The Cost of a “Silver” Lining

So standing on top of the scenic mirador, all of Guanajuato spread out in front of me, it was pretty obvious that one day would never be enough to experience all the magic this city held.  Heck, a lifetime might not even cut it!  It was for this very reason I was so grateful that we had come with a group that included “professionals”.  They gave us a place to start, and well, honestly, provided us with a driver who knew his way through the tunnels!

Our first stop was La Bocamina San Ramón.  This was one of Guanajuato’s smaller silver mines and part of La Valenciana system.  (La Mina Valenciana was the wealthiest of all mines in and around the city.  80% of all silver mined in Guanajuato was produced here.)  From the site of Bocamina San Ramón, we had an stunning view of the surrounding mountains, responsible for giving Guanajuato the nickname “City of Frogs”, as some of the mountaintops resemble them.

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We were able to descend about 60 meters through an old shaft into the mine.  Today there is a a well-lit staircase that makes this a little bit easier.  In the 1500’s, miners, some as young as 14 years old, relied on candles to light their way, as they made their steep descent over rock and dirt on a tree trunk fashioned into a ladder.  All work was done with a sledgehammer and/or a chisel.

Climbing out, even with a lighted staircase, was somewhat strenuous.  There were 60+ steps, some much higher than others.  I kept myself in check by thinking of the young boys and men who shimmied up a tree trunk, often times carrying more than 70 kg of rocks.  Children much younger than 14 worked outside of the mine, carrying buckets of water and sorting.

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Needless to say, the life span of a miner, in or out of the mine, was short.  Serious injury and death from falls, explosions, and cave-ins were frequent.  Others developed respiratory and vision problems from the dust floating around in the air.   Many miners were maimed during accidents with the chisels, drills, and dynamite.  Believe me, I felt a little silly wearing a hard hat to protect my head just in case I bumped it on the rock wall while climbing the stairs.

The Spanish owned the mines and benefitted from the silver produced.  This may explain why the first battle of the Mexican War of Independence was fought in Guanajuato.  Infighting long after the War of Independence contributed to the continued inactivity in the mines.  Porfirio Diaz, president in 1870, is credited with reactivating the industry.  He invited French, British, and Americans to invest in mining.

While the money generated led to incredible cultural advances in Guanajuato, the working class and poor were truly paying for it.  They were not allowed to take advantage of many of the improvements either.  It is no real surprise that production completely stopped again during the Mexican Revolution.  (And ironically, the very first statue of Padre Don Miguel Hidalgo was erected in the historic lake district, where once, only the wealthy of the city could enjoy boating and picnics.)

Today there are 16 active mines operating in and around Guanajuato.  They are run by Canadian companies.

So, I had been to the very top and to the very bottom of the city.  I was restless to get to the middle!  But that group I was so grateful for before we started?  They were now insisting we take a break for lunch!

Having a “BOWL” in Guanajuato

You know that saying, “saving the best for last”?  That is exactly how I felt about Guanajuato, the final city on our central highlands tour.

Guanajuato was a silver boomtown.  It was discovered almost by accident by a group of men moving through the area.  They stopped to rest overnight during their travels.  They built a fire to keep themselves warm.  In the morning, they found molten silver under the rocks they had used in their campfire ring.  Word quickly spread, and the city grew like mad, as everyone wanted in on the riches silver mining could bring.  

IMG_0876It was that seemingly overnight growth, a city planner’s nightmare, that gives Guanajuato its rich character today.  Separate communities were built around each of the mines, complete with their own churches and plazas.  Where one town ended, another began. As a result, there are many areas of the city where there are no streets – -just alleyways or sidewalks – – connecting the neighborhoods and making a lot of places throughout the city completely inaccessible to cars.  Miners designed elaborate tunnels under the city to move their silver, not roads

And today, believe it or not, that tunnel system is the road system!  (So maybe the miners built roads afterIMG_0863 all…)   Every time we needed to move from one side of the city to the other, we headed underground.  I was utterly amazed to see cars parked along the curves of the old tunnels, as their drivers waited for buses to bring them to the surface and drop them off as close to their destinations as possible.  Had I been driving, there is no doubt in my mind that I would still be down there.  The majority of tunnels/roads are unlit and signage is at a minimum.

