Friday, August 11, 2017

Culture Shock, Shock, Shock

Culture Shock, Shock, Shock
            “Mom, I keep telling you. You’ve gone native.” After spending all but a few weeks of the last four years in Mexico, immersed in a different life, what is one to expect?

            My first intimation that I needed to be alert to where I am, “one world” notwithstanding, came when the man who assisted me at LA International with a wheelchair, zoomed me through customs, held my hand through security and escorted me to my next gate, gave me a raised-eyebrow, incredulous stare, when I gratefully proffered a handful of pesos for a tip. Oops, wrong money.

            Since I carry two wallets when I travel, one stuffed with pesos, the other with credit cards and a few US twenties, I soon remedied my mistake.

            Cash and credit. In Mexico, in the small town where I live, I have no use for a credit card except to extract pesos from the bank machine. I purchase everything with cash. My needs are few. Even when I lived in the city, in Mazatlan, I seldom had need or opportunity to use my card. In Etzatlan, I don’t carry a card.

            My son met me at Seatac with a surprise: my granddaughter Lexi awaited me in the car, a joyful reunion. I got to meet Ben’s new girlfriend, Kristen, but with Lexi motor-mouthing the entire drive home, giving me with updates of her life, the rest of us had to squeeze words in edgewise. Once we got to the house, situation normal.

            Ben lives a mile from our first home in Kitsap County and another mile from the home we bought and in which we lived longest. We always lived in the country, surrounded by towering trees. I love the combined scents of Douglas Firs, majestic cedars and maples with the underbrush of impenetrable Holly and blackberry thickets. I know this country intimately. I feel at home instantly.

            The “kids” (Well, they always will be our “kids”.) had made arrangements for me to have a car and a US cell phone. I’m so used to life without either, that I decided to do without. Unheard of deprivation. Right?

            Truth to tell, it’s no different in Mexico. Everyone has an implanted hand-held device that requires total attention. Despite the fact that many a caballero rides his horse into town and ties the reins to a tree branch, he probably has a cell phone in his back pocket. Most families own a car.  

            My first trip to the grocery reminds me of how differently I’ve come to live. In Etzatlan, I go to the fruitera, a small basket in hand, and fill it with enough for a few days, all for a handful of pesos. I haven’t forgotten how I used to fill my cart as though the Barbarians were at the gate and wonder if I’d need a bank loan to get out the door. But tell me, who needs forty-two brands of corn flakes from which to choose?

            Speaking of Barbarians, they arrived in the night and conquered. The brought mountains of useless, redundant and unnecessary items, seductively placed to lure one to purchase, take home and wonder, “Now, why did I think I wanted this?” Had to be the Barbarians.

            My first morning here I awoke puzzled. Where have all the birds gone? In Etzatlan I awake at first light morning to a symphony of birds, birds which sing to me while skittering through my yard and trees all day. Here I awaken to silence. Though I spend a good deal of each day under the trees, I hear and see only the occasional crotchety crow or marauding jay.

            The first week here I awoke at 5:30, courtesy of the two hour time difference coupled with longer hours of sun. (In Etzatlan we are close to having twelve light and twelve dark hours.) When I return, I’m guaranteed a week of sleeping in until 9:30. I’m usually up with the sun, between 7 and 7:30 in Etzatlan.

            Friends, they are the same. I flew north to be in the arms of my family, for snuggles with my granddaughter, to renew communication on a deeper level with my son, Ben, whom I almost lost. A morning teaching the Dancing Crane movements to Lexi. Gardening all afternoon with Kristen. That’s what life is all about.

I treasure hours of conversation with theatre friends over buckets of steaming coffee. How can one measure the good times. Good timing is easier. I attended the monthly poetry reading at the Poulsbohemian Coffee Shop where I got to meet old friends and new poems. I wish I had brought one of my poems with me for open mike. Next trip.

Best moments so far: Sitting beneath the trees at night with Ben and Kristen, listening to their stories. Waking up next to Lexi’s snuggly little body.

But where are the birds and butterflies?

