Apr 22, 2012

Juanacatlán – How Life Once Is - Day 1

Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis 
Of man's desire to understand.
Neil Armstrong 

Welcome from Ramón and Krystal
More Cows Than Horses and More Horses Than Cars

When deciding to visit this little gem, we first looked for it on-line and couldn't find anything about it! Wait! Can that be true? Really, there is nothing on the internet about this place?


We tried many versions of searches to no avail. Sure there is a Juanacatlán listed there but it’s not the one we visited, it is a suburb of Mexico City… For those interested in seeing where this one is: we were at N 20.35.4343’ and W 104.41.4224’.

We haven’t had to wake up with the help of an alarm clock for a very long time - - - simply following the natural rhythm of sleep until daylight. We left in the dark of 6:45am to take a bus to Puerto Vallarta (PV), followed by another one to Mascota where we were picked up by Ron, the coordinator of our trip. We were definitely the only ‘gringos’ aboard.

Waiting for the second bus in PV, two small girls, 6 and 10, sit next to us and start chatting. I’m amazed I can understand most of what they are saying since kids are usually the toughest to understand when learning a foreign language. I guess I hadn’t noticed just how much I’ve been assimilating since being in Mexico. They talked about anything from school break for 2 weeks to new teeth coming in and being from PV. The two girls were going to Talpa de Allende with their grand-father to pray to the Virgin of Talpa to thank her for finding no cancer, despite a scare, in their grand-mother’s mouth. There is a strong belief that this Virgin performs miracles. Many people go once a year on a pilgrimage to Talpa hoping to be granted one. They go as far as walking barefoot or on hands and knees from PV to Talpa (more than 50 miles) for the occasion.

It was nice these two little girls showed no inhibitions to speak with two ‘anglo’ strangers. Funny enough, the younger of the two sisters would often have to remind the older one to speak slower so I would better comprehend. They seemed cognizant of the difficulties of understanding a different language. They asked many questions about Justin Bieber once they found out I was Canadian. They seemed a little chagrined that I didn’t know any of the songs of this teenage pop star. How great to meet with people with fewer inhibitions to speak and meet freely!

By the bus driver’s rearview mirror hangs a blue rosary missing its crucifix, next to a St-Christopher medallion and a scented green pine tree under a gold dragon. The diversity of things they choose to decorate their vehicles with always surprises me.

Once underway, we are ‘entertained’ by a snake-oil salesman. Somehow these types of itinerant vendors must have deals with certain bus drivers/routes to come in at a certain stop, make their spiel to the passengers, and leave shortly thereafter – probably giving a percentage of the earnings to the driver. We have seen people sell food or drinks, medicinal herbs, biblical quotes on fancy scrolls, musicians and comedians. They do not seem very successful at selling anything; but in Mexico there is no unemployment insurance so people have to try whatever to keep the money coming in. Unlike the US or Canada, kids aboard are not playing any computer games or watching DVDs to pass the time. They sit quietly, some sleeping, some simply watching the scenery. They are very well behaved and calm for such a long trip (2.5 hours). Very few listen to music on headphones. They definitely do not have what we take for granted at home although I'm sure it will soon be here.

Nearly a month ago we had taken the same road to visit San Sebastián. At one sharp corner a land slide took nearly half the road away. That hole was still there leaving only one lane open to traffic. Their sense of urgency in fixing these types of things is definitely different! It is nearly 90 degrees when you get away from the coastal breeze, the bus doesn’t have air conditioning but we are comfortable with enough breeze coming through the open windows awaiting the beginning of our next adventure.

Along the way we see many cultivated areas. Some cornfields still have dry and denuded cornstalks piled high in pyramid like mounds for further drying. Many fields are not mono-cultured but have various types of plants interspersed, a seemingly better way to farm should one crop not do well one year; you have another to fall back on. Slowly farmland is giving way to the deciduous jungle I spoke of in an earlier post. It is so lush that even palm trees which are usually so easy to identify from other trees are lost in vines and other plants, the jungle being so dense and varied.

Ron purchasing some Tejuino
At last, we make it to Mascota, a small town of 15-20,000 people where Ron picks us up for the last portion for which there are no buses or other types of transportations available. We first have lunch, then are offered Tejuino, a drink supposedly only found in the State of Jalisco where we are (we found out it is much more widely available than Ron advertises). It is a cold beverage made from fermented corn (the same dough used to make tortillas or tamales). The dough is mixed with water and sugar (actually hardened molasses they call sugar) then boiled. The liquid is allowed to ferment a little resulting in a drink normally served cold with lime juice, a pinch of salt and a scoop of ice. Chiles are optional. Although not my favorite, I was glad I could taste something new of the Mexican food repertoire.

