Go home, City Mouse!

The City Mouse said to the Country Mouse: “I’m bored!”

The Country Mouse replied: “Go Home.”   [bio excerpt three]

There was the time on the ranch when my big-city in-laws came to spend a holiday week-end with us.  We had been there about a year and, in that time, I had never known a dull moment.  But after one afternoon at the ranch my in-laws were ready to leave.  “Man, this place is boring,” I was to hear from both parents and children over and over again. “There’s nothing to do here!”   Well, I don’t know what “there was to do” at their house, but life on the ranch was anything but boring.  To begin with, the semi-rustic living conditions required a good amount of time just to keep things ship-shape, in the house and on the grounds.

The fast-growing grass needed constant mowing. That meant getting out the machete and hacking away at the fenced ¼ acre that surrounded  the house. Lawn mowers were not heard of.  No, it was not I who wielded the machete, but between “mowings” when the grass, like everything else that grows in the sub-tropics, rose to a considerable height, the diversion came in making one’s way through it: coral snakes and water moccasin’s were native to the area.  I wasn’t about to run care-free through the grass each time I went out.

As careful as my husband and the ranch hands were about keeping the fences mended and strong, invariably, the cattle would break through to our hilltop perch and we would have to shoo them out again, mending the fence-break after them. Shooing the cattle out of the yard was not a quick fix: Brahma’s aren’t as docile as some cattle. It would take all four of us to surround the mavericks and herd them out, with frequent back-steps to gather in the break-aways.

Even though the house was surrounded by grass and elegant chaco trees, I needed flowers!   So, I purchased them at market one day and proceeded to break ground around the house to plant them.  I got a surprise.  All the ground close to the house was full of – not little rocks and sundry bits of concrete from the foundation laying, but small boulders!  Undaunted and determined to plant my flowers, I managed to pry them out with a sturdy shovel, one by one, over the course of a couple of weeks.  Leverage is amazingly productive.  The flowers got planted.  Watering them in the hot season was a bit of a chore (remember that we only had one tractor-hauled metal drum of water every couple of days for all of our household needs).  Trips to the hose to fill the buckets and water the plants takes longer than turning on the sprinkler.

We used a small tank of propane for our cooking, that stood just below the kitchen window.  When the gas ran out, I would close the valve, unscrew the connection with a wrench and roll it out to the front steps.  A ranch hand would then load it on the tractor, haul it down the hill and onto a jeep, take it to town to fill, and bring it back to the house, where I would roll it back into place and re-hook everything.  This was a weekly event.

As for cooking, we had no refrigerator (no electricity), so I had to boil everything that was left over from the evening meal, then re-boil it again in the morning. This preserved the beans, water and other dished that I put together while we lived there.  You didn’t cook something once – you cooked it again and maybe again, as long as anything was left.

This brings us of course to the usual housewife/mother duties of cooking, cleaning, getting the kids ready for school or town – and the unusual duties of shooing our favorite horse off of the porch when he came up to peek through the screen door several times a day, or cleaning the chicken poop off the porch: the chickens insisted on sitting on the railing surrounding the house, facing out of course, as they exchanged their daily chicken news.

Our forays to the city for supplies and an occasional doctor visit for the kids, who were constantly suffering from tonsillitis because of the extreme, damp climate, took a healthy amount of time out of our lives.

So much for being “bored.”   The real truth about life on our hilltop aerie, however, is that even if I had had no chores at all, I could never have been bored.  The most fulfilling part of life was just being there!  Nature has a way of filling the soul to overflowing that no amount of city life can ever do.  And when that nature is spectacular, it holds your attention.  Although I have left many homes in my life, to travel on to new places, this Mexican ranch was the one that produced copious tears when I had to leave.

We finally managed to amuse my city in-laws with a trip to the river. We had a ranch hand hook the the wagon they used to haul feed onto the back of a tractor and bring it up the hill.  We loaded everyone on and set off.  If navigating the hill in a tractor alone was scary, you should try it in a rickety  cart of questionable construction hanging being the same tractor!  The city folk finally got some excitement.  After the initial screams, as everyone tried to find something to hold on to (there wasn’t much), everyone got a little crazy and started to sing. What a sight we must have been for anyone watching:  a cart-full of loud songsters, bobbing around in all directions as we tried to keep our balance, wending our way down a steep hill in a tractor-drawn wagon!  Like something out of Don Quixote.

We finally made our way downhill, across the highway and fields to the river Quilate, a crystal clear, fast-flowing river, situated in one of the most beautiful pieces of paradise you can imagine.   Unfortunately, the water was so cold that you couldn’t even put your feet in.  We ate our packed lunch out on the rocks, listening to the sweet sounds of water rippling over stones,  and had a great time anyway.

The hour return trip was tiring – and quiet – as we tried our best to keep our balance again over steep, uneven terrain, falling down, getting up again, holding on to each other or whichever piece of the rails looked halfway sturdy, every time we hit a bump.  The in-laws were too tired to complain and slept well before leaving in the morning.   As I watched them returning to their car down at the ranch (walking down the hill this time), I heaved a sigh of relief.  It was quiet as I sat on the steps looking out at the expanse of lush green hills, then the cicadas began their song – and I was filled again.


