Tag Archive: Ajijic

The elusive Ribera

How do you describe the Chapala Lakeside – La Ribera de Chapala – to someone who’s never seen it?  It’s the question that drew me back to Ajijic for a second look more than 7 years ago.

Ajijic and Lake Chapala seen from the mountains above

I asked local business owners and expats  ranging from long-time residents to first time visitors.  Most touted the great year-round climate and low cost of living.  Many cited the picturesque lake and mountain views, a sizeable English-speaking expat community, and the proximity of Guadalajara and its airport.  None of this, however, seems to conjure up in the mind’s eye a magical picture like images of San Miguel de Allende or Cabo San Lucas or Costa Rica or Belize.

What, then could lead one resident to gently plead with me to “Come, but PLEASE don’t tell all of your friends about it” while a Stateside friend said, “I don’t get it.  What is there to DO there?”

Sometimes it’s in the understanding of the empty portion of a glass that we begin to understand the way in which the remainder is full.

I first stumbled upon Santa Fe, New Mexico more than 30 years ago before the Northridge (California) quake and the dot-com bust sent thousands of refugees scurrying there to open galleries stuffed with revisionist Southwestern art and to affect ridiculous excesses of Native American jewelry and clothing in a Rodeo-Drive-meets-Geronimo caricature.  In more recent visits I can’t shake the feeling that the authentic image of Santa Fe now lies obscured by caked layers of faux pueblo like a European nude masterpiece over which clothing has been later painted.  These are the sorts of people who probably wouldn’t “get” La Ribera, either.

The Chapala Lakeside is, after all, not a Los Cabos Phoenix-sur-Mer where the gringo has only to strap himself into the seat of a fishing charter or a championship golf course cart and simply wait for the ride to begin.  It’s not a San Miguel backdrop of quaint native garb and Spanish colonial street scenes into which many gringos simply peer through vacant oval cutouts as if in some fairground souvenir postcard photo.

The Chapala Lakeside is not so much a place in which to be seen as a place in which to live.  It seems not so much to serve up things to DO as it serves up the freedom to BE, like a perfectly stretched blank palette inviting the newcomer’s brush strokes.  It seems to retain the sense of community long lost in an America afraid to make eye contact with passers-by and automatically and unreservedly extend to them a daily greeting.  It can be sensed in vignettes come to life at the weekly tianguis or in the sheltered shade of the plaza in its quietest hours.  It percolates tranquilly and unobstrusively behind modest street-fronts that shelter exquisitely intimate courtyards and gardens.

The Chapala Lakeside is not ostentatious or overbearing and it may be that therein lies its special charm.  Perhaps La Ribera is the perfect destination for those who need no place from which to draw an identity, but only the most hospitable of places in which to fully realize the identity they already have.  If that’s so, then it doesn’t matter how many friends I tell, because only those for whom it is well-suited will truly be able to see into its soul.

This post is an excerpt from my earlier piece published under the title “Elusive Lakeside” in the December, 2004 issue of El Ojo Del Lago http://chapala.com/elojo,  and named its top feature article for that year.

Today U.S. stores are wrapping up the business of Christmas gift returns and poised to promote – with hardly a pause in between – Super Bowl party food, Valentine’s Day candy, and Easter bunny baskets.  Christmas may already be history for Americans, but in the villages along the shores of Lake Chapala the sacred season enters its third week.

Observances began on December 16 with daily Posada reenactments of Joseph and Mary’s search for a room at the inn.   Entire neighborhoods turn out to watch costumed children re-enact this timeless drama nightly through Christmas Eve, punctuated by a live nativity scene.  As in much of Latin America, observances in Mexico will continue through the twelve days of Christmas, ending on the January 6 Kings’ Day holiday.

Anyone who’s experienced Christmas in Mexico, though, will testify that it doesn’t just last longer, but often feels far more tangible.

