Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Use Your Fine China

            Use Your Fine China
            As far as we know we have only one life to live. That suggests to me that I want to make careful choices. Of course some things are out of my control, such as the sock that went missing when I picked up my laundry at the local lavanderia this morning. It is a universal truth that washing machines the world over eat socks.

            People love clichés for that hint of truth. I like clichés. One I frequently hear is this: if you were on your deathbed, would you bemoan that you had not spent more time at the office? That is a great argument for seeking more experiences, for spending more time with friends and family, for travel to exotic places, for shopping, for skipping school. And I agree.

            But what if work is your pleasure? That certainly was true for my Dad. Work gave him satisfaction. One year I talked Dad into visiting relatives in Indiana with me. My agenda included looking up people from the past, asking blunt and uncomfortable questions of family, visiting cemeteries which aided in the former, and generally stepping outside the family rule of silence. I frequently made my poor father uncomfortable. He wanted to be wallpaper. Or better yet, back home in his shop changing tires.

            I knew two things on this trip. I could always make peace by talking about work, his or mine. And, I was not responsible for my Dad to have a good time. That one only took me fifty years to learn! When we returned to Montana, I commented, “We sure had fun.” Dad’s response, no surprise, “Well, I don’t know I’d call it fun.”

            I’m my father’s child.   I get satisfaction from work. In Mazatlan I see expats and snowbirds who live the tourist life. Okay, I don’t have the money to support a tourist lifestyle. But if I had the money, that life would not make me happy. Simple jobs give me great pleasure.

            Monday I ripped apart two blouses I didn’t like and seldom wore. Today I’m wearing a new red blouse, made of the crocheted yoke and sleeves of one and the African print lower section of the other. I’m so pleased that I sent pictures to friends, showing off. One friend wrote back bemoaning that she had no sewing skills, hated sewing, couldn’t imagine why I’d do this for fun.

            Strangely, as a child, I hated and dreaded sewing. Grandma started me with simple projects when I was eight.  I could do nothing right. I was never good enough. Nothing was good enough. That was my Grandma. She would only accept perfection. I learned to love sewing despite her. We don’t have to cast those early experiences in concrete.

            Make as many mistakes as you can; that’s what I say. Make silly, stupid mistakes. One learns from them. Be a fool. Dance in the parking lot. Quit looking over your shoulder.

This morning I made a mistake. I walked my laundry home. My bag of laundry weighed eight kilos (minus one sock). My arm nearly dropped off. I should have hailed a pulmonia for the three block walk. I’m on the lookout for an old-woman cart.

Laugh a lot. Now that I am multi-lingual, I laugh in three languages. When we learned to write letters in grade school, remember how we peppered our notes with Ha! Ha! Ha! In Spanish laughter is Ja! Ja! Ja! And in Norwegian it is Ya! Ya! Ya! 

Fall in love at least once a day. I didn’t say you had to act on it! Fall in love secretly, if you must. It can be as much fun and less painful. I adore the sweet elderly man who walks his scruffy dog, always tips his hat and kisses my hand. Love ugly people. They have their own story. Listen hard. Listen between the lines. You’ll discover there are no ugly people.

We are told we cannot choose our relatives. Well, blast that myth. We’d better choose them if we want to be loved and have friends, especially after we attain a certain age where most of our family lives in a small plot and a memorial service is a weekly social event. Just this week I adopted Kent Haruf, one of my multiplicity of favorite writers, as my brother, only to find out he’d recently died. He’s still my brother. I love that man.

Live, laugh and love. That’s what I say.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

May 28, 2015

As The World Turns

As The World Turns
            The Guiding Light: While weather in Havre continues to be erratic, after weeks of Mazatlan perfection, Summer arrived. Each day is hot. Mucho calor. My little apartment stays reasonable with a flow of breeze most days. Summer suggests I limit my walking to early morning and late evening. Of course, at times necessity dictates I deviate from that rigid schedule. I walk home drenched in sweat. Click.

            Dark Shadows: Long ago at a rodeo in Roundup, I suffered a mild sun stroke. Even today if I get too much sun I get sick. I carefully stay in the shade as much as possible and keep most of my body covered. Despite this, after enjoying pool time with cousin Nancie last week, my upper arms erupted in tiny watery blisters. They finally broke. Ewww! Yesterday I peeled enough skin to paper my bathroom. How is that possible? Click.

            General Hospital: Each doctor, masseuse, and medical person with whom I’ve talked, including a pharmacist, has told me to walk in the sunshine each day, preferably in beach sand. The beach vendors stay covered head to toe. What do they know that we don’t know? Click.

            The Edge of Night: While I try to moderate sun time, my friend Kathy took a royal whopping from her Irish dermatologist who wants her to wear a burka, day and night. (She said.) Kathy lives on an island in British Columbia where the sun seldom shines and the rain often reigns. God Bless the Queen. Click.

            Search for Tomorrow: Last evening I had my first complete all-Spanish conversation. Granted, it was a short conversation, with Sara, a clerk at the local Farmacia, perhaps ten sentences each. I’m sure most of my “sentences” were not grammatically correct, but they were understandable. My English language brain is learning to not go immediately to “blank” when asked a question in Espanol. When I grasp a word or two, I might be able to cobble together the intention if not the entire meaning. It’s a heady feeling when words begin to make sense. Click.

