—or— how to start a b&k
(don’t try this at home)
what a trip
Once upon a time, eleven or so years ago, in a land sort of far away, a dusty, overheated and traumatized (Mexican roads) 12-year-old Nissan Pathfinder rattled into the yet-to-be-fully-discovered town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
The car, more tan than red at this point, lurched to a stop next to the (then only) Pemex gas station on Ancha de San Antonio, the main drag. Muffled sound emanated through the closed windows, and the attendants in their green coveralls looked at the car sideways…is that a cat howling? Is that women arguing?
“I’ve just got to stretch my legs!” I shouted, slamming the door and stalking away. A few deep breaths in the nostalgic noise and fumes of Mexico, my childhood home, calmed me (oddly enough).
My temper was frayed, to say the least, after three days cooped up in a car with:
• My mother (very cranky)
• My cat (also cranky)
• My two large dogs (good sports, really)
• Blurry childhood memories
• Absurdly high hopes
• No idea whatsoever of how to make a living in Mexico.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
A few months and three days earlier, I had started packing up 15 years of life, college, work, grad school, and then more work in San Diego, California. I had decided to move back to San Miguel, where I lived as a kid. Where my mother still lives. She kindly came up to help me pack, not realizing it would take more than a month to finish dismantling and dispersing said unreasonably cluttered life.
We set off on a three-day road trip, visiting family on the way. We never drove more than eight hours a day, but it felt like 28. We stayed at whatever strange lodgings accepted pets. Or we snuck them in.
crossing the line
When we hit the border two days later, my mother got the dogs out of the car for a stroll. The Mexican customs official came over to the open rear hatch of my car, leaned his folded arms on the tailgate, and, lifting the top blanket, surveyed the two-foot-thick mass of densely packed items that lined the back.
The top layer was only a taste of the madness that lay below. An hors d’oeuvre, if you will. Ie: a cast iron frying pan filled with rolled-up underwear. A French-English dictionary the size of a toaster oven. A box of Triscuits (regular flavor). A set of knives, forks and spoons bundled with a rubber band. The base of a cordless phone. A cheese grater with several pair of socks stuffed inside. A pair of folded flare-leg jeans (be kind — it was 2000, after all).
My “baggage” was huge, and deep. It had levels, it had strata, it had echelons, even. My mother, the self-appointed Master Packer, had convinced me that her method was the most efficient. “More stuff will fit without boxes,” she said, wedging my hair dryer next to a framed photo of my father wrapped in two sweaters. “If I just pack it very carefully.”
What resulted was a three-dimensional possession puzzle, like a huge lasagna, composed of my worldly goods — topped off with my bedding and an old dog blanket. Rilke and Buddha, my dogs, rode 3,000 miles to Mexico on top of what was left my life, basically.
As Isolde, my cat, meowled indignantly from her cage behind the driver’s seat, the customs guy dropped the top blanket and put his head down on his folded arms. I just stood there, smiling my best kiss-up-to-uniformed-third-world-authority-figures-so-as-to-be-on-my-way-soon smile. Looking up, he turned to watch my mother carrying on a loud one-way conversation with the dogs as they sniffed at a post a few yards away. Finally, he looked at me.
“You got any guns or drugs in there?” he asked, gesturing vaguely at my lasagna.
“Why, no.” I answered, grinning madly. “Of course not.”
“Bien.” He said, slapping the car as he turned to walk away. “You can go.”
The rest of the trip was pastel (cake.) And so, my mother and I made it home to San Miguel, without getting pulled over into secondary inspection (which, in unpacking and repacking, would have delayed us by at least 12 hours) or killing each other.
how to start a b&b (not)
I wasn’t trying to get rich (not going to happen), but I needed to be able to support myself in the style to which I hoped to become accustomed. So, hourly Mexican wages were not an option. I also had to have time for creative projects (whatever they might be), so a normal, full-time job was equally out of the question. After several months of dawdling around trying to find a non-toxic way to pay for a modest life here, I decided real estate had to be the thing.
Through several strange coincidences, I found a very odd little property in a great, as-yet-ungentrified, older San Miguel neighborhood not too far from the Centro. With five bedrooms, a kitchen, two baths and no living room, the house sat on a dirt rubble “road” (read: riverbed), but it had a second entrance on a nicer street. (Both streets have mercifully been repaved since.)
