Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Celebrating a New Year, Mexican Style

And, with all Mexican celebrations, let there be fireworks!
Are you ready to ring in 2014?

Quick - there is still time to bring in Mexican Good Luck for 2014.  Here are some tips.

First, go outside and build a fire in the street, then sit outside with your family and neighbors and celebrate together.

Before heading out, check what you are wearing and select your underwear carefully! Red will bring you luck, white, good health and yellow will insure wealth and abundance. (The stores here have big displays of red undies and as the young were getting ready for their big evenings, that area of the stores were crowded!)

For overall good fortune, wear an item of old clothing and another brand new item.

As the clock hits midnight, eat a grape with each chime and make a wish as you eat each one. (Ours are counted out and sitting in a bowl, awaiting the midnight hour. Arayo has a bowl of a dozen treats too, just in case it might be good luck for our 4-legged pals.)

Pull a ladder out from the garage and as the clock strikes mid-night - jump off - thus leaving behind all things negative with this final leap into the New Year.

And, above all, have a safe New Years Eve as you head into Twenty Fourteen!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Star of Bethlehem Shines on Mexico

Children and their parents reenact the story of Mary and Joseph's search for an inn
She rode into town on a donkey. Mary, with Joseph by her side. Following her were 50 or so children and parents, reenacting the Biblical story of Mary and Joseph's search for a place to stay.

It is a Mexican tradition.  From December 16 through Christmas Eve, the village children meet at the church, then they go door to door along a pre-determined route, knocking and being turned away. When finally they reach the right location, there is singing, they are invited in and they find a party, or the simple handing out of holiday bags of candies and fruits.
The Star of Bethlehem shines over the Pasada

As I watched the Posada one evening, I noticed in the back of the group, a small boy. Sitting atop his father's shoulders, he looked across the sea of children, and onto the activity taking place at the door. He was dressed in a funny outfit, all puffy of a gold fabric that glittered and shined. His face showed from the center of what looked like a gold banana with appendages.

Then, it hit me. He wasn't in a banana suit. His face looked out from a big, stuffed gold star costume that was shining down on the activity below.

He was the Star of Bethlehem.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Fires of Christmas Eve

"Feliz Navidad"
So slowly and silently did it creep into my room that I didn't notice the smoke that was settling around me. Suddenly, the night erupted with hundreds of explosions which shook the building and sent me flying from my bed.

11:59, read the clock.  Christmas Eve.

Quickly tossing on a sweatshirt and flip-flops, I grabbed Arayo's leash, ran across the courtyard, through the long lobby, up a flight of stairs and out into the cool Mexican night.

The scene that met me was surreal.  All up and down the cobblestone street flames danced to the music being pumped out of simple homes.  Children spun round in the middle of the road as they twirled giant sparklers. Parents and grandparents warmed themselves by the fires they had built near their front doors (and their cars) and visited as they roasted huge pink and white marshmallows.

I leaned against a wall and watched the scene playing out around me, then strolled closer to better see what the next family over was doing.

"Feliz Navid", the mothers said when they spotted me watching.

Speaking only a few words of Spanish, I had no way to explain how magical I thought this tradition was.

Occasionally, throughout the night, I awoke to hear more explosions, but when I took Arayo out to potty at 6 am - the fires near me were out.  The families in bed.  Towards town I could hear a Christmas party still in progress.

Perhaps next year I will have the words to better connect and with luck I'll be invited to be part of this Mexican Christmas tradition.  I can still twirl a mean sparkler!

A Mexican Christmas Eve

Perhaps the bottle of Tequila helped this Mary and Joseph stay happy
The angel yawned, the king crossed his eyes and stuck out his tongue.  Mary's frustration showed on her face as she held the squirming baby and popped a bottle into his mouth.  Joseph wore a Mariachi uniform topped by big sombrero. At his feet, a bottle of tequila.

The Church was alive this Christmas Eve.  Mexicans and gringos alike entered the walled courtyard and made their way around the parameter to see the living nativities.  Conceived and constructed by the various neighborhoods of Ajijic, children performed the central rolls of Mary, Joseph and an assorted cast which included angels, babies, wise men (or not), toy animals, and a couple reindeer for good measure.  

After an hour or two of posing, some actors continued to appear reverent as their photos were taken, though boredom showed on a few faces.  One living baby apparently got cranky and was removed, only to be replaced by a hat.

One scene portrayed Mary and Joseph dressed as peasant Mexicans.  Another rendition of the sacred scene was played out by Mary in bright colorful Mexican party wear with yards of skirts, ribbons and a bright orange headdress.  She seemed to be the happiest Mary - perhaps because her Jesus was made of wood and wasn't putting up a fuss in the cool Mexican night air.  Or maybe she snuck in a sip of Joseph's tequila!

In the center of the church courtyard, a huge piece of art had been constructed of colorful saw dust, depicting a bright red and green poinsettia on a beige backdrop.  Words at the bottom proclaimed "Feliz Navidad 2014".

Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, Mexican Style!
As a series of bells rang, the faithful made their way through the giant doors of the old stone church for Midnight Mass. The priest, once young and energetic, has seen a few Christmas Eves, and with age comes wisdom - or perhaps a desire to hit the hay early.  Through the years, Midnight Mass was moved to 11, then 10, and now is held at a more practical hour of 8.

Curious, I followed the crowd and stood at the back of the sanctuary.  The building was filled to capacity, yet people continued to push through the doors.  I realized I was depriving someone of space within these walls for whom this service carried great meaning, so I made my way back outside and left the faithful to worship on this Christmas Eve.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Celebrating A Virgin with Charlie Manson

The Virgin is honored with alters outside Mexican homes
11 pm.  The streets were deserted as I took Arayo for her final nightly constitution.  As we headed back inside, I was drawn through the night to view the alters which had been erected outside the homes in the neighborhood.

