A Travellerspoint blog

Our San Miguel does not include gringo bingo

sunny 24 °C

San Miguel suffers from a reputation for being a not-quite-legit version of Mexico - a playground for foreign visitors who can't bear to leave the comforts of home behind. A "gringolandia". It's a reputation that is not undeserved, but doesn't present the whole picture either.

The last time we checked, we were gringos. As in,"mainly white foreigners." Apparently, it is no longer considered a derogatory term although I once had a disgruntled beach vendor in Sayulita hiss "green-gah" at me after I politely declined to buy his CD.

The gringo ex-pats in San Miguel count for just 10-12% of the population of San Miguel but they have altered the landscape here forever. I asked our Mexican dentist about his impressions of the ex-pat scene, and he was quite candid. "We have some gringo friends, but most of them don't mix," he said. "They keep to themselves, they have created their own world here. They play Gringo Bingo. They paint."

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It is still possible to enjoy the pleasures of San Miguel and leave here feeling you have had a Mexican experience. It has a drop-dead gorgeous geographical setting, stunning architecture, and a full range of Mexican art, music, food and craftsmanship. That's our take-away.

This is our last posting from San Miguel and we have some final impressions to share. One of my favourite things about San Miguel is the architecture and the mystery of the doorways - wondering what lies behind. Here are a couple of homes in San Miguel I particularly liked, and could reasonably imagine living in - one-storey, roof-top terraces, great front doors. (This is all I can see from the exteriors - I imagine the interiors as having stone floors, 14-foot ceilings, and spacious rooms arranged around an interior courtyard.)

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Since we're not living here, we have noticed a lot of charming "boutique" hotels - modern art, great lobbies, water features - if we ever came back, we would look for one of these.

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Many hotels have their own particular quirks. As we walked by the Haiku Hotel, Stephen quietly noted, "it probably has small rooms".

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Doorways - just a small sampling of the hundreds of beautiful doors of San Miguel.

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Laneways - some of them so narrow they are pedestrian-only. I wonder about the logistics - delivering a new fridge, or hauling home bags of groceries. What do residents do in the case of an emergency?

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A few street shots. The vistas change hourly, with the light and the sun.

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I was struck by this young boy - he has a lot of character in his face.

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We've watched Mexicans carry incredible loads on their backs - several cartons of water or Coke or beer, supported just by one hand. We saw a couple of men breaking down tables and chairs from an event at the Institute Allende, and were amazed by the balancing act. He has at least 10 chairs piled in this curving arc.

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ART. Lucky San Miguelese - they are surrounded by art and craftsmanship, both modern and centuries-old. We enjoyed our gallery visits as much as we did our street-roaming - beauty at every corner.

Our friends who work with wood will appreciate this piece - it is cut from a fallen granadillo tree - not one nail in this cabinet, and each piece of wood is at least 3/4" thick. I didn't even check the price - I hope the artist is able to charge what he/she deserves to be paid.

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Contemporary art galleries abound - paintings, sculpture, weaving, jewellery - much of it very affordable. We are necessarily restrained - a collector could go a little wild.

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Vintage cultural posters, including one of the world's largest collections from Poland

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Bronze bull, outside the Bellas Artes building

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We were curious about the mirror image painted on two sides of this building

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Sculptures and paintings from a studio in the Fabrica La Aurora - a collection of studios and galleries housed in an old textile mill

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A wall-mounted fireplace that runs on ethanol. It was a thing of beauty and threw off a fair bit of heat - how perfect for smaller rooms.

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Even the planters at Fabrica Aurora have great design.

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Everyone has somewhere to go except this man and his dog. (My interpretation - it may say something completely different to you).

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Lots of dramatic business entrances in SMA.

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Prison Art. Founded by Jorge Cueto-Felgueroso, who was thrown into one of Mexico's toughest jails on a fraud charge (he was cleared 11 months later). He was fascinated by the quality of the tattoo art in prison, and put his entrepreneurial skills to good use to survive. He enlisted some of the inmates to apply their talents to leather rather than skin and the result was over 600 handbags and wallets with one-of-a-kind designs. They are statement pieces - no puppies and rainbows in the prison art collection.

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One of the inmates at work on his design.

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Coming from a slightly different angle - these chairs are also made by prisoners but with no artistic effort involved - just stringing plastic cord around metal frames. The work involved must be therapeutic, ( as opposed to working on a chain gang), as they are insanely comfortable - Stephen fell asleep in one of them. We saw them in Oaxaca without knowing the story behind them, but we found these in the courtyard of the Bellas Artes building in SMA. If we see them for sale on the way home, we'll grab a couple and stuff them in the back seat of the car.