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

August 10, 2017

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Eager, Reluctant Traveler
            My suitcase perches, mouth open, on my sofa, poised to swallow piles of clothing and jumbles of travel essentials: toiletries, Kindle, laptop, gifts.

            Mine is not a planned trip. The “plan” was for my son, Ben, to visit me, grand-daughter Lexi in hand.  It’s still a plan, delayed by the IRS.  That fearsome entity is auditing my son’s taxes for the year he sent his life veering off the rails. Evidently, they fear he might come to Mexico and never return.  Once the audit is finished to the IRS’s satisfaction, Ben will be free to visit.

            “Mom, it has been four years. I need to see you now that I have you back in my life.” What mother could resist such a plea?  Ben is two and a half years clean and sober, working hard to re-establish a good life, one based on a realistic foundation.

            I’m eager to see my son, my Washington family, my friends of years’ duration. I lived in Poulsbo, Washington, more years than anywhere else in my life. That community grew me in good ways. Mine is a short trip; I’ll pack it full of love and experiences.

            “I’m reluctant to leave,” I confessed to my daughter via phone. “It’s crazy. I’m anxious to spend time with Ben but I wanted him to come here. I’m mentally stomping my foot. Like a spoiled child, I am.”

            “I don’t call that crazy,” she told me. “You’ve made a strong home. You are settled into the community comfortably. Besides, you live in Paradise. Who would want to leave?”

            I gazed out my windows at the hummingbirds sucking honey from the canna lilies, the iguana perched on the ledge, the green lizard scuttling across the patio, my roses which I’ve nourished from babies to full glory.  I sighed. Paradise. It’s easy to forget that this morning, while watering hibiscus along my west wall, I stepped onto a hill of red ants. They are the flesh-eating type. Hurts like fire.

            Lani came by and abducted me to go to San Marcos with her to buy a pottery plant holder she wanted. On our return, we drove previously unexplored streets of Etzatlan. I really do love my little town, cobblestone streets, every doorway begging to be explored. The street fronts may look rugged but hide a sumptuous interior or a chicken yard or a corn field, all side-by-side.

            We stopped at the square, bought ice cream and sat in the plaza, watching people, not talking, at peace with ourselves and our world.

            Back home, I went into a flurry of messaging, letting friends know I’d be leaving. “Jim, please bring me a dozen pint canning jars. Sorry I’ll miss your visit. Our trips coincide. I’ll see you in October.”

            “Kathy and Crin, I’ll be gone the first week of your visit. Back the 15th. We’ll still have a couple weeks to eat our way through Etzatlan, what we do best!”

            Crin responded, “I’ll come sing to your flowers to keep them happy. What is their favorite music?”

“Nursery rhymes, the ones we both grew up loving.”

“I’ll start with ‘Mistress Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?’”

While I’m gone, Erica will wash down my walls, a job better done with me out of the way. My walls are brick—imagine the dust! Josue will install an electrical outlet on the outside back wall, a small but needful project. Leo will keep my lawn trimmed and potted plants watered.

My world is in order. I’m as ready for my trip as possible, both eager to go and reluctant to leave.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

August 3, 2017

Friday, July 28, 2017

Ants In My Pants and Other Observations

Ants In My Pants and Other Observations
            Ants, those little buggers, are a constant, year-round plague.

Mosquitoes don’t irritate me nearly as much.  I don’t disdain the power of the mosquito, dastardly carrier of dread diseases, to wreak havoc on people and animals. But after surviving years of Milk River Valley mosquitoes, this inferior breed is a mere inconvenience. Okay, the truth is, I seldom see any.

Ants are another beast entirely. A nearly invisible fawn-colored ant likes my house, especially the kitchen and bathroom counters. I can, with diligence, keep them under control. However, I don’t use a sugar bowl or honey pot. I keep sugar and honey and most comestibles in containers with screw-tight lids. I quickly learned that necessity.

A larger rusty-colored ant which makes its presence known by creating mounds of grainy dirt also has the capability to eat bushes down to bare stems overnight. Just last week they ate every leaf and bounteous flower from my five-dead trees.

