Thursday, July 29, 2010

July 29

Unlike our life on Camano Island, Rick here is very much the social animal.  He wakes up earlier than I do, so I usually go downstairs to find a note from him — in Spanish — about where he's gone.  And of course the five days I was in the US last week he was out and about when I couldn't be.  As a result of all this, he has met many more people than I have.  He's loving it, and I love that!

Tuesday was such a day for him.  I stayed home and did some work but he was out much of the day.  He went to a writer's workshop, among other places, and that evening wrote a really good story for the next meeting of the group.  He didn't write when he was back home:  here he seems uncorked!

Yesterday was a much more eventful day for me than Tuesday.  I went to my chorus rehearsal, where the conductor brought sheet music for three Bartok folk songs for women's voices.  The group is sincere and enthusiastic but not very proficient:  it took an hour and a half for the three voice parts (four altos, two second sopranos, one first soprano), to learn five pages of music, all of 23 measures (I just counted).  But eventually it sounded pretty good, and it was fun.  The sessions are held in a room at the Biblioteca that has the most extraordinary mural painted on all four walls in 2003 by David Leonardo, a local artist.   The next time I'm there I'll take a picture of it for you.  I stare and stare at it as the group does its warm-up exercises.

After the rehearsal I got into a conversation with Frank, who used to teach law at the University of Maryland, has written plays he couldn't get published, and now spends much of his time translating plays by obscure French playwrights from the 17th and 18th centuries into English.  He sits in the café at the Biblioteca several times a week with a few pages of the play, a spiral notebook, and several pens — but no dictionary — translating for hours in longhand.  On the other hand he has a book of these translated plays coming out, so who knows?  Perhaps he's found unknown classics.  He has decided to get out of his solitary rut and now gives a dinner party every Thursday, with food prepared by his cook, and invites six or seven people.  He invited us for next week.  He is not an attractive man — he has an obviously habitual sour expression on his face and it didn't take long before he told me that his wife had divorced him years ago and about two affairs in recent years with women in Mexico who also dumped him — but I am intrigued by the idea of a dinner party in San Miguel and accepted.  Sometimes it was hard to pay attention to him because a trio was playing flamenco jazz in the café:  flute, guitar and something else I forget (I was distracted), and I wanted to listen.  Superb music.

Then I wandered slowly toward the Jardin, ducking into shops to escape the short but fierce summer rain.  There are no storm drains in this 16th-and-later-century town, so people jumped as best they could over the rivers of water from the downpour that rushed through the streets now in full sunshine.

At the Jardin, I sat on a bench facing the Parroquia.  According to a website, "it was originally built in the late 17th century in a plain Franciscan style, but two centuries later an Indian architect, Zeferino Gutierres, gave the church an imposing facelift. With no formal training, he added the tower and Gothic-style facade of pink-hued sandstone, supposedly using postcard pictures of French Gothic cathedrals as his inspiration."  Locals love to tell the story of the postcards.

If you look carefully at the bottom of the picture, you'll see the trees that are sculpted in this manner — round, flat, and low — all over the center of town.  And of course the palm trees, amazing at this altitude.

I was glad I didn't have a book to read with me, because all I could do was watch what was going on around me.  I watched a little boy, maybe 3, pulling a pull-toy over and over and over that his parents had bought for him from a vendor like this one.

Then my attention was captured by a little girl next to me who was eating something with a plastic spoon from a white styrofoam cup, bought from one of the half-dozen food vendors lined up between the Jardin and the Parroquia plaza.  For all the world it looked like a mixture of corn kernels and cottage cheese, and that's what you see on her beautiful face.  The extraordinary eyes!  The fantastic skin!

Her grandmother and I got to talking — my first extended conversation in Spanish here.  The family was visiting from Toluca, a town near Mexico City, for three days.  I got properly quizzed on my marital status (a woman sitting on a bench alone!), my parental status, what I was doing in San Miguel, and more.  Here is a photo of the grandmother, Irene (I didn't catch the Spanish version of the name), along with the child.

After an hour or so of "conversation," or the best I could do with conversation in Spanish, a woman sitting on the other side of me became involved in it.  It was now a threesome.  Fabiola found the usual subjects as interesting as Irene did, but with the plus that Fabiola has traveled in the United States.  Irene and her family left and I sat talking with Fabiola for another hour, during which Rick joined us from his peregrinations.  Fabiola is from Tampico, a town near border with McAllen, Texas.  She said the violence is so bad that her family spends a lot of time hiding out in their home, and they are thinking of moving away from the border.  She is visiting San Miguel for three weeks on a vacation with her husband, teenage children, and a few of their friends.  We invited all seven of them over for wine and lemonade on Sunday, when our Spanish will get a real workout! Here is a picture of Fabiola, who is 38 but looks 30 to me.

It has been so many years since I learned French that I have forgotten how tiring it is to try to speak for any length of time in another language.  On the other hand, I have also forgotten how triumphant I feel when I manage to say something difficult!  I figure another 10,000 conversations like these and I'll have the language down cold.

After a quick dinner at home we went out again for another art lecture.  Stephan Eaker, Béa Aaronson's partner and fellow artist and art historian, gave a talk on the friendship, rivalry, and art of Matisse and Picasso.  And damned if he wasn't as good a lecturer as Béa!  We have invited them for dinner on Monday night, and will attend his lecture next week on Modigliani.  The lectures, by the way, cost 100 pesos -- about $8.50 give or take.  Including wine and refreshments.

The adventures continue!  I realized today that Rick and I never discussed whether we want to come back here next year.  The decision is so obvious there is nothing to discuss.

Monday, July 26, 2010

July 26

Holá, everyone!

