Monday, May 16, 2016

There Is A Serpent In My Garden

There Is A Serpent In My Garden
            I live in a garden in paradise. I have met the Snake. He is big. He is bad. He is beautiful. And if I eat of the apple from this Snake, I shall surely die.  And that is where the similarities to the Other Garden Story end.

            My garden is lush with bougainvillea, night-blooming jasmine, hundreds of lilies, a coffee bush, palms, grapefruit, lime, oranges, mango, avocado, ferns, geraniums, ivies, philodendron, and a hundred plants I cannot name.

            My wee brick casita sits smack in the middle of my garden. The perimeter walls are taken up with large arched windows, defined by decorative wrought iron. Whether inside or outside, I am in the garden.  

A brick wall surrounds my garden. The entrance gate is not guarded by angels with flaming swords and I don’t need to go to the fig tree for materials to make my clothing. I am the only human in my garden which I share with two (Could be two-hundred; they all look alike.) rabbits, a family of squirrels, numerous iguanas, uncountable varieties of lizards. And the neighbor’s cats. Nothing comes two by two. But that’s a different story.

And the Snake.

Along toward evening I strolled around my patio, checking newly-potted plants, puffed with contentment and satisfaction and, yes, pride, at the order and beauty I was creating out of the jumble-jungle untamed mess I began working with two months ago. I turned the corner to admire my new steps to my terraced back yard and almost stepped on Him.

Him. (I name all creatures, critters and inanimate objects in my garden; thus I named this snake “Him”.) Large red bands alternating with smaller yellow and black bands, mostly black head. Coral snake.

Fear. Boy, Howdy. Let me tell you, I could have flown under my own power, my body was so full of adrenalin. All I could think was “I’ve got to kill it.” When I returned with my big shovel, Him was still sprawled out, the picture of relaxation. 

I stood a moment wondering where Him was most vulnerable. Him finally noticed me and began to curl and slink. I plunged the shovel blade mid-section and nailed Him to the ground, trying my best to cut Him in half.

Him is tough. I wiggled the shovel and Him squirmed out from under my blade and slid beneath the brick planter wall. Him probably escaped with no more than a bruise.

I thought I’d better alert my neighbors. A bite from a coral snake will paralyze one’s breathing apparatus. They don’t bite humans often (small consolation) but they are killers.

Ariel said, “That’s probably the only coral snake you’ll ever see. She is shy.”


Josue said, “I’m scared of snakes. Be careful. Wear shoes in the garden. She probably ran away and hid.”


Leo said, “I’m scared of snakes. Very dangerous. You are brave lady to try to kill her.”


Without consulting one another, far as I know, they named me “The Snake Lady.”

This morning I bought a pair of rubber garden boots, ugly and thick, probably made from recycled tires, tough. I’m not leaving the house without my trusty boots.

Did you know snakes are protected under Mexican law? The coral snake has few natural predators. Roosters. Not for me, thank you. Large dogs. Well, no, I don’t want a dog. Iguanas.

 Iguanas love cilantro. I’m ripping out my entire geranium bed and planting cilantro. Cilantro spreads like a vicious weed. I’ll have a whole herd of iguanas, happily munching cilantro treats, keeping the coral snakes, especially Him, out of my garden.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

May 12, 2016

Those Things We Think We Need

Those Things We Think We Need
             At last, I have a working sink in the house. No more carting all food preparation items plus dishes before and after meals out to the outdoor sink on the patio. Josue has finished my kitchen cabinets.

            I’m no stranger to roughing it. Back in the early Sixties, when I was newly married and it seemed romantic, I had no sink. Running water meant I carried buckets from the well out by the stock tank and poured it into the water bucket on the wash stand (cold) and the copper boiler on the wood stove (hot).

            With no romance in my life these days, I fully appreciate my new cabinets with a sink hooked up to hot and cold running water. Thank you, Josue. Glory and Amen.

