Back to San Juan

NO, I’M NOT going back to Puerto Rico. I think about it a lot though. I also think about buying another motorcycle, which I’m not going to do either.

I lived on a roof there. Technically, it was a penthouse, but pinning the penthouse label on the place, which I’ve often done, is making it sound far fancier than it was.

The view was spectacular and, if memory serves, the rent was about $100 a month, but this was in the mid-1970s when $100 meant something. Now it’s coffee at Starbucks.

An element of this time that I haven’t mentioned in the past was my neighbors. Directly next door, and four stories down, was a police outpost that included a holding cell.

But just past that was another “high-rise” of about five floors. My building was five floors, but it sat a bit higher on an incline, so I had a view down to the roof of that other building.

That was where the hippie family lived.

We never spoke, and we rarely even waved. They were not Puerto Ricans from the look of them. The family consisted of Mama Hippie and Papa Hippie and a brood of about four or five mini-hippies, ages 8, 9, 10 and so on.

But I’m sure they enjoyed their life in the Caribbean air, there with the green sea and blue sky and almost endless ocean breezes. Off to the left was the El Morro fortress. To the right sat the hulk of San Cristóbal.

Those five stories were navigable only on foot. There was no elevator. This discouraged casual jaunts outside. And the step risers were not uniform, making the ascent more arduous. I usually went out once at midday to shop and again in the afternoon, going to the newspaper.

Five stories high does not provide a true picture because the street ran along the edge of a high cliff above the sea. Actually, I was probably about 10 stories above the surf.

Ascending the steps was up a dank, gray, concrete stairwell. On reaching my door, the topmost, you opened it and were instantly flung into another world. There was the sea, the forts, the heavens, ahead, up, and to the right.

To the left was the living-room door. The living room was tiny, and sparsely furnished. At its far end, to the right, was the kitchen, so tight that the fridge lived in the living room.

Straight ahead was a door where you entered a vestibule that provided two options. Ahead to the bathroom or right to the bedroom. Funny, I don’t remember the bathroom.

SJ
View over the bed.

The bedroom had a double bed and two windows. One was above the low headboard with a view of San Juan Bay and the mountains.

The other window was on the opposite end, just to the right as you entered the bedroom, and it opened onto the large, uncovered patio.

The entire apartment, not counting the open-air patio, would have fit into the Hacienda’s living room easily.

It was a fascinating, booze-fueled, time, often warm because there was no air-conditioning, and there was a hammock out on the patio. But the nights were cool enough.

I never encountered the hippie family, head-on. You’d think we would have passed on the street downstairs on occasion, but we never did in the 10 months I lived there atop the world.

I have quite a bit of history in the Caribbean, having visited also Haiti, the Dominican Republic and the U.S. Virgins.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading along. I write this sort of stuff more for myself than anything. Don’t want to forget.

Always a danger in one’s dotage.

Leaving Mexico

NO, NOT ME. Gadzooks! I’ll be here till I die.

But sometimes people from above the Rio Bravo move to Mexico, stay a spell, and then pack up and go back, after all the bother of coming here in the first place, and it is a bother. Culture shock too.

What inspires this post today is a recent blog entry from Debi Kuhn who lives with her husband, Tom, in Mérida. They’ve been in that sweltering city for 10 years, but are planning to pack up and return to the United States, an incomprehensible step, to my way of thinking.

Debi is a little vague on the cause of the return, pointing mostly at the difficulty of learning Spanish. And that can truly be a major problem. But it can be solved by moving to San Miguel de Allende where all Mexicans within the city limits are obligated to learn English for your convenience.

And the weather is way nicer than Mérida too.

The first two or three years, I would have returned to the United States had it been financially feasible. It would have required returning to the workforce — a horrible thought — due to the far higher U.S. cost of living. Living in Mexico is cheap. Don’t believe it when people say otherwise.

I moved south alone seven years before I was eligible for Social Security. I lived on a measly corporate pension of $540 a month, and I took up the slack with savings. And I lived just fine. When I got married at age 58, the two of us lived well on the same money for the next four years.

Time has passed, and I’ve grown used to Mexico. Culture shock is long gone. I feel utterly at home. Culture shock would likely hit me if I returned to America where I have not set foot since early 2009.

I like it here very much.

The language thing Debi mentions can be a bear. If you come here as a couple, which means you speak English daily, learning Spanish well enough to have conversations is almost impossible except for the very young.

Virtually everyone I know of who can converse in Spanish has either moved here solo or is married to a Latina.

flagIt takes time to acclimate to this very different world. But go back now? No way, José.

I love hearing burros braying in the distance at dawn, and roosters and dogs. I love sunrises over mountains that I watch every morning above this computer screen where I read the news from America and its ethnic conflicts, race riots, deficit spending and “social democracy.”

In an odd way, I even love the passing trains that gently rattle window panes in the middle of the night. I love the weekday morning exercise walks around the nearby plaza where sits a 16th century church.

I love that I can get a plumber or electrician or bricklayer or any talented workman to come to the Hacienda on a moment’s notice and do whatever needs to be done for a pittance of what it would cost up north.

I love that I can pay cheaply for traffic infractions on the spot without having all the bother of waiting in courthouses, even though that’s only happened once in 15 years. I still favor the system.

I love that our infrastructure improves daily, highways, shopping malls, and first-class, snazzy, inexpensive bus transportation nationwide. I love that you can fly an airliner anywhere — except to the United States — without being strip-searched and otherwise abused and humiliated.

I love that you can easily get a doctor appointment for tomorrow or even today in a modern facility, and when you leave you pay in cash and still have change left for Sears or Walmart or a café latte at Starbucks.

And I love that you can voice unpopular opinions without being fired from your job or socially ostracized or have your children turned over to the state. You may get punched in the nose, but that’s only fair.

