Friday, February 26, 2016

Guadalajara 2016 - How to Make Tequila

I learned more about tequila on that tour than I thought there was to know. After 7 years of growth the "pineapple", it does resemble one, of the plant is harvested to create the brew. It is the pod from which the leaves grow above and the roots below. These are placed in large ovens and steamed for 48 hours. This is all explained to us by a slim young man wearing fashionably ripped jeans tucked into combat boots. The "pineapples" are then put through a device that mashes them into a pulpy liquid and placed in vats to ferment. The pulp falls to the bottom of the vats and the liquid on top is siphoned off for distilling. After distilling some of the tequila is bottled immediately. This is the Tequila Blanco, or loosely translated white tequila. Some is stored in wooden barrels and allowed to age from 1 to 5 years. The casks are kept underground in large caves to prevent evaporation. We were led through a dark space lined with the barrels stacked high on each side. The tequila takes on a woody flavor reminiscent of aged scotch. It deserves to be savored rather than downed quickly as a shot. The barrels are re purposed, sometimes used to manufacture charming folk art loveseats, tables and sideboards. At the distillery there is a chapel where the pews are all created from used casks. The agave fields are allowed to rest for one year between harvesting and replanting. Sometimes they are sown with corn or beans to help replenish the soil.

The name of this distillery was Spanish for Three Daughters. The owner has three daughters. One apparently is named Esmeralda. The name appears worked out in wrought iron above the entrance to the cave. Although we use the French spelling, Ezmerelda is also the name of our pampered cat. It seemed the perfect photo op!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Guadalajara 2016 - Road to Tequila (With Apologies to Hope and Crosby)

I was told by the man at the desk of my hotel to eat a hearty breakfast as I booked my trip to Tequila. After all, what would be the point of traveling to the town for which the alcoholic beverage is named and visiting the factories where ti is produced without sampling the brew.

A shuttle bus awaited me in the street. I was the first of the passengers to be picked up. I was given the opportunity to see, through the windows, portions of the city I had not yet experienced. I looked down side streets, many, lined with late 19th century facades, appearing as they may have over 100 years ago. The bus traveled along broad 4 lane avenues then turned down streets so narrow there is barely enough room for it to maneuver past the line of cars parked along the side. Scooters shoot through the rush hour traffic resembling winged insects skimming across a pond. Some buildings stand empty, their history buried under a layer of dust and decay. A lovely baroque structure appeared bearing the name of the University of Guadalajara, next to it stands another of a multiple of beautiful churches. Further out we encountered the grand homes of the once wealthy. In this area bridal shops abound. In window after window white gowns wait for women dreaming and planning the wedding of their dreams. A day they will remember for the rest of their lives. A landmark yellow tiled arch, at one time marking the western of the city, spans a thoroughfare.

We were dropped off at a dusty parking lot which our driver claimed was a bus station. The desolate location began to make me wonder if this whole affair was an elaborate ruse and we would all be robbed, kidnapped or worse. There was a pristine Hummer in the lot, as well as a corvette with flat tires and a vintage 70's era  turquoise dodge with a cracked windshield. If this was a ruse it had apparently been going on for some time I thought. I inquired about a restroom and was directed to a decrepit building on the far side of the lot. Entering I saw in a corner of a room filled with broken cabinetry , a filthy toilet with no seat. It;s a good thing boys pee standing up. On the floor next to it was a cardboard box containing used toilet paper, a Latin American tradition I will never become accustomed to.

A large bus with "Tequila Tour" on the side rolled in to the lot which reassured me and we board. A video  played of a portly, older gentleman in traditional garb wearing a comically enormous sombrero singing ballads accompanied by a string heavy orchestra. As the bus began to move through the outskirts of the city familiar names appear, Walmart, Sears, Sam's Club, Home Depot, proving the words multinational global economy are not just words.As we left the city behind and moved out into the countryside the scene outside changed to one of dusty browns and greens, tiny towns and the aqua tone of agave fields. Wild bougainvillea provided occasional bright pops of color. Birds floated overhead searching for prey. Shortly the guide announced that we had arrived at our first destination, the Tequila distillery.

