Discovering Guadalajara the way Columbus might have: Getting Lost.
By Ed Tasca
Not long ago, I decided to take my first trip motoring into Guadalajara, the city once known as the Pearl of the West. To buy a set of drums. I’d never driven my car into Guadalajara before and I didn’t have a GPS gizmo. I also had no idea where in Guadalajara one buys drums. And of greatest concern, I didn’t have a place in my house to put a full set of drums. As one might have said of the Donner Party wending through the Rockies, “Maybe this trip hasn’t been completely thought through.”
Nonetheless, within an hour, there I was at the city gates of Lake Chapala’s heliocenter, imagining I’d find billboards in Spanish reading “Drum Madness Sale! Next Left.” Or “DRUMS THAT GUARANTEE GROUPIES! 100 meters.”
When none appeared, I followed a sign that led me into Guadalajara’s impressive historic downtown with its magnificent Catedral Metropolitana. But as splendid as the historic area is, I wanted to check out the Hard Rock Café for a beer and a sandwich, but I couldn’t find a place to park.
I drove another seven blocks and finally saw what looked like a parking space, except that it was already occupied by another Mexican iconic site, a pile of cement. I went another two blocks to an underground parking lot that seemed to have no entrance. An amiable pedestrian with large sunglasses, noting my monolingual confusion with directions, walked my car to the entrance as though he were my secret service.
Taxis queued outside the parking lot. Obviously, this is how people ply the historic center – parking three quarters of a mile away and then cabbing. I parked and got into a taxi. The driver wanted to know if I was coming to see “our beautiful historic cathedral.” “Some tourists, they are so pathetic,” he added, “All they want to do is go to the Hard Rock Café.”
Four minutes later, I was walking up the steps to the Guadalajara’s historic cathedral.
Older by centuries than the nations of the U.S. or Canada, this marvelous gothic building with its pointed twin towers was begun in 1561 when the U.S. and Canada were still working out – in theory only – details to log cabin construction. Its altars and much of its décor are made of gold and silver and it houses Murillo’s magnificent 17th Century The Assumption of the Virgin (the event to which the cathedral is dedicated) and other great art treasures. It’s a must-see for any lover of art and architecture. I couldn’t help wishing it had a beer cooler, cheap aluminum would have been fine.
Before leaving the area I sneaked into a walking tour around the cruz de plazas (four plazas forming a cross – only one of its kind in the world) to ask if anyone knew where there might be a music store. Several of the younger members immediately texted someone or booted up maps, and lo and behold, I had several sets of directions -- all different.
I thanked them, took a chance and followed one set which included driving past the Rotunda of Illustrious People, thinking that a good omen. After driving several crowded blocks, I found myself in overbearing, horn-blowing traffic on a side street behind a water truck, which continued to unload enough water bottles to quench the Congo. Illustrious people were nowhere.
I reversed out of the street frantically, feeling guilty for doing so until I realized that beside me two other drivers were doing the same thing at movie-chase speed, one of which was a cement truck. I stopped and was happy to finish in third place still intact.
Lost again and a little rattled, I continued driving until I realized I had spiraled out beyond the city proper to tracts of unused land without roads. I noticed a sign that read: DRUG ENFORCEMENT TASK FORCE TRAINING CENTER. I made the mistake of getting out of the car. An officer in body armor came forward with no intention of ever opening his mouth. He held an assault weapon at vital-organs level and posed convincingly for that familiar movie shot: “Advance an inch farther and I’ll blow your brains out.” I became immediately aware that no one there would be helping me find a set of drums.
It was time to retrace my route, which, of course, was impossible, because I never had a route to begin with.
I followed a Zeta gas truck. Its captivating jingle being as reliable as GPS for finding crowded streets and people to annoy. I cruised into pockets of real city again where swarms of pedestrians swept across sidewalks and streets with the discipline of an army in retreat. What the hell happened to the Mexican siesta?
