Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Cultural Guadalajara

Our stay in Guadalajara has been an active one. There is so much to see in and around this city that I can fill pages with it. Karina knows the city and the surrounding areas well and suggested we go to Chapala, a beautiful town along the shores of Lake Chapala in the state of Jalisco. It's an easy 50 km drive. On the way to Chapala we stopped at another beautiful place called Ajijic, which is about 5 km north of Chapala on the north shores of Lake Chapala and surrounded by beautiful mountains. We also went to Tonalá!

Ajijic (pronounced as Agiegik) is very much a tourist town, but a pleasant place nonetheless. It enjoys a moderate climate all year round with temperatures ranging from 24°C in the colder months to 27°C in the warmer months. Even the wet season's rainfall doesn't affect the beautiful days very much as the rainfall tends to come down mostly in the evening. No wonder then that it's home to a lot of artists, as artists tend to enjoy the finer things in life.

Ajijic is home to quite a lot of retired Americans and Canadians who enjoy the lifestyle all year round, while in the winter months a large group settles there to escape the harsh northern winter.
There are many arts and craft shops in Ajijic that sell amazing art works.
We are impressed over and over again about the beautiful art in Mexico. Looking at the quality you can't be anything but impressed, even if the style doesn't suit you. We like Mexican art, the colours, the style… everything. To me, this type of art is much more impressive than Van Gogh who is famous for painting a bunch of sunflowers, as the art in Mexico is part of the culture, like most Native American art.

An expression of cultural beliefs and a beautiful way of doing it. Karina explained the meaning behind  most them. There is so much history and so much pride in this country! Pride expressed in art.

Wednesdays are the busy days in Ajijic as that is market day. Ajijic is an old town. Even before the Spanish arrived in Mexico, nomadic Indian tribes occupied the area and build their homes there. Today it's an historic town with cobblestone streets, beautifully decorated buildings and a lovely little town square. We enjoyed a cool Coca Cola at the square, from a glass bottle which makes Coco Cola taste so much nicer. Ajijic is very much worth a visit!

Chapala is much larger than Ajijic with about 4 times the inhabitants. Again a beautiful town along the shores of Lake Chapala, Mexico's largest fresh water lake at 1500 m above sea level.

Like most places in Mexico, there are several theories as to where the town's name came from. The most likely one seems to be that it came from the last Nahua people chief named Chapalac. What we do know is that it officially became a municipality on the 10th of september in 1864. During the 20th century Chapala became more and more known as a tourism destination. Today it's both a weekend getaway for people from Gaudalajara, known as Tapatios, and a holiday destination for people from all over the world. The weekend leading up to Mardi Gras, Chapala becomes home to one of the liveliest Carnaval celebrations in Mexico.
We walked along the Malecón of Chapala. Malecón is Spanish for a stone built esplanade along the waterfront. In Chapala it's also the 'home' of the Chapala markets. Markets in Mexico are colourful events, made by colourful people. The markets in Chapala are no exception. What we did find very different at the market in Chapala though was that we were not called 'amigo' by everyone.
The stallholders simply leave you alone and give you time to look at their wares. I kind of like both. The more active stallholders can make a market much livelier, yet this type of market gives you more time to have a proper look. Usually bargaining is very much a part of buying at the markets. Stallholders know this and so just ask more than they expect. At the Chapala markets we found mainly Indian people from higher up in the mountains. They don't have much money and don't ask much for their beautifully made wares, so we didn't bargain...
The church at Chapala is a strange building. It almost looks like it's built by various architects. A beautiful building nonetheless and different.

Back in Guadalajara we visited the exact opposite of a small town Mexican market: a big town Mexican shopping centre! The contrast couldn't have been bigger than this. From small tables out in the open to elaborate shops in one of the biggest undercover shopping centres you can imagine. There is literally something for everybody here. They even cater for people like me who just come along and don't want to go shopping… as there are big ponds filled with exotic Chinese fish that you can watch.

The next day we went to Tonalá, well known for it's handcrafts and the Tonalá markets. Don't think they are just another market as they are not only huge, but also a completely different style of market. Held every Thursday and Sunday they are the place for local goods. The market is on both sides of the road and pottery, candles, glass, metal, food, crafts and fabrics are just some of the items on display.

Behind the markets are local factories, small local factories that produce furniture, pottery and glass. There are large items like furniture for sale at the markets too and there is no need to wonder how you will get that just bought cabinet to your car, as for a few pesos a man with a goods transport tricycle will bring it to your car for you! How good is that? The Tonalá market is a vibrant market where, just like the Chapala markets, vendors leave you alone. No gringos at this market anywhere either, resulting in the girls looking very interested to Mike…! He might come home with a Mexican girl one day…?

We visited the markets with Karina, who showed us the most amazing little factories where craftsmen (and woman) make beautiful art, furniture and pottery. I'll let the photos do the talking again.

At the end of our market visit we went to the glass factory of CristaColor. I had never been to a glass factory but still think this one is rather special. For starters it's open, really open… there are only 3 walls which means you can literally see the whole factory from the outside. Don't think it's full of high-tech machinery though, everything is done by hand! True craftsmen make the most incredible shapes using rudimentary tools and with a speed and finesse that makes you look in awe.

Art is everywhere in Mexico, even on the streets while you are waiting for a traffic light. Performing artists give a show just in front of you and even in between cars. Hoop dancers are quite common, as are various forms of acrobats. Sometimes fire eaters, like the one in the photo give a performance too. The guy we found here doesn't seem all that happy with us taking a photo… but then again maybe he just always look that scary?

