Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Random rambles 'round Ajijic: Part 3 - The odd, the goofy, & the beautiful

A cheerful dragon peers from side of an Ajijic house. For the final part of my 3-part series on Ajijic, I decided to display the odd, the goofy, and the beautiful sides of this gently weird place I call home. What follows is a collection of photos, in no particular order, that I have taken over the last 3 years and some comments about my reactions to the subjects. Above, the dragon is actually a water drain pipe. Roofs in Ajijic are often nearly flat, and need a way to drain off the water that collects after our sometimes voluminous downpours. The solution is a drain pipe that extends through the wall out over the sidewalk. After a rain, or sometimes after a maid has washed down a roof terrace, a steady stream of water cascades out of the mouth of the pipe. In this case the mouth happens to wear a cheerful, toothy grin. Pedestrians learn to beware of the cascading stream.

Figure from a nightmare. I am always astonished by the art work to which Mexicans expose their young children. The figure of a naked man, hanging by chains over a roaring fire, is part of a mural decorating the entire front of an elementary school on Calle Hidalgo. Another part of the mural depicts a naked woman giving birth. The over-all subject of the mural is the history of the Conquest of Mexico, an admittedly brutal and bloody affair. I can only imagine the reaction of parents in the US if their child's elementary school sponsored a mural in similarly brutal detail of, say, the Sand Creek Massacre by the US Cavalry of peaceful Cheyenne Indians. Howls of protest would be heard all the way to Ajijic. However, Mexican children seem happy, well adjusted, gentle, and friendly despite exposure to the realities of their history. "And the truth shall make you free..."

Fiesta crowd hugely enjoys the greased pole climb. Young boys climb on each others' shoulders to reach the prizes suspended from the top of the greased pole. The prizes were nothing much, household goods and such, but frenzied efforts were made to reach them. Disconsolate, panting participants surrounded those who still had energy to make the effort. Mexicans seem to love a spectacle like this, and it certainly got my attention.

Making sand the old fashioned way. In Mexico, they say "things are expensive, labor is cheap". Just the opposite from north of the border. Local Mexican construction workers would look at you in astonishment if you suggested going to the store and buying a sack of sand to mix with cement. All they need is a shovel, an old window screen, and a stick to prop it up. A bit of work, a little sweat, and they have a nice pile of sand, ready to go. This fellow couldn't imagine what I found interesting enough to photograph, but he was happy to oblige me.

My photo may be the only remaining evidence of the Hotel Boutique. I was entranced by the painting on the sign for this Bed and Breakfast on Calle Donato Guerra when I took this photo 3 years ago. The innocent sensuality of the girl, surrounded by the cascade of flowers flowing down the wall made an interesting subject. The hotel has since passed from the scene, as things do, but the flower cascade has not, and I think of the sign every time I go by.

What to do with that inconvenient stump in your back yard? Rip it out? Cut it down? No way! Turn it in to a work of art. Such is the community in which I live. This actually seems to be a popular solution, especially with tree stumps in the Ajijic Plaza.

The musician's assistant collects the tips. It is typical of street musicians that they have someone to hustle up when anyone pauses, or even walks by. In this case, the musician is terrible, with a singing voice that would set a deaf man's nerves on edge. He is widely known among my expat friends, and often people will pay up just so he'll move along. I suspect this may be part of his strategy. Often accompanying him is this gorgeously Scandinavian-looking little girl. I have never determined exactly what the relationship is, or even if she is Mexican. She may well be, since there are many blonde Mexicans. Mexican soap operas, called telenovelas, feature significantly more blondes than those in the US.

"Bring on the mariachis". When I visited the Panteon, or town cemetery, to photograph some of the interesting grave sites, I discovered more than a smattering of Gringos in residence. Some graves go back 60-80 years. The stone above, for Ethel Vertefuell, shows that she was born in August and died in July, but the years have worn off. The epitaph puzzled me greatly: "Bring on the mariachis". At first, I thought this lady really liked to party. Some time later, I observed one of the many funeral processions that regularly passed by my house on Calle Hidalgo--the main street connecting the Parrochia church and the Panteon. To my amazement, the procession was led by a mariachi band, a la New Orleans! The epitaph's mystery was solved.

