14 January 2016. We had to be in Canada for two months after we returned from Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt to satisfy our provincial health coverage requirements. November and December in Canada. Brrrrr. So we knew we would want to go somewhere warm after that. Also we were due to stop, to not be travelling, to stay in one place for a while. Mexico seemed like an obvious choice. We’d been twice before and liked it, we speak a little Spanish, and at the rate we’d been spending we were looking for a place that wouldn’t break the budget (again).
I wanted to go back to La Manzanilla. We’d lived there for four months April through July in 2013 and I loved it. I loved it for many reasons. For walks along the long wide golden sand beach. For the beautiful casita we stayed in. For the daily walk into the village up over the hill in the countryside seeing all the brightly coloured birds and flowers and butterflies and getting some aerobic exercise at the same time. For the four-times-a-week yoga classes. For the weekly massage with Daniella. For the peaceful evenings and beautiful sunsets from our patio. And I think most of all for the warm private swimming pool literally right at our front door. Every day, frequently more than once, we would strip off and step into that pool, lazing and diving and swimming and reveling in the warm water. I still miss that pool. I read many years ago that the body is nourished by being in warm water because that’s where it came from, and the cells remember. I felt healed by that pool.
Every time I mentioned to Don that I’d like to go back to La Manzanilla he said he didn’t want to, that it’s a grubby little town and he didn’t like it. He wanted to go to San Miguel de Allende. San Miguel is a beautiful inland town in the mountains about four hours north of Mexico City. We’d visited for a week from La Manzanilla and had fallen in love with it. It has a large gringo population and a thriving artists’ community. The Centro is a Spanish Colonial World Heritage site. Don wanted less dusty isolated Mexican beach village and more culture. I wanted that swimming pool. But we didn’t talk about it.
I was desperate to be in the heat. During November Vancouver had been colder than usual, and Montreal in December, although surprisingly no colder than Vancouver, was still too cold for me, especially after being in Egypt. I felt the need to bake my bones. Friends in Vancouver warned us that San Miguel in January would be cold but we didn’t believe them. We didn’t want to believe them. We looked online – as low as 7 (44) overnight but mid 20’s (mid70’s) by day. That sounded okay. Not baking, but much warmer than Canada.
At some point during November Don went ahead and found a two-bedroom casa in San Miguel in our price range, ran it by me, and rented it. I simply said yes. I felt that if he was that clear, if his intuition was that strong that San Miguel was the place to be then I had to honour that. I trusted him, as he has trusted me many times in the past. We live by this kind of intuitive clarity, and he was very clear that San Miguel was it. I said to friends in Vancouver that Don chose San Miguel and I let him. It’s a harsh and untruthful way to express it. What I mean is that I knew that in this case it was important I not question his intuition and clarity.
A red-eye from Vancouver to Mexico City. We’ve decided we won’t do any more red-eye flights. It’s too painful. A taxi from the airport to the bus station. A four-hour bus ride to San Miguel. Mexican buses are fabulous. The seats are bigger than airline business class. But we still hardly sleep, just dozing off a little now and then. A taxi from the bus station to our latest home in San Miguel. The owners are there to meet us. Lovely people. She’s Canadian, he’s Mexican. They take about two hours to tell us all about the casa, gas stove, Wi-Fi, clean drinking water, garbage collection, all the little details you need to know about a place. We meet Rufina who will come weekly to clean for us.
Through my brain-dead lack-of-sleep haze this place we are to live in for five months slowly registers. It is so packed with furniture we are literally climbing over it to get around. There are so many things on the walls and on every surface that I can hardly breathe. Everything is brown with dust. The walls are covered in bad art, old peeling family photographs, dusty hats, plates on racks jammed up against one another, a couple of old shot guns. Everything is hung randomly with no thought for its aesthetic connection to the things near it. The curtains are peach coloured and frilly. They are tied in the middle with old scraps of fabric. On the long coffee table there are metal racks displaying some notably uninteresting rocks. There is an old film camera placed for decoration on a pedestal, and there are literally dozens of chachkes everywhere. All covered in brown dust.
And then just before our hosts leave we are told we shouldn’t go out after dark. What!
It didn’t really register until later. The last time we were in San Miguel no one mentioned it was unsafe after dark. I asked what time it got dark. About 6pm. It’s now almost five and we have nothing for dinner nor for breakfast. We head out immediately to a local café where the food is good but the service appalling, buy a few provisions for the morning and get home by dusk.
We unpack. I remove some bricabrac from a shelving unit in the bedroom, wipe the shelves, cover them with paper towel, and arrange my clothes in neat piles. I think the rest of the evening was spent in an Internet and Netflix haze. Don goes to bed and is soundly asleep by about ten o’clock. I go to bed and cry all night. I’m crying because the place I’ve come to live in is filthy and ugly, I’m crying because I’ve been told not to go outside after dark so even though all the doors are double locked I feel unsafe, and I’m mostly crying because I’m grieving for La Manzanilla. I hadn’t realized until that first night in San Miguel how much I had wanted to go back to that place where I’d felt so nourished.
