Wow, these are terrific insights on travel. We can learn more about our world, as well as learn more about ourselves. All travelers should tuck these in their journals before leaving. These lessons are on target for first-time and long-time travelers. Read them NOW.
Among the wonderful benefits of traveling is the opportunity to grow and learn more about yourself, while learning about other people and cultures around the world. And along the way, it’s important to look back and reflect upon what you’ve learned and how you’ve grown. With my recent trip to The Bahamas marking my 20th country visited, I’m taking a moment to reflect! Here are the 20 Lessons I’ve Learned from Traveling to 20 Countries:
1. I am not the center of the universe. Most people are self-absorbed on some level, and I think the easiest cure to a case of vanity is traveling the world to see how much life exists beyond your own. It’s actually a really beautiful realization to learn about other people from different walks of life, to appreciate what life is like all around the world. So pack your bags and leave your self-glorified…
I have found a few things that I can recommend from years of traveling. Recently on a trip from Isla Mujeres, Mexico, to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, girlfriends and I carried backpacks for a three-day trip. That requires paring things down to only the essentials.
The first thing to consider is finding the lightest weight backpack that will hold your belongings adequately. I have one mesh backpack that carries a couple days’ of clothes, a small cosmetic bag, meds, a pair of shoes and my woven fabric purse. The draw-string holds things secure and the flap that buckles will hold my skinny feather pillow rolled (with which I travel everywhere) between the top of the backpack and the flap.
Another thing I have come to utilize in very recent years is the reversible skirt, dress, and/or jacket. I love the warmth of fleece, so I take a fleece jacket anytime I travel. I had several colors, but not one that goes with everything. I found a beige and gray reversible fleece jacket with wonderfully deep pockets on both sides with a zipper (always a plus when traveling). The trim was beige and had some stains that did not come out in the wash. So I took it to my seamstress and had her install black trim that looks good on both sides and will won’t show dirt and grim the way beige does.
I love, love, love white shirts. But they yellow with the use of sunscreen mixed with sweat around the neck and sleeves, so I have given up on white shirts for the most part. I take colored tops that don’t yellow so obviously. I still take one white blouse to wear as an over shirt or a stand-alone top that I wear at night after a shower with no sunscreen.
I learned new tricks from different friends in Mexico this year that can save me money and space in my bags. I left home without my translucent face powder. I doubted my friend, but baby powder works on wonders on my face and I already had it in my bags.
Another friend told me she wears only one pair of earrings when she travels. She brings an exact matching pair, so if she loses one earring, she has a replacement. Because I lose earrings when I travel, I decided this ingenious idea would be a new standard for my travel. When I returned home, I bought double pairs of earrings with my favorite clasp in both silver and gold tones. I’ll be traveling out of state to high school graduation parties in a couple of weeks and will take either the silver or gold, depending on what I take to wear.
My husband learned somewhere along the way to use mineral oil for shaving. He carries a tiny bottle. He needs three drops works for a facial shave. I require six drops for each leg I shave. It take ups little to no space and leaves your skin soft. It beats big shaving cream cans and can be carried through security.
Shoes are the bane of every woman traveling. I wear my athletic shoes with jeans on the plane, because they both take up space and add weight. I pack and get by with a pair of walking sandals or flats, and a pair of slip-on sandals or house shoes for in the room. I rarely dress up when I’m traveling, so this works for me. You might need another pair, but think hard before you add another pair.
And of course, the age-old-wisdom: take mix and match clothes that layer. Everything must go with everything else you take. I don’t know where I read this or who said it, but one woman wrote that she can travel with three days of clothes for a month. Scarves, belts, and jewelry make this more doable.
Finally, I decided years ago (finally) to have a complete second set of cosmetics and hair dryer and roller to pack. I can then pack my bags and have them in the car the night before we leave. This makes my husband so happy and content, and relieves the stress of last minute packing.
I have not achieved this level of parsimonious packing all the time, but I’m always working toward it. If I cannot carry my luggage myself, I repack until I can.
I count on writing most days. I count on thinking about writing every day. I count on learning more about the craft by reading about writing.
I count on the fact that I write for many reasons. I enjoy it. I have fun with it. I write to learn more about myself. I write to create worlds I will never experience. I write to learn about my characters. I write to entertain. I write to provide thought and feeling through my stories.
You can see there is little rhyme or reason to that list of aims for writing. Each is true, however.
Count for Writing
But why would I count for writing?
In the most recently read book on writing, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark, I discovered the answer in a tool I had never considered in my writing life. Chapter #20 entitled, “Choose the number of elements with a purpose in mind,” tells us that the number of things we list sends a sly message to our readers.
1. Clark states that one characteristic is a powerful declaration. For example:
Fiona was embarrassed.
Jacob carried himself with self-assurance.
If we write either of those sentences with more description it takes away from the one thing with which we want the reader to know.
2. Clark says that two descriptions provide the reader comparison or contrast.
Fiona was embarrassed, because of her elegance.
Jacob carried himself with self-assurance and arrogance.
When we write to tell our readers more about our characters, two depictions often provide a paradox. We are one thing and another, both/and, at the same time. This offers a way to see our characters in deeper, richer, and more realistic ways.
Think of pairs that communicate more: ham and beans; sweet and sour; France and Finland; war and peace; moon and sun; Mutt and Jeff.
3) Clark illustrates that three components offers a sense of completeness and wholeness.
Fiona was embarrassed, because of her elegance; but never admitted it.
Jacob carried himself with self-assurance and arrogance; however, he got things done.
We know much more about these two characters with the third element added to the sentence. They are more fully human. We can see inconsistencies in their character. They become more rounded, realistic folks to the reader.