            Somehow I lodged into my brain that I needed a dish drainer, you know, to stack my plate and cup and knife and fork to dry after I washed them in my newly functional sink. I’ll tell you more about my sink later. Meanwhile, I wanted a dish drainer and went on the search.

            Lani and I drove into town to a tienda that stocks a lot of plastic kitchen items, sort of a mini-Mexican Target, kitchen aisle. They had drainers all right. The plastic kind. I don’t like the plastic kind. I wanted a wire drainer—wire coated with plastic. The wide plastic drainers get dirty quickly and are hard to clean, in my opinion. I live in dusty farm country. You know what that is like. And I wanted what I wanted. You may know what that is like!

            “Miercoles.” The clerk said they would have them in Wednesday. No problem. I’m patient.

            Thursday Ariel stopped by to see if I needed anything in town. He said he’d check to see if my dish drainer had arrived. No such luck.

            Friday Leo took me to town to buy a new stove. On the way we passed a different tienda which I knew had a small array of kitchen plastics, Voila! On the top shelf, there sat a wire dish drainer, a two tiered affair, like an ocean liner, coated in red plastic. I like color. The price was displayed. (Often there are no prices displayed in the tiendas. Then one gets to haggle. Sometimes I haggle even when the price is marked. Sometimes it works.) The all-plastic drainers were 60 pesos. The red yacht of dish drainers was nearly 400 pesos.

            I stood three or four minutes in contemplation, enough minutes to have an “ah-ha” moment. I visualized my sink, a lovely large stainless sink with attached drain board on one side.

Sondra, what are you thinking? You have a built-in drainer. Sure enough, you can’t stack your plates upright to dry. But if you add a dish drainer to the drain board, an admittedly nice touch, you can’t swing your kitchen window open. Is this Gucci drainer a necessity?

            “I’m not paying 400 pesos for a dish drainer I don’t need. Let’s go look at stoves.”

            Now, I liked my old stove. I didn’t want a new stove. The burners worked great. But, sadly, I “needed” a new stove unless I wanted to never bake anything other than pottery.

            At the furniture/appliance store, I carefully examined each stove, all six models. One style had an electronic starter and oven light. And the price was right. $3,071.00. That is about $170 USD. The store delivered it, Leo hooked it up, I baked bread. I’m a happy woman.

            What I want to know is why I so easily confused my “wants” with my “needs”? When I pared down my life to be in Mexico, I gave up every electric kitchen appliance known to cooks. Except for a food processer, a nicety, which I seldom bother to use; after all, I’m generally cooking for one. Oh, let me not forget the coffee grinder, a necessity, which I use every day.

            If my food processer broke down, I wouldn’t bother to replace it. But my coffee grinder is a different matter. Maybe I should start the search for a hand grinder, like our grandparents used in the olden romantic days. I might need one.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door 

April 28, 2016  

Trolling Through the Plaza Friday Night

Trolling Through the Plaza Friday Night
                        Last Friday the Casa de Cultura sponsored a Folklorico performance for the Etzatlan community. A stage dominated one corner of the square, with rows of folding chairs for the audience.  Dance troups, some local, some from surrounding towns, others who had traveled great distances, performed traditional dances.    

            Ah, the regalia. Miles of calico and satin, skirts and flounces, blouses and scarves. Herds of cowhides stitched into vests and pants and boots. The men handsome in elegant sombreros. The women’s natural grace enhanced with flowers in their hair, lacy fans for flirting; all part of the dance.        
            The Plaza is adjacent to the Cathedral. Generally, after evening Mass, the Plaza fills with families out to enjoy the evening. Around the perimeter of the tree-lined Plaza, vendors, some with permanent stands, some more mobile, sell tacos, tamales, gorditos, fruit drinks and soda, candy, trinkets, toys and such traditional Mexican fare as pizza.

            The Folklorico groups danced on stage until quite late, for me, though not so late for Mexican people. Once the crew dismantled the stage, loaded the chairs and sound and light systems, the real dance began.