As often happens when I get excited about an idea, I leapt without looking (at more than one place). I bought my cute little hovel and started fixing it up immediately.
Somewhere during the 3 months that turned into a year of renovations, I had a conversation.
“What are you going to do with it when it’s done?” asked a friend as we poked around the construction site, choking on cement dust.
“Make it a vacation rental, I guess.“
“You’d probably make more money if you made it a B&B.” He said.
And Casita de las Flores was born. (Thank you, friend.)
The Casita (technically not a B&B but a B&K — Bed and Kitchen) started out on the thinnest of shoestrings in 2002. A garage sale fridge, a garage sale stove. Mattresses on tapetes (woven straw mats) on the floor.
The very first weekend we rented was the infamous erstwhile Pamplonada, when 20 or so young people paid to not sleep at my place. (They were very busy partying all night and vomiting in the town square.) Other than a very messy avocado/guayaba fight, the Casita survived their onslaught. (PS: in September, our trees offer you all the free avocados and guayabas you can eat — NOT throw.)
This inauspicious event helped me pay for bed frames, closets, desks, and chairs. For the website, I had to go into hock. Soon after, Casita de las Flores really opened for business.
We started out charging US $20 a night for one person. Less than US $400 for a month. My very first guests stayed before construction was totally done and are now lifelong friends. (I was so happy to have them there. Such forgiving women.) Spring just had her first baby and Tina is coming to stay with me again next month.
san miguel business school
Of course, I had no experience whatsoever in the field (other than having traveled a lot, and having often been a guest/critic at different accommodations). Business plans are much worse than Greek to me — they’re like math (shudder). My minimal market research was tooling around on the internet to see if the name was taken. (Since then, the Casita name and website text have been stolen wholesale by a place in Chile, thank you very much. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, or so they say.)
But I’ve always felt I knew better than most how things should be done (much to others‘ chagrin), so I figured I could handle it. And I knew in my bones that San Miguel needed a comfortable, accessible place for real travelers to stay. Not some fancy shmancy US $120 a night place, but something even I could afford. A place where I would want to stay. A place where I could have both my privacy and an opportunity for social interaction (a much different interaction from what can be had in an impersonal hotel, a sterile lobby, or a sloppy bar). Those were my guiding principles. That and a love of art projects (none so huge, before the Casita).
Casita de las Flores took a while to catch on. Our first year, earnings were laughable (cryable, mostly), but I kept meeting great people and business slowly grew.
In the first months, we had a particularly difficult guest who complained about absolutely everything. The noise from doves and roosters. The sounds from the high school across the street. The occasional noise from neighbors. The lights’ sporadic flickering. The dust. The breeze. The sun. (Basically, she was complaining about Mexico.) “It’s not as nice as a Motel 6,” she said of the Casita, sniffing, as she left. (The profoundest of compliments, I’ve come to realize.)
As soon as her taxi sped (well, rolled) away, I grabbed my web guy by the collar and told him we were making some changes. I went back into my lovingly designed and written website and dressed it down. I took out all marketingspeak and made things sound less inviting. Consciously working for the frump factor, I spoke of Mexico in all its gritty glory.
Since then, we’ve mostly gotten travelers (a very different breed from your average tourist). These are people who’ve been around. Who know that things are unavoidably different in other countries (that’s actually why they go there.) And who know that finding an oasis of comfort, security, charm, and relative peace in any foreign country, much less a developing nation, for under US $50 a night is not to be sneezed at. They are grateful for my efforts, and I am very grateful for them. My customers and I get along swimmingly now. Mostly. (See Lesson 2).
build and learn
Back to the shoestring. We started out with a garage sale fridge and stove, and minimal furnishings or decor. Seven years later, we have a fancy newish fridge (time flies) a garage sale stove (still works perfectly), and quite a bit of cute stuff. (But not too much—I hate cluttered decor. The Casita is of the little-known Mexican Zen School.) We make a living. More importantly, we have made tons of friends and family. Even more importantly than that, we’ve learned a lot.
