OH, THE WEATHER OUTSIDE WAS FRIGHTFUL 

You may have heard me refer to my roommate, John, as “Last Husband,” and sometimes just “L.H.” The sobriquet has a double meaning: he was and is my last husband. Conversely, I was and (probably) am his last wife. We have been together and apart for the past 47 years. We kind of became accustomed to each other. Now, we live together, but we’re not living together, if you get my meaning. Just thought I’d clear that up.

John was born way up near the Canadian border in Watertown, New York. The first time I visited his Yankee homeland to meet his family, it was summertime. I was a new bride (for the third time). The homestead was a beautiful 100+ year-old house on about three acres on the Black River. His grandparents lived downstairs, and his parents lived upstairs. John’s mother was born there as was John, himself, some 26 years later. It was the only home either had ever known.

When John was 10 years old, his parents built a cottage on Lake Ontario, the most contrary body of water on the planet, as I was to find out in the distant future. I loved the old homestead on the river, but his parents took us to the cottage for the weekend. It was located on Pillar Point, a sliver of land jutting out into the lake. Lake Ontario beat on the point’s rocky shore, and the wind blew the water with such force, the spray constantly spat on the cottage windows, a good 100 feet from the water line.

It was bitterly cold, no matter what the season. Before long I called it “Polar Point,” a nickname not altogether appreciated by Last Husband’s mother, Marge. As I was also to find out in the future she did not altogether appreciate me either. The feeling was mutual, which is another story.

I was introduced to a bazillion family friends, all of whom told me about the deep, deep snow, and the ferocity of the winters. I was shown pictures of children walking dangerously close to power lines as they skipped atop snow piles. I saw photos of cars freshly dug out of six-foot snowdrifts. “We have to put the antenna up when we park the car so we can find it the next morning.”

Like so many programmed robots they all said it. To that, Marge invariably added,  “You have to be tough to live up here. We’re Survivors!” Interestingly enough she seldom left the indoors, and then only to get into the car to be driven to and/or from the homestead and the cottage.

To further illustrate the locals’ endurance skills, they included their little forest friends in the endless recitation of anecdotal evidence. They pointed out a narrow barkless circle about four feet up the trunks of most trees. “That’s where the rabbits chew the bark off as they stand on top of the snow.” Snow was the beginning, the middle, and the ending of every story.

One tale I loved was about the spectacular snows of Tug Hill, the topographical anomaly near Watertown that causes the horrendous snow depths. In the old days, the postman drove a two-mule wagon to deliver mail in Tug Hill on an erratic schedule because of the snowstorms.

On the morning in question, there were a few flakes in the air, but the mailman thought he could finish his run before the storm started blowing in earnest. He alighted from the wagon to take the mail to a house located at the end of a lane. The homeowners were glad to see him and invited him in for coffee.

By the time he left, the stuff was falling thick and fast. When he reached the spot where he left the wagon, it and the mules were gone. Search as he might, he couldn’t find them. He decided to wait out the storm in the house. When the storm subsided or as they say Upstate when it “stopped storming,” he looked again for the team to no avail.

Finally, he went back to his own home, figuring the mules pulled the wagon away and someone would contact him soon and tell him where he could find them. No such call ever came. The wagon and the team were found during the spring thaw, just where the mailman had left them. The mules were frozen solid in the same position they were in the last time he saw them. Is that a terrifying snow story or what?

In the fullness of time, it came to be that John and I and my two daughters moved from sunny Southern California to the frigid snowbelt cinched around Upstate New York. I can’t remember now why we did such a thing, but I seldom know why we do anything.

After I spent my first winter there, I had no trouble believing the mule story or any other tale of snow-caused atrocities.

We moved up there in November. Our first house was in Oswego. By this time, there was usually at least one measurable snowfall. It hadn’t happened yet. We took the girls to school on the next Monday morning. All was going well. John went to work at the Niagara Mohawk Power Station. He had secured a good job as a nuclear reactor operator, one of the same positions he served in the U.S. Navy on a nuclear fast attack submarine.

I had been working ever since First Husband took off to build his love nest in another tree (fodder for another story some day). That had been six years earlier, and I felt very housewifely as I returned from taking the girls to the bus stop. As I went about my homey duties, humming a merry tune, I noticed the wind had picked up. Inside of ten minutes, the most horrendous snowstorm I ever saw was blowing ferociously. The snow was horizontal as it rushed past the front window. I peered out to see if some of the snow happened to land on the ground, and I couldn’t see it. I mean I couldn’t see the ground. Astounded, I looked up, and to my complete surprise I couldn’t see the house across the street. Nor could I see our own mailbox at the end of the short driveway.