Girlfriend from hell? One of the prime times for goofyness and oddities is El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Mexico celebrates, and even makes fun of death, probably a much healthier attitude than the whispers and dread found so often in my home country. Above, a young girl is adorned in her Novia dress. When a girl reaches 15 years old, she has a "coming out" (Novia) celebration with a special frilly outfit vaguely resembling a wedding dress. In this case the girl chose to top the outfit with a death mask as her Dia de los Muertos costume. She struck a perfect pose for my photo.

Dolphins under your feet. The sidewalk outside your house is your own affair. Sometimes there is none at all, sometimes just crumbling concrete and stones. The homeowner who owns the sidewalk outside his substantial home decided to commission an artist to embed tile mosaics into the concrete in each section of the walkway. Just another opportunity for self-expression.

Dancing the devils away. One day I was at the Plaza and an indigenous musical group was playing. Suddenly, this huge Indian picked up a large stick and began to dance, whirling and gyrating to the music. As far as I could tell, he wasn't part of the act, but just reacting to the music. Oh, well. Just another day at the park.

Speaking of stump carving. This was a piece of one of the big trees around the perimeter of the Ajijic Plaza which died. In other places, they might just haul it away, but a local artist saw something in it. The result is grotesque, intriguing, and funny with owls merging into howling faces and grinning dancers. People sit on it, dogs lie in its cool shade, and the stump has gradually become a normal piece of the Plaza's "furniture".

Tootling his way toward the San Andres Fiesta. This young boy was practicing his clarinet in the tiny plaza in the Seis Esquinas neighborhood where I used to live. He was preparing for one of the many parades during the San Andres Fiesta. San Andres (or St. Andrew) is the patron saint of Ajijic. The Franciscan friars tacked a saints name onto the Indian names of the many indigenous villages they encountered as they Catholicized the locals. There are many fiestas in each town throughout the year, but the one celebrating that town's special saint is usually the big blowout. Ajijic is no exception. Even though he was obviously interested in what I was doing, the boy never broke off his tootling to inquire.

A hole in the sky. During the summer rainy season, we get many dramatic views of lightning storms. In the photo above, I was able to capture a quiet moment. The entire rest of the sky was covered with roiling clouds, which reached down and flowed through the mountain hollows above the town. Just at dawn, a patch of blue appeared, and the unseen sun gilded the edges of the cloud hole just before the sky closed up again.


Shrine to the Virgen de Guadalupe, by Bruno Mariscal. This lovely little shrine is located just north of the Carretera (the main street through Ajijic) on Calle Galeana. It is shaded by a huge tree and faces a small tienda (neighborhood store) where locals gather to chat. There are similar shrines, some to the Virgen, some with other themes, in neighborhoods all over town. The Virgen de Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico, particularly of its Indians and common people. While grafitti may deface many other surfaces in town, it rare touches anything with a representation of the Virgen.

Bruno Mariscal used a popular Mexican artistic technique. As you can see, there is more to this mural than initially meets the eye. It is actually a series of paintings within paintings. What initially appeared at a distance to be the Virgen's halo turns out to be a brick archway. Her shawl becomes a set of winged angel figures. Another signature technique of Mariscal can be seen on the left side among the trees bare of leaves. Viewed closely, they become slender masculine and feminine figures.

Viewed closely, even more appears. The Virgen's eyes and nose become figures of male and female campesinos, the common people by which she is revered. They appear to be conversing with a couple of friars or monks, one of whom is holding a pot which makes up the Virgen's mouth and chin. The highlight on her cheek becomes yet another Virgen, with more detail. One of the remarkable things about this work of art is that it does not reside in a museum or a wealthy person's home, or even in a church. It is part of a simple shrine in a neighborhood of poor people.

Whichever the artist, it is hard to outdo Mother Nature. Below, the setting sun provides yet another spectacular view of Lake Chapala. A photographer friend of mine claims sunset pictures should be outlawed from photo contests. "It's just too easy to get a beautiful shot around here."