            Boys strolled in groups one direction while girls walked the circle counter-wise. Each young person is hyper-vigilant, while pretending to ignore the opposite sex, aware of every glance, every nuance of body language. Like birds in the tree branches outside my windows, the youngsters performed an elaborate mating dance, precursor to choosing partners.

            Grandmothers and grandfathers, subtle chaperones, sat on the white iron-work benches flanking the “boulevard”, gossiping, doing needlework or whittling, while keeping a wary eye on the young people. Couples committed to one another walked the circle with ease, comfortably holding hands, possibly planning their futures. The very young, once they were fed, played tag and other games around the feet of the strollers.  

            Lani and I sat on one of the white benches, munched churros hot out of the fat, licked our fingers clean of cinnamon-sugar, and watched people walk by. For a few moments I felt nostalgia for something we in our culture never had, a yearning for I knew not what.

            Cruising Main Street on Saturday night in our day was just not the same thing. Crawl up the street five or six blocks, turn around before the railroad crossing, putt-putt down the street and turn again before the road turned off into the countryside. I suppose cruising served a purpose, a primping and showing, fluffing feathers, for those who had cars. Mostly boys.

            Not dances in the high school gym, not exactly courting. Girls lined one wall, boys the other. It took less courage for King Arthur’s Knights to slay a dragon, than for a boy to walk the hundred empty miles across the basketball court to risk rejection by the maiden fair.

            Football games were too cold. Basketball games might have been a way for girls to meet guys except that basketball tended to heated rivalry. A Harlem girl wouldn’t dare talk with a hated Chinook boy. Ewww, Ick.

            Difficult as it was, we still managed to hook up, with or without the watchful eyes of parents.

            But I gotta tell you, we missed a lot. A girl can learn worlds about a guy while watching him saunter a few circles around the square.   
Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

May 5, 2016

Hacking Back My Jungle, One Plant At A Time

Hacking Back My Jungle, One Plant At A Time
            I walked around my coffee bush, checking out the blossoms and emerging beans. Actually, although I lust after it, the bush belongs to the neighboring property, now sitting empty. It doesn’t sooth me that this towering bush is dead ahead in my line of vision when I sit at my keyboard, looking out my window at my lilies and geraniums, my view framed by the bougainvillea on my left and the grapefruit on my right, orange trees in the distance.

            About three weeks ago when branches loaded with red beans began turning black, I got excited. What fun to roast coffee beans in my oven. I turned to that mute coffee-bean expert, Google, and discovered I needed green beans for that deep dark full flavor I desire. Roasting, not nature, turns the beans the lovely dark black and brings out the flavor. And, of course, there was not a green bean to be found. So I put my coffee bean project on hold.

            While in Mazatlan last week, I ate breakfast at Looney Beans, my favorite coffee house at the Cerritos beach. My delightful young server showed me a handful of the green coffee beans, ready for the roaster. Now I know what size and color to pick.

While I don’t own the coffee bush, I have use of it for now and plan to plant my own before the rains come. I suppose it would be unethical when prospective buyers show up to talk to them about the infestation of scorpions and rats, a veritable plague. Yeah, I thought so.

            Meanwhile, in my own back yard, to the consternation of Iggy, my personal iguana who lives in my drain pipe, every day I prune back or take out a small portion of the jungle growth.

            The couple who sold me my wee casita wanted privacy. Hence, the jungle. I believe nothing was ever pruned in the twenty-eight years they lived here. I felt like I was in jail. This Montana girl needs open spaces.

I have twenty-to-thirty feet high night jasmine. Bougainvillea the size of cottonwood trees. Birds of every description have lovingly (or not) dropped seeds of amapa, also called primavera, a tree that holds up the sky. I love the purple umbrella which amapa unfurls in the spring. Several of these giants grow outside my brick wall perimeter. I’ve removed dozens from the inside, young sprouts of every length; some required a saw.

