Some Things Never Change

You know how they say you can never go back? Not to a favourite restaurant, a favourite neighbourhood, a favourite beach? It will have changed, and not for the better, so goes the theory, and your fond memories will be forever overshadowed by those altered states. Well, never say never. Maybe not everything and every place changes completely, and not always for the worse.

It’s been four years since we walked the long sandy shores of Playa Blanca, just south of Zihuatanejo. We had heard it had been “discovered”, thanks to a prideful website touting it as “the last best beach”, and an impressive whale research project, which grabbed the attention of scientists and tourists alike. We feared the inevitable flurry of fancy homes and fancier hotels towering over crowded beaches teeming with oil-slicked sun-seekers lounging under synthetic palapas, blue skies filled with drones and para-sailers, and even, gack!, roaring jet-skis tearing up the waves. In other words, the inevitable destruction of all that made the place special in the first place. It happens all too often.

Serenity now on Playa Blanca.


It didn’t happen. Not here, not yet. Sure, there are a few more homes that have been built, there’s a new hotel or two, a condo building here and there. But they’re mercifully small and modest. And because the beach stretches nine glorious miles, those new additions are spaced far enough apart they’re hardly noticeable. There are still plenty of large lots, tangled and choked with weeds and shrubs and thirsty palms, still the ramshackle shrimp shacks, brittle palm fronds for roofs, their rickety plastic tables and chairs jammed into the sand. Also mercifully, there are no crowds, no para-sailers, no drones, no jet-skis. Playa Blanca is, for the most part, unchanged. We went back, and we don’t regret it.

Tessa, Clinker and Coffee together again across the rainbow bridge.

The good friends we made from our first visit 10 years ago are still here, although sadly more than a few pets we cared for are not. Gary and Zoe’s cute, neurotic little Clinker has long passed, as has goofy, loveable Coffee and, most recently, Tessa*.

Kona, Roxi and Mojo, the next generation.

In their place are an even goofier Schnauzer who goes by the name Mojo, an excitable Papillon named Kona, and a Mexican mutt called Roxi, whom we profiled from the last time we were here in 2015.

Recharging to get his mojo back.

Mojo is another rescue (abandoned and with a large growth on his face that was promptly treated), Kona arrived by way of American relatives who felt she would do better at the beach. And who wouldn’t? We were tasked with caring for this motley crew for a few days, and immediately both Mojo and Kona, who have “issues”, were determined to let us know just how much they wanted nothing to do with us. Mojo growled and bared his teeth every time we tried to touch him, Kona simply ran away and hid. By the end of two days, Mojo was on our heels wherever we went and Kona was cuddling on my lap. Sure, it’s highly likely because they realized we were the keepers of the kibble, but it’s nice to think they took to us because they like us, they really like us.

We assume Mojo is a standard Schnauzer, as he’s a bit bigger than a miniature and definitely smaller than a giant. They all share the same traits, however: good with adults and kids, high energy, vocal watchdog (boy, is he vocal). Hailing from the Bavaria region of Germany as far back as the Middle Ages, the Schnauzer was bred as a hunter, ratter, herder and overall farm hand. They first arrived on North America shores around 1900, and careful breeding and grooming has defined their trademark beard and mutton chops.

Did you hear that? Kona forever on guard.

The American Kennel Club describes the Papillon as a “quick, curious toy dog of singular beauty and upbeat athleticism…a true doggy dog with a hardy constitution.” Shorter than a foot, the dainty Pap gets its name from its large, wing-shaped ears that resemble a Papillon (French for butterfly). Their multi-coloured coats are long and silky, their tails plumed. They apparently snag top prizes in agility contests and are open to learning tricks, thanks to their cross breeding with spaniels. For centuries, however, they were bred as lap dogs for noblewomen such as Madame de Pompadour and Marie Antoinette, and often appeared in portraits painted by such masters as Rubens, Rembrandt, Goya and Toulouse-Lautrec. Rather than perform any tricks — or go on walks — this little Pap preferred to lounge on the porch couch, ever vigilant for any outside activity that required her high-pitched attention.

Roxi waits for the nod to hit the beach.

Mojo and Roxi, however, were game for a good stroll, if allowed leeway. On our first walk with him on the beach, the untrained Herr Mojo strained and pulled and twisted on his leash (leaving deep slashes behind my knees), so we released him. He went berserk chasing and biting the waves, and literally ran circles around the still-leashed Roxi, carving up the wet sand, until he was so pooped he slept the rest of the day. If we were to let Roxi loose, the two invariably would shoot into the toolies or trespass on private grounds. With Roxi leashed, Mojo stayed close behind.

