Blog # 19: Guanajuato

6 March 2011

This morning after breakfast I walked to Zirahuén’s midtown frutería to pick up a few days’ supply of mangos, tomatoes, zucchini, avocado, limones, cilantro, red pepper, and onions. And of course three kilos of oranges (10 pesos) for the morning juice.  The plaza reconstruction project is banging along beautifully: the benches are in, as are what look like the foundations of both a bandstand and a fountain. Just like in the cities. Next thing you know they’ll put in parking meters where the men can tether their horses while they sit and gab with their buddies. I say “the men,” because around here women don’t ride, they walk. Where was I?

Ah. The frutería is annexed to a little barbershop, and while the teenage clerk was toting up the price of my purchases, the barber, Francisco, drifted over, looking for business. He was not a walking advertisement for his trade: I couldn’t

tell if he was wearing the world’s thinnest and blackest and least-flattering rug or had painted the top of his head with shoe polish. But then, I’ve been avoiding mirrors too, what with my hair and beard being un-mowed since late January, before Linda went to the States. Friends might have compared me to Whitman or Marx (K., not G.); less kindly-disposed folks would have said “yeti”.

When I apologized to Francisco that I had an appointment this very afternoon with my resident peluquera with whom I also sleep, he put away his hopes and we started to chat. We soon agreed that Rhode Island was colder than Zirahuén this time of year and that San Diego was warmer, a city unfortunately replete with houses for sale and few buyers, because otherwise he would have already moved back to Zirahuén permanently. Then, without so much as a semicolon, he said “Do you like mushrooms?”

“Yes, I do,” I stammered. “Always have. What sort have you got?” By this time it was clear that he owned the frutería as well as the barbershop.

“No, we don’t have any. But see, like I’ve been telling you,” he said, turning to the young lady clerk, “that’s what you need to do. Stock some mushrooms. Americans like mushrooms. We have a community here. Americans, Canadians, people from DF and from Morelia. What’s his name, George, from up on the Cerro Colorado, and Germán. You eat broccoli, too, don’t you?” This last was back to me.

“Everybody who comes to our house eats broccoli,” I told him. “My wife serves it at every meal. We like cauliflower, too. Brussels sprouts. Green leafy vegetables. Beets. You stock them and people will come.” I had a momentary flash of myself as Kevin Costner, and a long line of cars snaking down from the pass that separates us from the Pátzcuaro basin, their headlights glowing in the twilight, making their pilgrimage to the Frutería that Sells Broccoli.

“You see,” said Francisco. “Broccoli.”

“I had some just yesterday,” I said, “in Guanajuato. For lunch, with my salad. We were up there vacationing for a couple of days.”

This is what’s known as a seg-way. Because indeed, we did just come back from Guanajuato, where we had gone after dropping off our friend and landlady Lily in San Miguel de Allende.  We spent the night in San Muiguel and while Linda browsed the markets I passed the morning birding with the local Audubon club at the Charco del Ingenio.

Long-time travelers know that Mexico has almost as many gorgeous colonial silver cities as it has topes (speed bumps). If cruel fate allows you to visit only one, it should be Guanajuato, capital of its homonymous state. The city fills a deep gully that cuts through a cluster of brown, cactus-covered hills in the middle of a dusty, rolling desert with little to recommend it but the fact that the hills are threaded with silver. Discoveries there in the 1550s attracted prospectors but, frankly, the competition was intense. “Buy a shovel, be a miner” was the rule of the day, and the potential for big silver was seemingly everywhere. Miners came, but in minor numbers.  It took 200 more years before the Big Vein was found and the town exploded: palaces, churches, public works, art, music, high society!

And Guanajuato is still booming, with a big-time university, productive mines, world-renowned theater, Cervantes, and classical musical festivals and, this past week, a four-day automobile rally that drew cars from five continents, together with their teams of acolytes, wealthy fans, TV camera crews, and street-corner tents bursting with authorized promotional items.

The only thing that didn’t get bigger was the geographical space the town occupies with an ingenious density that is wondrous to behold. Guanajuato’s two narrow main streets snake along the floor of the canyon. Cars move underground, in long tunnels in the channel of the ancient riverbed. Everything else up in daylight clings to the sides of the defile.

