Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Days of Our Lives: Updated Episode

Days of Our Lives: Updated Episode
            Tell me, what is all the foo-foo-rah over being fit and healthy? I have friends who abstained from meat (?Not eat meat?), ran marathons, contorted themselves into pretzels with an hour of daily yoga, no sugar, no dairy, no smokes, no booze. Died young. One in his 40’s and one in her 50’s, each skinny as a rail.

            Recently, prior to eye surgery, my doctor insisted I go through a whole-body work-up: blood, lungs, heart, the full-meal-deal of medical tests. The heart man told me my heart is young and should beat forever. It will outlast my body. Shudders. All the numbers from my blood work were within optimum range. Every test earned me a gold star.

            In April I passed my 72nd milestone. I’m not courting death but I don’t want to live past my use-by date.  I’m relatively healthy. I’m five-feet, eight inches tall, weigh 165. That means I’m overweight. But since coming to Mexico, I’ve unintentionally lost at least thirty pounds of excess fat just by eating differently. If you could take ten dollars a week to the store and return with more bags of fresh food, fruits and veggies than you could carry, you’d see changes too.

            It’s too hot to eat heavy foods. I eat a lot of fish, little meat. I’ve never dieted; not since a disastrous high-school diet left me vulnerable to mono and landed me in the hospital for a month. I love ice cream and chocolate. I don’t run. I don’t go to the gym. I’m slothful. I read a lot.

            You might wonder what brought on all this personal information. I’ll tell you. Last week, after three of my friends left, headed to the North Country, I compiled a chart, a visual aid to help me get back to the routine I’d dropped a month ago on the beaches of Mazatlan.

            I’m a visual person. A chart that I can mark and see my progress makes me smile. I’d dropped my daily practices of Qi Gong and my Spanish lessons. I was ready to get back to both, to enhance my physical life, my intellectual life and my spiritual life.

            My chart has six columns. Qi Gong. Duo-lingo. Other Spanish (I dip into 3 other studies).  Meditation. Writings. Physical Therapy. I described my intentions to several friends; I do appreciate email. Immediately I got back replies such as “Keep up the good start to staying fit and healthy.”

            E-gads, but that is not what this is about for me. This is totally hedonistic on my part. My little routine makes me feel good.  Pleasure. These small practices, most taking fifteen minutes or less, give me pleasure, selfish pig that I am.

            I’m not rigid. I don’t tick off every column every day. I do what I can. 

            We just don’t know, do we? I’m feeling awfully sad today. I just heard from Ana in Mazatlan.  My friend Carlos’ son, Carlitos, is not responding well to chemo. The tumor in his lung has hardly shrunk. From trunk to mid-thigh, he lacks feeling. It’s possible the cancer has spread.

            Carlitos, eighteen, participant in two international baseball tournaments, top man on his team, young, athletic; how could this happen? After several months in University, he’d decided what he really wanted was go to barber school. He was excited, had plans for his own shop once he finished school. Though he insisted it was for men only, we women assured Carlitos that he, and only he, would henceforth trim our hair.        
Carlos and Selena are staying positive, even though the situation isn’t looking good. This young man has huge support from his family and his community. He is remembered on more than one prayer chain in Montana and Canada. Since I had written about Carlitos a few weeks ago, I thought you’d want to know.

It’s not right when we outlive our children. A piece of us dies with them. I know. I’ve lost two. I’ve not ticked off any columns on my chart today. I wander inside and outside, sit here, sit there, walk around and talk to my flowers, bounce between hope and despair. Life is not fair.

Enough being maudlin. I need to hold my place in line for a haircut, right behind Ana. Life isn’t fair. Life isn’t easy.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

May 25, 2017

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Four Women On The Loose In Guadalajara

Four Women On The Loose In Guadalajara
            I didn’t want to go. I was still recovering from burning the soles of my feet on the hot sands of Mazatlan. The plan was for Lani, Kathy, Crin and me to go to Tonola for the tianguis, the huge street market, and from there to Best Buy for Kathy to buy a washing machine.

            It’s hard to pass up a day in Tonola. But the bait that hooked me was Best Buy for a shop vac. My house is all brick walls, tile floors. I really don’t need a vacuum cleaner. But you go around the walls with a broom and watch the dust fly. No wonder I am the “Witch of the Rancho”.

            The Tonola tianguis is known throughout Mexico for artisan crafts. Every Thursday and Sunday vendors set up stalls in an area covering several blocks. People from several states in Mexico come to shop. To me, this experience engages every sense. I go; I see; I smell; I taste; I hear; I feel. I didn’t buy a thing.