You haven't heard from me for a week because I had to go back to the U.S. for work, to Baltimore, where it reached 105 degrees in a heat wave and and was really humid.  Unspeakable.  I came "home" -- it will be a while before I can ditch the quotation marks -- Saturday night.

Sunday, yesterday, we spent most of the day waiting for Continental to deliver my lost suitcase, and then went out for a mediocre dinner.  On our way to the Jardin, we ducked into a theater where Daniel Ellsberg was speaking.  We hadn't gotten tickets to the documentary film about the Pentagon Papers (a benefit:  fairly expensive) and his appearance afterward, but no one stopped us from entering.  The place was overflowing with U.S. lefties who were cheering him on.

Then, of course, we went to the Jardin.  It's been raining here, lightly or heavily, pretty much most of the time for the past two days.  Today someone told me this is quite unusual and due to the fact that there's a hurricane on each coast (there is?  I don't even follow the news here:  very bad habit).  Through the drizzle, though, I took this picture of the Parroquia all lit up, as it is every night.

You can see an umbrella at the bottom of the picture.  I looked up Parroquia (pronounced parrOHkia) in my iPhone translator (thank you, Joan!!!) and it means "parish church."  And then I took a picture of the top of the Parroquia and the church next door that chimes out the time:  the quarter-hours first, and then the hours.

As you can see, the Jardin is quite beautiful at night.  I love the public life here.  There is an open space between the Jardin, with its trees and the benches and the gazebo in the center, and the Parroquia.  The open space is constantly used for public spectacles or events of one sort or another.  Last night, in spite of the drizzle, the space was one of several in town being used for the International Short Film Festival, free to everyone.  Families were seated there under big umbrellas waiting for the start of the show.  Honestly, all the public life here feels very much to me like "of the people, by the people, for the people."  I love it.

Today we went to the Biblioteca for a meeting of a small women's chorus at noon.  As many of you know, I haven't done any real singing since I left the St. Cecilia Chorus when I moved to Seattle in 1996, but it turns out that sight-reading music is sort of like riding a bike.  There was a guy accompanying on the piano and a guy conducting the total of eight women.  The two men were Mexican; the women were various nationalities.  Much of the music was Spanish songs but they did Ave Verum Corpus by Mozart, which made me extremely happy.  The chorus costs 300 pesos a month, about $25 or so, which pays for the accompanist and the conductor and I guess the space in the Biblioteca, and for this I get two 1.5-hour sessions (hard to call them rehearsals) a week, so what is that, $2.75 a session?  It's a real joy to sing again (even though I'm singing second soprano instead of first alto because that's what they need), just for the pleasure of doing it.

We went for a bite to eat at a little restaurant we'd been to before, and the owner told us she was leaving to accompany a friend by bus to a doctor's appointment in Queretaro, a town an hour away where we've never been.  What the hell, we took them there in our car, and learned a lot about health care in the process.  Aida, the patient, has melanoma and told us she has had better care here than in Los Angeles, where she also went.  We have many, many more questions to ask about health care because there seems to be no common conclusion about what's best.  Some people return to the US for surgery, some skip the US entirely and have all their health care here.  While in Queretaro we stopped at Costco (!) and it was nostalgic seeing the familiar Kirkland products.  On the way home we stopped at our local BIG supermarket and bought two big bags of excellent groceries for less than $25.

So San Miguel keeps feeding us what we need:  community, culture, and economy.  It's good to be back.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Wde. 7/21

Hi all,  this is Rick from our aerie in mid-Mexico.

I probably needn't have made the disclaimer, for Jo and my voices are quite distinct, as you all know.

Today it stormed starting around 1 pm and lasting on and off until 5:30.  I will not say the storm was of biblical proportion- for Jo and I encountered such a deluge in Kauai some years back.  But the voice of the heavens made itself heard, most dramatically.

I seem to meet a great assortment of folks each day- all with interesting pasts.  The ice breaker in San Miguel is "do you live here or are you visiting, and if you live here for how long".

A brief synopsis of my Wednesday aqui.

Left the house early and stopped and visited with my new friend Chi Kaplan (33) and shot the proverbial excrement and discussed heading to Mineral De Posos for the blues festival this Saturday- seven bands, no cover only donations.  It is about 45 minutes on the road to Dolores Hidalgo.

Did weeks shop at Mega and the San Juan Mercado.

Headed to the Biblioteca for an Afro-Cuban Jazz concert on the patio- but it got drenched out.

Met an ancient woman Mary (age unknowable), barely ambulatory, who had just gotten a 6 week old puppy and needed help stooping to retrieve it from its curious wanderings.

Also met Fred (84) younger and sharper who invited me to a group talk about the revolutionary ascencion of the feminine principle  and the decline of the masculine taking place in much of the world.  One premise about the horrific, random violence today they believed to be Man's last hurrah- his futile protest about the loss of power that is out of his control.

  Quite interesting.  Six others not including myself- 4 men and 2 women.  All very bright.  I was the youngest of the Codgers at the Posada.  The discussion lasted almost 2 hours.

I then headed to the Empowerment Center only to learn the Song Circle announced in Attencion had not been in existence for many moons.

Never fear, I met Ron and his wife Dolores who invited me to join a Jam /Party with a bunch of their friends on Saturday night at 7 pm.  Got the email and accepted the invite.

Stopped in at Harry's Bistro (New Orleans style food and bar) and had one great mixed Sea food creme soup.

Tonight I shall laze and read.  As Jo says, be quiet enough to feel your poopatude.

I may or may not add to this Blog before Her Nibs (the bread and butter winner) returns.

Actually, writing this was a hoot- much easier than I thunk.

ps:  I haven't the patience to reread this minor tome- so any mistakes of spelling and grammar I dedicate to Jo.  She should have taught me better.

