I’m standing at the banister of the main room, open to the night. I can see one bright star poking through a sky of tattered cloud. I can hear the rhythmic boom of the sea pounding the shore. A strong, warm breeze fans my face and lifts my hair. I close my eyes and breathe it in. What a welcome relief. Apart from the random yet regular storms, the air has been stubbornly hot and dead. But I can feel something in the air tonight; it feels like change. I’m reminded of an old quotation, credited to Confucius: “May wind of change bring bird of luck.” (But don’t quote me on that.) Could this wind be bringing luck? I search the sky for answers and see only a bat, headed my way. Some bird of luck. I duck and run inside.
We’ve had our fingers crossed for weeks now, hoping the rain would hold off long enough for us to cross the river in time to make it to our next house-sit. Now it’s looking very possible. Although it has rained, not nearly as much has fallen as in the early part of the month. The river is lower, workers have re-cleared the access road; SUVs and pick-ups are making it across. But could we? Could we be lucky enough? Then again, could leaving this beautiful haven be considered lucky?
Two months ago we drove across what seemed a safe and sturdy bridge, into the charmingly dusty beach town of San Pancho, officially known as San Francisco. Over that time, we’ve fallen into its rhythms, gotten to know its quirks, its people, its bridge’s capacity to withstand a raging river (not so much). I wish I could say we’ve gotten to know its lyrical language, but when I inadvertently asked the house-keeper if she needed a home instead of a ride home, I knew I needed Spanish lessons (damn you Google translator!). I’m working on it. Mas tiempo…
We’ve also made wonderful friends of unexpected people, particularly our terrifically bawdy hosts. Their wicked sense of humour is eclipsed only by their generosity — to us and to the town they call home. We’ve learned maddeningly addictive games (thanks for that, Curt and Cele), we’ve enjoyed hanging out at the town’s only real bar, Panchito’s, owned by Jeremy and Nicole (with support from dad Marc, a former-maybe-still-sometime-actor), a sweet couple from Seattle by way of Idaho; we’ve reunited with past hosts for some astoundingly good suppers (thanks Lee and Judy), not to mention a joyful reunion with Senor Frias Orejas, re-dubbed Senor Caliente Orejas at the beach. We’ve gone horseback riding in the jungle and laughed nervously at our guide’s warnings of jaguars still lurking in the dense bush around us. It turned out the dangers were smaller packaged: he was felled by a scorpion sting a week later.
We’ve sampled an entire smorgasbord of restaurants, from Maria’s (the best breakfasts and burgers in town); to Chalupa, run by a fishing family; to taco stands with no name (the one across from the hospital frequented by doctors and nurses couldn’t ask for a better endorsement); to Hotel Cielo Roja, whose chef hangs 10 during the day; to the newly opened La Dolce Amore, where the young wife, a Mexican, will make you a banana-and-Nutella crepe in the morning, and her husband, an Italian, will whip you up a huge bowl of pasta in the evening.
But above all these are the fuzzy-faced friends we’ve made. I’ve come to realize, painfully, that there’s an emotional hazard attached to this job, and that is connecting with the pets in our care. We don’t have a dog or a cat of our own, but we did. When we lost our cat, with us for over 10 years, to the great pet cemetery in the sky, we were devastated for years. I swore we would never have another; it was simply too hard. But caring for someone else’s pet, now that I could get behind. It’s just like babysitting, I told myself: you have all the fun, the parents have all the responsibility. And all the pain when they leave you. Well, the joke’s on me.
We’ve become surprisingly attached to all the pets we’ve tended, even the ones we were with for mere days (the Colonel and the Contessa — we miss you too!). Our stint in San Pancho, however, is the longest by far. In that time, we watched as the pets went from mournful gazes at the door, waiting for their people to come back, to a grudging acceptance of us, to clambering on the bed and nuzzling our faces.
We were initially recruited to care for The Duke. A mature cat, albeit still physically robust, his hearing impairment caused his owners concern. When we first met, the reception was chilly: “I want my food and I want it now, dammit, I’m on my way out.” I was left holding the Whiskas bag as he sauntered away, licking his lips, with nary a backward glance. Some nights he wouldn’t come home, and we’d have to pick our way through the trees with flashlights, our calls falling, literally, on deaf ears. Over the weeks, however, he started to warm to us. By the end, he was sleeping on our laps and gazing lovingly into our faces. And staying in, not just through the night, but often all day. I’ll miss his John Wayne walk, his monkey tail, his tilt-headed glances, and how he’d cuddle up close to Oprah during thunder storms.
The bebe, at first, also couldn’t care whether we lived or died, as long as he had food in his dish twice a day. He was quite content to spend his days hunting moths and lizards and snakes and pretty much anything that moved. No catch-and-release program for this cat; he slurped his quarry down every time. Even the other cats would look at him with a tail hanging out his mouth in disgust, as if to say, “Really, little dude? That’s gross.” But sometimes the little guy would revert to his babyhood, needing to be cuddled and kissed. He’d gaze at you with huge golden eyes that took up two-thirds of his face, and his head was so small you needed only one finger to scratch between his ears. He’s going to be a force to reckon with when he weighs more than a few grams.
As for Monte, the wild one, we had come such a long way. At the start of our sit, he was an occasional blur, whipping in for a few bites of food under the table, followed by a hiss and a high tail outta there. That progressed to a shadowy figure lurking around doors, to tentative steps into the kitchen for meals, to playing with the other cats in the main room, to sneaking naps on our bed, to full-contact petting — but only for a few seconds. Touch him too long and he’d cower, as if to say, “I’m a wild cat, don’t forget.” Right. The wild cat that stays in when the others go out; the wild cat that uses the litter box; the wild cat that prefers the couch to the floor for his naps. I’ll miss his little pink nose and delicate meow, the way he idolized The Duke, following him everywhere like a feline groupie.
Then there’s Oprah. When you can see into her eyes, through the curls that fall to her nose, you see a dignity that belies her predilection for sprawling on her back, legs splayed, hand to back of head like a Playboy pin-up. She’s the most patient, mild-mannered, easy-going dog we’ve ever met. Forgot the keys to the door? No problem, I’ll wait. Can’t find your shoes? Take your time, I’ll wait. Cats being fed first? Go ahead, I’ll wait. Friend’s dog in my bed? Be my guest, I’ll take the floor. She wouldn’t hurt a fly, proverbial or otherwise. Hell, she yelps and runs when she sees a crab. I’ll miss her adoring face, her paw on my arm, walks on the beach, throwing her five (not four, not six — five) apples in the morning, her considerable heft against my back at night.