Friday, November 7, 2014

Defying Explanations

Altar the night of Day of the Dead. Notice the bread with the cross on top.
I am not one to believe in a lot of hocus pocus, though I want to believe there are things we can't explain. I want to believe that if you fly into the Bermuda Triangle you will disappear. Maybe. But I don't put a ton of stock in these things.

I don't wave incense around to ward off, or draw to me, certain spirits. But, still…..  Sometimes things happen that defy explanation.

This year, I built an altar to my parents for the Day of the Dead. Did I think their spirits would return to the altar? No. Heck, I know they wouldn't.  I cut down a tree a couple days after my mom died that was smack dab in front of her house.  She loved the tree.  I hated it.  I knew that if there was ANY way that she could return to give me a good haunt, it would happen the night I butchered that tree. She did not return.

But, out of respect for my new Mexican life, and to honor my parent's memory, I built an altar. On November 2, the Day of the Dead, I moved it to the front of my house. Here it was back from the street, visible from the sidewalk but protected from the elements.  Positioned as it  was and behind a locked gate, no human could reach it.

I added the things I was told were needed.  Tomatoes for Mom, fruit and other food my parents enjoyed. I bought the special Mexican sweet bread that altars are to have. It is a yummy piece of dough, perhaps 6" in diameter.  On top, a cross of dough is baked into the bread and sugar is sprinkled across it.  I placed my bread in a bowl near a cross made of salt and a small bowl of sugar.

That night, I lit the candles and took a few photos, finally blowing them out before going to bed.

The next morning I awoke and went outside to check the altar. Everything was as it had been the night before. The trinkets were in place, the food untouched. (Apparently the spirits don't eat the food but the nourishment from it is gone after their visit.) Photos weren't moved. The cross of salt was totally intact - unmoved by wind, critters or departed souls.

But, in the bowl, the bread……… No human could have reached this and no critter bothered it without disturbing something else. But something had come in the night and eaten half the bread. Something, somehow turned that bread over so as not to disturb the cross. The bread was carefully returned to its place in the bowl and the bottom half of the bread eaten or removed.

That who or whatever did this refused to eat the cross and carefully replaced the bread into its bowl is just too bizarre for description and defies all logic.  

Did some soul return for a snack on this Day of the Dead? Somehow, that is the only thing that makes sense to me - and it sends shivers down my spine.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Mexican Serenade

A charming group of musicians

I love my neighborhood.  I'm afraid you will hear that a lot.

As I was getting my day underway this morning, I heard the strains of a band performing…….. right outside my door?  Bombs had been blowing off since about 5 am, and it isn't unusual to hear bands practicing, but today is Halloween and the real beginning of the Day of the Dead celebration, so a parade is probably in the making.

But, I've never known a band to line up on the sidewalk across from my house to play a number or two.

Leaving Arayo to fend for herself, I grabbed my camera and dashed outside.

Men, dressed in black slacks, jackets and blue tops appeared to be serenading someone, and as I stood in the street to better take photos of this event, I looked over my shoulder. There in the window of the house next to mine, stood a group of women. 

Then I knew.

My neighbor has a daughter, 33, who has lupus and has been confined to a bed next to that window for 13 years. The band was there to give her her own mini-concert, to brighten her day and let her know that she is not forgotten by the community.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Building an Altar

Fernanda and Andrea and my family altar

Day of the Dead.  What a morbid holiday.   At least, that is what I thought before I arrived in Mexico last year just in time for the annual celebration of those who have passed.  It didn't take long before I was totally hooked.

So, one of my goals has been to embrace this time of year by participating in the tradition of building an altar. To this end, I have researched, talked to friends and family, dug through stuff and shopped.

Realizing I was in a bit over my head, I contacted a Mexican friend who had teenage daughters for help. Not only would I get my altar, I'd get to know a Mexican family better. I win twice!

After an initial visit to talk this through, Sergio and his daughters Fernanda and Andrea came to the house to help me assemble this tribute to my parents. Everything on the altar has a significance and a purpose. 

In reading online, I found a wide assortment of directions, but I followed the advice of my teenage teachers.  In general you need three levels to your altar and they should be draped with crepe paper; a larger purple bottom one, a smaller pink level in the middle and a purple top level. Purple signifies mourning, pink celebration.

Photos of the loved ones are placed on the alter. Since I wanted to include remembrance of my grandparents, we added images of them as well.

A cross of salt is normally placed at the base, signifying the four directions and leading the departed to the altar. Candles, incense and marigolds are placed about, further helping the departed find their way back.

