Travel and Painting in Mexico and Guatemala

by William H. Hays
Online, February, 2005

The following travelogue is taken from emails sent to friends and family by William Hays in December of 2004 and January of 2005. The illustrations are watercolors done by William on location with the exception of one studio oil painting. (The paintings are for sale if you would like to inquire.)

William and his wife, Patricia Long, visited Cancun, Chichen Itza, and Tulum in Mexico. They then went on to Antigua and Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. Returning to Mexico, they stayed in San Miguel de Allende for a month then visited Mexico City for a few days before returning to Vermont.

Cancun, Chichen Itza and Tulum, Mexico
Antigua, Guatemala
Panajachel and Lago Atitlan, Guatemala
Chichicastenango, Guatemala
Leaving Guatemala en route to Mexico
San Miguel de Allende

"The Observatory, Chichen Itza, Mexico"
Watercolor, 10" x 7"

Cancun, Chichen Itza and Tulum, Mexico

Dear Folks,

I just wanted to drop you a line to tell you that I am safe and sound in Cancun, Mexico. It reminds us of Miami with the string of hotels lining the beach - minus the art deco splendor. They make the hotels so that one is not inclined to leave, and I am not inclined to fight it for a few days. I'm sure that the rest of the trip will not be like this.

We are going off to Guatemala on Tuesday and will spend a week in Antigua and then a week at Lake Atitlan. I'll keep in touch from time to time.

Hi All,

Yesterday we flew from Cancun to Guatemala City. But not before I had a chance to visit two Mayan ruin sites, Chichen Itza and Tulum in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo on Yucatan peninsula. Chichen Itza is spectacular, a city that once held 70,000 people with huge plazas, temples and the famous ball game court where the winner is beheaded. Such an honor! Wandering about the restored ruins is a magical experience. You can feel the vitality of the place and the high cultural accomplishments of the civilization are undeniable, despite the human sacrifice thing….

Since the ground is primarily a very porous limestone, the rainwater percolates straight down into the underground aquifers. There are no running rivers to the sea. Fresh water was available from sinkholes, or cenotes. Chichen Itza was settled around a series of these cenotes. Centuries after the abandonment of the city, divers and archeologists found a wealth of sacrificial artifacts and remains in the largest of the cenotes.

The stages of various groups dominating the city are evident in the style and detail of the buildings in different parts of the city. Strolling around the temples of various sizes offers many small discoveries of bas relief sculpture and a variety of architectural details that are intriguing and beautiful. Ah, to see it all finished in stucco and painted bright colors! But then no one in recorded history saw such a thing as the city was deserted by the time the Spanish conquerors arrived.

Tulum is on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean and the setting is about as pretty as it could be. The much reduced scale settlement followed Chichen Itza after the desertion of the latter and was seen an active coastal city by the Spanish when they arrived on the coast. The temples and public buildings were painted mostly a turquoise blue and ochre red over their stucco surfaces. The startlingly beautiful beach gave access to the sea for the city. The now gray stone remains of the temples are perched on the limestone bluffs over the beautiful beach where tourists frolic in the impossibly blue water. It is a justifiably popular destination for tourists primarily due to the unique setting on the Caribbean.

Antigua, Guatemala
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On arriving in Guatemala City we were reminded of many other places we have been that are not at the top of our list, such as old Delhi, a couple of cities in southern India, Nairobi and large cities in many developing countries. The density of the diesel fumes was remarkable and we both felt it immediately in our lungs. Fortunately, we were only passing through on our way to Antigua.

By contrast, Antigua is an old Spanish colonial town that is nestled below two towering volcanoes, one of which has a plume of steam constantly venting. The streets are cobblestone and the buildings are almost all one or two stories with brightly painted, if rustic stucco facades. The exteriors betray nothing about what is inside. They often appear dilapidated, rough and uninviting. Opening the outside doors reveals courtyards with gardens of beautiful flowers and fountains.

"Tulum, Mexico"
Watercolor, 7" x 10"

There is a wealth of churches here. Almost all are built in a Spanish colonial style. But more striking than the number of churches, are how many of them are in ruins. A little looking around gives one the clues as to why. The volcanoes and their accompanying seismic activity give it away. There have been so many sizable earthquakes that the grand edifices have almost all (at one time or another) succumbed to the unstable earth on which they stand. In fact, Antigua is the second location of the city. Some centuries before, the original city, in closer proximity to Agua volcano was destroyed by an eruption. Antigua's current location is a good deal further away, but is still, almost literally in the shadow of the towering cone.

Our hotel (the Posada de Hermano Pedro) is comfortable, built in the manor of a sprawling spanish mansion - which it was. There are four interior court yards containing tropical plants that sometimes seem to threaten overrunning the building. The flowers on them are fascinating as we've never seen them before. There is access to the sun-beaten roof where we have a 360 degree view of the town, valley and volcanoes. Each morning we are greeted by very pleasant folks in the breakfast room where we're served fresh fruits with eggs and sausage. Occassionally there is a more local dish for us to enjoy.

We are here for the week prior to Christmas and the activity around that celebration is constant. Last night we found ourselves in a small "posada" (parade) where the Christ child was being wheeled along the streets with a candlelit procession. The folks were singing, playing guitar, ocarinas and drums. You should not envision this as a grand parade. There were about 25 people and we were invited to become a part of it as we started to tag along.

The procession stopped at the large, metal studded wooden door after several blocks. Outside, the folks we were with sang to the closed door. Inside they responded with a muffled musical response through the wood and iron barrier. Back and forth they sang through the closed door about five times. Finally, the door was opened and we all went inside.

We found ourselves in someone's home (I think). I don't need to tell you that we stood out, literally and figuratively, and felt a bit self-conscious. But we were enjoying ourselves. There were many smiles and they wanted us to stay. But we really didn't have a clue as to what was going on. After five minutes or so we politely and discreetly said our goodbyes and wished everyone "Feliz Navidad." It was one of those really fun and interesting travel experiences!

Apparently there are many such posadas in this week leading up to Christmas. We may find ourselves in another and maybe we'll stick this one out to the end, if we have the guts. After all, if we were the hosts, we would want such unusual guests to have the time of their lives. Guess we'll have to bone up on our Catholic traditions so that we understand what is happening.

I like this place very much. The people are very friendly; the setting is beautiful and grand with the towering volcanoes. There is a strong cultural character that is very appealing. We are here in Antigua for another week, then on to Lake Atitlan, which some say is the most beautiful lake in the world. I'm anticipating that they might be right.

Take care and a very Merry Christmas to you all!

Hi All,

We were thinking about you this Christmas and hoping that the holiday found you all well and happy to have a few days off and celebrate the season with family and friends.

For us, it was a different experience than we have had before. Christmas Eve (Buena Noche) found us waiting for the hubbub to taper off to the quiet one would expect back home. But well into the evening the pace dwindled not in the slightest. Foot and auto traffic seemed actually to pick up as the day wore on. Starting around noon fireworks started going off overhead. Throughout the day the sudden booms and puffs of smoke startled us in the clear blue sky. Strings of firecrackers punctuated the air in rattatattat staccato, sometimes without a great deal of concern for who might be found walking in the middle of the pops and puffs.

The previous evening, we had gone to the end of a Catholic mass in the small cathedral on the central park. We found ourselves exiting the church in a long line of parishioners shaking hands with the church elders and wishing each a "Feliz Navidad." It was here, I think, where I picked up the cold that I began to feel the morning of Christmas Eve.

With a cold in full swing, I didn't want to push it. So we retired early following an afternoon of shopping for some of the amazing weaving done by the Maya. We went to a small street market around the corner from us where the pavement was lined with spectacular weaving and clothing along with a variety of handicrafts. When I expressed an interest in doing a drawing of two of the women, the promptly replied, "No." I cajoled them by doing a 10 second, goofy cartoon first. As they laughed at my goofy drawing I asked if I could do another quick drawing. They loosened up and one consented. This watercolor resulted from that second drawing.