You are all, universally, being hugged.

da kid

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sunday, July 18

Hi, all

A few observations and stories today.

Here's a story about the famous Mexican corruption that our real estate agent, Oswaldo, age 28, told me.  Unknown to him, his tail lights were out on his car and he was stopped and ticketed by a Federale (national cop).  The Federale told Oswaldo he could either pay his 200-peso fine right then to him, or he could pay his ticket at a municipal office.  Knowing that the fine would go right into the cop's pocket and not wanting to contribute to corruption, Oswaldo chose the latter.  The Federale told him in that case he'd have to take his driver's license until he paid his fine, and the soonest that could be was two weeks from then.  "Two weeks!  What do I do for a driver's license until then?"  "The ticket serves as your driver's license."

So in two weeks Oswaldo went to the municipal office to pay his fine.  The place was overflowing with other people waiting in line, and he reached the head of the line hours later.  But he couldn't pay his fine because his driver's license hadn't arrived yet.  When?  "In two weeks."  Two weeks later he returned, again waited most of the day, and was able to pay his fine -- of 400 pesos -- and get back his driver's license.

So to avoid cooperating with corruption Oswaldo lost two days of work and paid double the fine.  That's a high price to pay for honesty.

I wanted to tell you about the produce here:  spectacularly good and by our standards, cheap.  The peaches and mangos we've had have been the Platonic ideal of peaches and mangos.  We soak all produce in water with a few drops of Microdyne, a disinfectant, before putting it in the refrigerator.  (I am happy to tell you that the chocolate ice cream we bought is also terrific.)  I took this photo of a man delivering a huge bag of limes -- 8 or 9 cents each! -- in what looks to me like a golf cart -- one sees many of them in this town, but oddly enough no SmartCars, which would be perfect for the narrow streets with too much traffic.

Limes seem to be served with everything here, and it's a taste I'm happy to acquire.  In fact, the word for lime here is "limon," technically, I suppose, "limon verde" but everyone says "limon."

When we first started looking into San Miguel last fall I started pulling up real estate listings on the Web.  Many of the houses looked just awful, big blank walls right on the street.  No way, I said to myself, we'd ever live anyplace so ugly.  Well, I didn't understand anything.  You may have seen street scenes of San Miguel by now from the various links I've sent -- all the big blank walls right on the street.  But walk through doors and magic happens.  Through a doorway you see a three- or four-story-high courtyard with trees, plants and flowers everywhere, even fountains.  Some courtyards have restaurants or hotels or shops in them, little secret places you have to stumble upon or be told about very specifically.  And the big blank walls hide some amazing houses.  Today I took a House and Garden tour of four houses designed by local American architects (e.g., some serious money in those houses).  Here's what the view was down the stairs of one of those houses to the street and the big blank wall outside:

We saw a community play last night that Rick was more charitable about than I was.  Walking home through the Jardin we saw a wedding procession at about 10 PM.  First came a burro decorated with paper flowers, then a mariachi band, then the wedding couple, then their guests all dressed up (women wear black to weddings here too!) and carrying wine glasses, then two HUGE papier-mâché figures of a bride and groom, maybe 15 feet tall, then more wedding guests and finally various hangers-on.  And we counted:  not including the wedding mariachi band, there were five others playing at various corners of the Jardin.  The cacophony was wonderful.

I'm a little bit concerned about my occasional level of poopitude here.  If I don't sleep at night (too excited to sleep!) I feel like a balloon with the air let out.  Today after walking a lot with the House and Garden tour in the mid-day sun I took a taxi home to rest.  I am hoping that this is temporary:  Rick assures me it is.

Now here's Rick ...

Sounds like here's Johmmy.

I walk.  And walk.  I people-meet and people-watch.  I read and I write.  Unlike Jo, I am sleeping well.  My hematicrit is up and my blood sugar down.  In short, for those of you old enough to remember, I feel
like Ronald Colman in SHANGRILA.

I am somewhat at a loss to explain the feelings of openness we are experiencing here.  There seem to be no false barriers of sophistication.  No concern about what the strangers you meet might want of you, or you of them.  It seems totally unself-conscious, each day full of endless possibility.

I have never been one given to hysterical conversion, yet I find my objectivity, or rather skepticism, muted with each day's good feelings.  I'm not selling anything other than I feel renewed in ways too many years have intervened to remember.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Photos today

Hi, all

Here's a street near our house.  All the houses are painted lovely colors, mostly earth tones, so this blue one is unusual.

We passed a church, went in and found this statue.  I read in my history of Mexico book that one reason the Spanish conquest of Mexico was relatively easy was that both cultures were pretty bloody, so it was an easy assimilation.

By contrast, here's their notion of the Virgin Mary:  pure and beatific.

I've mentioned the Jardin a lot.  The trees are sculpted in a way I haven't seen anywhere else.

And here's a picture of Rick, at the bottom of the stairs to the central gazebo on which I was standing.

There's always something happening at the Jardin.  I've written about the Indian dancers.  One day there was a stage erected in the plaza between the Jardin and the Parroquia, the big church I don't have a picture of but here's a link:   When we were there yesterday, we saw the beginning of a double wedding.



Friday, July 16, 2010

Five days into our adventure

Oh boy, I see already that the main challenge of this blog will be to keep the length down:  so many astonishing things are happening to us!

Two days ago we went to something called the Social and Newcomers' Club for lunch, to a Mexican hamburger restaurant ("hamburguesas," no kidding).  We met a handful of people among the 20 or 25 there, exchanged cards, invited to get together.  An hour later we ran into two people from there, Miriam and Scott, in the Jardin and spent a good long time talking.  They had come to San Miguel half a dozen times and have now decided to move here permanently from Columbia MD:  "We had a choice:  stay in Columbia and retire in 10 years, or move to San Miguel and retire now."  We will be seeing them again.

