Sharp Jolts of Recognition
Day 56-81 – San Felipe, Guanajuato, México to San Miguel del Allende – 12,380 km
As we neared San Miguel de Allende, I began to feel a vague sense of déjà vu. It grew stronger as we entered the city and then it came in sharp jolts of recognition as we left the smooth tarmac of Carretera Dolores de Hidalgo-San Miguel de Allende and rumbled along the uneven cobblestone streets of the colonial city. The city is a maze of cobblestone and paving stone streets that may not be paved over – despite the locals’ preference to do so – because, as a World Heritage Site, any modification must be submitted to UNESCO for approval. These cobblestone streets are made even less comfortable on two wheels because many of the them steeply traverse the hillsides. But, also because San Miguel is laid out over the slopes of a hill, it is easy to orient yourself because from almost every corner of the city you can catch a glimpse of the colonial era parochial church and know exactly where the jardín (‘central plaza’) is. This was a huge relief for me as we entered the city because the narrow one-way streets of many of the colonial cities that we have visited in Mexico played tricks on our GPS so that the robotic female voice that we heard over the earphones frequently sound perplexingly like this: ‘Turn right then turn right. Turn right then right. Now turn right.’
After parking our bikes near the jardín, we found a great hole-in-the-wall on Avenida Hidalgo that became our staple lunch spot during our time in San Miguel. After a lunch of quesadillas we strolled down hill in search of my friend Erssel’s gallery. I met Erssel during my first motorcycle trip in 2009 when I connected with him through couchsurfing.org as a way to meet people and save money on accommodations. During that visit I stayed with Erssel for about 10 days during which we brought in the New Year and when I finally left after one failed attempt it was with my bike on the back of a mechanic’s pickup truck.
After the death of his wife, Erssel first moved to Romania for a year and then, on his way to Ecuador, he stopped over in San Miguel, fell in love with the place, and never left. Erssel makes woodcarvings with a precision tool called a scroll saw. When I stayed with him in 2009 he had a few showpieces hanging in the boy’s quarter of the colonial area house that he was renting. After I left and he moved from that house, he hustled between local art festivals for a few months before he decided to open his own gallery. When we strolled up to Erssel’s gallery on Callejón del Pueblito, which is a few cobblestone blocks from the jardín, he was busily working his scroll saw in a series of intricate cuts into a block of wood.
I recognized him at first glance and it was comforting to discover that he looked the same as in my memory and my photos especially since, as he presently explained, not many weeks after I left him last time he had three successive heart attacks.
‘When we arrived at the hospital they had pretty much given me up for dead,’ he explained that afternoon at a little shrimp bar as caught up on the last few years. ‘But my friend wouldn’t accept it and he forced them to take me to the hospital in León where they have a heart specialist.’
He described the series of events from the heart attack to the ambulance ride to León and through the recovery during which a nurse sat bedside 24 hours a day for more than a week. We sat with blank stares but somehow managed to continue sipping at our pints the bottoms of which were strangely but not unpleasantly filled with large shrimps.
At the end of the story I said, ‘I’m just glad that you pulled through it and, so that we’re clear, there will be no heart attacks when we leave this time.’
‘That’s fine,’ he said, ‘because I will keep finding excuses so that you can’t leave.’
After finishing our beer and shrimp cocktails, we locked our motorbikes within the premises where Erssel’s friend Miguel lives and we went to Erssel’s apartment. Where the old colonial house had enough rooms to host several guests, the new apartment had only one bedroom and most of the excess space was filled with wood scraps and carving tools. At first we adamantly refused when Erssel insisted that we install ourselves in his bedroom but, when we realized that it would be a battle of wills, we soon relented.
‘People in San Miguel love to celebrate,’ Erssel explained that evening. ‘Almost every week there is some festival or other and, if there isn’t one, people will come up with something to celebrate.’
That night and during each of the 23 that followed, we heard intermittent fireworks set off from improvised batteries set up on nearby rooftops and soccer fields.
‘It’s worse than in Baghdad,’ I said only half joking the next morning.
‘Oh, when I first got here I had flashbacks to Vietnam,’ Erssel, who had spent two years there as a Marine in the early 70s, said very seriously and then he added more lightheartedly. ‘I tried to hide under my bed except the bed was only a few inches from the floor.’
During our stay in San Miguel there was also an official holiday to celebrate. On 20 November, Mexico celebrated its Día de la Revolución (‘Revolution Day’), which commemorates the start of the Mexican Revolution by Francisco Madero in 1910. The festivities had already started several days before our arrival and they continued for several days after. Besides the obligatory and ubiquitous fireworks, there were concerts in the parks and in the plazas outside the churches. At the same time the city celebrated a Festival de Lana y Lata (‘Wool and Brass Festival’), which brought together numerous local artisans and crafts-persons.
Then as the Revolution Day and Wool and Brass festivities concluded, preparations for Christmas began in earnest. The trees in the jardín and other plazas were trimmed to near perfect symmetry, banners and lights were hung over the streets, larger-than-life figurines were placed on street corners around the downtown, and an enormous, lavishly decorated Christmas tree was erected in the jardín beside the parochial church.
In between these events, we also found an opportunity to celebrate Thanksgiving. Paula, a friend of Erssel’s and fellow retiree, cooked a traditional southern Thanksgiving meal at her beautiful home in the Independencia neighborhood and we stuffed ourselves to bursting on turkey and gravy, sweet potatoes, cranberries, Erssel’s famous deviled eggs, and assorted pies including pumpkin.
