Sunday, December 30, 2012

Christmas in San Miguel

Feliz Navidad!” is the greeting I've heard everywhere the past month as  I walk along the cobbled streets of San Miguel, past neighbors in mi barrio. "Equalamente,” is the familiar reply, which means "to you, too." It’s 6 o’clock and I’m coming home from my afternoon of doing errands. Not the  kind of shopping we associate with Christmas in the USA: no big malls, no  traffic getting in and out of parking places at the big box stores, no harried and stressed shoppers burdened with the packages that seem now to represent the“meaning  of Christmas” in our over-consumptive society. Instead I have my mesh shopping bag  full of vegetables I just picked up at a small family-owned local Aborrotes (grocery store) for a simple holiday luncheon  to which I’ve invited a few new amigos. We’ll have carrot and  ginger soup  and ensalada with tomatoes and avocados topped off with a few dulces, typical sweets of the holiday season: round Mexican Wedding cookies with powdered sugar and some candies made from cactus, sweet and gummy.  The sun is setting and as the darkness of night falls, I encounter twinkling lights strung across some of the narrow streets, and small green, Christmas trees with miniature naciemientos, (nativity scenes)in windows, warm with light; children laugh and play in the streets and weary burros sometimes pass loaded down with their burdens of firewood, or  even decked out in seasonal adornments.  From behind tall carved wooden doors, opening into one of San Migues many lovely colonial courtyards, I hear the voices of children singing "Silent Night" in Spanish and I breath in the cool night air, with a kind of joy that reminds me it’s two days before Christmas. 

A week ago we wandered throught the Jardin(the central square) admiring the many pointsettia plants (known as Buenos Noches in Mexico).  They graced every niche of the garden and decorated the steps of the Perroquia, the big church there.  We watched the workers set up a  large artificial Christmas tree and local graffiti artists paint the outside of the giant gift boxes placed below it.  Folks gathered to watch as the lights came on that night and a local choir sang traditional Mexican folk carols.  Vendors selling hot “elotes” (corn on the cob) smeared with butter and sprinkled with chili pepper were watching too. Women from the campo strolled amongst the crowd selling colorful cloth muñechas(dolls). Men with big bouguets of globos (balloons) for sale were there as well. Children ran about, with dark eyes of wonder as the lights glowed and I couldn’t help but feel the magic of Christmas all around me.  Gary and I loved watching the Mexican families as they greeted one another and wander the central square; everyone had a smile and  a kind greeting. There was definitely a feeling of merriment in the air.

The other side of this “candy coated” description  is the profound knowledge that many will go hungry this Christmas, won’t have small presents to offer their children, nor even warm enough clothes for the increasingly colder nights and mornings here in San Miguel de Allende. One thing that helps us feel better is to be surrounded by many ex-pats who give of their time and relative wealth to organizations, formal and informal helping the people here. An example is a woman in my Spanish Conversation group who organized friends with cars to fill their vehicles with food and toys to take to the local basural  (the dump) where families live off the garbage. Another friend and I along with Gary and her husband, Ricardo, went to a local house for abandoned girls (ages 3-18) in late November and helped the girls learn printmaking techniques to make Christmas cards and gift cards to sell and earn money for supplies needed at the Casa Hogar.  A small thing. These acts remind me of the generosity of my fellow countrymen.  A Mexican friend remarked one day how much he admires the “volunteerism” of the culture in the US.  "Mexicans," he said, " help their families but not often do they reach out beyond to volunteer in their communities."  That is slowly changing as schools begin to promote the spirit of community service. Cultural differences abound but the spirit of the holiday season seems infectious in Mexicans and gringos, alike and brings us together in joy and gratefulness for all we have as we greet each other with Feliz Navidad---Merry Christmas!  

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Day of the Dead Celebrations

Enjoy our Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Meurtos) slideshow:

Differences in cultures are often illustrated by attitudes towards various key events in our lives.  Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead is a fine example. Where we in the United States might think of death as something somber, sad and not to be celebrated, Mexicans hold an entirely different set of attitudes reflected in their two thousand year history of honoring their dead yearly with food, flowers and music.

Gary and I had a wonderful time discovering the many elements of this tradition. For example, the altars placed at various locations throughout the city, in small tiendas (stores) and hotels, in our favorite Parque Juarez (a beautiful public park) and in the windows and doorways of private homes. Also, it was not unusual to confront large sculptures of human skulls, painted and decorated and  placed at key locations throughout the city. Parades like the "Desfile de Catrinas," a new San Miguel tradition as part of the first annual Festival of Calacas (skeletons), created a festive environment throughout the city for three days.

Many locals dressed up as "Catrins and Catrinas." Their outfits date back to the the unpopular Mexican dictator, Porfirio Diaz and the painter, Diego Rivera at the beginning of the 20th century. Rivera mocked the President in a famous mural in Mexico city, drawing attention to the President's pandering to European wealth signified by the dress: large hats with feathers, fancy gowns and suits for he men. He painted these people as skeletons.  We now see Catrinas as small and larger sculptures all over San Miguel de Allende, a fun collectors item.

For us, the most moving and impressive part of Day of the Dead was our visit early on November 2nd to the local cemetary.  We walked with a long line of people down the road to the cemetary's entrance. Families were carrying bundles of flowers, bright yellow and red, in their arms and some had trays of cooked food, fruits,  beer, cigars, and  candies in the form of animals and skeletons. On each side of the procession vendors were selling flowers and all sorts of items for decorating the gravesites.  It was a beautiful site to behold and once we entered the cemetery we confronted an even more impressive and touching panoply of people decorating their loved ones' gravesites, some very small indicating the death of a child, some larger and grander with even large stone sculptures or cement structures at their head. People for hire with shovels and buckets of water for the flowers roamed around, cleaning and weeding the gravesites. The site was not somber but respectfully joyous: musicians wandered amongst the gravesites and, when commissioned, played beautiful music with sentimental words and tones.  Tears came to the eyes of some family members and we dabbed our eyes, too, but not with sadness, rather with the joy of watching this moving spectacle.

Now for a little history of this well known tradition: Death in the majority of Mesoamerican cultures does not represent the end of life, but rather is the beginning of a new way of living with the gods. Day of the Dead coincides with harvest time and represents the living sharing the harvest and bounty with the dead. Day of the Dead symbols relate to sowing seeds and reaping the harvest and the relationship between life and death. Native traditions and symbols of Mesoamerica have over many years blended with those of Catholicism's All Souls and All Saints Days to create the beautiful celebrations of Day of the Dead in Mexico.

During Novemeber 1 (All Saints Day) altars are dedicated to the "little angels", children who have died. On November 2nd (All Souls Day) representations of the adults who have died take their place on the altars (photos and memorabilia of the one who has died).   On this day and night, it is believed that the souls of the devout return to their homes to regain strength from their favorite foods and drinks prepaared for them by the living.

A few of the many important elements are:

• Water, which represents the source of life, and is offered to the dead to quench their thirst and to give them life and energy for their "journey,"
• Salt: for purification, to keep the body and soul pure during their round trip journey.
• Candles which signify light, faith and hope.  The candlelight illuminates the way for the souls on their journey. The candles are aligned in the form of a cross to represent the compass points, helping to guide the spirits.
• White flowers (baby's breath, wallflowers and stock) to represent Heaven, kindness and pureness.
•Yellow flowers(marigolds) to represnt the soil and the power of light, sun and life.
• Various purple flowers to represent mourning of the dead.
• Red Flowers (Cockscomb- a flower with velvety petals) represents blood.
• Portraits and photos of the dead being honored.
• The favorite foods of the dead being honored.
• Drinks: the living drink atole (corn drink), hot chocolate and coffee to be with the dead.
• Liquor:  the favorite drinks of the dead are offered to remember good times.
Papeles Picatos (cut paper decorations) represent the joy of living.
• Skeletons: add humor and remind us that we will all eventually die.
• Fragrant fruits: for the enjoyment of the souls.  It is said, they "feed" on fragrance.
• Personal objects: the favorite items of those honored (their guitars, a child's toy, hats, tools)
• The three levels of the altars are from Catholocism and represent the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
•Flower arches represent the wish that those on Earth will be able to live with those in heaven.

