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Guadalajara and Lake Chapala
January-12

I am so glad we got the gunfire issue settled. Every night and early in the morning I’d hear these loud cracking/popping sounds that sounded like firecrackers but maybe it was actually small arms fire? Who’d be letting off firecrackers at this time of year? Well, superstitious Mexicans who want to ward off evil spirits. That’s who.

It reminded me of camping in Tanzania and trying to fall asleep to the sound of local tribes drumming and partying through the night. I assumed we were okay but a not-so-little part of my brain was wondering if there was a point at which they became so Hwy 54liquored up they decided to go after the tourists in the camping park. No, a local explained, “The sun is so hot in the day; the tribes conduct all their big celebrations and ceremonies during the cool of the night.” No one was the least bit interested in me.

The drive today from Zacatecas to Guadalajara was a long one. Only 319 km but you cannot divide those km by any speed you would drive at home. Sometimes the highway is flat and wide with four lanes and smooth as butter. Other times it is narrow with no shoulders and in rough condition as it constantly climbs up and down over some very high mountains. We left Zacatecas at 8,115 feet, dropped to the valley floor then climbed back up to over 7,000 feet then back down to 5,091 feet at Guadalajara.

I had a nasty headache all afternoon. We are finding adjusting to these higher altitudes and the extremely dry air a little trying. Our skin and finger nails are cracking easily.

So, what did we see today? Lots of little towns and a few bigger ones. Some were very pretty and prosperous looking with well kept shops and tidy streets and flowers blooming everywhere. Apozol was a town that I was particularly struck with. The streets and shops were full of people working, conversing, picking kids up from school. There was none of that down at the heels look that so much of Mexico has. This town seemed to have such pride and such a lively feel to it.

Other towns had such a dry and desperate look to them. Buildings were half completed then abandoned, wrecks of vehicles scattered about, no one around on the streets or in the businesses, if there were any. Desperate and dusty.

As we drive we notice an interesting looking tree. At the most northerly point in today’s drive the tree is remarkable because it is a real tree, not just a shrub or another form of cactus. A further 100 km and we are seeing big white buds on its bare limbs. It is now looking a lot like a kind of magnolia. As the temperature rises over the second 100 km the buds open into a lovely white flower. Towards the most southerly end of the drive the tree is now covered in flowers and green leaves. It is 80+ degrees as we come into Guadalajara.

We had planned to navigate ourselves onto the Perferico, the ring road that encircles Guadalajara so we could avoid driving inside the city. That was not to be. I don’t know how we missed this major route as it apparently crossed our path directly but we did. We pulled over and were reviewing the map when a fellow came to my open window to help. Even with our near hopeless Spanish we managed to communicate where we wanted to go and he stood there looking blank for a while then ran out into the road and made lots of gestures (hand over eyes) while he strained to see signs up ahead. Then with a big smile he came running back to us with instructions that we should go forward two lights then turn right. Thank you!

He was right. We had missed the Perferico but he put us on track for the “circunvacion.” This is not exactly a ring road because it is inside the city but it is a very fast moving road that got us where we needed to go. They have a wonderful system here for these kinds of roads. The middle four lanes (two in each direction) are not allowed to make any turns. At the outside edge of these are cement barriers with another two lanes on the other side. These two outside lanes are more stop and go and used to access the businesses. From these lanes (at lights) you can sometimes make turns and returnos.

This is the only way to get turned around, which we often need to do. You get on and off these access lanes with entradas (entrances) and salidas (exits). When we first found ourselves on this system today we were initially confused but quickly remembered. We’d done this before in some big Mexican city. We figured it out immediately by watching other drivers. Good thing because our first run at the RV park was a miss so we had to go two miles down the highway before we found another returno and could go back four miles to the next returno and get it right this time.

Guadalajara is a huge city with a population pushing 2 million. There is a LOT of traffic but between the lane system and the roundabouts (called glorietas), the traffic moves very well and we did not have any trouble driving through the city. I think the glorietas are called that because in the middle there is usually a big fountain with a towering statue of some glorious character in Mexican culture cast in a pose that exudes victory.

San Jose Del Tajo The RV Park is San Jose Del Tajo Trailer Park Resort. It is an interesting collection of RV sites, cabins, cottages, houses and motel units. There is a lovely big recreation building with a dining room and kitchen as well as a “living room” as they call it with a fireplace and hundreds of books. These have been meticulously catalogued by a resident at some time in the long ago past – they are very dusty and smell old.