This concludes Part three of my Rambles 'round Ajijic series. Comments are welcome!
Hasta luego, Jim

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Random rambles 'round Ajijic: Part 2 - Fiestas, kids & food

Ajijic plaza, dressed for a party. In my experience, three of the things Mexicans love most are fiestas, children, and food, but not necessarily in that order. In Part two of my rambles 'round Ajijic, we will take a look at typical scenes which express these three loves. Above, the golden late afternoon sun bathes the steeple of the Ajijic Parrochia (parrish church), and warmly colors the banners traditionally strung for fiestas. Mexicans don't need much of an excuse for a fiesta, and I often find the remains of one in the plaza during an early morning walk. Just as often, I have only the vaguest idea of the cause of the festivities, unless it was related to one of the many holidays such as Independencia, coming up in September.

Patriotism is taught early to Mexican children. These kids are dressed in their school uniforms as they stand at attention with the Mexican national flag during an Independencia parade through town. Mexicans I have met love their country, in spite if its many problems. Although many wars have ravaged the country in its history, Mexico (to the best of my knowledge) has never been an aggressor, and has never invaded a neighboring country. It has been repeatedly invaded by others, including Spain in the 16th Century and France in the 19th Century. The United States intervened militarily numerous times in the 19th and early 20th Centuries including the infamous war of 1846 in which the US seized nearly 1/2 of Mexico's territory. As Mexican President Porfirio Diaz once commented, "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States".

Fiestas, kids, and eating go together like a hand in a glove. Above, Mexican families eat, play with their kids, socialize, and generally have a "get down" party around the kiosco in the center of the Ajijic Plaza. Strolling mariachis entertain the crowd, and later the kiosco will act as a stage for various bands whose music often makes up in volume what it may lack in quality.

Steaming sopes await hungry fiesta customers. Sopes are small disks of dough with toppings of meat, onions, parsley, cilantro or other herbs and vegetables. I call them miniature Mexican pizzas. The sopes are cooked in the hot oil of the special pan shown above, and when done are drained on the shelf that runs around the inside. Sopes are one of many types of Mexican "street food". Since they are cooked, they are probably safe to eat, and they are certainly popular. At a recent fiesta, I waited patiently in line to buy a couple of sopes, but when I finally got near the pan, they were all gone. Street food stalls like this one line the perimeter of the Plaza during fiestas, and can be found on street corners or in front of neighborhood homes at any other time.

Small fan of a big revolutionary. I found this tike playing on the steps of the kiosco during the Revolution Day fiesta last November. Parents love to dress their kids up in costumes resembling those worn by the wild revolutionaries who followed Pancho Villa and Emilanio Zapata. At the time of the Revolution of 1910-1917, the US considered Villa and Zapata to be dangerous subversives and even terrorists, but Mexicans revere them as heroes of the common people.

Vibrantly colored costumes adorn dolls of various sizes. These dolls wear the costumes of folklorico dancers who perform at many fiestas. I found these dolls in the Plaza during one of those fiestas. The dolls are made out of cornhusks and sticks before they are given their beautiful dresses. When folklorico dancers move around their stage, they swirl and swoosh their skirts in kaleidoscopic patterns, just as the dolls are doing above.

And speaking of dolls... I took this beautiful little girl's photo at a different kind of fiesta, a birthday party for Veronica, the Mexican novia (girlfriend) of my photographer friend Jay Koppelman. Valerie was the young girl's name, and she was Veronica's niece. Her posture, impish smile, and the streak of afternoon sunlight across her face made this picture a favorite of mine. Carole and I were delighted to attend this, our first, private Mexican party. We were warmly welcomed in spite of the language difference. I discovered that a camera is an instant ice breaker. Everyone wanted to pose and they laughed and clapped as I showed them the digital results. The mothers were particularly delighted to have their children photographed. People are, after all, just people, wherever they are.

