San Miguel de Allende is ankle-spraining territory. All the narrow streets and footpaths in the old part of the city are paved with cobble stones. Big, uneven cobble stones, with lots of little pebbles that work their way lose to wind up under your soles. The pot holes are sharp and ragged. Cars crawl along at less than 20 kms an hour, hardly fast enough to overtake a donkey. When the streets and footpaths are wet—and with the run-off from watering plants on roof gardens they often are—they’re slipperier than a Southern politician in a jelly-wrestling contest. If you see a woman confidently negotiating the streets in high heels you know she’s a local. Tourists like me wear sturdy shoes and hope for the best.
San Miguel is not very noisy. Before we arrived I did a little research (very little—lots of nasty deadlines before we came), and found many references to the noisiness of this town, most often to the constantly ringing church bells which ring at (to gringo ears) random intervals throughout the night and day. Our landlady left us a note warning of all the night noises: cats, dogs, horse police, birds, church bells, loud music. I’ve slept soundly every night thus far.
When we go up on to the roof to watch the sunset, I’m startled by how quiet it is. All I can hear is the occasional barking dog and passing car; the church bells; birds; wind in the trees; music that makes us want to get up and dance from somewhere nearby—the houses are all so close together it’s impossible to tell from where; squeals from the children next door playing a complicated game with the christmas decorations that results in parental intervention every fifteen minutes or so. They’re all pleasant sounds, none of them near loud enough to interrupt our conversation or make us spill our lime-soaked beers. There are no jackhammers, no deafening sirens, no violent arguments at three in the morning, no shithouse music loud enough to raise the dead. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time in New York City and have lost my sense of what’s loud and what’s not.
The smells of San Miguel are more pervasive: wood-burning fires, urine, cooking smells, dust, donkey shit, gas for heating, jasmine and other floral smells I haven’t yet identified. There’s lots of flora that’s common at home: jasmine, bougainvillea, ponsettias, jacaranda trees. And many strange ones I’ve never seen or smelled before. At night when the jasmine’s at it’s strongest, I close my eyes and feel like I’m back in Sydney.
Many of the gringos you see here are residents. Like our landlady they’re mostly over sixty and from the United States. Sometimes San Miguel feels like a retirement village for rich arty whites from north of the border. Here they can play bridge and paint and write and sculpt and afford someone to clean their houses and a nurse too if one is needed. Most of them learned Spanish at a late age and speak it loud and slow with the exact same intonation and pronunciation as their English. My own Spanish has been getting quieter and quieter. I wince at my Australian vowels.
There are galleries everywhere. Right now the Centro Cultural Ignacio Ramirez has an exhibition of a photographer I’d never heard of: Enrique Bostelmann. I’m in love. He’s incredible. Enormous pictures—a metre or more across—of small things that are incredibly sharp. Each image is a frozen moment from one of those dreams where everything is exactly how it should be but wrong and strange and wonderful at the same time. His images are crystal clear and warm and arresting: a crumpled silver oil can on a background of dappled terracotta; a detail of a typewriter, all greens and blacks and silvers and grays. Funny too: a cockroach upended on a directory open to the funeral listings. The exhibition stays open til January. I’ll be back.
Renting a house without a maid doesn’t seem to be an option here, which is kind of weird. Fortunately Silvia is a sweetheart who enjoys correcting my Spanish and answering any questions I have: Why do so many places have plastic bags of water attached to their entranceways? Sadly my Spanish may have failed me (again) because I think she said it was to keep the flies away.
Silvia comes four times a week (how clean does a house need to be?) at nine AM, which means we have to get up and out somewhat earlier than we’re used to (we work until really late, okay?). Every day she begins by banging a broom at the vines covering the walls, sending dead leaves cascading to the ground. She stands on a ladder to make sure she gets all the way to the top. I’ve never seen anyone do this before. She sweeps up the dust from the footpath and the road immediately outside the house and brushes down the outside walls then she scrubs the front steps and cobble stones clean. I’ve never seen anyone do that either. Apparently I am a wretched house cleaner.
Two days ago Silvia brought traditional christmas decorations for the hall and ground floor rooms. There wasn’t a Santa Claus or red-nosed reindeer in sight. Bright green, blue, pink and yellow crosses, circles and pinatas, all made of paper.
