San Miguel de Allende: Home to the Pink Castle (El Castillo Rosado)

Market Place
Market Place

Part two of our Weekend Trip was the town of San Miguel de Allende. Only one hour by bus from Guanajuato, and in the same state, it spreads out over a hill-like area. Once we stepped foot into San Miguel, I was in love. Unlike Guanajuato, the vibes were all right here!

The town is certainly more touristy. And even though it has slightly less people living here than in Guanajuato, the streets are certainly busier. Tourists come alive in this place, and it is more populated thanks to people visiting mostly from America, Canada, and many more countries.

San Miguel was gorgeous during the evening hours when we arrived. After checking into our hostel, this time with more visitors in the lobby than in our other one, we set out to explore the town (by foot, of course). Our location was in the middle of the busy downtown area, so we strolled along, stopping here and there to compare restaurant prices. Not being satisfied with the first street, we turned corners and were facing a grand market area, which is probably where most of San Miguel’s action goes down, period. Among local ice cream carts, street musicians, and gift vendors, I finally found what I had missed out on in the week before: Mariachi! Albeit not totally local, since they stem from the state of Jalisco, a group of elderly men was performing in yellow costumes and having a lot of fun by singing as loud as they could.

Blurry picture of my first Mariachi
Blurry picture of my first Mariachi
Church close to the market
Church close to the market

Cobble-stoned streets, ugly masks in front of night clubs, drunk people tumbling around downtown – we were certainly ready for another party night. After having dinner and getting dressed back at our hostel we decided that 11 PM was a decent time to start off with a rooftop bar. And the bar was awesome except for the fact that they didn’t have enough room for 4 girlies… Say what? Instead, we went to a neighboring rooftop, less populated, with a DJ and an older crowd (think 40 years and up) and I became addicted to Micheladas after having my first one here. Well, one hour in, and we are starting to feel like dancing so we set off for a night club. El Grito had a hideous mask outside of the club (it translates into “The Scream”), but we got in in no time. And were among a crowd of mostly teenage early twens a ton of people! So many, actually, that my friend got annoyed with being pushed out of the way every three seconds by yet another disrespectful Mexican guy who just wanted to demonstrate his power. 30 minutes later, we were back on the streets and headed to the rooftop bar of our choice (yes, the same one that didn’t have room for us earlier). Here we met my friend’s cousin and her group. After a quick midnight meal (or early morning snack), we headed on to a less crowded night club. While we did pay a cover for our first one, this one was free. The DJ played Mexican hit songs, mostly Molotov rock. Overall, I have to say that Mexican club music resembles music you would hear all over the world plus some native tunes in between. At 5 AM we called it a night and finally went to sleep off our exhaustion.

Night View
Night View

Sunday, our last day of this lovely Weekend Trip: I parted from the other three girlies, who bought a lot of Tortas (Mexican sammiches, so great!) for breakfast, and I made the mistake to buy a bagel, which ended up tasting like cardboard (and being completely overpriced). While the others were probably wandering around on their own, I set off to go up and downhill, until I felt I was almost lost. The further away I went from the crazy busy market place, the more beautiful the town became. Unlike Guanajuato, the streets were totally walkable here and I didn’t have to worry of being run over by a mad cab driver. Passing the market place once more, a horse was being lead around for people to sit on and take pictures together with a Mexican dressed up as a Cowboy. Or as Karla put it: A typical Charro. Because Mexican cowboys look a teeny bit different than American ones, do.
And while we are at it: I also ran across lots of Cowboy errr Charro boots, since the state of Guanajuato is known for making the best shoes in Mexico. Indeed, over half of the shoes produced in Mexico are made in Léon, which is not too far from San Miguel.

El Charro with his horse....
El Charro with his horse….
... and some charro boots.
… and some charro boots.

Anyhow, when I almost got lost, I asked a girl where the pink castle was. You know, that Disney-like building, that is the landmark of the city. She didn’t know what I was talking about at all, and I am sure my foreign accent wasn’t that bad. But then Karla told me later that it is actually a church (she just likes to call it a castle). So to get this straight for any future visitors: The church looks like a castle, is in the middle of the market place and is actually called La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel. It was built in the 17th Century and it looks quite stunning!

La Parroquia
La Parroquia

In the afternoon, our stay was already over. We took off, this time with a cab that was punctual, and soon were on our way back to Guadalajara. Two days spent in a different state = two days over way too soon.

[For more pictures, go to: This is Mexico: San Miguel de Allende]

Cleaning Up Sandy’s Mess: Volunteering in Red Hook

It’s been a while since I updated this blog. Many things have happened in between… Voting for a new president. A snowstorm hitting New York… It’s been some time but Sandy is not yet forgotten. Some people are still without electricity in parts of the City, New Jersey, and New York State. Such as Brooklyn. Trains have partially picked up service but Williamsburg is still pretty much cut off from the rest of the world. Literally! No gas, no trains, and the only way to get a hold of someone is either by phone or foot.

