We rallied the next morning (Wednesday, our third and last day there) over breakfast and agreed to set off to the gallery recommended by Muriel. We trekked the short distance, taking our time and stopping at intriguing little shops as we slowly made our way to the Fabrica la Aurora Gallery. An old manufacturing plant housed the galleries of contemporary furniture, glass, metal art, and mixed media art; along with the traditional arts of Mexico, like painting, weaving, and doll making.
Just as Muriel had suggested that we see all we could, we wandered around, got separated, ran into each other and headed off in different directions again. Tilly and I sauntered into one gallery together, rounded a corner and came face to face with a stampeding white stallion forging toward us.
We stopped stone-still, held our breaths, stared straight into the eyes of the charging stallion, and then looked at each other. Tilly exhaled, “Wow! If I took home a piece of art that would be it.”
I said, “Me, too. I can almost feel its breath on us.”
We stood our ground against that stallion. Each muscle, tendon, and ligament felt like it was bearing down on us. This beauty was located in one of the galleries, but I am unsure of the actual artist.*
Later as we left the gallery, Tilly and I sadly reminisced about our favorite piece of art that we could not take home with us. Cost and especially transportation would keep us from competing for the stallion. Neither of us could carry a life-size painting back to Cancun, the island, and then back to our respective homes in Canada or Texas.
When we all gather at the café in the back corner, as Muriel had explained, we visited with a man sitting next to us. He introduced himself as the dad of the woman who writes the content for the tourist information office about San Miguel.
Intrigued with Mexican nature, design, color, and graphics in general, I took more photos here than anywhere. See my collection of “Mexican Graphics,” taken from the galleries and other places around the city.
Muriel, Leslie and other women mentioned San Miguel shoes, as if they were a certain brand of shoe designed for walking the cobblestoned streets.
“What’s with these San Miguel shoes you mention? Is that just heavy soled shoes or is it a distinct shoe?”
“No, no, it is a real brand, a certain style that is designed to walk in this city.”
“No joke, where would we find them? We have to see them?”
“There is one shoe store that carries them close to your place. The shoes are really different; everyone who lives here wears them.”
“We will have to check them out.”
As we wandered the city without thinking about shoes, we came across a tiny sign that indicated a shoe store. We thought it worth asking. Oh yes, they carried San Miguel shoes. Last year’s design was on sale: this year’s new design, more expensive. They were different alright. I had to try them on. I almost bought them; but thought, Better not. Cash is low.
The first evening we arrived at the Hotel Quinta Loreta, we carefully climbed the irregular and crumbling stone and mortar steps that had over time been patched. They were dangerous by day, more so at night; but repairs took place over the days we were there.
One to two workers each day took time to knock down the crumbling material and haul it away, select just the right stones for each next installment and rebuild with new stone and mortar, all the while keeping a path open to the reception office. When we would leave in the morning or return in the afternoon, they smiled, stopped their work, stepped aside, and motioned us to use the available portion. We were amazed by their fine craft, but more so, by how long it took them to get the steps completed. So as not to interrupt their work, we found another route.
Another gentleman sat across from the masonry men and worked on two ancient, Queen Ann upholstered chairs. He sanded, buffed, polished, and brought the wood back to life the week we were there. We shared few words with these artisans during our short stay, but felt a sense of knowing them by the end of our visit.
Around town we noticed posters, announcements, and advertisements of different sorts about events at the It seemed to be the happening place. The public library sat one block from our hotel, so we checked it out. Surprised, we found the open gate to the library with an uncovered courtyard, surrounded by rooms that housed their bookshelves.
In the open patio tables supplied places for people to read or more often, it appeared that people were tutoring or practicing their English or Spanish with each other. The place bustled with teens filling a computer room, and children with parents in the children’s reading room. A small book store featured local writers’ work. We never expected to find a closed thrift shop at the back of the library with stacks of used clothing piled chest-high.
We learned the next day was their weekly half-price day. We returned the following day to rummage their goods. One could not pass another person without touching them, body to body. We shopped until we tasted grit in our teeth and sneezed from the dust that had accumulated. Cathy, again, came away the winner with the most “stuff.” I bought three pairs of shorts, each for ten pesos or about eighty cents. In addition, the library held their weekly book sale. I, of course, found two I could not live without. They were far more expensive than the clothes.
These purchases drew down my stash of pesos. Tomorrow, I must find someplace to take my dollars or accept a credit card—both hard to do in Mexico. I avoided going to the bank by paying for the return transport for all of us with my credit card and had mi amigas paid me in pesos. I felt like the American TV ad where one friend insinuates to another that her date may always be willing to pay with his credit card, not because he is a gentleman, but because he gets the cash rewards.
We bought a bottle of wine to take to Bill and Howard’s. Leslie met us at the door; Harley and Muriel had not yet returned from their day-long cooking class. When they did, we hurriedly caught a taxi. The taxi climbed and climbed, shifted, revved the motor, and made a turn or two and climbed higher yet up the hill. The streets narrowed and we recognized parts of the city we had seen on the trolley tour.
The taxi pulled up to a plain white wall, a sage green gate and cacti on either side. Howard emerged from their gate to greet us.
His welcome filled up the street as he met us spilling out of two cabs. Howard’s attention turned immediately to showing us their place. The front garden area was grassy green and lush with tropical plants and a sculpture of naked men hanging off the wall—he pointed it out in case we were to miss it for all the foliage.