What in the name of all that is holy was going on? Was it the end of the world? Could we next expect The Rapture? Fer Gawd!

I turned the radio on, and the announcer was telling us not to be concerned. “It’s just lake effect,” he said to reassure us.

Just lake effect? I don’t remember exactly what he said next, but he intimated it was not a real live snowstorm, because it was “just lake effect.”

In no time at all, the snow stopped. The sun didn’t come out, but at least the snow quit its horizontal zipping past the front window. I peered through the glass to see the ground. Much to my surprise, some of the snow had managed to drop out of its frantic sideways rush. To what did my wondering eyes appear but probably three of four inches on the ground. I was shocked.

Just as I breathed a sigh of relief, the race was on again. This time from the other direction. Whereas the snow had come from the left (I have no idea about norths and souths, etc. I have all I can do to recognize left and right) only a few minutes earlier it now ran pell mell in front of my window from the right. I was beginning to feel like Alice. You know Alice. She found herself in Wonderland before slipping through the looking glass.

To cut to the (snow) chase, the same phenomenon kept happening for the next two hours. Every time it stopped before changing directions, I ran to the window to check the depth of the snow. There was no doubt. It was growing by several inches after each outburst.

Now, I had real worries. The children were scheduled to be let off the school bus at the corner, a good 50 yards from the house. The last time I saw them, they were wearing sweaters and light jackets. The guy on the radio kept announcing, too gleefully I thought, a precipitous drop in the ambient temperature. I could only hope the snow was in the stop phase of its insane rush first from the right and then from the left at the time the school bus stopped.

I gathered up coats, scarves, hats and gloves and slogged through 18 inches of snow to the corner. Thank goodness, the storm, or lake effect or whatever it was called, had stopped. Just as I reached the bus stop, both the big yellow bus and the big white snow arrived at the corner. I was terrified. The children would be scared to death. I had to put a calm, ain’t-we-got-fun face on it.

Much to my surprise, they alighted from the bus laughing and talking nonstop about the wonderful snow. I gave them their winter duds and instructed them to put them on immediately. They couldn’t stop laughing. After I helped them get coated and hated, I realized we were in what I came to know as a “white-out.” I had not the slightest idea how to find the house. All I could see was white as the icy snow stung my face when I turned in a circle trying to find the house.

Fortunately, Mandy (the oldest at 12) was born with an unerring sense of direction.

“It’s this way, Mom,” she said. “Follow me.” We followed as the three of us pushed through the deepening snow, to our nice, warm house. The girls were still overjoyed to see all that snow. It was the most they had ever seen. That was to change. Both the depth of the show and their overjoyed reaction to it. But that came later.

When John came home from work, he explained the lake effect phenomenon to us. It was due to the proximity of Lake Ontario and the crazy wind coming on land in waves, first this direction, then another direction. He said a lot more about it, but as John’s explanations are wont to be, it was long and involved, and unless one was a true weather lover, it was profoundly boring.

We stayed in the Oswego house for a year before we built and moved to our cabin in the woods. It was a totally different experience, but the lake effect snowstorms were pretty much the same. We stayed there long enough for me to gain a proficient and accurate assessment of snowstorms. I could tell in a matter of seconds whether it was a “real” storm or merely lake effect.

The radio announcer always outdid himself explaining to us which snowstorm was pelting us. Sometimes he would say he had to run outside before he could tell us, and he would do so during the next commercial break. He always came back, breathing heavily and triumphant as he announced whether it was real or lake effect.

It ceased to matter to me after the first few storms. The end result was always the same. A foot of snow that piled on top of the foot of snow from the last storm that piled on top of the foot of snow from. . . . . you get the idea.

Suffice it to say by the time we moved out of the snowbelt, we wished never to see another snowdrop as long as we lived.

TIP-TOEING IN TEPIC

Hasta Luego, Amigo
The Mexico Life

This is a story about the second time I visited Tepic, the capital city of Nayarit on the west coast of Mexico. It was in the winter of 2005. My first visit was in 1984.

I didn’t have particularly sweet memories of Tepic from 21 years ago, the last time I was there. But today’s sojourn there erased what few fond memories I have of the place. Come to think of it, I don’t have any memory of Tepic at all, except that I changed buses in its nasty bus station when I traveled from San Blas headed to Puerto Vallarta.

