Back to School in Guanajuato

Trip Start Jan 12, 2007
Trip End Nov 19, 2007

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Flag of Mexico  ,
Saturday, May 12, 2007

We arrived in Guanajuato (to work on our Spanish) on April 22 and immediately fell in love with the city, so much so that we stayed for 3 weeks when the original plan had been to stay for only one. And even then we were reluctant to leave.

The city itself was so appealing to us, and our overall experience so fulfilling, that it is difficult to know where to begin. But here goes.

Guanajuato (pop. 120,000) is almost in the dead centre of Mexico, about a 5-hour drive east from Guadalajara, and about 4 hours northwest of Mexico City.

The historic centre of the city is located in a little valley and many of the residential neighborhoods, including where our home-stay was located, are perched on the surrounding hills. Most of the houses are box-shaped and colourfully painted (blues, greens, browns, oranges, etc.) and serve as a cheerful backdrop to the city.

Underneath the city is a rabbit warren of tunnels which were originally built to divert flood waters but were converted to traffic tunnels in the 1950s to ease congestion above ground. Driving through the labyrinth of dimly lit, rock walled tunnels - which we did twice, getting lost both times - was like trying to escape from a cornfield maze.

Above ground, the city is connected for the most part by "callejons", or narrow alleys, most of which do not allow cars, making it a perfect walking-city. The most famous callejon is Callejon Del Beso (Alley of the Kiss), which is so narrow that the balconies of the houses on the opposite side of the callejon almost touch.

In the centre of the city lies the triangle-shaped Jardin de Union, which is shaded by low-lying Laurel trees and which is lined with restaurants, bars and stores on two sides. On the third side is a striking theatre - Teatro Juarez - and a church, Templo San Diego. The Jardin is the hub of activity and on any given night is crowded with strolling mariachi bands, families and free-spirited students (the University of Guanajuato is just a few blocks away).

The Spanish colonial architecture (16th -19th Century) throughout the city is highly appealing. The Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guanajuato, which is in the Plaza la Paz, a stone´s throw from the Jardin, is the largest and most impressive church and is dedicated to the Virgin Guadalupe, Mexico´s patron saint.

For a relatively small city, Guanajuato has had an immensely interesting history: it was the world's leading silver-extraction centre in the 18th century; it played a key role in Mexico´s battle for Independence from Spain (early 1800s); it is the birth place of Mexico´s most famous painter, Diego Rivera, etc. Because of this, and because it is a university town, it oozes with cultural activities - museums, galleries, concerts, street performances, etc.. The pinnacle, we are told, is the month-long Festival Cervantino (named after the author of Don Quixote) which occurs every October and is the biggest cultural arts festival in Latin America.

The Escuela Mexicana Guanajuato - the school that Adrienne found for us on the Net - couldn't have been more perfect, and it is there where we practiced our Spanish, cooked, danced, made friends, and generally made merry for 3 weeks.

The school was about 5 minutes away from the Jardin on a sleepy callejon, and the 3-story, yellow shaded building was full of charm. The teachers - in the their 20 and 30s -were intelligent and fun and the classes were small: during the second week it was just the 2 of us in each of our 5 courses. While 3 weeks is not enough to leave us any where close to being fluent, our Spanish arsenal now includes enough verbs and nouns to get our point across, much of the time.

While the grammar and conversation courses were important, the cooking and dancing classes were the highlights. In our cooking classes with Anna - again, just the two of us - we made Tinga (chicken stew, sort of), Sopes (soft tacos meet tostados) and Albondignes (meatballs stuffed with hardboiled eggs in a tangy red sauce). All delicious and all easily replicated once we get home. The dance moves we learned, on the other hand, are probably not so easily replicated once we get home. While Adrienne took the "feel-the-music" approach, I held to the "dancing-is-a-system-to-be-learned" approach, and as a couple we met with tentative success, at best. On her own Adrienne was of course a star - she continues to relish in the fact that Miguel, our dance instructor, told her she was a "natural".

Another aspect of the school that satiated us was that the other students were such interesting people: Annie and Robert from Todas Santos - she a poet, he a race-car driver; Rich, a 30-something pediatrician who travels with couples when they head oversees to adopt children; Javier, who owned a moving company in San Francisco for 19 years but gave it up to pursue painting full time in Guanajuato; Shari who, after 25 years, left her oil and gas legal practice in Denver to try and join the foreign service; Jill, who´s husband is a statistician and telecommutes each day from Guanajuato to his office in Connecticut. And so on and so on.

All that said, probably the best part of the whole experience for us was the home-stay. Senora Maria Elena Prado and her family (21-year old twins, Hayde and Alex) and extended family (Maria´s boyfriend Rey, Barbara, the neighbour from 2 houses down, and Jenny, another homestay student from Wisconsin) patiently talked to us in Spanish, stuffed us with excellent food regardless of our schedule, and generally treated us like part of the family. Without asking, our beds were made daily (tight & crisp like Grandma makes ´em).

Although reluctant to leave we packed our bags on May 13, destination Mexico City.

Highlights (of the last 3 weeks or so)

- In a moment of pure bliss, on our second night in Guanajuato, we sat at a patio on the Jardin, shared a bottle of the cheapest white wine on the menu, and watched the Canucks beat Dallas on the big screen in Game 7, with the ageless playoff warrior, Linden, scoring the winning goal. And with about 5 minutes left it started to drizzle, our first rain of the trip. It was so fitting.

- seeing the Univeristy´s Folkloric Ballet perform dances from Mexico´s various regions, a Latin Jazz concert, 3 movies (the cost - $2.20 per person - allowed us to splurge on the refillable popcorn), the Diego Rivera Museum, among others.

- The first weekend we drove to San Miguel Allende, about 100 kilometeres to the east, camping there on Saturday night. SMA is also a beautiful colonial town but its downside is that it is firmly on the Gringo map - with both tourists and full-time residents - something which Guanajuato has managed to avoid (so far). That said, we were mesmerized by a traditional and no doubt highly expensive Mexican wedding at the church off the main plaza.

- receiving a certificate at the end of our 3-week of study that stated we had reached an "intermediate" level of Spanish. If only we could speak in the past and/or future tenses.

- Our new, easier to pronounce in Spanish, latina nombres: Gregorio and Adrianna...we think it adds a certain flair.

-being invited by 20 year-old Jenny to hit the bars with her and her girlfriends. We lasted until about midnight (on a school night).


- In order to get to Cerra Del Cuatro - the neighborhood where our home stay was - we had to hike up 150 or so steep stairs on Callejon Penasco in mid-day heat. Each time we made the ascent, we felt as if we had done the Grouse Grind.
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