Mexico has received some exceptionally bad reviews recently, with areas of the country now named by the U.S. State Department as places to avoid. I find that news disheartening, not that I don’t believe the reports, but because danger hasn’t been part of any sense I’ve engaged in country. I have loved what I’ve seen of Mexico, and my impressions have been heightened and sharpened by every visit. If you appreciate color, culture, pageantry, the aromas of food and flowers, and mornings begun with church bells and roosters, I encourage you to find a Mexican destination, and immerse yourself in it. You might find you love it too.
Literally and figuratively, I’ve been mentally and physically slow of late. Seasonal syndrome? Perhaps. Groundhog day syndrome? Perhaps. Simply overwhelmed by news and campaign negativity? Highly likely. I know it happens to all of us, but I also know I’m luckier than many to be able to roust and revive by getting on a plane.
I went back to San Miguel de Allende, that beautiful colonial town in the mountains of central Mexico. Their 11th Annual International Writers’ Conference & Literary Festival was underway, and over the week I heard Gail Sheehy, Joyce Carol Oates, Scott Simon, Luis Urrea and John Perkins talk about their lives, their books, their philosophies and their concerns; wonderful writers and speakers, with the talent to transport others to higher ground. My oh my.
In between intellectual pursuits, all I needed to do was walk about town with my camera to be revived. Perhaps colonial Mexico is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it certainly is mine. It satisfies my longings for color and charm, good food, intersection with interesting fellow travelers, and the opportunity to join in a variety of activities for language and art immersion.
Among my pursuits, I chose an iPhone photo walk with Gracie, (http://photowalksanmiguel.com) and was re-introduced to Snapseed 2 by Google, an app I had downloaded ages ago and thereafter ignored. I‘m now hooked; it creates magic from the mundane with the click of a button or two. My oh my.
On Ash Wednesday, I sat with a table of friendly, chatty strangers from all over the world at St. Paul’s Anglican Church while we rolled those ubiquitous plastic trash bags that are destroying the environment of so many countries, into little tiny balls. Over the course of two hours we compacted enough of them (it takes about 2,000 balls) to stuff into a pre-sewn waterproof fabric cover, creating a child’s mattress. In nearby villages, these mattresses lift kids from damp dirt floors and ground crawling creatures, and are welcomed. It was a satisfying morning.
Am I “cured” of my malaise? I suppose not. Energy and interests wax and wane. But I do know how to alleviate it with Mexican medicine.
Many years ago, as holiday stresses overwhelmed my enjoyment of the season, I decided to change how I participated in it. It was relatively easy to eliminate chaotic mall visits, most gift buying, card writing, fevered cooking and decorating and entertaining, but then what? We had moved halfway across the country and friendships had not yet developed, so we decided to try a trip away from home to divert our attention from old habits. That decision began our experience of Mexico, and the Virgin of Guadalupe festival that precedes Christmas celebrations in that culture. The gifts of fruit and flowers that are carried into the parish church, the mariachi music that rattles windows and rolls down the street through the processions, the tolling bells, the children’s faces, the aromas of food vendor stalls, and pleasure of witnessing expressions of faith entwined with national pride was a complete change from our old customs. For more than twenty years now, this has been our preference for the perfect Christmas holiday.
If the festival itself isn’t enough, placing this experience in a natural environment that only engenders awe, and sharing it with friends, makes it the kind of spiritual holiday I choose over all others. It is replete with gifts that never end.
I visited San Miguel de Allende for their Dias de los Muertos celebrations this year, not for the first (nor hopefully the last) time. San Miguel is a beautiful small city in central Mexico, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its preserved 17th and 18th century town center and many lovely churches. The Centro area a feast for the eye, colorful and very walkable; no car is necessary or desirable to fully enjoy it.
The Day(s) of the Dead festivities may be underway much in advance of their observance, but evidence of preparations become public on All Hallows Eve (Halloween) as private altars (oftendas) appear in homes, stores, and on the streets around town. In Mexico, All Saints Day (November 1st) and All Souls’ Day (November 2nd) focus on the remembrance of family members and friends who have died, and the bonds that continue to be held between the spirits of the living and the dead. Families go to cemeteries to clean and decorate the graves of the deceased, covering them with marigolds (the flowers of the dead), muertos (bread of the dead), and favorite foods, drinks and possessions of those who are gone. Some grave adornments are incredibly elaborate, some very simple, and it is common to see family members surrounding a grave site, accompanied by a mariachi band to help celebrate the life of their loved one. A priest may be summoned for graveside prayers, and picnics permit staying and visiting with the dead for as long as one wishes.
The private altars that are built around town encourage a visit from those living in the spirit world, and include elements important to an invitation to return: water for the soul’s thirst, salt to purify the soul and frighten away bad spirits, candles to guide the soul to its old home, flowers, sugar in the form of skulls or favorite animals, cut paper decorations, fruits and nuts, traditional foods, and photos of the deceased. The altars are all very personal, and quite beautiful.
These festivities are said to be based on ancient cultural practices which have become blended over time with local religious traditions. I loved the observance, and admired the sense of celebration offered as an affirmation of the mystical experience connecting life and death, in contrast to the tradition of cultural denial with which I am most familiar.
More photos are available through Flickr link.