I am staying at Casa Mañana  in Playa Los Cocos. The owners, Lourdes and Rinehard, live in Tepic. It was Monday morning, and Lourdes had been at the hotel for the weekend. She was headed back home, and she kindly offered to give me a ride to Tepic. I wanted to do some souvenir shopping.

She has a spiffy new VW in a sedan I haven’t seen in the States. Almost all Volkswagens in North America are partially made here in Mexico. Street-ready VWs cannot be bought south of the border and driven home across that border; they don’t meet US specifications. More’s the pity, because they are significantly less expensive here. Many of the city police cars and taxicabs are VW bugs.

Playa Los Cocos (Coconut Beach) lies about 30 miles south of Tepic at the end of a harrowing, curvy road that weaves through the jungle and tests the nerves of even the most skilled driver. Having driven the road many times, Lourdes didn’t seem to notice as we sped along, slowing only for Mexico’s ever-present speed bumps. When we reached the outskirts of Tepic, she apologized to me and said she hoped she was not scaring me with her driving.

“One can’t be too polite when driving in the city. You have to assert yourself,” she said as she cut off a dusty pickup truck and came close to clipping a bicyclist. Seeing the near misses just as she was speaking, I believed her every word.

Salvador, the Casa Mañana waiter who has adopted me, and helps me improve what can only be described as my deplorable Spanish, had drawn a map on a napkin showing me the location at the station of the buses that traveled the road to Playa Los Cocos and would let me off in front of the hotel. He told me to use as a landmark the tall cathedral on Victoria Street. It was only five blocks from the bus station.

Lourdes dropped me in front of the station. Across the street was the “zocolo,” or the town square. There were the usual fruit stands on the zocolo edges, and a student band was just concluding a noontime concert. I kept to the street leading to the church. There was a variety of shops and farmacias. I wanted to buy presents for my family and cut-rate medicines for me. But first I had to have some cash.

There was a Banco Mexico on the street, and I went in to exchange a travelers check written in US dollars for pesos. Knowing I was supposed to co-sign the check in front of whomever was going to cash it, I started to sign it at a teller’s window. She waved me away and pointed to a counter with a pen and a calendar on display. Anyway, I thought she was pointing to the counter. I was confused, but I signed the check and took it back to her window.

“No,” she said, pointing to a bank officer in the back. At least I guessed she was a bank officer. She was seated at a desk rather than a teller window. In the States, such a configuration usually indicates a lower-rung officer.

The well-dressed, beautiful young lady, took my travelers check, and told me I had to sign it again. I pointed to my signature now in two places on the check.

“No,” she said again. “Aqui,” she insisted, pointing to a space under the signature line. I signed it again.

She took the check, carefully inspected it back and front and asked for my passport, which I handed over. She examined the photo on the passport, which is probably the worst photo ever taken of an earthling. Daniel, the kid at the hotel, who cashed a previous travelers check, teased me about it, saying it looked like a picture one would find on a wanted poster.

The bank officer held the passport up where she could compare the photo with my actual face. She frowned. By this time, I had not seen a smile in the entire bank. Everyone looked at me as though I might be an imposter at best and Ma Barker at worst.

Trying to lighten things up a bit, I said, “Yo tiene un malo dias.” I was trying to say, “I was having a bad day,” pointing to the passport picture. But whatever I actually said seemed to deepen her concern. She took the check and my passport to a more official bank officer. This one sat in a floor-to-ceiling glass office. That glassed-in officer now held my passport aloft and inspected my countenance some more.

The un-glassed-in officer came back to her desk. There were still no smiles or the slightest indication of the standard “friendly banker.” She punched a few numbers on her telephone and started writing on the back of the travelers check. When she finished, there were four closely spaced lines of numbers on the back of the check and more on the front. I’ve cashed many travelers checks in Mexico, but I’ve never been subjected to that much scrutiny.

At last she gave me the check, my passport, and a printed slip. The slip had more numbers on it. Now I had the slip, my passport, the numbered and re-numbered travelers check, but still no pesos. She returned my steady gaze, except to look around me toward the front door.

No, I thought, it’s not Ma Barker. She thinks I’m Bonnie and she’s looking for Clyde who must be waiting for my signal to burst into the bank, tommy-gun blazing. I made the gesture with upturned hands and raised eyebrows meant to indicate, So, what do I do now? She stood up and motioned for me to follow her.