Three is a magical number that is used in many ways. In terms of a story, we have three acts or the beginning, middle, and end. In terms of the Christian faith, we hold the three-in-one holy (or wholly), the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Our U.S.A. national government is divided into three branches to create balance of power, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.
4. Clark informs us that three is greater than four. Three gives a sense of completeness. A listing of four or more, however enters what Clark calls “escape velocity.” A plethora of details can give a moving, literary feel to the writing—if used with experience and skill.
Fiona was embarrassed, because of her elegance; but never admitted it, because she stood to lose face with the queen.
Jacob carried himself with self-assurance and arrogance; however, he got things done, because of his position.
When we as writers use four or more to list attributes, or inventory roles, compile elements, and elaborate on what went on before, we generate complexity in the story line or complicity among characters. However, if not used skillfully, we can also cause complications and confusion for readers. Use this one with care.
Clark summarizes his chapter this way:
Use one for power
Use two for comparison, contrast
Use three for completeness, wholeness, roundness
Use four or more to list, inventory, compile, expand
Here is one example to illustrate how these come together in a paragraph.
“I’m a writer. Google my name and see for yourself. You will find throughout my career I’ve been a curriculum writer, a marketing specialist, a training and staff development specialist, an academic advisor, and college teacher. I’ve written different kinds of materials in different jobs, been edited by other people in each, and published my work formally and informally.”
Sentence #1: one for power
Sentence #2: two actions to conduct
Sentence #3: list of five career roles
Sentence #4: three elements of each role
The paragraph pattern is 1 -2 – 5 – 3. Note that the last sentence is a summarizing statement, worthy of completeness in a listing of three things that substantiates I am a writer, as stated in sentence number one.
Here is another example from the introduction of this post:
“I count on writing most days. I can count on thinking about writing every day. I count on learning more about the craft by reading about writing. (3)
I count on the fact that I write for many reasons. I enjoy it. I have fun with it. I write to learn more about myself. I write to create worlds I will never experience. I write to learn about my characters. I write to entertain. I write to provide thought and feeling through my stories. (4+, actually 8)
You can see there is little rhyme or reason to that list of aims. Each is true, however” (2)
Pattern to the introduction: 3 – 4 – 2 (I use “1” frequently in sentences throughout to give power to each.)
This new knowledge improves my writing.
Readers, how about you? Please offer an example of your own and show the pattern for it. This will give you practice and help others see it repeated.
We rallied the next morning (Wednesday, our third and last day there) over breakfast and agreed to set off to the gallery recommended by Muriel. We trekked the short distance, taking our time and stopping at intriguing little shops as we slowly made our way to the Fabrica la Aurora Gallery. An old manufacturing plant housed the galleries of contemporary furniture, glass, metal art, and mixed media art; along with the traditional arts of Mexico, like painting, weaving, and doll making.
Just as Muriel had suggested that we see all we could, we wandered around, got separated, ran into each other and headed off in different directions again. Tilly and I sauntered into one gallery together, rounded a corner and came face to face with a stampeding white stallion forging toward us.
We stopped stone-still, held our breaths, stared straight into the eyes of the charging stallion, and then looked at each other. Tilly exhaled, “Wow! If I took home a piece of art that would be it.”
I said, “Me, too. I can almost feel its breath on us.”
We stood our ground against that stallion. Each muscle, tendon, and ligament felt like it was bearing down on us. This beauty was located in one of the galleries, but I am unsure of the actual artist.*
Later as we left the gallery, Tilly and I sadly reminisced about our favorite piece of art that we could not take home with us. Cost and especially transportation would keep us from competing for the stallion. Neither of us could carry a life-size painting back to Cancun, the island, and then back to our respective homes in Canada or Texas.
When we all gather at the café in the back corner, as Muriel had explained, we visited with a man sitting next to us. He introduced himself as the dad of the woman who writes the content for the tourist information office about San Miguel.
Intrigued with Mexican nature, design, color, and graphics in general, I took more photos here than anywhere. See my collection of “Mexican Graphics,” taken from the galleries and other places around the city.
Muriel, Leslie and other women mentioned San Miguel shoes, as if they were a certain brand of shoe designed for walking the cobblestoned streets.
“What’s with these San Miguel shoes you mention? Is that just heavy soled shoes or is it a distinct shoe?”
“No, no, it is a real brand, a certain style that is designed to walk in this city.”
“No joke, where would we find them? We have to see them?”
“There is one shoe store that carries them close to your place. The shoes are really different; everyone who lives here wears them.”
“We will have to check them out.”
As we wandered the city without thinking about shoes, we came across a tiny sign that indicated a shoe store. We thought it worth asking. Oh yes, they carried San Miguel shoes. Last year’s design was on sale: this year’s new design, more expensive. They were different alright. I had to try them on. I almost bought them; but thought, Better not. Cash is low.
The first evening we arrived at the HotelQuinta Loreta, we carefully climbed the irregular and crumbling stone and mortar steps that had over time been patched. They were dangerous by day, more so at night; but repairs took place over the days we were there.
One to two workers each day took time to knock down the crumbling material and haul it away, select just the right stones for each next installment and rebuild with new stone and mortar, all the while keeping a path open to the reception office. When we would leave in the morning or return in the afternoon, they smiled, stopped their work, stepped aside, and motioned us to use the available portion. We were amazed by their fine craft, but more so, by how long it took them to get the steps completed. So as not to interrupt their work, we found another route.
Another gentleman sat across from the masonry men and worked on two ancient, Queen Ann upholstered chairs. He sanded, buffed, polished, and brought the wood back to life the week we were there. We shared few words with these artisans during our short stay, but felt a sense of knowing them by the end of our visit.