            My friends bought mirrors with hammered aluminum and decorative tile frames, clay pottery kitchen ware, a bedspread, chairs, garden-pots, lamps, a bench topped with a five-inch slab of beautiful wood.

            One of my Mexican friends says Tonola is “for the people”. On the other side of Guadalajara, Tlaquepaque, filled with high-end jewelry stores and galleries, is for the rich tourists from all over the world. I understand.

            Tonola has streets of cobbled obsidian, dirt parking lots, hundreds of tiendas. Men roam with two-wheel carts. Jose pointed us where to find items and wheeled purchases back to the truck.

            While shopping mirrors, I noticed a woman selling Moringa, both seeds and leafy tea.  The tea is boring. The seeds taste an intriguing bitter-sweet but must be husked.

Moringa will cure or prevent everything under the sun: circulation, cancer, heart, diabetes, digestion. It’s a standard Mexican home remedy. I’ve taken Moringa for a couple years. (I planted a small tree in my garden. Iguanas love it.) My haircutter in Mazatlan said, “Try it.” While I have no intention of living forever, I can verify that my hair is thicker than ever before in my life. I asked the Senora for capsulas. They are easier. She didn’t have any.

Later, we were on the absolute other side of the tianguis, in the middle of a tent of lamps.  Somebody tapped my shoulder. The Moringa woman held a packet of capsulas. I was delighted. Cynically, one could say, she wanted the sale, small though it was. What I felt was that she cared enough for my wants to secure the capsules and then to find me.

Kathy chose a lamp; the pole a metal rod, bent to form a round base, curved at the top in an arc from which hung a four foot cylindrical shade with abstract print in deep shades of brown. We clapped our hands at her find. Kathy wanted a black stand instead of gunmetal gray. No problema. In moments, the man wielded a can of black spray paint and gave her what she wanted.  

From the dusty streets of the tianguis we drove across Guadalajara to Plaza Galerias, the largest shopping mall outside Mexico City. All in Mexico is not “rustico”. From the moment we stepped inside the doors, my small-town-girl jaws dropped. This mall could be in Paris, London, New York City, or Los Angeles.

            Galerias reminded me that Guadalajara is one of the richest cities in the world. People strolled past with more invested in their apparel than I have in my wee casita. The mall, covering acres, houses popular Mexican and American stores as well as numerous international franchises. Up the escalator, gawking like proper country mice, we found Best Buy.

            I’m not a shopper. I know what I want. A small shop vac. A man pointed me in the right direction. I saw. I bought. Maybe it was the hot day. Maybe it was my feet. I wanted to go home.

            What is it that attracts us so strongly to Etzatlan? Perhaps the attraction is that in this village we feel like we have traveled back in time sixty years. There is no mall, no Best Buy, no Walmart. Men ride horses into town and hitch them to the posts in the plaza. We like the cobbled streets. We like that people walk to shop, to visit, to sit in the plaza.  

            We like the people who welcome us with genuine courtesy and respect. People are patient with our cobbled language. In this place of no more than a dozen gringos, they know us, they look out for us. Lord knows, we need looking after!

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

May 18, 2017

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Ups and Downs of the Elevated Life

The Ups and Downs of the Elevated Life
            For years, I’ve been privileged to be Kathy’s guest, generally on the twenty-fourth floor of the El Moro Tower, fronting the Great Pacific Ocean, in Mazatlan.  

            When we were young and foolish, we might, and I hedge my bets, have run up and down the stairway for exercise; an attempt to balance the effects of the rich food nobody forced down our gullets. We might have. If we were young. And foolish.

            Without hesitation, we head for the elevators. (In all fairness, I’ve never seen anybody exit the stairway aglow in the blush of health, dripping sweat and breathing hard.)

            If one pays attention, one begins to notice certain quirks and behaviors of elevator etiquette. I’m serious.

            Those from the States, Canada and northern Europe enter the elevator, poker faced, face forward, and utter not a word until their destination is reached. And, e-gads, no eye contact! Once off the elevator, they might speak.

            People from Mexico, Central and South America and southern Europe, all ages, enter with greetings, smiles, laughing and chattering all the while. (When did we become such glum lots? Why?)

            I suppose I might be accused of bigotry, but I observe that peoples of northern versus southern European extraction have varying cultural tendencies. Liquor, consumed by the northern batch, does seem to level the playing field.