For our part we erected a small altar in a window of our casa for our neighbors to see. We arranged marigolds, salt, rice and beans there with a folk art sculpture holding a skeletin and a small stand supporting a paper on which we wrote out (in Spanish) a memory of our three now deceased parents .  Unfortunately we did not have photographs of them with us, a fact that our maid pointed out to us sadly. In the end we felt redeemed when a neighbor,  a young man we have come to know, knocked on our door one evening and offered us a gift for our altar, three charming figures of animals sculpted from sugar. We truly felt part of the community and its traditions.  The Mexicans of San Miguel have adopted many of our "gringo " traditions as well. On Halloween day and night many children in costumes went door to door asking for treats. Now the local restaurants are graciously announcing the preparations for "our" Thanksgiving day festivities. More about that in my next blog.Hasta luego!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Cuba---Stalled but Still Strong

"---the whole country was like one of its  ancient cars, stalled, or hardly moving, a dinosaur jalopy running on empty, and being coaxed by patience and resourcefulness and sheer will power alone to bum and stumble along a street where all the lights were down."
                                                                                                     Pico Iyer: Cuba and The Night

 I wrote in my journal towards the end of our recent trip to this island country: Que es Cuba?  What is Cuba? We've been back now for almost a week and I am still struggling to summarize the melange of impressions I have of the country and its people. Pico Iyer's quote says it well, but it is even more. Perhaps it's best if I share with you some of the many activities we engaged in on the trip and the Cuban people who went out of their way to make our time there educational, fascinating, and fun.
Warning: this is my longest post ever!

We arrived at the Mexico City airport early on the morning of October 14th, coincidentally the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs which almost pushed our country to the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Check out the history if you need refresher course;we did. Tired after three great but busy days in Mexico City and arising early  to get to the airport in time for our 8:45 am flight, we were not prepared for the huge crowd that greeted us at Cubana airlines counter.  They were all talking Spanish, gesticulating in that special Latin way, and  pulling enormous suitcases and boxes wrapped in visqueen. As we got in line a woman holding two large plastic bags, approached me and asked if I would take the bags to Cuba.  It took me awhile to understand but I fianlly realized what she was hoping was that I would bring some goods to her relatives in Cuba. It is said that Cubana airlines doesn't make its profit from passengers but from the enormous amount of cargo it transports each day from Mexico city where many Cubanos now reside. Knowing that the US blockade has prevented their friends and relatives from getting even the daily necessities like soap, shampoo and household items, they seek to help. The woman seemed to understand when I refused to take her bags and said in Spanish: "Oh, don't worry---I understand."  Welcome to Cuba! I thought as I paid the $700 pesos requested at the counter (350 pesos each for Gary and me, which amounts to about $30/each US) for our tourist visas.

After 2.5 hours flight, we bumped down at the Havana airport, disembarqued and walked through the long lines to the immigration counters. Fortunately, the travel agency which helped with the details of our trip sponsored by the Center for Global Justice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, had a gentleman in a red shirt holding up our name to greet us. Carlos proceeded to guide us through the process. We had to present our academic visas, which he gave us before we stepped into a private cubicle one at a time and were photographed (Why, we didn't find out---just procedural, I guess.) Carlos was waiting on the other side and led us to the CADESA, the counter where we could exchange our money. We learned ahead of time that travelers cannot use credit cards or travelers checks drawn on any US bank or even foreign banks with US ownership. Yes, it's that damn embargo...excuse the expression.  Cuba has two currencies in circulation, the Cuban peso and the convertible peso or CUC.  Almost everything one would need to spend money on there will be in CUCs.  When you arrive you can exchange whatever currency you have into CUCs.  The usd now exchanges 1:1 with the CUC. However, there is a 10% surcharge on the usd because the US Treasury Departmenet has made it difficult for Cuba to use US dollars in its international trade.  The 10% is to cover their extra expenses in getting around that harrassment by the U.S.. We learned it was advisable to exhange our dollars into Canadian ones at home---that way, no surcharge. Just throwing this in as a little educational info in case you should go. By the way there are 25 Cuban pesos to a dollar and most people earn very few pesos a month. Of course, they have free health care and education. We were to learn later by talking to young people though that there is much malaise. They don't see the sence of working hard because they have no incentive. They cannot improve their salaries even with hard work.  The government seems to be recognizing this problem and they are in a period of big changes.  Now, they can open small businesses, like family owned restaurants and small tiendas (shops).

Carlos got us into a taxi, waved adios and off we went to the neighborhood known as Vedado where our Hotel Paseo Habana was located, and where we would meet our group of fellow travelers.  Violeta, our leader, is a lovely Mexicana who lived for seventeen years in the US and has recently moved back to Chiapas, Mexico. She was an intelligent and vivacious leader.  We were the first to arrive, so we had a good time getting to know her before the others came. We also had time to go off on our own and walk the streets of Vedado, an old  Havana neighborhood showing the signs of wear and tear on its many old Neo-classical buildings and homes, some now converted to multiple family dwellings, cultural centers, a writers and artists union and sometimes paladors, family owned restaurants. We learned "Vedado" means "Forbidden."  People who lived here and in the neighboring area called Miramar were trying to get away from the noise and congestion of "Viejo Havans," old Havana. There's even an old park in the neighborhood known as the John Lennon Park with a bronze likeness of John sitting on a park bench. Many of us took advantage of this photo op.  The Yellow Submarine is across the street.

We walked ten blocks to the Malacon, the walkway along the Caribbean, where there are a few large hotels co owned by foreign countries such as Spain along with the Cuban government. They split the revenue 40/60%. The famous Hotel National was a few blocks away---known for its heyday when the US mafia built it and used it for the center of its nefarious activities. We learned that in those days back in the 30's, 40's and 50's, under the dictatorship of Bautista, the US owned 80% of Cuba's industry.  Not unusual---remember United Fruit Company in Nicaragua?

First impressions during our walk were of a country frozen in another time: people driving old cars from the 50's, horse drawn carts, old motocycles with sidecars certainly contributed to this impression as well as the old buildings and pictures of Che Gueverra and Fidel in the early days of the Revolution.

When we got back to our hotel Violeta introduced us to our just arrived group of 5 woman fellow travelers, two from Boston, one from New York, another from New Mexico and one from Washington D.C.  Gary was the only guy in the group but didn't seem to mind. We all kidded him about the amount of dancing he was going to have to do.  After a fun reception where we met our hosts, the Society of Philosophy, responsible for planning all of the ten days activities, we enjoyed a drink on the front porch where we could relax in big old wooden rockers.  For the next ten days this was our gathering place before taking off for the day's activities, some shared lunches and dinners. We were also given free time to walk or take taxis whereever we wanted, but were encouraged to honor our hosts by being on time for all planned activities. These included visits to cultural centers, a music school, the National Dance School for students 14-19.  Many past graduates have become world renowned such as the famous ballerina, Alicia Alonzo. One of our group was a former dancer and  ballet enthusiast. She, along with us, loved it when the students invited us to dance with them to some lively Cuban music. We also visited the University where our daily tour guide, Rosita, is working for her doctorate.  Since education is free, many Cubans are highly educated.  I particularly enjoyed our visit to a famous art school where the students and faculty proudly showed off their printmaking, sculpture and paintings.  The high level of talent and skill is worthy of mention.

We visited the National Museum of the Revolution and remarked on a large bust of Abraham Lincoln much admired in Cuban society for "freeing the slaves"---of course there is a huge AfroCuban population and one of the goals of the Revolution was to end racism which, on the surface, they have done. We understand that some racial tensions are re-emerging but we didn't see any evidence of this.  Only time will tell.  We also saw the boat that was given to Fidel and Che during the Revoluton  by an American Fisherman. He named the boat "Granma" after his grandmother and today the only Cuban daily newspaper is called "Granma." The original boat has been on display since 1974.  An important annoucement came out on the front page of "Granma" on the third day of our visit: the government announced that now Cubans are free to travel anywhere in the world they wish without having to get an invitation as before, as long as they can get a Visa from that country.  It's a very big change and we could see the Cuban's enthusiastic response.

