The New Year in Mexico: San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel

After another lengthy bus ride (this one not ridden by hangover), I arrive after dark at San Miguel de Allende, one of the homes of the Mexican independence movement. I am overjoyed to see my friends David and Marlene, two of the most extraordinary cultured and kind people I’ve ever met. The Wilsons spend several months a year in SMA, and are now thoroughly acquainted with how to get along here. They’ve rented a high-ceiling-ed, quite eccentrically decorated house about a kilometer’s walk from the beautiful Zocalo of the city, known to the locals, with its pink church and its cultured trees as The Jardin (pronounced “hardeen”).

Dave and Marlene make me welcome, feed me, give me a glass of wine, and I prepare to renew my relationship with this city, which I last visited some six years ago.

Jan 19

Yesterday, Dave and I walked several km up into the hills Southeast of town.

We walked back down through Benito Juarez Park, as fine a public garden as any I’ve seen. When we got home, dog-tired, Marlene arrived to announce that the concert we had been planning to attend had been moved till four pm.

On stiff legs, I kept pace with her until we arrived at the church where the Las Vegas String Quartet were about to play. I was glad to settle into a pew. There followed two hours of excellent music. The Mozart piece was pleasant and predictable, the apotheosis of high classical musical thought. However there followed two 20th C compositions, one American (13 fiddle tunes, or “If it ain’t broke, it’s surely bent.”) and one Chinese (Chrysanthemums). The latter bent the pentatonic scale well past breaking point without ever feeling self-indulgent. They finished with a Beethoven quartet, opus 39. Such passionate, athletic musical ideas, unapologetic about leaving us hanging on one idea, only to jerk us into another emotional region or pensee, threatening to resolve many times in the final movement before coming to its powerful, definitive, triumphant conclusion. It was like watching four people take flight for two hours, tumbling, rolling, dangerously diving, surviving near misses, and then landing themselves (and us) in an open field, the mind freed for a while, from the mundane.

I met a woman during the intermission at the concert who intrigued me. Introduced as an Austrian cousin of one of Marlene’s acquaintances, she responded to my blandly polite opening of “I have a dear friend who lives in Vienna” she came back with “Vienna is a boring city! All they have are old buildings, museums, pictures! There is no green space! Nowhere for children.” I assured her that, coming from somewhere where there were but few old buildings and beautiful pictures, but much green space, I had thoroughly enjoyed my few days in Vienna. She leapt to the subject of walking. “I have a friend who spent sixteen months walking from Austria to Japan.” When I supposed that he might have had to walk through the Southern Himalayan mountains on this very impressive journey, she corrected me and assured me he had walked a more northerly route through Siberia thus through the Taiga. This provided an opening to mention the book Tiger by John Vaillant. Apparently her friend had had an encounter with a Siberian Tiger. She cracked, “Tiger—good kitty!—not tamed!”  This felt like a challenge, and I shamelessly mentioned my own plan to travel the Canadian prairies by boat. “What kind of boat?” She asked, as though if I had answered with some Lesser Kind of Boat, she would have attacked me. “A canoe” seemed to be an acceptable answer.

When we went back into the church for to hear the Beethoven (both the woman and I had agreed that the Mozart was something of a confection), I felt I had been offered a challenge, one which I declined to take up. I would have gladly fenced with this woman after the concert, but Marlene and the rest of our concert-goers had a dinner appointment, and the concert had run late, so we left post-haste.

When I contemplate my condition, I am not sadly pining for female company, but it certainly is a pleasure on those rare occasions when one excites me with enough animal energy to attract that part of my Nature.

Yesterday, I packed my swimming gear and found (with some difficulty) the bus route to La Gruta (The Cave), one of the local hot springs resorts about 15 km from San Miguel. The local bus will stop for you near the place, and you can get down and hike the few hundred meters into the well-kept gardens, cafes, and pools that form the resort. Pools of varying temperatures are available, the hottest of which is a tunnel leading to the cave that gives the place its name. the cave is in fact a large man-mad cauldron of hot water with a large vault of a ceiling through which there are a few openings that admit rays of sunlight that light up the place like an Indigo Jones stage design. A pleasant couple of hours of bathing, and then back onto the road. I stand on the roadside reading, and a car pulls up.   There is a woman driving. “You want a lift?” says an Aussie accent.   I get in. The driver is an eccentric, energetic woman who lives in San Miguel. Her name, she says, is Azzah. She’s been living in SMA for several years, and seems to have pretty thoroughly traveled the planet. When we get to town, I tell her I’m scouting out the location of the Shelter Theatre, and she tells me she’ll be at the open mic on Tuesday night.

