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.

the tuesday market—a photo essay

I always encourage guests to go to the Tuesday Market (La Placita). Why? Because this ambulatory extravaganza is, according to our own world-famous San Miguel de Allende map, “a raucous and wonderful weekly festival.” Not to mention a truly Mexican experience in a town some think of as touristified. (Ahem…just depends where you go, folks. This is definitely Mexico. And the Tuesday market will prove it.) So, if you’re craving the real Mexican deal, skip that latte at Starbucks, and go to market…

 the tuesday market—a photo essay

hand-crafted gorditas

 the tuesday market—a photo essay

public intimates

 the tuesday market—a photo essay

super duper taco palace

A haven from all things touristic, La Placita is our weekly flea market/swap meet—a sensory-overloading pageant of cultural clutter, industry, and whimsy. Shop with the locals in a wonderland of commerce that’s escaped the gentrification that often results from touristic notoriety. (It’s authentically dusty, but, oh, just SO much more fun than a mall.)

 the tuesday market—a photo essay

fresh veggies

 the tuesday market—a photo essay

egg lady with mascot

 the tuesday market—a photo essay

so many clothes...yippee!

Whatever you might need, it’s at the Tuesday—from the ordinary to the bazaar (really bad pun intended)—clothing, shoes, produce, meat, and seafood; at least 12 kinds of beans and 16 types of chile; live poultry, songbirds, and bunnies; vintage junk and brand-new antiques; odd folk remedies for even odder ailments, technicolor drink stands and elaborate nomadic taco palaces; second-and third-hand everything; and (my favorite) Himalayas of cheap used and unused clothing and Sierra Madres of shoes. (How delightful is it to buy Ann Taylor and DKNY for $20 pesos?)

 the tuesday market—a photo essay

folk remedies

 the tuesday market—a photo essay

chiles by the kilo

 the tuesday market—a photo essay

Ikea, Mexico

 the tuesday market—a photo essay

magic beans

You can’t (or shouldn’t) go home/on living without at least one of the following: a $10-dollar purple polar parka, a shiny brass belt buckle depicting a cock fight, a plus-sized, fire-engine-red sequin and tafetta cocktail dress. Nor should you miss a finger-licking lunch of deep-fried fish of questionable origin and tasty hand-patted gorditas with the best red salsa, ever, with a big cup of jugo de pineapple—topped off with a quart of fresh papaya, mango and jicama swimming in chile and lime. Or maybe you really need a kilo of slimy chicken entrails, a new (to you) pair of Manolos, a couple of live pheasant, and a fine, made-in-China power drill (guaranteed to work at least once)?

 the tuesday market—a photo essay

fresh jugo

 the tuesday market—a photo essay

snow cone cool

 the tuesday market—a photo essay

a lunch of fishy fish

Or, you might be lacking a ruffled neon-green push-up bra, a spangly baseball cap bearing a nonsensical English slogan, a genuine $100 peso Rolex, sparkly blue nail polish, and a pair of huge, dangly aluminum earrings? Perhaps you’re nothing without a 1950′s metal Corona beer tray, a really bad-quality pirate DVD of E.T., a Menudo T-shirt, and a miracle cure for toe fungus / halitosis / impotence? A 1970′s North Dakota license plate or two? Hello Kitty cell phone cover? Premium Korean watch battery? Colorful Clothesline? Pumice stone? Black beans? Nopales? Mameyes, guanabanas and/or chirimoyas? Surely one of these items will complete you as a person.

 the tuesday market—a photo essay

fresalandia

 the tuesday market—a photo essay

aprons R us

 the tuesday market—a photo essay

clothes pin cutie

It’s all there at the Tuesday Market, amidst blaring music, squawking hawkers, questing shoppers, and steaming snacks. Even if you don’t “need” anything, come just for the rowdy, enveloping big-top energy of it all. It’s a truly Mexican adventure.