As evening came, we returned to our room and kept open the French doors to watch the fireworks that periodically provided bursts of color over the ruins of a church across the street in the dusk and dark as night fell.

At about 10 o'clock, there was a flurry of pyrotechnic activity as the evening mass began in the churches. We stood on our very narrow balcony and watched for about 10 minutes the bombs bursting. Then it quieted down to just the occasional spurt of fireworks.

"Woman at the Market in Antigua, Guatemala"
Watercolor, 10" x 7"

Just before midnight we heard sirens coming down the street. Patricia said, "Well, they finally set something on fire." I looked down the street and saw that this was not the case. Rather it was a small assembly of cars and trucks with flashing lights and sirens coming down the street with Santa and his reindeer on top of one of the vehicles, violently shuddering and swaying as they proceeded down the rough cobblestone street.

Thinking that this was it - the climax of the night - we settled down. As the clock struck midnight we were startled by an unbelievable cacophony of explosions. Looking out, we saw that fireworks were going off everywhere. And I mean EVERYWHERE! We ran up onto the roof and were greeted with an astonishing 360-degree show of explosives that topped anything either of us have ever seen. It sounded like a war and looked like each area of the little city was trying to out gun the other.

These were not little displays of bottle rockets and firecrackers. They were mortar-fired bursts. At home, we would have considered any five minute stretch of the displays to be the climax of the evening. But they just kept going on and on and on. For at least 20 minutes we spun around on the rooftop pointing this way, then that way at the biggest and best, laughing at how riotous it all was.

Neither of us has ever seen fireworks to top that. There was so much gunpowder smoke that the sulfurous smell punctuated every breath and the bursts of fire began to appear more and more distant through the gathering haze of smoke.

The fireworks quieted down a bit after 12:30. Finally we went to bed. I awoke to pee at about 4 o'clock in the morning and could hear that Patricia was also awake. The huge thud of a firework went off outside and I heard Patricia mumble, "Bombs away...." We both laughed at how unrelenting it all was.

If I seem to be going on about fireworks, you have to imagine that we were both pretty impressed at the sheer quantity of explosives going off around us. And they continued on through Christmas day - which was a bit quieter for the first half of the day. Then at noon things picked up again and continued well into the night last night.

My cold slowed us down a bit on Christmas Day and we only went to the central park/square for about an hour in the late afternoon. All of the people were strolling about in their new Christmas finest. Little kids with new toys. Everyone with new clothes, including the most spectacular guipils (pronounced wheepeels), or blouses, you can imagine. The weaving and embroidery that the women wear here is unequalled anywhere we have ever been - and I think that is saying something. Patricia calls them the 'rainbow ladies' for the bright spectrum of colors they wear.

"Guipil Vendor, Antigua"
Watercolor, 10" x 7

Seeing the women in their spectacular clothes is, for me, the highlight of this country. As one astonishing example walked by, I would think to myself, "That is the most beautiful piece of women's clothing I have every seen!" Ten minutes later I would again be overcome and think, "No! THAT is the most beautiful piece of women's clothing I've ever seen!"

We gathered around with a small crowd in the central plaza to enjoy a marimba ensemble playing traditional tunes. There were seven men in coats and ties playing two very large and ornate marimbas, accompanied by a stand up bass and drums. Very pleasant indeed.

And so today is another slow day for us as I am not quite up to snuff yet. Tomorrow we are going on to Lake Atitlan, at about 6000 feet in elevation. We are looking forward to seeing the place that Aldous Huxley called, "... the most beautiful lake in the world." Wouldn't you?

One last thing. The last email I sent mentioned the volcanoes that dominate the skyline. I said that one of them was venting steam. Well, it is not. It is erupting! Of course, you can't see the glow of the lava during the day. But at night the show came alive for us. We watched it for an hour or so from the park. I was dazzled at the light show!

We'll be in touch. Take Care.

Hi All,

With our health, we have been pretty lucky this time around. I have had no digestive trouble at all and Patricia just a little bit. A far cry from our past experiences with backpacks and a different class of hotel. In the end, we are careful about what and where we eat. But a German friend of ours, many years ago, pointed out to us that the dirt on the streets and in the air contains, "…the shit of centuries." To some degree the luck of the draw controls whether we get sick or not.

Yesterday, we started out of Antigua by packing up and preparing for the minibus ride to Panajachel at Lake Atitlan. We were supposed to be picked up at 1 o'clock. (You might notice that I am not using many contractions, colons and such. Every time I go to an internet cafe, I have a different keyboard. I hit a familiar key and something like this comes up Ñ.)

Starting this leg of the trip, experience was on our side. At about ten minutes after our appointed departure time, I thought it would be a good idea to ask the girl at the front desk about the arrival of our bus - or the lack thereof. I was not terribly surprised to see the look of, "I do not know what you are talking about", on her face. Part of it was my fault for not speaking Spanish very well. More of the situation was her associate's fault for not following through with our reservation three days before.

We made arrangements for another bus to pick us up at four and went out to the central square one last time for a couple of hours. We went to a restaurant with an exceedingly obsequious waiter and an ensemble of musicians playing Aztec-Maya music. They were very good and it was a pleasant way to spend the time. The sparkling sun of the high altitude highlighted the variety of plants in the garden and the costumes of the folks walking by us. The Agua volcano provided a backdrop that dominated everything. A fitting farewell scene to Antigua and a setting that made us not really want to leave the town.

"Maya Woman"
Watercolor, 10" x 7"

Panajachel and Lago Atitlan, Guatemala
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The ride to Lake Atitlan was not terribly long, about two and a half hours. The road was full of twists and turns and climbed almost constantly. By the time we neared the lake, we were touching the bottoms of the clouds and it was dusk. We are both substantially larger than the average Joe in Guatemala and we were a bit cramped in. Our butts appeared to have exceeded the individual seat allotment. So each of us was a little bit numb in the lower extremities when we arrived.

The lake sits in a caldera that rises steeply on all sides. We are on the northeast shore in Panajachel. Across the lake are three beautiful volcano peaks. The water is clear as can be. Interestingly, there is no visible outlet to the sea from this lake. The water drains from somewhere under the surface and never appears above ground. Seismically, I am sure it is a time bomb. But is sure is beautiful.

Our hotel room (at Hotel del Lago) has a spectacular view of the lake and I am sure that we will enjoy ourselves very much for the week we are here. The six-story hotel stands in an arced wall the provides every room with an unubstructed view of the lake and volcanoes. Mornings are clear and bright. As the day wears on the winds pick up out of the north and builds during the course of the day, making the water on the lake pretty rough. By afternoon each volcanoe has a slowly changing cap of lenticular clouds that eventually change into towering cumulus that catch the rays of the tropical sunset each evening.

You might be wondering if we feel as Aldous Huxley did- that this is the most beautiful lake in the world. Actually (to paraphrase) he said that Lake Como [in Italy] reaches the limits of the acceptably photogenic and that Lake Atitlan has all of that plus three towering volcanoes. With this, we have to concur. But is there "a most beautiful lake" in the world? Probably not. But if there were a list of the top five, Lago Atitlan would be among them.

Yesterday we went out in a boat for about three hours. We followed the shoreline passing villages that were built up the steep sides of the caldera. They reminded us of the Italian villages along the Amalfi coast that go straight up the steep limestone cliffs. The main difference being that these villages are not well to do resorts with tourists hotels above the shoreline. The houses are mainly built of cinder blocks and crude mud bricks. Roofs are corrugated tin and terra cotta mostly. Most buildings are fairly ramshackled.

But my limited Latin America experience tells me that I can't judge these places by the exterior. They can be completely different inside.

