Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Jerez: 'La Ciudad Magica'

February 2011

Return to Jerez

We were so entranced by Jerez when we visited on market day that we came back a few days later for a more extended stay. We chose to stay at the 'La Plaza' hotel, right on El Jardin, partly because it was the only hotel that had a room with windows overlooking the square, and partly because we liked the dueno and his father, with their soft-spoken, old-fashioned courtesy .

From our windows, we could see and hear the goings-on in the square below. In the late afternoons we'd carry a couple of plastic chairs up to the roof and continue our vigil from there, while sipping our pre-dinner drinks. We were the only 'goofs on the roof', and enjoyed the only 'roof-top bar' in town.

Within minutes of our arrival I heard someone yell “Hey Cees-ko!” Presumably he was calling out to his pal Francisco, but I felt like I was in some old western movie: I half expected Pancho Villa to come riding down the street. Looking down from our window, I saw around a dozen taxis lined up on one side of the square. The one at the head of the line took off (slowly). The rest of drivers, who'd been sitting – maybe sleeping – in the sun, sauntered over to their cars, opened the doors, and pushed their taxis a few feet forward. What time was this place?

Right below our window, our dueno has a collection of childrens' rides – a horse, a fire-truck, a car – that provide a few minutes of kiddy delight for a couple of pesos. Several of the rides have accompanying 'music' or sounds: the fire-truck has a particularly annoying recorded phrase that keeps going whether it's in use or not: 'Apagamos el fuego!' (let's put out the fire!). This became my Jerez mantra: I couldn't get it out of my mind.

Wandering around town...

We spent the first few days in Jerez walking the streets, admiring old buildings and churches, wandering into shops, and generally soaking up the ambiance. There's a surfeit of saddle-makers in the town. They make the most beautiful saddles (western, of course) with intricately engraved silver fittings and stirrups, and huge silver pommels. The designs are most often of eagles, Mexico's national symbol, or horses, or flowers. There were so many saddle-makers that we wondered how they could possibly sell all that they made. It turns out that most of the saddles are bought by Americans who come down to Jerez in November and December.

The same goes for the fabulous mariachi suits, dresses and hats we saw being made. We stopped in at a shop where three women were busy cutting and sewing fabric. One of them gave us a demonstration of how the appliques are done. They're made of leather: long strips are sewn onto the fabric, following impossibly intricate patterns of curlicues and zig-zags. Then, using a small pair of very sharp scissors, the excess leather is cut away to reveal the design. The process looked incredibly painstaking. “Mucho trabajo,” smiled the gal brandishing the scissors. “mucho trabajo”.

As elsewhere in Mexico, pastry shops were a dime a dozen. We wandered into one, looking at the wonderful little wedding figures, made of resin and hand-painted. We asked the young woman behind the counter if we could take a photograph of them, and after some discussion back and forth in Spanish, she said: “So, where are you from?” with an accent right out of LA. Like many Jerezanos, Isobel had lived for some time in the USA, but she and her husband had returned to Jerez, where his business was established, and where they felt more comfortable raising their young kids.

Isobel offered to take us to see her home, which was in an area that had once been part of an old hacienda. We went first to what was left of the once regal and rambling hacienda, now derelict and dirty. Startled pigeons flapped up and out of every room we ventured into, stirring feathers, dust and pigeon shit into the dank air. Apparently someone had tried to convert the old place into shopping boutiques, but the venture had failed. Like so many other wonderful old buildings in Mexico, and here in Jerez, it will likely just crumble into piles of rubble, taking its history, and its secrets, with it.

Isobel's house was the smallest and least 'grand' of the half-dozen or so houses that have been built, some quite recently, in what was the 'garden' of the hacienda. But it was by far the one with the most character, and the most evidence of being lived in by a family. Her husband is a collector of anything and everything interesting, and in particular antiquities. The garden was home to a massive old cart, a plough, several bits of pottery, stone and wood carvings, and the usual collection of bicycles and toys abandoned mid-ride by young children who have discovered something more interesting to do.

