Monday, February 15, 2016

San Miguel de Allende - We'll be back!

The magical city of San Miguel de Allende!
It was my nephew David and his partner Noah that first suggested we continue our Senior Nomadic lifestyle with a visit to Mexico. They fell in love with Mexico City, and San Miguel de Allende, a small, high desert town four hours north of Mexico City. They were convinced we would love both as well. They were certainly right about San Miguel.

The fabulous Rosewood hotel where we watched the Seahawks lose in the playoffs but had a lovely massage!
Not only is this artists enclave well preserved and filled with architectural treasures, it is crawling with artisans, painters, musicians and writers.There seemed to be endless activities, cultural events, performances and classes. Not to mention spontaneous celebrations, a parade that passed our front door and fireworks at all hours. The food was good and plentiful, and, for better or worse, there was a very comfortable Starbucks with good wifi in the center of town. Of course the sun shone everyday and everything was very affordable - what’s not to love?

We made the local paper while we were in town!
The lovely Jade was the author and photographer for the article.
It is said you will always come back to San Miguel. Some people even say when you visit this enchanting town the first you'll do is have breakfast and the second thing you’ll do is buy a house. We could certainly see why our hosts spontaneously bought their house during recent visit - and also why number of retired expats (foreign residents) from American and Canadian make up around 20% of the population for at least part of the year. 

The master suite of our airbnb. One more floor and you're on the roof deck!
Our Airbnb was in the center of the old town and it was one of the best we’ve stayed in. It was a  narrow four story house with a roof deck facing the cathedral. Every room was decorated with great style and the details and amenities made it just like a stay in a four-star hotel.

Window shopping for things we definitely could not buy!
Fruit, fruit and more fruit! We are eating healthy -when we aren't at the bakery or the taco stand!
Don't forget your greens! Now that is a lot 'o' broccoli!
During our ten day stay we met so many interesting people. It is one of those places where you could easily strike up a conversation anywhere - with anyone who looks like you! And there were plenty of Senior Nomad types. We met an interesting couple at an event and that turned into lunch together. The next day we took a tour of their magnificent home where an extensive remodel is near completion. Their new home sits behind an unassuming narrow wooden door on a side street - but once that door opened you entered a serene courtyard, and beyond that 1000 square feet of meticulously designed living space spread over three floors! I think they are there to stay!

Caps for sale!
Michael also met a stranger in the line at the grocery store that turned into a gathering with her friends at the spectacular Rosewood hotel on the rooftop bar.
Our favorite bakery.
A wide range of subjects covered over cocktails.
At sunset one evening, I was taking a walk in the Hardin (the "garden" square that is the social hub of the city) and spotted a nice looking gentleman sitting by himself on a bench. He was facing the magnificent cathedral that is the center of San Miguel's universe with his camera carefully set on a tripod pointing slightly skyward. My inner art-director took over and I sat down to ask him about the shot he was hoping to capture. “Thousands of starlings are said to swirl together to form a massive dark cloud and then swoop around the cathedral spires at dusk”, he answered. Seemed worth waiting for to me, so I got out my iPhone and we chatted while we waited for this phenomenon to take place as the cathedral turned a burnt orange against the deepening blue sky. His wife came along and the conversation turned to travel and comfortable shoes. The starlings didn't show, but we had such a nice time chatting we decided to keep the conversation going over breakfast. I didn't realize until we met the next morning that I had met Bob Krist, a renowned National Geographic photographer, and his delightful wife and partner Peggy.
The cathedral at dusk.
New friends Bob and Peggy Krist.
Maybe best of all, a woman who follows our blog lives in San Miguel and e-mailed us to see if we would like to get together - she had a car, and would be happy to take us touring. Her name was Lydia Jane, a sage traveler and a great character. She and her trusty dog Boo picked us up and we spent a nice afternoon at the botanical gardens strolling amongst the cacti!

Debbie with Lydia Jane at the botanical garden
This is one of the places where we could actually imagine staying put for a while! Just as the fortunate people who live here foretold - we will be back! 

Thanks for following along!

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads

p.s. We’d like to thank son Christopher and his lovely wife Jamie for the Christmas gift of spa treatments at the Rosewood! It was such a treat for these frugal nomads to be pampered for an an afternoon.