            With Leo’s strong-arm help, once we removed the underbrush, dead branches from past years, unwanted trees, and a plethora of weeds, a thousand lilies turned their heads to the sun. Tiny flowers emerged, ready to take their place in the garden, no longer bullied into cowering in the corners.

            Ah, but revealing hidden beauty has consequences. I’ve destroyed one habitat in order to create another.

You think I joke about scorpions. Were that only true! In the last hour one scuttled across my kitchen floor, one challenged me on my doorstep. Stomped them dead, I did. Grabbed the vile scorpion poison and sprayed the perimeter.

            Scorpions scare me. Scorpions, like most things, come in several varieties. The one that stung me the first month I lived in Mazatlan and sent me to the hospital was the size of my cupped hand and coal black. In The dominant scorpion in Etzatlan is the size of a silver dollar, yellow-green in color, and much less visible and more poisonous. Makes me almost nostalgic for the black variety.

            But I’m used to spotting danger. Back on the ranch, I wasn’t the champion rattlesnake finder for nothing.

            Lizards, did I mention lizards? Green lizards, gray lizards, lizards yellowish with a red stripe, all of which drag behind them a tail twice as long as their bodies. Two lizards scurry about my geranium bed outside my window. A squirrel flitted through the flowers and found the lizards of no consequence. I glanced across the yard at Iggy and he seemed to yawn and wink. Well, that’s what it looked like to me.

            Lizards and iguanas, while startling and ugly, aren’t dangerous, at least as far as I know. Except for Iggy, they are more afraid of me than I am of them.

            Meanwhile, a bunny rabbit is climbing a red-berried branch of “my” coffee bush. I don’t mind if the little thief is harvesting the berries I can’t use but she better leave alone the white flowers and tiny, tender green beans. I have plans!

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

April 21, 2016

Just When I Wanted To Forget

Just When I Wanted To Forget
            Some days, despite all the good things in my life, I wake up and would rather crawl back into bed and pull the quilt over my head. Pity party is another word for the feeling. Party, well, yes, party. I woke up with an ugly thought, “Today is my birthday.”

Seventy-one seems a number without much pizzazz. Seventy or seventy-five or one hundred—now those numbers have class. Milestone numbers. My number seems rather in-betweeny. How old are you? Mumbley mumble.

Then Teresa walked over and turned my party upside down. “I’d like you to drive to the border with me. I don’t want to go through Mexico by myself. I’ll fly you back from Phoenix. Once I’m in the States, I can drive alone from there.”

Last week I contemplated all the “elves” in my life, my helpers. This week I got to be one. Here’s what happened.

A few days ago Teresa’s husband flew back to Portland to see his doctor. He planned to see his doc, get medicine, fly back and eventually drive home with Teresa and the two dogs.

Not good news. The man has a tumor on his liver and a blood clot between his liver and his heart. Not good news at all. Sure took care of my pity party. “When do you want to leave?”

Next morning we drove from Etzatlan to Mazatlan. After lunch at Cerritos, we searched out the hotel Teresa had booked on the Malecon. While she was checking in, I called my friend and pulmonia driver, Carlos. “What time do you work today, Carlos?” “Sondra, what are you doing in Mazatlan? I start at three.” “Perfect.”

I arranged for Carlos to take us, dogs included, on a pulmonia tour of Mazatlan, a special surprise treat for Teresa, who, traveling with dogs, had not planned to see the city beyond the hotel room.

By coincidence, if you believe in coincidence, Carlos’ partner, who was scheduled to drive the afternoon shift, had asked to trade. That simple change made our afternoon tour possible.

We had an excellent two hour tour, saw historic sites, the shrimp boat marina, the tuna fleet, the ferry dock, the Plazuela Machado, the Cathedral, the Mercado. We saw it all. We had fun. The dogs loved it. A good time was had by all.