Bullfighter in training. Kevin, one of Veronica's nephews, tries his hand as a matador confronted by a fierce and dangerous opponent. The puppy took its role quite seriously and repeatedly charged the young matador's cape. Fortunately, there were no casualties on either side.

More street food, otherwise known as "death by cholesterol". This carnicero (butcher) operated his small carniceria across the street from our former house on Calle Hidalgo. Every morning, he would set up this large cauldron on the sidewalk. It was heated by a gas line strung from inside the shop. He first heats up the oil to nearly boiling, then adds pieces of pork and pork fat to create chicharrones. The odor is wonderful, wafting down the street, and quickly draws a crowd of neighborhood women who line up with their pans for the treat. Given the fat content, I would probably double my cholesterol count in a single sitting, so I took a pass.

Neighborhood rosticeria is one of our favorites. A rosticeria serves roast chicken on a spit, along with roasted small potatoes, roasted chiles and other tasty delights. This mother-daughter pair operates the rosticeria above, which doubles as a tienda selling everything from thimbles to coat hangers. I practiced my Spanish on them, which they gently corrected. In turn, they practiced English on me. The daughter was actually quite fluent. The father is a retired Jalisco State Policeman who now operates his own taxi and guide service. Like many Mexican families, everyone works hard at multiple jobs to keep things afloat.

Ice cream girls roam the streets, calling out for business. It would be hard to miss this pair in their eye catching outfits. They pull around a hand cart selling various frozen treats. Their cries in the neighborhood on hot afternoons are part of the village music, which includes roosters crowing, horses clop-clopping by, and the bottled gas truck with its recorded voice intoning gaaaaaaaaaaaas?

Would-be Charro patrols the lake shore on a cool, cloudy day. This little fellow was entirely alone, seated on a horse many times his size. His legs needed another couple of feet in length to reach the stirrups. The horse clearly knew who was boss, however, and responded promptly to his movements and commands. To see a child this age alone in such a situation would give the average north-of-the-border parent heart failure. Mexicans in the country take it in stride and expect their children to grow up knowing how to handle horses.

This completes Part 2 of my three-part series. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed experiencing it. If you would like to comment, please do so in the place indicated below or email me directly. Please feel free to forward a link to this blog to friends and family. The more the merrier.

Hasta luego! Jim

Friday, August 14, 2009

Random rambles 'round Ajijic: Part 1 - Backstreets, cowboy culture, the Plaza

Lake Chapala, with Ajijic below and Mt. Garcia on the south shore. For this and 2 more postings to follow, I decided to use some photos I have taken over the last 3 years since our first visit in 2006. My intent is to illustrate what you might encounter during a random ramble around the streets of Ajijic. Others might choose to portray different aspects, but I am simply including things that caught my eye as a photographer. First, a little background on the general lay of the land

Lake Chapala is the largest freshwater lake in Mexico, approximately 50 miles long and 12 miles wide (80K x 18K). It has an enormous impact on life in the area. The year-round Spring-like climate is largely due to the lake's moderating influence. Geographically, the lake runs on an east to west line from end to end. There is no bridge or ferry across the lake, so a trip from Ajijic on the north shore to Tuxcueca on the south shore takes about a 1 hour drive, even though "as the crow flies", it is only about 15 miles. For a Google satellite map of the Lake Chapala area, click here.

The north and south shores differ in geography, population, and economy. The north shore is a narrow but relatively populous strip of land which varies from a mile or so in width to only a few yards. In some places, the mountains drop down directly to the water. However, this heavily populated area only extends along the north shore from the town of Jocotopec at the western tip of the lake to the town of Chapala, about 14 miles (28 kilometers) to the east. The 35 miles of the north shore east of Chapala is rugged, and very lightly populated. It reminds me a little of Big Sur on California's coast, or the southern coast of Oregon. The north shore has attracted a substantial expatriate population, most heavily concentrated in Ajijic. There is a sophisticated, cosmopolitan feel to the area, but underlying that are a necklace of traditional Mexican villages. The expat presence, and that of well-to-do Mexican weekenders from Guadalajara, has given the area a level of prosperity (and prices) not generally found on the south shore.