The Catholic church dominates each town, both in size and in position. The main square is always centered on the Catholic Church and all roads lead thereto. You can barely see a road leading out of the lakeside villages. I don't recall seeing any cars on these accesses.

"San Pedro Volcano, Guatemala"
Watercolor, 10" x 7"

But our attention really wasn't on the towns. We felt a little awed being inside this huge caldera. The sides of the lake perimeter sometimes seem to go straight up. There are layers of different colored rocks and soil that stripe the land with ochres, rusts and whites. Here and there the steep hillsides are cleared of brush, burned and planted with corn. In other places, nearer the shoreline, the land is terraced and planted. But the scale is quite small.

Outside of the towns, scattered along the lakeshore, there are modern palaces that are built by folks who come mostly from Guatemala City. The styles of the buildings range greatly. One thing they all have in common is that they are propped on very steep land. Some seem to be accessible only from the water.

Clouds were rolling in on the tops of the volcanoes, as they do each day, and the atmosphere and light were wonderful and constantly changing. As we came around from the north and approached the eastern shore, the wind was picking up. As we neared the southern shore, the wind became much more significant.

The waves were occasionally higher than our boat. Since they were coming from our starboard side, we were getting more than our fair share of rocking and rolling along with quite a bit of water from spray. Patricia had the honor of being on the upwind side and by the time we turned to head into the wind and back to our home base, she was pretty wet.

But we felt safe enough and we were having a good time. Not too cold, yet. Patricia was laughing like we were on a roller coaster - which would have been a smoother ride. The water was clear and aqua green. The volcanoes rose directly beside us with constantly reforming clouds rolling over their peaks as the sun got lower into the valleys between them.

By the time we got back to Panajachel, we were both a bit cold, Patricia was wetter than I and we were both very wind blown. But what a great ride! More than we bargained for and very memorable.

Chichicastenango, Guatemala
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Today we went to Chichicastenango. This is a town that is famous mostly for it's twice a week market. Women from surrounding villages come with their woven wares and set up in stalls that are surely some of the most dazzling displays of color you'll see anywhere.

The women vendors are as persistent in their desire to sell you something as the colors are brilliant.

I got by pretty easy. I'm a guy and they know better. But Patricia stands a full head taller than the tallest woman in the market and has the added attraction of a full head of very blond hair. She might as well have been wearing a neon sign on her head saying - "Look everyone, I'm over here!" But all of the high-pressure sales were done in good humor and we enjoyed ourselves - even though we made little forward progress.

"Lago Atitlan Docks, Guatemala"
Watercolor, 10" x 7"

We were accompanied by a very personable young man named Chino who is married to a Dutch woman and speaks very good English. He and I would talk while Patricia was surrounded by as many as five or six brightly clad women holding up their wares to reach her towering, smiling face. Occasionally I would see Patricia gesture to me, desperately trying to dampen their spirits with, "My husband tells me I have to go!" The vendors paused not one moment in their efforts to entice her.

Chino finally led us on to the church in the central square. Here the steep semicircular steps lead up through clouds of incense - cardamom pods laid on top of charcoal - and sprawling bunches of poinsettias and cala lilies. The church was pretty good-sized and rather plain inside. The incense burners on the steps used to be inside the church and Patricia said that she remembered the walls as being black many years ago. The alter pieces bear this out along the sides of the church. The two hundred year old (or more) carvings and paintings are so black that you can barely see any images at all.

We sat in the church for a while and enjoyed the relative peace and quiet while watching parishioners crawl on their knees to the alters carrying on private ceremonies in accompaniment to their prayers. The smell of beer from offerings and the flicker of candles lit on stone slabs in the center aisle complimented the dim and fragrant setting.

"Shady Respite, Lago Atitlan, Guatemala"
Watercolor, 10" x 7"

After sitting in the church for some time, we headed off to the Mayan (as opposed to the Catholic) church but never made it that far. We were (I was) distracted by a little art gallery/studio. Inside we met the kindest men who were very interested in us. They rarely see another artist from outside of Guatemala - and perhaps only rarely another artist from Guatemala. They had received the distinction of a visit from the Guggenheim Foundation and were granted funds to set up their collective studio and art school (Academia de Arte y Cultura Maya). Quite an honor, I must say.

We bought a painting by Juan Leon Cortez and eventually left to head back to our home base. Our time and the conversation with these men was very pleasant indeed, and made all the more so with Chino's assistance in translating the finer points of our conversation.

So now we are going to have a quiet evening before New Year's Eve. On the 2nd, we head back to Guatemala City just to spend the night and then on to Mexico and the town of San Miguel de Allende.

Hi All,

Patricia wanted me to recount to you one of the more entertaining events of the boat trip out on the lake.

You see we really weren't that interested in disembarking and running the gauntlet of vendors at the docks to visit the little villages. The villages seemed pretty basic places and, with the steep slopes, it felt like mountain climbing rather than a casual stroll. We just wanted to enjoy being out on the lake.

We had a bit of a hard time finding someone who was willing to take us out on the lake for such a purpose. It seems that sightseeing alone has not become a part of the lake traffic. We had to be going somewhere, didn't we?!

So we negotiated ourselves transport to two villages. The persons we paid designated a guy named Francisco to be our pilot and guide. We left with Francisco to go the docks. On the way, Francisco picked up a buddy of his and the four of us got in the boat. We went about 100 feet and pulled into another dock where Francisco got off, figuring his part was done apparently. And off we went, the three of us.

When we got to the first village we waived our disembarkation and proceeded to the next village. This one didn't grab us either. So we thought we would continue on around the lake. Somewhat to our surprise, we watched our pilot turn the boat around and head back to Panajachel, where we started. We said (in our struggling Spanglish) "Wait, where are you going."

He responded, "I'm going back to Panajachel. You hired me to take you to Santa Catarina and San Antonio. We did that. So now we are going back."

We argued, "No, we paid for three hours out on the lake. We have been out less than an hour and we want to continue."

"Toliman and Atitlan Volcanoes, Guatemala"
Watercolor, 7" x 10"

Since he was in complete control at this point - it was his boat and we were in the middle of the lake - he said, "No. I did what I was hired to do and we are going back."

We've been here before - hired someone to do something and then had to renegotiate once we were past the point of no return. So we went to the next step: "OK, how much more to go around the lake?"

Back and forth we negotiated until we had the finer points worked out, where we would go, how much time we would be out, and how much more it would cost.

It was really a minor point in the larger scheme of things. If you're not in the right frame of mind, it can really ruin the whole experience and you feel like you are just getting ripped off again and again. You don't really speak the language well and sound like an idiot. ("Me speak pretty one day!") You don't know where anything is. And you have no idea if what YOU think is going to happen is what the other person thinks is going to happen.

Leaving Guatemala en route to Mexico
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Hi everyone,

This is a long one. So you might want to print it out and read it later when you have some time.

It has been a while since I wrote in part because we have been on the go. We left Panajachel (Lake Atitlan) and took a mini-bus to Guatemala City. We had to let some folks off in Antigua and the driver told Patricia and I that we had to transfer to another mini-bus. So we untied our (very heavy) luggage from the top of the mini-bus and sat in the travel agency doorway for about 20 minutes. Finally a mini-bus comes along and - lo and behold - it is the same bus with the same passengers we had before.

Let's not try to explore the logic of this exercise. I don't think there is any. So we packed it all back up and headed on to Guatemala City. We had to get a few folks to the airport, as they were late for their flight. In the process, they almost unloaded our luggage again at the airport. I was standing outside the bus and finally made myself clear that our luggage was not to be unloaded at the airport - where it would surely have disappeared into the sea of eager baggage handlers.

