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May 16, 2017

Jan 12-15, 2010 – Rinconcito Escondido

On my travel day to San MIguel, I managed to both screw myself and also get screwed by Continental Airlines, a neat trick.  Last year, I travelled to Mexico with a 12-year-old medium-sized suitcase that’s been around the block, along with a stuffed backpack, for which I had to pay $25 each way for checking a second bag.  In addition, I had a computer bag and another carry-on bag.  I decided that I needed to replace my suitcase and also go up in size to avoid having to take and pay for a second bag.  I got a fabulously cavernous 29″ suiter at 50% off at Macy’s a few days before my flight, and I was feeling mighty smug.  However, in the intervening year, Continental had reduced their weight limit from 60 lbs. to 50, and the new suitcase, when fully packed, weighed way over that.  But Continental’s web-site assured me that that was OK.  I could have an overweight bag; I would just have to pay a fee to check it.  When I got to check-in and the clerk saw that my bag weighed 67 lbs., she informed me that Continental had an “embargo” on overweight bags for the “holidays,” which according to their calendar expired 1/15, three days after my flight.  I told her that there was no information about this on their web-site.  I was offered either a $30 or a $40 duffle bag.  I chose the smaller and removed 17 lbs. of stuff from my large suitcase.  And then I had to pay another $30 to check the duffle bag!  They get you coming and going.  I read online that some of the airlines are rewarding check-in personnel who can get the most in the way of fees out of the passengers.  I’m sure my clerk is well on her way to amassing a tidy sum.  It appears that the weight restrictions have nothing to do with the actual weight going into the plane.  I could understand if that were the case.  They’re happy to fly my 67 lbs. if I pay a fee.  And on my return trip in April, when the “embargo” is lifted, they’ll be happy to allow me to check-in my 67 lb. suitcase and pay an overage fee.  What will I do with my new duffle bag?

As I was boarding my flight to Houston, I was asked, along with everyone else, to try to fit my carry-ons into a metal box.  If they did not fit, it meant they would not fit in the overhead bins, and they were taken from us and treated as checked-in luggage.  Now I have travelled with that particular carry-on bag for years without a problem. It was tagged and out of my sight before I realized that it contained all of the things that Continental’s web-site (and anyone’s common sense) would dictate a traveller not to check in:  my camera, battery charger, binoculars, my earrings, cell phone charger, and 3 months’ worth of medications.  Because that bag was meant never to leave my sight, I didn’t even have a lock on it, not that a lock is any impediment to a TSA employee.  So I spent the rest of the day worrying that those things would be stolen.  They were not.

Except for a long lay-over in Houston, during some of which time I strolled the shops, chuckling over a place that advertised “designs by Sue Venir,” the flights were fine, and I arrived in San Miguel precisely on time.  In the Houston waiting area, I met a woman who was taking the same shuttle I was, Viajes San Miguel, from the Leon airport into San Miguel.  Last year, being a complete novice at travelling to San Miguel, I used a private car service recommended by my real estate agent to pick me up, which was excellent, though pricey.  This year, being savvy in what I could expect and also trying to save money, I booked a shuttle pick-up online for both directions at a mere fraction of last year’s tariff.  We two women were the only passengers in a huge Suburban.

Happily, my landlady, Heather, lives next door to my rental, so I rang her bell at 11:30 p.m., and she came down to let me into my place, Rinconcito Escondido.  All of the rental places here have names, some often charming.  Mine means “little hidden corner,” “rincon” meaning corner, with “cito” one of the charming diminutives Mexicans are so fond of using.  And it’s well-named.  It’s the only apartment in the building.  On the first floor are two galleries (we share the front door, which is open during their business hours).  You go up a long flight of stone steps to the second level, and there is an attractive, decorative, wrought-iron “cage” at the top so that no one without a key to its lock can enter the landing where my rental is.  Then there are 2 locks on my apartment door.  It opens up into a huge studio.  In the time since I saw it last March, a second bedroom and bath were added on the floor above, which was formerly all terrace area.  This new space is accessed by a flight of stairs at the back of the studio space.  And just outside of that new room is the (now quite a bit smaller because of the new construction) terrace, but still large enough for an umbrella-topped table with 4 chairs, a chaise lounge, a glider, a gas grill, little fridge, sink, and cabinet with plates and glasses, and of course, a killer view of the parroquia, the exquisite main church in town.  If you’d care to see about a dozen photos of my place, go to www.vrbo.com and punch in #57476.

The new addition is beautifully done with a high-end queen sleep sofa and a sunken tiled bathtub. The place was decorated by Toller Cranston, the greatest men’s figure skater of the 20th century, and also “a painter, writer, illustrator, costume designer, choreographer, coach, TV commentator, and general bon vivant,” as his web-site attests.  An interior decorator, too, evidently.  For a treat, Google “Toller Cranston San Miguel de Allende” and read about him and his home here, which is “eclectic, whimsical, creative, a bit outrageous, and totally over the top.”  I think that correctly describes my place, too.  The only jarring note for me in his design of this place are many black and white photos of racing sailing boats, and several coffee table books with the same subject.  Here in San Miguel, in the dead center of Mexico, north to south, east to west, about as far from any water as it’s possible to get?

I knew I would not be able to carry my big suitcase up the stairs fully packed, so, anticipating this, I had brought a number of small tote bags — not to mention my brand-new Continental duffle bag —  to carry the contents up piecemeal in many trips.  That worked fine, but then I had piles of stuff all over — and I do mean all over — the apartment.  I located pjs and my toiletries and at 12:30, collapsed into bed; I’d been up since 5.

A good friend, Sandy, from NYC, whom I’d met last year in SMA, lives next door, in the same building as Heather.  Sandy called me at around 8 and invited me over for breakfast at 9.  I couldn’t figure out which button to push to answer the phone, but heard her voice message.  When I got there, she told me I also had a lunch date at 2 p.m. and an invitation to a short-story discussion group on Fri. morning at 10, if I was interested.  I was.  After a tour of her palatial digs and breakfast, I returned home to face many technological challenges:  getting onto the Internet (solved by an instructional chat with English-speaking Jesús at a number left by my landlady); learning how to answer the local phone, erase the previous tenant’s voicemail greeting and record my own, and access new messages (solved by reading the phone’s manual); and learning how to use the Vonage phone, erasing and recording voicemail greetings on that one, too (solved by going online — after I had Internet access — and finding the instructions and successfully following them, since the on-site instruction manual was in Spanish and my Spanish is not that good.  Heck, reading an instruction manual in English is a challenge for me).  And finally, turning the TV on and changing the channels, not as easy as it sounds with 2 different remotes and written instructions from Heather not to use one of them to change channels on pain of death.  Anyway, success all around.  I felt quite proud of myself.

The lunch date was the Wed. Comida, a weekly lunch group from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of SMA (UUFSMA) open to all at a different restaurant each week.  This time it was at Dragon Chino, a new Chinese restaurant in town.  Sandy and I met up with two other women from the church whom I remembered from last year and we hopped in a cab for the ride there in extremely heavy — and unusual — traffic.  These women were all much older than I:  one in her 70s, Sandy who just had her 80th birthday, and the final one who turned 85 in Sept., and who had had two parties, one in SMA and one in the US at her daughter’s home, and raised a total of $5,000 in lieu of gifts for her for Mujeres en Cambio, her pet project and one of several charities UUFSMA supports.  We were joined by a man about my age from Albany, NY.  After a bounteous and very delicious lunch, Sandy and I walked 3-4 blocks to Mega, a supermarket befitting its name.  I hadn’t made out my shopping list yet, as I had no idea we’d be going to Mega, and the store also overwhelmed me, so I bought only a juicer so that I could indulge my fondness for fresh-squeezed OJ each morning for breakfast.

I must relate the juicer story in its entirety as it’s such a lesson in communication snafu and the feelings that can arise from same. Some months ago, I wrote to my real estate agent asking her if Heather’s rental had a yoga mat and a juicer.  I wrote of my love for fresh-squeezed OJ each morning. Martha wrote back with a no to both questions, and a rather abrupt, “And Heather said she wouldn’t be buying you a juicer as she has no need for one.”  I wrote back and said that it seemed to me that that argument didn’t wash as her tenant wanted one.  We’re talking here about a $10-$15 electric citrus juicer, and I couldn’t understand why Heather wouldn’t spring for that small item to make her tenant happy.  Anyway, the evening I arrived, Heather pointed out a monstrous “juicer” that she’d managed to find on a local Craig’s List-type service.  It looked like something Rube Goldberg might have designed.  I immediately saw that it would not juice citrus, but rather was meant to juice things like carrots or apples.  She had a big Christmas bow on it, so I knew that this had been a big deal for her to get and present to me.  I asked if there were any instructions, and she said, somewhat snippily, “Since you asked for a juicer, I would think you’d know how to use it.”  I let this pass; it was 11:30 at night and we were both tired.  But as soon as I had bought the little citrus juicer at Mega for 119 pesos (about $9.45), I called her and, among other things, told her about the juicer misunderstanding.  It turns out that Martha, the real estate agent, had not forwarded my e-mail about OJ to Heather, but had merely said, “Cynthia wants a juicer,” and Heather didn’t picture OJ.  We had a laugh about it and all tension was broken.  I offered to reimburse Heather the $100 she’d spent to make me happy, and when she demurred, I offered to split it with her.  It remains to be seen how that will play out. She told me she’d have the maid remove it when she came the next day, as it takes up an inordinate amount of space in my tiny kitchen. She also said, “You’re a much more reasonable person than I had first thought.”  When we spoke this morning about the locksmith coming to my house, she said, “Good morning, my dear,” so all appears to be rosy between the two of us.

I forgot to mention that when I awoke on Wed., my first morning here, it was pouring, something so uncharacteristic for SMA in the winter that I could hardly believe my ears and eyes.  Sandy, who had arrived about 10 days earlier, had been e-mailing me that it was also uncharacteristically cold.  Anyway, it cleared up about the time we left for the Wed. Comida and was delightful the rest of the day.  Last night when I awakened at 3:40, it was again raining hard, but by 6 a.m., when I got up, it had stopped, and now it’s gorgeous.  I immediately went up onto the terrace to see if I could eat breakfast up there — another one of my daily delights — but it was still too wet.  I dried off two chairs and got out their cushions in the hope that when Carlos, my Spanish teacher, arrived at 11:15 for my first lesson, we could sit up there.  Carlos was the teacher of a good Canadian friend of mine from SMA last year, and comes highly recommended.  I had made e-mail contact with him before I left Philadelphia, and here I was, 36 hours after my arrival, having my first lesson with him.  Actually, two different men I’ve never laid eyes on before were supposed to show up at my apartment at approximately the same time. In addition to Carlos, Diego, a locksmith, was supposed to come to look at a lock I was having trouble with.  I had to chuckle at this situation. Happily, Diego called me much earlier and asked if he could come then and he did.

Just to show you how inexpensive it is to live here, yesterday I returned to my favorite produce market, which had re-located from last year to a much larger space, and bought 2 grapefruits, 6 juice oranges, 2 tomatoes, and a mango, for 20 pesos, $1.58.  The mango alone at home would have cost $1.58.

Must relate my experience with Carlos, my Spanish teacher.  He’s about 50 years old, has a wife and a 20 year-old son, who is in university.  Carlos is highly educated.  He shared with me that he was an industrial engineer, working for a big firm in Querétaro for years.  It became obvious to him that he was being passed over for promotion because he is “moreno” (dark-skinned).  He’s actually not that dark.  So he quit that job and began offering Spanish lessons in people’s homes, and now works full-time teaching Spanish to gringos.  He’s very good at it and obviously loves it.  He came with his white board and markers.  We sat up on my terrace in the sun with the umbrella raised (his request).  I can’t imagine that he’s making the same money he did as an engineer. He told me his story after he asked me what kind of work I did, and where, and when I told him that I worked as an editor, writer, and proofreader at a Lutheran seminary, but I wasn’t Lutheran, he asked me what my religion is, and when I told him Unitarian Universalist, he lit up.  He said he was raised Catholic, but didn’t believe any of it and has abandoned it, and really, really resonated with UU beliefs.  He said he’s had many UU students over the years.  He told me that although the official Mexican government policy is against discrimination based on skin color, there is rampant discrimination against morenos in Mexican society, and even in his own family, he was discriminated against.  He mimed his mother saying, “My angels,” and patting the heads of his siblings, and then, “y Carlos,” because Carlos was moreno and the others weren’t.  Interestingly, he married a “blanca” with green eyes.  He said that those working in higher positions in banks, restaurants, hotels, etc. are always blancos.  He didn’t seem at all bitter, just stating the facts.  But the discrimination within his own family must have scarred him. I told him about that same kind of discrimination based on skin color in the US and particularly among African-Americans, that they often prefer a lighter-skinned woman.  Then I told him about my marriage to Suresh, an Indian, and my children and grandchildren, all morenos of varying shades.  I told him I much preferred morenos to blancos any day, that I found them immensely attractive. He thanked me for saying that.  It was a very intense discussion and I was proud of myself that I could have it in Spanish.  He pronounced my Spanish “muy fluido.”  I was ecstatic!

He then cleverly teased out my political views by using a sentence to test my knowledge of direct and indirect objects about Bush giving money (direct object) to the poor (indirect object) (NOT!), then we had a nice political discussion about the quagmire Bush left for Obama, and how much we love Obama.  He told me that Mexicans were over-joyed at the election of Obama.  They kept saying, “See, a moreno like us has been elected the president of the United States.”

I am very aware, as I live this charmed life down here, of the devastation and supreme suffering of the Haitian people after their 7.0 earthquake.  All of the churches in SMA have decided to pool together and give their Sunday collections this week to Haitian relief, and I am very happy about that.  I see it as my duty and responsibility to give generously to that cause.  I hope that some semblance of order can be brought to bear on the situation and that some real relief can come to those desperate people.

Jan. 15-21, 2010 – The Blessing of the Poodles

On Friday morning, I attended the short-story discussion group with my friend, Sandy. It was quite a large group, about 13, including two husbands. All of the women were older than I. They meet weekly! We read “Fiesta, 1980” by Junot Diaz, a Dominican. I read the story twice, thoroughly enjoying it, and we managed to discuss it for over 1 1/2 hours! The power went off twice during the discussion, which wouldn’t have been that much of a problem, except for the space heaters, which were sorely needed. There is no central heat (as none is usually needed) in any of the houses here, but the weather in the first half of January was dreadfully cold this year. I’ve re-met many of the women that were in the group around town since then. That’s the way it is in SMA. If you meet someone, you’re bound to see them again soon. The town is quite small after all, and all of the gringos are essentially doing the same things and frequenting the same places.

At about 1 p.m., the heavens opened and stayed open until early the next morning. Sandy had to go out and told me that coming home, the streets were running like rivers, and that she had to step into ankle-deep water to cross the street. I didn’t go out at all after 1 p.m. When I awoke the next morning, the sky was totally grey and it was foggy. Within two hours, the sky was clear and the sun was beating down. It stayed that way all day. I had lunch up on my terrace. A bunch of us sat for about an hour, from 4-5 p.m., in the jardin, and it was mobbed as I think people had cabin fever from the bad weather. I actually got a little sunburn on my cheeks! And we were quite warm.

How much do you think this shoe-shine man enjoyed giving this shine in the jardin? (She’s not in the usual gringo tourist demographic!)

On Sunday, I attended the service at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Miguel de Allende (UUFSMA), the only UU congregation in all of Mexico, where Sandy was the worship leader and also delivered the sermon. The entire service, in honor and memory of Martin Luther King, was well thought-out, beautifully-written, and professionally delivered. Sandy’s sermon title was “Voices of Dissent.” On the front of the order of service was a photo of Thomas Jefferson with these words, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” good words to remember. Toward the end of the sermon, she called up the “voices of dissent,” and three rehearsed congregants read speeches that persons had made in dissent to our government at various times in our history. At the end, Sandy called up a UU minister, the Rev. Farley Wheelwright, who is 93 years old, nearly blind and deaf, and who marched with MLK, to help her lead us in singing “We Shall Overcome,” while holding hands. That’s always a moving moment. We collected $1100 for Haitian relief, with the funds going to the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC).

A friend, Susan, from last year, lit a candle of joy, an integral part of the service, because of her daughter’s wedding the day before, and I was thrilled to hook up with her again after the service. She’s only here until the end of the month and lives with a Mexican family (seco0nd year doing that), who provide her with two meals a day. The mid-day comida, she said, is always soup to nuts, and she’s never been able to eat any of the offered desserts, as she’s always too full, and doesn’t need to eat again in the evening. She invited me to join her one one day for that meal.

That evening I went to the Blessing of the Poodles, an annual event at the Oratorio church. Don’t ask me why it’s called that, because it’s open to all of the other breeds of dogs…

(Check out the teeth on the shih tzu.)

(Here’s my favorite photo; the dog’s name is Princesa.)

and all other animals, such as rabbits,

cats,

goats and sheep, (you can actually see the lamb bleeting here)

a rooster,

birds, lots of birds

and even a turtle.

The actual blessings…

And then some other shots I liked…

The Oratorio church where the blessings were performed (which can be seen from my terrace)…

An unfortunate beggar family…

The end of the day…

On Mon., Jan. 18, MLK Day and my daughter Suji’s 40th birthday, I started the day with a Spanish lesson on the terrace while a carpenter was fixing a door and drawers inside that wouldn’t close properly (it’s Grand Central Station around my place). Carlos, my teacher, had a bad gum infection and his mouth was swollen, so he began by apologizing for his poor enunciation that day. I showed him some photos of mi familia morena on the computer, and he was most grateful. Carlos told me that all of his students liked to have their lessons in the sun, not something that he favors, and that the skin on his face is always peeling. An interesting cultural difference. Then I tackled my laundry! My maid, Reyna, would do it for me, but I prefer to do it myself. (She washes the sheets and towels.) I parked my desk swivel chair in front of the washing machine with the manual in Spanish in one hand and my Spanish dictionary in the other, to try to make sense of the 14(!) possible types of cycles. Several of the words on the machine were not in my dictionary, but I decided a key one meant “load.”

While the first load was washing, I took three Spanish-language children’s books, that I had bought at Border’s in Philly, to the place I rented last year, which is just around the corner. I particularly wanted to visit with my maid from that rental, Eleonor, and to ask her to give the books to her now six year-old niece, Carla, who was a frequent visitor at my rental last year. We became great friends. Eleonor was very, very pleased by my visit, but seemed taken aback by my enthusiastic hug. Probably La Señora doesn’t usually embrace her maid. Since there were no renters yet in the house, she invited me in to chat. She told me that Carla would be there at 3 p.m. next Mon., and that I should return if I could to give her the books myself. I hope to be able to read them to her then, also. Then it was on to buy more fruits and veggies. One needs to disinfect all produce before consuming it. There is a variety of products, but I favor Microdyn. I am fortunate to have purified water coming out of the taps in this rental; I did not have that last year, and most people here don’t have it. In addition to the city water, which is fine for bathing, laundry, and washing the dishes, there is a five-gallon dispenser of purified water for drinking and scrubbing teeth. I also have that. I scrub my teeth with the purified water from the tap, but I still use the bottled water for drinking.

I successfully did two loads and then “hung” them out to dry on the wrought iron furniture and the light fixture on the terrace. Last year, that same system worked fine for me until Suji and Geoff came to visit for a month, and we ran out of furniture drying space, so we bought a clothesline and clothespins, which I brought with me this year. Unfortunately, there is no place on my terrace to attach the clothesline, so I had to revert to my earlier method. I clipped the pieces onto the chairs so they wouldn’t blow away when they got dry. I was going to open the umbrella and hang the laundry from its edges, but I had been cautioned not to allow the umbrella to stay open on the terrace in my absence, as the previous week, it had taken flight and ended up in a neighbor’s garden. There is a dryer in the rental, but I don’t even use a dryer at home; one has to stand on a step ladder here to reach the dryer dials as it’s stacked on top of the washer; and why pay for heated air when there is abundant sunshine for free? I had my lunch and did my homework on the terrace, moving the laundry-laden chairs around the terrace to keep them in the direct sun.

Some views from my terrace…

The black on the left in the photo below is the side of one of those planters seen above. They provide a lot of privacy. That’s the Oratorio church on the left. I can see no fewer than five near-by churches from my terrace. Notice the extreme difference in the photo below between the sunny areas and the shady. When I first arrived, I only walked on the sunny sides to keep warm. Now I’m already seeking out the shady sides as it’s warming up.

This is the parroquia, which reminds me of Cinderella’s castle in Disneyland. It and the jardin directly in front of it are the center of town and activity, so you can see how well-located my rental is. When mariachis are playing in the jardin, I can hear them up on my terrace. Note the owl on top of the chimney to the left. It works! The pigeons do not come onto the terrace.

Again, a planter on the right with a few fronds.

On Tuesday, I had my first conversation class, with my leader from last year, Chely. She is a native Mexican who married an Argentinian from Montreal, so they spend three-quarters of the year up north and the winter in San Miguel. I was the only student; the others have not yet arrived. She complimented me on my accent, and I said that it is thanks to Milagros, my private teacher at home. We had a fun lesson. Since plumbing problems of all kinds are rampant in San Miguel, Chely taught me many words I might need to describe a problem to a plumber, such as faucet, toilet bowl, blocked pipe, etc., and also some words I might need with the maid, like shower curtain, sheets, blankets, bath mat, bedspread.

After my lesson, I took a bus to Mega, as I was in search of a hygiene product that neither my local store nor my favorite pharmacy had. I was sure Mega would have it. The bus ride was slow and incredibly bumpy, since it goes over cobblestones punctuated by speed bumps. Actually, the whole town is one big speed bump. Mega did indeed have the desired product, so I bought two. Then I looked for some cookies (no way would I eat any of those offered in Mega!) and non-fat plain yogurt. I had earlier given up on finding my usual soy yogurt. It simply does not exist here. They had so many types of yogurt that I must have spent 20 minutes reading labels and checking my dictionary. I never did find exactly what I wanted, and bought something close, but later found some in an organic shop, where I’ll buy it from now on — at a very high price.

On my way home, a clown got on the bus! He spoke in many funny voices and had everyone laughing, except me as I only caught 3 words, “payaso (clown),” “Coca Cola,” and “leche” (milk). I fantasized that he was encouraging the children not to drink Coca Cola, but only milk. Someone else told me he was advertising the circus in town. He passed the hat and I contributed.

In the early evening, I went to the biblioteca to see the movie “Frida” again. Although I clearly remembered the story, I was very happy to re-visit it. I had thought that it was in Spanish with English sub-titles, but it was the other way around, and I enjoyed reading the Spanish while hearing the English spoken. I had only 15 minutes to go to the bathroom and get back into line for another movie, “Agatha Christie: A Life in Pictures.” This one told the true story of a period of amnesia from which she suffered after a car accident at a time of extreme stress in her life, and how a psychiatrist (no one ever knew his name) cured her by hypnosis. It was a BBC production, and very well done. I hadn’t known anything about her life, and even though mysteries are not my favorite type of reading material, I now feel inspired to read some of her work. Since I knew I wouldn’t have time for dinner between the movies, I had an ice cream cone right before the first one, and a cookie in between. (I really am eating better than this on a regular basis, I promise!)

On Wed. morning, I attended a speak-out entitled, “Change to Believe In: One Year Later,” a discussion of Obama’s first year in office. It was timed, coincidentally, with the devastating results of the Mass. senatorial vote. It was presented by the Center for Global Justice, a fine organization here which every week offers two movies (e.g. “Food, Inc.” this week), a lecture, and a field trip. I’m going on their trip this Sat. and will let you know all about it.

I followed this old fellow slowly up the street on my way to the speak-out.

In the early afternoon, I went to see some contemporary handmade paper art at a weekly “Meet the Artist” open house at her home/studio. She told me that five years ago, where her house now stands was a vacant lot and that she designed the house herself. It was modern and amazing, as was her art. She had some pieces which included mica, and I told her about all of the mica I, my children, and now my grandchildren, have found in Valley Green in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. She said there is no mica in Mexico. I must take my sister, Julia, and Suji and Geoff there when they arrive.

From there, I went to an afternoon tea with entertainment at the Casa de la Cuesta B&B, which was a fund-raiser for Casa de los Angeles, a day-care center started in 2000. Until it opened, many single women from the outskirts of town who worked or sold their wares in SMA just locked their children in the house and went to work, leaving, for example, a five year-old in charge of a two year-old. Can you imagine? Now, in its 10th anniversary year, it serves around 100 children a year, providing them not only with safe, stimulating day care, but also serves two meals a day, provides total medical care to all of the family members, has supported 13 of the mothers as they returned to school, and has built nine houses, 11 bathrooms, one apartment building, two community centers, and a clinic. Those of you who are receiving these e-mails for a second year will recall that most of the gringos here are involved in one way or another with supporting charities that help the families and particularly the children of SMA and the surrounding campos. The people who own the B&B also own the Mexican Mask and Folk Art Museum next door, but their house was a museum as well. Unfortunately I can’t show you any photos from the museum, as none were allowed, but you’ll get the idea from the photos taken at the event and throughout the house, which we were invited to stroll through. That house, although a polar opposite from the one owned by the paper artist, was also awe-inspiring.