Despite all the misery, or rather, because of it all, many people felt like helping out others who were not in need. So did I, as on Sunday I got to volunteer for the very first time in my life! I would have never imagined it to be right after a hurricane hit this city. But the weekend was long and the more I did nothing, the more I felt I finally wanted to do something about this miserable feeling of helplessness. Luckily, my roommate told me about volunteer opportunities that were close by and easily accessible for us since we were in Brooklyn. “People in Red Hook still don’t have electricity,” she explained on Friday. “It’s insane how much is going on there; the church definitely needs some help this weekend!”

So early in the afternoon my friend and I took a train and a bus over to the formerly flooded part. While we were passed on at the community center, we walked down to the Red Hook Initiative. “Sure, we can always use a helping hand!” a guy exclaimed as soon as we got there. A line of homeless-looking people had gathered around hot food supplies that were handed out to the less fortunate. However, my friend had brought with her own gallon of water and canned food, so we wanted to get rid of her donations first.
“Yes, non-prepared foods will have to be donated elsewhere… Just go down three blocks and there should be a church on your left,” the guy told us while turning to a helpless resident asking for blankets.

Donating food with a friend at a church in Red Hook

“This volunteer stuff is not really super-organized,” is all we thought and then we went down to the church. A mass of people was trying to get rid of all the stuff they brought. “Blankets and flashlights across the street please, water to your left and canned food to your right,” a woman cried out. My friend and I were a tiny bit confused and started to become annoyed with how complicated donating had become. “Here, I’ll take that from you. Of course not for me, for the church,” a guy said and carried our donations up the church steps after noticing how helpless we looked. Done deal!

We then went back to the Initiative and joined a group of approximately 40 people, all eager to help out. We were asked to form groups of 6 people and then the assignment was explained to us: We were to enter the projects and take on two buildings per group. Since every floor had about 5 apartments and every building had 6 floors, we were good to go for the next two hours or so. Our task was to knock on people’s doors, ask them if they needed medical assistance, and jot down what they had to say in case it seemed like an emergency situation. Which really none of us would have known how to react had it come down to a true emergency situation, to tell you the truth.

Volunteering in Red Hook

We trotted off to so-called buildings 19 and 20. Our group all of a sudden had 9 people instead of 6, but no one really cared anymore. The people hanging outside of the projects eyed us suspiciously but let us pass without further comments. I was pretty happy it was broad daylight and I was somewhat protected by 8 more white people by my side.

A group of teenagers had huddled underneath the stairways, since an outlet had been put there to charge phones and other electronic devices. Three of us took on the fifth floor. Out of all those five apartments, one person answered and assured us that she was fine. Then an elderly lady came wheezing up the stairs as we were about to go to floor 2. She had a hard time climbing up the steps so we asked her if everything was okay. She said she needed an asthma pump soon since she had lost hers. For some reason, she kept running up and down the stairs, though, and we saw her again outside as we left the building. A few of the other emergencies were lack of insulin for diabetics and then of course some more asthma cases.

As we entered the second building, a strong smell of feces struck our noses. We had decided to take on one building with four people only just to not give the people a heart attack when having too many volunteers banging on their doors. Nothing too special here. In the third house we actually ran into another group of volunteers who had mistaken this complex for their project. But whatever, no one really had a plan by now anyways. I rang the bell of an old Polish couple – they were probably around 70 years old. They didn’t speak English but their apartment smelt strongly like gas. Such as so many other apartments we had seen.

Volunteering in the Projects

Over 80 percent of the apartments in the projects had no electricity and it seemed that only arbitrary ones had power for whatever reason. So in order to keep warm, especially the elderly had decided to just turn their oven up a notch and run the risk of inhaling poison in exchange for any kind of heat. After one and a half hours we were done. We then saw another group of volunteers, possibly with a different organization, going from building to building and handing out foods and other supplies. We felt that this was not really the sense of having us bothered the people first, since both the food and the medical examination could have all been done at once.

When we got back and reported to the Initiative with our notes in our hands, we didn’t feel like we had accomplished much. And the odd vibes we got when entering the area made us feel bad for the people who had to endure living there without power, especially during night time. There might be many harmless people in the projects but all it takes is one bad person to turn your night into a true night mare, were our thoughts as we parted.

It felt good to get out there and do something and many other people had the same ideas on that particular weekend. However, it could have been a bit more organized by the organizations, as to not randomly bother people for 10 different things in one single day. My friend in Williamsburg loaded trucks with care packages to be sent to destroyed areas. Another friend actually drove down to the Rockaways. How she managed to get gas in a fuel-impoverished city is a mystery to me. The picture below shows a washed-away boardwalk on what used to be my favorite beach this summer. It’s incredible things like these that make me understand how strong this storm really was…

A truly sad sight at Far Rockaway…. The wooden stems are what is left of the “boardwalk”