Guadalajara 2016 - Pasteleria Thoughts

I sat at a cafe table drinking extremely hot coffee and sampling a rich layered chocolate confection which bordered on decadent. A young man wheeled a motorbike, the name of the establishment emblazoned on a box on it's back, out of the tiny shop and past me across the front patio before taking off to make morning deliveries.

Despite it's hundreds of years of history, evidenced by it's wealth of venerable buildings, Guadalajara is a city, full of noise, traffic and masses and masses of people. In the morning hours men in suits rushed to work and casually dressed young people made their way to classes at the university just a few blocks away. People stand in long orderly lines waiting for buses, packed at that hour. I smiled thinking about how different this is than the sometimes chaotic scenes at the bus stops back home. Bells from the 17th century church across the street chime the hour. A line of students alights from a bus, backpacks in hand. The February morning is cool, by afternoon it will be pleasurably warm. The jackets and scarfs worn by some will be stuffed into bags or carried in hand. The shorts I wore left my lower legs almost uncomfortably cold yet I knew that by midday I would be enjoying the feel of warmth and air around them, a mid winter treat.  It would be 2 months, at least, before I would be able to wear them at home.

I sat, relaxed and savored the remainder of the coffee watching the world go by as I eased into the day.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Guadalajara 2016 - A Mexican Meltdown

It became apparent early on that the modest amount of money I had exchanged at the airport would not come anywhere close to covering my financial needs during my stay. I stopped by the nearest bank and inserted my ATM card. I went through the motions of entering my PIN, amount needed etc. only to be informed "this function", meaning giving me money, "can not be completed at this time". I tried the ATM next to it receiving the same response. I went into the lobby. "Habla Ingles" I queried, one of a small handful of Spanish expressions I know. A young, cute verging on adorable, bank employee replied yes and went out to the ATM's with me. With his assistance we achieved the same result. He reassured me, as I began to consider panicking wondering what was wrong and how I would get through the next several days, that their machines often had problems recognizing foreign cards. His wife, he further explained, was Belgian and had problems as well. Due to my many years of homosexuality my automatic internal response was "Damn, cute, straight and married!" He directed me to another bank 2 blocks away. I got my cash without further incident and returned to the hotel. I retired to the rooftop pool and, feeling the warm sun on my pale, winter white flesh, did experience a Mexican meltdown, but of the most pleasurable sort.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Guadalajara 2016 - Churches Here, Churches There, Churches, Churches Everywhere

After breakfast that first morning I set out on foot to explore Guadalajara's Centro Historico. My hotel was located on the edge of it directly across the street from a 17th century chapel and cathedral dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi. They and a set of arches off the side of the cathedral are all that remains of a Franciscan order convent that once sat on the site. The Aranzaza chapel is lovely and colorful. Carved wooden wains coating runs along it's walls. Outside is the Jardin de San Francisco de Asis. It is intended to be a oasis amid the noise and frenetic pace of the city, a task made difficult by the cars, buses and streams of people in this busy area.

I walked down streets of 19th century facades abutting typical Latin American poured concrete buildings. I discovered early on that stoplights are only a suggestion. If you can cross the street you go, red light not withstanding. The grace of the art nouveau bandstand in the Plaza la Constitacion was somewhat diluted by the construction of an expansion of the city's light rail system taking place next to it. The Cathedral of Guadalajara, dedicated in 1618, is considered, because of it's architecture, to be one of Guadalajara's greatest treasures. The interior, though beautiful, was, as was true of all of the many churches I stepped into that day, strangely less inspiring than the small chapel across from the hotel.On the outside the cathedral's dome features a black Greek key design on a yellow background. The same yellow tile adorns the steeples of the venerable religious shrine.

The historic area of the city is a place of expansive plazas amid centuries old churches, government and public buildings. Looking through open doorways one sees colonnaded courtyards. Many people cross themselves as they encounter the churches, which seem to grace every block. I begin to wonder how there are enough people to fill them. The history of the area is juxtaposed against the masses of cars, buses and never ending torrents of people.

As the afternoon approached arcaded sidewalks provided cool shade from the tropic like heat. I thought back to the previous week of Chicago winter when I stood in bedroom, suitcase open, naively thinking I had over packed tee shirts as I felt the sweat trickle down my back.

