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The Gentle Detective: A Photo Essay

[What follows is a visual and written tour of Z Nalywayko's recent exploration of Mexico, including stops at the Los Lobos Ranch, various pueblos of the high Mexican desert, and colonial San Miguel de Allende].

Photo 1 - Maria’s Backyard

The Ranch. Refuge. A short drive from the airport through the high desert at the feet of the Rocky Mountains ends in a short tour of the complex, a cigarette, and fireside drinks with family friends. Cuban dominoes were played, and midnight tostadas were enjoyed. The stars come out. We walk the short distance from the family friends’ slice of paradise - a present from Maria’s abuelo that has aged well over time - to Maria’s parents’ abode. Blessed sleep. Morning comes, cafe con leche is poured, and the journey begins.

Photo 2 - The Dogs

First outing. We leave The Ranch to see the pueblo that Maria’s great-great-grandparents founded, and stumble upon a tia, some primos, and a beautiful Spanish-style stone and tile courtyard - unimaginably verdant - its secret kept by the blank walls that front the tiny (~2 foot) sidewalk and one lane cobblestone street we were just driving down. As we enter the courtyard and take in the sights (green), smells (delicious), and hugs and kisses (somewhat overwhelming, but quite welcome), we hear a bark and some panting to our side. We look left, and are delighted by the sight of siete perros, framed perfectly by the stone walls and iron gate, as if painted by the Mexican Rockwell.

Photo 3 - History

Down the block from Maria’s Tia’s Casa de Perros is a renovated public fountain. “This used to be where the señoras and abuelitas would come wash their families’ clothes,” said Maria’s Mom (Gina). “See the little boxes filled with water?” As we passed through the public-fountain-turned-public-park, I imagined these women, washing clothes, discussing family matters, gossiping, and passing the time. I thought about the value of shared public spaces, and I was glad that this particular realm hadn’t been turned into condos, or some mixed-use complex with a Starbucks and in-unit washer/dryers.

Photo 4 - Abuela

In what seemed to be the center of Tequisquiapan was Maria’s grandmother’s house. It took up about an entire city block. Again, the blank walls - dotted only by the occasional street light or porthole - belied the paradise we found inside. A small grass parking area was flanked on one side by an old garage, and on the other by a vertical garden. A small pathway formed the corner between the two. We walked in, and I was met by an inner courtyard that was a medley of terra cotta walls and green vines, oranges hanging from trees and the blue sky above. We were now surrounded by four covered walkways, and a large kitchen and dining room that morphed into the middle of the space, blending inside and out. Abuela had passed a little over a year before, and though Maria’s family was doing the best they could to keep the place in good shape until it sold, the orange trees, Monstera plants, succulents, birds of paradise, and vegetation big and small was beginning to overtake the bounds that had once been set for them. Maria was sad. Gina was thoughtful. Maria’s Dad (Dan) was smiling and recounting stories of all the meals shared, drinks drank, and good times had in that courtyard. There was a square of tiles on which we were walking that were a bit brighter than the rest. Dan told me that there had once been a pool in the courtyard, but that it had been filled in. Apparently Abuela, one day when she was outside tending to her plants, had fallen into the pool when it was dry. She got a bit banged up, but she was alright. I think she was a strong woman. The rooms were filled with decorations and ornaments and artifacts from Abuela and Abuelo’s travels abroad. In Abuelo’s study, I felt like I was in one of the Victorian rooms at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In another, I learned where Gina - and by osmosis, Maria - get their beautiful sense of interior design from. I stayed quiet, secretly wishing I had gotten to experience that house in its heyday. We made our way back toward the car. I put my arm around Maria, and we made our way back home.

Photo 5 - Bernal

Contrary to what many gringos believe, Mexico is not just resorts and cartels, pretty beaches and slums. There are in fact large working and middle classes in Mexico, and cute towns that cater to the Mexican - and broader Latin American - tourist class. Pictured: Bernal, at the foot of La Peña, a local/regional landmark, tourist destination, and (according to some) the largest freestanding rock formation in the world. Case in point: this picture was taken from a rooftop bar where Dan, Gina, Maria, and I sat and drank micheladas, smoked cigarettes, and talked about how most gringos have Mexico all wrong.

Photo 6 - San Miguel de Allende I

No offense to Bernal, but San Miguel put it to shame. From the rustic-cum-artistic AirBnB we stayed in to its tiny cobblestone streets, San Miguel was entirely unexpected. The Laws of the Indies were in full effect here, from the well-manicured central square flanked by a grand church, a government building, commercial uses, and a market to the (often original) Spanish Colonial architecture forming the mariachi rhythm of solids and voids.

Photo 7 - San Miguel de Allende II

New Year’s Eve. Maria and I escape the AirBnB while her parents drink and make Dan’s birthday dinner to explore this beautiful town. We walk along the aforementioned tiny cobblestone streets, jumping off the tiny sidewalks to allow the señoras to pass by, then jumping back on when the truck behind you gives you a courtesy beep to let you know that, if you don’t move, you will be flattened. We pick up pasteles, pan, cervezas, and cigarettes for the night ahead, and then stop at a rooftop bar for carajillos and a shot of tequila before venturing back home to more drinking and eating. San Miguel is a wonderful place to be in love.

Photo 8 - San Miguel de Allende III

New Year’s Eve was special. The most special one I've had. Dinner, prepared by Gina, was delicious: steak con mariscos y ensalada with a side of Tecate and Johnnie Walker shots for good measure. The streets got more and more packed as we made our way closer to the Central Square, which was itself essentially unnavigable. We somehow made our way up to where the fireworks were being lit, lit some sparklers of our own, and shielded our eyes as the loud claps and deep booms of the exploding gunpowder released embers which slowly fell onto our forearms and foreheads. We stumbled back to the AirBnB to an already sleeping Dan and Gina, and promptly passed out ourselves

New Year’s Day consisted of a 5-star meal for a 3-star price at a beautiful rooftop restaurant (see the theme? It’s amazing what you can do with perfect weather year-round), more exploring (this time, of San Miguel’s historic churches and open-air markets), another amazing dinner, and a Rummikub tournament that saw the women beat the men with ease, 5-0.

Photo 9 - The Ranch

A long grass pathway sheltered by eucalyptus, cypress, and other types of trees leads to a small chapel where several members of Maria’s family are buried. I got the chance to step into this chapel before we left for the airplane that would take us back to the States, to real life, to the daily battle against the abyss that is all those things you get to take a break from when you’re in paradise. I know that, one day, I will return to Queretaro, to the Ranch, to Abuela’s house, to San Miguel, and to all of the other things I didn’t write into this photo essay. There is still too much to learn, still too much to see. Pero por ahora, me gustaría solo decir gracias.




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