Monday, September 19, 2016

Churros In The Plaza—Snakes On The Doorstep

Churros In The Plaza—Snakes On The Doorstep
            My friends are back home in British Columbia. I signed up for three days of depression, lonely following our whirlwind of explorations and excitement. A vibrantly green lizard perches on my wall, staring down at me, as if to say, “I’m here. Don’t cry.”

            Each day brought choices, where to go, what to see. We drove to Tonola twice for the tianguis (open-air street market). Twice we plucked fruit and vegetables from huge piles at the Friday tianguis in Etzatlan.  

Under the guise of signing Kathy up for phone/internet service, we went to Tequila. Yes, Tequila is the actual name of a town.

            Etzatlan, in the valley rich with black volcanic dirt, is purely farm country. Tequila, in the red-rock volcanic hills, surrounded by blue agave fields, is home to Jose Cuervo Tequilas. The beautiful town, clean and festive, lured us into the museum, gallery, shops and a restaurant, of course, where I had shrimp in Tequila sauce. No, I did not have to go to a meeting afterward.  

            We staunchly resisted temptation though we could have been lured into imbibing tequila every ten meters. People here laugh at Americanos who drink rotgut bar tequila in slammers or sinkers or some weird thing—as quickly down the hatch as possible because it is so bad. Tequila is meant to be sipped and savored. Distilleries guard their secret recipes. Each brand has different strengths, flavors, and ages.  

            Oops—there goes my lizard, Verde, straight down into the giant philodendron, head first. I’ve been abandoned again!

            We saw Magdalena, famous for opal mines. We yielded to temptation, mea culpa, in San Marcos, where artisans make clay pottery dishes and cookware.

            Our favorite baker had a severe stroke so his (the 4:00) panaderia is closed. In our minds his baked goods are the best. So we had to search out other bakeries. We have settled on the 12:00 bakery for fresa (strawberry) empanadas, the 2:00 bakery for the most delicious Mexican cookies and the 5:00 bakery for bread rolls and other melt-in-your mouth goodies. Times refer to when the goodies emerge from the ovens.

These are very small bakeries, no signs over the door. Bread is made fresh daily and often sold out within a couple hours. It’s hard to justify baking when an empanada is 3.5 pesos and a bread roll is 3 pesos.

            About a half hour drive from Etzatlan, in the hills of Teutchitlan, archeologists uncovered ancient ruins of the Guachimontones pyramids. As early as 300 BCE an ancient people built a complex society around circular stepped pyramids. We were allowed to wander around these ancient sites, only a few of which have been restored. This is a “must” trip for everyone who visits me. No argument.

            On the way back from the pyramids, we dined at the three hundred year-old Hacienda La Rivera. I don’t mean we ate. We dined. There is a difference. We savored our choices over three hours. It seemed fitting. Nothing should be rushed after a day in the spiritual ruins.

            One Sunday evening we sat in the Plaza just to watch people and munch churros. There is something which must be respected in a society in which the entire family strolls around the square after church, enjoying one another, enjoying their neighbors.

            Every day brought new experiences, special times. My friends did not want to leave. On the last day we were sitting on my patio when a coral snake curled into view from around a flower pot to the right of my door. Kathy and Crin jumped on chairs. I knew it wouldn’t attack. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t afraid like I was with my first coral snake. But I wasn’t going to embrace it.

Josue and Erica ran over with shovels and dispatched the slinky bugger. What happened with “You’ll probably never see another one”? In Mexico it is against the law to kill the snakes. Don’t tell.

            You might think all we do down here is gallivant around. My everyday life is simple. We over-filled the few days Kathy and Crin were here. It was Crin’s first visit and we had ulterior motives. We wanted to convince Crin to buy a house and come frequently. Will she? A strong “maybe,” “probably,” “almost a done deal”.

            I’ll miss them terribly. Here comes a three-day depression. Three days of rest. My neglected garden is crying for attention. Working in the dirt will pull me together. Oh, another lizard on my wall—this one gray.

            Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

September 15, 2016

A Story With No Beginning And No End

A Story With No Beginning And No End
            Yesterday Ariel and Lani, Kathy and Crin and I went to Rolando’s taco restaurant.  He served us chicken with cream and mushroom sauce and all the fixings, family style. We loaded our plates and the only sound for twenty minutes was clinks of knives and forks. Delicioso.

            After overeating, we walked around the Plaza. We passed a young couple sitting on a white wrought-iron bench, his arm around her shoulders. She appeared sad, as if she might have been crying.

            I passed closest to the couple, and in Mexico, strangers give a polite greeting. “Buenas tardes,” I said and smiled.   

The man stopped me with an unusual question. “Senora, do you think my wife is beautiful?”

            “Yes,” I looked into her eyes. “You are muy bonita.”

            “She thinks she is not beautiful.” I relayed our conversation to my friends. With sincere words and gestures, we assured Danielle that she is indeed a lovely woman. Certainly Lorenzo thought her beautiful.

We will never know what caused her to doubt herself. It could have been something as simple as some other woman prancing by all dolled up. Our couple looked like they drove in from the farm, wearing jeans and boots and plaid shirts, clean and well pressed, but hardly high fashion. We learned Danielle is twenty-two. The couple has three babies. That alone would be enough to make me cry.

The look in her eyes jumped-started a memory as vividly as if it happened today. I’ve talked about it before. To briefly recap, I was divorced, a single mom, teaching school in Hays. I met a man from Box Elder who had a remarkable impact on my life. Over a few months time I saw James several times. We had fun together. I liked him a lot. But it wasn’t enough.

The finale exploded my world. I don’t remember what we were discussing. But I’ll never forget when I said to him, “But who do you want me to be. Just tell me who you want me to be.”

His reply, “I just want you to be yourself. I like you, not someone you think you need to be to please me.” Not the exact words, maybe, but close enough.

“Just be yourself.” How could I? I’d survived many years by being the chameleon I thought others wanted me to be.

Erasing myself had taken time, a subtle process, an on-going addition of many little things, all of which subtracted me.

As a child: You can’t be hungry. We just ate. Or you can’t be cold. It’s 75 degrees. It’s an easy progression to being told: You don’t want to do that. You really don’t want this one. You’re going to wear that? You don’t really think that. Why can’t you be more . . . (fill in the blank)? I heard it all.  And these examples are just a few of the words within which I became lost. Body language speaks even louder. Add isolation to criticism and half-truths. I disappeared.

Fortunately, though I never saw James again, I remembered his words, his priceless gift. James gave me back my life. I am the person he saw through all the masks.  

I began the search for myself by remembering my childhood, the things which gave me joy, the things that had nothing to do with pleasing other people. Gradually I put painting, sewing, designing, building, writing and rock collecting back into my life. These “doings” helped me to begin to “be” once again. Little things, over time, like wearing comfortable clothing rather than what I thought I should wear for the job, added to my increasing confidence.

That was the beginning of a long process. You’d have a hard time erasing me today!

I realize I’m imputing my experiences and pains onto Danielle, an innocent woman who may have simply stubbed her toe. Yet I think I recognize a relationship, however tenuous.

Before we left the Plaza the couple spoke with us again. Danielle looked considerably more cheerful. Yet she stayed in my head the rest of the night. I want to remember her with pink bubbles, three laughing babies and a man who wants her to be happy.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

September 8, 2016

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Danger—Enter At Your Own Risk

Danger—Enter At Your Own Risk
            Today Kathy and her sister Crin fly into Guadalajara from Victoria, BC. I’ve known Kathy for, I don’t know, maybe fifteen years. When two friends recognize they are kindred spirits, who counts years?

            This is embarrassing, but I can’t remember Crin’s given name. I met Crin a couple years ago in Mazatlan. 

Crin’s unusual nickname comes from her penchant for crinoline underskirts when she was a little girl, back in the day when we all wore the starched scratchy things beneath an outer skirt, when we swished the layers around pencil-thin legs, thinking we were stylish and beautiful. No tomboy, Crinny. Her tree-climbing sisters tagged her with the nickname and it stuck.

