Saturday, March 17, 2007
Guanajuato: Everything old is new again
We boarded the first-class bus for Guanajato in a burst of bad spirits, both of us exhausted from the start. I was recovering from a long-standing cold and the previous day sick in bed; The Husband battling a difficult uni course in a foreign language and dwindling funds. After half-heartedly squabbling over tacos about each other’s attitudes, we walked around central Guadalajara awhile with five days’ worth of luggage, searching for the bus stop to take us to the central bus station. Eventually, I collapsed on a red plastic stool outside a foul-smelling tacqueria while The Husband asked for directions. He emerged triumphant, bearing a scrap of paper with a bus route number scribbled on it. After a pair of burly moustachioed locals at the bus stop advised us on the quickest route, we finally found ourselves on the way to the bus station, aboard one of the scrappier buses – cracked windows, hard plastic seats. Every time the bus stopped (and even when it didn’t), us passengers were thrown about like pinballs in an arcade game, clanking against each other and the sides of the bus. Watching a months-old baby in his mother’s arms in the seat in front of us, I couldn’t help but wince as his tiny head wobbled about on his neck, his eyes and mouth wide.
I dozed for most of the five-hour journey to Guanajauto, my I-Pod headphones firmly clamped to my head, turned to full volume. Every time I pressed pause to speak to The Husband, loud Spanish-language conversation filled the bus – the dubbed soundtrack to the on-board DVDs (X Files episodes and In My Shoes). The Husband woke me when the latter movie began.
‘It’s In My Shoes!’ he said. ‘You like that.’
‘Oooh good.’ I shed my headphones and sat up straight, craning to see. ‘Is it in English?’
‘No. I don’t think so.’
I leant back in my chair, wrapped my scarf closer around my shoulders and closed my eyes.
‘I wish I didn’t know it was on then.’
(I SAID I was feeling grumpy.)
Our introduction to Guanajuato itself was vaguely surreal, and very Mexican. At the bus station, we collected our bags, used the pay toilets, and piled onto another bus, which would take us to ‘El Centro’ (the town centre). My sports bag sat rudely in the narrow aisle, where boarding passengers – and the conductor, a teenager in a soccer t-shirt and jeans - were forced to step over it. The bus sat by the side of the road for ten minutes or so, slowly filling with people. As it began to move down the highway, past sprawling shopping malls and neon-lit Oxxos and 7-11s, the conductor walked the aisle to collect our fares. It occured to me that, until now, we’d had no idea what the service cost. Of course, it wasn’t much – only a few pesos each. As I stared past The Husband, through the window to the increasingly rural-looking landscape of vast dark mountains, I felt a warm weight land on my right side. It was a young boy, approximately ten years old, leaning back against my seat to stand comfortably in the aisle. As I glanced over my shoulder to see what he was up to, he erupted into loud song, clicking a hand-held wooden instrument not-quite in time with his warbling voice. Meanwhile, we drew under a stone archway and into a vast slate-grey tunnel, snaking behind a long serpent of traffic.
‘There are lots of tunnels ahead’ joked The Husband. ‘So don’t get scared.’
‘As if I’d get scared!’
Nonetheless, as the bus crawled peripatically through the tunnel – for ten minutes, twenty minutes, more – past parked cars on one side and dusty roadworks on the other, never breaking through to the open air, I began to feel claustrophobic. Above our heads and to our sides, a great net of chickenwire held the ancient rock tight. The small boy mercifully stopped his singing, the bus fell quiet, and he moved up and down the aisle to collect his dues. The Husband dug out a few pesos for him, following the lead of a tall Mexican teenager dressed in the style popularised by LA gangs and copied the world over – a baseball cap and loose LA Raiders tee over baggy-crotched jeans. At the next stop, the boy disappeared off the bus and into the tunnel, his work complete.
‘Is this the only way into the city?’ I asked The Husband, staring disbelievably at the single lane of choked traffic.
Eventually, he peered at a sign by the side of the tunnel and nudged me.
‘This is our stop.’
We emerged, slightly dusty, and crossed the tunnel to climb a set of stone stairs to street level … where we materialised in an eighteenth-century European village. Or, so it seemed to my disoriented eyes.
We stand on a narrow footpath at the edge of a cobble-stoned street, thick with expensive-looking cars. On either side of us rises up tall painted buildings – maroon, ochre, rose-pink, sea-green – adorned with cast-iron balconies hung with potted geraniums. Just as the cobbled streets are incongruously packed with cars, the old-fashioned buildings house internet cafes, farmacias, hotels and bars. Snatches of Latin guitar music, interspersed with Western pop songs, drift from open windows and doorways.