Encircled with colorful strands of lights, the alters shared a common theme - brown paper or fabric supported a variety of plants and climbed in height until they reached a print or figurine of a brown woman, dressed in robes, head bowed.

It was December 12, the final day of the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron Saint of Mexico. She is the Virgin Mary who appeared to Juan Diego and instructed him to build a church in her honor atop a mountain.  It is said she is the reason many Mexican's became Catholic.

As Arayo and I walked, we began to hear strains of music and followed the street until we arrived at a festival a few blocks away.  At the entrance to the area, a mariachi band played, and beyond them were several blocks of vendors selling food, drinks and gaily lit trinkets that flashed in the night.

Arayo and I wandered to the far end, under a fireworks display which was being erected in a much too cramped area, and to a stage where more progressive and louder music was performed.

As we don't often hear a true mariachi band, we walked back to the entrance and stood with grandmothers and families to listen a while.  Accompanied by violins, guitars and trumpets a short stocky guitar player held center stage, belting out words I could not understand but with a strong tenor voice.  I was enchanted.

There were 8 musicians in all, though a carefully dressed lad of about 2 wondered amongst them, strumming a toy guitar. He had the makings of a rock star with big brown eyes and the ability to work the crowd.

As the musicians began a new number, a man staggered into their midst.  Dressed in a filthy button down shirt with GUCCI written across the breast pocket, his pants were several sizes too large and tightly supported by a frayed belt. (Thank God!) The hair sticking out from the NYC ball cap fell in clumps to his shoulders and matched his unshaved unbathed face.  He supported himself with a cane and gripped a plastic cup of beer in his other paw.

The intro completed to the band's song, this man, who could have been a twin for Charlie Manson, opened his filthy mouth wide, lifted his chin towards the night sky and in nearly perfect pitch stole the position of lead singer.  Where had this man learned to sing? Had he professionally trained, then fell into a bottle to be lost to the world of music?

Between verses, Charlie leaned on his cane, took deep swigs of beer, then wiggled his hips at the audience. It was a stunning, macabre sight and though no one bothered to toss him into the street, the band was obviously not amused.

Song after song, Charlie refused to relinquish his place center stage, and with disgust on their faces, the band packed up their instruments and left.  His back-up musicians gone, the beer drained, Charlie wobbled off into the night.

Looking back towards the party still in progress down the street, I shook my head, wondered at the things that happen in Mexico, and mentally said my goodbyes to another Saint celebration as we headed home to bed.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Up REALLY Close with Things That Spit Flames

Sparks and flames shoot onto spectators below.
Sparks were flying, flames shooting about. The crowd of hundreds laughed and watched as pieces of fireworks fell back to earth.   A few brushed burning embers from their hair.  We sucked in smoke filled with sulfur and God knows what else - maybe blasting powder or TNT.

Pinwheels were mounted onto a 40 or 50 foot rickety looking wooden tower, supported by a few ropes anchored to walls and the church.  No one seemed concerned that the flames from the pinwheels might sever the support, sending the tower falling into the crowd.

At one point, a technical difficulty is detected so a man is sent to climb the tower with an enormous knife, unsheathed. Never-mind he could stab himself or drop the blade onto someone below.

Families were seated on the church steps, maybe 15 feet away from the fireworks display. Well, what can go wrong - we're on the CHURCH steps, after all.  Shouldn't that insure complete protection?

A pinwheel was lit and a small black dog rushed from the audience towards the burning, spinning, flashing and screaming ring.  To him this was a game - jump in the air and try to capture the flames and sparks as they shoot about. Though many wanted to, no one rushed to save him for fear of losing their own hair.  At least THAT was too close. (In the interest of full disclosure, he was captured before the next display was set ablaze.)

Various groups were in charge of these spectacles.  One group, perhaps, should have kept with their chosen field, which was not the construction of towering fiery displays. A few too many pieces of it flew, burning, towards the crowd.  We moved and watched from the safety of the street and behind a stone wall.

Our American friends were in awe of these demonstrations.  Rarely was an area marked off to maintain a safe boundary, and that safety field could be measured in a few feet. Those making a living as employees of OSHA would be looking for other work here in Mexico.

I find this 'living on the edge' to be freeing.  Here, if you are burned by a falling fireworks ember you don't call a lawyer and look for someone to sue, you say "gee, maybe I got too close!"  

Mexico is reminding me of the days of my youth, when people took responsibility for their actions and their outcome.  As the flames and sparks flew, I looked at the height of the tower, and while I didn't hide a block away, I stood at the back of the crowd.  The thrill seekers and those with a belief that the power of the church would protect them were welcome to feel more of the heat.

I'm glad they have the right to do so.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Dancing Half Naked Men on an Evening Stroll

Sunday evenings, the Mexican Malecon fills with people
I hadn't expected the semi-naked dancing men, but they greatly improved what would otherwise have been just a lovely evening stroll.

The plan had been to meet another Newfoundland and her owner at the malecon, the paved walk that runs along the the lake. It was Sunday evening and a stroll is always a great way to end the day - watching as the sun sinks and finally sets behind the mountains, painting the sky shades of orange, and tossing color across the lake to land on the lucky who wait there.

Sunday evenings are special at lakeside, with families coming to visit, picnic, play, and stroll. This evening, we were greeted by sounds - a little bluesy, a little gutsy, a little Janis Jopliny.  Now THIS is the kind of music I can get in to. I told myself we'd come back, enjoy the concert after a little more exercise.