Tessa*, sadly, came out once, walked a few feet down the beach, sniffed the sand, and headed back. The once high-energy girl who sprinted down the shoreline, gleefully chasing seagulls, was now too aged to indulge in silly games. She preferred to spend her days snoozing on the couch, the old dog equivalent of a rocking-chair, I guess.

And we were happy to accommodate and accompany. Days were lazily spent reading, writing, and gazing out at that 10,000-mile front yard, contemplating our good fortune. Some things never change.

*Tessa, as noted in our last blog, died shortly after we left at the end of May (we returned in July). Age had caught up with her, but she led a remarkable 15 years, considering the start to those years. Adopted as a pup by one of the enramada owners, when Tessa was a year old and growing out of her adorable phase, she was cast aside, as happens all too often. Driven to the end of the nine-mile beach and dumped, the plucky puppy managed to make it half-way back, but faltered in front of Gary and Zoe’s beach house. They scooped her up, took her in, and were rewarded with 14 years of love and loyalty. As heartbreaking as it is to lose a faithful companion, they treasure the memories of this special dog, as do we. Sadly, she’s the last of the originals from our first set of sits in 2010, a bittersweet side-effect of the gig. And the one change hardest to accept.


R.I.P. Tessa

Click on this image to see a short slideshow of our times with Tessa

I was in the middle of writing a blog about returning to Barra de Potosi to hang with some old furry friends when we got the news late last week that Tessa had died. We’d spent most of May in this lovely little town, but left to care for Zola here in Patzcuaro, when we got word. We are scheduled to return to Barra in July, and spend more time with her and her goofy cohorts. Tessa was one of the originals we cared for during our first sojourn here in 2010. She was also one of our favourites; she particularly loved Rick and the affection was mutual. She was everything you wanted in a faithful companion: smart, fun, friendly, loyal, affectionate, independent. We are both crushed to learn of her passing. I will post the full, finished blog next month.

Chasing Dreams in Squamish

“What kinda dog is that?”

“A Basset crossed with a tiger.”

“Cool. See ya.”


I’d decided to mess with some minds after so many people asked us about the breed of the newest dog we were caring for here in Squamish, about an hour south of Whistler. I didn’t expect the kid whose leg I pulled would accept the answer without question. He in fact thought it perfectly logical and, after fearlessly patting the tiger on her glossy, brindle-coloured coat (the closest she comes to resembling the great Panthera tigris), rode away on his bike.

Bella, of course, doesn’t have a drop of tiger blood coursing through her veins, but she is nonetheless an unusual mix: She’s a Basset Hound crossed with a Great Dane. And just about everybody we told of her pedigree while on our walks was a comedian: “How did that work?” “Must have been fun for the Dane!” “Guess the Basset didn’t have much say in the matter!”

Bella, in return, accepted all the good-natured jibes with a cool indifference and a string of drool — no big-cat snarls from her. She was far more interested in lumbering down the garden path to the park where her finely tuned schnoz could smell the flowers, snuffle the grass, or ferret out wascally wabbits (or skittish squirrels).

It’s in fact what her ancestors were bred to be in their homelands of France and Belgium: a low-slung (basset is French for low), nose-to-the-ground scenting hound that could track rabbits for their aristocratic owners. These dogs’ snouts put them second only to the bloodhound in their uncannily sharp sense of smell. But Bella looks built more for comfort than speed, and I’m not sure what she’d do if she spotted any kind of rodent. She sighs sombrely watching oblivious robins pull worms from the grass.

But in her younger years, the Great Dane in her would have easily propelled her over hill and valley. Actually a German, and not a Danish, breed, Great Danes (grand Danois) were also bred for hunting, and also for European noblemen, but for bigger game, like wild boars instead of bunnies. But Bella today, at nearly 11 years old, is really in no mood to hunt, or stand around and chit-chat, especially with kids who, we were told, make her “grumpy”. She leaves the socializing up to her much more amiable pet-mate, Nollie, a Jack Russell terrier.

Nollie on one of her great adventures, aboard her owner’s boat on the high seas, as painted by a friend.

Named after a tricky skateboard move, Nollie is nearly 18 and has led a more adventurous life, so she’s much more wise to the ways of the world — and little people. As a pup, she hung out at skate parks, ran alongside her owner while he practiced his board moves, sailed the high seas on his boat, and navigated highways and bi-ways with him on at least one cross-country road trip.

Her pedigree also traces back to hunting. Named after an English man of the cloth, the Reverend John “Jack” Russell was also an avid fox stalker. His terriers ran alongside hunters on horseback and hounds on the ground. Once the dogs pursued the prey underground, the terriers would take over and flush out the fox, and the chase would be back on.

