This place, where people do not say buenos dias , they sing it. Mexican men and women alike.
Journal, June 3, 2003
Soon out of San Blas we hit the four-lane cuota. Roller coaster ups and downs, sudden roadwork, tense curves. The road defies gravity. And common sense. It is SO Mexico. We fancy every kilometer of this journey through volcano-land and high, flat lush valleys. Seas of thick, blue-green agave spikes lap the mountainsides, as the first thunderheads of the season build high above.
We are on our way to Ajijic, which sits on the receding shore of Lake Chapala. We almost skipped this part of the trip. From what I’d read, it was hopelessly gringo and Disneyland-cobblestone quaint. But hey, it is on the way to Pátzcuaro, and as hideous as it might be, we want to see and touch it for ourselves.
The drive around Guadalajara is surprisingly easy and hassle-free. We climb the highway and head east and are surprised how quickly we meet the shore of Lake Chapala. In fact, we over-shoot Ajijic. We keep looking for a quaint little village as we drive along the heavy-trafficked highway, blanketed with small strip malls and stores. A far cry from the aesthetics of village life. It reminds me of Taos, whose entrance is also a clogged highway artery that runs through her heart.
We turn around and find a side street that delivers us to the plaza. Ah, this is more like it. Large shade trees. A gazebo. A collection of charming children’s rides in one corner. An old church. It feels good. Filled with locals, doing what locals do. No one sells tourist crap. I breathe relief. We park and check into a room on the plaza, then proceed to make our first mistake.
Fodors Mexico 2003, which we rely on mostly when the adventurer in us is exhausted, directs us to a restaurant we noticed on the highway coming into town. A place that is a “local afternoon hangout for local ex-pats.” Perfect. We can meet some folks and get the lay of the land. We walk in and are flabbergasted. It is full of 70-plus Anglo gray hairs smoking cigs and chowing down. Have I been beamed to Sun City?
As for the Fodor’s writer … “hangout”? These folks are contained. Lack of eye contact or smiles tell me they are not open to conversation with a stranger. So very strange. I’m accustomed to lively, older people reacting just the opposite. Excited to chat with a stranger. Voice of reason kicks in. We’re tired from the long drive and stuffed on mediocre food. Stay the course.
The most important lesson I have learned from years of world travel is the faith that I will meet who I need to meet, when I need to meet them. ‘Twas ever thus. We happen upon a realtor named Tony who makes it his purpose to show us the town, Lakeside, and Guadalajara. After a half day together getting to know our idiosyncrasies and writers’ needs in a property, he tells us, “I know there are properties here that you will love. It’s the area I must sell you.”
Tony’s jumpstart into the Lake Chapala landscape is pure gold. Within two days, between Tony’s tours and advice, a good map, and our snoopy ways, Tom is hiking the mountainous trails above the town and we’re heading for tamales near Seis Esquinas. There is no sign. We find the place by following the people, who move along the narrow street like a line of ants, picnic-bound. We enter through an unmarked, heavy metal black door into a dark room with two small tables and chairs. We give our order at the counter to the wizened old woman in a simple, black dress. Then we move towards daylight, past the meat grinder and cooler with soft drinks, into a back yard strewn with junk and six small, square tables with old plastic chairs. A young, tight blue-jeaned teen hurriedly washes dishes not far from where we sit, making way for the oncoming wave of customers. Both women rush orders to hungry patrons. The back seating area is solo gringo, but an entirely different scene from our first afternoon. Here, we have a great time with other ex-pats. People 40 to 60-ish talk and laugh with one another. In English. Our Spanish is limited to placing our order.
