BootsnAll Travel Network

Guanajuato: pure joy

Travel-time is its own phenomenon. We were here–what? A day and a half. And when we came back after two days away, it felt to me as if I´d lived here for a lifetime, gone away for a decade, and was coming home. The streets, alleys, smells, and sounds were familiar. The faces of the vendors were familiar; the park benches were familiar. The people in the hostel were dear old friends. The constant swirl of life, youth, energy, laughter, dogs, taxis, buses, and color is all exactly as it should be. Of all the trips I´ve made into Mexico (something between a dozen and fifteen), this is the best. This city is my favorite in all of Mexico. Here are some of the reasons why.

Everything is being refurbished, re-painted, restored, polished, and spiffed up. The Pipila monument high above the city, a gigantic stone statue of a worker with a torch raised, is surrounded by scaffolding on which workers who appear to be the size of ants are taking off squares of worn or damaged stone and replacing them with new squares. Gallo said it reminds him of Gulliver strapped down, surrounded by Lilliputians. We took the funicular straight up the mountain so we could see what´s going on there and enjoy the panorama of the city below. We watched the workers climbing around, removing stone, patching stone, hammering and mortaring. All of them seem pleased with their work. There is an absorption, a pride, a pleasure that radiates from their bodies. But what I loved best was the young man at the bottom in a tank top, fatigues, and a hat, brown-armed in the sun, patiently and gently hammering pink stone, making it into a powder. Two of his friends sat beside him, watching, chatting with him, and he just patiently, gently kept hammering that pink stone into a powder on a larger stone. The original stone from which the monument was made was pinkish, so he must have been making the pink-stone-powder to mix with cement, to make the statue look as it always has looked–pink. All the while, he was smiling, enjoying the sun on his arms, the company of his friends, the pleasure of working on a monument that has been the symbol of the city for a couple of hundred years and will be the symbol of the city in the time of his grandchildren. Workers restoring a monument to a worker.

Up there surrounding the statue there are vendors selling pork skins the size of large-screen TVs, sliced jicama and papaya, Frida Kahlo tote bags, beaded bracelets, T-shirts with the name of the town or with skeletons or with names of sports teams, silver bangles, yarn dolls, and ugly ceramics. There was also an artist named H. Baez who draws pen-and-ink landscapes of Guanajuato. We strolled over to admire his work, and he chatted with us in English and pointed out landmarks he wanted us to recognize. He has a show coming up in Chicago in a few months, he told us, thirty-seven landscapes of Guanajuato. He likes people from other places to see how beautiful his town is.

We went to the Don Quixote museum–a former silver baron´s mansion now sixteen rooms full of art devoted to Don Quixote, art by people from Mexico of course, but also by people from Spain, Japan, Canada, Germany–art from the seventeenth century to the present, art in just about every imaginable medium and style, all made by people fascinated by the story of the lovable old fool who projected his romantic fantasies onto the mundane world he lived in. My favorite painting was a massive oil on canvas of shattered and refracted windmills (Ansie said looking at it made her anxious).

This afternoon we sat on the steps of the grand old theatre building (nine muses in bronze stand on top, above the neoclassical columns)–we and about 150 high school kids, watching a clown improvise and tease passers by. Then he looked into the audience, spottied Ansie (who is bright-eyed with life and has a sparkle all her own) and picked her out for a skit he wanted to do that involved putting a wedding veil on her, going through a mimed wedding ceremony, and then trying for a kiss. She blushed scarlet, which delighted the crowd, and when he dove in for his kiss she dodged him and the kids roared with laughter.

Tonight the whole city was swarming with kids: high school kids, college kids, boys in packs, girls in knots, boys and girls holding hands, all of them laughing, eating ice cream cones, following two separate bands of singers and musicians dressed in Renaissance costumes, leading parades up this alley and down that. In one square an old woman in a black dress and a white-edged apron danced suggestively around the boy performers and earned the applause of the crowd.

Pedestrian walkways are crowded with humanity. Music, some live, pours out of every doorway. Gallo and Ansie and I had our late night snack at a sidewalk cafe in a little park. Inside Julian Galvan was playing a guitar and singing ballads (Gallo says the style is called Nuevo Cancion), and outside people were drinking cappuchino or beer or rum and eating dessert or enchiladas or empanadas.

There seems to be prosperity, joy, music, life, youth, and possibility at every turn. (And did I mention color? Color like Italian ice cream, color like a box of crayolas, color so vibrant my eyes twitch with color.)

There are historical and political reasons why Guanajuato is what it is. First there were the Indio people. This was a good valley to live in, sheltered by a ring of mountains. Then came the colonizers who built the silver mines. Then there was the revolution, centered right around here. The Jesuits were here, and it seems many of them were on the side of the workers. There was horrible violence, there was exploitation, but there were always artists and workers mixing here. A great University is here. Benito Juarez lived here for a while (there´s a plaque on a building that says so). More recently, Vicente Fox was born here and rose to political power with his PAN party right here. Whatever anyone may say about his politics, he certainly brought prosperity to his home town. I´m sure much of this is only my tourist´s perception, skewed by my inner state of bliss, but it seems to me that joy emanates from the stones. I´m so glad I´m here.


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