Around town we noticed posters, announcements, and advertisements of different sorts about events at the It seemed to be the happening place. The public library sat one block from our hotel, so we checked it out. Surprised, we found the open gate to the library with an uncovered courtyard, surrounded by rooms that housed their bookshelves.
In the open patio tables supplied places for people to read or more often, it appeared that people were tutoring or practicing their English or Spanish with each other. The place bustled with teens filling a computer room, and children with parents in the children’s reading room. A small book store featured local writers’ work. We never expected to find a closed thrift shop at the back of the library with stacks of used clothing piled chest-high.
We learned the next day was their weekly half-price day. We returned the following day to rummage their goods. One could not pass another person without touching them, body to body. We shopped until we tasted grit in our teeth and sneezed from the dust that had accumulated. Cathy, again, came away the winner with the most “stuff.” I bought three pairs of shorts, each for ten pesos or about eighty cents. In addition, the library held their weekly book sale. I, of course, found two I could not live without. They were far more expensive than the clothes.
These purchases drew down my stash of pesos. Tomorrow, I must find someplace to take my dollars or accept a credit card—both hard to do in Mexico. I avoided going to the bank by paying for the return transport for all of us with my credit card and had mi amigas paid me in pesos. I felt like the American TV ad where one friend insinuates to another that her date may always be willing to pay with his credit card, not because he is a gentleman, but because he gets the cash rewards.
We bought a bottle of wine to take to Bill and Howard’s. Leslie met us at the door; Harley and Muriel had not yet returned from their day-long cooking class. When they did, we hurriedly caught a taxi. The taxi climbed and climbed, shifted, revved the motor, and made a turn or two and climbed higher yet up the hill. The streets narrowed and we recognized parts of the city we had seen on the trolley tour.
The taxi pulled up to a plain white wall, a sage green gate and cacti on either side. Howard emerged from their gate to greet us.
His welcome filled up the street as he met us spilling out of two cabs. Howard’s attention turned immediately to showing us their place. The front garden area was grassy green and lush with tropical plants and a sculpture of naked men hanging off the wall—he pointed it out in case we were to miss it for all the foliage.
Leslie and Muriel had jewelry business with Bill at his shop, Pietras, attached to his house. Our disappointment that we would not see his studio and his work dissipated quickly when we entered his sanctuary. The four of us visually gobbled up as much as we could lay eyes on in a matter of minutes. From the simple to the sublime, the designs were one-of-a-kind; the price, reasonable for a statement piece one could own. Tilly honed in on a pair of lovely baroque fresh water pearl earrings for her daughter. When we were sufficiently overwhelmed, Howard scooted us out of the shop, outside again and into the house from the front door, so we could see it proper like. Tilly hung back and bought the pearl earrings from Bill.
Howard and Bill, permanent residents in San Miguel eighteen years, owned the house for about four years in a noticeably up-scale neighborhood with both Mexicans and expats. They conducted a major renovation in three months when they moved in—a story of its own. Bill and Howard entertained and hosted galas and fundraisers at their place. Art is prominent in every room, especially the entryway, throughout the lovely, more modern house, including the garage.
The entryway is full of Indian art and artifacts that Howard collected when he served as board president of the Wheelwright Museum of Santa Fe years ago. When we moved into the living room, he pointed to one wall of art that was representative of his hometown Kansas City artists from 1900 to 1950.
He proudly walked us through each bedroom and in his room was an award plaque, honoring his years of philanthropy. I paraphrase Howard’s motto, “invest where you live; give back to your community.” He recently received a surprise honorary doctorate. Learn more about his history of philanthropy—example, he and Bill started the first hospice in Mexico in San Miguel—and his mantra of life.
I love all things copper. My house in Texas is filled with copper items, especially the kitchen, so a unique application of copper in their kitchen renovation captivated me.
They painted one side of glass a shimmering copper color, placed two panes of glass together and inserted them back-to-back into distressed frames for each cabinet door. This stunning application ensured that the color would never fade or need to be repainted. Brilliant!
The bedrooms appeared that Ralph Lauren had dressed each uniquely with panache. Each bedroom told a guest more about the men who lived there—for Howard, horses and riding; for Bill, gems and design; for both, art and artists. Bathrooms displayed art work featuring the eloquence of the human nude.
Howard led the four of us female guests around the house like the pied piper, while the rest of the entourage relaxed on the patio with drinks in conversation. Howard joked that the key to the French Doors in his room worked only after midnight.
Jenn said, “So what’s the key?”
“It’s a knock, a secret knock. If you tap softly,” he rapped out the cadence on a door pane (knock,knock,knock,…knock), “then I will let you in.”
Cathy said, “Oh, I can do that.” She replicated the secret knock.
Jenn said, “Unless I get here before you do.”
Howard relished the jealous competition between Cathy and Jenn for his attention.
Finally, we arrived to the backyard, but the stories did not end at the exterior of the house. The extra acreage they didn’t know was theirs when they bought the property turned out to be where they built a home for Bill’s business partner, who is a jewelry designer, Luis.
Howard did not want us to overlook the garage for family lore.
Their five rescue dogs slept on two huge pallets made for the mutts that live like kings.
The wall of fame with photographs of the rich and famous overlooked the car in the garage and served as reminders of another time, when glamor reigned in Hollywood. His favorite, Ethyl Merman. Howard’s riding trophies and snapshots of those achievements must have outgrown the house, so they lined the garage walls. For me the most fascinating item that reigned in the garage stood in the front corner, guarding the dogs and memories—a larger than life, elaborated decorated papier-mâché knight.