In the evening on Wednesday we went to a lecture on Marc Chagall given by Béa Aaronson, the first person we met here.  I had seen an announcement of that lecture before we left Camano Island and had it in my calendar.  She turned out to be a spectacular lecturer:  obviously a scholar as well as an artist.  Since then I've learned that like me, she did her Ph.D. dissertation on Marcel Proust!  We are eager to spend an evening with them, which we will do as soon as schedules permit.

Yesterday morning Rick went to a three-hour  writer's workshop.  He's written a part of this blog later on, and he will tell you about the thoughts it's provoked in him.  I spent the day at home dealing with technology issues and relaxing.  I've been trying to balance the excitement of the streets with the need to live a normal life, which means to me a good amount of unscheduled down time.

Today we went out this morning and within a block met Luba, a woman who had been at the Social and Newcomers' lunch, and sat on the curb and talked for 45 minutes about real estate here and much more.  At the Jardin there were a bunch of people in American-Indian feather head-dresses and elaborate costumes dancing to drums, and under an overhang the Red Cross was teaching people life-saving with mannikins on which they practiced chest compression:  "Uno, dos, tres, cuatro ..." up through 20 or 30 compressions.  

Then we stopped into a lab to get a blood test for Rick's current hematocrit level, no prescription needed, total cost 30 pesos = about $2.65.  The results were available in 4 hours and his hematocrit has come up from 31 two weeks ago to 37 now (low normal is 39 for a man), so we are very happy about that.

After a quick lunch at a café at the Jardin (where indeed we ran into two people we know) we went to the Biblioteca Publica, which was founded 40 or 50 years ago by an American woman.  Memberships are 80 pesos a YEAR, about $7.  They have a wonderful collection of books in both Spanish and English, and I was thrilled to find a large area entitled "literary fiction and nonfiction."  What's more, it's all available online, so I will be able to reserve specific books and be notified by email when they are available.  For now we have so many books with us we won't need that, but in the future we will.

At the Biblioteca we fell into conversation with a couple of men selling tickets to a community theater performance (we bought tickets for tomorrow night) and couldn't stop the conversation, so we went with them to a restaurant and had coffee while they had lunch.  We learned a lot about so much:  health care (they love the local care in terms of quality and cost), where to go for many things, renting vs. buying (renting!), where the best places to live are, the seasonal demographics of San Miguel, and so much more.  One was a retired airline pilot with money, the other was by his own admission a failed businessman with little money, and they are the best of friends.  Each man is a bachelor and lives in a small apartment, and they agreed that a single person can live here comfortably on $1,000 a month.  Another person with whom Rick had a conversation -- because he had a dog, and of course Rick is dog-starved -- cautioned that the key to living here on a budget is to limit the eating out.  Restaurant meals are relatively inexpensive but can add up alarmingly.  With all this advice, we are economically hopeful.

I am trying desperately to keep an open mind about this place:  we have only been here five days, after all.  But considering that for me the three big factors missing in my life on Camano Island -- culture, friends, and low-enough cost of living -- all seem to be met here, in spades, it's hard containing my enthusiasm.  I had known for years about San Miguel, but it wasn't until a conversation with my oldest friend, Ottie, last fall that it became a live possibility.  She raved about it, having spent a week or two here, and now I see how right she was.  Everyone with whom we've spoken talks about how easy it is to meet people here, and it's obviously true.  The fact that this is a small town where one walks everywhere, that there are two centers where people go often (the Jardin and the Biblioteca), that old-timers are so generous with information and advice for newcomers and so delighted to share how and why this place makes them so happy -- well, you can see why it's hard to resist.  We even found out today it's possible to get the Sunday New York Times here!  A great sigh of relief from me ...

I at least am beginning to entertain the possibility of living more long-term in Centro, the central area of town (where we are now), despite the noise of motors and conversations trapped and amplified in narrow streets between stucco buildings.  We've been told about fiestas with fireworks at 5 AM, but have yet to experience that.  I've been thinking about the effect of geography on relationships and behavior, and am thinking that if we had to take a bus or a taxi (only 25 pesos, about $2) into town rather than walking everywhere, that might well diminish the impromptu conversations I am loving so much.  There's a trade-off for everything, and the benefits may outweigh the disadvantages.  Well, there's plenty of time for such thinking later.

Here are a few photos for you.  This is the garrafón in our kitchen, that holds about 5 gallons of fresh water.  If you look carefully at the light fixture above it, you'll see the wrought-iron cross.

And here is one of the many paintings in the house by Sue d'Avignon, taken from below in the two-story-high sala:

This is the view from the rooftop patio of Béa Aaronson and Stephan Eaker, the artists we met on Tuesday.

Well, I think I have exhausted your patience and will end now.  Here's Rick.

Hi all,

I have been very lazy in communicating with you all, letting Jo do all the heavy lifting.  Her eye and ear misses very little, and her conversational flow of thought thought insures that her audience will not lose interest.

I wanted only to say to you all how renewed and, in fact, new I awake to each day here in San Miguel.
I have decided to write something each day, not with an eye to form or elusive recognition, but as an exercise in quieting the inner dialogue and seeing the palette before me as it is.  Easier said than done for this noisy fellow, as most of you know.

Today I was thinking of something my friend Victor Bremson said to me: "In order for us to have a successful interaction with each other and our world, we need to feel heard, seen, and loved."  I believe this is true -- but also, I think we cannot approach each interaction with what we need to receive foremost in our minds.  Better to focus on seeing, hearing, and loving, and what we receive will take care of itself.

I truly wish you were all here sharing this stunning, mind-altering adventure.