Savouring Mexico City

Mexico City - a sprawling metropolis that could take a year to appreciate!
I have been on short trips to beach resorts in Mexico for work, but didn't really leave the manicured grounds. Michael hadn't been there at all. So really, this Senior Nomad visit to our southern neighbor was a first exposure to real Mexico for both of us.
Like Hawaii, Mexico offers us pale northwest denizens much needed sunshine, pristine beaches, volcanoes, palm trees, coconuts, pineapples, frothy tropical drinks, drums beating to indigenous music, whole roasted pigs and nearly naked people.

Now, with some perspective, I suggest creating a new paradise that blends the two - like shaking up a pina-garita or putting that roasted pig on some street side tiki-tacos. It would be a idyllic place where the beaches are beautiful, sidewalks aren't out to kill you, the food is incredible - and it's cheap!

Arrived in one piece - time to find the walking tour!
Back to reality. Our first destination in Mexico was the sprawling and somewhat alarming center of Mexico City. Once our taxi from the airport exited the gnarled traffic on the freeway he began a slow, hour-long crawl through streets that looked very forbidding to our neophyte eyes. There were scores of ramshackle food stalls, swarms of pedestrians wandering in and out of traffic (no doubt avoiding sprained ankles from the perils of uneven, pock-marked sidewalks), competing boom-boxes pounding music out of shabby shops, and a good number of scavenging dogs.

Just when we were reaching extreme anxiety about the location of our first Airbnb, we turned one more corner and broke into the clear. Leafy trees lined much wider streets and big park emerged straight ahead. The sidewalks began to look less like they’d been bludgeoned with sledge hammers and we passed several lovely churches. The neighborhood began to match the photos on the Airbnb listing. Whew.

Shopping at the small neighborhood grocery store - check out the faces of the ladies ahead of me!
There was still plenty of action on the street - but much less intimidating than what we'd just traversed and our Airbnb was a quiet oasis because it faced onto an interior courtyard in a new, secure building. We were also just far enough from the city center that our neighborhood, Roma DF near Condesa qualified as "trendy" and "in transition”. That meant even though there were hip cafes and bars, a few boutiques and a handful of galleries, there were still pockets of derelict storefronts, piles of trash and desperate looking people but after a few days we began to appreciate life in this complex city. And we knew we were safe because there seemed to be at least one police officer for every 10 people.

Galleries were on all sides of us.
Our hosts were a delightful young couple, Alfredo and Daphne, and their one year old son Bruno. We learned from them that when they met they each had an apartment. As the romance blossomed they rented out one or the other on Airbnb. When Bruno was on the way, they moved into a third apartment together and now have two rentals. Things are going well for them in a city where it is hard to make a living. They topped up our list of things we must see and do in Mexico City and gave us details on our immediate neighborhood and the apartment. We went to bed.

These lucky dogs spend the day in the park with their walker who also teaches them obedience drills in between strolls.
Part of the joy of being Senior Nomads is that we can "nap at will". That, and having enough time in a new city to explore at a leisurely pace. And that was a good thing as we adjusted to Mexico City’s elevation (7,200 ft) and heat. We took our usual two-hour free walking tour and spent almost a full day at the Museum of Anthropology. We also got the chance to watch the Seahawks eek out a win against the Minnesota Vikings in a great seafood restaurant with multiple big screens.

Beer. Beer with Shrimp. Beer with Shrimp and the Seahawks game on. Beuno!
We also shopped in the neighborhood markets, and I made a few Mexican inspired meals. Food is so affordable (perfect avocados at 20 cents a piece), it was easy to become inspired.

Michael being his usual helpful self with our fellow walking tour companions.
A good afternoon of shopping - ingredients for Spanish Rice and Margherita Chicken
We had dinner with the hosts that own the Airbnb where we would be staying next in San Miguel de Allende. They live in Mexico City. It turned out Mariana, our host, is a partner in a very respected bistro in Condesa so we were able to meet at the restaurant and get a sampling of local cuisine along with further tips on how to spend our time in Mexico City and of course in San Miguel. Getting to know our hosts is one of the best part of using Airbnb! And Mariana and her husband, Gustov were no exception.
A moving tribute to the 43 students missing and presumed dead after being kidnapped last year.
To be honest, we didn't bond with Mexico City during that first week - I think we were experiencing a bit of culture shock. We knew we'd be back for another week after San Miguel, so we'd just have to wait for the "magic" that made it the New York Times number one choice for the 52 places to visit in 2016.