To better appreciate Guanajuato we headed to the scenic mirador.  We were greeted with the most impressive view.  The city is shaped like a narrow bowl.  The bottom is filled with churches, plazas, schools, museums, and theaters, while homes and buildings in every shade on the color wheel creep up the mountains which make up the sides.  Most of these homes are reached by steep staircases built into the side of the mountains.  Of course, living in a bowl has its downside, particularly during the rainy season.  The Guanajuato River used to flow under the city, leading to very frequent flooding.   A dam was built in the 1960’s that finally put a stop to this.  Today, Calle Miguel Hidalgo, one of the underground roads built using the mining tunnels, follows the river’s original course.

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The scenic mirador is also the site of the statue, El Pípila, in honor of a local hero during Mexico’s War of Independence.  Juan José de los Reyes Martínez Amaro, el Pípila (so nicknamed for his freckled face) was a miner originally from San Miguel de Allende. IMG_5917 Shortly after Don Padre Miguel Hidalgo rallied Mexicans to rise up against the Spanish, the first battle took place in Guanajuato.  The Spanish barricaded themselves (and all their riches) in a stone grain warehouse.  Their fortress had one weakness; a wooden door.  Legend has it that el Pípila strapped a stone tablet to his back for protection from musket fire and snuck up to the door of the granary.  Once there, he tarred the door and set it on fire, clearing the way for the freedom fighters to gain entry and bring defeat (and death) to the Spanish hiding inside.  I did not locate any of the 260 “Road to Independence” markers on this trip, but I am certain they are there.

Standing above the city, I could not help but fall in love.  Gunajuato looks like I feel most days:  chaotic (in a good way), creative, and festive!  I finally pulled myself away from the view.  I was ready to take my chances in those tunnels again.  Ah… to stand in the middle of the bowl, and to add my own colors to the mix.

¡Viva Hidalgo!

IMG_E5847I am not sure when exactly I became such a history nerd.  And by history nerd, I mean the kind of person who actually cries tears of excitement when she learns she will have the opportunity to stand exactly where Padre Don Miguel Hidalgo did when he made his famous “Cry of Dolores” speech on the steps of la Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores (Our Lady of Sorrows Church) in 1810.  Or the kind of person who pulls a notebook out to jot down all the important information the guide shares with the group, while everyone else looks around for the ice cream cart.  

Somehow, I had completely missed the item on our itinerary that indicated we would have half a day to spend in Dolores Hidalgo.  That meant I did not have the opportunity to do a little pre-tour research like I had for many of our other stops.  Fortunately, I had become incredibly interested in learning about El Día de la Independencia several months ago and knew exactly what had happened in this very small but mighty town many years ago, and the role Don Miguel Hidalgo played here.

The now famous church was built in 1710 by the Spanish in the town simply called IMG_E5850Dolores.  It was primarily an Indian town with very little opportunity for its population because of of the presence of the Spanish.  Things changed for the better when Miguel Hidalgo, a Mexican Roman Catholic priest, arrived in 1803.  He brought hope and training to the indigenous people.  He introduced vineyards, the now famous pottery of the region, beekeeping, and smithing.

Miguel Hidalgo was not at all a typical Catholic priest.  He challenged not only the power of Spain, but also many of the doctrines of the Catholic church itself.  He had studied French, which made it possible for him to read works on the period of Enlightenment in Eurpoe, expressly forbidden by the church in Mexico.  Don Miguel Hidalgo was a businessman, not bound by an oath of poverty.  He was a dancer, a gambler, and he ignored his vow of celibacy.  He had at least eight children with four different women throughout his life.  In fact, he had to move to a larger home in town to just accommodate his growing family.

Once assigned to la Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, Don Padre Miguel Hidalgo passed on his clerical duties to another man and focused his time and energy on humanitarian efforts and advocating for and improving the lives of the Indians who lived in town.  Ultimately, he became involved in the secret planning of the Mexican fight for independence.  The Spanish were suspicious of him based on his activities long before they discovered the conspiracy plotting a revolution.  

