In tiny Guanajuato, Mexico, Helen Paris Riemer studied with friends in the central plaza, while duelling mariachi ensembles blew their horns - all part of the routine.

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Mnemonics and Mariachis: Culture and Classes in Guanajuato – Mexico

It is six in the morning. A cacophony of noise splits the morning. I bolt in my narrow bed beneath the stairs. Rini's voice floats down from the king-size upper loft, “What the heck.” I tangle in my sheets, the noise louder now, urgent. This is not the usual morning medley; it's aggressive, demanding. I stagger to the window. A wall of sound smacks the pane; bells, bells, bells. Rini joins me. I slide the latch and pull the windows inward. Noise fills the apartment with a big clap of warm air.

We can practically reach out and touch the bell tower. Through the arches of the campanile, we see the big iron bells are rolling completely around, ropes dancing as though they are being pulled from below.

“Do you think it’s a summons?” I ask.

“Yes! It’s the first Friday of Lent, they’re calling people to church.”

Beyond the bell tower and the domes of the cathedral, beyond the statues on the roof of the Theatre Juarez, small houses of bright blue, pink, and yellow climb the green hills, are softly glowing in the morning light. Pale sky silhouett the rugged cliff faces that hug and shelter the city of Guanajuato, considered one of Mexico’s loveliest. Birds flap around the arches at the top of the tower; unsettled, wanting to go back in.

The blind dog on the roof below turns his worried face up to our lookout. The only sound he hears is our window opening. I break little pieces of the quesadilla I had put aside last night. I throw them to him, one by one. He can’t see them come, but he waits while they fall. When he hears the impact, he turns his head and slowly searches.

The noise starts dropping away – spaces between the clangs – more spaces, till with a three, two, and an echo – silence. Our ears ring. We go back to bed.

Guanajuato is a treasure. Barely a month ago, we hadn't even known about it. Now we are enchanted. Take a week, enroll in Spanish school, rent a private apartment. Ours, fully furnished with a king size upper loft, has a stocked kitchen, not just pans and glassware, but coffee, rice, juice, spices, pancake mix and more. Blushing, flirty Ruben runs it. He says he's single – who was the Latin lovely peeking from his quarters downstairs?

Apt Casa Carcamanes
Apt Casa Carcamanes

Casa Carcamanes (the apartment) is secure; the ground floor entry door always locks. Ruben tends his garden café and fountain on the main floor (delightful for chocolate cake in the afternoon). It’s around the corner from the Jardin de Union – Guanajuato’s meeting place, strolling place, eating and listening to mariachis place – where everybody goes. A bottle of wine in that plaza is $20.00, a mariachi song is $10.00, not cheap but who needs cheap when you can have this? Besides, the apartment is cheap: $300.00 for six nights, located right in the thick of things. The school is inexpensive: $100.00 for the first week with a one time registration fee of $35.00. Each week thereafter, it is $100.00 or less, special deals for longer stays.

The school is Escuela Mexicana. They provide economical homestays, close to the school, where students rent private rooms in a local residence, sharing the living areas. The hostesses offer traditional breakfasts and dinners, and they happily engage in Spanish conversation. Escuela Mexicana doesn’t insist on advance payment. Drop them a note and show up on a Monday morning at 9:00 a.m. The building, on a car-free cobbled street close to everything, is segmented into many little classrooms and stairs, and open sky areas.

On arrival you take a seat in a café type room with other first timers. A staff person comes and gets everyone to put their name on a list. One by one, you are called to a private room for a two-minute interview; the interviewer assessing your level of proficiency. Back in the little café, you are brought a piece of paper outlining your schedule. Classes start immediately. Most students take the regular program of four one-hour classes a day. Teachers are bright, intelligent young locals; in love with language and teaching. All are trained and certified.

Your fellow students are an eclectic and interesting mix. Our classmates included a mysterious Japanese tango teacher from Argentina; she would disappear from town on Fridays, not to be seen till Monday. “Exploring” she said. There was a lady lawyer from Philadelphia, an elegant single woman "in finance" from Boston, a shy male Norwegian writer who stuttered. There was a young hairy armpit girl, resolutely unfeminine, planning a long stay, a delicate lady rancher from Nanton, Alberta, and many others: beginner to advanced, singles and couples, even a family group.

Guanajuato is safe. The camaraderie of the daily classes inevitably leads to forming new buddies for excursions and glasses of wine in the plazas and restaurants.

Street scene
Street scene

After classes, go exploring. Stroll through the little city to the Presa, the reservoir, past the market where you can perch on stools at the spotless stainless steel ceviche stand, order crispy tostadas heaped with shrimp on avocado, garnished with shredded lettuce and chunks of tomato, squish lime over it, moan with pleasure while you munch. Ride the local bus, visit the museums (the stoic can investigate the museum of mummies on the other end of town), wander amongst the university students after four p.m. They spill out and fill the streets with vivacity, beauty, youth and exuberance. They sit on the stairs of the theatre Juarez, fill the plazas, clog the pedestrian-only roads. They buy plastic cups of spiced shucked corn, sit on curbs, eat with disposable spoons and they flirt. They talk, laugh, and mill about in the free spaces, sipping wine in the Jardin restaurants, buying songs from the mariachis.

Day trips from Guanajuato include San Miguel de Allende; one hour away, Guadalajara; four hours, Tlaquepaque; three. Vehicles taking you to the bus station normally travel above ground, past shops and houses. Returning, you go underground in the abandoned silver mines that tunnel under the city, now used as one-way roads. You disembark in a softly lit cave, at the sign that says, “Centro Historico”. Follow the crowd to the stairs and up into the sunshine.

Pilates and yoga classes are held daily at the health club near the corner where the Jardin street curves toward the school. On the second floor, an inner walkway hangs over the open lower level, railings corral participants waiting with rolled up towels. The small studios for aerobics, spinning and yoga are packed with gyrating figures, pulsating music. Walk-in price is $4.00. Drop by earlier in the day and put your name on the list, or you won't be guaranteed a space. Our Pilates teacher was a exotic butterfly bird of a woman; her small tight body full of energy and irrepressible flow, eyes alight, she kept dancing and moving when the class was over, like a pixie, an elf.

Breadboy on the school street
Breadboy on the school street

In the morning on the way to school, cut through a small plaza between Casa Carcamanes and the Jardin. Breakfast in the square is tamales, buns and pastries. A few sleepy students sit talking on the curb, open corn husk wrap on lap, a plate. Fingers pinch off firm hot polenta hiding a bit of chopped chicken spiced with zesty green sauce. The bun and pastry man is on the corner with his big basket. The coffee nook is open for takeout, and the tamale lady is on the other side of the fountain, beside the flower vendor.

In the evening, the scene changes: customers crowd around a taco stand, a single bulb gently spotlighting the family operation; dad cooking, mom helping, kid handling the money. Fat hisses and onions pop on the hot metal grill where dad tends four kinds of deliciously spiced meat, chopping fine for the tacos, dishing out mounds on tiny hot tortillas, adding a pinch of cilantro. You add your own salsa and lime. Though you’ll be tired, and your stomach full from the evening of wine, food and music, you’ll probably need one or two tacos for a midnight snack – perhaps a small piece of meat for the worried dog that lives under the bells.

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