We had presentions many days for two to three hours at the nearby Jose Marti Cultural Center from Professors of Political Science talking about Cuba's Electoral System, the history of Cuba's Liberation from the Spanish in the 1800's and later their Revolution in the 50's led by Fidel Castro, Che Gueverra and Camilo.  We learned about the tremendous suffering of the people after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba's main trading partner after President Eisenhower refused to help the country following the Revolution of 1959,  and the  overthrow of Bautista. The US still maintains as you know, one of the military bases there, Guantanamo, which is Cuban property. They also have  a large building right in Havana called the American Interest Section employing about 100 US citizens, where Cubans must go for Visas.  So, in spite of the great economic anguish the US has caused Cuba they have no designs for revenge on us---Cubans are open and friendly. They do talk about the nine years following the fall of the Berlin wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union as being years of extreme poverty, hardship and pain. With increasing tourism, Cuba has been working its way back to stability, but there is evidence everywhere of the toll that the US embargo (known by them as the"blockade") has taken.  Once beautiful old Neo-classical buildings of multiple stories are crumbling from lack of money to maintain them. They are often now inhabited by multiple families.  Others, built in the style of the fifties, influenced by the Bauhaus movement and appearing more "modern" are also crumbling---no longer private homes but places for cultural centers, government offices, workers unions, etc.

One area in which Cuba is highly developed is medicine. One telling indicator of this is Cuba's low infant mortality rate. As of last year there were only 5.4 deaths per 1000 births, the  lowest infant mortality rate in the hemisphere---lower than in the U.S. Cuba has more doctors per capita than any other country in the world---in all, some 130 thousand healthcare professionals and has been able to send its medical personnel to assist in many of the poorest regions of the world.  To learm more about this see the film "Salud" a documentary film available from  NetFlix. Through its Latin American School of Medicine, Cuba gives free medical education to hundreds of poor youth from elsewhere in Latin America, Africa and even from the U.S. with the sole stipulation that graduates return to those poor areas to practice medicine for the people.

A presentation by Dr. Olga Fernandez Rios, a Ph.D in Political Theory taught us much about the Cuban political and electoral system, which in many ways seemed more democratic than our system so bogged down with the electoral college.  If anyone is interested I am transcribing my notes and would be happy to send them to you. It's too much to put in this blog. The main accomplishments, she said, of the Revolution were: one, the throwing off of the cloak of colonialism, and two,  the opportunity to overcome social inequities. The Revolution consolidated political power which delivered security, dignity and a sense of participation in democracy.  Social justice became a main premise for development. Agrarian Reform redistributed land to the peasants and laborers, and created food security for all.  Housing reform meant that now 85% of Cubans own their own homes, albeit small and run-down from what we could tell.  There is a universal and publicly managed system of social security and retirement for all and a National System of Education free of charge at all levels. Universal and free health care is also a result of the Revolution.  Life expectancy is higher than in the U.S.: age 77 for men and 80 for women. These are just a few of the many things we learned.

A few more facts about the country: Cuba is a small archipeligo with 1,600 islets in the Caribbean Sea.  It has a population of 11.300, 000 people, 15 provinces and 169 municipalities. The capitol of course, is Havana with a population of 2 million.  One quarter of the island is low lying planes, carpeted with sugar, citrus, tobacco and vegetable crops.  Though, admittedly, we sometimes wondered where the vegetables were in our daily restaurant meals. We found the food preparation and variety somewhat lacking.  Often, even in our hotel, where our breakfasts were included, the staff would have to apologize because they were out of certain things. Ordering ice cream cones one day we discoved that paper was scarse when we asked for a napkin to soak up our dripping cones. "There are none" was the answer.  Small things we take for granted like this woke us up to how much the "blockade" has hurt the country and its people.  They seem amazingly resilient and resourceful,  in spite of these conditons. We enjoyed watching guys repairing their old cars along the sidewalks, tools spread out right there where we were walking: an old chevy might have a recycled engine from a Ford, or visa versa.

Another highlight was the day we were driven out to the country in our luxurious tour bus (Cuba imported over 5000 of these recently from China, a plus for their tourist industry). We went to Venalis, a beautiful region southwest of Havana, known for its many limestone caves.  The surrounding mountains, lush green land, trees, birds and flowers were rewarding to see. Hiking down into the caves was also a thrill.

We visited a small neighborhood in Havana and learned much about the Af-rican influenced religion practiced by many known as Santeria with its gods and goddesses going back to the roots of these African Cubans. The all-woman band accompanied dancers dressed in costumes representing the gods as they performed for us in a small off-street courtyard.  Another day, some of us took a private taxi out to a small Havana neighborhood where Jose Fustor  has created a maze of marvelous mosaic creations.
(You can google this.)

Our last day in Havana included a visit to a huge warehouse of individually owned craft stalls. Though much of what was for sale was mass produced and similar in style, probably even from China, there were exceptions in the number of original paintings by Cuban artists, wood carvings and jewelry.  We ended the day back at the Jose Marti Cultural Center for a lovely party organized by our hosts and featuring a nationally known AfroAmerican(their name) group of musicians, singers, dancers and a poet.  Snacks were served and the music and dancing was wonderful. The sensous movements of the dancers, in time with the AfroCuban music, was thrilling.

"Que es cuba?": Cuba is an island, a country, a people of many colors, an idea, a revolutionary experiment born from the ideals of its national hero, Jose Marti, poet and dreamer, and from its leaders like Fidel Castro and Che Gueverra. Cuba is a beautiful land of flowers, birds and green mountains, and Cubanos are coffee and cream, moving to the rhythms of salsa and rumba, proud of their culture but dreaming of a better life---una vida mejore---sometime in the near future.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Return to Mexico

Hola to all our family and friends:

Well, I know it's been a long time between posts. All of you have been busy, too, I'm sure. Between the time we returned to the states on April 1, 2012 until now, we have made many changes in our lives as well as spent a funpacked summer. I'll try to highlight those and catch you up.

 Our biggest news is we sold our house on August 27th after just four days on the market! Lucky us. For the next four weeks life was pretty hectic as we sorted, sold, gave away and stored our home furnishings, artwork, and personal belongings in preparation for our October 1st departure to Mexico. Daughters Dawn and Tiffany were a blessing, as usual, housing us for the last week, and putting up with our extra stuff.  We kidded them that it was "payback" for the post college years we stored their stuff.

We are now back in San Miguel de Allende for the next six months. We're staying at the casita on La Palma where we spent last winter. It's the home of friends who sublet it to us, conveniently located not far from the center of town, known as El Jardin. The weather is lovely, as usual: sunshine, blue skies and temperate climate of 73-80 degrees each day, a  bit like our Portland Indian Summer before we left. It was hard to leave with such lovely weather but  it's fun to run into our former San Miguel neighbors and friends made last winter.

We're still recuperating from the exhaustion of our sale and move but it feels good and natural to be back here. No, we're not moving permanently to Mexico but imagine our paths will take us here often in the winters of our lives in the years to come. It's a good footing for taking off on other adventures in Latin America. We still support Eco-Viva which assists small rural communities in El Salvador and I hope to revisit the communities there sometime in the next year.

My current pre-occupation is to complete  revisions on my novel and get it sent out on Monday to the four agents I "pitched" to in August at the Willamette Writers conference. They all expressed enthusiastic interest and requested the first fifty pages, which was very exciting. Just have to put the final polish on those pages so wish me luck in first, getting an agent, and secondly, finding a publisher. Writing the novel has been a three year project and I'm anxious to see it in print and to share it with all of you.