This caballero was the last one standing of sixteen, made by a local artist and auctioned off in a fundraiser at their home last year. This one didn’t sell.
“Just as well,” Howard said, “I rather like the gentleman myself. I’m sure I will find many ways and places for him to have other lives.”
As we followed the pied piper throughout the property we came across topics of conversation that ranged from visiting and living abroad to which generations are more likely to give back to their communities to microcredit lending. And of course, the secret knock on Howard’s door at midnight that would serve as a key to his heart. Harley and Muriel; Chip and Leslie; Bill, Jim and Damon; and two other new-to-us women leisurely relaxed with a drink on the patio.
One of the women happened to be Tammy, who wrote the tourist information brochure on what to do and see in San Miguel.
“We met your dad this morning having coffee at the café at the Galleries.”
“Yes, he gets around. And he is so proud of me.”
We sat on the patio with the rest for a while. Cathy (who is married) leaned toward Bill, Howard’s partner for 44 years, and said “Can I marry Howard?”
“Well, I would consider it, but we’ve gotten along so well together for so long.” He thought about it for seconds and said, “It would be hard to give him up.”
“Oh, please, let me marry him.”
Jenn chimed in, “No, I want to marry him.”
Bill conceded. “I’ll think about it,” while Howard looked on smirking over his good fortune.
All in good fun, we teased, bemoaned the next day being our last, and thanked them all for inviting us into their lives, if only for a few moments.
We left Isla Mujeres four days ago without an itinerary, as adventurers.The four of us were a keenly knitted, resourceful band of explorers.Though my friend back home in Texas experienced the city as inaccessible, on the other hand, we did not. We searched out and snooped behind the gates of San Miguel, but gates were also opened to us. People invited us into their homes and the intimacy of their lives. We found the magic of the city in the people we met behind the gates of San Miguel.
* I would like to give credit to the artist of the white stallion. If you know the artist, please let me know.
The tourist information officer yesterday encouraged us to take a cab to the weekly market, so after breakfast we taxied to the remote location. We found acres and acres of open-air market. We spilt up, went our separate ways and agreed to meet back in about an hour.
I strolled, wandered and realized soon that their market was like a county fair in some ways back home. People brought their homemade goods, food vendors cooked on site, vegetable growers brought in the morning harvest. One vendor had built a ninety-degree wall of red strawberries on two sides of his table about eighteen inches high—perfection in every berry. When I later decided I wanted a photo of the red cornered-wall of berries, I could not find it. It pays to be impetuous at times.
No livestock, but I did run into a stately rooster strutting in a wire dog-kennel for sale.
The market was part bazaar or flea market. Some stalls held new and top labeled clothes, while others housed stacks of outgrown or unneeded clothes and personal items from fancy panties and bras to purses. There were the usual Mexican “knick-knacky” items (woven blankets, pottery, and leather goods) that I have outgrown the need for, since traveling to Mexico for twenty-five years now.
I saw two policemen at different times in full uniform with AK-47s slung across their chests, hands loosely sitting on the grip with a ski mask on and eyes roaming the crowd. Serious security. One of the uniformed men looked the opposite way and I pointed my tablet’s camera at him for a picture. Before I could focus, he turned back in my direction.
I said, “May I?” He shook his head slowly, waved a finger “no” from the hand siting on the rifle, and I quietly put my tablet back in my purse, feeling naughty for having tried.
Jenn and particularly Cathy had made out like bandits with the tenacity and patience to ply the stacks of used clothes for little to nothing. Dusty and dirty items, but steals nonetheless. Cathy had already bought so many items she had to purchase a larger bag to serve as her “personal item” on the plane back to Cancún to carry all her goods.
On this expedition in San Miguel de Allende we were about to strike gold behind a gate.
Serendipitously, the autumn before our trip in February a couple, Harley and Muriel Mimura, from Dallas visited my Kerrville, Texas, Quaker Meeting. After silent worship we were visiting with them and Harley revealed that they spend February each year in San Miguel. I told them that friends and I had a trip planned in the city during February.
Muriel leaned toward me and insisted, “You’ll have to come see us and have drinks at our place when you come.”
“We would love that.”
Excitedly, I informed my fellow travelers via email later that day, who seemed equally pleased to have a personal invitation in a city we did not know.
I stayed in touch with Muriel at Christmas and again in late January. She insisted again they wanted us to come for drinks at sunset and sent a map via email from our hotel to their place, only six blocks away.
On Tuesday, our second full day in the city, we purchased flowers from the Artisan Market next door to our hotel and I had brought a daily devotional book as gifts for the Harley and Muriel. We arrived at their massive wooden door, unadorned and unremarkable, rang the bell, and waited anxiously. I was the only one who had met Harley and Muriel and I barely recalled what they looked like, now six months later.
Muriel and Harley guided us to the living and dining room combination. The scent of lilies greeted us from three vases the height of most table lamps; Cava (a white sparkling wine) waited to tickle our taste buds. We met the couple they rented and shared the house with each February, Chip and Leslie. Harley opened the door with Muriel’s head peaking over his shoulder to welcome us in. We walked into the dark entrance, strode up several steps into light, flooding the central patio with a three-tiered fountain filled with fresh flowers. With no ceiling overhead we were exposed to the elements of nature. We stood stunned byprofuse fresh flowers, the openness in the middle of a house, and the elegant garden and patio. A bit in awe of our circumstances, like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, we stood gaping at the interior of a house in which the exterior from the street gave no foreshadowing of what was to come.
Muriel, the impeccable hostess said, “We like to start here with a drink in hand as Harley provides a tour of the house, which will simply spiral up the house, until you get to the roof top where we will have hor d’oevers as the sun sets. Take your time, we have other friends who will join us and they have company, so we will be meeting them as well.”