But back to that first night – on that night we also discovered that the next-door neighbors raise fighting cocks in a pen on the rooftop just outside Erssel’s bedroom window.
‘I thought cocks are only supposed to crow in the morning,’ Jess said when we were both awaken in the middle of the night to the screeching and rustling of feathers.
This too was another exhausting nightly feature of our stay in San Miguel de Allende.
In Los Angeles before embarking on the southern leg of the trip, Jess had discovered that San Miguel is a popular place to learn Spanish. It turned out that Erssel’s gallery was part of a much larger complex that Erssel’s friend Miguel and his business partner Luís rented as the premises for their Spanish language school for expats. For a number of years, San Miguel de Allende has been a destination for foreign artists and especially retirees because of the low cost of living, the pleasant surroundings, and the amiable, accommodating sentiment among the local people. Today there are thousands of expats – primarily North Americans – who live in San Miguel for several months or more out of each year and most of these make an hour’s worth of effort each day to learn some Spanish.
[I take Jess's Moxie for a spin on the dirt]
For three and a half weeks we stayed with Erssel at his house in San Miguel while Jessica attended private Spanish lessons each morning. For the first week I brought the blog up to date with a few new installments and the second week I put together an article about our ride through the national parks of Utah that I am hopeful will be published in a future issue of Rider Magazine. During the third and fourth weeks, I got back on my bike and stuck out for several day-rides. On one of these trips, I went to Mineral de Pozos, which I had visited during my last trip and where I had had a pleasant time taking photos among the ruins of old farmhouses. On another of these trips I followed George from the San Miguel motorcycle club’s advice and I went to Xichú, which is actually easier to pronounce than it is to get to, if you take the southern approach as I did. It was a few dozen dirt road kilometers of ascent into the hill country within which Xichú stands out like a deserted island. The rest of these day trips had a direction but no destination because they were really just an excuse to go riding and to explore the dirt roads and trails while our bikes were so much easier to handle without the luggage.
On one daylong excursion, Jess and I went to the colonial city of Guanajuato about 100 km from San Miguel. We went on Sunday after I had the bikes washed at a local autolavado (‘car wash’) and when Jess was out of class and Erssel was busy with the gallery. Guanajuato is the state capitol and it was initially founded as Real de Minas de Guanajuato after the Spanish found nearby gold deposits. Then in 1810 it was the site of the first battle between insurgents and royalist during Mexico’s War of Independence. For this rich history and for its narrow, winding streets, subterranean alleyways, and numerous plazas, churches, and colonial mansions, UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site in 1988.
In Guanajuato we experienced plenty of trouble navigating the narrow streets with our iPhone-based GPS, especial when traveling through the underground tunnels but with a little help from the street signs and a bit of luck, we managed to find the Museo de las Momias (‘Mummy Museum’) without getting lost. The Mummy Museum is located beside the municipal cemetery where in 1870 authorities exhumed the bodies of those whose descendents refused or failed to pay a burial tax. The climate and dry conditions caused the natural mummification of many of these bodies, which were eventually put on display in 1970. Like the Torture Museum in Zacatecas, this exhibit had Jess and I transfixed.
‘It’s just so strange to see them still wearing their shoes and clothing,’ Jess said and then went silent at the sight of the mummy of an infant girl who still clutched the desiccated remains of a toy doll.
After the Mummy Museum we went to the Casa de las Leyendas (‘House of the Legends’) on the recommendation of one of Jess’s Spanish teachers. It was a steep climb and then turn up to the parking lot beside the House of the Legends and here I took my first proper fall on my bike. I was looking too far over my shoulder into the blind turn as I climbed the hill and failed to adjust my balance against the camber of the road. It was barely moving when the bike went down and the crash bar and aluminum pannier caught the brunt of it with no damage to the bike itself.
‘It hurts the ego more than anything else,’ I said to Jess after I had righted and parked my bike and then descended on foot to ride hers up the hill and parking it beside mine. ‘You ride in on this expensive, hulky bike and then you fall over and the locals must be thinking, “who is this fucking clown of a gringo?!”’
Inside the museum we were introduced to our 12-year old tour guide who led us in a very professional and well-rehearsed manner through a series of animatronics dioramas that illustrated the region’s colorful local legends.
‘Look, he broke his tooth!’ Jess said, pointing to an animatronics gopher in one of the first displays of the exhibit.
‘That’s Señor Coco,’ I explained as I listened to our guide’s explanation and paraphrased it in English. ‘He was lazy and didn’t like to work but one day he was tunneling and he broke his tooth when he struck a vain of diamonds.’
‘Señor Coco,’ Jess said, trying out the name.
‘In the end Señor Coco, the gopher king, and all the gopher people became rich from their diamond mine and Señor Coco was able to buy a gold tooth and never had to work again,’ I said at the conclusion of several dioramas about this legend.
Most evenings during our stay in San Miguel we had dinner together with Erssel at one of his usual places or at one that we had discovered in the course of our day’s activities. Sometimes Miguel would join us or would stop by Erssel’s to share a few beers with us. On these occasions one of his favorite things was to rib Erssel for his utter lack of Spanish after nearly seven years in Mexico.
‘He’s certainly not a good advertisement for your Spanish school,’ I said unable to resist the chance to take a shot a both of them at once.