I went on a rant when I returned to Guanajuato after two months in Paris. Now I have returned from St. Louis, Boston, Brattleboro, then we went off to Tampico, Mexico for four nights, then four nights in Mexico City, then home again. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to return to this small colonial walking city Guanajuato.
In Missouri, we biked the Katy Trail in St. Charles, where the Lewis and Clark expedition started, then paralleled it by car from Fulton to St. Louis, where it was hot and overly urbanized. I met talented, intelligent and thoughtful people there, but I think I also sensed loneliness and disenchantment.
Brattleboro was too small and too uniformly culture and counter-culture. The best hotel plays classical music over a loudspeaker in order to drive the latter group, youth without privilege, from the parking lot. They have a wonderful coop grocery store that rivals or surpasses Whole Foods. The first of two bridges crossing the Connecticut River over to the New Hampshire side still vibrates alarmingly when lumber trucks crawl across it—a disaster waiting to happen. I’m sure there are good people there, but they are probably too spread out from each other for my taste.
Downtown Boston—we have a friend who lives in Chinatown—seemed overrun with tourists and irrational in its planning. It is nearly impossible to leave the airport, go through the Sumner Tunnel and turn south toward Chinatown and the whole South Shore. Like other cities, the wealthy have abandoned the downtown. The subway—its ridership is largely people of color and working class—shuts down at 1 am, as if working people did not work at night, or need to get home. I did enjoy the two modest AirBnBs we stayed at in East Boston, across the harbor from the downtown. There was a lovely, beautifully planned walking path along the edge of the harbor to a dock where water taxis stopped, along with larger ferries. Except that it cost $12 to cross the mile or so to downtown Boston, $20 round trip. And therefore not an option for the working class—as opposed to the salaried class.
We visited family in Portsmouth, NH and stayed in a charming, old little house and walked all over the town. I could live there, except that I’m not sure there’s enough happening, for me. There was an interesting monument honoring African slaves that had died there.
We returned to Mexico. While approaching León/Guanajuato (BJX), I realized I could not find my permanent resident card, my “Credencial de Inmigrado.” And so I ran headlong into the Mexican immigration bureaucracy, itself a study in irrationality. It did not matter that I held in my hands a paper that said I was a permanent resident when I left three weeks before. I had to write a letter then and there explaining how I had lost the card. That document was stamped, and I received a tourist visa, good for only 180 days. There’s no stress like this kind. I protested that they had a record of my status in their computers. Not good enough. We drove over to Inmigración in San Miguel. The agent there told me my status had been automatically erased when they issued me a tourist card. Again I mentioned my status as permanent resident was established after ten years of paper work. Not good enough. I have to return to the U.S., to a Mexican consulate, with the proper documents (that’s no mean trick, knowing what they are), get a certain stamp in my U.S. passport, then approach Migración in San Miguel again, fill out more papers, have an interview, present documents, pay a fine and come back for the piece of plastic at some future date.
Then, after a few days of rest, we were off to Tampico, Mexico for four nights, to do research for a novel on the nationalization of oil in 1938. Tampico is rich in oil history, especially at a time when the world was gearing up for a world war and radicalized oil workers were demanding fair wages and benefits. If it had not been for Roosevelt liking Lázaro Cárdenas, the U.S. might have listened to the U.S. and English oil companies and landed troops in Tampico. Instead, the companies instigated a boycott and withdrew technical support, shipping and machinery. Mexico turned to Germany and Italy for machinery and oil sales. There is an interesting photo of a German freighter tied up next to the elegant customs house, flying the swastika.
Tampico makes St. Louis seem cool. It was hot, and the dew point was so high you couldn’t sweat and cool yourself. Depending on who you talked to, the city was either completely safe or extremely dangerous. We found a good tourist consultant, who linked us up with a trusted guide. He took us places only a novelist would want to go to. Starting from shadows underneath a railroad bridge—where people waited for outboards to take them to various landings up and down the Pánuco River, a river system a little like the Mekong in Vietnam—our guide lined up a ponga with outboard plus boatman, and we crawled up and down the Pánuco for an hour, observing freighters, navy ships, fishing vessels, wrecks of every sort, shoreline vegetation, old oil rigs, oil platforms being built and places that might reveal a large crocodile or two.
People were very sweet and helpful in Tampico. Like most of Mexico, people look out for you and warn you when you shouldn’t go somewhere. Our taxi driver from the airport told us the Army had driven out the city police and replaced them with military police. That seemed to mainly apply to the Old Town Plaza de Armas. You’re wary when you don’t know the parameters of safety and danger in a new place in Mexico. Eventually, we trusted out consultant and took small, clean, air conditioned share taxis to lovely Miramar beach (8 pesos for a twenty-minute ride), where I swam in the Gulf of Mexico—but not too far out where larger crocodiles cruise.
Mexico City on a weekend, in the Historic Center, is a mad house. We met with my publisher, then gradually succumbed to our accumulated travel fatigue and took long naps. We had a momentary fright when our Uber taxi that was to take us to the airport was blocked by Transit police. You can read about that in the post just below this one.
The point I’ve been trying to get to is this: I was overjoyed to get back to Guanajuato, where it seemed safe, simpler, calm and rational. Where all ages and classes mix in this walking city. Simplicity is the key word. There are few surface roads. You hear the sound of chickens and dogs. The rains build up and come later in the afternoon. There are the figs, avocados, oranges and limes in the garden, the many people we know and who know us, the many people we like and who like us. We seldom get into our car, because there is no need to. From the roof of the restaurant and cultural center called the Casa Cuatro—where we do yoga—you hear the Symphony practicing César Franck’s Symphony in D Minor in the next door ancient cathedral called the Compañia after the Jesuits.
There are things that bother me of course. While I was writing this, a small plane circled over the city with a loudspeaker pointed down at us, as if fighter-bombers were coming and we were being warned to leave immediately. The pilot was hawking mattresses, or something else that the sound of his motor drowned out. And there are the bandas de guerra, the adolescent bugle and drum squads, maybe holdovers from the Cristero War 1926-29 in which 90,000 people died. Recently, the lads have drummed more and bugled less—but together or separately it is little more than an ugly blaring and the thump of war. All in the name of the man who said to turn the other cheek. I can live with it, just barely—because the rest of it here is so livable and good.