Imagine how good I felt. It pleasured me to show off my favorite city. I spent two hours with one of my favorite friends. Seventy-one? Ha—what’s in a number.

The second day of our journey consisted of pit stops and road construction. With two women and two dogs, a pit stop takes sixteen times as long as a stop for one woman. Scientific researched fact. Road construction is same whenever you go. Despite delays we made it to Hermosillo at darkfall.

Ha! Immediately inside the skirts of town we found a HOTEL, bright lights and huge sign, high modern building, strangely with no windows. After circling the block twice we found the entrance, wound through a tunnel-like passage, only to see “murals” on the entry walls that told us with certainty this was not the “hotel” in which we wanted to stay. We scooted out, post haste.

Drove, drove, drove, until I said, “Pull into Costco. You walk the dogs and I’ll look helpless.” Sure enough, a woman who lives near the hotel district rescued us and led us to the Holiday Inn. Bless strangers and good beds.

Our final road trip day we crossed the border at Nogales and made it to Phoenix without incident, though we were starved. We stopped at the first fast food emporium and shoveled down a burger and fries. Within minutes we realized how spoiled we are in Mexico with our abundance of fresh and unprocessed foods.

In the morning Theresa, a woman I hardly knew a week ago, and her dogs, will head to Oregon and I’ll fly to Guadalaraja. We have cemented a solid friendship, the best birthday gift for me.  
But I’m telling you, next year, I’m positively absolutely no compromise not having a birthday party, pity party, or any party. I’m keeping my head low, mum’s the word. Knitting. Maybe I’ll take up knitting. Or cross stitch. Or tatting.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

April 14, 2016

Life Amongst the Elves In Etzatlan

            Life Amongst the Elves In Etzatlan
            I’ve always liked the story of the shoemaker and the elves. In the evening, before he retired, the old shoemaker cut the leather and prepared his work bench to stitch the shoes in the morning. In the night the elves came to the shop of the good shoemaker and stitched the shoes, the most beautiful shoes.

            When I had my shop in Poulsbo, Washington, often I cut fabric for the following day. Each morning I entered with eyes of hope. The elves never came.

Here in Etzatlan, Leo is my chief elf. I inherited Leo from Joe and Yvonne, former owners of my casita. Leo is caretaker for several casitas on the rancho. Leo is twenty-six or twenty-seven. He began working at the rancho with his uncle when he was twelve. Leo has an university education and could teach school or have a “real job” but he prefers work among the plants and trees.

Yesterday I went with Lani, a neighbor elfess, to the vivero in Ahualuco, the next town south of us. I bought herbs and flowers, not that my yard needs more. But there is a sad little neglected plot in back, shaded in the morning, sunny in the afternoon.

When Lani drove to my gate, Josue, my neighbor across the way, who is building my kitchen cabinetry in his evening hours, in true elf fashion bounded out to carry my plants to my patio, where they could await my desires.

            Nights are cold here, which is great for sleeping, with windows open and me snuggled beneath my down comforter. Until the sun warms the day, mornings are chilly. I shower, dress, grab a sweater, brew my coffee, and sit on my patio in the emerging light and warmth. By the time I finish coffee, I fling my sweater over a chair and I have my plan for the day, knowing full well plans are made for permutations. Take this morning, for example.

I asked Leo if we had a shovel. “Yes, we have a shovel.”

“Oh, good,” I said, knowing I might never have to use the shovel. Leo continued pruning the hibiscus and night jasmine, shrubs heading for tree-dom.

I split a variegated ivy into a couple pots destined for shady places. Then I carted my herbs and flowers as well as a batch of mother-in-law’s-tongue given me by Ariel, another elf who looks after me, to that scruffy plot in back. I set the pots on the ground where I figured they would look good, then went in the house.

Sure enough, an hour later I heard sounds of “scritch, scritch”. Leo hacked away at the dry soil, preparing it for my flowers.

