Christmas Milagro in Mexico
“As so many have done before me, Phoebe the Cat and I arrived in San Miguel de Allende to begin a new life in the Colonial Highlands of old Mexico.” So began my first newspaper column for Aténcion San Miguel on my expat experience.
I did feel quite proud of myself for accomplishing this move on my own, and beginning a new life in a country where I couldn’t speak the language. The truth was, it was exciting as well as challenging. I was the kind of person who felt better about a bad situation if I did something, anything; if I made a decision and went for it. Perhaps even a bad decision was better for me than to feel buffeted by winds and chance. I had been learning these past ten years since my husband’s death that if I wanted something I had to go after it. Nothing wonderful would just fall in my lap.
Vicente was waiting for me with his taxi at the Leon airport holding a sign with my name as prearranged by my new landlady. The road to San Miguel was long and dark and Vicente drove carefully, mindful of the topes (speed bumps) in the middle of seemingly nowhere, and the dead animals by the side of the road. The lights of San Miguel gleamed in the distant hills out of the shadowy countryside.
Soon we bumped along on the town’s cobblestones, surrounded by adobe walls and a few old-fashioned colored Christmas lights, and strangely enough, Chinese lanterns. We passed a man in a sombrero and serape in a small plaza, and climbed up the hill and down a miniscule alley, where we stopped in front of a long wall at my new Mexican home. I carried Phoebe and Vicente brought in two suitcases. “But where are the purple bags?” I asked in panic. We searched the car uselessly, frantically.
My carry-on bags never made it out of the Leon Airport in Mexico — the bags where I put everything too important to be checked. I must have turned my attention to Phoebe, and poof, everything changed. And the timing couldn’t have been more poignant - it was right before Christmas.
After getting Phoebe set up with her sandbox and dishes in the downstairs kitchen of our new place and trying to take in that I was now living alone in a foreign country, I searched endlessly through my two remaining bags.
I went to bed but couldn’t sleep. I only tossed and burned with worry about the loss of my irreplaceable belongings. I pictured someone picking up the bags, searching them for things to sell (my jewelry items only, probably), and tossing the rest out the window of a pickup truck on some dusty Mexican road. The image of my family photos blowing through the cactus just made me sick.
The next day my new landlady called the airport for me because as yet I had no Spanish. But the news was bad: no found purple bags. She counseled me to forget it and move on. Easy for her to say in the middle of her Texas mansion plunked down in a garden in a beautiful highland town in Colonial Mexico. Not only did she own her huge hacienda and my apartment, she also had built and rented out a casa and a casita all constructed in the same walled compound. And of course all four dwellings were full of her things. I only had a cat and four suitcases, and now the two most important bags were missing.
This new loss after so many recent losses in my life caused me to mourn for days. I went to lovely St Paul´s, the gringo Protestant church, and prayed to accept the inevitable.
A World of Change
The day of Christmas Eve, the town was full of people carrying baby Jesuses hurriedly through the streets on their way to all the Nativities where the Holy Child would later appear in ceremonies that included rocking Him in cradles of lace to lullabies. Poinsettias, or noche buenas, the largest I had ever seen, were everywhere — in fountains, in hanging baskets, lining stairways and courtyards. In the central Jardin, there was a living Nativity scene in the bandstand, with barnyard animals that children could pet. A tall young man encountered two nuns in their full white habits walking ahead of me on the sidewalk, and kissed their hands. I overheard him say, “Me encanta… me encanta,” and the sisters smiled and laughed, not immune to the charms of a handsome man.
That night I went to a party given by a friend of a friend, and as seems to happen so often in San Miguel, in talking about a problem, help happens. I was learning that serendipity is the way here. At the party I met someone who was leaving the next day for New York from Leon, and she offered to inquire at the airport for me about my bags. I hadn’t gone back myself because of the transportation difficulty — one hour, forty-five minute expensive taxi ride there and back — and my lack of hope in finding them.
I took the bus up to the supermercado on the hill and bought some new underwear and some makeup, although all of the shades were too dark for my very white skin. The bus was decorated with crucifixes and images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and a boy dusted off the windows at major stops and then collected the fares in a plastic bucket. Gigante was like a surreal American supermarket, where things were kind of familiar, but upon close inspection were totally different. Open bins of sticky candies and pickles, and the smell of fish, strange looking plant things in the produce department, only frozen shrimp, ice cream and ice cubes in the freezer, guards with automatic weapons by the check stands.
The small supermarket in the center of town was more user-friendly, even though the funeral home next door featured a big stack of tiny white satin baby coffins in the display window.
I wore the same pair of earrings every day, but bought a beaded bracelet and necklace from an indigenous woman hawking them over her arm in a restaurant next to the Jardin.
At least I had Phoebe. I certainly would not have traded her for the missing bags, or anything else I didn’t have.
For the first time in my life since the age of twelve, I didn’t have to work. I had no job, no one who expected me nor cancer treatments to show up for as in my recent past. Luckily I wrote travel articles and my column, but had no time clock to punch. Such a strange feeling of freedom, yet purposelessness. My daily mission became finding out where things were, and how to get things done in this new land. I quickly learned that each item on my “to do” list took at least four hours.
After five days, acceptance of the lost suitcases was growing. I figured this was just another lesson in how we don’t need things, how we are here not to accumulate but to live and do. Looking at the poverty around me of the Mexican and indigenous peoples gave me a new perspective. I didn’t really need so many pairs of earrings, how often did I look at those photos anyway, and if my friends wanted to contact me they had my address, even if I didn’t have theirs. It would all work out, and I would be a better person for it.
I was sick and tired of loss, but wasn’t this just another lesson in how to live on my own? We come with nothing, we leave with nothing; we can’t take it with us, possessions are just a burden, etc. All the helpful clichés spun around in my head actually making me feel better.
Early Christmas morning the phone rang: "Cherie, your bags are here!" It was the lady from the party, calling from the airport on her way to New York.
I immediately called Vicente the taxi driver and woke him too. "I’ll be right there!" He felt terrible and unnecessarily guilty about the loss of my luggage. “It was my responsibility, my job,” he moaned in Spanish.
Twenty minutes later we were tearing along the empty Christmas morning road to Leon. At the airport we searched through the lost luggage and my bags weren’t there, although there was a similar purple one and I thought probably that was the one my new friend saw.
Vicente also wanted to check in Customs up by the gate. When we approached, we saw my orphaned bags behind locked doors. There they sat, both of them, like my oldest friends in the world. Traveling unlocked with me on the plane, now they sported plastic security seals. I offered a tip, but the officials waved it away, smiling at the tearful reunion of a gringa and her stuff.
“Gracias, muchas gracias, Feliz Navidad!” I called, walking through the airport hugging my luggage.
Vicente and I laughed all the way back to San Miguel where, after cutting off the plastic locks, I found everything completely untouched.
Getting my things back was a miracle and the best Christmas present I ever received. Those five days without the security blanket of the cherished contents of my bags gave me perspective. I could have managed without them, I had been managing. It had not been the end of the world. I had even learned something about myself. Nevertheless because of the kindness of strangers and a miracle of good luck, I had a very Feliz Navidad in my new hometown, and an incredible Bienvenidos a Mexico.
Vicente invited me to his extended family’s Christmas celebration that night. But that is another story of milagros, magical realism, and me in Mexico.
Written by Cherie Magnus