Saturday, March 17, 2018

Dona Mary

Dona Mary
            I feel sad. This morning I made a list of things I wanted to buy in Etzatlan. Since I don’t have a car, I rely on taxi service or a friend or one of the workers here on the ranch to take me around.

            I had asked Leo, my gardening helper, to “bring your car and let’s go have breakfast at Dona Mary’s before we shop.”

            It’s been easy for me to swing into the Mexican way of eating. Early morning coffee with a small snack, fruit or a biscuit.  Mid-morning, a breakfast meal, something substantial, and then somewhere in mid-afternoon, the main meal of the day. If I were really Mexican, I would also have a light meal, perhaps left-overs, after dark and work is done. For me, the mid-afternoon meal is enough. I don’t get hungry, or if I do, a piece of fruit or something sweet satisfies me.

            Dona Mary’s Restaurante is out of town, on the edge of the Ehido, San Pedro, on the road to Magdalena. It’s an open-sided, ram-shackle affair. The roof, such as it is, has been cobbled together with pieces of corrugated iron and plastic panels. The floor is concrete and the roof rests on concrete pillars. Guessing from the adobe oven and the giant wood-burning cookstove, the restaurant has been in this same place at least fifty to sixty years, generation to generation. There are perhaps a dozen ancient metal tables, each with four chairs.

The first time I ate here, I had carnitas con nopales, small chunks of pork rib browned and stewed in a delicious sauce with slivers of nopale cactus. I was hooked. I’m an adventurous eater. I like to order foods I’ve never before tasted. But, I’ve had the same meal every time I go to Dona Mary’s. I go when I get hungry for carnitas con nopales. It doesn’t hurt that she also makes the best hand-patted tortillas I’ve ever had. Makes your mouth water, doesn’t it?

The food is simple and good; the ambiance transports me to yesteryear in Mexico. But what makes Dona Mary’s special is, well, Dona Mary. She is a woman who enjoys feeding people. She watches to make sure we like her food and is inordinately pleased when we eat with obvious gusto.

Each time I go there, Dona Mary sees me get out of the car and her face lights up with a smile of pleasure. One can tell when a smile is genuine. Her eyes smile even more than her mouth. Dona Mary’s welcoming smile always made me feel warm, at home.

Her husband, Jose, would be there too, a nod, a wave of his hand. He kept the wood pile replenished or sharpened knives, or sat with his own cup of coffee. A daughter helped with the cooking and a grand-daughter waited tables. Whoever was available when the plate was ready, served the food. And Dona Mary always stopped by the table to talk.

This morning, Dona Mary was not at her usual place, large wooden spoon dripping juice while she waved us inside to a table. The young woman who cleaned the table for us was not the usual grand-daughter. We ordered our usual meal, carnitas con nopales. The sauce was different; still delicious. Today’s re-friend beans were flavored with chorizo. The corn tortillas, were, however, the same delicious, hand ground, hand patted rounds, hot and tasty from the grill.

We felt a premonition but we had to ask, “Where is Dona Mary?”

Dona Mary has cancer, the answer we didn’t want to hear. It seems to have started as a tumor in her brain but has taken over from there. There is no good news. I mourn this woman I don’t really know but whom I like.

Things change. If the restaurant continues, which I imagine it will, the people working will be family, but a different branch of the family. I’ll continue to go. The food is good. It’s just not the same. Unreasonably, I want Dona Mary to be standing at the stove, her daughter patting out tortillas and the young grand-daughter slicing oranges for fresh juice.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
March 15, 2018   

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Symptoms of Being Human

               Symptoms of Being Human
            Several of us here on Rancho Esperanza begin our days with Qi Gong, a Chinese energy-movement routine; good for balance, stretching and breathing. Breathing is a good thing.

            We have learned the form, Soaring Crane. Most of us are in our seventh decade. Samantha, our teacher, goes through each of the five separate movements with grace and beauty. We do the best we can. I would say I look more like a Crippled Crane. But I keep going. It makes me feel good.

            The last few weeks I’ve noticed flocks of birds flying over when we begin. In the second movement we arch backward, arms open to the sky. I watch the birds and keep my mouth closed.  Each day there are more birds. Each day the birds fly closer.

            Yesterday, I swear, they were laughing at us. “Look at those humans. They think they imitate birds. What a hoot.”

            Laugh at me, they will. But I’ll continue my routine. Like I said, it makes me feel good.

            One day Jim drove to Guadalajara and I rode shotgun. We’ve become good friends, use one another to bounce around ideas. He makes me laugh.