I shall always call them my five-dead trees because all winter I insisted they were dead and wanted to replace them. David from Centro Vivero insisted they were dormant. He won. They are quite alive, gifting me with months of beautiful flowers, purple and pink and white. New growth will appear soon but it is a shock to have leaves and flowers one day and naked stalks in the morning. They also munched half the leaves from my orange tree, newly planted last fall.

Another ant, huge and dark red-brown, meanders by my feet occasionally, but I find only one or two at a time. Smash.

I lose my Zen compassion for creatures when I see an ant. I become Super Woman with four kinds of ant killer in hand. Ants are my kryptonite.

The other day I spotted a line of black ants, a thousand-thousand all in a row, marching across my patio. I shucked my glasses and donned my cape and made ready to do battle when Leo, my garden helper, stopped me. “Those kind ants move from place to place. They no eat plants,” he said. I saw they each held a bundle on their back, like people fleeing a war-torn country. So what do they eat?

I let them live but it wasn’t easy for me. Sure enough, a couple hours later, the marchers were out of sight.

If I grew up in a different culture, I might look upon the lowly ant quite differently. I might hover over a mounded housing, waiting for the opportunity to scoop out a handful of the delicious little buggers. Chomp, chew, swallow. Mmmm, good.

It’s all a matter of perception, right?

Like this: It is mango season. Mangoes are my favorite fruit. Okay, my favorite fruit is whatever is in season. So today it’s mango. I have a friend who refuses to eat mangoes, doesn’t like mango, but feasts on my mango jam. Go figure. Perception.

Another friend won’t eat anything slimy. A few weeks ago I bought jaca fruit. It’s even juicier, more flavorful than mango. She said, “Eww, it’s slimy.” It’s no slimier than peach or kiwi or mango. Thinking about jaca makes my mouth water. It’s the best.

But, if we must consider slime, I am quite fond of okra. Not to mention oysters, raw on the half shell with lime and chili sauce.

I’ve learned to appreciate other fruits and vegetables in Mexico that I had never heard of or seen in my northern life.  Like pitaya and tuna, the cactus fruit. Or nopalitos, the pulpy pads of the prickly pear.

Mexican friends tell me the iguana is tasty—not the little brand of garden iguana I have in my yard, but the larger variety on the coast. They tell me it tastes like chicken. People say the same thing about snakes. Chickens taste like chickens. Snakes taste like snakes. Iguanas taste like iguanas.

If iguana, chopped and sautéed in butter with garlic and chilies, were presented to me on a tortilla, would I eat it? Maybe. It’s logical. I ate menudo tacos. I ate brain tacos. Liver taco is quite tasty. Therefore, I’d probably try an iguana taco.

I draw the line at ants. Not on a tortilla. Not in chocolate. Not in ice cream.  

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

July 27, 2017

Morning Has Broken

Morning Has Broken
            “Like the first morning.” Scrub oaks, verdant from recent rains, reached out branches and clutched passing clouds onto high mountaintops, puffy sombreros heavy with moisture.  Mountains held onto the clouds tightly until near noon when clouds, with a mind of their own, lifted off and away. Clouds will return, dark with a new load of water in the late afternoon, tonight’s fresh downpour.  Since the season began, about six weeks ago, we’ve averaged half an inch each night.

            Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? Like any place, it has its moments.

            Geraniums do not like this rainy season. Roses barely tolerate it. Everything else looks like an explosion of green on steroids. I have grasses that look like field corn. Beetles ate all my rose, gardenia and magnolia blossoms plus one hibiscus out of a dozen.  Ants chomped leaves off several tender trees. This morning I had to kill ants before I could do my spiritual practice of Qi Gong. I don’t claim perfection.

            Lani, Nancie and I went to Teuchitlan this morning for birria. Birria is a meat soup made with a spicy clear broth. The best birria is made with goat. And the best we have found is served at this little open terrace eatery alongside the highway at the entrance to Teuchitlan.