Harley said, “This house is not a typical rental, but a home designed for the owners themselves. We met them several years ago and they are gone this time each year, so we with Leslie and Chip worked a deal. It’s full of Mexican antiques and is not what you will find as a long-term rental here in San Miguel.”
The ceiling soared about fifteen feet, so we were gazing up and around as Harley talked, staring at the sets of art on the walls, pottery on the shelves, memorizing the fabric patterns on the furniture, running our fingers over the wood table that was bigger than most eat-in kitchens, trying to absorb as much as possible before we left the room. I felt rude, but we were busy—all ears, eyes, nose, and fingers busy.
Harley gave us a quick architectural history lesson, “This house was built in the old Colonial Mexican style with the open-air courtyard in the center and the house built around it. Some houses of this style have coverings that help the residents get from one part of the house to the other. But this is the original concept, open to the elements.”
“What do you do on rainy days?”
“Use an umbrella,” he said deadpan. Then he smiled. “We keep one in every room in the place.” He went on to explain. “Most houses like this come with a staff. That took some getting used to.”
“I could use get used to that.” We each agreed.
“The first time I dropped my drawers for a shower and came out to find them gone, I was startled. They were already in the laundry. I learned to take a robe to the shower.”
“So what kind of staff do you have?”
“Two, a maid and cook. We don’t do anything while here.” He laughed, “We are spoiled by the time we get home and have to do those things for ourselves again. It takes some adjustment.”
Harley, using his cane, to steady himself showed us the first floor with what appeared to me more characteristically a French country kitchen.
Blue, yellow and white tiles covered the floors and back splashes, yellow cabinetry brightened the work space. The room was oddly shaped, like a squared-off S if you can imagine that. Though larger than kitchens in Mexico, it was smaller than kitchens in French homes.
The flowers we brought were lying in the sink in a container of water to keep them fresh. No time to arrange them. We felt like we had brought a small bouquet of dandelions to a florist store owner, because of the profusion of flowers throughout the house. We reminded ourselves, it is the thought that counts.
The first of five bedrooms had its own private bath, as would each of the following, and the two on the first floor had a fireplace. Each was differently decorated, but ready for an “Elle Décor,” “Veranda” or “Architectural Digest” photo shoot.
The four of us gawked, “ooo-ed and aah-ed,” took photos of rich antiques in rare settings and small bathrooms designed for luxury. I tried to act sophisticated about the style, color, or fixtures that combined to put a boutique-style B&B out of any competition for best-dressed rooms.
By the time we got to the second floor to compare a third and fourth bedroom, we were asking questions about artwork, age of furniture, or who gets which rooms when they are there. And of course, we each picked our favorite. I almost flopped on a bed to claim the one I wanted; but I caught myself. The bathrooms were so tiny that two of us could not stand in one together. We certainly could not take a photo and capture the essence of the room.
The stairs to the third floor narrowed. As we came out of the last room, we had to take turns going out and around the door one-by-one, then snake our way single-file to the next floor, as the hand-carved stone steps narrowed.
We learned that the highest and last bedroom would be Harley and Muriel’s. How does Harley navigate his way up and down using a cane several times a day?
Harley offered an architectural design lesson that he as an engineer found captivating.
“Look at the shapes in the brick ceiling and how they come together in this formation.” Our eyes followed his pointing finger. “That’s known as bóveda, a construction term for any arched brickwork. Not sure how they do it, but I know structurally that any archway when completed is stronger because of the tension it holds. Bold design, isn’t it?”
From each corner of the room the brickwork domed and fit together as an undulating ceiling, as if carved instead of bricked. I’d never seen this construction before. It must have required skill and patience, because it was the only bóveda ceiling in the house.
On our way from the last bedroom door, Muriel, Leslie, and other guests were on their way to the rooftops with food and drink. We each offered to lighten the load of the others, who balanced trays, carried pitchers of sloshing liquids, while they navigated uneven steps.
Not only did the steps narrow, the rise in the steps became more shallow, and unevenness resulted from hand-hewn stone. Our reward for the climb was tasty appetizers. My two favorites were the cooked asparagus stalks swirled in bacon and the tiniest, tidiest deviled quail eggs I ever saw to go with our next glass of Cava.
Muriel cooed, “Oh, you ladies have brought the first sunset we have seen in days. Isn’t it lovely up here? Thank you for coming.”
We felt special and each of us couldn’t say fast enough some version of, “No, it is us, who should be thanking you.”
Their invited friends, Bill Harris and Howard Haynes, was a couple who actually had lived in San Miguel for eighteen years of the forty-one years they had been together. They loved their city, their life, the fresh mountain air, the artists and the arts, and especially the blended community of both Mexicans and North Americans.
Howard, a philanthropist, told us of ways he had gone about getting money from people who didn’t have a heart for others, as well as those who enjoyed giving to their community. He held a strong ethic for giving back to the place and people wherever he had lived.
His partner, Bill, a quieter man, but just as convivial, pursued his passion as a gemologist and artisan jeweler. Artist and businessman, he owned a studio in their home. Muriel explained that his studio was not a “drop-by” storefront; one must have an invitation to come to see his artistry. We were deflated that we couldn’t stop and shop the next day.
Howard and Bill brought guests visiting them from Kansas City. Bill and guest Jim roomed together in college decades ago. With Jim’s partner, Damon that made twelve of us who enjoyed each other’s company behind one of the gates of San Miguel, as new and old friendships merged.
The four of us separated and wove our way through the folks scattered on the patio. We teased and laughed, talked and philosophized. We couldn’t have found company more pleasant, more engaging.