I love perfect avocados in the outdoor market and high-quality, name-brand shirts with an invisible flaw that you can buy for eight bucks not far from where you just purchased those perfect avocados.

And I love that you never hear the words racist, sexist or transgender, and that television shows that regularly feature men passionately kissing other men are invariably beamed down from America, and that shows produced in Mexico feature manly men with mustaches, often clutching tequila bottles, sporting sidearms and punching other men, not kissing them.

MariawhoopiAnd women on Mexican television, from actresses to commentators to weather girls, always look like Penelope Cruz or Maria Grazia Cucinotta, not Ellen DeGeneres, Whoopi Goldberg or Rosie O’Donnell.

I love living in a PC-free world, and I love paying just $80 in property taxes on two homes and an apartment in Mexico City. Total.

I love that a beautiful, bright babe not much older than my daughter said yes when I asked her to marry me. I love it that when I pull back the bedroom drapes on summer mornings, I see a sea of golden datura.

And there’s the elegant, artsy Hacienda, which I could never have built or maintained in the United States. I do love that.

* * * *

I hope Debi and her husband, Tom, do not regret returning to the United States, but we will always welcome them back if they decide it was a mistake. For me, I cannot fathom such a move.

Bernal to San Miguel

BernalWE DON’T GET out much, but sometimes we do. Mostly, when we leave the Hacienda, we either go to the beach at Zihuatanejo or to Mexico City. It’s hard to imagine two more contrasting spots.

Years ago, before discovering Zihuatanejo, or rather before the autopista to the beach was completed, we headed to San Miguel de Allende when we wanted to get away from home. But we wearied of touristy, Gringo-overrun San Miguel, and then the autopista to Zihuatanejo was opened.

The drive time to either became almost identical, and the route to the beach was far prettier. There are too many tourists at both locations, but sometimes you just have to endure.

Last Sunday, we decided on something different, a place called Bernal, which is northeast of Querétaro by about 45 minutes. Bernal’s claim to fame is a very big rock that sticks out of the ground. It is the world’s third highest rock sticking out of the ground after Gibraltar and Sugarloaf Mountain in Brazil.

Since rocks fascinate New Age people, Bernal is popular with the woo-woo set especially during changes of the seasons. Few things captivate New Age people more than the intersection of a season change with a big rock. The big rock in Bernal is called Peña de Bernal.

Woo-woo people also are very fond of feathers.

It’s only about 3.5 hours from the Hacienda by autopista, which is the only way you should cover long distances in Mexico unless you want to spend days jolting over speed bumps and sitting at red lights behind burros. The autopista will cost you, however, but it’s cash well spent.

We had no hotel reservation, so we strolled about until we found the Hotel Quinta Arantza, which we liked very much. We were on the third floor with a king bed and a glass wall that provided a direct view of the big rock. The small hotel includes a full breakfast, which is why it is sometimes listed as a B&B.

We arrived Sunday afternoon, and Bernal’s small downtown was packed with tourists. After eating pasta at a restaurant named El Meson de la Roca, we walked about a bit and then bought a tour that took us a ways up the big rock. The evening found us gobbling gorditas downtown. And then ice cream on the street.

We watched “The Picture of Dorian Gray” on the hotel telly and sacked out.

Opening the drapes at dawn, the big rock’s top was shrouded in fog, which is what the spirit world does to big rocks in the early morning. We dined at the hotel’s restaurant, packed up the Honda and departed. But we weren’t ready to go home. Let’s go to San Miguel, I said. She concurred.

San Miguel is about two hours from Bernal on the northwest side of the city of Querétaro. We arrived about 12:30, and I headed to Starbucks right off the plaza for an espresso, and she headed to shops, which is what women prefer to do 99 percent of the time given the opportunity.

I sat beside a Starbucks window and watched the people walk by. There were a few Mexicans but mostly lots of Gringos in Bermuda shorts, sandals and cameras, plus other Gringos, the artsy ones, dressed up like buffoons. It’s always a hoot to see a San Miguel sidewalk procession of white people.

We linked up shortly after and headed to a restaurant named Hecho en Mexico, where we’ve eaten numerous times on previous visits. It’s just up the street from the famous Instituto Allende, where foreigners go to try and learn Spanish and other artsy endeavors. I doubt anyone actually learns Spanish, which ain’t that easy.

In keeping with San Miguel’s hippie-dippy spirit, we both ordered vegetarian hamburgers. I got a side of onion rings, and my child bride decided on sweet tater casserole to accompany. My granny’s sweet tater casserole in the old days was far better, but the onion rings were quite tasty, especially with globs of ketchup.

We enjoyed a priceless San Miguel moment while eating our veggie burgers. The moment was provided by another customer, clearly a San Miguel inhabitant, a man who entered sporting a polo shirt with collar upturned jauntily beneath a blue blazer with sleeves pushed up. His hair was tossed carefreely, but the crown jewel of his attire were the pants, chinos with globs of art paint dabbed all over the place. I am an artist! he proclaimed.

After lunch, we drove the remaining three hours to the Hacienda. On alighting from the Honda, we noticed that, due to the spiritual natures of Bernal and San Miguel, we both were walking about two inches above the floor, but by the next morning everything was back to normal. We were grounded. And home again.

* * * *

Note 1: I did not take the photo. I forgot my camera. The shot comes from a series which you may see here.

Note 2: A fun website that pokes fun at the silliness of San Miguel can be found here.

Note 3: A more detailed and more traditional blog post about Bernal can be found here.

Note 4: Bernal is one of the Mexican towns I consider one-shot wonders, which is to say they are worthy of a visit, but not a return. Others in this category are Real de Catorce, Valle de Bravo, Tlalpujahua and Tequisquiapan.