The Casita de las Flores Story

—or— how to start a B&K

(don’t try this at home)

casita before11 The Casita de las Flores Story

What a trip

Once upon a time, eleven 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…)

img 17031 The Casita de las Flores Story

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??!!!!”

After a few days, it’s a different story…

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,

magic hammock1 The Casita de las Flores Story

casita de las flores san miguel’s magical, stress-vanishing hammock

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.

Hasta pronto!

xo,

Casita de las Flores B&K (Bed and Kitchen)
www.casitadelasflores.com

—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.

(real) life in san miguel

img 27765 (real) life in san miguel

a thing of beauty is a joy forever (or at least until it breaks)

 

The first installment in our new, ongoing series.
(Only a couple of months late…)


Today was a Red Letter Day, a Day of Great Accomplishment, a Day to Remember.

Fortune smiled upon me. I feel vindicated, fulfilled, extremely lucky (blessed, even), and a bit tired.

Today I got windshield wiper blades for my car. That work.

If you think this is a minor achievement, you’ve never lived in the third world. Read on…


Their predecessors were in sad shape. The driver’s side had lost its rubberness altogether and screeched alarmingly on the glass. The other trailed a rubber ribbon loosely up and down like a squiggly black tail. (The San Miguel sun cooks things, pronto.) As the rainy season loomed, then tentatively began, then inundated us, I pondered my problem.

Back in April, I had stopped by Billy’s, my mad expat mechanic, to ask where I might find replacements. In his oil-stained blue coveralls, he clutched his stomach and laughed heartily, torso bobbing back and forth. When he got his breath back, he said “you’ll never find ones to fit a Japanese-made car here. You’ll have to have them sent down from the states.”

Daunted for a month or so, I finally decided to give it a shot, silly or not.

It only took two weeks and six visits to five stores (some open during published working hours, others not). And, I only had to buy four different kinds in order to find the one that worked.

In my quest, I circumnavigated SMA (a Formidable Task, in itself), visiting all the refaccionarias I could locate. No small feat, as my search involved waiting for a non-rainy day so that I could see while driving, dodging eight-year old unlicensed drivers, idling not-so-patiently behind taxis who refuse to ever, ever pull over when loading and unloading, swerving around tourists chatting in the middle of the street, and having to find parking (horrors!) at my destinations, which may or may not be open.

No luck.

As a last resort, I tried at what I call the Mega Eyesore (our new, terribly modern, not-at-all-colonial Mega Comercial Mexicana superwarehousegrocerystore.)

Amazingly enough, they had 11 different kinds of blades to choose from. For a good twenty minutes, I sat on the floor, inspecting the selection. (Getting some stares. This is simply not done here—but I’ll be damned If I’m going to take the tedium of comparing overpriced pieces of rubber standing up.)

Time for a romantic (if unrealistic) flashback to the good old US of A: Drive to nearby auto parts superstore. Enter the air-conditioned, tire-scented establishment. Ask friendly uniformed salesperson for windshield wipers for a 96 Nissan. She or he types a bit and the computer spits out 43 options. Choose one set, take them home and they fit!

Ok, maybe I’m embellishing a bit. Perhaps the salesperson is really a clueless, apathetic, malnourished teenager who just got fired from Burger Barn and actually knows less about automotive supplies than I do—supposing the latter is possible. But there would be somebody else to ask, I just know it. (Correct me if I’m wrong. I’ve been out of the States for a long while.)

So, back to the Mega.

Of course, not one of any of the available wiper blades actually claimed to fit the make and model of my car. So, I had to wing it. After much careful deliberation (I really should have gone to jury duty when they called me up, way back when. I would have been good at it), I chose four different blades that seemed, in some indefinable way, more compatible with my car than the others.

Yes, I could have enlisted the help of my friend and his pendulum, to make matters simpler… “Is it this one?” we ask. The pendulum’s swing says: “no way!”

But if I get hassled at Mega for bringing in my water bottle so it doesn’t hit a full boil in the car, I can only imagine what they’d do over a full new-age divination ceremony in aisle 36, even without the incense.

Armed with my four sample contenders, I asked the check-out girl if I would be able to return the ones that didn’t fit. After a few segundos of blank staring, she went to ask Someone in Charge. The verdict was: “yes, if the packaging is in good shape.”

Great. I shelled out about thirty dollars and took ‘em all home. With the utmost care, I opened them and tried them, one by one.

As only one type came with directions, written in fluent, universal, incomprehensible manual-ese, I spent about an hour trying them all on the car.

I was getting discouraged. I tried each type a million ways—upside down, right side up, backwards, forwards, with and without the extra plastic doohickey. So far not so good.

I got good grades in school, I thought. I run a business. My father is an engineer. Surely I can figure this out.

Finally, I closed my eyes and asked the great autoparts god(dess) for guidance. Taking a deep breath, I tried the final candidate upside down and backwards. And, lo and behold, the damn thing clicked on. After some more tinkering, I even got the claspy thing to close.

A massive thrill of accomplishment filled me, similar to making it to the top of Mount Everest, finishing the great pan-American novel, or finding a legal parking space in the centro on a Saturday afternoon in July.

I pulled an old bottle of water out from under my seat and doused the windshield. (My car’s spritzers stopped working long ago, after I made the mistake of putting San Miguel’s calcium-laden tap water in the tank. “You did what?” asked Mechanic Billy, guffawing—I amuse him quite regularly.) I said a little prayer to Santa Funciona (the patron saint of things that work), bit my lip and hit the lever.

It was a thing of beauty. After a month of not driving when it rains, or of chancing it and looking at the moving world through a perilously impressionistic lens, the sainted plastic blade made a gorgeous, lazy arch and left half of my windshield as clear as…well, as glass. I could see! I could drive in any weather!