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The Bellas Artes building houses temporary art displays, social commentary work and a host of cultural events. One of the current installations is by artist Lena Bartula who has taken the traditional huipil, which is a garment woven and embroidered by indigenous women of southern Mexico and Guatemala to tell the stories of their lives - children born, crops sown, lives lived. These garments also discreetly tell the hidden stories of the cruelties and inequalities they have had to bear in their lives - they are precious records. The artist has taken the ancient style and adapted it with modern materials to tell contemporary stories. The results are thought-provoking and very relevant to the social and economic upheaval of modern Mexico. Each of her installations uses spools of thread and fabric to imitate original indigenous design.

Bartula examines the waste of the modern clothing industry by sewing tags (Abercrombie & Fitch, Sears, Lord & Taylor, etc.) snipped from people's clothing onto these strands of fabric.

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In this piece, she coloured old slides (still with their images intact) and arranged them in the pattern of a huipil garment.

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My favourite - an interactive piece that honours mothers. Folded papers were provided, and visitors were invited to write a message to their mothers or to any woman who has made a difference to their lives. Mine was easy! These multi-coloured papers are hung to resemble a huipil garment.

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Our final image of San Miguel - may we present Carmen from Queretero. We met Carmen, her husband Daniel and their son Daniel Oscar at a market last week. They were visiting for the day - we shared a lunch table and began talking and as soon as we acknowledged that we enjoyed Mexican music,our new friend jumped up, commandeered the trio playing further down the aisle, and began to sing. We loved her - bright magenta hair, aqua fingernails, astonishing breasts bursting out of her denim onesie - she had the big voice to match. Just another surreal moment in Mexico.

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We've had three grand weeks here, but now we're ready to shake things up a bit - off to Guanajuato tomorrow for a week. We'll talk again soon.

Posted by millerburr 20:48 Archived in Mexico Comments (6)

Shedding tears with the Virgin in San Miguel de Allende

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Every day we're in Mexico we learn something new and being in San Miguel during Semana Santa (the week leading up to Easter) is a revelation. Viernes de Dolores (Friday of Sorrows), held each year on the Friday before Good Friday, is unique to San Miguel de Allende and the surrounding small towns. It is also known as Night of the Altars - when churches, businesses and private individuals set up altars to honour the tears of the Virgin. We discovered that the rather homey English name Dolores actually means pain, suffering or grief in Spanish.

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We first heard about The Night of the Altars from a Toronto couple we met a couple of weeks ago, and figured it would be a highlight, but we were quite unprepared for the intensity, the solemnity and the festival atmosphere of the evening. There were dozens of altars set up around the centro; some with pieces that have been in their families for hundreds of years. Thousands of people filled the streets, walking from altar to altar. At times the streets were almost silent and at other times it was very collegial - a holy street party.

Our first altar was just around the corner from our apartment - set up in a hotel courtyard. Each altar was so different, but they all had the same elements in place: bitter oranges to symbolize the Virgin's sadness (many pierced with gold flags to symbolize a heart pierced by grief); pots of sprouting wheat to symbolize Eucharistic bread; chamomile flowers whose colours represent humility (green) and beauty (yellow); purple altar cloths (pain and penitence) and white flowers ( The Virgin's purity). This floor was covered with sawdust, which was painted to create a border and design.

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Some of the altars were open by late afternoon, but the real event did not start much before 7:00 p.m. When we arrived at the massive street altar on Insurgentes Street, in front of the Santa Ana Church, they were still putting on the finishing touches.
(so much work and this would all be gone the next day).

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Buckets of chamomile flowers being brought in to add to the altar.

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A woman leaning in to touch the hand of Jesus.

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The finished altar, hours later.

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One delightful tradition of Viernes de Dolores is the practice of handing out treats - ice cream, popsicles, desserts made of pumpkin or drinks - a symbol of the Virgin's sweet tears. These were generally passed out at the larger altars, and sadly there were a couple of examples of gringo bad behaviour that were cringe-worthy. One woman held up the line while she negotiated the flavour of her popsicle; I watched another woman quietly place her sticky plastic ice cream cup on an ornately carved wooden altar.

Altars lined up on either side of the doorway of a small hotel, with another altar inside the lobby.

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The magnificent altar at the Casa de Allende, featuring the Virgin of Hope. Her dresses change each year, as does the backdrop.

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One of the most popular altars, with more than 4000 visitors each year. This altar is situated in the entry hall of the private Dobarganes family home, with images dating from the 18th century. We had the opportunity to meet and thank the owner of the home, who watched quietly from the sidelines.

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Part of the Dobarganes display

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Another altar set up in a private citizen's living room. As is the way with many Mexicans, the owner of this home received our thanks and compliments with a slightly bashful nod.