            Nancie leaves tomorrow, back to her other home in Sedro Woolley, Washington, until she and Pat return in September.  Nancie has astonished herself with her different attitude this trip. She said other trips have been frantic with projects to get done. She made this trip for the vacation of it. She puttered in the garden but that is pleasure. 

            I reaped the side benefits of my cousin’s vacation. We explored, ate in favorite places, and spent a lot of time sharing stories and relaxing. She said this is the first time her new house feels like home.

            She and I have talked a lot about what makes us like this place so well. Etzatlan has no  tourist attractions. It’s not fancy.

            For me this has been an easy place in which to settle. I’ve pared down my life to essentials, yet, have more than enough activities to keep me busy and satisfied.

I view living here as a blend of old ways with new ways. I can get anything I need in this little Cowtown with its winding lanes and cobblestone streets.  It might take a bit of searching. Like this morning. I needed a rubber tip for my walking stick. Rubber rots quickly in our climate. To my northern way of thinking, the tips would be found in any (medical supply) pharmacy. I checked at four pharmacies and an electronics shop, directed there by a pharmacist, before I found the tips in a hardware store. What one “needs” is here. What one “wants” may require a trip to Guadalajara.

            I had to chuckle when a friend in Oregon sent me a picture where she and her husband will move to downsize. It’s a three bedroom, three bathroom mansion, to me. Downsizing?

I live in a 465 sq. ft. bungalow, plunk in the middle of a garden. I own one electric appliance. I make toast on a griddle and do most things in a similar old-fashioned way. Every item in my home I use on a regular basis. I love my life. It’s not everyone’s cup of coffee. I wouldn’t dream of talking you into the changes I’ve made. I know what is good for me might be unbearable for you. I lack for nothing but not everyone would see it that way.

            One modern convenience I’m particularly fond of is my solar water heater. I formerly refilled my propane tank every two months. Now it’s more like every two years if the gauge is to be trusted. My electric costs 55 pesos a month. Water is 900 pesos a year. I have a venerable Kenmore washing machine. My clothes dryer is old-style solar, four lines strung between two poles. Does anybody remember those? My life is truly a blend of the old and the new.

            I like the slower pace. Nobody hurries. If something doesn’t work according to the plan, shrug. Go to Plan B. People in town greet me with a hug and kiss. I feel welcomed, at home.    
I’ll miss my cousin. But she’ll be back soon. Meanwhile, “. . . Sweet the rains new fall, sunlit from heaven.”

“Que le vaya bien.” Roughly translated, “May your day go well.”

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

July 20, 2017

Monday, July 17, 2017

Riding Along In My Automobile

Riding Along In My Automobile
            Have you ever had a day when you feel unutterably sad for no earthly reason except that you are human?

            On my patio, on this day when my thermometer registers a mid-afternoon temperature in the low 70’s, rain still dripping from tree leaves, a lizard lays splayed out, soaking up every iota of warm comfort from the patch of sun-drenched concrete. I know how he feels.

            My habit, when I get this way, is to work through the mood. But in the last few years I’ve learned to slow down, examine myself inside and out. Do I feel well? Is something bothering me that I’d rather not see?  Am I avoiding something?

            Thank you, Chuck Berry, for accompanying me in my pondering, for popping into my head with the song that became my metaphor for the day. The lyrics describe my life: “Riding along in my automobile . . . with no particular place to go.”

How lovely is that? I can ride along, enjoy the tunes, and let life take me where it will.

I don’t have to adhere to a schedule. Don’t need to suit up, show up, to perform in any manner. If I feel lethargic, why not just be lethargic? That concept goes against my grain, let me tell you. But I’m learning.

Here comes the rain again. I rather miss the lake that used to rise in my back yard whenever the skies unzipped. Last week, in a morning of sunshine, I asked Leo to run a drain pipe from the upper yard through the rose garden so the accumulating pond waters would drain onto the lower patio and out beneath the brick wall. A simple solution (genius idea, thank you) that took an hour of work.