IMG_E5851Rather then going into hiding once discovered, Miguel Hidalgo called for the release of eighty prisoners, and then facing his own arrest, he rang the church bells at 6:00 a.m. on September 16, 1810.  He called on his 300 parishioners to join the fight against the government, in what is today known as El Grito de Dolores.  The support was overwhelming!  The very first of Mexico’s 260 “Road to Independence” markers is found in Dolores Hidalgo.  

The famous bell rung by Don Padre Miguel Hidalgo is now at the National Palace in Mexico City.  It is rung every year on September 15, as the Mexican president reenacts El Grito de Dolores, honoring all of Mexico’s freedom fighters.

We visited the church (and yes, I stood on the steps, fist in the air, and shouted “¡Viva Hidalgo!”), saw the old jail, and toured Hidalgo’s home.  There were a number of students visiting “the cradle of Mexican Independence” with their teachers that day as well.  Truth be told, they were most likely looking for the ice cream cart too.

El Grito de Steve, NOT Dolores

Mark and Miguel, our Ocean Camp guides, must have known that after a day and a half of walking up and down the hilly streets of San Miguel de Allende, we would all need a little rest.  They planned a field trip to nearby and flat Dolores Hidalgo.

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Photo Credit:  Ocean Camp

Our first stop was a Talavera Pottery Factory.  I was familiar with this type of pottery, as there are speciality stores in San Carlos that sell it.  There are talavera sinks, tiles, planters, bowls, plates, serving dishes, relish trays, platters… the list does go on and on.  I wanted to believe that everything truly is handpainted, but there is just so much.  I could not imagine how many artists it would take to create the inventory for our little shop, never mind the shops all over Mexico, and what is sold internationally.

Technically, only ceramic pottery coming from Puebla can be called “talavera”.  The name has to do specifically with the clay used.  Padre Don Miguel Hidalgo introduced the art and its techniques to the indigenous people living in this part of Guanajuato, as a means of supporting themselves and their families.  Going on three centuries now, those techniques have changed very little.  Nearly 50% of the population of Dolores Hidalgo earns a living making, selling, or delivering the ceramic pottery.

It was absolutely fascinating to walk through the factory.  And, yes, every single item is

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Photo Credit:  Ocean Camp

painted by hand.  We were able to watch several artists as they worked, and it was an incredible treat.  Well, for us.  Many actually blushed as we oohed and aahed and shook our heads in disbelief and wonder.

I will give Mark and Miguel credit here.  They did their best to try and move the group directly to the van following our tour.  But someone spotted a store on the factory grounds, and, well, one thing led to another.  Fortunately, Steve had seen a piece of pottery in the factory that really interested him.  He was game to check the store for availability and price.  Men and shopping.  He was done in five minutes and ready to get back on the road for our tour of the historic town center.

Okay, truthfully, I was the one ready to see the historic town center.  I was going to be able to stand exactly where Padre Don Miguel Hidalgo stood when he rang the church bells and called the citizens to arms in his famous “Grito de Dolores”, setting in motion the Mexican War of Independence.  (I still get goosebumps thinking about this.)  Steve was just basically done shopping.  And I must admit, after making four laps around the store, I was ready to be done too.

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Photo Credit:  Ocean Camp

Plus, as the less serious shoppers on the trip, we had already “loaned” space in our suitcases to some of those who were running out, definitely limiting ourselves to something smaller than a garden table, bar stool, or planter.  As it turns out, however, there was so much shopping happening, arrangements had to be made for shipping!  Unfortunately, an hour and a half later Steve was pretty much over talavera, and decided he was more than happy with the plastic stool he uses as a patio sidetable.  He did score a business card though.

San Miguel de Allende, Proof, Perhaps, That “Art Begins With Resistance”

IMG_5907All too soon, it seemed, we were loading our bags into the van and leaving Guadalajara.  Thanks to Rodrigo, I was at least leaving with my backpack, Kindle, and passport.  While there was still so much I had not seen, I was incredibly excited to be heading to San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato.  This stop was the main reason I wanted to take this particular trip.  My anticipation made it almost impossible for me to relax on the five hour ride across the central highlands.  I could not wait to tramp up and down those hilly, cobblestone streets, stand in the middle of El Camino Real, and count and compare doors (to determine if there really were over 2,000 different ones).

