I live in the small Mexican village of Ajijic, nestled on the shores of Lake Chapala, encircled by mountains. My husband Jeff, 9-year-old son Chase and I have lived here for over a year. I love our life here in Mexico, but it often presents unexpected challenges that can test the mettle of even the most veteran expatriate. It’s a far different world than the life I knew in the United States.
Ajijic is an old Indian town founded three centuries ago, full of cobblestone streets and walled- off residences. It’s difficult to guess what lies behind each door, perhaps a simple adobe casita with roosters and cows, or an elegant Mexican villa with elaborate fountains. The pace of life is mellow, the climate sunny, and the Mexicans welcome the expatriates who live here.
Bougainvillea vines spill over the brick walls in pulsating colors of fuchsia, scarlet, violet, and mustard yellow. As the seasons change, the flowering trees show off their vibrant colors – the delicate periwinkle blue of the jacaranda or the fiery orange of tabachine in springtime. The branches of the ten-foot high poinsettia trees droop heavily with their leaves in bright red, salmon and creamy white. It’s hard to believe they’re the same species as the potted Christmas variety. Even the recalcitrant rose bushes – so difficult to maintain in my moldy Seattle garden – bloom here non-stop month after month. The birds are equally flamboyant; the greedy hummingbirds, bluebirds, and vermilion flycatchers flit along the uppermost branches of our trees.
In spite of initial plans to “scale down”, we ended up renting what was available – an elegant house named ” Casa Buena Vista“, built by a retired American couple. Not at all our usual style, but we thought we could adapt. Imagine a 4000 square foot house topped by a two story cupola, 12-foot ceilings with clerestory windows, three master suites with Jacuzzi, and a three-tier fountain in the garden; and you can get a pretty good picture. Now you might think that with all this elegance and modernity, our lives would be trouble-free, but it’s been just the opposite. Over the last year, I’ve come to believe that the house is possessed.
It all started the day after my husband left for his monthly commute to Seattle for work. Within 24 hours, the phones went out, and we were still waiting for internet and television service. As a newcomer to Mexico I didn’t know a soul, so I felt vulnerable and cut off. Next the electricity went out, after which the water pump broke, which meant no water AND no toilets! Of course, these problems only happen when Jeff is working in Seattle. It must be a plot to drive me crazy.
The adventures continued. One day the huge kitchen fan and light fixture mysteriously detached itself from the ceiling, spinning in flight as it fell to the floor. It also started raining inside the house through cracks in the cupola, quite a problem during the torrential downpours of summer’s rainy season. Another time (Jeff was in Seattle, of course), a dangerous power surge hummed through the walls of our house, popping light bulbs, shorting circuits, and smoke filled every room. Chase and I evacuated the house at 11 PM; the next day we learned that every piece of electronics had been fried. But, through these experiences I learned that I could handle each crisis I faced, and I rapidly improved my Spanish as a survival skill.
But it’s the question of roommates at Casa Buena Vista that really perturbs me. I’ve become accustomed to the dozens of wall spiders that live behind hanging pictures. Brown and spotted, two to three inches in diameter, they are actually quite friendly. More so than the shiny black widow spider that might also be lurking. I’ve grown rather fond of the backyard skunk that emits his stench precisely at 9:30 PM each night, and of the Mexican roosters who have no sense of time, crowing at midnight or 10 in the morning. I’ve made peace with the mouse that lived in our kitchen for a week, nervously darting out to sneak a peek at Chase and I while we were eating. I informed Chase that he was our new pet. But once he started eating the electrical cords, I was compelled to set the mousetrap that cut his lifespan short.
I’ve even become courageous when confronting the deadly Mexican scorpion. Did you know that more people are bitten by scorpions in Mexico than in any other country? First, I build up my courage by shouting a few expletives, and then I pick up a shoe and smash his brains out. I whack the scorpion several times, as they take a long time to die. Don’t step on them while in your sandals; their tails can curl up and sting you on the heel.
During our final week of living at Casa Buena Vista, I faced the most bizarre roommate of all. We were about to take off on our summer visit to the States, to be followed by a move to a new rental house on our return. I was already under a lot of stress because I had to handle the arrangements, since Jeff was working in Seattle. I had packing to do, movers to line up, leases to finalize, and Chase had final exams. I didn’t need any problems.
