Steve Martaindale

Author of the JP Weiscarver Mystery Series

Chapala, Mexico

Mariachi

Mariachi bands produced the most distinctive sounds during our stay in Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico. The second band member from the left is Miquel, whom you will read about later.

Mexico, we decided, is a place of sounds.

Isn’t it true different places appeal more so to different senses?

A week on the Indonesian island of Bali during a Hindu high holiday seemed to imprint its memories as smells. For weeks, it seemed I could still sniff the outdoor cooking and the vast amount of incense and fresh flowers. The two weeks we spent on the coast of Thailand was a visual overload. From Tiger Cave Temple to the colorful long-tail boats, the images have stuck with us. My four months working in Antarctica was high on feelings, from the freezing temperatures on my skin to the separation anxieties in my heart.

Mexico, we decided, is a place of sounds.

Days started with songbirds waking us to a relatively quiet sunrise. Looking out the always-open windows, we might tune in to the quiet swishing sounds of the brooms of the street sweepers and maybe pick up on a conversation from across the street where attendants were washing ambulances.

Then, a vehicle would rattle down the cobblestone street with its radio cranked up and the day fully came to life.

The melodic “agua” cry of the water man … the chopping machete from the corner vendor selling fresh coconuts and sugar cane … the music and recorded announcement of the propane truck … multiple simultaneous mariachi bands … the clip-clop of horses … car alarms … ambulance sirens as they go out and the beep-beep-beep backup warnings when they return … the squeaking of the sliding gate to houses across the street … distant concerts … the chattering of people walking to their cars at the end of the day … and finally, at any time during the night, the clunking of a metal cover on the street below our bedroom window whenever a driver strayed to the left side of the lane.

Tourist signWhat and where

For some time now, I’ve had my eye on an artist residency program in Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico. (I will tell more about this and other residency programs at the very end, if you’re interested.) You may remember reading in our Thailand expedition and even Caprock Canyons how we have been targeting small areas and spending enough time to get to know them better, as opposed to trying to see all the major tourist attractions in a country or region.

Chapala feels like a smaller town than it really is – as far as population is concerned – but it’s still not large by any standard. It and several other small towns ring Lake Chapala, the largest freshwater body in Mexico. Of those towns, Chapala has the most direct link to Guadalajara, sitting only 30 miles from the center of the state capital and its 1.4 million people.

Therefore, Lake Chapala is a key recreation spot for the people of Guadalajara, meaning there is an abundance of great restaurants with competitive pricing. It also means we learned to schedule our activities around the influx of tourists.

Our purpose, though, was to experience living day-to-day in an area with which we’re not familiar, among customs we do not thoroughly understand, listening to a language still rather foreign to us. That led to our four-week stay during March 2019.

Our casita

Our home for the month of March 2019 was the top floor of the red and blue building.

First impressions

The proximity to home – a 2.5-hour flight after a two-hour drive – was refreshingly short and easy. We flew Mexican-based Volaris airline, as recommended by our hostess; it also had the best fare. It was obvious both during check-in and the flight itself that the airline does not cater to many non-Spanish speakers. We began tuning our ears to the sounds of Mexico.

We breezed through Immigration and Customs. A taxi was acquired as easily as our hostess promised. In half an hour (the airport is conveniently located on the south side of the city, so we escaped most heavy traffic), our driver was working his way through Chapala, and we were spotting sights familiar from Google Street View. As he turned the corner at the far end of the restaurant district (my term), I spotted our colorful casita on the third floor overlooking the area.

Curb parking was packed on this Saturday afternoon, but there was a man near our casita’s street-level door looking at us and waving a towel in circles over his head. Behind him was a small parking spot. Our driver made a U-turn and nestled up to the open spot to unload our bags. “Checking in” was simple. Our hostess – Deborah, but she’s known around town as Cobra – had given us a code for the gated entry. At the top of two flights of stairs awaited our home for the month, freshly cleaned and the keys inside.