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Many of the city's public fountains were trimmed - some of these altars will remain for the duration of the Easter celebrations.

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This small store got into the spirit - a modest altar and a self-serve dish of popsicles sitting to one side.

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There were no religious celebrations yesterday, but today it all ramped up again with Palm Sunday. I remember Palm Sunday from my childhood; being as pleased to receive my new Easter outfit as I was my palm cross. It was a modest little Anglican cross - nothing to compare to the extravagant Catholic crosses and floral displays for sale outside every church in San Miguel. Palm Sunday in Mexico is a joyous affair, and the palm crosses match that spirit.

There were two processions this morning to re-enact Palm Sunday events - both with Jesus on a donkey and the 12 apostles; one real, one a statue. We decided to attend the procession with the "real" Jesus, and joined the line of people waiting for it all to begin.

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Once the apostles arrived the crowd started to perk up. It must be quite an honour to be chosen to be an apostle; a number of them were in bare feet, which is a significant dedication to the role, considering the roughness of San Miguel streets.

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The honour of her father's role was lost on this little girl.

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A crowd of altar boys (and girls) began trudging up the street to join the apostles.

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Then...the main event. Jesus emerged, riding a donkey out to the front of the crowd. While nobody really thought this was Jesus, his presence was electrifying. And in the spirit of our selfie-age, this congenial Jesus waited patiently while overwhelmed people posed for photos with him.

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The priest addressed the crowd for about 10 minutes, and the procession began down the street to the Parroquia in centro.

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Meanwhile, the other procession (with the statue of Jesus on a donkey) was making its way to the Parroquia from Juarez Parque. We arrived to find a mob of people making their way to the church steps.

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The statue of Jesus entering the Parroquia, with hundreds of followers. Once everyone was inside, a mass would begin.

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The band that led the procession to the church, finishing up their act outside the gates.

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Whew! Still over a week of celebrations, parades, processions, music and church services to go. We were in San Miguel for Semana Santa last year - leading up to Good Friday, and it was incredibly moving. This year we will be in Guanajuato for Easter - we wanted to see the differences in the two cities. By all accounts, San Miguel tops the charts for Easter celebrations. I don't believe it matters if you are religious, Christian or a non-believer - I would recommend to anyone wanting to visit San Miguel to try and time it with Semana Santa - it is a spectacle in every sense of the word.

I'll be back with one more San Miguel posting in a few days - lots of beautiful things, people and experiences to share.

Posted by millerburr 16:30 Archived in Mexico Comments (6)

High society weddings and low-brow art find a home in SMA

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San Miguel is a top choice for wealthy Mexican weddings. The city is intimate and photogenic, it boasts spectacular cathedrals, and offers the hotels, wedding venues and service staff necessary to carry off 250-guest lists without a hitch. Last Saturday we stumbled upon not one, but two wedding parties. We began our day by wandering around the Juarez Parque, ghoulishly checking out the ruins of Toller Cranston's home. We had been to a showing of Toller the day before at the library; a highly disappointing montage of Toller's life that began with some campy old CFTO ice skating spectacle that was by no means his best work. This was followed by a tour through his home and garden in San Miguel, with a grim, unsmiling Toller saying very little, other than art was in his DNA. It was depressing to see the state of his home - it has been picked apart by his estranged family - there are lawsuits and rumours flying about town, and all in all - a very sad state of affairs. So we were hanging outside his home, trying to peer in through the broken glass, when an excited group of photographers marched past us to secure this spot for their bride and groom.

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Beautiful bride in exquisite gown, handsome groom in morning coat (weirdly making a duck face) and five scruffy photographers.

We carried on towards centro and were walking through the jardin in front of the cathedral when we noticed large men in suits talking into their collars (and packing heat, as we later discovered).

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"This looks like security," we astutely observed, and decided to hang around and see what might unfold.

In no time, the guests began to arrive - a stunning collection of gowns, jewels, hair, nails, red lipstick and 5-inch heels ( the men were equally well turned-out.)

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This young man appeared to be in charge of keeping things running smoothly. He rolled out the carpet, scooted the old lady out of the way, and never stopped consulting his phone. I was dying to ask him who the couple were, but decided against it.

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We (the uninvited ones) listened to the service through the open doors, and then this magnificent couple emerged:

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They made their way slowly through the throngs of onlookers, climbed aboard their horse-drawn carriage and were driven away, waving regally to the crowds. It could have been William and Kate, for all the pomp and theatrics. Judging from the brief look I had at both couples, I was putting my money on this pair going the distance. Stephen did not engage.

