A Refreser Course…In Revenge and Bureaucracy

So after a few weeks of soaking up the rays in Baja California and along the Pacific Coast of mainland Mexico, we turned inland to Guadalajara.  We had decided to take a week of Spanish classes in Tlaquepaque, a suburb of Guadalajara (GDL), but Kiel already told you that. I had done some research and decided on the Guadalajara Language Center (GLC).  There were a lot of options out there, but this school ticked most of our boxes, including easy access to the city center, a homestay option with parking for the Astro, small classes and the ability to start according to our schedule.  We planned to stay for a week and were set to begin in a beginner/intermediate class on April 11.

Teatro Degollado at night in the Centro Historico

Both Kiel and I had taken Spanish throughout high school (12 years ago!) and we had picked some  up in the first few weeks of our trip, but neither of us were conversational.  I guess having a perfect average through four years of high school and receiving a perfect score on the New York State Regents exam doesn’t get you anywhere close to being fluent in Spanish.  Thanks New York state educational system!

Churros!

Anyway, a few more words about GLC; the school is run by Wouter Stut, a Dutch transplant to GDL. He is a great guy and made it exceedingly easy to sign up and get us scheduled into a class. He was also very helpful with details about the city, how to get around on public transport, things to do and see and general information about Mexican culture. We had class from 9 am until 1 pm, with a short break after two hours.  There are other options available, including more or less hours per day and private lessons.  Kiel and I shared a class with a woman from Vancouver, Janine Coney, who was on vacation in Mexico for a few weeks. If you happen to be in Vancouver and need a photographer, check her out. In the mornings, our classes were taught by Monica and in the afternoons, we had Alejandra, both of whom spent most of the classes speaking only in Spanish.  Both were wonderful teachers and the verb tenses and vocabulary started stirring in my brain again. I wasn’t fluent after the week, but I certainly was understanding the language better and was able to gain some confidence when speaking, which was in short supply the first few weeks.

Kiel chiliing with Pope John Paul II

The reasons I didn’t get as much out of the class as I should have were twofold: Mexican bureaucracy and Montezuma’s Revenge. I won’t give you the gory details of the later reason as I don’t want to scare anyone away from the site or make anyone sick. I’ll just say, be careful when you order a drink to request no ice, even if you want a whiskey on the rocks. You’ll be better off drinking it warm. Besides, the flavor is probably more full without the ice, especially if you are drinking Old Grandad.

However, I have a lot to say about the former reason. As you may remember, I had not received a tourist visa when I entered Mexico since I had walked across the border in Tijuana, which is a “free zone”. Since La Paz I had been inquiring about it with local officials, but because of timing and excessive charges I had delayed the inevitable. Realizing I would be in GDL for a week, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to get this out of the way. Being the second largest city in Mexico, I also figured things would be handled a little more “officially” instead of with the local flair of places like Mazatlan ($1,000 peso extra “fee”). Now, I should have went first thing on Monday morning, but I wanted to start class and get everything in order, so I decided to wait until Tuesday. When I arrived at class Tuesday morning, I asked Wouter how to get to the federal administration building since I wanted to go after class. Apparently, they stop fielding inquiries at 1 pm so they can be done by 3 pm. Must be nice.

Roel and I, with my Taliban beard

So Tuesday was out of the question and I was definitely going to have to miss class. Exacerbating the problem, while watching the Manchester United – Chelsea Champion’s League quarterfinal with Roel and Kiel on Tuesday, I had my whiskey on the rocks, initiating my demise for the week.

So Wednesday morning rolls around and I pick up the 275 bus from Tlaquepaque to GDL Centro. After an hour of fighting through rush hour traffic, I arrived at 500 Alcalde, which is the Palacio Federal. On the fourth floor was the Immigration office. What a zoo this place was! It was filled with Mexicans getting passports, Americans and Europeans renewing or getting visas for the first time and some people that looked like they had no reason to be there except for some sort of masochistic principles. I jumped on the information line, which is to the right when you get off the elevator. It is possible I never noticed this in the US before, but Mexicans give you no personal space while in line. I could feel the guy’s breath behind me on my neck the whole time and I am pretty sure he had eaten chiliquiles for breakfast.

Chess players were all over the centro

After about a ninety minutes of being shadowed, I spoke to a nice woman who helped me get the process going. I explained how I walked across the border and then took a flight, so I never received the tourist visa form. This appears to happen often, as she had a form letter already available; we just filled in the dates and location where I crossed. Next, I had to fill out an application online; conveniently, they had a kiosk right there. This is where things got dodgy. Obviously, the application was in Spanish, and I understood most of it, but there were all these odd questions about religion and whether I was working with a partner, etc. that I just did not know how to answer. Luckily, after about thirty minutes, I flagged someone down and asked what the heck was going on with these questions. She helped me finish the application and since the machine couldn’t print, I had to write down my application number and bring it to the other side of the office to present it for approval. Not so bad, right? Ahhh, but first, I had to find a bank to pay the application fee. Makes total sense, why would you be able to pay the application fee for an immigration issue at the immigration office? So I headed out to the nearest bank to pay up, acutely aware that time was quickly dwindling. I should mention now that Montezuma was attempting to viciously exact his revenge this whole time.

