narrowest of sidewalks.  These walls have many doors plus a few windows and during the day when the stores are open you see restaurants, galleries, tiendas, and small shops of all descriptions through the open doors.  But what about the closed doors with no signs?  What lies behind that door?  Saturday we learned what was behind three of these doors when we took a walking tour of the mansions of San Miguel organized by the Biblioteca.  It was the first time they had done this tour and we considered it to be a resounding success.

The first door we entered is the last door to the right of the picture.  There is nothing noteworthy about the door or the wall.  But the house behind that door belongs to an attorney who was described as one of the most powerful men in the state of Guanajuato where SMA is located.  It is one city block long and has at least four courtyards.  I think if one person had to water all the pots there, the first pot would need more water by the time the last pot was watered.This is one of the courtyards.  I particularly liked the two columns of plants by the door.The first room of the library.  There is a second room with a spiral staircase to reach the top shelves.The dining room.The largest courtyard was between the house and the law offices.

The second house was once a bank.  It still had the vault- a great place to keep your valuables – and men’s and women’s restrooms.As is typical, the house was centered around a courtyard.The family had cages for lots of birds on the second floor.  I particularly liked the built in bird cage on the left with a curtain you can draw at night.  Both of these cages had birds.The living room of the house featured several elaborate mirrors.

The third house also featured a beautiful courtyard.  The owner of this house lives in another house in the country.  He uses one room as his office when he is in town, and all the other rooms are used to store his large collection of paintings by San Miguel artists.  

We had a bonus stop at the San Francisco convent adjacent to the church of the same name.  The convent also featured several courtyards.

After careful consideration, we decided all three houses on the tour were outside of our price range.

Any Excuse for a Parade

Sunday, March 19, was St. Joseph’s Day honoring Joseph, the husband of Mary.  And in San Miguel, they are always ready to celebrate.  Shortly after noon, we thought we heard a band in the distance.  We looked out our door and saw a parade going down the nearest cross street.  We grabbed our things and headed out the door in hot pursuit.  We caught up with the end of the parade, but there were too many spectators to reach the front.  We decided to head to the Jardin since almost every parade ends there.  Fortunately, our instincts were good and the parade was soon passing by our spot on the wall. A large caterpillar followed the band at the beginning of the parade.Next came a collection of the large, dancing puppets known as mojigangas.  The puppet costumes were worn by both adults and young children.There was a group in indigenous costumes resembling American Indians, but the most interesting group was at the end of the parade following a sound truck and dancing in bizarre costumes.  Everyone was in a good mood and were happy to pose for pictures and dance with onlookers.  Many participants also threw candy to the spectators.You may ask what does this have to do with the observance of Saint Joseph’s Day?  I haven’t a clue.  However, we talked to several Mexican onlookers and they all said it was a Saint Joseph’s Day parade.  You may recall pictures last year of Susan dancing on our street with some people dressed similarly.  We were told that dance party was to observe Saint Joseph’s Day even though it was several days later.  For a one minute video of the parade, click here.

We stayed in the central area of town and headed back home late in the afternoon and what did we encounter?  Yet another parade.  This one had some religious statues at the beginning.But they were followed by the sound truck and people dressed in costume including some of the same people we saw in the earlier parade.  It wasn’t this guy, but we saw one of the men that Susan had danced with last year.

It is always hard to find out when a parade is going to occur and where it is going to go.  We have been looking forward to the Children’s Parade to celebrate the beginning of spring.  The children are all dressed as animals or flowers.  Again, you may remember the pictures from last year.  We had been told twice by the tourist office that the parade would be at 10 AM on Wednesday, the first day of spring.  We arrived right on time to watch but could see no sign of an upcoming parade.  We stopped at the tourist office again and were told that it was now going to be on Thursday.  However, there was a class in the Jardin in costume and holding signs about protecting the environment.  We had to settle for that as our Wednesday parade.

Fortunately, we came across the Children’s Parade on the way to bridge on Thursday.   While the parade was much smaller than last year, the children were as cute as ever.Some of the children were honored by wearing crowns and getting to ride in trucks.The children are encircled with a rope held by adults to keep everyone going in the right direction.  The people of San Miguel know how to enjoy life!