            My favorite experience this trip was when a family got on the elevator with me, their arms loaded with beach gear, heading down. The father looked over his family and pointing at each child in order of height, counted out uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis. He nodded, grinned at me and winked.

What goes up must come down.

Good-byes make me cry. Good-bye to Anna for an update on Carlitos condition—we are hopeful. Good-bye to Reuben and Sylvia, at the loncheria next to my old apartment, where we had the best and most simple meal we had in all Mazatlan. Good-bye, Ocean. Good-bye, Mazatlan.

            Sunday Kathy, Crin and I boarded the bus with mixed feelings. We love Mazatlan. Hate to leave. We love Etzatlan. Love to come back. From seaside to mountains, down and up.

            Two months ago the hills all around, from Tepic to Guadalajara, began to burn. Wild fires. Old-timers, confirmed by meteorologists, tell us this is the driest year they remember. We had hoped, to no avail, for early rains.

            Out the bus windows, we saw the devastation, hillsides looking like untreated wounds. Many trees in this area lose their leaves in the spring when new leaf shoots force the old leaf to the ground. With dry grasses, crispy-crunchy leaves and no rain since last fall, fires race through, burning where the winds take them. The blackened landscape reminded me of the year Montana burned.

            Once home we scattered to our own casas, dragging zipper-threatened suitcases, twice as heavy as they were when we each left home. Perhaps I neglected to mention we shopped. Necessary shopping, of course.

            Oh, so good to be home. While I was gone, Leo and Josue built me a new patio roof, insulated to deflect summer sun, installed new gate lamps, created a tile roof for a small bodega attached to the side of my house where my propane tank and garden tools reside and replaced my windows and screens, all new, all the way around.

            But, before I could admire the new, I had to tour my garden, touch the flowers, praise my “five dead trees”, now in full leaf and shooting out promises of flowers in two weeks.

            Back to my house. Inside the house, furniture, cabinets, my desk, all had to be moved to install new windows; outside, the flower pots which line the perimeter got shifted. I have work to do to put things back in order. No hurry. I’ll work manana.

In Mexico, “manana” is a flexible word. Maybe in the morning, maybe next week. Today I’ll enjoy being home. Every project on my list for home-fixing is done. At last.

            Hmmm. I wonder if a gazebo could be built around my back yard patio, that corner space beneath the jacaranda. If I had a simple screened gazebo, I could sit in comfort during mosquito and black fly season. I’ll talk to my guys about it.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

May 11, 2017

Monday, May 8, 2017

Sunshine On The Beach; One Dark Cloud In The Sky

Sunshine On The Beach; One Dark Cloud In The Sky
            I always like being back in Mazatlan, the town I visited year after year, the town where I lived nearly three years. Familiar places, familiar people, old friends.

            A sadness, a worry, clouds my holiday. You remember Carlos, my friend who drives a pulmonia? He would take me for groceries, for medical care, for important paperwork. He became my interpreter when I needed one. He and Selena helped me paint my apartment. We shared meals.

Three days prior to my leaving Etzatlan, Carlos phoned. Something was troubling about the call. He could hardly speak with me—or the connection was bad—or interference clogged the airways. His message sounded muddled. But he wanted me to know he would not be in Mazatlan to pick me up at the bus depot.

I felt puzzled. I felt confused. Was Carlos ill? Selena? This family had adopted me soon after I arrived in Mazatlan. They took care of me. After I had moved to Etzatlan, Selena made sure Carlos phoned me once a month. She said if I wasn’t happy in my new home, they would come get me, move me back to Mazatlan! That is how much they cared for me.

Julia just celebrated her quincenero, her fifteenth birthday, a landmark occasion in Mexican families. Carlitos, eighteen, is a baseball prodigy. Young as he is, Carlitos has played baseball in international tournaments two years consecutively.

When I got off the bus in Mazatlan, I went to see Anna, Carlos’ family friend who works at the Post and Ship, a woman whom I had previously met. Her son and Carlitos have played on the same baseball team since they were young boys.

Anna told me Carlitos had been in the hospital in Mazatlan for a month. Last week the whole family accompanied Carlitos in an ambulance to a different hospital in Obregon, about nine hours north of here. A cancerous tumor fills his left lung, pressing against his heart. Carlitos cannot walk and is unable to breathe unaided. After tests, doctors began treatment to shrink the tumor this week. Carlitos seems to be getting excellent care. That gives us hope.