            The Secret Storm: Soon a storm of mangoes will bombard me from the two trees in my back patio. The “rain” began this week. The trees are tall, the fruit out of reach. When nearly ripe, the mangoes drop to the ground. I scout the patio often, to beat out the ants, whose voracious appetites can hollow a mango in two hours, leaving the skin with the seed inside. The ants appeared this week. Timely, eh? Next week I will gorge on the sweet mangoes. A month from now I will give away most of my harvest, over-indulged. Click.

            The Young and The Restless: My dove eggs are due to hatch next week. I hope this batch survives the grackle attacks.   But if they don’t, I am determined to harden my heart and clear the nest from my planter, maybe, just maybe, in time to save my lovely plant, so dry and pitiful. If the babies survive, I lose the plant. I’m resigned to wait and watch. I console myself with my newest garden “babies”. I slipped sweet potatoes and planted the slips last week. They are thriving.  I planted too many and will, no doubt, harden my questionable heart to weed out all but one or two of the strongest. But let’s not think about that. Click.

            All My Children: My oldest girl’s oldest girl, Jessica, is scheduled to grant me a great-grandchild (How did I get this old?), June 23, just two days after Jess’s summer solstice birthday. In a few short weeks I’ll fly north, hold Baby Harper in my arms, spoil her rotten, my heart soft and gushy. Click.

            Days of Our Lives: I nailed the guava pie! I made a crust of crushed cinnamon cookies. Covered the bottom with chopped guava fruit. Then I poured in the rich filling. Topped that with more guava fruit and chopped pecans. Once the pie set up I drizzled the top with cajeta, a caramel-like syrup. I ate the first slice early that evening. The next slice I had with coffee the next morning. Later that day I gave Arturo, my physical therapist, a generous slice—he’s a growing boy of twenty-seven. Then I gave the remainder of the pie to Reuben, Sylvia and Marie at the Luncheria at the corner. Such a rich treat needs to stay special. Guava pie is not an everyday dessert.

            A pregnant pause. Cameras zoom in for a close up. Music builds to a dramatic pitch. Cut to commercial. Tide. Or Dreft. Or Cheer. Or Duz. Or Ivory Flakes. Or Oxydol.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door.

May 21, 2015

Back To Normal—But What Is Normal?

            Back To Normal—But What Is Normal?
            After two weeks of active (not normal) social life (non-existent) with friends from British Columbia and then with my cousin from Sedro Woolley, Washington, and following two nights of long sleeps, my life has returned to a sedate routine. Mostly.

            I could call it “routine times two”. Each day with my friends, I walked three or four or six times what I previously had been doing. Plus, I continued with my physical therapy, which means the extra walking enhanced my strength and flexibility. In two weeks time, “extra” has come to seem “normal”. 

            Instead of once a day, I restlessly walk twice. In the mornings I like to walk the beach. In the evenings I stroll the back streets of my neighborhood. Many people recognize me with greetings. Two men routinely kiss my hand, which delights me.

            Jorge runs a car wash business on the corner with a bucket of water and bundle of rags. The other man is quite elderly and he may have told me his name months ago. He walks a scruffy looking but well-loved little white poodle/wire-haired mix of a dog. His wife also has damaged joints. With my vivid imagination, I choose to believe he honors our similarities when he takes my hand, bows and lifts it to his lips. Melts my heart. Ah, so much for my love life.

            This morning Carlos picked me up for a trip to the market so I could stock my cupboard with essentials for the week. I’m on a search for goat’s milk, leche de cabra. I want to make cajeta the traditional way.

            Two weeks ago I had never heard of cajeta. Liz, at a Se Bilengue session, explained to me, “Cajeta is boiled milk.” Goat’s milk with sugar is simmered to reduce it to a caramel-like syrup. I first tasted it with coffee. Oh, my. One can make it using cow’s milk. But goat’s milk is richer, traditional. At the market I found great rounds of goat cheese but no leche de cabra.

            Three different women, eyes sparkling, explained to me in great detail how to make cajeta from sweetened condensed milk, if I must insist on making it myself. Crazy gringa. Why would anybody want to stand over a hot stove stirring for hours to reduce milk when one might buy it ready-made. I’m not giving up. When I see Rudy at the fruteria, I will ask him to order goat milk from his village. They may think I’m nuts, but nuts or normal, what is the difference?

            At the market today I selected perfectly ripe guavas to make a pie. Last week Nancie and I feasted on guava pie (a new taste experience for my cousin) at three different eateries. We analyzed each slice and determined how to make the best even better. Imagine creamy filling, rich with layers of slivered fruit, sprinkled with chopped pecans and topped with drizzles of cajeta made from goat’s milk, ready-made. Who knows how long before I find a source for goat’s milk. But I won’t give up.

            During my physical therapy session, Arturo told me the tide tomorrow morning is forecast to be loco high, to flood the streets even more than it did two weeks ago at full moon, with gigantic waves. This morning the sea lay calm like glass. I will walk to the beach tonight to check it out.

Extreme water action from the sea is normal during storms but not on a quiet regular day like this. But where on earth, today, is water, wind, terramoto and volcan action normal?