 

San Miguel de Allende left me as breathless as I had anticipated, and it wasn’t because of IMG_E5779the climbs up and down steep streets.  The homes and business were painted warm shades of mustard yellow, terra cotta, and barn red. (Residents have seven colors they can choose from for their outside walls.)  Rooftop gardens bloomed.  Doors were made of heavy wood, some of them even original.  The cobblestone streets were in meticulous order, and I never saw so much as one cigarette butt or scrap of paper littering them.  Bus traffic was barred from some streets in the central district, as they were just too narrow.  Originally, of course, roadways were designed for carriages and donkeys.  The sidewalks were equally tiny, requiring pedestrians to step into the street on occasion to avoid bumping into one another.

The parish church, San Miguel Arcángel, is probably the most recognizable landmark in the city.  It dominates the central plaza and is as stunning at night as it is during the day.  Side note:  the central plaza is not referred to as a plaza.  It is called a jardín, or garden.  This caused some confusion, as San Miguel de Allende has created a beautiful green space just a few blocks away.  I thought this park was the jardín everyone was talking about!  I almost led our group astray during our pursuit of churros y chocolate by heading toward the wrong jardín.  And believe me, after two days of climbing hills to get from Point A to Point B, no one is even trying to get additional steps any more!

My abilities in differentiating between  churches, cathedrals, and chapels is seriously lacking.  Due to its size and grandeur, I incorrectly assumed the San Miguel Arcángel was a cathedral. (Fancy and huge = cathedral, right?)  But in the late 1600’s when the church was built, San Miguel de Allende was not a large enough city to be home to a cathedral.  It is only a regular, old parish church.

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The man who built the church had absolutely no training as an engineer or architect.  He worked as a mason.  His idea for the church came from a postcard of a cathedral in Cologne, Germany that he carried around with him.  I cannot even put together a child’s Lego set without studying the instructions for a couple of hours and then spending another couple just psyching myself up.

Its exterior is pink, thanks to a local sandstone used in its construction. (There are actually five unique colors of sandstone in this region:  purple, pink, green, chocolate, and gray.)  I loved waking up to the church bells ringing each morning (followed immediately by the rooster), and I never quite figured out their timing.  The inside of the church honors both indigenous, pagan beliefs and Catholicism.  Interestingly enough, however, Indians were excluded from celebrating mass in the central church.  They were required to attend smaller churches scattered throughout town that were literally small, dark, concrete walled rooms.

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Perhaps this is one of the reasons why San Miguel de Allende was so instrumental in the Mexican fight for independence.  It was the birthplace of General Ignacio Allende, whose home still sits just across the plaza from the building where secret resistance meetings were held.  General Allende fought alongside Miguel Hidalgo in the very early battles.  His name is shouted out every September 15 in the reenactment of the “Cry of Dolores” in celebration of Mexico’s independence.

The influence of the Canel family is still alive in San Miguel today as well.  They were a family of traders:  leather, grain, and animal fat.  In 1733, the patriarch began construction on the family’s second home.  It was not entirely finished until his grandson was of age, and the grandson and his family were the first to live there full time.  More servants lived in the home than family members!  The first floor of the home (mansion? palace?) was reserved for business meetings and guests.  The front doors were high and wide enough that a carriage could drive right through them into the central courtyard.  The stable was located just off the courtyard, near the servants’ quarters.  The family occupied the second floor.

One of the daughters of the family chose a life dedicated to God.  She used her inheritance, or at least 70,000 gold coins of it, to build the Convent of the Immaculate Conception.  The nunnery is active today, housing 14 cloistered nuns, women who have chosen to remain separate with the outside world in order to devote their lives to prayer and meditation.  They are even kept out of the sight of other parishioners during mass.  Today, Belles Artes, an art school, shares space with the remaining nuns.

