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.