Thursday, 25 August 2016

Mexico - Greener than you might think

Chris going shopping

Funny old stuff in Mexico 

To get a Mexican driving license is really easy – You simply go to your local town hall and buy it. Then you learn to drive!!

In the first six months of 2016 the amount of gang related deaths in Mexico was estimated at 9,400 people. 

There is no national database for fingerprints in Mexico


Santa Maria Del Oro - A square, a church, some shops, bumpy roads, Mexicans, wandering dogs. That's it!. We are here to go to the large volcanic crater lake just outside the town and to do a workaway stint. The lake is not exceptional but certainly ranks in the pleasant category. There are fancy houses, a few cabins and shops around the Blue Flag standard water. People bathe and little boats ferry people from one side to the other. The key thing here though, is the eating. There are several restaurants all selling pretty much the same thing and all with decks butting up to and over the pale blue water. Its very nice and they all sell Michelados (The dark beer, clam juice, tomato juice, chilli, Maggi sauce and salt combo that I have come to love and Rachel has come to make strange faces at.)

It's a schlep along quiet roads and through overgrown footpaths from our Workaway place to the lake. So whenever we run out of anything - food, rum etc. It's 1.5 hours of walking up and over the lip of the crater and down to the lakeside where the shops are. Thank goodness we still have our Nepal legs.

The Workway is for a guy who has a few rooms that he rents out that are set in a truly beautiful garden. Palms, mangoes and colourful bushes and flowerbeds are dotted all over. Its all set among the heavily wooded hills that are draped with morning clouds and the only sounds that we hear are the lowing of cattle, the clip clop of horses and numerous calls of the many birds. We are living in an RV under a canopy and our tasks are to paint some railings on the roof terrace, Make up rooms after any guests, oil coat various wooden gates and build steps down a gully to small river.  It’s been surprisingly compelling building the dozen steps which we have made of rocks set in concrete. Its all very …. rustic.  (Estate state agent speak for badly built).

Agave plantation by La Laguna at Maria Del Oro
The weather is pleasant and the days pass quickly working on our own and chatting with a couple of American retirees – Mark and Patricia or wandering about the lanes or gardens.

Oh! A couple of final things. At night the garden comes alive with hundreds of fire flies and its like fairyland as you walk among the twinkly lights.

We have had wicked thunderstorms in the mountains here. Most nights there is a storm (in Spanish – ‘Tormentor’). These consist of virtually continuous lightning (every couple of seconds) and constant grumbling of thunder.  During one such storm heard an especially cloud clap of thunder, saw a flash and suddenly the air was filled with the smell of cordite from where the lightening hit the ground close by. Scary!

Funny old stuff in Mexico 2

Mexicans really love Mariachi music. You hear it everywhere. In shops, from houses, even booming from the cars of youths. It is rare to get through a meal in a restaurant without at least one Mariachi group asking if you want serenading. We were recently approached in the supermarket car park as we left laden with shopping bags. Is this really the place you want to be serenaded??? Apparently yes!!! The following day we saw two 25 year old guys, who had been in a shop to buy beer, standing with their six packs on the ground in front of them whilst 4 guitar and trumpet-wielding players, dressed in a matching white rhinestoned get up, sang jolly songs. Other people were quite oblivious to the scene and simply passed by with their trolleys – humming.

There is no national rail system in Mexico .

You don’t find chilli con carne anywhere here.

The good life

Ajijic is a small town set on the shores of Lake Chapala (the biggest lake in Mexico) and is home to 11,000 inhabitants and a further 10,000 snowbirds (seasonal residents) who flock there for 6 months of the year to escape the colder months in America and Canada. In the summer months the Gringos make up about 10% of the population but even in these reduced numbers they still dominate the restaurants. Filling nearly every available seat and spending their hard earned yankee dollar rich retirement funds. Life here is good for the permanent residents. The town is 1500 metres up so the climate is superb with pleasant summers and temperate winters. The views across the lake are peaceful and the surrounding hills are often draped with white clouds that seem reticent to encroach on the blue skies about the town.  It’s very pretty and apart from real estate (it’s been priced for Americans) it is cheap. 

It's not a touristy Pueblo Magico but, nonetheless, it is a picturesque place with traditionally styled buildings in vibrant colours. There are boutiques and art galleries, cafes, cobbled streets and swathes of bougainvillea hanging down from old crumbling walls. The town square is set with bandstand and surrounding benches on which the locals relax in the shade of numerous trees.

