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Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato

Michael Kluckner

A wintertime blue-break for us to a part of Mexico untroubled by drug cartels, violence and political unrest.

Greater Mexico City has the population of Australia in a valley ringed by mountains = pretty serious smog. LA, which is about half the size, had similarly smoggy outlooks the previous January when we were there.

San Miguel de Allende is a bit of a gringo town, almost too pretty for words, and gave us the opportunity to examine the expat retiree lifestyle through conversations with total strangers, all very friendly, and with our friend David, who decided in 5 days to move there 8 years ago and hasn't regretted it for a moment. The death of long-time SMA resident Toller Cranston while we were there added an exclamation point to our observations about Canadians who have moved there permanently. It has been a well-known art colony since the 1940s, when Americans on the GI Bill and a handful of Canadians, notably Leonard and Reva Brooks, took up residence there; the Brookses were followed by William Newcombe, his wife Margaret von Alvensleben and others of the group known as Painters Eleven.
Interesting how much it reminded us of a few Cuban cities we visited three years ago, especially Trinidad de Cuba and Cienfuegos: brightly painted houses under the blue sky, cobblestone streets – they're both World Heritage cities, too. But in Cuba the streets are full of horses and Yank Tanks; here the cars are modern and the only beasts are a few teams of donkeys laden with

firewood for sale and led into the city by campesinos from the impoverished outskirts. The modern Mexican cars blow out smoke and fumes all the same, evidently because there are few demands for pollution controls (and the higher purchase prices they would entail).

We stayed on the north side of San Miguel de Allende’s Centro Historico at La Quinta Loreto Hotel and found it a perfect mix of Mexicanos and gringos; the big artisan and food market than runs for about 3 blocks, right beside the hotel, catered mainly to Mexicans. We didn't like much of the incredibly posh south side of town with hotels like the Rosewood — apparently $US500 a night is a typical price to stay there. Outside of Centro Historico are developments catering to gringo retirees, some of them gated, many looking like an exotic Santa Fe, which we only saw in realtors' ads.

Click for some snapshots with the cellphone camera.

A Texan getting his cowboy boots spiffed up by the Hispanic shoeshiner at DFW Airport.

From the Hotel Gillow on 5 de Mayo in Mexico City's historic centre (a bit cockeyed in perspective, oops!)

A street kitchen across the corner from the hotel served good food cheap and fast to people outside on the street and customers like us who squeezed in to the tiny tables.

Favourite bar: De L'Opera, a few blocks west of the Hotel Gillow on 5 de Mayo.

I'm not sure why I was so determined to find a view to paint over San Miguel de Allende, but I hiked and climbed on a rather hot, sunny morning until finally I found a spot where there was no wall or other obstruction, and sat among the condoms and broken bottles of an obvious teenage party-spot to look over the city to a nearby lake and the dry distant hills. Why, on what was supposed to be a holiday, I would choose something this complicated to paint, escapes me now – I couldn't even muster the energy to finish it properly!

However, on the way back down, on a street whose name I didn't note, there was a much better-composed view of the domes and towers of the city. Drain pipes, some decorated with the heads of beasts, protrude from the walls of the old buildings and carry away rainwater from the flat roofs, supposedly pouring it onto the street rather than onto the heads of passersby. The yellow is too bright.

Both San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato have wonderful "jardins" – formal squares with benches, small garden beds and trees (laurels?) clipped into neat cylinders. Needless to say, they are perfect for relaxing, people-watching and (in my case) sketching. We were told that this style of garden dates from the French occupation of Mexico from 1861–7 when Emperor Maximilian I sat on the throne and the USA was otherwise preoccupied with its Civil War; that period ended with Maximilian's execution, immortalized by Manet in the style of Goya, and the return of a fragile Mexican democracy.

Mariachi bands play every evening in the Jardin Principal, ringed by 200-year-old buildings with bars and restaurants in their gallerias; the biggest of the city's churches frames a semi-permanent stage where people sit every evening to listen to small orchestras, usually playing Mexican folk music. A group of a half-dozen teenage boys break-danced on a big square of cardboard taped to the pavement; in the damp aftermath of one evening's thunderstorm, they moved into the century-old, ornate bandstand with their ghetto blaster and continued to entertain the small crowd, including us.

In the top drawing, I was sure that the woman was watching me and all but saying: "I know what you're doing!" It must be a pain having so many artists around.