And it may have been art that saved San Miguel, a city that suffered mightily during the IMG_5823Mexican War of Independence and a flu epidemic in the early 1900’s.  It was rediscovered by international artists.  Jackson Pollack got his start in San Miguel, where he attended a workshop led by David Alfaro Siqueiros, one of Mexico’s “Big Three” muralists.  Students came in droves, especially American veterans after World War II.  Artists and passionate amateurs continue to flock to the city today taking photography, drawing, painting, and cooking classes and workshops.  San Miguel de Allende was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, further cementing its appeal to retirees from the United States and Canada and increasing numbers of tourists.

How does the saying go?  Every cloud has a silver lining.  Perhaps the reverse is a bit true here.  The cloud is that many Mexicans born in San Miguel de Allende are now being priced out of homes in the central district, forcing them to live further from the city center and its main marketplace.  Beautiful mountain views are now obscured by condominiums, apartments, and large homes.  It is quite possible that water could be in short supply in the next 15 years due to the increasing population.  In addition, traditional work opportunities in agriculture and commerce are being lost as more services are needed to accommodate the influx of visitors and foreign residents.

Whoa.  I am kind of depressing myself.

I loved San Miguel de Allende and the people I met there.  I am inspired by history of the city and the effect it had on all of Mexico.  I admire the efforts the government and all citizens have made to preserve its colonial integrity.  Most of all I am grateful for the important lesson, intended or otherwise, in being a mindful, gracious visitor to another’s home.

 

 

 

That’s Mexico

Somewhere between Ajijic and Talaquepaque I decided that it was time for me to start carrying a big girl purse.  For about the past six years, I have basically carried a wallet on a string.  I am not the conventional purse type.  So as we boarded the bus to take us back to Guadalajara, I proudly showed off my woven backpack.  Now mind you, I had absolutely nothing to put in my new purse/backpack, but I figured I could google common purse items when we returned to San Carlos and then stock it full.

In the meantime, I loaded it up the next morning with my wallet on a string, my Kindle, and my passport for our quick trip to the glass blowing factory and arts and crafts stores in Tonalá.  I did not for a minute think I was going to have time to read, and no, one does not need a passport to travel from Guadalajara to Tonalá.  It is just that I really had no where else to put these things, and I was new to the whole purse thing.  I put on my backpack and proceeded to the taxi that was waiting.  Then I immediately took it off because have you ever tried to sit in a taxi with a backpack on?

There is a complicated button and a string closure that I had not quite mastered.  Okay, not exactly complicated, but time consuming.  I figured it would be easier, and a whole lot quicker, if I had my old purse out and ready to go when it came time to pay the driver.  Once I had it, I began the process of closing the backpack again.  Business attended to, I sat back and enjoyed the ride.

Steve, another friend from the tour, and I chatted with the driver along the way.  After introductions were made, he was most interested in talking to us about hiring him for the half day trip.  Three more members of our group were in the taxi behind us.  We let Rodrigo know that we needed to discuss the plan with the other group before making a decision.

After a quick stop at a glass factory outside of town, we all jumped back into our taxis and headed to the central shopping area.  We consulted with the other group upon arrival and decided we would just wander around and look for another cab to take us back to the hotel later.  We figured we could cover more ground on foot, and it was not necessary for Rodrigo and his buddy to sit around and wait for us.

We had just walked out of the first shop we visited when Steve, who was walking behind me, asked me where my backpack was.  Wow.  I guess I was really going to stink at this purse thing.  It was, of course, in the cab.  For some reason, I remained fairly calm about the fact that my Kindle and passport were now gone.  I had my cash and my temporary resident card.  I was not leaving Mexico anytime soon.  And really, I preferred reading books I could hold in my hand.  Steve, however, was not as calm about this.  He had been carrying a backpack the entire trip so far and had not lost it once.

We did the only thing we could do.  We called one of our tour guides, who was at the hotel.  We explained what happened and gave him the name of the cab driver.  How many Rodrigos could there possibly be driving a cab in the second largest city in Mexico, right?

Please bear with me here as I digress.

I often hear the phrase “That’s Mexico” from north of the border friends and acquaintances, community members, and posters on ex-pat sites.  And when they use those words, they mean them in the same way southerners mean “bless his heart”.  “That’s Mexico” is used repeatedly in a derogatory, demeaning way.  Any complaint, any inconvenience, any difference is immediately followed by the phrase “That’s Mexico”.  No, really, it is not. 