It is hard for me to be here without having my friend drive me wherever I want to go. Whenever I show other pulmonia drivers my picture of Carlos, they always break into a big grin, “Oh, Carlos. He’s my amigo.” His family has a lot of supportive friends in Mazatlan. I stop and see Anna every few days.  

More than this I do not know.  I’m worried. I’m hopeful. I’m scared. I’m grateful Carlitos is getting good care. I’m realistic about how financially devastating this is for the family.  Carlos and Selena are with their son, surrounding him with love. Julia often stays with him throughout the night.

Once again, I’m reminded, life is not fair. Me? Sun, surf, and unending shrimp dinners. But my good old reliable Catholic guilt has kicked in and I don’t enjoy my good fortune in the same way I usually do. My heart is with Carlos and family.

I would love to hop on a bus to Obregon and give Carlitos a hug. But the family can better use the money that trip would cost me. Kathy and Crin are pitching pesos into the pot too. Because of me, they’ve come to know and love Carlos. Crin has put out the word to generous friends in Victoria. One of our dollars buys a lot of pesos.

The donation that means the most to me is from Crin’s neighbor, ten-year old Owen, who gave his savings of twenty dollars because he plays baseball and Carlitos story touched his heart.

We give now. We’ll give more. Money helps but it’s not everything. We wish our donations to enable the family to stay in Obregon, to continue to surround their son and brother with healing love.  
Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

May 4, 2017

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

“On the Bus Again, Just Can’t Wait to Get On the Bus Again”

“On the Bus Again, Just Can’t Wait to Get On the Bus Again”
            With appropriate apologies to Willie Nelson, I’ll soon be “making music with my friends.” We all know that I haven’t a musical molecule in my body, much as I love a wide variety of music.  But this music to which I refer is metaphorical music.

            Tomorrow I’ll board the posh Primera Plus autobus from Zapopan to Mazatlan where I’ll meet Kathy, who will fly in from Victoria, B.C. Rock and roll! This is a special time for us. Over years of vacationing together, Kathy and I grew accustomed to having a couple weeks of “girl time” to ourselves before being joined by her husband, Richard. However, the last three years, their Mexico trips have been focused, first, in search of a house in which to retire, and then, trips to mold their chosen house in Etzatlan to their needs.

            Don’t mis-read me. I love Richard and I love being with him. But, girl time is different. We talk about things differently. We have different interests. Our timing is different. Verbal intimacy happens. Oh, I can’t explain it.

            Richard retires in December this year. We’ve given that gentle man advance warning, now and then, Kathy and I will need to disappear for a week or two on a girl trip.

            This week we will stay at Kathy’s resort on the beach, spend hours lounging beneath a palapa, banter with beach vendors, a dozen or more of whom we know by name. We’ll nab Carlos for pulmonia rides to our favorite places, the Mercado, the Plazuela Machado, the Angela Peralta Teatro, the Callecita Restaurante. We’ll hop a bus for Cerritos and walk the rocky beach. We’ll be “going places we’ve never been, seeing things that we may never see again”.

            We have no big plans. We don’t need plans. We’ve learned not to make plans because both of us tend, on the way to “there”, to say, let’s see what is over “here”. Often we never make it to “there” but we surely have fun along the way.

            Then, bonus! The following week Crinny, Kathy’s sister, will join us. Oh, look out, World, here we come! “We’re the best of friends, insisting that the world keep turning our way,” and isn’t that what life’s all about anyway, even if the “vacation” is roasting hotdogs over a fire-pit in the back yard?

            Today I’m at loose ends, bouncing between those last minute jobs and being treated by friends as though I’m going on a journey to the ends of the earth. My last load of laundry dances on the line. Leo brought me tamales for breakfast, made by monks who sell them after the 8:00 Mass.

            I meet with the young men to discuss messy jobs they will do while I’m safely out of their way.  We planned it that way—at their urging. I’m sure neither want me poking over their shoulders asking questions, interfering.

While I’m not in their hair, Josue will take down my metal patio roof and rebuild it with a structure insulated against hot summer sun. He will paint the underside marina blue. Leo will chip away the window glazing on all my casa windows. Remember when windows were glazed? This stuff is a horrid, thick black goop, applied thirty plus years ago, dried, cracked and impossible to clean.
I’m glad to vacate my house for these jobs. When I return, the work will be finished, the potted plants and furniture back in place, the mess cleaned up and disposed. I’ll be blissfully unaware of any problems the men might have encountered.