What this looks like is a long-stay destination for snowbirds. But the security situation has seriously killed off tourism here so while there are lots of stored RVs and cabins, most are unoccupied. Just crazy Canadians. We are sharing the place with a couple from Campbell River in a RoadTrek van and another couple from Richmond in a honking big diesel pusher with a towed convertible.
Guadalajara

January-13 & 14

We have spent the past two days exploring Guadalajara. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site because of the downtown historical center, awash in glorious plazas and gorgeous colonial buildings. It is a beautiful place.

Yesterday we took a hop on/hop off bus tour that included the town of Tlaquepaque. We hopped off in this town and spent the afternoon exploring the streets full of artisans. Ceramics are a big thing here, the likes of which you cannot imagine until you see them. It makes me understand why it is ceramicsthat when people start making big money they become art collectors. I would love to bring some of these gorgeous pieces home then build a place to house them and share them with everyone.

Today we started off in the big central market, called the Mercado San Juan de Dios. It is full of everything from clothes to household goods to souvenirs, designer handbags and jewellery, spices and candies, a produce section, a butchering area and so on.

Mexicans are very big on their sweets. We see these wagons at bus stops and Sweets Vendorvirtually anywhere, with baskets of sweets to buy. They are all over the market. We tried samples of all kinds of candied fruit like papaya. Very good. I was totally addicted to the coconut candy. The type on the packaging was small so I got the idea that the whole piece was only 90 cal. After consuming several of these over the past week I put on my glasses and discovered that it was actually 540 cal for the whole piece. That’s the end of that addiction then.

The second floor of the Mercado is largely a giant food fair. We chose a place that made pizza – seems to be available in every country of the world. I have been consistently choosing to eat Mexican but today my tummy needed a little comfort food. The pizza was good – a medium pepperoni, green pepper and double cheese for 75 p which is about $7. It was more than we could eat.

On top of the cityWe took the tour bus again – 90 p for me, 60 p for Steve as a senior. It is a red double-decker. We ride way up on the second level, high over the streets, a marvellous way to see the city. Except today is very hot – no problemo, there is a fellow at the bus stop selling sunhats. I gladly buy one for 50 p.

So we ride around the city like royalty, enjoying the beautiful plazas with their trees and fountains and public art. I am constantly struck by that here istreet artn Mexico – the sheer numbers of public plazas and gardens and public art – statues everywhere. Big serious bronze statues of national heroes, modern whimsical pieces meant to tickle the funny bone, beautiful pieces designed to touch the soul.

The architecture is grand. The Catholic Church has a lot to answer for in how it treated the people they came to save from their heathen ways. But they did leave a legacy of stunning architecture – and in front of every cathedral in every big and little town in Mexico, a plaza with gardens and fountains and public spaces that people use.

We are making our way in and out of town by public bus. This is 6 pesos each way – about 50 cents. That gives us a 90 minute ride from the outer suburbs where we are staying into town Guadalajara Cathedraland would take us to the outer suburbs in the other direction if we chose. The fellow running the RV Park here told us which bus to take and where to get it. We have to change once on the way home and Steve asked the driver to tell us when it was time to do so, in our mangled Spanglish of course. The driver was great. He understood and alerted us when it was time to get off.

People here are very nice – warm and helpful, open and smiling for the most part. They love it when we try to speak Spanish. When I ask how to say something they grin and stick with me till I get the pronunciation reasonably correct. One sweet fellow told me, “No shame to ask. Ask, try.” Then we got into a long conversation about the weather in Brisbane, Australia. Him with his lousy English and me with my worse Spanish. He wanted to know the words for “flood” and “mud”. At least I think those are the words he wanted to know. Heaven knows what he thinks those words means and what context he uses them in for the next tourist who rides with him.

January-15

Today was a busy day of housekeeping. We got our clothes off to the laundry first thing then back for breakfast after which I worked hard on my Spanish. We tidied up the van then headed off to do stuff. First stop was the Ford dealership to get some new windshield wiper blades. These were crazy expensive – like $60. So we passed on that but in the meantime Steve got in a conversation with the manager of the dealership and mentioned the rattle in the front wheels. So the manager insisted on having his head mechanic take it out for a test drive whereupon they came back and stripped off the front wheels. They determined that 3 out of 4 calliper clips were missing. Unfortunately they did not have any but they told us there is no danger, just the nuisance of the clatter. We had this fixed already in Vancouver after the Alaska trip so we know that is true. Annoying that they have fallen off again.

