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photo by Joy Morgenstern

San Miguel has been a magnet for artists for decades due to the presence of two art schools, Bellas Artes and the Instituto Allende, but even if the schools weren’t here, painters and other artists would probably be drawn by the quality of light.

Evening light (top photo) and morning light (bottom photo) both take my breath away.

(#17 of 20 things I’ll miss about San Miguel)


I already wrote about how I’m going to miss the walls here, but I am specifically going to miss this one on Orizaba. It is the outer wall of a property that, when we peek through the gaps in the gates, seems to be just as quirky as the wall would lead you to expect, with partly-finished buildings, one of which appears to be a chapel.  The whole kit and kaboodle is for sale.  You get the feeling that if you called the US number that’s painted on the “for sale” sign, you might reach Simon Rodia.

I’ve gone by this wall many times, and, like any interesting sculpture, it always shows me something I didn’t see before.

(#16 of 20 things I’ll miss about San Miguel)

When Reynaldo came to see what was wrong with the DVD player we were leasing from him, he spent well over an hour here. He chatted, he said “buenas tardes, princesa” to the munchkin, he cleaned the DVD player and several disks; he wasn’t in a hurry to go anywhere. It was the same when he came to install it. It was as much a social visit as anything else. He asked us all about ourselves and how we were liking San Miguel. He showed us his pet lizard, whose leash goes around Reynaldo’s neck. He took his time.

A key ingredient of people’s friendliness here–and they are hands-down the friendliest people I’ve encountered in the dozen countries where I’ve traveled–is this expansive sense of time. Even in a simple exchange like at a store counter, there is seldom that feeling that the person is in a rush to get on to the next customer; there’s always time for a few friendly words, and often for a long chat.

This can be an exasperating trait when you’re on a schedule and still waiting for someone who is probably across town having a leisurely chat with another customer. But most of the time, for us, it’s been a reminder that there’s really no place more important we need to go, and nothing more important to do than talk to the person we’re with.

(#15 of 20 things I’ll miss about San Miguel)

El Charco del Ingenio is a botanical garden on the outskirts of San Miguel, out along the reservoir. This being the desert, it’s a desert garden. Mexico, one of its plaques informs us, has more cactus species than any other country (cactus are found almost exclusively in the Americas), and this garden tries to represent them as richly as possible. It also includes a conservatory with a tiny stream running through it to showcase some of the riparian life, plant and animal, that also exists on this harsh but exuberant terrain.

One section of the garden is devoted to agaves, a plant I have fallen in love with here, and who knew there were that many agaves in the world (many more, actually–it’s only a sampling)? What I love about them is the marks that each layer leaves on the layer within. Long after the layers have separated, the shadow of each blade’s teeth is left behind, precise as a photogram. I don’t seem to have taken a photo of any agave yet, and I’m too tired to photograph the drawing I did of one and upload the photo and all that, so thanks be to Wikimedia:

photo by Stan Shebs

One small disappointment of our time in San Miguel has been the lack of lizards. I even told the munchkin there would be lots of lizards, and I’m glad she hasn’t put her hands to her hips and demanded to know what I was talking about. I don’t know, I just thought, desert climate, Mexico, there’ll be lizards everywhere. No doubt I was influenced by our trip to Joshua Tree last year (lizards galore!) and by my only previous visit to Mexico, which was to the Yucatan (very different terrain and climate), where we saw plenty of lizards and even, at Tulum, huge iguanas. Well, I’ve seen hardly hide nor tail of a lizard in these six months, but on my last trip to El Charco I saw two. I leave satisfied.

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photos by AZM

(#14 of 20 things I’ll miss about San Miguel)

#13 of 20 things I’m going to miss about San Miguel is this house.

I love the roof; someday a real gardener will fill it with plants and it’ll be gorgeous–for us, the most gorgeous part was the view, though I did put up papel picado (cut paper, actually cut plastic for outdoors).

Iglesia San Antonio, San Miguel de Allende

More, with more photos, under the cut

When Barbara Kingsolver spoke here in February, she said that Mexico was her favorite country in the world except her own (one’s native country, she said–and I agree–is like one’s family: love ’em, hate ’em, they’re yours), and one reason she gave was the fabulous colors “on the outsides of buildings.” She also credited cilantro and lime, so I’m with her on all counts, but I won’t particularly miss the cilantro and lime because I can get those at home–though the super-juicy Mexican limones are hard to find, now that I think of it . . . anyway, what I’ll really miss are the colors of the walls.