I’ll be waiting at the airport to meet and greet. Kathy hadn’t intended being in Etzatlan again until November. Blame Nancie. Nancie made the trip a few weeks ago and thoroughly cleaned and painted her Mexican home. All I can say is that paint must be inspirational. Kathy searched out airfare, found reasonable flights, and booked a quick two-week stay, paint brushes packed in her suitcase. She talked her sister Crin into making the trip.

Crin doesn’t know she will be walking on dangerous ground, possibly into a well-laid trap. I ain’t telling.

My guilt complex won’t let me squeal. I’m part of the trap. It’s sort of like quicksand. Once you fall in, you become part of the mix.

I fell in last spring. Oh, I was aware of the snares set on the edge of shimmering sands. Oh, yes, I thought I was strong enough to pull out.

Back three years ago my cousin Nancie introduced me to her friend Lani while they were on holiday in Mazatlan. Lani invited me to visit Etzatlan.

Etzatlan is not a resort community. There is no expat population. Etzatlan is a farming village, strong on cane and corn and chili peppers, weak on tourist attractions. It is not a destination sort of place.
The history is that an American man who loved Mexico, fell in love with a Mexican girl, bought a rancho in Etzatlan, and set aside acreage for like-minded folks to build small Mexican style casas. Approximately fifteen couples took him up on the offer over the years. Some came for vacations, some for winters, some few lived here year-round. Time passes. Old age, health problems and death have taken away all the old-timers.

So each time I visited Lani, who has lived her eight years, I also toured several empty casitas. That Lani is a sly one.

Last spring, knowing Nancie and Pat were going to purchase one of the empty homes, knowing full well the danger, I boarded the bus for a two-week visit. The second week I fell into the trap and purchased a small casa.

That same week, Kathy and Richard, vacationing in Mazatlan, in all innocence boarded the bus to Etzatlan for a week to see what attraction had snared me. A good time was had by all.

We three took the bus back to Mazatlan and made plans to meet for breakfast the following morning. I got a message. Breakfast was cancelled.

My friends had climbed back on the bus and in a couple days bought their own house. I tell you, there is a danger here. Maybe it is something in the water.

Poor Crinny. We who know have made plans for dinners out in our favorite restaurants, a trip to the pyramids, shopping the tianguis, the open-air street market. Of course, we’ll have churros in the plaza Friday night. Perhaps a jaunt to San Marcos to watch Don Ramon make pottery cookware. Naturally, Crin will “get” to see all the empty homes for sale.

This is Crin’s first trip. She might not get sucked into the quicksand right away, but we will steer her awfully close to the dangerous edge.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

September 1, 2016

Monday, August 29, 2016

“Outside Of A Dog, A Book Is Man’s Best Friend”

               “Outside Of A Dog, A Book Is Man’s Best Friend”
            Groucho Marx said it. I suppose there are as many book readers in Mexico as in any other country. What I know for sure, no supposition, true fact, is there are more dogs than people. I’ve wondered if dog ownership is a residency requirement.

            Even here in Colonia El Guaje, also known as Rancho Americano, everyone has a dog or two or even six. Oops—no—I’m wrong. Lani has cats. Lani has three large male cats. Three male cats equal one male dog. All the dogs are male. I’ve no idea how they reproduce. Maybe a company grinds them out in a factory in China.

            I alone am without man’s best friend. If the Mexican government finds out I’m dogless, will I be deported? I like dogs. But I have this weird belief that dogs are happiest when they have a job, activity, room to roam and a place to own. Dogs require full time daily care. I don’t kid myself. I want a leisurely stroll through my garden with a cup of coffee upon awakening. I’ve no intention of letting a dog pull me around the neighborhood several times a day, latex gloves and plastic bags in my other hand. And so far, no cat has claimed me.