______

Getting there:If you’re obnoxiously fit and immune to sunstroke, hike the huge hill East of the Centro, (the prettiest route is up Correo street, and up and up and then right with the road, then left through the bush paths, past the old mall). For the more normal/sensible, we recommend a taxi. Should be about $5 pesos more than regular taxis around town. Ask for “La Placita,” and enjoy!

 the tuesday market—a photo essay

el taco man

Getting home: Tons of taxis and buses head towards the Centro and Colonia Allende all day long. The walk downhill isn’t so bad, unless you’re carrying more than four of the must-haves above (this, we leave to your own judgement). To walk back to Casita de las Flores, head South for the avenue that runs by the market. Take a right on that road, and then a left at the big roundabout with the weird statues. Then choose your way (right) down the big hill, veering left at the bottom. You’ll get home, eventually. (Another adventure)

Timing: The Tuesday is generally fully functional by 10 am, winding down (and packing up) by 4 pm.

crazy days

 crazy daysSunday June 19 was truly a crazy day. (See how late this entry is? —I’m still recovering.) Here’s a little ditty about the same holiday a few years back, when we were in a different location…

—–
At 5:54 am on the second Saturday in June, I am catapulted out of sleep by a brass band playing under my window. Several trumpets, a trombone, a large marching band bass drum and an actual tuba for the requisite oom pah pahs. Oh, yes, can’t forget the cymbals. A dozen pair, by the sound of it.

It’s not, alas, a romantic serenade. (Such a suitor would be summarily dismissed.) It’s the day before el Dia de los Locos, San Miguel’s yearly celebration of Saint Anthony of Padua and lunacy in general. This Sunday in June is reserved for crazy people. The entire town, and then some, participates.

For the hip, there are two places to be in San Miguel on Locos Sunday: in the parade or watching it. If you’re in the milling mile or so of costumed revelers and flatbed floats with blaring, competing soundtracks, you dance across town all morning and into the afternoon. Of course, in your foam and felt frog/fat lady/ex-president costume, there is a risk of heat exhaustion. But, you get to pelt spectators with candy, which makes it all worthwhile.

If you’re watching the parade, you may be in the crushing two-meter thick throng on each side of the road (a human wave of people that police officers have to keep pushing back so that the show can literally go on). If you’re into efficiency, you’ll be holding an upside-down umbrella above your head as a candy catcher/shield, which can also be used as a parasol if you ever get over your sugary greed. Or, you might be one of the privileged with balcony or rooftop seats, watching the colorful chaos from on high, with a mid-morning beer in hand and perhaps wearing a funny hat. Uncool option number three.

Or, you could be lame, like me, holing happily up in your (momentarily) quiet house. (The parade is downtown now, and, amazingly, out of earshot.) Around one in the afternoon, you might suddenly laugh out loud (startling the dogs) when you imagine just how horrific traffic’s going to be for the next couple of hours. And you’re so peacefully chez you! But the Locos will get the last laugh. If you live in Colonia San Antonio, like me, you didn’t sleep well last night (even before the band) and you won’t again tonight. Not for a couple more days.

The cuetes (gargantuan bottle rockets from Hell), which first woke you a couple of hours before the band, will start again late this afternoon, continue sporadically all day tomorrow, and on into Monday, with a few more artillery-style early-morning crescendos. Sunday evening after the parade, there’ll be a big, loud baile at the San Antonio church (sadly only two blocks away). The music will reverberate off your pots and pans and rattle your windowpanes ‘til the early morn. Around three a.m., you’ll be up Googling industrial-strength earplugs.

And then, after two days of madness, just for good measure (right as you’ve finally fallen asleep, most likely), there’ll be another fusillade of cuetes around dawn on Monday morning. (This one, at least, I understand. Monday morning being a concept highly worth protesting.)

 crazy days

local locos

Meanwhile, outside my bedroom at 5:55 a.m. on the day before Locos day, the insanity has just begun. Rilke, my spoiled, reared-in-the-U.S.A. dog, is terrified of loud noises (and thus extremely ill-equipped to live in Mexico). During the cuetes a few hours ago, he was under my bed, whining operatically. Now he’s at the window, barking wildly at the band. I would bark too, if I thought they would hear me.