Mexican folk art crucifixes

It’s admittedly easier to keep the fires of Christmas cheer stoked in overwhelmingly Catholic Latin America.  Within U.S. government agencies and many large corporations it’s now widely considered a faux pas to offer holiday best wishes that are a reflection of any particular religious faith. The separation between church and state in Mexico has been a pillar of governance since the Catholic church leadership ended up on the wrong side of the Mexican Revolution over a century ago, but religious icons are routinely displayed in government offices and other public places.  Can it be that Mexicans have more ably resolved the relationship between personal faith and politics than their cousins to the north?

The biggest difference between Christmas in Mexico and the U.S., though, may be the role of gift-giving.  While every U.S. holiday has long been a retail event it is only this year that I noted for the first time in Mexico extensive retail advertising for Black Friday.  It was as disheartening as first seeing not that long ago the retail assault on the venerable Dia de los Muertos observance, seeking to replace homages to departed loved ones with superhero costumes and trick-or-treat candy.

Even though American-style conspicuous consumption is simply not an option for the many, many Mexicans of modest means, the holidays here seem particularly joyous.  It’s the time of year when many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans make their sole yearly pilgrimages – often riding busses for 20 or 30 hours – to visit their Mexican relatives.  When they arrive they’re as likely as not to find two or three generations of the family still living in close proximity within their ancestral villages.  On Christmas Eve the villages seem like extended block parties as people take the edge off cool night air around curbside fires, street vendors cook at sidewalk stands, and children light firecrackers until the dawn.

Christmas is certainly what we choose to make of it, wherever we may happen to live, but Christmas in Mexico is effortlessly hospitable and universally inclusive… a truly communal experience.

Old-fashioned as it may seem, the words “Happy Holidays” just don’t seem to convey the spirituality and heartfelt sincerity implicit in holiday greetings now out of fashion, and we’re all arguable poorer for it.  How can it be lost on so many that the sentiment common to all of these greetings is a wish that the spirit of peace and harmony rekindled over each faith’s sacred holidays grace the lives of others throughout the year?

So… regardless of your religious tradition I wish you Feliz Navidad, today and every day throughout the coming year!

Industrial recycling of everything from grocery stores’ delivery cartons to manufacturers’ scrap metal is big business in the U.S., but household-level recycling is still for many Americans too often only a matter of local trash collection mandates or choosing “paper-or-plastic.”

In contrast, Mexico’s recycling emphasis seems less about sorting weekly household trash and more about repairing and re-using what many Americans would label “junk”.  In fact, Mexicans seem to have more of a penchant for squeezing more utility out of just about every imaginable piece of equipment than a Cuban auto repairman nursing a 50’s-vintage Chevy into roadworthiness on the streets of Havana.

Vintage VW Mexican beetle

In Mexico it’s more likely to be the exception than the rule that “it’s cheaper to replace it than to repair it.”

While it may be tempting to attribute the differing approaches to divergent cultural perspectives and values, the truth is that both reflect a shared reality:  Ecologically sustainable practices at the household-level are far more widely embraced when they pay out immediately, meaningfully, and personally.

The paradox is that despite America’s ample public resources for clean-up and ongoing waste management – not to mention a standard of living adequate to pay the higher costs of environmentally friendly products – America lags its neighbor to the south in one important way when it comes to sustainability: Replacement is frequently more cost-effective than repair because mass production – increasingly robotic and/or offshore – drives down the cost of parts and the price of American labor often renders repairs cost-prohibitive. ‘Green’ in America is still too often about advertised perception rather than reality.

While Mexico’s globally competitive wages may be about to propel it into the ranks of the world’s top 5 auto manufacturers, the purchase of many common consumer goods remains well beyond the reach of most families.  The result is that few Mexican villages – including those of the Chapala Lakeside – lack an ample complement of repair shops in which products are continually patched for the owners’ re-use or resale by electricians, carpenters, metalworkers, leatherworkers or painters.  Owners benefit from extended lives of repaired products and an untold number of families are supported by the craftsman who have dodged the rote repetitiveness of the assembly line and instead embrace the trade guild tradition of apprenticeship to master craftsman.  Mexico’s ubiquitous repair industry has created hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs and sustainable careers.

