Time after time I tell myself I won’t travel to Mexico again. But time after time I return to Mexico. Once it takes root it’s nearly impossible to detach. The attraction is that it’s another country, and another culture that never really changes, not deep down. Year after year, you can count on Mexico to be the same. There will always be beans, rice, tortillas, barking dogs at dusk, roosters crowing at dawn, men with guns riding on horseback, church bells clanging, and tourists from around the world. I will return to the States in two days. These are some of my last reflections.
My two North American friends and I were the only two guests who spent the night in a luxury hotel in the hills about San Miguel Allende. We were the only people who ate breakfast in the hotel dining room, though yesterday we had lunch in Hecho En Mexico, a crowded restaurant near the center of the city where wealthy North Americans own million dollar homes and throw the economy off kilter. "It’s very expensive to live here," one taxi driver told me. He had lived in Florida, Colorado and California and had facts and figures for comparison. I have found that Mexican taxi drivers are usually reliable sources of information. They see and hear a great deal and have no axe to grind. I don’t expect long disquisitions, but simple answers to simple questions.
I have been to San Miguel before. The first time was in 1975 when I was with Abbie Hoffman who was wanted in the States on drug charges (cocaine) and his traveling companion Johanna Lawrenson, daughter of once well-know parents, her father a union organizer and her mother a writer for Vanity Fair famous for a story “Latins Make Lousy lovers.” Mexico can be a nifty place to hide out, and a nifty place to retire. Spaniards came here after Franco took over Spain, and Chileans after Pinochet was installed as dictator in Chile.
My friends have lived here for nearly two decades, not in San Miguel Allende but in nearby Guanajuato, famous for its underground tunnels and its petrified mummies. "GTO" as it’s often called is built in a ravine; to go anywhere you have to walk uphill or downhill on steep steps and along narrow alleys. It’s always an adventure. I’m always sure I’ll get lost. Occasionally, that has happened and my friends have had to rescue me. On the road from San Miguel back to GTO we drove on narrow mountain roads and passed a religious procession that seemed timeless and eternal, made up of men and women carrying banners with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. My friends tell me that churchgoers are mostly women. That could be. Yesterday, a Sunday, the streets in GTO were crowded with parents and children, walking, holding hands, shopping and enjoying the warm weather. Winter has come and gone. The rainy season is a ways off. Much of the land looks barren, though I saw irrigated farms, green fields and crops in the sun. Organic produce is available in the supermarkets.
If you have money you can live as comfortably in GTO or San Miguel Allende as in Ukiah, Santa Rosa and San Francisco. Washington, D.C. and Sacramento seem like another world. Mexico has problems, sometimes all its own, though some of its problems, like the border, are also our problems. They will be solved together or not at all.
Chances are if you read or hear news about Mexico you’ll conclude that it’s a nation of endless, senseless violence. You probably don’t hear about Mexican civility which far out distances San Francisco civility which is practically non existent. It doesn’t take much civility to outdistance SF in that regard. I recently returned to The City after 10 days in Guanajuato, Mexico where I got tired of hearing and saying “buen dia,” “gracias,” “por favor” and “de nada.” Just leave me alone, don’t bother me and don’t talk to me, I told myself. That’s the North American way. But now that I’m back in The City I wish there was more civility than there is. I wish strangers would say “hello,” “thank you” and “it’s no biggie.”
Mind you, I have not been a big fan of civility. For ages, I thought civility was overrated and a vestige of bourgeois society that has refused to die a quiet death. Also, mind you I was in a small city in Mexico built in a box canyon with no super highways running through it. Time slows down in the city of Guanajuato, the capital of the state of Guanajuato. The citizens walk uphill and downhill all day long, and when needed take taxis that have no choice but to move slowly along streets that zig and zag and meander through subterranean passageways. The City is a prisoner of its own past and with a small island at its heart called “La Jardin,” “The Garden,” plus small plazas that punctuate the map that’s anything but a grid.
Guanajuato civility might be a relic of the past that goes back to the days of feudalism with masters and serfs. Still, the civility seems unlikely to go away, much as the churches, and the Mexican version of Catholicism are unlikely to go away. When Mexicans come to the US they usually don’t lose their Spanish and they usually don’t lose their civility, either.
This morning walking uphill on a sidewalk to catch a bus, I noticed six Latino workmen sitting on the ground and eating lunch. I wondered what would happen if I said “buen dia.” Sure enough they replied, “buen dia,” and wanted to talk to me about walking in The City. Unlike them, I had a bus to catch and didn’t stay to converse. They were in their culture. I was in mine, where a meter is always running and where buses have schedules to keep. In Guanajuato, the taxis have no meters, the buses arrive and depart when the driver is ready and it’s always time to stop and talk and say, “gracias.”
My friend Jorge, who has just returned from Spain, tells me that civility is the norm there. “When you go to a café for coffee, even if you’ve been there before just once, they recognize you and welcome you,” he said. In San Francisco, where everyone's a stranger in a strange land, that's too much to expect.
Good one, makes me long for Mexico, maybe in May.
The last time I passed through Guanajuato I drove and drove through town looking for a parking space, to no avail, I soon found myself at the other side of town where there were dozens of smiling happy students hitchhiking home for the weekend or maybe the holidays. I headed on down the highway, maybe next time…