Once the loved ones have returned, which happens for departed children on November 1 and for adults November 2, the souls need things to help them feel at home.  A bit of water and a wash cloth is nice so they can freshen up after their journey. Their favorite foods and some of the things they enjoyed in life should be included.

So,  here are the things I included for my parents:

Close up of the Carpenter/Hughes Altar
For Mom I included a necklace she enjoyed wearing, a can of tomato soup and a jar of peanut butter. There is a small figurine of a dog, a deck of cards and a set of doorknobs that were originally on the house that she and Dad built.  Oh, and not to forget, a teeny pair of scissors to trim her nails, the ever important tube of red lipstick and a silly rock that has hair, a clown nose and big clown smile.

For Dad there is a small bottle of Coke (and a separate one for Mom since he never shared his food).  There is a radio so he can catch up on whatever he needs to catch up on, a Rotary ball cap, a roll of duct tape (because no man can survive without duct tape), a bottle of sun screen and one of vitamins. I should probably add a Discover card so he can get his 1% back on any purchases.

The Day of the Dead and building of an altar to honor loved ones is a lovely way to remember those who have played an important part in our lives.  Consider trying on this Mexican tradition in your own home!

Next year I am building an altar to my darling departed Newfoundlands!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

We're Back!

Life is rough in old Mexico
"What happened?  Where have you been?" the questions have come to me during the past 7 months or so.  Yes, Arayo and I have been flying under cover.  Sometimes life gets so complicated it seems better to let things just sit a while and catch up on writing later.

In short - Arayo and I drove back to the US (and yes, another border story will be coming!), spent 6 months closing out my family home in Kansas, returned to Mexico (with another cursed border crossing), and we are now settling back into life in Mexico - where the skies are always blue, the rain comes only at night, and people just smile a lot.

We've changed the blog address - though the old one should still work.  You can now find us at (and if you don't put in the www, you won't find us - I don't know why!)

Thanks to those of you who have checked on us and missed our posts.  And, because I did take a break, and because I still have stories to tell from the past months, the blog will be jumping a bit of back and forth, telling tales from the past and those of current experiences. I hope it isn't too confusing!

So, welcome back and please check back often!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Sucking on Something Nasty!

The doctor sat across from me dressed in a white lab coat. Peering at his computer screen we communicated around the constant ringing of a phone and through the aid of an interpreter.  I was there to donate blood - the questions should have been simple enough.

"What is your address?" he asked.

"Currently I'm sort of homeless."


"Oh dear - is the month first in Mexico or the day?"

"Are you pregnant?"

"Are you kidding?"

"When was your last period?"

"I can't remember back that far."

"When did you last have sex?"

"Had what?.... Better just refer to the response above."

To give blood in Mexico, you have to meet a great deal of criteria, including knowing your blood type - which I didn't know.  So I had searched around Ajijic for a lab that could check it for me.  I paid them money. They poked me for a while. The next day I picked up an official document with the answer. I knew this one!

"Do you need my blood type,"
I inquired?

"No, no."  (Figures)

The man left his desk and walked to a cabinet.  Opening a door, he pulled something out, held it up to me and recited a few words.

I sat up straighter and smiled. Finally, something I could understand.  A thermometer!

With pride I nodded my head, reached for the sliver of glass, and exclaimed "THIS I can do!" 

I opened my mouth, popped the thing under my tongue, and closed my lips around it to hold it tight.

"NO!" he shouted, and the interpreter exclaimed, "Not there!  Don't put it there!  It goes under your arm!"

"Under WHAT?"

"Your arm.  It goes under your arm."

"You mean.............?"

"Lift your shirt and put it in your armpit."

The one item in the entire beautifully clean hospital that had been stuck under numerous nasty dirty armpits and probably not cleaned for weeks, I had managed to put in my mouth and suck on.  I'd have been better off licking the floor.

And people worry about drinking the water in Mexico

Monday, February 10, 2014

Signing My Life Away

Arayo reigns over her new pool & hot tub

It  was a power meeting.  Lorded over by Notorio Number 2, we each took our sides at the table. Me with my team, he with his.  Papers, legal documents, were passed back and forth.  "Do NOT cross that line with your signature or this becomes null and void", I was commanded by the handsome lawyer in control.

Oops!  I always did cross my "T's" with too much drama.

"Since this is a legal document, can I use my purple pen," I implored?  

Surprise - "Of course!" Seems some Mexican President or someone only signs in green or red.  Dang, I love Mexico!
Arayo's maiden swim. (Thank you Peggy McLean for the photo)

With each signature, a mass of keys that had rested on 'their' side of the table slid closer to me. On finding one more paper they had forgotten, the keys were snatched back, until I signed - NICELY this time.