Later that evening the beautiful day took a more serious turn when the emergency phone rang. A small Chihuahua dog had fallen of a 4 story high balcony and somehow survived. Of course she
needed immediate attention and thus we went back to the clinic. We were fortunate to see first hand how much dedication the vets at Dany's and Karina's veterinary clinic put into their work, and honoured to be asked to lend a hand. The Chihuahua survived with a broken rib, a broken leg and a broken jaw but luckily no internal injuries.

Dany's veterinary clinic has it's own X-ray machine… and you won't believe what that meant to me! As I have had back pains for about 4 months now, which started during the cold snap in the US and have gradually become worse, Karina simply took me to the doctor. Don't argue with a strong-willed Mexican woman! The doctor, a very friendly lady by the name of Luz Elba Maciel Vázquez had a clear idea what it was: chronically inflamed tendons and nerves. Still, she liked to see X-rays to be sure. Well, Dany has an X-ray machine… which is not set-up for X-ray-ing dogs as big as me of course :-) So she called the technician, who came over especially that night to re-configure the machine so that it could take my X-rays. Having your X-rays taken by the Vet!

Washing the windscreen of a bus while it's waiting for a
traffic light… in Mexico anything seems possible! 
Of course Mike and Jeanette couldn't help but laughing… said I had to wait my turn between the other dogs in the waiting room… came up with a dog collar for me and said I would get a dog-treat if I would behave… In the meantime the technician assured me that it would all be safe and that I didn't need to worry about the radiation, while Mike asked the same technician if he could setup the machine to get me extra crispy… The whole situation was hilarious and quite frankly I wasn't worried about the radiation at all, I just thought it was funny :-)
The next day, the doctor commented on the clear X-rays and said my health was 'excellente'! I did not tell her they were taken by the Vet!

The doctors visit was a strange experience too. Like I said earlier, the doctor is a lovely person. She waited for us to arrive after closing time, took all the time she needed, and is very theatrical in explaining what was 'wrong' with me. Karina translated of course but soon they were talking like old friends, which I assumed they were. They weren't… they had never even met before! I was just sitting there, enjoying the body language, the theatricals and the whole event… and feeling better already just by being there :-) In the end she even waived her fee!

On Saturday night there were evening markets. Again beautiful items for sale like rugs and pottery. The man that kindly re-adjusted Dany's X-ray machine was at the markets too. He helped selling his daughter-in-law's artwork, one of which is a motorcycle that Karina bought for Mike as a present. We were also fortunate enough to see a performance of Inca musicians. The traditional clothes, the dancing and singing was, to us, very special, see the short movie. It was midnight before we returned back home. On the way back we took photos of the famous Guadalajara Matute Remus Bridge bridge illuminated with big spotlights that change colours every so many minutes.

On Sunday we went to an antiques market. It somehow felt more European, maybe because of the goods for sale, maybe because of the vendors. I can't really put my finger on it as the goods are of course very Mexican as are the vendors. Maybe it's just that they sell antiques…? Mike bought a big cat mask and Jeanette found a statue of a guy with a drum that she really liked.

The antiques market also has a lot of non-antiques, collectibles if you like, and modern items for sale. We saw everything from several hundreds of years old to an iPhone for sale. Mike was looking at swords… and I really enjoyed seeing lots of old cameras, film cameras and tube radios. The vacuum tube was disregarded decades ago when the transistor was invented. It has made a remarkable come back in the audio world though and now they are even used for high quality iPod amplifiers!

The architecture in Guadalajara impressed us. Somehow, with all the negative things we had heard over the years, we never expected this kind of elaborately decorated buildings and high quality architecture in Mexico. Let's be honest; Mexico is only on the news in the West when something bad has happened. Photographers that work for newspapers and cameramen that work for the news just want to see the bad things… so that's what we expected to see. Of course there are things which are not so good in Mexico, but there are plenty of 'not so good' things to photograph in any major European city too. 'Don't go out in Mexico at night' is the general 'advice'. We did, every night, and we loved it! There are plenty of places in Europe where I feel more unsafe than Guadalajara, and let's not even talk about Vancouver, Los Angeles etc. The atmosphere here is relaxed, we really enjoy it. The pride in architecture shows everywhere, buildings, artwork at roundabouts, churches, squares… we could be here for weeks!

Later in the afternoon we went to the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Zapopan. The Basílica is the home of the Virgin of Zapopan, who is believed to guard against epidemics, storms and lightning. Every year on October 12 the statue of the Virgin of Zapopan is carried from the Guadalajara Cathedral to Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Zapopan, also known as Día de la Raza. An 8 km long route whereby the Virgin of Zapopan is accompanied by priests, Mayan dancers and more than 1 million people of both cities. The procession stops frequently to allow Mayan dancers and Mariachi bands to show specials honours to the Virgin and ends with a mass and traditional dances on the plaza outside the Basilica.

When we were at the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Zapopan, we were lucky enough to witness a large ceremonial performance of Maya dancers. Different tribes performed beautiful dances. Their shoes have metal plates attached to them to give the cymbal effect.
Unlike in Outback Australia where people are dancing in the streets when it rains, here the purpose of the dancing is to scare the evil demons away and to ask the spirits to help the prevention of flooding and damaging rains. Being able to witness this was very special and spiritual. Again, we were the only gringos there.
What surprised us also is that unlike in many other parts of the world, in Mexico the Catholic Church seems to accept indigenous rituals. The Basílica is for instance also partly dedicated to the Huichol, Tepehuán and Cora people. We felt very lucky to be able to see this!