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Speaking of theatrics, we have discovered two small movie theatres here and so far, have been to four movies - making up for lost time. We've seen Truth, Carol, The Lady in the Van and The Big Short - really enjoyed them all. I'm going to Muchachas ( a doc about Mexican maids and their Gringo bosses) on Friday and on Saturday we're both going to see Sicario. We've been avid movie-goers our whole lives. When we lived in Halifax, we would scoot down the street to the Oxford - a small second-run theatre. The same guy who handed out tickets jumped up on stage before the lights went down to introduce the movie and thank everyone for turning off their cellphones. One of the theatres here (called "The Pocket Theatre") is similar in its personal touch, except the movies change daily and the building has two small theatres - each with just 21 seats. The price of admission is 120 pesos - just under 10 dollars, and that includes a bag of popcorn and a drink of your choice. The woman who runs it is delightful - she takes the money, checks off the reservations, pours very healthy drinks, and has a firm hand with the gringos, when necessary. (some will try and swap out their assigned seats for better ones). This is the waiting area to the theatres.

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Another waiting area has a fireplace and comfy chairs. There are a series of paintings of Madonna-like women in beatific poses, armed with the tools of their domestic chores - I particularly liked this one.

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On the topic of art (high and low)... San Miguel has long been a mecca for artists. The talent here is varied and wide-ranging, and there are galleries that represent international artists, notably the Skot (Scot with a "k") Foreman Gallery who carries the likes of Keith Haring, Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali. There are many artists who also sell internationally, but may not have the same name recognition or price point. There are many artists who are competent and talented and who sell consistently for decent prices. And then there are the would-be artists - the hobbyists who have taken some art classes and found their muse in San Miguel, but perhaps have not yet found people willing to pay for those efforts. Every Saturday and Sunday in Juarez Parque, there is an art show and sale - open to anyone who wants to display. We strolled by last Sunday, and talked with a number of the artists.

We didn't see anything that grabbed us, but we had a couple of very interesting conversations. One Mexican woman had painted a rather violent abstract that she called Barcelona - a depiction of a city she wants to visit because that is where her father (whom she has not seen for over 40 years) lives.

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I'm not sure who the artist is with this father and son team, but the younger man kept a protective arm over his dad's shoulder.
They had nice work - moody depictions of SMA street scenes.

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After we left the park, we headed over to a showing of "alternative art", that was in fact, less alternative and more geared to the gringo wallet. Some pretty stuff, but quite pricey, and not that edgy. We had to stop when we hit this table though. As you might imagine, "the Donald" is not a big hit down here. These T-shirts were flying off his table at $20 a pop - a great image of Pancho Villa advising Trump what he might do with his wall.

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My darling husband expressed a similar sentiment to some folks last week. We arrived in a restaurant and were assaulted by the loud braying of four people who were having a heated discussion about immigration (specifically Mexican). They all seemed to want to distance themselves from appearing to be Trump supporters, but suggested that "he has a point" with some of his policies. We soon found out what those policies are - one of the women kept stating that she had to wait 12 years to be allowed into the U.S., she didn't just "barge in."

We sat and fumed, and whispered to ourselves. We wondered what their fear is? Are they concerned that a desperate young Mexican who can't live on $6 a day in his country might take a fruit-picking job away from their college-bound kids? Do they not see the irony of wanting to keep "them" out, while swarming down to Mexico for cheap holidays? Do they understand how inexpressibly rude it is to have this discussion in a Mexican restaurant, served by a Mexican waiter, in Mexico?

As they got up to leave, Steve leaned over and quietly and politely said that he couldn't help but overhear their conversation. He told them he was a retired teacher and had taken students to Las Vegas years ago on a hospitality field trip. He mentioned that the manager of one of the biggest hotels down there told him that if the day ever came that they could not employ Mexican workers, Las Vegas would shut down. One of the men muttered something about there being two sides to the story and they left. I could not have been more proud.

Back to art in the park, or the jardin to be precise. There are always events happening in the central jardin, and last week there was a Cuban festival. Tied into those festivities were a couple of evenings of dance competitions/ exhibitions. An announcer would describe the dance (salsa, merengue, cha-cha) about to take place, and then the dancers would bound onto the stage and give it their all for about 10 minutes. We're not sure if they were professionals, as there seemed to be large gaps in grace and rhythm, but it was all good fun.

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Meanwhile, down on the sidewalk behind the stage... the next act was warming up. I'm not sure why we didn't stick around to watch these girls - I'm sure it would have been quite entertaining.

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A couple more performers getting ready for their turn on the stage.

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Last year we had a really fun day at the local hot springs, La Gruta, in spite of the fact that we went on Good Friday, along with every Mexican (and their inflatable devices) within a 20-km. radius. It was madness.
This year, we hit up La Gruta again - a much more sedate experience. There are hot springs in the outskirts of San Miguel and la Gruta is one of the more popular destinations. This one is spread out over several beautiful landscaped acres.