Guad drivers were another story. They drove over two lanes of roadway as though they were three or even just an open field. Medial strips were bounced over like topes, and gaps in traffic, no matter how small, eventually fit 18 foot pick-ups shooting out from nowhere like getaway cars. Mindful of these weird, pinball traffic codes, I slowed to a motor-cade crawl with a new understanding of why every Mexican car hung rosary beads.
Minutes later, I noted that Guadalajara named streets for artists, composers, even writers (although writer streets seemed to wind up as dead ends). Believing I might have found a clever short cut to my mission, I followed the streets named after musical composers. I rolled up to Calle de Chopin, swung over to Calle de Bella Bartok hoping to hook up with maybe a small Privado de Buddy Rich. But nothing musical in the way of retail outlets materialized and the streets all appeared to be pretty ordinary, given their celebrated names, except there seemed an awful lot of noise coming from Calle de Shostakovich.
Not much later, I noticed another peculiarity Guadalajara offered visitors: specialized retail neighborhoods. These neighborhoods encircle the city both inside and outside the periferico. They sell only one specialized item for blocks and blocks.
For example: everyone who sold bathroom furnishings was entrenched nicely in one whole neighborhood. If you want to buy a soapdish in America, retailers also want to sell you wallpaper, televisions, toothpaste by the gross and underwear to go with your soap dish. Not so for the Mexicans. They seem to say, “Amigo, your bathroom sink? It’s the most important decision in life! You need fourteen hectares of bathroom sinks to choose from. Everything Baño.” All this shopping potential reminded me of the irony: that The Pearl of the West was founded by a woman, Doña Beátriz de Hernández.
Anyway, the problem with this distribution formula is that one block looks like the next in these neighborhoods, and it is easy to get lost and stay lost, all within a nightmarish panorama of bathroom sinks, tubs, bidets and other sundry washroom kit and tackle.
I drove around for another fifteen minutes trying to escape Everything Baño. I reckoned that following a small tradesman’s truck struggling with a flat tire would get me to a gas station and some needed assistance. After several blocks, the pursuit led me smack into the middle of the truck’s destination: Everything Tires. This was a grim urban quarter that sprawled out over five bountiful blocks with nothing but llantas and more llantas the color of acute depression.
The only way out of Everything Tires appeared to be through Everything Shoes, an acropolis of shoe displays that could have shod the entire sub-Saharan. I gritted the steering wheel and persisted, weaving my way out of Everything Shoes onto a small street where I found a gasolinera. Finally, my luck turned. While I was picking up a bottle of water, the gasolinera attendant, hearing about my mission, led me on foot back to a casita, where his mariachi band was practicing. His drummer, a man whose hazel eyes jittered like cymbals, grinned and handed me one of his cards. It said, “Humberto Luis Humberto. Plummer, Carpenter, Oral Surgeon.” In handwriting, it also added: Percussionist. He smiled fetchingly and told me drum stores were right under my nose, just around the corner from Everything Shoes.
With the afternoon agave syrup-like smog settling in, I rushed back to my car and took a deep, celebratory breath, as I imagined Lewis and Clark might have done at the first glimpse of the mighty Pacific. Except that I started coughing.
I rushed into the first store I saw that had drums in the window. It sold nothing but drums and was not teeming with clientele. An attendant flew at me, certain from the moment I rushed in that I was interested in buying drums. A riot and gunfire outside would’ve been the only other reason one might rush into a drums-only store.
Now, the mission got easier. Drum set choices (baterias) could be narrowed down to high-priced, medium-priced and drums made by the Chinese. I chose the latter. At that price break, though, you get a color selection similar to a monk’s wardrobe, black, white or mud.
I snatched up a Chinese treasure in white and was on my way. We dollied the traps down to the car quickly, saluted one another and ended a deal that involved maybe three words of dialogue (“hola” ,“blanco”, “gracias.”), a credit card, my passport, my FM 3, proof of address and a finger demonstration of drum boogie on the store counter.
By the time I got home, I was a walking frontal lobe injury – insensible yet gratified over accomplishing the mission. But as Columbus might have put it: “Next time, maybe I’ll bring a map.”