One of the entertainers, a former Broadway actor/singer

another of the entertainers, a classical guitarist

a view from one of the many terraces

and another

a huge kitchen, in which there were about 8-10 young women working

I hope you can see the bird cages on top of and to the left of this magnificent chest. The birds inside sang enthusiastically and enchantingly all during the musical entertainment!

I wanted you to have a detailed look at this very intricate stonework.

The parroquia at dusk from my terrace. I love the juxtaposition of the TV antenna — yet another cross!

Jan. 22 – 26, 2010 – Peñon de los Baños

On Friday evening, my landlady, Heather, invited me and Sandy to her place for a glass of wine. Heather spent 34 years in Italy and has traveled widely elsewhere in the world. Her apartment echoed this, and we saw many of her beautiful things. Then she took us upstairs to visit another of her tenants. He was a much older gentleman who had worked in textile design and has exquisite taste and a keen eye. His place was stuffed with magnificent objets d’art from around the world. Although Heather says he’s a very solitary soul, he seemed quite pleased by our visit and to show off his things.

There is a disco right across the street from my rental, and — gracias a Dios! — only operates on the weekends. Early Sat. morning — 4 a.m. to be exact — I was awakened by a persistent bass thumping. I couldn’t believe that I could hear it through triple-glazed windows and two sets of noise-abating drapes, plus earplugs. Once up, I stayed awake until I arose at 6:30 to go on a field trip. When I returned from the field trip and told Heather about the early morning disturbance, she suggested that I turn on the two floor fans in the rental and use them as white noise. Voila! It worked! I slept through the night on Sat.

The field trip was to an ejido, Peñon de los Baños (more explanation to follow) that, in addition to running a 500-head dairy farm, grows organic tomatoes cooperatively in greenhouses nearly year-round using drip irrigation. This trip was run by the Center for Global Justice. Ejidos were born from the agrarian reform that started in 1938 and continued until the 1980s; they are the crowning achievement of the Mexican revolution. Then-President Cardenas began the process of land expropriation, giving the land of the church and the large land-owners to the peasants who worked on it in a collective ownership model called ejidos. Each family retained its own lot to farm, but the parcels could not be sold. Ultimately in 1992, President Salinas de Gortari changed the Mexican constitution to allow the sale of ejidos as a condition for Mexico joining NAFTA. However, many remain intact.

The name Peñon de los Baños comes from the name of a displaced ejido that was originally in Mexico City where the airport is today. In the 1950s, in preparation for building the airport, the residents of this ejido were relocated to an area just north of SMA. The displaced residents soon dispersed instead of recreating their community. Other displaced peasants from the Celaya and Salva Tierra areas came to occupy the new ejido. Today, their children and grandchildren live and work there. The Center for Global Justice has been working with a group of residents of the ejido since the fall of 2006. This group wanted to build a greenhouse to raise tomatoes to provide jobs for their children who had emigrated to the US due to lack of work; dairy farming didn’t provide enough employment for the next generation. Today there are 9 greenhouses producing organic tomatoes for the local market. The Center has provided loans for the purchase of the greenhouses and helps to keep the cooperative spirit alive. The all-day trip was to see both the dairy and tomato operations and to meet some of the coop members to learn about the progress they have made, whether or not their children have returned, and how they are surviving the current economic crisis. In addition, we were to be served a mid-day comida.

In recent years, as many as 30 people at a time have taken this trip; a bus was used. On Sat., there were three of us and the leader, a bi-lingual gringo about my age, Bob. We went in Bob’s car. The trip was scheduled to leave at 9 a.m., but I was advised to arrive at 8:30 for an orientation. I had set my alarm for the first time during this trip, for 6:30, but, as related above, was up since four. I reached the Center’s office at precisely 8:30. I rang the bell. No one answered. I hung around for 15 minutes and then another participant arrived. Marilyn was a fascinating, fun person. She was an alpaca and llama farmer from Princeton with a Ph.D, teaching liberal arts courses online for Berkeley, a proprietary business college. She was in the process of getting a divorce and will move to SMA in the spring or summer. At nine, Bob arrived and we went inside the Center. The last participant, John, also a professor, although younger, arrived soon thereafter. He was on sabbatical and his wife had recently been laid-off, so they thought it was a good time to make a trip to SMA. We got on the road about 9:30. I had been told that the trip took about 20 minutes. We pulled into the ejido at 10:30. So far, everything had been on Mexican time.

As we neared the ejido, as far as the eye could see on both sides of the road was newly-planted acreage in neat rows. These were the fields of a huge agri-business owned by the brother of the current Mexican president, who is also the secretary of agriculture. Because of the depressed economic situation, this conglomerate has been buying up the land of other ejidos and hiring the former owners to work on it, mostly as stoop laborers. Sadly, things have now come full circle. We then drove around the ejido’s acreage for awhile, seeing lots of cows and the 9 greenhouses. We got out at one of them and met Valentin. He has two sons illegally in Houston and two grandchildren he has never seen. His sons could come home to work on the tomato operation, but they have elected to ride out the downturn in the U.S. Even in the slump, they felt that their standard of living in Houston was better than in Mexico. They cannot come home to visit as there is no way for them to return to Houston legally. This situation is a great weight on the hearts and minds of Valentin and his wife. Every single other coop member had at least one child in the US.

Valentin, who reminded me completely of my daughter-in-law’s father, explained the entire tomato enterprise to us, including samples of unbelievably sweet tomatoes right off the vine. One problem with the tomatoes that he told us about was that there is no market for the entire crop, that it’s too large for any of the outlets that currently exist, so they’ve had to sell individually to various buyers. They also don’t have any trucks big enough to deliver the whole crop. They have only small trucks. This is a detriment to the cooperative spirit. Also, the agri-business sells its chemically-grown tomatoes for far, far less, so the ejido owners have had to reduce the fair price of their organics. Their bottom line has been seriously affected. One of the organic shops in town to whom they sell is a place that I had already frequented. When I go there in the future to buy tomatoes, I will smile at the memory of this trip and the people I met on it. When it came time for picture-taking, I was surprised to see Valentin whip out his cell phone and take pictures of us, too.

The chapel on the ejido.

A small grocery store on the ejido that Valentin and his wife run.

We met some other members of the cooperative and then went to Valentin’s house for the comida. When the larger groups came to visit, they ate in the schoolhouse. We were served by Valentin’s wife and another, younger woman, Lupe, who I think was married to Valentin’s brother. She has four daughters, ranging in age from 11 to 27. In a way, she is probably luckier than the others, as it’s most often the sons that go to look for work in the US, while the daughters stay at home. One of Lupe’s daughters actually completed two years of college, but had to drop out due to lack of funds. She cried bitterly. I told them about Mujeres in Cambio. This is exactly the type of people that organization helps. They had never heard of it. The youngest daughter, Estrella, was a very bright young woman, and they had high hopes that she could go to college and finish.

For the comida, we had sopes, heavy tortillas made with coarsely ground corn, what we would call “Spanish rice,” and a spicy mushroom dish. When we had just about eaten our full, Lupe arrived with huevos (eggs) and chilis and also stupendously delicious chiles rellenos. We all said we would have eaten more lightly of the first dishes had we known so much more was coming. Valentin and another coop member arrived for the comida, and then we sat around and talked for two hours. When I told them I lived in Philly, Valentin immediately said, “Rocky!” They asked us if we were disappointed in Obama, and quite a heated discussion arose among the gringos. It was a wide-ranging talk, and we all felt very close to these people by the end of it. As a parting gift, we were each given a shopping bag full of red, ripe organic tomatoes, which I shared around on my return.

The two women who served us our comida.

Estrella, Lupe’s youngest daughter.

During the winter months in SMA, the Center for Global Justice runs what they call the “Snowbird Symposium,” featuring lectures, movies, and field trips. I am particularly interested in the ones to GAIA, actually an acronym that conveniently spells the Greek word for earth, a totally off-the-grid eco-village, and to El Moral, a sewing cooperative. I hope to be able to take at least one of these trips and report back to you. I heard a Symposium lecture by an American economist entitled, “Mexico: So Far From God, So Close to Wall Street.” This was a play on the words of the former controversial president/dictator, Porfirio Diaz, who served from 1876-1911, and said at one point, “Consider poor Mexico: So far from God, so close to the United States.” It was an eye-opening explanation of what NAFTA has done to Mexico. One of the biggest problems is that the U.S. government is subsidizing the cost of growing corn there, and thus it can be sold at dirt-cheap prices across the border. This has put many thousands of corn farmers in Mexico out of work. This was just one example of the disaster that this policy has been for Mexico.

Sunday, there was something of a disaster, caused by me. I was leaving the apartment to deliver some of the organic tomatoes to my landlady on my way to meeting Sandy for the walk to church. I have to unlock a total of four locks to get from my apartment out onto the street. One of keys has a notch on it, which had to be facing up. In my haste, I put the notch down and turned the key and that particular lock, a sliding bolt, would not fully open nor return to the locked position. I was locked inside my apartment! Nothing I did changed the situation, so I called Heather, and again, gracias a Dios!, she was there. We determined that there was no point in her coming over with her key to the lock, because it wouldn’t fit in with mine stuck in there, so she called Javier, the sainted handyman who keeps all of her apartments going, and he said he would come in a half hour. I then had to call Heather back to ask her to tell Sandy — who was waiting to meet me in the courtyard — that I would not be able to accompany her to church.

Javier arrived in 45 minutes and pretty quickly determined that he would have to enter my apartment by going up to the roof of 78 Mesones next door, hoisting himself onto my roof from there (and he has a handicap involving one leg), and then coming in via the door out to my terrace. He asked me to go up and unlock that door. We were having a shouted conversation in Spanish through a heavy wooden door. It was something of a riot, let me tell you! He came in and had to remove all of the screws which fastened the lock to the door in order to get it off and set me free. He took the lock apart and many fragments fell out. The lock was kaput. I told him that since there were so many other locks that he could wait until the next day to replace this one. He said that he’d rather do it then, as he had a lot of work the following day. I had decided that it was my responsibility to pay for his service call and also a new lock, since it had totally been my fault, so I gave him 500 pesos and went to church. I had particularly wanted to hear the day’s sermon, as it was by a visiting UU minister with whom I had chatted at length in the jardin one day. However, I arrived as he was winding up, and I just joined the congregation for the final hymn and the brunch afterwards.

Sandy asked me to stick around after the brunch to speak with a man who was in town to teach International Dances of Peace in an after-school program in the campo, and was looking for volunteers to join him. He has done this around the world. I was intrigued by his sales pitch and decided that I would join him on Wed. at 2 p.m. I’ll be sure to include a report on that activity in my next e-mail.

When I returned home, there was a new lock installed on the door and a key on the counter to fit it. Happily, this key cannot be put in the wrong way! Later that afternoon, I attended a stupendous concert by the Stravaganza orchestra, whom I’d heard last year, as part of the annual Pro Musica series at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Their showcase piece was Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” and it was truly memorably played, although the balcony seat I was in was profoundly uncomfortable.

On Mon. afternoon, I appeared at my last year’s rental at the agreed-upon time with Eleonor, my maid from last year, to visit with Carla, her niece, and give her the Spanish children’s story books I’d brought from home for her. Carla is now in the first grade, and was able to read beautifully the books I brought. They turned out to be at the precisely perfect level for her. I was thrilled! They then gave me a present, a charming little etched glass presentation box with a pair of earrings inside. I was so moved, and felt terrible that they had used some of their very limited resources to buy me a gift. I spent about 40 minutes with the two of them, and had a wonderful time. Carla taught me some Spanish names of animals and insects from one of the books, and I taught her the English words. I hope to visit with them another time before I leave.

Tuesday evening, I attended one of the marvelous PEN lectures. Last year, I had not gone to any of them. PEN stands for “Poets, Essayists, and Novelists,” and the SMA branch is one of 140 in 104 countries around the world. Book authors come to talk about their books and there are sales and signings afterwards. Tonight’s talk was by David Lida, the author of “Mexico City: Capital of the 21st Century.” He was introduced by Tony Cohan, the author of “On Mexican Time,” a book about SMA that I read last year. David has lived in Mexico City for the past 20 years and told us innumerable facts, figures, anecdotes, and vignettes about this incredibly populous city, and also verbally sketched some of different people living there. One person he talked a lot about was the president of Tel-Mex, the richest man in the world. His company has a virtual monopoly on all landlines and cell phones in Mexico, and is involved with almost every other type of business there. David was very charming and very funny, and every seat in the auditorium at the Bellas Artes was filled. There was a Q&A afterwards, and I had to restrain myself from buying his book, as I didn’t want to have to carry it home in my suitcase and incur any further overweight fees. I think that I will buy it when I get home, however.

Jan. 27-31, 2010 – Guanajuato

I wanted to start out with some anecdotes and stray facts that I forgot last time, but want you to know about. First was the day when the carpenter came to plane down the door to the second floor bathroom and also some drawers that wouldn’t close properly. I knew about the door problem, but not the drawers. So when the carpenter came and said something I couldn’t understand except for the word “cojones,” (even if we don’t know any Spanish, we all know that word!), I just repeated, “cojones?” incredulously and let him do his work. Then I saw what he was fixing and turned to my dictionary. The word for drawers is “cajones,” very, very close, and obviously that is what he was saying.

I found out that the seemingly incongruous black and white photos of racing sailboats on one wall of my rental, and the coffee table books on the same topic, are all the work of the late husband of my landlady, Heather. Stanley Rosenfeld was a maritime photographer. Heather never said a word, but she lent me the book, “Detectives Don’t Wear Seatbelts,” by Cici McNair (an extraordinary read written by a woman who decided she wanted to become a private investigator, and some of the cases she worked on all over the world; she now has her own firm, Green Star Investigations, in Philly!). Heather and her husband are mentioned in the book by name. Heather had met Cici in Rome when they were both living and working there.

I found out why there are so many half-finished buildings all over Mexico. It is because they operate almost exclusively on a cash economy, so when they have amassed enough money to build the first floor of their new house or business, they do so, and then it sits there until they get enough money to put a second story on. It looks really bad, but it’s an admirable trait.

When I moved in here, there were two sets of noise-abating curtains, in addition to triple-glazed windows — all with the purpose of drowning out the noise from a disco across the street, which is open only on weekends, gracias a Dios! With the addition of ear plugs and two fans set on high (not blowing on me) to provide white noise, I sleep like a log. But my purpose in telling you this is that the curtain rods were wavy — quite lovely, but totally impractical. I came to dread the opening and closing of these humungous drapes, hanging 10′ or more off the floor, with a decorative metal rod with a hook on the end. Because I’m so short, I could barely reach the lead ring on the wavy rod with the hook, and when I pulled and the other rings moved over the waves, they would get stuck or the hooks would fall off the rings, etc. It was awful, and I complained. Actually, it was the only bad thing about this rental, but it had become a really big deal for me. ¡No hay problema! My landlady spoke to our sainted handyman, Javier, whose brother just happens to be in the metal fabricating business. Javier measured the existing drapery rods and a week or so later he came with absolutely straight rods, installed them, even greased them up a little, and it’s like night and day! It’s now such a breeze to open and close the drapes.

You remember the huge vegetable juicer that Heather bought for me as a result of a miscommunication? Well, she was able to sell it on an equivalent to Craig’s List for exactly what she paid for it. Her only additional cost was a taxi ride to deliver it (about $2.00 each way). She said five different people e-mailed her about it. I told her she should have started a bidding war.

The lock disaster cost me a total of $64, plus a 100 pesos tip (under $10). This included a many-hours long Sunday service call, a brand new lock, plus installation, and four keys. Such a bargain!

In an earlier e-mail I had mentioned, not by name, Carlos Slim Helú, the president of Tel-Mex, whose name came up in the PEN lecture about Mexico City. I did a little Googling of him and found out that he is worth $67.8 billion (that’s with a “b”). He makes about $8-$10 billion (again, with a “b”) per year, putting him ahead of Gates and Buffet. The wife of the former mayor of SMA, who was seated at my table at a Mujeres en Cambio fund-raising luncheon (more below) told us that she was ashamed that he was a Mexican, as he gives very little of his money to charity (Bill Gates, he’s not). Interestingly, he’s of Lebanese descent, and the fifth of six children. BTW, he now owns Prodigy.

While checking something out for my daughter, Suji, on the street where their rental is (beginning mid-Feb.), I noted that their street was totally ripped up. Actually, since then, I’ve seen that about half of the town is ripped up, and half of the buildings in El Centro are being scraped, patched, and re-painted. Turns out that when the town was designated last year as a UNESCO World Heritage site, lots of money came with the honor. The street dig-up is to bury all electrical lines underground, and the painting project is just to spruce up. 2010 is the bicentennial of the revolution, so this fall, thousands will be coming to SMA and it’s supposed to look its best. On Mon., Feb. 1, a national holiday, there will be no electricity in certain parts of the city as they’re going to turn off the power coming through the old, overhead wires, and try the power coming through the new, underground wires.

I was having some difficulty with the reasoning behind the use of some Spanish verbs and asked my Spanish teacher to explain them. The two verbs in question were “to be married” and “to die,” and both use the verb to be “estar,” rather than the verb to be “ser.” Spanish has two different verbs “to be.” Simply put, the verb to be “ser” is used for permanent conditions, such as “Soy una mujer” (I am a woman), whereas, simply put, the verb to be “estar” is used for temporary conditions, such as “Estoy enferma” (I am sick). OK, I’m fine with that, but then why when you get married do you use “estar,” and even more shocking, why do you use “estar” when you die? Surely there is no more permanent condition than death. Carlos’ answer was the power of the Catholic religion on the culture and thus the language. Years ago, before there was any possibility of divorce, because of the rulings of the church, one used “ser” with casarse, to get married, but now that divorce is permitted, one uses “estar” with casarse. I told him that using the impermanent verb seemed to me to set up the marriage for failure right from the start. Now as to death. One uses “estar” with morir because one is only temporarily dead, until the “juicio final” (final judgment). How’s that for theology influencing language? A person “está muerto hasta el dia del juicio final” (dead until the final judgment). BTW, here is a photo of Carlos, my Spanish teacher, saying hi to you all.

I totally forgot to tell you about the city’s celebration of Ignacio Allende’s 241st birthday. It was a holiday, of course, and schools were closed. The whole city, it seemed, was at the jardin and thereabouts to witness a very military parade, and then some drum and bugle corps performances afterwards.

This person stopped his/her conversation and stepped out so I could get a good shot. I was unable to read what was on the sign on his/her chest.

This is a favorite street food: boiled corn on the cob on a stick, smeared with mayo, and sprinkled with hot chili pepper powder.

The competing drum and bugle corps formed a square in front of the parroquia. Each group played a selection, and then they all played together. The conductor used a trumpet as a baton.

The competing drum and bugle corps formed a square in front of the parroquia. Each group played a selection, and then they all played together. The conductor used a trumpet as a baton.

The green umbrellas seen here in the background all cover concession stands of various kinds.

During the afternoon of Wed., Jan.27, I accompanied a group of gringos and Mexicans on an interesting volunteer outing. A man from the Children’s Global Peace Project, William Day, had come to the UU church the previous Sun. to tell of his volunteer work, which is teaching Dances of Universal Peace to children. One of the members of the UU church, Elsmarie, runs an after-school art program called Ojalá Niños at her home in Viejo San Miguel. (Viejo San Miguel? I thought plain old San Miguel was plenty viejo, but I was wrong; there is an even older settlement that was the original San Miguel. It was moved for one of the usual reasons: water availability). Elsmarie is a graduate of Juilliard and is one of two piano players who rotate playing at the church for Sun. services. She is an amazing woman and my admiration for her knows no bounds.

Anyway, she built a little house there for herself with a large back patio, which has a straw roof to keep the sun off. It doesn’t keep the rain out. There is also an older building across the street (not sure what it is or who owns it, but she uses it, too, for her program). The story is that she started out about five years ago handing out pencils to the kids walking by her house on their way to school. Soon a few stopped by to visit with her after school and she did some simple art projects with them. Then they brought their friends and pretty soon there was a full-fledged after-school program going every Wed. She recruited some volunteer teachers from the community and divided the group into age-appropriate “classrooms” and art projects. Elsmarie has discovered some extremely talented artists among the teen-aged boys and they help out with the projects, too. The group I was traveling with was going to teach the little kids the peace dances first and then use them to teach the older kids.

I met William and more people than could fit comfortably or legally in his borrowed car, and off we went to Viejo San Miguel. We stopped at two other places along the way to pick up other people and cars. Even more volunteers arrived from different directions, some from as far away as Guanajuato (an hour from SMA), so there was an excellent ratio of adults to children. We met Elsmarie and saw her house and back patio set up for that afternoon’s art projects for the older kids, stained glass and something else I never found out, and making simple puppets for the younger group. William taught the adults the dances, accompanied by singing and drumming, and then we got the littlest kids out into a shady place and we did the dances together. Not all of the adults participated in this activity. Some took photos, some worked with the older kids. I danced with the little ones and had the time of my life.

When the older kids came across the street to join us, they were less enthralled with the dancing and I saw some rolling of eyes, and I wouldn’t say it was a total success. Afterwards, bowls of cut oranges and cookies were passed around to all. Elsmarie is hosting a “raise the roof” party soon to put a real roof on her back patio so that it can continue to be used for the children’s projects even in bad weather.

Elsmarie’s home. Notice the “Ojalá” sign.

Her side patio and garden.

The smallest kids doing their puppet project. A Mexican volunteer teacher is at the back right, and an American volunteer helper is at the left front. The blond children in the foreground are the offspring of a Mexican woman and her Dutch husband from Guanajuato.

Snack time!

William invited all of us volunteers to join him on the next three Weds., to do the same thing. I’m not sure I’ll go, but I might, and stay with the art projects, rather than the dancing.

That evening I attended a State of the Union pot-luck dinner party at Sandy’s. We ate, then tuned in at 8 p.m. for Obama’s speech, the Republican response, and lots of commentary. I stumbled home, exhausted, at 10:45.

On Thurs., Jan.28, I attended the 15th anniversary party of Mujeres en Cambio, a scholarship organization supported by UUFSMA, among others, at a gorgeous small hotel, Hacienda de las Flores, a steep walk up from the jardin. The owner of this hotel donates her small dining room and some of the food for this event each year. Also each year a visiting chef from a local restaurant prepares some of the food, and some members of the organization bring salads. The chef this year, Flaviando Sforza, owns and is the chef at the new Sicilia en Bocca (Italian for Sicily in Your Mouth) restaurant. He provided the antipasto and chicken tetrazinni. Everything was so delicious. Dessert was a coffee-flavored tres leches cake. I have never tasted anything quite so good. Because it was the 15th anniversary, they treated it sort of like a quincieñera celebration (15th birthday party, a huge deal for Mexican girls, sort of a combination of a debutante party and a Sweet 16 party). One of the organization’s members told us all about the tradition of the quincieñera, the costs involved (staggering!), the planning, the execution, etc. Three of the girls in the Mujeres en Cambio program are celebrating their 15th birthdays this year and we saw photos of them. At the conclusion of the meal, the hat was passed, and enough was raised from those maybe 60 in attendance to pay for one year of high school and one year of college for two girls in the program. This in addition to what was raised by the ticket purchase. It was a lot of fun and very festive.

The entrance on the street to Hacienda de las Flores,

and the plant-festooned walkway to the hotel.

Some members of UUFSMA waiting for the guests to be invited into the dining for the start of the meal: Sandy is the white-haired lady in the white jacket on the right, and seated to her left in the black jacket is Marge, one of the three founders of Mujeres en Cambio.

A view of the parroquia from the hallway just outside the upstairs dining room.

Here we all are amassed at the gorgeous carved door to the dining room, looking to see what goodies await us.

Sandy and I and two other people bolted at the end of the meal for the biblioteca where we watched — breathlessly — the 1946 movie, “Great Expectations,” starring an extremely young Alec Guinness and an equally young Jean Simmons, who had just died. Seeing this movie was in preparation for the next Tuesday’s PEN lecture by Austin Briggs, called “The Joys of Dickens: Reading Great Expectations.”

On Friday, Jan.29, I saw the movie “The History of Mexico,” which I found fascinating, had a quick dinner at the cafe at the biblioteca, and then went to see “My Old Lady” by Israel Horowitz. The play was one of the best I’ve ever seen anywhere and certainly the best acted of any play I’ve seen in SMA. There was a bit of a misunderstanding between the waiter and me when I ordered my dinner. I had been waiting for nine months to sink my teeth into the Santa Ana Cafe’s enchiladas verdes con pollo, my most favorite Mexican dish. I ordered enchiladas verdes con pollo, and when the plate came, I saw that it was ensalada verde con pollo. My face dropped and I told him that it was not my meal. He confirmed that it was, and so I figured I had just been misunderstood and that I’d eat what was brought to me. But the waiter, I think, sensed my deep disappointment and took the wrong meal back and replaced it with my enchiladas. Yum!

Last year, except for a weekend trip to experience the Monarch butterflies, I never left SMA, although there are many fascinating places near-by suitable for day-trips. I was determined to get to many of them this year. With that in mind, earlier in the week, I had signed up for an all-day trip to Guanajuato, Dolores Hidalgo, and Atótonilco to benefit Hogar Santa Julia, a home for abused girls, which UUFSMA also supports.. When I arrived at 9 a.m., I was the only participant. Another man had signed up, but there was no sign of him, so I got into a Suburban with a young Mexican guy I’d never met before and headed out of town.