Many people consider it small, but it was perfect for us. After all, we live in an RV. For many artists, it would not be large enough to accommodate their craft, but I only needed the desk and chair they provided.

Outside the picture windows looking toward the lake, the owners recently added a superb deck with a partial canopy to protect from the afternoon sun. It became our favorite spot. From there, we spent almost every morning and evening looking out over the crazy intersection, listening to the comings and goings of traffic and people.

In short order, however, we headed to the street to find something to eat.

Fisherman and pelicans

Lake Chapala’s trademark pelicans surround a fisherman in hopes of collecting treats.

Diving in

Our room was within sight of a line of restaurants running from the street to the lakefront and we decided to check them out first. En route, a young man named Miquel tried to coax us into his less-appealing-looking eatery on our side of the street from the lake. After looking at his Los Joselos menu, we moved on to walk by the other establishments, which were all busy. Soon, we were back with Miquel as the only customers in his open-air restaurant.

Afterward, we walked down the Malecón, the lakeside walkway. Further from the lake and next to the road was an extensive selection of vendor booths. We also made a stop at a convenience store to stock up on a few groceries.

We wrapped up the day on the deck, listening to pedestrians, automobiles and horses come and go two floors below. The first several hours were in. Only 27 days left to go.

Street view

A street off the main thoroughfare.

Hoofing it

We always enjoy exploring an area by foot. The day may come when such an exercise is not possible, so we do it now. (Remember, we celebrated Leah’s 60th birthday by spending five weeks walking end-to-end on the Erie Canal.)

Walking was perfect for exploring Chapala. Our farthest walk was only 3.5 miles, plus a few detours. Not that it was fast walking. Narrow streets and narrower sidewalks. Plenty to cause us to stop and look. Shops to peek into.

More than anything, a slow, street-level view of a town gives one the most accurate reading of a community, such as the readiness to exchange “buenos dias” greetings, just how hard people work, and how clean the area was.

‘Be safe, now’

As friends heard of our travel plans, many expressed concerns for our safety. This is nothing new. Anytime we go abroad, it grows from the mere “Safe travels” comment to worrying about the foreign lands we’re entering, anxieties exacerbated by unfamiliarity. Our plans to visit Mexico seemed to draw out more apprehension than even Africa, the Mideast or Asia and we certainly knew why.

La Cueva

An advertisement that caught my eye, but we never ate there.

The president of the United States had been building up fears of Mexico, of Latinos in general, of any non-American and, indeed, even non-white Americans. Certain media outlets and countless online accounts had been echoing that and underscoring it with … let’s just say it … fake news. We did not hear one expat or visitor in Mexico voice support for this president or his positions (though some surely do). After all, they live among the people there and know them for what they are – folks just like us and others around the world.

As we expected, we had no problems. One night, after dining late with friends, we were walking the dark streets back to our casita and encountered three young men on a corner where we were turning. One of them returned a “buenos noches” from us and said another word, perhaps to his companions, which we did not understand. We were both on alert something might happen, just as we have often been on American streets, but it didn’t. That was it.

Leah has enjoyed telling about Miquel, a trumpet player in a mariachi band, who we met because he hung out near our front door when he wasn’t playing. He rode a bicycle into town from a short distance away and leaned it against our building because there was a convenient ledge where he could set things and where he studied English from a book he carried. When his band was playing on the Malecón, he left his bicycle, his pack, book, lunch, trumpet case … whatever … unattended for hours. We saw similar scenes repeated at different spots around the area.

Bottom line is we took normal precautions and never felt insecure during our stay. That’s not to say the place is perfect. One sound we heard too often was the honking of car alarms; obviously, auto theft or burglary is considered a problem, though I suspect most of the alarms were on cars driven down from Guadalajara.

Leah and grande pina colada

Leah enjoying a grande pina colada. A super saleswoman at the stand matched us up with these though any communication between us was weak.