            “It’s a good thing you are not my boyfriend or whatever we call it when we get this age,” I told him. “We are not compatible.”

            Jim said, “Nobody is compatible. It’s a myth.”

            He might be right. We agree that the best trait for friendship is tolerance. And maybe notions such as compatibility and that really strange new-age idea of soul-mates, are really nothing more than desperate wishes that eventually morph into myths.

            The greater Guadalajara area is huge with a population of over six million. Every trip to the Big City is an adventure, to me. Our second stop was at Sundance Hot-tubs and Spas, to get information. I would like a small hot-tub for therapy. A hot water soak makes me feel good.

We found the address, finally, down the center of a dicey looking alley with Federales standing guard at each end. The entrance is a large metal slide-up door. We found it locked down. The store must be around on the main street, we reasoned. So we walked around the block—no such store front. It’s a mystery.

The auto shocks and brakes business next to where we thought the spa store should be was open. When I finally remembered to pronounce Sundance the Spanish way, soon-dawn-say, the man pointed us through his garage back to the alley. Okay.

Back to the locked door we went. Using my Mexican cell phone, we called the number above the door. Immediately, I knew we needed help. The man who answered wanted to give me a different number and a name to call. I could understand that much. But he rattled on too quickly with even more information.

I know how to ask for help in Spanish. I went to the three Federale men standing next to the door, handed one of them my phone and a tablet and pen. The Man in Blue listened, wrote a name, a number and proxima semana. That means next week. The business will be open next week.

“Jim, we looked up the address online before we came. Why didn’t we call from home?” His answer, “That would be too easy.” I thought I heard a whisper, “Bird brain.”

With much thanks, we then asked to be pointed in the direction of a restaurant. They sent us to the street with restaurant supply stores. Two, three, four blocks of restaurant supply stores. That sort of defined the next eight blocks. We finally found a hole-in-the-wall taco place. The tacos were delicious. But they always are.

On the way home we had a fiery conversation about opinions and myths. “Where do people get their information?” I asked. “I think they make it up.”

 Jim said, “Facebook.”

            Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
March 8, 2018

Monday, March 5, 2018

Gardening With Squirrel

Gardening With Squirrel
            Can you believe it? My third spring in Etzatlan? And, my third year fighting with a squirrel.
            Truth to tell, there might be more than one, but the one I see seems to have the same face and the same cheeky attitude. My first year, when the surround of my casita was all dirt, she burrowed beneath the east corner to build a nest for birthing babies.

            Squirrels are cute. Cute when they are “over there”. When underfoot, I tend to view her as a rodent with longer hair. Imagine a nest of rodents making comfort under MY house, making more tunnels, more nests, and, more rodents.

            In the interest of rodent control, ant control, scorpion control and cock roach control, I paved a concrete patio surround. Mama Squirrel holds a grudge. She frequently stands outside my screen door and chitter-chatters an uncomplimentary attack on my character.

            Last year, after attempting to burrow beneath my patio, she settled in at the neighbor’s.

            This year, to further irritate me, Squirrel planted corn. She’s not lazy. She prefers my well-maintained pot farm for her plantings. By “pot farm”, I mean that on and about my wrap-around patio, I’ve filled a hundred flower pots, and counting, all sizes.

Grain is easy to come by. A huge facility for grinding and storing corn sits three or four blocks to the west; corn fields to the east and north. Squirrel fills her cheeks with kernels, high-tails it to my garden, digs a hole, and spits the seeds and covers them up.

I suspect my flower pots are “storage facilities”. In a normal dry season, when she needs food, Squirrel digs up the kernels and carries them to her family.

However, I thwart her carefully laid plots when, with hose and sprinklers, I make a year-round artificial rainy season. Kernels sprout and begin to grow. She might plant forty or fifty kernels in one hole. So the tender baby stalks create a miniature thicket.

By now Squirrel has forgotten which pots she’s planted. And . . .  that Mean Woman, who won’t let her nest under the house, digs the perfectly tender, juicy, lovely shoots of baby corn stalks out of the pots and, horrors, throws them in the garden trash.

If she’s paying attention, Squirrel will have noticed another rival for her corn stash. Yesterday while having a one-sided conversation with an iguana on the half wall, separating my patio from the yard on the south side, I noticed a disturbance in my basil pot. My basil grows like a miniature tree. But I’d recently pruned it. Otherwise, I might not have noticed the disturbance.

