Friday, September 26, 2008


This past weekend, we took a trip with some of our friends: Steve and Sue, Jeanne and Paul, and Fred and Mardele to the town of Tequila. Tequila is in Jalisco, about two hours from here. As its name suggests, it is the center of the tequila industry, with the Herradura, Jose Cuervo, and Sauza distilleries all nearby, along with countless other smaller distilleries.

We chose to tour the Jose Cuervo factory. It's right in town and one of the most esteemed distilleries. Tequila is such a presence in Mexico; I was curious to learn a bit more about the industry and the process of making tequila. As you probably already know, tequila is made from the nectar of the blue agave cactus. Jalisco is the center of the tequila industry, and the vast majority of tequila is made in Jalisco. (The are apparently a few manufacturing facilities in towns neighboring Jalisco, but they have been certified by the Mexican government.) When you drive through the area west of Guadalajara, you see hillsides covered with blue agave plants. It is quite striking.

The first step of the manufacturing process is the cutting of leaves off of the agave plant to expose the head, or core of the plant. Each plant takes about 8 years to mature. Here is a statue of a worker using the traditional method of removing the leaves.

The shorn heads, or pinas, are then gathered and prepared for baking.
The heads are then baked in an oven for about 36 hours, and squeezed to produce a sweet nectar. It takes approximately 6 pinas to produce one liter of tequila. Here the baked pinas are being conveyed to be squeezed.

Yeast is added to the juice, and the juice is fermented for about several days to produce an alcoholic brew. This is then distilled twice to produce a white tequila which is 55 percent alcohol. This is diluted with water to become "blanco" or clear tequila, the lowest quality tequila. When this is aged in oak barrels (oak from the US or France) for 3-4 months, the tequila takes on an amber color, and is considered "rested" or :reposado." This is a smoother tequila, better for sipping. Tequila that has been aged for a year or more is considered "anejo," the highest grade tequila. We were able to taste all grades including the 5 year anejo, Cuervo "Familia" brand which, until the 1990's was only for the Cuervo family. It was very good, but at $80US a bottle, a bit steep for my tastes. It discovered that I prefer reposado, which is good since it's less than $20 US a bottle. Here are the distilling tanks. (The image is a bit blurry since I could not use a flash, and it was difficult to hald the camera steady enough.)
Here are the oak barrels in which the reposado and anejo are aged:
We finished the tour of the factory with a tasting where we were taught to appreciate the finer points of tasting tequila. It was fun, although most of us are not going to become regular tequila sippers!

The young people at the end of the table are university students from Lyon, France who are studying in Morelia. There was a grenade attack during the Independence Day grito in Morelia, President Calderon's hometown, on September 15; seven people were killed. This was a terrible attack by the drug terrorists trying to intimidaete the Mexican government which has been finding and arresting the drug lords. These students reported they were just 50 meters from the blast.

I was surprised that Tequila was such a small, unsophisticated town. I guess it's my American mindset; I thought that a town with such a tourist gold mine would be more like a theme park. Instead, it's just a moderate-sized town where Mexicans live and work in the tequila industry. Here's a view of the town. The red, white, and green flags in the plaza are left over from Independence Day.

On the house front, we are enjoying having our privacy back. However, a new problem has emerged. We have noticed that we are going through our propane quickly (We use this for cooking, hot water, and our dryer, which we hardly use). A tank of gas, which costs about $100 USD should last 3 months; ours is used in a month. We think we have a leak in the line somewhere. Problem is, the lines are all buried within our concrete walls. Hmmmm. We need to contact a plumber, according to the gas guys. We'll see how much of a problem this is!

Here's a poem I wrote which was inspired by the tequila trip:


I watch as they squeeze

The baked agave heart

To extract the sweet nectar

Which will become

A fine añejo.

How did the Aztecs discover

The secret of this blue cactus

Which would blunt their senses

Perhaps, and make sense

Of their blood sacrifice?

For this tequila is

The story of all Mexico,

The beauty and the tragedy.

For as the blue agave spreads

Upon the hills of Jalisco

Stunning against the crimson sun,

And reliably generates wealth

To a lucky few,

Always the same few

Who squeeze the labor

From the brown bodies

As they squeeze the juice

From the cactus.

And it is this same spirit

Which has nourished the

Bloody violence of the Revolution

And naked exploitation

Which has burned a hole

Into the Mexican soul.

I stopped my car

In the hot sun

One morning

By a group

Of dark-skinned, unshaven men

To ask directions.

They staggered and slurred

And offered me

A bit of their tequila

And I tried

But could not see

Through their glassy eyes

Into their pain.

And I think of those men

And gaze at the beautiful garden

As I sip my reposado

And remember to remember

How I have been lucky

To have been born

On the right side

Of this beautiful blue agave.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

16 de Septiembre: Viva Mexico!

