San Miguel was more busy and urban than I expected, but it felt relatively safe. There was a perpetual feeling of good cheer that permeated everything. The colors of the market, men selling balloons and blow-up-toys and bouncing balls, women grilling corn on street corners, ice cream in every flavor from rose petal to octopus. In the middle of the town is an enormous pink church, La Parroquia, and a park with neatly manicured trees over a hundred years old. The people were warm and helpful at every single turn. They also did the best job of working a piece of tissue paper since Eric Carle.
Who makes an alleyway look like a fiesta? Cool Mexicans from San Miguel, that's who.
Dianna was out of town for our first few days, but there were still friends to be found. I was fortunate enough to connect with the charismatic author and storyteller Patricia Hruby Powell, an Illinois SCBWI member who had coincidentally posted on a listserv that she was going to be in San Miguel all through July, and she had been keeping up with an invaluable blog about her south-of-the-border experience. Here she is in one of the region's hot spring grottos, looking very much like a mermaid, and she was just about as enchanting as one. She hosted a very lovely dinner party with spaghetti and chorizo and many nice people, and a little white dog to keep my son entertained during our conversations. It was a special treat to meet a Midwestern friend while so far from home. Small world, as they say!
When Dianna came back, she kept telling us she was going to take us to Willie Wonka's house, and I wasn't sure what she meant until she took us to the incredible home of former figure skater and current artist extraordinaire, Toller Cranston. It's been a while since I have been so inspired by art on the canvas; with a similar sensibility to illustrator Jane Ray, his imaginative and whimsical paintings were everywhere, glowing like lights and glinting like gold. Above is the chandelier he designed, and below, a tree covered with blown-glass hearts he designed in his kitchen nook. A jungle of blooms and vines exploded around the house, and enclosed it. It was like being inside a flower, or Thumbelina's dream. Or, yeah, okay Dianna, you were right. Willie Wonka's house. Some publishing company should snap him up as a talent for a fairy tale collection. Maybe the Snow Queen?
People who know me well know that when I'm not about the books I'm all about the food, and at the first place we stayed, the homey and authentic Casa de Reyna, Reyna herself prepared both breakfast and lunch with an extra effort to accommodate my vegetarian husband. Here is the chile relleno in a light cream sauce with pomegranates, stuffed with soy meat, apples and raisins. Oh, man. Another day, she made us soup with squash blossoms and exotic mushrooms and a delicious mild white cubed cheese, with homemade spinach enchiladas. I think my son was ready for a hot dog, but my husband and I were sorry to leave.
Dianna lived way outside of town in el campo, or the countryside, up against the mountains, right outside a little pueblo full of children who were happy to speak the international language of basketball with my son while we enjoyed the view. Not too shabby, huh?
I was jealous of Dianna's yellow kitchen (even though you shouldn't be jealous of friends). Note to self: paint everything. Mosaic everything. Fear no color.
My son and husband went on a hike where they met a large snake of questionable intent (luckily, my husband was a good boy scout at one time and remembered to knock rocks together), and Dianna showed me her haunted clearing (which I'm pretty sure was really haunted) and her orchard full of baby trees. Dianna was living in the boonies, but even in her remote surroundings she had managed to surround herself with many brilliant, kind, capable and dynamic bilingual people who shared her enthusiasm for hot-air ballooning. She was excited for me and my family to share in the experience that had changed her life, so at dawn we came out to see the launch. Free tethered rides for all the children in the town, or whichever early bird managed to get out of bed!
It took a bit of doing...and a whole lot of cooperation and muscle and know-how...but slowly and astonishingly, it filled with air...
Up, up and away! Some of the children crossed themselves before we elevated. But no worries! Hot-air balloon pilots have to be very well-trained. Hot-air balloons are, actually, very hot (who knew)! There was a big flame whooshing into the balloon's gullet. I was glad I didn't put too much product in my hair that morning.
I went up with some of the sweeties. Look how small everything is getting! That's right, little girl, maybe it's better if you don't look down. But who would want to miss even a minute of it all? Dianna said riding in a balloon is like being in a bubble. To me, it was more like being in an elevator without the shaft. Either way, it was one smoooooth ride.
On landing, everyone had to run up and hold the basket down while people climbed in and out. Like a horse chomping at the bit, that balloon was tugging like a live thing, trying to climb back up toward the sky!
After many, many rides, the propane ran out and it was time to "milk" the balloon, or do a funny back-and-forth pulling dance with everyone helping on both sides to release the air. Then it was time to squish it flat and roll it up (Dianna, below, is squishing), and it took at least half a dozen strong folks to get it on its cart to haul away. It looked very light, but it was really very heavy!
Dianna moved to Mexico and made a lot of changes in her life in order to follow a dream of learning to fly hot air balloons and to continue her mission of opening up possibilities for all children. Dianna's Oz Project, which just gained not-for-profit status, aspires among many other helpful things to take children "over the rainbow" and open up vistas for children who might not otherwise see them, and what better vehicle than a balloon for that? For me personally, seeing the process of the balloon going up and then putting it away was chance to appreciate the power of cooperation, and how much we need one another to make miraculous things happen. Kudos to brave Dianna for embarking on this exciting initiative.
I can't resist a book recommendation here. If you would like to ride a hot-air balloon from your armchair while you're waiting for your turn in the clouds, check out William Pene du Bois's wildly inventive Newbery-winning read-aloud THE 21 BALLOONS, about a professor who dreams of spending his retirement aloft, only to find himself crashed upon the volcanic island of Krakatoa amidst an idiosyncratic civilization built on restaurants.
"One day I started thinking of a balloon in which I could float around out of everyone's reach. This was the main idea behind my trip: to be where no one would bother me for perhaps one full year; away from all such boring things in the lives of teachers as daily schedules...one year of truly delightful living, a year in a balloon!"The story's set-up is a bit detailed and old-fashioned, but give children support for the first few chapters and then they'll be off and running--or flying--with the best adventure since Verne's AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS.
Also, I do want to recommend that you check out Dianna Aston's fall release, THE MOON OVER STAR, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, about the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing as seen through the eyes of an African American girl and her grandfather. Though I can hardly seem anything but biased at this point, I will say in all honesty that I think it is her best writing to date, a great multicultural, intergenerational and historical story.
Well, never mind eighty days, that was about all the adventure I could take for thirty days. Now I hope to get back in the blogging groove, with great books that will have every young un' ready for September. Adios for now, but please check back!
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