Hablo espańolʔ

Another valid concern about traveling abroad is being able to communicate. We’ve learned most touristy areas cater to English-speaking travelers, with varying degrees of success, and expected the same in Chapala. We were both right and wrong.

Many restaurants, for example, had English menus, but most of the employees’ English went no further. There were exceptions, both in a waiter who spoke excellent English and others who made no effort.

But we had a ringer in our corner.

Leah has had exposure to Spanish off and on through her teaching years, plus she usually tries to learn something of a language before we visit a country. She worked extra hard this time, spending several weeks diligently studying through an application known as Duolingo.

She declared her intent to learn as much as she could during our visit, telling one waiter or clerk after another, in Spanish, she was trying to learn the language. She immediately converted every one of those into teachers who appreciated her effort and helped make sure we understood everything we needed to know.

She took it even further, though. Our hostess suggested a Spanish teacher, an amazing man by the name of Juan, a professional linguist who speaks six or seven languages. Leah had one-hour, one-on-one lessons with Juan twice a week for the last three weeks we were there.

She loved the lessons, always did her homework, and said she learned a lot, including tips on continuing her studies at home. His fee, for a one-hour lesson in his home, was $150 Mexican, the equivalent of less than $8 U.S., which brings up costs.

Deck sitting

Living in Chapala is definitely inexpensive, especially when your deck offers such a great spot to spend time.

Of pesos and dollars

Having overspent our travel budget in 2018, we had not expected to take any serious trips this year. However, the expense of our Mexican expedition was such that it barely cost more than living at home. Our casita cost $610 U.S. for the month, compared to $525 for the lot for our RV (which, to be fair, is more than we usually pay, but it was a very nice place). Since we needed to have some routine maintenance done to our trailer, the shop agreed to keep it until we returned, free of charge.

The flights were inexpensive and the costs of day-to-day living was low enough to pretty much offset that. We did not do an extensive cost analysis, but it was obvious the trip took little extra money from our pockets.

We ate out at a full-service restaurant once a day, occasionally both breakfast and a later meal. At one place, a large pizza fed both of us for about $6. A fancy breakfast at another ran about $11. A lunch or dinner, including drinks and tip, often cost less than $20 for both of us.

Our other meals at home were made up of something from the grocery store, often ready to eat. Bottom line, we did no cooking, though our casita did have a little kitchen.

One morning, on a walk more into the “local” side of town, we encountered a man selling tamales. Leah purchased six, each of which later made a meal for one of us. Twice, we bought a rotisserie chicken at the supermarket. Once, I bought a packaged hamburger that I microwaved. Eating it in the dark on the patio, something felt different. When I turned on a light, I found four thickly sliced carrots.

We had to buy our drinking water, which came in 20-liter bottles. When water was running low, we would listen to the early morning call of the water man – “Aqua” – and I would carry the empty to the street. “Arriba?” he asked, referring to the upper floor, and he insisted on carrying the bottle upstairs. $25 Mexican, like $1.30 U.S., covered a few days of drinking water and a tip.

It’s easy to see how folks can form a habit of coming back here every year. Winter, which we were finishing out during our March visit, is particularly popular because of the wonderful weather, especially compared to the areas from which most folks come.

Sunset

Sunset over Lake Chapala, ending another beautiful day.

Perfect weather

Conditions at Chapala are quite appealing. At about 20 degrees north latitude, it is in the warm tropics. However, at an elevation of one mile, the temperatures are remarkably cool. Year-round, we’re told, highs are generally in the 70s or 80s. It can cool down into the 50s at night, making for a remarkably fresh daybreak.

Such moderate temperatures mean everything is open. We had no need for an air-conditioner, though the ceiling fans in the living room and bedroom were often put to work. Even restaurants were almost exclusively open air and quite a few offered outside dining, keeping us in constant contact with the sounds of the street.