In digging out the squirrel’s stash of corn, the iguana had uprooted half the basil pot—dirt slung far and wide. It looked like a hound had been burying a bone. No wonder he looked so sheepish sitting on the wall eye-balling me while I blathered on. The corn shoots must be delicious to have diverted Iggy from his usual diet of my hibiscus, canna lilies and roses.

Everything must eat. The rabbits, a pair, thus far, prefer amaryllis. They like my yard. Perhaps I’m more tolerant of rabbits simply because they don’t dig holes. They also eat oxalis. Oxalis, whatever its virtues, is, in my garden, a noxious weed with a network of roots like a fishnet. I’ve surrendered to its abundance. I no longer attempt to weed it. Impossible. Rabbits, welcome to oxalis heaven.

Today I found another stash of corn, hidden in a patch of oxalis surrounding some of my amaryllis.  I can either uproot the corn plot or leave it for the iguana, the rabbits or the squirrel. I give up.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
March 1, 2018

Sometimes Life—Soup or Salad?

Sometimes Life—Soup or Salad?
            First serving: soup. When I hug friends good-bye, friends whom I see once a year of less frequently, I go into a three-day funk. My life feels like metaphorical soup, seasoned with a dollop of melancholy and a pinch of abandonment.

            The day after Jerry and Lola left, I came the closest to a panic attack that I’ve been since the ‘80s. Jerry and Lola are innocent. All they did was go home to Idaho.

            My friends, whom I love, were tasty ingredients in my soup. I’d been six weeks gathering ingredients. Six weeks of guests, of going places, of visiting, of being with friends; all of this is good, positive stuff. Three weeks with Don and Denise. One week with friends in Mazatlan. Two weeks with Jerry and Lola. It’s all good. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

            But my energy level had scraped bottom; the chicken broth simmered nearly dry in the pot. Say it however you wish, I was tired. Not quite scorched but close. Bitter herbs.

            Jim rang the goat bell at my gate. He’d come to walk me over to Qi Gong. Twice a week we gather in the “park” for lessons. Qi Gong is a Chinese energy movement exercise. I don’t want to go. I want to crawl in bed and cover up my head. Not the healthiest move and I know it. So I go. For the energy.

            First thing, Bonnie, then Samantha, who is our teacher, greet me with excitement. I would get to meet Anna, new in town, who wanted someone to help write a blog for Etzatlan. Bonnie and Sam knew the perfect writer for the project and, with the best intentions, volunteered me. I grimaced. Shriveled potatoes.

            Then John and Carol asked me if we could resume daily morning Qi Gong in my yard like we did last year. I side-stepped the request. By this time I am shallow breathing. Too much salt.

            Anna, immediately upon being introduced to me, began introducing her exciting new project she wanted to launch with a man whom she knew I’d like, blah, blah, blah, and I’m looking for the exit. The chicken tough, soup inedible.

            Everybody is standing around listening. I want to say, “No! No! No!” But a part of me wants to be nice and consider the requests, maybe it would be fun, while the bottom of my gut said, “I just need to rest.”

            My emotional response was out of proportion to the requests. I had given all I could give. I had irreparably damaged my overdrive gear. Mentally, I snarled. Over-cooked my metaphorical soup.

            Meanwhile, for dinner, I made real chicken vegetable soup. While standing over the sink, pan of simmering soup in one hand, bowl in the other hand, something flickered past my window and distracted me; a bird, a butterfly, a bat, who knows? I poured hot soup over my left hand, which immediately blistered. A metaphorical message?

            I stepped out my door and ripped a sizable chunk of aloe from my plant and smeared my hand. The next morning my skin was smooth and I had no pain. But, I paid attention.

            I let Anna know I’m not the person to write her blog. I walked to see John and Carol, to tell them I needed days to myself to rest and relax before making any decision about a group venture. Word got around quickly that “Sondra needs time out.” My friends gave me that gift. 

            Emotions are not rational. When I tell my story, it seems a big fuss about very little. But, for several weeks I had been jogged out of my routine. I was away from my home, my resting place, my solace.  

            After a few days of quiet, sitting on my back patio, contemplating the beauty of my flowers, or reading, or creating order in my little world, I feel almost ready to venture out. I dumped my metaphorical soup made with over-cooked emotions. With rest I was able to reconsider the ingredients. 

            Last night I made a salad for dinner; lettuce, bell pepper, avocado, and tomato. I added a packet of tuna. At the last minute, I cut up a mango that needed to be used and tossed it all with a simple oil and vinegar. Oh, my, that bit of mango made the vegetable salad sing and zing.