Oscar just knocked on my door with mail delivery and verified that tomorrow promises to be mucho frio with winds from the norte. And indeed, it seems strange energy pulses through the air. A yellow-green wall of fog obscures the ocean horizon. Clouds stretch gray bands across the sky. Do I detect a noticeable dip in our usual warmth? But then minutes later, the sky is blue with fluffy clouds. Like normal!

When the guava pie is ready, I’ll let you know. Would you like coffee with yours?

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

May 14, 2015

A Hodge-Podge, Crazy Quilt Life

                A Hodge-Podge, Crazy Quilt Life
                What is life but shifting tidbits of sensory experiences tossed into a basket of scraps? After weeks of stitching together metaphorical pastel scraps, when friends from British Columbia dropped on my doorstep unexpected, I felt bombarded with a galloping array of primary colors.  

                My days didn’t change drastically, yet, the colors seemed more intense, the patterns more interesting. Kathy and Richard are long-time friends. Most of the swatches we dropped into or picked out of the basket were not exotic or unusual. 

Label one remnant “neighborhoods”.  We daydreamed ourselves into colorful casas. We drooled over derelict fixer-uppers; if only we were younger with bottomless pockets! These times I call nubby plaids.

                Not to be overlooked as unimportant, “hanging out” is a precious remnant of material. It is woven of rich threads of lounging in my living room, heads nested on pillows, feet propped, sharing stories, fears, hopes and wishes.  Stripes of satin.

                “Callecita”, flavored red, orange, and yellow with accents of blue, Richard discovered on a back street up a winding stairway in Old Town.  This tiny rooftop eatery makes the best (I promise.) bite-sized, lightly breaded, seared tuna. What drew us back for repeated visits, I must confess, is the guava pie.  It tastes like silk. What more can I say?

                Birds make up two separate shapes. Last month I met neighbors, who on a trip north of the border, found me a book of birds of Mexico, identified by both English and Spanish names. Now I can begin to identify my feathered, songster neighbors in the sky.  

                My other bird story is sad. Grackles, dark crow cousins but snottier, must eat too, I remind myself. My baby mourning doves, hatched in the hanging planter outside my back door, lived a mere three days. I heard the commotion from what I imagine to be “lunch”. Yes, officer, I heard the gun shots, but what could I do?

                Three days later, my pair of doves began to build a new nest outside my front door, on the ledge of the capital which juts from the top of a column which supports the upstairs patio. Have you any idea how many hours one can fritter (Meditation?)away watching birds build nests?  Eighteen out of every twenty sticks brought to the construction project fell to the ground. I swept them into the bin. Brown.

                Today Mama Dove is laying eggs, again in residence in the old nest outside my back door. Color them “hope”.

                My friends from BC flew home. My cousin Nancie from Sedro Woolley in Washington arrived. We four shared one overlapping day.  Laughter and stories.

                The Kentucky Derby, colored red roses, bluegrass and wide-brimmed hats, delivered full thrills, even via internet.

                The Pacman/Mayweather fight seemed just another staged show from Las Vegas, underwritten by obscene amounts of money. Yes, I am judgmental. Let’s color this scrap of fabric black and stitch it onto an edge.

                Climbing onto a bus for a trip to the Centro Historico Mercado, I stepped up wrong foot first, faltered, reached and wrenched my muscles around my new hip. This scrap has the shape of a three day lightning bolt. Dr. Richard taught me a jingle, useful for post surgery high steppers: Good leg up, bad leg down. 

                The full moon staged the best show, pulled acres of water over the sea walls, flooded the streets and rearranged the beaches according to some strange Lunar whim. Mist from the climbing, pounding surf filled the air. Have you any idea how many hours one can fritter away watching waves curl high into the air and crash onto the sand? Meditation.  Moonbeams and sea froth.

                One evening I accompanied Nancie to a dental specialist in historic Old Town for a root canal. This man had the most sophisticated, computerized equipment I’ve ever seen. I had mini panic episodes watching. We went to a restaurant nearby for dinner immediately afterwards. Nancie was hungry. My stomach was in shreds!

                Ah, good times. Emerald Bay to lounge around the hot pool. Cerritos for the coffee at Looney Beans and the fried fish at my favorite shack at the end of the street. An evening of Spanish music and Flamenco dancing at the Teatro. Every experience added fabric to my crazy quilt two week sudden social whirl; some pieces shimmery like velvet, some swatches frayed and wrinkled, like life.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

May 7, 2015

Drunk On The Great Big Everything

Drunk On The Great Big Everything
Holy Smokeroonies! Saturday late afternoon I sit with a book open in my lap, my eyes in the sky, watching the play of light on the cirrus clouds. Suddenly, an apparition! Kathy and Richard stand at my door, grins splitting both faces. For a brief time I am paralyzed.

(Certifiable? Candidate for sainthood? Visions portend one or the other.)

Fast forward: hugs, babble of voices, I can’t believe it, we wanted to surprise you, what are you doing here, it was hard to keep our trip secret, more hugs.

Kathy and Richard are friends of twenty years, more or less, who live on an Island between Victoria and Vancouver (city). Kathy introduced me to Mazatlan and neither of us can figure out when we made that first trip. Ten, eleven years? They have asked me searching questions about what it is like for me to be here over a longer period of time. Several weeks ago they made the decision to begin preparations to buy a Mazatlan home for retirement. During this fishing expedition they dangle a worm on a hook into the water and wait to see if anything nibbles.