P.S. from Jo.  We just returned from an evening "in town."  The Jardin, which is about 5 blocks from our house, is electric at night, crowded with people who are filling all the many benches, walking, and standing around, to talk and laugh.  There are several mariachi bands, big ones, with 10 to 15 musicians each, playing violins, guitars, and trumpets and with a singer or two.  It gives one a jolt of happiness and energy to move among them, and sure enough we got into conversation with four previously unknown people and exchanged contact information.  Then we went down the street to a blues club we'd been told about, and had a couple of drinks and listened to the music.  Walking back through the Jardin we realized that although we enjoyed the music very much, we could have had just as much fun remaining in the Jardin for free.

This place is utterly amazing.  Good night!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Mystery plant

Found it mentioned in a history of Mexico I'm starting:  it's called a blue maguey, it's used to make tequila just as Martin Pagel said,  and this is what it looks like:  It grows all around here and I even saw it today in a nursery (called "vivero" in Spanish!) in San Miguel.



Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Holá from San Miguel!

It feels forever since I've written to you.  We weren't set up yet in the house, we were too pooped, or we had busted internet equipment that is now fixed.  There is so much to tell you!

We left Guadalajara early Sunday afternoon, and that's when we started using the GPS system we brought with us (thank you again and again, David, for that!)  To get a sense of how essential that gadget is, imagine you're somewhere in New York City, you're not sure where, and you need to get to someplace out of town.  Guadalajara, after all, has 8 million people.  Without a GPS we would still be there, forlornly wandering the streets.  The voice on the GPS is very funny, however:  speaking the Spanish street names not just with an American accent but with a machine accent makes the words totally incomprehensible.  To use the GPS in Mexico, one must follow the picture on the screen.  Driving here, we saw evidence of plenty of water everywhere.  The green of the trees and the grass and crops was simply luminous.  Cows here don't have countable ribs, as they did farther north.

We arrived in San Miguel at around 5:30 PM, having driven 3,100 miles.  After some hassle contacting the real estate agent for the key to let us in, we unloaded the car and started unpacking.  How much can a Dodge Caravan contain?  An awful lot, it turns out.  Rick did the heavy moving from the car to the house, and we spent the rest of the evening unpacking.  We wound up exhausted, and are continually surprised at how tired we get from what doesn't seem (at least to our younger selves, which of course is what we are in our heads) to be so much activity.  Our friend Marja reminds me that we are at a high altitude -- 6,100 feet, although I don't feel out of breath.  It would be lovely if that's just temporary and not age, but if not we'll manage fine.

This house is wonderful!  You may have seen the photos of it at -- the Casa d'Avignon.  It's called that because when the house was built 75-100 years ago an artist named Sue d'Avignon lived here.  Her paintings are all over the house, which is now owned by her grandson in New York.  Luckily for us, we like the paintings very much!

You can see what our house looks like, with a 360 degree view of our street, by putting Calle del Codo 10, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico into Google Maps, and then under More clicking Street View.  Our house is the reddish one on the left.  How lucky that we are doing this at a time with all this superb technology!

The house has three stories, with a full bedroom and bathroom on the 2nd and the 3rd floors.  Also on the 3rd floor is a rooftop patio which you can see on the Google Maps page.  I have set my office up in the sala (living room) where there is superb light from many skylights in the two-story high ceiling.  Of course, this means that when we have company for dinner I'll have to dismantle everything from the table, but it's worth it.  And the house is NOT all pink, thank goodness:  the bedrooms are blue and blue-green; the downstairs is pink.  There are fireplaces and electric heaters on every floor for wintertime, which is not very cold.

Very important is that we now have our telephone set up.  Call us at (206) 414-3290 -- Central Time Zone -- and it's just like calling the U.S.  The Magic Jack is an astonishing gadget!

Yesterday we went to do the big initial shopping trip to the market.  The closest big store to us is called Mega, and it's huge, a food market and a small department store.  I was able to get a USB hub for my computer -- Peter, only about $9 US! -- and it works fine.  We also helped make Carlos Slim even richer than he already is by buying two cheap cell phones with Mexican numbers, which we'll use to call each other when we're out and about. The two phones, each pre-loaded with 100 minutes of calling time, cost about $88 US!  And we did all that in Spanish, which was a serious undertaking!  One of the landlines in the house is the US number (the Magic Jack phone) and the other is a Mexican landline.  So with two different landlines, the two Mexican cell phones, my US iPhone, two email accounts, and Skype, we are all communicated up.  It seems that most people around here put locks on their wireless systems, so it's hard to wander around town and pick up a signal.  No signal, no working iPhone.  Nothing is perfect.

Rick took our 10 days' worth of dirty laundry -- it is so good not to be living out of a suitcase any more! -- to a lavanderia where for about $7 US they washed, dried, and folded all the clothes:  how luxurious!  At the Mega we bought Microdyne, something you put a few drops of into water and then put your fruits and vegetables in there to get the nasty germs off them.  In the kitchen we have a garrafón, which contains about 5 gallons of purified water.  We use that for drinking and cooking water.

Our Spanish is getting a workout.  We have been surprised at how many people in this town known for its expats don't speak English, and that makes us very happy.  It doesn't feel like we're getting appreciably better but we must be, and eventually we'll realize we are.  Actually, Rick says he feel more fluent than I do.  It floors me that I am able to say complete, although simple, sentences in Spanish when five or six months ago I didn't know one word of it.  All thanks and congratulations to our brilliant Spanish teacher, Lisa Engle!

