Monday, May 30, 2011

My Love Affair with Mexico Continues

Ever since I moved to Mexico about 10 months ago, I’ve been trying to figure out why I immediately felt so at home in here. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s due to a combination of factors.
Oddly, it reminds of where I grew up in Africa. But it’s not quite so strange when you realize that San Miguel de Allende is roughly the same latitude north as Bulawayo is south: both are 20 degrees from the equator. Both are also situated on high plains although at 6,500 ft, San Miguel is a 1,000 feet higher; and both are land-locked. So the climate is quite similar: hot summers relieved by thunder storms and winters with dry, sunny days but cold nights. And that means that much of the flora and fauna are also familiar.

These aloes grow here.
In Africa we called them red hot pokers

Jacaranda and acacia trees, cascading bougainvillea, cacti and aloes, plumbago, and frangipane all populated the landscape of my youth as they do here.  We used to eat the big, orange-colored papayas – we called them pawpaws –  mangos, passion fruit, and loquats. Occasionally, when I walk through the market, I’ll catch the scent of guavas and be instantly transported. The same applies when I hear doves croo-crooing and crickets chirping (but I could do without the damn mosquitoes!).  Often I’ll be driving along a country road with a narrow strip of paving and red dirt on either side cutting through a largely empty, arid landscape with hills on the horizon and get a momentary flash that I’m back in Africa.
Both places also have small groups of ex-pats existing within much larger host populations. Apparently, wherever the people come from and wherever they land, exp-pat communities share the same characteristics: They’re seething caldrons of adventuresome (sometimes, lost) souls; gossip, scandal, do-gooding, entrepreneurship, nostalgia, comradeship, and cobbled together surrogate family groups.

An ex-pat Christmas. Who wouldn't feel at home?
Thanks, Ruth and Collier.

If the state of Guanajuato reminds me of Africa, the 600-year-old city of San Miguel de Allende, on the other hand, is totally reminiscent of Europe.  You could pick it up and drop in onto a Greek Island or the hills of Tuscany and it could blend right in. And there’s one street that every time I turn into it, I feel like I’m in a London mews with its narrow, cobblestone streets, brick row houses, ironwork and greenery.

San Miguel de Allende
or London Mews?

Another reason for my comfort here is that I lived for 30 years in Los Angeles, where 40 percent of the population is Hispanic. You can’t help but absorb some of the language and culture when you’re that immersed in it. California, of course, used to be Mexico, so Spanish names abound – both of people and places. That gave me an ear for correct pronunciation, although it doesn’t always come out of my mouth the way I hear it in my head!  
Sometimes, too, I feel not so much that I came to a foreign country, but that I went back a couple of decades to a time I lived through once before. That’s not to suggest for a minute that Mexico is “backward.” On the contrary. It’s just that socially people aren’t as reliant on technology, even though they do have it. Occasionally, you’ll see a teenager with those little white buds in his ear or someone walking along the street talking on an iPhone but it’s the exception rather than the rule. I see kids kicking balls around in the street in the evening after school (they all wear uniforms to school, just as I did) and families going out together for dinner or at weekends.  
You get service here like you did in by-gone times. A service station truly is. The attendant pumps your gas, washes your windshield, and offers to check your oil, water, and tire pressure. And it’s easy to find people skilled in the likes of dressmaking or carpentry. Neighbors make elaborate home-cooked meals from scratch and raise chickens in their back yards. There's also a refreshing lack of regulation and political correctness.

Dog on the pharmacy counter:
how quickly would the health
inspector be there in the US!

But I’d be doing a grave disservice to Mexico if I didn’t point out that all these reason put together are only a small part of the picture. I love Mexico because it’s Mexico.  It’s stumbling across a procession of people dressed as Aztecs carrying a crucifix; looking off my patio and seeing a string of burros walking down the street; the guy playing a guitar and singing on the bus; the mariachis in el jardin in those tight pants!; the fish tacos at La Sirena Gorda; strangers in a restaurant wishing you buen provecho; the graciousness of the Mexicans when faced with my atrocious Spanish; and generally the immense kindness shown to strangers.

