After arriving in Mexico City, a three and a half hour flight from Los Angeles, I catch one of the sanctioned taxis to the Metro Revolucion area so I can check into my room at the Casa de los Amigos, a Quaker-run hostel that caters to travelers who want to do volunteer work while in Mexico. I had heard it's a great resource place for travelers. When I find the place, I'm quickly reminded of the serendipity of traveling alone--in other words, expect the unexpected. Well, find out that they don't have the reservation I made over the phone several days ago and they are full. The attendant, who speaks little English, recommends the Hotel Carlton down the street but I don't like the looks of it from the outside so I sit on a park bench and see what else is available. It turns out that a block away is the Hotel Oxford, which fronts a pretty park square and a museum. I end up with a huge, high-ceilinged room that overlooks the park square for 13 dollars a night (130 pesos).
I spend the evening roaming around the adjoining neighborhoods but while doing so disaster strikes. My Canon EOS 620 camera falls out of its case and crashes to the pavement. It seems totally broke but it turns out only the LCD display is gone--the camera still functions. Back at the hotel, I watch the Grammy Awards in espanol until the lights and TV flicker out and a hotel repairman comes by to fix them.
In the morning, I wake to find a group of actors practicing their performances below my window on a gorgeous sunny day. A walk of eight blocks brings me to the famous zocalo and the cathedral. On the way, I pass through Alameda park with its very European-looking fountains and statues. I also get to visit the Belle d'Artes, the presidential palace (Palacio Nacional), and finally the enormous zocalo (square) which everything else of importance encircles.
People aren't joking when they say Mexico City is huge, crowded, smoggy, and intimidating. They say that 20 million people live within a one percent of Mexico's space. I catch a taxi over to the Terminal del Norte and sign on for a three and a half ride on a Flecha Amarilla bus to San Miguel de Allende. We head north through sprawling suburbs and past very poor villages before finally entering a desert-like valley surrounded by hills. Off in the distance I can see the churches and red-tiled roofs of the town center. I have arrived.
A taxi (aka green VW bug) takes me downtown and I take a gamble and skip the Hostel Internacional and have the driver drop me off at the Hotel Parador de San Sebastian, which was raved about in my guidebook. However, it never takes reservations--first come, first served. Luck is with me since they have a room available for 15 dollars a night. The hotel has two big courtyards with bright red and orange bougainvilla everywhere. My room has tiled walls that are peeling and lots of antique oak furniture. For an extra 3 dollars, I can have the key to an adjoining kitchen. I commit to stay for three nights and then walk to SM's center.
This old Spanish colonial village has been well-known to expatriates and world travelers for years. The combination of wonderful light, colonial architecture, and beautiful hillside surroundings make this place irresistable. The center of San Miguel is the Plaza Principal, which seems to be where everyone hangs out to rest and people watch This town is a photographer's dream as every street has some doorway, or roof, or combination of colors that catches the eye. I have lunch outdoors at Casa Carmine in a cool breeze and with birds chirping in the trees above me. After walking the streets a bit more, I have a great dinner of chicken and veggies at a little cafe named Ten Ten Pie (for 3 dollars) at a table by the front door as I watch people walk up the cobblestone streets.
I've took a book to read on the trip--The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau. I love it. It talks about the sacredness of traveling consciously and how to get the most of any journey abroad one might take. Great reading!
I wake to a chilly morning and walk past the mercado with its colorful and fragrant fresh fruits and vegetables and over to the Plaza Principal, most often simply called the jardin. I find the El Parroquia cafe and devour some whole wheat pancakes with pecans, some fresh OJ, and coffee on their outdoor patio. As if on cue, a parakeet sings away while I eat my breakfast. I spend a few minutes after browsing the Libros Tecolote bookstore.
Here's some useful language I overhead at one of SM's internet cafes while I emailed my sister:
los momios (the mummies)--locals term for the retired Americans who live here and sit on the jardin all day discussing their stocks and retirement incomes.
yuppie food stamps--the 20 dollar bills that the local ATM's spit out for us gringos
sitcoms--single income, two children, and oppressive mortgage.
mouse potato--someone who's on-line all the time
starter marriage--short first marriage that ends in divorce with no kids, no property, and no regrets.
woofys--well-off older folks
I spend the rest of the morning ambling around taking phots of the amazing colors and textures of the town, passing the Parque Juarez, where mothers and children play freely, the elementary school and then back up San Antonio to the Instituto Allende, an internationally recognized art school. It's grounds are beautiful, there's a wonderful view of the town from upstairs, and the place has classes in sculpture, paper-making, painting, etc. I come upon an older native Indian woman who's wearing a vibrant yellow scarf. I want to take her picture but hesitate. This is a sensitive subject with native peoples--many believe that allowing a photo to be taken of you is like having your soul stolen. Who am I to say that's not true. I offer to give her some money if she would pose for me and she does so against a backdrop of flowers and a stone fountain. She looks so noble and proud--an amazingly beautiful person.
I buy some water (agua purificada) at a local market, and then head back to the jardin, which is full of people at noon hour. This is where it all happens in SM--it's the literal heart of the town. If you want to meet someone somewhere, you meet here. There's always music, newstands, craft vendors, and plenty of foods to sample. I sit and watch the parade of humanity, read the excellent English language newspaper--The News. It covers the main international news events as well as what's going on in Mexico, has very few ads, and lots of hard-hitting opinions (in my opinion). There's an article today on America's so-called drug war that pulls no punches.
