Siren Song

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

I have long held a romantic view of all things Espanol, perhaps from being a Spanish major long ago. It holds to this day – the people, the language, the music, the terrain of south of the border. For reasons I cannot explain, probably a mere lack of will, I have never been to Spain or South America. But I’ve been to Mexico lots.

When I lived in San Diego in my early twenties, I went to Mexico once a week to get my hair coiffed into a fancy tower of twists and spirals; as I matured into my mid-twenties, I went to Mexico to attend horse races at the Agua Caliente Racetrack in Tijuana. When I moved to Florida, I went on cruise ships to Mexican ports of call – Cozumel, Costa Maya on the Yucatan coast of our southern neighbor.

This late spring, I traveled for the first time into the interior of Mexico, to a small town, Ajijic (ah-he-heek), in the Sierra Madre Mountains near Guadalajara.

Ajijic sits on the north shore of Lake Chapala, the largest lake in Mexico. Since the 1920s, Ajijic has been known as a town of expatriates – about 7,000 natives and 10- to 20,000 expats. They come partly because of a livable climate (68-degree year-round average temp) at an altitude of 5,000 feet, in the tropics – this latter accounts for the overflowing flowers everywhere you look and the day-long singing of the birds. The rents are reasonable, there are plenty of stores and restaurants and healthcare clinics, even a hospital. Dozens of art gallerias hold traditional and naïve art, all lovely, all different, all wildly colorful. Personally designed clothing in the couturier shops honest to god begs me to buy it all — so unusual, so pretty, so suitable for travel and . . . for living in a place like Ajijic.

An estate left by a rich woman to the expats has been altered to good use as a meeting place now called the Lake Chapala Society. It holds classes of all kinds – photography, languages, philosophy, yoga. And interesting lectures; while I am there a TED TALK is scheduled. Travel groups abound as well as groups for hiking, birdwatching, kayaking, plein air. There is a library on the grounds – second largest English libe in the country. There is a concierge for anything you might need – advice on choosing a doctor, communication woes, car troubles, how to get to the airport. And the gardens are so peaceful it is easy for me to spend a couple of lost hours with a book under one of its dozens of shade trees; I could as happily be reclining beneath pergolas or covered patios with a drink from the café. Flores everywhere – blooms galore in a neat jungle, sophisticated, arty – a busy place, but restful.

I read that there are three types of expats in the town – the old timers who prefer to remain incognito and hang out with their Mexican friends; the next wave of migrants from the U.S. and Canada who think all three countries are just fine but choose Mejico as the finest; and the new wave of retirees who aren’t especially crazy about the States or Canada or Mexico, and want only to do what they did up north and keep to themselves and go home in the summer.

The Society is lovely, and the people are interesting, but none of its familiar and tidy northernness is as warming, as enticing as the people of the town or as colorful as the town itself: shop after shop of color after color – purple, orange, yellow, red, pink, dark blue and light blue, aqua and turquoise with doors and window sills of many colors; painted scenes of flowers and people dancing and working curl around corners and on down the block. Walking the streets of Ajijic reveals a riot of good feelings in sights, sounds and smells. The jasmine scent almost knocks me over. The bougainvillea runs amok over high rock walls, its papery blooms in purple, cerise, tangerine. The fruit and vegetable stands are artful mounds of mangos, persimmons, oranges, bananas, pineapples. The smells of Mexican cooking waft out of small front doors of family homes and big fancy tiendas with dozens of waiters. The place never fails to be an adventure.

A new friend there, Mari, expat of 20 years, says to me, “You will find that Mexico is a sensuous place, Colleen, often even sensual – the flora, the art, the people.”

It’s true.

The people, especially, are a riot of color and ease of movement. It seems to me as I sit on the square that they simply love to be laughing and talking, friendly and in a good mood. These are not rich people. There on the town plaza, they – grandmas, girls, slim young women — dance on impulse if the sound of Salsa is heard. There is Mexican gaiety seeping out of the front doors of homes, the music permeates the town. Children sing out, “Hola! Hola! Hola!” as they run past me from school in their uniforms. This reminds me of when I was their age and required to acknowledge adults.

And really, it is just that — a step back. The “it used to be like this” feeling I get in Ajijic is a part of what makes it appealing. It is like living in Jefferson circa 1952, when everyone said hello, you saw the shop owners sweeping the sidewalks in front of their businesses, the bushes were trimmed and the flowers plentiful, the trees arched over the streets and there was a feeling of safety and well-being. In Ajijic, even as I walk home at 10:30 at night, it feels safe and normal. In Ajijic, unlike in Jefferson, though, it is easy to grab a cab if I don’t feel like walking home.

Ajijic is culturally different, of course, and so, it is endlessly interesting, exciting. All the streets are cobblestones – many of them installed 500 years ago when the Spaniards were the new boys on the lake. I watch skinny young vaqueros ride horses along the beach and along the tree-lined streets – the true clip-clop sound of shod hooves on cobblestone makes me feel as if I am an extra in a cowboy movie from the 1930s. The churches, as ancient as the streets, hold up impossibly high vaulted ceilings, haunting in their arch. The well-kept interiors, their sumptuous art, the votive candle smoke of half a millennium – I feel the presence there of something, perhaps just history.

As each day progresses, the people I pass progress in their greetings to me from “buenos dias” to “buenas tardes” to “beunas noches” (good morning, good afternoon, good evening). The old gentlemen I pass each morning sitting together on their front stoops never fail to nod and say, “Hola, Senora!” They smile. I smile. When I walk back home in the late afternoon, they have returned from their siestas to their kitchen chairs in the doorways, red wine in hand, smiling as I pass. “Buenas noches, Senora!” I say, “Hola, hombres.” That always makes them laugh, for it means, only, “men,” not old men or gentlemen.

Restaurateurs do not urge me to pay until I ask for my check. Jewelry makers wave their bracelet-encircled arms and ringed fingers at me, swaying and smiling. An elderly rug weaver takes me around the corner from her stall on the square to show me every rug in her tiny warehouse. Even as I don’t buy on that day, she sees me out, opening the door with a grin. I return near the end of my stay and pick out the rug I thought about for three days.

I am there only a week, not long enough to know it all, to discover the downsides or the flaws. All I want is to go back and sit in the square again and study the art – the statues and modern art, the mosaics in the sidewalks, the ornate grillwork on the bandstand. I want to meander in search of the many small surprises – little colored rocks in the shape of hearts sunk into the cement sidewalk in front of a home, a family name frescoed into the smoothness of a front step, a Virgin Mary in a niche along a 20-foot-high wall. I want to sit longer at the bistros admiring the horses grazing on sea grass and the children playing on swings. I want to go again to the Ballet Mejico and be thrilled by the tarantella dancers – handsome men tapping madly on the boards, swirling gorgeous dark-haired, red-lipsticked women in their many-colored wide skirts and startlingly white, seductive blouses. I want to go every morning to David’s for breakfast and eat barely sweet rollos de desayuno (breakfast rolls) with café strong enough to last me the day. I want to speak more Espanol.

I want to go back as many times as I can, live for a while there, be slower in my life, less harried by the world itself, hiding from it perhaps. Ajijic calls me.

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