Before dawn on our last day at the beach, we rousted Gary and Zoe out of bed to drive us to the bus station. Well, they had kindly offered, but I’m sure they were longing for their soft warm beds as we bounced and swerved, bleary-eyed, over the rutted road in darkness toward Zihuatanejo. By the time we hopped the bus (no cool double-decker this time), the sky was brightening, the few random smudges of clouds turning from grey to pink. The sun shone upon us for the nearly four-hour ride into the interior to Uruapan, where we would be met by a driver to take us the final hour to Erongaricuaro, one of the many small villages ringing Lake Patzcuaro. As the miles fell away behind us, so too did the hot humid air, and soon we were breathing deep the cool, clear mountain breezes of Central Mexico.
As we cruised along the smooth toll highways, we passed fields of corn and wildflowers, lakes and rivers, meadows of grazing cattle, and hills of forest. Just as I was thinking we could easily be meandering through any countryside in Canada, the US or Europe (minus the occasional cactus), we spotted a convoy of military trucks, the grim faces of the soldiers packed in the back barely visible behind their balaclavas. I can’t say I’ve ever felt particularly safe in the presence of the municipal policia or the infanteria de marina: they are, after all, targets of the cartels.
About 15 minutes later we would get a closer look at them, as we were pulled over to the side of the highway where a line of military trucks had formed a blockade. As we all craned our necks to look out the windows, a soldier boy in fatigues and helmet, rifle slung over his shoulder, boarded the bus and greeted us with a cheerful “Buenas dias!” A few of us mumbled in reply as he strode down the aisle, looking for lord knows what (or who). Two minutes later he marched back to the front, spoke quietly to the driver, then jumped off and we were on our way. No explanation was given and none was sought. You wouldn’t get that in Canada, the US or Europe. But nor would you get the kind of crime you have here: the latest estimates put the death toll at a shocking 70,000, mostly cartel-related as the drug war rages on. The country held federal elections on July 1 (Canada Day!) and the architect of that war, Felipe Calderon, was replaced by Enrique Pena Nieto, whose party had run the country for seven decades before being voted out in 2000. Nieto has promised to shift the focus from nabbing the drug lords to cracking down on kidnappings, extortion and public gunfire. It’s a little too soon to see how that plays out, but surely anything is better than what this otherwise peaceful country has had to endure for far too long.
Safely deposited in Eronga, we were reunited with Luna the lab, Rigo the terrier, Cosmos the fluffy black and white cat, and Rocky the shy, tormented tabby. The dogs seemed to remember us, enveloping us in a flurry of leaps and wags. The cats, surprisingly snoozing contentedly together, were aloof as cats are prone to be. There were a few instantly notable changes this year from last: Luna was necessarily slimmer as she continued to cope with hip dysplasia (less weight puts less pressure on the weakened joints); Cosmos was unnecessarily fatter, sporting a double chin and a paunch that got him stuck in cracks and crevices he easily slid through the year before; Rocky was showing promise as a fighter, taking less guff from the rest of the four-legged family; and Rigo was, um, back to being Jack.
Readers of my book and previous blog will know what I mean when I speak of the eternally frustrated pooch. During our first year he could not be distracted from his auto-erotic fixation; the second year he was oddly dispassionate; this year, Jack is back. In full, living technicolour. We did our best to ignore him but the object of his affection kept springing forth like a bright pink tube of lipstick that he tirelessly tried to recap. The only thing that would snap him out of it was his arch enemy, the ever-elusive squirrel. He still spent upwards of a full hour at a time, standing stock still, staring fixedly at a point in the adobe wall that encircled the property. When he sensed the slightest movement, he would bolt up the walkway like wily coyote after the roadrunner, only to be foiled again as the cheeky rodent scurried away, chattering (or chuckling) as he high-tailed it up a tree.
Walks had not changed: on leash, Luna pulled and strained, Rigo simply went berserk for the first few minutes, then, half-way through, reluctantly toed the line. Still, he continued to bark obnoxiously at anything that moved. When one day he managed to slip his collar and charged after a gaucho and his two horses, who freaked out, reared up and galloped down the road leaving the old cowboy and us in their dust, we decided, that’s it. We confined their walks to the enclosed pasture next door. Surprisingly, they didn’t balk, mostly because they got to be leash-free. They were happy, the neighbourhood’s horses were happy, and we were happy. Problem solved.
The town of Eronga had changed slightly. Our favourite little cafe (the sole cafe), Testerelli’s, the only place in town to get a decent cup of coffee, had closed shop. On the bright side, an area down the slopes toward the farmland had been turned into a kind of small midway along the canal, with a playground for the kids, bike and kayak rentals, and bamboo stalls selling crafts, soft drinks and made-to-order tacos.
One Sunday a triathlon of sorts came to town. More than 20 tour buses disgorged Spandex-clad athletes who ran, rode and paddled their way to a variety of cash prizes. We went down to watch the excitement and noted a new small restaurant just below the slope overlooking farms, fields and the canal that emptied into Lake Patzcuaro. How lovely, we thought, and parked ourselves at a table on the grass under an umbrella to order lunch, mystified at why we were the only patrons. No sooner had we been served our cervezas when we discovered why: with the shifting wind our nostrils were assaulted with a gag-inducing odor. It appeared this quaint little cafe had been built atop the town’s sewage-treatment facility. We held our noses, wolfed our food and sprinted past the racers in pursuit of clean air.
The time passed rather uneventfully. After our walks, we spent the afternoons in the warm sunshine surrounded by the gorgeous gardens bursting with pink, white and yellow flowers, vibrant pomegranate and citrus trees, and a killer view out to pastures of grazing cattle, the lake and Janitzio Island beyond. On our last day, we mixed a pitcher of sangria, crowded with fruit picked from the yard’s own trees, and toasted another six months in Mexico. I closed my eyes and turned my face up to the sun, listening to the pine tree next door swish and sigh in the fresh mountain breeze. Will we be back next year? Who knows with this crazy, unpredictable life we’re leading. But if the fates lead us back, I will happily embrace mi amigos with the warmth of the Mexican sun.