Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Jerez: Market Sunday

February 10, 2011
We 'discovered' Jerez when we were in Zacatecas, an old silver mining town just north of Guadalajara. Our trusty 'Lonely Planet Mexico' described Jerez as a “delightful country town... as Mexican as a tortilla”, and a particularly good place to visit on Sunday, the local market day.

We had already decided to go there when we met Hector, a young man whose family owns twenty-two western wear shops, selling shirts, boots, belts – and fabulous belt buckles, displayed to best effect on waists made large by cerveza and much time spent sitting in the sun.

We had gone into Hector's shop to look for western shirts. We didn't find what we wanted, but talking about shirts lead to other things, and we soon found out that Hector was part of an old, and very large, family from Jerez. He told us they had several more shops there, and encouraged us to go to the Sunday market, and to make sure we spent some time in the town.

A few days later we came across another western wear shop, and were hardly through the door when a young man greeted us, in English, with “Hi! You were in my brother's shop yesterday. I saw you there.” Abraham, known to friends and family as A.B., said he and Hector would be in Jerez on Sunday, and invited us to stop by their main shop.

So on Sunday we hopped a bus and within an hour we were in Jerez. The market ran the length of a wide street. Locals had set up make-shift booths, selling everything from fresh from the farm produce to plastic whats-its, CDs, kids' toys, used clothes and household items.

We were immediately taken with three things: first, the market was almost entirely for locals – we were the only 'extranjeros' (strangers, or non-Mexican tourists) there; second, every second male was wearing a cowboy hat or sombrero and western boots; and third, everyone was extremely friendly – we were given warm welcome everywhere, even though we weren't buying.

On one of the cross streets a man with a donkey and cart was selling 'honey-water' from old ceramic calabashes. It's made from the water of the maguey plant, a larger version of the agave. Both plants are also used for making various alcoholic beverages including, of course, tequila.

We stopped to eat at a busy gordita stand where a couple of women were busy making special tortillas with 'pockets' and stuffing them with beef, pork, chile rellenos, beans, cheese, eggs – whatever you wanted. Declicioso!

After we'd done with the market we wandered into the centre of town – just a few blocks away. The central plaza is aptly called 'El Jardin' – it's a very well treed square with four fountains at the corners and dozens of white wrought-iron benches. In the centre there's a lovely wooden bandstand with a distinctly Moorish style. The benches were mostly occupied, by old men half-dozing in the sun, young couples crooning, and families watching their kidlets run in circles around the maze of paths.

Clutches of young men stood on the fringes of the park, looking tough in a 1940's Chicago kind of way. Several of them had custom-made bicycles – child-sized bikes fitted with super-shiny mufflers, shocks, and side-mirrors. One of their bikes had colourful multi-spoked wheels. I couldn't resist taking a picture: the owner watched with a careful, vaguely malevolent eye. It was humourous to see these wannabe gangstas swaggering down the streets pushing bicycles more suited for ten-year olds.

As promised, several cowboys came by on horseback. Their horses' shoes made a delightful clatter on the cobble-stone streets. We were enchanted – Jerez seemed like such a great little town, just like the Mexico one sees in an old western movie.

We spied a hotel on the square and went in to enquire. The owner was very hospitable, and showed us a room at the front, with a set of doors and some large windows overlooking the square. We told him we'd be back, and set off for another wander through town.

We hadn't yet pulled out the address for Hector and A.B.'s shop, but weren't surprised when we heard Hector calling out an 'ola!' We'd stumbled on 'El Jerezano'. Hector introduced us to his father, also Hector, and his mother Maria. At his father's suggestion Hector offered to take us to his grandmother's home – one of the oldest homes in Jerez.

We weren't sure what to expect – so many of the old haciendas in Mexico are either in ruins or fast approaching that state. As usual, from the street one can see nothing of the house inside. A solid plastered adobe wall punctuated with several big windows, a pair of wide gates for horses and carriages and a smaller door for visitors on foot.

I noticed a black bow over the door and asked if someone had died. Hector said yes, his grandfather had died in November; his grandmother was still grieving. Theirs had been a long and happy marriage with many children. Hector unlocked the door, which opened into a wide open 'hallway' to the inner courtyard, and called out to his grandmother. We were well into the courtyard, when Maria appeared from somewhere in the depths of the hacienda, and welcomed us in. “Passele, passele; bienvenidos.”

The hacienda was beautiful and well-preserved, with museum quality furnishings, and all sorts of things that had belonged to various family members and that Maria had saved. Although she now lives alone, Maria's house resonates with memories. And her children and grandchildren are frequent visitors. As the house has fifteen bedrooms there's lots of room for everyone to come – and stay.

Beyond the first courtyard and through the old kitchen, fitted out with beautiful ceramic tiles, and both old and new fixtures, we came upon a very large inner courtyard and garden, with a pool, an outdoor bar and barbeque area. Off of this courtyard was a massive entertaining room with an equally massive wooden banquet table and elegant wooden chairs. It was all still decorated for Christmas. There was also a separate small guest house, perhaps once used as a servants' quarters.

The place is so grand and has so much character, it would make a fantastic boutique hotel. An old wooden cart near the gate was used in a movie – one could imagine the whole place as a set.

On our way out we stopped in a room just off the front door. This is the 'receiving room' – the room where visitors would first be seated. This was one of the most ornate and beautifully furnished of all of the rooms – truly spectacular.

We were still chatting with Maria and admiring the hacienda when A.B. arrived on his new quad. It's red and shiny and ultra-modern. We said our good-byes, and I took a photo of the quad, A.B. and Hector in front of the main gate of the old hacienda. As they sped off, it was hard not to be struck by the incongruity of the sight – the ultra-modern bike and the old cobble-stone street lined with equally old stone walls and wooden doors. But we are becoming accustomed to this quintessentially Mexican phenomenon, where modern meets rustic and technology transforms antiquity– burro-back campesinos on cell-phones, crumbling adobe houses sporting shiny new satellite dishes.

'Progress' leaves no place unchanged, not even sleepy little Jerez. But fortunately, at least for us, Jerez is not a place where many Western tourists go – there are no beaches, no zip-lines, no hip night-club scene. So it's likely to stay a quiet, laid-back, quintessentially Mexican cowboy town for some time to come.

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