Posted in Travel, Travel Writing

Behind the Gates of San Miguel (part 3)

The tourist information officer yesterday encouraged us to take a cab to the weekly market, so after breakfast we taxied to the remote location. We found acres and acres of open-air market. We spilt up, went our separate ways and agreed to meet back in about an hour.

I strolled, wandered and realized soon that their market was like a county fair in some ways back home. People brought their homemade goods, food vendors cooked on site, vegetable growers brought in the morning harvest. One vendor had built a ninety-degree wall of red strawberries on two sides of his table about eighteen inches high—perfection in every berry. When I later decided I wanted a photo of the red cornered-wall of berries, I could not find it. It pays to be impetuous at times.

No livestock, but I did run into a stately rooster strutting in a wire dog-kennel for sale.

Weekly Market
Weekly Market

The market was part bazaar or flea market. Some stalls held new and top labeled clothes, while others housed stacks of outgrown or unneeded clothes and personal items from fancy panties and bras to purses. There were the usual Mexican “knick-knacky” items (woven blankets, pottery, and leather goods) that I have outgrown the need for, since traveling to Mexico for twenty-five years now.

I saw two policemen at different times in full uniform with AK-47s slung across their chests, hands loosely sitting on the grip with a ski mask on and eyes roaming the crowd. Serious security. One of the uniformed men looked the opposite way and I pointed my tablet’s camera at him for a picture. Before I could focus, he turned back in my direction.

I said, “May I?” He shook his head slowly, waved a finger “no” from the hand siting on the rifle, and I quietly put my tablet back in my purse, feeling naughty for having tried.

Jenn and particularly Cathy had made out like bandits with the tenacity and patience to ply the stacks of used clothes for little to nothing. Dusty and dirty items, but steals nonetheless. Cathy had already bought so many items she had to purchase a larger bag to serve as her “personal item” on the plane back to Cancún to carry all her goods.

On this expedition in San Miguel de Allende we were about to strike gold behind a gate.

Serendipitously, the autumn before our trip in February a couple, Harley and Muriel Mimura, from Dallas visited my Kerrville, Texas, Quaker Meeting. After silent worship we were visiting with them and Harley revealed that they spend February each year in San Miguel. I told them that friends and I had a trip planned in the city during February.

Muriel leaned toward me and insisted, “You’ll have to come see us and have drinks at our place when you come.”

“We would love that.”

Excitedly, I informed my fellow travelers via email later that day, who seemed equally pleased to have a personal invitation in a city we did not know.

I stayed in touch with Muriel at Christmas and again in late January. She insisted again they wanted us to come for drinks at sunset and sent a map via email from our hotel to their place, only six blocks away.

On Tuesday, our second full day in the city, we purchased flowers from the Artisan Market next door to our hotel and I had brought a daily devotional book as gifts for the Harley and Muriel. We arrived at their massive wooden door, unadorned and unremarkable, rang the bell, and waited anxiously. I was the only one who had met Harley and Muriel and I barely recalled what they looked like, now six months later.

Jenn and Tilly to the left.  Leslie to the right.
Jenn and Tilly to the left.
Leslie to the right.

Muriel and Harley guided us to the living and dining room combination. The scent of lilies greeted us from three vases the height of most table lamps; Cava (a white sparkling wine) waited to tickle our taste buds. We met the couple they rented and shared the house with each February, Chip and Leslie. Harley opened the door with Muriel’s head peaking over his shoulder to welcome us in. We walked into the dark entrance, strode up several steps into light, flooding the central patio with a three-tiered fountain filled with fresh flowers. With no ceiling overhead we were exposed to the elements of nature. We stood stunned byprofuse fresh flowers, the openness in the middle of a house, and the elegant garden and patio. A bit in awe of our circumstances, like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, we stood gaping at the interior of a house in which the exterior from the street gave no foreshadowing of what was to come.


Muriel, the impeccable hostess said, “We like to start here with a drink in hand as Harley provides a tour of the house, which will simply spiral up the house, until you get to the roof top where we will have hor d’oevers as the sun sets. Take your time, we have other friends who will join us and they have company, so we will be meeting them as well.”

