Apr 13

The Forgotten Abuelita

Typical street in the old-school barrios. The VW beetle remains strong.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I rode into Guadalajara.  I was entering my first large Latin American city and so my subconscious mental image was a kaleidoscopic collage put together mostly from movies, other cities I’ve visited, and friend’s travel photos.  This gave my imagination a lot of leeway to work in.  Would it be the slums of Rio Janeiro?  Wartime Havana, Cuba?  A Mexican version of Shanghai with xiao long bao tacos on every corner?  Despite my playful musings though, my past travel experience broke through the gossip and told me to expect the expected: more than likely Guadalajara would be incredibly normal.  So I was all eyes and ears as the industrial outskirts of the city began to coalesce into the vibrant heart of the city.  What I found was a Guadalajara that dramatically change my mental image of Mexico, I found a lively, cosmopolitan city that despite being trendy and modern also has an old-school traditional vibe that slows things down to a more mellow pace.

Historic Centre

There is the historic centre, developed in the 1700-1800s, with its large sprawling garden-filled plazas connecting the spaces between the powerful yet dignified stone buildings.  As you wander from square to square along the pedestrian streets and listen to the raucous noise of street vendors and shoppers, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were actually in Europe and strolling the streets of Madrid.  That is, until the smell of tacos al pastor and tortas ahogados waft past your nose and bring you straight back into the heart of Mexico.

The historic centre


In stark contrast to the historic centre you have the new developments on the outskirts of the city.  These developments are powered by American style business, and you can imagine my surprise when I found Krispy Kreme, California Pizza Kitchen, PF Chang’s, Applebees, Walmart, and much much more all more or less on the same street.  Everything is so new, clean and orderly here, and you can be sure that your Krispy Kreme doughnut will taste exactly the same here as it would anywhere.  The future ladies and gentleman.  The future.

Old-school Barrios

Then, stuck in between the other two, and making up the majority of Guadalajara, are the barrios that developed in the early 1900s with an infinite number of units squished wall to wall within a grid of narrow streets.  They still exude that old world charm from those days where things were simpler and things moved slower.  I think of them as magical neighbourhoods.  I say “magical” because you can find anything in just a few blocks’ radius of where you stand.  Casa Ciclista was in one of these neighbourhoods and it is where we spent most of our time.   Haircut? Two blocks.  Church? Three Blocks.  Marketplace? 2 blocks.  Bike mechanic?  You are in it.  Ice cream? Two Blocks, Tortilleria? 2 blocks.  Bakery? 2 blocks. Pharmacy? 2 blocks.  A shop that specialises in potato crisps? 1 block.  The Abuelita’s shop?  Just half a block away.

Sunday market in our neighbourhood

The Abuelita

The Abuelita, or little grandmother, has a corner shop down the street from Casa Ciclista.  Now when I say “corner shop” I mean “corner shop”.  It is literally on the corner, and when you step inside there is barely enough room to smush in three customers.  The whole shop isn’t much bigger, but that abuelita has a treasure trove of stuff behind her counter; you just have to know what you are looking for.  Beyond all the usual abarrote fare of crisps, sodas, cookies, and cans of tuna, she also has fresh corn tortillas, fresh baked baguettes, homemade rice and bean sopes, eggs, milk, jams, flour, rice, pasta, sauces, and orange juice.  You name it, she has it!  You can even pop-in in the afternoon and grandma will make you a delicious sandwich with ham, panela cheese, jalapeno, and tomatoes.  Now, how nice is that?

That we were daily customers goes without saying.  I mean if you could buy all your groceries from your neighbour wouldn’t you?  But we didn’t just go there because of the convenience, or because she is a sweet lady and it was fun slowly getting more familiar with her over the weeks; we went there because her prices were very very cheap.  Talk about the icing on the cake!

In western countries we have lost these neighbourhood businesses and we have forgotten about this Abuelita.  Nowadays for us corner shops are places

When I say you can buy anything...

you go when you have forgotten to buy something at the big massive supermarket chain.  The corner shops themselves are often franchised, and their prices scream “convenient!” by being marked up substantially.  Or, perhaps you still get the little neighbourhood store, but they don’t sell eggs anymore, no no no,  they sell farm-fresh-free-range-organic-happy eggs that are twice the price.  They don’t sell porridge; they sell granola with chia seeds and seven other wonder foods that each cost half the mortgage of your house.  They don’t sell jam, they sell french jam.  The result being that none of us can afford to shop there on a daily basis.

At least we know who to blame.  Damn French!

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