Santa Clara del Cobra Hand-Raised Pots
Innocents in Mexico
As much fun as we’d had in San Miguel, it felt good to be off on another adventure and to have the means of our own locomotion again. Bearcat, surprisingly, did not scoot back to his former position under the air mattress, but perched atop it and even occasionally hopped gracefully into my lap in the passenger seat, gazing out in wonder at the scenery whizzing by more quickly when viewed through the side window and more comprehendingly out of the front.
In true Bob fashion, we dallied little in our 3-hour trip from San Miguel to Patzcuaro. We Whizzed by Morelia. Whichever town we decided to settle in, it would be close enough so we could always easily return to see it at a later time. We were hoping to accomplish this trip in four days at most, and if we found an area we were more interested in than San Miguel, we could return to pick up the books and tools and remaining clothes we’d left in San Miguel and return to look for a possible rental.
We found a lovely old hotel in the heart of Patzcuaro to serve as our base during our initial exploration. The town was authentic with few modern buildings or businesses to dispel the illusion that we had gone back in time. The art and the people were wonderful and the lake was a definite plus point in Bob’s mind, but it quickly occurred to us that in terms of terrain, this was not so different from the mountainous redwood forest that we’d lived in in Boulder Creek. We spent the day investigating the wonders of the town, had our first taste of atole—a delicious drink made from finely ground cooked masa (corn flour) and agreed that although it wasn’t ideal as our next place to live, that this was a place we definitely would came back to for a visit. We had been told that the area that the monarch butterflies migrated to each year was very close by and it, too, was on our list of future explorations.
We had heard of some of the artisan villages clustered around Patzcuaro. Santa Clara del Cobre was a definite hit with Bob, as it was with me. It was a town consisting almost entirely of coppersmiths and the sound of hand-hammering filled the town. A small-scale silversmith and coppersmith myself, I was amazed at the lack of modern tools—a bellows and coal fire being used in place of acetylene torches to anneal the metal, and three men with heavy metal mallets pounding the huge pot into shape in sequence after another man had moved it with huge tongs from the fire to the anvil.
With my birthday coming up in a few weeks, Bob succumbed to his usual tactic of finding something he himself loved and when I, too, admired it, diverted me to another room while he bought it for me and secreted it in the nearby van. In this case it was an amazing very large copper jar which lay horizontally with its opening on the side. Then, to be totally fair about the matter, when I found a pot I liked equally well, he encouraged me to buy it. In spite of the fact that he hadn’t been as sneaky as he thought he’d been and I knew perfectly well that he’d bought the other big pot, I played dumb and thus we became the owners of two of Santa Clara’s totally hand-forged pots created before modern intervention arrived with acetylene and propane torches. One can never have enough Santa del Cobre copper, as I have further demonstrated over the past 22 years.
We visited Capula, the town famous for its Catrinas, and managed to depart Catrinaless and also resisted the huge stone sculptures that line the road leading into Tzintzuntzan, although I did buy a few straw decorations for my Christmas tree, which I decorated each year with ornaments from every place I’d traveled throughout my life, as well as beloved saved ornaments from the Christmas trees of my youth.
We returned to enjoy music in the plaza across from our hotel which flowed in through the open windows of the restaurant we had chosen, then made an early night of it, packed up the next day and headed for Ajijic. We did not even stop in Uruapan, renowned for Its remarkable large park filled with water features, vowing to visit it during future adventures.
Ajijc is located next to Lake Chapala, the largest lake in Mexico, which is ringed by formerly volcanic mountains. As we drove toward the city of Chapala, a small sign pointed to a cutoff to Ajijc and we swerved onto it, driving by a veritable mountain of garbage that was the town dump (happily now vanished, after the lease to use the land was withdrawn by the local ejido—the governing body of land held communally by the indigenous population.)
As we came around a bend and down the slope of the mountains that surround Lake Chapala, we suddenly saw the whole of it spread out before us. Just one volcano, 80 miles away, is still active, and we could see the tip of it peeking over the shoulder of Mount Garcia, the largest and closest mountain in view across the lake. One of the most active volcanoes in North America, it gave off a slight puff of smoke just as we caught our first sight of the lake. “Oh Yeah, Jude!” Bob exclaimed. “I don’t want to move to San Miguel. I want to live here.” Thus it was was that we settled down to supposedly look for a rental in one of the little towns that stretched along the north shore of the lake.
