Monday, November 24, 2008

THE PLAIN TRUTH ABOUT LIVING IN SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE

I recently received a letter from long-time Gringos living in San Miguel de Allende. Let me just say that through two books and more than 330 published article I've said essentially what this man wrote me about life in Gringolandia. For my efforts I've been vilified and often threatened with harm for my views. May Bill Davies and Karen Harding have a better life ahead.


###

Doug Bower:

We just wrote this essay after living in SMA full-time for four years. Thought you might be interested. Do with it what you will.

Bill Davies/Karen Harding


Why We Left San Miguel de Allende

The explanation has several aspects,

First, our recent trip to Corpus Christi, where we have friends who used to live in San Miguel, and Florida reminded us--strongly--that we miss being near water and boats. We grew up with it in the Northeast, had it in Florida before we came here, and (you might recall) were seduced by the Pacific into buying a house lot in Puerto Escondido two years ago. Sounds like Brokeback Mountain--"We wish we could quit you." But we can't.

The final night in Corpus, we had dinner at a waterfront restaurant, on the deck. On the water. Amid boats. And gulls trying to snatch our food. It was an "uh-oh" moment. Corpus Christi isn’t for us, but Gulfport, Florida, where we used to live, is. Good climate, plenty of sailing water, a symphony orchestra, year-round resident chamber music groups, a vibrant and serious art scene, good seafood, etc.

Yes, it means going back to the materialistic, consumer-driven, mean-spirited, theocratic United States, but. . .read on.

There are two San Miguels, each with significant shortcomings. One is the city where people actually live, full-time or (more commonly) six months of the year. This burgeoning magnet for developers and other carpetbaggers we call San Diego de Allende. The other is the city whose government’s focus is on tourism. San Miguel is in the process of killing this goose that laid the golden egg, turning it into Disneyland--San Mickey de Allende.

San Diego de Allende

We came to San Miguel de Allende in order to experience Mexican culture and Mexican life. Instead, we found ourselves surrounded by the aspects of American culture and American life which we had always managed to avoid in the States, and which we went to Mexico to avoid. In the States, the self-centered, arrogant, entitled, consumerist people--the “Ugly Americans”-- are scattered and have little effect on us. In San Miguel, one can't ignore them--they're concentrated in a small area, twirling and meddling, always in one’s face, always acting so, um, American. Ironically, we saw more of the worst aspects of American behavior and values in SMA than we did in the States. As someone from another part of Mexico once remarked to us, “Oh, yes, San Miguel--that’s the place where the people iron their jeans.”

San Miguel is not a Mexican town. The dominant presence is the gringos. The Jardin is lovely, for example, but we seldom went there because the strutting, posturing people we saw were exactly what we came there to avoid.

The carpetbagger commercialism is rampant; the new mayor, we've been told, is worse than the previous one for giving (selling?) permits/exemptions to developers. A realtor told us that there are 80 developments under way in greater SMA. The well over 1000 houses (a four-year inventory!) on the market, make one wonder if people are fleeing. Wal-Mart just broke ground, not on the outskirts but in an already traffic-congested area. The main rotary coming into town now has on its corners a big supermarket (the town’s second), several bank buildings, and a strip mall, all new. Up the hill from this is a new, American-style large mall, which includes an Office Depot and a McDonald’s. In the historic and supposedly untouchable, preserved centro are Starbuck’s (proclaimed in large metal letters), Dunkin’ Donuts, Subway, and others. Starbuck’s adds to the advertising pollution with a large van that winds through the streets, covered with their publicity--a traveling billboard.

The lovely, historic Villa Jacaranda has been sold and a 12-month rebuilding has begun. So far, the entire front of the hotel has been demolished and, most likely, the new building will be glitzy. This is occurring in the center of town, which is supposedly subject to strict preservation laws. The greased palm rules again.

The streets in our area (and the schoolyards, and the kids' play equipment) were covered with guano dropped by egrets, as well as decaying fish parts that they leave after hunting at the lake. The reason they now nest in this residential area is that so much of their former habitat has been stripped by developers, and the stripping isn't finished yet.

We know one thing that this means, from our Cape Cod years: people who live here (Mexicans and others) full time will pay ‘seasonal’ tourist prices for everything all year. Mexican friends are complaining about the increase in food costs. The price of everything is going up, to gouge the gringos: Our mail courier service’s monthly fee went up 17% in less than a year (plus they once charged us $10 to give us a map that we ordered from Amazon for $6!)

