As part of our Mexican cultural exchange project, founder and artistic director Jonathan Miller is traveling to Mexico to conduct musical research, visit archives, and meet and confer with choral directors and composers. Enjoy his travelogue!
Friday, May 23, 2014 – Day 7
I woke up late – for the first time on the trip, I got 8 hours of sleep. Hallelujah; I really needed it. I am really glad that people in Mexico are so chill, especially the tapatíos (people from Guadalajara), because I sort of put my foot in my mouth today. Before I left for Mexico, I had arranged to meet an American musician, Tim Welch, who relocated from Chicago (where he sang with many choirs, so he knows tons of people including Matt) to Guadalajara about 15 years ago. He was gracious in inviting me to his home in the Centro for breakfast on Friday the 23rd. He supposed, correctly, that I probably wouldn’t have eaten in anything but a hotel or restaurant or airport during the whole trip up to that point. So I was grateful for the invitation.
Not having much access to WiFi except in my hotel room, where I wasn’t spending much time, and having turned off data roaming on my phone, I hadn’t realized that Tim had pinged me a few times Thursday on Facebook to confirm. To compound that, having totally spaced out on our breakfast in my bleary, Spanish-saturated fatigue, I had agreed late last night that Ramón would pick me up at 10 for a day trip to Tequila! After “me di cuenta” (I realized this), and after being quite flustered first thing in the morning at having realized this, a few phone calls allowed me to keep my original breakfast date with Tim, mostly thanks to Ramón’s being so relaxed.
I walked the 20 minutes to Tim’s house, passing some beautiful buildings on the way. Tim was great. He made a fabulous home-cooked breakfast of eggs (with lots of onion and garlic), homemade frijoles refritos and salsa, tortillas, and killer coffee. He has a dog, Kia, who totally got it that I’m a dog person, so of course she wanted to play fetch the whole time I was there. This was nice, since I miss Moseley and Higgins very much. Here she is, nose at the breakfast table, eager for the orange ball.
Tim and I talked and talked, finding much in common, and two hours went by very quickly. He has made a great life for himself here as a pianist, vocal coach, piano teacher, and choral director. He is also quite entrepreneurial and has a mind for business, which is useful when you’re a musician! Tim has been, for several years now, the music director at the Anglican parish in Chapala, a mostly-expat community about 45 minutes south of the city, situated along the largest fresh-water lake in Mexico. (An Anglican church in Mexico still strikes me as a little funny, but I guess it shouldn’t surprise me any more than a Chinese restaurant in el centro or a Chilean artisan at the mercado.) There is a section of the Chapala area, called Ajijic, which is almost all expats. Tim has created a community choir in Chapala, called Los Cantantes del Lago, comprised of 60 or so singers, from age 11 to 74 (maybe older), which is about 1/3 Mexicans and 2/3 expats. He said it’s important to him to include the Mexican community in the choir. They have toured many places in Mexico and have gone out of the country to perform as well. He gets 900 people in the audience at every concert in Chapala—amazing. The guy is doing something right. When they go on tour, everyone gets to go; people with resources to share ensure that those with limited funds don’t miss out. I think that’s so great.
Tim also has a treasure-trove of Latin American choral music. He is moving down to Chapala next week, where he has a house, and he offered to make me single browsing photocopies of hundreds of scores that might be useful to Chicago a cappella. What a guy. This was just one of so many times on the trip when I felt showered with generosity.
I walked back to el Hotel Morales and texted Ramón, who said he’d be by at 1:45 to pick me up. I got a few nice pictures of buildings on the way back, as well as a shot of a horse-drawn carriage while I waited outside; the sun was really hot.
I also took a few pictures of the hotel’s interior. They renovated it, after it had fallen into disrepair and disuse, and opened again in 2005—just beautiful. (There’s a plaque outside commemorating the reopening of the Hotel Morales.) My room is off this courtyard.
Here’s the other interior courtyard: notice the Virgin of Guadalupe on the lower left wall.
Here’s the street sign right outside and the hotel as viewed from across the street:
The hotel gets great reviews, the staff is wonderful, and the prices are excellent. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to be able to see pretty much everything in el centro on foot.