But what Bob actually said as we sat in chairs in the first rental agency we came across was, “We may be looking for a rental, but do you have any houses for sale?” The rental agent’s eyes lit up as she agreed that yes, she’d be happy to show us both rentals and houses for sale. Although I was still sure I didn’t actually want to buy a house in Mexico, Bob was expressing such joy at the prospect that I went along with him. It would be fun to view some of the beautiful houses that we had already viewed from the outside in our drives around town. What was our price limit? Bob gave the price of the first house he’d found in San Miguel—$80,000. But somehow, nothing in that price range quite caught our fancy, although we had seen a few rentals that we had liked. We thanked the rental agent and said we’d be thinking about it, and consoled ourselves with a lovely meal and margaritas in the Ajiic Plaza Jardin Restaurant.
Then fate intervened as we sat discussing the houses we’d seen and debated the issue of where we’d settle. We had already found a house we liked enough to rent for eighteen months in San Miguel. The fact that we hadn’t found one in our price range in Ajijic, coupled with the fact that I was still adamant that we weren’t buying a second house anywhere, let alone in Mexico, seemed to be directing us toward choosing San Miguel, but Bob convinced me we should spend one more day in Ajjic and environs just driving around looking at houses. So it was that the next day, early afternoon, we wound up in a fraccionamiento (housing district) in the mountains above the village of San Juan Cosala, a few kilometers west of Ajijic. The sign said, “Raquet Club,” which sounded to me like the least likely place I’d ever want to live, but as our van climbed the incline toward the top of the lowest mountain, we wove sideways from east to west along streets filled will lovely houses, all different with lush bougainvillea, palm trees, hibiscus and flowering trees of numerous varieties. It was high above the lake with gorgeous views of the entire lake and Mount Garcia rising above it.
We drove back and forth for a good 45 minutes before the van came to a screeching halt before the most beautiful house I had ever seen. It was a pale mottled yellow and white in an L shape with two colossal rust-colored domes covering most of the two wings of the L. The corners were all rounded without a sharp angle in the entire house. It stood at the top of a steeply angled lot and the walls around it undulated down the mountainside like a series of falls smoothed out by flowing water. The entire house looked like it had been sculpted by an artist’s hands. If Bob were to ever design a house, I thought, it would look like this.
“Let’s see if it’s for sale!” he said.
“There’s no For Sale sign, Bob,” I said.
“I think it’s for sale, he insisted, climbing out of the van. He was now peering through the bars of the doors of an open-sided garage that stood a level above the house spread out below.”Doesn’t that look like a paper with specs on it by the door down there? Call out. See if anyone comes out!”
Embarrassed, I held my tongue, but just then, a man came out of the door. I don’t think he had yet seen us, but Bob seized the initiative and called down to him, asking if the house was for sale.
“Si,” said the man, coming up to the garage and pressing a button which opened the garage gates. With the same motion, he reached into a cabinet to withdraw a string of triangular flags similar to those at a used car lot and fastened them to nails at either side of the garage. “Come in.”
We entered the garage, walked down four steps and into a courtyard of paving stones, then in through sliding glass doors into a large terra-cotta room, the other side of which was all glass sliding doors. Spread out below was a view of the entire lake.
“Oh yeah, Jude! Let’s buy it!!!” were the first words out of Bob’s mouth, and his enthusiasm remained uncurbed as we walked through a kitchen which featured Yucatan-marble counters and a ceiling covered in tiles. There were two downstairs bedrooms and two bathrooms completely tiled in white marble with the same rose-colored marble tile on the countertops as that in the kitchen. The brick domes were fabulous—one over the master bedroom and the other over the entire living room/dining room. In the middle of the living room dome was a three-foot wide domed skylight that filled the entire room with light.
Outside the living room was a bamboo-covered terrace with a pool and hot tub filled with naturally heated hot mineral water from the volcano!!! Small palm trees dotted the yard, along with canna lilies and bougainvillea. Virginia Creepers covered the bamboo roof of the terrace and the large pillars that supported it.