Like many areas in the tropics, seasons at Chapala are defined by the rain. Even during the summer rainy season, we heard more than once, most of the rain comes at night. During our four-week stay, we never saw a drop of rain. Indeed, we didn’t see too many clouds and those usually served to accentuate a sunset or sunrise. I don’t know if the dry season is supposed to be that dry or even if I would like to go months without rain, but the temperatures are quite nice.

crazy intersection

It’s a regrettable byproduct of any small tourist town … traffic.

Life in paradise?

So, what is it like living in such a place? It’s difficult to say. Most of the locals with whom we interacted made a living serving tourists, mostly from the nearby city but also from other states and countries. Such relationships are seldom completely honest. We experience the other side of that coin working our summer jobs at parks; the employee almost always presents a more favorable image of his or her day or life than is totally accurate. To answer the question, we relied more on observations.

Coming from mostly small-town living in Texas – the “Friendly State” – we’re accustomed to greeting people on the street and getting friendly or at least appropriate replies, but our experience in Chapala seemed to exceed even that. Getting a “buenos dias” from a vendor is to be expected, but the heartiest greetings came from unknown passersby on the street.

Our casita was only a block from an elementary school. During the morning and again in the afternoon, we watched mamas and/or papas walking uniformed children to and from classes. Like everywhere, some of the kids would be chattering away and bouncing around their escorts while others moved as if sleepwalking. Parents might be interacting with the kids or with other adults, or they might look as if they’ve been working all night. We would often meet these families while on a walk or we would listen to the children’s voices rise to our patio perch.

After we had been in town a while, it occurred to us we saw hardly anyone smoking. We started paying attention and, yes, indeed, very few people were smoking. We saw a couple of signs forbidding it in restaurants but nothing in the open. I don’t know what this means, but there it is.

The mariachi bands must be another indicator of quality of life. Groups as small as four and as large as six or seven worked the numerous restaurants, sharing their stylings of this traditional Mexican music that had its birth in this area of the country. The quality of music ranged from let-us-stop-and-listen to what-do-they-think-they-are-doing. To be sure, the musical groups transcended traditional mariachi, including one with a snare drummer that we found maddening.

Finally, maybe it fits with stereotypes, but we found incredible levels of patience. That was best exhibited in watching the traffic. And the best traffic-watching spot in the town must have been our casita.

Chapala intersection Painted

An aerial view of our crazy intersection. The color lines are somewhat explained below, but words truly cannot convey the experience.

Showtime

We called it the crazy intersection, that which we looked down upon from our third-floor patio.

This satellite photo is touched up with different color lines showing some of the ways traffic progressed through out crazy intersection, which we watched from our perch designated at the top of the image with a happy face star. Don’t worry too much about trying to make sense of it. Even if you could decipher the lines I painted on the map, it cannot fully convey just how strange it was.

Craziest of them all is the street at the bottom that contains both orange and green lines. That’s misleading because it’s one lane and one way, but I used two colors because traffic from this street (that primarily served as access to the Malecon for both vendors and guests) flowed out in any direction, but what was most distinctive was the large number of drivers who made a U-turn to head back on Paseo Ramon Corona. Such a move cut off traffic heading in the same direction but on Corona, traffic coming from straight ahead, and traffic coming from Gonzalez Gallo to the left.

Oh, and to add to the drama, this little one-way side street climbs to the intersection after running several feet lower than the adjacent two-way street.

Have I sold you on crazy, yet? Wait.

To the east of our casita, you can see most of the words to Cruz Roja Delegacion. That’s the Red Cross clinic, from which three or four ambulances are dispatched. They will pull out with their lights flashing (thankfully, they seemed to have a good practice of saving the siren for when it was needed) and start working their way through traffic. Sometimes, particularly when the intersection was badly packed, the ambulance would start toward the intersection but then make a U-turn to the right, following the blue path, to go up the one-way street on the other side of our casita. The ambulance couldn’t make the turn in one move but would start it, back up, then continue.