Welcoming Spring

The El Charco Botanical Gardens is located in the hills above San Miguel.  The gardens contain a canyon with a natural amphitheater.  One of the traditions here is to have a concert in this amphitheater on the Saturday before the equinox to welcome spring.  The festivities begin at 4 PM with an indigenous celebration to bless the seeds for the new crops.  We arrived early and joined the celebration.  The only problem was that no one there looked to be indigenous and few of the people even looked Mexican.  We were given a sheet in Spanish and English explaining the celebration. 

Per the handout:  “For approximately the last 5000 years, human consciousness has been centered in the development of personal will, authority, manipulation, and the incorrect use of power.  Humanity is currently in the process of making a dimensional shift, ascending from a power-based consciousness to love-centered awareness that focuses on the heart and allows us to feel our interconnectedness and equality with each other and all creation. … This is a time for us to align ourselves with who we know ourselves to be, deep within our heart of hearts, and make our life choices in accordance with this way of being.” It goes on, but you get the idea.  I am not sure I sense this change they are talking about.  Maybe we need more government participation in equinox ceremonies.We gathered in a circle around the leaders.  There was a lot of drumming and playing of a conch shell.  We all got some seeds to bless and take home to plant in our garden.  We began by reading the handout together and then we paid our respects to the four points of the compass.  The seeds we received were mostly rice which I was pretty sure was not going to thrive behind our condo even though our county was once the rice growing center of the world. The conch shell was not an easy instrument to play.People sat wherever they could find a spot on the rocks for the late afternoon concert of Mexican Baroque music.  There is no electricity in the canyon, so the music and singing was entirely acoustic.  The band is on a wood platform in the center left of the picture.The band stage.A beautiful sunset was a fitting conclusion to the concert.

Bellas Artes

San Miguel is well known as an artist colony and one of the best known art schools in town is El Centro Culturál Ignacio Ramírez “El Nigromante” – Bellas Artes.  Fortunately, it is known universally as Bellas Artes.  The building was built in 1755 – 1765 as the cloister area of the Convent of the Immaculate Conception.  The building was converted to a fine arts school in 1938 and soon became very popular with former GI’s studying art under the GI Bill.  Today it has classes in drawing, painting, ceramics, weaving, music, photography, printmaking, and dance.  The building also houses an auditorium and several exhibition halls.  Considering the initial use of the building, it is ironic that the Ignacio Ramírez in the present name of the building was one of the most prominent atheists in Mexico.  The church associated with the cloister still exists next to the art school.This statue of a bull outside of Bellas Artes is a well known landmark and meeting point in town.The courtyard of the school is heavily planted.  The Church of the Immaculate Conception towers in the background.The courtyard is also a beautiful venue for musical performances.The murals in the exterior hallways were painted by early students at the school.There are long hallways surrounding the courtyard.  The building is a quiet oasis only a block from the hectic Jardin.  As I was walking the corridors, I could hear beautiful, soft guitar music throughout the courtyard.It turns out the music was not from a student, but from this man who performs every Wednesday night at the Biblioteca.  He told me that he finds this to be a peaceful place to practice.  His practice certainly added to the atmosphere.  When we chatted a little, he guessed right away that I was an engineer.  Geez, is it that obvious???One of the galleries had a series of paintings depicting man’s effects on the environment.  This painting addresses the effect of us disposing of plastics in the ocean.


The Church of the Immaculate Conception.The church features a boveda ceiling, which is an arched brick ceiling common in San Miguel which can be made without any support from below during the construction.  I would like to see one being constructed sometime.

The elaborately carved entry door.

Time is flying by here.  We think we have seen more cultural events in the two plus weeks we have been here than we saw in the last three months we were at home.  It is also unbelievable how easy it is to meet people and make friends here.  As an example, we met a Canadian couple in the Jardin this morning, we went to a cafe for coffee, and now we are going to dinner with them on Tuesday.  Less than two weeks left and so much more we want to do.

Gil and Doc

Two prominent residents of San Miguel are Gil (pronounced “hill”) Gutierrez, a world class classical and jazz guitar player and Doc Severinsen.  People of my age know Doc as the trumpet playing leader of the Tonight Show orchestra when Johnny Carson hosted the tonight show.  Doc is now 89 and still tours with Gil as a member of the San Miguel 5.  While we have never seen Doc here, we have every reason to believe he still lives in San Miguel.

