Point your car (or take the bus) along the south side of Lake Chapala, past San Pedro Tesistan and San Cristobal Zapotitlan and San Luis Soyatlan and San Nicolas and Tepeguaje to Tuxcueca. Make a right turn and keep your eyes wide open.
You may encounter official Mexican soldiers conducting inspections. Sometimes they just look. Sometimes they want to see documents. Sometimes they question drivers: Who are you? Where are you from? Where are you going? Be sweet. Some carry automatic rifles — with bullets.
As you climb the mountain toward the magic of Mazamitla, look behind you. There are wonderful views of Lake Chapala. Look ahead, too. See the big pine trees. Soak up the scenery. Notice the large house or small hotel that’s been under creeping construction for four years. And don’t miss the old-fashioned sawmill on the left near Highway 110. There aren’t too many of those in all of Mexico.
Mazamitla is a graceful, charming town of cobblestone streets, white houses trimmed in chocolate, wooden balconies and red tile roofs. Observe the Scandanavian influence. Stroll around the plaza, inspect little shops and stores, purchase at least one pecan praline and consider a tiny pine birdhouse. Spend a few moments in meaningful meditation at the beautiful cathedral. Check the clock up on the center tower. If the time looks OK, consider it a bonus. There have been times when it was 10 after 5 — all day.
Some of those buildings are really old and some of the people have been there a while. On market day or flag day or in the middle of a minor festival, there’s hustle and bustle and no place to park. Don’t give up. Mazamitla is a movie set that’s 100 percent real life.
Once you’ve had a few deep breaths of crisp, clear air (a little thin at 7,300 feet), and have studied the stacks of wooden souvenirs for sale and acquired a feel for this splendid place, find your way back to the Pemex station and go another hundred meters to La Troje restaurant, best in town according to our taste.
You are now in position to get a grip on this story. It’s mostly about Jorge, the oldest new waiter.
The day we found him, Jorge, 53, was just back from California. His roots were in the next village over, he said, which means the restaurant job was a temporary but important part of homecoming. His smile said he sure was glad to be back.
Jorge has points of historical reference and a grasp of local culture. He thinks that this place, born in the 12th century, hasn’t changed all that much in his time. Well, there is a new microwave tower because anybody who is anybody now has a cell phone. Best he can tell, a crime wave in Mazamitla is still an outbreak of graffiti and three drunks instead of two.
Tony Burton, absolute authority on western Mexico, told us about the ancient marriage custom in Mazamitla. Jorge laughed when I mentioned it. Yes, he had heard all about it. If a young man wants to wed a lovely señorita, he must purchase permission from the father. Traditional price is a bottle of strong drink and a carton of cigarettes. Current preference is Marlboro — as in macho.
If the young man is poor or stubborn, he can run off with the girl. But, when they return, there’s a public penalty to pay. They must dress all in black and carry a cross to church to show how sorry they are for shortchanging papa. The waiter winked. He was already wearing black pants.
Jorge said his boyhood years were spent doing what Mexico mountain boys do.
“My first real job was cutting firewood with a machette. I had a little burro who could carry more than I could cut.”
Jorge has spent half his life in the United States, mostly on the west coast, part as a gardener and a lot as a waiter. He had that good green card and the ambition to become a U.S. citizen. He studied hard and thought he’d reached that pedestal.
“I understand English. I can speak English up to a point. But I couldn’t write well enough to pass the test. I told the woman at Immigration, ‘Maybe next time.'”
Maybe there won’t be a next time. Surely Jorge will find a bigger and better job in Guadalajara. His English should come in handy. Maybe he won’t need any more of California.
We met Jorge on his first day at La Troje. He put away his mop, greeted us politely, gave us our pick of 50 tables and brought menus. He admitted he was new on this job. It showed. He seemed reticent. He didn’t have a pad and pencil. He wasn’t sure whether he had Diet Coke or Pepsi Light.
He tried to hand us off to another waiter but, because his English was best on the staff and our Spanish was worst among the three customers, Jorge offered to help with translation. The owner-manager spotted the dilemma, smothered a smile and encouraged him to fly solo. We became his first challenge.
The manager, remembering us from times past, said, “They know what they want. They’ll make it easy for you.”
We drive our trusty VW bug from Jocotepec to Mazamitla for La Troje’s trifajitas, a delightful mix of chicken, beef, shrimp and veggies, enhanced at tableside with a hearty squeeze of orange and lime juice that sizzles when it hits the hot steel platter. As Mexican food goes, this is awesome.
Jorge didn’t know about the ceremonial presentation so he became a student to a teenager who put on quite a show.
“Do you think I’m a little old to be starting over?”
We told him he looks young and assured him he’ll be a fine addition to an already excellent restaurant.
Because Jorge was on limited duty, he found time to talk. He had been as far east and north as South Carolina. He had once attempted to play golf. He said he wasn’t very good. I know that feeling. The conversation was mostly Q&A, our questions, his answers. Along the way, he said he was so glad we came to lunch on his first day.
“I love Americans,” said Jorge.
We didn’t react, so he has no idea how special his words were. You don’t hear “I love Americans” much anymore.