We visited with people interested in the big dogs, reached the west end of the pavement, then turned to see girls in grass skirts parading across the lawn.  They were cute but I might have passed on were it not for the half naked men milling about.  (Hey, I'm not dead yet!)

Families come out to watch the evening entertainment
A woman began walking around those assembled near the scantily clothed group and slipped leis over our heads. (Arayo looked cute decorated in a necklace of white flowers.)  Then, the drums began beating, hollowed pieces of wood of various lengths were played and the dancing began with the swinging of hips.

Then the men took the stage. Covered only by fringe on their calves and rather long loin clothes, they squatted, pranced and dipped. The muscles of their legs were long and defined.  I was amazed how low they could go and still keep moving. I was amazed that they could dance like that and expose nothing!  We were mesmerized.

One should never second guess a Mexican evening stroll.  One never knows what one will find just waiting outside. (But, dang - I've GOT to start carrying my camera more often!)

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Arayo's Mexican Hell

Pinwheels of fire light the church courtyard

The lights flashed, whirled, spit fire and screamed in high protest as the fireworks display splashed against the backdrop of the church.  The final display announced "Gloria" in flaming sparklers, and featured an outline of (we assume) San Andres and from them, showers of dancing sparks fell upon the crowd, sending those who were too near to dash for safety.

Families with toddlers, grandparents, and teens dressed to be seen, joined together to applaud the end of the display as skyrockets exploded in the night sky.

Our small group had been enjoying the evening which took place in the chilly Mexican evening.  We snacked our way between the booths, testing Mexican holiday sweets, drinks made of corn, stewed mixed fruit and cow eye and cow head tacos (blah!). Few people over-indulged in the beer and tequila, for this was a family affair with rides for the children, live music and dancing for adults.

Arayo accompanied us to the square for the festivities. She, too, tasted local hot dogs, greedily lapped a bit of Corona and had her photo taken by many, but when things got too loud, she was happiest under a table, putting a distance between herself and the confusion.

As the grand finale drew near, we made our way to the church to watch the fireworks display which featured visual messages of a heart, fish, cross and an outline of San Angelo. Finding a spot in front of the 40 foot tall display structure, we leaned against a wall while Arayo took refuge between the wall and our feet.

Ajijic's Saint Andrew in flames - an evening tradition of the festival
For 20 minutes pinwheels of fire and light filled the church courtyard and with the end of the event, we turned to go, but Arayo had found her spot.  Like a soldier who has sought safety in a foxhole, or a Kansan who dives for a tornado shelter when the skies turn wicked, Arayo had found her safe place and had no intention of leaving. For, between us and the wall was a 6" wide by 4" deep ditch.  Somehow, my 100 pound Newfoundland had managed to mold herself to this space and within it she had found comfort as the bombs of fireworks were going on around her.

My friends have come to adore Arayo and we had debated taking her with us on this evening or leaving her home alone to listen to the explosions which signify Mexican celebrations.  At least, with us, she could nestle near, we could collectively give her hugs and try to assure her that all was well.  As a group we nudged her from her hiding spot, and pulled her close to try to reassure her that all was well and she was loved.

Arayo, my sweet, the celebrations will not go forever. In fact, for this particular 9 day celebration, tonight shall be the end and things should be quiet for a while.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

San Andres Festival

The nightly procession to mass goes by our hotel nightly

In the distance, church bells ring, calling the devoted to 7 o'clock mass, and from the opposite direction of our cobblestone street, the sounds of shelling can be heard marking the beginning of the evening procession from Six Corners to the church.

As we wait each evening in the darkness, we hear the signature "fuiiiiit!", see the sparks shoot high into the sky, then the ending "boom" shakes the buildings and sends the animals rushing for safety.  The devices, cohetones, which resemble bottle rockets on major steroids, are thought to send evil spirits into hiding.  They may be right.

The procession leaves 6 Corners, three blocks or so from our hotel, and makes its way to the city center and the church, six blocks or so in the other direction.  Led by alter boys dressed in white robes, they are followed by the devoted, many carrying baskets of food.  The 9 days of celebration of the Ajijic city Saint, San Andres (Saint Andrew) are sponsored by area groups - the carpenters, the hotel owners, the agricultural workers and those who have left town.  One procession may be accompanied by a brass band, another by a drum corp.  A group is led by native dancers in costumes and feathers, yet another is silent except for the chanting from the priest and the echoing prayers of those walking with him.

The devoted carry candles, or offerings as they make the walk to church
One night, many of the walkers carried candles which were protected by large holders shaped like flowers.  They were followed by the accompaniment of a large Mariachi band playing guitars and violins.

The celebration of Ajijic's town Saint is the community's largest celebration of the year.  Spanning 9 days, the 'bombs' begin around 7 a.m. as the devoted head for morning mass.  At noon, the church bells ring and more explosions are heard.  At night, after mass, the town joins in celebration in the community square and the sounds of people enjoying food, games, carnival rides, beer gardens and pony rides mix with live music which is performed from the gazebo in the center of the square.

At 10:30 (give or take a few minutes or an hour - this is Mexico, after all!) the nightly fireworks display takes place in front of the church - the day's sponsors vying for the most spectacular display of the festival. 

In Mexico, life seems to be lived outside and festivals are a vital part of community life.  As one woman told me, "if we don't have a festival going on, we make one up!"

Friday, November 22, 2013

Running in the Rain

Little one - before the rain

The music was fabulous and much of the town was there.  Children, parents, grandparents, teenagers.  Most people were Mexican with a few gringos scattered about. Some dancing, some sitting along the short walls that surrounded the raised gazebo/stage in the center of the square.

A strangely dressed person in an odd pink dress with a wig and mask danced around the stage.  She'd chase the young boys that came near and they'd scatter as though she was breathing fire.