San Miguel’s buildings have colors unusual to an estadounidense, but still don’t have a lot of variation, in general, being mostly yellows, rusty oranges, and reds. When we went to Guanajuato, the capital city of this state, with my mom in March, one thing that jumped to the eye was how wild the color choices in Guanajuato were in contrast. Check out those deep blues and purples, and lime greens.

Even so, just the San Miguel palette is lovely to see, and with the common practice of painting the lower few feet of a building in a contrasting shade, you get some beautiful combinations where two properties meet.

And San Miguel does have its sprinkling of wild colors. This Colonia San Antonio house is a favorite of the munchkin’s and an unfavorite of Joy’s:

We all love this one, also in our colonia.

(#12 of 20 things I’ll miss about San Miguel)

I figured out how to round out my list of 43 things to do in my 43rd year.

41. Go to Año Nuevo when the elephant seals are there. (Another “I can’t believe I’ve lived in the Bay Area for this long without doing this” item.)


42. Grow some veggies in our yard. (Munchkin’s suggestion. When your child says “let’s grow vegetables!” you do it.)


43. Walk in the redwoods. 

There’s a lot about San Miguel that makes it a good place for small children:  the frequent fiestas, the great playground at Parque Juarez, the annual puppet festival, religious celebrations that involve confetti or blowing things up, sheer architectural detail (Munchkin’s fond of the cobbles in the streets), the atmosphere at the Jardin (town square) that’s an equal mix of family gathering and birthday party.  Beyond and through all that is something even more important:  children are a part of things here, welcomed as if they’re actually members of the human tribe.

Read the rest of this entry »

Joy and our friend Madelene both commented on the disappearance of the once-ubiquitous fresh juice bars since their earliest trips to Mexico, and we fear juice’s place in the diet is being filled by refrescos, soda. I was depressed by the little dock restaurants in a tiny town we went to in Michoacan, all of which had virtually identical, factory-made signs declaring that you could buy Pepsi there (no Coke.  Pepsi owned that region) plus a few, typical foods; the one where we had lunch had no bebidas except refrescos and bottled water.  In San Miguel, there doesn’t seem to be a single restaurant that doesn’t serve fresh-squeezed limonada, and it seemed like cultural impoverishment to replace that with mass-produced sugar water.

I hope the stands make a comeback.  While there are only a couple in San Miguel, the produce tienda around the corner from our house sells fresh-squeezed orange, grapefruit, and carrot juice every morning.  (They’ve generally sold out by 1.)  One of the family works away at an electric juicer all morning, filling a cardboard box with citrus and carrot peels and three enormous pitchers with juice.  They pour it out into a smaller, marked pitcher to measure a liter or half-liter (12 pesos at the moment–$1 US), and pour it into a cup or, for a peso or two less, a bag for you.  Joy says in the ’80s when she visited Nicaragua, where things like disposable straws were an unaffordable luxury, people bought juice en bolsa and just snipped a hole in a bottom corner to drink it.  Here in middle-class San Miguel, they put a straw in before tying the top of the bag, and I walk down the street feeling, if not looking, like a local.

(#10 of 20 things I’ll miss about San Miguel)

This one calls for a photo, but I might not get back to the market to take one, so you’ll have to use your mind’s eye:  imagine a market stall with half a dozen or more bins in a row, each full of a different variety of pinto bean.  When Mexicans go into a US supermarket, they must be stunned to find that it carries one kind, and that the store employees don’t even know there could be other options.   Maybe the markets catering to Mexican-Americans have more.

Mexico is a prime target market for big monoculture-promoters like Monsanto, ADM, and DuPont.  We saw the patented-corn signs on fields everywhere in Michoacan.  Since NAFTA, we in the US have also been flooding their market with our corn, which of course is highly subsidized by our government–can you imagine, Mexico importing corn?  This is the place where corn was domesticated, where people turned corn from an inedible grass into one of the world’s staples.  That creative collaboration between humans and plants is now used as a blanket justification for genetically engineering sterile plants (“This is just what people have always done since selective breeding began”) even when it is causing economic devastation.

I haven’t tried the different kinds because pintos take forever to cook and are bland, besides; if I have a craving for them, I order them in a restaurant.  So I couldn’t tell you the differences among all these beans.  But clearly, cooks here can still tell one variety from another, and I think that’s cool.

(#9 of 20 things I’ll miss about San Miguel.  Yes, quite a lot of them are food-related.  The next one will be too.)

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