            Though I have no traditional pets, I have Iggy, my drain-pipe iguana. When work began in my back yard a few weeks ago, what with the invasion of men, bricks, bags of concrete, wheelbarrows, assorted tools and equipment, Iggy wisely escaped next door. I’d have gone too if I didn’t have to be here for daily decisions. I missed the ugly creature. He was part of my daily landscape.

Along about the third day of work on my lengthy construction project, a stray dog wandered into my yard. He sniffed all of us, settled at Josue’s feet, and in effect, said, “You’re mine.” After a few hearty meals and a bit of grooming, the ragged stray turned into a beautiful shepherd. Josue’s daughter Stephany named him “Zeus”.

One evening, after work at my place, Josue fired up his industrial weed-eater to clear a piece of property which, abandoned for many years, has been recently purchased. In the rainy season it is easy for land to become choked with weeds and grasses, higher than corn in August in Oklahoma.

Zeus escaped his yard and, unseen (Josue wears a protective helmet), bounded into the weed blade, severing a front leg. Josue and Erica rushed the dog to the vet. How quickly we become “family”, fearful, waiting to hear the outcome. Josue felt devastated. We all shared his feelings.

Fortunately, it was a clean cut at the joint. This sweet animal shows resilient strength and responds to his new name, Tripod. Now and then he hobbles over for me to scruff his neck while he leans into my leg.

Days later, Josue told me wasn’t ready to revisit the site of the accident. Armed with sweetgrass and sage, Josue and I smudged one another and then the property. I told him it’s not the words that are important, but the intention.

Yesterday I got excited. I glimpsed a flicker of movement at the top of my wall. Iggy is back. He sat eying the young hibiscus I planted at the base of the wall. Lunch for later. I have watched an iguana at Nancie’s place down a huge hibiscus blossom in one gulp. Iggy probably thinks I planted hibiscus to lure him home. I’ll share, but not every flower.

Eventually Iggy climbed down the wall and sat at the edge of the drain pipe, scoping out his old digs. Finally he slithered head first down the pipe. He’s big. I don’t know how he turns around. Minutes later he emerged to sit in wait for a meal to fly near his mouth, just like old times.

To complete the quotation, “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” Classic Groucho.

The majority of my reading these days is by e-book. But now and then I pick up a tree-book. Today I caught myself clicking my finger on the edge to turn the page of a tree-book, Alice Munro’s “Away From Her”.

Do you think I should make myself available for a dog to find me?

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

August 25, 2016

Friday, August 19, 2016

Straining Tea Leaves Through My Teeth

Straining Tea Leaves Through My Teeth
            My cousin Nancie will board the plane for her home in Washington today. Three weeks wasn’t enough time for her to finish the long list of tasks she set herself in her new casa. But she painted and made curtains and cleaned and scratched off great chunks of her list. We found time to visit each day, often during work breaks or sharing meals, mugs of coffee, cups of tea.

            Years ago I had a friend in construction work who, with a wink, said that paint hides a multitude of sins. I’m a great believer in paint, for houses, not my face. I never learned how to hide my face. Just as well.

            Nancie has transformed her house with paint and a few yards of fabric she stitched into curtains. I suspect her photos and our progress reports motivated Kathy to arrange an unplanned but short trip the first of September to begin painting in her casa. Kathy will arrive with her sister Crin for show-and-tell.  

            Wielding a paint laden brush satisfies my soul. My wee casita is brick. Brick walls, inside and out, with huge arched windows. My painting tasks have been small, things like cupboards or book shelves or those old metal rocking chairs on the patio. I have splashes of bright color in every corner.

            Both Nancie’s and Kathy’s homes are built with plaster over the brick walls. Nancie’s is—I mean was—stark white. We all like Mexican colors, earthy and vibrant. She has enlivened her rooms, now warm and inviting. Her living room sings in shades of orange.

            The walls in Kathy’s house are already colorful, choices of the former owners. But they are the wrong colors. When I first walked in the door I wanted to cringe. “Well, that’s interesting,” I said.

But Kathy reads me like a well-thumbed book. “Me too,” she agreed. “The colors are from a Gothic movie setting.” In the two weeks she’s here in September, I’ll enjoy helping her mix paint to get the shades she wants.