And then there was the pedestrian traffic. Many visitors parked along Gonzalez Gallo, plus there was a large parking area a little more to the east, so a lot of them walked to the Malecon and the restaurants. They freely took advantage of having right-of-way, causing cars to stop even more often. Lumped in with them were several bicyclists and quite a few people riding horseback.

One other point worth mentioning. With all these lanes entering and exiting the intersection, there was one notable absence: any kind of traffic control device, no light, no signs.

However, if you recall what started this entry, drivers displayed unbelievable levels of patience. Right-of-way was routinely granted to the appropriate vehicle, though you could often see a driver press the issue a little to see if he or she might be granted an exception. Slowly, methodically, even the busiest times – notably at the end of the day on Saturdays and Sundays – would see cars and trucks work through it all and continue on their way.

Here’s the kicker: We never saw a wreck and hardly ever heard a horn honk. There was plenty of competition to see whose radio should be heard over all the others, but almost never a honking horn.

View of Cruz Roja

The closest thing we had to television during our stay was watching the Cruz Roja out our kitchen window.

Theater

Cruz Roja provided a lot of interesting viewing. Our kitchen window was like a 72-inch screen featuring a reality TV show 24 hours a day. I never knew for a fact much of what was happening, but it was easy to write a script.

A car would pull up and a man got out and picked up a child from the back seat and carried her into the clinic entrance. Or someone helped an elderly man wobble his way inside. Or an occupant of the car went to the clinic and returned with staffers and a stretcher for a woman prone in the back seat. Many patients arrived via one of the ambulances, which announced their arrivals with beeping warnings as they backed up to the building.

Such brief interludes of action were simply punctuation marks for the waiting. I don’t know if there was no waiting room inside, if it was too small to hold many, or if a lot of people simply preferred sitting on the low walls and benches outside in the beautiful weather.

One day, I noticed an ambulance arriving and a city vehicle – seemed like it was some sort of public works such as the street department – parking at the same time in an even more haphazardly manner than was usual. The people from the latter truck headed straight inside. Soon, a police vehicle arrived and then private cars and another city truck. People gathered outside in increasing numbers.

My guess was that a person was injured at work, prompting the official response. The higher-than-normal number of people milling around outside suggested the victim – a male, I presumed – had a lot of close family and/or was prominent in the community. The crowd remained large for a few hours, quietly dwindling as the evening approached.

What happened? Who was it? Did he survive? Write your own story because I’ll never know for certain.

ortopedia

We saw many medical offices sprinkled around town. While we know nothing of specific practices, we heard from expats that they were pleased with medical care.

Medical care

We asked various people about medical care and received good reports. Like every other major industrialized country (except the United States), government healthcare in Mexico is universal.

One of our new artist friends, Jane, a woman from the eastern U.S. who was spending her sixth consecutive March in Chapala, told us she visited the Cruz Roja (a reminder: that is the Mexican arm of The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement; Cruz=Cross, Roja=Red) due to a health concern. She spoke highly of the experience.

A group of expats (expatriates, people living outside their own country) we visited with – Americans and a Canadian – said the medical care is great. One fellow said he has had a number of surgeries in Mexico.

But one guy who had been there some 25 years said he was preparing to move to Florida.

“This is not a good place to grow old,” he said.

We did not press him for details, but we observed and heard that families in Mexico tend to their aged members more readily and we were left to assume he might have had nobody there. Leah, though, got the impression he might suffer from some terminal disease and was really talking about going home to die.

On a bus trip one day, a man wearing a University of Kentucky cap boarded with a young latina. He was rather elderly and moved cautiously, and it was apparent the woman was helping him. I’m reading a lot between the lines, but that’s another obvious option, hiring someone to help, similar to a home health aide.

Expat mothership

The expat mothership we visited in neighboring Ajijic.

The expats

Speaking of expats, the Lake Chapala area is full of them, especially in the neighboring town of Ajijic (AH-hee-heek). Naturally, most come from the nearby United States, but there are plenty of Canadians and we heard of and met Europeans and Australians, as well.

