Tuesday, March 04, 2008

On to Guadalajara

After spending a day in Morelia working, an interesting chance to see the professional life in the city, early this morning we moved on to Guadalajara. We traveled on the ETN luxury bus line, a route suggested by a colleague of mine. I was very impressed when she sent me a link to their site and I saw I could purchase tickets in advance with a credit card, and even select the seats. The wide seats reclined fully and had a sizeable foot and leg rest. Both shades and curtains covered the windows, helping us to get some sleep after the 6:30 a.m. departure. The staff provided each passenger with a soda, a sandwich and headphones with which to listen to the on-board movies. The driver drove safely and in a little under four hours, we had arrived in the second largest Mexican city.

Approaching Guadalajara, I looked out onto lots of empty land, a sight that always amazes me. There were arid, golden plains filled with short, stubby trees, some bare with twisted branches, others baring green leaves. Hills were striped yellow, brown and rust, like layered cakes. The city appeared suddenly – a gas station, a small enclave of pastel gated residences, and then a vast metropolis.

Guadalajara has a population of 1.6 million in the city and 4.1 million in the metropolitan area. In what I’d read about it before coming, it was said to be the business and technological capital of Mexico, the Mexican Silicon Valley. I read it had many of the positive aspects of Mexico City – the culture, the urbanity, the industry – without the drawbacks of pollution and high crime. In addition, it carried the distinction of being the home of mariachis and tequilas – two things I looked forward to experiencing.

We decided to try to get to our hotel by bus – a decision taken lightly while River was sleeping quietly in his carseat, a decision we later regretted as he began to scream on the crowded bus. During our long ride across the city, I noted the pickup truck with an electric saddle seat in back, a Walmart, a Pizza Hut, a Seven Eleven, narrow, two story houses, usually painted in pastels, with black gates and frequently graffiti sprayed on the walls. I noticed the heavy traffic, the high quality cars and the fact that most people carried their babies and their children simply in their arms, even if they had to lug a backpack and suitcase as well. People were friendly, with both the bus driver and the passengers ensuring that got off at the right place and headed in the right direction for the second bus.

Since River was upset by that point, we took a taxi the remaining distance. Guadalajara is located at 5200 feet, 1300 feet below Morelia. While Morelia is cool in the evenings and warm in the day, Guadalajara is warm in the evenings and hot during the day.

We’d had some trouble finding a hotel at the last minute. We were willing to splurge for our two nights here because we’ve mostly stayed in motels and private homes during this trip and because we were celebrating our anniversary. But all the hotels we called yesterday were booked, apparently due to an expo taking place. We chose a place we found on the internet (Posada San Miguel (Av. Hidalgo 1082; Col. Ladron de Guevara, 2 cuadras de enrique Diaz; tels: 3827-13-27 and 3827-13-17). It’s well located, but seems to have seen better days. While called a bed and breakfast, it doesn’t serve breakfast, the service is unimpressive and the room musty. For $75 it’s overpriced. But the location is good, the beds comfortable, and the cheap chandelier and cherubs painted on the high ceiling are at least amusing.

Everyone was tired from our 5 a.m. wake-up so we took it easy today. Our sole excursion was to visit the Casa Bariachi, a restaurant that hosts regular performances of ballet folklorico and mariachis. I called ahead and was told there would be performances at 3:30 and 4:30. We arrived at four, in time to catch the tail end of the dancers. I wondered who would be there on a weekday afternoon. Then I remembered my colleagues telling me that the Mexicans eat lunch between two and four. Still, there were only four other customers when we arrived, though more had come by the time we left.

The restaurant had a vast seating capacity and I imagined it gets packed on evenings and weekends. The performances were excellent. A twelve member mariachi band came out in purple suits, carrying a collection of instruments. The singers had rich, romantic voices and the musicians played upbeat tunes. Mark and I ordered margaritas, beef stewed in a spicy sauce, and shrimp in a mango sauce. It was our celebratory meal of our one year anniversary. Best of all though, was when the mariachis began to play Time to Say Goodbye by Andrea Bocelli. It was the Mexican version, with a mariachi twang. But the singer delivered the full power and passion of the song. And I was blown away by the coincidence. That was the song we’d walked down the aisle to exactly one year earlier. Our initial wedding plans (which didn’t happen), involved hiring mariachi singers in Nicaragua. So on our anniversary celebration in Mexico, to merge the planned mariachis with the actual opera song we’d chosen was a wonderful celebratory tribute.

We walked back to our hotel, taking a look at the neighborhood on the way. It appeared to be an upscale neighborhood, with offices of integrated psychology, many banks, and a Berlitz language school on the way. Most prominent of all however were the wedding shops. We must have passed at least ten bridal shops within several blocks. Many of them were housed in ornate buildings, painted pink, gold or white, with arches and elaborate rooftop balconies. Large plated glass windows showcased the stylish dresses – white bridal dresses and colored ballgowns. There were also photographer’s, floral shops and fine fabric stores. We seemed to have stumbled upon wedding central.

Life here seems to be quite modern, well developed, and rather expensive. Our meal was almost $50. Mark was thrilled to find his favorite diapers, Pampers Snugglers. A series of brightly lit convenience stores, filled with colored packaged products, Oxxo, appear every couple of blocks. The foreign presence is substantial. As my colleagues yesterday told me, here it is no big deal for a young person to be offered a job with a foreign institution. There are so many of them that it lacks the prestige it carries in other developing countries.

Of course, what is nice about it is seeing that the quality of life for the locals seems pretty high. “It’s great not having to see really depressing destitution all around you,” my colleague Annika said, who has spent years in Central America. “And unlike a place like Nicaragua, where people will always be poor, here you can see people are given a chance, that they can move up.”

I’m really enjoying being back in the mystery and excitement of a different country, and of course, having the opportunity to speak Spanish. I’m also glad for River to be exposed to Spanish, even if he can’t distinguish languages yet. We have two more days in Guadalajara. Having checked out the mariachis, tomorrow we’ll focus on tequila, taking a tour to the town of Tequila, where the beloved beverage is produced. On Thursday we’ll tour Guadalajara itself and try to get a grasp on this large metropolis.

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