September is like being trapped in a hot steam sauna and you can’t get out. No one will ever pass by to unlock the door. While we promised Warren we’d spend next Carnaval in Guadalajara with him, the high humidity has forced us to break that promise. As Soren checks the internet for apartments to rent, Alfredo has pointed the way for us to obtain our “senior’s card.” Alfredo has had his for a couple of years and wants to share this gem with us. I do know you need to be over 60, have copies of your FM3 papers and your utility bill. As I stumbled through Centro into various government offices I learn the card is completely free and never needs to be renewed. The big benefit is half off on all the buses throughout Mexico. Since that’s the way we are planning on traveling, it is worth the sweat to have this card in our wallets. Alfredo drives us to the bus station to purchase our tickets on the “first class” bus. For some idiotic reason we decide to leave at the end of September. They have room for us on that date; if the bus is booked you do not get the two for one. It’s a six- hour bus ride with bathrooms on board, and for the two of us it’s $80 (US), return. I’m calmer now, knowing that I’m heading into the mountains soon. I’m not cooler, though. Often it’s too hot to even walk to our yoga class. I may have seen Bridget Jones 25 times in our air conditioned bedroom. I’m beginning to like Hugh Grant way too much.
Alfredo has invited us to his birthday party on September 12. We are very honoured to be included. He will be 66, has five children and two grandchildren; there’s not a single thing he needs. I know Alfredo drinks copious amounts of coffee at our local restaurant overlooking the ocean, La Copa de Leche. It’s a Mazatlan institution. La Copa has been in the same location for over 50 years, and Alfredo meets his buddies there every morning to solve the problems of the world. I have the bright idea that we would buy Alfredo’s coffee for a month, kind of like a Starbucks card. Well. Loyalty cards are new to Luis D. Limberopulos Rosete, owner of La Copa. Fortunately his English is good, and he understands the idea. But how would we tip our favourite waiter, Ernesto? That’s easy; we include the tip. We work out the details, pay Luis, and the loyalty card did turn out to be a big hit. Alfredo’s wife and daughters have transformed their back patio into a party room. Tables and chairs are rented, a live band arrives, along with a catering crew. The tequila is flowing, and everyone is dancing from ages two to 80; it’s a lovely, loving family affair. Alfredo’s coffee- drinking buddies are now drinking tequila and oh, how they love to sing. It’s expected that you sing along with the band and they do — at full throttle. We enjoy watching Alfredo enjoying his own party, and chatting with all his friends. There’s lots of laughing, kissing and hugging and we feel very much accepted. There’s no need to speak Spanish, as the band is so loud and the singing so enthusiastic.
The day after Alfredo’s birthday party, Soren zeros in on a great apartment in downtown Guadalajara for the month of October. Alfredo knows Guadalajara well and says the area that we have chosen is “just okay; a little on the poor side,” but conveniently located to many attractions. That’s fine with us; we prefer to be in the hustle and bustle of a big city. After all, we are used to Toronto, with a population of 4 million. Give or take. The bus leaves Mazatlan at 7 a.m. and we arrive in Guadalajara six hours later. It is a lovely trip, with lots of beautiful vegetation, lakes, rivers and shrimp farms to look at. Soren snoozes, I read a trashy novel. I like the fact that you can bring as much luggage as you want and no one inspects or weighs it. I feel a shopping trip coming on. It’s just our luck that when we arrive in Guadalajara it’s one of the hottest days of the year. I am in jeans and a sweater — it’s supposed to be cooler, not warmer than Mazatlan. Soren and I just look at each other, the traffic, the noise and begin to wonder if we hadn’t made our situation worse. We know it is a large city; a population of between 5 and 9 million. Give or take.
I get a “Lisbon feeling” as the taxi steers us through the city. Lisbon is the one city I visited, and it was hate at first sight. Don’t know why, but it was instant dislike, and I never did warm up to Lisbon. It’s another “blink,” and I have an inkling I’m not going to love Guadalajara, despite all the rave reviews from our friends. Kind of like Copper Canyon. The taxi drops us on a crummy back street, and our apartment awaits us behind two beat-up black doors. We’d seen the pictures on the internet, but I never trust them. However, the internet garden description is accurate. The property does rest on ¼ acre of the most lushly landscaped gardens I’ve ever seen. Inserted among all the different tropical trees and exotic plants is a lily pond sprouting three fountains and housing eight bullfrogs. Two wandering peacocks waddle up to greet us and promptly sit themselves on top of the teak table in our patio. Roberto is the owner of the four apartments and lives in a spacious house on the grounds. He introduces himself and explains he was a landscape architect in San Francisco, retired to Guadalajara and only became a landlord in order to feed his plant habit. He can’t stop buying and experimenting with exotic plants from all over the world. The exterior is so beautiful, and the interior of the apartment, is so not beautiful.