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What – Me Chicken?

[Bio excerpt No. 4]

 As a teen-ager, I never had any ambition to travel.  I thought that a person should know his own country well before traipsing off to parts unknown. In High School, my closest friends wrote in the yearbook that their goal was to travel the world together.  My goals were of a stay-home nature. It just goes to show that we are not as in control of our destinies as we think.  My friends married just out of High School, started having kids, and never went anywhere.  How I ended up spending half my lifetime in other countries is a long story.  One thing just led to another. As I look back, I remember the series of decisions that I made that took me to other places, but I’m amazed to see that most of my original reasons for traveling never actually panned out. Yet the final outcome seems to have always been better than my original plan.  Did I not say that Someone Else was in control?  I’m convinced of it! I am, in the final account, the observer, and not the “doer” of my life, and that’s as it should be.  This is not something we discover when we are young: it takes a lifetime.

In the course of my moving about, I’ve laid my head on my pillow at night to look up at more roofs than I can count.  The wood-beamed, tin roof of a chicken coop is only one of them. It was nevertheless no less “home” than any of the others – and comfortable enough.

After a couple of years on the ranch in Martinez de la Torre, and continuous undermining by the local ranch hands in the form of midnight fence-cutting, lost cattle and unfinished jobs by some of the workers, who resisted the fact that the “boss man” was sent from the city instead of one of them being put in charge, my husband decided he’d had enough and turned in his resignation.  In tears, I packed our belongings, looked wistfully at the plants I had so lovingly repotted to move with us, and said good-bye to our two beloved dogs, none of which my husband would allow us to take, and we jeeped and horse-backed everything down the hill, loaded everything onto a truck and drove off. My husband left for the capitol to pursue work, while my two children and I stayed with friends on their ranch until my husband could find a position and come for us.

We were to share a house that was basically one large room with some cots, a sofa, a kitchen space on one side, and a large doorless bathroom, with a toilet at one end and a shower at the other. No hot water, and no curtain or tub, just a drain in the concrete floor. After showering, you would mop the floor and dry off the toilet, all of which shared the generous shower with you. By unspoken rule, everyone knew when to look the other way when someone was using the bathroom.  In spite of the simplicity of the accommodations, our visit there was a joyful one. Spending time with these beloved friends was all the comfort I needed. It was a bit like camping out, and who doesn’t like to camp out!

This humble ranch house was in the middle of fields of grazing cattle and orange groves, with palm and rubber trees vying for space.  I love nature and would far prefer living in a shack in the middle of natural beauty, than in a mansion with no yard, so I felt right at home. The kids were oblivious to any lack of comforts, spending most of their waking hours playing tag or hanging out in the large rubber trees with our friends’ children.  After dinner, we adults would sit outside and watch them play until they were too tired to stand up, then we’d tuck them into bed and talk the night away under the stars.

Attached to, and running the length of the back of our friends’ house was an enclosure that harbored a large extended family of chickens and other foul.  It had four concrete walls, with two doors, and two large windows at one end. The tin roof was perched atop a foot wide opening that ran the length of the walls just under the eaves. Since there was no place to store some of our furniture after our move, we had decided this house appendage would do quite well for us to take up temporary residence.  The chickens were moved out, the place was hosed down and sanitized until it sparkled –as much as a concrete enclosure can sparkle of course – and we moved in.

Our full bed, a portable clothes rack and some boxes covered with serapes containing necessary household items, graced the far end of the “coop.”  I placed our kitchen table and chairs at the other, the side with the doors and windows.  There was a small table for my portable propane stove with shelves for dishes and pans above it. Under one of the windows with a beautiful view of the back acres, there was a sink with running water, but no drain.  No problem!  I placed a large bucket underneath the sink and when it filled, I’d take it out and throw the water onto the grass.

Night time would find my two children and me bundled up in bed together to stay warm under an array of blankets as the cool night breeze wafted in from the opening under the roof.  We spent a couple of months in this make-shift home while I did everything  possible to make it look as if it had come from the pages of a house beautiful magazine. Imagination and ingenuity have no limits! We whitewashed the walls inside and hung pictures, put up shelves and curtains, and laid down area rugs. I gathered fresh flowers from the field every few days and placed them lovingly in a large earthenware vase on the colored serape that graced the kitchen table.  As chicken coops go, it was delightful.

Through the years from the time of my youth, home has held a sacred meaning for me. Whenever the four walls and roof took on a less than familiar form, I would make it a home by filling it with my artistic touch and plenty of love.  As they say “home is where the heart is,” as long as that heart knows love, there is no place on Earth where we cannot carve out a peaceful niche from whatever is available and call it home.

My husband eventually found work in Xalapa, the capitol, and came for us.  Good-bye peaceful, frontier life!  Hello, Big City. We would spend the next ten years in the capitol, see my third child born, and gather many happy (and finally, some personal unhappy) memories before it all came to an end, and I would say good-bye forever to Mexico, which had become my heart and home.

On the other side of fear….Paradise!