On the south shore, the land often extends several miles from the shore to the base of the mountains, lending itself to large-scale agriculture. About every 3-5 kilometers along the shore are small farm towns and fishing villages. For a look at some of these villages, check out my postings on Petatan and Tuxcueca. There are some south shore expats, but far fewer and generally more widely scattered, and they have a much greater need for functional Spanish than their counterparts on the north shore.

A quiet, tree-lined lane in Ajijic, typical of its backstreets. The cobblestone streets are constructed and maintained as they have been for centuries. The only asphalt-paved street in town is the Carretera, or main road, that follows the lake shore from Chapala to Jocotopec. Some expats grouse about the narrow cobblestone streets, which are bumpy to drive over, and difficult for parking. However, they are very functional in a variety of ways. To me, the most important of these is keeping vehicle speeds down. Because parking on the narrow streets can be difficult, walking is often easiest, and is a much healthier and more interesting way to travel around town. In the photo above, notice the high walls on each side, no doubt concealing lush garden courtyards. Trees, like the one on the left, are directly incorporated into the walls, rather than being cut down as they might be north of the border. In the background, steep green mountains loom over the village and beckon to hikers like myself. When giving directions in Ajijic, one generally says "toward the mountains", or "toward the lake", rather than north or south.

Doing it the old fashioned way. Another functional aspect of cobblestone streets is the ease of repair. All one needs are a few rounded stones from a local arroyo (creek bottom), and a wheelbarrow full of sand which can be created by sifting dirt through an old window screen. A couple of men with shovels and a pick can fill a pot hole in a very short time. No hot asphalt, and no expensive (and air polluting) machines are needed. Nor do you need a big crew of trained men to operate them. Granted, cobblestone streets probably need repairs more often than asphalt, but labor is cheap in Mexico, and the constant repairs provide steady, if low-paying, employment.

And speaking of parking. In spite of the increasing number of expensive SUVs that crowd the streets, particularly when the "snowbirds" are down fleeing the northern winters, Ajijic is still a Mexican village at heart. Local cowboys trot into town to shop or visit a friend and end up parking their horses the same as if they had arrived in a pickup truck. When walking the cobblestone streets, one has be keep a wary eye for the byproducts of their equine transport. Still, it all just lends to the charm of the place.

Doorways and gates are seen as media for self-expression. This detail of a large wood and wrought-iron gate set in a high stone wall is typical of the beautiful work done by local craftspeople. All around town one can find blacksmiths who are able to create lovely doors, windows, and gates. All you need to do is bring in a picture of what you want, or even just a rough drawing with measurements, and they will create it, sometimes with their own unusual flourishes. This is another trade in which little has changed over the centuries.

Another dramatic entranceway. I was attracted to the distinctly Moorish feel of the door and gate to this home. I particularly liked the warm, rust-orange metal work with the large rings set in the gate.

Mexican cowboy culture is very strong here. This father and his son are out for a ride, accompanied by the very young colt trotting anxiously beside its mother. Kids are brought up in the saddle, almost literally. I have seen children of toddler age, with legs far too short to reach the stirrups, deftly steering animals 20 times their size and weight.

Mexican barbed wire. While there is very little person-on-person crime in the area, minor break-ins and burglaries are all too common. I suppose it is to be expected when so many have so little, and a few have a great deal. A common strategy to thwart those with an inclination toward wall-climbing is to set broken bottles in the concrete along the top of the walls. It appears to be fairly effective, however some of the wealthier expats have taken to installing electrified wire. At first I was put off by all these security measures and thought perhaps expats were presenting a paranoid face to the local community. Then I noticed that most of the poorest Mexican homes also have steel doors and bars on the windows. I should add that in two years living here, I have never had a break-in or anything stolen from my home or car. When I lived in a "safe" condominium community in Salem, Oregon, I had my car stolen right out of my driveway.