Once my heart resumes its customary pace, I get up and stumble across the room to close the window. I’m laughing, because it’s the only possible sane response. By the time I get there, the band has stopped playing. (Gracias a Dios!) As the sky begins to lighten, the musicians sip cups of hot spiked ponche offered by the neighbors as ritualistic “thank you for waking us up” gesture. As they launch into a spirited, carnivalesque encore, I fall back into bed with several pillows over my head. Then, at last, they oom pah pah off to rouse somebody else.

 crazy days

a young Mexicana shows her true colors

I’m lucky—at least my street wasn’t their first stop. But really, I can’t complain — it’s all part of the ongoing raucous technicolor celebration that is San Miguel de Allende.


Viva Mexico!

xoxo,

Casita de las Flores

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
www.casitadelasflores.com

Stunning, world-famous B & K* in lovely and lively San Miguel


*A B&K is a Bed & Kitchen — like a B&B, but more affordable, more fun, and with a kitchen!

the triscuit tally takes off!

 the triscuit tally takes off!

triscuit beauty shot

SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, MEXICO—Sanmiguelenses are amazed at one local B&K’s tasty marketing breakthrough: The Triscuit Tally.

Throwing caution to the wind, five intrepid travelers have braved the beyond-intimate scrutiny of TSA* bearing WMD’s (Wafers of Massive Deliciousness**)—all to participate in Casita de las Flores’ one-of-a-kind marketing scheme.***

The news has sent multinational corporations scrambling to adopt a cracker mascot of their own.

“This strategy could revolutionize the way people do business–and snack,” says Joe Suit, CEO of Promotions R US, a marketing think tank in Petaluma, Florida. “Betcha Bill Gates is bummed Triscuits are taken. Wheat Thins just don’t have the same archetypal emotional resonance.”

“Our focus groups have good things to say about Ritz crackers, but it’s nothing like the Triscuit phenomenon,” he added.

* Not to mention the goofy customs stoplights at the Mexico airport (pray for green!)
** Triscuits are a fully legal, importable item. Hint hint. (If they do get confiscated, which is oh-so unlikely, it’s only cause the customs guy is a fellow wafer lover.)
***Wondering what the heck we’re talking about? See “about us” on our website: www.casitadelasflores.com

—-

So, there you are.

To our five (count ‘em, five!) Triscuiteers—thanks from the bottom of our hearts and tummies!! (See the actual tally to the right.)

We love you!

Yum,

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

 


the holidays in san miguel de allende


img 0029 15 the holidays in san miguel de allende

Neighborhood altar to la Virgen de Guadalupe on our back street.

 the holidays in san miguel de allende

Notice the snacks left out for our Lady

As 2009 draws to a close, we’d like to give thanks to all of the wonderful people who’ve come to stay with us over the last seven years. Mil gracias for your company and your support. We hope you’ll all be back.

It’s been a slow year, tourism-wise. (Of course, we’ve been busy fixing up the place, revamping the website, and even getting on FaceBook.) Based on advanced reservations for winter and early spring, the general situation seems likely to improve in 2010. Yay! (So book early!)

Let’s hope things get better for everyone who’s suffering economic hardship right now.

December in San Miguel is yet another month of fiestas. December 12 was the day of the virgen (the Empress of Mexico, in case you didn’t know). It’s a day and night of altars, neighborhood processions and parties, and yet another night of cuetes (monster bottlerockets, set off all night long, and culminating in a dawn crescendo. Sleep is overrated.)

Then there are the late-December Posadas, neighborhood open houses with candles and altars, and pilgrims aplenty going ’round asking for room at the inn (and getting ponche and other goodies, if not a bed). Don’t forget midnight mass. Christmas is a really big deal in Catholic Mexico, of course.

Then, there’s New Year’s Eve—it’s literally a blast in San Miguel. Apart from private and public parties and dinners and such (with the good-luck ritual of eating one grape for every midnight chime of the clock), there’s the public blow-out in the jardin, or main plaza.

We look forward to this night every year. Nearly everyone in town—young and old, rich and poor, locals, expats and visitors alike—gathers in the jardin for live music and dancing, funny hats, and even a bit of drinking.

At midnight, there’s a big fireworks display, and castillos are lit (large firework-encrusted structures that whiz and hum and pop and eventually burn up, sending out light, sparks and clouds of joyful smoke, as well as shooting flaming spinning projectiles into space, to much clapping).