There are three hot spring pools, beginning with this one. It is nothing short of heaven to slide your body into this perfect temperature - warm, soothing and clean.

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From the first pool, you walk over to this pool, ringed by tall palms and with slightly warmer water. If you look over to the left, you'll notice two heads right in front of a small opening in the stone. That small opening leads through a short tunnel to an inside grotto. The water in there is very warm, the atmosphere is humid and close and at regular intervals, a cascade of water falls blasts from an opening in the wall. People line up to have their turn to stand under the powerful spray. It was powerful enough to blow my bathing suit straps down, so it couldn't be described as a "spa" experience, but memorable nonetheless.

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After all that heat and humidity, we were ready for a swim in the Olympic-sized pool (regular temperature), but alas, it was not be be. We arrived to find a gentleman cleaning out the pool, readying it for the opening for Semana Santa (Easter week).

We contented ourselves with a lovely lunch instead.

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Our last photo of the day. We watched this little girl feeding the pigeons - very carefully breaking up her bread into tiny pieces and tossing them carefully to the birds. She quietly went about her task, until her little brother stormed in. He flew at the birds, his small feet kicking out at them. We have watched children chase pigeons all over Mexico - like dogs chasing squirrels. We always wonder what they would do if they ever caught them.

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Posted by millerburr 20:27 Archived in Mexico Comments (2)

Travel tips for surviving four months together (happily)

sunny 24 °C

It helps if you like the person you're with, and enjoy looking at that face every day.

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Your travelling companion must be willing to embrace new experiences and make new friends.

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Humour is essential - not every day will be fun (or funny), and a sense of humour is the #1 survival tool.

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With about five weeks left to go and home on the horizon, we thought it was time to reflect on a few things. Some friends have been curious about a trip like this: the financial feasibility, the planning and research, the logistics of travel, safety concerns, and the big one - how do we cope with being together 24/7? Since you've been kind enough to join us on our travels, we wanted to share our thoughts with you.

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We asked ourselves a few questions, and we'll take turns answering them.

How did we arrive at our budget this year?

Ginny: After researching average room costs in Mexico, we started out with a daily budget of $120 - gas, accommodation and food, knowing some days would be more, some would be less. When we first started talking about this trip, our Canadian dollar was much stronger, so our budget has grown a bit to accommodate that. Stephen is the numbers guy. Budgeting, keeping track, adjusting numbers - this is his bailiwick - I'll turn it over to him.

Stephen:I have kept track of our trip expenditures over the years. So this year's budget was based on what we spent last year. Last year, we went over our $100 per day budget, so we moved it up to $120 per day which we are again going over. Our dollar is strong against the peso but weak versus the U.S. dollar. By having a budget and tracking expenditures, we do not stray too far off.

How can we afford this?

Ginny: Travel is so important to us that we will always budget it into our yearly expenses. A big thing to keep in mind is that the total cost of the trip is not the actual cost. If we were to stay home, we would heat our house, pay utilities, put gas in the car, buy groceries, entertain, go out, pay ferry costs, and all other incidentals. We figured out what those costs were and subtracted them from the money we will pay out for this trip and came to this total - $10,000.

Stephen: When budgeting, we consider the money that would not be spent at home as outlined above, then consider what additional monies are needed to fund the trip. Budgeting for travel is a fixed cost for us, so we make sure financially it happens. So the additional monies needed for trips are funded by extra work and watching the budget. A 4 month road trip is much different than staying in one place for a number of weeks. So, we stay on budget by staying in 'not very high end places". It is challenging to balance price point with quality.

How did we plan our itinerary?

Ginny: Last year we spent a lot of time on coastal and beach communities, and this year we wanted to concentrate more on the interior and mountain areas - more towns, cities and nature reserves. We also wanted to re-visit places we had seen and loved last year, so those became our anchor spots. There were a few places we booked well in advance - Sayulita for Christmas with Dan, Oaxaca, San Miguel and Guanajuato. We pulled out a map, did a lot of research and drew up a preliminary wish list, which we whittled down to a more manageable size. As we travelled, we consulted Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor to help choose accommodations for our next destinations, and then in most cases,we booked through Booking.ca, or Expedia. Whenever we could, we booked directly through a hotel website, but often that wasn't possible - either there was no website, or no response. In a few cases, when our destinations were very small towns, we just showed up and found something we liked in our price range.

Stephen:Mexico is well known for its beach holidays, however in about 18 weeks of travel we will have been on the beaches for only two to three weeks. I thought, I would miss the beach experience but have thoroughly enjoyed this trip. As Ginny outlined, we researched to create a wish list along with the idea of staying at two of our favourite places - Oaxaca and San Miguel- longer.
We pre-booked our Christmas accommodations along with Oaxaca and San Miguel; while the other locations we booked on the fly. This allowed us to stay longer or cut trips shorter depending on the experiences.

