Ajijic: the way we were

articles Living, Working, Retiring

Maggie Van Ostrand

A Balloon in Cactus

In the ancient Nahuatl language, Ajijic means “The Place Where Water Springs Forth.” This year marks the 40th anniversary of an historic event: the Great Geyser Eruption. It is said to have been the tallest in the world at 260 feet, while Old Faithful gushes in at a mere 185.

Jack McDonald reported in a 1968 Chicago Tribune, “It suddenly erupted on the road between Ajijic and Jocotepec, and could be seen for miles around. It had burst through a walk near the swimming pool at the Balnerio San Jose Cosalá, a spa where visitors bathe in the healing thermal waters. The initial eruption shot stone and cement 100 feet in the air. The first week, it spouted every five hours, but recently the interval is eight hours. Best time to view it is between noon and 4 p.m. The eruptions last about two minutes.”

Equally interesting is his take on Ajijic in the sixties. “One of the most colorful towns in Mexico. A sleepy fishing village with rustic charm, founded before Cortes, over 400 years old. San Andres Church dates back to the 16th century.” The cobblestone streets were laid during the Spanish regime and “…are so narrow that cars can barely squeeze by files of burros, expanded three times their width by rustling cornstalks or firewood on their backs.” Doesn’t seem to have changed much four decades later.

Back then, the people had no bells to alert them when the garbage truck was coming so they could get their pails of trash outside; instead they rattled stones in tin cans. Inside the walls of outwardly ramshackle homes, roses crept alongside flowering myrtle, fragrant jasmine, mignonette, six-foot-tall scarlet dahlias stood next to orange, pink, and purple bougainvillea. The village motto was “A house should be like a man’s wife, an enclosed garden for him alone.”

Some of the world’s finest fish, tiny whitefish, were found in Lake Chapala. They had a delicate flavor and firm, soft flesh, best eaten lightly fried in beaten egg with a squeeze of lemon juice. Lake Chapala had been fished for generations with big, delicate seine nets, requiring constant mending, usually owned jointly by five or six families. A common sight was an Indian swimming out to untangle a net from rocks. Fishermen dried their catches in rows two to three inches high, flanking both sides of the highway.

Horses, cows, goats, and burros were lead into the water for a bath, a common sight from the old Posada, then owned by Americans Sue and Booth Waterbury. Nearby was a silk worm farm, which produced enough silk for hand-woven dresses and scarves of unique design, made and sold by natives.

Along the roadside between Ajijic and Joco, McDonald saw scores of boys in brightly colored jerseys peddling away on their bikes prepping for the Olympics; criados (maids) with eyes “as blue as morning glories,” carrying heaping baskets of produce (one was carrying a bucket of fish in one hand and a bunch of white lilies in the other); little boys under ten carrying massive loads of twigs on their backs weighing twice as much as the boys, a man on a burro with huge milk cans sticking out from each side. He saw bent-backed women kneeling on wide flat stones, washing clothes along the lake edge, rubbing them clean on rocks; Mexican families picnicking and roasting pigs in big iron cauldrons over fires made of lake driftwood. He saw a funeral procession with a man carrying a tiny white baby coffin on his head supported by both hands; barefoot women balancing demijons on their heads; men and girls selling big, juicy fresh strawberries to passing motorists; a barefoot woman with a brown-eyed baby in a rebozo at her breast. Horses and burros outnumbered cars 30 to one, and passing trucks were overloaded with people and freight piled ten feet high with hitchhikers perched on top and hanging off the sides.

We can still experience many of these same sights, as well as enjoying the geyser, which continues to erupt every eight hours, at 78 degrees Farenheit.

Though there’s no evidence that Marcel Proust ever visited Ajijic, he might have been thinking about it when he wrote “The real voyage of discovery lies not in discovering new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.”

Published or Updated on: July 1, 2008 by Maggie Van Ostrand © 2008
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