San Miguel de Allende

A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world. –Oscar Wilde

San Miguel de Allende is popularly referred to in Mexico as Gringolandia. There are approximately 12,000 US and Canadian ex-pats that keep permanent residence in this small mountain town almost in the exact center of the country. There is no beach, no famous ancient temples or other grand attractions and I was curious to find out what draws so many foreigners to this unassuming hamlet. My Couchsurfer host, Donald, is a 72-year old retired lawyer from Boston (Harvard to be precise). I wasn’t especially taken by his CS profile at first because there really wasn’t much to go by and the single photo he’d posted looked like the mugshot of a toucher. Similarly I didn’t think much of his casa when I pulled up. From the facade it looked like any other modest row house in Mexico. But when he came to the door to greet me and ushered me into his domicile, both of these preconceptions were about to be shattered. I was led from the foyer down a set of stairs into a beautiful garden courtyard. On one side was a long L-shaped sitting area with brightly coloured throw pillows. On the other side was a stunning fountain (which looked even more striking lit up at night) gurgling away peacefully. There was an aviary where Donald kept a few pet birds. There were stone statues everywhere emerging from the vibrant greenery. I was enthralled. Coming in off the busy Mexican street outside to this lush sanctuary, I half expected to see Mr. Tumnus standing next to a lamppost. We were still just in the inner courtyard and had not yet made it to the main house. As Donald guided me up through the portico, I was roused by the tasteful architectural and elegant décor of the home. The architectural detailing was done to mimic a historical Spanish villa. Vines crawling up the salmon coloured walls around shallow cantilevered balconies and up towards the red clay roof tiles Medieval-looking iron lanterns accent the exterior of the main house while stylish oval clerestories have been cut in above the main living area. In a word, this manor was immaculate. The various pieces of artwork which littered the entire space and the furniture were all exquisite. I have never been inside a house that was more suited to my own tastes both architecturally and in its elegant decoration. Donald showed me to my own room down a set of curving slate stairs just beyond the library. He was very cordial and welcoming right from the start. He informed me that he had a neighbor over at the moment and I was welcome to join them on the terrace for some red wine once I was settled in. He also notified me that I was just in time for sunset. I felt like I had won the Couchsurfing lottery!

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I quickly unloaded my bike and ambled back through the estate to stow my gear. Joining Donald and his friend from next door, we launched into a rousing conversation about Couchsurfing, traveling, volunteerism, San Miguel de Allende and most pleasing to me: a brief account of my wonderful and eccentric host. From this first occasion and for many more to come, I absolutely loved conversing with Donald. He is brilliant, gregarious and a true gentleman. He shares my penchant for drinking: both French and Italian wines as well as Jack Daniels. He was also the creative force behind this beautiful residence, working closely with the architect during design and construction. He regaled me with incredible stories about his colourful life and I delighted when he would drop names of well-known personages he had come into contact with over the years. What I liked especially about Donald was his generosity and how well he looked after his Mexican workers. Notwithstanding his wealth and position, Donald is extremely giving and compassionate. He gives of his money, his drink, his time, his knowledge and companionship. Every single one of Donald’s friends and acquaintances seemed to adore him and several even said to me that he was one of the most incredible people they knew. They all loved that fact that Donald takes in Couchsurfers and thoroughly enjoyed meeting the multifarious young travelers that he regularly hosts (however, I found it funny that none of the rest of them, despite their praise and five bedroom homes had considered hosting themselves.) Donald also seemed to genuinely enjoy my company. He took me on walks around town noting items of historical significance. He listened intently to what I had to say – never interrupting – and always had some type of comment or anecdote consistent with the point I was trying to make. We also got pretty smashed a few nights and vigorously participated in the camaraderie that such a condition affords.

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Donald took me everywhere and introduced me to the high society of San Miguel de Allende. Amidst the gringos living here, there is plenty of prestige, power and wealth. I met numerous retired power brokers, attorneys, authors and artists. Donald took me to a dinner party at a beautiful house down the street from his where I was the only attendee under 50. I don’t know if it comes from living in Mexico or just that these were the type of people who made a choice to move here but everyone at the party was delightful; not at all what I would expect from this strata of society back home. Everyone I spoke with was very patient and very focused on the conversation. Despite my youth, I never felt slighted or condescended to. I found myself having really meaningful and extremely interesting dialogue. During my time in San Miguel, all the ex-pats I met raved about the place. They said they’d never been so happy since moving here. I heard story after story of people who had simply come for a visit and had bought property before leaving. At Donald’s local pub, La Sirena Gorda, I met a girl my age from Seattle. She moved here six years ago, runs a used English bookstore (to compliment the local library which boasts Mexico’s largest selection of English books) and teaches Spanish. She told me that she loves it here so much that whenever she returns to Seattle, she has nightmares that they won’t let her back into Mexico. I met a gay couple at another bar who told me they had lived together in New York, San Francisco, London and Paris and felt San Miguel de Allende was the best city in the world. They’ve been here for 12 years now and have no plans on leaving. Everywhere I went in town, it was so easy to make friends. People just seemed so relaxed and outgoing. Donald took me to an array of different restaurants and bars. There is a real varied collection of establishments to cater to the gringo population, quite a few run by gringos. This was a welcome change from the prevalent throng of taco stands throughout most small towns in Mexico. There is also a huge artist community here. Many residents have retired from their professions back home to follow their passion as musicians, painters, photographers, sculptors and writers. Donald himself had been working on a book and one of his neighbours, a retired editor for a major publisher in the states, had agreed to look over his manuscript and provide feedback. The sense of community here is unmistakable and it was easy to see why this is such an appealing place to live. I also found that the Mexicanos and the ex-pats seemed to meld very well together. There is no evidence of the animosity and discrimination that I had felt in other parts of the country. The ex-pats here have a lot more respect for the local culture and carry themselves more like guests rather than conquerors. Likewise there are many humanitarian organizations set up in and around San Miguel which provide a great benefit to the underprivileged sector of the local population.