Rick just came back from a walk, where he bought a copy of Atención, the bilingual weekly paper that lists local events  He says:  "There's all kinds of things do do here.  Here's what's listed for today, Tuesday.  At the Humanitarian and Health Center, there's free therapy.  Personal Philosophy of Life dialogue.  Vision Quest:  our souls' wild adventure.  The Rotary Club.  A lecture:  Myths and Rituals of Ancient Mexico and Mesoamerica.  A bereavement support group.  An Audubon lecture.  A dream interpretation class.  Painting classes.  Bilingual conversation language practice.  Life drawing sessions.  Women's Night Out.  Danzón:  dance classes.  The Social and Newcomers' Club.  An accordion concert.  A classical guitar concert.

"Here are some highlights of the next few days.  An outdoor art show.  A walking tour of San Miguel.  A Global Justice lecture.  A Dharma talk (Vipassana) on universal compassion.  A jazz fusion concert.  A community choir.  So Others May Eat:  a benefit for food for the elderly.  Ancient cultures, part 1.  A social group at the sushi bar.  A talent show for kids and another for grownups.  A French conversation group.  Song circle:  bring your voice or instrument.  Bastille Day celebration.  A lecture on Chagall.  A Buddhist meditation group.  Wine Lovers' Night.  The Theater Players' Workshop:  The Art of Murder.  The International Short Film Festival (all month).  Writers' Group Night.  A flamenco show at one of the local theaters.  A puppet festival over the next 3 days to benefit poor children.  An art and garden meeting.  Lots of fitness events.  Piano concert, string quartet concerts, jazz and blues concerts, lots of live music everywhere."

This is looking to be terrific!!!

This morning we went out to the Jardin (pronounced harDEEN), meaning garden, meaning the central square in town.  Having a cup of coffee we got into conversation with a couple of artists who moved here from Charleston SC three years ago.  We walked back with them to their house/studio, and saw about 20,000 paintings by both of them.  Many were quite good, too.  She, by the way, turns out to be the lecturer of the Chagall talk tomorrow night, which was something I was planning to attend anyway.  And she's French so we spoke some French.  And she's Jewish and is involved in starting up a group for secular Jews like me!  So Béa and Stephan are our first San Miguel friends.  Stephan told us that San Miguel at 6,100 feet of altitude is unusual in having a micro-climate that permits the kind of trees and plants only seen at lower tropical altitudes -- palms and palmettos, jacarandas, cactus, fruit trees, melons.  Cypresses like in Italy.  Natural hot springs with no sulphur, within half an hour of town.  They love this place with a frenzy of loving and raved about everything, including a cost of living that permits them to live comfortably on $1,000 or so a month and the fact that within a year they had made many close friends, both expats and Mexicans.  For their huge house in easy walking distance of the center of town,  with room for studio for each of them, they pay less than $650 a month.

San Miguel was founded by the Spanish in 1542.  In the Mexican revolution of 1810 -- the bicentennial is this year, a big deal throughout the country -- General Ignazio Allende was captured here and taken to Spain where he was beheaded, but that didn't stop the revolution.  Some years later the government renamed the town San Miguel de Allende, to commemorate the fact that the revolution started here.

Rick was out earlier this afternoon and met another painter, a Mexican man named Chi Kaplan, who as he was leaving, said "Shalom."  We have lived in Seattle for 9 years and Camano Island for 5 years, and no one has ever said Shalom to us!  Then Rick went to a local fancy hotel, sat by the pool, ordered a diet coke with tortilla chips and the best guacamole he's ever had in his life, for 65 pesos -- around $5.   (Rick says:  "Pardon me, Clara -- yours is runner-up!")

We found a parking spot a few doors down from our casa Sunday night and it hasn't moved since.  Until we take an excursion out of town, this car will gather dust:  we've had enough of it.  We're having a hell of a good time, and wish you all were here.


Jo and Rick

PS  I have no idea why the photos I took today with the iPhone and emailed to myself are not showing up in my email, but when and if they do I'll post them here.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

We have arrived

Exhausted but here, triumphantly!  More later.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


This trip has in many ways been an enduro.  We have learned the hard way that our 2002 Dodge Caravan is not up to a trip this challenging, so if we decide after three months in San Miguel that we want to return for a year, that will mean another car.  Bummer.

On Friday we woke up in Ciudad Obragón while the car was at Dodge dealer #2.  After picking up the car in the afternoon and paying more money, on the way out of town we passed whole villages selling only one thing.  One village sold copper pots and kettles, huge ones, beautiful gleaming new copper.  Another sold wooden chairs, rocking chairs, and stools.  Another sold truly awful ugly paintings.  Several people lined up in a row, selling the same thing.  Sometimes people stood on topes -- pronounced TOPE-ays, meaning speed bumps, which are much cheaper than traffic lights for slowing traffic down and are everywhere in this country, and brother, they are high! -- people stand right on the topes where you have to slow way down, selling pastries or cut fruits or chiclets or whatever, always in plastic bags.

Then there are the food stands at the side of the road, selling all sorts of food.  But picture it.  It's really, really hot outside and the stand has a roof, maybe a tarp, maybe woven palm fronds, maybe wood.  No walls, just four posts to hold up the roof.  A few plastic tables and chairs.  A messy and tiny food preparation area at the side.  We can't see a wire so we don't know if the place has electricity.  And it advertises "mariscos" -- seafood!  We saw dozens and dozens of mariscos stands.  We eat salads, we have a lot of ice, but we draw the line at these mariscos stands.

Now here's something I bet you didn't know.  How many people will tell you about toilet paper?  In Mexico apparently there isn't much faith in plumbing.  Next to every toilet is a plastic-lined wastebasket.  After you finish wiping yourself, the paper goes in the basket, not down the toilet.  As best as I can tell from the Sniff Test, an exception is made for bowel-movement toilet paper.  Let me tell you, 67 years of throwing toilet paper down the toilet is a very hard habit to break!

