Sunday, June 27, 2010

Total Shock

When I started this blog, I promised myself that I would only write positive stories. There is so much negativity in the US news these days about Mexico and Mexicans that I want in my own small way to offset that negativity and tell the world that México is a fascinating country with wonderful people. In addition to being positive, I feel an obligation to report truthfully what I see and experience. So far there has been no conflict between these two commitments to myself.

And then last Monday came along. I don’t know what to do with this event – I don’t understand it and am still trying to make sense of it.

Lynn and Dan W. and I decided to go to Bacachi, a recreational area right outside Banámichi with warm springs. Actually, the springs are pleasantly cool and refreshing on these 107° days. So we tootled over there, driving along the dirt road past green fields and cattle grazing on the stubble of the brown fields. The car strained up the hill and soon the picnic ramadas came into view, and then the lovely blue swimming pools.

The pools are in a tree-shaded canyon, and the ejido (collective land ownership) that owns the springs has added shade cloth over the pools and a little snack bar nearby. It’s very rustic, but all in all very civilized.

We stripped down to our bathing suits, and I was just about to step into the beautiful clear water when someone, Dan W. I think, said: “Look at the toads!”

I glanced into the shallow end and there were two toads mating. The beige female was as big as a cantaloupe, and the darker male was much smaller, riding on her back. The female was alert and looked vaguely irritated, but the male seemed in a trance his eyes half closed. They were fine specimens of toadiness. I tried to take a photo, but as I approached, the female rapidly swam away with remarkable agility, carrying the extra weight of the male along with her. I had no idea these guys were such good swimmers and could stay underwater so long.

These were not just ordinary toads, but were Bufo alvarius (Sonoran Desert Toads) that I described in one of my earliest blog posts. It is close enough to the rainy season that these guys are starting to be out and about. These are the toads where (some) people “milk” the glands, dry the secretions and smoke the result. The smoke is supposed to give you a trip into “outer space.” I don’t know about this first-hand – I find the whole idea beyond revolting. My revulsion has generalized to the toads themselves. My skin crawls to look at them, and the thought of touching them, or getting in the water with them…. Well… never happen!!

Just as we were standing there contemplating the state of affairs, one of the caretakers from the ejido came along with a net. We all pointed and said at once: “Sapos! (Toads!)” Well, he gots the point and began chasing them around the pool with the net -  a home-made affair made with a tree branch, some wire and some of the same shade cloth that is overhead.

The chase went on for quite some time – the toads were faster and more adept in the water than this man was. Finally he managed to corner them and he scooped them up.

I expected him to put them on the ground so they could go on their merry ways. Instead, he raised the pole with the net directly overhead and used the leverage it provided to fling the toads with great force across the pool and onto the ground with a whump!

I stood there in shock. The toads separated in mid-air and landed on their backs. They didn’t move. At the very least they had to be unconscious. Stretched out like that with their white bellies upward in the sky, I was sure they were dead. “Son muertos,” I said accusingly. Defensive, the caretaker says, “¡No!” and gives the big one a poke with his stick. Its legs began flailing uselessly, and it took a minute or so for it to regain the coordination to turn itself back over. Eventually it hopped away, covered with dirt, to nurse its toady concussion. The male soon righted himself as well and hopped back towards the water in the pool. The caretaker used the net and flipped it down the hill.

I was horrified. As much as I am grossed-out by the toads, I do not wish them harm as individuals, or as a species. As soon as the two in question hit the ground I had projected myself into their bodies and was cringing at their pain. My bottom line is that they are conscious creations just as we humans are, and deserve to be treated with respect.

At least this is what my values and my culture tell me. But I have experienced education and other advantages that fate has not awarded the ejido caretaker. I could explain this event by saying that it was the misguided action of one ignorant individual.

However, his culture as a whole is one that publicly sponsors bullfighting, and less publicly, cock fighting and sometimes even dog fighting. Animal cruelty laws are few in México and apparently the ones that exist are not often enforced. It seems to me in general that in México there is not the same awareness that we state-siders have of animal suffering.

So I must question why this is. It is hard for me to accept that this is simply a case of cultural relativism. I will agree, though, that with animal psychics, and holistic veterinarians, and PETA, we in the US may have gone a bit too gaga over our animals. On the flip side, though, the infliction of gratuitous pain in the name of culture seems just plain wrong to me.

I have observed other Mexicans, more educated and privileged than this ejido man, while not volitionally harming animals, being unconscious of their suffering. A young couple we know who are highly educated and part of the top level of society in Banámichi have a desert tortoise and a cat as pets. We watched their young child man-handle the “tortuga,” dropping it and leaving it upside down. Nothing was said to her about this except by another visiting American. Their cat had an injured foot, and was obviously in pain, walking with difficulty. I mentioned it, and the man, a rancher, dismissed my comment – “It’s nothing.” The cat is left to itself to get well or die.

Was this because these are practical ranchers in this part of the country? Perhaps they cannot afford to be sentimental about pet animals or seek veterinary care for them. Only horses and cattle can expect this privilege.