Gil is equally famous as a guitar player.  He was born in Oaxaca where his mother sent him to an art school to study painting and sculpture.  It was here that he fell in love with classical music and learned to play on a borrowed cello.  He was forced to change to guitar when his family couldn’t afford to buy him his own cello.  As he studied guitar, his interests diversified to include flamenco and jazz in addition to classical.  He earned money to pay for his studies by playing in restaurants and on city buses in Mexico City.  Doc discovered him playing guitar in a restaurant here and they made a recording together in 2007.  Gil is the leader and music director of the San Miguel 5 which still tours the United States.

Gil plays in a restaurant in San Miguel several nights a week with whatever musicians happen to be in town.  In addition, every Sunday he is in town, he hosts a jam session at Zandunga, a performance venue adjacent to his home in the countryside about thirty minutes outside of town.  He brings whatever musicians are in town and they jam for several hours.  The musicians seemed to be having at least as much fun as the audience.  But it is not just music, his wife loves to cook and there is a buffet featuring various tacos, grilled sausage, and the best grilled chicken wings you can imagine.  I would guess there were two hundred people at Zandunga last Sunday despite it being the worst weather day we have experienced in San Miguel.The performance area is covered and there are various rooms and patios that open off of the performance room to accommodate more guests.  We were lucky to be able to join a group from the bridge club so we had a large table near the stage and under cover.That is Gil on the keyboard player’s right.  He went around and welcomed everyone personally before the performance.We went with our friends Kathryn and Bruce from Pittsburgh.  We met them last year at one of the classes we took.The food spread.  The first woman is dishing out grilled sausages and chicken wings.  The next woman is melting cheese in the tacos.  The final woman is adding things like chicken mole, chipotle chicken, or freshly sliced pork shawarma.  You then add the condiments you like such as guacamole and salsa.  Delicious!!!There is very little rain in San Miguel this time of year.  For the first time in our four months here, it rained off and on all Sunday morning.  It was looking better by the time we left for Zandunga, so we left our extra layers at home.  It was pretty nice for the first couple of hours, but an hour before our taxi was supposed to pick us up, a shower came through, the temperature dropped, and the wind picked up.  That last hour was pretty cold, but fortunately the rain stopped before we had to walk to the parking lot to find our taxi.  Despite the weather, it was a great day.My Favorite Age is Now!  Life is Good.  A good philosophy to live by.

Well. You Might Read a Little Into It

On Wednesday, we went to Fabrica La Aurora, a former textile factory that has been turned into artist galleries and studios.  San Miguel is a favorite with artists, so there are over fifty galleries/studios featuring everything from antiques to contemporary and from furniture to jewelry.  We couldn’t help but think as we walked from gallery to gallery what fun it would be to start with a new house and decorate it in a colorful, Mexican style.Part of decorating any property here is a lot of different pots filled with a lot of different plants.  These are outside of one of the galleries in Fabrica.This is an example of how colorful decorating here can become.  I checked the chairs for comfort and they passed the test.

Thursday, we went to the talk on living in San Miguel.  The talk was in the offices of the largest real estate firm in town – big surprise.  Unfortunately, the expat who normally gives the talk was out of town; so the presentation was given by a native and it lacked the expat perspective we were interested in.  We still learned quite a bit and didn’t hear anything that really discouraged us.  We are going to spend some of our spare time wandering around residential areas near centro that we haven’t explored previously.  You can read a little into all this, but we are just in the thinking stage and a long, long way from making any commitment.

The expats of San Miguel are an extremely liberal group.  Juan’s cafe is the place to go for pirated DVD’s and all your antiTrump needs.  I would have taken a picture, but many of the tee shirts and buttons had words my mother told me I should never use in any blogs I might write when I grew up.  The other day we attended a lecture and saw a man with a red cap on his lap.  I could read three of the four words on the cap: “Make America ? Again”.  At first I thought this was the bravest man in San Miguel.  However, the more I studied the illegible word, I became convinced it wasn’t “great”, but was “Mexico”.  I saw a tee shirt later with that slogan, so I am sure I was right.

One of the interesting facts about San Miguel is that it has no traffic lights or stop signs.  The drivers just take turns at the intersections and pedestrians have the right of way everywhere.  And somehow it works.  The city had a population of 140,000 in the 2005 census and I am sure it is greater than that now.  This makes it crudely the size of Charleston, SC.  I am sure the car ownership rate is much lower in San Miguel than Charleston, but can you imagine any significant city in the US without any traffic lights or stop signs?  