Organic & renewable!

If this sounds familiar it’s because it’s a model that began its American demise only after the Second World War.

There are many ways to reduce humans’ impact on the environment.  American attention has been focused on the appropriate disposal of toxic or non-degradable products, and the recycling of commodity waste into the manufacture of new goods.  In the meantime planned obsolescence and conspicuous consumption continue to lace American landfills with discarded consumer goods rendered inoperative by a single malfunctioning component.  And plastic trash is reaching epidemic proportions in underdeveloped nations which lack the resources to manage it, to produce more ecologically friendly alternatives, or to incent more responsible consumer behavior.

Too many stateside Americans have long accepted as fact inaccurate representations of the Mexican people fueled by years of dismissively stereotypical portrayals in movies and limited impressions of Mexican immigrants.  These stand in sharp contrast to the reality of life in the villages along the shores of Lake Chapala, where ordinary Mexicans daily live out values which have been a long-standing part of America’s national identity.

Three generations

These are communities in which family values are bedrock.  The extended family is alive and thriving in Mexico, where it’s still not uncommon to see three generations of women walking arm in arm on Sunday promenades in plazas and along the malecóns.

These are communities in which self-reliant needn’t mean self-centered.  The gaps in Mexico’s social safety net are staggering, but Mexico’s extended families form powerful mutual support networks that often provide everything from senior care to child daycare.  Mexican families take care of their own, often at significant personal sacrifice.

These are communities for which backbreaking labor defines a powerful work ethic.  From broom-brandishing street-sweepers, gardeners, cooks and maids to construction workers and other tradesmen who often ply their trade with few or no power tools, a full day’s pay is hard to shortchange here.

These are communities in which entrepreneurial spirit thrives; unemployment compensation is not an option.

Street vendor on the Plaza

Street-facing rooms of private homes are commonly converted to corner tiendas and workshops.  Impromptu businesses sell everything from fresh produce to furniture from curbside pickup trucks or wheelbarrows.   At dawn in nearby Guadalajara, vendors push battered but proudly burnished lunch carts to secure a prized street corner and bootblacks arrive on busses at rows of shoe-shine stands on the plazas.  For the length of a red light the driver of any car can have windows washed or be might be entertained for pocket change by crosswalk mimes or flaming baton jugglers.

These are communities in which sense of personal honor leads people to do the right thing in the face of a poverty which might easily dictate otherwise.  Not long ago in a moment of distraction I left in a waiting room lobby a backpack containing my passport, visa, and cash amounting to several months’ worth of Mexican wages.  I returned in panic twenty minutes later to find it being held for my return, contents fully intact.  Imagine in the States building a custom home from ground up with an outcome that exceeded expectations on nothing more than a rough set of floor plans, a written quote, and a handshake!  The Mexican architect, whose family has lived
for generations in the village, stood behind his work to tweak paint, tile and
fixtures for more than a year after at no added charge.

These kinds of personal experiences make it hard not to appreciate Mexicans’ personal values, or to realize that they are the same values which built America.

Back in the day when Tex-Mex was the closest I’d ever come to tasting Mexican food, the thought of dumping a sweet dessert onto the glob of spicy carbs and fats already percolating in my stomach was the furthest thing from my mind.

Some sort of culinary feng shui always urged me instead to top off any Mexican food with a frozen margarita, and so several tragic years passed until I came to appreciate the difference between Tex-Mex and Mexican and in the process where ‘sweet’ fits into Mexican food.

Tropical tastes at the Mercado Libertad, Guadalajara

Tropical tastes at the Mercado Libertad, Guadalajara

My experience has been that sweets are to be found in abundance just about everywhere on Mexican menus except the center of the dinner plate.

On market days in Mexico it’s not unusual to see children sucking sweet syrup from short lengths of fresh sugar cane sold by street vendors.

In the mercados sugary concoctions made from every imaginable flavor of fruit are stacked like multi-colored bars of bullion.  Guava.  Mango.  Tamarind.  This is, after all, the land that gave chocolate to the world.