Our overnight accommodations were basic, in a suburban neighborhood very near the airport. We awoke at 5AM in order to get our 7AM flight. The airport was the usual chaos. There is something about developing countries that seems to breed a frantic atmosphere with lots of hand waiving and yelling, lots of being approached for various services, lots of long lines, and generally a sense of utter confusion and chaos.

We cruised through it all with a purposeful focus that we've developed over the years: Never let the bags out of your sight. Never let anyone take your bags without being exactly one step behind them. Be glad you are a head taller than everyone else so that you can see where you are supposed to be going, or at least what is ahead of you. Don't take the first "No" for an answer. There is usually a "Yes" if you are persistent. Don't necessarily believe the first guy you ask directions from. He may not know where he's going either. He probably didn't understand your mangled question anyway. And he doesn't want you to be disappointed that he doesn't know. His hand waiving and vague directions result from his wanting to help you, not is knowledge. Ask several folks and average out the answers.

Five in the morning is a bit early for me. It is terribly early for Patricia. We settled into our seats on the plane and were in Mexico City in a couple of hours. Being the third largest city in the world, the airport is very cosmopolitan and easy to navigate- but very large.

We were ferried out by bus to our little prop engine plane for the flight north to Leon. There were about twenty of us on the plane. As we neared the plane, I said to Patricia, "I will be very happy if our luggage makes it to Leon on this plane."

Fateful words.

"Guatemalan Woman"
Oil on Canvas 23" x 16"

It wasn't like there wasn't enough time. We had an hour and a half between planes. But there was something about the change from a 747 to this little prop engine plane at the other end of the airport runways that made me think, "Hmmm…."

Once in the Leon airport, we watched as all of the other passengers walked away with their luggage. It did not take long for us to realize that there were no more bags coming as we were the only people in the luggage claim area and all machinery had come to a silent halt.

An airport luggage handler came in to pick up a couple of unclaimed pieces and responded to my, "No maletas!" (No Bags) with a hand motion to follow him. We briskly followed him through the little airport to the Aero Mexico counter where we were helped in short order by the supervisor on duty.

He checked his computer and told us that our luggage was not in Leon. This, we already knew. He also told us that 90% of the time, in these circumstances it would come in on the next flight in about an hour and a half. So we settled in to wait.

Let me set the stage here just a little bit with some observations. He told us that the next flight from Mexico City would come in at 1:30. Looking at the airport monitors with arrivals and departures, the only arrival at 1:30 was from Monterrey - wrong city, wrong direction. The next flight from Mexico City was listed at 3:30. When asked about it, the answer depended on whom you asked. This is a very uncomfortable situation, as it seems impossible to get a definitive answer from anyone. It is worse when you are feeling like you may have just lost everything you have.

Patricia kept saying, "I know Mexico. It is probably gone."

I had not yet lost hope.

1:30 - the flight came in. No luggage - and the flight was from Monterrey, not Mexico City.

I went back to the counter to continue trying to find out what was going on. When I got there, the line was literally out the door. There were probably 75 people ahead of me in each line. Things were not looking very good. I decided to wait for the lines to get a little smaller.

Do I really need to tell you that we were not in a very good mood? Do I really need to tell you about the probable scenarios we spilled out to each other?

This is not the best situation to be in. But we tried to keep it in perspective - really, we did - not as bad as the millions who lost everything and loved ones in the tsunami in Asia. Not as bad as the many people surrounding us who probably never had as much in their lives as we had in our bags.

I got back in line when there were only about 20 people ahead of me and I had about 45 minutes until the next flight from Mexico City. As I got nearer to the front, the other lines began getting louder and morphed into more a mob than lines. The passengers were waiving their tickets in the air and the Spanish syllables were flying faster than I could possibly understand.

Behind the counter, one man seemed to be taking the brunt of the passengers' collective ire - and he was retreating! Finally he took a couple of steps forward and stood up on the scale above the mob and started saying, "Tranquilo! Tranquilo! Por favor!" To which they responded by by advancing, waiving their tickets in his face and shouting even louder. They were ready to take this guy off of his perch and hang him!

Eventually, I found out that they had over sold a flight to L.A. by about 25 seats and it was these 25 people who were royally pissed off at the prospect of being bumped to another flight, another day… who knows?

"Uphill to the Parroquia, San Miguel de Allende"
Watercolor, 7" x 10"

Although very entertaining, the situation was not helping me a bit. I spotted one of the behind-the-counter staff that had her nose buried in a computer screen as if to say, "I am not here. I don't see anything. I know nothing. Don't bother me."

I approached her and in English said, "Excuse me. I wonder if it is possible for me to find out what happened to my luggage?" Well, this was an easy one compared to the angry mob. She seemed relieved that this was all I wanted. She took my claim tickets and other documentation and smartly headed off for customs.

There I stood for about 20 minutes waiting for her and hoping that she would come back at least with my documentation - my only link to our luggage. She did come back - but with no additional information. I asked her to please check in the computer to see if our luggage had at least been put on the plane in Guatemala City. She told me she could not access that information.

Oh, you must be kidding.

After my insistent requests and disbelief that she couldn't find out this basic information, she passed me off to the same supervisor I had before.

He passed me off to another customer representative who spent another 20 minutes away from me, looking for information (maybe). He came back and said that he had nothing.

I did pretty well not raising my voice and speaking slowly so that he could understand me. Still, I wanted to scream and wring his neck! "Where is my f---ing luggage!?"

I asked him about the purpose of the bar codes on the claim tickets. Were they not there so that the luggage could be entered into the computers of the airlines - and, therefore, tracked? The answer, "Yes."

Then why could he not tell me if the luggage ever made it to Mexico City or even if it was loaded on a plane in Guatemala City? "No se." (I don't know).

It was clear that not only was there not a shred of evidence that our luggage had ever left Guatemala, but that we were not going to get anywhere any time soon.

I got phone numbers to call and some other information, then went back to Patricia, who had been sitting for more than two hours waiting for me, and told her, "Well, we might as well go on to San Miguel de Allende. Sitting in the airport is not going to get us anywhere."

"Plaza Civico Afternoon, San Miguel"
Watercolor, 10" x 7"

We sat in our mini-bus rather quietly as we rolled over the high sierra for about an hour and a half. Patricia later said that she did not want the driver to know that she was trying not to dissolve into tears. But the thought of what was to come and what we had lost was more than she could withstand and the sound of sniffles could not be missed as we rode along.

Finally we arrived in San Miguel just before sunset. We had a hard time finding the house we made arrangements to rent. It was at the end of a very narrow alley that was almost invisible from the road.

It should be obvious to you by now that as we came up to the steel door at the end of the alley, it was locked. It should also be apparent that no one answered the door, that it was getting cold, and that our only possessions were what we were wearing. The driver was gone. We had no idea how to find a phone.

Things were not going well. We were having a bad day.... to be continued.

Hi All,

So, I left you hanging, didn't I? I just ran out of time to write it all down and the Internet Cafe I was in was closing.

Let's get back to it, shall we?

We could feel the chill in the air as the sun was approaching the horizon. San Miguel is in the high sierras at about 6300 feet in central Mexico. Although the sun is strong and warms things up during the day, it gets right chilly at night in January and sometimes downright cold.

There was an intercom buzzer at the black steel door at the end of this narrow alley, but no one answered. We put down what we were carrying and Patricia sat down on the dusty stone pavement - none too happy to be there. I said, "The only thing to do now is to find a phone and call the property manager and see if we can get in."

She agreed and I started down the alley and out onto the street. As I turned to leave, a very drunk man staggered out of a doorway in front of me and into a small lot in the alley, stood in the corner and relieved himself. I thought, "Perfect!" (I found out later that although he was very drunk, he was also very kind and kept Patricia entertained part of the time while I was away. She joked that he was her only friend. Poor baby! :-(

Out on the street I approached some kids and asked them where a public telephone was. As usual, I got general directions and some rather unclear hand waiving. Down to the end of the narrow street, I looked right and left and saw no phone. I approached an old woman sitting in a doorway and again asked where a public telephone was. She said down the street and on the right.