I felt in the way, as there was no place to stand to watch where I wasn't blocking someone's view, but Arayo took care of that problem.  Quickly she became a magnet for the adults, but mostly children, that wanted to pet her or have their photo taken with the big black Newf.

One little girl, perhaps 2, became attached to her and posed for photos with this creature that was 3 times her size.  When her mom was finished, the little girl came up to me and insisted on giving me a thank you kiss.  THAT doesn't happen in America!

The band had just finished a number when something flew from the sky.  I thought maybe someone had tossed a water balloon off the gazebo as the crowd gave a collective gasp and everyone began running. 

Perhaps the size of the wet splatters on the pavement should have tipped me off.  Used to the rains of the Pacific Northwest, when a bit of water falls from the sky, you just keep on doing what you are doing.  But these folks were scrambling as though threatened with machine gun fire.

30 seconds later, I got it.  The skies opened and a flood poured on the group.  People headed for the streets, crowded on the stage and some of us got as close to the gazebo as possible to take advantage of a small overhang.

After the rain
The lightening and thunder began and unbelievably the rain got stronger.  For 10 minutes we waited but there was no sign of it letting up, so covering my glasses with my hand and pulling Arayo tightly to me, we dashed towards the street and home.  

It is about 6 blocks from the square to my hotel. As we zipped past overhangs, water ran off roofs in sheets and drain spouts shoot water into the street that could easily be coming from a fireman's hose.  

I couldn't help it.  The entire thing cracked me up and as we waded raging rivers that had once been cobblestone streets, I was laughing like some kind of maniac!

Occasionally we'd stop for a second to catch our breath, and, like kids, I'd giggle with others also trapped in the rain. Though we shared no spoken language, the camaraderie of being caught in this sudden storm helped form a short bond.

Back at the hotel, still laughing with glee, we opened the door, raced through the lobby and out across the garden patio, only to find a couple inches of water in front of my room, and water making its way inside. But, before damage could be done, the rain tapered off. 

Tonight I must say I'm glad I'm not sleeping in a tent.  But oh, how I love travel!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Catrinas: or You, Too, Shall Die

Arayo with  her new Mexican amigos!
They stare at you from all directions. Bleached skulls, teeth intact. Soulless voids, once filled with seeing eyes.

Dressed in finery - a skeletal bride and groom.  An extravagant damsel ready for a ball.  Another adorned in the most beautiful of hats with matching flowing long dress, as though the queen were about to pay a visit.

Throughout the Ajijic community square and along the walk by the lakeside, the skeletons pose, holding court over the Day of the Dead festivities.  Silently, they watch as the living ride their bikes, stroll with their children, dance, eat and play.  For all their finery, no longer can they participate in these earthly endeavors.

They are Catrinas, designed and decorated by area artists, groups and schools.  Most are made of recycled materials. Look closely at the elegant  dress or the flowers the woman is holding and you will see that they may be made of pop bottles which are cut, shaped and painted.  
Catrinas adore the village square
Old trash bags are stuffed and combined to form a puffy black skirt.  Small shells become teeth.  Fishing nets, a mop of hair.

Originally created 100 years ago by Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada, the skeleton in her elegantly dressed attire satirizes the life of the upper classes.  The art is a reminder that no matter what one may have in this life, death will, indeed, find you, too.


Monday, November 4, 2013

Day of the Dead

Graves are decorated the celebrate Day of the Dead

As an American, the Day of the Dead seemed like the strangest of events.  But, having experienced one, I think this is another tradition that we could learn from. In Mexico, November 2 of each year is the day set aside to commune with loved ones who have passed on.  With roots going back 2,500 - 3,000 years, the modern celebration begins on November 1, celebrating deceased infants and children. The passing of adults is honored the following day.

On this day, the cemetery comes alive.  It is packed with people - young and old - carrying flowers, banners and candles. Alters are built displaying photos of those honored and adorned with favorites - food, beer, milk and cookies. For one man - paint brushes, a sample of his art work and gifts of his favorite foods were arranged around a large photo of him. There are crosses made of marigolds, thought to attract the souls of the dead.  In a tree over a grave, someone had hung a music CD, a broom and some chocolates. Bands roam the area, playing at the graves.
Young and old alike gather at the cemetery

There are hundreds of people.  Some are cooking and feeding their families in the cramped space by Grandma's grave.  Others sit quietly.  A couple of men string banners of flowers from a grave to the edge of the site.

Everyone comes to honor loved ones
I don't believe my loved ones rest in a grave so I rarely visit there.  But even so, how nice would it be to come spend a day with everyone else in town, celebrating the lives of the people you loved the most?  I pondered what I'd bring to share with my parents.  Cookies, donuts, yogurt, Arby's sandwiches.  A ham radio for my father, some sun screen and perhaps a toy airplane.  For my mom, a book, a basketball jersey from Kansas University, some red lipstick and anything that says "Oswego, KS".  We'd sit around and play Big Band music and tell funny stories about our lives with them. 

As night comes on around the cemetery in Ajijic, people begin to congregate.  Most are dressed up - adorned in all black, though a couple are in wedding dresses.   Their faces are painted like skeletons.  After dark, they parade a mile or so down the dark cobblestone street in front of my apartment towards another celebration in the community square.

I'm becoming a big fan of the Day of the Dead.  Next year - I'm celebrating!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Celebrating our Arrival!