His name is Dalí Amaro. Of course I asked him about his first name. His father was an elementary school principal, and dabbled in painting and much appreciated Dalí’s work, so named his son after him. Didn’t give him any other names, which is highly unusual in Mexico. Dalí married a woman with three daughters and his parents have all but disowned him (perhaps because she was divorced? I didn’t ask.). He has at least four jobs. He does this tour thing, and also goes to other places, like Querétaro, Pozos, etc. He is an artist, and does work in clay, and makes candles. He also owns a clothing store, which is where I met him to go on the tour. He was the concierge at the Hotel Sierra Nevada for three years, and this June, hopes to be their official tour guide.

I can’t say enough about how great the day was. First of all, he drove beautifully, which is not something I can say about some other Mexican drivers. I was not afraid a single moment. Thank God, since I was sitting up front with him, of course. He is a graduate in tourism of the U. of Guanajuato, and does he know his stuff! It took us about an hour to get to Guanajuato, and we spoke in Spanish the entire way! He spoke slowly and in a manner that I could understand. It was wonderful. First we went to a mirador to overlook the town, then into town, where he drove me through some of famous tunnels. Afterwards we parked in an indoor parking lot where I used the cleanest bathrooms you can imagine. I was shocked! We toured Teatro Juarez (amazing!), the Diego Rivera home (and he had so many tid-bits to tell me; e.g. DR was a twin, and his twin died very early on. When DR asked his parents why his twin had died and he had not, they said it was God’s will. DR couldn’t accept that and that was the seed of his atheism, which was the seed of his communism. DR was such a genius that he was invited to salons at the age of five).

Here is Dalí at the mirador.

And here is the view!

Guanajuato is the capital city of the state of Guanajuato, and is renowned as a mining town. At one time, about half the silver in the world was mined in this city. This is a commemorative statue of “El Pípila,” a miner and a hero of the struggle for Mexican independence, who set fire to the portal of the Alhóndiga de Granaditas (grain storehouse, with the nickname “Corn Palace”) with a torch, thus making possible the taking of it by the insurgents.

Just a fun thing I saw in Guanajuato.

The entrance to one of the many tunnels which run underground to reduce the traffic on the streets above. All of the traffic above ground runs in one direction and in the opposite direction underground.

Don’t you agree that the streets have a very European feel and look to them?

The famous Juarez Teatro.

The old portion of the U. of Guanjuato, started by the Jesuits in 1732 as the College of the Holy Trinity. In 1828, it became the property of the government of the state. In 1945 it gained university status. This part houses administrative and academic offices, as well as a number of the university’s schools and faculties. There is a huge, far newer part of the University up high on a hill overlooking the city.

The Diego Rivera house.

Check out the ages of the kids runnning this stand. You can just see a very little girl squeezing orange juice to the right. I hope they do this only on the weekends and go to school during the week!

Some street entertainers.

The top floor of Diego Rivera’s house has many of his early paintings and sketches in preparation for his later works that we know and recognize. You would never believe that it was DR who did the early work. It’s nothing like his later work. We saw Dalí’s university and several churches, the Don Quijote Museum (pretty fabulous) and walked around the very European streets. There is a Cervantes Festival every fall in Guanajuato, the largest in Latin America. The story of why there is a Don Quijote museum and Cervantes festival is so fascinating, and Dalí knew all about it. It involves Jews imprisoned in a concentration camp in France during WWII, believe it or not! We did not see the famous mummies of local people, preserved by the peculiar mineral composition of the region’s soil, which have been on display since 1870, but I bought a guidebook at the mirador which shows them. I don’t feel like I missed anything. I loved the city. We went into a pretty upscale restaurant for a comida. The prices were cheaper than in SMA, which is really saying something! I treated Dalí to lunch because I felt so bad that he was doing this whole thing and spending money on gas and parking, etc. — and giving a donation to Hogar Santa Julia — with only one client. During the meal, he worked the cell phone, while I watched a street entertainer out of the window.

Then we went to Dolores Hidalgo. Since I wasn’t interested in looking at or buying any of the famous Talavera pottery there (although he offered), I just had an ice cream, after taking some photos. Dolores Hidalgo is famous for its wacko ice cream flavors. There is even a contest each year to see which of the vendors can come up with a new and strange flavor. The most famous church there, on the steps of which the revolution actually began, had a wedding in it. At the church in Atótonilco, there was a wedding there, too, so I couldn’t view the church. Last year I had gone to see the 250+ year-old church, also, but all of the good stuff to see inside was shrouded in scaffolding and drapes as it, too, had been named a UNESCO World Heritage site and had received money for much-needed repairs. It didn’t matter, as I was exhausted by then, anyway.

So these are the very famous steps in Dolores Hidalgo, where “La Grita,” the call to revolution, was made. You can see the decorations for the wedding going on inside.

The wedding ceremony was in full swing as I took this photo.

And here are the hired mariachi tuning up while awaiting the exit from the church of the newly-weds.

This is the menu of flavors of ice cream at one of the many stands in Dolores Hidalgo. Some of the flavors offered are chicharron (pig skin – probably the most “out there” flavor I saw – yuck!), cerveza (beer), aguacate (avocado), tequila, and beso de angel (kiss of an angel; never found out what that flavor was).

And now a couple of odd shots I captured as I went about my days. This is “Gracias” carved out of a tree outside of the Hotel de la Aldea, where UUFSMA meets on Suns.

And here is the alfresco caning workshop of a couple of young men, right out on a street corner.

Feb. 1-7, 2010 – The Deluge

Well, I don’t have that much to report in the early part of this period, as my day in Guanajuato on Jan. 30 was the last decent day (and that was very overcast as the storm was moving in) before The Deluge. It began to rain late Sun. afternoon, and continued, torrentially, often accompanied by lightning and thunder, until Fri. I would be awakened in the middle of the night by the pounding of the rain, and every morning when I opened my eyes and heard that it was still pouring, I didn’t even want to get out of bed. It was difficult to keep my spirits up. Ankle-deep water ran in the streets and it was dangerous to go out. In the neighboring state, Michoacán, 39 people died and sewers backed up. No one died in SMA and — thank God — the sewers didn’t back up, but everyone’s house leaked (I had a small amount of water come in around the skylight over the steps going to the second floor, but it caused me no problems; others told of water dripping right onto their beds and loss of electricity and/or water) and everyone’s house was cold and everyone had major cabin fever. Check out this web-site to see the extent of the flood damage from this storm:  http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=123432466.

During the height of the storm (well, that would be during any of the five days it rained), the water pouring out of the canales (channels up near the roof of every house, which drain water from the open terraces there) would hit either the road or the sidewalk or parked cars below and spray out onto the sidewalk. Let me tell you, it was a real trick to walk during the rain, what with two people with umbrellas trying to navigate the narrow sidewalks, water gushing down from the canales, and then the addition of the spray. And ankle deep water when you tried to cross the streets. A true circus. I’m able to laugh now, but it was grim.

The worst part for SMA, though, was the almost total wash-out of Candelaria. Candelaria is a seed, flower and flower pot festival held annually in Parque Juarez for the first 10 days of Feb. Vendors work and plan all year for this and come from far away to participate. Tons of planters are unloaded and arranged in displays and seeds are propagated and thousands of plants of all kinds brought in to sell. The vendors sleep right in the park in tents near their displays or in their trucks. Everyone in SMA, from hotels to restaurants to homeowners buy all of their spring plants at this festival, plus there is music and entertainment by dance troupes from all the country. None of it could take place. Some vendors just pulled up stakes and went home. I feel so very bad for them. This rain storm made a desperate economic situation here even worse. I believe that this is the same storm that brought all of the snow that many of you got on the east coast of the US (the first storm, that is), and I also believe that all of these uncharacteristic weather conditions are caused by global climate change.

Since it was raining on my regular laundry day, I was forced to use the dryer, which is stacked on top of the washer inside a cabinet. Picture this: I am standing on a step stool in front of the stacked appliances, with a flashlight (to be able to see the dials, which are, of course, high up, way in the back, and in the darkness of the surrounding cabinet, not to mention that they’re in Spanish), the manual for the dryer, and a Spanish dictionary. I had success, and I view this type of thing as an adventure, but I wonder if, over the long-haul, these sorts of things would begin to get old and then finally be relegated to a pain in the butt?

The truly bizarre thing about this rain storm is that it NEVER rains a single drop in SMA in the winter. When I arrived here on Jan. 12, I came in on the last five days of two hideous weeks of cold, lots of wind and rain, and then this latest storm. And, according to weather.com, starting this Thurs., there will be be rain again for many days. I didn’t bring an umbrella as one is never needed while I’m here. Happily, my landlady had one for me to use in the rental. My Spanish tutor, who is 55, said that not in his lifetime was there rain like this. So far in the month of Feb. (and as I write this, it’s only the 6th), we have had 6″ inches of rain. So far this year, 8.1″ of rain. The total average rainfall is only 21″, so in fewer than 40 days we have had more than one-third of the year’s total. I think it can be said that Mexico’s years-long drought is officially over.

On Tues. night, I went out to another PEN lecture. This was easy as the Bellas Artes facility is practically right across the street from my rental. I had told you about the PEN lecture I heard last week, but forgot to mention that the entrance fees collected for the lectures go to aid writers around the world who are being silenced, jailed, tortured, or even killed (well, I guess it can’t help this latter group personally). Currently, there are 1000 writers in this situation that this organization is tracking and helping. The lecture I heard was The Joys of Dickens: Reading “Great Expectations.” The biblioteca had screened the 1920s version of this film a few days before, and I had made it my business to see it, and I told you that it was riveting. Austin Briggs, the lecturer, was a Joyce scholar and taught for 50 years at Hamilton College after doing post-doc work, so you can figure out approximately how old he is. He is a resident of SMA, and gave a fascinating lecture on “Great Expectations,” and then took about a half hour of questions. I went out to dinner at Vivoli, an Italian restaurant right across the street from the Bellas Artes, with a bunch of Sandy’s friends who have taken me under their collective wing, along with about half of the lecture’s audience. Vivoli was a popular destination because of its proximity to the lecture in the pouring rain, and also because many SMA restaurants are not open on Tues., and Vivoli is. I had a scrumptious mushroom risotto and the delicious house merlot, probably from Chile. Sandy didn’t join us because her Korean guests, two women who had been ESL students of hers 10 years ago and with whom she’s remained close, were arriving from Mexico City.

While at dinner, I was telling some of my tablemates about my friendship with my last year’s housekeeper, Eleonor, and her niece, Carla. One of the other women, Viv, questioned me more closely about them, and it turns out that we shared a maid last year! Since this couple is in the same rental this year, they still have Eleonor as their maid. What a small world! Viv also likes Eleonor very much, and also brought a gift for Carla.

On Wed., Feb. 3, I just had to get out of the house and so I waded and hopped through deep water to get to the UU Wed. Comida at the Parroquia restaurant. Most of the restaurant was unusable because its main dining room is a central patio open to the sky, but I could see a small covered dining room in the back, where a Mexican waitress was standing in the doorway. I asked her, in Spanish, about the group from the church meeting there at 2 p.m. She told me it had been cancelled due to the weather. I was so upset, and trooped back home very dejectedly and ate lunch alone there. I had already read about as much as I could stand by that time, and wound up watching the last half of “Tootsie” on the TV. Later in the day, Sandy called me to tell me that she’d taken her two Korean visitors to the UU lunch. When I told her of my experience, she was incredulous. She said they were all in that dining room just behind the waitress. It was up a few steps, so I wasn’t able to see into it while I was speaking to her. Sigh.

Wed. night, I went out for dinner at Hecho en México (taking a cab there, something I’d ordinarily never do!), and after a chicken fajitas dinner and their yummy house merlot, walked the short distance to St. Paul’s for the Playreaders’ staging of a hysterical comedy about later-age dating called “Looking” by Norm Foster, a prolific Canadian playwright. This was the eighth play of Foster’s that this group has staged. I had seen one of his plays there last year. During the intros, the director expressed her thrill at seeing almost a full house given the weather. Are you kidding? I was thrilled to be able to get out and be with people, particularly given my disappointing experience at the UU lunch earlier! That play and all of us laughing together riotously, did raise my spirits.

On Thurs., Sandy wanted me to meet her Korean friends, so we arranged to meet for lunch at a restaurant called Olé Olé. As you can see from the photos below, it has a bullfight theme. Their specialty is roasted meats en brochette, and my chicken and veggies were divine and plentiful enough that I had lunch the next day, too. The Korean women are charming and totally different from one another. We had a grand time.

We then walked over to a friend of Sandy’s who does stained glass. He had wanted to show how it’s done. I was amazed at how labor intensive that art is. I left that gathering early as I wanted to see “Elizabeth,” starring Kate Blanchett, at the Pocket Theater. This was formerly a bar/restaurant cum theater called the Market Bistro. The restaurant didn’t make it, but they continue to show good movies twice a day every day, at 5 and 7:30, and, of course, the bar is still a going concern. They have a hand-out that is published every Sat. for the following week’s movies, or you can sign up to get on their e-mail list. It’s best to make a reservation in advance, as there are only 20 seats in their intimate theater. You actually choose the seat you want and pay the 60 pesos ($5.00) up front. When you come back at show time, you order whatever drink you want (included in the admission) and take it with you into the theater, where your name is on your seat, since they’re not numbered. When everyone is seated, they come around with freshly popped corn, and the screening begins. They always ask if anyone is only Spanish-speaking (of course they ask it in English, so I don’t know how much that helps), because they can add sub-titles if the film is in English, and no one ever is. The seats are real theater seats, and new, and it’s a very comfortable and fun way to see a movie you might have missed at home. The following day I saw “Marie Antoinette” starring Kirsten Dunst at the same place. Unless you like to ogle excess, this latter movie was pretty boring. And “Elizabeth” was far bloodier than I expected, but the history made for a good story.

Had the most delightful happy accident on Fri. night. Last year, I had been in a Spanish class with Andrew and Janet from Canada, although Janet dropped out. It was just Andrew and I and the teacher for four weeks. We all really hit it off royally and I visited them at their rental twice and we went out for dinner together a couple of times. I knew that they were in the process of buying a place here in SMA. I had e-mailed them last Aug. to see how things were progressing, but e-mails to both their addresses were returned, undeliverable. I figured I’d lost them forever, but I’ve been keeping an eye out for them since I’ve been here. Turns out they went to last year’s rental agent (as they used the same one I did) and inquired of me. They remembered my last name as Kringle, which I found pretty funny. Of course, the agency had no record of me with that name. That night, I went to La Posadita, one of my favorite places here, for dinner, and after about five minutes, Janet came up to my table and shrieked, “I told Andrew that was you!” It was her birthday and they invited me to join their table. We had a wonderful time catching up. We exchanged contact info and they’re going to invite me out to their new place. They just moved in — in the deluge — last Tues., so they’re going to settle in a little first. They’ve been renting here and going back and forth to Canada to sell their house, etc. since last spring. It was so good to catch up with them again. The funny part is that I ran into Janet again at the arts & crafts sale at the Instituto two days later!

On Sat., I ambled up to the jardin at 10:30 to go on the Sat. Adventure. I did this a couple of times last year and always had fun. In each week’s Atención, they write up where the adventure will be going (it’s always places tourists would never get to see on their own), but when you get to the jardin, the places have frequently been changed: people get sick, there’s some emergency at the place, or there’s 6″ of rain. That’s what happened to one of the places we were scheduled to go to on Sat. It was just way too muddy to accommodate guests. How they must have to scramble to come up with other places at the last minute, but they always do! This excursion also benefits a local children’s charity.

Since we are asked to write our names on the reverse side of our tickets and attach them to our coats, it’s easy to strike up a conversation with others going on the trip. And I met three wonderful people. There were a retired pediatric ear, nose, and throat surgeon and his medical convention planner wife, originally from S. Africa, now living in San Diego, and using their other house in Santa Fe to do house exchanges all over the world. We hit it off amazingly well, and after the tour, I invited them to accompany me to the fish taco place, which they couldn’t stop thanking me for. We spent several hours together, then lost each other at the arts & crafts sale at the Instituto Allende, but hooked up again at the Carlos Chávez String Quartet concert at 5 p.m. at St. Paul’s (more on this later). The other person I hooked up with was another doctor, a woman from Landenberg, PA. She lives in an interesting development just outside of town, called Los Labradores, and she invited me to come see it. They run a bus back and forth to El Centro five times a day, so she told me to just give her a buzz sometime, hop on the bus, and come visit her. And I will!

The Sat. Adventure first went to the house/gallery of a transplanted German artist, Gunther Mueller, in a very poor neighborhood of SMA. In addition to being an artist himself, he uses his most unusual home as a gallery for other artists, and also represents many, many artists. He said that he had bought a small house and then added much to it. He has kept the space “raw.” He was currently showing an exhibit called “Stitches,” in which there were installations that were totally knitted. There were also huge photographs of staged tableaux, which included people and knitted objects, such as a bomb. This artist juxtaposes the warm fuzzy of knitted objects with shocking and disturbing objects, such as a knitted brain.

Here is Gunther welcoming us and the transplanted Swedish woman on the left runs the tours.

His home is minimalist. He likes everything to be white, probably as a blank canvas for the art installations. His dining room table, shown here, is half in the original part of the house and half in the new portion. It is made of polished concrete, as are many other things in his home.

Absolutely everything you see on this table was knitted!

And here is all of the unused wool, representing what? The marriage that follows the wedding? Gifts?

A totally charming niche.

And here is his very white kitchen. His countertops are all of polished concrete.

And his very white bathroom, with files stored on one side,

and towels on the other. That orange piece of art in the background looks exactly like a life saver candy up close, except the word going around is “Misery.” Don’t ask.

His office. The art work in the back says, “Patrimonio” in the iconic “Hollywood” style.

The best parts of the house, for me, were his many terraces on various levels, most devoted to an extraordinary cactus collection.

I just loved these tiny new growths. They look large here, but they are not.

And then there is the other side of the tracks, so to speak. Looking down from his exquisite cactus garden, one sees how the other half lives. After I took these photos, I felt like a voyeur, and not very happy with myself. The man seen here is shaving, and close to him, although unseen in this photo, a little girl was getting a haircut.

This gorgeous flower is called alcatraz. This was the only one blooming in the entire garden. I believe that it’s a type of lily.

This sofa, arm chair, and table are made of — you guessed it — polished concrete!

From that home, we went to the old Hacienda de la Lantera, just outside of town. It’s now used for events such as weddings and conferences, although there is also a fine Italian restaurant on the grounds.

Our guide getting us into the hacienda.

It was massive. One could easily get lost. As in most Mexican homes of this era and size, there is a central open patio with rooms opening onto it all around.

One of the many rooms around the patio.

These rockers are made of leather.

There was a gigantic hall, perhaps used for dances.

Check out these ceilings close up.

And here’s one of those probably none-too-comfortable concrete sofas!

We came across this puppy, and all the men continued on the tour, while every woman stayed to pet and coo. We all wanted to take him home.

Even though rarely used, the place was in beautiful condition, with the gardens well-tended.

Every hacienda had its own private chapel.

And here is their humungous swimming pool, though in poor repair and empty. Even at the “shallow” end, toward you, the water would probably be over my head.

Part of the Italian restaurant on the grounds.

We made a quick stop at a mirador (lookout) over the city. Our guide, who has lived in SMA for 20 years, explained to us how the city looked when she arrived. She said it has about doubled in size over those years, as development has spread out from the city center. That’s the parroquia in the center in the distance.

I had heard the Chavez String Quartet, with the addition of internationally-reknowned guitarist Roberto Limón, last year, as part of the Pro Musica series at St. Paul’s, and certainly wanted to repeat the experience this year. Every year, Pro Musica commissions a piece from a Mexican composer for the Chavez Quartet to play. This year, following a Hugo Wolf piece, they played the commissioned piece from last year. In the intervening time, the composer, Samuel Zyman, wrote an additional movement, which I liked very much, and it was good to hear the very exciting work again. Then they played the commissioned piece for the current year in its world premiere. The composer, Marco A. Alvirez, was present. The piece was electric, and the audience loved it. The musicians and the composer received a standing ovation. They even played the second movement again. The ticket for the Sat. night performance included, as last year, a wine and botanas (appetizers) reception, and as last year, they were gorgeous, delicious and plentiful. No need for dinner.

The Sun. service at UUFSMA this past Sun. was mind-blowing. I’m still reeling from it, and will be for some time. First, during candles of joy and sorrow, a gringa got up to light a candle of gratitude because on a bus from Mexico City, where she commutes weekly to teach, she left her laptop and all of her back-ups in a backpack under her seat. The bus driver found the backpack and turned it over to some governmental agency in Dolores Hidalgo. Happily, the woman had ID on the backpack, and she received a call to come pick it up. Not only didn’t the bus driver steal it, but neither did the government clerk. She has been re-united with her computer! Her only regret was that she had no way of identifying the heroic bus driver to give him a reward. This, for me, balances out the report in Atención of a slight up-tick in petty crimes due to the desperate economic situation.

As last year, the Chavez String Quartet came to the service and played a piece for us. This is made possible each year by a member of the congregation, George Bell, who was a concert violinist in his earlier days (he’s now 94), and who is a force in the Pro Musica series.

The sermon title was “Donde está mi madre?” (Where is my mother?) and was a first-hand account by a gringo couple from Postville, Iowa, of a Homeland Security dept. called ICE (Immigration & Customs Enforcement) which did a surprise raid (I guess all raids are surprises) on Agriprocessors, the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse where about a thousand workers, many of them undocumented — all being paid at below minimum wage — from 12 countries around the world, including Israeli, the Ukraine, Mexico and Guatemala (the largest number of workers from these latter two countries), were employed. About 300 of them were arrested that day.

The woman told the story of the raid and the aftermath, and her husband, tag-teaming her, read, in a very good copy of the accent of a Hispanic speaking English, the deposition that one of the Guatemalen workers gave to the government. The ICE agents moved into town in plain white buses with sunglass on all the windows. They came dressed in full riot gear, and swept into the plant to round up all of the illegals. They did it in a totally intimidating and humiliating way. Workers were beaten, kicked, called terrible names in Spanish (the deposition said, “I cannot repeat these names as I am a Christian”), and shackled at the ankles, waist and hands, and chained together. One worker, who was wearing a belt with his carving knives attached, ran away in fear, fell, and sliced up his leg. He wasn’t given any medical care for hours, and nearly bled to death. Many of the workers were women who had children at home awaiting their return. It only got worse from there.

All of the workers’ civil rights were violated. They had no winter coats with them or proper shoes (they were wearing their work boots, many of which were filled with animal blood, at the time of the raid). They were taken to a fairground in a neighboring town for processing. They were not properly fed, but given only bread and water. After quite a long time, they were given head sets on which were Spanish instructions as to what they should do: plead guilty; then they would serve “only” five months in jail, and then be deported. They asked about having a lawyer, and were asked if they had any money to hire one. Of course they didn’t have any money. These workers had been working as many as 86 hours a week, but being paid for only 60, as that’s the total amount of overtime you can work on the books. If the workers complained, they were let go. They could not ask not to work the hours over 60. In order to get paid for 60 hours, you had to work 86. There were lawyers hired by Homeland Security, and many of them were deeply ashamed of their role in this, but could do nor say nothing while they were under contract to the government. However, as soon as his contract was over, one lawyer wrote a complete exposé for the New York Times. The deposition spoke of the shame and humiliation of having some Hispanic ICE agents treat the workers so badly.

The bright light in all of this was that all of the congregations in the town banded together to help the workers and their traumatized families in every way they could. The Catholic church, St. Bridget’s, which had been the church of most of the workers, served as the home base for all efforts. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised. Members of all congregations just pitched in in any way they could. Some of the money was used to support the families whose bread-winners were in jail. They also used some of the money to pay off the fees of the coyotes who had brought the immigrants to America in the first place. The workers had been paying monthly interest and of course couldn’t continue to pay without wages from working. One day, out of the blue, some ICE agents came to St. Bridget’s and said that within 24 hours they were dropping off some number of Guatemalen workers who were not being charged and the members of the congregations had to come up with winter coats, shoes, heavy pants, and other necessities for these men at a moment’s notice. The men were not permitted to work, so members of the congregations gave them work to do such as painting, gardening, carpentry, etc., to keep them occupied. They were given English lessons. When the men eventually went home, they were given enough money to start up their own businesses there. They were taught to write business plans and had to submit one and have it approved before they were given the money.

The workers had been assigned social security numbers by the plant, and asked to sign “working papers.” After the raid, if it were found that the social security numbers belonged to real people, there was one sentence: jail, then deportation. If the social security numbers were made up, there was another sentence: immediate deportation. Of course the workers had absolutely nothing to do with any of this. This was the crime of the factory owner, who, incidentally, had to close the factory after the raid. All immigration law charges against him were eventually dropped, although he was found guilty of bank fraud and employment fraud, and will serve probably 25 years or more in prison. The plant has since re-opened and is being run by his relatives. This raid took place during the Bush administration. During the brunch after the service, a number of us asked lots more questions. I asked what was the purpose of the raid being carried out in the first place and why in this unnecessarily brutal manner. The couple said that the government had wanted to make an example of this plant and these workers. They said that since coming into office, Obama has forbidden any further raids of this type.