The famous Ideal bakery - just load up a huge silver tray from over 1,000 choices, take it to the counter and before you can say heart attack you have a large box full of goodies to go.
After ten days in San Miguel de Allende we came back to Mexico City, and we did find some magic that second week. Our Airbnb was in the very center of the city close to all the major sights and the pulsing night life of downtown. We were able to step outside our latest home and get right to the business of being tourists. And when we’d had enough we could step behind the door to the street into blissful silence because we were deep inside a converted palace! Ours was one of only 11 apartments in the complex. It was cool, comfortable and peaceful. We met our host, Juan Carlos, a great young engineer who had a hand in the refurbishment of the building and now manages the apartments.

Our oasis in Mexico City. The perfect airbnb for sight seeing and for resting in between!
Michael was able to attend a football match in this soccer mad city and had a great experience. He’s busy writing his sports report blog on that. We become proficient in using the metro system and got further afield. A visit to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadelupe was a moving experience.

Michael's birds-eye view of the football match. Watch for his blog about his adventure!
We sat high up in the balcony of the stunning Palace of the Arts to experience a performance of the Mexico City Folk Ballet. It was a blur of color from hundreds of amazing costumes and the music got into your soul. The Mariachi Band stole the show with a grand finale - especially with a jazz inspired dueling harps solo!
The Mexico City folk ballet was a definite highlight of our stay.
We had lunch with a former colleague of Michael’s who runs FIRST in Mexico City. We met Barbara and her son Alex at one of the city’s finest restaurants. As we ran through our adventures thus far, you could watch her turning pale as she heard about us using the metro, Michael attending a football match on his own, and, horror of horrors, eating street food. That was not her Mexico City - and she felt we were fortunate to be in one piece. She did, however, approve of the ballet.

This doesn't really even begin to show the disrepair on the sidewalks all over Mexico City.
More than once were given this sage piece of advice "when you are walking, look down - never mind the scenery or your cell phone, you don't want to break an ankle!" Never were truer words spoken. After three weeks we were fairly confident traversing the hap-hazard sidewalks and pothole riddled streets - but I am baffled that we didn’t see more walking wounded on crutches in both Mexico City and San Miguel.

The street food was tantalizing - you could eat three meals a day for under $10.
Fresh fruit with lime, chili and salt! Had to buy my own shaker to take on the road!
Perfect on pineapple, corn, and steak!
Poor walking conditions are just part of the ramshackle world that is Mexico I suppose. And worth the risk in order to get to the street food. We had heard all the warnings, but who could resist the staggering variety and the tantalizing aroma of sizzling meat (some more discernible than others), tortillas made on the spot to fill with intriguing toppings, sauces, and fresh guacamole, then there were melt in your mouth tamales and spears of perfectly ripe fruit sprinkled with lime and chili powder! All for pocket change. I knew I couldn't. And eventually, Michael couldn't either. Unfortunately on the day before we left we got hit with a dose of "tourista" after we enjoyed 5 tacos for 20 pesos (a dollar). We were unwell for a couple of days which made for awkward travel, but personally, I think it was worth every crunchy, drippy, spicy bite.

A lovely sculpture at our nearest metro station. The trains were clean, fast and crowded!
In the end, I would describe Mexico like an impressionist painting covered with bold stokes of vibrant color and dark smudges that when viewed as a whole, becomes a clear and very beautiful picture of a country full of warm, proud people who celebrate life as it comes. 

Thanks for following along,

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads

Friday, February 5, 2016

Heading to Cuba!

 Michael and I head to Cuba for three weeks tomorrow morning! We are so excited about exploring that amazing island - and we're going to do it by bus! We've got 5 Airbnbs lined up in different cities and they all look very interesting. Our first stay will be with a Sylvio & Julia, Airbnb hosts from Havana we met at the Airbnb Open in Paris last November. Their home looks beautiful - and as with all the others, we will eat our meals there with other guests.

We are both looking forward to a lull in internet connection and cellphone coverage. We have plenty of reading and writing to do - but we also plan on slipping into the past and enjoying some "island time". 

Sylvio & Julia spoke on the Keynote stage ahead of us, right after Airbnb announced their successful launch in Cuba. Currently there are over 3,000 listings there! Here's a great article from Fast Company that summarizes how it happened way better than I could!

I had so much to say about Mexico that I am still working on that blog! Should be out as soon as I have a good internet connection! We look forward to sharing that experience and our Cuban adventures after we get back on the 26th of February.

Debbie and Michael Campell
The Senior Nomads