How did we cope with being together all the time?

Ginny:It has not been difficult at all for me - I think Stephen needs more "alone" time. In the past, we've worked together a few times, and we've spent a lot of time together since retirement, but we always seem to find our own space. I love to poke in stores and galleries for much longer than Steve has the patience for, so he'll find a shady spot and wait for me - or he'll head home and enjoy that time on his own. We have found so many interesting people to chat with and be sociable with - it helps to break the togetherness. We must have similar sick senses of humour, because we both find a lot of things funny - and Steve can make me laugh over almost anything. it just works.

Stephen:Being together all the time, allows for more in depth conversation. We have talked about introversion versus extroversion; the shock of Donald Trump; Mexican charm; the importance of religion to Mexicans, the income disparity through Mexico, the Gringo culture and its impact on various Mexican cities. It is an endless list of topics.
The best times are when we reflect on what went wrong on a travel day. How we misinterpreted a Spanish sign or did not fully understand the Pemex gas station attendant directions or spoke Spanish gibberish or one of us had a meltdown over something. We laugh and tease each other over our foolishness and mistakes.
Many days when we return home from sightseeing and dining, we go to our computers where get our quiet and alone time.

How do we combat travel fatigue?

Ginny: Sometimes you can't. Originally, we planned to fly to San Miguel for three months, and concentrate on getting to know that community. Once we began planning, and realized how many places in Mexico we were curious to visit, everything changed and we drove down, knowing there would be a mixed bag of long drives, short stays, anxiety over getting lost, finding accommodation, and being in a state of upheaval much of the time. This kind of travel demands a level of stamina at times, and twice in the trip so far I felt a bit burned out. Once with the museum overload, and once about halfway through, when I was tired of sleeping in different beds, always having to go out for meals, and planning the next destination. I began having daydreams about doing my own laundry and hanging it out on the clothesline, washing my own dishes, making a stew. I think it is normal to miss home and friends and family, and I know that the antidote is simple: Stay put for a while, stop being a tourist, spend an afternoon reading a book, and after a couple of days, that travel fatigue passes, and the urge to hit the road and see new things takes over.

Stephen: Travel is addictive. It offers an excitement and curiosity that can keep us working through the lost journey till we find the right road or exit. Other days, it can very exhausting to keep going. Right now, we are taking a break from travelling. San Miguel has decent restaurants, lots of activities - movies, museums and events - so we are resting and re-energizing our selves for the last push of the trip. It is important to get off the road during the long trips.

What did we like the most?
Ginny: I loved the drive down - that early sense of excitement, with everything ahead of us, watching the scenery and climate change - I loved that. I love the anticipation of heading into a new place, arriving, settling into our hotel, and then hitting the streets for the first time - it's a thrill. I love being in a country and culture that is so different from my own - I thrive on the energy that it demands - every day I feel fully engaged. I love the Mexican people - they are the best thing about this country. I love the random conversations we have with people - fellow tourists and Mexicans alike - I have learned so much from talking to people from all cultures and perspectives that it will take a long time to process it all.

Stephen:To get the most out of our trip, it is necessary to be engaged each day. We get up and ask ourselves what are we doing today and go about it. Today ( Sunday) was a typical day. We decided to walk to visit some art displays but along the way we had a number of very interesting and random conversations (for another blog). You don't know where the day or the sidewalk will take you. Another part I appreciate is how these trips focus priorities and understandings as to how you want to live.

What did we like the least?

Ginny: Getting lost, I realize that having GPS would have been a help, in many cases it doesn't work here at all. Signage in Mexico can be fantastic or simply nonexistent, and so that old saying "getting there is half the fun" does not always apply. My limited Spanish. I studied for months before we came, then took a week of language in Oaxaca and I'm much better than I was and can make myself understood, but I wish my language brain was more agile. I feel like I missed out on a lot of meaningful connections with some very dear people.

Stephen:Getting lost is a pain! It may build character and encourage us to practice Spanish, along with trying to decipher the Spanish road signs and maps. Another annoyance is the poor quality of pillows in some of our accommodations. I am considering bring my own pillows on the next road trip. I need a good night's sleep. Finally, I dislike my lack of Spanish. My Spanish is terrible, actually I think it is nearly non existent. Often servers or store clerks look at me with confusion; then reply to me in english. I need to improve my language skills.

What would we do differently the next time?

