Never mind that I arrived in a medieval city in Mexico in the middle of the night after a stomach-churning 10-hour bus ride from the coast. Never mind that the next night was the most confounding U.S. election in history. Just the physical place of Guanajuato is confounding. There is only one other place in the world where I have felt more disoriented and that is the ancient medina in Fez, Morocco, where we had to pay a local kid to show us back out of the market maze. This confounding city high up in the desert mountains is to be my home for the next three months.
Guanajuato may be known for its vibrant university culture and its steep, colourful jumble of dwellings, but in the few days I've been here the vibe is anything but festive. As I huff up and down the winding callejones (narrow alleys) to and from my language school, eyes are downcast. Voices are low. Is it my imagination or do they stop talking when I pass? I have a knee-jerk reaction to slap on a Canadian flag badge but quickly realize that that's fairly insensitive to the Americans living here, some of whom couldn't even drag themselves to class the morning after.
People are strange when you're a stranger. Soy un extraño en un lugar extraño: I am a stranger in a strange land.
This city is built on an ancient mine, in a steep ravine. Its main motor-vehicle thoroughways are the old tunnels built to divert two rivers after a disastrous flood. Google Maps adds to the confusion by indicating underground vehicle routes not normally used by pedestrians and omitting most of the serpentine pathways that also wind up the mountains as narrow stone steps. The Google Street View icon inevitably lands in a dark tunnel. In short, even current technology is confounded by this enchanting city.
Encantadora: lovely, charming, enchanting. I am under its charm.
I have been trying to find some way to organize this physical place in my mind, find some pattern to rely on but it's an elusive pursuit. A local guy who drove me home after one of the city's several ex-pat election night gatherings told me that getting around by car is always a challenge because if you miss your turnoff (or wind up on a street too narrow for your vehicle) you may have to circumnavigate the entire city again. Even on this night he had to ask for directions to my casita twice after we ended up in a tight spot on a one-way callejone.
Initially I saw the city as an onion, cut in half and then scooped out, concentric circles in a concave plane. But that's too symmetrical, and those rings don't connect. I took out my confounding city map (some sort of 3-D map might make more sense) and my sketchbook and started to feel the city through tracing the main walkways and roadways. That has taken me to spiderwebs and fingerprints and Fordite, those chunks of layers of auto paint mined from abandoned car factories in Detroit that through the lapidary process are revealed as mid-century gems. Not enough planes.
I'm thinking of gnarly wood burls, sanded to reveal irregular concentric circles — closer but the interconnectedness of the line is missing, and the topography is not a smooth cross-section but a jaggedy jumble, the result of the confluence of daily human walking patterns over time, the formidable geography of rivers and ravine, climate and a tumultuous political and economic history.
I am now moving to crystalline formations, like sea salt left in a craggy rock at low tide — an appropriate analogy for a person who grew up on the coast — but I have a hunch that the closest pattern connection will be found in microbiology or mathematic models.
Sigo confundido. I remain confused.