Drum corps lead procession past our hotel
The bombs woke me.  5 am - maybe 5:30.  A series of explosions rocked the little town of Ajijic Mexico.  I knew that the Day of the Dead was gearing up and thought perhaps it had something to do with that so I went back to sleep.  After all, we'd had little sleep the night before and a grueling 14 hours of getting lost, getting into Mexico and that long long long drive south.  I needed the sleep.  But, when another barrage of explosions sounded about 3 hours later it was time to investigate.  In the distance I heard music.  Time to start pumping coffee and go see what was happening!

Every October the Virgen del Rosario makes a journey to the San AndrĂ©s Church.  She remains there for the month, then on the 31st she is returned to her home at the old stone chapel on the Ajijic plaza.  The day is full of celebrations and enormously loud "bombs" are deployed to help send prayers heavenward.

Native dancers accompany the Virgin home
Arayo and I walked from our hotel along cobblestone streets to find the the plaza 6 blocks away.  Receiving her normal attention, Arayo was still on edge.  Periodically the bombs would blow again.  As she sat and trembled, I knew it was time to get her back to the hotel and hug her a bit.

The procession to return the Virgin to her home came down the street in front of the hotel late in the afternoon.  A uniformed drum corp was followed by other Mexican bands, Indian Dancers in stunning ceremonial dress, many floats featuring children dressed as the Virgin, and possibly my favorite float - one with a cross and a half naked man at the base of it - painted to look like he had wounds from being on the cross.  He lay in a woman's lap.  It was all very life-like - until he cracked a smile.  I think he'd been laying there half naked for too long.

"Jesus" was life-like.... until he cracked a smile!
Finally, the Virgin came, followed by masses of people who had made the walk to retrieve her and return her to her home.  Some carried babies or small children, at least one old women did the walk in bare feet (and these are NOT comfortable to walk on, even in very sturdy shoes!).  I saw one woman doing the walk blindfolded - led by two other women.

At night, a celebration was held in the plaza with live music and fireworks.  Told the fireworks would happen at midnight, Arayo and I walked down, only to find we were the only Americans there and we'd missed the big event.  Ah, well - it was fun to see the Mexican families and couples of all ages, dancing, playing and enjoying life in the perfect midnight air.

As we walked through the darkened street back to our hotel, we were thrilled to have come at this time of year and to experience these special Mexican traditions.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Troubles at the Mexican Border

Mexican Mountains

As I sat looking at the blockade in front of my car, I should have realized that things were not going to go smoothly on my venture into Mexico.   

I crossed into our southern neighbor's jurisdiction in the dark of very early morning. After wishing that the gigantic Mexican flag flying over the border was lighted so I could photograph it, I proceeded towards a series of gates - some sporting green lights - apparently to let you know you should enter "here".  Seeing an option open I drove into the stall to the right of a light and realized - as I sat looking at a big yellow and black barricade, that the light must have indicated "enter the spot to the left".  Dang.

Well, I didn't relearn to drive in Sicily for nothing.  After a moment of panic, I prayed no officials were watching (although there were tons of cameras trained on my car), backed up and drove through the stall to the left of the light.  Here, I was forced to stop while the car and I were photographed, then we were moved along to the next series of options - where once again I managed drive into a shoot that was blocked. Dang, dang!

This time, as I sat pondering my predicament, a young soldier walked to the car and asked if I spoke Spanish.  Assuring him I didn't, he inquired where I was going. "I'm trying to get into Mexico" probably wasn't the best choice of answers, but he was patient and asked for more specifics and for the purpose of my trip.  He then led me through a convoluted maze and left me parked, watching a group of border officers tearing apart a van.  Their possessions were all over the pavement.  I REALLY picked the wrong gate, I thought.

After conferring with some of his pals and realizing, I guess, that I was starting this journey off with some directional challenges, he returned to the car and pointed to another man saying "follow him".  This man led me out of the inspection area and pointed to a sign that read MODULO CIITEV.  "Follow these signs," he said, and I drove off, thinking the worst was behind me.

I'd been warned that this part of the trip was through a business area of Nuevo Laredo, but what I hadn't been prepared for were the soldiers armed with automatic weapons that lined these streets as I crawled along.  I found myself in the right lane when suddenly there was a sign on the left informing me that I needed to flip a U-turn to go where I wanted to go.  "Oh, shit......"  I thought, as I passed it and found myself on a divided highway with no legal place to turn around for miles.

Cursing pretty enthusiastically at this point, and expecting those armed guards to pull me over, point out I was in their country with an illegal car and haul me to the pokey, I found a place to make what was undoubtably an illegal U-turn and headed back the way I had come.

The next guard wasn't ready for me at all.  Seemed I was headed with tons of other people across the bridge into the US.  I explained to this man, who didn't speak English, that I was supposed to go get my car registered for Mexico and I could not possibly go back to the US.  Dumbfounded, he called over 3 or 4 other gate keepers until he found one that could speak English.  I again explained the problem and they huddled, discussing this problem.

Undoubtedly, the consensus was that if they left me to cross into the US and try entering Mexico anew, they would be confronted with me again in 30 minutes with the same issues anyway, so better to find a solution and let me become someone else's issue. 

"Follow him," I was told again, and with lines of cars behind me I was informed I needed to back up.  Since I couldn't see out my back window, I prayed I wouldn't run over the guy - compounding my border problems.  He walked across 6 lanes of traffic and instructed me to drive INTO this line of cars, then turn and cross all the lanes as he moved aside ANOTHER barricade and motioned me to pass down a hill and under a bridge.  It occurred to me this was probably in a guide book as a way to get mugged in Mexico (or any place for that matter), but I was out of options.
Arayo and her bodyguard/driver, Luis

Once into a dark area, he came up to the car and told me to follow yet another man.  "Tip him well,"  he said.  "This has saved you about 5 miles of driving and going through these checkpoints again."  What was I to lose?  I was in the middle of nowhere.  I followed the new man, my wallet at the ready.