They are prepared. They have devoured realty websites, have forwarded me pictures of the homes they like. They made arrangements to see several places, to take a gander at the market, to get more information about buying a home in Mexico. Meanwhile, we three amigos grab chunks of the week together to soak up sun, fun and feasts.

With nary a pause that night we took off for dinner at the Plazuela Machado in Centro Historico. Next morning, a beach walk. Dinner near the Mercado the following evening. This week is like a big festival for me. But the sum total adds to more than being with my friends as we fill to bursting every moment.

Here I need to pause and push the arrow to run the film back a few frames. I stole the phrase “drunk on the Great Big Everything” from Kurt Vonnegut. I cannot better describe how I feel.

Remember, a mere three months ago I was in the hospital, under the knife, replacing a worn and useless hip joint. From the hospital I returned to my casa, alone, forced to take life in small increments, to squeeze small details for their inherent joy. I know how to do this. I know how to get smashed on very little. This “gift” may be all that has kept me from being “certifiable”. Fortunately, I am too human, no miracles follow me, to ever be a candidate for sainthood. Another “gift” is my ability to revel in being wrong, frequently. Together, these gifts have been great teachers. They never let me down.

While my harmless toot is about my friends who gifted me a wonderful surprise visit, it is also about selfish me playing in the Big Sandbox, playing with the Great Big Everything and a couple “ah-ha’s” the GBE showed me.

That beach walk Sunday morning (but not the last—how quickly my “now habit” is formed), was my first beach walk in over a year. Illogical as it seems, I had been scared to go alone. (What if I couldn’t do it?) I got so drunk on sand-walking that day that I walked two hours, my spirits high as the frigate birds circling above us. I said to Richard and Kathy, I can’t believe I’m doing this. Will I pay later with sore muscles?  

From the beach, we walked my neighborhood and gawked at houses for sale. We finished the day with a trip to Cerritos. At our favorite food shack we selected a red snapper for the three of us to share.

On the ride home I experienced another revelatory moment of drunken delight. I realized that little by little, word by word, I am indeed learning Espanol, to speak, to understand. To me, this is a big deal. Often I have despaired over how hard this new language is for me, an old dog with few new tricks left.

Poco a poco, as Arturo, my Physical Therapist says. A little and a little. My long beach walks increase my strength with no more muscle pain than my shorter street walks. My binge on the small details of life keeps me swizzled. A newly hatched baby bird is learning to preen in the nest outside my door. I’m more relaxed with my Spanglish vocabulary. My friends and I are imbibing life in great gulps. All is good.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

April 30, 2015

The Voice of the Turtle Dove Is Heard In Our Land

                The Voice of the Turtle Dove Is Heard In Our Land
            Even Solomon knew we need to hear a familiar voice from time to time. And what could be more familiar than the mournful Coo-OOO-oo-oo-oo of the bird that in our country is called the mourning dove. In Mexico she is la paloma.

            But that doesn’t mean I invited her to stake out a homestead in the hanging planter outside my back door. The planter itself is colorful, a traditional flat-backed, painted hanging wall planter. I suppose Senora Paloma looked around and decided the many trees in the courtyard looked like a low rent district in comparison to the open views around the planter. Evidently security is not an issue. Or maybe she liked the plant itself, a draping viney piece of greenery, the local name which translates as “little banana” for the pods it produces. Maybe she feels like she is at a resort.

            When I noticed my patio outside my door cluttered with twigs, I thought it strange but didn’t realize a major construction project had begun. I grabbed my broom and swept the sticks aside. When I reached up to water my hanging plant, with my keen analytical mind, I “twigged” to the building materials. The top of my planter was littered with sticks, each about six inches in length, looking like a jumble of pretzels.

            Considering myself a responsible though reluctant land-lady, I quit watering my plant. Over the next several days the pile of sticks grew. I watched Senor bring the twigs and Senora weave them together into a disreputable flimsy excuse for a nest. Home, sweet uncomfortable home. Once she deemed it a finished nest, the gal planted two eggs.  

            A couple weeks ago I met Theresa and Tom, long time residents in Mexico. They live two blocks up the street. In moments we discovered a shared interest in birds. I mentioned I wanted to find a bird book for Mexico, preferably printed in English. They are in the States today, hunting my book.

            Here in Mazatlan are the same ubiquitous sparrows, cheeky little creatures. And with the sidewalk café on the corner, the fearless sparrows are well-fed. A pair of swallows lives in the wall of the building across the street. In the winter, I see a few scruffy crows. But the grackles, shifty-eyed disreputable crow cousins, similar in aspect but more uptight in appearance and lacking the crow sense of humor, make their presence heard with a screech reminiscent of fingernails pulling across an old-fashioned blackboard. Grackles are everywhere.

            Beyond those few familiar fluttering feathered friends, is a whole world of avian creatures, all colorful, all trilling song. I want to identify them, learn who they are.  Can’t wait to get my bird book so I know what to call this pretty little reddish orange with the sweet voice. And the larger one, all yellow and green.