Inside the house was almost a museum. All that was missing were the cards or plaques for descriptive information. Beautiful pieces of furniture in every room, an old wind-up phonograph and collection of records which still played (with surprisingly good sound quality), a collection of antique sewing machines, irons, crosses, and bits of brick-a-brac everywhere. And in the midst of all this, a none-too-new oven in which Isobel does all of the baking for the pasteleria. Baking sheets, cake pans and muffin tins were piled on a nearby table and chairs.

“I'm the baker,” she said, “and my husband does the decorating.” It was hard to imagine that she baked all of the cakes we saw in their pasterleria right there in her home. And worked there every day, and did all the shopping and deliveries, and somehow found time to home-school the kids. She's one busy gal: “We work every day, from early until late. We have payments to make. But I guess that's always the way with young families.” Indeed.

Week-end action

We noticed considerably more activity in town on the week-end: more people in the park during the day, and definitely more at night. But the real crescendo occurred on Sunday night. People came by foot and bicycle, on motorcycle and horseback, by car and truck. Like the paseos of years gone by, when the townsfolk came out to 'do a turn' around the park, the point is to see and be seen, to be a part of the community.

Groups of musicians collected at strategic locations around the park: 'bandas' with full drum sets, tubas and horns. The music was lively – a la Mexican hat dance – and what they lacked in talent, they made up for in enthusiasm, especially the drummers, several of whom looked hardly old enough to be out after dark. They didn't ask for money; no hats were passed. They played for the sheer joy of playing. At times it sounded like the 'battle of the bands', a competition to see who could play the loudest, and the fastest. It was a classically Mexican, wildly cacophonous event.

We sat on a bench listening to the bands and watching the passers-by, some of whom stopped to dance – a high-stepping polka-like jig. One little boy – maybe four years old – did the most amazing tap-dance. I took a video of him and showed it to him. He was very pleased, and kept pointing at himself and smiling. He was with his father, but came back a few minutes later with his mother, walked right up to me and pointed at my camera. He wanted me to show the video to his mother. We played it several times over. He watched it with sheer delight, pointing to his chest and smiling broadly: “that's me!”

Los Cardos

Jerez is situated in a broad flat valley; pretty much a desert, stippled with nopale cactus, maguey (a larger version of the aloe plant), and the odd bush. To the northwest, not too far away, are 'Los Cardos', an unusual geological formation of rocky ridges that poke up out of the desert like the teeth of some giant creature. We had asked at a tourist office about how much it might cost for us to go there, and were quoted a price of 350 pesos, or around $35 dollars. That seemed a little steep to us, but we had no idea how far away the ridges might be, or the condition of the access road. We decided to wait and see if we could get a better deal.

Our 'deal' came in an unexpected way. On one of our ambles through town we spied a “Tourist Information Centre.” We went in and found a large and mostly empty office, with none of the brochures or maps one might expect – and no visible staff. But in a minute or two a young woman materialized, and asked if she could help. We had several questions – about the opening times of a nearby museum, about visiting various small towns near Jerez, and about finding some cheaper way of getting to Los Cardos. “I can take you in my car,” she said, “for 200 pesos. This afternoon or tomorrow – whenever you like.” Well, that sounded good to us, so we agreed on 'tomorrow,' after we'd checked out the museum.

The museum was the house of a poet, Ramon Lopez Velarde, famous throughout Mexico. It was touted as an 'interactive' museum, and several people had recommended that we go there. I was wondering how a poet's work could be made 'interactive.' It was ingenious. We were first shown into a room with a few benches and a screen. We watched a video montage of old still photos that 'moved' around the screen to create an impression of the artist's life and vision. This was overlaid with the words of his most famous poem, 'La Patria,' an ode to his country, described as a beautiful and sensuous woman. The effect, even without being able to understand all of the words, was very moving.

We then wandered into the various rooms of the house. They were all set up as they might have been when Velarde lived there – living room, study, kitchen, and bedroom. Transcripts of his poems were displayed on stands, two or three of them per room. Under the stand, on the floor, were footprints showing you where to stand to hear the poem. And not just the poem, but the sounds of the room. In the study, you could hear the type-writer clacking; in the kitchen, water gurgling and pots clanking. In the kitchen you could also smell cinnamon. I wondered how all of this was done until I noticed, over each set of footprints, a plexiglass dome over a motion sensor and speaker. Ingenious!