Yesterday we made it by late afternoon to Mazatlán, where the car again was giving us a lot of trouble.  This time we had the drill down better:  first find the Dodge dealer in town, our Dodge dealer #3, and then get a hotel room near the dealer.  The hotel we were able to get was a bit on the crummy side, which didn't help our mood very much.  It gets hard to keep spirits up when really, all we want now is to get to San Miguel.  These stops and delays are so frustrating, especially when it's either too hot or too rainy to go exploring so we're pretty limited to hotel rooms and restaurants.  Each new mechanic says the car is fixed, and then when Rick test-drives it with him and finds it's still lurching at low speeds it's crazy-making.  But the Mazatlán guy said that he made some important improvements (never mind boring details) and in San Miguel we can order the part we need, which he didn't have, and have it replaced there.  We decided to keep going no matter what -- enough Dodge shops already! -- and actually the car was doing pretty well when we finally were able to collect it and leave town at 2 PM today.

Finally, south of Mazatlán we saw farmland:  fields and fields and fields where corn was grown and harvested.  And very short corn, too:  maybe 3 to 4 feet high, not nearly as tall as ours.  I thought it was odd that all the farmers in the same area planting the same crop didn't operate on the same schedule, but we saw fields in different stages:  plants still green but drying to gold, plants all gold, plants cut down with just stubble left, the stubble burned black, and the soil turned over.  In fact, the sky was hazy for as far as we could see, and as best as we could tell it was due to burning all those corn fields after harvest to improve the soil.  I think American farmers don't do this any more:  is fertilizer better or worse?

We started seeing trees everywhere except where they were cleared for growing crops.  There was a crop I will have to find out about.  It's a row crop and the plant is fairly low, maybe 15", and consists of straight and rather thin spikes growing up and out from a central core, like an agave plant but much smaller.  The thing is, the plant is the exact color of blue spruce.  It is very beautiful to see vast fields of that plant.  Anyone know what it is?  Now the villages we saw were just as impoverished, but the addition of shade trees to the clotheslines and dust helped a lot.

The countryside turned into a different place entirely from the dryness north of Mazatlán.  It was so green with trees, dense with leaves, that the green positively glowed.  Trees, crops, orchards, grass, everything grew luxuriously.  We're still seeing cactus plants but now there are lots of palms, deciduous trees, even banana plants.  Around Tepic, midway between Mazatlán and Guadalajara, the sky opened up with a spectacular lightning- and thunderstorm that must have dumped 4" of rain on us in less than an hour.  While driving through Tepic I thought of Maria and Olivia, my Spanish conversation partners for the last few months, who come from there.  Rick was driving then and it was actually pretty scary.  We were on a stretch of cuota (toll road, remember?) that was only one lane in each direction -- imagine, charging a toll for this! -- and the rain spray from other vehicles made visibility terrible, especially behind trucks because wheel guards are pretty much unknown here.  Some cars didn't even have their headlights on.  With the rain spray and the fear that an invisible lightless car was coming toward us, passing slow vehicles was nerve-wracking and exhausting.

Then we crossed into Nayarit State and the road became two lanes in each direction again, and rose up into the mountains -- la zona montañosa -- and it was breathtaking!  Spectacular!  Glorious!  Fog caught on mountaintops and drifted through valleys, while we drove in sunshine. The air was sparkling clear, washed by the rain and far from the crop-burning haze.  And cool and fresh!  For the first time in many days, we were thrilled to turn off the air conditioner.

So we have made it to Guadalajara, which is an immense city of 8 million people.  We are finally on Central time, our last time change of the trip.  We missed the concert we had tickets for tonight in San Miguel, but are hoping that tomorrow night we will be in our new bed in Calle del Codo 10, San Miguel de Allende.



Thursday, July 8, 2010

Well, we're sort of stuck

Holá from Ciudad Obregon, Sonora State, Mexico, about 400 miles north of Mazatlán.  We got down the road from Guaymas, our stop the night before last, where we spent the entire day yesterday waiting for the mechanic at the Dodge dealership to finish working on our car.  They didn't charge much (under $50), but then they didn't achieve much either.  The car is still iffy at slow speeds, and then an engine warning light popped up.  In speaking just now with my friend Peter Dahl (bless Skype:  I love it!) he clarified the problem for us:  a busted O2 sensor, which accounts for the stalling.  Now the Ciudad Obregon Dodge dealer has the car and says he needs the part, which will take one or two days, and then he'll fix the car.  Too bad about the concert we had tickets for Saturday night.  And if you want to be picky, our rent on the house in San Miguel is paid as of today.  Oh, well.

So we have moved to a hotel closer to the Dodge place, making it easier for Rick to go there and check up on things and get things we need from the car.  This is an expensive interlude but we are in good spirits.  Yesterday we decided to resurrect our Vipassana meditation practice, and it really helped.  Rick's temper is nowhere to be seen; we are both taking this in stride.  It certainly helps, when the temperature is nearly 99 degrees outside, to be in a nice cool comfortable hotel room writing to you!

Even before all this car nonsense I realized that I've been thinking about Mexico this summer as a series of problems to be overcome:  different culture, different language, different everything, and the issue in my mind was how easily (or not) I'd be able to overcome them.  Bad attitude!  Of course there are problems, but the unfamiliar is simultaneously a problem and a curiosity, an adventure.  In trying to figure out why I should be so negative, I realized it's my age that has made a difference.  But that's wrong.  My 67-year-old body may indeed not be up to its 30-year-old level, but my mind is in far better shape than when I was 30.  It is time to relax, to ride the waves as my friend Paul Petroff used to say, and be alive to this adventure.

