Published: Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
San Miguel de Allende is a vacation spot utterly unlike its lurid, internationally-recognized as Dionysian Spring Break destination and compatriot city, Cancun. Whether or not this is a good thing is entirely up to you, the trip-goer, which is pretty much a euphemism for saying that if your tolerance for bullsh—tier tourist attractions and even bullsh—tier tourists is very high, then Cancun, and probably not San Miguel, is your place. If it is, I sincerely wish you well on your travels through a city my mother dubbed “hell,” a moniker that I, even as a puerile and hormonal boy of 15, begrudgingly had to agree with despite what I had been told about its bikini-to-not-bikini ratio. Because, and maybe this is just an Olcott family “thing,” I’ve always seen vacations as a time to do something else, be somewhere else, generally just experience and explore what else is or could be. And that’s not what Cancun is. Cancun is a frat party, Las Vegas, and South Beach rolled up into something like a gigantic chuck beef patty thrown into a microwave (Cancun is hot and bombards you with potentially harmful electromagnetic wave-particles, too) because it’s Friday night and you’re feeling lazy after a strenuous week of exhaustingly boring work … all in Mexico. That is to say, it’s a hyperbolized microcosm of all the vices of American culture placed in a lawfully laxer country because we probably couldn’t get away with what we do there if it was in the US of A.
Cancun then—like nuking chuck beef, “Sin City,” “frat parties,” and “South Beach”—is a uniquely American and reductive solution to a time-honored American problem, the problem, for it and the latter three at least (nuking chuck has a decidedly different problem/solution set associated with it), being, “How do I manage my stress and unhappiness?” The solution is to “put it off until later.” Cancun, a concentrated and more risque version of America, embraces this fact, providing, like America, plenty of methods of self-destructive escape—the opportunity to obliterate unhappiness —from the raging beach bar to the pseudo-ownership of timeshares.
San Miguel de Allende is a bit different. It’s a nine-hour drive from the nearest beachfront, is set into the side of the rolling hills of the Bajio region of Central Mexico, and is, according to Weather.com and my own experience there, ridiculously temperate and comfortable all the time. There is exactly one stoplight in the entire city, and there are next to no car accidents, due as much to the temperance of the locals as it is to the charming cobblestone streets that almost guarantee a ruptured tire at speeds above 30 miles per hour. Donkeys, or burros, freely share the road in some parts of the city, the majority of restaurants and bars do not have wireless Internet access, there is only one Starbucks, and zero drunkenly staggering adults (youthful or senescent, fatuously yelling at nothing), no ostentatious advertisements, no impatient and/or malcontented waiters/waitresses, no fast-food: nada that is anything close to the chest-compressing mania of Cancun-ian and American life.
Each of those things contributed nicely to a serene and picturesque trip, but what was most important about the whole excursion was that I actually experienced an elsewhere, the culture of some other place, and not just some sleazy receptacle for the usual debauchery posing as elsewhere. What I never got out of Cancun, but got in bunches in San Miguel, was a glimpse, just a quick peek, at what being Mexican really means. As it turns out, Mexican culture, or, at least, San Miguel’s culture, is a down-to-earth and gregarious one: refreshingly unmaterialistic and just genuinely kind. Conversely, after “staycationing” in Cancun, all I learned was that Americans have some seriously suppressed resentment toward our drinking age, and Mexicans will happily take the money we throw out of our pockets like it’s confetti on New Year’s as we obliterate, obliterate, and obliterate away.
And that, obliteration, is the crux of the larger problem of which Cancun is a part. We do it because the alternative, which is to frequently take stock of the potentially painful truths in our lives, to look them right in the face with a chin held high, requires both immense courage and the ability to stop the fast-spinning world for moment. Americans, working as hard as they do, don’t have time to stop, and being courageous is an exhausting endeavor—so the drudgery, on top of our exhaustion, builds up quickly, unchecked, until we escape the grind and the pace slows to a crawl, on a vacation to Cancun perhaps, and the floodgates open. Courage then lies spent in a corner, and we turn to outside means to obliterate the unseemly and rising tide of pain.
But what if we did have time to stop the turning? What if the pace of American life was slower?
San Miguel-ian culture, I think, holds the answer. Take, for example, how the locals drink tequila. They sip it slowly so the bitter, squirm-inducing taste actually stays on the palate for as long as it takes to finish. Doing this forces you to sit and consider the liquid in your hand (tequila is strong, as many of us know), to take an extra two minutes than you would normally have taken to think about what you’re putting in yourself and why you’re doing it. And once you start thinking like that, then the drink ceases to reasonably exist as a method of achieving some analgesic end, and you find yourself sipping because it’s actually a pretty tasty drink, that shudder is sort of fun, and you’re in no rush to forget what no longer bothers you. In this manner, the people of San Miguel lose the need for obliteration. By taking just a few minutes extra every day to consider what they do and why they do it, they create time to simply live for the sake of joy, for the sake of their families, friends, strangers, for the sake of laughter, play, giving, sharing, and general benevolence. And the concept really works. Every single person my family and I met on our travels was ecstatic about being alive. They were living for the sake of life, and, beyond a shadow of a doubt, happy.