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Steamboat Magazine

Travel - W03/04

12/01/2003 01:00AM ● By Anonymous

Winter 2003:

Travel - W03/04

In the darkest, deepest time of night, when the sounds of crickets and the sweet smell of bougainvillea weave into our dreams, deafening aerial blasts suddenly send us bolt upright in bed and to the windows. Bells all over the city are ringing, and mariachi music and singing echo distantly. We feel the concussion of those fireworks in our chest, serious earsplitting bombs that burst directly overhead and shower the city with bright sparks. Welcome to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and another celebration in this city of faith. This September procession honors the Mexican Independence from Spain in 1810, when the rebellious priest Dolores Hidalgo sparked the revolution by bringing his cry for independence to San Miguel. The people of the town of Dolores Hidalgo are marching the ten miles to San Miguel in the night to reenact his feat, and it is a boisterous, grand fiesta of color and marching bands.San Miguel was an Indian village in the central Mexican highlands when Cortez arrived in 1520. Its ornate Spanish colonial buildings erected through the 1700s have mostly survived intact, thanks to the city being declared a Mexican National Monument in 1926. The narrocobblestone streets are lined with brilliantly tinted adobe walls; tall carved wooden doors open into lush flowering courtyards and fountains. La Parroquia de San Miguel Archangel is the city center, towering over El Jardin (main square). It pulsates with life in the evenings when the mariachis strike up in the bandstand, and families and couples stroll the lush gardens. For 100 pesos, a roving band in tuxedos and sombreros will serenade while you dance privately with your love under arched porticos. Today San Miguel is known best as an artist colony. At the Institute Allende, artists and scholars from throughout the world teach courses in painting, sculpture, ceremonies and Spanish immersion classes. Santa Fe Workshops, renowned for the diversity of its photographic educational programs, hosts courses near the institute. Instructors send students throughout the city to photograph the gardens, the exquisite architecture, and the popular culture, then share adventures and critique images from the students each night.The San Miguel people are a joy. Open and friendly, they invite visitors to travel at their relaxed pace of life. In this city of 100,000 people, with narrow, steep streets, there is one traffic light and fehonking cars. Drivers alternate at intersections with head nods and hand gestures � civility reigns.A particularly magical time to visit is in November for Las Dias del Muertos (The Days of the Dead), when the Mexican people celebrate the lives of their ancestors. Families throng the cemeteries and cover every headstone with flowers � a riot of color that somehocheers the heart. In the market, candies are fashioned into anything to do with death: skeletons and skulls and "pan de muerta" (bread of the dead). Fountains are turned into gaudy shrines, and skeletal figures dance in the streets.On the last night of the photography workshop I have been attending, we meet at Las Cupilla, an orphaned part of La Parroquia cathedral converted intact to an elegant restaurant. Ceilings of brick vaults darkened by centuries of smoke and incense soar overhead, arched windows open to the collage of colors and roofs of San Miguel, and the food is superb. Bells suddenly peal throughout the city, lights up and fireworks again fill the sky. Sharing images and love of this romantic place, we cannot imagine a finer moment.We return to Leon before dawn, the air cold and crisp. Along the dark road, our headlights flash on bicyclists and walkers going to work in the next town. Then we stop at flashing police lights; a procession is moving through a narrodefile. Hundreds of people are on the highway carrying babies and banners, talking and laughing as horses and riders tower above them. The driver tells us it is the Day of the Blessing of the Horses in San Martin, 25km from San Miguel, and people are walking and riding through the night to reach the town.Our driver knows we have a flight to catch, but just says, "Esperamos poco" (we wait a little), and I think these people have it right. I do think we can wait a moment as their vibrant faith enfolds us. dDr. William Roberts is an eye surgeon in Boulder whose avocation for photography leads him to exotic locales from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to Clark, Colorado.