Harley said, “This house is not a typical rental, but a home designed for the owners themselves. We met them several years ago and they are gone this time each year, so we with Leslie and Chip worked a deal. It’s full of Mexican antiques and is not what you will find as a long-term rental here in San Miguel.”

H&M'sLivingRoom.image (1)

The ceiling soared about fifteen feet, so we were gazing up and around as Harley talked, staring at the sets of art on the walls, pottery on the shelves, memorizing the fabric patterns on the furniture, running our fingers over the wood table that was bigger than most eat-in kitchens, trying to absorb as much as possible before we left the room. I felt rude, but we were busy—all ears, eyes, nose, and fingers busy.

Harley gave us a quick architectural history lesson, “This house was built in the old Colonial Mexican style with the open-air courtyard in the center and the house built around it. Some houses of this style have coverings that help the residents get from one part of the house to the other. But this is the original concept, open to the elements.”

“What do you do on rainy days?”H&M'sCourtyard.image (1)

“Use an umbrella,” he said deadpan. Then he smiled. “We keep one in every room in the place.” He went on to explain. “Most houses like this come with a staff. That took some getting used to.”

“I could use get used to that.” We each agreed.

“The first time I dropped my drawers for a shower and came out to find them gone, I was startled. They were already in the laundry. I learned to take a robe to the shower.”

“So what kind of staff do you have?”

“Two, a maid and cook. We don’t do anything while here.” He laughed, “We are spoiled by the time we get home and have to do those things for ourselves again. It takes some adjustment.”

Harley, using his cane, to steady himself showed us the first floor with what appeared to me more characteristically a French country kitchen.

H&M's Kitchen.image (1)Blue, yellow and white tiles covered the floors and back splashes, yellow cabinetry brightened the work space. The room was oddly shaped, like a squared-off S if you can imagine that. Though larger than kitchens in Mexico, it was smaller than kitchens in French homes.

The flowers we brought were lying in the sink in a container of water to keep them fresh. No time to arrange them. We felt like we had brought a small bouquet of dandelions to a florist store owner, because of the profusion of flowers throughout the house. We reminded ourselves, it is the thought that counts.

The first of five bedrooms had its own private bath, as would each of the following, and the two on the first floor had a fireplace. Each was differently decorated, but ready for an “Elle Décor,” “Veranda” or “Architectural Digest” photo shoot.


The four of us gawked, “ooo-ed and aah-ed,” took photos of rich antiques in rare settings and small bathrooms designed for luxury. I tried to act sophisticated about the style, color, or fixtures that combined to put a boutique-style B&B out of any competition for best-dressed rooms.

By the time we got to the second floor to compare a third and fourth bedroom, we were asking questions about artwork, age of furniture, or who gets which rooms when they are there. And of course, we each picked our favorite. I almost flopped on a bed to claim the one I wanted; but I caught myself. The bathrooms were so tiny that two of us could not stand in one together. We certainly could not take a photo and capture the essence of the room.

Bedroom@H&M's.image (1)

The stairs to the third floor narrowed. As we came out of the last room, we had to take turns going out and around the door one-by-one, then snake our way single-file to the next floor, as the hand-carved stone steps narrowed.

We learned that the highest and last bedroom would be Harley and Muriel’s. How does Harley navigate his way up and down using a cane several times a day?

Harley offered an architectural design lesson that he as an engineer found captivating.

“Look at the shapes in the brick ceiling and how they come together in this formation.” Our eyes followed his pointing finger. “That’s known as bóveda, a construction term for any arched brickwork. Not sure how they do it, but I know structurally that any archway when completed is stronger because of the tension it holds. Bold design, isn’t it?”

Boveda brick ceiling
Boveda brick ceiling
Boveda brick ceiling
Boveda brick ceiling

From each corner of the room the brickwork domed and fit together as an undulating ceiling, as if carved instead of bricked. I’d never seen this construction before. It must have required skill and patience, because it was the only bóveda ceiling in the house.

On our way from the last bedroom door, Muriel, Leslie, and other guests were on their way to the rooftops with food and drink. We each offered to lighten the load of the others, who balanced trays, carried pitchers of sloshing liquids, while they navigated uneven steps.