One of the hardest things for me to do, blame my upbringing, is to ask for help. I cannot explain how I landed in a place where the people around me simply look out for me. I hardly express a wish before Lani hauls me to town or Ariel sends over a bucket of paint or, well, here’s another example.

My brick-walled back yard consists of a grassy area bordered by prima vera, palms, bougainvillea, a thousand amaryllis, night jasmine and things, tall and small, I cannot identify. One of the mystery trees wears ferny branches which just days ago burst into bloom with hanging red bottle-brushes. I asked Leo, who can identify most of the greenery, “What is that?” He looked at it thoughtfully for a long moment, “A tree.”

My long-range back-yard plan is to forget the grass, create rockeries, install three or four citrus trees, a mango and a coffee bush. Pathways with benches for sitting in contemplation will separate the areas. A plan, emphasis on “long-range”.

This morning I mentioned to Leo that I wanted to create a rockery in that dry patch near the wall. There I’ll plant the cactus which now live in pots by the front door, along with other rock-garden beauties. I know that in three or four days Leo will back his pick-up through the gate and unload a pile of rock and a few bags of dirt. Poco y poco. Little by little.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

April 7, 2016

A Little Paint Covers A Multitude of Sins

                A Little Paint Covers A Multitude of Sins
            Years ago a builder said to me, “Paint covers a multitude of sins.” I didn’t need convincing. When I was a senior in high school, mere days before graduation and marriage, I rescued and painted a small wooden dresser.

 I don’t know how many years it had sat neglected in our farm dump, that place through the woods and near the river where we discarded very little. I think it might have come from the labor house, used only during sugar beet and potato harvest.

            Nor do I remember what made me notice it, half-buried in trash as it must have been. I remember shoring it up with a few screws. Once I had stabilized the framework and attached wooden thread spools for drawer pulls, I drove to Coast-to-Coast for a quart of paint and slapped on several coats. Voila! I had transformed junk into a serviceable piece of furniture.  

            Today I am painting a butcher block island I rescued from an abandoned casita. (Not much changes in my life!) The wood is dry as old dry bones lying out in the prairie sun. The wood soaked up the first coat and the color. 

            Meanwhile Leo is cleaning junk of ages out of the storage bodega. Sergio is in the main bodega trying to figure out why my washing machine leaves clothes sopping wet eight times out of ten. The incessant pounding in my bathroom is Charley, attempting to fix my shower which at first worked intermittingly, but the last five days, not at all.

In the recesses of my mind I hear “ka-ching, ka-ching”. Paint will not cover those sins. I’ve a feeling a fat bundle of pesos will be demanded.

The second painting on my island leaves a hint of promise of color. Two coats will not finish the job.

My washing machine is still a mystery. I considered asking Sergio to marry me but he is a good twenty years younger and probably has a lovely wife and doting grandchildren.

In my shower the entire pipe system and fixtures need to be replaced. Charlie is hacking and grinding away with gigantic frightening tools. If you have a mind-picture of a stereotypical plumber, that is Charlie. He might make a wonderful husband—for my oldest granddaughter.

Leo pats me on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. Go visit Lani. It not be too expensive.”

“Easy for you to say, Leo.”

With the third coat of paint, my kitchen island glows soft and buttery, golden. Another dabbing ought to finish that job.

Sergio disappeared with part of my washing machine.

Charley will be back to finish manana. Or he won’t. Manana covers a multitude of days. But he promised me a shower tonight—after I clean muck and guck from the bathroom.

One job has led to three. Charley says I need a new tinaco, the water storage tank that sits atop the roof on every house in Mexico. Then when finally all the pipes are hooked up, after Charley’s work is finished, Leo’s uncle will come replace the tile that had to be torn out.

Another decision for me—do I replace the whole wall or pick something and be satisfied with patchwork?

Where is Sergio?

Paint doesn’t cover every sin. If I had just a little more confidence in the power of paint, I’d wear make-up and dye my hair. Now that would be a major renovation!

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

March 31, 2016