Researching Chapala before we went, I found American Legion Post 7 situated only two blocks from our casita. Our second day there, we ventured to the post for a late lunch, their Sunday special being hamburgers. And, of course, their daily special attraction is their bar.

We were greeted upon entering the walled compound by a somewhat noisy but small group sitting around a large table. One of them instructed us to go inside to order burgers and drinks. Behind the bar was a youngish local man. We noticed two local women grilling burgers outside.

Every one of our table-full of new expat friends had been there fulltime for more than 10 years. In short order, they talked about how bad things were back home. Not one of them had anything courteous to say about the current U.S. administration, though one inebriated woman begged to not talk about politics at all. But they had not seemed to embrace their new home, either, eagerly pointing out the rough streets and other shortcomings.

The ultimate expat example, though, occurred when the intoxicated woman decided she wanted ice cream and tried to get the employee to understand. See, she had been living in this town for 11 years and said she had lived elsewhere in Mexico prior to that, yet she had not bothered to learn enough Spanish to request ice cream.

Our other great expat experience was accompanying Jane to an organic farmer’s market in Ajijic. It occurs only on Tuesday and customers are lined outside awaiting the bell that accompanies the 10 a.m. opening. They rush to favorite spots, almost instantly transferring the line outside into multiple lines inside.

Leah shopped for a few things and I eventually found an uncrowded spot on an elevated area that gave me an overview of the madness and a steady low rumble of noise, prompting me to post that we had found the expat mother ship.

Buses

Two of the buses commonly seen transporting people around the lake.

Getting around

Another reason for visiting the market was to get out of town a little and to try out the local bus system. Buses ran every 10 minutes or so and all you needed is to know where to wait, which bus to get on and, of course, have some change.

We heard there were two types of routes. The express ran straight down the highway to Ajijic and, presumably, further towns, at a cost of $10 Mexican – about 50 cents U.S. The local bus wound through different neighborhoods along the way and cost $8 Mexican. Never knowing for certain which bus we were boarding, we always dropped $10 in the tray. We ended up on the local route three of our four rides during our two trips to the market.

The local route was amazing. The driver took the bus down streets and around corners where I would have balked driving my pickup. It seemed at times one could reach out and touch the buildings as we passed.

The temptation was there to explore these other areas, but we always had more to do in Chapala and stuck with the plan to get to know one spot as well as we could.

In addition, bus routes ran regularly into Guadalajara, and there was a good taxi service, one which we used to get back to the city when we had to head home.

bank

I believe there are three banks in Chapala. This one often had a line outside the ATM lobby, suggesting it was the most popular with locals. We used another around the corner that we were told had the best exchange rate.

Dinero

We were well-advised before arriving that most local businesses accept only cash. I saw signs at the large supermarket, Soriano Hiper, indicating they accepted credit cards, but I wasn’t sure if that was only their card. Regardless, we never bought more groceries than we could carry and always had the cash.

We exchanged for Mexican money before departing the Houston airport in order to make sure we had what we needed for the taxi ride to Chapala and to begin our stay. At the lake, cash came from ATMs, which were primarily located at banks. We crossed paths one morning with the Florida-bound expat we met at the American Legion. He was en route to the ATM and suggested it because he said it had the best exchange rate.

Following good security practices, I left most of the money squirreled away in our house. Before going out, particularly with plans to eat, I moved an adequate amount in appropriate denominations to my front pants pocket so as to not remove my wallet.

Folding money we used started at $20 denomination – equivalent to about $1 U.S. – and ranged to $500. Coins ranged up to $10 and we soon designated them for special uses. I stacked $25 in coins on the table to be available next time we heard the aqua man’s call and needed to resupply. I would sometimes carry a few to make correct change if we made a small purchase. Leah would carry some for the occasional beggar or fundraiser we would see along the way.

Beggars?

Colorful stairs

These aging, colorful stairs lead from one of the main business districts to a poorer section of town.