The WW Conference followed on the heels of a wonderful workshop I took in Joseph, Oregon at the annual Fishtrap gathering of writers.  I was fortunate to study with one of the workshop learders, Luis Urrea, former Pulitzer prize nominee for his book The Devil's Highway and author of Hummingbirds Daughter and Queen of America as well as others. I've read all three and highly recommend them to the readers amongst you. Luis encouraged me heartily to pursue publication of my novel and recommended several agents, three of whom I was able to meet at the conference in August. I was truly inspired by him. Gary enjoyed the week also with kayaking on Wallawa Lake and some hiking. We enjoyed our tent camper and the beautiful natural environment of this northeastern corner of Oregon, one of our favorite places, home of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce native peoples.

Other highlights of the spring and smmer were celebrating a significant birthday on April 21st with my two daughters with a weekend at the beach, a birding trip to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Oregon in May, and kayaking with my new woman's kayaking group. The all-woman group met every Thursday morning to kayak a different lake, river or slough in our region. I enjoyed the companionship of new friends and their enthusiasm for the sport.  I've learned to hoist my kayak up on the top of my car with the help of a new rack and roller and love exploring the out-of-doors by kayak.

A favorite kayaking spot is the Nehalem river, on the Oregon Coast, where Gary and I had the good fortune to spend some weekends at a small cottage (400 sq.feet---cozy!)we recently purchssed from a friend and former neighbor. Our Nehalem place will be our "get-away" together and individually. It may be  our only Oregon "home" for awhile once we return in late March, 2013. We plan on looking for the next small "ideal place" in the Portland area and will divide our time between there, to be near our kids, and Mexico.

It's time to close this missive which is longer than I planned, or you might want to read. My apologies. Like my dear friend Peggy might say: TMI (too much information). Hope you all had a great summer and will follow me on my adventures in Mexico in the coming months. My next blog post will be in three weeks after our return from Cuba. We are joining others on the Global Justice Center of San Miguel's Cuba trip, October 14-24th. We'll spend a few days next week in Mexico City before our departure to the "forbidden island"---we are looking forward to learning more and enjoying the culture, Afro-Cuban music and dance and visits to schools, hospitals and cultural centers. Traveling for us is always a learning experience.  Pray for no hurricanes. I promise photos.

Adios for now, amigos, Sher

Monday, April 16, 2012

Last days in Mexico, Visiting Guanajuato

Our slides will tell you most of what's to show and tell about Guanajuato, another beautiful colonial town of the Central Highlands, where we spent our last four days before flying back to Portland on March 31st. We loved exploring the many streets and neighborhoods. It seems much larger than San Miguel with the accompanying crowds and traffic,but fortunately many streets are for the pedestrians only and wandering them is like being in a candy box. We also loved the cultural offerings from concerts to theatre, and fabulous art shows. There's a famous university in Guanojuato and the evidence was in the many young people from around the world we saw on the streets. It reminded us of being in Salamanca, Spain in 2003. We came at just the right time, after the Pope's visit but in time for the amazing Dia de Los Flores (Day of the Flowers). We were also invited on our first night, by our French hostess and owner of the small casita we rented next to her house, to an amazing "inaugaration" at the Municiple Art Museum of three artists selected to tour the country---the "stars" of the contemporary Mexican Art Scene. Part of the exhibit was held at the Diego Rivera home and museum where we saw many other artists work and even got a peek of Diego and Frida, posthumously, in paper mache form.

Sit back and enjoy a trip to Guanajuato with us. I'll soon be home in Portland and look forward to talking to some of you and seeing others who live near by. Let me know your reactions to "Adventures with Sher." Hope you've enjoyed the trip to Mexico!

Adios, amigos! Sher

The Spring Equinox in San Miguel de Allende-March 21, 2012

Enjoy some photos of our Spring Equinox celebration:

Hola and Felices Primavera,

I would like to share with everyone the way we celebrated the Spring Equinox this year in San Miguel. A half hour's hike from our casa is an amazing Botanical Garden known as El Charco de Ingenio. Set in the heart of the central highlands, this nature reserve covers more than 300 acres adjacent to our town of San Miguel de Allende. It is the result of a nongovernmental initiative, begun in 1990, to rescue and protect a treasured area benefiting and open to all sectors of the community. It is committed to the restoration and conservation of it's native econsystems. In 2004 it was proclaimed a Peace Zone by the visiting Dalai Lama.

Each Spring members of the community are invited to join a local shaman to celebrate Spring and the four directions, East,West, North and South. An impressive ceremony is held in the center of a big stone plaza built for such occasions. Flower seeds are blessed and thrown in a fire, and the winds carry our blessings for the Spring planting. At the conclusion of the ceremony we are all invited to walk along the small pathways down to a deep Canyon surrounding a wetland. Along the way, are tables set up with small pottery cups filled with mescal, a native drink made from the Maguey plant, and we are invited, for a small donation to El Charco, to imbibe. We find a place amongst the rocks and settle down for a concert. Two years ago when we participated, we had the pleasure of hearing a very famous Opera Star from Mexico City perform excerpts from many well known operas. This year the limelight was on an internationally known pianist. As unbelievable as it seemed, they actually managed to get the piano carried down the trails and over the rocks to sit perched on a precarious landing. Very impressive. We enjoyed the company of a delightful French woman, Françoise and her Mexican husband, sitting near us as we all anticipated the concerts' beginning. Music started, we settled into our hard seating and fell mesmerized into a dream like state---no, we didn't drink too much mescal, but admittedly it probably helped us to relax. As I sat there, my eyes perused the crowd of people sitting below, above and beside, young Mexican families, teenage lovers, old lovers, gringos and Mexicans alike. It is a time of community and interconnectedness as we reflect on the new season and watch birds soaring above and time slips by and music collides with the setting sun.

I hope you enjoy the photos and can imagine yourself there next Spring. We know we will be back. I'll add a few more photos of El Charco's treasures, the extensive botanical collection of cactus and other native Mexican species, which are rare and in danger of extinction. Many of these plants have been collected from different parts of the country. Enjoy---disfruta!


Reflections on the Light and Dark Sides of San Miguel

One day while walking to the Centro, I was thinking of all the things I love about San Miguel and the things I don't like---I call it the Light and Dark Sides of SMA. Let me elucidate. I love the beautiful and colorful old colonial buildings with their inner courtyards filled with tropical flora, the local small tiendas (shops for groceries, sundries and anything one would need)on nearly every street corner. I love the sounds of the church bells on the hour, passing the beautiful La Perroquia, at dusk as the lights come on. I call it the "wedding cake church" because of its fanciful baroque architecture, Most of all I love the gente, the people who are so kind and respectful, full of zest for life, and real. I love the music and all the fiestas in spite of the frequent and startling sounds of the firecrackers going off at all hours of the night.

And, I love my barrio, my neighborhood in the colonia of San Antonio. As I walk along the cobbled streets I now feel "at home" and can't express how much I love the sunshine and warmth. Gary and I often stroll home in the evenings as late as ten or ten-thirty in short sleeves. It's good to not feel the chill of Portland's winters. Si, there is much to love about San Miguel de Allende. (Read about"Mi Barrio" and see photos in the post titled "Mi Barrio")Oh, and let me not forget the favorite site I have seen everyday in March, the amazingly beautiful blooming jacaranda trees, flourishing purple against clear blue skies.

Now,for the "dark side" of San Miguel, just in case you should think that I am surely looking through rose colored glasses. I don't like the dog poop on the sidewalks, the rebar on the tops of many of the rooftops (even though I understand the reason for this is the lowering of the taxes for the people when the building appears not finished). I don't like the many holes in the streets where one can twist an ankle or break a leg. Again it's understandable. This is a four hundred year old city. The Mexicans are constantly working on the streets and trying to fill holes, improve the old sewer system and replace cobbles. Our Mexican friend, Maria Elena, who's an engineer for the city, said the "hole problem " is getting worse due to the people, who at night steal the metal plates off the utility meters in the streets and sidewalks, in order to sell the metal. It's a never ending problem, an economic one. Many people are poor and they will do whatever it takes for "dinero."