"Juan David Ortiz, San Miguel"
Watercolor, 10" x 7"

Off I went with a mood of grim determination. I really felt that we had to get into the house soon as it was getting cold.

Sure enough, not far down the street was a public telephone. A woman was using the phone and I did not have to wait long for her to finish. When I approached the phone, I couldn't see where to put my pesos for a call - and for good reason - there was no place to put my pesos! I saw that it used a "tarjeta" (a card). So I tried my credit card. Wrong kind of card. No dice.

So I went into an Internet Cafe that was next to the phone and asked if they had a phone I could use. They did not. (I never did figure out how you could have an Internet Café that offered phone service to the US and Europe, but did not have a phone for a local call.) I could not speak enough Spanish to ask how to use the public phone. So I headed off to figure it out.

I headed up another street and saw a gringo couple. I could hear that they were Americans. I approached them with a likely story: "Excuse me, I have just come into town from Guatemala and I am having a very bad day. The airline has lost all of my luggage and I need to get in touch with the folks who can let me into the property where we are supposed to be staying." (At this point they surely thought I was going to ask them for money.)

I continued, "I cannot for the life of me figure out how to use the public telephone. Can you help me?"

They told me that I needed a phone card and said that I could buy one at just about any little tienda (store). Being directly across the street from just such a little tienda with the owner in the doorway, I asked him if he had phone cards. Of course, he said he did not. The couple suggested that another store just up the street not only sold phone cards but had a public phone there too. "Great! Thank you!", I said.

I hurried off to get a phone card. But, as you might have guessed, they didn't have any phone cards either. As I exited the store, the American couple was rounding the corner. I explained that the store didn't have any phone cards and the woman said, "Here. You can use my phone card." Needless to say, I was very grateful.

Now you would think that at this point another hurdle had been overcome. But you would be wrong. I did not know 'the secret order' for inserting the card, waiting for dial tones, dialing, waiting again... what a frustrating exercise.

I am a relatively intelligent adult. Of course I can figure out how to make a phone call! But I just couldn't get it to work. I told her, "I feel like the perfect illustration of a stupid gringo - can't even figure out how to use the phone."

At the sight of my frustration, she showed me the secret order in which to do things and I managed to actually call one of the three numbers I had in hand. It was the cell phone number of one of the two managers. It was busy.

So I called the second manager. It was busy. They must be talking to one another....

I called the third number and it was their office answering machine. I left a fairly disjointed message that we were waiting outside the gate and needed to be let in.

"Casa de Allende, San Miguel"
Watercolor, 7" x 10"

I kept calling the cell phone numbers. Again and again they were busy.

I told the woman who helped me that I was not having any luck. We talked a little bit and I found out that she was from Palmer, Alaska (another 'small world' story… we lived in Anchorage for ten years). That gave us a little bit in common and after some small talk I went back to the phone. She said, "Keep the card. I am leaving day after tomorrow for Cuba and I don't need it anymore." I insisted that she take 20 pesos for it and that she buy herself a beer with it. I went back to the phone.

Still busy signals. I decided that I should check in with Patricia to let her know where we stood and make sure that she was OK.

I walked back to the alley way and there she was, kind of crumpled up in front of this black steel door. I told her that I would go back and keep trying until we got someone. It was our only option.

Back I went with the same results. Since I had left a message, I didn't call the office number again and concentrated on the cell phone numbers. Busy. Busy. Busy.

Just for yuks, I decided to try the office number again. Much to my surprise, a woman answered the phone. I explained why we were so late getting to San Miguel and she said she would be over in about ten minutes.

Sure enough, she arrived in about ten minutes. She was very pleasant and we were awfully glad to see her. She opened the black steel door and we were greeted by what the owner calls a "Shangri La." A beautiful, well tended garden of tropical plants and a unique and lovely house.

Inside, it was clear that this was really a great place to be. Despite the fact that there was no heat and we had no additional clothes - and it was quite cool - we were very glad to be there.

I had four phone numbers from Aero Mexico and two names of various supervisors to call until 10:00 PM. It was about 6:30 PM. I knew that the next flight from Mexico City didn't come in until 7:30 PM. So we settled in, speculating on the fate of our luggage, commiserating and looking over our beautiful accommodations.

"Rooftops, San Miguel"
Watercolor, 10" x 7"

The sun was setting and our rooftop terrace afforded us a sweeping view of San Miguel de Allende, the churches, the famous Parroquia (cathedral), peoples' back yards, other rooftops and the red-orange ball of the sun sinking below the horizon of the high sierra.

We lay down to rest for a little bit. It had been a very long day. Neither of us slipped into sleep and I got up around 8:30 to start in on another round of phone calls.

I called the number of Aero Mexico in Leon, where we had landed, to get one of the supervisors I had dealt with earlier. The first number was answered by a fax. We all know how rude that is! So I called the second number. It also was answered by a fax! So, the third. You guessed it - answered by a fax.

So I was down to one possible phone number. This one was in Mexico City. So I called that one. After stumbling through several recorded messages and push button options (in Spanish), I got a woman on the phone. In my best Spanish (Oh stop laughing!), I explained the situation and that I really needed someone who spoke a little English. She did and she was able to bring up our record on her computer.

We covered the same territory that I had gone through while at the airport. She had no additional information and could not even tell me if our luggage had made it onto a plane (any plane) and out of Guatemala City.

When I finished the phone call, I felt for the first time that Patricia's perspective was probably right. We had probably lost everything. No one knew anything. No one could offer any solution. We knew that any financial compensation would be cold comfort and inadequate. We also knew that compensation would take days (at best) to accomplish and would involve my going back and forth between San Miguel and Leon several times.

I went upstairs and told Patricia. She was already resigned to our fate. I was very hungry but Patricia had lost her appetite. I went out a little after 9:00 and found a nearby cafe open. I passed a fairly forlorn meal alone and got a meal to go in case Patricia's appetite returned later on.

When I got back to the house, Patricia said, "Guess what? They called just after you left and said that our luggage had arrived! They said they are sending it over by taxi!"


"Jardin Fountain, San Miguel"
Watercolor, 10" x 7"

Remembering how difficult it had been for us to spot the little alley, we wondered if the taxi driver would be able to find us. It had already been close to an hour since they called and it was about an hour and a half drive. So we settled in to wait. Patricia had given them our phone number to call in case they had trouble finding the place.

By 11:30, we were getting pretty antsy and reacting to every noise with, "Is that the taxi?!" Finally, at Patricia's insistence, I went out onto the street and stood there waiting, as if the taxi was going to come down the street at just that moment. It was cold and my short-sleeved linen shirt didn't offer much protection. So I went back inside.

I was very tired. Patricia was very tired. The lack of a delivery put a new anxiety into our exhausted minds. "What if he can't find the place? What will he do with the luggage? Will he take it back to the airport - which is surely closed? Will he just drop it off wherever? Will he call us?"

It was getting a bit late for that.

I went to bed about 12:30 and did not sleep well at all. Patricia couldn't go to sleep until about 2:30 and she also did not sleep well. We shared the same vision that rolled over and over in our heads throughout the restless night - what we were going to have to go through to get our luggage back, wherever it was....

I got up about 8:00, got a shower and, as I was drying myself off, I thought I heard the intercom ring. Since I had never heard the intercom ring before, I wasn't sure. So I picked it up and said, "Hola!" The rapid fire Spanish on the other end contained a few key words that told me our bags had arrived - taxi, Aero Mexico, malettas (bags)!

What a relief!

After wrestling them upstairs, I went into the bedroom and told Patricia, "Senora Patricia. Su malettas esta aqui! (Your bags are here)"

And so ends yet another tale of the road. And to quote William Shakespeare, "All's well that ends well."

