Monday, November 3, 2008

"Guanajuato" translates, "buns of steel"

photo is University of Guanajuato, with the steps covered with Day of the Dead decoration including skulls made from sugar.

Must be true. Imagine getting onto the Stairmaster exercise machine. Set the incline to the maximum setting, and let 'er rip. That's what going up and down Guanajuato's streets feels like. My calves hurt. My hamstrings hurt. My butt hurts.

But one charming town it is. Guanajuato has been given the rare title of UNESCO World Heritage Site, Patrimony of Humanity. I think that's United Nations Education, Science, and Cultural Organization. What that means is that the town is delightfully preserved in the 17th century. No neon signs are allowed. No traffic lights; the streets aren't asphalt, but flat, hand-laid stone. By law, the architecture can't be changed.

The steeply inclined twisting streets are so narrow that you could stand in the middle with your arms outstretched and almost touch the buildings on either side of the road. It's funny watching big SUV's and pickup trucks negotiating the curves. But it's not so funny getting out of their way. Every few yards there is a nook built into the adjacent building, and that's where you plaster yourself until the car passes by. I wonder how many drunk drivers have come down those streets like a crazy pinball game?

A glimpse of Guanajuato: Sunday brunch Guanajuatense style (those are the local residents). Let me set the scene--

As I was walking down around the central Plaza de la Paz (plaza of peace....nice name),
on Sunday morning, I was attracted to the two principal churches by the sounds of church bells. The two are the Temple of the Company of Jesus (Jesuit) and the Basilica. As I came closer, I could here organ music and the sound of a church choirs (plus a very good tenor soloist). As a reformed choral singer, I'm a sucker for beautiful choir music and church organs. But the most visually impactful part was out in front of each church was a single nun, dressed in the traditional habit...selling homemade tamales out of a huge covered pot. Now there's something you won't see back home! And across the the churches, parishoners had set up a little table with Sunday morning pastries like cheesecakes and other sweets. Beats Denny's!

Which brings me to one of the most salient differences between what I've seen of Mexico and most of the U.S.--life in the streets. At any hour of any day, people are outdoors in the streets, in the parks, going into and out of churches, whole families playing in the main square, shopping in the open-air markets. I really, really like that. In Phoenix--especially--people go to work, come home, close the garage door, close the gates around the house, and that's that. Somehow, it seems to make a whole lot more sense to be out and about among your neighbors. Sunday evening I did just that. I had a beer with a local guy whose family used to live in an apartment in Chicago that belongs to a friend of mine. Rudy put me in touch with Alberto here, so I got to make another local connection.

Another glimpse of Guanajuato--remember this is Day of the Dead..
Down an out-of-the-way covered arcade, sidewalk art, a picture of the classical skeleton Catrina made from only colored wood shavings, black beans, and salt.
And walking back home Sunday night, I stopped to listen to the church bells of the Basilica and observed a young couple necking inside the doorway of the church. Surely God smiles on such license.

A Nation of Shopkeepers
That was the moniker given to the British of centuries past. Well, it's now the Mexican's turn. Another thing I really like is that on every street, around every corner you'll find a tiny shop. They call them tiendas de abarrotes. Like old-fashioned general stores. Selection is usually very limited. Maybe only one kind of toilet paper. They'll break open a pack of batteries and sell you just one. But I'm impressed by the industriousness of these folks, often open early and late, with Mom of Grandma behind the counter. There are tiny movie rental places, miniature hardware stores, a store with only bags and paper. Capitalism lives on in Mexico!

Today marks my one-week anniversary on the road. So far, so good. I'm having a ball. Seen a lot, done a lot, and thought about it a lot. This evening I'm in San Miguel, and right now it's #1 on my list of possible places. Yep, there are a bunch of gringos living here. Unofficially, about 12% of the population. I almost didn't stop here in San Miguel. A sort of reverse snobbism, I suppose (too many gringos for me). But what I found was quite different. It's not some sort of Disneyland copy. It's a real Mexican town. Yes, one dedicated to tourism. But if you had to choose and industry, it's as good a way to make an income as any other.