It’s not far to the hostel we’ve researched. Beyond the charming painted doorway lies a neat front desk and steel flat-screen computers under an ‘INTERNET’ sign. The hip young thing behind the counter, dressed in jeans and a surf-brand t-shirt, greets us with a nod. The Husband asks for a room, in Spanish.
‘Sure, we have a room’ he replies, in perfect, American-accented English, looking up from the desk. ‘Just hold on a sec and I’ll show you.’ He leans in close to his work again; painstakingly applying Liquid Paper to a canary yellow reservation card. He leads us upstairs, through a squat lounge room where a young girl watches television to an empty dorm room lined with bunks. A wooden locker sits in the corner.
‘Looks fine.’ I am tired and want to rest.
‘Tell you what’ he says. ‘I can give you this room to yourselves for 120 pesos .’
The Husband and I exchange looks. Downstairs, he told us that he’d need to open up the room if anyone else turned up, but that it was highly unlikely. (It was after 10pm.) ‘How many nights do you need it for again?’ he asks.
It turns out that he has a full booking tomorrow night, and won’t be able to give us a bed after tonight. We trudge downstairs, our tails between our legs.
We check out the two places he suggests. One, across the road, turns out to be a cramped dorm room at the back of a restaurant. No common room, no kitchenette, and more expensive than our cheap and cheerful hostel. We leave. The restaurant smells good, and I am tempted to sit down, bags and all, and eat. (I don’t, of course.) The next place has an okay room, with a lumpy couch and a seventies-era television set, but it’s expensive. We sit under a tree in a plaza and read our Lonely Planet by the light of a cast-iron street lamp.
Casa Bertha is up a steep hill, through another plaza, where a lone guitar player in Spanish costume rests by a fountain, and up another steep, hairpin-bended cobbled road. The Husband raps on the door.
‘Oh NO, we’re too LATE’ I moan.
A little old woman opens the door and peers out at us. She has a room. Two, in fact. We follow her past a home study-like office where an old man, presumably her husband, sits behind a computer, past a dining room set with a table and chairs, to a narrow hallway housing dorm room. They’re okay, but expensive for what they are.
‘Let’s go back and stay in the hostel dorm for tonight’ I suggest, and The Husband agrees.
‘I have a rooftop terrace’ says the woman. When we don’t respond, she says: ‘I have one other room.’
Wearily, we agree to see it. We follow her up what seems like several flights of black-and-white iron stairs until we reach the rooftop terrace. A long table set with white plastic chairs and a laminex tablecloth looks out over the town. The lights of hundreds of tiered houses twinkle below. Potted plants line the silent terrace, including cacti and the ubiquitous geraniums. We pass through a neat communal kitchen and the woman opens one door, then another, leading to a spacious, orange-painted room. A couch covered with a Mexican-style woven rug sits beside a chest of drawers and a double bed covered in a cheerful rd-and-white striped bedspread. Above it, an open window, and above that, an iron cross mounted on a polished wood board. There is a television opposite the bed, a double bunk bed, and a single bed around an L-shaped corner. Behind the single bed: a separate toilet and bathroom in toothpaste-white tile. We take it, after bargaining the woman down to the same rate as for the rooms we refused.
Next stop: dinner. The Husband takes me to a cafe he frequented on his last trip here, only a few streets away. Down on the street, it is cooler than upstairs in our decidedly warm room, and I shiver a little in my t-shirt. The café is at the top of a steep set of stairs. It is joined to the stairs by a narrow balcony garlanded with fairy lights, which bridges the street below. Terracotta pots planted with flowers line the balcony railings. Acoustic guitar music floats from the open doorway, accompanied by an earnest voice belting out an Oasis track (Champagne Supernova) in American-accented English. We order and The Husband dashes back to the hotel for our jackets as I await our food. The Husband’s beer arrives. I sample it tentatively, as the singer shifts into Lullaby by The Cure. He does it little justice, his voice trembling on the high notes. Well-dressed hip young things move in and out of the café while I wait. Most of them are noticeably European; even the Mexicans look more Spanish than anything. Lots of blonde hair and English conversations. I see girls in precisely uneven haircuts and artful up-dos, leggings and fashionable boots, edgy retro gear. For the first time since I’ve been in Mexico, I feel self-consciously daggy in my nondescript travelling gear – slightly too-big jeans, peeling-apart sandals and a six-year-old t-shirt with a concertina neckband.
We are in university student territory.
The Husband arrives back before the food appears. And before I entirely freeze to death in the suddenly crisp mountain air. The food (pasta for me, chicken and rice for The Husband) is cheap and good, though not as good as I’d get at home. The streets below pulse with Friday night energy – and with young people.
As for us – thirty-one and approaching thirty – we go back to our hard-won hotel and sleep.