Not only did the steps narrow, the rise in the steps became more shallow, and unevenness resulted from hand-hewn stone. Our reward for the climb was tasty appetizers. My two favorites were the cooked asparagus stalks swirled in bacon and the tiniest, tidiest deviled quail eggs I ever saw to go with our next glass of Cava.

Muriel cooed, “Oh, you ladies have brought the first sunset we have seen in days. Isn’t it lovely up here? Thank you for coming.”

Roof top sunset at Harley and Muriel's place
Roof top sunset at                         Harley and Muriel’s place

We felt special and each of us couldn’t say fast enough some version of, “No, it is us, who should be thanking you.”

Their invited friends, Bill Harris and Howard Haynes, was a couple who actually had lived in San Miguel for eighteen years of the forty-one years they had been together. They loved their city, their life, the fresh mountain air, the artists and the arts, and especially the blended community of both Mexicans and North Americans.

Howard, a philanthropist, told us of ways he had gone about getting money from people who didn’t have a heart for others, as well as those who enjoyed giving to their community. He held a strong ethic for giving back to the place and people wherever he had lived.

His partner, Bill, a quieter man, but just as convivial, pursued his passion as a gemologist and artisan jeweler. Artist and businessman, he owned a studio in their home. Muriel explained that his studio was not a “drop-by” storefront; one must have an invitation to come to see his artistry. We were deflated that we couldn’t stop and shop the next day.

Howard and Bill brought guests visiting them from Kansas City. Bill and guest Jim roomed together in college decades ago. With Jim’s partner, Damon that made twelve of us who enjoyed each other’s company behind one of the gates of San Miguel, as new and old friendships merged.

The four of us separated and wove our way through the folks scattered on the patio. We teased and laughed, talked and philosophized. We couldn’t have found company more pleasant, more engaging.

Howard asked us before he and his guests left that evening how long we were staying; he wanted to invite us for cocktails at their house. With only one night left in our stay, he was bummed, because they had dinner plans the following night.

He stewed for a moment and said, “Oh heck, just come over about 5:30, we’ll have drinks, just drinks, no appetizers, because we have dinner plans at 7:00. Just come for the hour and a half, so you can see our place. We would love to have you. Muriel will work out the details about how to get there, won’t you, darling?”

“Of course. I’ll take care of it.” Muriel said.

“Of course. We’ll be there,” we agreed. Our second invitation into a home–behind closed gates.

After Bill and Howard and their two guests left, we returned to the living room. Muriel and Leslie set about with a map to highlight spots in town we must not miss. They suggested that we make a point to see.

“The Fabrica La Aurora Gallery is a short hike from your hotel. Not all the galleries will be open tomorrow morning. For those that are in, stop and visit with the artist, browse, and explore. There is a coffee shop in front, but a sandwich shop in the back I recommend. Go to the back corner, just keep going back and to your right and you will find it. They offer coffee, sandwiches, smoothies and the like.”

In conversation we learned that Harley had been born in an internment camp for the Japanese in Arizona. Later when those in the camps were “adopted” by families east of the Mississippi River, his family went to live with a Quaker family in Pennsylvania. He became an aerospace engineer – even worked with NASA for two years – and lived in several locations before retiring from his last job assignment in Dallas. He was widowed with two grown sons when he met Muriel.

Muriel had a story of her own. Married once for fourteen years, her husband died from cancer. Married a second time for less than a year, her spouse was killed in an accident. Now she says, “I make sure Harley gets to the doctor regularly. I feed him right, remind him to take his vitamins, encourage exercise, and give him probiotics—whatever it takes to live my life with him as long as possible.” With no children of her own, she considered herself blessed with stepchildren and scads of step-grandkids. She worked to keep up relationships over time and distance.

While I talked to Harley about Quaker topics we shared in common and his life, Muriel showed the other three women some cards of her art work. I missed getting to see them, so I found some of her art work on-line later. (Google her name, Muriel Mimura, to see her stunning artwork on-line; or go to her Facebook page, Muriel Elliott Mimura.)

On our way back to the hotel that night, the four of us each shared the nuggets of gold we had mined from our new friends. We left their place with stories to tell, memories to treasure, and another invitation to make any tourist envious.