Once again, fully furnished is a code phrase. This time it’s even worse than Villa Serena, worse than Pepe’s; there is not a single dish, glass, pot, pan, no blender, no coffee maker, plus the place is filthy. The bathroom light explodes — literally —emitting sparks, and I try not to explode. Roberto, I think is gay, he’s frail, and I’m guessing he’s around 70, so I tread lightly explaining the apartment is not furnished and missing all the basics. He shrugs and says his interest is in the gardens and we are to ask his 28 -year- old -lover, Luis, for anything we need. Okay, for sure he’s gay; we now refer to our accommodation as The Gay Gardens. Each day Luis drops off towels, utensils, pots, pans and even a bread board. We are making do and are wallowing in the cooler air and the tranquility of this garden oasis. It really is a secret garden. A maid appears three times a week and swishes a dirty mop around. She’s sloppy and completely useless; I turn a blind eye to the months and months of built up grime and elect to spend time outside with the peacocks and bullfrogs. At night we need a jacket; that’s worth the trip alone.
We buy maps and touristy booklets. We search for upcoming events, something that will point us in the right direction. We find next to nothing. Soren and I are resourceful in a new city — we know how to find the pulse. Within three days we have walked the Centro Historico. We’ve seen: The Cathedral and the Palacio de Gobierno in the Plaza de Armas, The Degollado Theatre, The Rotonda of Illustious Men, Jalisco’s Regional Museum, Libertad Market, Plaza Tapatia, “the Tourist Corridor,” The Instituto Cultural Cabanas, the murals by Jose Clemente Orozco, plus all the grand official buildings, fountains and statues. It’s lovely, it’s regal, but we still have not yet found the buzz of Guadalajara. There are no cafes, no street stalls, no interesting restaurants near by. We end up having lunch twice at a local Holiday Inn. That’s pathetic. We ask Roberto, and other residents, where all the restaurants are. Turns out Guadalajara is very much like LA; you need to drive about 30 minutes to reach any restaurant. There’s quite a bit of hype around an Argentinean restaurant that offers various cuts of excellent beef. The cab ride is over 30 minutes, and the décor reminds us of a conference hall in a dreary hotel. Food and service is very good, but just not worth a 60- minute return trip with a depressing interior.
Day four we admit to each other that Guadalajara is not for us. I am enjoying the local gym and ask all the young women where the yoga classes are. There is not a single yoga studio within five kilometers. Soren happily shops daily at the local market, but we’re just not into a city that has no centre. Thrilled to be cooler, we do need to break from the monotony of The Gay Gardens so we decide to hire a cab and visit Tlaquepaque and Tonala. These are small towns where Americans and Canadians love to shop. Women often do weekend bus tours from Mazatlan just to stock up and shop up a storm. Our condo in Mazatlan is small, and we are designing custom made furniture that is modular; most pieces have built in drawers and are on wheels to double as a stool or a coffee table. The wood will be stained in an oyster shade. I already own Mexican ceramic pots; never mind that ceramic bathroom sink I have no use for. Tlaquepaque and Tonala are filled with ceramics and dark, heavy furniture. There is nothing of interest for us here; except I do buy two huge hand -blown glass hurricane lamps which will be ideal in our Pepe apartment, and then our condo. They are $10 (US) each; too pretty to pass up. I fear the large candles will cost more than the lamps did. Back in The Gay Gardens we relax and we read. It’s wonderful to be cool. We are a tiny bit bored. How many times can you walk around 20 grand blocks? There’s no music, there’s no joy, and it’s quite serious. It’s beginning to remind me of Ottawa, Ontario. So we plan another day trip to Ajijic and Lake Chapala. We are looking forward to Ajijic. There’s an English newspaper called the Guadalajara Reporter and it mostly writes about all the activities around Ajijic and Lake Chapala. Surely these towns will offer up something different.
Lake Chapala is Mexico’s largest fresh water lake, 45 kilometers southeast of Guadalajara. The town of Ajijic nestles against this immense lake and is a preferred retirement location for thousands of Americans and Canadians. Our first stop is to stroll along Lake Chapala’s Malecon. It’s dead quiet. There is no action in the water. There are no fishermen. There are no boats moving. There is no one swimming. There are no waves. As far as the eye can see is sagging seaweed floating to the top. A few men are out in the lake hacking up and collecting the seaweed in large nets. I don’t take the time to gather all the facts, but I do ascertain the lake is dying, and no one can swim in it. There could be some fishing, but I’m not sure of that. I ask these questions in stores and other venues in Ajijic, but do not receive direct answers; I think it’s the town’s dirty secret. After Mazatlan’s lively Malecon with surfing, swimming and non-stop action, this Malecon feels to us as if it is decaying. There are some fun stores and a couple of great art galleries. I treat myself to four hand- painted plates from Puebla that I know I will use — not like the bloody bathroom sink, which is becoming a code phrase between Soren and myself. The designs are intricate, and every one is unique. They each cost $35 (US), but it’s functional art. Even Soren loves them and encourages me to buy more. I think four is enough. It’s difficult to sum up Ajijic as we spent so little time there. I’m not even sure I heard any Spanish being spoken. It’s an American enclave, the exact opposite of a Mexican working city. With a lake suffocating in seaweed, and being surrounded by expats, we rule out Ajijic as a summer destination.