The sixteenth of September is Mexican Independence Day, and my observation is that Mexicans celebrate it with abandon; they are very proud of Mexico and show it with the phrase, "Viva Mexico!"

On the evening of September 15, at 11PM, municipal officials all over Mexico ceremoniously read the "grito", the words read by Miguel Hidalgo on the evening of September 15, 1810, to publicly declare Mexico's independence from Spain. All the plazas in Mexico are clogged with patriotic citizens partying with tequila and cerveza, eating tacos and sopes, dressed in red, white and green. This year, runners with torches ran to points throughout Mexico from Guanajuato, where Hidalgo and his confederates were captured and beheaded in 1810, and from where the War of Independence was launched. (To avoid confusion, the Mexican Revolution started in 1910, and overthrew the dictator Porfirio Diaz, and implemented many land reforms and socialistic labor laws still in effect today.)

We went to a unique event in Ajijic which included the parade of the robozos. Rebozos are the colorful shawls Mexican women wear. Peasant women use their robozos to keep warm, as a blanket at night, and to swaddle their babies. This night was a night for celebrating the Mexican women and girls of all ages. Here are some photos:

Well, the school year has arrived, and I am teaching another level one English class at the Wilkes Biblioteca. I asked that I could be assigned a time earlier in the afternoon, since my last year's schedule was 5:30-7:00, right during the dinner hour. This year, I have a much more desirable 3:30-5, but, as a result, my students tend to be younger, perhaps 70% teenagers from 13-17. This year I got smart and had them make name tags, then photographed them so I can learn their names. Here are four of the sweet faces I have in class:

Daniel and Dora, our friends from our rental last year, are both enrolled in my English class.

Our house painting has been completed. Now every inch of the house has been painted. Pixie, who has worried mightily about the color selection, is pleased and so am I. Here are some photos:

Finally, I'd like to show one last photo. Juan Jose, one of my former students, works construction, and his wife runs a small taco restaurant out of their Ajijic home. They have two sons. Juan Jose recently had the photo of one of his sons tattooed on his arm. He is saving up money to tattoo a photo of his other son on his other arm. He proudly displays his tattoo here:

Monday, September 1, 2008

Old Wet Gringos on a Bus

This photo shows some of our friends, from left: Paul, Sharon, Norm, Lew, and Trudy, as we made it back onto the bus after a downpour in Guadalajara after watching the annual parade which kicks off the city's Mariachi Festival. Mariachi music was popularized after the 1910 revolution and was founded in Jalisco. Each year, mariachi bands from all over the world gather in Guadalajara. We saw mariachis from as far away as Asia.

We were able to sit on the balcony of a local restaurant to view the parade. Here are some photos of our friends and some of the parade:

Clockwise from top left: Pixie, Steve and Sue; Fred and Mardele; Sharon, Angela, Bebe, and Trudy; Lew, Jeanne, Paul, and Norm. These are some of our best friends from our UU Fellowship, probably all Obama voters.

These are photos of the parade festivities. (You can click on the images to make them bigger.)

On a more serious note, you may have been hearing about increasing violence in Mexico these days. This is definitely true, and it is almost all drug-related violence. There have been many kidnappings and brutal murders. Mexican President Felipe Calderon has "declared war" on the drug cartels, who are moving drugs from South America through Mexico to the USA border. He has ordered the Mexican army to lead the fight, along with the federal, state and local police. Most of the people being targeted are rival drug gangs, police officers and journalists. Although there has been crime in the lake Chapala area, it is mostly theft. Security is a concern, and most of the gringos here take it seriously, but we are not worried about our safety here. The only incident I have heard of recently is a drive-by shooting in Chapala, which was drug-related , and a kidnapping in Jocotepec of a loan shark. The victims in both of these cases have been Mexican. So far, there seems to be little concern for retired expats, other than theft. I will post more about this in the future because it does concern relatives and friends up north, and especially those considering moving here themselves.

We have a crew here this week finishing up the last of the immediate work we are doing on the house: painting the exterior. Picking colors has a been difficult here in Mexico because none of the old rules apply. We see so many wild colors that would look ridiculous in Maine but are just fine here. We want to select good colors for this type of architecture, but with so many choices, it's difficult to decide. We spent some time riding around looking at houses and comparing the colors to our color charts. We finally selected a dark tan with terra cotta trim, with a lighter tan for the outside wall. It's looking great so far; I'll post photos soon!

Below is a photo of our dinner club group celebrating Jeanne's birthday just before we all sat down to watch Barack Obama's splendid speech last Thursday.

Note: The following paragraph is for mature Democrats and Liberal Independents. Some Republicans may find this content offensive.

Since the weekend, we've all been astonished at the selection of Gov. Palin to be McCain's running mate. Although I originally thought it was going to be a disaster for MCain and help Obama be elected, I have come to my senses and realize that this is the same electorate which elected George W. Bush twice! Could they put this young governor a 72 year-old heartbeat away from the most powerful position in the world?!