Posted in Travel, Travel Writing

Behind the Gates of San Miguel (Part #2)

I overslept, so I hustled to get ready: one, because the room held the damp cold of the high elevation and I wanted my clothes on (half of everything I brought), and two, because we had agreed to meet for breakfast when it opened at 8:00 a.m. The other three waited on me for breakfast.

Cathy politely tapped on my door to check that I was up. Embarrassed I assured her I would join them in only a few moments at the restaurant—to go on without me. When I arrived five minutes later, they had already chatted up a gentleman with an American accent that sat on the opposite side of the roaring fireplace. Aaaah, the radiating heat feels like a blanket around my shoulders!

Turned out the gentleman, Archie Dean had written The Insider’s Guide to San Miguel for nineteen years, updating it every year to sustain the trust of travelers in his advice until 2011. He then sold the book concept and title to a company which continued to publish it every year, but failed to update it, so Archie was proud of his production, but shy of admitting any association with the current title.

We knew he could offer some advice—this was his city. Archie disappointed us with a sly smile, “My best advice? Just walk, explore, look around, follow your nose. You will find whatever is here to find. Just walk the city.”

A woman entered the restaurant and sat alone. She joined our restaurant conversation with Archie, then introduced herself as Merwin, an American artist in San Miguel for a few weeks of painting. She too had been in and out of San Miguel for years. As an artist, she encouraged us to snoop in the galleries, look for working artists in their studios and chat them up. She agreed with Archie, “It’s a walking city. Just walk.”

Over breakfast we also learned the confetti that littered the streets last night was evidence of St. Valentine’s Day week-end festival, a special celebration for San Miguel residents. That’s why it had been so quiet last night on February 15.

The cozy hotel restaurant wooed us back each day with a blazing fire every morning, fabulous selections for breakfast, and good company, not to mention the convenience.

The service varied, however. Coffee came almost soon enough con leche (with milk) and replenished almost quickly enough before we grumbled that our cups were empty. The first day we read the Spanish version of their menu without knowing the next page offered the menu in English.

I ordered Poblano Eggs and expected a light green, mild poblano chili-flavored sauce. Surprisingly, it arrived with a red, rather sweet sauce—not particularly complimentary to the eggs, but I ate it. Puzzled, my friends said it looked more like mole sauce, an original Mexican sauce that comes in a variation of spices by region and even by family recipe, but typically made of chilies and a bit of unsweetened chocolate to tame the heat of the chilies.

The next day, I discovered the English version of the menu by flipping the page. This time it read Puebla Eggs with (you guessed it) mole sauce. Yes, the Spanish label for Poblano Eggs was lost in translation. I later learned that Puebla Eggs refer to the region in which mole originated. Language lesson wrapped in menu items.

Depending on the waitress, some days we ordered by pointing at the menu. Other days we ordered in English. And two days, another person came to confirm our order in English.  Cathy ordered banana nut pancakes that looked scrumptious the first day and I promised myself pancakes the next day. I selected French toast one day, made with their homemade multigrano bread, which is hard to get in Mexico, and chose the banana nut pancakes two other days. Decadent!

We launched our first day with a map from the hotel receptionist in order to locate the city tourist office for a city tour in English at 1:00 that afternoon.

As curious explorers, we stepped across worn thresholds of cathedrals, wandered through gates, moseyed around courtyards, checked out menus for future reference, ambled through small galleries of art both exquisite and primitive, discovered the public library—a compliment to the city for its use by young and old alike for all kinds of purposes, and even rummaged through thrift stores.

The city commerce and activities may be hidden behind gates but it was not forbidding to us.

We walked the streets of San Miguel that morning, attempting to get our bearings and learn our way around. Other white-skinned, English-speaking people filled the streets just like us, except they knew where they were going—most of them lived there.

We strolled the narrow lanes, tried to walk single-file on the sidewalks, because that was all the room there was. We could not hear each other talking when walking single file. Cars couldn’t pass, if we walked two abreast in the streets, in order to hear each other. The foot and vehicular traffic created a horizontal Cirque du Soleil ™ ballet, close to the ground instead of in mid-air.