For this California girl who had been afraid of the tiniest spider-less web in the corner of her bedroom when growing up, this was reality TV its best. Or worst. Depends on how you look at it – after the fact.

In retrospect, it was a challenge eventually met with good results. I became close to fearless in the face of new challenges after that. Life continued to give me surprises but I learned to take them in stride, no matter how unexpected or frightening. What else can you do? If you can’t change it, face it! I felt that I had finally made it as a fearless resident of the sub-tropics when we came home once after a week visiting out of town relatives, to a house that had been taken over by ants. Every inch of the concrete floor was swarming with them. They were not imposing as ants go – neither the big black “meat eaters” that lived in the ruins behind us, nor the huge red “plant cutters” that enjoyed the abundant foliage around the house. These were tiny and nonthreatening. But how do we get in the house? We just go in! And so we did. For a couple of hours, we stepped on the ants as we went from room to room. They seemed completely uninterested in us as they continued their ant convention. After a couple of hours, they had formed into a dozen or more tidy rows, crisscrossing each other, leaving open spaces where we could walk between them. By morning, they had all marched off and the house was ours again. They didn’t eat a thing, or bite one single toe while they were there. Polite visitors if you ask me. It took some tiny ants to teach me a big lesson: fear and denial don’t work. Life is manageable when you face it head on.

It was a huge challenge to learn to live at the ranch, but the house was in as gorgeous a setting as you can imagine! What else might you expect from a place chosen by an ancient civilization for sacred ceremonies? Many a morning we would wake up to sunshine and look out over nothing but fluffy white clouds covering everything in sight around our hilltop perch. It was like living in the sky at the top of Jack’s beanstalk – an enchanted setting! During the course of the morning, the clouds would slowly ease away, leaving a view of cattle grazing outside the fence and of lush green hills marching into the distance. You would hear a few soft chirpings and suddenly the air would be filled with the sound of thousands of cicadas raising their voices in loud chorus. After a few minutes, the cicadas would stop, and the silence would become almost palpable. The alternating chorus of song, always starting with a few chirps and crescendoing into a deafening chorus, and the ensuing silence would be repeated all through the day. Occasionally a whole flock of parakeets would fly past –bright green and yellow flashes of light winging their way through to the forest behind us.

Going to town for groceries each week was an experience. We horse-backed down to the highway and waited for the country bus that would take us to town. To bus any distance at all in Mexico between pueblos way out in the boonies is to really get to know the people up close and personal. Amidst a cacophony of cackling chickens, crying babies and an over-stocked bus of people all talking at once, you couldn’t help feeling “accepted”. Everyone was so close! The enticing aroma of newly-roasted coffee and fresh oranges fought to overcome the smell of acrid sweat from ranch hands after a day’s work shoveling stinky feedlot mixture to the cattle. Many a time, I would find a wet-diapered baby sitting on my shoulder, hanging from the arm of its mother, while she tried to keep her balance in the packed center aisle, as the bus careened around the bends of the long country road. If I tried to get up to give Mother my seat, I would be refused energetically. The “White Lady” would have sitting privileges. I didn’t think this was fair, but I never could overcome this unspoken rule, and getting up with any conviction into the over-crowed aisle was out of the question.

After a few hours in town, we would take our raffia-tied boxes of groceries and other purchases back to the bus station and wait for our bus to fill to the rafters before leaving on the return trip. Once back at the ranch, we would tie the boxes on either side of the saddles, and horse-back up to the house again. Sometimes, instead of the horses, we would take the tractor. With the boxes secured and the two kids and I hanging onto any available handhold on the tractor, my husband would drive us up the road-less hill, which in some places was so steep I was sure that at any moment we were going to topple over sideways and roll back down again.

There were challenges, yes, but memories that I will always treasure. One New Year’s Eve, after celebrating with friends on their ranch, we returned home about 2:00 in the morning and saddled up the horses to climb the hill. The night sky harbored no moon, but all the stars in Heaven were at their best that night. The night was still and so dark that we couldn’t see the ground as the horses slowly made their way, the sound of their hooves knocking aside small stones and gravel at each step. The kids were asleep in front of us in the saddles as we wound up the hill. I kept my initial fear to myself as we started out. This was the first time we had ever returned to the house at night, and the uphill trip wasn’t exactly a piece of cake, even in the daytime. What night-time tropical insects would attach themselves to us unexpectedly? What coral snake surprised by a horse’s hoof would rise up to strike? And how would the horses know where to step on the steep incline in the pitch dark? Trust is the answer. Unable to do more than go with the flow, I settled back in the saddle in acceptance and was soon envisioning the voyage of the Three Kings on their way to visit the Christ Child. With no one but God and the great sky above, the sweet touch of balmy breezes and trust in a good horse, that star-studded peaceful night filled my soul to overflowing. The half hour trek up the hill was nothing less than awe-inspiring.

Beautiful surroundings, breathtaking views and the sounds of nature un-sullied by the city noises of honking horns and crowds of people – this was a corner of Paradise Lost, and the paradise was not lost on me. Leaving the ranch was one of the hardest departures I’ve ever known.

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.