This man walked me down a road and pointed to entrances into a parking lot beyond.  "Go.  One, two, three. Drive." 

The second entrance did the trick and deposited me into a fairly unlit lot.  Nowhere did the building show the name of where I was supposed to meet my driver, Luis, and though I walked Arayo in the darkness in hopes Luis would see me and come to my rescue - the only man to approach seemed to be up to no good.

Then, from the street, up walked a man who greeted me and acted like he could be my guy!  Hoping I had the right person and wasn't turning my life over to a drug lord, I followed him into the building, we began the registration process and were soon headed away from the border and into the heart of Mexico.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Arayo's Next Adventure

Arayo and I began our travel adventures over 3 years ago as we packed our little Subaru and headed for parts unknown.  How were we to know the wonders we would experience as we stepped off our little Washington island?  The sights we would see, and most of all, the amazing people we would not only meet, but who would reach out to offer us friendship, hospitality and a roof over our heads.  Meeting these amazing people and experiencing their corners of the world through their eyes was more than we dreamed of.

With the end of that trip in Kansas and my Mom's death, I found myself involved in causes in Kansas I felt, and still believe, are important and where I can make a difference.  (Others might consider it meddling or stirring the &%^, but we won't mince words.)

But for years I have toyed with the idea of fleeing the country - maybe living in Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico.  Toying can be dangerous for someone like me.  Something tinkles around in my brain long enough, it is liable to come out into some form of action.

Turning this dream into reality came about as I was chatting online with a woman who runs a little hotel in Ajijic Mexico. I mentioned I'd like to come for a visit but couldn't stay long as I have this dog, you see.  Her response was to just bring the dog along.  Stick her in a crate and pop her under my plane seat......

She obviously didn't know that my dog might be considered livestock by airline officials, but in a series of chats back and forth, I decided to book 5 months in one of her rooms and Arayo and I would drive down. After all, the hotel is dog friendly and Arayo will have the run of the place as long as she behaves. (I can see her now - going from room to room with a ball or tug toy in her mouth, begging some poor guest to have a play with her.)

So, in a few days we pack again for another adventure - this one south into Mexico! Please join us as we share the joys and frustrations of experiencing a new land.  Perhaps you will be tempted to visit us!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Pete, Still Putting Us All to Shame

My uncle Pete.  Still volunteering at 91

Nothing can shame a person like a 90-something dude who can work you under the table.

That would be my uncle Pete.  At nearly 91, Pete is a wonder, but he leaves people shaking their heads both in awe and in shame.  

Pete is the first person to offer to help with a project, plus he has this really cool old truck that is just perfect for driving around the yard.  A motorized wheelbarrow, it is.  So, last week I called and asked if he had time to help cut back some out-of-control bushes.

Cutting day arrived, and with it, 90 degree temps.  That is another annoying thing about Pete.  He seems totally unaffected by the heat and humidity that threaten to kill those of younger generations.

I arrived home from a shoot to find Pete's truck in the street but no sign of him.  I looked around a bit, then went inside to make a couple smoothies.  20 minutes later and he still hadn't surfaced.  I assumed he took a walk and ran into someone to visit with.  Pete has a black belt in visiting.  But, it turned out he had found a weedy bed on the side of my garage and was quietly pulling away.

Mostly Pete and I worked together, but he's good at self directing and finding areas that need tending.  He'd been out of sight for a while when I decided I should look for him.  I circled the house and just as I came from my side yard to the front, my heart stopped.  Like the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz, a set of legs were visible at the corner of the house. toes pointing to the sun.

Certain he'd had a heart attack, and wondering how I was going to explain this to my aunt and cousins, I rushed around the corner, only to find Pete sitting on the ground, pulling on some ivy that was threatening to take over a corner of a bed.

Pete's philosophy is that if you stop working just because you are 90, death will be able to catch up with you - so he cheerfully and graciously keeps plugging along.  He walks a mile or so every week to his Kiwani's meeting.  Last year, he tripped over a curb, breaking his glasses and his nose.  Someone who saw it happen forced him to have a doctor look at it, but that didn't stop him from walking in a benefit walk 3 days later.  He thought he'd just walk a couple of the 6 miles, but once he'd started, he completed the entire walk.  This year, at nearly 91, he did the walk again.  Probably didn't even wear him out.

Last year, at his 90th birthday pancake party - to which his entire home town of Parsons Kansas was invited - the city proclaimed it "Pete Hughes Day" in honor of his life-long support.  He grew up in Parsons and has lived his entire adult life there, always fully involved.  A whiz at raising money - be it for the community foundation which he helped start, the community college building fund, a local festival or for plants to help the town look nice - Pete is as happy meeting with community leaders or rolling up his sleeves and mowing a lawn and pulling weeds.

We need more Pete Hugheses around. In fact, with the government shut down fully under way - I'd like to grab several hundred spoiled politicians and have them come to Parsons -  take a lesson on real stewardship from my uncle Pete.

Pete, it has been an honor - and I hope we have many more weed pulling sessions, pizza dinners and long chats together.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Landlord Hell, final edition

To add insult to injury in the Landlord Hell situation, my renter, decided his contract didn't matter,  left his junk in my house - leaving me with a headache, tremendous bills and countless nights without sleep.   I rented to this guy because he makes an extremely good salary and has a very respected job on the Washington State Ferry System.  

At first, he agreed to pay me off $500 per month if I would reduce the amount due.  I said I'd work with him and greatly reduced what he owed me.  But, "He Decided" he didn't have to pay me after all.  Besides, according to him, it was MY decision to evict  the strange guy HE had moved into my house.  HE had nothing to do with that!