Strange things started happening in the middle of the night. I was awakened by the swishing sound of vertical blinds in my bedroom swinging wildly from side to side. I assumed it was just from the wind, until I discovered that the window was not open. The next day, I noticed a foul smell emanating from downstairs, and traced it to a pile of brown poop neatly arrayed under the guest bed. What was going on? Maybe an animal had snuck into the house when Chase had left the door ajar. Things were starting to get weird.
One morning I awoke to find dirt scattered all over the floor just footsteps from my bed. Then I discovered a personalized pile of poop under my very own bed! Yikes! This was getting too close for comfort! What the hell was going on? Paranoid fantasies flashed through my mind of someone evil sneaking into the house and playing games with us. My heart beat wildly in fear, and I knew we needed to get out of the house immediately! So, I grabbed Chase, still sleeping, from his bed and we raced barefoot in our pajamas down the cobblestone street to the safe haven of our neighbors Charlie and Sue. “Something is in the house!” I cried. Chase was utterly confused by what was going on; perhaps he thought that Mom had finally gone over the edge.
We returned to our house escorted by Charlie and Sue, and carried out a room-to-room search. After two hours of searching, we discovered no trace of any animal; although there was no way he could have escaped during our absence. Apparently, the critter left when it was good and ready. Chase remembered recently seeing a scraggly kitty around the garden, so I hoped that, at worst, a kitty was our new roommate. Better than a scorpion, I supposed.
It was our very last night in the house. The next day we were to fly to Buffalo to visit family and to rendezvous with Jeff. Our bags were packed and ready to go. Chase and I spent the evening at a first communion party for our gardener Jacobo’s son; we returned to the house around 10 P.M.
When Chase and I entered the garden, we spotted a cat-like animal with a large tail racing through the garden ahead of us. He sprinted swiftly over the flagstone terrace, passed through the locked, steel-barred security doors of our living room like “The Invisible Man”, and then dashed down our hallway! How the heck did he get in? And what, pray tell, was I supposed to do now? It was moments like this when I wasn’t up for single parenthood! Jeff, where are you!!
Uneasily, Chase and I went inside knowing that we’d be spending the night with the creature. We closed up all the inside doors in hopes of restricting him to whatever room he was already in, so we could get a peaceful night’s sleep before our departure. I did my best to come to grips with the situation.
Around midnight while I was sending off final emails, I heard a tremendous crashing and banging emanating from the downstairs guest bedroom. Was there an alien in residence? Perhaps someone possessed by the devil? Fortunately, Chase was already fast asleep.
As the only adult on duty, I tried to remain calm and grabbed a flashlight. I tip-toed outside into the darkness to peer through the sliding glass doors to see what was in the bedroom. As I warily gazed through the door into the bedroom, my flashlight beam glanced off the glowering yellow eyes of a SKUNK. This was the critter that had been causing all the havoc around my house! How was I gonna evict a skunk from the bedroom 12 hours before flight time? I feared getting sprayed; they might not let me onto the plane and out of the country! After a few minutes, I came to the realization that there was nothing I could do but go to bed.
All night long, I heard the trapped, frightened skunk throwing himself bodily against the metal panel of the screen door, hoping to work it open and escape through the crack. Since skunk heads are so narrow, they can deftly pass through the smallest of openings, just as he entered our living room at will through the microscopic gap between the sliding glass doors. I tried to sleep in spite of the constant racket that continued all night long.
In the morning, I went outside to take another look into the guest room. I noticed that the outer door of the bedroom was now partially cracked, but I couldn’t see the skunk. Maybe he was still hiding under the bed. No way I was going to open the door to find out! As luck would have it, while I was outside, a bird flew into the kitchen through the open door. For the next five minutes, I was chasing this terrified bird in circles around the kitchen, until he left the same way he came.
Was I in Doctor Doolittle land? Enough with the nature adventures! Chase and I grabbed our bags and departed for the airport as quickly as possible, feeling a sense of relief to finally escape this zany house!
When we returned in August, we learned from our gardener Jacobo that the skunk remained trapped in the bedroom after our departure. When Jacobo tried to scare it out from under the bed, it stubbornly refused to budge. Ultimately, the skunk was done in with a pitchfork, and as a final memento he sprayed the house with his delightful scent. It took two weeks to air out the house; thank goodness we were on vacation.
When I look back at our year spent at Casa Buena Vista, it was nothing like what I had expected. I knew that life in Mexico would be different from our life in the States, but this was far beyond my imagination. I have developed a new set of coping skills as a part-time single parent that I never knew I possessed. In a few days time, we will move to our newly leased house on the other side of town – far from the potential influence of Casa Buena Vista. Who knows what mishaps and wildlife we may encounter there.