And in a quick hour and a half, the deed was done. Thousands of dollars were wired to accounts all over the US to the heirs of the last owner, the creator of my new home, as they received their share of his estate.

With keys in hand, I gathered up Arayo, invited a couple friends, and we ran to my new home.  "An oasis," my friend called it.  As we sat outside, protected from the sun by my gazebo, we watched as Arayo took her maiden swim in her very own pool.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

WHAT Have I Done?

With a kitchen like this, I might even learn to cook!
It seemed innocent enough. Take a ride with a real estate agent, see what kind of homes they have in Mexico, and check out the various parts of town. We saw new houses and old, homes in gated communities with retired gringos, and others in the heart of town with Mexicans busy selling wares, caring for their children and visiting on the streets.

Then there it was - THE HOUSE! Maybe it was the stunning pool and hot tub that filled 1/3 of the back yard. The gleaming terra-cotta colored tile floors, or the happy yellow kitchen area which was flanked by open shelves filled with brightly colored glassware.

The living area - perfect for quiet nights at home or for entertaining
My classy new housemate, in his off-shoulder dress
I was captivated by the oil painting of the Mexican witch woman leaning on a cane and wearing a blue mask - surrounded by etchings of Day of the Dead figures.  But, the crowning glory of the home was a 3 x 4 foot framed canvas of a bearded man, sporting an off-shoulder yellow dress!

In the corner of the kitchen was a plaque with a pig in a striped shirt behind bars - a sign proclaimed "When Pork Goes Bad!" Be still my heart.  Whoever designed this house was a soul-mate of sorts.

This was no longer a joy ride.  I'd fallen in love with this home - something I swore no sane person would do. Come to Mexico and immediately buy a house? But I talked to people and it seems many have done the same thing and continue to live here, swearing they will never leave.

I began stalking this house and its very Mexican neighborhood, walking past at 11 pm to check out the activity. I wanted to know about the man who could part with such a home.  Sadly, he had passed away and everything in the house - including the man in the dress and the dozen hand-made margarita glasses - would go as a package at the right price.

I could feel my father, looking with lust at that pool. Something he always wanted but would never have left Kansas to obtain. I could hear my mother, insisting the man in the dress did NOT belong in the center of the living area, rather in the back of a closet somewhere. Mom and I had our disagreements in matters of decor.

After weeks of losing sleep and multiple visits, I made an offer. You see, every time I walked in the door, the world seemed right. I was going to make Mexico home, and would be sharing the experience with my new pal who's off-shoulder dress hinted at the hairy chest beneath.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Mexican Birthday

Sunset reflects on Lake Chapala
Another birthday has settled upon me. Another year past.  Another year closer to Senior Citizens Discounts. Gone are the days of parties with friends, silly hats and a cake with candles.

But this is Mexico!  

"Let's go out for a drink," my Mexican friend, Teresita, said.

Off we headed to the plaza, Arayo in tow, for a beer at one of the outside plaza restaurants.

As we enjoyed the perfect sunny afternoon, a musical duo began to circulate.  A few pesos exchanged hands and I found myself the focus of a flute and guitar serenade, featuring a perfect mix of Beatles and traditional Mexican music.

Soon, as usually happens, a gentleman came over to cast a bit of adoration on Arayo.  As we visited, Teresita mentioned to him we were celebrating my birthday and his response was the announce it to the entire restaurant - where I melted in humiliation as claps and cheers were directed my way.

Returning to the hotel, we found a large cake.  A Tres Leche Cake.  White cake soaked in three kinds of milk, the yummy pastry is heaped with light fluffy frosting and accented by a layer of peaches tucked inside and shaved almonds on top.  Waiting until all in the hotel guests were back from their day's exploring, we called the group to the courtyard and a mix of Canadians, Americans, Mexicans and Europeans visited and ate into the cool Mexican night as a few morsels found their way towards Arayo who rested patiently at our feet.

Simple and relaxed, my first birthday in Mexico could not have been better.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A New Year's Parade

Mexican bandits on horseback were shooting at each other.  A man on safari protected himself from a mass of African natives who chased him with spears.

Pirates aboard a ship were followed by sea creatures, and men in bright hula skirts performed on an ocean full of fishes.

A trailer loaded with white-faced mimes in striped shirts tossed around enormous black and white boxes. One of their crew flirted with a queen wearing a bright tiara, long brown locks, a gold evening gown, and a light stubble of beard.

Even President Obama showed up, flanked by American and Mexican flags and dark suited secret service men.

Thus, Ajijic welcomed 2014 with a parade of characters, lots of fun, music, and confetti!