The second floor casita consisted of a large bedroom with its own bathroom, two terraces and the best views of the entire house.
On the sheet of paper Bob had noticed with his keen eye was the price of the house–$180,000 U.S. It had just been reduced from a price of $220,000. Bob’s face fell. Well over his $80,000 budget. The gardener, who had been paid to live in this lovely house (albeit without furniture or appliances ) for three years, looked relieved when he saw the likelihood that we were not potential purchasers. Clearly, he had exhausted little effort in trying to sell it, as was evidenced by the absence of signs or flags when we first arrived.
We later discovered that the people who had built our dream house had lived in Guadalajara but she had parents in the Raquet Club and although the younger couple had built the house thinking they’d live there, it was so much more comfortable just visiting her parents on weekends, that they had never moved in. The pool line had a leak they’d been unable to discover, even though they’d dug up half the patio trying to find it and as a result, the pool emptied within hours of being filled. Designed by a very famous architect, Miguel Valverde, who was a personal friend, nonetheless the work of furnishing it and solving its pool problem plus the fact that it was rumored that the lake was fast drying up and would be empty within 5 years had caused them to put the house up for sale and when it did not sell, to reduce the price.
We both loved this house, but we had a house in the states and no immediate prospects for selling it. And so we turned our backs on it, drove back down the mountain and back to our little motel room. Once again, we consoled ourselves with a delicious meal—this time in the garden of the Nueva Posada—the only real hotel in town, although there seemed to be numerous b&b’s and cottage-type accommodations. I settled into my margarita and Bob into his Coke as we surveyed the menu. Once we’d made our choices, we began reviewing our past few days—the houses and apartments we’d seen, how much we loved the lake and, ultimately, “the” house in the Raquet Club. Bob’s dream house, and I had to admit I was very taken with it as well.
We were back-and-forthing it over San Miguel vs. Lake Chapala when an attractive red-haired lady at the next table pulled her chair around a bit to better face us and said, “Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but overhear you. Are you looking for a house here?”
We explained our situation, sharing a bit of personal information about what we were doing here. What had we done in the states? We were artists and writers. What were we looking for? What was our present house in the States like? Were we presently working with a real estate agent? No, we had been looking but had told her we were suspending our efforts for the time being. We didn’t know what we were going to do. We needed to be back in the States in two weeks for my mother’s memorial and needed to go back to San Miguel to either pick up our stuff or to sign the lease for an 18-month rental.
Could we spare a few extra days, she asked? We exchanged glances. What did she have in mind? If we could take the time, she would be glad to show us a number of houses she knew we’d love—in every price range from $80,000 up, but first she wanted to do two things. First, she wanted us to move from our little motel-type accommodation to the Nueva Posada, and secondly, she wanted to introduce us to some people who lived here—artists and writers and musicians that she thought we would have lots in common with. Her name was Lucy and yes, she was a real estate agent. We liked her. We shook hands on it and went with her to the desk to book a room.
For the next three days, Lucy showed us house after house, priced from $80,000 to $500,000 and we loved every one. She introduced us to her friends—all of whom we felt an affinity with. They told us about the local little theater—founded 36 years ago by the man who played Jimmy Stewart’s younger brother in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” And about the local writer’s group with a similar long history. She introduced us to the fascinating history of Neil James and the cultural center that had grown up around a home that she eventually left to become the Lake Chapala Society—a wonderful addition to the community. And it happened. We felt at home.
And that is why, after a three-night stay in Ajijic, we headed back to San Miguel to pick up the art supplies and books and other belongings we had left there, broke Steve’s heart by telling him that we had decided not to rent his house, and came back to Ajijic to stow what worldly goods we had brought to Mexico in the local storage facility as we once again joined Lucy in our quest for our next home.
Author’s note: Phew, I made it!!! I had to entirely write this chapter today and wouldn’t you know it–wifi was out for most of the day. So frustrating. It finally came back on about an hour before midnight so I rushed to finish and post and edit. If you found lots of mistakes, you probably read before I finished editing as I was determined to get it up before midnight. Now I need to get tomorrow’s chapter up before midnight tomorrow. What is this penance for, do you suppose??? Keep reading, please. Some big surprises in store. For me, too, as I haven’t written them yet.