I don't like the small bits of garbage that's sometimes thrown carelessly in the streets, despite the every other day free garbage pick-up in San Miguel and the small trash bins attached to electric light poles along many of the main streets. Last Wednesday, the annual childrens Spring Parade, showed us there is a growing environmental consciousness, though, as children, all decked out in bumblebee, flower and bunny costumes, carried signs that said in Spanish, "Protect the Environment", "Recycle and Reuse" and other "green" messages. It may take a couple of generations to change the habits of the people.

I don't like that there are teens and kids languishing on the streets with no work and often joining gangs that spray grafiti on the lovely old buildings in certain neighborhoods; I don't like that they sometimes feel the only answer is that they flee to El Norte, the US, for "a better life" and then some die crossing over. It is up to the governments of both the US and Mexico to change our migration policies. We in the states need to put more pressure to find a better and more humane immigration policy and the Mexican government must do more to help its poorest of the poor.

Another thing I don't like is the number of poor old women, and young ones with children, sitting on the sidewalks with hands outstretched begging for just a little "moneda"(a few coins)for survival. I feel sad every time I pass them and, until recently, I always dug down in my pockets, to drop a few pesos into their hands. Recently I learned this is not a good idea. Many of these women from the "campo", the countryside, are being prostituted by men who bring them into town early in the morning in the back of pickups, along with "rented" children who have been drugged. We've always wondered why the children seem so passive and inert,willing to sit all day long in the laps or beside the women. Of course, what tears at our "gringo" hearts the most? ---poor women and children. Our Mexican friends and others who have lived here longer than us tell us to avoid giving and instead put pressure on the municiple governement to have the same policies they used to have, to fine and imprison the "pimps" who are preying on these ignorant women of the campo. Nobody seems to understand why that policy has not continued. Many of the poor people in the campo have farmland, but with the last few years drought and the competition from big agri-businesses, they find it hard still to grow enough and/or sell enough to make ends meet. They are enticed to try and earn more by street begging. Well, it's a complicated issue, but definitely a "dark side" of San Miguel.

But then there's always another bright side. One of those is the excellent medical and dental treatment here. Many of the ex-pats have purposely moved here because of the excellent care they can get at affordable prices. Well trained doctors (many educated in top rate institutions in the US) still make house calls. A friend of ours who had a bad case of food poisoning was given excellent care; his doctor came to the house and called each day until he was well. Gary and I have both had to have some dental work done here recently, and our new crowns cost us a third of what they would be in the states. In addition, my dentist, a woman, sent me daily emails from her iphone, to check on how I was doing and to make sure I didn't have any pain. When the final crown was put on and I walked out of her office, we hugged and I commented "In the US we usually don't hug our dentists!"

All and all, there are more bright sides to life in San Miguel than there are dark. We look forward to continuing our odyssey here in the following years that we are alive and well.
There is a cultural pre-disposition among Mexicans to like and,in fact,cherish older people. It is not unusual to see older Mexican or gringo women, being gently supported on the arm of a young Mexican girl or boy, helping their "abualita," or employer down the street, carrying her groceries or helping walk her dog. It's a culture with a proclivity for kindness and respect. Everything reported about violence in Mexico is not always true in all parts.

So, to wrap it up, the adventures go on and they are Muy Bueno!

We will spend our last four days in Mexico, in Guanoguato, a lovely neighboring colonial town. Then, on March 31st, we wing home from the airport in Leon, just a half hour from there. We will be back to our Portland casa by late Saturday night, March 31st, ready for Spring!

Hope you are all well and healthy and we look forward to making contact with friends and family once we are settled back into our Portland routine. Felize Primavera---Happy Spring!

Hasta luego,

Mi Barrio

Dear amigos,

It's going to be hard to leave my neighborhood, mi barrio. This past week I have loved talking to the shopkeepers, my haircutting neighbor, Sandy, who cuts Gary's and my hair for 30 pesos ($2.50 once a month). We'll miss our grocer, Antonio,and the old man, who stops with his burro every couple of weeks and calls out "suelo", soil. Most houses in San Miguel do not have yards with gardens, but instead these old, colonial homes come with courtyards, patios and terraces where people delight in creating their "potted gardens"---thus, the "dirt man". Yolanda, the flower lady will be missed, also. I've enjoyed her tap on the door every Friday with her arms filled with fresh flowers. It's fun to buy a bouquet to adorn our small casa before guests come for dinner or margaritas on the weekend at the low cost of 20-40 pesos ($1.50-3.50). Such a deal!

I love the children I hear each day, practicing with their marching band in the corner school yard, or running out at the close of the day to play in the beautiful old square at the end of our street in front of our neighborhood 16th century church. Two old guys sell them sherbet and ice cream at the square, and I stop to talk with them on my way to and fro. There is much to love and delight one in this quarter of town, called "Colonia San Antonio." Like other barrios, we even have our patron Saint, a sculpture of Saint Anthony, gracing a corner fountain. Visiting artists often come and set up their easels in the street to do some "plein air" painting, and local musicians strum their guitars in the plaza. Young lovers snuggle on the old ornate iron benches under the trees.

Yes, it's going to be hard to say "Adios" to our barrio when we leave, but we know we will be back. Hope you enjoy a peek at a few photos of"mi barrio."

Maybe next year some of our friends and family will join us here. Hasta luego!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Winding Down our San Miguel Stay (Forgive the late post)

Hola Amigos,

We are winding down our stay in San Miguel and feel sad we are leaving though it will be wonderful to see family back in the states. As you can tell by the lack of recent posts, we have had a very fun but busy month since I last wrote. Our activities with new and old friends, yoga classes, an encaustic workshop with a fine artist here, movies, my Spanish conversation group, the Cuba dance festival, and my presentation on EcoViva and our work in El Salvador, have filled my time---it's all been fun and stimulating. Gary has completed a couple more carved birds and enjoys the Global Justice programs at the bibliotecha.

We saw an excellent film at the Theatro Santa Ana at the Bibliotech that I highly recommend: . It brought back memories of our 2006 trip to Bolivia where we learned about the Water War of 2002. Though the film is a fictional story of filmmakers making a film about the Spanish conquistadores' exploitation of the native peoples, it coincides with the actual current day exploits of multinational corporations and the privatization of water. It's moving and educational. We've actually seen many wonderful documentaries and other films while down here. One of the groups supporting young girls, raising money for educational scholarships for them, had a fun and successful fundraiser the night of the Academy Awards. Guests walked the red carpet like the stars and then sat down outside on big patios at a B&B which was once a famous bordello in San Miguel. We watched the broadcast of the award ceremony on two big screens while being served wine and hors d'oeuvres by roving young waiters. They raised $2000 which will help young Mexican girl. The following week we were able to see several of the winning films.

On March 21st, Gary and I presented our own program at the Bibliotecha, sponsored by the Center for Global Justice, about our work in El Salvador through the NGO we support, EcoViva. We had a really nice turn-out and were very pleased, as many expressed an interest in joining us on an Empowerment Tour to El Salvador next year, and also wanted to help support EcoViva's good work. It took some time preparing the power point presentation but I had a great helper, Mark Saunders, as my tech guide. He's the author of a new and very funny book "Nobody Knows the Spanish I Speak" and also 30 plays which have been produced on and off Broadway. We met him and his wife Arlene a month ago at the writers conference. We learned they are former Portlanders who moved down here to live permanently two years ago. They love it, and their big poodle, Duke, does, too. Mark has a wonderful sense of humor and we have enjoyed getting to know them both. They will be back in Portland for a visit in April and he will be having a book signing party. I'd like to invite you all, who live in Portland, to come. Will send out a save the date notice soon.

We leave here on March 27th to spend four days in the charming town of Guanajuato, about an hour from here. It's nearer the airport in Leon so we will take advantage of that as we wing our way back to Portland, on March 31st. Hope you've enjoyed adventures with Sher. Stay tuned for future blogs, about Guanajuato, my novel, and life back in Portland. Hasta luego!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

On the Path of the Monarch

See my slideshow. Clicking on photos will show the captions. Enjoy!