"Laid-back" is a way of life in Mexico. While strolling a backstreet, I encountered these friendly cowboys. When I asked if I could photograph them, they immediately agreed and offered me a cold beer from their supply. Given that it was barely 10 AM (and the fact that I don't drink alcohol) I politely declined. Their easy-going response to me is typical of most of my interactions with local Mexicans. Most Mexicans who own horses seem to take great pride in the condition of their animals, saddles, and riding gear. These horses seem very well kept.

Fountain at the entrance to the Ajijic Plaza. Sometimes water gushes from this fountain, sometimes not. I have never figured out a rational schedule. Mexico sometimes operates on a logic all its own. Besides cooling the area around it, the fountain serves the drinking needs of the local street dogs. They also like to cool themselves on hot days by climbing in and dipping their bellies in the water, preparatory to a long snooze in the shade.

Location, location, location. This spot evidently suits the interests of the local balloon seller. I took this picture 3 years ago and I still find him sitting in the same spot on the same bench every time I stroll through the plaza. I don't know whether he makes more money here than he would somewhere else. In fact, I have never seen him make a sale. But perhaps, in Mexican terms, that's not really the point.

Music, the old-fashioned way. These young guys appear regularly in the plaza, often near the fountain shown previously. They make, play, and sell instruments in the fashion of their distant ancestors. The one on the right is blowing a conch shell, while the other two keep rhythm on differently-styled drums. The tubular instrument on the mat at the lower right is filled with kernels of corn which make a rustling, tinkling sound--like rain, or a waterfall--as they rush from one end to the other when the tube is held upright. The musicians enjoy drawing a crowd and then handing out different instruments and encouraging the passersby, especially children, to join them in the music.

Abuelo, his nieta and their colt. A grandfather and his tiny granddaughter stroll through a pasture near the lake shore. They were on their way to feed their horses some grain from the sack over the old man's shoulder. A moment later, the colt noticed them and rushed over to join his mother at the feed trough. Up north, horses and cattle would be carefully penned. In Mexico, they wander about in common areas. This is yet another of the charming aspects to life in a Mexican village, even one such as Ajijic with its cosmopolitan overlay.

A callejon of color. This callejon (alley) connected two streets on the western edge of town. The red bougainvillea and other flowering bushes along the callejon formed what was almost a tunnel of color. Alongside the callejon, overrun by the flowering bushes and vines, was an ancient stone wall, perhaps from the earliest Spanish times. Nothing was spectacular about this callejon, but I enjoyed its quiet, soothing beauty.

This completes Part 1 of my rambles through Ajijic. I hope you enjoyed it. Feel free to leave comments in the section below, or email me directly if you'd like. I'll pick up the journey next week in Part 2.

Hasta luego! Jim

Monday, August 3, 2009

Ajijic's Tianguis - Ancient street market in the 21st Century

At the Ajijic tianguis, the unusual is the norm. Huichol Indians use tiny beads to make masks and other decorative objects to sell at the tianguis. In the Nahuatl language used by the Aztecs, tianguis means "market place". Tianguis, pronounced tee-ahn-gees, are held all over Mexico and have been since long before the Spanish arrived. You can buy an incredible variety of goods at one of these street markets. Everything is available from folk art to flashlight batteries to fresh fruits, and often you can bargain for a lower price than the one requested.

A serenade for a pretty gringa. The Ajijic tianguis is an entertainment in itself, even without a purchase. With their spirited music, the two street musicians amused the gringa above as well as other passersby. In Ajijic, the tianguis is held every Wednesday from about 10 AM to about 2 PM along Calle Revolution from where it meets the Carretera down about two blocks to Calle Constitucion. I like going in the cool morning hours between 10 AM and noon when it is a little less crowded. Those looking for bargains may want to wait until shortly before the booth operators begin to pack up in the afternoon and are amenable to a quick sale.

Your work of art created as you watch. There are usually several artists working on their creations while they wait for a sale. This young woman uses a small trowel instead of a brush. Not great art, but original, fun and evocative. She sells paintings like the one above for a very reasonable price.