I was totally unable to sing the final hymn as I was weeping openly with the shame I felt that my government could perpetrate such horrors on hapless immigrants, who had come to that place just to work. Yes, they came illegally, but they are not terrorists; they only want to feed their families. They are not on welfare; they are taking jobs that Americans will not do. I’ve told you only the parts of the story that I remember most vividly. There were many other horrors described. If you want to learn more, as I did, just Google “ICE raid in Iowa,” and all sorts of articles will pop up.

Feb. 7 (contd.) – 14, 2010- Learning the Subjunctive

I’ve observed three funeral processions since I’ve been here. One passed right by my house and I could see it from my terrace. There was only one vehicle, a small pick-up truck with the casket in it driving extremely slowly, and perhaps a hundred people accompanying it on foot. They were singing as they walked. Another one that I saw did have a hearse, but it was very old, and again drove slowly with people walking with it. Some gringo friends told me that they had seen one where a man walked in the front blowing a conch shell, reminiscent of blowing the shofar.

Unfortunately, I witnessed the funeral of a fallen police officer. You may have heard or read about this tragic case. He is the first San Miguel police officer to die in the line of duty; three other officers were hurt. There was a counterfeiting ring operating outside of SMA, and the police had set up a roadblock to try to capture the criminals. The counterfeiters opened fire and a shoot-out ensued, leading to the death of the commandant. The counterfeiters were all captured, and one lost his leg. I was in the jardin, reading and eating an ice cream cone, when I heard many, many police sirens, a sound you rarely, if ever, hear in SMA. Then I noticed the gathered crowd looking at the police station. I joined them and found out what was going on. The funeral ceremony was very moving, with hundreds of officers in attendance, as is usual in funerals for the police at home. There was a drum and bugle corps and dozens of wreaths, even mariachi. The casket was brought to the jardin in a hearse, but transferred to a police vehicle to take it the short distance to the police headquarters located right across from the jardin. Huge numbers of people were in attendance, and all clapped in recognition of the extreme sacrifice of the officer when his casket was carried into the police station.

The arrival of some of the wreaths.

The family members are entering the police station.

This wreath reads in part, “For the protection of public security.”

It was not all grim. I played a little with these children standing near me, and asked their mothers for permission to take their photos.

And this father and his child gave me a lot of hope.

With all of the activities I report doing, you should remember that I also do Spanish four mornings a week: two private lessons in my rental with Carlos, and two Spanish conversation classes with — now that they’ve arrived – two other folks, plus a native speaker, Chely, born in San Miguel. Just before I left Philly, Milagros, my teacher there, had started teaching me the subjunctive, and Carlos, after doing a thorough review of common problem areas, swung into continuing to teach me the subjunctive. It required a shift in thinking, for sure. To Mexicans, he told me, nothing is sure, and thus a simple statement that we’d make in English, such as, “I’ll see you tomorrow,” would use the subjunctive in Spanish, as there is certainly no guarantee that I will see you tomorrow. I understand everything he taught me — in theory — and I can do the homework without a problem, but actually remembering to switch to the subjunctive in conversation is totally beyond me at this point. And that’s just the present subjunctive; there are three more tenses in the subjunctive!

Later in the day on Sun., Feb. 27, after the difficult sermon, I went to Candelaria. I didn’t know what to expect after the deluge, but the place was jumping. I had heard that, because it had been rained out for so many days, it was going to be extended, perhaps by as much as two weeks. It was as magnificent as I had remembered from last year, and after wandering around to look at the many gorgeous flowers until I was properly exhausted, I headed to the center of the park where a marimba band was playing for public dancing, and I could sit down to watch and enjoy. Everyone was having such a fine time being outdoors after the rain. (I do apologize to east-coasters reading this, as you’ve had devastating blizzards, and I do not in any way mean to minimize what you experienced or are going through.)

and, of course, kitsch!

Away from the sale area, a painter found a little solitude.

A pinguino sculpture that made me laugh!

Pots,

pots,

and more pots for sale! I always hope they sell a lot of them, so they don’t have to schlep them back out and home again.

And here is the marimba band with an MC who spoke incredibly slowly so that I could understand just about everything. What a treat!

Folks watching the goings-on.

The MC dancing with a chica.

I remembered this couple from last year and that he wore an Obama T-shirt everywhere he went.

I met my friend from last year, Alex, and his new girlfriend, Cheryl, and Yoram and Carol, also from last year, for dinner at Mare Nostrum, where I had a Mediterranean pasta dish. Alex e-mailed me the next morning to ask how I was, since he’d had a bad bout of diarrhea that morning, and we’d had the same dish the night before. Happily, it wasn’t that meal that caused his problem, as I was A-OK. In fact, now, just a day or so past the one month mark here, I have not had any illness at all of any kind, and I am extremely grateful. I am always careful, wash my hands incessantly, and don’t do anything foolish in the food dept. (well, not in any dept., really!).

On Monday, after my Spanish lesson and laundry, and a farewell visit to Sandy’s to say goodbye to the visiting Koreans, I went out to lunch with Allan and Sheila, the folks from S. Africa I’d met on the Sat. Adventure. In the evening, I met a woman, Melita, from Canada, whom I bumped into several times a day for about a week, when we decided we really should exchange contact info and get together. We went to a Literary Cabaret, called “Is It Love?,” in honor of Valentine’s Day. It was very well done. I didn’t realize that we were there on opening night. A man and his wife and one other woman read, acted out, and sang words about love and relationships, nearly all of which were new to us, even those by authors we were acquainted with. The two hour program sped by and we agreed that it had been a delight and money well spent.

Early Tues. morning, I high-tailed it to the beauty salon I used last year for a haircut, and got a wonderful one in under 20 minutes and for less than $10, including the tips for the stylist and the shampoo woman. While I was there, a gringo came in who didn’t know a single word of Spanish. You know how some people speak very loudly in English, thinking that will make non-English speakers understand? Well, he tried a different tact: he repeated everything about 10 times. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any more, and I started to translate for him, and I was completely successful! He said he got just the haircut he wanted. He thanked me profusely and suggested that I just sit there and provide translation services for the gringo customers. I really do feel like I’ve turned a corner on the language acquisition. I speak more to Mexicans now and can understand just about everything if they speak slowly. The really funny thing about this story is that a few days later, as I was rounding a corner in a big rush to get to an event at the biblioteca, a gringo I’d never seen before gave me a big hello and asked how I liked his haircut. What?? It turned out he was the guy from the salon whom I had helped. Because I had my glasses off the whole time I was talking to him and translating for him, I never actually saw what he looked like!

Then it was off to Tianguis, the Tuesday Market. While waiting for the bus to go there (five pesos, 40 cents), I met Ellen, the doctor from the Sat. Adventure. While we rode the bus together, I told her that it would be impossible for us to try to stay together in the Market, and that I’d see her later. We made a date to go to Pro Musica together on Sat. night and then have dinner together afterwards. Since it’s Valentine’s weekend — and that’s a huge deal here in SMA — I made us a reservation.

I was looking for three things at Tianguis: some simple cushions to use on the iron benches in the jardin and for the pews at St. Paul’s; a small black schlep bag, and some pens. I found none of these, although there are acres of things for sale, as you’ll see from the photos below. I wound up buying a pretty turquoise and black (although the color doesn’t matter at all) small rag rug, which I’ll fold up and use in place of the desired cushions.

This man is selling songbirds.

The Mexicans’ favorite snack: chichurron, fried pig skin, served cut up in smaller pieces than pictured here, doused with hot sauce.

This is chicken parts, with no refrigeration and not shielded from flies, etc. in any way.

This is fish. At least it’s on ice.

Some of the displays are absolute works of art, and the fruits and veggies are dirt cheap. I don’t buy here, though, because I just can’t carry the weight. I shop about 1 1/2 blocks from my rental.

This is like the Greek gyro, except here, the meat is hanging up raw, to be sliced down and grilled below, and always topped with a bit of pineapple.

Chiles, piles and piles of chiles.

Any flavor drink you might want.

Strawberries!

A veritable vat of guacamole, with chorizo — unrefrigerated and unprotected — to the side.

There was a surprising number of people selling blenders and blender containers.

This display of tools blew me away. Can you imagine setting this up and packing it back up again every single Tuesday?

Songs birds and eating birds, too.

Even a puppy for sale. It was so tiny. I wanted to buy it to take it out of this chaos. Next to it are small pigeons or doves or something of that size.

Used clothes.

Needless to say, I eat absolutely nothing at Tianguis! I brought my own apple and granola bar to eat on the bus ride home, after using a wash ‘n’ dry on my hands.

That evening, Sandy and I attended yet another PEN lecture. The speaker this time was Joe Persico, who lives in SMA, and is the author of such books as “Franklin & Lucy: Mrs. Rutherford and Other Remarkable Women in Roosevelt’s Life”; “Roosevelt’s Secret War: FDR and WWII Espionage”; “Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell,” and many, many others. His topic was, “Writers Meet Such Interesting Characters,” and he spoke, non-stop for about 50 minutes, seemingly off-the-cuff, telling the most fascinating tales, mostly of politicians, but some actors, too.

A bunch of us then went to Tio Lucas for dinner. At the next table was a group of about eight and it was one of the guy’s birthdays. There was lots of merriment, lots of drinks, crepes prepared tableside for dessert, you get the picture. Somehow, someone at my table overheard that the birthday boy was Finnish, so when he came out of the men’s room, I flagged him over and asked him who he was. He was Kari Savolainen, the owner of a K-Market franchise in a town about 300 km above Helsinki, where my son and his family live. Kari knew of the little town, Kuusankoski, where Riitta, my daughter-in-law, grew up, and where her father still lives. He even gave me his e-mail address. He said he started out in McLean, TX, and is motorcycling through Mexico with this bunch of friends. As soon as I got home, I dashed to the computer to e-mail Ajay and Riitta. They’ve not heard of him, but Ajay told me that he likes shopping in the K-Market store near him far better than at S-Market, because the selection of specialty items is greater, and the clerks are cuter! I e-mailed this information to Kari. It will be interesting to see if I hear back from him. (Written later: I did hear back from Kari. He said he hadn’t gotten my e-mail until he arrived home in Finland. He thanked me for sending Ajay’s e-mail and said he had had a great time in Mexico and met lots of interesting people, like me.)

On Wed., Chely was away, so we three gringos met anyway to speak Spanish. Chely will be so proud of us when we tell her upon her return. We were each to bring a topic to discuss. I brought the topic that was featured in last week’s Atención, about the hoped-for return of the San Miguelada, the running of the bulls. The last time it was done was about 3-4 years ago, and was discontinued because that kind of thing is forbidden within the UNESCO World Heritage designated area. However, there’s a wide road called Ancha de San Antonio, which is outside of that area, and yet still very close to El Centro, and that is where it’s proposed to be. I think it’s insanity and all of us gringos agreed.

In the afternoon, I returned to Elsmarie’s after-school art program in Viejo San Miguel, to dance with the kids. There was some misunderstanding between William, our leader, and Elsmarie. She thought that he understood that we were not to bring the dances of peace to the kids that week because a dentist was coming to give a free toothbrush and toothpaste to each child, and use a puppet to teach them how to brush. I really wanted to see that. Perhaps the misunderstanding occurred because last week’s session was cancelled due to the rain. Anyway, when William pulled the littlest kids away from their art activity to do the dances, Elsmarie and he had some words. We did only one dance with the kids, and then I spent some time observing and helping them with their watercolor project and taking photos. I never got to see the dentist and his/her puppet, as most in the group wanted to go see an over-400 year old church near-by that was being rehabilitated with UNESCO funding. It was a bit of a frustrating afternoon, but it appears to be a problem of an abundance of riches for these kids, and a lack of communication. The kids have learned that it is possible to see the photos taken by a digital camera immediately afterwards, so they clammered to see themselves. Of course I was happy to oblige.

This is the yard of the house next door to where the littlest kids do their art projects.

What a surprise when a teenaged boy came galloping across the open field bareback on a horse with a colt not far behind.

The kids posed themselves against this red truck. You see that they all have name tags. Some kind gringo came to Elsmarie’s a while ago, took their photos, and made up the name tags.

This is the very, very old church.

Here’s our group of volunteers. William is the tall guy in the middle in the white shirt.

The view to the mountains from the churchyard.

A plaque that identifies the age of the church as from “Siglo XVII” (17th century).

On Thurs., Feb. 11, after my Spanish lesson, I flew over to the biblioteca for a reading by several women of stories they’d written on the topic, “The First Time I Met My Mother-in-Law.” I was floored by the writing skill of the five or six women who read, most of a certain age, but one woman was probably 40. Their stories were beyond unique, exquisitely written, and for the most part, well delivered. Several women who had not attended told me they didn’t think it would be any good. Those who attended could not stop talking about it. That evening, I saw “Herb and Dorothy,” the documentary about the Vogels, a NYC couple with very ordinary jobs, who amassed the largest collection of American contemporary art ever. I had wanted to see this at the Philly Film Festival last year, but because of a conflict, had to miss it, so I was very pleased to be able to catch it here. Don’t miss it if it shows up either on public TV or at an art film theater near you.

At the Mujeres en Cambio luncheon celebrating their 15th anniversary, we all were given, as favors, little bags of candy. On Friday morning, I went over to my last year’s rental to give the bag to Eleonor to give to Carla for Valentine’s Day. I found Eleonor outside scrubbing down the sidewalk (as all the maids do every day). We had a nice chat, I gave her the candy, the current renter came out and we met. I translated for her when she tried to tell Eleonor that she could take some veggies home with her as the gringa had stomach distress and wouldn’t be eating them. I met Eleonor on the street a couple of days later, also. On Friday night, Sandy and I went to a fund-raising auction for the Center for Global Justice, which Sandy divulged she helped start about six years ago. There was a nice turn-out and some good items to bid on in both the silent or live auction categories, but I didn’t bid on anything.

The next day, I went on another Sat. Adventure, where I hooked up with Ellen, the doctor from Landenberg, and another woman, both of whom were on last week’s trip, also. First we went to Jennifer Haas’ El Jaguar Museum, a private home/museum where she had a world-class collection of folk art, mostly Mexican, but some other countries were represented, too. There were costumes and masks worn in ceremonial dances, pre-Columbian instruments, a drum made from a skin stretched over a carved jaguar.

This is a drug raid, realized in clay. I had seen another one — way more elaborate than this — last year in a museum in El Paso, on my way to Copper Canyon, through Juarez. I’ll bet Elderhostel doesn’t enter Mexico through Juarez anymore!

The Last Supper.

Right next door, our second stop, was perhaps the most unusual place I’ve ever been in my life. Someone described it as Gaudi meets Dr. Seuss. I’d add Alice in Wonderland and the old woman in the shoe. At the front gate of this private residence, built for himself by a gringo architect who wasn’t there, was a gaggle of large, friendly, but skinny (parasites?) dogs and several gigantic concrete reptiles whose bodies “snaked” back through the garden. There were other brilliantly-colored reptiles, all made of concrete. The house was equally unique and colorful. As the ad for the trip said, “This is the place to wander in wonder.” I could not live in that house; it was just too weird. My camera batteries ran out of juice, and my back-up pair were also no good, so I have only one photo from that place.

Later that day, I re-hooked up with Ellen at yet another Pro Música offering at St. Paul’s, this time a program of love sings in honor of Valentine’s Day, sung by Mexican up and coming tenor, Rodrigo Garciarroyo and his piano accompanist, tutor, coach and friend, Mario Alberto Hernandez. As a younger man, the tenor had been awarded the Plácido Domingo Scholarship to study in the young artist program in Mexico City, among many other awards. One of his teachers was Sherill Milnes. He has sung in operas in NYC, and sang the Verdi Requiem as his debut at The Lincoln Center, at Alice Tully Hall. The brochure describes his “Pavarotti-like style, huge stage presence, film star looks, and mesmerizing voice.” That may all be true, but he did two things that endeared me to him. First, when he sang one piece, he failed to hit a high note, and everyone winced. We applauded politely. He then announced that he would do it again, and he hit a home run. The place went wild. Then, near the end of the program, he announced that he would sing a love song to his wife, who was in about the third row. He looked directly at her the whole time he sang. Afterwards, while the audience exploded in applause, they kissed each other quite passionately. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. His accompanist was also extremely talented, and was able to display his skills in a piano solo. I had brought my new rag rug to help soften the very uncomfortable pews, and I’m pleased to report that it performed admirably! Ellen and I then walked to Bugambilia for a delicious chicken dinner with a sauce we both craved from visits last year, made with ground nuts and pomegranate seeds.

I met two women at the UU service on Sunday and they invited me to have lunch with them at a restaurant nearby, La Finestra. One woman lives in Doylestown. We three are all writers and we shared many life experiences. I’ve met one of the women, Brenda, a couple of times since then on the street or in the jardin. Since it was Valentine’s Day and the period leading up to Mardi Gras, the jardin was a scene. I think I’ll let the photos tell the story.

These are the days of the cascarones, hollow dyed egg shells filled with confetti, powdered dye, and sometimes flour (ugh!) with a tiny bit of tape to seal up the hole where the contents were removed for eating. Vendors sell plastic bags of 10 of these for a few pesos. You should see how many they have for sale! They must start collecting the eggshells around Christmas! The girls below are shaking off the contents of some cascarones that were smashed on their heads. You can see all of the debris from this custom at their feet.

Even these tiny ones want to get into the act. Actually, as the sun was going down, the adolescents were getting a little out of hand with the cascarones, chasing each other wildly around the jardin and smashing the eggs shells on each other’s heads. Usually they leave the viejos alone, but I wasn’t sure they’d think I was viejo enough not to have an egg smashed on my head, so I went home. Mardi Gras is the last day for the cascarones, to be followed the next day by Ash Wed., the beginning of Lent.

A band playing “ranchero” music, usually sung off-key, had been playing for 2 1/2 hours straight with no break when I decided to leave.

This little boy and I played hand games for about a half hour as we listened to the music. What a sweetheart!

These items for sale are for Mardi Gras.

Here’s a gringa in her finest Mardi Gras get-up.

Many clowns are sold for Mardi Gras.

Aren’t the colors exquisite?

Feb. 15 – 20, 2010 – Who is Calling Whom Loco? – Part I

Heather, my landlady, told me that I should get registered with the US consul in case of illness, accident, need to be evacuated, etc., so bright and early Mon. morning, I appeared at the consulate agency just around the corner from my rental. How could I have forgotten so quickly that Mon., Feb. 15, was Presidents’ Day, and thus the consulate was closed? So I trooped home, and returned at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, when the office ostensibly opened for the day. There must have been 20 people in line, about half Mexicans and half gringos. At 9:45, the man next to me had had it, whipped out his cell phone, called the emergency number listed on the door and got the consul, Ed, directly. He asked him when the office would be opening, and was told that Ed would be there in 15 minutes. Yeah, right. I packed it in yet again. On Thurs. morning — cold, raining — I tried again, and finally at 9:30, the secretary inside opened the door. I found out from her that I could do the whole thing on line — in fact I must do the whole thing on line — and she gave me the web address. I’ll bet that they close the doors at 1 p.m. sharp, the official closing time, regardless of how late they open. They have pretty chintzy hours, only Monday through Thursday, and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., if you believe the sign on the door! You know that this lackadaisical work ethic would not be permitted in the states.

After my Spanish lesson, laundry, and lunch, I took a bus to Mega. It would have been faster to walk, although I seemed to be the only passenger who was hot under the collar about the delay. There was a detour on a main street the bus was following and it just took ages for every vehicle, including a very old long, long trailer, which, in my opinion, had no business on the streets of SMA, to make the turn. Anyway, while in Mega, which has a metal roof, it started to hail. The lights were flashing on and off. I thought the end times were nigh! I have never heard such a noise in my life. It lasted probably less than a minute, but I was really scared. Again, I seemed to be the only one glancing nervously at the roof.

Monday night, Sandy and I had a really fun experience. Her downstairs neighbors, Dick and Lee, invited us both at 8 p.m. to meet and talk English and Spanish with a man Dick has been trading language practice with. When we walked into the apartment, we were met by an incredibly handsome man in a suit and tie, something you rarely see here. I immediately asked him what he did for a living that required this attire. Turns out he’s the branch manager of Bancomer in SMA. He’s been here for just a few months. His wife and two children are still at their home in Aguas Calientes, where he returns on weekends. He said they were committed to this commuting lifestyle for one year. At that time, they would all move to SMA, unless he were posted elsewhere, which he said is a very good possibility. He is trying to improve his English to advance his career in the bank.

Well, over tea and cookies, we talked in two languages, laughed, taught each other idioms, and argued over words until I said at 10:30 that I really had to get home to bed. I think Guillermo might have wanted the session to end earlier, but was too polite to be the first to leave. I was so stimulated by this exchange that I couldn’t get to sleep for a long time, then awoke very early in the morning. It was such a good time, and we all learned a lot.

Tuesday, I saw a double feature in the REEL DOCS series. REEL DOCS are documentaries selected to be shown in the biblioteca by two gringas who live full-time in SMA. They say that they choose only about eight out of every 100 documentaries that they receive for consideration. The first, “Strong Love,” was about a couple, both with Down Syndrome, who get married (well, actually, because the state of CA, in its infinite wisdom, reduces benefits if you get married, they had a commitment ceremony). It’s an extraordinary film, as are these people and their families. When they interviewed the mother of the bride 31 years after the birth, she still started to cry at the memory of the doctor telling her, “You have a mongoloid child,” (using exactly those words). Sexuality and reproduction are spoken about very forthrightly. The other movie was “Every Mother’s Son,” a quite different film, but equally powerful. It’s the story of three women from totally different backgrounds who band together after their unarmed sons are killed by the NYPD (you’d recognize some of the names, as they were high-profile cases). Not easy to watch, but a must. I highly recommend both. And after both films, the film makers were there for a Q&A.

I dashed out the door, bought an ice cream cone — my dinner — and headed to St. Paul’s for the bi-weekly Playreaders’ performance. It was a series of one-act plays by some very famous folks, such as Ethan Coen of the Coen Bros. fame. I didn’t think these plays were nearly as strong nor as interesting as some others I’d seen there.

I attended the UU Wed. Comida at La Media Naranja (Half an Orange, and also an expression meaning something like “My Better Half,” referring to a spouse), close to where Suji and Geoff will be renting. It’s owned by a gringa married to a Mexican, and the food was outstanding. Since it was cold and rainy, I had the sopa Azteca (tortilla soup), always a favorite, but especially so on this nasty day. There was a great turn-out and I met a couple whom I’ll see again at the Circle Cena next Tues., sponsored by UUFSMA. I was told that the restaurateurs close up their place in the summer when tourism is down, and go to upstate NY to run a burrito wagon there. The husband is supposedly from a well-known SMA restaurant family.

I limited my lunch consumption to just soup because I had a dinner invitation to Andrew (my classmate last year) and Janet’s new house. Following their careful instructions, I waited for the Ruta 7 bus for 20 minutes in the rain, and finally gave up and hailed a cab. You should know that cabs are incredibly cheap and are fixed-price, 25 pesos — $2.00 — for any trip in the day-time and 30 pesos — $2.40 — for any trip at night, so this wasn’t a great outlay, although certainly more than the five pesos bus fare. The cabbie did not know of the street and had to ask in a couple of shops when we were close. It’s no wonder, as it is a dead-end, unpaved street only a block long. Their house, the last one on the block, is brand new, and is just lovely. Since they’d only moved in two weeks earlier, and much of their stuff is still in storage in Canada, they didn’t have all of their things hung nor all of their furniture yet in place, but I loved the house and know that they’ll be happy there. There were six of us in total, a couple from Washington, DC, who now live in SMA (the woman is a horse riding buddy of Janet’s and the husband still does some diplomatic work for the US government), and their landlady from their rental last year, whom I had met then. Janet served a delicious Thai shrimp dish with rice and mango salsa and a spinach, goat cheese and candied walnut salad, with pecan pie from Petit Four, the French bakery across the street from me.

On Thurs., Feb. 18, my sister, Julia, from Taos, NM, arrived around 5 p.m. for her first visit to SMA, but not to Mexico. Julia was to stay with me for a week and then transfer to a sort of combination B&B and retreat center (five simple, private rooms around a central courtyard with shared baths and kitchen for an extremely reasonable price) for her second week in SMA. My daughter, Suji, and son-in-law, Geoff, arrived several hours later. S&G were supposed to have arrived on Tues., but the previous Sun., when Suji got out her passport as part of her packing, she discovered that it had expired in January. She immediately went online and found that it is indeed possible to get a passport renewal in one day, so they would have been alright, but Mon. was a federal holiday. So she spent the next six hours on the phone and e-mail, changing their flight and shuttle pick-up dates/times, and contacting the manager of their rental, making an appointment online with the passport agency for Wed., etc. In spite of having this appointment, she appeared on Tues. at 8 a.m. so as to be the first in line for the 9 a.m. opening at the agency. She was prepared to beg and plead. It went very well for her, and several hours later, she had her new passport. She called friends of theirs who were coming to visit on Fri., to tell them of her misadventure, and so they were prompted to look at their passports. Theirs had also expired in Jan.! Since their flight wasn’t until Fri., they had several days to sort it all out.