Just read, if you can without gagging, the English-language weekly, Atencion. A third of it is given to slick, four-color real estate ads. Another fifty percent goes for boutique and restaurant ads (equally slick). And a bunch of ads for tai-chi, psychotherapy, and other American new-age enticements. There is also a small amount of useful news, plus ‘news articles’ actually promoting commercial ventures like concerts, and written by the participants or promoters of these events. A blog site recently asserted that the paper has made it known that it will not publish ads or articles which contain negative comments about San Miguel, or which might offend its advertisers. San Mickey de Allende

San Miguel de Allende--it’s everything you left behind!

San Miguel has become a town for people who keep a home in the States, vacationers, and tourists. The official stated civic goal there is tourism. It will become Disneyland, rather than a lovely, Mexican town to live in, and the government's attention will be increasingly given to the Centro and the tourists' wishes, not to the needs of those who choose to live here. In so doing , of course, they will destroy the uniqueness which lures people here.

San Miguel, despite what you read, is shallow, superficial, and pretentious. It is as though you’ve walked into the Mexico Pavilion at Walt Disney World. It’s a construct, imagined, not real. One expects to walk behind the buildings and find them, Universal Studio-like, propped up by 8-by-8 timbers.

Culture? There are virtually no resident musicians (and not even a good music store). To be sure, there are a chamber music festival and a jazz festival, but they feature imported talent: it’s a spectator sport. The gringos put their butts on a chair and get culturized, but almost nobody in town plays. Anyone who lives here has trouble finding people to play music with; there aren’t many, and of those, most are only part-time residents. The American consular officer (himself a musician) has stated that there is virtually no chance of forming a chamber group--much less an orchestra--in San Miguel. There once was an active jazz scene, but the few really good jazz players in town don’t appear often anymore. (And no wonder: a first-class musician in the best known restaurant/club gets $27 for three hours, while the backslapping, smooth- talking owner rakes in the gringo bucks.) Now, on any night of the week, wherever you go, there is the same self-promoting, superannuated hipster reading tunes out of the student book from which Bill taught at the Berklee College of Music. A ‘jazz concert,’ often by an American part-timer or visitor, carries a price tag of $15-25: the quality is usually not worth it.

SanIt is the same for the much-vaunted ‘art scene.’ The big draw--and what put San Miguel on the map for some three decades starting in the ‘50s--was the chance to study at the Instituto. Now the spaces that were once filled with classrooms and galleries contain overpriced restaurants and shops. While some serious, quality artists remain, the ‘scene’ is increasingly dominated by hobbyists-- CEO-pension wives or insurance widows reinventing themselves as artists ("gee, I've always wanted to do that--it doesn't look so difficult"). There are still some classes, at the Bellas Artes, but they are taught by hobbyists and overpriced, aimed at the well-to-do gringo dilettantes.

Oh, there are (for a fee) lectures upon lectures--largely declamations about the obvious given by retired Rotarians and Ohio valedictorians. Or consider the screening of Al Gore’s movie which was followed and trivialized by an inane talk by an overage yuppie in L. L. Bean wide-wale corduroys and Birkenstocks.

Intelligent discourse? How about the lengthy correspondence on the San Miguel blog (the Civil List) debating whether being an expatriate means you can’t be patriotic. A spelling lesson could’ve settled this one. (Generally, the blog entries deal with really important gringo concerns, such as finding a recipe for brie, or buying an electric can opener.)

Mexican culture? The Mexicans still have their festivals and dances, but it’s Steppin’ Fetchit time. The dancing Mexicans are ringed by gringos with digital cameras, capturing the quaintness to show the folks back home. And the Mexicans play into it. Mariachi bands circle the jardin, looking for knots of gringos to serenade (producing the obligatory Oliver Twist “Please,sir” handout) . Incredibly, a gringo recently,wrote to the local paper protesting the fireworks that often go off in the middle of the night, and asking the city government to curtail the practice. The fireworks are a centuries-old part of Mexican religious and social life. Another gringo made a much-needed large donation to a church, on condition that they not ring their bells at night. These sounds come with being in Mexico--but this new wave of largely part-time settlers, ignorant of Mexican mores, want them abolished! These people want to be in Mexico (cheap maids, cooks, gardeners) but need to change the fact that it’s so, um, Mexican.

