My last post about Mexico was entitled Mexico 1963 and it chronicled the year I spent in the Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende at age nine when my father decided to spend a sabbatical year there.
Fast forward some 48 years. Ignoring friends and relatives whose only question was where they should send the ransom money, I convinced my husband, Steve, to join me on my first return visit to San Miguel de Allende. Mindful of the State Department warnings about the violent, lawless border region, we flew over the border and northern Mexico, directly to a relatively new international airport in Queretero, Mexico, a city in the central highlands of Mexico in a region known as the Bajío. To lessen the stress of our first day, I arranged for a transport service to meet us at the airport and drive us to San Miguel de Allende, about an hour away.
As we neared San Miguel, it was obvious that things had changed. The town, now a small city of 130,000 souls, sprawled farther out into the countryside. Where I remembered desert scrub, there were now gated communities, a golf course and a shopping mall, including a big box supermarket. But, as the highway gave way to cobblestones, my memories and present day reality started to merge. The similarities even after almost fifty intervening years is at least partially explained by its designation as a National Monument by the Mexican government in 1926 which preserved the nature and Spanish colonial style of the historic central district. The town is also justly proud of having been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.
Our taxi left us off in front of Casa Carmen, the same guest house where I had stayed as a nine year old with my parents and sisters for two weeks in 1963 while my parents looked for more permanent lodging for our year-long stay. As we pulled up along the stuccoed outer wall on the street, I could see a little flicker of concern cross Steve’s eyes. He knew my family of origin as serious budget travelers. But, as we entered the delightful central courtyard, complete with a fountain and citrus trees, he relaxed.
I remembered a courtyard, but something seemed slightly off. My memory was that our room had been on the second floor in 1963 and that there had been an outdoor flight of stairs to get there. Carolina, the manager, assured me that there had never been a second floor. Hey, it was a long time ago….
After lunch which the Casa Carmen cook had kept warm for us, we walked the block and a half to the jardin (garden), San Miguel’s central plaza with its center bandstand and manicured trees, fronted on one side by the striking parroquia, San Miguel’s iconic pink sandstone main church, that is unlike any other in Mexico. To my now well-traveled eyes, it seemed reminiscent of Gaudi’s perennially unfinished cathedral in Barcelona, Spain, La Sagrada Familia.
Some forty-nine year old neural pathways kicked in as I led my skeptical husband through a labyrinth of small, cobblestone streets, past art galleries and restaurants that had been non-existent in 1963 until — there it was, la calle de codo (Elbow Street). I stopped in front of a familiar, weathered wooden door in a featureless stucco wall. “This is where you lived?” I explained that behind the nondescript door had been a block of gardens, and a main house and guest house that came with a live-in maid and gardener for $80 per month — back in the day.
We spent a too short two nights at Casa Carmen and in San Miguel. On the morning we were checking out, Cynthia, the owner of Casa Carmen was in the office. She is the daughter of the woman who had owned it when we stayed there in 1963. We were still both the same age — just as we were in 1963 when we had tried to be friends across a linguistic and cultural void. Now she spoke excellent English as her mother had married an American and she had spent 44 years living in the United States. We could now communicate in two languages as I had majored in Spanish in college, had spent a semester studying in Colombia and had been using Spanish in my work as a lawyer for lo these many years. I showed her an old slide I had found of her, all dressed in white, a little girl helping to carry the statue of an angel in a long ago religious procession.
We fell into a bilingual time travel reverie. We looked at each other, searching for the little girls we had been when we last saw each other. I would not have recognized her in the street, but as we chatted away, I could catch glimpses of my friend, Cindy, with whom I had been sent off to Catholic school in 1963. We decided we both looked marvelous, having lived parallel lives, shepherding our children through to adulthood and then fulfilling the emotionally wrought task of presiding over the deaths of parents.
She asked me if I remembered Casa Carmen. Ignoring my husband’s rolling eyes, I launched into my soliloquy about the missing stairs to the missing second floor. She paused as she mentally unwrapped four decades of life before smiling and saying, “You know, I’m pretty sure that when I was nine, Casa Carmen was around the corner. There’s a Fedex office there now.” I thanked her and took off around the corner and up the street, Steve in tow. There was the Fedex sign. We entered a small courtyard and THERE WAS THE FLIGHT OF STAIRS, exactly as I had remembered. I gave my grinning husband a triumphant look that exalted, “I told you so.”
I explained to the somewhat bemused Fedex workers that I had stayed there 49 years ago, on the second floor. With their permission, I climbed up to our old room where I had slept as a somewhat bewildered nine year old. As I slowly descended the stairs, I could envision an apprehensive 5th grade girl, on the same stairs, setting off for a new kind of school with her only Mexican friend. I wished I could tell her that she would be okay — that everything turned out better than fine.