Still catching my breath from the writers conference, Gary and I packed up our suitcase two days later, and headed to Michoacan with the local Audabon group to visit the Monarchs, literally, butterflies without borders. These beautiful mariposas make their annual migration, traveling up to 3,000 miles to and from Northeastern Canada to the same over-wintering sight in the central Mexican highlands.  This phenomenon, which includes three to four generations in one year intrigues scientists and laymen alike, who have not been able to unravel the mystery of how they do it or know to do it, always coming back to the same places. Today, like so many other species, these magnificent butterflies, with little nectar from the milkweed flowers they depend on due to industrial agriculture,  and compromised sources of water, are being greatly challenged.  More and more of their winter habitat is being destroyed by illegal logging in Rosario Reserve of Michoacan.  It’s a complex issue as the poor people living there need to sell the wood for their livelihood. Of course, climate change is also profoundly affecting the butterflies. We have included many photos and hope you all have a chance to see the Monarchs someday, before they are gone from these once even more densely butterfly populated sights in Mexico.

The Writing Life in San Miguel

See my slideshow.  If you click on the individual photos you will get the captions.

Well, February sure flew by like a cat on fire---poor metaphor, but best for now.  Paradoxically, I did a lot of writing but not on my blog.  Now, I’m going to try to catch you up to date on my adventures in San Miguel de Allende.

The month began with my spending much of my time preparing for the 7th Annual International San Miguel Writers Conference.  In between long hours of working on my novel, finishing the last three chapters and brushing up the first part, I was attending some great presentations such as two on writers who would be keynoting the conference, such as Margaret Atwood from Canada, Joy Harjo, native American poet and songwriter/musician.  Also, on the program was Elena Poniatowska, one of Mexico's foremost journalists, writers and good will ambassadors now in her late eighties.  I attended a play with characters straight from her books, all in Spanish.  There was also a book group discussion on Margaret Atwood’s most recent dystopic, speculative fiction, The Year of the Flood.  It was a great opportunity to delve into Atwood's ideas, which are dense with metaphor and meaning while describing a not too positive future for mankind and Earth. Fortunately the heavy nature of the topic is accented by her clever wit and puns.

While I was doing this, Gary was enjoying making new friends here, taking long walks with his camera, the results you will see in some of the photos documenting the wonders of San Miguel.  He also did some sweet miniature bird carvings, enjoying the sun on our terrace and a chance to chip and carve away at the soft Mexican wood he found.  We attended some films and talks together, mostly political in nature, presented by the excellent Center for Global Justice. A day in the "compo," visiting CEDESA, a small community demonstrating many projects on sustainable living, was a good counterpoint to our days in our colonial city with its hustle and bustle.  CEDESA is a project started by a Catholic priest from Spain nearly fifty years ago when he was sent here by the Church. He quickly realized the poor peasants needed more than religion. Teaching them to read and write, he also helped them do sustainable agriculture, way before we all used that term, to feed their families. Now it is a demonstration community being used to help other composinos improve their production of food, save water (a precious resource here in the drought ridden central highlands), distill water through a hand-built solar system.  As the local aquifer is lowering more and more every year, and getting closer to the bottom, they are discovering high levels of arsenic and fluoride, which have severe deleterious health effects.  They have developed a very clever, low-cost, solar driven, distillation system which is helping to alleviate the heavy metals from their water. Newly developed wood burning stoves which conserve wood necessary to prepare their tortillas and other foods are also helping lower the rate of lung cancer in women and children while also saving the forests.  The community prepared a delicious organic lunch for us and we enjoyed the educational benefits of the day immensely.  It reminds us of our small communities in El Salvador that we support.  I will be giving a presentation on Eco-Viva’s work there, on March 21st, an event being sponsored by Global Justice. More writing assignments, preparing the advertising and the presentation, which brings me back to my writing life.

A week before the conference, I met a former acquaintance who’s also a fine writer. She told me about the writing group, which had just met once, and encouraged me to participate.  We had a wonderful mentor, a former writing instructor from the New School in New York and author of five books, fiction and non-fiction. I decided to join and enjoyed the camaraderie of four other writers and the fine suggestions of our mentor. I finally finished my last chapters of the novel and the final rewrites and polishing are in process, taking into account all that I learned in the conference’s intense workshops.  Needless to say, the conference was fabulous with entertaining as well as stimulating activities to attend from morning ‘till night.  Highlights were the keynote addresses, a wonderful one woman play, “That Dorothy Parker,” written and performed by award winning Carol Lampert, and the fun Mexican Fiesta held the third night of the conference. It was fun to meet so many talented writers from all parts of North and South America amongst the 218 participants.  The San Miguel community was invited to many of the special events which filled the big Hotel Real de Minas’ ballroom which accommodated around 850 people.  It was called “The Creative Crossroads of the Americas” and one could quickly ascertain why: it was truly a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic event.  One woman,a Huichole Indian. wore her lovely traditional attire every day and was a colorful attendee we couldn’t miss. Lastly, our conference was bookended by two fabulous presentations: one, by Sharon Robinson, the writer and daughter of the famous baseball star, first to integrate baseball back in the late forties, the late Jackie Robinson.  The other special guest speaker was Naomi Wolf noted political activist, writer and filmmaker. She premiered her documentary film, “The End of America,” and gave a follow-up lecture called “Protest 101.”  Are you out of breath yet?  Well, I was and am still recuperating from this provocative and fabulous conference. 
Life continues to be a fascinating journey in San Miguel de Allende!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Una Semana, A Week in San Miguel de Allende

Another wonderful week in San Miguel de Allende.  Here's a few photos:

Si, it's been another amazing week in San Miguel de Allende beginning with last Friday night's walk through the main square, next to the Jardin ( garden in Spanish; in this case it's the main square), where lots of people were playing music and dancers in satirical costumes were performing to the beat of the music.  On the other side of the Jardin were dancers in Aztec costumes performing to traditional drumming.  We walked home dancing the the beat of the drums and marveling at all the visual stimuli of this magical city.

Saturday morning we walked over to the weekly Organic Market, where we learned we could buy wonderful organically grown veggies, herbs, grains and also cheese from our favorite cheese guy, Pedro.
I'll try to include photos of the outdoor market in next week's posting.  I was so enthralled and busy buying foods for our luncheon, I forgot to take photos.  On the way there we were stopped by the big parade celebrating the 243rd birthday of Ignacio Allende, the namesake of San Miguel and father of the Mexican Revolution in 1810.  It was such a delight watching the parade of schoolchildren in their uniforms with their marching bands, the city officials, bomberos (firemen), local caballeros from the countryside and the lovely Señoritas chosen as queens for the day, that we could hardly tear ourselves away.  We did our errands quickly and came back to our casa to finish our preparations for the luncheon we were having for our friends Francisca, and her daughter Maria Elena.  Francisca and family have hosted us at their home for the past three years and I first met her when I studied Spanish here thirteen years ago.  They are the family that invited us to celebrate the Dia de Las Tres Reyes that I described a couple of blogs ago.  We wanted to reciprocate with a lunch for them.  After a pleasant afternoon of mostly Spanish conversation, with me trying to translate for Gary, we learned from Maria Elena that there was to be a big concert performed by the Mexican Military Symphonic Orchestra and Chorus. It was to start at 6:00 at the main plaza.  We arrived just as it began. The orchestra performed music from many Latin American countries,  and the chorus sang the typical folk songs. They also used traditional ornaments of many of the countries, like the "cuatro" a fourstring guitar from Venezuela. It ended with one of the most beautiful firework displays we have even seen, hands down, shooting off fire and splendor above our heads and lighting up a big Buen 243rd Ignacio Allende sign across the plaza.  Once again we forgot our camera, but it's imprinted in our minds and we can still hear the beautiful sonidas of the music.