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When I explained to Donald that I was interested in doing volunteer work and that my background was in construction, he put me in touch with a group called Casita Linda. This is an ex-pat run, donation-based organization which constructs houses for homeless families on the outskirts of town. The name translates to ‘pretty little house’. As well as being a great benefactor of the arts, Donald also gives generously to the charitable organizations here. It seemed somewhat fated when Donald told me he had donated the funds for Casita Linda’s next project. It would be the 54th house built by the outfit since 2000. Donald said I should mention that I was his houseguest in contacting them and that they would more than likely take me on as a volunteer. Sure enough the organizers responded to my e-mail immediately and first thing Monday morning I was up and off to build a house. One of the organizers offered to pick me up and take me out to the building site since the area was not an easy one to navigate – no street signs – just a maze of paths joining some houses, shanties and small factories. Many of the people in this area possessed land (which is dirt cheap in many rural parts of Mexico) but didn’t have the money to build proper houses. They slept outside in temporary shelters without security or warmth. Owing to San Miguel’s high elevation it is extremely cold at night; one night while I was there it dropped below 0 C. Living without a proper structure also affects people’s security as anything they possess can easily be thieved. The first house I worked on was for a single mother and her three children. The family had started constructing the humble 2 bedroom house 12 years earlier but when her husband abandoned them, the woman didn’t have the money to finish it. For twelve years the family had been living between unfinished concrete walls on a dirt floor with no roof, windows or doors. Casita Linda had agreed to come in and complete the construction for them. They were also building house #54 from the ground up in a similar area not far away. I helped to form and pour the foundations for the house. The construction techniques were grossly straightforward and there sure wasn’t the quality control or safety protocol that I was used to, but this is Mexico and I did my best to go with the flow keeping all body parts intact.

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The board consists of retired architects, construction managers and other technically-minded Americans and Canadians. The organization essentially does fundraising and when they have the required resources, they bring in their local Mexican crew to do the construction. The really incredible thing is that they have fine-tuned the process so that they can build a 2-3 bedroom house for $8,000 in about 6 weeks. The houses are simple concrete block and plaster walls with rolled steel roofs. A crew of four men does all the work including the plumbing, fixtures and electrical conduit and wiring. I loved being back on site hard at work. I was putting in 8 hour days along with the regular crew and didn’t mind the heat or the lack of bathroom facilities. It was just so fulfilling to be putting my energy into something that would truly benefit people; a project that would change lives and ease suffering for these families. This was definitely preferable to busting my ass for greedy condo developers and misguided government projects back in Vancouver. I was also excited by how easy a model this was to duplicate. Casita Linda existed in San Miguel because of a high concentration of gringos living here. But there was no reason a similar organization couldn’t be set up anywhere in the world. Create a simple house design utilizing readily available building materials and local labour. Keep the costs down to show donors how cheap it would be to house a family in the second or third world. The last project I managed in Vancouver was the construction of a homeless shelter for drug addicts. The 12 storey building provided 300 sq.ft rooms with a kitchenette and bath for 129 people. Considering both design and construction, the project costs were more than $25-million. That means to house one person, taxpayers were paying just under $200,000. If that money was available to Casita Linda or a similar organization, they could build actual detached houses for 3,125 families. I guess this demonstrates the power of non-governmental organizations in the absence of bureaucracy and political pretense (because
there is no way that materials and labour cost 700 times more in Canada.)

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My time in San Miguel was so worthwhile and enjoyable. I will treasure my time with Donald, meeting so many people euphoric about the ‘alternate-lifestyle’ they’ve created for themselves and witnessing the efficient execution of a benevolent organization such as Casita Linda. Once again I felt a real connection and kinship to this place and literally had to tear myself away to continue my trek. It is extremely probable that I will again someday land in this charming town devoid of the usual lures which attract outsiders; if for no other reason than to enjoy the marvelous sense of community everyone has created here for just a while longer. Before moving in, the new Casita Linda residents get to pick the paint colour that they would like for their new home. Most choose a bright colour that probably signifies their immense joy and newfound feeling of refuge. It also seems to make their new house shimmer a little bit in the radiant Mexican sun.

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