Morning comes eventually. I’ve slept maybe two or three hours. We talk. Don’s first reaction is to see if the casita in La Manzanilla is available and we can just swallow paying an extra month’s rent and go there. I’m immediately clear that is not the solution. For all my desire to go back to that place, and my desire for that warm pool, I know it is not the answer. I know there is something for us in San Miguel. Also for Don to change plans just to make me happy is not a good enough reason. We’re in this together. We have to find a way for us both to be happy.
Two things are resolved this day. We ask about going out after dark. It turns out that our host was just being an overly protective father, and that we are in one of the safest neighbourhoods of San Miguel, that San Miguel is safer than New York City, and probably safer than many other places in the world these days. The second thing is that I say respectfully that I’m very visually sensitive and since this will be our home for five months would it be okay if I put some of the ‘art’ and knickknacks away in the (fortunately large) storage cupboard. Of course! You can do whatever you want!
Don and I have stayed in some pretty funky, down-home, unattractive, and yes, grubby places over the past four and a half years. If it’s for a few days, or even a couple of weeks, I’m fine with it. It’s the thought of living in a place like that for five months that distresses me. When it’s five months it’s not just a place we’re staying. When it’s five months it’s our home.
I get into cleaning and decluttering mode. I remove ninety percent of the ‘decorations’ and stuff them into the cupboard. I rearrange what furniture I can. I see that two of the large chairs are metal. I remove the grubby cushions from them and put the chairs out in the courtyard garden. I see that one of the large chairs in the living room will fit fine in one of the bedrooms. I create space. I replace the coverings on the two couches with alternatives from the bedrooms. With Don’s help I clean everything. And I rearrange things on the walls, saving only a few colourful pieces that I place as best I can on the nails that are already there. There are at least twenty other nails in the walls that now have nothing hung on them. Since they are painted the same colour as the walls they are not too much of an eyesore. Sometime during the day I send out a little prayer asking for help to perceive this place in a more favourable light.
The next morning I wake up and say to Don that I’m just one big walking complaint. Everything is wrong and horrible. I’m cold. It may be 23 outside but this is a stone cold house. Perhaps when it is 30 or 35 outside I will be glad to be living in a cool house, but at the moment it is cold. During the day it is significantly colder inside than it is outside. We have two electric oil heaters that we run all night. During the day we are bundled up in our warmest clothing and I have a blanket wrapped around my legs. I can’t seem to get warm. I didn’t realize how desperately I was craving the heat and how disappointed I am not to have it.
I go about my day doing more cleaning and decluttering. Somewhere in there we go shopping for more provisions. We walk a long way into town to the supermarket and get basic stocks for the kitchen. I reverse the curtains so I don’t have to look at the worst of the frilliness. Frills are not my thing.
Then sometime in these first few days I suddenly accept that I haven’t come to summer. I stay warm by wearing more clothes. It has stopped being a complaint. Just like that I fall into acceptance. And sometime on about the fifth day the thought arises spontaneously I love this place!
One of the reasons Don wanted to come to San Miguel is that I need medical attention and he knew it would be easier to get it here than in La Manzanilla, and he is right. We arrived on a Thursday night and I had an appointment with an English-speaking doctor at noon the following Monday. A doctor in Vancouver had told me that I have osteo-arthritis in my right hip, but both Don and I suspected much more than that. I’ve been having nerve pain down my right leg, aching knees, shin pain and lower back pain. We suspected maybe a bulging or burst disc. But no! X-rays reveal my spine and bones are all fine. I do have mild osteoarthritis in my right hip, but this doctor said maybe it might start to bother me by the time I’m ninety! What I do have is exceptionally tight muscles that have been tight for an extremely long time. This is the cause of the nerve pain. I have been given a course of Vitamin B injections and a course of anti-inflammatories. I’m going to get myself a deep-tissue massage twice a week for the next few months. And in due course will start going to yoga classes three times a week. Hopefully this will be all I’ll need.
It can be really difficult to take care of your health when travelling all the time. We so very badly need these long breaks to get into some healthy routines like regular exercise, and yoga, and preparing our own meals.
It has been a week now. It’s funny, but before we came here I kept having the thought that it would take a week to get here, and so it has proved. A self-fulfilling prophecy perhaps? Or just the way it was going to be anyway.
We have found all the stores we need for food, a laundry close by, the place to go for clean water. We went to an even bigger supermarket to stock up on more basic supplies. We bought a couple of wine glasses and a cheese grater. Our hosts have been extremely helpful with every little thing we’ve needed, and I must say that when we arrived the house may have been dusty, but the sheets and towels were clean, and the bathroom and kitchen clean enough. I’ve put some of the brilliant bougainvillea from the garden in vases in the house. Don went out this afternoon to pick up the laundry and came home with roses. It starts to feel like home.
A peek inside the cupboard at some of what I removed from sight.
I suppose I could live with the naked woman at her ablutions, except that it’s broken, but the suicide – now there’s a depressing image to have in your home.
Our decluttered San Miguel home.
And now we’re both happy to be here. As for San Miguel – we’ll no doubt discover in the next few months what it has in store for us.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2016.