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Mexican Wave

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico’s well-known oasis in the central highlands, is touted to be one of the world’s best places to enjoy a life of retirement bliss. Any frequenter of travel magazines has encountered articles praising its charm and livability. A simple Internet search retrieves any number of web sites dedicated to the good life in San Miguel, highlighting its comfortable climate, lively art scene, fine restaurants, hotels and real estate. What could one of thousands of first-time visitors flocking to San Miguel de Allende possibly have to heap onto this pile of extolled virtues?

Church of San Francisco

Unmistakably, it is a seductive city. As a neophyte, the San Miguel I encountered first was one of graceful, well-preserved colonial structures with their ancient wooden doors and exterior walls painted various hues of the sunrise and sunset, of white tablecloths and polite waiters in starched white shirts and black bow ties, speaking perfect English. In El Centro, no electric neon signs blight the facades, no billboards upstage the quaint architecture, and no hawkers assault tourists with trinkets. But I didn’t need to gaze far over the rim of my margarita to observe a more diverse and stratified city. The spirit of a place can be read in its people. In San Miguel, three distinct universes exist side by side, defined by sharply dissimilar cultures, overlapping amicably at touch points, each dependent on the other.

Those who can afford the most picturesque surroundings populate one universe. It consists of Norte Americanos – Americans and Canadians – peppered with a smattering of Europeans and wealthy Mexicans seeking sanctuary from the stresses of Mexico City. Outsiders have been calling San Miguel home for decades, but the migrations southward across the border and northward from the capital have rapidly increased. Long-time residents speak of the alarming changes in the last few years in the form of a burgeoning population, rapid real estate development and higher prices. The city is dotted with new, high-end residential construction, from the beginnings of suburban sprawl to town house developments in El Centro, testimony to the presence of those willing to pay north-of-the-border real estate prices.

A parallel universe consists of the community of working-class Mexican residents, many dependent on foreign expatriates and tourists to put tortillas on the table. Sights and smells that are not commonly found in the world of fine restaurants, boutiques and galleries mark this community.

La Parroquia

The world of the indigenous people make up the third universe, most visibly distinguished by indigenous women peddling armloads of calla lilies, chilies or sopes in the arcades and mercados, and ancient crones wrapped in rebozos, planted on the narrow sidewalks, knotted fingers outstretched for the pesos of passersby. These are the ones who put the Old Mexico in San Miguel. I suspect that they invisibly retreat to the countryside or the city’s most hidden enclaves each night, only to reappear in El Centro early each morning.

I picked my way along narrow cobblestone lanes and up San Miguel’s hills – many best suited to mountain goats. Gasp-enticing vistas broke before me. Surprises waited around every bend. It is a city for wanderers, as romantic and lovely as the guidebooks extol. Undoubtedly, the first-time visitor will stumble upon restaurants and watering holes that quickly become their favorites, as I did. I found a remarkable flamenco show at the stylish restaurant, La Fragua. Surrounded by young latinos with the eye-popping good looks, boutique attire and the apparent disposable income of Mexican soap stars, I watched a flamenco guitarist, a vocalist and three dancers pound and shout their way across a small stage with impressive talent and passion.

But wandering off the beaten path to corners and niches the guidebooks don’t mention is where I discovered the other San Miguel. There, open-flame street grills of meat and corn still in the husks, tienditas selling everything from teddy bears to machetes, and automobile repair shops with the tidiness of the aftermath of a ten car pile up abound in an enterprising maze of commerce. This is their world and an outsider wandering in is unmistakably just that – an outsider. I was neither treated rudely nor deferred to, but if I didn’t speak sufficient Spanish to complete a transaction, whether it was buying batteries or a taco, it was my problem. Refreshingly, I was the one who needed to adapt. I crossed paths with few other Norte Americanos while walking the streets in those neighborhoods. I suspect they dispatch their housekeepers to run errands among the clusters of shops and offices.

One such neighborhood spread west a few blocks from my rented house. As soon as I approached the little bridge that marks the neighborhood’s entrance and crossed a narrow, brown river, an overpowering odor hit my nostrils. I soon learned that San Miguel’s raw sewage flows, untreated, into the river and down into a great reservoir below the town. I noticed no odor of sewage creeping uphill into the neighborhoods where first-world residents and tourists lounge behind fortress-like walls and negotiate the cobblestones in search of a gourmet meal. It seeps downhill, winding its way past more modest homes and businesses. To the city’s credit, a sewage treatment facility is under construction. One can only hope it will actually be completed and followed by plans to clean up the river and reservoir.

Uphill and upwind, El Jardín is San Miguel’s often-crowded central square, its apparent social hub. The city fans out from this lovely spot in all directions. In El Jardín, the number of English-speaking expatriates and tourists nearly outnumber the natives. It doesn’t take long to pick out the long-time expatriate residents from those just passing through, like myself. The same characters emerge day after day, gathering in little klatches, speaking English, discussing the day’s news, the new housekeeper they hired, and the latest scandal about their fellow expatriates. Everyone has their own story, and I couldn’t help wondering what brought each of them there. When I asked, the story I heard most often went something like this: “Several years ago I drove down here because I heard about how beautiful it was; I stopped my car, got out and haven’t been back in my car since.”