            I think my life is back on track. I wonder if Pat and Nancie have the coffee pot perking. Only one way to find out. I’ll be back in a while.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
February 22, 2018

The Flamenco and the Bulls

The Flamenco and the Bulls
            Ai-yi-yi, what a week this has been.

            A few days ago, tongue in cheek, I mentioned to my friend Dan in Ft. Worth that I would be returning to my “quiet and uneventful life”.  Dan thought I was serious and took me to task and rightly so.

            After three weeks with my friends Don and Denise from Oregon, plus another week on the coast, seeing old friends from the years Mazatlan was my home, I am back home, in Etzatlan, in my casita.

Jerry and Lola from Idaho, who were here with my Class Reunion group last year, have returned for another visit. I don’t know how to begin to describe what a treasure this time together is for me. My friends are exploring the country and experiencing some of the things we didn’t have time to cram in last year. As a bonus, they are here during Carnival, the Mexican Mardi Gras.

I won’t try to tell you everything we’ve done. It’s impossible. The list is long.

One night I joined my friends for dinner at the beautifully restored Hacienda del Carmen, for dinner. As we were being seated, we were told that a dance troupe would be performing a Flamenco. We were invited to attend.

We thought we’d take a look; sort of stand in the back, see what it is about and leave early. Frankly, we had no idea. 

Instead, the manager appeared at our elbows and led us to seats next to the stage, a portable dance floor with a minimum of props. There was no escape had we wanted to leave. We didn’t.   

First of all, the palatial stone building with walls and columns at least a meter thick, was in itself a work of art. We later learned the structure was originally a granary. Believe me, this was nothing like a granary in Montana.

The music began. The dancers entered. I can best describe this magical performance as a blend of Spanish Flamenco music and dance, ballet, and interpretive jazz, with traditional costumes. The story line was easy to follow. The actor-dancers infused every motion, every glance, with spirit, with rhythm, with precision and, most of all, with passion.

What a gift. We had no idea that we’d get to watch a professional troupe from Guadalajara dance into our hearts.

At the opposite end of the event spectrum we attended a bull fight. One might think we went from “Beauty” to the “Beast”, but, not so.

For me, the draw was twofold: I wanted to experience one bull fight.  And the world famous horseman, Pablo Hermoso De Mendoza, would be performing, fighting a bull from horseback. Other matadors or “toreros” would fight the bulls from the ground, with capes.

Were parts of the bull fight gruesome? Yes. I won’t pretend—some was hard to watch. Remember, I’m the odd woman who often escorts spiders from my house back to the outdoors. But I also cheerfully stomp scorpions.

To all things there is balance. The matadors are professional toreros, trained to make every movement, a dance of beauty. The bulls are majestic. From the opening and throughout, a ceremonial procedure is followed, all with formal maneuvers.

Pablo Hermoso stroked his horse’s ears, then touched his fingers to his mouth, becoming one with his horse, before facing the bull. Each of his horses, so beautiful to take my breath away, loved their work. I’ve worked cutting horses, driving cattle, branding, so I know when a horse loves his work.

Whether watching Hermoso on horseback or each of the toreros afoot, dressed in ceremonial regalia from a long-past age, each move was like a ballet; each matador a passionate actor. I cannot help but compare the Flamenco with the Bull Fight. Both tell a story, both use music and dance, rhythm and spirit. Both deal with death and love and beauty, as all good stories ultimately do.

Yes, Dan, my friend, I live a “quiet and uneventful life”. Indeed!

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
February 15, 2018

Friday, February 9, 2018

A Simple Phone, Please

A Simple Phone, Please
            Last night Don and Dorothy, former neighbors, made arrangements to meet me to go to Loony Beans in Cerritos for breakfast. I went to the lobby at 8:50. I like to be prompt. I waited until 9:45 before I gave up; figured my wires had gotten crossed.

            Things had gone bump in the night.  I had left my simple, cheap, adequate Mexican cell phone on the bed where I was lounging with a book. I always, always, always put said phone away in my bag in its pocket. Later in the night, when I rolled over and stretched, I heard the phone hit the floor. Shattered, of course.

            When I got up this morning, I put the phone back together, the best I could. It’s dead. Of course.

            My only record of Don and Dorothy’s phone number is in the dead cell phone. Of course. 

            Unbeknownst to me, they were waiting for the taxi which was very, very, very late. We each could have walked the distance twice in the amount of time we spent “waiting”. Don had called me ten times, to let me know why they were not yet in the lobby.

            We missed one another by minutes. Of course.