Other festive fire hazards include gorgeous three-foot long sparklers waving everywhere. (But really, it’s quite safe, very fun, and very Mexico.) The dancing and drinking goes on ’til quite early in the new year. Eventually we all stumble home, usually singing, to sleep it off.

What could be better than a huge, loud, jovial, communal celebration of the new year, a new beginning? (Especially with sparklers and funny hats—it just doesn’t get any better than that.)

No invitation required—just get there well before the witching hour to stake out a spot to see and be the show (comfortable shoes and a warm coat are essential, says me.)

And, after that spectacular night, we begin looking forward to Spring, which starts in February here, thank you very much. The weather has now gotten chilly at night and in the morning, but we still have warm sun most every day. (The nearby hot springs are fab on winter mornings!) We know we really can’t complain about the climate here, but we still can’t wait for primavera.

Casita de las Flores wishes you all the happiest of holidays, filled with peace, warmth, joy, love, and maybe even a couple of nice presents. And a new year overflowing with prosperity and cool travel plans.

ho ho ho,

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. See you soon…

(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.

notes from abroad: perspective gained as innkeeper-turned-guest

— or —

the view from the other side of the check-in desk: the fine art of lodging reviews

 

 notes from abroad: perspective gained as innkeeper turned guestFortunately, it doesn’t happen often, but yes, we do get the occasional complaint and have received a couple of not-very-nice reviews. My favorite is from a Brit who ignored our detailed arrival instructions (which have been efficiently bringing guests here for nine years), failed to tell us when he would be arriving, and had apparently lost the carefully-made location map we sent him.

He had to (gasp!) ask for directions. A friendly local he had accosted actually brought him to our door. And, since we didn’t have an ETA, he had to wait a bit to be checked in.

To me, this would make for a fun travel story. To him, it was The End Of The World. He was very upset upon arrival and would not accept my repeated apologies, even though his discombooberation was no fault of ours. Said gentleman later wrote an online review, titled “Charming comfortable place – but really poor organisation.” (He also dissed my lovingly made map…)

There are those who simply shouldn’t travel. (Or maybe, they should only vacation in the first world.)

People get lost, wires get crossed, planes, trains and buses get delayed—stuff simply happens. (More often than not, in the third world.) It’s an integral part of what real travel is. If mishaps are so traumatic, it’s probably best to stick to cruise boats (assuming there are no icebergs around, that is). Or, just stay home, where everything is nice and safe and predictable.

Still, every single dissatisfied guest hurts, even the unreasonable ones. I’ve been trying to thicken my skin, without noticeable results. Recently, however, a friendly guest helped me put it all in perspective. We were sitting in the patio, talking about the Casita and the subject of Tripadvisor came up. I told her my concerns. “Oh, we don’t pay attention to every malcontent,” she said. “We look at all the reviews and try to get an overall picture.”

Whew!

Of course, the Casita isn’t perfect (trust me, nobody knows better than i) and we do sometimes make mistakes. But, we care and we try—two attitudes that are not exactly omnipresent in today’s business world. (Have you flown with a U.S. airline recently?)

For the price and for what you get—and, more importantly for what you don’t get—i have to say that Casita de las Flores is absolutely fabulous! Consider a recent travel experience of my own:

(It made for what i think is a fun story.)

—-

I’m traveling in Costa Rica and paying more than $45 US for a single room with this view:

 notes from abroad: perspective gained as innkeeper turned guest
Please note the homey touches, such as
 notes from abroad: perspective gained as innkeeper turned guest
junk heap on abandoned parking lot ringed by razor wire
 notes from abroad: perspective gained as innkeeper turned guest
blinding all-nite streetlight, and the busy thoroughfare behind.

Turns out that calle is San Jose’s Avenida Central (guess what that means–yes, mucho traffico). Another detail perhaps not visible in the photo—the razor wire on the fence and the camera aimed at my windows. (Nothing gives you that warm, fuzzy, at-home feeling like a security camera.)