Now I only had to get its mate, and return the runners-up. Easy, right?

Nope. Of course, policies had changed during my 18-hour absence from Mega.

We don’t take returns on these.” Said the woman, dismissing me and turning to chat with her co-workers.

No. Wait.” I said, panicking. “I specifically asked and was assured that you would.” Three big pairs of eyes turned and stared at me from behind the customer service desk. (Around here return policies are as rare as snow. And almost nobody insists—they’re accustomed to being denied and take it with grace and honor. But not me—I come from the land of the squeaky, ungraceful wheel.)

I was told I would be able to return these,” I insisted. “I just bought them yesterday.” Getting nervous, Customer Service Lady radioed somebody from the auto department, who confirmed that yes, they most certainly do NOT take returns on wiper blades.

But look,” I went on, pointing at my careful glue job. “The product is brand new, the packaging is perfect. You can’t even tell they were opened.”

No dice.

Having no other option, I launched into the full, unexpurgated tale of buying four different kinds to see which would work and how my audacious plan had been Approved by Mega Officials, and how it’s a matter of safety, and how I would now really, really just like to buy the other wiper blade, and get on with my life of safe rain driving, etc.

I think she relented just to shut me up. (Whatever works.) I thanked her kindly and went for the matching wiper, dodging eight-year-olds playing bumper carts and swerving around tourists chatting in the middle of the aisles.

And the matching wiper blade was still there. (Amazing.)

The excitement was too much—I couldn’t wait until I got home. In the sun-blazed parking lot, after a bit of fumbling, I attached the other blade and gently laid it back down. I petted it, “Nice wiper. Nice wiper.” Got out the windshield water bottle, squirted the glass, flicked the switch, crossed my fingers, and then—oh, sweet mystery of life, at last I’ve found you—their gentle, cleansing duet.

A thing of beauty.

Ahhhhh.” I stood, grinning and hugging myself in the Mega parking lot, admiring my prodigious triumph.

It was a golden moment. I drove home with the clearest of windshields, eagerly anticipating the next downpour.

Of course, it hasn’t rained since.

—-

So, when are you coming to visit?

xo,

Casita de las Flores
Rules San Miguel de Allende Hotels and B&Bs

www.casitadelasflores.com

PS: Always 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.

Summer in San Miguel

img 19801 Summer in San Miguel

Weather’s ideal, wish you were here.

Well, the weather here is so perfect, it’s approaching obscene. The monsoon rains finally started a few weeks ago, but we’ve gotten a week or so off. Many glorious, not-too-hot, sunny technicolor-blue-sky days. And the clouds—elaborate white confections floating benignly above. Ahhhhh. Never happy, of course, we locals now start itching for the standard afternoon downpours, whose drama squeegees the soul and leaves our world brand new.

Global weirding is taking its toll. Used to be you could set your watch by the summer clouds. From late June ‘til early September, at four p.m. on the dot, the sky would suddenly turn deepest, darkest grey and open up, making rivers of streets, dropping temperatures by at least ten degrees, and stranding visitors and locals alike under the arches around the Jardin. (I once lost my flip-flops trying to cross Umaran Street in a July downpour. They just sped down the hill, little black speedboats on the stream. Being in a hurry in Mexico never seems to work.)

Now the weather’s a bit quirky. Last year, we had a mini-winter in July. Grey skies and rain all day and most of the night for a couple of weeks. It got cold(ish). (We may be in Central Mexico, but at 6,000 feet, the sun has a lot to do with the general balminess.)

This year, however, has been gorgeous. We’ve gotten a good amount of rain and lots of cerulean skies—but nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen each day. We look up at the sky, gauging the clouds’ intentions. We wonder whether or not to water the garden, wash the coche. “Can I leave the sweater at home?” We ask ourselves. “Or will an afternoon shower leave me shivering under an arch somewhere?”

We’re also still waiting for our usual freak summer hailstorm, which leaves trees denuded, cars in full leaf, and the streets looking like a blizzard passed. For ten minutes, you can see your breath. Then, the sun comes out again, the ice is gone as quickly as it came and we have yet another glorious sunset.

Such is Summer in San Miguel: fickle, dramatic, beautiful.

Meanwhile, absolutely everything is blooming. The bougainvillea has gone berserk. Red, gold and fuchsia flowers tumble everywhere. The Huele de Noche (smells-at-night) Jasmine drenches the courtyard with scent. Birds are chirping and procreating like the world’s about to end. Butterflies and hummingbirds abound. Tree leaves are all shiny and the air is clean and golden enough to rival the South of France. (Even the omnipresent Mexican dust has taken a hiatus.) Our avocados are ripening, turning dark, plump and yummy. In the campo, the wildflowers are rioting, ahead of schedule.

The ubiquitous fecundity is contagious—even the bricks in the patio are sprouting green, while the high Mexican desert does its best Hawaii impersonation. The nights are blacker, the stars brighter, and the moonlight is blinding. Even peoples’ dreams are running riot, sending out tendrils that snake into waking life and bear fruit.

Tell me again, why aren’t you here?

xo,

Casita de las Flores B&K (Bed and Kitchen
www.casitadelasflores.com
Your best value (and most fun) alternative to
expensive San Miguel de Allende hotels and B&B’s

__________

This just in: in the couple of days that I procrastinated posting this, we’ve had a wonderful all-night rain, complete with a temporary brown-out. (always entertaining) And today, at four on the dot, it sprinkled while the sun shone. As I write, the sky is grumbling—another delicious rainy night may be on its way. And tomorrow will be glorious.