Yes, we at times saw an elderly person sitting on the sidewalk soliciting handouts, but we don’t know the stories. We imagined they were mostly folks who outlived their family and were left to their own devises.

In our brief exposure to them, they did not seem to be shunned by others. Once, we were slowly working our way down the crowded sidewalk in the area that primarily catered to locals; maybe Leah had stopped to look at something. Ahead of us, a quite elderly woman leaned against a building with her collection can beside her.

A young adult male exited a business on the other side, promptly came to her and dropped coins into her can, then turned and went the other way. In other words, it was obvious he passed her or saw her before going into the business, and he made the effort upon his return to leave her the money.

More likely than begging, someone would be trying to sell something, such as two very young girls who approached me on the Malecón trying to sell avocados. However, it wasn’t at a level to feel like a nuisance.

Mexico’s employment and unemployment rates are not too different from the U.S. We got the impression folks were accustomed to working.

At work

Street sweeper at work

A street sweeper at work on a sidewalk near our casita in the early morning.

Workers we first encountered on our early morning walks were the street sweepers. We saw some on the actual streets, but there was a concentration on the Malecón, which was recovering from the previous evening’s partiers and even the overnight dropping of tree blooms.

Noticeable was that they did not use standard factory-made brooms. Leah did some research that indicated such brooms wouldn’t stand up to the work and most street sweepers used brooms made by hand of natural materials. Likewise, they swept into homemade butlers of metal or cardboard with sticks attached.

Complementing them, at least along the Malecón, was a smaller team of trash collectors who emptied the cans and removed the aluminum cans.

As the day progressed, shops and restaurants opened. There were numerous public banos – rest rooms – around the tourist area. As in many countries, they were attended and there was a small fee, maybe $4 Mexican (20 cents U.S.).

Other highly visible workers were those helping park cars. Often, the car owner would also hire them to wash the vehicle, which they would do by drawing water from a public faucet and washing with the rag they waved to attract cars to a parking space.

Meanwhile, people set up temporary shops outside their homes to market breakfast sweets. Later in the day, such tables bore foods for dinner.

More jobs were created by lower technology. Garbage, for example, is not stored in large bins and gathered once a week by a one-man truck whose driver never leaves the vehicle to operate a boom that picks up and dumps the bin. Instead, when we filled or were ready to get rid of garbage, I carried the plastic bag to the street and hung it on a hook on a board attached to a tree. On a neighboring hook, I would place a bag containing plastics for recycling. Because of this, trash was collected every day except Sundays and some holidays.

The unfit drinking water in the public system also created jobs for those who filled and delivered the bottled water mentioned earlier.

When work was required on the cobblestone streets, judging from what we saw, that work was done by hand.

Eye-opening

House of a different color - 2

Now that’s a house of a different color.

I’m not sure why cobblestone streets are considered romantic. I find them a hazard to walk on, noisy to drive and, frankly, rather drab looking.

But many homeowners took up the task of making their streets explode in color by applying bright, fresh coats of paint to their houses. It’s not every house like you’ll see in Willemstad, Curaçao, but there are plenty. The colors are usually more vibrant than the pastels of Willemstad. Did I mention our casita was painted a dark red with a dark blue trim?

Speaking of painting (crude transition alert!), a short walk from our place was Centro Cultural de Chapala, an art center that was open to the public.

One Saturday evening, we joined several of our new friends to hear performances by two very different Flamenco guitarists. One was methodical, technical and seemed to tell a story. The second was an ongoing flourish, at times strumming rapidly with his fingers while picking out a melody with his thumb.

Friend power

IMG_3006

The view from another artist’s resident was considerably calmer than ours.

The primary benefit of booking our stay with the artist residency program was meeting some of the other artists. In addition to Jane and Deborah, there were Susan, Bob, Hector, Joyce, David and Victoria … painters to fiber artists to mixed media to music composer to writers … from Mexico, Canada, Great Britain and the United States … from young adult to even older than me … from first-time visitors to established veterans of Chapala.