Ajijic’s ex-pat landscape is a graying one. Retirees, mainly. Newer arrivals in their 50’s and those who braved the border 20, 30 years ago who are now in their 70’s and 80’s. There are many attempts to urge the English language to catch up with the burgeoning numbers of oldsters. It’s needed. One in eight Americans is now over 65. One suggestion is to create categories: the young old (65-75), old old (75-85), oldest old (85-99) and centurions. However one divides the aging pie, it is clear that the pie is large and intact at the Lake Chapala Society, found behind thick walls a few blocks from the plaza. Here, the old ones gather, organize and busy themselves. It is a veritable blue-haired beehive that boasts beautiful grounds, an exquisite English language library, videotape library, and an impressive community bulletin board. A command central, if you will, where excursions are planned and volunteers summoned. Yet, in spite of the laudatory work of these diligent souls, I am struck by the insular nature of it all. Tom and I enter and walk throughout, excited to meet folks, and not one person says hello, inquires, or smiles. We are invisible. It feels like science fiction, where all the props are in place, the scene intact, bodies abound and no one is home.
We meet the “wellderly” on the plaza. Endearing, lively coots and codgers with an opinion for any subject. “Rent, don’t buy. You can find situations where people will pay you to housesit.” (True. I met some.) “Don’t get married to a house down here … a property you can’t leave because it will get trashed.” (They had plenty of examples.) “Have you tried this restaurant?” “Don’t forget …!” Down-home retired single men with stories to share who need no persuasion. “Find Don – he’ll give you an earful!”
The real estate scene is a buyer’s market. Lago Chapala, the largest natural lake in Mexico, continues to recede and become shallower, despite political promises to reverse the calamity. Its deepest point is less than 16 feet, half its depth from 1977, when its decline began. People who bought lakeside land ten years ago now find themselves up to a mile away from water. And as the Lake dries, the idyllic temperatures of Lakeside heat up. Temperatures in the 90’s are no longer an anomaly. As in Alamos, we meet sellers with desperation in their faces. Does this mean it’s a good time to buy? Falling prices, yes, and the gamble that the dying Lake will be resuscitated.
Editor’s Note: Since this article was written in the late Spring of 2003, the Lake has made a miraculous recovery – following a 50 year cycle – thanks to Nature and Devine intervention – see Lake Chapala 2003. A Season of Hope.
“Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaas. Gaaaaaaaaaaaaas.” The truck full of propane bottles is incessant. Up and down the narrow streets, the tape recording bellows the sing-song announcement. Even on this early morning, as I walk the misty lake edge, where water recedes and the shore becomes the peoples’. Now, where water used to be, there are miles of soccer fields, walking paths, grazing horses and cows, and fields of corn. Women exercise, bouncing dogs run with their owners, bicyclists zip by.
A mí me gusta Lakeside, home to vitality and primal landscape: volcanoes and mountains like Cerro Garcia that rise with power and beauty above the lake at 9072 feet. Hot springs. Writers. Artists. Birders. Many very good restaurants, from cheap to pricey. An office for International Travel, the upscale travel/investment zine has recently landed here, which can bode well or not. All told, about 6,000 Americans reside here, another 6,000 Canadians. Yet, authentic community still exists. A short jaunt from the Ajijic plaza lands me in a small, Mexican village where English is a distant language.
And, there are stunning surprises: Tom’s vertical climb behind town to the Stations of the Cross rewards him with a tiny capilla, (little chapel) an altar and a struggling tree with a sign that begs wayfarers for water they might spare after this hot, steep climb. The same night, downing gin and tonics in the bar on the plaza, a young old gay guy strides in: white skinned white haired dressed in white, a face so tight and waxed I wonder how I missed the museum.
I sit on an overstuffed couch, pen in hand, under a marble tiled portal. A fountain fills the courtyard with the serene sound of splashes. Across the way there is a canary in a cage. He skits around inside the wire sculpture that resembles a church. A trapped sunshine-yellow bird. He sings and calls to the yellow-rumped warbler that lands in the fountain, dips and flings droplets of water about.
We’ve seen properties in two prominent, extraordinary ex-pat communities. I’m drawn to nest, yet nothing grabs me. Screams, “HERE.” Why, I wonder, within jail-wire view of the one who sings for freedom. Why, indeed — cage myself in Mexico, a country whose very mention conjures freedom?
Lightning explodes across the sky. A gentle rain begins to fall. The canary ceases song.