On Sunday, our friend Luisa picked us up about noon and we drove out to Atontonilco, a small historical town about 35km from here on the road to Dolores Hildalgo.  There we visited the amazing church,(see photos in slideshow), famous for its ornate interior frescoes and decoration, and unique sculptures, as well as for it's interesting architectural design.  We wandered the open market, stopped for some quesadillas made with blue corn tortillas filled with cheese and mushrooms---um, muy richo. We had intended to go to Las Grutas, the hotsprings resort nearby but it was so crowded we all decided to head for another small village Luisa wanted to show us with hundreds of stalls filled with pottery, metal arts, furniture, mirrors and crafts.  It was fun to peruse and we resisted buying anything, though, other than stopping for a Michalada, a special drink made with beer, tomatoe juice and lots of spices.  Luisa and I shared one big one, but unfortunately, Gary had to forego the pleasure since he can't drink beer with his gluten allergy.

Tuesday I began my fun Spanish Conversation class with a great group of Canadians and North Americans, which I will be attending every Tuesday and Thursday for two hours.  Our "maestro", Jose is a great leader and everyone joins in the stimulating conversation about the book we are all reading in Spanish, Cajas de Cartones by Francisco Jimenes.  We often get sidetracked into other fascinating topics like comparing customs of different cultures, countries we have visited, issues like immigration, etc.  I come out of the class, which is held in a favorite local cafe backroom, with my head all abuzz!

Gary had fun re-connecting with Roberto, a guy we met two years ago down here.  They went out today on a photoshoot of "local color" (photos to be published in next week's blog).Roberto is a great dancer and the three of us are going dancing at the Parque Juarez this coming Sunday for the Festival of Candelaria.  More on that later.

On Wednesday, we were invited to a dinner party by some Portlanders I met at an art workshop the previous week.  Alice and her husband, Hal, a former doctor, turned painter,  built a beautiful home down here nine years ago.  It was a treat to see and we enjoyed the other couple attending as well.  Brion is the curator of the Lilly Rare Book Library, one of the largest collections of rare books and documents in the world.  It's located at the University of Indiana in Bloomington.  His wife Linda, owns a fitness business and is a chic and delightful woman.  The dinner table conversation included everything from rare books, to art, to our mutual travels, global politics,  Obama's State of the Union speech and more. We lingered carrying on a stimulating dialogue, all surprised to look down at our watches and learn it was 11:00 o'clock.  Not an atypical evening in San Miguel.

We also attended two interesting, but sad, films on immigration this week sponsored by the local Global Justice committee I think I have told you about.  Very good timeing for me as a theme in my novel is immigration and I could use some of the facts disclosed to include in my fictional story (more to come on that later).  I'm nearing the finish line of the first draft, with the rewrites completed on the first half of what looks like will be a thirty chapter book.  Any volunteer readers out there? On the subject of immigration, I had an interesting conversation with our substitute housekeeper today.  Our regular housekeeper, Josafina, had to be away today for reasons I won't go into now. Christina shared with me her experiences "crossing over" six years ago to join her husband who was a documented worker in a Chicago restaurant.  She could not get a Visa for a minimum of ten years so decided to join several other women from her community and try to "cross over".  Her tale is harrowing and as she said it was "muy feo," an ugly and frightening experience.  Stay tuned for details later in my novel.  Her's is not the first story I have heard about how difficult it is for those seeking work in El Norte, undocumented workers our nation needs, the ones who pick our crops, work in homes and in restaurants, and live difficult lives away from their families if they even survive the trip North.  Thousands have died in the desert or drowned in the canal south of San Diego over the past then years since the WALL has been built. Many of my Salvadoran friends have shared similar tales.  It's enough to convince me to lobby for changes in our immigration laws. It becomes a moral question about our inhumanity to man.  These are people so desperate to find work they will risk their lives. There's got to be a better policy.  Try to see the documentary The 800Mile Wall.  I believe you will want to change the policies of our governement vis-a-vis immigrantes, too!

Well, family and friends, I'm signing off.  It's late and tomorrow is another day in San Miguel.  We're staying home and taking it easy. Have to get prepared for our dancing on Sunday!  We send our hopes that you are all well and happy and not suffering too much cold winter weather.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Daily Life in San Miguel de Allende

Here's our new slideshow of photos from San Miguel:

Hope you like them!

We can't believe we have been here almost three weeks. Finally recovered from my bout of San Miguel "gripe" (sore throat and congestion), I'm back into the swing of things full steam and enjoying every moment.  The town still holds much charm for us, and we love the slower pace of life in Mexico.  Our neighbors are friendly and it's great to start out on our jaunts into el centro greeted with "Hola," or "Buenos dios..."

Days begin with sounds: the doves cooing on our rooftop, the garbage man hitting metal on metal, like a pair of musical symbols. Garbage service here is free three days a week.  We can hear  the local school children walking by on their way to the Primeria (Elementary School) up the street and the rich timbre of church bells from San Antonio church just a short block away.  There are different street noises for all the services:  the water bottle delivery man blows a whistle, the gas guy bangs on the door to see if we need more propane  and  the local herrero(iron smith) calls out for scrap metal through his loudspeaker on his truck. Occasionally a man with a donkey comes by selling herbs.  On Fridays we hear a loud tap on our metal front door downstairs around eleven o'clock.  It's Yalanda, the flower seller.  She carries a big basket filled with all sorts of beautiful fresh flowers.  Last week I bought a bouquet of orange and pink lillies for 40 pesos (about $3).   They're still adorning our coffee table in the.sala (our living room).
The Mexicans are entrepreneurial and the informal economy thrives while the formal one shows signs of slowing down.  Restaurants seem more empty, real estate values have dropped considerably and food prices have gone up. While they are still cheaper for us than at home, it's hard on the Mexican families.  Good jobs are getting more scarce.  

The most joy for us comes from the simple pleasures of people watching.  Yesterday, walking across the central plaza I watched a beautiful little girl chasing the pigeons.  Each time she would sneak up on one of course it would take flight to her delight. She'd throw her hands up as if trying to sprout wings herself.

Both Gary and I are enjoying the many cultural offerings here.  We have been attending the weekly lectures and film offerings of the Global Justice group.  Last week it was a lecture entitled "The End of the Middle Class in America," presented by Jeff Faux, a nationally known economist.  He has a new book coming out this summer The Servant Class.  His talk was excellent though sobering as he presented his views on our economic downfall and what the future holds.  Following on the film we saw the previous day, "The End of  Suburbia" we felt a bit gloomy.  The gloom was lifted by a night out dancing to a superb Salsa band with friends we met here two years ago.  We attended a music concert which was a fundraiser for a local orphanage of abandoned young girls from 4 to 14 years of age run by some generous Catholic nuns. The gringo community has done much to raise awareness of their needs for books, art classes, and scholarships for continuing education.   Sunday we hiked up in El Charco, the amazing Botanical Garden and Canyon where one can see flocks of migrating birds hanging out in the renewed wetland.

I'm involved in a weekly Literary Sala which presents interesting readings by local authors, and recently, a Video presentation of interviews with the celebrated Canadian author, Margaret Atwood.  She will be one of the keynote speakers at the upcoming 7th Annual San Miguel International Writers Conference to which I will be going in February.  In preparation I have been trying to work a little each day on my novel and a couple of short stories, also.  I'm really looking forward to hearing the other speakers as well: author, social critic and political activist, Naomi Wolfe, celebrated Mexican writer, Elena Poniatowska and well known Native American poet and musician, Joy Harjo.  I will be taking several intensive writing workshops over the four days of the conference as well.

Gary is enjoying the lectures and films, photographing the interesting and beautiful street scenes and doing some of his woodcarving.  He also brought his uke down and tries to practice a little a few times a week.  Our friend, Luisa, a San Miguel resident for over twenty years has come over the past two Sundays to join us for dinner and then to watch the excellent Masterpiece theatre production of Downton Abbey, Part II.  We were pleased to discover we have a large flat screen TV in our casita and cable access which allows us to watch PBS from Florida!  What a luxery---we don't even have cable at home and this series has caught our fancy since we watched Part I last Fall. The acting is superb with a grand cast of characters and interesting historical references to pre and post World War I England.