            When I went back upstairs, I shot off a series of email messages to my neighbors. It was that or walk the eight or nine blocks to where they live but probably are not home because they are eating breakfast without me in Cerritos. I wrote three messages to tell them what had happened to me. Okay, I’m having a disjointed day. Obviously.

            I choked down a ham sandwich made with dry bread from my refrigerator. While sitting on my balcony with my current best friend, steaming coffee, I glanced out over the sea to see the ferry from La Paz floating by in the sky. I swear, it looked like a gigantic blimp. A second look showed me that the ferry was floating in fog which obscured both waterline and skyline. I tell you, it’s that kind of a day.

            After I gulped my final cup of coffee, I took my metaphorical begging bowl and my best smile down to the lobby to borrow a phone to call Carlos to ask him to take me to buy an overpriced and overloaded chunk of plastic that requires the user to have an advanced tech degree to operate and that I don’t want. All I want is my simple, old, cheap and adequate phone. Something to make simple phone calls. No, I do not resent the world passing me by.

            Meanwhile, Don came home, read his email and walked over to my hotel with an extra phone he and Dorothy happened to have, a near clone to my shattered phone. I exaggerate. It is not exactly shattered, merely in pieces.

            Don took my phone, rearranged the pieces, put them together like a child’s puzzle, and turned it on. It works. Perfectly. My face is red.

            Even I can put the puzzle together. I had simply neglected to “turn it on”. I am almost too embarrassed to admit I overlooked such a simple step. I mean, it was “on” when I kicked it off the bed.

            I thought long and hard about not admitting this part to save face. But the truth makes a better story. Like I said, it’s that kind of day.

            It’s time for me to go home.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
February 8, 2018

Piggy, Selfish Me

Piggy, Selfish Me
            This afternoon I waved good-bye to Don and Denise, with hugs and kisses and tears, as they got into the taxi to carry them to the airport. Now I’ll feel an empty place inside me for the next couple days.

            I’m still in Mazatlan. I was supposed to take the bus back to Etzatlan today.

            Phone conversations this week went like this: “Sondra, it is Leo. You stay. Is cold and storm every night, just like rainy season. Too cold for you. You stay.”

            And this from Josue, “If you can, stay in Mazatlan. It is cold and wet and miserable.”

            And Kathy: “Stay, you piggy, selfish woman. Winds 100 kph.”

            The couple from Edmonton on the elevator who were checking out and going home: “Oh, stay. Life is too short. Stay.”

            I don’t mean to snivel. My cold is not your cold. However, you do have a heated, well insulated, house. In comparison, my rustic little casita is like a sieve. An unheated sieve. All the heaters in town sold in December. On the coldest days I wear my zarape, taking it off only when I bake bread and pre-heat my oven six hours prior to actually baking. I can’t bake bread every day. Not even to give to friends.

            January and February, are, admittedly, winter months. To us in Etzatlan, that means cool mornings. The sun rises and warms our day with delight; sun sets on cool nights. We dress in layers. No problem.

            With the weather upside down, we seem to be experiencing a second rainy season. The “boys” tell me, they’ve never seen storms like this in the winter; every night, thunder and lightning and buckets of rain. These are the dry months. These are the months for sugar cane harvest, when fields need to be dry.

            So I climbed the stairs to Amalia’s office to beg. She manages this place. She gave me “The Look”. You know, the look that says, “You want me to do what?” What she actually said was, “We usually make these arrangements well ahead of time.”

            I considered options before opening my mouth, such as “It’s too cold to go home.” (Too whiney.) I thought about getting on my knees and pleading. (Drama queen.) What I answered was, “Yes. I know.” And closed my mouth. I’ve learned a little about negotiation.

            Amalia tapped keys on her computer, keeping one eyebrow raised. “Yes, I can give you one more week. What is your room number?” A few more taps. “You can keep the same room.”

            I don’t know if mental hugs can be transmitted, but my gratitude was heartfelt and I hoped my words of thanks were enough.

            Then I had to battle three days of guilt over extending my holiday on the beach. Residual guilt from childhood. It would pass.

            After my friends departed, I walked to the Oxxo, a convenience store found on every corner in Mexico, and lugged back water, ham, cheese, bread and mayo. I’m tired of over-eating restaurant food, good as it is. A couple days of restriction will see me back at my favorite loncherias and restaurantes.

            I’m on my balcony, looking at sunlight reflecting on quiet water like glitter on glass. I don’t intend to fill the empty space left by my friends departure with anything more than the beauty and warmth of being. If I’m not on the balcony, you’ll find me on the beach, second palapa from the left at the bottom of the stairs.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
February 1, 2018