John's Blog
The Agony of Underground Utilities
San Miguel de Allende wants to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So it can't be looking like a sh*thole. At least in the historic central portion of the city.

UNESCO doesn't care if there's a Costco out in the 'burbs, or if effluent from the slaughterhouse runs down an open sewer into the presa (reservoir). What they do care about is that the downtown looks the way it did in the 18th century—tough to do with all those utility lines overhead.

This view is looking north on Aldama Street from near my doorway toward San Miguel's signature church, the Parroquoia. You can just make it out through the tangle of wires.


UNESCO said the overhead wires have gotta go. So the city went out and bought a bunch of orange plastic tubes, which they're burying underneath the cobblestone streets. They'll run the power lines and phone lines and TV cable lines through the tubes, and then they'll remove all the ugly overhead lines and power poles.


Much of the work is being done by hand. Nobody has invented an automatic cobblestone paving machine, so a skilled mason does it, one rock at a time. He's setting cobblestones in concrete (not authentic) for durability, so he needs a concrete mixer. That would be the man to the left in the photo, who is mixing sand and cement with his shovel.


Street-building has advanced since the days of the Aztecs. We do have a few machines, to reduce the amount of backbreaking manual labor. Here, labor is being saved by using a loader to transport laborers to a new worksite, half a block up the street.


The scene on my street is chaotic. A recent rainstorm has turned it into a morass of greasy mud. Heaps of dirt are moved from place to place, seemingly randomly. Tubes are buried, the street gets repaved, and then dug up again.


So it's confidence-inspiring to see that the project leadership is on the job. Despite appearances, everything is under control. Here, three bosses are evaluating this mason's macarena.


But despite their best efforts there are mishaps. Below we see a dump truck sliding sideways into a partly filled ditch. Several hours of digging and a push from one of the loaders will be needed to extricate it.


Back in the USA, occupational safety regulations and liability laws protect workers and the public. Not so in Mexico. Hence, we have a situation where residents must walk planks. Above, a homeowner teeters across a ditch with his garbage can. Below, a scary ramp leads from a doorway to a heap of loose dirt. Ladies, try crossing that in heels.


Every few days, water mains and sewer lines get broken. Here's one that has been patched, after leaking for maybe a week.


Remember that backhoe? It ran into a telephone pole, snapping it off. You can see the leaning pole below, held up only by the wires. People unconcernedly walked under it for days. No sense of caution, of risk. It's all in God's hands.


Whoops! Looks like they wiped out all the telephone lines in my block. The technico hasn't been able to get things working for three days now.


The process of putting our utilities underground is painful. But anyone who moves to Mexico expecting a smoothly-running infrastructure is headed for disappointment. Successful expats learn first to accept Mexico's shortcomings, and in time, to even love them. They are part of the whole package that makes living in Mexico an adventure.

Besides, if this job was being handled efficiently and quickly, we wouldn't have anything to bitch about at our morning coffee klatch.

In the end, our city may become even more beautiful. My friend, Anamaria, painted her vision of Aldama street.


She captures the warm colors of colonial houses lining the cobblestone street, the public fountain at the end of Aldama with the rear of the Parroquoia rising above it. Anamaria exercised artistic license, by omitting the network of overhead utility lines. We're all hoping her vision becomes reality.