When is it time to leave San Miguel?

When we arrived in Hendersonville, North Carolina, a few weeks ago, to visit some friends who used to live in San Miguel, what immediately struck Stew and me was the sight of so many trees: Stately evergreens keeping such close company with oaks, maples, cypresses and other varieties that, beyond 15 or 20 feet, the forest became practically impenetrable to the eye. The scenery reminded me of Robert Frost’s familiar verses about “the woods being lovely, dark and deep,” even without the snow.

Into the North Carolina woods. 

During our four-day visit the weather was unremittingly drizzly and foggy, reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest, but even the murkiness could not hide the beauty of the aptly named Blue Ridge Mountains sloping in all directions. An autumn dampness was in the air, although the trees had barely begun to shed their leaves, defying the chilly and persistent breeze rustling their branches.

Coming from semi-arid San Miguel, where this year’s rainy season was frustratingly brief (though two days ago we received a sis-boom-bah of an overnight thunderstorm that left two-and-a-half inches of rain) the multi-sensory impact of this corner of North Carolina couldn’t have been more dramatic, stunning—and tempting: Should Stew and I follow the small caravan of San Miguel expats that have moved there or elsewhere back in the U.S.?

As we end our fourteenth year in San Miguel, and with crime, traffic and living costs here on the rise, the question is far from hypothetical.

There’s always been a revolving door in San Miguel’s expat community, but recently we’ve noticed an accelerating trend of friends decamping to the Hendersonville and Asheville area, plus other couples who have moved to Albuquerque, Santa Fe, N.M., and Kerrville, Texas, most of them with little explanation, except a vague “it was time to move on.”

Our friends’ house in Hendersonville.

As you continue to talk with these returning exiles, concerns about medical care rise to the top of the list, though they are seldom explicitly mentioned, even among close friends. I suspect that discussion of one’s fears of physical or mental infirmities, or those of a partner, is considered too personal, or depressing, for casual tea-time conversation, unless you’re already in a nursing home.

Fact is that several large hospitals have appeared during the past few years in San Miguel and nearby Querétaro, capable of providing first-class emergency care, though if you need a major intervention like Stew’s recent back surgery, your best bet remains to head for Texas, with its glut of medical facilities and specialists. And besides, hospitalization and complex medical treatment in Mexico can still run you tens of thousands of dollars at these privately owned hospitals—none of which accept Medicare.

The Vanderbilt Mansion in
Asheville, North Carolina.

But there are other factors apart from medical care. San Miguel is not the Sleepyville we found when we came here. A walk in the Centro last Friday night, to have dinner with friends, was like stepping into the midway of a raucous tourist carnival, catering mostly to Mexican twenty- and thirty-somethings. Traffic barely crawled and parking lots, which have tripled rates over the past few years (though at three or four dollars an hour, hardly downtown New York or Chicago rates) were almost filled to capacity.

The couple with whom we stayed in Hendersonville bought a house in a subdivision of beautifully wooded one-acre lots, with none of the noise and hubbub of life in Mexico. No unexplained volleys of fireworks at six a.m. to bother these folks. Someone supposedly spotted a black bear with cub in the woods near their house, while dozens of squirrels, many of the white, romp around the clock. How cool is that?

Another couple’s house abutted a creek. A third one had bought ten acres that shared a fence with the ranch where poet and newspaper writer Carl Sandburg retired, and whose wife set up a farm of exotic goats that still functions today.

Another couple we visited has a creek
running by the side of their house. 

The tranquility of life in Hendersonville lowers your blood pressure almost immediately after your arrive. Plus, there are first-rate government services—fire department, police, ambulances, sanitation and such—which are iffy commodities in San Miguel.

Personal safety has become a pressing issue in San Miguel. While we were away, alleged drug dealers opened fire on a funeral procession, killing two and wounding five mourners riding on the bed of a pickup on the Libramiento, San Miguel’s bypass road, in broad daylight. A severed head, neatly packed in an picnic cooler was found near “La Vaca,” a feed store where we buy our dog food, also near the Libramiento. Whether the head belonged to the deceased in the coffin on the way to the cemetery was not clear. Indeed, most definitive information regarding anything related to crime or public safety in San Miguel or Mexico tends to remain sketchy.

During lunch yesterday, we ran into an elderly German expat and good friend, who told us that five young men, with whom she had been acquainted, had been shot and killed recently in the San Rafael neighborhood where she lives, over drug deals gone awry.

Last night on the way to dinner we walked past El Grito, one of several entertainment venues in the Centro that have closed in the past few months because the owners refused to pay extortion money to narcos.

There were 100 homicides in San Miguel, pop. 140,000, during the first half of 2019—give or take five or ten, because, again, crime reporting here, as in most of Mexico, is a maddeningly inexact science. But according to most recent indicators, our home state of Guanajuato has become one of the criminal hubs in the country.

In years past, San Miguel expats reassured themselves that, while Michoacán and border states were high-crime areas, our quaint little village remained a peaceful oasis. That fantasy doesn’t seem to work any more. So now, nervous expats talk about the dead or wounded being involved in narcotrafficking—as in not me!therefore I’m safe! It’s a type of magical-realist thinking that doesn’t quite sway me.

Then again, this morning—a sunny, 65-degree San Miguel kind of morning—I took our five dogs for a walk on the trails they have trod around the ranch, just to check on things, and think about how I was going to wrap up this blog post.

I was reminded how much work, and money, we’ve spent on this place which used to be a barren, overgrazed parcel, except for a half-dozen huizaches and prickly pears, plus rocks, hundreds of rocks.

Now, over a 150 trees, some evergreens 25 feet high, and also sycamores, oaks, ash, peaches, and cedars of various sizes, thrive on the land. Not exactly North Carolina, but we’re getting there.

I reminisced how much effort we devoted to siting and designing our adobe house, not a big manse but a home specifically designed, just so, for our needs and tastes, and how we thought of it as a forever home.

Over the years we’ve planted not only gardens but even set aside a small piece of the land as a small pet cemetery where around ten of our dogs and cats, plus some belonging to Felix, and others, most notably Chucha, a grand dame of a stray mutt that we used to feed outside our gate, and carried to our back terrace to sleep on her own box, when it was clear she didn’t have long to live. That’s where she died that night.

But I must add that Stew and I are not among those expats who vow to remain here until they die, for whatever reason. Different situations or advancing years might prompt us to move back the U.S., which, despite all the current political turbulence, ultimately remains “home” for both of us.

Yet, even though I speak Spanish, and we both have invested a lot money and energy in Mexico, Mexico remains a beautiful but foreign land to us. We don’t cry “Viva Mexico!” at sunrise every day, or profess to know the intricacies of this country’s culture or, far less, its politics. Mexico remains a flawed beauty where we are lucky to live.

Corrections and clarifications: My Managing Editor Stew says that parking lot fees have gone up only to two dollars, instead of one, which is hardly outrageous.

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