Once again we return to The Gay Gardens. We are still bored. I pull out the map and see we are only six hours from San Miguel de Allende, a city we’ve wanted to explore. It’s just too cool in the winter for us, but perhaps a great alternative to Mazatlan in the summer, now that we know Guadalarja and Ajijic will not be our summer “cottage.” Half fare bus tickets are easily purchased and we hop on board, ignoring the fact that we are now paying rent for Pepe’s apartment, rent at The Gay Gardens and are about to spend $80 (US) a night at the Villa Mirasol Hotel in the heart of San Miguel. It’s only for five nights but it includes a private patio and breakfast.
The purpose of our visit to SMA is two fold. We will know in one day if this city is for us, and if it is, we will locate an apartment to rent for next summer. This is not a sightseeing trip; it’s all about renting the right apartment — if we adore SMA. San Miguel is perched 6,100 feet up in the mountains with cobblestone streets spilling down through the city like wandering waterfalls. Not a single street has been paved over. A group of empowered government agencies and UNESCO wrapped their arms around this colonial town early on, and really preserved it. I am prepared to loathe a city devoted to tourism. It is rather like a movie set. All the buildings are painted in muted earth tones and most display ornately carved wooden doors that lead to secret gardens or stunning courtyards. We are seduced by the large pop-up spaces and hidden courtyards. It is just as intriguing walking the streets of San Miguel as it is walking the streets of Sedona, Seattle or San Francisco.
We are so surprised that we could still be surprised, and we knew this would be our summer retreat. Within one day we saw five apartments and decided on one right away. It’s a small one- bedroom with a massive roof terrace in a perfect downtown location. Thelma Rodriquez owns and lives on the property; we rent it for next August and September. We click immediately. Her English is wonderful and she’s already correcting my Spanish. I know we will get along, and she will provide us with anything we need. I’m hoping she’s the opposite of Pepe. We will pay $800 (US) a month, which includes all utilities, taxes and weekly maid service. There is an excellent choice of Spanish schools if we want to continue with lessons. We’ll decide that next August. Day three we find three fabulous yoga studios, but Soren and I have selected to go Arthur Murray’s Dance Studio. I’ve always wanted to learn the tango; however, the space is devoted to bilingual yoga classes four mornings a week. The spotless wooden floors and mirrors make it an ideal space for yoga. We try two classes. The atmosphere, the bilingual teacher and the level is exactly right for us. Across the street from our future apartment is a four- star hotel, Casa Linda, which has an exclusive gym and lap pool. No problem for me to pay a monthly fee, the manager says, as no one ever uses the facilities! Yoga, a gym, Spanish classes, a whole new city to explore — it’s sheer, summer, mountain heaven. I even overhear in a restaurant there are tennis courts nearby. If San Miguel bores us, then Guanajuato, Mexico City and Queretaro are a bus ride away. All interesting cities to visit.
It’s our last evening in San Miguel and we are dining in a gorgeous courtyard under palms and orange trees. The local jazz quartet is just tuning up. The quartet got me thinking about a friend of mine’s son, who left Toronto for San Miguel over 25 years ago to be part of the music scene. I remember it being quite the family drama — son Ken heading off to Mexico (for God’s sake, Mexico), lawyer dad kept flying him back from San Miguel to get Ken “on the right path,” which was law school. Ken stayed in San Miguel. Soren and I are mulling over what San Miguel must have been like 25 years ago, when the band began to play sweet, soft, smooth jazz. And there was Ken on stage. It is a completely surreal moment. It is yet another Mexican Moment. We caught up on his break. I was thrilled he recognized me after 25 years, what with me no longer having my red hair. He claims I hadn’t changed at all. Right. It was 20 years ago Ken headed for San Miguel, so he’s now 51 with a Mexican wife and three children. Becoming a lawyer was never on Ken’s agenda. Music was, and still is, his life. We look forward to hearing him play next summer.
We return again to The Gay Gardens, thinking we will see the month out. Our problem is once you’ve been to the Glyptoteket in Copenhagen, the Louvre in Paris, or the Tate in London, it’s difficult to get excited or motivated in Guadalajara. Within two days we decide to pack it in and pack up. Just a small barrier stopping us — hurricane Rick is heading for Mazatlan. I don’t fancy being on a bus, or in Pepe’s apartment, during a hurricane. We track the storm on the internet and see it has been downgraded into a tropical storm. We buy our bus tickets and return home the day after Rick leaves. He’s been fairly destructive — palm trees are ripped right out of the ground and smaller, frailer buildings are destroyed — but he has left behind a path of cool air.