In some places in Mexico you'd feel right at home.  We have seen Walmart, Dairy Queen, Burger King, of course McDonald's, Papa John's, Baskin Robbins, Subway, and others I've forgotten.  On the other hand, I've noticed a chain of chicken restaurants with the best name:  El Pollo Feliz, The Happy Chicken.  Now wouldn't you want to eat there?

The highway here -- the "cuota" which means fee or toll -- is two lanes, none too wide, with no shoulders.  In fact, it's built up a couple of feet.  When people have to stop for any reason they stop in the right lane and one of the passengers gets out, walks back a hundred meters, and waves traffic to the left lane.  Of course there are no highway lights.  Cars and trucks go at a large variety of speeds, from very slow to blindingly fast; the speed limit seems totally irrelevant.  Every now and then there are stripes painted across the road to tell you to slow down for a village or a Pemex gas station (nationalized, very smart).  The cuota goes through villages, not around them.  They are not shantytowns but they are impoverished: clusters of very small rectangular stucco buildings surrounded by clotheslines and dust.

Ciudad Obregon (= Obregon City) seems to be higher on the economic scale, perhaps because there seems to be more water here than farther north.  The scrub now grows so closely together I can't see the dirt through it, and we saw some real trees and even a river.  We saw a housing development coming into town with rows of new, tidy stucco houses, and the downtown is a mixture of poor and middle-class stores.  If it weren't so hot out we'd happily explore.

But this hotel is air conditioned, I have a good Internet connection, we have books to read and a pool to swim in -- when it gets cooler, and we're feeling fine.  It's just a slightly different adventure from the one we envisioned, but we'll get to that one in due time.

My Skype address is josara72 (hint, hint).



Tuesday, July 6, 2010

We crossed the border!

Hello, everyone

We made terrific time in the US, driving 1600 miles in 2.5 days.  It's amazing what you can do with good roads and high speed limits.  The secret, we discovered, is switching drivers every hour or hour and a half, before the driver gets tired.  If you wait to change until you're tired, it's almost impossible to catch up.  Just like what the doctors tell you about taking pain pills to stay ahead of the pain.

Yesterday we reached Tucson and took half a day off.  We went to the movies and had sashimi bento boxes at the best Japanese restaurant in town.  The technology available to me now just blows me away.  So many times I've traveled to unfamiliar towns, had some time, but was unable to figure out just where the interesting places were and so usually stayed in my hotel.  Now, with my iPhone and the Internet on my laptop, I can easily find out the best Japanese restaurant in town, where it is, and how to get there!  Simply astonishing.

This morning we left Tucson and reached the border at Nogales, south of Tucson, at lunchtime more or less.  Mexicans love paperwork.  And multiple procedures.  First go to the immigration desk and fill out a complex form.  Then go to another office -- mind you, it's a hundred degrees out there -- and present that form and many others.  Then go to another office and get copies made of various forms and documents.  Then go to the second office where the clerk enters interminable information from the various forms and documents into the computer.  Then go to the first office where we get stamps on documents and a sticker to put on the car's windshield.  It only took an hour and a half.

But during this time I had a huge fright.  About to pay for the visas and the car permit (or whatever the hell all that was) the clerk told me my debit card came up unapproved:  insufficient funds.  We have our savings in that account!   The last time I used the card was this morning in Nogales AZ:  it's already been compromised?  Our bank account has been cleaned out?  We have no money???  So the hell with AT&T's  $1/minute charge for the iPhone:  I must have run up many minutes of charges before my wonderful banker, Tara at Coastal Community Bank, told me all was okay and that it was due to an international lock on the account.  All resolved.  It took me a good hour to calm down.

So crossing the border was a piece of cake.  We didn't see any officers, cops, banditos, or anyone else.  Nogales is vastly safer as a crossing than other places we read about, such as El Paso and Tijuana, and honestly I for one didn't even think of danger:  there was absolutely nothing to suggest danger.  Of course, would banditos want to be out in the sun in over 100 degrees?  Picture lots of bare earth, scrubby plants with no leaves to get burned by the sun but rather stick-like branches, cactuses, medium-sized mountains covered with this same stuff, no shade anywhere, and dry, dry, dry.  Then picture driving for miles and miles on the highway with not a house in sight, no exits from the highway.  You wouldn't like to run out of gas 30 miles from the nearest cactus.

So then, on the road south from the border, the car stalls when I start it up on my driving shift.  Hmm.  Then it feels sort of lurchy.  Before too long we're speculating:  clogged fuel line?  Idle needs re-adjusting?  Dirty spark plugs?  It becomes painfully clear that this is not something that can be put off.  And maybe it's not too surprising, since we've been driving up to 10 hours a day in horrendous heat, bless the air conditioning.  In late afternoon we stopped for the day at a town called Guaymas, actually the only one on the whole trip south that actually connects with water (the Gulf of California, across from Baja California), and by now we have to put the car in neutral every time we stop for a red light or it will stall.  Then, would you believe, Rick sees a Dodge dealership!  If we believed in God ...  So now we have an appointment for first thing tomorrow morning to get the car fixed up to continue our trip, and in the meantime we're ensconced in a comfortable hotel.  With a pool.

It looks like we'll reach San Miguel Thursday or likelier, Friday.   I'll write another exciting episode from there, assuming the house, as promised, will have wireless Internet.

AND BY THE WAY:  please do NOT call on the cell phone and leave a voicemail message.  I've figured out that to get your message I have to pay AT&T's exorbitant rates.  Instead, please send us email messages, or leave a public message/comment here at the blog.  When we get to San Miguel and set up the Magic Jack gadget, you should in theory be able to leave us voicemail messages on that phone.  ALL CONTACT INFORMATION IS IN THE FIRST BLOG ENTRY.  I may just not use my iPhone much or at all during this trip, but I'll keep you informed.

Our love to you all,