We all had a racous dinner together at a place I visit regularly called El Tomato, just down the street from me, and met a woman, an artist, who lives on Glen Echo Rd. in W. Mt. Airy, if you can believe it! And her sister who was with her runs the Carol Schwartz Art Gallery in Chestnut Hill! (A few days later, I met a family who formerly lived on Ellet St. in the same neighborhood, but who have since moved to Maine. What a small world, but then that is proved almost daily here.)

On Fri., Feb. 19, Julia and I hiked up to the hotel hosting the annual SMA Writers’ Conference to hear the keynote address by Barbara Kingsolver. All 800 seats in the auditorium were filled. Barbara’s talk was inspiring, informative, funny, and interesting. Suji had wanted to go, but their Fri. arrivals were coming at the same time. My Friend, Karen, from Nova Scotia, whom I met at UUFSMA last year, also arrived about that same time. She was staying in a near-by B&B and moved in with me after Julia left. We had tentative plans to meet up for the first time the next day at the Sat. Adventure. (I’ve decided that next year I’ll attend some of the workshops in the conference; two that interested me this year were memoir writing and travel writing.)

On Sat., all of us went on the Sat. Adventure. Our first stop was at Casa de las Ranas (House of the Frogs), where Anado McLaughlin and his partner — both very large men about my age with huge white beards; they look like brothers — live and have their studio where they create art pieces using a staggering number of empty wine bottles in unbelievable ways — plus about a trillion other found objects — to create what the NY Times described as “…divinely elevated kitsch.”

Earlier in the week, REEL DOCS screened “In a Dream,” the documentary by the son of Philadelphia artist Isaiah Zagar, who also works with a lot of bottles, particularly at his Secret Garden in South Philly and at installations around the city, such as The Painted Bride and the little deli just up the street from my house, and whose art is very similar to Anado’s. Isaiah and Julia Zagar were present at the screening for a Q&A afterwards (I did not attend as I’d seen the documentary in the Philly Film Festival some time ago). Isaiah was taken out to Casa de las Ranas to meet Anado. On Sat., when Anado welcomed us to his place, he mentioned that Isaiah had recently been there, and said that Isaiah was nuts (or words to that effect). If that wasn’t a situation of the pot calling the kettle black, I don’t know what is. The photos below will attest to this man’s passion. Words fail.

The first view of the house as the bus pulled up.

Here is the man himself. Looks a lot like Santa Claus, doesn’t he? Check out the sneakers.

And here he is with a likeness of himself done in mosaic.

He’s an equal-opportunity religionist, with Ganesh from the Hindu religion,

Mary from Catholicism (note the bottles representing the aura always seen emanating from her in representations here in Mexico — so tongue-in-cheek),

and Buddha.

This is not an unsightly dump (well, maybe); these are some of the raw materials Anado collects from restaurants and hotels to use in fabricating his art.

Anado’s workshop. Note the bottom of the walls are decorated with bottles.

Here’s a close-up of one way he decorates walls with bottles.

And here’s another.

Nearby was this “Casa de Caca,” a totally dry toilet, a work in progress. I’m sure it, too, will be festooned with bottles and other decorations before too long.

And here are some bottles sunken in, top down, or perhaps just the bottoms are cut off and placed into the clay.

I have every faith that someday this relic will be studded with brightly colored shapes.

Another floor treatment using bottles.

These bottles have been moved indoors from the outdoor pile and perhaps cleaned up in preparation for use very soon.

A favorite project of Anado’s is chandeliers — of all kinds.

Here’s one made with foam dog bones – say what?

I really, really liked his dining room table, constructed from an old door which had been painted in high gloss, and then thousands of little found objects — buttons, milagros, watch pieces, etc. — placed in the indentations before being topped by a sheet of glass.

I loved this, too.

I figured out why I liked this so much; it’s plain and restful to the eyes. And stunning!

Anado took us into his shop, where he has pieces for sale. It was there that I discovered that he had designed the T-shirt for the Writers’ Conference featuring Barbara Kingsolver. I had lusted after that T-shirt, but decided not to buy it, but once I met Anado and saw his work, there was no doubt of the identity of the designer of the T-shirt.

Following that tour, we moved on to the home of Robin and Beto Diaz, owners of a popular SMA restaurant, El Pegaso. Their son, Aáron Diaz, is a breathtakingly handsome and sexy Mexican soap opera star and photos of him, including a life-sized cardboard cut-out, dominated the place. The home of the restauraters is quite lovely and not at all over-the-top in the way of some places I’ve seen here. On the property is their own private very, very old chapel. They also have something I’ve not seen or heard of anywhere else in SMA — a pond stocked with tilapia and koi. They continuously recycle the water, pumping it around and down a small waterfall. Aáron had it dug and stocked recently for his parents as a gift.

A second floor room in the Diaz’s home.

Their living room.

That’s Robin Diaz in the red top with their chapel behind her.

Inside the chapel.

Looking past the chapel to more of their proerty

Also on the property was a house being built for Robin’s sister. She had a bedroom constructed temporarily in an extremely odd place (just as you come in the front door — somewhat of a shock!), and a kitchen and living room so she can live there while the rest of the house is being finished.

On her part of the property are the ruins of yet another ancient chapel, seen here.

Julia and I taking a break.

Feb. 21 – 25, 2010 – “Who Is Calling Whom Loco?” – Part II

First, another feel good story. George, a man in his 90s from UUFSMA, had taken a cab home from somewhere. He keeps his peso bills in a wallet and has a change purse for coins. He paid the cab fare from his wallet, laid it down on the front seat of the cab to get out some coins for the driver, closed the door and walked into the house. He soon discovered that he’d left his wallet, containing all of his credit cards, in the cab. He was stomping around furiously when the cab returned and the driver gave him back his wallet, untouched.

And here’s another one with the tables turned. There was an eye clinic set up recently in SMA and my landlady suggested that Reyna, the maid we share, go get her eyes examined. Heather accompanied this 40+ woman to her first-ever eye exam, and it turned out she was very seriously near-sighted and needed a pretty strong prescription for glasses. Heather then took her to an optician and paid for her glasses. Reyna almost cried when she saw how well she could see for the first time in her life. Heather called to let me know of this development, and I promised to make a big fuss over Reyna in her new glasses when I saw her. Heather was sure that it would allow her to do a far better cleaning job. I can attest to this, because with my very bad eyesight, even corrected, I can’t see any dust, although I consider this a blessing.

My rental must be on the road to a cemetery, because I have seen and heard many funerals go by. The latest one was bigger than the others. Probably 100 people walked extremely slowly in very close order, almost shuffling along to the strains of a haunting musical accompaniment played by what sounded like a New Orleans jazz band. I could see a tuba among the gathering. An old hearse with a very badly cracked windshield (guess there’s no car inspection here) carried the casket in front, and behind the mourners, a truck inched along carrying flowers.

A particularly stunning sunset from my terrace.

We’re wondering how they’re going to replace the burnt-out bulbs in the right arm of the cross.  (Note from later:  they did it in time for Semana Santa.)

Some scenes from an evening in the jardin.

Here’s a knife sharpener who carries his wheel on his bike. He blows a special whistle to alert potential customers to his service. (My shutter failed to open all the way — a problem caused, I believe, by specks of dust getting into it — but other than that, I like the photo and thus kept it.)

Julia got her pen knife sharpened.

And here’s a man playing a rickety wooden marimba on the street. Julia prepares to donate to the cause.

On Sun. night, I did something entirely new; I went folk dancing. The leaders are in their 80s and sometimes I see them walking around town a little hunched over, but when they get on the dance floor, any sign of decripitude vanishes! And do they know their folk dances! We did dances from Bulgaria, Ireland, England, Israel, among others. Some were quite complicated, but always fun, and the whole experience was great exercise, plus I met lots of new people. The evening ended with a little swing dancing among those who were left standing.

I had signed Julia, Karen and myself up for a Circle Cena sponsored by UUFSMA. I volunteered us to bring dessert and it was suggested that cheeses and fruit would be nice, plus a bottle of wine. We got some fabulous cheeses at Vía Orgánica, plus some homemade crackers, a mango and, from Chile, some of the biggest red grapes that I’ve ever seen in my life. Julia and I went to the Tuesday Market (I’ll bet you can guess on which day) and met the cheesemaker himself, who was manning a booth there.

As Julia and I awaited the bus to the Tuesday Market, we saw an out-of-control tree getting a haircut.

You’ve seen a number of photos from the Tuesday Market already, but I couldn’t resist these few more. These are — we think — a form of tortillas, probably filled with harmful dyes.

The candy counter.

That evening we enjoyed ourselves at the Circle Cena and ate, in addition to what we had brought, duck ragu with curly pasta, and a lovely salad. When we arrived, we drank wine and nibbled cheese puffs out on the porch overlooking their patio garden, and saw one of the most glorious sunsets I’ve ever been privileged to witness. I took pictures about every minute as the sky changed constantly. Our hostess Phyllis said that her husband takes a photo of the sunset almost every night.

Sorry to bore you with so many sunset photos, but really, they are breath-taking.

On Wed., Julia and I had a full and fun day. Julia accompanied me to my Spanish Conversation group and then we walked to the every-Wednesday from 11-3 open house of a paper artist, Terry Tomlinson, in her fabulous, self-designed home which I believe I’ve written of earlier. She had new work on display since I was there last and we spent a considerable time chatting with Terry, admiring her artwork and ogling her house and terraces. And we met Sandy and her guest, Judy from NYC, there. After lunch at home, we took a cab up to Charco del Ingenio, the botanical garden, and spent about three hours there. Even that amount of time wasn’t enough to see everything.  Because of the extensive rains recently, there were some flowering cacti (not a riot of color, you understand, but some here and there), and tons of birds.

We saw this wildly-colored house on the way to the paper artist’s open house.

Some flowering plants in the conservatory at the botanical garden.

And some other lovely specimens.

I particularly like the marks left on the leaves of this plant from when it was tightly furled.

And here’s a sight you and I may never see again in our lifetimes: a waterfall in the winter in SMA, caused by the torrential rain of several weeks back.

The next day, Julia, Suji, Geoff, Brian and Ernie all went to Guanajuato. I did not go with them as I’d gone myself a few weeks earlier. Karen brought her suitcase over from her B&B (I had changed the regular day of my maid from Fri. to Thurs. so she could change the bed and clean the bathroom after Julia for Karen), and then Karen and I walked up to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to catch the bus to the annual fund-raising luncheon of Mujeres en Cambio held at the rancho of the former mayor of SMA and his wife, Pakina, one of the founders of Mujeres en Cambio. Prior to going to the luncheon, we were taken to a Benedictine Monastery nearby. A very kindly, older English monk with a delightful sense of humor and wearing jeans under his cassock, welcomed us to El Monasterio de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, and gave us a tour.

We saw the refectory,

the computer room,

the library (surprisingly small, but there are only 11 monks from five countries at this quite grand place), a school room for local children,

and the recreation room, used for only 45 minutes three times a week, after dinner. I saw DVDs of ballet performances stacked next to the player.

The brother described the monks’ cells as containing a cot, a none-too-comfortable chair (his words, delivered with a chuckle!), and a small table. We saw the “old” chapel, which looked as if it belonged on a Greek isle. You’ll never guess who designed it — George Nakashima, the celebrated furniture designer and maker from Pennsylvania!

And then the “new” chapel, paid for by the president of Corona beer. Some of us got to go inside to hear the monks chant. Somehow I wasn’t in the right place at the right time and could only hear it from outside.

Here are some of the scenes I saw instead.

Here’s the bell that calls the monks to their prayers and meals.

The only work of these monks, in addition to their spiritual lives, is to provide hospitality to people — singly and in groups — who come there from all over for retreat, silence, and solitude.

On the grounds of the monastery was the simple home — also somewhat monk-like, I thought — of an elderly woman named Margaret, an icon painter who also gives classes in this specialized art.

Probably the less said about this the better.

Some of Margaret’s finished paintings.

In addition to a modest kitchen, this cot with a rough wool blanket is her only furniture except for the few chairs and tables in this same room which doubles as her studio.

I hope you can see the angel window that Margaret commissioned and had installed in her home/studio.

Seen from the outside.

I found this simple graveyard at the monastery extremely moving.

At the luncheon, Karen and I were fortunate enough to be seated at a table with many people who do incredible work with Mexican children, both through Mujeres en Cambio and with other charities. In addition to sangria, we feasted on chicken mole, rice and beans, a variety of salads, and a killer cookie plate donated by Petit Four across the street from me, while we soaked up stories of successes and lives changed (on both sides of the equation). It’s an experience I don’t think Karen nor I will soon forget.

Some shots at Pakina’s ranch. The green-ness of the place was startling.

As we prepared to leave, there were bunches of the orange flowers shown in such profusion above in vases of water for us to take home. Mine lasted probably over a week and were a very colorful reminder of this special day.

Feb. 26 -Mar. 4, 2010 – Every Saturday is a New Adventure

The weather is definitely warming up. I now wear sleeveless shirts and 3/4 pants exclusively and a spring nightgown for sleeping, although a light blanket is still required. One avoids the direct sun mid-day by always walking on the shady side of the street, and it’s no longer necessary to schlep a jacket for the evening. In the shade it’s still a little cool and a light shawl or wrap may be needed. There is zero humidity and no mosquitoes. I love it!

On Fri. night, Karen and I went to a fund-raiser for Save the Children/Haiti, a cabaret featuring pianist/singer Marianne Koerner (incidentally a member of UUFSMA), who, in addition to singing charming, witty, unusual songs I’d never heard of, although by songwriters I knew well, such as Lennon and McCartney, Irving Berlin, Stephen Sondheim, and Richard Rodgers, collaborated with her husband on one piece about San Miguel, which he had written. A delightful evening.

If it’s Sat., that means another Adventure, and this week we started out with a visit to the home/workshop/gallery of a jewelry maker, Eunice O’Hanna, right in El Centro. Her necklaces were fabulous, as was her home, especially the multiple murals that she had painted herself, many of which are tongue-in-cheek.

Eunice’s studio.

Don’t know if you can see/appreciate the looks on the faces of Adam, Eve, and the snake. They are priceless.

This is Eunice in the jeans.

A very narrow walkway runs behind this window, so that viewers would look right at a wall. Eunice solved that problem handily.

From Eunice’s home, we rode for a long time out to the elegant El Rancho Ojo de Agua (Eye of Water). This working ranch, where they breed, raise, and train Andalusian horses, is owned by a Mexico City family who comes there only on weekends and holidays. Boy, I’d like to see their Mexico City home! As we neared their spread, I saw a helipad. A helipad! That told me everything I needed to know.

Here’s the courtyard the buses drove up to.

And here is the main house. No member of the family was in residence, even though it was a weekend. However, there was a staff of maids and grooms holding down the fort.

After we toured the main house, we walked down a road to the paddocks, the pool house, and other features.

This is the pool house, with a guest casita behind.

This is the kitchen in the pool house.

And this, an outdoor living room.

We relaxed here and were served soft drinks and cookies as is customary on all of the Sat. Adventures.

This pool chair shows the family’s crest, which appeared on many other things, such as…

the horses’ brands,

flower pots,

and the grooms’ T-shirts. We had ample opportunity to see them when one groom put a horse through its paces for us as we sat in shaded bleachers.

All of these mares are pregnant! The stud did his work well. When they saw us approaching, they all gathered at the fence, although we did not go over to them.

This is a garage/display space for the family’s collection of antique carriages.

The family also raises bulls, which we didn’t see, and has its own private bull ring, complete with family crest. What a place!

I would surely like to know the family’s name and what business they’re in in Mexico City. These Sat. Adventures, advertised as taking guests to places tourists never get to see, are just an incredible activity. For the peso equivalent of $12, you are taken on a four-hour journey to a different world, whatever the world may be that week. And it all benefits a very worthy charity for handicapped children. The Mexican woman who started Centro de Crecimiento 33 years ago, Lucha Maxwell, a physical therapist now 93 years old, goes along on every trip and gives her little talk about the charity and its work and invites guests to visit to see the wonderful work they do.

As has become traditional, following the Sat. Adventure, Karen and I went to La Palapa, the fish taco place as I call it, since I only recently learned that the place even had a name. This place seems to me what Jimmy Buffet had in mind when he sang “Margaritaville.” It’s nothing but a shack, really, shaded with a barely thatched roof, where locals hang out at one table to smoke and drink beer most of the afternoon, while others, ravenous for the either fried or steamed fish tacos (and other menu items, but who would order them?) and killer carrot cake, their only dessert offering, while away a happy hour, double meaning intended.

It was now after 3 p.m., and we had tickets to a performance in the Pro Musica series, for Maestro Enrique Flores on the 10-string classical guitar, at five. In between, we went on an open studio walk through the Colonia (neighborhood) of San Antonio. It was very hot, I had neglected to bring the map from Atención that showed the location of all of the studios, and we didn’t know the neighborhood streets at all. We got to three studios, but I was tired and uninspired by what I saw. We then had to speed-walk to St. Paul’s and wound up having to sit separately since we had cut it very close. We both nodded off a little in the cool church, but revived a bit at intermission with some cool agua con gas (sparkling water) and enjoyed the second half more.

Then we raced to the next activity, for which we were late, a farewell dinner for 13 of us (!), whom Suji dubbed, “FOC” (Friends of Cynthia). The month of February had run out and many gringos were heading home. We had a lovely, delicious, fun meal at La Posadita, one of my favorite restaurants, that has a remarkable view up on its terrace, particuarly at sunset. We bid a sad goodbye to Alex and Cheryl and their visitors Geoff and Susan (this caused some confusion with Geoff and Suji, with even the Geoffs spelled the same way), to Carol and Yoram and their son, Todd, and met a new friend of theirs, Gary, who had just arrived. Suji, Geoff, Julia, Karen and I rounded out the party.

Mid-afternoon Sun., Karen treated me to a “blowout meal” at Sicilia en Bocca (“Sicily in Your Mouth” in Italian), a new restaurant with another killer view. You may remember that the chef/owner catered part of the Mujeres en Cambio 15th anniversary luncheon that I attended the second day I was in SMA. That had really whetted my appetite for more. It was a bit windy out on their terrace, and the Mexicans moved indoors, but the hearty gringos stayed outside. The chef came over and schmoozed with us. A delightful meal!

Then it was on to a 6 p.m. “stylized reading” of the play “Domestication” by Stephanie Glick from NYC, at the biblioteca. I had met Stephanie last year, and she’d gone out with Geoff and Suji a couple of times then. One of her plays was produced in SMA last year, too. It was the first reading of this new play and was designed to give the author some insight into what might need additional work. It was a modern re-telling of the Cain and Abel story, and was extraordinarily dark. The best parts for me were the two teenagers and an 8-year-old girl. Their lines were spot-on the way kids of those ages would speak and interact both with each other and with the adults in their lives. The acting was good all around.

On Mon. morning bright and early, Karen was picked up by the shuttle and whisked to the Mexico City airport for her flight to Ottawa. Most Canadians chose the Mexico City route to avoid going through the states if they can. I had my Spanish lesson and did a bunch of errands and later in the day hosted Suji and Geoff for wine and cheese on my terrace and to view the San Miguel apparition. This is a shadow of the planters on my terrace cast on the wall by the street lights in a most unusual pattern (note that the number of repetitions of images increases as you go from left to right — quite extraordinary!). Julia and I discovered it quite by accident one evening when we were up there and were blown away by it. I’m sure that the owner of my place has never seen it, for why in the world would she be up on that terrace at night? I now invite folks up to witness it, as it’s really quite something. I wasn’t able to capture a photo of it with my camera, which I found a bit disconcerting, but Geoff was able to, and the photo below is his.

On Tuesday, a picture-perfect day (although most of them now fall into that category), Julia, Suji, and I had a ladies-day out to La Gruta, one of the several hot springs here. We swam from the main pool into a hotter grotto. There were hardly any people there and those who were were muy amable (very friendly). We finished off several hours of soaking with a lunch in their restaurant, and were picked up by our taxi at 2 p.m. I plan to go again and spend a longer time. That evening, Chely, my Spanish conversation teacher, Julia, and I met up at La Fragua, a bar/dance place that has live tango music on Tuesday nights. Julia and Chely are tango afficianadas, and I was along to listen and watch. Both women wore their best tango shoes and we were all a little dressed up, but, alas, there were no single men to ask them to dance. There were many dancing couples and it was fun to watch them, but the music was way too loud for me, so I had a roaring headache when we left at 10:30.

On Wed., I attended the weekly UU Comida, except when we assembled at the designated restaurant, it was closed for renovations. There was a Sri Lankan restaurant across the street, so we wrote our destination on one of the “Closed for Renovations” signs for possible latecomers, and headed there. We had a long, delicious lunch. That evening, Julia treated Suji, Geoff and me to dinner in celebration of Suji’s 40th birthday in Jan. We do eat well here, I must say!

Julia left for home on Thurs, following some confusion with the shuttle service. After my Spanish lesson, I went for my second haircut this year. I’ll get one more right before going home. I invited Sandy over for a lunch of leftover crackers and cheese, plus some fruit and granola cookies I love, and we whiled away a couple of hours catching up since we’d both had two weeks of guests. At 5 p.m., we attended a truly extraordinary lecture on “Aging in SMA,” given by a geriatrician whose name I forgot to note, who is in SMA doing research on the aging patterns of estadounidenses (U.S. citizens) living abroad. He started out with some eye-opening statistics: The fastest-growing cohort in the U.S. is the over-90 population! There are currently over 50,000 centenarians living in the U.S. One-third of hospitalizations in the U.S. among the elderly are prescription related. Taking an elderly friend or relative for a walk is the best way to gauge his/her general health as you observe their speed, distance, gait, and how out-of-breath they become and how quickly.

He joked that people go to Florida to die, but they come to SMA to live. He believes that the intensity of creativity in SMA helps to impede the aging process. He said he felt that many doctors of the aged act more like cheerleaders for the oldsters to keep going than helping them to accept the inevitability of aging. He spoke in the most glowing terms of Cielito Lindo, an independent and assisted living facility here, and said that the good human hands-on care one receives there is often of more benefit than the care found in some of the hi-tech, youth-oriented societies in the U.S. He is a proponent of what he calls “slow medicine,” which balances out the “fast” hi-tech medicine practiced frequently on the elderly. He called the age span of 55-80 “the recreational stage,” and the years following those, “the fourth age,” which he defined as more self-reflective, and is the last gift we give to our children as we show them how to age gracefully and how to die.

The best news I heard at the talk was that after years of petition, the U.S. government is going to start — perhaps as early as next year — a three-year trial program to allow U.S. citizens residing in Mexico to keep their Medicare coverage. He announced the name of a new geriatirican, Dr. Pepe Valencia, coming to practice in SMA. What good news for the large elderly gringo community here!

Mar. 5 – 6, 2010 – The Feast of Our Lord of the Conquest

Every year, on the first Friday of March, is the Feast of Our Lord of the Conquest. Last year I took about 500 photos of this extravaganza, a few of which I had blown up to 11×17 and now have hanging in my hallway at home, and so was determined not to take any more this year. I also decided not to try to re-write what I had written in my blog last year, so I’ll just copy it below and select a couple of my favorite photos from last year:

“On our way to dinner, we came upon the dancers for the Feast of Our Lord of the Conquest just getting started in front of the parroquia. Their marathon religious celebration is carried out annually on the first Friday in March. This Thursday night part was just a warm-up to the all-day drumming and dancing the following day. It’s a celebration I totally don’t understand. It represents the acceptance of Christ by Mexico’s indigenous peoples at the hands of the Spanish invaders. “Acceptance”!? How about “coercion”? I asked my conversation leader about it. She said that the indigenous people simply overlaid Catholicism on top of their own beliefs and ceremonies to create a unique amalgam.

Anyway, there were hundreds of dancers from all over Mexico in plumed headdresses, brilliant costumes, and body paint and make-up. There were no two costumes alike. I think the Philadelphia Mummers would kill to look like these dancers, and in fact, I was reminded of them over and over. They burn incense and dance nearly non-stop to loud drum beats. The faithful recite 33 prayers – one for each year of the life of Jesus. I was mesmerized. It was difficult to take photos because they were in constant motion. Some, I noticed, got into an ecstatic state. It was truly a highlight of my trip here.”

On Friday evening, I went to see a performance of Mi Luna Flamenca, a local four-person flamenco troupe. As soon as they came onstage, I realized that I’d seen them last year, but I didn’t mind at all. Their guitarist was new this year — a lefite, the first I’ve seen — and one could barely see his fingers move, they flew so fast. It was sexy and brilliant and moving and no one could sit still; all of our bodies were tapping out the rhythms.

One of the joys of returning to SMA this year is to come to see how different my experience of the place has been this time. I no longer need to carry and refer to a map constantly. I know where just about everything I need is, although I continue to learn about and discover new places daily. And I recognize faces — of both Mexicans and gringos: the owner of my favorite ice cream cart, waiters/waitresses in restaurants I frequent often, the produce store man, the checker at Bonanza, people I’ve gone on tours with or seen at church. When I walk out of my door, I no longer feel as if I live in a foreign country; nothing feels strange anymore. I feel now as if it is home.