Most streets consist intermittently of stairs; the wider streets permit two loaded mules to cross by each other, the suck-in-your-gut narrower ones rely on lay-bys. The cube-shaped houses are painted . . . well, every color that anyone has ever manufactured or sold; so that everywhere you look you see a wall of colored squares, bright building blocks that some kid has stacked up all the way to where the canyon walls meet the sky.

Linda and I rode a funicular to one hilltop and then zigzagged back down via steps and alleys. We scarfed shrimp and shellfish cocktails in one of the comedor stalls in the Hidalgo Market. We ate elegantly and heard cool jazz at a five-table restaurant called Abue. We visited the museum —nee birthplace— of Diego Rivera and marveled at its collection of a hundred or so of his paintings and drawings, and the eye-popping exhibition of works by a painter named Jazzamoart (  -- check out the site:wow!). We celebrated the third anniversary of my membership in the Back-from-the-Brink Club (thanks again, Dan).

We stayed in the130-year-old

Hotel Santa Fe on the Parque de la Union, a triangular, tree-shaded wedge of a plaza about the size of a really large slice of key lime pie. Benches on the crust piece face an ornate Churrigueresque church façade and a street that actually tolerates motorized traffic. Benches on the right side of the slice are jammed with college students, males in rag-box jeans and soccer shirts and females either dressed-down-chic in layered shirts, jeans and flip-flops, or, for those lucky enough to be tall and with the discipline to starve themselves, in big-city high fashion, from their minimal but expensive print blouses and mini skirts to their stiletto heels or platform wedge sandals. Gaps college student parade are filled by highschoolers on skateboards. Hotels fronted by sidewalk cafés flank the left side of the plaza. The benches facing them accommodate businessmen and women, dads and kids with popsickles, trios of middle school girls in uniform blouses and jackets, plaid pleated skirts and white knee socks, working folks resting their feet for a few moments, me, and dozens of mariachis.

This is because, among other things, the Parque de la Unión is the music-for-hire center of Guanajuato. A dozen different bands must hang out there, most of them comprised of three or so violins, an equal number of trumpets, a couple of guitars, a bass guitar (which looks like a pregnant flat-top), and sometimes an accordion and even a small drum set. Each mariachi group is, of course, distinctively uniformed. The Santa Rosas sport gray trousers, white shirts, charcoal gray jackets with deep maroon piping and embroidered lace-like designs. Their oversize bowties, bright red with white polka dots, might have come from a clown-supply store. Drowsing or smoking two benches down while waiting for some patron to animate them are a mariachi group in black slacks, powder blue jackets embroidered with white hearts, and (relatively) modest blue bow ties. Strolling toward them are seven musicians in blue jeans and jeans shirts, topped by white cowboy hats and bottomed by even whiter boots.

They pause in front of several occupied tables at the café in front of me and break into spirited renditions of a couple of old standards, “Cielito lindo” and “Jalisco”, then pass a hat for contributions before moving on. At another packed café, a little further down the line, two mariachi bands —tan and cream, and light and dark blue— take turns belting out numbers to which some of the patrons bellow along. On the other side of the plaza, in front of where the kids hang out, there are two sparsely populated determinedly un-elegant restaurants where a couple of buskers are hustling tips.

One old man, in western gear, with a string of medals pinned to his hat and chest, and a long droopy mustache that might have inspired “I am the walrus”, sings in an unsteady tenor voice an emotion-laden bolero about unrequited love. He was working the café line at breakfast, too. His guitar still needs tuning. This morning we tipped him something to encourage him to move some more distant set of tables.

Cacophony does not begin to describe the mix of sounds that swirl through the plaza. It’s fun to look at the caped and beribboned estudiantina group plunking their guitars and bandurrias gamely in front of the church, but no one can actually hear them.

The plaza hosts an endless parade: policemen, street sweepers, tired toddlers, young lovers, soccer players, aging tourists, vendors of newspapers, serapes, and popsicles. I think my favorite was a rather generously apportioned woman in a lime green dress trimmed in silver, a crocheted yellow-green wrap draped around her shoulder and pinned with an rhinestone brooch shaped like a fleur-de-lis. Her companion, trailing a step behind her, wearing a rhinestone-studded white sweater with a hat to match and a red bowtie, was a miniature dachshund.

I am reminded of Samuel Hoffenstein’s famous poem, which, in its entirety, goes like this: “The camel has a hump, but he / looks just as curiously at me.”

David & Linda