Silvia was amazed when I exclaimed at how big this house is. I told her I’d never lived in anything so large. Spread out over three stories with a separate study in back, it has four bathrooms, two patios and a roof deck. Silvia thinks this house is small. Told me it was much smaller than hers. Each floor would be a large one- room apartment in New York City.
The beggars I’ve seen have all been ancient women. Sitting on the narrow footpaths, wrapped in faded coloured shawls, skin brown and wrinkled like a walnut. Shrunken, shrivelled tiny dolls. Mostly they don’t say anything, just hold out their hands and wait. On Sunday they were everywhere.
December is one of San Miguel’s slowest months and on top of that the economy has been hard hit by the recession in the US: USA sneezes, Mexico gets pneumonia. We go out to eat in restaurants with superb food and we’re the only ones there. Last night we climbed to the top of the hill and came across a gorgeous hotel painted in earth colours: yellows, reds and browns. The clerk smiled at us broadly and said sure we could look around. Lights were on in all the public areas, blindingly bright chandeliers, spotlights all over the front lawn and swimming pool. The view of San Miguel was extraodinary. You could see everything. In the dining room every table was perfectly set with crystal and silver, white table cloths and napkins. A fire blazed away. We saw no guests. No one in the dining room, no one in the bar, not even a bar tender. There was the hotel clerk, a maid who smiled and agreed that the hotel was beautiful, but no one else. Everything was silent and empty and echoing. It made us both shiver. We didn’t eat there.
We’re here to write a novel each. Scott’s is due at the beginning of March, mine in August. It’s a writing holiday. Our second. We stay in a place where we know no one and thus have no social responsibilities, very little everyday admin, and just write. Scott’s been here twice before, writing the first draft of Evolution’s Darling and a large chunk of The Risen Empire. So far we’ve done a good deal of walking and talking and eating and drinking, but not vast quantities of writing.
There’s so much to exclaim over. The food is amazing. Jicama is in season, served at the beginning of a meal in place of corn chips and salsa. You squeeze lime on top and then sprinkle with chilli powder. It’s become my favourite thing in all the world. I’ve never tasted jicama so crisp and sweet before, turns out that’s because I’ve never had it fresh before. Right now it’s in season. November and December, we were told, are jicama months.
We eat breakfast in a hotel that was once a hacienda built by a silver baron two hundreds years ago, and later owned by an opera and movie star in the thirties. We sit in the courtyard with a large fountain, terracotta tiles, parrots in white cages. Looking up all I can see is blue skies and the tops of the trees in the gardens and the nearby park. The food is divine. Eggs with cheese and chillies served sizzling in the clay containers they were cooked in. Coffee and juice comes with fresh cooked bread and best of all—heavenly cinnamon rolls still warm from the oven.
We met a woman travelling with her parents over breakfast. She’s a screenwriter working out of Los Angeles but living as much as she can in Vancouver. Like us she’s here to write, like us she’s had more productive weeks. She’s Canadian, her parents are originally from England. They escaped because England’s gray drizzly damp cold week after week after week isn’t an existence fit for a dog. They’ve lived and worked in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, India, Sri Lanka, Honduras and now divide their time between Canada and Mexico; they love both places and want never to be cold again. You get older, your blood gets thinner, they explained. I’ve decided that’s my excuse too. Though the nights and mornings here are cold, the days are warm.
San Miguel is ludicrously beautiful. Up in the hills there’s a cactus preserve laid out around a rocky gorge. You stand on the cliffs and look back towards San Miguel’s church spires, and multi-coloured, crowded-together rectangular houses that flow from room to courtyard to room all with the same tiled floors, allowing no clear distinction between inside and outside. Very few of the houses are free standing, so the streetscapes are long expanses of walls of varying heights painted reds, yellows, browns, greens, maroons, whites and blues—some crisp and new, some flaking away in wabi sabi elegance—interrupted only by elaborate doors, windows and balconies of wood, wrought iron, brass. Ceiling beams pass through the walls to overhang the footpath, convenient for hanging lanterns and christmas decorations. Our bedroom has white curtains: in the early morning and afternoon sun they glow blue and terracotta from the light reflecting on the houses nearby.
Tomorrow, I imagine, we’ll write like the wind.
San Miguel de Allende, 2-8 December 2003