Field Trip to Tonalá

Announcement: yes we have power! It was on when we returned from our “vacation from our vacation,” as our Tequila tour guide put it. OK, now onto our regularly scheduled program.

The best days at school are the days you don’t go to class! Every Wednesday is field trip day at IMAC (my Spanish school). Today we took the bus (which costs about 50 cents) to Tonalá, a city just on the outskirts of Guadalajara and just east of Tlaquepaque, where were were last weekend. We joined up with Mexican students who are learning English and toured the city. Tonalá is famous for its ceramics, so we visited two different ceramics manufacturers where our guide, Jorge, explained the process (todo en español).

At the first stop, the factory produced all different types of pottery animals, urns, birds, you name it. See below.

The second, Najaco, specialized in making ceramic Lupita dolls (they were $15 in Tonalá). The dolls are shipped all over the world. For some reason, Jorge, really wanted us to know that this included Russia. I think that is the farthest place they go. It’s a bit of a miracle considering they pack the dolls in shredded newspaper.

The ceramic process itself was interesting, and we did learn more about the food and culture of the city,but what I was really wondering is how the painters keep their hands so steady all day long. Some of them are painting tiny flowers and other adornments on the dolls.

Then, we walked down Avenida Tonaltecas, the main road which also houses a huge crafts market twice a week, where we got a history lesson via the many statutes that line the broad median. Tonalá was founded by Zapotec Indians who intermarried with other tribes, and the different cultural influences are apparent in the art. I think I understood most of what Jorge was saying, but who knows?

Perhaps the best part of being in a language immersion program is that most of the other students are also adventurers. I met a principal from England who quit her job and is traveling Mexico with her Mexican girlfriend; a Japanese engineer who is here for 5 years with his wife and small children; a fellow New Yorker who teaches online and is hanging out for now; and a woman who is searching for her dream retirement location in the sun. Fun!

I am starting to venture out into the world with more confidence in Spanish these days. I even understand some of what people are saying and can respond, albeit slowly and with limited vocabulary. I am enjoying trying to get my point across with my kindergarten-level lexicon and only 2.5 verb tenses.

If you happen to want to watch Spanish TV and Peppa Pig is not for you, try out Los Vecinos on Netflix. It’s a totally stupid and funny superhero sendoff set in Mexico City.

And, last, but certainly not least, we wandered the city with Kenta and Doug on Sunday as they showed us some of their favorite spots. We ate at Casa Trapiche, which is on Instagram if you’re planning to head over there. It’s worth it if you’re in the barrio. 🙂 I had a salad with beans, corn, chayote and quinoa with a lemon-based dressing and a taco dorado de papa, which is a potato taco with shrimp and a cucumber and onion dressing. Yum. Steven had a dogo del huerto which is not a hot dog, but meat stuffed into a hot dog shaped bun. He enjoyed it. I’ll take his word for it (It was very good, and more importantly they had a really good beer from a brewery called Colimita).

Tequila Tour

Friday started out like a normal workday. Sue went to school and I sat down to work. Everything was fine until our cleaner noticed that the lights had gone out. I did not have the lights on and was working with my laptop, so I didn’t notice that the power was out. We tried various lights (and I checked the internet); all were off. The cleaner offered to check with the building security guards to see if there was a problem. To keep a long story short, the electricity bill for the apartment was not paid, so they shut off the lights. The cleaner (who works for the AirBnB host) said she would take care of it. She said she had to go pay the bill and then the power would be back in an hour or two. (Steven neglects to mention that he speaks no Spanish and the cleaner speaks no English.) In the meantime, Sue returned and attempted to contact the host, but got no reply. Sue then contacted AirBnB who tried to contact the host, and received a reply that there was something wrong with the electricity. When the cleaner returned, she said that the bill had been paid, the electricity should be back soon and then she left. It was now about 3 p.m., so we decided to head out for some Lebanese food at a restaurant that we passed a few days ago. We hoped that the lights would be back before we returned.

The restaurant is called Sulemaya on Calle Marsella and is tiny (maybe five tables). We sat down and the server came by and gave us menus. As we were fumbling in Spanish he offered to speak English. We (really Sue) explained that we were trying to learn Spanish and bear with us. He said no problem and through the course of the conversation we found that he was fluent in four languages; Spanish, French, English and Arabic. We felt so inferior. Sue had a vegetarian platter while I had kibbeh and a kefta wrap. The food was delicious and we finished up with Lebanese coffee which is similar to Turkish coffee, but contains some cardamon. At about 4:30 we returned to the AirBnb, to find that we still did not have lights.

Weird bathroom

Sue contacted AirBnb and the host asking whether it was possible that the lights would be turned back on after 5 p.m. or over the weekend. We sat for a little while and then decided that since we were not receiving responses, we would check into a hotel and deal with it from there. There is a very nice Hilton in the mall where we go grocery shopping, and I booked us a room for two nights. We packed some stuff feeling kind of irritated and called an Uber. The hotel check in was easy and the room was nice. (The bathroom setup was a little weird. I’m not complaining, it was just odd. There was a front room with a sink and then two compartments with glass doors, one with a toilet and one with the shower. See pic.) We calmed down and remembered that this is an adventure and things do go wrong. No one was hurt, nothing was broken so we had to just shut up and get over it. The key to having adventures is being flexible and if the worst thing that happens here is that we have to stay in a hotel for a few day, oh boy we have no right to complain.

Monse (photographer) and our tour group

We had booked a tour of a couple of local tequila distilleries and of the the town of tequila for Saturday through TripAdvisor with a company called Agave Experience Tequila Tour. It was a small (no more than 6 people) group tour that stopped at two small Mexican owned distilleries, provided breakfast and dinner (11:30 a.m. and 5 p.m.) and dropped us in the town of Tequila for about an hour. At 10:30 a.m. our driver, Monse, picked us up and we found ourselves traveling with four young ladies, two who knew each other and two who did not.  The two who knew each other were fresh off a long night out and did not talk much in the beginning due to their hangovers. (Oh to be young and stupid again!) The third, Emma, is from Toronto and is avoiding the cold by working remotely from Mexico (with her cat) for four or five months. Samantha, the fourth, is from Napa and works in the wine industry. She and her husband have their own vineyard Tectonic Wines, which I am shamelessly plugging here. Go buy some of their wines. Samantha is here learning Spanish for a month. Monse’s English is great and she managed to keep the conversation going by asking lots of questions and sharing her knowledge of the area. She had many suggestions for places to eat, drink and things we should do.

The different types of Tequila (round bottles l to r: Blanco, Reposado, Añejo, Extra Añejo, and Cristalino

A small diversion here to talk a little about tequila, tequila manufacturing and regulation. Tequila can only be made in five states in Mexico, must be made only from blue agave and each distiller is given a license number call a NOM (which stands for Norma Oficial Mexicana, but in translation means name, which is pretty funny because it is a number). Every bottle of tequila has a NOM. There are something like 180 distilleries, that produce 1,800 different brands. If the bottle does not say 100% agave, the distillers are adding sugar cane before the distillation process, which is allowed. Tequila only has to be 51% agave to be called tequila. There are five different types of tequilas that have to do with how long they have been aged in barrels (only oak barrels allowed):

  1. Blanco: aged less than two months
  2. Reposado: aged two months to one year
  3. Añejo: aged one to three years
  4. Extra Añejo: aged three years or more
  5. Cristalino: Añejo that has been charcoal filtered to remove some of the sweetness and the color.   

We headed for an agave field that is owned by the first distillery – Casa Marengo (NOM 1560). Monse explained how the agave was harvested (the leaves are cut off using a tool that looks somewhat like a flattened and sharpened spade), that the harvesters are called jimadors, and that the plant needs to be about seven years old before it is ready to be harvested. The jimadors need to harvest 5 tons of agave a day each and work from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.  

Once we finished wandering in the agave field we headed back to the distillery to taste. We tried some of each type of tequila from one of their brands. Sue and I preferred the older (no jokes please) types as we found them sweeter and smoother. During the tasting, Monse provided little bottles that contained extracts of flavors we might find in the tequila. We smelled the bottles and tried to guess the scent. We tried six scents and I was 1 for 6. I found it difficult name the scent even if I could identify that I knew the smell. It was fun and interesting. Once we were done tasting and looking around the distillery, we exited through the gift shop (I bought a bottle of their Amor Lindo extra añejo for about $50) and headed to the second distillery.

That one is called Cava de Oro (NOM 1477). Once again we toured the distillery and tasted all five types of tequila from one of their brands. We also tried a mezcal and another añejo that had been aged in red wine barrels.  This time as part of the tasting, Monse gave us fruit and sweets that were paired with each of the tequilas (and the mezcal) in order to bring out the flavors. It was very interesting, We preferred the first distillery to this one, that not meant to be a criticism, simply a matter of taste.

We headed from Cava de Oro to a restaurant called Ruinas El Chimulco. It is a pueblito called Amatitan and it perfectly encapsulates what we have found in Mexico. We parked at the top of the hill when we entered the village. There were a bunch of nondescript houses on the main street. We suddenly stopped and entered through a doorway and we were in a beautiful, park-like courtyard. It was gorgeous. I ordered a shared meat platter and a chicken mole with the two ladies from San Diego. Everyone else ordered some for themselves and some for the table. We had a huge amount of delicious food, most of which we finished.

We piled back into the car and we drove to the town of Tequila. Monse dropped us in the center of town and we spent about 30 minutes wandering around. The town has a large square (with a church in the center of course).

Around the corner of the church there was another square with a small tourist market and the obligatory Tequila Instagram sign. There were lots of people selling cantaritos (a local tequila drink) on the street in ceramic mugs. We passed by the Jose Cuervo and the Sauza distilleries in our wanderings, but did not stop for their tours. We headed back to the square, found Monse and headed home.

We got home at about 9:30 and promptly decided to head out to a nightclub…Only kidding, we collapsed into bed and watched the football game and some tennis.

….and that was just Saturday.

A relaxing weekend

Our drinks at De La O

We started our weekend on Friday night by walking over to a bar called De La O Cantina. It is a pretty hip place with interesting drinks and tacos. One of the challenges we have found is that many of the places that we are planning visit do not have websites and/or have a Facebook page that doesn’t have a menu. De La O falls into the latter category. What is up with the Facebook pages? They are less than useful. This is a bit of a challenge for us as the food here is very meat focused (Good for me! Bad for Sue). Luckily De La O had vegetarian options and so it worked out. In addition to having interesting tequila drinks (the one at the right has fermented pineapple in it), they brought around a small batch agave drink that we think was called Mezcalito for us to taste. It was very good and when we go to Tequila next week, we will see if we can find it.

Saturday, we took an Uber to a little pueblito (small town) called Tlaquepaque that is on the outskirts of Guadalajara. It has a couple of very small ceramics museums, many street statues, pretty architecture, lots of places selling tourist stuff and, of course, the required Instagram sign. Every cute little tourist town is outwardly similar, but they all reflect the diverse culture of their areas.

We wandered around for a couple of hours just soaking up the sunshine and the vibe. Later in the afternoon, we headed for dinner at Restaurant Casa Luna (once again, just a Facebook page). They had their menu outside so we were sure we could find things we both like. The restaurant is housed in a courtyard with beautiful chandeliers and lots of hanging lanterns. The food was delicious and there was a band playing Mariachi music which made dinner incredibly pleasant.

During the week we signed up for the local bike share system called MiBici. Residents sign up and then use a credit card to unlock the bikes. For foreigners, the system allows you to buy the yearly subscription ($20) using an American credit card, however, it will not recognize the credit card to unlock the bike. The work around it is to get a metro card and link the metro card to the MiBici account. (We learned how to do it through this vlog. Thanks Kenta and Kenta’s friends.) It was actually pretty easy once we knew what to do and we got our cards on Thursday. Every Sunday, Guadalajara closes a fairly large number of streets to cars from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The lunch place in the market

We took advantage of the both the bike subscription and the closed streets to go for a ride. We headed straight north to a street market about a mile away. We wandered around the market, which to be honest was similar to every other street market in every other city we have visited: clothes, electronics, shoes and general kitchen crap was all on sale. We didn’t buy anything, but we do enjoy wandering through them. We decided to grab an early lunch at one of the market food stands. We quickly figured out that one had vegetarian options and we settled on a couple of stools and fumbled through our orders. We ordered something called huaraches. They are fried masa dough with ingredients piled on the top (Sue had mushrooms, I had beef). On the table were chopped onions, cucumbers and carrots, sprigs of parsley and basil and salsa. Once the food was delivered, you put whatever you want on top. It was good fun and cost just about $8. We do like street food.

After lunch we grabbed more bikes headed to the supermarket, shopped for the week and then ubered home.

Settling in to GDL

As my wise friend Sally just said, “You have to be adaptable to do what you’re doing.” She’s so right! As you know, Guadalajara was our consolation prize after Morocco shut down and we really didn’t know what to expect. Our first few days left us wondering if we had made a good choice. We just couldn’t get a grip on the city or where the center of things was. The grocery store near us is meh and we wandered a bit into a neighborhood that didn’t feel great. Plus, we’re on US time, so we were working during the day, which didn’t leave a lot of time for exploring.

Then, we had brunch with Kenta and Doug and everything started to fall into place. The grocery store near them is much nicer and they gave us some ideas of where to explore. We are wanderers and without an idea of where to roam, we were a little out of sorts. Plus, we wrapped our brains around the idea that we live here, as temporary as it may be. We’re not really tourists, so it’s OK that we’re not in touristaville surrounded by overpriced souvenirs.

We’re beginning to realize what a livable city this is (especially if you have US $$$$$$). Uber to the nice grocery store? $3. Delicious breakfast across the street at Pata de Elefante? $20 for two with tip. Stroll in the evening after work? 70+ degrees and taco stands everywhere.

Doug also explained to us the eating habits of Guadalajarans (and Mexicans in general, I think). Desayuno gets you started in the morning with a decent-size meal. The main comida is around 2-3:30 or so. Cena, in the evening after 7, is a light meal. Since we were eating our main meal around lunch anyway and then having salad for dinner, we have shifted to this. So far, so good.

To top it off, as we strolled the neighborhood, we stumbled upon Pasaje Yoga a few minutes walk from our place and attended a class last night. The Vinyasa flow kicked our butts (headstand and handstands with splits? I think not), but everyone was friendly and the yogi even translated instructions into English for us. (Gracias, Martín!) I understood a bit, but English definitely helped. We’ll be going back for sure and all the body parts in Spanish will be cemented in my brain. I already have perro arriba y perro abajo down although I doubt Martín will have me doing headstands anytime soon (the death marches of Istanbul have given way to the yoga torture of Mexico!).

After a week, we are starting to understand how we can live comfortably here. Sally is right. What really helped us was the adaptability. We are realizing that the first week in a new place is unsettling. (Duh! sometimes we’re not so smart.) This time may have even been a bit rougher because we hadn’t spent months anticipating and dreaming. A secondary factor is our schedule. In all our other wanderings we had the days free and didn’t start working until mid-afternoon (except when I was taking French classes). We had to recalibrate our daily schedule and expectations.

Now if I could just stop saying s’il vous plaît instead of por favor!

Our First Weekend

I didn’t realize that it has been nearly a month since I wrote a post. Many thanks to Sue for keeping everyone posted on our plans and travels. This is our first weekend in Guadalajara so we figured we should pack it full.

Friday night we decided to go out to eat, and quickly settled on sitting on the balcony of Casa Dolores, which is just across the street from our AirBnB. Sue picked out a sipping Tequila called Ollitas. It was sold in 60ml, 250ml and full bottle. We decided to share the 250ml bottle, which we figured was about 2 or so drinks each. It was very smooth and I would highly recommend it. (Please be aware that we will be taking a tequila tour in the next few weeks, so we may learn that we currently drinking the tequila equivalent of lighter fluid – so perhaps take this suggestion with a grain of salt). Sue had a fish dish that arrived on fire (literally in the literal sense of the word), while I had a very nice steak. I also ordered a dish called potatas arriero, which translates to potatoes muleteer. I had no idea what a muleteer was, but figured I couldn’t go too wrong. Turns out that they were fingerling potatoes is a spicy tomato sauce. It was a very enjoyable meal and we lingered well into the evening.

A section of the Mercado

 On Saturday morning we started by walking to Sue’s school (she will be taking an intensive Spanish course starting a week from Monday — because that way I can not really speak two different romance languages, capice?) which is in downtown Guadalajara, about 3km away. The mornings here are cool, maybe 15° C (60ish F), and we set off around 10am. We wandered in and out of the neighborhoods, taking note of places we wanted to eat, including the wonderfully named El Terrible Juan Cafe. We passed the Templo Expiatorio del Santísimo Sacramento, unfortunately, we could not go inside as they were saying Mass. 

Watch out, dad joke ahead: Thought I would saddle you with this picture.

We continued to wander through the downtown and finally found our way to the Mercado Libertad – San Juan de Dios. It is a huge (40,000 m2) indoor marketplace. There is everything from kitchen utensils to electronics to clothes, fruit, vegetables, leather goods (including saddles!) and food. We either bravely or foolishly decided to eat at one of the food stalls. Sue ordered chilliquiles (Mom – click on the link to see what they are) and I ordered chicken enchiladas. We were both quite hungry, the food was good and as an extra bonus did not upset our stomachs.

After lunch started walking home and the temperature had reached into the mid-20’s, on the way, found a panaderia called El Abuelo. After a few minutes of confusion we figured out that we were supposed to grab a tray, pick out what we wanted and then take it to a counter. The nice young lady at the counter put them into bags and gave us a receipt. We took the receipt and paid a man who was in booth (about 2 steps away), who then signaled to the young lady that we had paid and gave us the bags. We bought to large rolls and three cookies. Total price was 43 pesos (by the way the symbol for peso is $ – very confusing!) or about 2 US dollars. The cookies were yummy!

On Sunday, Sue’s friend Kenta and his husband Doug invited us over for brunch. They live about 40 minutes walk north of us. It was the first time Sue had met Doug and the first time I had met either of them. We had a really great brunch with wonderful conversation. A special thank you to Doug for cooking. Delicious! After brunch we walked over the supermarket near them called Fresko that they recommended. It is much more like an American grocery store than we have found here (but according to Sue – it ain’t no Monoprix) so we loaded up on lots of stuff that we needed. We grabbed an Uber home and called it a day.

All in, we are happily getting settled in yet another new city.

Estamos en Guadalajara

I know we’ve said this before, but we are lucky! Yes, our Fes plans got scuttled, but we made it out of the U.S. after a month-long stay in sunny Florida.

Yesterday, we arrived in Guadalajara. We flew from Fort Lauderdale to Houston, where the plane was on time until 10 minutes to boarding and then … well, ya can’t fly with no crew. We saw CANCELED on one too many flights on the departure board and we were a tiny bit nervous. United said they were waiting for a crew and we chose to believe their really was one. And, there was! Clearly they are short-staffed because the poor gate agent was also acting as the wheelchair attendant, so boarding took a bit of time, but we arrived a mere 90-minutes late and breezed through immigration and customs.

The view from the gym. I dare say it’s a bit smoggy here, but nowhere close to Beijing.

(BTW: Everyone here wears a mask. Some people even wear them outdoors. There was no Covid protocol for entering Mexico, but we will have to get tested to get back into the U.S. Seems backwards to me since omicron is everywhere in the States, but what do I know?)

The only hiccup so far was the surprise on the immigration agents face when he asked (in Spanish) how long we would be here and I answered correctly in Spanish, 53 days. He obviously thought my Spanish was even worse than it really is. The same thing happened when I told the guard at the apartment building that we were staying until Feb. 25. He typed it into Google Translate and showed it to me to make sure I knew what I was saying (and looked even more surprised after she confirmed that it was correct).

So far, so good. We walked to the grocery store and got immediate supplies (coffee). The place itself is comfortable and I just got back from the gym on the 18th floor (our apartment is the 14th, so we have totally unobstructed view of the south part of the city and that big hill in Sue’s photo). Steven has been hard at work all day (of course). Not that I’m not working, but someone has to play housewife. Today, we bought some staple foods to have around and began to settle in.

Beer from Tomate Taquería

We are right at the edge of a popular bar and restaurant strip. We hit Tomate Taquería for dinner last night because it is only a few blocks away, but it was delicious! For Steven, there are huge spits of meat and for me, la especial vegetariana.

Luckily, we have a friend here (Kenta is fab!), which will ease the usual confusion over how to get a transportation card or where to find the best grocery store. All this happens within our first week in a new place and then it’s like we’re natives. Or natives who barely speak the language.

Speaking of language, I really need to up my Spanish game. I don’t understand why more people don’t speak English! Of course, they live in a huge country and it’s not like the EU, which uses English as a universal language. Maybe I will really learn Spanish!