            Meanwhile, each morning my pair of doves wakes me, fills my courtyard with gentle tune. I frequently check the maternity ward where one or the other parent sits patiently on the sticks. Soon the eggs will hatch. Two babies with impossibly wide mouths will wait for mom and dad to fill their gullets. I’ll provide seeds and grains.

Out of my kind heart? Absolutely not. I’m watchful, yes. I worry my plant will die for lack of water before the babies learn to fly. As soon as those little beasties leave the nest, I’ll dismantle every twig. I’ll water my poor plant and nurture it back to health. Next time I find a pile of sticks out my back doorway, I’ll put up a notice: No occupancy. Condemned. Unsafe. Poison Plant. Not In My Back Yard. Mean Dogs. No Trespassing. Armed with Slingshot. No parking. Go Away.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

April 23, 2015

Mexican-American Graffiti

                                                Mexican-American Graffiti
            I never know. I never know what each day might bring. I think I do. I’m always wrong. Back when my children were youngsters, I used to pray, literally pray, for a boring day, just one boring day, please. At the same time, if one of my youngsters dared mouth, “I’m bored,” invariably I got a gleam in my eye and whipped out a list of positive motivational activities, ie, jobs to do. Interestingly, following the initial attempt, my children were never bored. I never said life is fair.

            My life here is simple. Quiet. Reclusive. Serene.

Until last week—Semano Santos—Holy Week. Last year I was in Montana for Holy Week. So I didn’t know that seemingly half the mountain villages of Mexico emptied out, packed into buses and cars with holiday gear and headed to the beaches of Mazatlan. Sure, people “said”. People said the city of 800,000 swelled and overflowed with an additional 400,000. People said there was not a hotel room to be found. People said every family home burst at the seams with out-of-town relatives.

Looking out my back door, I first noticed a definite increase in foot traffic, a virtual parade of families and groups, laden with towels, bags of food, ice chests, beach chairs and umbrellas.
Cars streamed by with roof-top carriers packed and strapped, kids and dogs hanging out the windows.

Main corridors were turned into one-way streets in an effort to ease congestion. Every corner had policemen directing traffic and helping tourists. Tour buses pulled to the curbs and disgorged tired, hungry, excited, cranky, singing passengers. Our peaceful beaches resembled pictures of the French Riviera.

And if sight isn’t enough to let me know whatever people said is true, all I had to do was close my eyes and listen. Music. Song. Laughter. Shouting. Joking. Making happy. All at full volume. All day and all night. Such energy is infectious. I caught a strong case of excitement that lasted the week. I couldn’t help it. I felt good and happy and full. And I’m a bystander, on the periphery.

Remember when we were teens in school and someone would get their father’s car for the night. We’d pool our pennies for a few cents worth of gas in the tank so Dad wouldn’t know we were driving around when we were supposed to be at Church Group. And we’d all pile in, sitting on each other’s laps, crammed to the doors, radio playing country music and cruise up and down Main Street, all four or six or eight or ten blocks. Back and forth, up and down, for an hour or two until we had to get home before curfew.

It’s the same thing here—Mexican-American Graffiti. The cars are not Dad’s. Dune buggies to souped-up hot rods; vintage restorations to cars with show-room shine. Windows are down, music of all kinds, most of it, surprisingly, classical Mexican torch songs, blares into the night. Youth laugh and sing along and shout their exuberance into the night, all night until the break of dawn. Because they are having so much fun, I have to smile and it is okay that I don’t sleep.

Last Saturday Arturo, my physical therapist knocked on my door to ask if he could park out front while his family went to the beach. So I met Jasmine, his wife and we talked about special dishes to cook, Arturo’s mother, who taught Jasmine how to cook the specials, his father, the in-laws, siblings, nieces and nephews. With ingenuity they crammed three cars into spaces for two, with one bumped up onto my patio. New friends.

Come Monday morning, sand crusted beach towels and bathing suits were slung over hotel balconies, waiting to be stuffed damp into suitcases. Mom and Dad, cranky, loaded trunks and car-top carriers. Sun-burned children with dogs, looking morose and forlorn, not wanting to leave the beaches for home and back to school, begged for one more swim. Reluctant lines of passengers boarded tour buses. Streets resumed two-way traffic.

I had just enough time to store up two nights of sleep before the motorcycle groups va-roomed into the city. Today marks the beginning of another annual event, Moto Week. Five days of motorcycles; clubs and gangs, biker babes and all. People “said” thousands of bikes from all over Mexico, South, Central and North American countries, converge in Mazatlan. A different excitement, a different noisy energy fills the air, crowds the beaches. In days we shift from glimpses of American Graffiti to Sturgis, South Dakota, ala twenty years ago, all in my back yard.

Next week back to normal. Simple. Quiet. Reclusive. Serene.

Boring? Hasn’t happened yet!

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

April 9, 2015

Upstairs, Downstairs; Balance on the Bannister

Upstairs, Downstairs; Balance on the Bannister
            Like anyone, I have my “up” days and my “down” days. But, really, it is all about keeping life in perspective and finding balance.

            Take today, for instance. I leave the house for my morning walk at first light. I like to greet the sun. And as thoughtful as those words sound, it is as much about walking in the cool of the day. Perspective. Balance.

            Generally, I walk between forty-five minutes and an hour. Don’t think I’m covering the miles. I am a mere two months away from hip-replacement surgery. I’m a turtle in the slow lane. Today I felt, well, shaky. I walked a mere half hour.  