And then, it seems there is some maritime law making it impossible to garnish the wages of ferry workers' wages for bills of this kind.  WOW - call me surprised!  Would you think an important job on the ferry would mean you'd be MORE apt to pay your bills, not less?  And why does the law protect the crooks who work for this system?  But, he is hiding behind the law, refusing to pay a dime of the bill he owes me.  (Oh, and somehow, he thinks that because he is paying his girlfriend the money he owes her that he doesn't have to pay what he owes me.  I know - I don't  understand that logic either.)

Of course, the girlfriend isn't making payments either and she also signed the contract.  Sigh.  What a mess.  I'm not done with either of them.  At least I'll get a judgement against them so anyone researching them in the future will know they are deadbeats.

Landlord Hell, chapter 3

In the midst of Landlord Hell, I put in a plea to a Newfoundland Dog group I'm on.  "Please, someone make me laugh about this situation I'm in!"  I begged.  And, "Does anyone have any creative ideas for removing these people?"

Now, understand that when you are going through something like this you get various responses from people……..  "I'd offer to help, but I REALLY don't want to." Or,  "Anything I can do, let me know.  In fact, I know two really big bad guys who love a challenge and they'd be glad to pay these guys a visit…."

Dog fiends from all over the country wrote in with their suggestions and thoughts.  There's the ever comforting "We had a neighbor years ago who was murdered by two of her scummy tenants, real low life.  She was in her sixties and they burgeoned her to death."  (That helps!)

OR "Do Not be alone on your property. Seriously!"

Then there was "Hopefully you will only be left with a laughable story....like mine when the renter decided to put a witch curse on me by putting Monopoly money and a rhyming curse held up onto the living room wall with a railroad spike driven through it." 

A friend in Boston had this to offer - "My x evicted squatters in my house by taking off all the screens and the windows in mosquito season, and pitching a tent outside the house but tramping into the house at all hours to use the bathroom." 

Several people bemoaned the fact that my 100 pound Newfoundland was 2,000 miles away so I asked to borrow a couple from a friend for "protection".  She asked if I wanted the two that were fraidy cats or the two that would lick someone to death!

A few suggested this might be an excellent time to call in an exterminator.

I had actually settled on redoing the windows - taking the upstairs windows all out, delivering them to the dump, and then "realizing" I didn't have the right sized replacements.  See if the cold November air would encourage them to move on…..

Or moving in a group of other squatters - maybe a motorcycle gang.

Obviously what I was facing wasn't new or even uncommon.  A friend in Texas wrote "Actually there was a legal case here recently regarding a squatter - evidently testing a new law. They found the guy guilty, thank goodness!  He had moved into a home while the owners were in Houston getting cancer treatment for the wife."  

(God, people are low!) 

Another woman wrote, " I was reading about a lady in the paper who bought a condo and couldn't move in right away.  When she arrived, a squatter was there and she has been trying for months to get her out.  The owner had to move in with her to claim her rights but the squatter wasn't budging.  She is even demanding money for 'fixing' up the place!"

As my mom would say "this is a learning experience", and I admit that sometimes I look at situations like this as a cosmic kick in the butt to make a few life changes. If you are guessing, YES, I'm having second thoughts on being a landlord.  I don't think I have the backbone for this kind of frustration.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Landlord Hell, chapter 2

When last we left this poor, feeling pretty abused landlord, the judge has ruled that the squatter and his pals are to leave my home.  But, for that to actually happen, there are more fees to pay to get the sheriff to actually show up to remove the bums.  (Of COURSE there are….!)

To be honest, at this point, the Squatter has promised to be out of the house Saturday, December 1.  There does seem to be activity being made towards that end, but he tells me he is spending that night in my house again.  Seems he painted his new digs and doesn't want to sleep with the fumes.  I'm thinking to myself "I don't know if my tenant hit you - but I'm ready to give you a good wallop!"

But, the next day he does, eventually, clear all his stuff out and is gone, taking his buddies with him.  BUT, that is not the end of my drama.  Tenant still has stuff in the house, he owes me nearly $5,000 in back rent and legal fees and because the place is such a mess, there is no way I can re-rent it.  I did, however, have a couple come to me that was interested in renting my personal space in the basement.  So, with everything else going on, I painted, gave away 95% of everything I owned, put in a new oven and when I could no longer walk or function, hired someone to finish cleaning as I had to return to Kansas.

Though, we now have a new kink!  Seems the tenant, who legally hasn't been released to come back to the house and has said he isn't returning, decided to do just that.  The couple renting my space in the basement heard him upstairs, went to investigate and were met with an hour of exaggerated stories about the Squatter - saying he is going to return, he's a felon, he's got keys to every door in the place…  

Now, I fully explained the situation before they signed the lease, but the tenant has them needlessly terrified.  They leave in tears and refuse to move in.  Now I'm glad I'm in Kansas and not there because I'm ready to punch the tenant's lights out!

And, the saga continues………  As I scrounge through my meager bank accounts trying to pay the mounting bills associated with this rental mess,  I know it actually could be worse.  So far, no great damage has been done to the actual house, no one has been killed, no blood flowed.  But, I'm not calling it over until it is, indeed, over - and it is not.

The frustrating thing to learn through all this is how the law leans - crushing the homeowner at every turn.  So many times during this ordeal I heard "call the police!  It should be that simple and that is what they are there for."  But, it isn't so.

For a bit of comic relief I watch Pacific Heights - the movie where an evil Michael Keaton moves into an apartment, refuses to pay or leave and proceeds to make life hell for his landlords.  I've read the comments: "the law isn't really like that.  The police would remove him" some naive people have said……….  Wrong!  It happens every day.  I just hope that years from now I can look back and laugh at this…  but I'm not holding my breath.