There is, however, plenty of noise to complain about. Boom boxes in cars, in school yards, at the traditional Tuesday market, and so on. While we'd expected lovely Mexican music to come wafting out of the houses and shops all over town, what we're getting instead is American-introduced noise: loud hip-hop and rap. All part of the American-wannabe mindset (oversized jeans, baseball caps, texting, junk food) that has seized the younger generation. And the drone of low-flying planes from carpetbaggers selling sight-seeing tours and flying lessons over the city (and, we assume, below the smog curtain).

Most days the traffic approaches gridlock, and the quaint, narrow, cobblestone streets are jammed with cars and SUVs--lots of SUVs. The air is polluted by traffic fumes, as well as by cement powder from the rampant construction, and by the ever-present dust, to the extent that it's becoming a health issue. We used to look at the mountains every morning from our deck; now they’re always obscured. We coughed a lot. (And we saw people on the street wearing surgical masks.) Bill developed a persistent, frightening cough--which, by the way, disappeared during our third week in the States.

After we moved, we had to wash the accumulated dust--mostly white cement powder-- off every item we unpacked--from the smallest knick-knack to the largest desk, even though we’d had a maid come two days a week for the period we were in San Miguel. It got us to wondering what filthy film has been coating our lungs. We noticed, driving and walking through the neighboring cities of Celaya and Queretaro, that San Miguel is really dirty by comparison, and perhaps the filthiest city we’ve lived in--except the sections the city administration sweeps and polishes for the tourists. Walking and breathing in San Miguel are not pleasant, particularly if one factors in the high altitude and hilly terrain which make it difficult for many older people, or people with respiratory problems. This is a high, arid desert plain.

If you spend your time at street level, as does your pet, it’s far worse. Exhaust pipes are at snout level, and sniffing the sidewalks takes in who knows what. Our dog, who in all her ten years before SMA had never been sick, recently got seriously ill from eating something from the street. And, by the way, nowhere else have cars repeatedly aimed at her, young Mexican drivers laughing all the while--while she was on the leash! In addition, we learned recently from a veterinarian that the major brand of dog food we’d been feeding her is not the same in Mexico as in the States, and is bad for the pet's health.

Walking in San Miguel is visually no longer what it was, either. The streets are now lined with parked cars and SUVs. Your vista there is as cluttered, modern, and ostentatious as in any American city. And there's incredible visual pollution from all the banners, placards, flags, and billboards advertising new, usually gated, real estate developments. They are along every highway and street, on every wall, on every lamppost and signpost.

We've never been in a place so obsessed with real estate. In 2000, there were 10 realty offices; in 2008, there are 52. The usual opening line when two gringos meet on the street is, “Did ya buy yet?” The infrastructure is groaning, and there are serious water shortage issues down the road, perhaps as soon as a couple of years. But still they build, greasing the politicians' palms. The new, gated, developments are what the gringos want. They turn up their noses at the older, lovely Mexican-type houses for sale, because they want the Long Island-Santa Fe-Palm Beach house that they couldn’t afford in the States. And they must have a dishwasher and disposal. Water issues? A gated, 600-unit development with a full Nick Faldo golf course is now under construction. Water issues?

A final straw came as we were beginning to write this: a cell phone tower was put up at our corner, under cover of a Sunday night, with no warning, no neighborhood involvement, no hearings, nothing. It stands adjacent to two crowded schools, one elementary, one middle. No matter that there are thousands of Google entries describing the effects of these towers, especially on children. Somebody got paid.

The boutiques and restaurants are all just so very precious and expensive, so Manhattan--except for the quality, which generally falls short of what’s found in any major American or European city. A Chinese restaurant will use the same brown sauce to drown all of its dishes, and sushi is stuffed with Philadelphia cream cheese--no kidding!--with the rice always soggy; a "New Orleans" grill offers meals that wouldn't be remarkable in any city, much less New Orleans; many people have gotten sick at a German place whose owner has done jail time for padding credit card receipts; an Italian restaurant has become known as a ptomaine palace (and all the Italian eateries regularly overcook their pasta); several rib houses were on our ‘avoid’ list for the excessive salt and the MSG in the gravies; a take-out lunch from a “Middle Eastern” place had to be thrown in the garbage (the place is now closed). One tourist wrote that her dinner at the city’s premier steak house was like the lunches she had as a British schoolgirl.