The only digging Nollie does these days is in her bed. She’ll gather her blankets together into a pillow, lay down her head, and snooze for hours. One night, I’d hung my sweatshirt on a hook above her bed and in the morning, it had become part of her nest. At some point, it had fallen and landed on top of her. Rather than freak out, she must have shrugged and taken the opportunity — and the new material — to fluff up her lair.

As an older lady, Nollie is deaf, and her coat has whitened and lost most of its original black and tan colouring around the head and rear (which I did not know happened). Once a frisky, tireless companion, now, in her dotage, she’d be challenged to chase a snail out of its shell.

And that was the extent of this brief sit: two short walks a day, followed by long stints of sleep, where these old retirees relive their glory days of gleefully running, jumping, hunting and burrowing. Sweet dreams, ladies.

(Click here for more photos of the two grand dames.)







Jesus, Seashells, and the Holy Salamanders

Concha on kitchen watch for Chewy.

Another pet-sit, another neighbourhood, another gorgeous home to kick back in, and another couple of cool pets to hang with for a couple of months. And another opportunity to learn a bunch of stuff. This particular Patzcuaro ‘hood is very near to the Basilica of Our Lady of Health or, en Español, the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Salud.

Built by Michoacan’s first bishop, Don Vasco de Quiroga (whose remains are said to be entombed here), in the 16th century, it continues to attract pilgrims from all over the country who come to pray to the Virgin for the health of their ailing loved ones. You can read more about it here, but briefly, the Basilica is a popular place. Over the summer, dozens of tour buses line our street, idling, churning and belching for hours after they disgorge hundreds of passengers who come to pray to the Lady, pick up a tchotchke and a churro from the vendors staked out on the grounds, then climb back aboard and return whence they came, armed with the key to health, a straw Jesus and testimonial T-shirt.

Lady of Health Basilica, popular with pilgrims.

On Sundays and special occasions, the church bells chime and cohetes (“rockets”) — those booming firecrackers peculiar to Mexico — jolt us (and the pets) out of our skin from dawn to dark.

This house is one of the few on the block featuring a couple of stairs up to the door, so we’ll often return from our dog walks to people — old people, young people, toddlers — resting on the stone stoop. One day we had to literally step over a half-dozen older indigenous ladies who had a full picnic laid out, complete with tortillas, beans and soup, spanning our stairs to the tree across the sidewalk.

Down this bustling street each morning we walk Concha, the gorgeous, 13-year-old thick-furred rescue, named either for a seashell, the popular Mexican sweet bread, or a vagina —that last one a translation more common in other Latin American countries. Imagine the looks we’d get in Puerto Rico, Chile or Argentina if we ran down the street hollering “Come, Concha!”

Anyhoo, our morning walk takes us past the carniceria (butcher), with his loops of chorizo hanging above slabs of beef and chops; around the menudo man’s huge metal vat brimming with the traditional Mexican soup of tripe (not the ‘70s Puerto Rican boy band) in a bright red broth of chili peppers, hominy beans, limes and onion. Every morning he greets Concha by name, since she was a freeloading patron back when she was a free-ranging dog. Now that she’s part of a pack, she barely gives him a backward glance, much to his feigned offense as he shakes his head sadly and mutters, “Ella ya no me conoce” (she doesn’t know me anymore).

Concha taking a turn around the plaza.

Farther along, we exchange buenas dias with the juice lady, whirring up a variety of fruit drinks from a simple table next to the woods man, who sits and carves masks, trays and frames. At the end of the street, we plug our noses as we pass the guy deep-frying pigs’ ears, skirt the pan man who sells all manner of buns and pastries from a large straw platter (including the popular “concha”, a sweet roll topped with a cookie crust shaped like a seashell, backstory here), and head a block down the hill to Plaza Vasco de Quiroga (after the same founding bishop now in the Basilica), more simply called Plaza Grande (to distinguish it from a smaller square, called Plaza Chica or, more formally, Plaza Gertrudis Bocanegra, after a local heroine of independence).

Here Concha will snuffle around, make her marks, complete the loop around the square, one of the most beautiful in all of Mexico, before heading back home. On the return, we’ll often take the opposite side of the street, where we pass one of the more unusual operations in all of Mexico: a convent of nuns raising endangered salamanders. Found only in Lake Patzcuaro, these slithery little creatures, known locally as achoques, were so abundant in the 1970s that the local market sold them in stacks (taste like chicken?). But the gradual shrinking and polluting of the lake put them in danger of extinction. Until the solemn sisters decided to resurrect them. Not entirely for altruistic reasons, however: the nuns make a kind of holy cough syrup out of the salamanders which they sell to the sore-throated faithful. Gulp. This odd little operation right across the street from us was interesting enough to land a feature last July in the New York Times.

