Posted in Travel, Travel Writing

Behind the Gates of San Miguel (part #4)

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 ourfoot prints20150218_120138 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.”

Horse Painting Edited IMG_0368

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.

PlantsAtGallery.20150218_115451    TileDesign.20150216_102546    AntiqueStoreIronwear.20150218_102017       BirdHousesOnWall.20150218_111554 ColoredGlass.20150218_111650       Doll'sHungOnWall.20150218_111528

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.”

SMA.Shoes20150216_102618 (2) Styles of SMA Shoes2015-02-18 14.54.16

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.

ManWorkingOnSteps.imageThe 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 ManWorkingOnChair.imageupholstered 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.

Bill & Howard's House.IMG_0369

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.

Naked art on wall.IMG_0376
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.

TArtWall@Bill & Howard's.IMG_0378he 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, Howard'sPlacque.20150218_171616honoring 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.

CopperKitchenCabinets.20150218_173044They 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.

Howard w 3 of us. IMG_0390Finally, 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.
Howard&Bill'sPatio.20150218_173540Harley 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 Backyard@H&B's.imageis 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.

All 4 of us 20150219_100633


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.

Posted in Travel, Travel Writing, Writing, Writing Workshops

Behind the Gates of San Miguel de Allende (part #1)

All 4 of us 20150219_100633
Rhonda, Jenn, Tilly, Cathy

Some travelers are pilgrims (serious spiritualists), tourists (tour bus advocates), adventurers and thrill seekers (adrenaline rush junkies), or explorers (on-foot surveyors). My friends and I saw ourselves as simple, moderate explorers, not even treasure seekers. Cathy, Tilly, Jenn, and I decided to visit San Miguel de Allende, a new location for all of us. The three of them had traveled together the previous year. I invited myself along for this year’s expedition. They heartily entreated me to join them.

A neighbor of mine in Texas traveled to San Miguel with a native Mexican, as informal tour guide and reported that she found it disappointing, because stores, galleries and restaurants were behind gates and doors. To her it seemed closed off, hard to get a feel for the place, inaccessible.

I shared my neighbor’s experience with the other three women.  All seasoned travelers, we set our intention to get behind the gates of San Miguel.

Parrocia.20150218_142112San Miguel de Allende is not a modern city, but an ancient colonial Mexican village, and as a result, it is built behind doors, gates, fences, and facades that then open up into courtyards that are surrounded by commercial shops or residences. In recent decades the village has grown into a tourist town, which then became home to thousands of artists of all stripes from North America, both the U.S. and Canada. The expatriate artist community today finds bountiful inspiration at a higher elevation in mid-Mexico, though sitting in a valley surrounded by distant, outlined mountains and fertile agricultural fields. The colonial village is known for its churches, cathedrals, and green spaces. The Parroquia, a primary landmark is not a cathedral, but the local parish church. Follow the parroquia link to see it in the midst of the city and as a Neo-Gothic example of architecture. The pink exterior makes it easy to find.

During the summer of 2014, Jenn researched flights and found a reasonable fare on Volaris. We booked. I called a friend in my hometown that travels frequently to San Miguel to ask recommendations for lodging. We booked the Hotel Quinta Loreta on her endorsement. We each took to the Internet to see what to do and see in the city for our trip.

Our itinerary started from the fishing village Isla Mujeres, Mexico, where we all spend a month or more each year. We ferried across the channel from Isla Mujeres to Cancún. Best Day shuttle took us to the Cancún aeropuerto, where we traveled by Volarias, a no frills Mexican airline to León, an hour and a half flight. No frills meant we carried backpacks for luggage and even had to buy water aboard the flight. We were an hour later than expected and had not made shuttle arrangements from León to San Miguel. Cathy approached a young man with a wife and baby, to ask if he spoke English and could he advise us. He spoke English and recommended we hail a taxi to the bus station and go from there by bus.

