Wednesday, June 19, 2024

In the footsteps of D.H. Lawrence and the Russian ballerina

My friend Jorge Varela is author of Mr. Lawrence, a short piece of historical fiction (in Spanish) based on D.H. Lawrence’s 1923 stay on the ribera norte of Lake Chapala, where Lawrence began work on his novel The Plumed Serpent.

Jorge Varela’s writing brings in references to the venerable old Restaurante La Posada in Ajijic, which Lawrence frequented, and to “La Rusa,” the mysterious horsewoman who rode around dressed all in black while being swindled out of the proceeds of a gold mine just up the hillside above the town.

Intrigued, I ask Jorge if he would act as cicerone to my wife and me and give us a little introduction to the history of the area.

Varela agreed and first drove us into a residential area of Ajijic called Villa Nova which has streets with names like Calle de la Mina and Calle de los Mineros.

“Those aren’t fanciful names, as in many fraccionamientos,” said Jorge. “The original Rancho del Oro is still here.”

Author Jorge Varela investigating the old crushing mill.
Author Jorge Varela investigating the old crushing mill.

To prove it, he took us to a stone wall on Calle del Manglar where we hoisted ourselves up just high enough to get a good peek at the well preserved buildings from which the mining operation had been run, with an impressive arched aqueduct in the background.

“Somewhere in the hills just above us lies the gold mine itself,” said Jorge, “but it’s now considered very dangerous to go inside, with rotting timbers, deep drops and bad air. They say several people who entered that mine ended up dead.”

After having stirred up a bit of gold fever in us, Jorge took us straight to the ruins of an old crushing mill in Ajijic. This is on private property, but there’s no fence, and the family that now lives on the premises unhesitatingly gave us permission to wander both inside and outside the decrepit buildings. Outside there’s a long, sturdy earthen ramp where ore-laden wagons were pulled up to the crusher. I would love to revisit this place with someone knowledgeable about mining!

Next we made a brief visit to the doorway of La Casa de la Rusa at 26 Independencia, where the number plaque shows the silhouette of the Horsewoman in Black, a ballerina and actress who eventually became a legend in Ajijic. La Rusa means “The Russian,” and she went by the names Ayenara Zara Alexeyewa as well as Khyva St. Albans, although it appears she was actually born in New York City as Elinore Saenger.

According to writer Judy King, she and her dance partner/foster brother bought the above-mentioned gold mine in the 1920s “hoping to fulfill their dreams to produce and present great Russian ballets here in Mexico.” In their blog, local researchers Jim and Carole Cook say the mine was called La Misericordia and La Rusa was being swindled by her Mexican partners until mine manager Quilocho Retolaza came to her rescue.

Quilocho had been one of Pancho Villa’s most dashing officers and La Rusa herself (under the pen name Frances De Brundige) tells the story of how he saved her from swindlers and bandits in the book Quilocho and the Dancing Stars, which can still be found in a few discriminating used bookstores like La Perla Books in Guadalajara. There are also lots of old photos and memorabilia about Zara Alexeyewa in the highly popular restaurant of La Nueva Posada Hotel, which just happens to be named Restaurante La Rusa.

Room at the Villa QQ in Chapala where Lawrence stayed in 1923.
Room at the Villa QQ in Chapala where Lawrence stayed in 1923.

Our last stop in Ajijic was the site of “La Vieja Posada,” which was built in the 1500s and has had many reincarnations. Today it is called Restaurante María Isabel. Here, says Jorge Varela, is where D. H. Lawrence (and later many other famous artists) used to stop by for a tequila and sangrita. The correct procedure for imbibing these two drinks, said our guide, is not to mix them together, but to sip first one and then the other. Now for this ceremony the tequila must be blanco while the sangrita is red.

When I asked what was in the sangrita, I immediately learned what’s not in it: alcohol. After that I got a different version of the ingredients it does contain from each of my friends and from every source I checked. I guess that means you’ll always be surprised when you drink it!

Finally, we drove eight kilometers east to the town of Chapala, arriving at 307 Zaragoza Street, now known as Quinta Quetzalcoatl Boutique Hotel B&B.

“This is where Lawrence stayed while he lived in Chapala,” said our guide. The door was opened by the proprietor, Rob Cracknell, an Australian painter, who kindly showed us all around. Well, QQ, as they call it in Chapala, turned out to be one of the most gorgeous places to stay I had ever seen, with beautiful trees, fountains, grottos, flowers and cacti. In the middle of the patio was a pool with a serpent motif, shaped with secluded nooks and a jacuzzi.

Lawrence’s room was just as attractive. On the wall was a picture of the writer and his wife Frieda, along with the text of the telegram Lawrence sent her in 1923, which reads “Chapala Paradise. Take evening train.” The train is long gone, but “Chapala Paradise” still says it all.

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If you are in the neighborhood, here is how to find all these places, even without a cicerone:

In Ajijic: the wall where you can hoist yourself up for a peek at the old mining ranch is on Calle del Manglar, in Villa Nova, about halfway between De los Mineros and Del Arroyo. The crushing mill is at the south end of Calle Flores Magón, on the east side of the street, just before the soccer field. La Casa de la Rusa is at 26 Independencia, between Aquiles Serdán and 5 de Mayo. Google Maps will take you straight to La Nueva Posada Hotel, and even to the Vieja Posada, if you input its new name, Maria Isabel Restaurant.

In Chapala: Quinta Quetzalcoatl is number 307 Zaragoza Street. Just ask Google Maps to take you to “Villa QQ Chapala.”

The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, for more than 30 years and is the author of A Guide to West Mexico’s Guachimontones and Surrounding Area and co-author of Outdoors in Western Mexico. More of his writing can be found on his website.

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