I A lit­tle red house in Mex­ico

Fall­ing in love with the city of Gua­na­ju­ato

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - KATE ARM­STRONG

STRANGEthings can hap­pen when you bare your soul to a stranger. I am sit­ting un­der a man­i­cured lau­rel tree in a tiny plaza in the UNESCO her­itage-listed city of Gua­na­ju­ato in the north-cen­tral high­lands of Mex­ico, four hours by road from Mex­ico City.

School­child­ren, de­lighted by their play­ground free­dom, race around a foun­tain. I turn to my bench neigh­bour, an Amer­i­can ex­pa­tri­ate, it tran­spires. ‘‘My soul feels right here,’’ I tell her. I catch my­self; did I re­ally say that? What a cliche. But with this reve­la­tion, my ad­ven­ture be­gins. On the cor­ner of a tiny laneway off the plaza, a small two-storey house catches my eye. It’s slen­der, painted red and white, with a Juliet bal­cony. The front spans barely a cou­ple of arms’ lengths; it’s quirky shape is like a wedge of cheese with the tip cut off. It is ir­re­sistible. What if . . . But the house is not for sale and I am not in the mar­ket. With Scot­tish an­ces­try, I’m about as Mex­i­can as hag­gis, but I’m start­ing to be­lieve that per­haps I was a Latina in a for­mer life as I feel in­ex­pli­ca­bly at home here in Gua­na­ju­ato.

I have been fall­ing for this place for some time. As a con­trib­u­tor to Lonely Planet’s Mex­ico guide, and al­ready a Span­ish speaker, Gua­na­ju­ato is my ‘‘patch’’. I’ve got to know some of the students at the univer­sity. I can map the net­works of un­der­ground tun­nels (the main trans­port thor­ough­fares) and the twist­ing al­ley­ways lined with colo­nial man­sions. I can iden­tify the city’s land­marks, in­clud­ing the many churches, plazas and the pink, blue and yel­low houses that tum­ble down the oth­er­wise arid val­ley. Reg­u­larly, I visit mu­se­ums, in­clud­ing the beau­ti­ful Diego Rivera Mu­seum, birth­place of Mex­ico’s favourite pain­ter, and the mummy mu­seum, a bizarre col­lec­tion of pre­served bod­ies first ex­ca­vated from ul­tra- dry crypts in 1865.

On this visit, guide­book re­search over, my part­ner, Chris, joins me; it’s his first time here. ‘‘There’s our ca­sita,’’ I j oke, as we pass through the plaza. He gives me a be­mused smile.

Over a week, how­ever, Gua­na­ju­ato casts its spell on Chris, too. We am­ble through Jardin Union, a stun­ning, elon­gated tri­an­gle of clipped trees, un­der which linger mari­achi play­ers, who smoke and strum their gui­tars. We puff our way up to the awe-in­spir­ing gi­ant statue, La Pip­ila, which af­fords in­cred­i­ble vis­tas.

We spend hours at a hole-in-the wall cof­fee spot chat­ting with lo­cals, in­clud­ing Felipe, an artist of mo­ji­gan­gas (gi­ant papier-mache fig­ures), and Greg, an Amer­i­can who plays French horn in Gua­na­ju­ato’s sym­phony or­ches­tra.

Our hol­i­day over, we must re­turn to Aus­tralia, but we are rest­less. We miss Mex­ico’s colour and fes­ti­vals; we long for our ec­cen­tric friends and gordi­tas (street food) and even miss the loud pops of fire­crack­ers.

We try to make make fun of our nos­tal­gia but Mex­ico has us by the cas­tane­tas.

A month passes and I re­ceive an email from the Amer­i­can woman I met in the plaza. Her news is in­cred­i­ble: the own­ers of the lit­tle red house are in­ter­ested in sell­ing. I feel like a char­ac­ter in a Mex­i­can te­len­ov­ela (soap opera).