(And the place has changed a wee bit…)
Lesson 1: 99% of people are really great (at least in our price range). Oddly enough, this business has increased my estimation of human nature, which wasn’t terribly high nine years ago. Through this very social enterprise, I have met quantities of fabulous people, many of whom are now friends and neighbors. And, thank the modern gods of rampant criticism, the large majority of our reviews have been good ones. Though the occasional malcontent and his/her (snarky, public) bad review still hurts (see Lesson 2).
Casita de las Flores is fortunate to have many return guests who enjoy coming home to us, year after year. (I hope they like the color we just painted the kitchen, and Gayle’s room—I’m expecting some flack. People get attached.) My favorite example: a group of women (three of them named Gail, in various spellings) who met at the Casita years ago returned for a “Casita Reunion” here last October. It was a time of much giggling.
At least once a month, be it at a party, an art opening, or at the grocery store, I run into a former guest who is now a San Miguel resident. I love this brand of deja vu, and I love knowing that the Casita was their first home in this town. Together, we’ve survived the real estate boom, world renown, the cartel hysteria, the swine flu hysteria, and even (more or less) the first-world media. They are now my men- and women-at-arms, my hairdressers and acupuncturists, my vecinos and compadres.
Lesson 2. You really CAN’T please everyone all the time. Unfortunately, that less shiny one percent of guests — the ones who are never happy no matter how much you do, no matter how much you give — sometimes seem to outweigh the other 99%. They have made me, on more than one occasion, consider selling the business. But then the 99% moves in again and I feel better, and I keep on.
Lesson 3: Humans are (mostly) sociable animals. Sure, there’s been the occasional fight over cheese ownership (we now have a separate fridge shelf for each room) and we’ve had a few feuds. (The Casita is its own little ecosystem, after all, evolving with each group of guests.) But mostly, people have fun. They befriend one another. They end up having dinner parties and outings and trips together. Sometimes, they even become good friends and correspond with each other, and me, for years. (This whole people-getting-together thing was a huge, unexpected fringe benefit buried within the “let’s start a B&K, shall we?” pseudo-plan.) Of course, socializing is optional. If you simply “vant to be alone,” we’ve got privacy, too.
Lesson 4. It is possible to make a meaningful life outside the box. Ok, Casita de las Flores is not saving the world. (It may be saving my life, however, as I slowly recover from 9 to 5 fluorescent lights.) I’m no Mother Teresa, but, I take my role as a Vacational Therapist™ quite seriously.
I now know (yes, in my bones) that this “job” is not really a job, and that it’s far from just a means to an end. Ok, so Casita de las Flores makes us a living (nearly every month!), but more importantly, the Casita helps people. Not in any huge, earth-shattering ways, but in small, yet meaningful ways. Having this unusual little nook in which to be at home while not at home helps our guests to make connections—with San Miguel, with fellow travelers, and (most importantly) with themselves. (Often by allowing them to have a moment or many to simply be.)
After hours and hours of travel and years and years in the hectic realms of the first world, people often arrive stressed out, exhausted and extremely cranky. They blow in the door, blasting cold first-world anxiety with them:
“My luggage…it didn’t get here!”
“My cell phone isn’t getting reception!”
“I left my wallet in the cab!”
“What do you mean there’s no TV??!!!!”
Several years ago, on a particularly technicolor-blue sky, big white puffy-cloud, birdsong and butterfly day, I wandered out to the patio with my pruning shears. There was a guest, gently swaying in the hammock, lazily trailing her fingers back and forth on the patio bricks.
“Whatcha doing, Molly?” I asked.
“Watching the laundry dry,” she replied.
I turned and tiptoed away, smiling. Another Vacational Therapy™ success story. Life is good.
Casita de las Flores B&K (Bed and Kitchen)
—Your best value (and most fun) alternative to
expensive San Miguel de Allende hotels and B&B’s
PS: If you enjoyed this narrative, please pass it on and bring Triscuits! (regular flavor). See below…
PPS: To see more before and after pictures, go to our picture gallery.
triscuiteers of the world, unite!
Aways on the cutting edge, Casita de las Flores is inaugurating a revolutionary new marketing scheme. The Triscuit Tally. Each box of wonderful woven wheat wafers that makes it down here will represent one person who found this story, read the whole thing without falling asleep (maybe) and who then made it all the way to the Casita. Keep up with the Triscuit Tally here, on our very own blog.