At Home in San Miguel

We really do feel at home here in San Miguel.  We can find our way around the city and have a long list of restaurants we want to go back to and another list of new ones we want to try.  There is little problem finding activities to keep us busy.  The pocket theaters are back to showing all the latest movies, so we will be catching up on the academy award winners.  Unfortunately, inflation has hit the theaters so it now costs six dollars instead of five for a pirated movie, a glass of wine and a bag of popcorn.  Still a good deal.  Don’t read too much into it, but we are going to a talk Thursday on expats living and investing in San Miguel.

The street where we live is undergoing what the owners of the house call gentrification.  There are three new condominiums under construction across the street and the home on one side of us has been torn down and a new spec house is being built there.  The house on the other side is unoccupied and I suspect will also be torn down.  We understand that the wrecking ball arrived at 3 AM to tear down the first house, so we hope they wait until after we leave to take down the other one.  We live on a narrow one way street with narrow sidewalks and no front yards, so the demolition equipment has to block the street for a period of time, hence the work in the dead of night.

It is interesting to sit on the roof and watch the construction across the street.  It is a very manual operation.Here they are pouring the concrete for the third floor of the new condos.  You can see the man walking up the wood ramp with a five gallon pail of concrete on his shoulder and another man about to pour his five gallon pail of concrete.  I did not see how they were mixing the concrete.  The operation reminds me of a plant I visited in India that was under construction where they used a human conveyor belt of women carrying concrete in baskets on their heads.  One of the women was carrying a new baby on her hip which I was told was two weeks old.  I don’t think OSHA would approve!

All the earth movement is done by hand. On the right are two men enlarging the hole with pick and shovel.  On the left are two men filling in the hole with dirt that was delivered by truck this morning.  They are presently bricking the second floor.  Initially, they got the bricks up to the second floor by one man on the ground tossing them to another man on the second floor.  Now that the brick side is higher, they carry a stack up the stairs on their shoulders.
But we don’t spend all our time watching the construction.  It is always fun to go to the Jardin to chat with your bench mate and to watch the world go by.This lady sits motionless with a handful of bird seed and attracts all the pigeons.  Somehow, this is not my idea of fun.  Susan could barely watch.We also enjoyed the Lord of the Conquest Fiesta, but I wrote about that last year.We have spent a lot of the first week with our friends Anne and Barry from Philadelphia.  We met them some years ago on an OAT trip to India and it was really fun to see them again.  It is always fun to catch up with fellow travelers we haven’t seen in a while.

Susan Dances on the Steps of Teatro Juarez

Tuesday was our last day in Guanajuato, so we made it a leisurely day exploring a museum, some shops, and studying the world passing by us in the Jardin.  When we passed the Teatro Juarez on our way home there was a large group of young students on the steps in front of the theater.  We had seen the same group earlier in a Dominoes Pizza and said we were thankful we weren’t eating there when they came in.  We learned later that it was a school group of first to third graders on a field trip from Leon which is about 45 minutes away.

The children were all jumping up and down, laughing, and clearly having a good time.  The teachers accompanying them were also jumping, running, and encouraging them to have fun.  We had seen similar scenes in Seville and Pamplona, but this group seemed the most happy we had seen.  I was particularly struck by how every single child was laughing and interacting with the other children.  I thought this would make a nice picture, so we stopped to take the following picture:As I was taking the picture I noticed that things quieted down and suddenly everyone was looking at us.  One of the teachers came over to us and asked if we would like to dance with the children.  Several bystanders said it was fun and encouraged us to do it.  If you know Susan, you know that she loves to dance.  Me?  Not so much.  So Susan went up with them to dance and I attempted to document the event.

First the children asked Susan questions such as her name and where she was from.  They then jumped up and down for a while until the teacher led everyone in the activity which I wouldn’t exactly describe as dancing.  There was a lot of head shaking which we understood to be checking to see if there was anything inside the head.  At the end the teacher asks the kids if Susan has earned the prize.  They all said she did.  The teacher then stood facing Susan so the children could see what he had in his hands behind his back.  He had a slice of pizza in one hand and a bunch of lollipops in the other hand.  There were advocates for both hands, but the lollipops won out.  If you would like to see one and a half minute video of the “dance”, click here.