Back to the original teller we went. I had the feeling she wanted me to put the items in my hand into the metal scoop at the bottom of the glass partition separating the teller from me. I looked about pondering that the officer at the desk where I sat for so long was the only individual in the bank not in a glass cage. She looked very small, but she was obviously capable of taking care of herself. Maybe she was a black belt or one of those colors that mean her hands must be registered with the Federales as a lethal weapon.

Now in front of the teller again, I felt sure I would at last get my pesos and be off on my shopping spree.

Not yet.

The teller punched some buttons on her telephone and listened as she wrote more numbers on what was now a tattered travelers check. She, too, sized me up by my passport photo and frowned. I smiled at her. There was no show of reciprocated friendliness from inside the teller’s cage.

At long last, she riffled through a stack of multi-colored paper money and pushed it at me in the metal scoop.

I thanked her profusely. “Mucias Gracias,” I said.

“De Nada,” she answered, still not smiling. At last they let me go. Glancing at a clock as I made my way to the door,  I saw that my transaction had consumed 40 minutes of the banco’s and my time, just to cash one of those quick and easy travelers checks.

Leaving the bank, I walked four or five blocks up Victoria Street, stopping in first this shop, then another. I bought shirts for the grandsons, some wooden tops, five pens, each decorated with a yarn and feather God’s eye, and I bought Daughter Mandy a pair of orange and yellow sandals “Hecho en Mexico.”

I crossed the street beside the large cathedral Salvador told me about and started down the other side of the street toward the zocolo, stopping to take a picture of the church’s tall spire against the puffy clouds in a beautiful blue sky.

I had only gone a few steps, when someone touched my arm and said, “Excuse.” I turned around and saw my arm was being touched by the long arm of the law. A member of the policia had interrupted my shopping spree. 

How nice, I thought. Like so many policemen in Mexico, he was going to inquire if I needed directions. Something was wrong, though. This one didn’t seem the least bit friendly. He must be related to someone in the bank, and it runs in the family, I thought..

He rattled off some Spanish, and I picked up the word, “photograph.” As I always do when I don’t understand a word and I think someone is being helpful, I said, “Ah, si.”

His eyes grew wider, as he took a step nearer. The touch on my arm now turned into a grasp. Not menacing, but nonetheless a grasp.  I looked at it and said, “Que?” (What?)

After a few minutes of mutual misunderstanding, I realized he was asking me if I took his picture.

“No,” I answered, and shook my head. Then, I was astounded when he asked if I took a picture of the bank. (“Photograph banco?”)

“No, nada,” I answered as plainly as I could.

There were several more questions from him all of which I answered with “Mande?” or “Que?” Then I realized he was asking me if I didn’t take a picture of him or the bank, what was I shooting?

I searched my limited Spanish vocabulary for the word, “church,” but came up with nothing. I pointed at the cathedral. Taking out my camera once again, I pantomimed as I pointed to the top of the church’s spire. I said, “church” about five times.

Having shot pictures all over Mexico, I know the protocol: (1) If you want to photograph a man, his child or his burro, ask permission. Ladies don’t seem to mind. The man will probably ask you to pay. It is rude at that point not to cross his palm with a few pesos. (2) Never take a photo of an Indian. In fact, don’t even let an Indian know you have a camera on your person. The story about a guy being stoned to death because he took a photo of a local ethnic group may be a Mexican urban legend, but I never take the chance. (3) Buildings are fair game. Shoot away.

The policeman was finally satisfied I was not taking pictures of him or the bank for the purpose of sharing them with my bank-robbing comrades. We would just have to case the joint in person. Besides, the bank was three blocks away, and it wasn’t even close to the church steeple way up in the sky. I don’t know where the cop was when I snapped the picture. But should there be a next time, which I doubt, I will proceed with the picture-taking assuming the police are all Indians.

I made a quick decision then to take a bus back to Playa Los Cocos as fast as I could. I didn’t exactly feel welcome in Nayarit’s capital city.

I made my way to the bus station and was told the bus that passed by the Casa Mañana would leave in one hour. Fine. I forked over 13 pesos, much to the confusion of the ticket agent. He pointed to 30.00 on the ticket. I just as vehemently pointed to the 13.00. I’d had about enough of Tepic’s inhospitable attitude.

There was a boy standing at the ticket booth who, I was told, had spent a great deal of time in California. The boy pointed to the 13 and then to his watch. Whoops! The 13.00 meant 1:00 p.m., and the 30.00 was the amount of pesos the bus trip cost (about $2.73). I was a little embarrassed, but all three of us laughed.  Amazing! There were at least two people in Tepic who knew how to smile. I felt better.

