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.
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).
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.
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.
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 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.
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.)
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.