To live above the clouds!

The State of Veracruz is much like California in topography, with one important difference: it is in the sub-tropics. Extending Eastward from the high desert plateau of the central valley of Mexico, it marches down steep mountain cumbres to the green hills and valleys of the Sierra, and continues its descent to sea level on the Gulf Coast, all within a distance of a couple dozen miles as the crow flies. The mountain climate could be described as perpetually wet, with glorious sun-filled days interspersed at just the right intervals to make you forget there could be any place more beautiful to live. There you spend winter in the clouds – literally. The dense humid air settles around you in what the locals call “chipi chipi”, and penetrates right to the bone. The only way to stay warm is to keep moving. In the Summer, mornings fill rapidly with great thunderclouds and let loose with torrents of water, then just as rapidly disappear, leaving afternoons sparkling in the sunshine.

The inhabitants of this beautiful state are as varied as the topography. On the central plateau, the Western border of the state, the people are rosy cheeked and stout, braving the constant dry winds and intense cold of the high desert. The mountain regions capture all of the moisture from the Gulf: with gray days as common as sun-filled, the inhabitants tend to be of a more serious nature, cosmopolitan in the city and typically reticent in the country. Then there’s Veracruz, and the less-known coastal cities, where mardi-gras reigns, where the locals represent the outgoing and lively spirit of the Caribbean from which they have gained a majority of their cultural influence.

The fauna of Veracruz State ranges from nopal and agave and a few scrawny desert trees, through green hills of the mountains with a profusion of trees and flowers, and bromeliads as abundant as poppies in California. Just before reaching the sandy beaches and lush broken topography of the coast, lies a grassy plain dotted with trees such as one would see in the plains of Africa, short with wide-spreading branches, and a bit shy as trees go: no gathering into forests as in the mountains, they like to stand alone.

One of the most beautiful places where I’ve lived was in the subtropical Sierra Madres, near the tiny pueblo of Zaragoza, an hour and a half from the nearest city and several hours from Xalapa, the capitol. My husband had been offered a job there administrating a cattle ranch. With our two small children, we moved into the owner’s house high atop a hill overlooking the ranch. Not more than 50 feet from the back door were the ruins of an ancient Indian structure, stones piled on stones, reaching higher than our roof. A short distance down the hill in front of the house and on either side were more crumbling ruins, small piles of rocks that by their position showed a definite connection to the larger complex that had made this hill important to an indigenous people centuries before.

The nearest we could come to discovering the early history of this area was a comment made by one of the men from the pueblo: Notwithstanding the friendly and open curiosity of the locals when seeing us saddle the horses to ride up to the house after a visit to town, or the fact that a steady stream of villagers trekked up the trail past our house just outside the gate each morning to gather wood in the forest for their stoves, later to carry their bundles back down by the same path, they never came up to the house! I asked a ranch hand why the villagers did not feel welcome to visit us. He replied that they were afraid. “Afraid of us?” I said. “No,” he replied, “When we prepared the foundation for the house, we uncovered the bones of many people. It was a burial ground.” I understood that the village people were frightened because we had disturbed the souls of the dead. But the clincher came when the ranch hand added: “We didn’t know what to do with the bones, so we threw them back under the house.” Question answered! The locals were a superstitious people and we had obviously disturbed the souls of their ancestors, over whose remains we dared to set up house. I admit that the thought that I was lying down to sleep each night on the disassembled bones of an ancient people, whose sacred ground had been disturbed, made a considerable impression on me.

The local superstition and the “wisdom” of the village elders did not quite sink in with the children. Their curiosity was refreshingly naïve and knew no bounds. More often than I can count, after waking up from an afternoon siesta and opening my eyes, I would see a whole row of little heads and big brown eyes staring at me through the window. Who knows how long they had been watching the “white lady” sleeping. Once I awakened and my eyes met theirs, however, they would scatter, like flies when you pull out the fly-swatter, and disappear into the bushes. The speed of their retreat often made me wonder if they feared that the ”white witch” would cast a spell on them with one penetrating look. I was touched by the wide-eyed admiration of these children who braved the ancient spirits to see the White Lady.