While I'm at the jardin, I pass a table where an older couple are selling tickets to some cultural event. It turns out that the man is the producer and director of a local production of Henrik Ibsen's play An Enemy of the People. He introduces himself as Murray Kamelhar and encourages me to attend, saying his production has more bite and humor than the Swedish TV production that featured the late Steve McQueen and Charles Durning with a Swedish cast. I buy a second row seat for ten bucks.
Later, I stop for lunch by an intriguing little cafe called El Tomate. Having been a vegetarian previously, I decide to try the fare of this veggie place. I find a window seat and order the especial de dias (special of the day). It turns out to be one of the best meals I have ever eaten (or am I just incredibly hungry?). The starter was a basket of freshly-baked whole wheat bread with an herbed butter along with a strange but delicious oatmeal soup. This was followed by a spinach salad with orange slices and radishes with a wonderful squash concoction over a bed of brown rice. It looked great and tasted even better. While eating, I am joined by a senior American man who asks to join me. His name is Al and he's from Utica, New York. He spends November through March here in SM (been doing it for years) and pays about $300 a month for a little flat with cable TV, maid service, and a large kitchen near the jardin.
That night, on the way to the play, I pass a few nightclubs and see all of the Mexican males and females dressed up like Hollywood stars while us gringos try to dress down to look like the locals. I watch the 8 o'clock show of Enemy of the People and really enjoy it. During the intermission, I chat briefly with a woman next to me who has been spending winters down here for years. She remembers the McQueen movie version that disappeared quickly after it came out years ago. When the play ends, the director comes out to have an open discussion amongt the actors and audience about the play and its meaning. The play touches on questions of greed, idealism, corruption, the common good, and there is lots of good discussion. The audience is an interesting mix of people--the expats from the U.S., dropouts from society, and lots of funky artist-types.
Finally, I raise my hand and offer how this play resonates with my recent life. (I was a high school English and journalism teacher who got into trouble for having our publications openly criticize and question the powers that be. Eventually, I refused to allow the paper to be censored and was suspended. Students organized and held a walkout--700 of them--in my support and I eventually came back to finish out the year but was later forced out) Everyone seems interested in my story and many people ask questions of my experience. Later, several people came up to me wanting to know further details of my battle, would I do it again if I could, and why I didn't stay and fight my school district.
One of the cast members, Allison, a blond-haired woman in her 20's, came up to me and shook my hand. She wanted to congratulate for standing up for my beliefs. In the play, she was Petra Stockman, the daughter of the doctor who tries to expose the problem with the town waterworks and she played a teacher as well. She is the idealist in the play who stays true to her beliefs that her father is right and will be proven so if people will only listen to the truth.
The next morning, as I walk down the streets, I notice a lot of more upscale Mexican families in town. I realize that it's the weekend and lots of people drive up from Mexico City to spend Saturday and Sunday here. I catch a bus in the jardin that is taking people out to a paper mache factory and then to a working hacienda on the mesa outside town. On the bus, I sit next to a fiftyish woman from Santa Barbara named Brenda who's been traveling down here for the five months, visiting Guatemala, Chitchen Itza, Merida, and San Cristobal de las Casas. A veteran traveler, she sold her business in SB and decided to hit the road. She says that she had no trouble traveling thorugh any of the these regions as a single woman. She strongly recommends that I visit Guanajuato (a few hours away) and especially the coastal village of Sayulita, where her sister lives.
The paper mache factory is somewhat interesting but not much. The owner demonstrates how to make a tomato and then some other thing but the highlight for me was seeing the paper mache masks of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky hanging on the wall.
Back at the jardin, a display has gone up regarding the upcoming march in Mexico. The Zapatistas, that ragtag band of people who took over the town of San Cristobal de las Casas in the southern state of Chiapas several years ago to protest the poverty and neglect shown the people by the Mexican government, are leading a march from SanCristobal all the way to Mexico City soon led by their charismatic leader known as Subcommandante Marcos. They hope to achieve greater autonomy and rights for the indigenous people of southern Mexico.
Later that evening I head back over to the Teatro Santa Ana (where the play was held) to talk with Murray Kamelhar one more time. I tell him how much I enjoyed the play and we talk a bit while he sells billetos for that night's performance. He tells me how he has been both teacher and principal and and that if I love kids, I should consider returning to teaching. He says he loves my story but doesn't like the ending. Meaning, do what you have to do right now as far as taking a break and traveling, but then get back to the teaching profession. He also talks a bit about the difference between talking tough in small groups versus haivng the chutzpah to put your ass on the line when the spotlight is shining.
It's another mild, breezy evening in San Miguel. The weather, I have found out, doesn't change much throughout the year. Each month has an average high of 70 degrees (amazing) and a low in the 40's to 50's. No wonder plants like bougainvilla thrive here. It's also why they call this place The Land of Eternal Spring. Of course, some also jokingly call it The Land of Eternal Allergies in reference to how plantlife grows around here. For me, however, this really has been a land of beauty and abundance, forever reminding of the beauty of this planet.