Sunday, March 18, 2007

Shabby chic: Guanajuato by day

In the daylight, Guanajuato is still impressive, but not so glaringly affluent. The buildings that first charmed in the flattering lamplight are still attractive under the sullen autumn sky, but less glamorous. From the rooftop terrace outside our room, the multi-coloured buildings are inviting in their old world shabbiness; seductively chic despite their fading paint and dishevelled demeanour. As in the rest of Mexico, dusty yards and rooftop terraces are hung with laundry and scrappy dogs bark from rooves or wander the streets alone. Imperious green and blue-tinged mountains loom above the patchwork landscape, occasionally punctuated by cross-topped chapels and grand stone buildings. A lavender flowering tree spreads its branches to dominate a dirt backyard below, rimmed by a crumbling stone wall. Cacti mix with leafy European-style trees, and the odd Australian eucalypt.

In the kitchen, an older couple are hunched over a spread-out Spanish textbook. The Husband chats amiably about learning Spanish and Mexican tourist spots while I prowl the terrace and snap photos of the scene below.

On our way from the hotel, as we pass through the plaza, I am caught short by the flat vowels of what sounds like an Australian accent. It belongs to a deeply tanned man in sunglasses and a blue shirt, with a white-grey moustache beneath dark grey hair. He is holding forth on some subject or the other.
‘Do I sound like THAT?’ I ask The Husband.
‘I don’t know’ he muses. ‘I’ve been told that I hardly have an accent at all.’
‘I’ve been told that mine is really strong.’ In the US, of course.

The day begins with breakfast at the café where we ate last night. The meals are generous – they come with coffee and orange juice for an average of 350 pesos (approximately $4 Australian). This morning, there are no fairy lights of course, and less students. Perhaps they are still sleeping off last night. Retired couples and families promenade the street below. Above us, on one of the cast-iron balconies, an older woman, her hair in curlers, emerges in a dressing gown to bring in her laundry. More directly above us, a missile of birdshit narrowly misses my hotcakes, hitting the table with an audible SPLAT and a splash of white. The couple sitting across from us, chatting in fluent Spanish, look over and laugh, shaking their heads in sympathy and anxiously glancing up. It seems that toilet humour is one of those things that transcends language and cultural barriers.

Below us, at the base of the sweeping stone stairway, an old man sits in the gutter. His grey beard contrasts with his dark skin; his bedraggled clothes stand out in this oasis of Mexican affluence. So – it’s not all tourists and students and those who serve them, here. I watch the old man as I drown my hotcakes in maple syrup and stir the cinnamon deep into my cappuccino. Schools of holidaymakers swim by, oblivious, as he stares at his feet. Eventually, a man with a clubfoot, noticeable by his misshapen black boot, stoops to drop something by the man’s feet and limps on. A few minutes later a squat, shabbily dressed old woman passes and stops to talk to the man. Soon, she is seated beside him in he gutter, deep in conversation. The man looks distressed; she seems to be commiserating with him. When we finish our breakfast and leave, they are still deep in conversation.

The big thing that The Husband didn’t get to do on his last trip was visit the Diego Rivera museum, so we head there first. I keep stopping along the way to admire a flash of multi-coloured cubes on the hill, viewed between road crossings, or simply the pattern of gently sloping buildings along the road – a pleasing configuration of colours of a particularly charming cluster of window boxes.
‘Sorry’ I tell The Husband as my camera stalls our journey, again and again.
‘That’s fine. I did the same thing when I first came here.’

We are sidelined by an intriguing little shop, stocked with peacock bright scarves, painted figurines dancing with colour, glittery kitsch Frida Kahlo matchboxes and jewellery boxes and a selection of beautifully produced art books and postcards. I resist temptation.

Our meandering journey comes to a sharp end at the Diego Rivera Museum, where a queue of mostly elderly, mostly North American tourists winds down the road. We decide to come back later and visit the market instead.