Does this indifference to suffering result from too much suffering as a culture? After all, The Aztecs engaged in ritual human sacrifice of their enemies, and there were the excesses of the Spanish Conquistadors and the Mexican Revolution. Nowadays there are the over-the-top murders of the Narcos.

In the end, I must conclude that I do not understand this aspect of México. I am uncomfortable with it and cannot condone it. Perhaps it is simply that each culture has its positives and negatives. Nothing is black and white. I must take off the rose-colored glasses through which I have been assessing México, and see her as she really is. She is still a fascinating country with wonderful people!

Sunday, June 20, 2010


The full brutalizing heat of summer is here in Banámichi. I can work in the garden from the time I wake up until maybe 8 AM. By 8 AM, the few clothes I am wearing are soaked with sweat and I begin to feel light-headed as I pull the prolific weeds and pick up rotten grapefruit that have fallen from the tree. I seek refuge in the house.

The house is wonderful, with its 21” thick adobe walls, made for a climate like this. When I walked in after being away for several weeks, the inside temperature was 85 degrees – a pleasant miracle in the 100°+ outdoor temperatures.

It is easy for me to become a hermit in this weather, never sticking my head out the door all day. I draw, write, read, knit and meditate. I live in silence. My soul relaxes and my focus is inward. It is a healing and clearing time – as if the heat is burning all the dross from my inner being.

Meanwhile, outside, the sky is blue, and the sun burns relentlessly all day. Dust hangs in the air. The air over the mountains is white with glare. The temperature hits 103°, 107° and sometimes higher. There are no clouds in the sky, and everyone is waiting for the first afternoon buildup of tall gray thunderheads over the mountains that will bring the start of the monsoons. Traditionally this happens around June 24th El Día de San Juan, so we still have a while to go.

The riverbed of the Río Sonora is dry – the farms upstream are pumping and using most of the water. I turn on the kitchen faucet and a small trickle emerges – hardly enough for a shower. The water pressure is insufficient to turn on the on-demand hot water heater. (Dan says it’s inappropriate technology and he is probably right. Still, I love the idea of it – it's so “green,” so politically correct.) The water running out of the cold tap is tepid to the touch and makes a great shower – if it is running at all.

Sometimes the water is off for a day or more at a time. The town system is antiquated and a break in a line anywhere means that everyone must do without until the line is fixed. My garden has really suffered. If the irrigation system comes on when the water is turned off, the plants are out of luck, and will go thirsty for another day. For some of them, their growth is stunted and they begin to turn crispy – their range of adaptation has been exceeded. (How often does this happen to us humans?)

 Some plants have grown well, and others, not so well. For a while there were more zucchini that we could use, and now the production seems to have halted and the plants show the stress – the leaves are brown and attract an enormous biomass of aphids and flies that feed on the aphids. There are still melons on the vine – it will be a race to see which comes first – ripening, or the death of the plant from the heat.

Ahh, but the tomatoes!! The branches hang low with clusters of cherry tomatoes that are all shades of red and orange. I harvest a bowlful – so sweet, so delicious! The other tomato pants hang heavy with fruit as well. They seem to be thriving under their cover of shade cloth.

The early season corn is finished. I waited too long to pick it – should have done it 2 weeks ago. Now what I have are small cobs with dried kernels – seeds for next year. So much for my vision of roasting ears! Anyway – this was some sort of weird mutant hybrid corn - some of the seeds grew without stalks – just an ear of corn sticking out of the ground. Now that's bizarre! I’m glad we didn’t get to eat it – might have been radioactive!

The green beans have given their all, and we were not here to enjoy them – one of the perils of two residences. Eggplant? The plants are brown, wilty, and insect-eaten. The chili plants from Lynn’s ristra may yet do OK. They are children of this climate. And there is still some tender chard left – will those plants ever quit? I have to keep reminding myself that this first year is all an experiment.

On the other side of the garden, there is the gigantic berry tree. This monster tree is in the yard of our neighbor Chuchico, and is so large that half of it hangs over our yard – over my garden to be specific. It is the biggest deciduous tree I’ve ever seen and provides much needed shade for us and for him. It is a magnificent thing but for one tiny fact – it is covered with small, gnarly, seed-filled berries about the size and color of a blueberry. These are not edible by anything except the pesky fruit bats, which chew them up, suck the juice and spit out the rest. Bleahhh!
Last fall, the berries and chewed up mess fell all over my garden, attracting insects and disease to the plants. This year I decided to do battle with the berries. I bought a 12x18 foot piece of shade cloth and hung it at an angle above the garden, with the intention that the berries would be caught by the shade cloth and tumble back over the wall into Chuchico’s yard. Has this been successful? Well, partially. In true Mexican style, I did not have the appropriate materials to do the job properly. I need a few more 10 foot long sections of pipe to prop it up. Instead, I have a wiggly, wobbly piece of sapling cut from Tom’s overgrown property. The shade cloth sags and it bags. I have to go outside and manually flip the berries over the wall. It is better than nothing. Maybe mañana I will get some pipes and fix it up. But then again - it’s hot out there.