So, you can see there is never a dull moment in San Miguel!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Ushering in the New Year-Feliz Año Neuvo!

Our first days in San Miguel 

Click on "our first days in San Miguel" above to get our photos and/or slideshow.
It's been a great beginning of 2012 with one exception.  I came down with the famous San Miguel "gripe", or flu.  Everyone says "oh, esta el combio del clima," which translates "it's the change of weather." Admittedly it's very cold in the mornings and evenings and quite warm and nice during the day, but I think maybe it's a bug I picked up on the plane.  Heard a lot of coughing all around us.  Luckily, Gary has stayed well unlike last time when he came down with a bad case of bronchitis.

Enough about sickness.  I'm feeling much better today and anxious to share with all of you some of the highlights of our first week in this fair city. We were invited by neighbors to join them for a big New Year's eve celebration on Saturday night but I was just too sick to attend.   It was fun hearing the music wafting up through our window, at least for awhile.  It finally halted at 4 am and we were glad to get to sleep sadly without the benefit of the partying and dancing going on downstairs.  Everyone greets us on the street with "Feliz Año Nuevo" and we're enjoying our friendly "barrio," including the local grocer up the street, Antonio, where we can shop daily for fresh fruits and vegies and just about anything else we need at very reasonable prices.

A highlight this week was attending a poetry reading at the Bibliotecha. I was  happy to learn about SOL, a literary magazine specifically for stories by Americans living in Mexico.  I'm going to check it out and perhaps send one of my stories eventually.  On Wednesday we were invited by our dear friend, Francisca Vasquez, with whom we have lived the past three visits to San Miguel, in the cute apartment she has rented to us.  We have become very fond of her and her family since I first met them in 1999, when I came to San Miguel to study Spanish and she was my "host mother."  They were having an early celebration of Dia de los Reyes Magos, Day of the Three Wise Men. Here in Mexico it is even more important than Christmas day.  It is the day when the children look forward to receiving presents like the Three Kings purportedly brought to baby Jesus.  It is on Jan. 6th but our friends were celebrating a day early since Francisca's daughter and her family, who live in Texas and who had been here for the holidays had to fly back on the 5th.

The tradition is that everyone gathers around a manger scene, where the children rock a small doll sybolic of Jesus while everyone sings and several prayers are offered. We were forgiven for not participating in this ritual.  The chosen children walk around with the baby Jesus in the cradle (in this case a scarf) and everyone leans down and kisses the head and is given a candy.  Afterwards we all gathered in the dining room for a big feast of tamales, both with pork and sweet ones for dessert, chocolate and a delicious drink made with strawberries.  We enjoyed their comraderie and the warmth they all showed towards us.  We felt like part of the family.  My throat got some extra exercise translating the Spanish for Gary, which probably wasn't too helpful for my  recovery.  I spent most of next day, laying low, reading and trying to get some writing done. In the afternoon we walked down to our favorite coffee spot, Monet's (think I mentioned it in the last Blog) and low and behold there were Los Reyes Magos, the Three Wisemen on horses and in costumes throwing candy to the throngs of children lining the street.  A flatbead truck was decorated with a manger scene with a live  Joseph and Mary and baby Jesus.  It moved along slowly towards the center of town, El Jardin and people in the parade passed out baloons and more candy.  One more fiesta in our collection of enjoyable holidays in Mexico.

Josafina came today for the third time since our arrival.  She's the maid that works for Kathleen and Ron two days a week, cleaning the casa, doing wash and helping keep  the terrace plants thriving.  She is a sweet woman and it's another nice opportunity for me to practice my Spanish.  She doesn't speak a word of English.  I've never had a maid in my life but realize how important this is to helping the local economy and we are happy to contribute in this way.

I've created a slideshow of photos from our first week but am having quite a time downloading them onto my blogsite.  I need an IT person to help but should be able to figure it out soon.  Bare with me, por favor!
Buen Año Nuevo! Sher 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Back in San Miguel de Allende

Waking up again in San Miguel de Allende is such a treat.  After a rather arduous trip down via two stopovers, one in Las Vegas and one in Mexico City, we were happy to arrive at Casa La Amarillo, the house of our friends on La Palma in the barrio of San Antonio last Wednesday morining. Our amigos, Kathleen and Ron Hughes, met us with open arms, conducted us to Monet's, their local hangout.  Charming like most San Miguel cafes and restaurants, Monet's offers a wide assortment of delicious foods and beverages, including "Unhappy Hour" from 8-11am with a special 35 peso breakfast.  With our current good exchange rate that's only about $2.50.  See why we save money living in Mexico?  Que bueno!

Coming back to the house after some fun catching up over breakfast, we poured ourselves into a big comfy bed in our "new" bedroom and snoozed deeply until 3:00 in the afternoon.  Kathleen and Ron  realized we needed the sleep and were so quiet.  When we woke up we went downstairs with K and R to meet our neighbors, Kim and Harry. We're in a two story casita with our own entrance and a rooftop patio off the kitchen. Lots of light streams in from front and kitchen windows.  Love it! Everywhere there's something interesting to look out on. Distant hillsides and closer rooftops, some pretty with colorful pots and others with just the typical rebar sticking up, grace our vistas.  That's one of those "only in Mexico" stories I may not have told you before.  In order to avoid higher property taxes, Mexicans keep their houses in a slightly unfinished state with the rooftop terraces never quite finished.  Clever!  We also met our Landlady, Margarita who lives down a side alley next to our casa. Her whole family shares the space along with a couple of other charming rentals.  Kathleen and Ron have been renting this place now for nine years and love the mostly Mexican neighborhood. Up the street is San Antonio Church and a beautiful square with scattered park benches and flora.  Our local shop for groceries, abarrotes, is right on the square and we've already struck up a friendship with the owner, Antonio, who's very nice and full of fun.  We can get everything there  including fresh vegies and fruits.  We paid only about 75 cents yesterday for five delicious big grapefruits, one of our favorite breakfast foods along with papayas, bananas and pineapple.  Ummm!

Our local favorite restaurant is Rincocita a few blocks from us.  K and R took us there for dinner the night before they left on December 30th.  A very pleasant couple own and run it. The ambience and food are superior.  Our neighborhood is quiet---well, most of the time, until locals decide to set off celebratory firecrackers or have an all night band for New Year's Eve.  All part of the Mexican experience.

After our friends left early Friday morning, we walked into town and went back to some of our favorite haunts like El Jardin, the big and beautiful central plaza of San Miguel where families stroll and gather to share stories, children play and birds chirp.  We walked the side streets, small cobblestoned calles, and stopped to say "hola" to a couple of shopkeepers we remembered from our past stays here.  We got back at the casita and enjoyed preparing dinner in our sweet and accommodating kitchen.  K and R have equipped it with everything one would need:  French Press coffee maker, waffle iron, blender, a wok,great utensils and knives(sharper than the ones I have at home),and  beautiful Mexican pottery. We feel very fortunate to be able to live here for the next three months.

New Years Eve we were invited to Margarita and Luis' party downstairs but, unfortunately, I came down with a sore throat and just didn't feel like mixing with the crowd or  spreading my germs.  Gary, too, felt tired. We realized we were still catching up from our activity filled holidays.  Staying in felt good.  We enjoyed the flickering lights in our window that Ron had put up for the holidays and those across our street, the music wafting up to our terrace where we indulged in a couple of margaritas with our homemade guacolmole and chips.  We had a good dinner of  local roast chicken we picked up earlier in the day and then just curled up on the couch to watch a TV movie on R & K's big wide Flat Screen TV.  We ushered in the New Years with a hug and a toast and t;hen fell into bed, sounds of the music below lulling us to sleep---well, lulling is probably not quite the word, but you get the picture.

Yes, we have everything here, except our family and friends and that's why we will enjoy keeping up with your activities, too.  We hope you had a wonderful Holiday Season and the New Year brings you good health, wonderful adventures and peace and prosperity!

Abrazos, Sher

P.S. Stay tuned:  I'm still trying to figure out how to load my photos onto my blogspot.