We are housesitting Senor Ramone. A large, black and extremely affectionate house cat who lives with Mags – his owner, who is currently in Portland, Oregon visiting family. The house is wonderfully designed with huge open plan living, eating and kitchen area that opens onto a large patio. 

Lovely wife in a lovely house
There is a small lush and very beautiful garden containing an enormous cactus, flower beds, decorative, blooming bushes and a magnificent cluster of Bird of Paradise plants which is frequently visited by a hyperactive humming bird. And best of all is that its all hidden away behind 8ft high walls to keep privacy in and baddies out.

Humming bird on the bird of paradise
Mags had warned us we might fall in love with the place and sure enough within 24 hours we had. Not just because of the location but the incredibly welcoming community. Within minutes of the previous house sitter leaving (a regular for several households in the town) we got a call from one of the neighbours asking if we were ok and if we wanted anything from a supermarket the following day. We did. And the following morning we were picked up and taken to one, then on a tour of the town and then to lunch. The generosity of the combined neighbours and close friends of Mags continued with a dinner party, drinks and then another dinner date. Socialising with this eclectic group of seventy somethings was a lesson in later life living. Their stories and life experiences enthralled us, their vitality surprised us and their humour and attitudes to everything kept us smiling the whole time.  Jim told us of the trials and tribulations of being the Drug Tzar and chief prosecutor for the state of Delaware, Linda, his wife, shocked us with tales of sex upon a trapeze, Connie, a still beautiful woman and talented artist talked of her artistic inspirations and Ted, her husband, of life as an air traffic controller and a robbery in which he was shot. Betty and Mike joked and good heartedly parried with one another verbally, whilst Gail led us through her lesbian experiences and three years of alcoholism. Lastly, upon her return came the excellent company of Mags. A woman still mourning the untimely death of her husband whom she plainly loved and revered. Mags, for all her carried sadness, was open and honest and still an entertaining and lovely woman. Possibly the most accomplished swearer I have ever met. In reference to a group of people - “Those fuckers are full of shit!” Just one of the phrases she was heard to utter in the two days we spent with her. In short, life for this Cocoon community is filled with art, alcohol, socializing, a bit of weed smoking and generally loving life. We raise our virtual glasses to them and were we 15 years older would gladly throw in our lot and join the ranks of the ageing and honest ex pats of Ajijic.

Rachel teaching Mags how to do an
impression of a preying mantis.
Plainly Mags needs to work on it.

Monday, 1 August 2016


Guanajuato is another of those magical towns crammed with lovely buildings. It’s smaller than its better known neighbor of San Miguel de Allende and maybe not quite as pretty but it’s a close call and it’s got character of its own that really grabs you. So much so that we made enquiries about potential properties and even went and looked at a dilapidated place with 6 bedrooms, three lounges, two kitchens, three bathrooms and huge rooftop potential for a patio overlooking the town. It would have been a lot of work but neighbours dogs constantly yapping and a steep 6 minute hike up a steep hill would probably limit it’s success as a guesthouse.

Guanajuato sits in a bowl of hills and it takes only a few minutes vigorous walking uphill to get out into the country side which stretches away forever. Low trees, cactus and wild grass on rolling hills.The town was a silver mining centre and there are remnants of the industry lying decrepit and hidden in undergrowth. The colonial styled town itself has small bricked streets, plenty of plazas and is crowded with mainly Mexican tourists. Consequently traffic could be a problem but this is got around by a network of underground roughly hewn tunnels that crisscross under the city. These and purely pedestrian tunnels are necessary because the houses are all crowded on top of one another and stop easy egress from one part of the town to the other.

We had a well placed suite of rooms (grand way of saying that the other two bedrooms were empty) so had our own living room and kitchen. A great find for only twelve quid a night and only minutes from the Centro zone with loads of restaurants, tat shops and a proliferation of men painted like statues who make tourists jump by occasionally moving. There are 29 churches in the town – mostly magnificent and my lovely wife (seemingly, a recent convert to church photography) seemed to seek out and click pictures of them all. It’s ok you won’t be subjected to them all because, like so many “adorable” dog images she has taken, they will be culled down to socially acceptable levels. Walking in the town is interesting although slightly challenging as the paths are thin and the people fat but, as I say, it’s got something and we walked nearly every alley.