Fish without fear — before Concha’s tongue.

Back home, Concha will hop up on the fountain, which she regards as her own massive water bowl, freak out the fish with her long pink tongue (which must look the size of a giraffe’s magnified by the water), slurp some water, eat a treat, then find a place in the sun to snooze away the rest of the morning.

For an independent roamer (her owners let her out by herself, a custom we nervously resisted), Concha is the best leashed dog we’ve ever walked — no pulling, dragging or dawdling — just a slight tug and she responds like a finely tuned thoroughbred. A real delight to walk.

Did I hear comida?

Around 11 a.m., she’ll shuffle into our casita, with an awkward look on her face that says, “The cat sent me. He wants to know when lunch is.” To which we’ll respond, “Tell him, as usual, he’s two hours early.” Concha will then skulk out to face the wrath of The Cat.

“The Cat”, in this case, is Chewy, a 13-year-old faded orange, bent-tailed tabby who, like all cats, rules the roost. His name, normally spelled the Spanish way of Chuy, a nickname for those called Jesus, accurately reflects his life’s mission: to chew. (Interestingly, the female version of Chuy, spelled Chuey, is Concha!) He’s constantly hungry, despite a four-times-a-day feeding sked. We were instructed to call “comida!” (meaning food) at meal times, which would get them both running. And it worked, but one day Concha got so excited she raced up the walkway so fast she slid on the tiles and slammed broadside into a table. She scrambled to her feet, unhurt except for her dignity, and pretended she’d meant to do that. From that point on, however, the feeding ritual was conducted in a much more calm manner.

Chewy ready to chew.

Chewy is served multiple small meals a day because he’s a big-time barfer. We would high-five if he went more than a week without upchucking his breakkie, which mainly consists of raw chicken balls (insert eye-rolling joke here about chickens having balls), no dry food, which he can’t tolerate. To break up the monotony, we’d feed him bits of green bean and broccoli (which the dog would spit out), rice, salmon, tuna, plain unsweetened yogurt (for probiotics), and the odd blob of Concha’s tinned food. And bread.

I was reminded cats enjoy a nice slice after I’d absent-mindedly left a loaf on the counter overnight. We awoke to chewed-through plastic and bits of bread all over the floor. We kept it under lock and key from that point on, but offered him the occasional bite, which vets say is OK (we thought it might blot up his bile). Apart from a yen for wheat, we were most surprised this rickety old cat could haul himself up onto the counter at all. He would first have to claw himself up onto the kitchen stools (scratching the fine brown leather in the process), heave himself onto the counter, ferret through the bread bowl to nose out the loaf, and proceed to chew through the plastic to get at the gold. But successive mornings we noted skewed place mats, indicating he’d gone on a fruitless midnight bread crawl.

Reclining in the afternoon sun.

And bread wasn’t the only foodstuff he helped himself to. One day, I decided to boil his balls (chicken balls) because he occasionally spewed his raw concoction and I feared for salmonella contamination. As they were cooling in the pot, I went off to do some work. Big mistake. Noontime came and went without Concha being sent in to enquire about the luncheon hour. I discovered the cat sprawled on the carpet, legs in the air, a good grooming fully under way between burps. Frowning, I suddenly remembered the chicken on the stove. Sure enough, the pot contained one less ball. The bugger had decided not to wait for meal time and served himself a chicken ball from the stove! (And, as it turned out, cooked chicken did not solve the puking problem, which is a complex condition with causes ranging from the benign to the serious.)

Are you sure it’s not lunchtime? Check again.

At first aloof as a, well, cat, Chewy gradually became more and more affectionate, first entering the same room as us, then jumping up to the same couch as us, then edging closer, then leaning on our legs, then flat-out snuggling between us. He even snoozed on our bed (and sometimes under the covers) during the day. At night, the four of us cozied up together in front of a fire in the TV room. Our first full summer in Patzcuaro, we discovered the daily clouds and rain make for chilly evenings. Luckily this house has five fireplaces to keep us toasty. Until, that is, 9 p.m. rolls around and Chewy pops his head out from under the covers to check that preparations are under way for his final feeding. Two hours early.


Black Olive in a Paisley Park

Last week we wrote about the downside of pet-sitting, but, thankfully, there’s always an upside to uplift us from the depths of the doldrums. This summer, that boost came in the form of three new pets we cared for in Patzcuaro: Olive, Paisley and Smudge.