I have a Mexican gentleman friend here. His name is José and he’s 78. I first met him last year on the Saturday Adventures as he helps out each week. And I got re-acquainted with him this year. Since I’ve been on many of the Adventures, I’ve come to consider him a friend, and this last week, we’ve met up by accident a couple of times in the jardin. He told me all about how he met his late wife, (She was visiting SMA from NY and they met in the jardin; neither knew a word of each other’s language. Three months after she left, she returned — with her parents — to live. Each took lessons in the other’s language. The rest is history), how his wife’s brother married Lucha, the now 93 year-old woman I told you about earlier who started Centro de Crecimiento and who goes on all of the Sat. Adventures to talk to us about it and the work they do, and how they started a store, still in existence today, called Casa Maxwell, where José worked for 20 years, how he felt after his wife died 15 years ago (I was blown away by the deepness of his sharing about this: he told me that he went out into the campo where he had been born and had worked for 30 years and just pounded the ground and screamed in grief and anger), and how, after about six months, he began to come around.

His son is a doctor with a general practice in SMA, and his granddaughter is a soap opera actress; his grandson hopes to break into that field, also. He has told me repeatedly how much he is enjoying life in general — how good life is — particularly in SMA. He knows virtually everyone, it appears. I ask him lots of questions — in Spanish, even though I know he knows English — about how things used to be in SMA. When he told me of the time before cars when there were only burros and horses, I asked who picked up the droppings (and we had fun communicating that word to each other). He told me that the drunkards, who were jailed overnight, would be marched out in the morning by the police and made to pick up the animal waste as a punishment. I can understand everything he says because he speaks very slowly and distinctly, perhaps a long-ingrained habit from his time with his American-born, English-speaking wife, and with the tourists on the Sat. Adventures.

As José and I talked, this man and his blind wife appeared and  started to entertain. He was extraordinary! And he earned lots of pesos in appreciation!

Just a day or so after that conversation, I came across this guy, who immediately posed for me and put out his hand for a donation,  which I cheerfully gave him.


And on Sat., I attended a special Sat. Adventure, which began at 4  p.m., rather than the usual 10:30 a.m.; we were gone for four hours. It was entitled, “Ana Thiel – An Inside Look,” and was a visit with Ana, a 40-something, internationally-recognized Mexican-born glass artist, though obviously of European descent, in her home/studio/gallery, and also in the homes of three of her clients, for whom she did custom work. The first house, belonging to a couple probably in their 50s who are self-described art collectors, is in the place of Stirling Dickinson’s original house (they tore it down and rebuilt — it’s exquisite). It overlooks his former orchid garden.

This is Ana’s piece. Molten glass was poured into a container in which was a piece of wood; the glass ate into the wood, and formed itself into the shape of the container, which was then removed. It has a very wave-like structure to my eyes. I liked it.

Some scenes from their home, featuring their art collection.

The kitchen from the outside in,

and from the inside out.

Each of the women had one of these in their bedroom, one on either side of the door. Each was custom made and represents significant events in their lives.

Their bedroom. I absolutely adored the painting of a canal scene in Venice.

Stirling Dickinson is revered here in SMA — even has a street named after him. (I’m going to take a detour here and copy some paragraphs about Stirling Dickinson from Wikipedia; I think they’re fascinating, and they refer to the property we visited, although the original tannery is long since gone.)

“In 1938, Peruvian artist Felipe Cossio del Pomar established San Miguel’s first art school, the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes. It was located in the former convent that houses the present Bellas Artes [this is steps from my rental]. He offered the position of Art Director to American artist and writer Stirling Dickinson. Dickinson taught Spanish, botany and landscape painting, as well as taking students on field trips as part of his ‘Aspects of Mexico’ course.

“Dickinson’s impact on San Miguel was manifested in many ways. He had arrived in San Miguel before daybreak on February 7, 1937. At the jardín, Dickinson looked up at the spires of the Parroquia poking through the mist. “My God, what a sight!” he said to himself. “I’m going to stay here.” After five years in San Miguel, Dickinson was named a Favored Adopted Son, the only American to be so honored by the mayor’s office. Two years later, he was honored by the governor for his work with founding a baseball team for young Mexicans. The baseball field he helped build and finance was named Campo Stirling Dickinson.

“Dickinson began what was probably the largest private orchid collection in Mexico, a lifelong interest that was highlighted by the discovery of Encyclia dickinsoniana and having a second named after him in recognition of his work, Cypripedium dickinsonianum. When Dickinson first arrived in San Miguel in 1937 he and his writing partner had purchased an old tannery on Santo Domingo on the way to the Atascadero Hotel above town for the equivalent of 90 U.S. dollars. The present property is worth millions of dollars. Despite his abundant gifts to charity, his tomb is simple and unadorned, apparently unvisited as would normally be the case in Mexico. He is buried in the American section of the city graveyard of Sra. de Guadalupe. A bronze bust of Mr. Dickinson is on a column at an intersection street of Ancha de San Antonio and Guadiana.”

Then we drove to the Moskowitzes’ house to see their glass piece.

Their place was furnished in an almost stark manner, the better to showcase their collection of African art.

This small glass piece is Ana’s, though not the one we came to see.

This is the one we came to see. Ana said that as a challenge to herself, these pieces can be put together to form a perfect circle. She was inspired to create it by a trip to Antarctica.


Here it is from above. It can also be lit from underneath. I’m sorry we didn’t get to see that effect, as it was still too early in the evening.

I didn’t love that glass piece so much, although the concept was pretty amazing, but at the third house, owned by a single woman from NYC, also in her 50s, was a spectacular circular piece, probably 5′ in diameter, made to feature a broken Lalique bowl (it had been her mother’s and she lovingly brought it down to Mexico, but one of her cats knocked it over and broke it). The bottom layer was a mirror with the fragments of the bowl fused to it as it would look as it shattered, and then two layers of glass on top of that. It hangs over the steps leading to the second floor, and when lit is otherworldly. It was still not dark enough when we were at her house, so we didn’t get the full effect, which she says is amazing. The owner of this piece has now become a dear friend of Ana’s and went with us to the last stop, Ana’s house. I spoke to her a lot about her move here and her decision to do so. She had been in TV/movies in NYC. I liked her very much.

It’s really very hard to appreciate this piece in this photo (and in others I took, but rejected). But there was talk between Ana and her client at this house of something coming from the main piece of the broken bowl (two o’clock) and shooting off in two different directions (her mother and herself); they also talked about seeing a rib cage.

Ana explaining how the piece came to be.

Perhaps this is a little better. This makes it look like a balloon, when in fact, it’s perfectly flat.

This house was quite simple and pleasant.


I loved how this bookcase wrapped itself to the semi-circle shape of the couch.

Ana accompanied us on the whole trip, and was a delight. At her place, where her fábrica (factory/workshop) is in a former huge chicken coop, we had margaritas and heavy botanas (appetizers) provided by La Buena Vida, a top-notch bakery right around the corner from me, where I buy my granola and to-die-for handmade crackers. She gave us a glass-working demo. We toured her home/gallery where many lovely things were for sale (though I don’t think anyone was buying). A wonderful evening all around!

You cannot imagine the heat of her furnace! And with a margarita under my belt, I actually thought I would die from the intensity of it.


Here are some of the pieces for sale in her gallery.



Here is a most unusual scene, which seems to say, “Noah’s Ark,” but why? And why here? I’m going to try to find out.

Can you see the Star of David under each window, in the shadow?


And here are some photos of my favorite street entertainers, La Tuna. They appear under the portal across from the jardin every Sat. night about 8:45. I’m usually there with them; I’m afraid I’m a confirmed groupie. Pablo, the sort-of MC, sort-of-worker-of-the-crowd, in Yiddish, a “tummler,” as Sandy has explained to me, is gifted, and brings much joy to everyone, myself included.

He’s shakin’ his bootie here, for sure.

Mar. 7 – 13, 2010 – Teaching English at Ojalá

Around this time, I received the news from my son, Ajay, that he and his family will not be coming to Philly for Christmas 2010. (Of course we will see them for six weeks this summer.) They have just purchased a new condo in Helsinki (tripling their living space), and need both the money and even more, the time they would have spent, to renovate their new place. While the thought of not seeing my grandchildren for an entire year is not a happy one, and the thought of Christmas in Philly without them plunged me into a funk, I quickly recovered when I realized that I could come to SMA six weeks earlier than planned! At about this same time, Suji and Geoff saw the house here that they want to rent for a month next winter, and told me I should run over to see it as it would be perfect for me for Dec. (I had already re-upped from mid-Jan. through Mar. at my current rental, but it was already rented for Dec.) Well, I fell for the house, too, and immediately signed up. I got my contract for my current rental re-written to have it start on 1/1/11 and terminate 4/1/11.

After the UUFSMA church service, I went out to lunch with Brenda, a friend I met here from Doylestown, and her visiting boyfriend, Gordon, and two other couples from the church. After lunch, we went to the local RV park (for small rigs; there’s another one out of town for big rigs) to see where these two couples live. The RVs were really small — although cleverly designed — and all I could think of was a week together in one of them during the deluge. Time was running short for me to get to a 2:30 p.m. live opera concert, featuring, among others, the voice teacher of my Spanish conversation teacher, Chely, so I bid a hasty farewell and speed-walked to the biblioteca. There I met Chely and her husband, as planned, only to learn that the concert had been cancelled due to the illness of one of the singers. Our money was promptly refunded, but I was really disappointed — not to mention bathed in sweat!

Early that evening, Suji and Geoff came over, bearing a rotisserie chicken, to which I added sliced tomatoes, some chips and wine, and we feasted while watching the Oscars.

There have been some scary reports on the civil list about ATM fraud (not only in Mexico, but around the world), so I decided to try to open a bank account here so that I could cash checks to get my pesos. I was so proud of myself as I conducted the interview solely in Spanish; the clerk spoke not a word of English. I found out that I needed either an FM2 or an FM3 visa (allowing a US citizen to stay in Mexico for a year; my visa is good for only 180 days) to open a bank account here. I reported this development to my landlady, who sent me to see the “gerente de sucursal” (the branch manager) of Monex Banco two doors down from my rental. I did this on Thurs. He took all of my info and promised to e-mail me when my account was set up in 2-3 days. This has been held up, of course, by the holiday yesterday, Mon., 3/15, to honor the birthday of Benito Juarez, the only fully indigenous person ever to serve as president of Mexico, and a huge hero here. The city was an absolute zoo for this three-day holiday, There was gridlock for the cars, you couldn’t get into restaurants, and I’ve never seen so many people at one time in the jardin. It was such a relief to have SMA return to its quieter ways come Tuesday morning (I’m skipping ahead here, as I’m talking about Mar. 16).

Back to Tues., 3/9: I attended two lectures in the afternoon, one called “Secret San Miguel,” which told and showed the fascinating history — going way, way back into early Mesoamerican time, long before the Catholic priests came to evangelize the Indians in Mexico — of the cross as a symbol. Immediately following that was a show of photographs by a very talented, up-and-coming photographer from Querétaro. He and his three brothers run a calendar company, and the speaker is the photographer for the group. He showed us examples — via his computer, of course, projected onto a screen — of the many different types of photography he does, from high fashion to product shoots to just about anything else you could think of. He started off by showing us a photo of some wind turbines that had won first prize in a contest some years ago. He said this was one of his favorite photos as on the trip where he took it, his wife became pregnant, immediately endearing him to all of those present, which weren’t very many. I felt bad about the small turnout. But we made up in enthusiasm what we lacked in numbers. At the end of the talk, he announced that because it had been the very first time he had ever lectured in English, he wanted to give us each a gift. He passed around matted and signed photos of his, and we were invited to choose one! That was a hard task, but I selected an extreme close-up of a striped, multi-colored leaf.

Andrew and Janet — the recently transplanted Canadians I knew from last year — and Janet’s sister visiting from Australia came over for wine and cheese on my terrace. After a long cocktail hour, we adjourned for dinner at the restaurant Berlin.

Thurs. morning brought a fascinating panel discussion sponsored by the Center for Global Justice, entitled, “What Canadians have been too polite to tell Americans, eh?” (If you know any Canadians, you’ll recognize this endearing ending to many questions of theirs.) When I got there, it was standing room only. They had set up 50 chairs and there were probably another 50 people standing. After a brief intro, a man in the audience asked if those present would indicate if they were Canadian, and 90% raised their hands! There were shrieks of laughter. I’m not quite sure what that means, but I was shocked! Turns out that because of the severity of the recession in America, there are far fewer Americans in SMA this year and thus the Canadian contingent seems larger, although it isn’t.

The panel leader started off by saying that the character of Superman was created by a Canadian in 1932, and that in many ways, Superman personifies Canadians: “a bland, self-effacing guy who, when called upon, can do super things” (or words close to that). That got a big laugh. She emphasized that in Canada, the collective is important, as compared to the US, where the individual is all. The leader spelled out the ground rules: each of the five panelists would be allotted five minutes and there was a time-keeper. Each would speak on a different topic. There would be time for a Q&A at the end.

The first panelist gave a general overview of the country as to size, population, political parties, etc. She mentioned that the governor general was born in Haiti and thus Canada had a person of color in a top position before we had Obama. The second panelist compared several indices such as the number of murders, number of baby deaths, number of people in jail, etc. per 100,000 in Canada, the US, and Sweden. Evidently, Canada is at some mid-point between the US and Sweden (which seemed to be seen as the utopia to be emulated) in all of these measures. Of course, someone (undoubtedly an American) asked for the populations of the three countries to be spelled out: 9 million in Sweden, 33 million in Canada, and 330 million in the US, and it was acknowledged that it’s a whole lot easier to govern a homogenous country like Sweden. We were told that Canada taxes heavily but spends on health care and social programs, while the US spends on defense and law and order.

The third panelist said, “You don’t have to be different to be a different country.” He said Canadians pride themselves (or used to — his words) on their public health programs, their broadcasting, environmental activism, and internationalism. The fourth panelist spoke about the Canadian labor movement, which, he said, owed much to the US labor movement. The final panelist focused mainly on health issues, comparing rates of obesity, diabetes, etc. among Americans, Canadians, Mexicans, and Japanese.

When it was opened up to questions, I finally got to sit down, because the person designated to recognize people with their hands up gave up his seat so he could see them, and I grabbed it. I had been standing for close to an hour and was feeling a little woozy as it was also pretty warm in that crowded room. The panelists did not use a microphone and so I was also straining to hear (and not successfully all the time). Most of the questions were about the health care system and wait times. It was acknowledged that some US senators and members of the House were bandying about false facts and figures on the Canadian health care system.

A retired UU minister asked about the spiritual health of Canadians. He made reference to the United Church of Canada and asked how the individual denominations had fared after that coming together. One woman said her grandfather had been a Methodist minister and that the Methodists totally left Canada after the merger. It was acknowledged that the United Church of Canada is stagnating as it can’t attract young people (not an unusual situation with all denominations these days), and that the fastest growing religious segment is evangelicals (just like in the US — scary!). It was also acknowledged that evangelicals have been taking over hospital boards and removing those hospitals from the system so that they don’t have to provide abortions.  It came out that Canadians have been less strongly affected by the world-wide recession than Americans, and that Canadians love to hate their regulated banks.  It was a polite and sometimes humorous meeting, and because so many were turned away at the door due to lack of seats, they promised to repeat the whole thing the following Fri.

I joined Sandy, Farley Wheelwright, the retired UU minister referred to above (he’s 93, blind and deaf, but sharp as a tack and quite humorous), his wife, Virginia, and another UUFSMA member, Jon, for lunch at Cafe, Etc. It was really quite wonderful. At 5 p.m., Suji, Geoff and I attended a preview, at Instituto Allende, of a trip the following Sat. to Bernál and Querétaro. I decided to go; S&G decided against it. Later that evening, I saw a screening of “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” with both of the Bridges brothers and a transcendent Michelle Pfeiffer. There I met Amy, a woman I’d worked with on several occasions at Elsmarie’s after-school program some weeks ago, and her husband. She told me that, in addition to the Wed. afternoon art program, there was now a Mon. afternoon English program. I fairly leapt out of my seat in anticipation. I’ve taught ESL to adults as a volunteer for 13 years, and I so wanted to do this. I hoped it would be the activity I have been wanting to come into my life here. We talked excitedly and agreed to meet for lesson-planning with yet another woman the following Fri.

The next day, as I was shopping at Vía Orgánica, I met Elsmarie and told her that I’d be coming to her place on Mon. to help teach English to the kids. She was very pleased and she presented her ideas for what we should teach the kids (“ask them what they want to learn how to say”). Sounded like good advice. She said the kids are all extremely eager to speak English. I’ll let you know how it goes.

This photo is apropos of nothing really. I just spotted it on my way to Vía Orgánico and loved it.

This one, also, is apropos of nothing. I have always loved calla lillies, called “alcatraz” here. They are widely available in the spring, and cost only 50 pesos ($4.00) for a large bunch. I bought some, put them in one of Heather’s (the owner of my rental) gorgeous vases, and presto, the room was transformed! I can’t stop admiring them. I have made myself a promise to always have fresh flowers in my rentals next year. It is so cheap here to be surrounded by beauty.

I went out on Thurs. evening with Brenda for dinner and another Literary Cabaret at Planta Baja. (You may remember — or not — that I attended their earlier one, called “Is It Love?” around Valentine’s Day. I was so enchanted that I wanted to experience their other one, “On the Money.”) I was prevented from getting to the restaurant, however — I could see Brenda across the street — by a short religious parade. Because I was going only one block from my rental, and wanted to lighten my backpack, I didn’t take my camera. Note to self: Never be without your camera; you never know when something interesting will pop up that you want to photograph. So here were the participants in the parade: it began with firecrackers all around my neighborhood for about a half hour before, then there were tiny girls dressed in angel costumes with fluffy wings strewing flower petals on the street from baskets they carried, followed by a military-looking (though not) marching band. Close on their heels came older women holding aloft on their shoulders a statue of the Virgen sitting on a platform. Next were about a dozen of the Indian dancers like those in the Feast of Our Lord of the Conquest. Right behind them was a sizable group of all ages carrying pink and blue balloons and tiny pastel tissue paper flags with something written on them. I recognized the priest from the Blessing of the Animals ceremony! Bringing up the rear was a Dixieland-style band playing the same haunting tune as I’d heard for some funerals. Wow! When I was finally able to cross the street, Brenda said sometimes here in Mexico she felt as if she lived in an alternate universe. She was madly scribbling notes as she’d left her camera at home, too. When I asked Carlos about the parade the next day, he said he didn’t know what it was for, and that often the Mexicans themselves don’t know what parades are about (presumably those other than the participants)!

My meeting with Amy and Marilyn on Fri. to plan our English lesson for the kids at Elsmarie’s was postponed as Marilyn said she was just too busy. She suggested Sat., but I was going on the Instituto trip all day. Marilyn and Amy met on Sat., and then Amy very kindly came to my house on Sun. to tell me of the plans and just to fill me in generally as to what the program was like and how we were going to get there. It was only the second meeting of the class, so I was especially pleased to be getting in on the ground floor, so to speak.

Friday evening, I attended another in Pro Musica’s line-up, this time The Mexican Brass, and at a different venue: the Bellas Artes, a former convent, again, just around the corner from my rental. My place is soooooo centrally located. The four musicians were, I think, also frustrated comics. The title of their performance was “Movietime: Themes from the Great Movies.” They walked toward the stage from the back of the hall, playing the theme from “The Pink Panther,” while all wearing long, pink tails under their tux jackets. Throughout the program, they wore many other outlandish outfits, and there were lots of special lighting effects and sight gags, too. Oh, yes, they also played some some wicked good brass.

Sat. morning, I appeared bright and early at the Instituto with about 20 other people for the trip. Our first stop was Bernál, where the third-largest natural monolith in the world (after Gibraltar and Sugarloaf in Rio de Janeiro) is located. It’s made of granite and called Peña Bernál. It’s not volcanic, but rather the result of the movement of tectonic plates 65 million years ago. César, our fascinating guide (with whom we traveled to see the monarch butterflies last year), told the Mexican creation story, that of the gods at Teotihuacán and how they formed the world, which is, unfortunately, too long to relate here in its entirety. But basically, they tried five different times to create the world and had to destroy it the first four times due to the misbehavior of the creatures created. (This is where the belief — among some — comes that 2012 will be a judgment year for the humans created on the fifth try. This date appears in both the Aztec and Mayan legends.) Anyway, on the fourth try, according to the legend, giants were created, but then became petrified as punishment. The belief is that the monolith in Bernál is part of one of these giants, and thus sacred. Huge bones were found in the area, which led credence to this belief, but of course we now know that they are dinosaur bones.

The first sight of the monolith from the bus window.

SMA is at well over 6000′; Bernál is 900′ above SMA, and the top of the monolith is 1000′ higher than the city of Bernál. The monolith is believed to be an area of high energy, and during the spring solstice, coming up soon, huge numbers of people will flock there for ceremonies. Interestingly, a very high percentage of the city’s population live to be over 100 years old. Also, mountain climbers from all over the world come to Bernál to practice, particularly those preparing to climb the Himalayas. It is possible to hike up about two-thirds of the way without equipment. In the 1500s, Bernál was on the Camino Real, and a bright blue cross was placed at the summit of the monolith. Each year, in May, the cross is brought down and there is a huge fiesta.

In 1647 the first building was erected in Bernál. Below is a photo of it, and it’s been re-purposed big-time. The area around this building is now a small, traffic-free pedestrian walkway, with all types of interesting shops, particularly many selling semi-precious stones, such as opals, which are mined locally. Bernál is a major sheep-producing area, also, and thus there are many weavers and magnificent woven items for sale. SMA is considered by other Mexicans to be really expensive (of course, the gringos think it’s dirt cheap), but Bernál had prices about one-third those of SMA.

Here’s a man in traditional garb, but with a cell phone clipped to his waistband.

Some street performers.

Two examples of the creative weavings that are done in addition to the more standard rugs, shawls, blankets, sweaters, vests, pillow covers, etc.

No merchant in Mexico seems to subscribe to the doctrine of “Less is more.”

And what the heck, throw in a parrot for interest!

We had a delicious comida in Bernál, and saw these scenes on the way to the restaurant.

Then it was on to the much, much larger city of Querétaro (which translates as “the place where people play ball”!). Querétaro is in the same state as Bernál, the state of Querétaro, and is the capital. Since the earthquake in Mexico City in 1985, many people and industries have moved to Querétaro, and it has grown exponentially. Querétaro is the place where the Spaniards started to evangelize the Indians. It was their training center, and from there, priests were sent to the north of Mexico and into the southern U.S. as far up as Santa Fe. One of the biggest attractions there is the aqueduct, built from 1726-36. Before the building of the aqueduct, there was agua pesado “heavy water,” that is, filled with minerals, in Querétaro, and many people become ill and had to abandon the city.

The town leaders called upon an old aqueduct engineer from Mexico City, and there is a charming story about the fact that he accepted no money for his services, but instead asked to meet “the pretty nun,” a very attractive young nun who had been given by her family at the age of three (!) to the convent to be raised, according to the tradition of the time that the first-born boy became a soldier, and the first-born girl, a nun. In this extremely strict order, the nuns were never allowed to see any people in the outside world. They were allowed to see (but not speak to) their families only once a year, and through a small grilled window. However, this young girl would crack open the door to the church during masses to gaze upon the faithful, and thus people were able to catch a glimpse of her and named her, “the pretty nun.” Because the engineer was going to save the town, the order relaxed the rules a bit and allowed him to meet the pretty nun. The engineer asked the nun to marry him. She said she would when the aqueduct was completed.

Dogs were used to locate underground water in the nearby mountains, and below you’ll see a fountain dedicated to these dogs. There is a total of 74 arches in the aqueduct, stretching more than one mile. Gravity brings the water down from the mountains through clay pipes. When the water was again good to drink, the people returned to the city. And at that time, the engineer returned to the convent to collect his bride. However, the nun insisted that the engineer build them a beautiful house first. During this process, he died, and the pretty nun stayed true to her vows. (I guess she figured that since he was so much older than she, he would die before their marriage if she kept throwing up enough roadblocks.) Anyway, the house that was built for them to live in, the House of the Marquesa (as he was a marquis) is now a luxury hotel, and it’s a charming story, and according to César, a true one.

That’s the new convention center at the top of the picture below, which is scheduled to be opened for the Bicentennial of the 1810 Revolution later this year. There is an incredible amount of activity going on in Querétaro, Guanajuato, and SMA that will lead up to this Sept. celebration. Actually, I’m glad I won’t be here in SMA for that, as I’m sure it will be way too crowded to be enjoyable.

This woman was in the right place at the right time, and made several sales of her handmade dolls to our group. I loved her baby, strapped to her back, peeking over her shoulder to see what was going on. Her older child, to the right, helped his mother out a lot.