It was quite acceptable for the village people, innocent and humble by nature, to stare at me for as long as they wished whenever we rode the bus to town – and they did. But staring back was not allowed. Not that I was accustomed to staring at people, but I was so captivated by the children with their dark eyes and beautiful brown features, that I couldn’t help venturing a smile as I looked at one of them. Smiling or not, I would invariably get an angry look from the mother as she turned quickly away. I later learned that if you looked longer than a mere few seconds at a child, you might be giving it “the evil eye.” This was not socially acceptable behavior, especially from this alien white woman unlike anyone they had ever seen before. And so, on my trips to town, I would sit very still looking out the window of the bus, while I felt dozens of big brown eyes staring unabashedly at me, not daring to glance in their direction. This one-sided situation extended to the pueblo, where my husband told me not to go. Why? I was never given an answer. My oldest son walked down to school each day and back, but when I ventured into town, myself, one day, to talk to his teacher, there was not a soul in sight. I could feel their eyes on me when I walked down the street as the villagers peeked at me from cracked doors and behind curtained windows. I can only imagine that some village “dignitary” had spread wild stories about this strange implant into their uneventful lives.

The subtropical weather at the ranch was harsh to extreme.The muggy, hot, windless, summer months were unbearable. Thunderstorms did not help: the humidity only made the heat more unbearable. For months I walked around like a wet rag, hair hanging disheveled and limp, sweat pouring down my face and trickling constantly down my back, with no way to find relief. The damp winters left us perpetually chilled to the bone. AC and heaters were not heard of there. But the human body is indeed a miraculous machine! We eventually became acclimatized, as much from sheer will power as from physical adaptation. The first few months were the hardest. Yet getting used to the climate was the least of the challenges. This was an area known for coral snakes and water moccasins, scorpions and a variety of six- and eight-legged tropical residents of a size and demeanor I could not have imagined possible if I hadn’t seen them with my own eyes. Have you even seen a fat cockroach eight inches long? …or had a coral snake drop out of a pile of clothes onto your foot and quickly slide away before you even realized the element of danger? …or spent an hour hosing down the walls of your house to keep a yard-wide, endless line of huge black ants from entering as they made straight-way down the path of least resistance – our house – as they left the ruins behind us to escape an approaching thunderstorm? ..and then done it all over again as they marched back up the hill after the storm? Those were just a few of my encounters with the local inhabitants of creeping crawling fame.

Our first night at the ranch house was memorable. There had been no time to put up screens, and it became evident shortly after dusk that without screens, we would have to set up a bug hotel. With no available electricity, we used kerosene lanterns, two of which I hung on nails in the living room, just over our make-shift sofa – a hammock strung between the walls. My husband was in the hammock, reading, and I was getting the children ready for bed. I looked in to see the entire living room wall covered with June bugs, crickets and other night-flying insects, with more coming in the open window. There was not an inch of the wall that was not moving. This was not a happy situation! I informed my nature-resistant husband that it was either “me or the bugs. Someone had to go!” We blew out the lanterns and after fifteen minutes of towel swinging and fly-swatting, we managed to shoo all the critters out toward the only light left – a full moon. Against my husband’s protests on this first hot, humid, tropical night at the ranch, we went to bed with the windows closed! I prefer suffocating and sweat to crawling night visitors. The excitement of this first night did not end there however. [See poem in next article]

The lack of running water was a challenge, but we met it well with a bit of ingenuity. My husband would go down each morning and fill up a large metal drum with fresh water from a nearby mountain stream. He would load this on the tractor, bring it up to the house and hoist it up on a tree behind the house. A hose was attached, and I would take it to the kitchen and run it through the window when I was cooking, or run it off to the back of the lot to the stone wash trough when I wanted to wash some clothes. To shower in the winter, I’d fill a large metal bucket with water, heat it to nearly boiling on my two-burner table-top stove, and take it to the bathroom. I’d use pans to combine water from this with cold water from another bucket, and ladle this water over the kids or myself as needed to soap up and rinse. In summer, I only needed to lay the 100 foot hose out in the sun. In a couple of hours, the water is the hose would be comfortably warm and I could use this for our baths. It’s remarkable how clean and well-bathed you can get from a couple of buckets-full or a hose-load of water when you use it carefully.

And so, this sheltered American girl who had grown up with all the comforts of life covered, found new life in the rewards of challenges overcome. It is an education that I would not change for a lifetime of luxury in a multi-million dollar home in Malibu overlooking the ocean – honest! The difficulties that made me stronger are the inspiration for all that I do, and go deeply into my faith itself. My priorities are crystal clear.

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