Among those ‘something’s’ was the gruesome Mummy Museum.  This bizarre place is home to 119 mummified remains of people. Apparently a tax was imposed on living relatives to keep their loved ones underground. If it wasn’t paid the bodies were dug up and disposed of. Due to the extremely dry conditions of the soil the bodies did not decompose in their normal messy way and some of the better conditioned remains were acquired by the museum. These are now displayed in glass cabinets. Some wearing original clothes, many with just their boots and all with a lighthearted plaque introducing them. Stuff like “Hi, I’m Bob. Now look at my body and see if you can guess how I died…No? Well if you look at the back of my head you will see a hole because I was shot in the head, Ow!”

The mummy museum
Time for the beach. We took the overnight bus (very comfy) to Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast. First impressions – Shit, shit and shit. Its Benidorm for Mexicans and Americans. Hotels line the much too small beaches and, due the lack of space on land, people float around in the breakwater like jetsom and flotsam or whatever.,_jetsam,_lagan,_and_derelict.

Anyway. Walking the promenade leaves one exhausted  having to say “no”, “no thanks”, “really no thank you” , or, the good old response and reason I wrote that book “F**k off!” to the numerous peddlers of stuff you don’t need, shops you don’t want to enter and taxi’s you don’t want a lift in. It really is not my thing,. Lets see how I feel tomorrow after a good nights sleep. Unfortunately we have paid for three days so may have to just hole up in our room, practice our Spanish and dribble on people from our balcony for fun.

Maybe I am getting picky - Vallarta beach
Update. Didn’t get much better. Although if you come away from the front a little it did seem more normal. But It was humid, rained from 4.00pm till 10.30pm each day and the studio apartment was opposite a tortillas bakery that started at dawn and played Celine Dion or similar at full volume from their open windows. Thank goodness. Only one more night to go and then we are off to San Blas – three hours up the coast. At least we did a lot of Spanish (and rum and cokes).

San Blas. 4 hours north of Vallarta is a mosquito ridden beach town that’s either dying or trying not too. There is a nice little square with stalls, shops, restaurants etc with roads leading down to the beaches. The roads are lined with closed or dilapidated small hotels. The main beach, which is lovely, wide, has good sand, palm trees and is lapped by a very warm Pacific ocean, has good Palapas (beach restaurants). The sea food is cheap and well prepared, the beer is cheap and once you have a table you can stay all day using it as a base from which to go swimming, walking etc. 

Apparently the beach is meant to be a feeding ground for No-see-ums but we haven’t seen ‘um’ probably because we have not been there in the evening or early morning. These vicious little flies give a really irritating bite that goes on for days and were the bane of lives in Borneo.

Unfortunately San Blas is also famous for its mosquitoes (belated research has revealed!!!!). Keep to the roads and don’t dawdle and you are OK. Venture into the shade, overgrown areas and you are done for. A lesson we first learned when we went down to the river estuary nearby to get a boat across to a wooded area and a deserted beach that runs for miles and miles north.  Sounded good but within a couple of seconds of getting off the boat we were attacked by so many mosquitoes we had to jog along whacking ourselves and the air about us with snatched foliage until we got to the beach. Between us we picked up about 25 bites. Which made the walk with no shade (too scared to enter the tree line again) less enjoyable than we imagined. Even so we wandered for a couple of hours up and down the deserted beach. After a swim, some of it naked. Well, I was naked, Rachel sensibly kept clothes on and therefore didn’t add sunburn to her collection of ailments.  

Beautiful beaches with no one on them - at a price
We are staying at a run down little guest house with 4 or 5 apartments surrounding a thin, shady (mosquito infested) courtyard. You feel a bit like you are entering a squat when you come off the permanently flooded street with overgrown vacant plots all around and that sense is confirmed inside. We have two bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen and eating area so it is pretty spacious for 15 quid. However when it rains the roof leaks in a couple of places and we have had to move our bed to accommodate various buckets. It’s a sleepy, humid place to stay. The fans are not that good, there are spiders and cockroaches and gheckos wandering about in our room and the screens on the windows don’t quite fit but - staying we are.
The guy who owns it is a washed up hippy who smokes and drinks too much and has plainly spent a lot of time living a hippy life with all that that entailed. Hence why it looks like a squat and is falling down like the rest of the town. Apparently from an old moneyed family he ended up here 20 years ago and never left. He’s a man of good stories, easy nature and garrulous to the point of being self absorbed. Most days there are two or three Mexicans sharing a smoke with him or one of his long term guests. We soon adopted the When in Rome principle and as a consequence we have spent a mellow time here being chilled, listening to music, snacking and learning Spanish. We are really taking this language thing very seriously and are progressing well and, hopefully in a couple of months, will be able to write a Spanish blog. OK it won’t make any sense but we will have tried.

Probably staying here a couple more days (Maaannn! Ended up being a week).