And all is well.

I could go on about the beautiful home we are staying in - really, I could! I could tell you about the lovely woman (Enedina) who is our maid. I could tell you about Anselmo, our gardener. I could tell you about walking the cobblestone streets of San Miguel, the fabulous gardens, parks and squares, the fantasy-world cathedral and shop after shop of art and crafts. But I won't just now. I think this is quite enough for the time being. Don't you?

"Afternoon at the Jardin, San Miguel"
Watercolor, 7" x 10"

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
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Hi everyone,

It is a little difficult to follow up the last two emails with the following as the pace and the scale of events have died down considerably. So, I'll just write and, hopefully you will find something worth reading in it.

San Miguel de Allende is one of those places that seem to have an irresistible charm. I would venture to say that the majority of people who come to Mexico visit here at one time or another. Aside from the town itself, there is not too much to warrant the tourist traffic. The surrounding countryside is rough and dry, high desert. But the town's personality is sufficient to warrant the level of interest. With almost 400 years of history behind it, much of this charm is apparent right away.

Time and time again San Miguel is put on someone's list of the ten best places to retire. As a result, since Patricia's last visit here 18 years ago, the cost of real estate has gone through the roof. It is probably ten times as expensive as any other comparable town in Mexico, with the exception of those in beach areas on the coast. It shows when walking the streets. There are many expatriates and retirees with Texas accents. Still the fact that it is a Mexican town predominates. Despite the frequency of English being spoken on the streets, you know you're not in the US.

The rhythm of the day is: morning activity at and before sunrise, up to noon. Then siesta somewhere between noon (or 2:00 depending on the business) and 4:00 PM. This makes a great deal more sense when it is really hot. In January and February the heat of midday doesn't really matter since the air is cool. Then everything opens back up until 8:00 PM with some businesses staying open until midnight.

Every night at sunset the populace comes out onto the streets for passeo. Errands are run. Couples stroll. Kids play. Everyone sees each other, gossips and catches up on the latest. In the public squares and gardens young couples find the darkest spot they can and embrace with the kind of passion that is enough to turn your head away. They have almost no other option to be alone - no parking (or cars) for teenagers, no movie theaters to speak of, and not much privacy to be had - so we get to see their every move, despite the dark.

It is a very Catholic country, as you know. There seems to be a church or chapel around every corner. Some of them are modest and quiet. Some are elaborate and huge - though not on the same scale at the great cathedrals of Europe. There is a distinctive architectural style that came over with the Spanish. It is fairly baroque with as much gilding and statuary as the community can afford. Within, the churches are usually filled with carved wood, painted statues of Jesus, Mary and various saints. The carvings of Jesus are usually gruesome and bloody with graphic depictions of pierced flesh, dripping and dried blood, distortions of rigor mortus, and anguished expressions.

"Morning in the Square, San Miguel"
Watercolor, 10" x 7"

I have yet to see any images that reflect the brilliance of His living message. I suppose the macabre fascination of a violent death held the populace within the grip of the early church far more effectively than a message of love and forgiveness. After all, in this part of the world, for most people life is still sometimes cruel as well as sometimes brutish and short.

But then, that is just my opinion.

People are invariably helpful and friendly. There is a formal politeness in every exchange that is refreshing and pleasant. There is much deference to those walking toward you by stepping out into the narrow streets from the even more narrow sidewalks. This is done with some caution, as the traffic takes little note of yielding to pedestrians who enter their path. Better to stop and wait than step onto the street when cars or trucks are approaching. There is not much room to spare for anyone in the narrow lanes.

Both street and sidewalks are either cobblestones or paving stones that are worn to a shine by centuries of feet rubbing them smooth. The exteriors of the old buildings sometimes appear to be fortresses with their massive walls that keep out the heat as well as prying eyes.

Exterior, street-side windows are few. In the main squares, the second floor windows are massive and widely spaced. Their imposing formality is familiar in the town squares throughout Mexico. As I have told you before, everything is on the inside here. No yards. No driveways. No landscaping. No clue as to what is going on inside. The few places that one sees into are often gorgeous with interior gardens, fountains and colonnades surrounding the central courtyard. This is not an average style home. But the contrasts between the rough, sometimes crumbling walls on the exterior and what one finds inside are no less striking in more modest homes.

There is another reason for the high walls around each home. Being right on the street, the high walls afford shade on one side of the street or another at all times of day. The importance of this is apparent even in January. All you need to do is stand out in the mid day sun for about ten minutes. The intensity is noteworthy. Still, San Miguel is high enough in altitude that it has a reputation for being eternal springtime. At night a sweater or jacket is appropriate. During the day, the air is cool enough for long sleeves on some days.

So much for my casual observations. I finished my fifteenth watercolor last night. I hope I'll be able to do fifteen more before we're ready to go. I'm going to show them all for Gallery Walk on the 4th of February in Brattleboro. (We return the night of the 3rd.) After that, who knows what will happen to them. I am thinking about interpreting some of them into oils.

I did a pencil portrait of a little boy in exchange for using this Internet cafe for a month, with coffee, meals and such. I finalized a commission for an oil portrait of a woman today and will start it when I return. It will be good to return to some work.

I hope all is well with you.

"Garden Gate, San Miguel de Allende"
Watercolor, 10" x 7"

Hi Everyone,

Patricia suggested I should write you about a couple of things.

First, not many of us live with farm animals in close proximity, do we? This is not a town in the sticks. It is a regional center with surrounding ranches that stretch into the high plains around. But to say that they are farms would not be on target. They are mostly cattle ranches. Yet we have a chorus of roosters that entertains us all night long.

Not every night, mind you. When the sky is clear and we can see the stars, all is quiet. If overcast moves in the lights of the town are reflected on the clouds and it is enough light to make every rooster in the region think it is morning. And they love to crow about it, you know. Sometimes we'll both be up in the middle of the night and the frantic proclamations cause us both to laugh.

Yesterday, we were leaving the house, down our narrow alley. Coming the other way was a woman leading two burros. One burro was pregnant and her belly was wide enough so that Patricia got up on a stoop to let her pass. The other must have been an adolescent as he was quite small.

At other times we'll be walking out, someone will open one of the doors that line the alley and out will spill some really scrawny chickens weaving in and out, avoiding our feet. I think most people have their share of chickens. Looking down from the top of our house, we can see plenty of the little buggers pecking around in the dirt along with ducks, turkeys, pigeons and dogs.

Patricia also thinks I should tell you about the house we are in. I'm not inclined to dwell on this. But here goes:

As is the custom here, the rectangular lot is surrounded by a high wall of brick, about 15 to 20 feet high. In the back corner of the lot the small footprint of the house is shaped like a quarter circle. The interior is all done in tile and stucco with exposed, dark beams of wood in the ceiling. The owners have taken their time appointing the place and they have chosen much of the best the region has to offer. The owner is an amateur artist and the walls are decorated with his paintings, mostly.

The San Miguel area is known as a source of metal work. Sheet tin and copper are worked into all sorts of things. There are frames for mirrors decorated in repose, stamping and ceramic tiles. There are elaborate three-dimensional stars with many arms that are pierced with tiny holes that throw sparkling points of light. All of the conveniences are quite modern. There is much to describe in the appointments. Let it suffice to say that Patricia's summation was, "I couldn't have done it better myself."

"Lady of the Jardin, San Miguel"
Watercolor, 7" x 10"

The house is built up rather than out. The upstairs consists of two bedrooms, each with a bathroom. The outstanding features of the bedrooms are the ceilings and the windows and doors. The ceilings are vaulted brick. The interlocking brickwork is dazzling to look at, very beautiful. Each irregular-shaped bedroom is capped with this patterned dome. One is further topped with a windowed, six-sided, brick cupola. The windows and doors are black steel and glass in diamond panes. They face east and the morning sun comes in the patterned wall of glass to wake us up at 8 AM each morning.