On our way, we pass an imposing stone building flanked by uniformed security guards.
‘That’s the other place I want to go!’ exclaims The Husband. It is a colonial granary, now a museum, the site of one of the bloodiest battles of Mexican Independence. Silver jewellery and junky icons – painted green frogs, wooden Mesoamerican discs – are lined along the base of the building, far below the stairs that lead to the entrance. A young boy playfully punches the covered head of a man who lies prone, bookended by merchandise. He could be any age. The boy’s mother frowns at him as we edge delicately around them.

On the other side of the granary building, people wander the plaza below the towering stone wall. More dark skinned women sell jewellery, huddled under patterned scarves that cover their heads. Below a cascade of carved stone steps, another vast grey plaza. It is packed with local kids playing a raucous game of soccer against the tremendous backdrop of the historic building and the sprawling patchwork hills.

At the bottom of the hill, stretching past the soccer game, is the commercial heart of the town. Tacquerias, ice-cream stores, souvenir shops of every kind, cafes and restaurants. The streets throng with tourists – like us – and street vendors, mostly indigenous, hawking paintings, rugs, scarves and printed t-shirts bearing the names of Guanajuato or Mexican soccer teams. Both groups are sharp-eyed, alert for opportunity; the tourists for a bargain or a unique find, the vendors for a sale. We have only to pause in front of a stand or casually finger a product to have a vendor appear, armed with a thick stream of cajoling Spanish. Prices often tumble as you walk away from a stand. ‘Okay, 1800 pesos. No, 1500 pesos.’

The market itself is vaguely disappointing. I’m beginning to learn that the markets (and many souvenir shops) in Mexico are all very much like each other. We see the same ‘hand woven’ rugs and multi-coloured fringed blankets, the same embroidered peasant tops and painted wooden boxes, the same soccer t-shirts and woven scarves. Still, there’s always the possibility of a find; usually something to charm the pesos out of your purse. I buy Felix and Jacob studded leather wrist bands, and nearly buy myself a cap. It’s too big, though the stall holder tries to convince me it’s just fine. Some things are always the same – from a changing room in Melbourne to a market in Mexico.

On our second try, the entrance to the Diego Rivera Museum is blessedly clear. The building is Rivera’s childhood home, restored and preserved as a monument. Cameras are allowed, on the proviso of no flashes. We wander into a series of sparsely furnished rooms, some bearing plaques in Spanish. A bedroom with an iron bed, snow-white linen, a crib and a rocking chair.
‘Look’ murmurs an American behind me, reverently. ‘There’s a crib. It must have been his parents’ room.’
A dining room, complete with wooden table and chairs. A long study, with a bookcase lined with leather-bound editions and an ancient typewriter. I snap photographs, even as I wonder why. I’m not horribly impressed.

Upstairs, things get interesting. The rest of the house is given over to gallery space – mostly Rivera’s work, but a small showing of other artists on the upper levels. In the presence of the artwork, I stow away my camera. It would feel disrespectful to snap away at paintings as if they were interesting buildings. The artworks displayed here range from early, very European still life portraits and realist landscapes to slight pencil sketches that were to give birth to paintings. There are portraits of Frida Kahlo, stylised depictions of peasant life and a series of interpretations of the Mayan Popol Vuh.

The highlight of the museum is in a small, dimly lit room at the top of the building – a seated mini lecture theatre. In this room hangs a reproduction of one of Rivera’s famous murals, Sunday Dream. The painting depicts almost one hundred figures from Mexican history and Rivera’s own life, gathered in Mexico City’s Alameda Park. Rivera himself features in it twice, once as a young boy, standing in front of his wife Frida Kahlo and holding the hand of a skeleton in woman’s dress. A mentor from his early days, Jose Guadalupe Posada, famous for his drawings of skeletons, takes the skeleton woman’s other hand under his arm. Other figures include conqueror Cortes, revolutionaries Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata and former presidents Benito Juarez and Porfirio Diaz, all connected in some way with the history of the park. A number key below the painting explains who each figure is.