January 20th

It is my birthday, my 61st. Perhaps I will drink a bit of tequila tonight by way of celebration. I have been to the guitar luthery/studio of the kind and talented Sergio Huesta, who makes beautiful instruments, ones I would be proud to own… If I were flying directly back to Canada. That $800 would be well spent on a very good instrument and in support of a fine craftsman. But alas, the right conditions don’t pertain. I’m anticipating taking a guitar to Cuba, and quite possibly leaving it there, so the cost is prohibitive. Not even as a self-birthday present, helas.

We passed through the “Tuesday Market” today, a massive collection of hopeful merchants under canvas that sets up once a week on top of the hills above town. Booth after booth peddling goods produced in Asia, many of them bearing the trademarks identified with the USA. The Mexican goods included crafts, leatherwork, furniture, shoes and food. In near despair of finding a guitar, I sat and played two much-used generic knockoff electrics being sold by the only stall in the market that specializes in things musical. Questioning the vendor about the price of the less beat-up of the two, a Les Paul copy/disaster, I learned he wanted 2000 pesos. Poor bastard, I was so desperate he could have had me for a thousand (thrice its garage-sale worth in Canada), but I felt quite offended to be treated like such a cretin, and I left without bargaining.

I have no words of wisdom on turning 61. I’ve already made the choices which have landed me here in the sun. I have given myself the huge gift of a new life, and I hope to be worthy of it. I am still very much in transition, and I’ve made no lasting decisions about anything, except the following:

-I feel quite at home in SE Asia, particularly SE Taiwan

-I like the Vietnamese

-I want to go to Indonesia

-Health permitting, I will:

-take a canoe across the Prairies

-bike through France

-boat or bike more in Holland and the Low Countries

-most important on the bucket list: try to be a good human being who is of use others; help my boys to grow up and Keltie in whatever ways I can.

I did spring for a new guitar in the shop near the Jardin.  It’s a little Spanish guitar, so my whole technique will have to adjust, but it’s light, portable, and quite playable.

That’s about it. Another January 20 passes on the planet. I’m still breathing, still above the grass, still a Walking Man.

A sign on a local San Miguel bus (in Spanish:) God bless this Camino.

Another (in English:) Only God Can Judge Me (which seems to me something of a forestalling threat, coming from the proprietor/driver of a public vehicle).

Werner Richter, the most brilliant practical linguist I have ever had the privilege to know, wrote me a very warm birthday letter today, expressing his longing to be moving about the world as freely as I am, and sharing subtextually how demanding it has been caring for daughter Michelle, who has had some developmental challenges, and who was named, I believe, partly with reference to my former wife.   They must have looked at M and me and seen what a loving, happy relationship we had back then (in 1991 or so) and hoped for the same affection. I well remember the bliss I felt back then; it is one of the great good fortunes of my life that I experienced this. I don’t often see it in the relationships of others. I hope that the new marriages that I’ve witnessed in the past few years (Kate and Dave, Nicky and Christie, Lynn’s girls) have such intense romance. I wish it on Candice, that exempularly beautiful soul. Human beings cannot bear too much truth without having a superbly supple core. The truth can be harsh, deeply mysterious, shocking, and can weigh you down with responsibility: truthseekers tend to sacrifice relationships .

Jan 21

Yesterday, I attended the open mic as the Shelter Theatre, which is in fact a former bomb shelter, such a pitiful refuge from thermonuclear devices that one wonders what they could possibly have been thinking in 1962. There were 12 performers, some 20 audience members. The performances were amateur, but in the better sense, and interesting. We heard songs by Dylan, Donvan, Van Zandt, Roy Orbison, John Denver, and a few originals. I made well-intentioned introductory comments about enjoying hanging around with Americans (“I don’t hear your accent very much in my home town in Northern Canada—not many of you seem to come that far north as tourists, for some reason” (laughter).. “I don’t get down to the USA much—your countrymen don’t seem to want me there…long story” (knowing laughter). My tunes: Jesse Winchester, me, Elmore James (“In honour of Elmore’s 100th birthday”, which would get a rise out of most Edmonton crowds, but this white California-dominated crowd doesn’t even murmur.) My new little Spanish guitar feels light and unfamiliar, a toy in my hands. Afterwards Tom (one of the Yanks whose playing I liked best) approached me and asked me how long I’d be in town, offered to bring his Strat for me next week, so I guess I played ok. As the evening wound down, the Aussie woman (Azzah) offered, of all things, a Russian torch song. As I leave, I tell her, “you are quite mad, you know.” She grins. I go home.