Ramón picked me up around 2pm, and we headed out of town. Traffic was a bit nuts on Friday afternoon—he said everyone was ready to party—so it took a while to get out of the centro. Once we did, things went pretty smoothly. Ramón is a bit of an impatient driver. He’s originally from Mexico City; around Mexico, natives of D.F. are called chilangos. We laughed when he did a few wacky things like driving on the shoulder, zooming around here and there, taking very wide corners to go around buses, and so on. He said he could easily imagine the tapatíos saying, thinking, or yelling, “F-you, you f-ing chilango!” I told him that I appreciated him wanting to get us to Tequila and reassured him that there was no timeline for the day. I looked in my pocket dictionary (the best $6.99 I have spent all year) and found the phrase “tener prisa,” which means “to be in a hurry.” So I told him, “No tenemos prisa.” It became sort of a running joke during the day. Several times, when traffic was cramped or there was road construction, one or the other of us would say it. Once, at the end of the day, we looked at each other and said exactly at the same time, “No tenemos prisa, ja ja ja!” Very fun and funny, just like him.
The road to Tequila is not that interesting. However, once you turn off the main highway onto the road that goes into town, it’s much different. There are agave plantations everywhere, and it reminded me of the California wine country:
Blue agave on every side, and mountains beginning to rise up in the distance: a beautiful vista.
Ramón made a reservation for a 4:00 tour for me, and then we walked around for about 20 minutes until the tour started. First, we went over to Jose Cuervo Mundo, a kind of museum/store/restaurant complex run by the famous tequila brewer. (Lupita for several years directed the Coro Jose Cuervo, a group of singers from Tequila puebla [town] that is funded by the Fundación Cuervo. That is an unusual form of direct philanthropy from a corporate foundation to a cultural organization.) The foyer here looks a lot like the Hotel Morales: heavy pillars, orange paint, tile floor.
On the men’s room door was advertised a Beatles tribute concert, to be held here in a few weeks. I wish I could be here for that! Ramón said that Lupita’s brother is the drummer in the tribute band. Mundo pequeño. Here’s a picture of me with the status of the guy tapping a barrel of tequila.
There’s a little bar here, no surprise. The surprise was the plaque on the wall, telling the story of the invention of the margarita. Evidently a woman named Marjorie King used to go to a bar in Rosarito, and she was allergic to all forms of alcohol except tequila. Nobody drank tequila without a mix, and in 1938 she asked the owner, Danny Herrera, to come up with something. He improvised something with triple sec, lime juice, and crushed ice, and called it “La Margarita” in honor of Marjorie. Make a toast to her memory next time you have one!
Here I am with another barrel person. Ramón said I should put my arm around her shoulder and say “tequi-laaaaaa.”
Here’s the tour bus. We drove around to several tequila companies and learned about the history of the town as well as the history of how tequila was and is made. It takes 8 years for an agave plant to mature. It used to take 6 weeks to ferment tequila, but now, with modern methods, they’ve accelerated that to a week. Shelly, my bilingual tour guide, was born in California and returned with her Mexican father when she was 12. She now sings 2nd soprano in the Coro Jose Cuervo and is a protégée of sorts of Lupita. Mundo pequeño, anyone?
One of my favorite things to see was the truck that takes the “chaff” from used-up agave leaves and hauls them away. You can see at upper right the green discharge location where the used-up leaves are dumped out. Look carefully and you’ll see the pile building in the center of the truck bed.
They are used for all sorts of things, including making paper. I wonder if my friend Craig Jobson has ever made paper from agave leaves!
Here’s a pretty horse, standing on a street in town. Is he phoning home?
Here’s the entrance to the old Sauza plant. The new one is further away; this is where the tour goes, and where you can see old, no-longer-operational ovens, fermentation tanks, and more.
Here’s Shelly with the four bottles from which we were given samples. I asked for the smallest possible samples, since I am not one who can hold my liquor!
After the tour, we went into the little parish church, which has beautiful Stations of the Cross in ceramic tile:
Then we had dinner in town and headed back. Ramón demonstrated the technique of putting a drop of salsa on the back of the hand in order to test how picante it is, before dousing your food with it. I thought that was cool. Thanks to Ramón for being a great tour guide again.