Since we don’t speak Spanish, we didn’t fully understand what was going on.  If you watch the video and speak Spanish, we would be interested to know what the teacher that is jumping in and out of the video is saying.This small ten minute event is why we love to travel.  Everyone had a good time.  We enjoyed seeing so many happy children.  Has anyone seen comparable activities on school field trips in the USA? 

So now the time comes to compare Oaxaca, Guanajuato, and San Miguel.  While the first two are certainly a more Mexican experience, that also severely limits your activities.  We did manage to find two musical concerts in Guanajuato – one very good and the other OK.  While the day trips from Oaxaca were the highlight of the last two weeks, we preferred the ambiance and food in Guanajuato.  We feel that we have seen both Oaxaca and Guanajuato, so there is nothing to go back for.  In San Miguel, it is about the activities in an appealing town with a wide variety of good restaurants and the numerous people you can meet.  For an extended stay year after year, it is hard to top SMA!

By the way, did anyone notice how blue the sky was in the pictures of Guanajuato?  Neither of us can remember seeing a single cloud during the week we were there.   Comfortably warm in the daytime and comfortably cool at night.  Perfect weather!  We are now in SMA, so you will likely see far fewer posts from here.  I will only post if it is something new or extraordinary.  We are staying in The Folk Art Charmer, the same house as last year.

Don Quixote, Frogs, and Mummies 

While there is no obvious relationship between Don Quixote, frogs and mummies, it turns out they are all closely associated with Guanajuato.  I have found no logical explanation as to why Don is so popular here, but so far we have seen three statues of him and one large museum devoted exclusively to him.  The shops are filled with Quixote items. The city also has a month long international arts festival in October named in honor of the author of Don Quixote.  A sampling of Don Quixote statues from traditional to modern.

The connection with frogs is also obscure since the city is located in a semi-arid region in the mountains.  It is believed the name of the city originates from an indigenous language where the name means “place of monstrous frogs”.  Whatever the origin, the city has adopted it and frog souvenirs are common here.  There is also a collection of sandstone frog sculptures at one entrance to the city.

And finally, one of the most bizarre museums I have ever seen is one of the most popular attractions in Guanajuato.  Guanajuato suffered a cholera epidemic in 1833 which resulted in some mass burials.  For some reason, some of the cholera victims were disinterred around 1870 and were found to have been naturally mummified by the minerals in the local soil.  At this time, there was also a local fee for perpetual burials. Sometimes, those who didn’t pay the fee between 1870 and 1958 were disinterred and those in better condition were stored in a building.  The result is the Mummy Museum with a display of over 100 mummies ranging in age from a six month fetus to senior citizens.  Some of the mummies on display were recovered in the 1950’s after being buried for only seven years, so not all of the mummies are cholera victims.  I have not included pictures in the post as they are not for the squeamish.  If you would like to see two example pictures, click here.

There are plenty of attractive buildings and squares in town.The Teatro Juarez.  People like to sit on the front steps and watch the world go by.  It is almost directly across the street from the Jardin.The Jardin is so dense that it is hard to take a picture of it.  The limbs are a little low for people my height.  Still, I think it is prettier than the one in SMA or Oaxaca.  It is always lively and there are enough benches so you can usually find one.  It is surrounded by restaurants.The Jardin from the panoramic overlook.  That is a church in the front.  There are several small fountains hidden under the trees.The Basilica by day and by night.

Guanajuato is filled with stairs and narrow sidewalks leading off into the hills.  This is often the only way to reach a house in the hillsides.  This particularly narrow walkway is known as the “Kiss Alley”.  Legend has it that two lovers lived on opposite sides of the alley.  The woman was from a wealthy family and the man was a poor coal miner.  The families opposed the relationship so they had to sneak onto their adjacent balconies at night and exchange a kiss across the alley.  Unfortunately, the girls father found out what was happening and killed her boyfriend.  Despite this unhappy ending, the alley is now a tourist destination.

We leave Wednesday for San Miguel de Allende.  We are looking forward to returning and have been reviewing what is going on there.  It looks like a busy week ahead!  There is a play, a festival, a folk singer, a chamber music concert, an art walk, and most of the Oscar winners showing at the pocket theater.  And this is all between now and Sunday!  We are also looking forward to seeing our friends Anne and Barry from a previous OAT trip.  That’s what we love about SMA, so much to do!

The Travel Blog of Susan and Bruce