            When my physical therapist, Arturo, came for my treatment and torture session, naturally, he asked how I was feeling. So I told him. “I feel pooky, down in the dumps. I’m two months from surgery today. Every day should be golden. Right?”

            “Where do you hurt?” Arturo asked. “From my hip to my knee,” I answered.  Understand, most days the past two or three weeks, I’ve had very little pain.

            “You have inflammation.” I hate it when Arturo laughs at me. He proceeded to lecture—I hate it when people lecture me. He explained, almost cackling, that most of his clients who have just had this very difficult surgery, take six to eight months to show the progress I have shown. He said I am his star pupil.

            True, I walk every day. I do my exercises five out of seven days. It is not in character for me to be so motivated. But I’m not about to analyze motivation.

I think I am a star pupil because a portion of every session we focus on Spanish language and cooking. Today I learned several new words and how to make three different cameron dishes. But best of all, Arturo gave me changed perspective; helped me find balance. Even pooky balance is better than being out of whack.

            Friends have accused me of telling them only the good stuff about my life in this Pacific Paradise. For instance the other day I sent photos of my market bounty, heaps of fruits and veggies, all for a mere, schmear, one-hundred-fifty-five pesos, about ten dollars and a penny or two. If you could even find this selection in Havre, the till might total upward of eighty dollars.

            So with balance and honesty in mind, I want to report that all life in Mazatlan is not perfection. For example, our city water is pumped to a jug of a reservoir on top of the house. This is true even at the posh resorts and finer homes. Turn the tap and water is delivered by gravity flow. Don’t expect to be pelted in the shower.

            Our homes have no heat source. In places with more sophisticated systems, one might find a thermostat on the wall. It works only to run the fan and air conditioner. On a cold day turn the thermostat high, let imagination fly, shut the window and grab a sweater.

            The national and city mail systems seem to work. But for international mail, spend the big bucks for Fed-Ex or UPS carrier. Letters, important documents, packages will most likely arrive, whether sending or receiving. I’ve received Christmas cards in March.

            If it can rust, it will. Usually within six months or less. This is an immutable law of nature. Lime juice will remove rust. Limes are a valuable tool.

            Purchase only plastic paper clips. Plastic is quite popular in Mexico. I’m beginning to understand why—see “rust” above.

            Rubber bands have about a six-month life span. Elastic—a year.  

            While housing, utilities and food costs are a dream come true, anything electrical or electronic costs an astounding amount of money. I only go to Office Depot if desperate. Home Depot is more frightening than a Halloween Trick House.

            But, understand, I am reporting from my flawed perspective. I realize magical thinking is foolish but I still believe in the Shoemaker’s Elves. I’m rather partial to the Easter Bunny too. Some days I’m “up”. Some days I’m “down”. Some days I balance on the banister. Some days I slide all the way down, pick myself up, and climb back to the top. That’s fun too.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

April 2, 2015

Se Bilingue—I Speak Food

Se Bilingue—I Speak Food
            In the months I have been in Mazatlan, I have collected referrals for several ways to enhance my poor command of Spanish. But all seem to be formal classes. No thank you. If small children point and laugh at me for my misuse of tense or gender, so be it. My desire is to understand, be understood, and interact in everyday situations.

            Like most gringos, I start with the elementary please, thank you, and where is the bathroom. From there I progressed to a smattering of weather and health words. But with my mangled Spanglish, I sparkle when conversation centers around food.

            You might think I’m obsessed with food. You might think, oh goodness, she’ll return to Montana, a five-hundred pound mama-grande! Quite the contrary, I have been forced to discard most of the clothing I brought with me. I don’t have a scale. I’ve no idea how much I’ve dropped. I’m not skinny. But I sport a new wardrobe. I eat all I want and what I want. My secret? No secret. I live on fresh fruits and vegetables, local grown, along with fish of the day’s catch.  Am I bragging? You betcha!

            Mazatlan is a large city of numerous small villages. For example, I live in Colonia Sabalo Country Club. That doesn’t mean it’s a swank area. My village, about four streets by eight long streets, shaped like a milkweed seed pod, is bordered by a world-famous golf course and the ocean. In this relatively small area are numerous “markets”, bakeries and restaurants. Most of the restaurants along the water cater to American-style Mexican food tastes, geared for touristas. Inland, they cater to the local appetites. I call it eating “on the street”, since most of the eateries are open air, sidewalk café or food carts. 

            Me, when I eat out, I prefer to eat “on the street”. And since Reuben and Sylvia run the luncheria, two doors down, on the corner, they have introduced me to many gustatory experiences. I run to them with my questions of what is in “this” and how do you make it. With help, I am becoming quite the traditional “Mexican” cook.

            A few weeks ago Reuben asked me if I would like to order a container of capirotada for Friday. “What is it?” “You’ll like it. It is a popular traditional Lenten dish.”  Now I’m curious; therefore, sold. And after my first taste, I had to learn how to make this wondrous tempting Mexican version of bread pudding. I had no choice.