All that work and much friendly conversation, but they refused to take a penny for their work.

Then off to Costco next door to check out stuff. We are finding prices here comparable to home and VERY expensive therefore in our estimation. Stock is probably 80% the same, brands and everything. Prices here are the same as at home. The groceries at the Mega grocery store seem to be very close to home too. At Office Depot I picked up a new card reader for my laptop, $29.99.

January-16

We’d planned to get on the road early but the laundry that was promised for 10 am was not. Apparently the dryer was broken. I know that because I was up there at 8 to check on progress and the repair guy was there fixing it. I could see my laundry all lying around damp and air drying. With the dryer fixed I asked if I could put it in the dryer and keep the process going. But no. “Lady gets very mad anyone messing with her laundry.” So he locked up all my damp laundry again and I had to wait for the lady to show up at 9:30 and put it in the dryer and then fold it. No, I could not help.

You just gotta go with the flow here.

From Guadalajara we headed south over the mountains to Lake Chapala. Driving into the downtown core there was a bit more than congested because it was Sunday and everyone goes to the beach with the family on Sunday. After inching our way through the downtown core and round and round the glorieta at the end, we about gave up and headed along the lake towards the town of Jocotepic.

Malecon ChapalaHere it was easy to park and we discovered that the lakefront malecon extended this far. We were able to take our picnic out to the benches overlooking the water, then walk back towards the pier where all the action was. There was a huge market, food vendors, musicians and strolling balloon men.

Perhaps we are getting too jaundiced for the markets because we just keep seeing the same stuff everywhere. The candy stalls all have exactly the same sweets in the same packaging. The toy stalls have all the same cheap, plastic stuff for the kids. The souvenir stalls offer exactly the same made-in-China crap. The Mexican dress stall is still selling the same embroidered dresses and blouses that I bought on our honeymoon 35 years ago. There are the food vendors …either fish or tacos or fruit. Even that is the same. There must be a company that sets these people up with latch key operations because even the fruit comes in the identical containers in Chapala as it did in Guadalajara as it did in Zacatecas.

It was interesting to watch a young woman being photographed. She was all gussied up in a very elaborate formal gown. We had seen scores of these in shop after shop after shop in Guadalajara. These dresses look like something off the cover of a historical romance novel: gloriously bright colours, bows, embroidery; matching shawls and hats; some even had wings attached. I was thinking of them as being every bridesmaid's nightmare but now I am guessing they are the style for graduation, perhaps.

We set up camp in Roc Azul, a country club just outside Jocotepic, about 30 km from Chapal. It looks like San Jose del Tajo in that sense of faded glory. A ton of money was sunk here into swimming pools and tennis courts, soccer fields, hot tubs, big central meeting rooms with a library, games room etc. But the place has not been well maintained. The “hot” showers did not even have cold water flowing. When a client complained she was told the water would be turned on in the morning. When I ran into her the next morning she told me that the water was on but there was no propane to heat it. Someone was going to town to get it. Right.

I can go with the flow on this kind of stuff. If you don’t there is no point being in Mexico. But what pisses me off is when you come to some place like Roc Azul and they charge $25, promising hot showers, pool, and excellent WIFI …and there is not. Except the pool. It was glorious. A shallow four feet but my first good swim since we left Vancouver. But no WIFI and no showers. Our strategy on showers is to NEVER miss taking one when we have the opportunity because you never know when you won’t be able to.

But perhaps the money is just not there for maintenance. Even at Lake Chapal, walking along the malecon, there were huge crowds of people but the restaurants and bars were totally empty. People were buying small treats from the vendors but not going into the cafes.

Especially popular was a kind of white fruit that they chop into pieces then squeeze lime over and add a squirt of hot sauce. I asked a fellow what it was and in the conversation that we had, he insisted that I try it. The fruit was quite bland, with the lime and hot sauce adding the punch. But bearable – or perhaps I am becoming habituated. Anyway, it was this fruit treat that I saw so many people walking around with. Nothing else.

January-17

The Lake Chapal area with its nearby towns of Ajijic and Jocotepec has become a huge draw for snowbirds. There are many fancy resorts and we notice a lot more English on the signage, for example, than we have anywhere else in Mexico. The climate is near perfect, rising to the 80s during the day but cooling off in the evening. Guadalajara with its services, from Costco to modern hospitals is only 30 km away.