At this stop, we also visited the Cementario de los Hombres Ilustres (I think you can figure this one out). César told us the incredible story of when the mother of one of the three big names in the War for Mexican Independence from Spain — Doña Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez — died. Her daughter tried to get her mother buried there, but it was for hombres only. After much pressure from this revolutionary heroine, the town fathers agreed, but with one caveat. They erected a statue of her mother at the entrance to the Cementario — with a mustache! Unfortunately, my photo of this statue did not come out as it was mid-day and the sun was extremely bright. No mustache was in view on the photo, but I saw it with my own eyes.

This is the plaza outside the Cementario de los Hombres Ilustres where all of the statues are lined up.

Their tourist trolleys reminded me of the ones back home in Philly, minus the cow catchers, which made me chuckle.

Then it was on to the Hill of the Bells, where stands an incredibly tall statue of Benito Juarez, along with the Chapel of Archduke Maximilano at the exact place where he was executed.

This park is a mecca for brides and quinceañeras wanting a beautiful backdrop for their keepsake photos. Lots of photos were taken of them by other than their contracted photographers, believe me!

This girl is not a bride, but a quinceañera with her escorts.

Another quinceañera, in an outfit different from the traditional white, somewhat of a surprise.

This is César, our guide, giving us a talk about the Archduke Maximilano.

Our final stop on the trip was in the downtown area of the city, where we had about 45 minutes to wander around. It was late afternoon on a Sat., and mobbed. There were many costumed people wandering about, advertising a play that was being staged that evening, which was readings by impersonators of famous people in the struggle for independence, part of the Bicentennial celebration.

I really liked this statue commemorating the Indian dancers.

I found the downtown area very reminiscent of the little bit of Europe that I’ve seen.

One narrow alleyway seemed to be devoted solely to artworks for sale.

As we left Querétaro, I had to capture this sunset through the bus window.

We had margaritas served on-board the bus (can you imagine?) and returned to SMA about 11 hours after we’d started, tired but happy. I headed to Fenicia, a Lebanese restaurant near the Instituto, which I really like, and had what I order every time I go there, the mezze plate.

Suji told me the next morning that she and Geoff had gone to San Augustín, called Chocolate and Churros by the locals, quite late on Sat. night and were the only gringos in the place. The owner, Margarita, is a former soap opera star, and made an appearance. She stopped to schmooze at each table and have her photo taken with the guests. Churros are a pastry made by extruding dough into hot fat (somewhat like a funnel cake, but of a different batter and ribbed) and then rolling them in sugar before serving them hot with spicy hot chocolate — a delightful combo on a chilly night.

Remember the Mujeres en Cambio luncheon at the rancho of Pakina, the wife of the former mayor of SMA (also the half-owner, with his brother, of the famed Instituto Allende, due to the death of their father)? I read that that function raised 59,919 pesos (nearly $4800 USD) for the program, setting a new record for this event. It’s enough money for two young women to obtain university degrees (that’s for all four years, folks) AND for 17 others to complete high school. A little bit of money goes such a long way here.

Mar. 14 – 20, 2010 – From here on in, it’s all new to me/allergies

Since I left SMA mid-March last year, everything that takes place from here on in is all new to me. The first — and unpleasant — thing I experienced was allergies. I never have any allergies to plant material at home, but here, OMG. My friend, Satomi, a Japanese woman whom I met here last year at our Spanish language school, arrived for a week’s visit on Sun. By Tues., we both — she even more than I — were laid low by allergies. We sneezed repeatedly and blew our noses non-stop. Eyes itched. Throats were sore. We were told that because of the deluge in January, the blossoms were particularly lush this year, thus creating more than the usual amount of pollen, particularly the jacaranda trees, which come into vivid purple bloom around this time. A pharmacist suggested a saline spray — we both liked the fact that it was natural and did not contain medicines that would make us drowsy — and it actually worked! At first, I used it every 2 hours, as recommended, but as the days went by, I only needed to use it twice a day. I continue to use it to keep my Philly-induced post-nasal drip under control.

Can you see the purple jacaranda fully in bloom in this photo? This was taken from my terrace about two weeks after the allergy attack.

Sandy was the speaker at the Sun. service, on the topic, “Women Hold Up Half the Sky,” in honor of the International Day of Women. She spoke much about suffragettes in the U.S., even giving a dramatic reading from a speech by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In consultation with the piano player of the morning, all of the hymns we sang were written by women.

As is the custom, following the service, the speaker is presented with the flowers of the morning. Here is Sandy is with the Rev. Farley Wheelwright, the 93-year old blind and deaf former UU minister, about whom I have written several times.

And here she is with her adoring public.

On the way home from church, I stopped off in the jardin, as there was lots going on. There was a singer in the bandstand, with his huge alter-ego walking around, and teenagers on stilts.

I particularly like this photo of the backs of each of their heads.

Monday brought my first day teaching English to the kids at Elsmarie’s after-school program in only the second class of this type ever taught there. Satomi and I had lunch at La Media Naranja (of which I’ve written earlier), then she went home while I walked to a designated corner to meet Amy. We hopped a bus for the Bodega Aurrera (Walmart by a different name), where we were met by Elsmarie and Marilyn, who came on a different bus route. Elsmarie drove us all to her house and we set up on her patio for the first class, at 3 p.m. In came about eight students of ages 10-12. After a quick warm-up, we had a review of the first lesson, “What’s Your Name?” and “My name is ___________,” then we launched into the day’s lesson, numbers from 1-15 (we weren’t sure how old the kids were going to be), and “How old are you?” and “I am ______ years old.” We split into small groups and helped them to fill out work sheets, which they were invited to take home to show their parents and to aid them with practicing the language. With the three of us, it went pretty well.

At 3:45, we dismissed those kids and geared up for the second class at 4 p.m. There were only 6 of them, and we repeated the lesson exactly as the first time. As I was working with individual kids, I asked them how many brothers and sisters they had. No one had fewer than three, and others, many more. Yikes! At the conclusion of the second class, I was on a total high, but by the time we re-traced our route by car and bus and foot back home, I was just exhausted. Suji and Geoff came over and they, Satomi, and I had wine and cheese up on my terrace, and then we had a farewell to SMA dinner at the Hotel Sierra Nevada, a favorite of S&G’s (and mine, too), as they were departing for home the next morning after their month’s stay.

On Tuesday, Satomi and I returned to La Fenicia, the Lebanese place, for an early dinner, as I was going to the St. Paul’s Playreaders presentation at seven. We were surprised to find, at this sort of off-hour, many of the tables pushed back and one of the chef/owners teaching a belly-dancing lesson to two young women. They continued with the lesson, quite un-self-consciously, as we enjoyed our dinner (the mezze plate for me again — different every time).

On Wed., I went to yoga at the Bellas Artes, a former convent, for the first time. I couldn’t go on other Mondays as I had a Spanish lesson, and not on other Wednesdays or Fridays as I had Spanish conversation then, but when all of the others went home, I moved the Wed. session back to Tuesdays. I loved the yoga class, even though it was very large and much more crowded than I like, and will return whenever I can this year; it’s only 40 pesos — $3.20 USD (10 more pesos for mat, strap, block, and blanket rental, and you can buy a 10-ticket card for only 350 pesos, lowering the cost even more)! The space is amazing: cool, with a hugely high boveda ceiling, lovely wood floors and barres all around, as it’s also used for dance classes. And then there’s the soothing sound of cooing palomas (isn’t that a classier word than pigeons?). I pictured nuns in that space for centuries before I showed up on the scene. I have promised myself a couple of things for next year: yoga at least two mornings a week, hopefully three; fresh flowers in the house always; attendance at some of the workshops at the Writers’ Conference, and short-story discussion group every Friday (that could conflict with the yoga). I’ll arrange my Spanish lessons later in the morning than this year. I like to keep my afternoons free, if possible.

I had thought that Satomi and I might go to the La Gruta hot springs all day on Wednesday, but she had to work correcting 32 student papers and doing her own work for three classes in her Ph.D. program, so she didn’t feel she could spend the time, and hadn’t brought a bathing suit anyway. I decided to go to La Soriana, an upscale mall, and to Liverpool, the anchor department store there. What an odd place! First of all, it was dead! I’m told it’s only crowded on the weekends. It was open-air and had U.S, stores such as Radio Shack, Office Depot, McDonald’s (the first I’ve seen here), and GNC. There were both Japanese and Chinese restaurants. There were many vacant stores, as at some malls in the Philadelphia area, and in other places, I’m sure. I had lunch (outdoors, of course; one of my extreme pleasures here is living my life mostly outdoors) in Liverpool’s restaurant. I had a Thai salad with tamarind vinaigrette. It was delicious, but had an odd garnish: uncooked tomato spaghetti. There’s also a cineplex at the mall, showing eight different films, all in Spanish, of course. There was also an outpost of Chocolate y Churros. I strolled through Liverpool, and was surprised to see a very small — and extremely expensive — selection of clothes in each of the usual departments: juniors, maternity, large women, etc. The clothes were mostly from American companies, such as Liz Claiborne and Nine West, and quite conservative. I didn’t like anything, nor could I afford anything.

At Liverpool (what an odd choice of name!), there was a food hall of sorts. All of the delicacies — most of which seemed to be sweets and which I didn’t recognize at all — were in open baskets, with tongs and paper bags for self service, open to every sneeze and sniffle and grubby hands. The display was certainly attractive, but yuk!

That evening, Satomi and I attended a screening of “An Education” (all of the movies that week were under the theme of “Movies Nominated for an Academy Award This Year”). I really liked it, and could certainly see why it received a nomination for Best Film, and also why it didn’t win, compared with others.

On Thursday, I met with Marilyn to plan our lesson for the following Mon. Amy and her husband had gone to the beach, so we viejas were on our own. Marilyn is an older woman from the Bronx with an attitude and nary of word of Spanish. We decided to do parts of the body with the kids, concentrating this week on the head. At five, Satomi and I went to see another nominated movie, “The Blind Side.” I loved Sandra Bullock’s character. If you see it, take lots and lots of tissues. It’s sort of the male version of “Precious.” Afterwards, on Suji and Geoff’s recommendation, we had a reservation at “Burger Night” at The Restaurant (believe it or not, that’s the name) at Sollano 16 (that’s what everybody calls it). The burgers were huge and delicious, my first ever here.

On Friday, the first day of spring, early in the morning, there was the annual parade of the youngest children, dressed as birds, bunnies, butterflies, beetles, etc., all things reminiscent of spring. The costumes — not to mention the hairstyles and make-up on the girls — were incredibly elaborate. They just looked darling. They marched up the street to a church in their school groups, accompanied by many proud parents.

Each school was identified by banner carriers or by trucks which preceded the groups.

This particular school kept the kids in incredibly straight lines by having them all hold onto a rope.

Just as at home on Halloween, throughout the day, I would encounter children still dressed in their costumes. The one below was just so adorable that I had to ask her parents’ permission to snap this. Her big bird mask was being held for her by her father.

I came upon this group of teenagers playing all brass instruments (plus drum) in the plaza in front of a church. You could hear it from blocks away. They’re so far in the background because I couldn’t stand to get any closer!

Friday also brought the opening of the first-ever SMA Environmental Fair at Parque Juarez. All of the money raised will go toward care of the environment in local public parks and gardens. There’s a project now underway to partially light Parque Juarez via solar power. It is being proposed to City Council that this lighting program be implemented throughout the city, at a cost of 18-20 million pesos (good luck with that!). The savings in electric bills will pay off this amount in time. If there’s ever a place to harness solar energy, SMA is it. I went over to the fair and was thrilled to see so many vendors of solar products, including a solar backpack, pictured below. Inside the backpack is a battery which holds the charge provided by the sun through the panels. Pretty clever! There were many vendors of organic products, also a happy find.

Just outside Parque Juarez was a man hawking pony rides (or was it burro rides?). I couldn’t be sure as I never saw the animal’s face.

Part of the park had been planted with vegetables in raised beds.

Solar San Miguel is the company that was the mover and shaker in getting this fair off the ground and in pushing for solar power for street lights throughout SMA.

On the walk back, I had to snap this lovely display — from both angles. Don’t know if you can see the lush purple flowers hidden in the greenery.

Later Friday afternoon, I went to an event called “Five Artists, Two Writers” at the pool house of condos called El Puente Viejo, which is situated, oddly enough, just next to a very old bridge. There, five gringo artists displayed their creations while the guests sipped cold drinks, and after about an hour of mingling, a poet read some of her work, which I liked very much, and three people acted out the first scene of a comedy in progress about a couple who goes to a sex therapist. The man playing the part of the sex therapist was in real life a sex therapist. Botanas were served, but I had to leave for a dinner date with Satomi and Sandy.

If it’s Sat., it must be time for another Adventure. I was so excited to read in Atención that the trip was going to the home of Mayer Schacter, a well-known and accomplished ceramicist, now the owner, with his wife, Susan Page, a highly successful writer of relationship books and the director of the SMA Writers’ Conference, of a world-class museum (their home) of Mexican folk art, plus a gallery next door. Mayer is the representative for dozens of the artists. He posts a photo of each artist next to his/her work, which adds such a personal touch. I had been wanting to go to this treasure in Atótonilco. Well, the joke was on me, as the moment the bus pulled up, I realized I’d been there last year on the Sat. Adventure, but just hadn’t known where I was. I was not nearly as “with it” last year as I am this time. Anyway, I didn’t mind going again, as their house, built on the site of a former rattan furniture factory, is beyond fabulous, as are the crafts, of course.

This eight-acre property was remarkable for all of the water on it. They have a pool, a meandering aqueduct leading from it, a lake, and a river.

Because of this, everything was quite lush, a real treat to the senses here in the desert.

Home on the right; gallery on the left.

Here’s my friend, José, who helps out with the Sat. Adventures each week.

And here’s Susan Page, in their gallery, wearing the type of blouse favored by Frida Kahlo, which they sell, of course.

Now feast your eyes on some of the other crafts…

There’s even an X-rated corner. This is one of the tamer ones, believe me!

This is called the Jaguar Jug, and I loved it.

A charming little bull fight ring.

But this was my favorite.

Unfortunately, no one bought anything, which made us all feel bad, but our hosts were undeterred. We moved on to their home, which is filled with world-class crafts, and not just from Mexico.

They have about six rescue dogs, and they were lolling everywhere, including on this walkway between the gallery and the house. I really got a kick out of them, but you did have to watch where you’re walking (but then that’s nothing new in SMA). All of these vessels were for sale, of course.

I loved their kitchen.

They had this wall created specifically to display their African basket collection.

And here’s their pool in an idyllic location.

Their cactus garden.

Here’s one of their rescue burros.

What a place! What a lovely couple! What a life!

On the way home, the bus passed a store that I wanted to go into, so I asked to be let out there. I went to Dragon Chino for a lunch of eggplant in garlic sauce with steamed rice, and then visited the store Casa Michoacán, which carries products from that state. They still didn’t get the new supply of the blouse I had my eye on there. That evening, Satomi and I attended the last Pro Musica concert of the season, featuring Timothy Fain on violin, and his Russian piano accompanist. I’m not a huge fan of the violin (I may have to change my mind, though, as my granddaughter, Wilma, has just taken it up), but he was extraordinary. He’s definitely a rising star. Only 31, he’s been described as, “…possessing everything he needs for a first-rate career…” (Washington Post), and “…adventurous in spirit and exciting on stage, he is a charismatic young violinist with a matinee idol profile, strong musical instincts, and first-rate chops” (Boston Globe). He played the world premiere of the first three movements of “Suite for Solo Violin,” part of a hoped-for eight-movement piece by Philip Glass. Tim played snatches of some of Glass’ earlier pieces for comparison to this latest work. Wow, what a difference. I think Glass has mellowed quite a bit. Tim also played “Light Guitar,” by Patrick Zimmerli, a jazz musician, and other more well-known classical pieces.

Satomi and I headed to El Correo for dinner, and meeting Sandy in the jardin, invited her to join us. Sandy had already eaten, but came with us for the company. Because I was still full from the late Chinese lunch, I had only a margarita, Sandy had only ice cream, and Satomi ate a full dinner. We then went to Chocolate y Churros, just around the corner, for dessert.

Here are some photos, taken through a wrought-iron window covering and a filthy window, of the preparation of churros. A very thick batter is put into a can, which is fitted into an extruding machine. You can see one churro coming out of the machine and guided by the worker’s hand to fall into bubbling hot fat.

The workers found it very funny that I was taking pictures of their operation through the window.

That combination of food and drink was a mistake for me. When I got home, I headed straight for the bathroom, as I had eaten quite a lot of Chinese hot sauce at lunch and was experiencing some stomach rumblings. I felt faint while on the throne, and before I had a chance to lie down on the floor (I’ve had a lifetime of fainting, due to very low blood pressure, though nothing for about the last 20 years, so I recognized what was coming), I pitched forward and landed on my face. My glasses took the brunt of the impact, or so I thought.

The next morning when I washed my face, my jaw, right cheek, and forehead hurt, I had a laceration on the bridge of my nose, and my neck was stiff and painful. Two days later I awoke to see that a perfect isosceles triangle-shaped purple and black bruise had formed on my forehead, with one of the points down between my eyes and one of the sides up in my hairline. I also had a bruise on my right cheek, which was mostly hidden by my glasses. I think the fainting was caused by the combo of my not eating dinner, while ingesting a fair amount of sugar, probably leading to a spike, then a drop, in blood sugar, the Chinese hot sauce causing me digestive distress, and my low blood pressure. It could have been a whole lot worse — broken teeth, broken glasses, fractured nose; the possible horrors still play in my mind. I look like an indigenous person with a martial tattoo like you might see in National Geographic. People have stared, but everyone is too polite to ask about it. It’s partially hidden under my bangs and the frown lines between my eyebrows. There have been no more incidents of feeling faint. One week later, as I write this, the bruise is now turning brown and yellow.

I always travel with a spare pair of my regular glasses. I needed them, since my others were pretty bent up, but when I put them on, I realized that I’d never worn them, and they were way too tight on my nose. I went to an optician and they fixed the nose pads on my secondary pair on the spot, but said they’d have to send my regular pair to their laboratory for repairs. They told me to return the following day at about the same day to retrieve them. Yeah, right, I thought. Well I did, and the glasses were fixed to perfection — and the whole thing was gratis! You could have knocked me over; I nearly cried with gratitude at their kindness. I had explained what had happened to me, and they could clearly see my bruises, so maybe they took pity on the old gringa.

I have to step away from this blog and step up onto my soap box for a moment. I have been listening to CNN about the passage of the healthcare legislation (among other things), and I have to say that I am furious with CNN. They have changed over the years; they are now just as bad as Fox News! The outright lies, the innuendos, the focusing on all of the anti-Obama and anti-healthcare legislation demonstrations and rhetoric. Many a morning I just have to turn it off in fury and disgust, after screaming at the screen (now that’s helpful!), And really, I don’t understand this backlash. I mean who wouldn’t want the possibility to keep their kid on the family health insurance until age 26, especially in this economy where it’s hard for newly-minted college grads to find good jobs? Who wouldn’t want an and to exclusions for pre-existing conditions, and on and on. The threats, the actual violence being visited upon those who supported the legislation is beyond my comprehension. And Sarah Palin and her Tea Party! I think I won’t give her/them any of my time and energy here. My only hope is that that party will siphon off votes from the Republicans, allowing the Democrats to win the mid-term elections. We can only hope. What is happening in America today? I am deeply distressed.

Mar. 21 – 27, 2010 – Darkness and Light

Let’s start off with some photos of beautiful and interesting things. The first one basically says, “Look, but don’t touch.” I saw it outside of a small store and loved it.

The next three photos are from one of my favorite tiny little streets, on which I had hoped to rent this year, but it didn’t work out.

“El Grito” in Mexico’s history is sort of the equivalent of ringing the Liberty Bell in America’s history. “El Grito” means “the shout” of, probably, “Viva México,” starting the war for independence from Spain. Although the shout did not take place in SMA, but in Delores Hidalgo nearby, one of the major participants in the movement, Ignacio Allende, was from this town, and much of the conspiracy took place here.

Funding has just been re-established by popular new SMA mayor, Lucy Nuñez, for weekend music for dancing in the jardin.

Captured just at sunset.

Sun. at UUFSMA was a contrast in darkness and light. Here’s the light part: Instead of a morning message, we had Bill Day and Tajali (don’t know her last name) from the Children’s Global Peace Network to teach the congregation the Dances of Universal Peace that I had done twice earlier with the kids out at Elsmarie’s program, Ojalá Niños. As a surprise, Elsmarie brought about 15 of the kids from Ojalá, ages about two through 12, to share the dances with us. They had forgotten cameras — and I don’t know how they would have taken photos anyhow, as they were very busy with the teaching and the dancing — so Sandy, knowing that I always travel with my camera, asked me to document the morning. It’s a good thing I had that assigned task, because I was reduced to tears seeing these tiny kids teaching us gringos viejos the dances of peace. I weep even now reviewing these photos.

This is Bill Day, telling us a little something about the Chidren’s Peace Network.

And this is Tajali.

These are some of the older kids from Ojalá.

And these are the littlest ones, waiting for the dances to begin.

This is Elsmarie Norby, co-pianist for the Sunday services, taking a bow when her program was acknowledged.

Bill showing us some of the banners for peace made in other countries throughout the world.

Tajali had the most amazing voice. The kids voted unanimously for us to start with an African dance that required Tajali to call in all of the tribes. The windows were all open and the people in the swimming pool below us could not figure out what they were hearing from above!

We had both guitar and drum accompaniment, a big plus.

Sandy and a niña, sharing a moment.

The woman in the mostly yellow top is one of the teachers at Ojalá, who translated for the niños. And I see I wasn’t the only person crying; check out the woman in the back.

More tears being shed in the back. It was a powerful experience, needless to say.

While all of this wonderful stuff was taking place, darkness also reigned at UUFSMA. The service ended at the completion of the dances, and two women immediately discovered that they had been robbed of their wallets. (Another woman had been robbed of hers the week before.) None of the niños could be blamed because they were all busy dancing — and captured on film — plus there was that robbery the week before. We are a totally gringo congregation and a Mexican attendee would have stuck out like a sore thumb (although welcomed heartily). One has to conclude that the thief was a gringo/a! OMG!

We had had a collection as part of the service, so the thief was easily able to see where various people kept their money in their purses, and purses were left on seats as we danced. Not all danced; some watched. And one took the opportunity to steal. One of the women whose purse had been stolen, Ruth, had been sitting next to Sandy. (I had met Ruth on Fri. evening at the event at El Puente Viejo; we struck up a good conversation as she’s from Stone Harbor on Long Beach Island in NJ, where Suji and Geoff have their summer rental). Anyway, Sandy insisted that the police be called. The hotel resisted as it looked bad for them. But the police were called. Janice (the other woman who was robbed) did not stick around for the police. The police asked Ruth and Sandy to go to the state police HQ on Monday to make a statement, as the local police do not have that under their jurisdiction. Janice, meanwhile, did her own detective work. She immediately called her credit card company, who told her that 900 pesos had been charged at an OXXO gas station on the outskirts of town not long after the theft. Janice, knowing the exact place and the amount, went to that OXXO, and was able to see the receipt for the charge. The clerks were able to identify the purchaser as a small, dark, young Mexican woman who bought 900 pesos worth of cigarettes with Janice’s credit card. Janice had cancelled her credit card before she went to OXXO. She had posted all of this on the civil list.

When Sandy and Ruth arrived at the state police HQ on Mon. morning, the police had evidently read the civil list postings, because they knew all about what Janice had discovered. So it appears that a gringo and a Mexican were working in cahoots. Sandy’s recounting of her two hours at state police HQ sounds like something out of a Fellini movie. They were told when they arrived that it would be 30-40 minutes until a translator was free. Sandy said that was not acceptable, and within 10 minutes, one was found. Sandy said he was the largest man she’d ever seen in her life; he must have weighed in at about 400 lbs., but was the sweetest, gentlest man she’d ever encountered. He took the two ladies into a small office where there was a Mexican lawyer, wearing a mask for health reasons, and a typist. The lawyer would ask a question in Spanish, the translator would do his job, and Sandy and Ruth would answer. Then the translator would translate the answer and the typist would record it. Can you imagine this scene? Then the translator said he had to read back their entire statement (four 8 1/2 x 14 pages) so that they could agree that it was accurate and sign it. Then the translator said that he needed two witnesses to the crime. Sandy said that no one witnessed the crime; if they had, they would have stopped it! But still, two witnesses were needed, to verify Ruth’s identity and the veracity of what she and Sandy had reported. Ruth found another woman from the congregation, and they all returned another day. Meanwhile, Janice never made an official police report, depending, instead, on her postings on the civil list. What a weird experience all around! This is México!

After church and the usual brunch in the hotel dining room, I attended a flower show put on by the Garden Club of SMA, with the theme, “Viva México 1810,” to celebrate the birth of México’s independence in this bicentennial year. There were about 100 entries, ranging from life-sized versions of Ignacio Allende and the horse of Miguel Hidalgo, to many, many versions of the flag, fireworks, battle scenes, symbols, and celebrations, most done in the colors of the Mexican flag. Admission was free and we were handed ballots to vote for our favorites in various categories.

There’s no doubt what this one represents — fireworks!

Moving outside, I encountered some kind of fund-raising parade. I never did get to read what was on the collection tins, so I didn’t contribute. It remains among the many mysteries here. But the costumes were pretty funny!