Olive competes with Smudge for lap time.

Olive is a miniature rat terrier/Chihuahua cross, but more obviously a tiny, vibrating bundle of nervous energy. Standing about a foot tall and weighing in at roughly eight pounds after supper, Olive was rescued by her parents, Chuck and David, from her early life confined to the insides of a very small purse — a benign form of torture for a breed that, according to the American Kennel Club, “is a smoothly muscled exterminator constructed for the efficient movement required for a long day’s work.” And that work, for which they were named, is ratting. Prized workers on farms, these diminutive rodent-killing machines were kept to guard grain from infestation, ensuring supplies would last through the winters.

Named for the black dot on her back, Olive the ratter keeps her digs pest-free.

Olive, named for the round black dot on her back, is understandably more attached to men, given her history with handbags. So she took to Rick (“velcroed” would be a more apt description) easier than to me, clinging to his lap whenever he sat down, while eyeing me with suspicion, like I would morph into a pocketbook-toting Cruella de Ville at any second. The lap obsession is a trait of the Chihuahua, which traces its roots to the Mexican state and is often described, because of its size and portability, as a “purse dog” (which really shouldn’t be taken literally, at least not for extended periods of confinement). The pedigree is very affectionate and kid-friendly, and loves to cuddle up in a comfy lap.

A skeleton when she was rescued, Paisley is healthy, happy and safe in her new home.

Both breeds, however, can display a hair-trigger excitability, and the combo was especially on display when suiting up Olive for a walk. She would whip and weave in and around our feet like the scurrying rodents she was bred to hunt as we tried to leash her, keeping us constantly (and literally) on our toes so as not to step on her. She could become so wired, in fact, that Chuck and Dave left us some tranquilizers to give her if she got out of hand. We didn’t have to use them, luckily, relying instead on the naturally calming, energy-draining effects of a good, brisk walk.

Remembering life on the street?

Paisley, an all-beige Mexican mutt whose ironic name reflects not her bland coat but perhaps her multi-patterned personality, is another rescue, this one in the extreme. When Chuck and Dave found her on the street, she was a skeleton draped with mangy fur, teats hanging to the ground. They never knew what became of her pups, but if they had not taken her in when they did, we would not be writing about her today. She’s one of those rescues who is acutely aware of her good luck, regularly displaying her gratitude through slobbery kisses and snuggles.

Then there’s Smudge, the fluffy black-and-white cat, named for the black smear on her chops. She’s fearless around the dogs (in fact, they often fear her), possibly because she very well may think she is one. Independent, but affectionate on her own terms, Smudge also spent much of her life on the street before wandering through the gate and deciding to stay. She would often compete with Olive for laps, and surprised herself to learn she liked to play, particularly with string, which she’d leap and dash after like it was a snake.

Smudge discovers she loves to play!

We spent a month with this entertaining menagerie, taking daily walks through a quiet, leafy neighbourhood to a patch of grass that could reasonably be considered a small urban park, where Olive, responding to her primal instincts, would attempt to scramble down a brambly embankment to rout out rats, always coming up empty.

Meanwhile, Paisley would prance along the sidewalks, ignoring the frenzied barks from behind tall gates, secure in the safety of her pack.

And that’s how they all ended their days, these lovable discarded misfits: alive and secure in a safe haven provided by, once again, humans with big hearts.


Au Revoir, Pierre

Click on the photo above (turn up the volume) to see a slideshow of the beautiful boy.

One of the reasons we got into pet-sitting was because we love animals. We looked forward to caring for them, playing with them, learning about them, bonding with them, loving them. What we couldn’t foresee was that that love would come with a hefty price tag: the deep sorrow we would feel when those animals died.

As painful as it is for the parents of these pets, it is a profound hurt for us as well. To date, more than 12 cats and dogs we have known and loved have passed away, each one leaving us heartbroken. The latest is a beautiful boy named Pierre, with whom we’ve spent the last five Christmases. A big bruiser of a cat, Monsieur Pierre seemed invincible, just like his housemate Bill, who passed away in December 2014. Both solid, strong, seemingly healthy felines we thought we’d be caring for forever. But, of course, there is no such thing as forever. Pierre succumbed to organ failure yesterday, and, once again, we struggle with the sorrow of loss. But without love, there would be no sorrow. So we’ll continue to care for pets, to play with them, bond with them, love them — and pay that cruel price tag. But we will hold tight to the memories we made, beautiful boy, even if, without you to snuggle by the fireside, this noel will be a lot less joyeux.

Au revoir, Pierre.