Coincidentally, our friend David loaned me a book called "Tony Grogan's Cape Town Sketchbook" by long-time political cartoonist Tony Grogan. It is a sketchbook diary much like what I've done over the years, hilarious for the number of times when people he was drawing demanded to be paid! I must have been either more discreet or else have spent less time drawing the kind of street people than he has, as that had never happened to me.

However, I did end up paying a beggar (see below) and drawing her and also gave a bit of money to the campesino with the burros – he demanded 20 pesos (about a third of a daily minimum wage) but I gave him five.

Above. Two features that make Mexican restaurants so pleasant: the no-smoking sign, a recent addition, and the portable perchero, a small coat-and-hat stand placed beside the table by the waiter.

Left: some sort of kindergarten program for moms and their children, organized on the steps in front of the huge, neo-Gothic church on the south side of the Jardin Principal. One of the great pleasures in Mexico is watching the children, who seem so lively and carefree. Our friend said to us, "all the children know they're loved" – you see it on their faces, in the way they run either to their mom or their dad, the way they're held, kissed, then pushed off to play some more. There doesn't seem to be the coddling and fussing, aka helicopter-parenting, of current American/Canadian practice.

I gave the begging woman sitting on the sidewalk 10 pesos, and then thought – apropos of the Tony Grogan comment above – that I would stand a little ways away and draw her. She was unimpressed and soon moved on.

On the way to Mineral de Pozos, a historic silver-mining area about an hour by car from San Miguel de Allende: a semi-desert of prickly-pear cactus, bunch grass and thorn trees that bursts into life with regular watering (we passed huge broccoli fields and other evidence of serious market-gardening). Pozos itself is one of the "pueblos magicos" that the federal government is funding in a heritage/touristy/economic-development sort of a way.

Below: a hapless burro hobbled and tied under a small tree in a grove of agaves near an impoverished campesino encampment. Big heads, huge ears, small bodies – amazingly strong little beasts.

The silver-mining landscape around Pozos is fantastic and creepy. Above: the ruins of a mine, with the overseer's home still in good repair, stand above a gully of vertical shafts and adits where toxic tailings were dumped for eons. Nothing is fenced off, as it would be in a lawyer-burdened culture like the USA or Canada. We were told a story of a family who were wandering around enjoying the day until their son suddenly decided he could jump across one of the old mine shafts; he didn't make it, and fell hundreds of feet into the void. We tossed a stone into one of the shafts and waited, waited, to hear it hit bottom.

Below: the edge of another mine site, with a concentrator tower (?) in the distance and a vista onto the plain.

The bus takes about an hour to get from San Miguel de Allende to Guanajuato, which is a much hillier town, in many ways more "real" and interesting because of its big university and the different, younger demographic. The through roads are subterranean, drilled through the hillsides below the colonial town's narrow, steep streets and stairways; these tunnels were dug a hundred or more years ago to channel flood water through the city, and became redundant when dams were built higher in the hills. Like in SMA, it was silver-mining profits that financed the beautiful buildings.

Left: the beginnings of a Guanajuato wallscape? A sketch for a big oil painting?

Below: every tourist either climbs or takes the funicular to the El Pipila mirador (viewing spot) high above the centro historico. We climbed, of course.

The huge statue of El Pipila commemorates the legend of a local peasant who managed, with a slab of stone strapped to his back, to survive the fusillade of Spanish defenders and set the entranceway to the Guanajuato granary ablaze, leading to the first rebel victory of the Mexican War of Independence in 1810.

Guanajuato, a World Heritage City like San Miguel de Allende, is rich in colonial buildings and street life. I particularly enjoyed drawing a little newsstand near the Centro Mercado which was set up under an umbrella at the bottom of a shallow flight of stairs leading from a small plaza to the main street.

Right: an icon seller goes to work. One common statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe has a golden aura as a backing; seen from behind, it looks like a large feather.

Below: a favorite restaurant – Truco 7 (its address) on a narrow street behind the cathedral, is decorated with an eccentric collection of ancient radios, ghoulish masks and artwork. There seemed to be a trend in Guanajuato of collecting "baja technologica" (not sure if this is the correct spelling) – i.e. low-tech consumer objects, most no longer working, as household decor. The restaurant was the best of Mexico: two margaritas, a bottle of water and two plates of good enchiladas or whatever for about $25.

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Artwork & text © Michael Kluckner, 2015