Queretaro Interior

I suppose that by settling in San Miguel, one might be tempted to lose oneself in a blur of endless, happy patio lunches surrounded by artists and bougainvillea blossoms, cocktails at six and titillating gossip about the latest love affair or social blunder. But it is obvious that many in the foreign community have risen to a greater purpose. Charities organized and staffed by expatriate volunteers busily separate tourists from their pesos and provide much-needed donations to an array of causes, from education to medicine, many benefiting the city’s children.

In the parallel universe of Mexicans, the enterprising, daily grind moves along at an unhurried but steady pace. Naturally, commerce proceeds in the romantic and musical language of Spanish, a language that to the non-fluent ear belies its utilitarian content. The only people I encountered who spoke English were those employed in upscale galleries or restaurants. Most others didn’t speak a single syllable of English – and why should they? But they were always graciously tolerant of my limited vocabulary and painful grammar. The housekeeper in my rental house slowed to “más despacio” speed when speaking to me, nodded encouragement when I said something correctly, fed me the words I was struggling to remember and quickly corrected my mistakes. She was typical of the Mexicans whose paths I crossed – friendly, gracious and tolerant. Their smiles were as much an ingredient in San Miguel’s charm as were the stones that made up its ancient walls and cobbled streets. I can’t help but wonder where my housekeeper and thousands like her would work without the influx of outsiders.

San Miguel is not without other industries, among them glass, tin, wool and agriculture – the region is known as the breadbasket of Mexico – but without tourism the quality of life would undoubtedly suffer. Wages of those working in the tourism industry are such that they expect and depend on the generosity of their guests to pick up the economic slack whenever possible. As a case in point, I unwittingly threw a birthday fiesta for the gardener, which my housekeeper hosted in my house and stocked with a well-provisioned buffet funded by my grocery pesos. She sprang it upon me at the last minute and, to her credit and redemption, she did invite me to attend. At least, this solved the mystery of the 500 tortillas, 10 pounds of cheese and gallon of salsa verde in my refrigerator.

Most of the natives with whom I spoke – from the housekeeper to the pharmacist – were born and raised in San Miguel. They are proud of the fact that it is the birthplace of Mexican independence from Spain, an honor for which they compete in the form of argument with the nearby cities of Dolores Hidalgo and Querétaro. Little can take the place of listening to the noble and breathtaking stories of Mexican independence told by a skilled guide at the sites where the events occurred – the acts of desperate Paul Revere-like riders swiftly dispatching messages to commence the revolution, of firing squads executing enemies of the people and of renegade justice.

San Miguel, from author’s roofgarden

An integral part of San Miguel’s history is its more than two dozen churches that dominate the cityscape. Five prominent ones are within a few blocks of El Jardín. They anchor the center of the city like great, ancient cornerstones, reminding us of the city’s deeply religious roots. The history of Catholicism in Mexico is a turbulent one. The church’s legitimacy has ebbed and flowed with the political tide. But that has never deterred the faithful from crawling on their knees to place a candle before an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe or pinning milagros – tiny metallic subjects of prayer – to the skirt of a wooden saint. Grisly images of tormented Christs in the throes of suffering recline in glass display cases and hang from crosses, often crowned with an unruly wig of questionable origin and modestly clad in a skirt. One such Christ, suspended from a cross in La Parroquia, San Miguel’s gothic-spired, dominant cathedral, is an artistic wonder made from corncobs with a delicate finish that has the smoothness and luster of a finely finished wood sculpture. It is reportedly as light as balsa wood. Its expression is as ethereal as its apparent weightlessness.

Icons abound in San Miguel. The two that seem to vie for hearts and minds are the Virgin of Gualalupe and Frida Kahlo. Both images appear on everything from matchbook covers and coffee mugs to the ubiquitous bolsa, the universally utilitarian shopping bag that hangs from the hand of every resident. It’s difficult to discern which of the two icons reign. I suspect it’s the Virgin. Marketers haven’t imposed Frida’s presence in the churches yet.

Any guidebook lists the key sites, the best restaurants and hotels, but there is no substitute for following your own sense of curiosity, whether its into the heart of La Parroquia, to be enveloped by the frequent pealing of its great bells, or taking an unexpected turn into a neighborhood of crudely plastered shacks surrounded by the squeals of running, mop-headed children. It is a city for wanderers. The ambiance of San Miguel de Allende can coax the romantic out of the most callous visitor, but it is her people, her diversity and her scars that grace her with her beauty.

Retire in San Miguel? No, it would not be for me – too many Norte Americanos. But it is a place where I will happily and briefly return. They say that the sleepy, nearby ghost town of Pozos is the place to watch next. I suspect many people already have their eye on it.

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