The Jungle Gyms of San Miguel

On Nov. 1, 2005, Stew and I took off from Chicago to Mexico, driving a VW Passat station wagon crammed to capacity with suitcases and sundry junk that spilled over into a shapeless roof carrier held down with ropes. Think “The Clampetts Head for Mexico.”

Along for the five-day drive were our two cats, Ziggy and Paco, who meowed non-stop for the first two days and then receded into a terrified silence. Although we had brought two carriers, they insisted in squeezing into one as if seeking mutual reassurance during this incomprehensible ordeal.

Our 15-year-old Pooch seemed to sleep most of the way. We didn’t realize until we got to Mexico that he wasn’t just his usual well-behaved mutt: Pooch was so old and feeble that didn’t much know or cared where he was, as long as he could spot Stew and me through his cloudy eyes. We had to put him to sleep about 18 months after we arrived.

I had flown alone to San Miguel a month earlier to rent a place to live, a nerve-wracking, weeklong jaunt. Carol and Norma, a couple I had met through the Internet, were most warm and gracious. Their welcome was helpful though hardly enough to calm me down.

Through the local English-language weekly I found a house for $1,300US a month. The rent would have been a deal in Chicago, but somehow seemed high in what I thought would be inexpensive Mexico. The second surprise was that this supposedly charming San Miguel residence–most everyone who visited seemed wowed by it–quickly came to represent everything we did not want in a home.

San Miguel has a population of 85,000 (plus the surrounding areas) and is approximately a four-hour drive northwest of Mexico City. The altitude is about 6,800 feet, which combined with semi-desert terrain, gives the place a climate so pleasant that at times–very rarely, mind you–it feels almost boring. It’s as if the Spanish settlers had installed a thermostat in the town square, and permanently set at 40 to 50 degrees at night, and 70 to 80 degrees during the day.

The town is built in a bowl, at the bottom and center of which is the main square and the most important church and landmark, called La Parroquia or “The Parish”. It’s not a cathedral–a small-fry town like San Miguel doesn’t rate a bishop–and its design is a vaguely Gothic-like creation painted a shade of salmon. During a recent round of tuckpointing and painting some residents complained the new color was ugly. City officials assured everyone that it was historically accurate.

Whatever its architectural pedigree, La Parroquia is the center of San Miguel and of every other real estate spiel. “View of the Parroquia” is that magic line in a real estate listing that can pump up the value of a property by $100,000, even if the “view” sometimes is more like a furtive glance, from atop three flights of stairs, and through a narrow space separating the two buildings across the street. No matter.

From the main square, San Miguel’s streets and buildings radiate in all directions, up the surrounding hills, in an amphitheater-like arrangement. In between the main arteries, streets often become as narrow and chaotic as those in an old Moroccan quarter. Some San Miguel “callejones” or “alleys” are barely wide enough for two-way traffic–of bicycles.

Don’t take any of this as a mixed review of San Miguel. The place is gorgeous. We are reminded of that yearly, when the Santa Fe Photo Workshop brings to San Miguel hundreds of students who walk around town pointing their cameras in all directions, like a pack of excited bloodhounds on the trail of a perfect scent. Particularly during the late afternoon the waning sunlight can transform the most mundane lantern or flowerpot into an ephemeral work of art.

Our rental was located on a “calle privada”, or “private street,” a fancy name for a callejón, off another two-block callejón, which ultimately connected with the steep Cuesta de San José. Three blocks was about as close as you could come to the house with a carload of groceries.

Though the floorspace was relatively ample–two bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, large kitchen, living/dining room, a glass-walled studio, and large terraces–the small footprint of the lot–about 1,500 sq. ft.–created a vertical living space that Stew promptly dubbed a San Miguel Jungle Gym. It seemed as if even the slightest relocation required climbing stairs, which also consumed an inordinate amount of floorspace.

Jungle Gyms are a direct result of both small lot sizes and of houses craning their necks to catch that essential peek of the Parroquia. The view from our house was for real: Off the living room a terrace overlooked some tree tops and neighboring yards, and a bit beyond, the spires of the Parroquia. One more flight of stairs, from a scorching rooftop terrace and studio, was a spectacular view of the Parroquia and beyond, mountains and the presa, a polluted water reservoir best viewed and smelled from a distance.

The constant stair-climbing reminded Stew and me of my elderly mother painfully working her way up to our guest bedroom on the second floor. It also reminded me, constantly, of my already arthritic knees, malfunctioning tendons in my left foot, and my own possible mobility problems in the future.

New House Resolution Number One: A one-level house with no stairs, and an easy flow among rooms, rather than sharp turns, nooks or crannies. We even plan extra-wide doors to facilitate access to all the rooms, without giving the place the appearance of a nursing home.

New House Resolution Number Two: Keep an eye on the sun.

Sun exposure quickly became another issue at our rental property. I’ve heard a couple of different numbers, but San Miguel gets about 320 days of sunshine a year. In fact, it’s hard to think of any completely cloudy days here, like those gray winter doldrums Chicagoans or New Yorkers suffer through in February.

Our rental home was designed clearly without much thought given to the effects of the sun. It was an L-shaped building, with the long leg of the L facing west. Mid-afternoon sun coming through the dining room and kitchen windows made it broiler-hot inside, a problem that could have been alleviated by pointing the building in a different direction or adding eaves to shield the interior and some of the terraces.

The third-floor studio was hopeless. The glass walls made it insufferably hot and opening the windows only invited in the dust that swirls around San Miguel during the eight-month-long dry season. It became storage space.

The small yard bounded by the L of the building was cheerful in the summer, but long shadows during the winter made most of it as gloomy and dank as a mushroom farm. Snails thrived, encouraged by the “gardener” who came with the house and watered all the vegetation into a stupor twice a week, regardless of rainfall or other contraindications.

It gets chilly in San Miguel during the winter, yet passive solar design doesn’t seem to be a major concern in housing design. The winter chill is compounded by masonry construction that keeps the homes cool in the summer but makes them hard to heat and clammy in the winter. When we began interviewing architects to build a house, our enthusiasm about building orientation and passive solar design, along with rainwater collection, received mostly uncomprehending looks.

Probably because Stew and I had experience remodeling houses–and Stew was co-owner of a home inspection company in Chicago–the most shocking feature of our house was the shoddy construction. The bathrooms and kitchen had reject-grade ceramic tile reborn into an exalted state called the “rustic Mexican look.” Rain came in under the doors. In the master bathroom shower enclosure and floor, water flowed in every direction except toward the drain. Metal windows and doors rattled in the wind. Many stair treads and risers varied in size, almost giving the impression of an optical illusion.

None of this could be blamed on antiquity: The joint was only about four or five years old.

Nor could you blame Mexican ineptitude. As Stew would point out, the construction trades in Chicago were heavily populated by Mexican immigrants who routinely turned out the finest craftsmanship.

The far more likely culprit was the wave of American real estate speculators–some professionals, most rank amateurs–who had swept over San Miguel. Construction was dirt cheap, resale prices and profits sky-high. And taxes on the proceeds, either in Mexico or the U.S., could be open to interpretation by sellers and their notarios or real estate lawyers.

American widows, college professors, former accountants, or in the case of our building a Brooklyn firefighter, all tried their hand at building houses, or failing that, selling them.

That’s about when Stew and I decided it was a great time to go buy a house in San Miguel.

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