So instead of thinking about stocking trout, I have to wonder if another week of too much rain to mow the lawn will mean I’ll need to bring in a swather and baler. “Make hay while the sun shines” takes on a whole new meaning for me. For a few brief moments I worry about the weeds that need pulling, the oleander bushes that I should prune, the geraniums that I want to re-pot.

The ants stripped two of my flowering trees overnight. I sprinkled a powdered poison for ants. Rats have shown up. I’ve spread poison pellets for rats. The black and green beetles that have decimated my rose and hibiscus flowers seem impervious to each poison spray I’ve tried. Every garden of paradise has its “snakes”.

Physically, my body scan reveals runny nose, scratchy throat, and weepy eyes. A summer cold is stealing my energy but I won’t push against it or pretend it’s not with me. Today, I’ll settle in with a box of Kleenex, hot tea, a good book, and let the garden grow out of bounds, which it seems determined to do whether or not I participate.

As for worry, what? Money? I never did find any gold at the end of the rainbow though I’ve tried to follow a few. Whatever is in my pocket today is all that matters. Words easy to say, easy to forget, but true for me.

I worry about my children, long-time adults, my grandchildren, babies and newly adult. From oldest to youngest, each has his own different problems. Don’t your kids? But our children are sharp; they are capable. They have the tools to work out their own solutions without my help, read that “interference”. Sure, I still worry a bit. It’s my job.

The sun has burned through the clouds again. Maybe I can work in my garden—maybe tomorrow.

Thanks for riding along with me. Sorry about the seat belts sticking. This old car has its quirks.  You’re a good listener. I feel better, now that I’ve shared with you. Say, would you like to swing by the In-and-Out for a cheese burger and chocolate shake? I’ll drive.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

July 13, 2017

Friday, July 7, 2017

Field of Dreams With Converse

Field of Dreams With Converse
            “I love my night life.”

            “You don’t have a night life,” my cousin Nancie, in Mexico for a three-week vacation in her house across the road from mine, countered. “You’re in bed when the sun goes down. What do you mean, night life?”

            “My dreams. I dream marvelous stories. I usually wake up feeling happy and full of energy. Most of the time I don’t remember my dreams once I’m out of bed.  Most of my dreams are like playing solitaire with a pinochle deck, but, lately, I feel that in my dreams I’m solving problems or answering questions.”

            About that time Nancie parked her car and we took our “old-woman shopping trolleys” out of the back and set out to stock up on fruits and veggies and a few necessities at the tianguis in Etzatlan. 

            We have our favorite vendors but there are always new and different things to see, especially since we don’t go every week. I bought 15 kilos of mangoes for 10 pesos a kilo. When you go to the IGA check out mangoes. I bought mine to make jam. It’s mango season.

            I hiked my mangoes back to the car, emptied my cart, and rolled it back to the market to fill up with 6 potatoes, 3 onions, 2 peppers, a pineapple, 6 guavas, lettuce, 5 tomatoes, 2 avocados, etc. Groceries for one.

            While prepping mangoes for jam at my outdoor kitchen, I mused about the dream I had last night.

            Several classmates and I set off on a trip together. We met somewhere vague—this is a dream, remember—and traveled in a large vehicle. At times it seemed like a tour bus. Other times we were clowns in a VW Beetle. We crossed eastern Montana. I distinctly recall going through Malta, Saco, Hinsdale, Glasgow, some places, recognized, some places, unknown. Dreams are quirky that way. They don’t make sense in the awake world.

            Among those on the bus were Jerry and Lola, Karen, Jess and Sharon, Jane, Fred and Sandy, and Denise and Don. Jim climbed on the bus in Glasgow. We were on our way to a wedding in North Dakota. My dream wasn’t specific about who was getting married. Quirky dreams.  

            Half way across North Dakota, in the winter, I realized I’d forgotten to pack shoes to wear to the wedding. All I had were the sandals on my feet. Sandals, in winter snow, in North Dakota.

            I don’t usually recall my dreams in such detail. We drove into Rugby, (Yes, Virginia, there is a Rugby, ND) afternoon sun fading behind us, and I said, “Let’s go to a western-wear store. I’ll buy a pair of leather boots. Warm enough to keep my toes toasty yet dressy enough for the formal wedding.” I never claimed to be a fashion maven. 

