Wednesday, October 3, 2012

At a real Mexican county fair

San Miguel's annual county fair, which runs for three weeks around the time of the month-long Mexican independence celebrations in September, attracts thousands of locals but hardly any foreigners. That's too bad.

It's not the monster state fair in Dallas, or the dazzling, open-air Cirque du Soleil spectacle Stew and I were lucky to see in Quebec City a couple of summers ago.

Our fair is small and inelegantly sited next to the city's landfill, just outside of town. Most rides are tired hand-me-downs from carnivals somewhere in the U.S. and seemingly held together with layer upon layer of enamel paint. And how many miles of duct tape does it take to assemble this show, particularly its labyrinthine wiring?

It costs a little over two dollars to get in and the randy young guys who come wearing their fanciest outfits and their hair meticulously gelled get frisked thoroughly at the gate. Old guys like Stew and I are just waved through the line, making us feel old, harmless and foreign. Gringos. Güeros. 

Despite that recurrent snub, Stew and I have attended the fair for the past three years. Along with the small-town fiestas, and the one-ring circuses that traipse through town, with their motley crew of bored-looking animals, the fair offers the most authentic glimpse of Mexico and Mexicans that you're likely to get in San Miguel.

To continually stoke the tourist industry San Miguel holds endless processions and parades, fireworks displays and other public spectacles, many so overproduced and packaged that for year-round residents they become ho-hum. The four a.m. avalanche of fireworks on the day of St. Michael the Archangel, the town's patron saint? The daylong Good Friday processions? Check and check.  

By comparison the fair is anything but Disneyfied. Strings of colored lights hang almost randomly from crooked posts. Kids shriek with the thrills of the pokey, creaky rides, while the mothers stand by watching, always intently, sometimes nervously. There are pauses in the action, when a fuse blows or a guy has to crawl under a balky ride to fix or tighten some critical component. A multitude of aromas assaults you as you walk around--fresh bread, sizzling lumps of meat slowly twirling around awaiting to become tacos al pastor, and the cloying, old-fashioned smell of cotton candy.

This year we were lucky to go with Billie, a great friend and photographer with a preoccupation about light. She wanted to capture those twenty, thirty minutes just before sunset, when the fading sun gives everything a unique warm hue, a bit like faces by candlelight.

That didn't work out so well this year because the usual fiery San Miguel sunset was partly eclipsed by a gray sky. Even then, I learned to appreciate Billie's fascination with the "right" kind of light.

There weren't many people at the fair either when we went on Friday and we wondered why. It turns out last week was not the final week. It's this week, and attendance and excitement should rev up: The admission price has been lowered to a little over a dollar.

Slow night at the gambling table. 
At those bargain prices, I plan to visit the fair again and see if I can catch a better look at that last light of the day that so fascinates Billie.

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