I was bleary all the way here — finding out that your 7 a.m. flight was cancelled and you now have a seat on the 5:15 will do that — but getting off the plane Tuesday gave me the adrenaline buzz I always get when I come to Guanajuato. It’s been like that since I came here as a 25-year-old looking to improve his Spanish and have an adventure. Back then, I had just quit my job at a newspaper to finish a book I was working on…
Yeah. Here we are again, 20 years later.
Life is circular, I think. Guanajuato definitely is. More on that shortly…
Mario was waiting at the tiny airport. Mario works for the woman whose apartment I’m renting for the next six weeks. She lives in New Hampshire and bought the place in ’99. She’s planning to retire here someday. I get it. Guanajuato has a certain gravity to it once it gets into your skin.
Mario tends the house for her. He’s very polite and upright and friendly, like most guanajuatenses I’ve ever met. Good people. On the drive, I tell Mario this is my seventh or eighth trip to Guanajuato and that I studied Spanish here two decades ago. Turns out Mario is old friends with Jorge, the guy who ran the language school I attended. Great guy, I say. He sure was, Mario says. Jorge died a few years back, he adds. The car gets quiet.
He parks and we hump my luggage up a very steep pedestrian street called Callejon del Tecolote — the alley of the owl. It’s a marginally famous landmark around here: Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla marched down this alley in 1810 to start the revolution against the Spanish. A year later, his head was adorning a spike on the walls of the Alhondiga about a half mile from here. He’s on historical markers, murals and statues all over town; Mexico loves its martyrs.
The apartment is off a side alley so narrow I can nearly touch both sides at the same time and so picturesque that I take a picture. As Mario works the locks, a German Shepherd on the roof of the house across the alley starts barking and snarling — it’s amplified in the tight alley, as if we’re at the bottom of a stone well. Guanajuato is the most paved place I’ve ever seen, an endless maze of stone, brick and concrete. And because it’s in a valley, it becomes an immense bowl of echoing noise. I’m glad the apartment’s isolated from the cars and crowds of the main streets.
Mario opens the door and gives me a quick tour. It’s a spacious place, all tile floors and wood-beam ceilings and plaster walls. It even has a little side courtyard full of fruit trees and plants. The best part: a rooftop terrace with stunning views of the city. I take a few snapshots. The roof dog – who I’ve dubbed Snarlario – seems close enough to snag my camera.
I unpack, wander the rooms, think about a nap — I’m operating on about 4 hours’ sleep. But I’m too amped up, and too hungry. I stroll downtown and have lunch in one of the touristy places along the Plaza de la Paz, grabbing an outside table with a view of the basilica.
Lunch, in true Mexican fashion, runs two hours. The waiter is young and polite but in no hurry and assumes I’m not either. And he’s right. I’m just watching the city go by. And before long I’m watching re-runs. I noticed this about Guanajuato years ago: sit still long enough downtown and anyone you might be looking for (or avoiding) will pass by at some point. It’s like the works of some enormous antique clock, everyone orbiting on their own little gear, which is interlocked with all the other gears that all rotate toward the common center at regular intervals.
I spot the black-sweatered, philosophy-major-looking student for the second time. Then the young couple with the baby passes my table for the third time. The father has stud earrings and a modified Mohawk, mom has wild black hair with blonde highlights, and baby girl has her hair tugged into a dozen plastic barrettes so it’s poking off her head like fuzzy spikes. Then it’s the guy in the Red Sox cap and cargo shorts (thick-legged and scruff-jawed; he could pass for a Southie any day). He scowls at the prices on the menu; half an hour later he’s on a bench across the plaza eating street food out of a paper wrapper; half an hour after that he’s clomping across the plaza from an entirely different direction. It’s circular, this place.
I’m happy to see that the important stuff hasn’t changed: The Jardin (the city’s central plaza) is still bustling under the deep shade of the laurel trees, which are still clipped impossibly square. The mariachis still smoke in the shade, waiting for the tourists to come. The university still looms over everything like a Moorish castle. Truco 7, my favorite coffee shop/hangout, is still there, and so is La Dama de las Camelias, the quirky bar decorated with women’s shoes where I used to drink with my fellow Spanish students. The mountains still circle the city, the air still tastes like minerals and the people still speak that crisp Bajio Spanish that sounds like a song.
I see plenty of changes by the time I finish my walk back to the apartment (with a quick stop for tequila and beer. You know, writing supplies). Sure, I saw the expected American cultural incursions: a Starbucks off the Jardin, a KFC near another historic plaza. But they’re subdued, with modest signage, trying to fit in. Everywhere I look, the city seems … renewed. The downtown buildings have fresh paint. The corners all have snazzy new street signs and all the local points of interest have sprouted fancy metal information towers. There’s fewer street kids begging, fewer mongrel dogs sniffing around, less trash and dog shit to dodge – even the streets seem freshly scrubbed. Is the Pope coming or something?
But there’s something different about the people, too. Grown Mexican men walk around in short pants with no apparent embarrassment. I see two or three gay couples – also Mexican – being conspicuously together in public, also something you’d never see here in years past. Then the big shocker: a guy with a leashed dog leans over and picks up his dog’s fresh deposit with a plastic bag. Amazing.
Day One ends at a balcony table at El Gallo Pitagorico, a cliffside Italian restaurant with some of the best views of the city. Night falls, the city lights rise, the Estudiantinas – the city’s strolling minstrels who dress in medieval costumes – start leading the night’s throng of revelers up the narrow callejones, and their song echoes off the old stones as they climb into a perfect night.
(Here’s a short clip of the Estudiantinas)