3 Days in San Miguel, part 2
Accessing deeply-embedded memories is like opening doors to rooms that have long been shut.
I had the opportunity to return to San Miguel de Allende 35 years after I had spent a semester there in college. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was both excited for the chance to see things long forgotten and apprehensive at what the experience might produce.
My journey took me from Dallas to Leon, a regional airport near Guanajuato City and the closest airport to San Miguel. It was clean, contemporary and efficient. I passed through customs with little trouble and my driver was waiting for me as I departed.
I had researched ground transportation services on the web and there were a few that offered acceptable rates, but I chose the one suggested by my hotel. It was by far the most expensive, but as I didn’t want to take any chances with getting into the wrong car with the wrong person in a foreign country, I figured the $300 round-trip car fare was worth the price.
My driver was personable and talkative. We spoke at length about my previous visit; in fact, I had lived in San Miguel before he had ever been born. He also gave me a few impromptu Spanish lessons in the car as we drove the 110 miles to San Miguel.
The mountainous terrain en route was desolate and beautiful, with long stretches of brush, cactus and tumbleweed. It reminded me of the hills outside of Taos, if you take the roundabout way to Sante Fe. In my mind, I heard the echoes of a lonesome Marty Robbins’ song as we drove through a series of one-horse towns, each with a few shacks and a cantina.
We entered San Miguel from a direction I had not previously remembered, so as we pulled up to the outskirts of town, I got a brief sinking feeling when I saw nothing reflective of the memories I had stored for 35 years. But that passed quickly as my driver made some turns and wended his way through narrow streets and back alleys. Soon, we were in front of the Parroquia at the Jardin and it was as if I had never left.
I arrived on a Sunday afternoon and townspeople were sitting on chairs and benches, a small band played mariachi music, and young men and women were starting to congregate for ‘the walk.’ My hotel, the Casa de Sierra Nevada, was only a block away. I quickly checked in and got settled in my room, then headed back out the door.
I passed by my former apartment house, now a small hotel, and the building where we held our classes, now a furniture store. The restaurants I remembered were either gone or under new names. I also found places whose names I recognized but where I hadn’t spent any time at all. The Escuella de Bellas Artes was one such place — an architecturally rich building with lush verdant grounds that was once a convent but now an art school. Small retail stores, many selling jewelry and high-end consumer goods, had opened. Female shopkeepers were fashionably dressed. It became apparent that San Miguel had prospered in the last few decades. The town had grown into a small city of 60,000, many of them Americans, and had developed sprawl. While the historic central core of San Miguel retained its original charm, new homes and shanty towns had grown up on its outskirts.
I finished my day by dining at Tio Lucas near the Bellas Artes. The food was simple but good and I’d sampled a few of the local cervezas. By the end of dinner, it was 9pm and I headed out into the open air. San Miguel is dark and poorly lit; what little light there is at night casts deep shadows on people, cars and alleys. It’s easy for a person to recede back into a doorway at night and be completely hidden from view. The streets are long and hilly, it’s difficult to see around corners, and the sidewalks are narrow, allowing only one person to walk in one direction without stepping into the gutter. Mindful of a news story I had just read about kidnappings and murders in Mexico, I was nervous that first night walking the 5 or 6 blocks back to the hotel, but I got there without incident.
After I had locked myself in for the evening, I realized the bells at the Parroquia, the parish church one block away, chimed every 15 minutes of every hour all through the night. Those crazy Mexicans! It was impossible to get a good night’s rest. So after a fitful sleep, I showered, dressed and headed out the door at 8am, still a bit groggy but excited to see other parts of San Miguel.
The day was cloudy and cool with a mist of rain. I had breakfast at a quaint little restaurant three blocks from the hotel. Hundreds of baskets hung from the ceiling and posters of the owner, a film actress and cabaret singer from Mexico City, adorned the walls. The posters showed her in several poses from her movie roles. She was clearly proud of her good looks and celebrity.
After breakfast I headed east to a part of town I had never really visited before. I stumbled upon a flower market with hundreds of plants in full bloom. The smell was like an aphrodesiac — fragrant, perfumy and arousing. Nearby, a basketball court was stacked high with flower pots of all shapes, sizes and colors.
For the next few hours, I wandered the streets, stopping occasionally to look into a few shops and hotels. Many of the homes are built in the Baroque colonial style, with high walls and large doors facing the street that open to spacious and colorful courtyards. There was a brass plaque on one such door, listing the word, Sculptor, next to the owner’s name. As I was peeking in a window to see if there was any activity inside, a voice from behind me asked, in English, if I had wanted to go in. Andrew was Canadian, a snow bird who spent six months every year in San Miguel. He showed me his studio, which he rents with 3 Americans — James from Detroit, June from Omaha and Mike from Cleveland. We chatted about life and art in San Miguel. I asked about home prices and was surprised to learn that the going rate for an updated home in the historic central core would run from $600,000 to $1 million US. So much for having a pied à terre in San Miguel.
By this time it was 2pm. The clouds had lifted, the sun was shining and I found a little restaurant with outdoor seating in a courtyard of shops and offices. It was shady, colorful, warm and inviting. I placed an order and was full in the moment of enjoying the day when I casually glanced over my shoulder. A local police officer, wide and powerfully built, was standing at the entrance and staring intently at me. His expression was provocative; I took it as a warning — one I inferred to mean, ‘Watch your step.’ I held his gaze for a moment, perplexed as I didn’t understand what was happening and why he might be interested in me, but then looked away. ‘Why ask for trouble?,’ I thought to myself. Two other diners at a nearby table noticed and looked in my direction. The officer left a few moments later but that brief exchange unnerved me and foreshadowed a disquieting spectacle that was to occur the following day — one which colored the remainder of my trip and which I still think about today.
For the conclusion of this story, read 3 Days in San Miguel, part 3