The only people who should ever wear
skinny jeans.

I could go on but at risk of sounding like a tourist bureau brochure. So suffice it to say that I’m now so love-struck with Mexico that I've changed my status from tourist to resident. I no longer have to make a run to the border every six months to renew my visa. Also, I can bring in my household belongings – few as they are –without paying import duties.
Which is a good thing, because oh, yes; I bought a house.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Mi Casa es Su Casa?

Since I moved to San Miguel de Allende 10 months ago, I’ve lived in my adorable casita. It was a find on the Guanajuato Craigslist and I took it sight unseen.  

My casita patio off the kitchen

Happily, the gamble paid off and both the casita and Eleanor, above whose house it’s situated, provided me a soft landing in Mexico.  The one-bedroomed casita with it's georgous patio was immediately home and Eleanor has been a font of invaluable help and information about living in Mexico (not to mention a supreme maker of margaritas!)
The casita came furnished and fully loaded, so I didn’t need to bring a lot of stuff with me. This enabled me to travel light: driving down from California with just a couple of suitcases and my little dog Henry. On account of me being Miss Adaptability – a veteran of four continent, five country, ten city,  and approximately 27 house moves – those suitcases contained just enough of what I needed it make any place home. My Bhutanese Buddha tapestry went up on the wall behind the sofa and my red silk drapes in the bedroom.

Buddha presiding over my living room

I whipped out my candles, photographs, a few special books, favorite mug, and French press coffee maker and supplemented them with finds from the flea market and yard sales; and voila, a nest.

The sun coming in through my bedroom window
wakes me up in the morning
I also fell in love with the neighborhood: Fraccionamiento Insurgentes.  Just a short number nine bus ride from el centro, it’s a world away from the lovely but bustling tourist mecca that is San Miguel. As much as I catch my breath every time I see the parrochia or stumble across one of the daily parades or fiestas, I’m equally happy when I crest the hill on the outskirts of town and feel the temperature drop 10 degrees and see the open rolling hills, vast sky, and little white-domed church in my neighborhood. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to remind myself that I actually live here and don't have to go back to the rat race next week!

Aztecs and architecture: just another day in
San Miguel de Allende
There are no traffic sounds or overhead jets, so it’s quiet here, too. Except, that is, for the tweeting birds, barking dogs, copulating cats, crowing roosters, church bells, gurgling fountain, thunder storms, and frequent fireworks. But hey, that's just Mexico.
I recently met a gringa, married to a Mexican man, who also lives in Insurgentes. Now Eleanor and I can no long boast that we’re the only ones in the area. I suspect the locals regard us as the thin end of the wedge and are secretly thinking, "there goes the neighborhood." Nevertheless, they treat us with immense kindness. Eva, the lady who runs the laundry, always greets me with a toothy grin and a torrent of very fast Spanish that I nod and smile at. Saul, the guy who makes the best longanisa tacos, will bring them to the door if you call him up with an order. And his wife, Marie, who runs a little clothing shop not only loaned us some of her display racks for our yard sale but had them delivered.  

Our yard sale looked very professional
with Marie's display racks

A few days ago, Eleanor bought a piece of furniture from a consignment store - a lovely painted cabinet - that I brought back in my car. She corralled Adrien, a teenager from a few doors down to help us unload it. He spurned my attempts to take one end, hoisted it on his shoulder, and staggered into the house with it. When Eleanor offered him a tip for a cafecita or a coca, he politely declined it. He had enough money right now, he said.

The beautiful painted cabinet that
Adrien hauled in on his shoulder
I’ll miss all of this tremendously when I move out in a few weeks on to my next adventure, but whoever takes over my casita will be a very lucky person indeed for however long they are here.