Landlord Hell, chapter 1

"They write horror movies that are not this bad!" I've muttered to myself and any poor sap unfortunate enough to get near me these past 2 months…….  I've become a walking nightmare myself - life is too short for this.

It began with a phone call from the friend who was living in my basement apartment in my Washington house while I've been gone.  "Karyn, I don't know if you realize this but your (upstairs) renter has moved out.  I talked to the new renter tonight….."

"HUH?"  I was just home 3 weeks ago and, aside from a mountain of yard work that I had to tackle and drains that needed some persuasion, everything was pretty much fine.  My tenant hadn't mentioned moving….  And WHO was this stranger who had moved into my home?  And HOW did he get there?

It started out naively enough, I suppose.  My tenant moved in with a girlfriend and when they broke up and she moved on, he thought getting a roommate would be the perfect way to save a few bucks on housing.  BUT, the guy doesn't seem to be cut out for roommates and, according to his side of the story there was a disagreement over paying rent.  A couple calls to the police, a few too many drinks, something tossed into a mirror, possibly a couple punches hurled - and the next thing you know, the tenant is being dragged off to jail in handcuffs and - Your's Truly is mired in landlord hell.

Seems in the state of Washington, when there is a 'domestic dispute', the offending party is removed, tossed in the pokey and banned from returning to their home for months until the blind woman of "justice" has done her thing.  (And, given what all this set in place for me, the landlord - - the keyword is "blind" and lady justice is, frankly, a bitch.)

The landlord has no say in these matters - so I'm left with a guy in my house I don't know, haven't checked out and who "knows his rights" - meaning, he can squat in my house without paying rent until I pay a boat load of cash to get the courts to remove him.

This seems serious so I fly back to Washington (and you know if I get on a plane, it is SERIOUS!) to oversee things.  

Course, I didn't count on coming back to my house to find my squatter friend has decided that my place would be a grand location to host a couple of his pals.  Best guess - he found them at one of the missions in Seattle.  There were, after all, cushions in the back of their beater car, perfect for sleeping on, and one of the men offered up that he hadn't worked for years!  (A comment I had no trouble believing)

The police were of no help.  They won't remove someone from your home just because some stranger moved into your house and decides your home is a flophouse.  If you are afraid to be sleeping in an apartment in the same home - well, they offer that you can go sleep with a friend, or they will come to your aide if you are harmed but not before.  

And, I didn't feel comforted overhearing a phone conversation by one of the buddies in which the terms "when the cops showed up" and "bail" were used - - a lot!

After weeks of legal work and frustration, my day in court came.  The judge looked at the paperwork and had some trouble with it.  ("Aah, gee….," I'm thinking.)  When clarified, it seemed that, in his mind this was not so much a tenant problem but a trespassing issue (I am starting to really like this guy!) but he admitted that the police wouldn't remove people if they don't have a black mask over their faces.

But, with his signing of the eviction papers - my troubles are still not over…..

(to be continued…..)

Monday, June 3, 2013

Night Cries

My heart pounded as I fought my way though the night. Trees reached out, their long fingers stretching to grab my clothes and slap my face.  The beam of my tiny flashlight was no match for the darkness - illuminating the downed limbs across my path only seconds before my feet tripped over them.

I looked over my shoulder towards the dim light of the house that receded as I pushed through forest underbrush.   I fought the urge to turn around:  what was I doing in these strange woods, alone, in the middle of the night?

My thoughts were pierced by a creature's cries of terror and I focused again on the faint glow in the distance - further into the trees.

"Karyn, help me!"  came the voice of my friend.  "I need you!"

"I'm trying," I shouted into the night, and I pushed aside another limb and further into the darkness.

My mind flashed to movies featuring people are lost forever in unknown woods - I continued to try to make my way towards my friend's light.  I choked down images of what may lie beneath the brown leaves at my feet.  Snakes.  Poisonous snakes.  My sandaled feet would not withstand a snake attack, yet I pushed aside another branch and continued on.

Suddenly, the ground dropped and my little light caught the reflection of water below me.  I'd come to the edge of a gully, still holding water from the rains of earlier this week.   I moved to my right as my friend called for help yet again.

"I'm cut off!"  I called.  "I can't get there!"

"NO! I need you!" came the replay.  My pleas for direction were answered only by the sounds of another mournful wail.

I turned and rushed back towards the lights of the house, thinking I'd attempt an approach from another direction.  Passing the safety of the house, I circled around and plunged into the darkness again from another direction, praying that the fence that blocked my way would allow me to get close enough to help my friend.

Finally, I reached the scene of distress. 

Suzi's light was joined by another and as I played my tiny beam over the scene I saw her below me, standing in inches of muck and water, holding onto a fence that crossed the stream which divided her property from her neighbor's.  Her Newfoundland, Tess, had found her way through a small hole in the fence and was focused on the tiny, frightened bundle that Suzi was passing up the hill to the safety of other neighbors who had heard the night's cries.

The dark eyes and alert ears of a  fawn peeked out from the folds of a blanket in the woman's arms.

With storms raging through the midwest, the rising waters of the stream must have swept the fawn in its current and trapped it between the property fence and other debris.  Too young to free itself, the terrified deer cried for help, which arrived initially in the form of a 120 pound dog who thought she'd found a new playmate, or a toy.  Knowing the sound of a fawn in danger and unable to locate Tess, Suzi headed into the night to retrieve her dog, and free the fawn from its snare.

Unfamiliar with the woods, I arrived too late to be of help, but suffer the indignities of numerous bites from blood-sucking ticks who hitched a ride on my journey though the forest and followed me home to bed.  Evil bastards!