Ginny: Pack less and pack more intelligently. I brought dressy sandals without a tread - treacherous on the hilly, cobblestoned streets. When I read that evenings were chilly in the interior, I didn't believe it - hence the one sweater and one thin jacket. Next time, we both agreed we would go away for less time. Two and a half to three months is long enough to do everything we want to do. Four months is a bit too long - better to leave wanting more!

Stephen:Possibly shorten the time. Road trips are lots of fun; however I sometimes miss home, more in concept than in reality. Being away this long makes me feel that I have lost connection with home, family and community. So I ask where do I belong - at home or on the road. Now, we are both convinced future travel will be shorter, three months instead of four. Although, I know we will begin planning our next adventure shortly after we return 'home'.

Paris in 1980. Ginny has always been an avid traveller, with camera at the ready. Enthusiasm and a sense of adventure are important qualities in a travel companion.

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Posted by millerburr 08:50 Archived in Mexico Comments (17)

Mexican oddities and gringo teeth

sunny 16 °C

If we had nothing else to do, it might have been fun to wait around and see how this car managed to squeeze out of this predicament.

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Parking in San Miguel, with its steep, narrow one-way streets punctuated by driveways and no-access areas, is at an absolute premium. Watching drivers parallel-park is legitimate entertainment, and leaving the car behind with no wiggle room does not appear to be a concern. Many cars bear the bumps, scrapes, dents and gouges (that we just got banged out of our car) with absolute insouciance. If we lived here, I would spend $500 on an old truck and be good to go.

Every walk we take is filled with oddities like this, and of course we spend much time wondering about them. (This is what happens when you are together 24/7, with no jobs to go to, and time to talk about trifling matters). We passed this building and a great debate ensued.

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This is a fancy little store, thoughtfully merchandised, and I thought the facade had been deliberately designed to look like the plaster had fallen away. Stephen believed the opposite - that the building was in that state of disrepair, and they chose not to change a thing. Now, as I look more closely at the picture, I have no idea. Feel free to weigh in.

This evil little Chucky is the "doorman" at the head shop that is just around the corner from us, and a couple of days ago, we noticed a sign had been attached - advertising for "a salesperson with a good appearance".

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Who are these wooden ladies, with arms sternly crossed? They stand guard from their second-floor windows, giving no clue as to who lives within. The ground-level door, with just a street number, appears to be a private home and not a gallery.

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Most Mexican towns and cities have some version of these hedges in their zocalos and centre squares and I've always wondered at the work involved in keeping them perfectly and geometrically pruned. Now we know - it's a three-man job - one on the ladder pruning, one on the ground sweeping up debris, and one supervising.

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We took a bus out on Tuesday to the weekly tianguis that is held on the outskirts of town. The SMA tianguis (open-air market) is a don't-miss event with everything for sale from tires to toothpaste. We were both interested in the experience; I was especially drawn to the idea that I could rummage through massive tables of used clothes, priced from 20-80 pesos. But first we had to get there, and the bus ride was an experience in itself. We were amused by this sign - Amor En Silencio - Love in Silence?

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We wondered what shenanigans the young-uns had gotten up to in the past that required such a rebuke. Young Mexican couples are notorious for their breathtakingly brazen public displays of affection, but they're not especially noisy.

The tianguis was spread out over several acres, with a staggering amount of stuff for sale - just staggering. Aside from some handmade furniture, there was very little in the way of authentic Mexican goods - the theme here seemed to be Chinese electronics, and shoes and clothes, with an emphasis on Ralph Lauren knock-offs and the ubiquitous Aeropostale hoodies beloved by Mexican youth.

Food shopping here was fantastic - piles of beautiful vegetables and fruit, stall after stall of freshly prepared juices, quesadillas and tamales - the locals walking out with bulging bags of food for far less money than they'd pay in town. Still - I'm trying to imagine the folks at Health and Safety in Canada (or the U.S.) walking through this market without cringing. No protective packaging. No sneeze-guards. And that's just the candy - the meat, chicken and fish counters are a whole other ball of wax.

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And then, the fun began. I've been a thrift shopper for decades, and tend to hit the consignment and thrift stores in any town we visit, but nothing prepared me for the tianguis tables in Mexico.

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Bales of clothing are shipped here from the U.S. and distributed throughout Mexico. A seasoned thrift shopper will know within a minute whether or not the table is worth stopping at, and you can't waste time - you're competing with gringos and locals alike for the best stuff . (Shirley, you would be right at home here!) It is also a wonder to see such visible proof of how much we produce and waste - in just this market there were at least 40 tables dedicated to used clothes. I passed by tables of pilly sweaters and dowdy skirts, and hit the motherlode with one specific table, where I found four items - a crisp white shirt, tan linen pants, a sleeveless top in a small paisley print and a patterned t-shirt that another gringo lady assured me was "perfect." Total cost - 240 pesos - less than $20CAN. I found a lot more, of course, but sadly, like the fish that are too small to eat, I had to throw back the size 6's. I could see the unopened bales under each table - every week would bring fresh treasures. If I lived here, I'd be on that bus every week - not an enthusiasm that Stephen shares in the least.