Kitchens are staffed by Mexicans attempting to cook other countries' cuisines as though painting by the numbers. One university has opened a branch that will offer only courses in “hospitality and gastronomy.” What happened to importing quality foreign chefs for a “World Class City”?

And ever more expensive. Even the menu signs outside all the little storefront Mexican eating places are covered with ‘stickies’--price increases stuck on over the originals.

Of course, as money flows into a place, crime will follow it. And property crimes in San Miguel--housebreaks, muggings, purse-snatching--have increased noticeably. In October of 2008, meetings were held between expats and the police department about the alarming increase in crime, particularly in the booming San Antonio colonia. Chilling personal stories were given at the meeting, but the police chief said that he couldn’t do much about it because “the Mexican laws are [expletive].” His department covers more than 540 neighborhoods and, on any one shift, only 35 policemen are in the streets. There have also been recent articles in the news about rapes, both in the streets and in people’s homes. This is not a quaint art village; it’s a city, with all the urban negatives you’d expect. Consider this, from a letter to Atencion recently:

Things will get worse before they get better. Remittances to Mexico from the US are down by 12 percent. Families here are hurting and jobs are scarce for young men left behind. Stealing is a way to bring in money. Laws here favor criminals, who brazenly enter homes when occupants are there, knowing they probably will get away with their crimes. The police force is understaffed and under-trained. Therefore, we have to make sure we lock our doors and windows, safeguard our property and take responsibility for our own and our neighbors’ security. We should engage neighbors in a Neighborhood Watch or Vecinos Vigilantes. The Mexican community has never relied on the police to protect it. It’s na├»ve of the foreign community to expect they will protect us.

Eventually--perhaps soon--the word will get out that San Miguel is no longer either exotic or inexpensive--or even safe-- and not really worthy of the tourist’s attention. The world offers many higher-quality alternatives for the same money, or less. The boom will be over for “investors,” too, as property values return to realistic levels. (In past years, realtors have stressed San Miguel houses as investments, not as homes.)

We really gave it a shot, and jumped in with both feet. Bringing all our stuff down there was a huge task, and we put our hearts into the house. It was different four and a half years ago, when we bought the house. Even two years ago. The past year has seen a tremendous acceleration in the negatives, and it shows no sign of abating. We went there thinking about the San Miguel we had known in past years, and we got blindsided.

When we moved, Mexico took one last shot at us. San Miguel Moving company turned out to be a one-man operation made to look larger, competent, and up-to-date by extensive use of cell phones, email, numbers to call for recommendations, and a web site. The big selling point was that the owner is bilingual and has dual citizenship; therefore, the truck would not have to be unloaded and reloaded at the border. After the truck was loaded and on its way, the owner said on the phone that he was not on on the job. Then it turned out that he had booked another job for the same run. He delayed our delivery for eight days in order to add that job, putting us off by not returning our calls (when he did return our calls, we got stories about “mechanical trouble”) . Our goods were damaged by his cramming in the second load. In addition, the trailer’s tires and suspension were inadequate, and the ensuing vibrations caused all the grout to come out of our tile tables.

This pattern of adopting the trappings of American business--use of technology, spiffy graphics on posters, and such, in businesses, banks, law offices, doctors’ and dentists’ offices--all very American looking--happens all the time in San Miguel. It justifies American prices (Cable vision costs the same in SMA as in the States, for poorer service, many fewer channels, an inferior TV image, and erratic internet delivery) without providing the concomitant value. The U. S.? Why? But, why not?

True, every place, including Florida, has its drawbacks, and people decide to leave. That's why there's a real estate industry.


True, there are places in Mexico near the water--the Matzatlan and Veracruz areas, for example--but they're hot and humid, and we'd have to spend several months away from them every year as most people do, We can't afford to do so.

It's not that we have an affection for the States (especially the politics or the value system) or feel a need to go back there. But wherever we are, we can pretty much decide what we want to pay attention to and what not (this usually depends on how much we're willing to spend on blood-pressure medication). We've learned over the years that we can be in a place without being of the place. We did our marching and banner-carrying over the years, and realize now that we can't alter government policies or even make a statement simply by leaving the country. (Who even notices that you’ve gone?) We grew up with certain comforts and conveniences, things we grew used to (like being able to use the language with intelligence, wit, and subtlety)--things which one can perhaps give up in exchange for a charming and/or inexpensive locale. Today’s San Miguel is neither.

<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>

Things are going to get a lot worse before they get worse.

—Lily Tomlin

No comments: