Saturday, October 20, 2018

The other side of the lake and 5 tips for finding magic when traveling

I live in Ajijic, one of the villages stringing the northern shore of Lake Chapala, the largest lake in Mexico. This side of the lake is closer to Guadalajara, the airport, and all the commercial aspects of life. I have lived here for about a year and a half, looking at the other side of the lake but knowing almost nothing about it. Friends have mentioned driving around the lake but the common response was that there wasn’t much over there. 
Blue: Planned Neill James stops; Purple: actual stops
 Therefore, when Bette Brazel and I decided to follow Neill James’ footsteps in her trip on the southern side of the lake, my expectations were close to nil. We had mapped out a tour of 6 villages which she had visited, hired a driver for a day, and decided to play it by ear, somewhat expecting to be back on the second day. We just got back on day 4 and didn’t make it past the first village on the plan … Jiquilpan.

We actually did visit other villages on Day 1, ones not on the plan, because we kept finding charming places that deserved more than a drive through. When we stopped for lunch in Sahuayo, we liked it so much we decided to spend the night there and had a great time exploring and being given a wish by the boy saint, Joselito. (1) 

The next morning we decided to get back on plan and taxied to Jiquilpan, where both of us almost immediately fell in love ... and off our planned route ... again.

I’ll talk more about Jiquilpan in another post, but what struck me about this trip was how much we found on the other side of the lake when we expected so little. Because we had so few expectations, we agreed to stop whenever something caught our eye and our driver Miguel Lemus seemed to enjoy stopping as much as we did … and suggesting places he knew of that he thought we’d like. It made for a slow, but wonderful, day. 

As I ponder the magic of the past four days, I’m trying to clarify what happened and how to allow it to happen again. I’ve come up with 5 travel tips, which I’m sure aren’t new but I want them as reminders for my next trip. Here are five tips I have gleaned:
  1. Let go of expectations. Much easier said than done. We had two expectations of our first stop, San Luis Soyatlán: to visit Bette's friend Carol Bradley who lives there and visit the former home of Glenn Yarbrough, a favorite singer of our youth. Carol lives in a stunning home on the lake and we enjoyed seeing “our side” of the lake from her side. Then we went to the Yarbrough house and found Rivera de Moras, an event center … closed.
          This is what we didn’t see: 
Next time!
However, poking around, peeking over fences, we came to a place next door with a beautiful gate … closed. While I was trying to get a picture, a man opened the gate and Miguel and Bette asked him if we could see their property … and this is a peek at what we saw of this amazing evento property.
Flooded lake view
Tree house which is more of a tree-mansion
  1. Pick compatible, and flexible, travel partners. Bette and I have discovered a broad overlap in interests and an ability to help each other see things of interest which we might have missed on our own. Our pace, as well as our eating and sleeping habits, are compatible and we’re flexible about shared and individual time. This compatibility and flexibility is key to fun travel experiences.
We both like meeting new people such as the Valencia family and friends.
  1. Keep your heart and your time open. Travel, just like life, is full of surprises. We were surprised by the mournful sound of mariachis when we stopped at the Tuxcueca church. A funeral. We watched for a few moments before heading down to the malecón, where the egrets were perfectly happy in spite of the flood conditions. Taking time to see and feel death and life interacting gave us a better sense of this small, photogenic village. 
    Later, in Jiquilpan, we had tried to find a museum, but couldn’t until we met someone in the plaza who told us that it was in a university building that we had seen but hadn't recognized as the museum. 
    When we went there the next day, it turned out that it was the anniversary of the death of Lázaro Cárdenas’ first President of modern Mexico (1934-40) who was born in Jiquilpan. A special tour for dignitaries was just starting and they invited us to join them. Fortunately, the exhibit is largely photographic so Bette, who is fluent in Spanish could listen to the guide giving a detailed description of the life and work of President Cárdenas, while I engaged with the photographs, such as this one of the mercado that still looks much the same today. 

  1. Ask for what you want … or “closed" doesn’t necessarily mean closed. Bette is far from being “pushy,” however, she is willing to go the next step for what she wants. One of the first places we went to in Jiquilpan was Casita de Piedra, the summer home of President Cârdenas. It was closed. 
    That was a disappointment on two counts because we wanted to see it, and even more, wanted to see the silk-making workshop there. We started wandering around and, while I was taking photos, Bette managed to find someone who agreed to show us around. We spent a wonderful hour or so being shown every detail, including actually holding silk worms, by the director of the project. We both came home with silk rebozos, of course. 
    Throughout our trip, we kept finding places that were closed ... until we looked hopeful and wound up getting tours anyway.
    Silk worm in my hand
    Director Juan Rodrígues Martínez with antique rebozo 

  1.  Expect magic. This sounds like it contradicts #1, but is actually quite different. While expecting certain things to happen can create disappointment and frustration when it doesn’t happen, expecting an undefined magic that you will know when you see it, creates an openness and anticipation that seems to draw things to us. 
    One morning in Jiquilpan after my morning walkabout, expecting nothing other than a quiet moment on the plaza with a cup of coffee, I started talking with the two guys in line behind me. One of them asked if he could interview me. That’s not all that unusual, sometimes people who are trying to learn English like to “interview” visiting English speakers. 
    Carlos Flores: Amazing photographer/interviewer
    One of Carlos's model shots in Jiquilpan
About the time we settled in at a table, Bette showed up so he interviewed both of us. During the interview, I mentioned that I would like to find a place to rent for a week or month for a return visit. Carlos Flores, our interviewer, called a friend and by the time the interview was done, Sergio Valencia was there to show us an apartment that is available for rent and to give us a tour of the new hotel he’s building. 
Later that night, we met up with Sergio and his family to hang out and talk while classical guitars played at the music festival at the other end of the plaza. (See group shot above.)
Meeting people, hearing their stories about their lives and their communities, is one form of magic that lifts travel out of simple observation into true connection. Just because someone else didn't find magic somewhere, doesn't mean you won't.

More Information:
  1. Saint José Luis Sánchez del Río (March 28, 1913 – February 10, 1928) was a Mexican Cristero who was put to death by government officials because he refused to renounce his Catholic faith. His death was seen as a largely political venture on the part of government officials in their attempt to stamp out dissent and crush religious freedom in the area. He was dubbed "Joselito”. Wikipedia


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for leaving a comment, whoever you are! ;-)

  2. What a delightful list of five guidelines--and it is no surprise to me that I especially love #5.

    1. Thanks, Becky. #5 is probably the most important.

  3. Fab post! I agree its the spontaneity and the unexpected that make traveling so enjoyable. And, if traveling with someone, compatibility!

    1. Thanks, Babs and hope your new casa is a total delight.

  4. What a GREAT post! We so enjoyed your visit and tales of your adventure.

    1. Okay...meant to comment as me...Carol

    2. Hi Carol ... we are all three of us still in lust over your stunning home. And, I'm having a great time reading your book and enjoying all the talent.

  5. Delightful story. I'm headed to Ajijic for a week in the near future and will keep this option in mind. Thank you for sharing!