Watched Happiness (the film) with Dave and Marlene.  I like this film very much; its thesis is that human happiness and material plenty have only a small influence in producing happy human beings.  More important are family connections, community support, and some sense of spiritual practice.

Dave provided the “objective” commentary. It is little wonder that he feels he must challenge the film’s theses: the film suggests that happiness has an element of mystery, that it lies more in release than in tenure of one’s beliefs, of the things of this world, of the very definition of oneself, and the scientist Dr. Wilson is far to much of a materialist (in the proper philosophic, as opposed to the newer sense) to brook much talk about letting go of control. The search for Truth is in fact one of the great vanities; the scientist wants to know how things work, the Buddhist asks, “who am I to declare myself the conqueror of this or that particular mountain?” I assert the rightness of neither point of view: who am I to do so?

My own particular quests are not for Truths, but truths, rather in the same sense that I don’t believe there is a Method for actors, only methods. Which method? Which method WORKS? Truth on stage or on screen is a mutable and fleeting quality, as fleeting as time itself. I have absolutely seen cases where peeling the onion of a character’s “truth” left the actor with nothing but the peels of a dis-integrated onion. Similarly, I have seen actors give compelling performances when they had no idea what they were doing or how. They simply flung the onion into the void and followed it like a parachutist.

January 27th Guanajuato.

The bus climbs through dry cactus arroyos and upper grassland, uncultivated except where there is moist bottom land. The landscape is virtually unpopulated. I see not a single cow, goat, or sheep, although we do pass a burro or two, and I spot the odd hacienda perched on the side of a hill with a glorious view of the tawny yellow landscape. Last summers car-racing blockbuster plays on the video screens above my head, the images of rich, sexy, as ‘twere RACY lives of beautiful Europeans competing with the immediate life around me, with the quiet burble of Spanish, with the stunning, harsh landscape.   It creates a “verfremdungseffekt” that Brecht would have found delightful.

An hour or so from San Miguel we reach the outskirts of Guanajuato, the usual non-descript piles of brick and concrete that (in Mexican style) often remain unfinished, perhaps for years. The ride ends in an unattractive bus-yard. I climb down and walk through the station, out into the clear 10 a.m. sun. As Dave pointed out the other day as we looked up at a steeple set against an azure-blue sky, the thinness of the atmosphere at 6200 feet makes objects stand out from their background as though photoshopped (as I write that neologism, I realize I can’t actually spell it).

I look for a local bus, se one that has “Centro” painted in white n the windshield, and board. It’s a surprisingly long ride up the canyon towards the heart of this city which nestles between two mountains (I use the word in that unrestricted sense which would include a large hill like Tunnel Mountain in Banff).   The bus travels through a few long tunnels—raw passages cut through the living rock that were once mined by (I imagine) native Mexicans making new Mexicans vastly rich. How much wealth disappeared off to Spain, to France, who left Catholicism and the heads of rebels hanging from the corners of the Granery, that massive and imposing structure in the centre of town where the 1862 rebellion won a hard-fought and temporary victory.

The bus comes to a stop near a long plaza of otherworldly charm, graced by fountains, statues, and manicured trees whose lianas take root around the bases. With typical prairie-boy desire for a longer view, my first impulse is to climb up out of the valley, so I find a road leading up, and climb, choosing whatever upward paths offer themselves until I arrive, sweating, my pacemaker working overtime, at a road that runs along the brow of the Westernmost of the two mountains. I can get a good long view of the town from here. In the late morning sun, it is a stunningly beautiful setting. I stand contemplating, thinking, anomalously, about women. Thinking quite erotic thought about very specific women, and wondering where the

Sudden flash of life-affirming sexual warmth came up, so to speak. Partly from mere continence: months of it this past fall.

I make my way by steeply-descending streets into the Old Town, through narrow pathways wending through scenes of lively commerce: people selling tacos, eating them, selling fruits, crafts, clothing, the ongoing negotiation, and quiet competition, that is life in the agora. I arrive in the University quartier, stumble on a beautiful outdoor rotunda where I can smell good coffee. Where I write these foregoing words.

January 30th. I left San Miguel this morning, bidding goodbye fondly to Dave and Marlene, whose generosity to me is so wonderfully vast, and getting a cab to the central de autobus, where I arrive two minutes before the bus leaves to Mex City. Having learnt that Roger and Audrey, those excellent people, are going to be in Cuba in the first part of February, I decide to move my Cuba visit to coincide with theirs, and book a plane ticket for the middle two weeks of Feb. This means moving my other plans forward, and visiting Stewart Scriver in Taxco BEFORE I meet Kath Fisher in Mexico City. So I pack up my new Mexican guitar and my other stuff and bid Marlene and David goodbye.

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