I’ll be gone a mere two weeks but everybody insists on “going away” meals. Ariel and Lani took me to lunch at the laguna near San Juanito Escobedo. Tonight Carol and John are taking me to Casa Blanca in town for dinner. When I get on the bus in the early morning, I’ll still feel stuffed.

Going to Mazatlan from this mountain town is like entering a different country. The ocean instead of mountains. Sounds and sights are different. Air is redolent of sea-mist, heavy, humid, and soft, rather than dry, crisp and dusty. Our ears discern regional accents. The streets are a “different busy”. Sights and people are long-time familiar to us. For Kathy and me, Mazatlan has become a “home town”. It’s all good; it’s our kind of music.

We are of the generation that talk, eyeball to eyeball, hours at a time, without electronic devices. We tell stories and explore ideas. It’s our kind of “music”.

However, we have talked dreamed returning in another life as an all-girl mariachi band. I’ll be lead singer. Kathy wants drums and trombone. Crinny on base. Oh, what a world we imagine!

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

April 27, 2017

All In Life Is Not Sweet

            All In Life Is Not Sweet
            John and Carol walked over for Qi Gong on my patio. It’s how we start our day. “How are you this morning?” “Fine, all things considered.” My stock answer when I’m not feeling all that well.

            “We came to tell you the workmen have started bathroom tile. We need to be at the house this morning. No Qi Gong for us today.”

            “Actually, that’s fine with me. I had a miserable night with the smoke.” I wiped my cheeks. Tears have continually washed my eyeballs for the last three weeks that our valley has been hazy with smoke from forest and grass fires; wild fires which surround us.

            There is a tree at the corner of my patio. I wish I knew the name of it, some kind of palm. At the ends of the reaching branches, it shoots out balls of fronds, like many-fingered hands, puffs of palm. We in Montana have it as a houseplant in a pot, usually about two feet tall. At the base of the tree I have a beautiful bed of canna lilies, yellow with orange splattered centers. Instead of my Chinese drill, I watched those dratted iguanas slither down the trunk of the tree and mow the blossoms in gulps. I like watching iguanas. I love my flowers. I try to tolerate, to share, through gritted teeth.  

            Mid-morning Lani and I went to town, lists in fists. There is no one-stop-shopping in Etzatlan. No big-box stores. Finding what we want often requires several stops. Stores are small, shelves packed to the ceiling. The up-side of scattered shopping is that it is a lot more fun and one never knows what one might discover.  

            Fabric to make a curtain for my bathroom doorway headed my list. On our way to somewhere else, we passed a doorway through which I saw curtain panels hanging along the wall. 

            Lani and Ariel are the only residents on the Rancho who have been here long term. The rest of us are diligently working through various stages of construction or remodeling. My larger jobs are finished but there are a few small tasks I’m now ready to tackle. My casita is tiny. Opening inside doors requires room I don’t have. When I moved in, I removed the bathroom door and rigged a temporary curtain looping a rope on ends of a tablecloth and hanging the loops on nails. A year later, I’m ready for a real curtain.   

            I’m a home-made sort of gal, used to making what I need. I was raised that way. Everything in my home has my fingerprints. I intended making my curtain. I also have a basket of quilt pieces ready to stitch together for a bedspread—another good intention, paving stones. I simply haven’t gotten a “round tuit”. 

            Uncharacteristically, I say, “Lani, let’s go in and look.” Around the block we go so we can park near the store. “I want color.” I finger a panel the same color as my canna lilies. “I can live with this. I don’t need to make my curtain-door.”

            Bedspreads are stacked next to curtains. “Is this cotton? I like it. Realistically, I may not get back to my sewing until winter. I’m in Mexico. I’m the new me. I’ll buy this too.”

            Leo, my yard worker, odd jobs helper and resident philosopher, brought proper hardware and hung my curtain. I covered my bed with my new pink-girly-flowery spread. Pink? I never buy pink. I didn’t even like pink when I was eight. I like it today—it freshens the room.

            Later, while I gathered laundry from the clothesline, Leo was across the yard raking a bushel of flower petals from beneath the jacaranda.  The tree is in full spread, a purple umbrella.  Every day for weeks, the tree rains purple petals onto my lawn.

            “It’s a strange tree, isn’t it, Leo? It seems like you are always raking tree debris. A few weeks ago it was the dry leaves. Now the flowers. Next it will drop seed pods big as castanets.”

            “She beautiful tree,” his reply. “She gives you months of green shade. Seeds fall. All in life is not sweet.”

            I wiped my smoke-weepy eyes on the clean sheets and took my laundry in the house.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

April 20, 2017