The low point of the museum is the upper level of the main gallery, adjacent to the wide-open public bathroom. The stench of shit wafts through the rooms, presumably from the balled-up used toilet paper in the open bins next to the toilets. Truly the worst thing about Mexico – for the privileged middle-class tourist.

Down in the museum shop, we spend a long time choosing gifts. Tasteful and well priced. At least, I hope the recipient of the Frida Kahlo mousepad finds it tasteful …

It is 3.30 pm when we deposit our shopping in our room and descend the flights of stairs to the street, on our way to a very late lunch. I have become strangely accustomed to infrequent meals (hence the lost weight that will no doubt balloon back on my return home), but The Husband likes to eat three times a day and he is starving. We pass the Australian guy on the street, who we have since spotted in the hotel. The Husband says a casual hello, and asks if he is indeed Australian.
‘I’m a European citizen’ he says, in his unmistakable Strine drawl. ‘But I was born in Australia.’
‘We noticed your accent’ says The Husband.
‘Yeah. I noticed yours, too.’

We end up standing in the street and talking for well over an hour; nearly two. The not-quite-Australian travels the world full time.
‘I don’t want a job’ he says scathingly. ‘Who wants to work? Not for me. Go to the office every day – pah!’
As if it’s a lifestyle choice, as easy as that to make. We both wonder later where he gets the money for such a life. His litany of destinations and temporary homes makes my head spin. Mexico is no good for cheap living anymore, he says. It’s no cheaper than Australia or the US, really. The majority of Mexicans don’t use any of the services or facilities we buy here – they couldn’t possibly afford to. So luxuries like bottled water, restaurant food and toiletries are priced for the miniscule middle class and the tourists. Costa Rica and Guatemala are the Latin American countries to go to, apparently.

Our new friend talks about US politics, the border, strip searches, the relative cost of living on the ski fields of Denver and New Zealand, the Iraq war and much else besides. He takes us to a restaurant he recommends, opposite the university entrance, and we stand in the doorway talking until past 5pm.
‘We don’t have time to eat’ I say regretfully. ‘We were planning on getting to the lookout before dark.’
So we walk together to the Teatro Republica, near where we need to catch the hydraulic lift up the mountain. We stand and talk about New Orleans, San Francisco and homelessness in the US. It is 5.30pm.
‘I’m sorry’ I eventually blurt out. ‘But we’d better go before it gets dark.’
‘Oh. Okay, bye. See you later.’ He looks a bit hurt and disappears.
‘Did that seem rude?’ I whisper.
‘A little’ says The Husband. ‘But I’m glad you did it, or we’d never have gone.’
‘Do you think he’s offended?’

The hydraulic lift shaft is carved into the side of the mountain and it’s made of glass on three sides, so you can watch the town recede as you rise. Not recommended for anyone with vertigo. I peer past outgrowths of spiny, tube-like cactus as we jerk our way to the top, both marvelling at the view and imagining our crashing descent. The journey is swift and we soon emerge into a tunnel lined with souvenir shops.

At the mouth of the tunnel, we ascend a volley of stone steps, leading to a plaza overlooking a breathtaking view of the city and another row of souvenir shops across the road. The debt this picturesque town owes to tourism is abundantly clear. The Lonely Planet tells us that there is a restaurant/café, overlooking the amazing view, so we eagerly search it out. We find a ramshackle milk bar selling souvenirs, beers and soft drinks, run by a cranky old woman and her equally grizzly husband. I buy a Diet Coke for twice the normal price and sit at the edge of her tiled deck, peering at the buildings below and watching the light shift on the mountains. The pair glare at the drink-less The Husband, and we soon leave, after snapping a few hasty shots. The next nearest thing to the promised café is a souvenir shop down a flight of dim stairs, misleadingly boasting a foot-high ‘RESTAURANT’ sign painted on the side of the building. Perhaps this was it?
In the end, we seat ourselves on the paved stairs below the plaza, below the scaffolded statue of a revolutionary hero, and watch the sun set along with the rest of the camera-heavy tourists.

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