An American Diary from Mexico – Episode 5

Not All Mariachis and Margaritas
By Cherie Magnus

Many people come to San Miguel de Allende for a vacation and end up buying a house. Folks fall in love with this place, ardently, illogically, hopelessly. It’s that kind of town.

I decided to move to San Miguel, a colonial city of 50,000 in the heart of Mexico, with my head and not my heart, and maybe that’s why I’m often reminded that life for me here isn’t quite the paradise I had hoped for, or thought to find. From the mundane and profane to the urbane, it’s not exactly what I expected.

I came south where the living was supposed to be easier, cheaper, and more romantically beautiful. But after four months I have to say, maybe, maybe not. Easy things are more difficult, prices are about the same as in the States (at least here, the costliest town in Mexico), but it sure is more romantic, sometimes unbearably so. (People with plenty of money, of course, only have to worry about finding the romance.)

So as petty as it may sound, the little annoyances of daily life can add up to maddening frustration for those of us who can’t hire things done. Errands take an inordinate amount of time and trudging about the steep stony streets under the hot sun, schlepping laundry, groceries, shoes to be repaired, packages and mail. Everyone is carrying something in San Miguel, and the gringos are also carrying cash.

All bills must be paid in person with cash. There is the regular need to change dollars into pesos and so constant attention to the handwritten exchange rate posted at the Cambios is a part of life.

Because fresh fruits and vegetables must be disinfected before using and gringos have to be extra careful about water, shopping and food preparation is more complicated. Few convenience foods and pre-prepared items are available, and absolutely no frozen entrees or TV dinners. What’s in the frozen section of the supermarket? Ice cream, bags of vegetables, shrimp, and ice.

It’s also harder to stay clean and well-groomed. There are no self-service laundromats, but lots of fluff ‘n fold type establishments, which, after a few times through their machines, tend to gray and dinge your clothes.

On the sidewalk, large birds and cascades from roof runoff pipes assault you from above. If the dog poop and water puddles don’t get you from below, smoke-belching vehicles splash your white pants or bare legs while they foul the air of the narrow streets.

The constant dust gets all over your clothes, skin, hair and in your nose, lungs and pores. Almost no one has a bathtub or enough hot water to fill one, and showers are always short. The huge U.S. selection of beauty aids and products just isn’t available here, and so one makes do with generics.

Walking the streets can be dangerous as well. If you don’t watch your feet instead of the local color and the historic buildings, you can easily slip or trip on the undulating, uneven sidewalks of slippery stones. Gringas soon learn to wear only shoes with rubber treads, or they easily fall. Newcomers with scabs and ankle bandages abound.

If you don’t watch your head, especially if you are tall like I am, you can bang it into a protruding stone windowsill with iron bars, or a bus or truck’s side-view mirrors can take you out.

In Mexico it isn’t respectable for women to wander around alone in the dark, which makes it difficult to go anywhere in the evening without an escort, and especially to return. Taxis are not easy to find at night, and sometimes the drivers come on to women unaccompanied by a man. In a macho country, every woman by herself is assumed to be looking for a man – isn’t it only natural? This can be daunting for independent women used to going solo wherever they wish.

It’s also almost impossible to get in or out of town, which has a lot of charm in a Brigadoon sort of way. It’s tough to get here, and hard to leave. Leaving the country includes many taxis, buses, and planes (no trains), and it’s not so great for people like me who travel frequently.

As someone who enjoys the passion in the culture of latin countries such as France, Cuba, Argentina, I don’t see the same joie de vivre in Mexico. Joy here is not a moving, pulsing force, but something to relax in. Good food, fun and peppy music, lots of beer and tequila, family togetherness and church. The only ecstasy I witness is in the many fervent religious activities. I miss the zest and energy on the street and in the music that I have found so compelling elsewhere. Or maybe I just haven’t found it yet in Mexico.

And dance, well I’ve tried everything dance-wise in San Miguel with no satisfaction. I’ve searched it out in studios, schools, clubs, theaters, parties, and discos. I’ve tried Sweat Your Prayers on Sunday mornings, folk dance at the Bellas Artes, contact improvisation, Mexican folklorico, salsa in classes and clubs, and gone as far as Mexico City in search of Argentine Tango. Who knew?

I can live without much hot water, a car, or a telephone. But I can’t live without dancing.

San Miguel is famous for its many fiestas, but in lieu of dancing in the streets, there are fireworks and church bells at all hours of the night, and related non-stop barking of the ubiquitous roofdogs. The many roosters crow all day and all night.

In addition to this festival of sound is the incessant noise of construction going on six days a week next door to no matter where you live: the chink chink pound pound sounds of one- and two-man teams of workers laboriously either tearing down or building up.

In every country where there is tremendous poverty, tourists are looked upon as rich. The attitude in San Miguel is perhaps even more so due to the large percentage of gringos whose presence has inflated the local economy. And so sometimes foreigners are taken advantage of, shortchanged, pickpocketed, and objects often just seem to disappear. San Miguel de Allende is very safe with little violent crime, but the small stuff is constant and usually unreported. Well maybe I really didn’t have as much money as I thought. Or it’s possible I left my watch at home. Or didn’t bring those pretty gold earrings after all.

There are two very distinct cultures in San Miguel: the Mexican and the gringo. For that reason many norteamericanos find it easier to live here than in perhaps more “Mexican” towns. Most businesses with services and products appealing to gringos speak English, the tourist restaurants serve disinfected food, the lectures and movies at the library are in English or have English subtitles, and the plays at the Teatro Angela Peralta are in English. There are norteamericanos who have lived here for thirty years and don’t speak Spanish; they don’t have to.

However all of this convenience comes at a price.

There is even a kind of gringo ghetto, the Jardin, where the tall pale visitors in shorts and jogging suits sit in front of the Parroquia and meet their friends in the bright sunlight. The Mexicans sit on the opposite side of the Jardin, in front of the police station and in the shade.

Despite the myths, living in Mexico isn’t much cheaper than in Los Angeles, except for apartment rentals and food shopping, which are somewhat less. When planning on moving to Mexico, many people such as I don’t think about hidden costs like computer/internet access, storage fees in the hometown, transportation costs (all those taxis and buses), medical/dental care without insurance, high telephone bills, Spanish classes. Just like at home, there are cover charges to listen to music, and you won’t hear any mariachis unless someone is paying them $6.00 per song.

If you don’t want to be a part of the ghettoized, and are not fluent in Spanish, you might also feel a bit on the fringe. Being a small town, anything you do is noticed in San Miguel, any visitor you receive, every companion on a bench in the Jardin. But because the population is so transitory, when you do meet people you like and want to be friends with, they often leave.

And if someone doesn’t happen to have a romantic partner, it can be painful to live in one of the most romantically beautiful places on earth. As there are thirteen women to every man in San Miguel, probably many women are home alone tonight as I’m writing this, looking out their windows with longing at the gorgeous sky and the lights of the Churrigueresque skyline of San Miguel de Allende twinkling below.

About this author: With degrees in English, Dance, and Library Science from UCLA, Cherie has published many articles in professional journals and magazines. Her solo travels to Europe and Latin America have inspired several pieces published in Skirt!, PassionFruit, Moxie, JourneyWoman, Dancing USA, GoNomad, Open Spaces, Porthole, The Cusco Weekly, the-vu, and various online magazines. She was the dance critic for the Cerritos News in Orange County, California before moving to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. She is currently at work on a novel situated in France, when she’s not out dancing. Follow her blog at http://tangocherie.blogspot.com/

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