Outside each entrance, whether door or gate, the sidewalk slanted one-step down to the street level for ease and convenience of the residents. Utility poles stood in the middle of sidewalks and grates covered ground-utility holes, creating an obstacle course on sidewalks. Passing another person meant stepping into the street and/or traffic.

Quickly, I realized the necessity to be aware of my surrounding. I thought of it as a 180° scan from side to side, even up and down. To not stump a toe, to stay upright and out of the way, and return to our hotel safely each time required alertness.

We found the tourist office to learn more about the city tram tour. The office was a hole in a wall. The other three were in front of me and had stepped inside the door, while I stood outside because of insufficient space. I heard an American voice say, “Well, okie dokie. We’ll talk tomorrow,” and hang up a phone. I didn’t expect that expression here.

Turns out that the American was a Texan that gave us a more detailed map of the city than the sketchy one we had gotten from the hotel receptionist and advised us on shuttles for our return trip to the León airport with a list of purveyors. For the trolley tour, he instructed us go to a specific intersection to find “the man with a white cap” that sold tickets for the trolley tour.

This seemed odd, but sure enough there he was. I gave the man a $20 USD bill for all of us and the women repaid me the sixty-five-pesos (less than $5.00 U.S. each) for the 1:00 p.m. English tour of the city—international finance!

Next we stopped to study a café menu. Tilly said, “There’s nothing there I want.”

I suggested, “Then we move on. We need to all be amenable on where we eat.”

Jenn and Cathy agreed. Tilly said, “Thanks, but I don’t want to be the one to say no.”

I suggested, “Each of us should have veto power, especially when it comes to meals.”

They liked that ground rule, so we meandered through two or three more menus before we all settled on one. We ate before our city tram tour and arrived early for a good seat and hopped on to learn there were no bad seats.

The guide spoke Spanish and English alternately. Listening required more attention from me, a lazy listener. I had to note when she shifted from Spanish into English, when to disconnect from her script in Spanish and when to reconnect. Later I learned the others fought with the same attention deficit that I did.

The trolley made two stops in which we actually got off the vehicle. One stop featured a specially designed square at which at one time in history had served as the village laundry with free spring water. The wash basins were built of concrete and stood empty now, crumbling, and unused. Because the spring runs freely, residents still received free water in their homes.

The second stop at the peak of the city (or so it seemed) arrived at an artisan market for some shopping—not original art, but Mexican souvenirs you can buy most anywhere. The four of us stayed outside where we had a view of the city and took photos.

The trolley took us places we would never have gotten to, because we wouldn’t have walked that far. My favorite was a lush and leafy park where the city had just completed a two-week plant sale, La Candelaria. The tour guide told us one could buy trees, flowers, vegetable starts, shrubs, cacti, anything that grew in the ground. We missed it by one day.

At the end of the trolley jaunt while at the top of the city, we rode by alleyways the width of bicycle handle bars and looked down terrifying slopes to lower parts of the city.

Afterward, we ambled in and out of more centuries-old cathedrals close to the center of town, noted stone steps and wooden thresholds that indicated the millions of city inhabitants that had treaded in and out for worship weekly or daily, and tourists to view the exquisite architecture.

In some churches signs requested that no photos be taken; in others no request was made, leaving us free to take photos. The sacred solemnity might have indicated that we only look and take no photos. We were each tempted to surreptitiously take a photo from time to time, even if asked not to, when we admired the view of a nave or a single item.

We started paying attention to the street signs on the side of the buildings at each intersection to learn our way around, to navigate the city. A jog in a street could throw us off, but the map just as easily got us back on track.

Cathy and Jenn always had an eye out for a boutique—whether clothes, jewelry or shoes. I like to shop, but not as much as these two, while Tilly didn’t care to shop. Easy-going, Tilly hung out on the sidewalk while we shopped. After the first day of exploring and our trolley tour, Tilly needed to rest an eye that was giving her problems and I, my weary feet. She and I returned to our rooms for siesta, while the other two explored the goods and wares of San Miguel. Our second night was an early supper and early to bed.

The weekly market, scheduled for the next day, as well as an invitation for drinks at sunset with a couple I had met in Texas, scheduled us for much of the following day.