There are as many recipes as there are cooks, which suits me fine. A recipe is a guide, to be loosely followed and enhanced when possible. Any cook can put together dried bread chunks, whatever nuts you have on hand, raisins, figs, slices of plantain or banana, prunes, cubed goat cheese, seasoned with a syrup made of cinnamon, cloves, brown sugar, butter and water. Be adventurous with the fruits and nuts. Do you think firewater in the syrup might enhance the dish? Be adventurous!  

When talking with Arturo, my physical therapist, during treatment the other day, the topic turned to food. I mentioned that one of my favorite foods is poblano peppers. I favor poblano soup or strips of poblano and onion in a cream sauce. So Arturo told me how to make a different kind of chilies relleno with poblano, stuffed with tuna, covered with grated Chihuahua cheese and cream, pop on a lid and simmer about 20 minutes or so. I added chopped walnuts and a few raisins to the tuna, and, oh my! Heaven on a plate.

Food is easy to talk about. Most of us are shy about speaking any foreign language. Guess what? Most Mexicans are just as shy about speaking English with us. 

Along came Liz Valdez, a young trilingual student recently returned from school in France. She organized a chance to eat and talk. The format for “Se Bilingue” is simple. We congregate at Rico’s Café, in Zona Dorado, the next village south, a short walk down the street for me, where we will converse with a partner in Spanish for seven minutes, then switch to English for seven minutes. We change partners four times. What a brilliant idea! Make language a social event, not a class.  Bonus: the event is free. For food, I pay.

I’m excited. I signed up to start next Tuesday. I’m shy. But I know I can speak food.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

March 26, 2015

Crooning the Homesick Blues

                                    Crooning the Homesick Blues
            I woke up homesick. I want real weather, I said to myself. I’ll take any distraction to keep myself from dealing with the deeper problem. Weather, indeed. Tip of my iceberg.

            Winter’s never been my favorite season. But spring came early to Montana this year. (The computer is a great tool.) I don’t trust an early spring. Nevertheless, I daydream warm Chinook winds, tulips and iris shooting sprouts through the sun-drenched ground, lilacs nursing baby buds through the changeable days.

            Ah, changeable. That is the key word. Montana days are so very changeable. I might grind my teeth when a warm morning segues to forty mile winds with black skies and hail by noon. But such a morning is exciting. Energizing. Dreadful.

            Every winter day on the Pacific coast in central Mexico is predictable. Sunshine and eighty-two degrees. Oh, sure, some mornings the sky is overcast but the foggy clouds burn off mid-morning leaving sunshine and eighty-two degrees.

            And the Mazatlan sky is blue. Beautiful, boring one-shade blue. Step outside and look around at the magnificent Montana sky. There are uncountable shades of blues and grays and purples and often unimaginable colors and clouds in the panoramic bowl of sky. I miss my sky.

            So forgive me for thinking I caused (homesick effect syndrome) the wonderful rainstorm yesterday. I geared up for my morning walk, stepped out the door to thunder, cumulus clouds to the south, black sky to the north and rumbles and grumbles overhead. I don’t mind getting wet. But I am daunted by lightning. Postponed my walk, brewed coffee and enjoyed the cleansing, refreshing pounding, river in the street, gutter washing rain. 

            Homesick means I missed the Montana Seed Show, my favorite annual social event. I miss my friends and neighbors. The art exhibits. The pie and bread bake-offs. The wool exhibits. Umoh, my friend from Helena with her baskets, the banquet, the art exhibits and quilts. People milling about, greeting, catching up on family news, renewing old acquaintances, standing in line to choose another piece of home-baked apple or chocolate or lemon meringue pie in the cafeteria. I miss the snow and ice and wind and cold and dripping boots and wet wool coats. I’m homesick.

            I was supposed to be there. I had planned to be there. Back in December I bought plane tickets. March and April, Montana and Seattle. Family. Friends. Grandchildren. Havre Atrium. Border Bar. Driver’s license renewal. Pinochle with friends. Favorite stops in Harlem, Chinook, Havre and Great Falls. Montana Seed Show. Amtrak from Havre to Seattle. I scheduled it all.  The tickets are on my desk, staring me in the face. Ah, the real issue.

            What I never planned was the unexpected. I never planned hip-replacement surgery. That’s not totally true; I thought maybe late fall would be a good time. When pain reached critical mass and x-rays told the truth, opportunity reset my calendar. At the time, I asked my doctor if I would be able to travel in March. Probably, I was told.

            Surgery was successful and therapy began. Again, I asked about travel in March. Well, you may, but . . . Both my surgeon and my physical therapy doctor agreed that it would be best for me to wait.

            Snowbirds are heading north one by one, along with other migratory critters. Ted leaves next week. Don and Dorothy leave the following week. Frank will be around another couple weeks before he leaves. All my gringo neighbors soon abandon me.

            So my now-cancelled tickets haunt me homesick. I’ll come for summer. I’ll stay longer. Today I’m singing the “wanna hop a jet plane to the north of the border, wool socks and snowstorms, freeze my tootsies blues”.

            Weather today in Mazatlan: Sunshine and eighty-two degrees.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
March 19, 2015

Cat Fight—Middle of the Night

                                                                Cat Fight—Middle of the Night
            I woke up disoriented. Two voices squealed and shrieked. It took me a while to recognize Ruth, my prosthetic knee acquired in India six years ago, and Rosie, my Mexican hip of five weeks. 

Who would believe titanium body parts could speak.