The last 13 miles to our final destination take a little over one hour. Driving is tricky as the roads are made of clay with scattered rocks. Since it hasn’t rained in many months that clay has become as fine and slippery as talc powder covering absolutely everything in sight and necessitating the change of air filters nearly twice a month during the dry season. Some parts are as deep as 10” of powder and require four-wheel drive to make it uphill… The roads are single lanes only in most places so one has to be ready to tightly hug the right should someone come from the other direction. We make it to 7,500’ and are now surrounded with various types of majestic pines, firs, oaks, and tortuous madrones.

Our hosts for the week are the reserved, slightly impatient and observant Ramón (58), the bubbly, outspoken and curious Rosario (but she goes by Chayo – 43), and their three kids: the open to new things and willing to try anything Jose Louis (21), the shy but attentive Anna Rosa (18), and the more than slightly spoiled Krystal Guadalupe (2 – yes I said 2 and she’s not an accident – I asked!) who would quickly befriend Mike as a grand-pa calling him Señor Mike… The home is 25 years old and they have lived there since they got married 22 years ago. The house overlooks the Juanacatlán Valley below and faces south.

Front yard plants
Nopales, you eat the 'leaves' before they get too large
Water heater outside bathroom
They farm 3.5 hectares of corn a few miles away and do a little of this and that to make ends meet = sewing, cutting hair, baking, rock work, making brooms and brushes, hosting people like us (although it is their first time), etc. They have one horse, many chickens, a dog, and two piglets that arrived while we were there. The semi-terraced front yard has fruit trees, flowers (even orchids), and edible Nopales cactus. They have a type of roses that starts off yellow and becomes darker over time going from that initial color to orange-pink, then red. A very small garden where zucchinis, carrots and radishes grow is nestled in the back. Near the corner of the house tortillas and squash seeds are drying in the sun. Outside the house is the typical white washed wood-fired clay oven made from adobe bricks. The shower/bathroom is a small unheated addition on the left side of the house – the toilet seat is lined with a pair of long white socks to keep the tush warm. A small granary is located on the second floor.

Krystal and Nikki at granary door
They recently (in the last couple of years) purchased or were given a washer, a microwave, a blender, water from a well for the whole town, propane, a truck, TV dish, and a phone. They have yet to fully understand how many of these things work. Unlike us, the novelty of such luxuries is still there for them. They are part of what we would refer to as “Family Based Subsistence Farming” in a town of 550-600 folks that is a little over 100 years old.

Cows returning home in late afternoon
After quick introductions we are shown around and Mike helped get the family’s horse back to the corral while I watched cows come up the road back to their respective corrals. Cows in this area, especially in the dry season (from November to May) may be required to walk 1-7 miles a day (one way) to reach fields with food. They are usually led to these fields in the morning by people walking or on horses and their dogs – at night however, they usually come back on their own knowing where to go. Most of these cows have just given birth at this time of the year so they are eager to come back to their young ones. We are amazed at how few cars we see here. Most people either walk or use horses. It is peaceful, quiet, serene, and beautiful – we are thankful to be here.

Horse by the roadside
Not quite understanding the ways of this Mexican family yet, we went to bed around 9:30pm to be awakened an hour later by our hostess a little distressed because we went to bed without dinner. We hadn’t understood that dinner would be served so late since we had a big lunch with Ron at about 2:30pm. We got dressed and showed up at the dining table soon after. That funny story made the rounds of the town for the whole week thereafter. These silly ‘gringos’ don’t know we serve three meals a day here! – Yes they do-but the hours are quite different. Breakfast is between 9 and 10:30am after taking care of the animals or other chores, lunch is not until 2:30-4:00pm and dinner way after my usual bed time when living on a boat…

Thankfully we all made light of this and it became a very good joke and we referred to the event often when dinner was about to be served, faking to yawn and go to bed, or Chayo would jokingly say there’s no dinner tonight dears, etc.

Our Bed for the week.  - The pillow covers say Te Amo (I love you)
Donkey waiting outside small store
We finally make it to bed around 11pm. We are buried under 4 thick blankets as the house is not heated and the nights are still cool up here. On the way to bed we noticed the ultra clear night sky filled with stars and the Milky Way. The air is so dry up here the view is even clearer than at sea. We sleep very soundly as there are neither sounds nor lights to disturb us until the roosters in the early morning.

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