I bought the ticket and took a seat in the street level waiting room. The buses left the station by an exit immediately adjacent to the place where I was sitting. It soon became clear I would die if I sat for an hour breathing their noxious exhaust fumes. I sought refuge on the upper level where the buses took on passengers.

I waded through my memory weeds trying to remember leaving from that very bus station for a trip to San Blas many years ago. The bus I was to take today was considerably bigger and in better shape than the bus I rode 21 years ago.

Remembering there were reserved seats on the primera classe buses, I mused they must have abandoned the assigned seating because no one paid any attention to it anyway. When we climbed aboard the bus that was to take us to San Blas in 1984, I remember there were two people sitting in the seats that had been assigned to my husband and me. We said nothing, and took seats in another part of the bus.

When at last the driver indicated the 2005 bus was about ready to take off, I climbed aboard and sat in the second seat on the right-hand side. Almost immediately, an older Mexican gentleman told me I was in his seat. He asked to see my ticket. Mind you, almost all this communication was accomplished using hand signals. I wasn’t sure what was going on.

“Ah, cinco,” he said, pointing to the number, 5, previously overlooked, on my ticket. He pointed to the seat across the aisle.

“Lo siento,” I apologized, and stepped across the aisle to take my correct seat. A Mexican lady of my approximate age and weight sat down beside me in the aisle seat. We were a bit crowded. Our passenger list now numbered six, but I knew we would pick up more who would hail the bus from the roadside.

We were soon out of town and back on the jungle curves where we were to spend the next two hours if we were lucky. If we were not lucky, we would either spend the time in the hospital or in the morgue.

The driver, obviously trying to break a land speed record, “put the pedal to the metal,” as we said in those carefree teen years. We zoomed through the jungle missing by mere inches vehicles coming from the opposite direction.

There were tiers of mountains, fading into blue haze on the horizon. There were banana fields, agave and tobacco fields and thick jungle foliage sprinkled with the intense colors of tropical flowers. Yes, it was beautiful. I half expected to see Sigourney Weaver at the edge of the jungle cooing to a mountain gorilla. I did spot a truly fine iguana that blinked its eye as the bus sped by.

I tried to think only of the breathtaking scenery, but mostly I was scared.

Suddenly feeling a little sick, I slid the window open next to my face and drew in the fresh air. About this time, the lady in the seat beside me drifted off to dreamland. Sharp curves to the right caused her sleeping body to lean into my terrified one, crushing me against the side of the bus. She neither knew nor cared that the Angel of Death awaited us at the apex of every hairpin curve. Had he not claimed many a life at a curve in this very road, now marked with a memorial cross? Had he not called home many at one time where the curve was marked with many crosses, no doubt done in by a bus crash?

My seatmate seemed perfectly comfortable as she took her afternoon siesta. The line was crossed when her head drifted toward my shoulder. She also neither knew nor cared that I have a life-long prejudice against being touched by strangers. The same prejudice had already been breached in Tepic by the cop.

She apparently wanted to cuddle  as she laid her head so close to my face, her hair tickled my neck. I jerked my shoulder upward, which brought her out of her stupor enough to lean in the other direction, thereby avoiding what could have been a nasty scene.

As it happened the bus arrived at my hotel in only one hour and 50 minutes, knocking off 10 minutes of our ETA and at least that many years off my life. I stumbled over the cobblestones in the Casa Mañana parking lot and climbed the steps to my room. Once there, I plopped down on my bed and was soon off to dreamland myself.

But before I dozed off, I promised myself I wouldn’t take a bus or any other form of transportation, including a burro, to visit Tepic again. Enough, as they say, is quite enough.


 

Addition to story as of  2014: In my usual manner, I spoke too soon. I have now been in Tepic many times with no harm befalling me at all. My favorite dentist practices there, and several friends live there. There is a beautiful new bus station at Tepic, and most of the buses no longer belch noxious fumes. I still love Casa Mañana,  and I have spent many wonderful times at the hotel. That area along the Pacific Coast is now called Riviera Nayarit, and the tourist office is marketing it as the next big tourist area of the many big tourist areas in Mexico. My friend, Lourdes, is now a grandmother, although she still looks as though she has not yet seen 45. She built a casita on a farm near the hotel, where she raises fruit trees and keeps horses. I have yet to see it, but I hope to visit again soon