Once upon a time in Mexico, by a happy accident my friend Nancy was also there, in the not too far off town of San Miguel Allende. She had by this time been there a month, staying in a guest house, and by my arrival ought be an old hand who could show me the sights. But we did nothing much of that, and most of the time we sat in the shade at her guest house, or on the cool patio of a restaurant and watch the shadows move across the tiles and the breeze stir the fronds of the potted palm. In a shop I bought ex-votos, primitive paintings on tinplate offered in church in thanksgiving for prayers answered, with their picture of the supplicant in his dire straights and the saint approaching to bring remedy, and below, in old-fashioned script, an account of the saint’s miraculous intervention. The fellow who sold them to me was quite candid about their possible inauthenticity, but I bought them as art rather than antiquities and am wholly pleased with them.
San Miguel de Allende is a beautiful hill town in the State of Guanajuanto, north and west of the capital, not far from Dolores Hildago, from which sprang in 1810 the War of Independence against Spain. San Miguel is full of churches and the shops of artesans and throngs of young gringos who, though numerous, were surprisingly easy to ignore, as most were there to study Spanish at one of the institutes or learn a craft at a workshop, or so they had told their parents. Despite these young gringos it is a pleasantly Mexican town, with hilly cobblestoned streets and farmers in from the countryside and old women wrapped in shawls toddling around on their inscrutable errands. And church bells ringing, sometimes on the hour and sometimes for no clear reason at all, as if for the pure joy of Christian noise.
There were whitewashed walls and red tile floors and dusty streets and luxuriant green plants with their preternaturally red and yellow and purple flowers. When I was a little boy and had seen magazine photos of Mexico I had thought the colors were wrong, perhaps the result of Kodachrome left too long in the hot sun. But that’s the way the colors really are. Unreal, over-ripe colors coming out of hard, dry ground.
One day we took a bus to Dolores Hidalgo where we visited the church from which Padre Miguel had issued his call to revolution. At the end of the transept to the left of the altar, rising three stories, is a gilded retablo filling an entire wall from floor to ceiling with a Baroque extravagance of saints and angels and clouds and swirls and heavenly geegaws. There is not a word of text. It is pure sensual beauty to club the intellect into submission and after standing before the work for only a few minutes I felt my soul being drawn toward Rome, though once outside the church I regained my protestant composure.
But mostly we passed our days sitting and talking. The others in the house decide we are “the lovers,” and leave us in peace. We sit in the shade and watch the bright Mexican sunshine and sometimes talk and sometimes not, and in our cool room at siesta time listen to church bells and watch the curtain move in the breeze, and in the evenings bathe ourselves in the smell of jasmine from the garden.
It is a blessing to be in paradise when you have the good sense to appreciate it.