The room itself is pretty nice, if bare. It’s in a 1930’s home near downtown San Jose. The tile in the hallway is gorgeous and the room has hardwood floors (tons of hardwood around here) and huge arched windows, but…there is a sad, dismal, depressing fluorescent (ack!) energy-saver bulb in overhead lamp. Makes me think (rather vividly) of movie interrogations. Or insane asylums. (PS: we do use energy saving bulbs at the Casita, but only the modern, bright, warm, fuzzy-light bulbs)

Meanwhile, my Costa Rica windows have no curtains, just tropical-looking bamboo-type blinds which no longer open unless you roll them by hand and try to tie them off with dangling bits of erstwhile pull cord. But really, this is a blessing, given the view.

At night, I am living in a Film Noir, with bright yellow 4000-watt stripes zig zagging across the bed and back wall. In order to sleep, I must carefully position my head where the bit of wall between the windows blocks the all-night streetlight blazing in.

In the morning, I wake up at 6:00 am, squinting and roasting in stripes with hot sun pouring in. Also, the unscreened windows must be kept closed to block at least part of the noise from the small freeway just beyond the junk heap. (Hot, hot, hot, and stuffy.) And, saddest of all, for me–no fan, ceiling or otherwise. No moving air in the tropics, in a room whose windows are far better closed. (PS: each room at the Casita has a working ceiling fan, and a heater, for winter).

A bonus: squeakiest bed imaginable. Cannot even think of moving without unmusical accompaniment.

Not to be PI (politcally incorrect), but I’m guessing it’s owned by absentee landlords, who are probably blind (straight) men. Very low on creature comforts or atmospheric touches. When decorating the Casita, at least, I imagined myself sleeping in the rooms, cooking in the kitchen, sitting on the patio—and I tried to include the (affordable) comforts I would need, were I my guest. (Unfortunately, the Jacuzzi was a bit out of our price range, and there just wasn’t anywhere to put private baths, or I woulda.)

Ok, so apart from the hardwood floors and cool hall, my room kinda sucks, aesthetically speaking. But the people are very nice and the sheets are clean. There’s wifi. All in all, it’s been a safe, comfortable home base for my forays into town.

So, guess what? I am not going to go online and give them a bad review. I shall give the desk person some friendly, annoying suggestions (that will most likely be ignored) and be on my way. Tolerance is a beautiful thing, yes? (She says after venting to complete strangers.)

But really, it’s not their fault. I take responsibility for my aesthetic sensitivities and will simply have to pay more to get the little things that make me comfortable.

One more thing.

This is for the cranky guy who complained to the universe at large (on Tripadvisor) about the detailed Casita map (lovingly and personally drawn and written by yours truly, then photocopied with care).

The map of San Jose provided by the hotel is an antique. And not in a good way. Borrowed from somewhere (in the early seventies, I’m guessing), it is at least an 8th generation photocopy. No black in evidence, only grey and white.

Someone tried, though. He or she went in and pasted numbers on a handful of places of interest (half the time, however, the number blots out the name and/or shape of the edifice it marks).

Somewhere along the Xerox chain, the numbers in the key describing what each place actually is have conveniently been cut off. So the map numerals remain mysterious symbols obscuring unknown landmarks that you simply must see.

(Or maybe it’s a travel game: identify the building and match the number with the description. Hours of fun for the entire family.)

After an hour or so of inept circling whilst searching for a recommended restaurant, with blood sugar dangerously low, I try showing the map to locals, asking how to get there from here. I might as well have a map of downtown Hong Kong in my hands. The helpful Josephinos try, but are unable to decipher it.

Of course, most of the time, they don’t even know what street we’re on. This is one of the many charms of Costa Rica. People do not use street addresses. They speak in landmarks…”The hardware store? It’s 500 meters west of the whatsit.” (Which is fine if you know where the whatsit is…)

Complain about OUR place, our map will you? Why I oughtta….

But it’s all good. Great, actually.

Don’t worry, be happy­—we’re traveling, what luck! Do you realize what a small percentage of people on the planet actually have this luxury? (If you do know that number, please tell me cause i’d love to know.)

Pura vida,

Casita de las Flores B&K (Bed and Kitchen)
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico budget accommodations

www.casitadelasflores.com

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.