Howard asked us before he and his guests left that evening how long we were staying; he wanted to invite us for cocktails at their house. With only one night left in our stay, he was bummed, because they had dinner plans the following night.
He stewed for a moment and said, “Oh heck, just come over about 5:30, we’ll have drinks, just drinks, no appetizers, because we have dinner plans at 7:00. Just come for the hour and a half, so you can see our place. We would love to have you. Muriel will work out the details about how to get there, won’t you, darling?”
“Of course. I’ll take care of it.” Muriel said.
“Of course. We’ll be there,” we agreed. Our second invitation into a home–behind closed gates.
After Bill and Howard and their two guests left, we returned to the living room. Muriel and Leslie set about with a map to highlight spots in town we must not miss. They suggested that we make a point to see.
“The Fabrica La Aurora Gallery is a short hike from your hotel. Not all the galleries will be open tomorrow morning. For those that are in, stop and visit with the artist, browse, and explore. There is a coffee shop in front, but a sandwich shop in the back I recommend. Go to the back corner, just keep going back and to your right and you will find it. They offer coffee, sandwiches, smoothies and the like.”
In conversation we learned that Harley had been born in an internment camp for the Japanese in Arizona. Later when those in the camps were “adopted” by families east of the Mississippi River, his family went to live with a Quaker family in Pennsylvania. He became an aerospace engineer – even worked with NASA for two years – and lived in several locations before retiring from his last job assignment in Dallas. He was widowed with two grown sons when he met Muriel.
Muriel had a story of her own. Married once for fourteen years, her husband died from cancer. Married a second time for less than a year, her spouse was killed in an accident. Now she says, “I make sure Harley gets to the doctor regularly. I feed him right, remind him to take his vitamins, encourage exercise, and give him probiotics—whatever it takes to live my life with him as long as possible.” With no children of her own, she considered herself blessed with stepchildren and scads of step-grandkids. She worked to keep up relationships over time and distance.
While I talked to Harley about Quaker topics we shared in common and his life, Muriel showed the other three women some cards of her art work. I missed getting to see them, so I found some of her art work on-line later. (Google her name, Muriel Mimura, to see her stunning artwork on-line; or go to her Facebook page, Muriel Elliott Mimura.)
On our way back to the hotel that night, the four of us each shared the nuggets of gold we had mined from our new friends. We left their place with stories to tell, memories to treasure, and another invitation to make any tourist envious.
I overslept, so I hustled to get ready: one, because the room held the damp cold of the high elevation and I wanted my clothes on (half of everything I brought), and two, because we had agreed to meet for breakfast when it opened at 8:00 a.m. The other three waited on me for breakfast.
Cathy politely tapped on my door to check that I was up. Embarrassed I assured her I would join them in only a few moments at the restaurant—to go on without me. When I arrived five minutes later, they had already chatted up a gentleman with an American accent that sat on the opposite side of the roaring fireplace. Aaaah, the radiating heat feels like a blanket around my shoulders!
Turned out the gentleman, Archie Dean had written The Insider’s Guide to San Miguel for nineteen years, updating it every year to sustain the trust of travelers in his advice until 2011. He then sold the book concept and title to a company which continued to publish it every year, but failed to update it, so Archie was proud of his production, but shy of admitting any association with the current title.
We knew he could offer some advice—this was his city. Archie disappointed us with a sly smile, “My best advice? Just walk, explore, look around, follow your nose. You will find whatever is here to find. Just walk the city.”
A woman entered the restaurant and sat alone. She joined our restaurant conversation with Archie, then introduced herself as Merwin, an American artist in San Miguel for a few weeks of painting. She too had been in and out of San Miguel for years. As an artist, she encouraged us to snoop in the galleries, look for working artists in their studios and chat them up. She agreed with Archie, “It’s a walking city. Just walk.”
Over breakfast we also learned the confetti that littered the streets last night was evidence of St. Valentine’s Day week-end festival, a special celebration for San Miguel residents. That’s why it had been so quiet last night on February 15.
The cozy hotel restaurant wooed us back each day with a blazing fire every morning, fabulous selections for breakfast, and good company, not to mention the convenience.
The service varied, however. Coffee came almost soon enough conleche (with milk) and replenished almost quickly enough before we grumbled that our cups were empty. The first day we read the Spanish version of their menu without knowing the next page offered the menu in English.
I ordered Poblano Eggs and expected a light green, mild poblano chili-flavored sauce. Surprisingly, it arrived with a red, rather sweet sauce—not particularly complimentary to the eggs, but I ate it. Puzzled, my friends said it looked more like mole sauce, an original Mexican sauce that comes in a variation of spices by region and even by family recipe, but typically made of chilies and a bit of unsweetened chocolate to tame the heat of the chilies.
The next day, I discovered the English version of the menu by flipping the page. This time it read Puebla Eggs with (you guessed it) mole sauce. Yes, the Spanish label for PoblanoEggs was lost in translation. I later learned that PueblaEggs refer to the region in which mole originated. Language lesson wrapped in menu items.
Depending on the waitress, some days we ordered by pointing at the menu. Other days we ordered in English. And two days, another person came to confirm our order in English. Cathy ordered banana nut pancakes that looked scrumptious the first day and I promised myself pancakes the next day. I selected French toast one day, made with their homemade multigrano bread, which is hard to get in Mexico, and chose the banana nut pancakes two other days. Decadent!
We launched our first day with a map from the hotel receptionist in order to locate the city tourist office for a city tour in English at 1:00 that afternoon.