            My friends milled throughout the small store and helped me pick winter boots, soft brown leather, exactly as I had imagined them to be, knee-high, lace-tie front, sheep’s wool lining, with fur trim around the top. Classy.

            Then a pair of classic Chuck Taylor Converse red high-tops jumped out and snared me. I had to have that pair of red Converse high-tops.

            While I tried on the shoes, Sharon sat down beside me. “How could you have forgotten to bring your shoes?”

            “Usually I travel alone. When I pack, I make a list and check it twice and then check it again. This trip we are traveling together. I had all of you with me so I didn’t need to worry.”

I woke up remembering all those details. When we have friends whom we are confident will be there for us, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

July 6, 2017

Friday, June 30, 2017

“Green, Green, It’s Green They Say. . .”

“Green, Green, It’s Green They Say. . .”
            For the past three weeks it has, indeed, been greener on the far side of the hills surrounding our parched valley. Rains come in June, the local people tell me. And the rains surrounded us, in Ahualulco, San Marcos, Magdalena, Ameca. We in Etzatlan sat high and dry.

            Our last rain fell in October. Every day I scoop sand dunes off my floors. I worry. Is this a drought? June is nearly done and gone. What will we do for water?

            I grew up worrying about weather. I learned from my Dad, leaning on a shovel at the irrigation ditch, scanning the sky for any hint of cloud. I have too much history of the rains that never come. Even twenty-five years in the Seattle area, land of perpetual drizzle, could not—did not—cure my weather worry.

            Our household water is delivered by gravity flow. Each day the pressure dropped. Each day watering my extensive garden took longer. Some blithering idiot went crazy planting flowers in pots. What was the woman thinking? I walked around my casita and counted pots—95! I am embarrassed. Perhaps my gardening obsession got out a wee bit of hand.

            Our tiny colonia is situated on the corner of Rancho Esperanza. Streets are nothing more than dirt driveways. After eight months of no rain, dust devils are common. Yesterday I saw a rat in the philodendron alongside my patio wall. Rats are moving in from the corn fields, newly plowed and planted. Today I captured a rat in a bucket. Poor rat. Dispatched.

            Humidity climbed exponentially. One day 4%. Then 34%. 51% seemed too much to bear. Next day, 67%. Moisture saturated the air. Temperatures in the muggy high 90’s. Clouds moved in. Clouds moved out. Clouds moved all around and about.

            Until, Glory, Glory, “O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

            The first drops evaporate on contact with my concrete patio. Thunder rumbles. Sky lights flash. Wind delivers more than empty promise. An hour later every leaf, every blade of grass glistens with diamond flashes in the setting sunlight.

            I go to bed to the music of night storms. But I don’t sleep.  I have a strange mixture of emotions, hard to decipher. Apprehension when thunder crashes overhead and lightning surrounds me in every direction. My little house has wrap-around windows, no curtains, so I live open to the elements. I get up and close windows on the east and north. Wind shifts direction. I get out of bed again, close windows to west and south. Open. Close. Apprehension mixes with joy, sheer exuberance that the rainy season is begun. Three times the rains drop down blessings that first night.

            My yard looks like a park. Every plant has drunk its fill. Flower pots clustered on my patio are saturated. A dozen kinds of birds are mining the grass in my yard for bugs and worms. No need to drag hose from place to place today. Instantly the temperature dropped fifteen degrees. I inhaled deeply. Why does earth wet with rain smell different than rain wet from a sprinkler? Why are flower scents stronger today? Why do the hummingbirds act drunk?

            Late afternoon, clouds roll in, the show begins, small rain. But in the night, a steady pattering, two hours, three hours, soak. The green of grass and shrubs is so bright and intense that one needs shades, even in the shadows. Two nights of rain and the land appears rejuvenated.

            By the third stormy night I’m able to sleep through the rock and roll. I know each evening will bring sky activity from now through October. The locals assure me. I believe. I’m so easy.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

June 29, 2017