Violence in Mexico — The Real Story

ilovemexico Violence in Mexico — The Real Story

'nuff said

Safety in Mexico is suddenly a hot topic, thanks to the U.S. mass media (and, in part, to the drug cartels). Unfortunately, a lot of what these sources report is less than accurate. Or at least, it’s only accurate for a tiny portion of a very large, very pacific country.

Most of Mexico is safer than much of the US, in fact. Yes, there is drug-related violence in Mexico. (Where isn’t there? And how does it compare to, say, downtown Chicago or L.A.?) It is a problem, of course, but a very concentrated one — affecting specific areas, and specific people (generally those involved with the trade). It is not all over Mexico, and it’s not in San Miguel.

Of course, not all Sanmiguelenses are angels. Someone might overcharge you. You could get your pocket picked in a crowd. And you don’t want to valuables lying around (ie: cell phones and ipods on café tables, or your purse dangling on the back of your chair at a restaurant). You might reconsider taking your purse to the Tuesday Market.

These, however, are not the signs of an outlaw state. They are merely the universal symptoms of poverty living side by side with wealth.

San Miguel de Allende is a peaceful place (unless you’re driving, then things can get a wee bit confrontational — but that’s not violence, so much as what happens when everybody subscribes to their own version of the rules of the road.)

Statistically speaking, you’re safer here at four a.m. than you are in a major American city at noon. Probably safer than where you live, unless you live in one of those (mythical?) tiny towns where everybody knows each other (and are all related) and nobody locks their doors.

If you really want to compare San Miguel with, say, the U.S… Ok. Let’s see. So far, we have no serial killers, axe murderers, snipers, carjackings, road-rage gunfights, mad bombers, Crips, or Bloods. We’ve had one high(ish)-speed car chase that we know of. Nor do we have school or workplace shootings.

In San Miguel, “going postal” denotes how badly you need a margarita after spending two hours in line trying to mail a postcard, and then realizing you’ll arrive home before it does.

Apart from the extremely rare and easily-avoided mugging or robbery, visits here are rather uneventful. (If it’s drama you want, try caching a cab in Mexico City — even there, drama is not guaranteed.)

The real crime here is how Mexico has been portrayed. This recent gory image of Mexico — as a dangerous, lawless land to be avoided at all costs by anyone who values his/her life — is highly irresponsible sensationalism. By wreaking havoc on tourism (the nation’s third largest source of income) not to mention the millions of people that work in the industry, this portrayal hurts exponentially more innocent people than does the violence it trumpets.

One North American voice of reason, award-winning journalist Linda Ellerbee, recommends a certain sense of proportion when judging Mexico:

“The U.S. media tend to lump all of Mexico into one big bad bowl. Talking about drug violence in Mexico without naming a state or city where this is taking place is rather like looking at the horror of Katrina and saying, “Damn. Did you know the U.S. is under water?” or reporting on the shootings at Columbine or the bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City by saying that kids all over the U.S. are shooting their classmates and all the grownups are blowing up buildings. The recent rise in violence in Mexico has mostly occurred in a few states, and especially along the border. It is real, but it does not describe an entire country.

It would be nice if we could put what’s going on in Mexico in perspective, geographically and emotionally. It would be nice if we could remember that, as has been noted more than once, these drug wars wouldn’t be going on if people in the United States didn’t want the drugs, or if other people in the United States weren’t selling Mexican drug lords the guns.

Most of all, it would be nice if more people in the United States actually came to this part of America (Mexico is also America, you will recall) to see for themselves what a fine place Mexico really is, and how good a vacation (or a life) here can be.

So come on down and get to know your southern neighbors. I think you’ll like it here. Especially the people.” (To see the the full text of the article, go to: http://www.hispanicvista.com/HVC/Columnist/Misc/041509Linda_Ellerbee.htm)

Nicely put, Ms. Ellerbee!

So what are you waiting for? Come on in, the water’s fine!

xo,

Casita de las Flores B&K (Bed and Kitchen)

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

www.casitadelasflores.com

Your best value (and most fun) alternative to
expensive San Miguel de Allende hotels and B&B’s