Leslie and Muriel had jewelry business with Bill at his shop, Pietras, attached to his house. Our disappointment that we would not see his studio and his work dissipated quickly when we entered his sanctuary. The four of us visually gobbled up as much as we could lay eyes on in a matter of minutes. From the simple to the sublime, the designs were one-of-a-kind; the price, reasonable for a statement piece one could own. Tilly honed in on a pair of lovely baroque fresh water pearl earrings for her daughter. When we were sufficiently overwhelmed, Howard scooted us out of the shop, outside again and into the house from the front door, so we could see it proper like. Tilly hung back and bought the pearl earrings from Bill.
Howard and Bill, permanent residents in San Miguel eighteen years, owned the house for about four years in a noticeably up-scale neighborhood with both Mexicans and expats. They conducted a major renovation in three months when they moved in—a story of its own. Bill and Howard entertained and hosted galas and fundraisers at their place. Art is prominent in every room, especially the entryway, throughout the lovely, more modern house, including the garage.
The entryway is full of Indian art and artifacts that Howard collected when he served as board president of the Wheelwright Museum of Santa Fe years ago. When we moved into the living room, he pointed to one wall of art that was representative of his hometown Kansas City artists from 1900 to 1950.
He proudly walked us through each bedroom and in his room was an award plaque, honoring his years of philanthropy. I paraphrase Howard’s motto, “invest where you live; give back to your community.” He recently received a surprise honorary doctorate. Learn more about his history of philanthropy—example, he and Bill started the first hospice in Mexico in San Miguel—and his mantra of life.
I love all things copper. My house in Texas is filled with copper items, especially the kitchen, so a unique application of copper in their kitchen renovation captivated me.
They painted one side of glass a shimmering copper color, placed two panes of glass together and inserted them back-to-back into distressed frames for each cabinet door. This stunning application ensured that the color would never fade or need to be repainted. Brilliant!
The bedrooms appeared that Ralph Lauren had dressed each uniquely with panache. Each bedroom told a guest more about the men who lived there—for Howard, horses and riding; for Bill, gems and design; for both, art and artists. Bathrooms displayed art work featuring the eloquence of the human nude.
Howard led the four of us female guests around the house like the pied piper, while the rest of the entourage relaxed on the patio with drinks in conversation. Howard joked that the key to the French Doors in his room worked only after midnight.
Jenn said, “So what’s the key?”
“It’s a knock, a secret knock. If you tap softly,” he rapped out the cadence on a door pane (knock,knock,knock,…knock), “then I will let you in.”
Cathy said, “Oh, I can do that.” She replicated the secret knock.
Jenn said, “Unless I get here before you do.”
Howard relished the jealous competition between Cathy and Jenn for his attention.
Finally, we arrived to the backyard, but the stories did not end at the exterior of the house. The extra acreage they didn’t know was theirs when they bought the property turned out to be where they built a home for Bill’s business partner, who is a jewelry designer, Luis.
Howard did not want us to overlook the garage for family lore.
Their five rescue dogs slept on two huge pallets made for the mutts that live like kings.
The wall of fame with photographs of the rich and famous overlooked the car in the garage and served as reminders of another time, when glamor reigned in Hollywood. His favorite, Ethyl Merman. Howard’s riding trophies and snapshots of those achievements must have outgrown the house, so they lined the garage walls. For me the most fascinating item that reigned in the garage stood in the front corner, guarding the dogs and memories—a larger than life, elaborated decorated papier-mâché knight.
This caballero was the last one standing of sixteen, made by a local artist and auctioned off in a fundraiser at their home last year. This one didn’t sell.
“Just as well,” Howard said, “I rather like the gentleman myself. I’m sure I will find many ways and places for him to have other lives.”
As we followed the pied piper throughout the property we came across topics of conversation that ranged from visiting and living abroad to which generations are more likely to give back to their communities to microcredit lending. And of course, the secret knock on Howard’s door at midnight that would serve as a key to his heart.
Harley and Muriel; Chip and Leslie; Bill, Jim and Damon; and two other new-to-us women leisurely relaxed with a drink on the patio.
One of the women happened to be Tammy, who wrote the tourist information brochure on what to do and see in San Miguel.
“We met your dad this morning having coffee at the café at the Galleries.”
“Yes, he gets around. And he is so proud of me.”
We sat on the patio with the rest for a while. Cathy (who is married) leaned toward Bill, Howard’s partner for 44 years, and said “Can I marry Howard?”
“Well, I would consider it, but we’ve gotten along so well together for so long.” He thought about it for seconds and said, “It would be hard to give him up.”
“Oh, please, let me marry him.”
Jenn chimed in, “No, I want to marry him.”
Bill conceded. “I’ll think about it,” while Howard looked on smirking over his good fortune.
All in good fun, we teased, bemoaned the next day being our last, and thanked them all for inviting us into their lives, if only for a few moments.
We left Isla Mujeres four days ago without an itinerary, as adventurers.The four of us were a keenly knitted, resourceful band of explorers.Though my friend back home in Texas experienced the city as inaccessible, on the other hand, we did not. We searched out and snooped behind the gates of San Miguel, but gates were also opened to us. People invited us into their homes and the intimacy of their lives. We found the magic of the city in the people we met behind the gates of San Miguel.
* I would like to give credit to the artist of the white stallion. If you know the artist, please let me know.