Death on a burro. The Mexican attitude toward death is often humorous, unlike the typical whispered dread found north of the border. Above, a rather tipsy skeleton (we would call him borracho) straddles a braying donkey. This hand-carved little piece is just the thing for that friend who likes to "tip a few" a bit too often. Or, if you live in Mexico like me, a great little decoration for the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

Quite a number of booths are dedicated to jewelry. Some of the stones are sold unset, and others come in necklaces, bracelets, rings, and pendants. The stones may include onyx, fire opal, amthest, jade, amber, turquoise and any number of other semi-precious stones. The settings are often in silver which has always been plentiful in Mexico. There are numerous jewelry crafts people in town, as well as those who visit just for the tianguis.

Ceramic masks hang in rows or cover a blanket on the ground. Masks are found in nearly every society, but have special meaning in Mexico. The ones above were created for purely decorative purposes, but many masks are still made for Indian ceremonies and nominally Catholic fiestas. The earliest known masks from pre-hispanic times date back 3,500 years. After the Spanish arrived, masks were often used in ceremonies and plays to present Christian stories so that the Indians could be weaned away from their native religions and indoctrinated with Catholicism.

Cleaning nopal takes a deft touch to avoid the spines. These woman make it look easy, but novices usually end up with a hand full of maddeningly tiny spines. The occupants of this booth sold not only fresh nopal, but doll babies in carriages. This follows the typically odd juxtaposition of sales goods found in the tianguis as well as in neighborhood stores called tiendas. Nopal comes from the cactus plant often called "prickly pear". The flat paddles are harvested from a live plant, scraped of their spines, then either sold as is or cut up in strips. I have occasionally sampled nopal fresh off the plant on my various hikes in the mountains. It is deliciously crisp, with a slightly tart taste. There are also various tasty recipes for cooking nopal. Carole uses it as a side dish, or in vegetable soups. Nopal is also very nutritious and good for conditions like high cholesterol. There is evidence that humans have been harvesting nopal for at least 12,000 years.

A tempting treat, but one deserving caution. Cups of various freshly cut fruits can be purchased at the tianguis. These look delicious and probably taste great too. I have been pretty cautious about sampling, because there are no handwashing facilities at the tianguis, and one can catch a good dose of the "turista" from foods like this. The germs that cause turista, known north of the border as Montezuma's Revenge, are easily passed through handling money. As an aside, Mexicans who travel to the US and Canada often get turista there, and sometimes resent the term Montezma's Revenge as a slur on Mexico. I use the term here only for purposes of recognition. Desculpe to my Mexican friends.

Colorful textiles are everywhere in the street market. Woven rugs and embroidered purses are especially nice, and often quite inexpensive. Carole has purchased a number of hand- embroidered pillow covers for about $9.00 USD each. The girl who operates the booth told us that she and her family make them. One caution: they are not necessarily color-fast, so watch out when washing them.

A young flute-maker prepares to try out his creation. This young man rewarded me with a warm smile when I asked to take his picture with his carved wooden instrument. Very likely, I will hear one of his creations played by one of the numerous street musicians around Ajijic.

Huichol Indian art is exquisite and full of mystical meaning. Usually there are several tables operated by Huichols selling beaded items from large-size jaguar heads to small bracelets. The amount of careful work that goes into even relatively small-sized masks such as those above is daunting. This may be why I have found few Huichols willing to reduce their asking price for their work. One time I watched a Huichol craftsman at work on a full-sized representation of a jaguar. When I asked him how long it takes to finish a work like that, he thought about it a moment and then simply said "until I am done".

Huichols also use colored thread on flat boards. This panel is about 18 inches (45.7 cm) on a side. On a similar creation, one of my friends actually counted the stitches in a 2 inch by 2 inch section and calculated that the whole square had more than 60,000 stitches. Typically included on one of these panels are symbolic representations of the plants and animals found in the Huichol's natural world. Peyote, found in the desert, is a key part of the Huichol religious expression. As one woman said "Peyote opens our hearts so that we can see with our hearts". There are about 18,000 Huichols left, mostly concentrated in remote areas of Jalisco and Nayarit States. The ones we see at the tianguis and around the Lake have come to sell their creations, or perhaps have been dispossessed from their lands back home. They are instantly recognizable by their wonderfully embroidered clothing and the hats that the men wear. Very few Huichols will allow their picture to be taken. They are a shy, but very proud people.