This morning, before we leave, a number of the local snowbirds come over to chat. One fellow mentions that he and his wife will return to California in April to sell everything and pack up. They’ve found a beautiful 4-bedroom house in town to rent for $600 a month and the healthcare is cheap. He looked quite old and said that even with Obamacare he and his wife just can’t make it in northern California anymore. Their kids are worried about them moving permanently so far away. Seems sad when native-born Americans have to leave their home and family to move so far away in their old age.

Leaving Roc Azul this morning we circumnavigated the south end of Lake Chapala. This lake is 85 km long and 25 km wide so it takes the best part of the morning, winding up, down and around to go around it.

We are also slowed down by our quest to replenish our bread supply so we stop in Sahuayo to see if we can find a bakery. The center of town is always easy to find – just look for the spires on the cathedral. There is ALWAYS one. In Sahuayo I navigate the van through the narrow alleys until we find a big enough parking spot. An RV any bigger than the van would find these narrow, car-clogged lanes impossible but that is the advantage of our size, for sure.

The town is a fascinating blend of the old and the ancient. A beautifully painted home here and an old mud house there.

The Mercado is directly across the street from the town square, the plaza in front of the church. But even though it is already 10:30 this sleepy town is barely awake. Few vendors are about in the market and most of the street shops still have their security screens shut tight.

We find an open soda for a coffee – instant with lukewarm water and powdered creamer for 10 pesos. A tad expensive but then I am sure we look like marks. There are quite a few locals lined up at this soda, all ordering blender drinks made with a variety of fruits and vegetables. Most of them are green and look pretty healthy. They are served up in a plastic bag closed with an elastic around the straw poking through. People wander around sucking on these things.

So we ask where we can buy “pan” and are sent in a variety of directions all of which result in us having a wonderful walking tour of this pretty little town, but none of which result in a loaf of bread. My philosophy when asking for directions is to watch the hands. I do understand the words for left, right, forward and back but I still do not have a hope in hell of following their verbal directions because the “left” and the “right” is always accompanied by a LOT more words.

So I follow the direction of their hands until I think I have exhausted that direction then I ask for help again and follow the direction of those hands. This works surprisingly well and the longer we travel here the better we get at understanding more of the words too.

Speaking of which we totally screwed up our passage through Irapuato today. It’s the first time in this trip we were quite lost. We came into this big industrial town on a well-marked highway with the intention of changing direction and highways to go north to Guanajuato. All seemed to be going well because Mexican roads are amazingly well marked. Then we stopped for groceries and this seemed to disrupt our passage through town. Underway again we would drive one way until the road petered out in residential then we’d ask for directions. People are always enthusiastic about helping but the staccato flurry of Spanish with much hand waving is confusing.

Bicycle Cop in IrapuatorAfter burning a lot of gas going nowhere we finally see a police officer on a bicycle. We ask him. He gives us the friendly staccato Spanish treatment and waves us on our way. Off we go, finding ourselves moments later on a one-way residential street that winds back and forth through a very nice but totally confusing subdivision of cul de sacs. Suddenly we find ourselves back in front of the officer again. He hops on his bike, arm rotating behind him to urge us forward while he pedals madly for about 2-3 km. This brings us all to a glorieta (roundabout) where he proudly points at the big green highway sign we need, and quickly speeds away in the other direction. We never even got a chance to say Muchos Gracias.

We spent most of today driving through Jalisco state. There is a heavy military presence here. Three times, convoys of trucks loaded with soldiers in full balaclava gear roared by, one gunman standing on a kind of flying bridge at the back of the truck with a turreted machine gun in his hands. Bloody intimidating but they have no interest in us. We came to a road block set up by these guys and they just waved us through. Then we discovered that we’d been so busy looking at them we’d missed reading the highway sign and we were at a crossroads. So Steve stopped at the side of the road and I jumped out with map in hand to walk back and read the sign. Three of these young fellows came running over to look at my map and help me find my way, very friendly and all smiles and “Hasta luego!”

We came, eventually tonight to Guanajuato. This is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, renowned for its beautifully preserved architecture. We’ll take it easy tomorrow and leave the van in the RV Park while we ride the bus 9 km back into town to spend the day exploring.

Carolyn Usher