Where would I get such a thing as pipe here in the back of beyond anyway? That indeed is part of the problem. We have a small ferreteria (hardware store) here in Banamichi. We jokingly call it the “No hay ferreteria.” (The “Do Not Have” hardware store.)

On occasion, I reluctantly slink in there and self-consciously approach the counter along with the ranchers and cowboys. They look me over and size me up.  I squirm under their gaze and wonder what they are thinking.

Finally, Lupita gets around to asking me what I want. In my best Spanish – which I have practiced all the way to the store – I explain the commonplace object I want -  say a small hook closure. She shakes her head and frowns. “No hay!” she says. “We don’t have it.”

This happens all the time with all manner of items. “No hay!” “No hay!” “No  hay!” So either we get it in the States and bring it through Mexican customs and pay the 15% importation tax, or we drive 2 ½ hours to Hermosillo to look in Home Depot, Rumba, Massa or one of the other hardware stores there before driving
2 ½ hours back. Maybe we get lucky, maybe not. More likely we will wind up improvising – like my wiggly, wobbly sapling. “Muy Mexicano!” – “Very Mexican,” our builder friend Ramón would say.

So you ask, why do I want to live in this land of water shortages, failed crops and “No Hay?” In Tucson, everything is so predictable. In Banámichi, from one day to the next, I never know what will happen, who will come to the door, what I will have to improvise. It’s fun, it’s interesting. It’s a challenge. I love the challenge. So what if something isn’t the way I expect? OK, I learn to adjust my expectations and find a way to cope. It’s an ongoing lesson in the true unpredictability of life. Life is more primal, more in my face, more immediate and vibrant when I constantly have to think on my feet. I have to be more in touch with myself. I feel more alive.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Who is June-Elena?

Who is June-Elena? To my friends and family I am June, my name as given in 1943. I was actually born in April, but my Mom held to her romantic idea of June being the month of the roses, and named me for that regardless. I’ve always felt June to be a bit of denial of my real identity, but Mom stuck to her guns. 

Elena was born for me during the 80’s. I was searching for what seemed to be missing in my life and trying on different New Age concepts in whatever form they happened to come to me.

Somehow I came into possession of a tape of guided imagery called “Past Life Regression.” I was skeptical, but still halfway thought I might really see a past lifetime. Actually, I was a bit spooked – what if it did work? Did I really want to know? Maybe something dark would be revealed that I really would be better off not knowing.

One evening, my curiosity got the better of me. I settled into bed, adjusting the pillow so that I could be comfortable with the earphones. I pulled a sheet up over me, put the tape in the player and clicked it on. The player made whirring sounds and the swamp cooler hummed, blasting out humid air. It was summer in Tucson.

“You are beginning to relax deeply” the tape said. I took a deep breath and felt my arms and legs melting into the bed. I followed the instructions into relaxation, a trance, whatever it was. The room became distant and the sound of the player dominated my awareness.

 “What do you see?” the tape asked. A vague image of a thin woman with long black hair came to me. She was dressed in native garb and was toiling in the fields. (No lifetimes as Cleopatra for this kid!!) I had the sense that her life was hard and lonely…maybe she had a few kids out there in the countryside, and they were just barely surviving.

“What is your name?” the tape asked. The name Elena popped into my head. The next thing I recall was the snapping sound of the tape ending. I must have drifted off to sleep.

The next morning I pondered what had happened. I was not sure that this was real or just a product of my imagination. Eventually I wrote it off. Even if I knew for sure it was a past life, what would I do with that information?? It didn’t change my present life one way or the other.

Perhaps 6 months later, Dan and I decided to visit Alamos in Mexico. It was a small colonial town in the mountains south of Guaymas Sonora. I wanted to go to the beach, but Dan wanted to see something different. Guess who won?

Driving into town, we found wonderful old buildings and cobblestone streets. We had no hotel reservations, so we began to walk in search of lodging. We found a gorgeous hotel with thick adobe walls. It was laid out with rooms around a square, a courtyard in the middle. I instantly loved it. When I asked the proprietress for a key, she told us that keys were not needed. As she walked us to our room, I noticed that the rooms all had women’s names instead of numbers. She walked us directly to the room called “ELENA!” and opened the door.

I was speechless. What did this mean? Elena, whether real or imaginary began to come to life for me. I don’t remember all that much about Alamos, but Elena became more than a curiosity.

I still don’t know if I really saw into a past life, or even if there is such a thing as past lives. But somehow, Elena has become a part of me. I can feel her presence inside me in Mexico. It is a familiar, at home feeling that comes when we cross the frontera heading south. It is especially strong in Banamichi. I am at ease there in a way I don’t understand.

I walk the streets of Banamichi and feel a deep comfort. I go into the tiny grocery stores or the city offices and chat with the clerks. I hug people who know me. I smile at everyone and say “Buenos Dias.” They smile back. They wave at me in the street. I feel like I belong here.

I think it is Elena who feels so at home in Banamichi. It was she who was born into this culture, she who feels an affinity for the warm sunny climate, for the bright red of ristras of chiles. She loves the spicy food, the bright colors and the warmth and vibrancy of the people.

Elena is part of me. I can’t explain it, but somehow this is true.