Walking back towards the hotel for some lunch, we noticed a small doorway with the words 'regional museum' over top. It looked pretty unassuming. We poked our heads in and were greeted by a middle-aged fellow who welcomed us with gusto. When I asked if there was an admission fee, he suggested he'd take my camera, and laughed. “No, no fee, because most of the things that are here are just things that people don't want.” This was quite untrue. It was a fascinating place, filled with memorabilia, artifacts, pre-historic bone fragments, arrowheads and clubs, old cameras and machines, all crammed into a few small rooms.

The dueno accompanied us as we wandered through the rooms, pointing things out and explaining what they were and how they worked. He clearly loved his 'job,' and was proud of his 'museum'. When we left he asked me to write something in my 'idioma'. I wrote that it was a fascinating place, filled with things worthy of being in a larger museum, but that perhaps it was best they were here, because here was a man who was so great at being a guide and providing information. I showed him what I had written and translated it for him. He practically glowed with pride and pleasure: I'd made his day!

In the afternoon we went to the place where we'd agreed to meet up with Lorena, the gal from the Tourist Information Centre. She picked up her one year old baby, Bianca, from the local day-care centre, and we jumped into her van. We drove to the outskirts of town where we picked up Lorena's two older kids, Deana and David. Lorena ordered Bianca into the back seat with her siblings, and we were off.

It didn't take long to get to the road to Los Cardos. Although unpaved, the road was in good condition, not at all the rough track we'd been told we'd need a truck or 4X4 to traverse. We stopped several times to take photos of the rocks, like monolithic columns, which in the afternoon light glowed a warm gold. From the top we could see the whole of the Jerez Valley – more peaceful than spectacular.

A word about Jerezano history and customs

One of the best aspects of Lorena's chauffeur and guide service was the amount of information she gave us about Jerez, Mexico and Mexican culture. We learned that Jerez – and Zacatecas – have been and still are, centres of migratory people. “Not much grows here, so many people go to the USA to work. Many families have members in the US or Canada. They go back and forth.” This explains the amount of English spoken by the people in the area, and the cosmopolitan feel that both Zacatecas and little Jerez both have.

Lorena also told us that the reason that there are so many musicians in Jerez, and that they come out on the week-ends to play so loud and long, is that Jerez has from its earliest times, a centre for relaxation and entertainment. “Zacatecas has its mines; Fresnillo has its mines; Jerez has nothing.” But the Camino Real passed through Jerez, and in the old days travelers would come from Zacatecas and Fresnillo, often with pockets full of silver or money, on their way to Guadalajara, Mexico City or the coast. They came by donkey, mule or horse, and the trip might take a day or more. The scrubby desert they had to pass through was full of banditos, and robbery was common.

So when the travelers arrived safely in Jerez, they were ready to celebrate. And the Jerezanos made the most of their talents to show them a good time. Music, dancing, feasting and carousing became the city’s claims to fame. When we were there, there was a series of free concerts in the lovely old theatre. We went twice – once to hear an orchestra, and once to hear a classical guitarist. Both performances were excellent. Not only was the old theatre an architectural delight, but the acoustics were fantastic.

Another historical note was a considerably less happy one. The Jerez valley hasn’t always been the dry and dusty desert it is now. It used to be verdant and green, well treed with tall pines. But when the Spaniards came and discovered silver, they needed wood for their mines, and they cut down almost all of the pines in the valley. Its a common enough story, but always discouraging to hear. How many forested areas have we ravaged? How many once lush places have we turned into desert?

When we asked why the central square in Jerez was a garden, instead of the more usual open plaza, Lorena said that it actually had at one time been a cement plaza. But one of the governors decided he'd prefer a garden, and transformed it into the verdant leafy square it is now. Delightful!

The magical city

Jerez calls itself, and is called, the 'magical' city. We decided that the main magic of Jerez is its people – their friendliness and generosity of spirit, their warmth and their humour. The magic is in their attitudes, especially towards us 'estranjeros.' Perhaps one of the reasons why Jerezanos are so friendly is because there are so few western tourists in either of these towns. We saw only a few in Zacatecas, and none in Jerez. Whatever the reason, we hope the Jerezanos will never lose this most endearing aspect of their civic personality.

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