As curious explorers, we stepped across worn thresholds of cathedrals, wandered through gates, moseyed around courtyards, checked out menus for future reference, ambled through small galleries of art both exquisite and primitive, discovered the public library—a compliment to the city for its use by young and old alike for all kinds of purposes, and even rummaged through thrift stores.
The city commerce and activities may be hidden behind gates but it was not forbidding to us.
We walked the streets of San Miguel that morning, attempting to get our bearings and learn our way around. Other white-skinned, English-speaking people filled the streets just like us, except they knew where they were going—most of them lived there.
We strolled the narrow lanes, tried to walk single-file on the sidewalks, because that was all the room there was. We could not hear each other talking when walking single file. Cars couldn’t pass, if we walked two abreast in the streets, in order to hear each other. The foot and vehicular traffic created a horizontal Cirque du Soleil ™ ballet, close to the ground instead of in mid-air.
Outside each entrance, whether door or gate, the sidewalk slanted one-step down to the street level for ease and convenience of the residents. Utility poles stood in the middle of sidewalks and grates covered ground-utility holes, creating an obstacle course on sidewalks. Passing another person meant stepping into the street and/or traffic.
Quickly, I realized the necessity to be aware of my surrounding. I thought of it as a 180° scan from side to side, even up and down. To not stump a toe, to stay upright and out of the way, and return to our hotel safely each time required alertness.
We found the tourist office to learn more about the city tram tour. The office was a hole in a wall. The other three were in front of me and had stepped inside the door, while I stood outside because of insufficient space. I heard an American voice say, “Well, okie dokie. We’ll talk tomorrow,” and hang up a phone. I didn’t expect that expression here.
Turns out that the American was a Texan that gave us a more detailed map of the city than the sketchy one we had gotten from the hotel receptionist and advised us on shuttles for our return trip to the León airport with a list of purveyors. For the trolley tour, he instructed us go to a specific intersection to find “the man with a white cap” that sold tickets for the trolley tour.
This seemed odd, but sure enough there he was. I gave the man a $20 USD bill for all of us and the women repaid me the sixty-five-pesos (less than $5.00 U.S. each) for the 1:00 p.m. English tour of the city—international finance!
Next we stopped to study a café menu. Tilly said, “There’s nothing there I want.”
I suggested, “Then we move on. We need to all be amenable on where we eat.”
Jenn and Cathy agreed. Tilly said, “Thanks, but I don’t want to be the one to say no.”
I suggested, “Each of us should have veto power, especially when it comes to meals.”
They liked that ground rule, so we meandered through two or three more menus before we all settled on one. We ate before our city tram tour and arrived early for a good seat and hopped on to learn there were no bad seats.
The guide spoke Spanish and English alternately. Listening required more attention from me, a lazy listener. I had to note when she shifted from Spanish into English, when to disconnect from her script in Spanish and when to reconnect. Later I learned the others fought with the same attention deficit that I did.
The trolley made two stops in which we actually got off the vehicle. One stop featured a specially designed square at which at one time in history had served as the village laundry with free spring water. The wash basins were built of concrete and stood empty now, crumbling, and unused. Because the spring runs freely, residents still received free water in their homes.
The second stop at the peak of the city (or so it seemed) arrived at an artisan market for some shopping—not original art, but Mexican souvenirs you can buy most anywhere. The four of us stayed outside where we had a view of the city and took photos.
The trolley took us places we would never have gotten to, because we wouldn’t have walked that far. My favorite was a lush and leafy park where the city had just completed a two-week plant sale, La Candelaria. The tour guide told us one could buy trees, flowers, vegetable starts, shrubs, cacti, anything that grew in the ground. We missed it by one day.
At the end of the trolley jaunt while at the top of the city, we rode by alleyways the width of bicycle handle bars and looked down terrifying slopes to lower parts of the city.
Afterward, we ambled in and out of more centuries-old cathedrals close to the center of town, noted stone steps and wooden thresholds that indicated the millions of city inhabitants that had treaded in and out for worship weekly or daily, and tourists to view the exquisite architecture.
In some churches signs requested that no photos be taken; in others no request was made, leaving us free to take photos. The sacred solemnity might have indicated that we only look and take no photos. We were each tempted to surreptitiously take a photo from time to time, even if asked not to, when we admired the view of a nave or a single item.
We started paying attention to the street signs on the side of the buildings at each intersection to learn our way around, to navigate the city. A jog in a street could throw us off, but the map just as easily got us back on track.
Cathy and Jenn always had an eye out for a boutique—whether clothes, jewelry or shoes. I like to shop, but not as much as these two, while Tilly didn’t care to shop. Easy-going, Tilly hung out on the sidewalk while we shopped. After the first day of exploring and our trolley tour, Tilly needed to rest an eye that was giving her problems and I, my weary feet. She and I returned to our rooms for siesta, while the other two explored the goods and wares of San Miguel. Our second night was an early supper and early to bed.
The weekly market, scheduled for the next day, as well as an invitation for drinks at sunset with a couple I had met in Texas, scheduled us for much of the following day.
Some travelers are pilgrims (serious spiritualists), tourists (tour bus advocates), adventurers and thrill seekers (adrenaline rush junkies), or explorers (on-foot surveyors). My friends and I saw ourselves as simple, moderate explorers, not even treasure seekers. Cathy, Tilly, Jenn, and I decided to visit San Miguel de Allende, a new location for all of us. The three of them had traveled together the previous year. I invited myself along for this year’s expedition. They heartily entreated me to join them.
A neighbor of mine in Texas traveled to San Miguel with a native Mexican, as informal tour guide and reported that she found it disappointing, because stores, galleries and restaurants were behind gates and doors. To her it seemed closed off, hard to get a feel for the place, inaccessible.