When we arrived at the bus station, we were weary and thirsty from our day’s travel—a low cost adventure for each of us. We could make out multiple bus lines—some we had heard of and others we had taken before. We understood the peso price ranges, but also realized that the wait time for even the cheapest one was costly in terms of wait time. We grumbled and debated.

Cathy walked outside, negotiated a cab ride, bargained with him, then he raised the price. I joined her and we ganged up on him to insist on the lower price. He conceded. We piled our backpacks in the trunk. Three of us scrunched in the back seat and let Tilly sit in front with the driver. Because she speaks Italian, she can make her way with Spanish better than the rest of us. She learned his nombre, Carlos, so we could at least be friendly enough to call him by name.

The car without adequate shocks bounced us through croplands and desert-like terrain with the mountains always in view. Sunlight followed us all the way to San Miguel and set as we arrived. The driver asked for an address and directions.

I had a name, Quinta Loreta Hotel, and an address, but oops, no directions. Because he was unfamiliar with the city, we suggested he drop us off in the center of town, circa de Artisan Mercado, next door to the hotel. He shook his head with disgust.

Carlos stopped at a gas station for directions. He then drove and drove, and looked this way and that way. Without a word spoken we knew he was as lost as we were.

It crossed my mind, could he be taking us on a wild-goose chase? Could he actually know his way and we become victims of a “give me all your money,” scam and dumped? Or worse?

Carlos asked another local taxi driver for directions. That seemed smart of him and reduced my fears. We rode until we were in an industrial looking part of town. Not yet panicked, it crossed my mind again, what if?

He asked another taxi driver. We turned around and headed in the other direction.

We were lost before we arrived.

By this time, we suspected he was fuming over the negotiated cost of the ride and the time he was killing not making another fare.

We arrived around 9:00 p.m. with cheers for him and gave him the agreed upon price and a substantial tip, hoping to appease him. We did not wait for his response to our tip.

The receptionist gave us keys to our rooms and vague direction to another restaurant, because  the hotel’s restaurant was closed. Worn-out, hungry, and fatigued from dehydration, we trekked out to find it.

Soon we heard American English-speaking voices, a couple out to find an Italian restaurant to which they had been directed. Yes, we would love to follow them the six- to eight-minute walk they had been assured it would take. We walked and talked; we looked and searched. Our energy waned. Finally, the couple determined that our 20-minute journey must not be the right direction. We walked back to our starting point. By this time of night, the gates of the city were mostly closed. The streets felt deserted. Our weary feet hobbled over narrow cobblestoned lanes cluttered with Easter-egg colored confetti. We speculated on the reason the streets were full of trashed confetti. We slowed our pace and wondered if breakfast would be our next meal.

Down the way, a light above a heavy wooden door slung back, to welcome us. A peek inside had the feel of Cheers—where everyone knows your name. People, hunched over tables, talked and laughed, as if they did this every night of the week.MeLeaningOnCathy.20150215_213741

We stepped inside out of the damp mountain chill into the warmth and savory aromas of the establishment. José stood waiting to serve us with humor and a quick wit; margaritas and molten volcano bowls of chicken MoltenVolcanoBowl.20150215_212737with cactus, pepper and onion arrived bubbling hot. We had arrived at Milagro and found sustenance behind a single gate in San Miguel on a cool February evening.

My return to the monkish room that evening revealed heat and A/C were not part of my accommodation. The stored blanket in the closet felt like the batting was lead. I thought, Ah, this should hold the heat in for the night.

I was chilled to the bone and took a quick hot shower that did not knock the chill from the room or my body, so I crawled into bed with my thermal Cuddle Duds shirt on. That should do it. After half an hour, I was up to find my TravelSmith  blanket and wrapped it around my feet and legs beneath the covers, like leg warmers. I had to scooch down because the maid had made the bed with no extra length to cover my shoulders. I’ll have to fix that tomorrow. I curled into a fetal position, pulled the sheet over my nose, and finally fell asleep.

It was no warmer the next morning.

(More to Come)