I squeal in dis­be­lief at such a co­in­ci­dence, ring the own­ers and put in an of­fer. This process se­verely tests both my Span­ish and my ne­go­ti­a­tion skills. The own­ers scoff one minute (have I omit­ted a zero?), and ac­cept our of­fer the next (have I added a zero?). We seal the deal.

Weare the slightly stunned but very happy own­ers of a five-room Mex­i­can ca­sita. We let out loud whoops of joy, but there’s just one de­tail we’ve over­looked — we’ve never set foot inside. Smit­ten by the ex­te­rior, we know noth­ing of its lack of down­pipes, wa­ter drib­bling down a side wall and an as­bestos wa­ter tank.

Re­al­ity hits. We panic. We ask friends to email us pho­tos of the in­te­rior. The ten­ants, univer­sity students, still live there. The rooms are crammed with fur­ni­ture, the down­stairs liv­ing area is a makeshift bed­room. Judg­ing by over­flow­ing bas­kets in the toi­let, the plumb­ing is ba­sic. The walls are cov­ered in flat­tened cig­a­rette pack­ets, the students’ post-mod­ern art­works.

A jumble of hang­ing wires is con­nected to an oldfashioned tele­phone mouth­piece; it’s an il­le­gal phone. The house is chaotic. Dirty. Run-down. And ours.

Nev­er­the­less, just as all par­ents love the new­borns, we can see the po­ten­tial in our mod­est ca­sita. Our friends are not so sure but my mother is more op­ti­mistic: ‘‘You’ll be like that man in A Year i n Provence,’’ she ex­claims ex­cit­edly. I cringe; Mum (bless her) has pointed to­wards at least 12 months of ren­o­va­tions.

It is two months be­fore we can re­turn to Gua­na­ju­ato to for­mally claim the ca­sita. Our old-fash­ioned be­spec­ta­cled notary hands us the keys and shakes our hands (this is in lieu of the cer­e­mony that should have been per­formed with the own­ers, the Martinez fam­ily, had we been here ear­lier to fol­low Mex­i­can pro­to­col). We gig­gle ner­vously as we shove open the warped front door. A bare cav­ern stares back at us. The for­mer own­ers have not just cleaned up but cleaned out the house. In Mex­ico, we dis­cover, a house sale doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily in­clude fit­tings.

A few days later, Senor and Senora Martinez in­vite us to meet them; clearly, they want to check us out. It’s a jovial oc­ca­sion. They lead us around the plaza and in­tro­duce us to its res­i­dents — the den­tist, the pro­pri­etors of the milk shop and the in­ter­net place. The lo­cal butcher, di­rect­ing a worker who is haul­ing a huge car­cass across the plaza, calls out, ‘‘I’m your butcher!’’ as he claims in­stant cus­tomer rights. The in­tro­duc­tions are old-fash­ioned, sub­tle in­di­ca­tions to the lo­cals that we grin­gos are ac­cept­able. We feel hum­bled.

Our jobs beckon; un­for­tu­nately, we must re­turn to Aus­tralia. We have lit­tle choice but to di­rect the ca­sita’s de­sign and ren­o­va­tions via re­mote con­trol. To date, the project is pro­ceed­ing poco a poco (lit­tle by lit­tle). And as many have pre­dicted, we’re frus­trated by de­lays, that in­fer­nal word manana and the telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions blips with our cre­ative builder-ar­chi­tect. The phrase ‘‘on Mex­i­can time’’ has be­come part of our daily con­ver­sa­tions.

We are not even sure how long we can live in Gua­na­ju­ato each year, but that is ir­rel­e­vant. Once it’s fin­ished, we will open La Ca­sita Roja to friends so they, too, can ex­pe­ri­ence the city’s magic, even if they want noth­ing more than to wear a som­brero, drink mar­gar­i­tas on the ter­race and do some soul-search­ing.

IGOR SAKTOR

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