I wish Nancie could stay longer. The bunch of us women could do serious damage, shopping and painting and laughing and planting. Nancie wishes Nancie could stay longer.

Since Kathy will be here in two weeks, I have a shopping request for her. Last week I broke the clasp on my ancient tea ball. My tea strainer, of unknown vintage, is full of holes. Despite my stingy use of my fill-your-own bags, my supply didn’t last forever. What is a woman to do?

My first choice is a siege-mentality supply of tea bags, the kind one fills oneself. I first found them in a tea shop, now long closed, in Poulsbo, Washington. Mine were of white mesh, from China. One spoons in the amount of tea leaves one desires, closes them like an envelope and plops them into the tea pot. Pour on boiling water. Voila! No muss. No fuss.

Since Kathy’s husband Richard works in Victoria, a mecca of exotic tea shops for tea lovers, I asked Richard if he might find me some tea bags.

Richard said he’s never heard of my tea bags but he can get me a lovely fine-mesh strainer like his. Well, that is sweet, Richard, but for a few pesos, I can pick up a strainer (made in China), not as nice as yours, but serviceable.

This morning over breakfast Nancie admitted she never once, in the three weeks she’s been here, thought about needing or wanting to go home to Washington. We schemed how to convince Kathy and Richard they need to become residents here sooner rather than later. This seems to be a place where all our cares fall to the side. Is it the place? Or is it that we’ve created an atmosphere which allows our spirits to relax.

Come fall, Nancie and Pat, Kathy and Richard, and people I’ve not yet met will be here, occupying their homes through the winter months.

Nancie is on the way to the airport in Guadalajara. I’m waiting for the welder to show up with my new back gate. Tripod, my neighbor’s beautiful shepherd (who had an intimate experience with a weed-eater blade), came for a visit. He likes me to scruff his neck. The kettle is boiling. Maybe I’ll have Richard get me the nice tea strainer after all. Time for my cup of tea.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

August 18, 2016

Wednesday, August 10, 2016


            The workmen are finished. Thanks to daily rain my damaged lawn is repairing itself. No more mud and crud. My house is in order. Trees are planted. I’m weeding the neglected flower beds.

            Two-or-three-or-several times a week I am rendered speechless with gratitude when a-hit-me-over-the-head-look-at-how-different-my-world-is-than-it-coulda-woulda-been. Whew.

            Think about it. I grew up in Harlem, Montana in the 50’s and 60’s. A trip to Chinook was a big deal. The Harlem News used to report when so-and-so motored to Havre to visit relatives, told us who sat around the table, what the happy family had for dinner and assured us that a good time was had by all. Great Falls was another country. Any place further away was out of our world.

            Life was hard but expectations were easy. As a girl I was expected to marry a Valley farmer like my Dad, have kids, bake bread, grow a garden, put up green beans, all of which I dutifully did. It’s a good life. But after ten years I hit a wall and turned left.

              After many walls and a circuitous route in and out of Montana more than once, I’ve landed in a mountain valley near Guadalajara. Yesterday I told my friend Jerry in Idaho, “I can truthfully say I’ve never been happier.”

            Happy, yes. An interesting concept. I doubt “happy” has anything to do with geography. Or people. Certainly not with acquisitions and money. I’ve never been more alone. I’ve never had less stuff. It’s an inside job and I have no explanation, logical or magical.

            Today a young woman I know called me to thank me.

“For what?” I asked.

            “You taught me that you cannot put shoes on a shark.”

            My mind immediately conjured a cartoon “Jaws” wearing red Converse high tops.

            I am speechless. I don’t remember saying anything like that. In fact, I’m puzzled what “shoes on a shark” might mean. We never know how somebody else will take meaning from what we say or do.

            But, maybe, just maybe, that is my secret from myself. Maybe I have quit trying to put shoes on my shark.

            It is possible that this person I am, this Sondra, is more myself than I’ve ever been, shorn of any pretense, any need to be or do or appear other than I am. Warts and all.