Each one was pleasant to visit with and, frankly, we didn’t talk too much about our individual crafts. However, there was enough stimulating conversation to drive me.

This trip could have easily been nothing more than a vacation; no production is required by the program. I went in with one definite plan and one possibility.

First, I kept a rather detailed journal of our experiences, much more than is shared here, to potentially craft a setting for a future book in my JP Weiscarver Mystery Series. That was relatively easy to accomplish.

The second plan was, if I felt inspired to do so, to return to writing on my current book, a project that has suffered incredible neglect over the past 2.5 years. Sure enough, it happened.

One week after we arrived at Lake Chapala, on a Saturday when we knew the town would be full of tourists, I started writing again. That night, about 2 a.m., I was lying in bed working out a problem I had with one of my characters. With a solution in mind, I returned to the computer for an hour in order to put it down in writing.

Already, this place was good for the creative me.

By the time we left, I had written a fair amount and, more importantly, decided where I wanted the story to go. Indeed, where I wanted the series to go.

So, yes, the residency experience was good for me, even when I made little effort for it to work. In addition, Leah’s Spanish studies proved highly successful, as well. She said she gained a cultural insight she did not previously have, and Juan gave her a method to continue learning.

Would we do it again?

I think so, though our first impulse may be to find another place to explore. Returning to Chapala would be tempting, though.

Would we be willing to go all-in and live there?

Enticing question and one that would require much more investigation and introspection. On the positive side would be getting reacquainted with the sounds of Mexico. The negative aspect of making such a move is being too far from family. Chapala, however, is a short flight and two short drives from our daughter and her family. In the past, we’ve lived as much as 10 hours away, so …

There’s more

Leah has, on rare occasions, been moved to pen poetry. Our visit led to:

— — —

There’s always music in Mexico

There’s always music in Mexico

¡Buenos Dias!

Bird song

6 am–scritch, scritch of the street sweeper

Horses clip clop on the cobblestone

Dogs bark: Move Along!

¡Agua! ¡Agua!

Dong Dong Dong–church bells call for Mass

Snap, snap, slosh, slosh–cars get a wash

¡Mama! !Mama!

¡Mi niñita, ven aqui!

Chop, chop, plop, plop, coconuts fall

¡Las fresas! ¡Frambuesas!

Wham, slam, rattle squeak –the garbage truck protests

Beeeeeep—Beeeeeep —-the ambulance backs in

“Listos, listos, pide gas” sings the speaker on the propane gas truck

Drum, accordion, sax, guitar, violin, tuba and trumpets of the mariachi bands…..

All the wonderful cacophony that is Chapala

— — —

Artist residencies

Jesus protecting fishermenI promised to tell you about residencies.

I was first introduced to the idea five years ago by an amazing western artist I met at Mount Rushmore. When she learned I was writing, she impressed upon me the idea of applying for a residency. A little Internet research turned up hundreds of programs in both common and interesting locations.

Many of them offered a free place to live, some even free food, and a few added a stipend to help cover other expenses, such as transportation. The free programs, of course, are competitive. Some are open to applications from all kinds or artists and some restrict the field.

Over the next couple of years, I applied to at least four of them. Three told me I was a finalist, but my suspicion is all applicants are finalists.

In addition to free residencies, quite a few I found online offered a chance for someone to pay his or her way and take advantage of the location, the privacy, and the comradeship the programs could offer. I first spotted Chapala probably four years ago and had been considering it ever since.

If you’re interested, a great place to start searching is Res Artis — http://www.resartis.org/ — which brings together hundreds of opportunities in more than 70 countries. It also has a magnificent search engine to help whittle down the offerings to what suits you.

If Chapala, Mexico, sounds like it’s right down your alley, check out 360 Xochi Quetzal at http://360xochiquetzal.com/ and tell them Steve and Leah sent you.

 

 

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