Outside one of the rooms is a terrace with lounge chairs, protected from the wind and sun (if you want). Upstairs from the bedrooms is a rooftop terrace that looks out over the rooftops of San Miguel. The spires and domes of the churches rise above the haphazard brick walls, sheet tin roofs and constantly under construction houses. The longer view is west where we can see the sunset over the plain.

There, I've done my duty. It is not that I have any hesitation about the house. I just didn't think it was that interesting for you....

Last night we had dinner in a small cafe on the edge of the main square. We watched people and had a nice meal. As we were walking through the park on our way home, we heard the unmistakable strains of Mariachi music. Walking back toward the sound, we took a seat an appropriate distance from the band to listen. The Mariachis had been hired by a man to serenade his lover and him. They stood in the small semicircle of the band and embraced to the sound of the music, while we enjoyed them and the scene.

Very sweet.

"The Parroquia, San Miguel"
Watercolor, 10" x 7"

Hi Everyone,

I just wanted to tell you about a few of the things we saw the past few days. Yesterday was the festival of San Antonio de Abul (the abbot). His thing was that he went into the hills to live the life of a hermit. While there, he struck up a relationship with the animals that lived near him. As a result, the day is set-aside for the priests to bless the animals - farm animals and pets alike.

Patricia told me years ago that it seemed there was a festival of one sort or another once a week in Mexico. She was right, of course.

The blessing happens at various churches and at various times. We chose one nearby about 5 PM yesterday. We knew we were in the right area when we rounded a corner and heard the dogs barking. Coming into the plaza in front of the entrance we saw many dogs, birds and cats (no farm animals at this church in the middle of town). Most were very well behaved except for one bull mastif that was frantically barking and going nuts. Of course, this made most of the other animals nervous too.

The real turnout was the photographers and tourists. After all, how many times does one have the chance to see the priests blessing dogs and cats? But the main attractions were the animals. There was a Chihuahua with a wig... yes, a wig of human hair! There were parakeets, doves, finches, crows, turtles and a large red-tailed hawk that drew much attention. (As a result of the hawk, the pigeons had vacated the area.) There were dogs of all sizes from a standard white poodle complete with pom-poms on the feet, tail and head to a tiny, tiny, miniature (and fearless) Yorkshire terrier whose bark was more of a squeak. The cats were tightly held and looked as if they would rather be somewhere else, thank you very much!

The appointed hour approached and the priest set up in front of the huge, weathered doors of the basilica. With the help of a little p.a. and mike, he started addressing the crowd that gathered in tightly around him. There was much jostling for position as the priest began his recitation. After a short explanation and the blessing, he pulled out the ol´ holy water sprinkler and surprised all of the animals with little showers of holy water. They flinched and blinked and gladly retreated with their owners once the priest did his thing.

The scene was repeated several times over the course of the next hour in a much more controlled fashion with fewer blessees after the initial scramble. It was all very entertaining and we sat around to watch the interactions of all the people, animals and tourists. Dogs sniffing each others´ butts. Birds nervously flitting around in their little cages. While being shown off to the crowd, the big poodle was joyously humping his proud owners leg.... All good clean fun!

"San Miguel Afternoon II"
Watercolor, 7" x 10"

"Calle Aldama, San Miguel"
Watercolor, 7" x 10"

A few days ago we were heading out of our place and heard a little parade somewhere. We followed the sound and came up behind a small parade with brass and drums in the front. They followed a small pick up truck with the Virgin of Guadalupe in the bed. (This was a real little girl dressed up like the Virgin.) They were all followed by costumed, masked, twirling and dancing characters that were being led by a wavering, ear-splitting p.a. system playing snappy Mexican pop music.

They all turned down a couple of streets with everyone popping out of their doors to see what the ruckus was about. We followed until they turned down a little alleyway and disappeared.

We never did figure out what that one was about. Patricia came up with an explanation: "Hey, I know. Let's put the Virgin of Guadalupe in the back of a truck and go down the street making a bunch of noise!" Just another of the mysterious events we've encountered....

Finally, let me tell you about quince años (fifteenth birthday). Each girl is considered a girl, a niña, up until their fifteenth birthday. After that, they are considered young women, señoritas. The day is marked with much ceremony and celebration among family and friends. The peak of the day is a ceremony conducted by the priest in the church. The girl is dressed in a white, flowing dress that for all the world looks like a wedding dress. In fact, from a distance, it is hard to tell the difference.

Inside the church, the aisle to the alter is lined with flowers and friends and family in the pews. All except for the girl are formally dressed in black. She is in white. From the outside and without being able to understand the words of the ceremony, the main difference between a wedding and quince años is that there is no groom. It all looks very pure and virginal. I'm sure that the papa and mama are beaming in the front pews.

After the priest finishes his thing, all of those in attendance come to the front of the church and offer gifts to the newly anointed young woman. Not wanting to be caught short, Patricia went out into the square and purchased a couple of balloons from a vendor. She went up to the front and presented them respectfully to the girl's father. We both agreed that for years to come the young woman and her family would remember the event with, "...and who was that blond gringa with the balloons?"

"Another Day at the Jardin, San Miguel"
Watercolor, 7" x 10"

Hi Everyone,

I just wanted to write one last installment. Our time is Mexico is coming to an end. We are going to Mexico City from San Miguel on Monday. We'll be spending three days there and then flying back to Vermont on Thursday.

I wanted to tell you about last week. It was the birthday of Ignacio de Allende y Unzaga. Allende is the important part of that name. He is one of the heroes of the Mexican Revolution. He was killed after a couple of years of revolt and his head was hung on the corner of the town square in Guanaguato for four years until the revolution was won by the Mexicans.

He was born and raised in San Miguel and his palatial house is on the main square. The celebration of his birthday was a week-long affair that centered on the smaller square (Plaza Civico) near our house where there is a huge equestrian statue of him. Each night there were concerts and performances on the square that were free for everybody.

Unfortunately, the celebration coincided with the coldest weather we have seen yet. It was getting down around 35 degrees at night and quite cool during the day. Houses around here are not made for those temperatures. So it made for some cool sleeping with lots of covers and a light turn out for most of the concerts.

We went to as many of the concerts as we could. The musicians were often from Mexico City. You have to figure that one of the largest cities in the world (about 23 million people) has some good musicians. And that assumption would be right. We heard all sorts of traditional music along with some fine, multicultural big band jazz that pushed the aesthetic limits of the audience.

The last night of the weeklong celebrations was Sunday. We joined the crowd in a cold rain after dinner and found wet seats. The rain was not strong but constant. It made for some fairly uncomfortable listening and viewing. We caught the last few songs of a mariachi band that brought the house down. They were outstanding and the music is rousing when done that well.

As cold and wet as it was, we wanted to stick it out because they had set up some truly unique fireworks that we wanted to see set off. On one side of the square was a pyrotechnic tableau with a portrait of Allende in a top hat with "236 Anniversario" below. On the other side of the square was a 40-foot high tree of pinwheels, fuses and fireworks topped with cascading strands of fireworks. They call these trees "castillos." We had both seen such displays before (18 years ago in San Miguel) and eagerly anticipated the spectacle.

By the way, we both agree that they look incredibly dangerous, especially with hundreds of people milling about in close proximity. We envision them being made in some back street by a bunch of men smoking cigarettes surrounded by gun powder and fuses. But that is another story and one of the things that makes being in Mexico interesting and entertaining!

"Balloon Seller, San Miguel"
Watercolor, 7" x 10"

We waited through the rain and cold as they set up for another band. At one point the stage hands picked up a fully constructed, large tent and gradually walked it out over the seats being set up for an orchestra. We never thought they would make it without destroying either the tent or the stage, but they did. Finally, another group came on and sang as we got wetter and colder. They finished and the orchestra was prepared for.