This first float led me to believe that it was a religious parade.

But I was soon disabused of that notion.

At 2:30, I had a ticket for a live opera performance, the one that had been cancelled several weeks earlier, due to the illness of one of the performers. I was amazed that the arias were presented in full costume, including a resplendent Phantom of the Opera. I thought the tenor’s voice wasn’t robust enough for opera work, although it was lovely, but the soprano was really excellent, as was the piano accompaniment.

That evening, I attended the last folk-dance session of the season, and perhaps ever. The somewhat elderly dance leaders both have fairly significant health problems that they believe will keep them from returning to SMA next year. The place they were renting this year will not be available to them again, and they didn’t make the effort to look for another place. It was bittersweet. I felt their anguish.

On Monday morning, following my Spanish lesson, I went to test my new account at Monex. I presented my check at around 11 a.m., but was told my account still wasn’t active, and that I should return at 1. I did, and immediately got my pesos, so now I don’t have to worry about using the ATM machines here ever again.

In the afternoon, I met Marilyn so she could show me where to wait for the bus to Bodega Aurrera, our pick-up point for getting to Ojalá Niños. It’s a good idea here to always inquire of the driver if he’s going to your destination, regardless of what’s posted on the bus’ window. Marilyn asked our driver three separate times (although in very bad Spanish) if he was headed to Bodega Aurrera, and he said yes every time. When we had gone about two blocks, the bus turned, and Marilyn said this wasn’t the right bus. Thank goodness she was with me, because I would not have known. We immediately got off. The driver would not refund my five pesos fare (40 cents), and I didn’t make a fuss. Marilyn lucked out, as she was still digging in her purse for hers. We walked to the next stop and caught the right bus. Wendy, the co-chair of the board of Ojalá, and Elsmarie, were waiting for us.

Because work had begun on the patio space behind Elsmarie’s house, where the lessons usually take place, we had to move into the house. Many more students showed up at 3 p.m. than we’d had the week before, and many weren’t even on the roll. We decided to just go ahead, but there were way too many students, a few too many rowdy boys, and we two oldsters were a bit overwhelmed. The 4 p.m. class went much better. I invite you all to visit www.ojala-kids.org and especially the section called “Our History.” In other sections, you may even see my photo, as it was taken while teaching this week. Many of the students whose head shots appear at the top of the home page are in my English classes. This was Marilyn’s final class as she was returning to NY. She handed over all of the ESL materials to me. Amy, a much younger teacher, was away at the beach, so I’m on my own for next week as to planning, getting materials copied, etc. I will call for back-up, though, in the actual teaching.

Things are really starting to wind down here now. Many friends have returned home. I had my final Spanish conversation class with Chely, and she said that next year, she’d prefer to do an intercambio, with us speaking Spanish for an hour, and then English, with no money exchanged. I like that idea.

On Thursday, I went to an extremely helpful lecture/slideshow with handouts on “Negotiating Semana Santa.” Semana Santa, Holy Week, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter, is huge in the state of Guanajuato, and particularly in SMA. Since it’s not such a big deal in other parts of Mexico, throngs of people come to SMA to participate. It’s celebrated very differently here than in the United States. The lecturer, Charlotte Bell, is the author of a book on Semana Santa in SMA called “Tears from the Crown of Thorns.” The handouts included a day-by-day plan as to what time which ceremony was taking place at which church. Then there was a map of all of the participating churches (10 of them!), and all of the procession routes. Invaluable, as were her hints as to how early to go, where to stand for the best views, etc. This lecture took place at an old hall I’d not been to before, called El Sindicato. It was formerly a union hall for the workers at La Fábrica de la Aurora, and is now used as a cultural center.

Charlotte explained that when the Catholic priests first started to evangelize the illiterate indigenous peoples, they frequently used plays to illustrate Bible stores, and that some of them would be re-enacted as part of Semana Santa. She further told us that Mexicans believe that pain and suffering promote spiritual awakening, and that the feeling of “Es mi modo,” (“It’s my fate”) is rampant, thus there is an acceptance of pain and suffering. She explained some of the symbolism we’d see throughout the week.

Sandy and I met for dinner and then went to a very fine performance of “Suddenly Last Summer.”

The first Semana Santa activity was on Friday night, but I want to handle all of Semana Santa in a separate e-mail, so I’ll just continue on with my non-Semana Santa doings. On Sat., I went on the last of the Adventures for me for the season. First, we went to a fábrica (factory) where the workers make papier-mache fruits, puppets, rattles, napkin holders, appetizer picks, and a host of other fun, brightly-colored items. There were three women at work when we arrived, and one of them gave a demonstration of making a rattle in the shape of an animal’s head, while our leader narrated in English. The process is extremely labor-intensive, and I was surprised to learn that all materials are natural. They do this because they ship their creations all over the world, and with all-natural materials, there is no problem in meeting or not meeting some country or other’s rules. The workers are paid on a piece-rate basis. The operation is not an assembly-line, a la Henry Ford. Each worker does all of the steps from start to finish to make a particular item.

These three woman, the daughters of the owners, met and welcomed us. (And I encountered them later that day as we were all attending La Tuna’s regular Sat. night performance in the jardin. It’s a very small world here.)

There were stacks of newspapers everywhere, and piles of other paper waste, such as this, to use as raw material for the papier-mache.

Here the worker is showing an animal’s head that has just come out of a mold.

And here she is showing the mold for that head.

She is affixing the stick with which the child will hold the finished rattle.

The heads are then painted.

All of the items are covered by hand in a glue mix to set the colors so they won’t fade. All items then have to be hung up to dry, which they do practically instantly.

Bags of finished products were everywhere waiting for shipping.

Here’s another worker painting apples.

Aren’t these incredibly life-like?

Here’s a worker making oranges.

These strawberries still need their stems painted.

As do these onions.

Then we were taken downstairs to their little shop, where all manner of vibrantly-colored items were for sale.

I loved this chess set.

And bought four of these rattles for my grand-children and their cousins. I plan to make up a little book of some of the photos, with a step-by-step explanation of how their rattles came to be. The objects inside that make them rattle — you’re not going to believe this — are tiny pebbles that ants bring to the surface when they make a colony. At our next stop on the Adventure, a 16th-century hacienda, we saw many anthills and the little pebbles, which I’d actually never paid much attention to before!

There were barrels of many different types of fruits and veggies to choose from.

We had been encouraged by UUFSMA to turn off all lights for an hour on Saturday night at 8:30, in recognition of Earth Hour, standing in solidarity with others around the world at this same time in our desire to work on environmental concerns, including climate change. Was I ever surprised when at 8:30 sharp (right away that’s a surprise!), almost all the lights in the jardin and at the parroquia were shut off. At first I didn’t know what was going on, but others reminded me of Earth Hour. It was a little tricky to see, and I decided to just stay at the La Tuna performance until the lights came back on, which they did after only a half hour. I was touched by this gesture on the part of the SMA government.

Mar. 27 (cont’d) – April 5, 2010 – The Days Dwindle Down to a Precious Few…

I neglected to tell you about the second stop on the Sat. Adventure last week. How could I have done that? That place was beyond description fabulous to me. After the visit to the papel-maché factory, we headed out of town to Puerto de Sosa, a 16th century ex-hacienda that is owned by an SMA family who also have a home in Mexico City. They, of course, were not in residence, but their staff made us feel welcome and even prepared cheese quesadillas with a choice of three salsas for a light lunch. What I loved about this place was that they had made minimal changes to the original structures. Our guide told us that some of the old haciendas are so tricked out inside by their modern owners that they have lost all sense of original design.

This is a granary on the property, built by the Otomi Indians for the original Spanish hacienda owner.

The bóveda ceiling inside the granary. There were two halls like this, parallel to each other.

As I’ve written before, every hacienda had its own chapel, and this one was no exception.

The picture below of the yard outside the chapel is actually one of my favorites of the trip. So simple.

The inside of the chapel.

The grounds of this place were magnificent, with a lagoon, lots of flowers, and my favorite, pampas grasses, waving in the breeze. I don’t think it gets any better than this.

The home, as with all haciendas here, was built around a central patio.

Another favorite photo.

To be able to live outdoors year-round with never a need for air-conditioning and only occasional need for heat — that, to me, is the highest form of luxury.

The current owners live quite simply here, and their decorations are tasteful and perfect for the spaces.

Here’s where we had our quesadillas snack.

It was very hard for me to leave this place.

On Sun. night, I attended a silent and live auction for the benefit of Jóvenes Adelante, one of the many programs sponosred by UUFSMA (among others), which provides college scholarships and mentoring to the brighest and most deserving students in the surrounding campo area. The fiesta was held in the space in the Hotel La Aldea where UUFSMA holds its Sun. worship services. There was really nothing I was interested in bidding on, since I don’t have a house here to decorate and I’m leaving soon, but I enjoyed the drinks and botanas, musical entertainment, and the thrill of the auction bidding. The poor economy was lurking beyond some of the action — or non-action, as the case was.

After my regular Mon. morning Spanish lesson, I cashed a check for pesos in a flash at Monex, and felt great relief. Banks will be closed toward the end of Semana Santa, and I wanted to make sure I had enough money to see me through that time and to take home with me to get me started next year.

Mon. afternoon took me back to Ojalá by the same tortuous route, and I was thrilled to see that a young Spanish-speaking friend of Elsmarie’s was in the car that came to pick me up and that she was ready to help me teach, if needed. Because it was Semana Santa, and the kids had off from school all week, perhaps they thought there was no English class, because there were only eight or so for the 3 p.m. class, which was actually a relief for me. Not wanting to repeat the claustrophobic experience of the previous week, we set up on a shaded patio just outside the front door (the main patio/classroom space is still under construction of the roof). Between Elizabeth and me, we had a good class. We taught more parts of the body, helped them fill out worksheets, and then did faster and faster renditions of “Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes…” We reviewed numbers (and they knew them cold, but still have trouble pronouncing 12), then asked them what words or phrases they would like to know. They were writing like mad in their notebooks.

Sandy called me early Tues. morning to say she’d been up since two with diarrhea and a raging headache. I rushed over with some medication I’d used with great success and made sure she was comfortable. She was afraid she wouldn’t be feeling well enough to leave on Thursday. We were both disappointed that our goodbye dinner planned for that evening at the same place Suji and Geoff and Satomi and I ate for their farewell, would not be able to take place. Also on Tues. morning I had my last haircut of the season (my third!), another winner! In the afternoon, I went to a screening of the short film, “El Cochero” (“The Carriage Driver”) at the biblioteca. This was inspired by the Chekhov short story, “Heartache.” The film maker, Miles Merritt, from Santa Fe, NM, was present. I think he said this was his first film ever, done back in 2002. Wow! It was extraordinary, and then in the Q&A afterwards, we found out how extraordinary the whole thing really was. It’s the poignant tale of a widowed horse and carriage driver who has also recently lost his only son. As he goes about his business, he tries to share his grief with various passengers, but nobody is interested in listening to him. Although the original story takes place in St. Petersburg, the theme of loneliness and isolation is certainly universal.

The search for the lead actor was difficult, Merritt told us, and no progress was being made. With just two weeks left, the director heard that a renowned Mexican actor, Alonso Echánove might be available. Señor Echánove had had a serious stroke which left his speech impaired, and he had been unable to work for a long time. In spite of this, he was trying to make a comeback. He and the director met, the chemistry was immediate, and the speech impediment was worked into the script (and there were English sub-titles). The results were incredibly moving.

Then the director regaled us with tales of making the movie in SMA. He said it was the most stressful work he’s ever done. He had to film the whole thing in one week, as that’s the only time he could rent the horse and carriage, and it’s when the actor was available. He told of weather problems and firecrackers going off unexpectedly. People walking out of stores in the middle of filming. One time the street was so narrow that they couldn’t turn the horse and carriage around, so they had to un-harness the horse and many workers pulled the carriage around to where it was needed. During the filming of the last scene, where the driver is sharing his grief with his horse at the end of the day, a wedding on the property next door cranked up their 5′ high speakers and blasted music. It went on and on like that. But whatever it took, it was well worth it.

As the article in Atención by Mr. Merritt said, “Anyone lucky enough to live in SMA knows this is a city of controlled chaos. Traffic often backs up on one-way streets, parades meander through town, mariachi bands stroll across the jardin, church bells ring at random, and firecrackers explode unexpectedly. Trying to shoot a film under these conditions was a monumental challenge yet somehow we managed to create a film we are extremely proud of. El Cochero won several awards and was also an ‘Official Selection’ in 15 film festivals internationally.”

Just some fun SMA shots: only here would this many shoelaces, in this many lengths and colors, be so prominently displayed.

Walking home from the biblioteca one day, I came across this leopard having a siesta in a very relaxed position. He is part of a circus that’s been in town for many weeks. The sign says that it’s the final days for the circus and tickets are at a reduced rate. On my ride to the airport, we passed by the site of the circus, and they were breaking it down. Roustabouts were wrestling various animals into cages like this one. I saw camels (not in cages), a bear, a monkey, and a lion.

There is a bullring in SMA, but infrequent bullfights. However, when they are held, they’re usually a sell-out. This is a unique billboard for the next one.

One evening when there were no Semana Santa activites, I went to the jardin to hang out and met Veronica, one of the teachers at Ojalá, and her two daughters, who are in my English class. The girls greeted me in English and the family invited me to join them in watching some clowns. I treated the girls to ice cream cones, and they made them last about a half hour. I usually finish mine in five minutes. They wanted to speak English, so we practiced a lot of new words.

On the Sat. before Easter, a day when no Semana Santa activities took place until the evening, I went on a trip to Victoria and Pozos with the Instituto Allende. I was the first to sign up, and was told that the trip would be cancelled unless at least six people wanted to go. When I arrived at the Instituto at 7:45 a.m., there was only one other couple, and we three plus three staff went (I guess there is a certain logic that says that’s six): the guide, César, with whom I’d gone on a number of other trips both this year and last; the van driver, and a “shepherd,” probably not needed for such a small flock. The brochure warned of “several species of succulents whose nip can be unpleasant,” and recommended jeans and shoes with a good tread. When I got dressed to go, I put on my jeans and immediately took them off again as I knew they would be way too hot later in the day. (I cannot fathom how the Mexicans wear jeans here year-round, but they do. You can see Mexican workers at home — even in the hot and humid summer — wearing jeans.) I substituted a much lighter weight pair of long pants and wore sneakers. The other woman was not dressed appropriately at all, including 3/4-length pants and open shoes.

On our ride, we passed several signs that declared, “Jesús por Presidente.” I got a really big laugh out of that, but soon concluded that another Jesús was running for president, and indeed, later signs proved it was Jesús Rivera. César told us that the contest was really for mayor of the little town we were passing through, that the Mexicans use “Presidente” not only for the president of the country, but for mayor, also. We drove to a natural shamanistic center (used as such since centuries in the past and also now because of the petroglyphs and what they might teach and also because of the energy at this particular spot) seemingly in the middle of nowhere where we climbed to three levels to observe petroglyphs. The climb and viewing areas were not for the faint of heart. The man of the couple, somewhat older and not in the best of health, quickly bowed out. It was nearly mid-day and the sun was fiercely hot. We kept low to keep our centers of gravity low, sometimes got from place to place on our behinds, and wriggled through a very tight spot, but as they say here, vale la pena (it was worth it). The 360 degree views from the top were well worth the tortuous climb and the sweat.

This petroglyph on the lowest level is thought to be from about 1200 A.D., and you can probably figure out that the drawing on the right is the sun.

This was on level 2. I hope you can see the many stick figures.

These are naturally-formed balancing rock formations.

This petroglyph is thought to be from the 1500s, and shows men with guns. The Spaniards had arrived! A powerful image!

This is referred to as whale rock.

This not-too-big cactus had a huge, ugly root.

We were able to take a different and easier route down, but it involved going through someone’s yard. A fiercely barking dog and a snorting pig greeted us. César tipped a boy a few pesos to call off the dog and allow us to walk through his property.

This is the boy and his home. He told César, when asked, that he is one of eight brothers and sisters, and that his mother is only 30 years old!

From that climb, we went into the puebla of Pozos. Usually, César told us, it’s pretty much of a ghost town, but because it was the Sat. of Semana Santa, it was rocking. Lots of tourists, way too much traffic on roads never meant to handle cars, lots of booths set up to sell all manner of foods and trinkets. We had a spectacularly delicious lunch at a restaurant called Los Famosos de Pozos (clever name!), owned by a couple of gringos. They also have an art gallery in town, featuring the very fine paintings of one of this couple. We gringos sat at one table for four and the Instituto staff at another. Since my tablemates did not speak a word of Spanish, I became the interpreter for the table to the waitress. It was fun! After the meal, César came over, saying he’d overheard my Spanish and was quite impressed. He asked all kinds of questions about how long/where/with whom I’ve been studying. He praised my accent, and I about died of happiness. It’s nice to know that two years of hard work, lots of time and money have paid off handsomely.

Here is a vendor baking and selling special holiday breads for Semana Santa — right on the street.

After lunch, we walked to a tiny store that had a back room. We were treated to a concert of three original songs by two couples (two brothers who have married two sisters!), all of whom are composers, on instruments of the indigenous peoples. It was so much fun! I thought of my son and his children, and how much they would have enjoyed this.

This is ceramic.

Turtle shells played with deer antlers was an eye-opener (and an ear-opener!) for me.

This musician is playing a dried squash that had a length of about 3′ or more!

César told us that Pozos is in about the same condition SMA was 50-60 years ago. A renaissance has started. There are currently 56 gringos with properties in Pozos. I believe it’s the next up-and-coming place. You’ll see that it has a long way to go, however. César also told us that there are several B&Bs owned by gringos, one of which he said is the nicest he’s ever seen anywhere. Now that’s a recommendation. We then walked around the city, including visiting the church, since it was Semana Santa. Way in the background, you can see one of the standing walls of another church. The rest have fallen.

We were told of a strange tax levied on the people years ago by the dictator, Porfirio Diaz. He had already taxed the people to death and was looking for something else to tax, that would affect every single citizen, and he came up with the idea of taxing the air and sunshine that came in doors and windows. Consequently, many citizens bricked up all but one door and window, and you can see evidence of this in SMA, as well. The door below had been totally covered up.

More evidence of bricked-up doors.

Then it was on to the the now-closed, but formerly extremely active and prosperous metals mine at Santa Brigida. On the way there, we had to stop to let a herd of goats — and the goatherd — cross the street in front of us.

The road into the mine was dangerous, with a drop off on one side and no guard rail. I never looked in that direction the whole time we were driving on that road. The photos below show a wind tunnel constructed to increase the force of the fire built to extract metals from dirt brought up from the mine. This mine was producing immense amounts of precious metals in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. The indigenous people, who were treated like slaves by the Spaniards, lived with their families right on the grounds so that production could continue around the clock.

This is how narrow this building is. At one end is a flue opening up to the sky, and the intense winds in this area just howled through this tunnel, feeding the fire raised up on a grate at the opposite end. Mules would carry bags of soil up to the grate to be exposed to the extremely hot fire. Pretty clever!

It is a must to walk around this property with a guide as there are open mine shafts all over the place. I personally like rocks very much, so I found these ruins absolutely beautiful. We were also warned about a swarm of killer bees in one area. Talk about an adventure!

This is the remains of the main entry gate. The wooden doors are gone, but the walls that supported them still stand — for now. Imagine how huge those doors were!

In the distance, you see the Tres Picos, the three giant hearths built by the Jesuits in 1597. They are possibly the oldest on the continent. Their height is 60′, so large that they are a puzzle. They were capable of handling 50 tons of ore per day, whereas the usual capacity for a 16th century hearth was 5-10 tons. The ore production included gold, silver, copper, lead, and mercury. César told us that the working life of a miner at that time was only about two years. They went blind from working totally in the dark, and they got mercury poisoning. The night-watchman at the site, whom we met, is in his 80s and he formerly worked in these mines.

These special markers are called the Spanish equivalent of “bullshit,” since they mimic the shape of the droppings of bulls. They were used to delineate borders of properties.

This is the scene one usually sees in advertisements for Pozos. I think this one is brochure-worthy.

Here is a representative Mexican story; this is how things often work (or not) here: I had finished all of the books I had brought with me and then some, and needed something to read on the flight home. I bought probably the only Anita Shreve book I hadn’t yet read from a used book store on Calle Hidalgo, where they give credit for used books. I finished the book in one day, and took it back on Saturday night, but they were closed. You have to walk through the bookstore to get to a restaurant behind it, so it didn’t look closed. And a patron at the restaurant looked like the woman I had bought the book from, so I started telling her that I wanted to return it for credit and get another one. Well, the chef rushed out from the back and explained that this was not the salesperson, although he admitted they did look similar, and said I should just take the book I wanted, come back on Sunday and tell them what I had done and pay then, but I shouldn’t tell them that he suggested that. So I decided not to do that and just to return on Sun.

When I returned, I asked for credit from the same salesperson I had purchased from originally, and she said I couldn’t get credit for books I had bought there, only for books I brought from home. Say what? OK, so I said, “Forget that I told you I bought this book here. I brought it from home and I’d like to have credit for it,” so she writes it all up in duplicate and says, “Can you come back tomorrow because the owner has to give you the credit and he’s not here today.” At that point, I said I’d donate the book to the biblioteca for their weekly sale and I just went and bought another book. Can you believe it? I can. This is Mexico — and I deeply love it.

I was scheduled to go to two Semana Santa activities on Sat. night, but I was just too exhausted by my 10-hour trip, the sun, and the climb. Plus, I’m a bit procession-ed out. I remembered to put the clocks ahead for Daylight Savings Time (always done the first Sun. of April in SMA; the border towns stick with the American timetable) before I fell into bed at 9:15!

After church on Sun., where the message was from a panel of four people who had spent years volunteering with kids in the campo and how it had enriched and changed their lives — lots of tears on my part — I went to the final Semana Santa activity, called, believe it or not, “Blow Up Judas!” (You’ll have to read my final posting about Semana Santa to learn about this charming custom.) I then had a fabulous Easter Sun. brunch in my new favorite restaurant (well, one of my top five, anyway; there are sooo many), El Buen Cafe, and spent the afternoon crying and packing.

Mon., Ap[ril 5, I had my last Spanish lesson and it was very difficult to say goodbye to Carlos. We have become great friends and have shared a lot. Then I took some books and things to the biblioteca for their weekly book sale and Bodega de Sorpresas, bought some apples and granola bars for my trip home. My regular produce guy was effusive in his good wishes for my safe trip, rapid return, etc. Then I saw my favorite joyeria lady putting up her displays and she also wished me good travels. That afternoon, I taught my last two English classes to the kids at Ojalá. On my way to meet my ride there, I stopped at my rental from last year, as I knew Eleonor, my former maid, would be working that day. As a marked contrast to our meeting three months ago, she held out her hands to me and responded with tears to mine when I told her I was leaving the next day. She told me that her niece, Carla, had complained that she didn’t get to see me this year except for our brief gift exchange when I first arrived.

I ate lunch at La Media Naranja, and witnessed a touching scene. An older gringo couple came in and seated themselves. The woman had a large white box with both pink and blue pastel ribbons on it in an equally large bag. When the obviously-pregnant waitress came over to give them menus, they greeted each other warmly; it was obvious that they were friends. The woman then pulled the box out of the bag and presented it to the waitress. Of course all of us around asked when the baby was due, etc. The waitress told us that she didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl, thus explaining the creativity of the gringa in buying a gift that would suit either sex.

This is part of the 3 p.m. English class I taught at Ojalá. Eight students showed up on my final day. This is their second week of vacation from their regular school for spring break. Just on the other side of Elsmarie’s wall is a flock of sheep, which sometimes make so much noise that we can barely hear each other. And the odor is a little ripe, but actually I don’t mind it so much.

This girl, Nyeli, is part of the family that I met in the jardin and spent some enjoyable hours with. When she came to class and saw me for the first time since then, she gave me a big hug. She’s extremely sweet and eager to learn English. Jaime (Jimmy in English) is very bright, but also a clown, as you can see.

This is Amy, my co-teacher. I’m going to miss her. We worked extremely well together.

Nyeli again.

And these four lads made up the 4 p.m. class, until two girls arrived really, really late, like 10 minutes before class ended.

Here are the latecomers working with Amy.

On Mon. night, I received a confirmation of my shuttle service to Leon airport for Tues. at 8:30 a.m. (with the wrong address listed, but it’s on the same block, so we’ll find each other). My mid-afternoon flight from Houston to Philly has been cancelled, so I have a five-hour layover. I could scream. I don’t get home until 11:20 p.m. I hope the book I bought is good and lasts me all that time.

Sat. night a week ago, a whole bunch of gringos who are La Tuna groupies, including me, attended their regular Sat. night performance for the last time. As we tearfully said goodbye, one of the musicians said in perfect English, “Come back. We’ll be waiting here for you.” And so will all of SMA. It has been a rare and wonderful gift to have lived here for three months, shared in the culture, spoken the language, made friends with many people, both Mexicans and gringos, eaten spectacular food, gotten sick only twice, and minimally at that, had adventures every day, and learned a great deal about myself. I cannot believe my good fortune, and am filled with gratitude.