I shared my neighbor’s experience with the other three women. All seasoned travelers, we set our intention to get behind the gates of San Miguel.
San Miguel de Allende is not a modern city, but an ancient colonial Mexican village, and as a result, it is built behind doors, gates, fences, and facades that then open up into courtyards that are surrounded by commercial shops or residences. In recent decades the village has grown into a tourist town, which then became home to thousands of artists of all stripes from North America, both the U.S. and Canada. The expatriate artist community today finds bountiful inspiration at a higher elevation in mid-Mexico, though sitting in a valley surrounded by distant, outlined mountains and fertile agricultural fields. The colonial village is known for its churches, cathedrals, and green spaces. The Parroquia, a primary landmark is not a cathedral, but the local parish church. Follow the parroquia link to see it in the midst of the city and as a Neo-Gothic example of architecture. The pink exterior makes it easy to find.
During the summer of 2014, Jenn researched flights and found a reasonable fare on Volaris. We booked. I called a friend in my hometown that travels frequently to San Miguel to ask recommendations for lodging. We booked the Hotel Quinta Loreta on her endorsement. We each took to the Internet to see what to do and see in the city for our trip.
Our itinerary started from the fishing village Isla Mujeres, Mexico, where we all spend a month or more each year. We ferried across the channel from Isla Mujeres to Cancún. Best Day shuttle took us to the Cancúnaeropuerto, where we traveled by Volarias, a no frills Mexican airline to León, an hour and a half flight. No frills meant we carried backpacks for luggage and even had to buy water aboard the flight. We were an hour later than expected and had not made shuttle arrangements from León to San Miguel. Cathy approached a young man with a wife and baby, to ask if he spoke English and could he advise us. He spoke English and recommended we hail a taxi to the bus station and go from there by bus.
When we arrived at the bus station, we were weary and thirsty from our day’s travel—a low cost adventure for each of us. We could make out multiple bus lines—some we had heard of and others we had taken before. We understood the peso price ranges, but also realized that the wait time for even the cheapest one was costly in terms of wait time. We grumbled and debated.
Cathy walked outside, negotiated a cab ride, bargained with him, then he raised the price. I joined her and we ganged up on him to insist on the lower price. He conceded. We piled our backpacks in the trunk. Three of us scrunched in the back seat and let Tilly sit in front with the driver. Because she speaks Italian, she can make her way with Spanish better than the rest of us. She learned his nombre, Carlos, so we could at least be friendly enough to call him by name.
The car without adequate shocks bounced us through croplands and desert-like terrain with the mountains always in view. Sunlight followed us all the way to San Miguel and set as we arrived. The driver asked for an address and directions.
I had a name, Quinta Loreta Hotel, and an address, but oops, no directions. Because he was unfamiliar with the city, we suggested he drop us off in the center of town, circa de Artisan Mercado, next door to the hotel. He shook his head with disgust.
Carlos stopped at a gas station for directions. He then drove and drove, and looked this way and that way. Without a word spoken we knew he was as lost as we were.
It crossed my mind, could he be taking us on a wild-goose chase? Could he actually know his way and we become victims of a “give me all your money,” scam and dumped? Or worse?
Carlos asked another local taxi driver for directions. That seemed smart of him and reduced my fears. We rode until we were in an industrial looking part of town. Not yet panicked, it crossed my mind again, what if?
He asked another taxi driver. We turned around and headed in the other direction.
We were lost before we arrived.
By this time, we suspected he was fuming over the negotiated cost of the ride and the time he was killing not making another fare.
We arrived around 9:00 p.m. with cheers for him and gave him the agreed upon price and a substantial tip, hoping to appease him. We did not wait for his response to our tip.
The receptionist gave us keys to our rooms and vague direction to another restaurant, because the hotel’s restaurant was closed. Worn-out, hungry, and fatigued from dehydration, we trekked out to find it.
Soon we heard American English-speaking voices, a couple out to find an Italian restaurant to which they had been directed. Yes, we would love to follow them the six- to eight-minute walk they had been assured it would take. We walked and talked; we looked and searched. Our energy waned. Finally, the couple determined that our 20-minute journey must not be the right direction. We walked back to our starting point. By this time of night, the gates of the city were mostly closed. The streets felt deserted. Our weary feet hobbled over narrow cobblestoned lanes cluttered with Easter-egg colored confetti. We speculated on the reason the streets were full of trashed confetti. We slowed our pace and wondered if breakfast would be our next meal.
Down the way, a light above a heavy wooden door slung back, to welcome us. A peek inside had the feel of Cheers—where everyone knows your name. People, hunched over tables, talked and laughed, as if they did this every night of the week.
We stepped inside out of the damp mountain chill into the warmth and savory aromas of the establishment. José stood waiting to serve us with humor and a quick wit; margaritas and molten volcano bowls of chicken with cactus, pepper and onion arrived bubbling hot. We had arrived at Milagro and found sustenance behind a single gate in San Miguel on a cool February evening.
My return to the monkish room that evening revealed heat and A/C were not part of my accommodation. The stored blanket in the closet felt like the batting was lead. I thought, Ah, this should hold the heat in for the night.
I was chilled to the bone and took a quick hot shower that did not knock the chill from the room or my body, so I crawled into bed with my thermal Cuddle Duds shirt on. That should do it. After half an hour, I was up to find my TravelSmith blanket and wrapped it around my feet and legs beneath the covers, like leg warmers. I had to scooch down because the maid had made the bed with no extra length to cover my shoulders. I’ll have to fix that tomorrow. I curled into a fetal position, pulled the sheet over my nose, and finally fell asleep.