Marimba bands are usually found in or around the tianguis. What distinguishes Mexican marimbas are the multiple players one finds behind the instrument. The polished and lacquered instrument itself is a thing of beauty. There is usually one person with an accompanying instrument that is rhythmically scraped, but which is also shaped like a flour scoop and doubles nicely for tip collections. Marimbas are especially popular in the southern states of Mexico, and some claim that the Maya had a hand in its invention. However, it is most likely an import from Africa, brought over by slaves put to work by the Spanish. I usually tip the bands generously because they provide such a wonderful atmosphere, and the life of street musicians is hard.

Beans, corn, nuts, dried fruits and more! My eye was attracted to the vivid colors of the mounded products in these bins. Corn, beans, and squash have been grown by native people in Mexico for about 6000 years. The method originated by the ancients is still used today in small milpas (family fields) that I have seen in the mountains and backcountry around Lake Chapala. The corn and beans are planted together. The beans use the corn stalk as a stable climbing platform. In turn, the nitrogen-loving corn gains from the beans which have an unusual ability to draw nitrogen from the air and put it into the soil. Squash is planted between the mounds containing the corn and bean plants. The long vines of the squash cover the ground and keep weeds down. Unfortunately, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has allowed US corporate agribusinesses to dump large amounts of these industrially-created products in Mexico. This has driven thousands of small farmers from the land. The farmers then head across the border to find some way to support their families by working in the fields of US agribusiness or cleaning their corporate offices, among other things.

How much is that puppy in the milk crate? One can usually find puppies for sale. These two look almost identical to many others I have seen roaming the streets of Ajijic. As a dog lover, I have very mixed feelings about this. Very few dogs in Mexico are neutered, either those with families or strays. Consequently there are legions of dogs throughout the town. However, the fact that they roam freely means that they are far better socialized than dogs I have encountered north of the border. I have seen few dog fights, and whether stray or owned by a family, they are unusually friendly with strangers. I have begun to believe the level of confinement of US dogs, and the degree or irregularity of their encounters with other dogs or people, drives them a little nuts. The Gringos in town have started several animal shelters and somewhat reduced the numbers of strays, but these efforts are always scrambling for donations. One such outfit, Anita's Animals, regularly sells used books in the tianguis to raise funds.

Rugs from Oaxaca hang from trees near the tianguis' entrance. Wonderful rugs are woven all over Mexico, but those from Oaxaca State are particularly prized. Typically, these rugs are strung up from handy branches along the Carretera near the Calle Revolution entrance to the tianguis. The Indians of Oaxaca are known as Zapotecs and had a high level of culture at the time of the Spanish Conquest. In fact, Zapotecs were weaving cotton textiles as far back as 500 BC. After the Conquest, Franciscan Friars introduced Merino sheep, which have long-fibred coats ideal for weaving. The Zapotecs rapidly adapted to this new resource and their colorful rugs are found everywhere. Carole and I got lucky and found a beautiful 8 foot x 4 foot rug at a garage sale for only $10.00 USD. Those pictured would sell for much more than that, and would be well worth it.

Bottom line, the tianguis is just a lot of fun. A vegetable vendor above enjoys a laugh with a friend while waiting for a sale. Notice the old-fashioned scoop-style scales on either side of him. There are no regular electrical outlets available, but the old way works just fine. The vendors are always ready with a quip or a smile, particularly for those customers they recognize. Expats here often comment how much better the produce at the tianguis looks and tastes than that bought in a supermarket. Generally it comes from small plots and fields worked by the vendor, or a family member or friend and may have been harvested as recently as that morning.

This completes my posting on Ajijic's tianguis. It is definitely should be a "must-visit" for your relatives or friends from out of town, or for yourself if you have never been. And if you are visiting some other part of Mexico, ask around for the tianguis in your area. I guarantee you'll have a lot of fun.

Hasta luego! Jim