Within five minutes we heard back from our tour guide.  Rodrigo had been located.  He confirmed that the backpack was still in the backseat.  He was racing toward the hotel, where he would leave my bag for me at the front desk.  He was at the hotel when I returned to assure me my backpack was there, unopened and safe.

That’s Mexico, at least the one that I know.

Ajijic, Talaquepaque- -Say Em’ Three Times Fast

Public restrooms, I have learned, are few and far between in Mexico.  So as excited as I was to finally arrive in Ajijic, an area known for attracting artists, writers, and a lot of retirees, I spent a good chunk of our allotted time searching for a restroom.  Fortunately, the search led me through narrow cobblestone streets, past two churches, and finally to a brightly painted bar/cafe with a view of the action happening in the main square.  Lo and behold, there was a gazebo in the plaza. The bar offered a free restroom, which believe it or not, is a big deal.  And because I am a fan of the search, or just a glutton for punishment, I drank a Diet Coke, certainly setting myself up for a repeat hunt later in the day.

Rather than duck in and out of the boutiques and art galleries, Steve and I spent our (remaining) time, walking through the streets surrounding the plaza.  Ajijic was alive with color.  We didn’t need to step inside to see the beautiful artwork decorating the walls, homes, and storefronts in town.  We did not make it to the lakefront on this visit.  I like the idea of leaving something in each place to come back for another time.  Or I just tell myself that so I do not get too disappointed about what I may have missed!

But if we had made it to the lake, we would have missed the man selling the candy!  A lot of the candy in Mexico is made from fruit.  Coconut, tamarind, and guava are ground and rolled into logs.  The tamarind and guava have a sugar coating, while pistachio, chocolate, and other flavors may be added to the coconut.  Hey, I am all for four to six servings of fruit a day.  I went a little crazy when we discovered a hard candy made from jamaica.  In fact, we bought the man out!  The rest of our group was pretty excited about our find too, until another member returned with a cream made with peyote and marijuana.  I was intrigued as well, but I smartly used the distraction to put my candy in my backpack.  I am all for sharing up to  point.

Our next stop was Tlaquepaque.  It is a large city in its own right, but it is now part of the sprawl that Guadalajara has become.  This area is best known for its glass, clay pottery, furniture, and mariachi music.  High end stores line the busy streets.  Near the main plaza (with two gazebos), men and women set up stalls full of leather goods, textiles, and other handcrafted souvenirs.  Food carts sell elote, sweet potatoes, sugar cane juice, gorditas and ice cream.  I may have purchased more candy.

We bypassed the carts and dined in a restaurant situated in Mariachi Plaza.  The Guadalajara area is specifically known for a few culinary treats.  Among them are:  birria, a stew made from goat meat, and torta ahogada, a “drowned sandwich”, masterfully created one day from available leftovers, or so the legend goes.  I decided I was going to try the birria.  Steve immediately sent a text to Caleb, a true goat lover from the beginning of time, ratting me out.  Unfortunately, once I began eating, visions of goats in pajamas and goats in yoga class flashed before my eyes.  I think it was probably very good, but I just started thinking too much.  Others at the table did not have my problem, and they helped me eat it.

While I was distracted by a store featuring handmade works centered on La Virgin de Guadalupe and La Lotería (possibly a new obsession), Steve wandered into a tequila store and basically, had his very own tequila tour!  After a few samples, he happily (in more ways than one) walked out with his purchase.

It was time to return to our hotel, kind of.  I just was still too hyped up to call it a day just yet.  So once we were dropped off, unloaded the tequila in the hotel room, and used the restroom again, Steve and I set out for the four plazas and the Guadalajara marketplace, one of the largest markets in all of Latin America.  Even though the Super Bowl was on, and even though we had already walked miles that day.

The football Gods must have been smiling down on Steve, as we were not in the market long when closing time came around.  We lingered in the plazas for a bit, enjoying the musicians and artists and ice cream  before finally heading back.  We even made it in plenty of time to see the Eagles defeat the Patriots, which for Indianapolis Colts fans, was the perfect ending to a very full and wonderful day.