            Summertime and the living is easy. I look up and the first thing I see is an orange hibiscus blossom. I take a deep breath and smell jasmine. A striped green lizard is crawling along my brick wall. A tub of mangoes sit on the counter, waiting for me to slice and freeze for pies throughout the year. My first guava is ripe. Josue gave me pomegranates from his tree.

            While we were weeding through my flower beds this morning, Leo said to me, “This place looks so different since you came. It is beautiful. I like to just sit and look.”

            Dinnertime this evening I’ll join Lani and Ariel and my cousin Nancie for ribs, Mexican style.

            Know what? If I were still living in Harlem, I’d be saying the same things. Hollyhocks instead of hibiscus. No lizards or exotic fruits. But I’d surround myself with beauty because beauty makes me feel good. I’d be having dinner with good friends. I’d be glorying in the sunset, different sky.

            I like where I am. This woman from little ol’ Harlem, Montana never dreamed she’d end up living in Mexico, no matter how many left turns she took in life.

            Shoes on a shark? I wonder what I meant?

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

August 11, 2016

Monday, August 8, 2016

No Story This Week

No Story This Week
            My mind is a mess.
Twenty three days ago the men began work in my back yard, front yard, patio, and, yes, even inside my house. Twenty three days of mud and crud and cement dust, of men and tools and Mexican music, of piles of sand, water barrels, ladders and stacks of brick across my lawn.
Did you know fresh cement has a distinctive smell? And handmade sun-baked brick has its own flavor?
My wall is complete, my patios are finished. I can sweep, “rearrange the furniture” and “hang pictures”.  Figuratively speaking.
My head and my heart, and, yes, my hands, are in the garden.
I planted all eight of my new trees. Wish I knew the name. They flower twice a year; three with intense pink and five with pinkish white blossoms. The flower cluster is much like that of a butterfly bush or a lilac. My newest orange tree holds place of honor in a corner of a half-wall I asked the men to build, as long as they were slinging brick and mud.
I moved my “kitchen” pots; cilantro and peppers and savory herbs, to the south patio. Flowering beauties and greenery adorn patios on each side of my house. I’m in garden paradise.
For three weeks every time I go to town I returned with plants from David’s Vivero in anticipation of today. My neighbors and the workmen, tripping around my empty pots and burlap wrapped bushes, tease me. I already have flowers everywhere; why buy more?   
There is no such thing as too much. And there is no such thing as done. Friday I went to market to buy mangoes for jam and returned with four stalks of flowering ginger. Ten pesos!
The season is perfect for planting. We get rain every night, sometimes as much as two inches, but usually not such a drencher. Come September I’ll be dragging hose around again, watering daily.  
Nancie, my cousin from Sedro Woolley, Washington, arrived last week. She is doing what I was five months ago, making her new casa her own. We pop back and forth several times a day to check progress or just to take a needed break.
She asked me, “Do we have seasons? When and what are they? My answer, “cold, hot, rainy and nice”. Four seasons. Lani jumped into the conversation to fine tune my answer.
December, January, and February are cold—relatively speaking. No colder than the Pacific Northwest nights but afternoons are hot and sunny instead of wet and gloomy. Let’s not even try to make a comparison to Montana winter.
March, April and May are hot. Hot being hot. Take my word for it. Montana in August.
June, July, August and into September are rainy. Days reach perfection, sunshine and warmth with cool, refreshing nights.
People who live here tell me September and October and November are “nice”. I’ve no idea what that means so I’ll venture a guess that like baby bear’s porridge, not too hot and not too cold; just right.
Sunday I’m going to Tonola to the tianguis to buy more pots and then to a huge vivero outside Guadalajara for more plants. I have this perfect place for more flowers, you see. The stump left from removing an old pine tree, not a pine like we have, but one with huge gnarly roots, is now surrounded with lovely smooth concrete, creating a circle space, perfect for a “stump” garden.

I can see it, succulents nestled among the roots and flowers I’ve yet to discover painting patches of color here and there and overall.  Dirt beneath my fingernails but no story. 

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

August 4, 2016