We had been out in the weather for about an hour and a half and finally Patricia said that she had had enough of the cold wet. As we set off for our home we stopped and asked some men what time they were going to set off the fireworks. Now if you have ever tried to get this kind of information in Mexico, you know that the likelihood of an accurate answer is very slim. This was the second time we had inquired as to what time the fireworks would be set off and the answers were completely different - by hours. So we headed home, about a five-minute walk.

Once home, Patricia settled in. I couldn't shake the image of a particular red taco stand in the rain and wanted to photograph it. So I headed back out to photograph the eatery on the wet street. As I got to the end of our street I looked up to the left and caught the intense glow of Allende´s portrait in full flame. I thought I would get Patricia but realized that it would be over by they time we got back. So I headed back up to the square alone.

Where formerly there were maybe four hundred people, there were now only about one hundred due to the rain.

I missed Allende's portrait, but I was transfixed as they lit up the castillo. The towering four-sided pyrotechnic display was set off one side and one level at at time. First the white pinwheels shrieking and throwing showers of sparks. Four times for each side. Then colored pinwheels, also with ear-splitting shrieks. Four times, one for each side. Then the fuses were lit for the upper levels. The first level became spirals of various colors that snaked all the way up the tree, turning the whole castillo around on its axis with various expulsions up into the sky and out toward the small remaining audience. Finally the climax as the top of the castillo erupted in a wild shower of color and fire from four spinning horizontal rings at the top of the pole. Four spinning rockets streaked off into the night sky from the top each trailing a different color of sparks.

But this was not to be the end of it. Immediately following the castillo, the more substantial fireworks started. Mortars lobbed huge fireworks directly overhead. Looking into the falling rain I was surrounded by the thunder of the fireworks and showers of colors. From the sky fell the debris of spent pyrotechnics. One, about three feet long with a spent firework on the end, hit me square on the head. Fortunately I was wearing a hat and wasn't looking up at the time.

"San Miguel Afternoon"
Watercolor, 10" x 7"

All in good fun! And very memorable.

Needless to say, on my return Patricia was disappointed to have missed the display. Especially by 15 minutes! But, fortunately, she has seen them before.

This weekend marks the end of the Catholic Christmas season, "Candelaria." We are going to be in the main square, the Jardin, on Sunday where Patricia tells me children go wild with what are called "cascarones." These are blown, colored eggs that are filled with confetti. They are attached to the end of sticks and broken over the heads of anyone nearby. Patricia says the kids are trying to hurt you and are particularly fond of tall blonds. Probably so. But we are still looking forward to the celebration.

On Wednesday it is Patricia's birthday and we will be in Mexico City, staying on the huge main square there, the Zocolo. The monstrous cathedral there will hold candle mass where all of the lights of the cathedral are turned off and the mass is conducted, as you probably guessed, by candlelight. Something more to look forward to the day before our return to the states.

My birthday is on Friday, the 4th, in Vermont. I have much to look forward to with Gallery Walk that evening and a radio interview on Radio Free Brattleboro with Joy Wallens in the afternoon. I will have some paintings at both the Windham Art Gallery in Brattleboro and in the Thorne Sagendorf Gallery in Keene. In our gallery I will be showing the 30 plus watercolors and more than 100 sketches from the trip. After that, I'm not certain what I'll be doing with them.

Now I am off to an appointment. Each day, in the late afternoon, along the street where we are staying, I have passed an old, old woman with a cane, sitting on a door stoop. Each day I have greeted her with, "Buenos tardes, señora," and she responds in kind. Two days ago, I added to my ever-growing (tongue firmly in cheek) vocabulary in Spanish by adding, "¿Como esta usted?" (How are you?). I was a little taken aback when she started telling me exactly how she was... having some trouble with her legs. Her feet were hurting her. And then there was her back. "Right here it has been hurting and now I'm having some trouble getting around."

Of course, I couldn't just walk away. So I knelt down and listened to the story of her maladies, sympathizing with looks and a word of Spanish here and there. She is a regal looking woman and extraordinarily handsome. So I asked her if I could paint her portrait. She consented, but was not there yesterday. Last night Patricia and I saw her and I introduced Patricia. Since her Spanish is light years beyond mine I used her to firm up my intentions for today. I am hoping that the language barrier has been crossed and that she will be there.

And then there's the issue of whether or not I can do justice to her.... That is another story.

"Blind Man, San Miguel"
Watercolor, 10" x 7"

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Sunday in the Jardin did not greet us with the kids breaking eggs over our heads. Must have been some other day…. The old woman was not there at the appointed time. I showed up and found the door cracked open. Peeking in, there was the old woman with her grand daughter. I asked her if she was ready and she responded, "No." and waived me off. I asked if later in the day might be better.


How about the next day?


I brought out some of my watercolors to show her. But she was not impressed, apparently. Pressing her a little further, she explained in Spanish, "I don't have the time."

Hard to argue with that. I can't tell you what changed. We figured there were any number of possible explanations and let it go at that.

Our time in Mexico City was very enjoyable. As I told you, we stayed in a hotel that was right on the Zocolo, the main square of Mexico City. The tremendous noise in the square starts at 5:30 AM each day as the military drum and bugle corps heralds the day with a raising of the enormous flag ceremony. It then continues with various political protesters blaring their demands to surrounding government offices through over taxed loudspeakers. Finally traffic picks up and people crowd the square until about 9 PM when it all dies down to prepare for the next day.

I explored the surrounding area each morning. Usually, I got started so early that no businesses were open and most of the people on the street were taking their children to school. As the day warmed up, the street vendors would prepare for day by washing the street. A water truck would come down the street and gush water over the paving stones. Then the army of vendors would come out with brooms and soap powder with which they scrubbed the pavement. As it all began to dry out, they would set up their stalls for the day.

Block after block the streets were narrowed by vendors on both sides with a strip down the middle. As customers began coming in, the congestion of walking bodies and goods for sale defined the character of the streets. It is safe to say that you can buy just about anything in these daily markets - clothing, household appliances, all things plastic, electronics, CDs, DVDs (all pirated, no doubt), pornography, flowers, books, food… it does go on.

At the end of each day the amount of debris left by the activity is astonishing. That it is all cleaned up and started anew each day is perhaps more so.

Mexico City is enormous. It stretches out from the center in an endless sea of neighborhoods punctuated occasionally by skyscrapers. The variety of architecture is considerable and each neighborhood seems to have its own personality. It feels fairly easy to walk around the city though the size of it is daunting.

There are, as you would imagine, many churches. Most are quite ancient and many appear to have succumbed to the instability of the lakebed on which they are built. Like Venice, there are streets that one can look down and not find a plumb vertical line in any building. They sway and sag, some leaning so far over as to rival the leaning tower of Pisa. Some have been closed as they are in danger of imminent collapse.

The city is built directly on top of the ancient ruins of the once-thriving city encountered by Cortez. He and his army destroyed everything and the main cathedral is build directly on top of the former Aztec Temple of the Sun. Fortunately for us, the largest temple of the Aztec complex (Templo Meyor) is being excavated beside the cathedral. The findings and the accompanying museum are very interesting and illuminating.

Within a few block radius of our hotel was enough to keep us occupied for more than a week. Unfortunately we were there only for three days. The famous pollution of Mexico City was mercifully weak the first couple of days. But the third day ended with my throat sore and my eyes very dry from the chemical and particle mix that is the air of Mexico City.

So now we are home in Vermont. Our little town has welcomed us back with open arms and we are slowly unpacking our treasures. Each one carries with it memories of a warm experience that will be with us for a lifetime.

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William H. Hays, February, 2005

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