Ruth: I was here first. You act like you are so important, hogging all the attention.

Rosie: So what! You’re just a bully, always trying to boss me around. You had her to yourself for six years, selfish pig.

Ruth: Shut up! You’re such a prima donna.

Rosie:  Oh, are your little feelings hurt? Metal mouth!

Ruth: Tin can!

Rosie: You are so “kneedy”.

Ruth: Big hippy!

Rosie: You welcomed me when I first arrived. I thought we were friends.

Ruth: Well, yes. But that was before you sucked up all the attention. Big baby.

Rosie: It’s not my fault. You’re used to having her all to yourself.

Ruth: Yes, I am. And I liked it that way.

Moment of ominous silence.

Ruth: Er. But you’re right. I suppose. In a way. Sorta. I guess we could share.

Rosie: We are supposed to support one another. That’s why we’re here—to help each other and to help her. Now I feel sort of sheepish.

Ruth: I admit it is easier for me in a lot of ways since you came to live here. Little things mostly. Like putting on shoes and socks. Everyday stuff.

Rosie: Truce?

Ruth: Yeah, I got a bit selfish.

Rosie: And I admit. I am sort of a show-off.

Ruth and Rosie together: But if we work together . . . (Giggles.)

Ruth: It will be easier for both of us. I think I got upset when Arturo, your personal terrorist, I mean, physical therapist, insisted that I do all the same exercises that you do. I’ve already done all that work once. But he’s smart. He wants to strengthen both legs.

Rosie: I understand. When her hip gave out, both legs lost strength. It is hard work for us now. But a few more weeks and I’ll be old news and she’ll ignore me.

Ruth: Just like she ignores me—most of the time, anyway. Sorry that my nose got out of joint.

Rosie: Don’t say that! She might decide to go get a new nose!

Ruth: Let’s take a walk. Or would you rather exercise first?

“Hey, you two. It’s still the middle of the night. Get back in bed. I love you both. Shut up and go to sleep.”

I never heard another peep.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

March 12, 2015

The Saga of the Sexy Sunglasses

The Saga of the Sexy Sunglasses
            Ai-yi-yi! I don’t know what to do. One minute I’m happily married, the next minute I’m headed for divorce court. You know how I’ve been purging drawers and cabinets, throwing away useless, outdated and un-used stuff—the stuff we tend to shove away to deal with later? Maybe I got carried away. Maybe I went too far. I didn’t mean anything by it.

            (This message was sent to me by Kathy, my friend, who with her husband Richard, lives on Pender Island in British Columbia.)

            I threw away an old pair of Richard’s sunglasses. He hadn’t worn them in years. I put them in one of the bags of miscellaneous junk I took to the New-To-You thrift shop yesterday after a morning of mad sorting and tossing. At least I didn’t send them to the landfill! I meant for someone else to maybe actually wear the things. My good works and best intentions have created disaster.

            (Kathy and Richard have been married nearly twenty years. It is a second go-round for both of them. This very human couple embodies a success story that makes everyone who knows them smile. Richard, a physician, works in Victoria three days a week so stays over and ferries home to the island for his days off. They are besotted with one another. Sometimes it is embarrassing to be around the twittering love birds.)

            When Richard came home he told me those sunglasses were his best, his favorite pair. He is very upset that I tossed them out. I raced back to the thrift store minutes before they closed. The glasses were gone. Mark, one of the volunteers at the store, collects old sunglasses. Maybe he took them. Maybe I can buy them back. But Mark is gone until next week. Help!

            Trying to be helpful, while I was laughing about their situation—hey, I thought it was funny—I wrote back: Get a grip, Kathy. Put on your sexiest negligee, mix Richard a strong gin and tonic. Use your wiles and imagination. It’s just a pair of sunglasses.

            Richard responded, that may be all well and good but what about my sunglasses?

            Thinking this was still part of the fun story, I wrote to Richard: They are not even prescription glasses. How important can they be? Richard, I know you have excellent taste. Maybe you paid a thousand dollars for the sunglasses. Me, I would have bought mine on the beach from a vendor selling knock-offs made in China or off the rack at the discount store for a buck or two.

            So, Ricardo, as we say in Mexico, tranquillo, tranquillo. Let’s look at the consequences of divorce by sunglasses arithmetically. You would each have to hire an attorney. That will wipe out your savings for the trip to Australia you were planning plus knock back your retirement a year or two. Then you would have to split all your assets at fire-sale prices. Add up heartburn medication, valium for those sleepless nights wondering where you went wrong, and the cost of an alcoholic treatment center to deal with the results of the despair of losing your spouse.

Then, don’t forget, you have the costs of setting up two separate households. Don’t negate the expenses of dating the swarms of wrinkled blue-haired gold-diggers who will swarm around you once you become an eligible bachelor. How much is this lousy pair of sunglasses, a pair you’d forgotten you even had, worth? Think of your finances!

I was just trying to be helpful. I thought it was a joke. In a spirit of fun, I offered to go down to the beach tomorrow and buy Richard the sexiest pair of sunglasses I could find.

Richard stipulated they must have an appropriate brand name.

I promised to go the extra mile and have the case engraved with his name. I haven’t heard from either of them since. You don’t think he was serious? Do you?

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

March 5, 2015