On the other end of the economic scale, it is possible for gringos to buy regional cheese and imported goodies from the lovely Luna de Queso deli. As one of our acquaintances in SMA pointed out, a cheese purchase might require a bank loan, but it is no doubt a comfort to know that the temperature-controlled cheeses, as well as several varieties of cold-pressed virgin olive oil and Maldon sea salt available. We had a delicious (and very reasonable) lunch there.

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San Miguel is like that - there are limitless opportunities to spend as much or more as you might back home, but in those same high-end shops there are often affordable treasures to be found. We've been admiring copper sinks - they are installed in a number of the better bathrooms around town. I stopped by a store today that carried a huge supply of all things copper, and discovered to my delight that a sink I really like is just 1200 pesos - less than $100. On the other hand, I saw this magnificent necklace, designed by one of San Miguel's big name silversmiths, and it is one of the few things I've seen so far that I have really coveted. However - it is $500, and while it is worth that amount (jeweller-friends, I'm sure you'll agree), it will have to find another home. (more in another blog on the financial approach necessary to travel for months).

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We've mentioned many times the creative and artistic approach that Mexicans take with their homes and businesses. Not to be outdone, even the fumigator has put some thought into his presentation. I would hire this person, based on the sign alone.

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Now this is something quite foreign to me, but not apparently to a number of devout Catholics. While we were in Puebla, we saw baby dolls with a number of outfits for sale. They all signified something, (although not the Baby Jesus, to the best of my understanding) and they were being reverently and tenderly carried to church by men, women and children. We haven't seen those same dolls here, but we've seen a few stores that carry religious figures (the Pieta, life-size Jesus, and disciples, and glass cases with anatomically correct babies). I think a 6-foot cross of Jesus, bloodied and bowed, would be a frightening addition to the living room, and I have no idea where this little case would go. Please believe me, I am not being irreverent or disrespectful, I am really curious to know more.

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The library in San Miguel, as in Oaxaca, is an excellent meeting point for gringos, and this one is a treasure. It has a great cafe, an 80-seat theatre for movies and lectures, a book sale every Thursday, and a number of events and language classes. We've had coffee and sweets at this cafe a couple of times - there is always someone to strike up a conversation with.

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A few days ago, we met up with this gentleman, Morgan, who has his photos of bull-fighting on display. Morgan is originally from the U.S., but has lived in San Miguel for 35 years. He was heavily influenced by Ernest Hemingway as a boy, and that interest in bull fighting led him to Tijuana as a young man, where he met up with bull breeders and matadors. He told us some wild stories about rides in big trucks with big men and steel cases full of American dollars. Bull? Who knows? That's the thing about Mexico - anything is possible.

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And finally - on to the subject of gringo teeth. Dental tourism has been a big thing in Mexico for years - procedures here cost one-quarter to one-half of what they do in Canada (no idea about the U.S.). Last year we had our teeth cleaned in Bucerias for $45, and the waiting room was filled with gringos working their way through implants, bridges, crowns and other dental work that has become cost-prohibitive back home. This year, we had our cleanings done in San Miguel for $60, compared to roughly $200 that we would pay in Canada. We did a bit of research once we got to San Miguel, and then headed over to this very inviting dental office, run by a mother-son dentist team, both of whom speak perfect English.

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The waiting room was immaculate, and offered magazines in both Spanish and English, as well as water and coffee, and curiously for a dental office, a bowl of candy! Both Stephen and I had appointments with the son, Javier, who had been to the U.S. on a tennis scholarship. There are not many hygienists in Mexico; the cleanings are usually done by dentists. Valeria, his assistant, was there to set up the tools and get us lodged in the chair. The wall was filled with diplomas and credentials, and the tools were all wrapped and had disposable parts, so that was reassuring.

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Javier advised Stephen to get a bite guard, as he was grinding his teeth, so he was fitted for that and picked it up today - $100. I asked Javier what a crown would cost - 7000 pesos, or $600 CAN, which is at least half of what we would pay in Canada. The takeaway is this - if you need to have a lot of reconstructive dental work done, especially implants that will cost thousands and thousands of dollars, it might be worth it to investigate coming to Mexico.

We've been up to lots of interesting things - movies, art walks, and great restaurants - more on that in the next blog. As well, we have he said/she said perspectives on our trip so far that we'd like to share. See you soon!

Posted by millerburr 15:01 Archived in Mexico Comments (6)

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