A Guadalajara Diary: Philip Hoare

| by Philip Hoare

A photo diary from Philip Hoare - author of Leviathan or, The Whale and The Sea Inside - from his time in Mexico with the British Council


In the sharp light of Guadalajara, shadows intensify in the Palacio de Gobierno, creating luminous wells in cool courtyards.  On a Sunday morning, Iain Sinclair and I wandered through the rooms, marvelling at their calmness, and the way they slowed us down, to a Mexican pace.


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José Clemente Orozco's gigantic murals burst on the walls of the palace with nightmarish, apocalyptic scenes of the struggle to independence.  Through its recent history, Mexico's move towards democracy has often been a violent one, as disruptive as its earthquakes.  Orozco depicts these events in elemental works which evoke a seismic power, and create new legends in their own right.


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In the Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady, first built in 1541, and restored many times since after earthquakes, the venerated St Innocent lies in a vitrine like a sleeping bride.   Worshippers come to touch the glass, hand to hand, seeking solace or healing.  The teenage girl wanted to take Holy Communion, but her enraged father stabbed her.  Now her mummified remains - which appear to date back to the eighteenth century - attract the devoted, and the curious.


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The Catholic faith is real and tangible in Guadalajara.  In the echoing church in Tlaquepaque's central square, a diorama fills the entire wall of a side room, with intricate scenes from the Bible fashioned from clay figures.  This one depicts the Great Flood, and the unfortunate people whose sins did not earn them a place on Noah's Ark.


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Juan Manuel Franco Franco of the University of Guadalajara took Iain Sinclair, Georgina Godwin and myself to visit the studio of his artist friend, Manuel Ramírez Martínez, in Tlaquepaque.  There we were introduced to raicilla, a potent spirit whose recipe predates the Spanish conquistadors, and dates back to the time of the Aztecs.  Often brewed illegally, it is stronger than tequila or mescalin, and we were warned that excessive consumption could affect our minds.


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Manuel taught us to sip it after eating a segment of tangerine: the taste combination was extraordinarily intense.  We drank in his shady, gourd-strung  courtyard, whilst his young son, an angelic child with red hair, swung himself in a multi-coloured hammock.  Chickens pecked about in the dust under an agave, and Manuel's artfully placed, found objects hung on the walls like an outdoor gallery.  As the afternoon wore on, the whole experience seemed to have passed into timelessness.  Or perhaps that was just the effect of the raicilla.

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Manuel, his son, and a celebrated photographer friend in the streets of Tlaquepaque.  Although the district, once a separate town, has long since been subsumed by the city of Guadalajara as a destination for tourists seeking arts and crafts, its quiet back streets still bear testament to its community life, and the artists who live there.


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An hour's drive west of Guadalajara is the village of Teuchitlán - the name means 'place of the god Tenoch'.  Lying in the shadow of immense mountains, and close to a wide shallow lake, it is a sleepy place - at least in the heat of midday - where the only movement comes from wild dogs prowling the plaza, circling around its silent bandstand.  


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In the nearby church, elderly women, with shawls over their heads, gather to pray under paintings which depict Christ's modern miracles.  One shows Jesus at the elbow of a surgeon operating on a patient.  Another displays Him saving victims of a flood.  Elsewhere, other images of salvation show the gruesome aftermaths of car crashes, whose victims owed their lives to God's intervention.


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In one of the few shops in Teuchitlán that were open, a man whose father had owned a large expanse of this land showed us the relics he had found, and which he had displayed in his back yard.  There were pre-Columbian axes and laundry stones, as well as animal skulls and cacti.  On a work bench lay the napped obsidian knives he was carving, employing the same techniques used by the Aztecs.  Scalpel-sharp, these spear-like blades, glossy and black, were once the instruments of human sacrifice.  Now they are sold to visitors, though we doubted that we could get them past airport security.  


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We had been told about the remarkable archaeological site, Los Guachimontones.  Juan Manuel and his wife, Claudia, took us there.  As we drove high above the lake, the views were extraordinary.   With the territory laid out before us like a codex, we could understand the invested past of this place, its layers of history and occupation: from the lily-fringed lake, where white herons stalked and flotillas of pelicans moved in stately progress across its surface with their cormorant outriders, to the lower slopes of the mountains, seen through the jacaranda trees.


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But nothing prepared us for the pyramids.  Set in concentric layers of stone and turf, they were only recently excavated by an American archaeologist, Phil Weigand and his Mexican wife, Arceila Garcia, in 1996.  The site they uncovered is huge, with at least three such pyramids, and stone platforms for temples around them.  It is believed that worshippers danced around the structures, while flying men launched themselves from poles in the centre of the pyramids like Aztec versions of Icarus and Daedalus.  Even now, it is not known who built these edifices, and it is believed that there are more yet to be discovered.  Two thousand years old, they speak to the mystery of this country, and its lost past.


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I left Guadalajara to spend a couple of days on the Pacific coast, at Puerto Vallarta.  I was fascinated to discover that I was following in the footsteps of the director, John Huston, who had come here in the 1950s to scout locations for a film version of Herman Melville's book, Typee, which he intended as a follow-up to his movie, Moby-Dick.  Huston ended up buying a house here, and later made The Night of the Iguana in the town, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.  It's now a sprawling resort, with tall white tower blocks of all-inclusive hotels rising above its shores.


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But I was more interested in the life of its oceanic inhabitants.   With the assistance of our friends at the University of Guadalajara, I was able to spend time at sea.  As soon as our boat left the marina, a pod of bottlenose dolphin came into view, feeding greedily on fish.  A spotted manta ray leapt clear of the water, and overhead, blue-footed booby and magnificent frigate birds circled in the skies.


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Only moments later, a humpback whale broke the surface, with its unmistakable plosive blow.  I know these whales well, from their Atlantic cousins.  But I was stunned at what happened next.  The whale began to sing.  Hanging perpendicularly below the surface, it let out its plaintive song, a mixture of growls, burbles and shrills, drifting up through the surface of the sea.  This eerie call, which sailors once believed was the voice of the long-dead, now sounds like a lament for the oceans, for its plight, and ours.  But to another female whale, it's a long-distance siren for cetacean sex.  As the whale dove once more to resume his song, we left him to it.  I hope he got a girlfriend.


Philip Hoare is the author of Leviathan or, The Whale and The Sea Inside.  @philipwhale

Listen to a podcast with Philip here.

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