Then there are the baked goods and pastries.  Sweet pan dulce.  Sugar-dusted churrosTres leches cake.  Empanadas stuffed with every imaginable kind of tropical fruit.

Bakery case, Mi Tierra Bakery & Cafe, San Antonio, TX

You can get a Mexican sugar fix in the States at Mi Tierra Mexican Bakery on the Mercado in San Antonio, where acres of glass display cases are chock full of the most amazing range of pastries and confections.

The sub-tropical climate must surely help to make frozen treats – nieves – the most popular of all Mexican sweets.

Homeward bound schoolchildren and mothers with very young children cluster around ice cream shops in the height of afternoon heat.  Up until quite recently the town square in my little Mexican village boasted THREE shops and there are at least as many more within blocks.

The most popular items include ice  cream (helados) and ice pops (paletas), as well as the sno-cones (raspados) commonly sold by street vendors.

In Dolores Hidalgo, where Father Hidalgo sparked the Mexican war for independence by uttering his famous grito, ice cream shops are overabundant and there’s a sense of competition among them to introduce the next original flavor.  Avocado.  Jalapeno.  Tequila.  Nopalito.  You get the idea.

Ice cream vendor on Guadalajara’s Plaza Hidalgo

Michoacan, though, seems to be the acknowledged capital of Mexican ice cream.  Entire villages collaborate on the making and distribution of ice cream.  A chain of Mexican retail shops bears its name and Michoacan-style ice cream is widely sold at shops in U.S. Latino neighborhoods.

The striking thing about all of these sweets, though, is their richness of flavor.  Maybe it’s because there’s less need for preservatives because so much of this food is still made from fresh products in small batches very near where it’s sold.

Mostly, though, it’s the vibrant and distinctive flavors extracted from native fruits, nuts, and berries stamp these sweet concoctions as indelibly and indisputably Mexican.


Open windows

August in Dallas means labored air conditioning and drivers jockeying for shaded parking spots, but along the shores of Lake Chapala windows eleven hundred miles to the southwest windows are comfortably open 24 hours.

View of Lake Chapala from the mountains overlooking Ajiijic

The mile-high air is dry and on many nights the surrounding mountains wring cooling seasonal rains out of clouds passing from the Pacific Coast.  Americans come here from places like Texas and Florida and Arizona during the summer to beat the heat.  The Canadians come to winter.

Horseback riders on Ajijic’s cobblestone streets

The local real estate people put great stock in Lake and Mountain views, but many homes can afford at least a mirador view of the mountains and the lakeside pier and malecon are within walking distance of anywhere in the village.

The lake and mountains may flatter each other, but it’s the ever-changing reflections of clouds upon the lake – and their shadows upon the mountains beyond – that make for daily spectacle as the sun moves across the horizon and slips through the seasons.  Its contemplation can be at times meditative.  Gazing upon it through open windows, though, is about more than shirtsleeve comfort.  It’s about inviting the outside to become a part of the inside and in the process removing the distinction between them.  It’s about savoring the smells of burning wood fires and sidewalk kitchens and corner groceries.  It’s about hearing the sounds of sidewalk footsteps and cobblestoned vehicles and street talk.  It’s about breaking down the walls of an air conditioned quarantine and enriching the fabric of each waking moment for all of the senses.

My new book provides a glimpse into expat life that’s not to be found in tourist guidebooks:
Laguna Tales: The Lure of Lake Chapala is a collection of serial short stories about six American men and women separated from each other by thousands of miles and born dozens of years apart who are all drawn at turning points in their lives to a not-so-fictional village on the shores of a mile-high mountain lake in Mexico’s interior.
The book began as a single short story published in Mexico’s English language El Ojo Del Lago at the suggestion of its editor Alex Grattan-Dominguez.  The story acquired a life of its own, becoming a 5-part series that won the publication’s award for Best Fiction in 2006, and spawning the other characters whose stories comprise the rest of the book.
Laguna Tales can be purchased for download to PC’s and most popular e-book readers including Kindle and iPad here on Amazon.