I wandered back streets where the main industry seemed to be print shops behind graffiti scarred rolling garage doors on the first floor in fading historic storefronts. I used a t.v. antenna on top of a modern structure as a landmark until the dome and spire of the cathedral across from my hotel once again came into view bringing me back to my room after a stroll through 400 years of Mexican history.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Guadalajara 2016 - Up, Up and Away

It's odd when you allow yourself to think about it. Odd, yet in these days, commonplace. You step into a machine, settle into a seat which provides varying degrees of comfort, and within a few hours are hundreds, if not thousands of miles from where you began. While in the air you generally have no exact knowledge of what is below you. The U.S, so much if it devoted to agriculture, resembles a rumpled quilt. You see rivers winding their way across the land beneath you. Small towns, sometimes cities with their outlying suburbs dot the landscape. Over water trips are odder still. Miles and miles of ocean, no end in sight. Massive ships appear like tiny waterbugs as they make their way.

Some sights from the air are impressive, if you know when and where to look. The
Alps are an undulating blanket of white. You can be amazed by the enormity of the Grand Canyon. There is the russet hue of Arizona's Red Rock region and the lake studded green of Minnesota. The mass of some cities can best be appreciated from the air. Mexico City sprawls outward until it ends, almost abruptly, half way up the mountains that rise above it. Chicago's lakefront towers mark the shore of Lake Michigan and the beginning of the city and suburban street grid which eventually dissipates into forest preserves and fields.

It's odd, when you allow yourself to think about while staring out the tiny window at the earth below.

Guadalajara 2016 - Thereby Hangs a Tale

I had been talking about it for some time, thinking about it for much longer. Guadalajara, the name rolls off the tongue. According to tourist web sites more beautiful than Mexico City, a place whose visual splendor occasionally awed me. I was, perhaps the best way to describe it, between jobs. I had left a position of three years to accept what, I hoped, was a better, upgraded position in the same field. So I had this week at my disposal to explore. Also I would not get another vacation for a year after my start date. One should seize opportunities when they present themselves.
Although the winter had been mild it was still 40 to 50 degrees warmer, at least in the afternoon, south of the border. Warmth, always reliable Mexican food and history lured me.

There were glitches, perhaps inevitable considering this trip was booked on the fly within 2 weeks of departing. I had developed a swollen gland under my jaw. Due to COBRA insurance being 3 weeks retroactive, I was forced to spend $200 the day before I left for a Minute Clinic visit and and antibiotic prescription "just in case". The online agency I booked my initial hotel through claimed my credit card charge had been denied, Citibank claimed otherwise. Volaris Airlines told me after I had gone through with the procedure of securing the outbound reservation that the intended return flight was no longer available, although it still appeared on the computer screen as available as they told be simultaneously on the phone that it was not. I canceled the outbound flight hoping I would not have to fight for a refund later. Holding my online head high, my online jaw firmly set, I eschewed small airlines and fly by night dot.coms and found a flight, both there and back via American Airlines where I earn advantage miles anyway, only slightly more expensive than the one I had tried to book first. Through Orbitz I booked a hotel, less expensive than my initial choice, and located, it appeared, only a block or two away. Since I, as an advantage flyer, would also be able to check my bag free, I came out pretty much even.

After snaking my way through the long understaffed security line and making it to the proper gate the plane took off 25 minutes late, on time by today's airline standards. I would be laying over in Dallas and then would continue on to the beauty and history of Mexico's second largest city.

Mexico is not new to me. I had visited Puerto Vallarta several times in the 1990's. The city was gay friendly then, not rainbow overrun as I have heard it is now. I and my travel buddy from those early visits also spent a week in Merida exploring jungle enveloped Mayan ruins and marveling at the extraordinary bird life and history there. Merida's cathedral, partially constructed with stones from the Mayan city originally located there, is, in terms of the date the Spanish began to erect it, the oldest in the Americas. Another cathedral located in another country was finished first so the title of "Oldest Cathedral in the Americas" is in dispute. My sister and I had spent a long 4 day weekend in Cancun's Intercontinental Hotel,  made affordable by free airfare provided by her employment at the time with the now defunct ATA. I also once spent a memorable week on my own exploring Mexico City. But Guadalajara, aside from airport layovers, was new territory for me. So, to quote Shakespeare in As You Like It, "thereby hangs a tale".