On a frigid winter’s morning, about half a year ago, I took a car service to Newark Airport with a little excitement tinged with some hesitation, as snow was possible. We had heard about it on the radio, but without commitment either way from the weatherman, and although the sky was heavy with low grey clouds brushing up against the stacked shipping containers that dominate this part of New Jersey it remained cold but dry that day. Approaching the airport with the habitual low grade sense of anxiety my thoughts were on what inconvenience awaits us; pre-Christmas lines, delayed flights, the senseless dismantling of our luggage by security, a lost document, a missing visa requirement or Covid test, the menu of all hazards of international travel were laid out in my mind forcing the inevitable question, is it worth it?
Our immediate destination was Mexico City for a day before a three hour drive to St Miguel de Allende. My wife and I know Mexico City quite well, I have been many times on business and on at least one occasion conducted a meeting without leaving the airport grounds, so there was both a sense of familiarity about the journey and at the same time a feeling of freedom from the routines of the past eighteen months. Our first mistake was choosing to stay in the old center, full of tourists and a shrine to commerce, the hotel room was oppressive in is décor and narrow layout but after the flight and jarring taxi ride we were both grateful to sleep early without dinner. The next morning I walked alone around the local streets, watched workmen on ropes repairing a church wall, passed by a truck full of heavily armed police and sat with a Starbuck coffee in a small shady garden where the combination of a breeze and strong sunlight made the ground dance with shadows from the gently swaying tree’s overhead.
There are several ways to travel to San Miguel on Christmas Eve, a choice of buses, at least two local airports where planes depart from Mexico City but I decided some weeks before to use a private car as it was relatively inexpensive and we were still both a little wary of Covid. It was a little disappointing to see how small the car was but once underway we wound down the windows and tried not to let the smell of diesel fuel and scents from the cities crowded streets upset us too much. Once away from the suburbs the landscape opened up but we were still not free from the traffic that inexplicably slowed the drive down at times to walking pace and extended the journey time by a few hours. Who knows what the driver made of us, this inarticulate couple who couldn’t even string together a few words of Spanish and whose mood seemed to ebb and flow based upon the movements of traffic, it must be hard to imagine people like us whose only concern in life is being late.
The best view of San Miguel is on the approach by road at dusk when the spirals of its churches punctuate the fading light and the sleepy houses clustering the hillsides around the city show evidence of occupation only through a dim glow of lights. The skyline was already familiar thanks to internet searches the week before yet it was hard to reconcile the images that presented themselves on a computer screen with the slightly chaotic reality as our car wallowed and shuddered around the cobbled streets avoiding carts and motorcycles. The cities landscape is dominated by the Catholic churches, whose steeples rise skyward and bells reverberate down lanes making it hard not to ask yourself about this continued obedience to such domineering symbols after the trauma of colonialization. We bring with us the baggage of expectations and prejudices, conversations with friends already colored our view, someone said dismissively that they thought it was a place where rich Texans have second homes.
It took us some time to find our friends house and when we did get the address right it was a shock to see a just a simple entrance next to a larger closed Garage door. But once inside we were in a multilayered compound comprising of studios for both artists, bedrooms, several outhouses and highly planted multiple terraces. Our friends are true cosmopolitans and have lived in various countries since we first met them in New York almost thirty years ago. In each of their houses they manage to impose their personal visual language effortlessly, both being artists and designers, with a predominantly Southern European sensibility; white walls, flowers, natural light and comfort. An appreciation of books, music, art and food is evident when you allow yourself to take in the living room, multiple languages are spoken; French, Spanish and reluctantly English.
We spend Christmas and exchanged gifts, walk around the craft markets and leave empty handed, more tempting are the local antique shops which offer folk art, which I assume is genuine but not having the expertise to judge, let these pass also. Like many before me, I have an interest in retablo’s; small religious paintings on humble materials that began to be produced in the eighteenth century in Mexico that mimicked the devotional art found in Catholic churches. There is often a deep melancholy in the characters found in these tableaux’s, frequently portraits of saints that come to protect common folk from harm, physical or environmental. They tell stories of higher unseen powers affecting their destiny and the recipients of these images (they were commonly exchanged as gifts) understood the value of preying to domestic alter pieces. Today it seems contradictory to have an interest in religious iconography as I harbor unease at the negative impact of religion on society but also have grown to see some of the positive effects. There is a whole industry of mindfulness and yoga gurus who try to teach us to stop worrying, to not “know” or “care” all the time, to slow our speeding thoughts, to focus on an image or our breath, something that religious leaders have perhaps understood for centuries.
We ate out several times in the warm evening on expensive hotel roof tops overlooking the city, delicious local food, beautifully presented and of world class quality. On Christmas Eve and into the early hours of Christmas Day I laid awake due to the sound of fire crackers, which could easily be mistaken for gun shots. I remembered that our host had told us that the reason they bought this property at such a reasonable price was the Americans who owned it before had a bad relationship with their Mexican neighbors, at one point they heard a rumor that their dog might be killed. Our friend would have no problem confronting any difficult situation or have fears of staking his claim to his ground but there was clearly some tension on the street and I’m both a little in awe of his attitude and feel a little afraid of his vulnerability within the community. I’ve always been wary of the Police in Mexico due to a few occasions where I’ve been pulled over while driving for no apparent reason which turned out to be a casual request for a bribe disguised as an infringement. When we left their house in the morning I saw a sullen girl watching us from a dim garage across the street who didn’t acknowledge our greeting and returning later that day there was a car parked in his space that needed to be moved, little micro aggressions to unsettle and test the newcomers resolve. At the same time I tell myself we should not be surprised at some degree of hostility; Donald Trump’s infamous remarks about Mexicans still hung in the air not because of his ignorance, but because typically his views are simply a reflection a much deeper set of prejudices amongst people who rarely travel.
The return to Mexico City was problematic the day after Christmas, no private cars were available, and we were persuaded to take the bus which we were assured was quick and luxurious. It was neither, and it made countless stops in its five hour progress through the Mexican countryside, it was too late to fear Covid as the bus was so full passengers standing in the aisles, some holding children, unmasked. Worse still it was an unpleasant and ugly landscape, densely populated and the towns we passed lacked any charm. Days later we were home in New York and I was reminded that the joy of travelling has always been a two part affair, firstly there is the adventure of new sights, tastes and encounters with different cultures, the second is the slow and unpredictable release of memories over the days, weeks and months after you are safely home. I know I will be staring at a group of numbers on a computer screen one moment and the next find myself on a rattling bus crammed with Mexican workers or on a steep, cobbled street where pensive children are taking turns to stroke a donkey’s velvet nose.