Iglesia de Nuestra Senora

I paid the $260 or so pesos at the nearest bank and headed back to the office just before 1 pm. I pulled a ticket number and waited. And waited. After what seemed like too long without calling a new number and no one at the counter, I just walked up and tried to explain my situation. In the middle of trying to show I had paid and providing my application number, it came to the woman’s attention that my application did not match my passport. I had forgot to put my middle name in the application, but it is in my passport. Damn you WILLIAM!!! I offered to write it in, but that would not work. I had to go back to the other side of the office and redo the application. So I did and returned. When I returned, a nice young gentleman was there, Armando, how spoke excellent English, who helped the process along. He explained that it would now take until at least Friday for the application to be processed, and, oh by the way, there was an additional penalty of $299 pesos that the first woman had forgot to tell me about, which was calculated by the number of days I was illegally in Mexico. How ironic that a San Diego resident was illegal in Mexico. So, I was coming back on Friday, hoping that the application would be ready and Kiel and I could set out on our way.

Centro Historico

So Friday morning I rushed through breakfast, explaining to Senora Alicia that I had to return to the immigration office and would miss another day of classes. Maybe I wasn’t meant to speak Spanish. Anyway, off on the 275 bus again and into Centro, having paid the penalty and done all that was asked of me by Mexican Immigration. I was actually rather nervous as I was expecting that I would have to wait until at least Monday and that there would be some new fine I would have to pay. Not understanding the process causes a level anxiety that I am not familiar with and I began understanding (only slightly) the apprehension that Mexicans must have when awaiting their fate from the US government. It all seems rather arbitrary.

So I arrived at the office and went straight to pull a number. I was there early enough that the line was not too long and my number was called within twenty minutes. I was hoping to get the same woman that I submitted the application with, but I got her less patient, less helpful and more incompetent coworker. I showed her my application, the receipt from payment of the fine and my passport. She had no idea what was going on. I asked if Armando was around, as he helped with the application. She said he was and told me I had to wait for him. But she took my application and receipt and told me to sit back down, rather brusquely.

The front of our homestay

After waiting for quite a while, I saw Armando and asked him what was going on. He told me that it would be a little bit longer, maybe 20 minutes, but that he needed the original receipt for payment of the fine. I explained that I already provided that to the woman who had helped me earlier in the morning. Not surprisingly, she completely denied that she helped me and that I gave her the receipt. I showed Armando all of my paperwork and explained again that I already provided the receipt and asked that he check if it was mixed up somewhere. He looked around for awhile, but could not find it, explaining that I would need that to finish the application. I made it clear that she had taken the receipt and that they would have to find it. Luckily, the woman who had helped me on Wednesday decided to look around the three desks to see if it was misplaced. Wouldn’t you know it, the receipt was on the rude woman’s desk, buried under a pile of other applications. Even though it was right there, she continued to deny she took it and tried to blame it on the woman who helped me!

Either way, they had all they needed so Armando told me to come back around noon. I left to try and eat something and returned at noon as instructed. Armando explained that it would be another twenty minutes or so, so I sat down in the office and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally at 3 pm, he reappeared with my tourist visa and a form for me to sign and I was on my way! In total, I spent about two full business days in that office, missed two days of classes and was out about $550 pesos. The moral of the story is get your tourist visa as soon as you cross the border!

Me, Kiel and Senora Alicia

GDL was not all bad though.  First, our homestay was great. As Kiel mentioned, we stayed with Senora Alicia, a widowed, older woman, who was unusually vibrant and full of vigor. And an excellent cook! In addition to the fresh fruit and fruit juices at almost every meal, she whipped up delicious traditional Mexican fare that was healthy and filling without weighing you down. For breakfast we had dishes like chiliquiles, huevos con chorizo and frijoles; at lunch, which was the biggest meal of the day, we had sopas, quesadillas and mixtas (unfortunately, I missed a couple of lunches); and for dinner it was always something light, like a bocadillo. Everything was made with fresh ingredients and right in front of us. It was a wonderful change of pace after eating mostly rice and tacos for the past few weeks.

Casa de Senora Alicia

Her house was also beautiful. As Kiel mentioned, we each had our own private rooms with bathrooms in a separate building across the courtyard. The house was Spanish colonial, with bright, colorful tiles adorning the walls and trees and flowers throughout the courtyard. There were also two dogs, Cleopatra and Ben Affleck. I think the dog had more talent than the actor, but that’s just my opinion.

GDL itself was unlike any of the other Mexican cities we have been to. It was very modern, with highrise office towers, broad avenues, shopping malls and abounding with technology. However, it has not lost all of its traditional Mexican and colonial feel, especially in the historic center.  We walked around a couple of evenings when the churches, theaters and administration buildings were lit up, making you forget that just outside this area there were all the trappings of modern life. The tacos were cheap here and you could also grab one of the local specialties, the torta ahogada, which is a torta drenched in a chile sauce with onions.

A kid playing a homemade tuba, made of a bucket and tube

In addition to checking out the sites, we went out a few nights to experience the local nightlife as well as some local activities. On Friday, we checked out this little cafe called Cafe Andre Breton with some Mexicans who knew Roel’s brother from when he was in Mexico. The place is located at Juan Manuel #175 in the Centro Historico. It was a cool little place with good food and $30 peso beers. There was going to be live electronica, which didn’t sound all that appealing at first, but ended up being pretty cool.  The friends we met there knew the guys performing and the show was very entertaining. The three of them dressed up in what appeared to be naval white dress uniforms, complete with covers and toy swords. They were also passing around a $25 peso bottle of tequila or mezcal, which I was smart enough not to partake in. We also checked out a salsa bar, but Kiel gave you the details about that. All I will say is that Mexicans, and probably most Latins, must have  been born with a gene of some sort that gives them rhythm and dancing abilities that has been bred out of caucasians.

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