A trip to the lake for a week in the summer was nothing like a trip to a foreign country for 10 days, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that by the time Maude and Hiram arrived in San Miguel de Allende they were at the very edge of the worst kind of distress they had felt since Maude had been in labor for nearly two days with Julie. The trip to Mexico was surpassing that experience by a very long shot.
Maude and Hiram had not been on an airplane since 9/11. Flying an unfamiliar experience for them to begin with, so the post 9/11 world was about as alien to them as anything they had ever encountered…or, for that matter, were about to encounter in Mexico.
While they had heard all about the beefed-up security on the evening news, and were long since accustomed to metal detectors since the rash of hijacks in the ‘70s, they were not prepared for the bizarre experience of having to take off their shoes so that they may be x-ray’d, nor the shocking sight of a security guard patting down an elderly woman. The whole scene, with the long, multiple switch-back lines, the number of security guards, people being patted down, and the intense scrutiny of carry-ons, struck Hiram as something out of one of those war movies depicting desperate refugees crossing the border to escape the mayhem, starvation and holocaust behind them.
Fortunately, David and Julie gave them instructions to wear their loafers instead of their lace-up shoes, and to switch from a bottle to tablets of Pepto Bismal, something which Hiram typically carried in his coat pocket when he had to venture beyond his usual routine.
There was a little bit of an argument about Hiram’s pocket knife, another item he carried on his person when traveling away from home, but everyone finally got Hiram to agree to pack it in his checked luggage (though why Hiram carried a pocket knife was a mystery. “Habit,” he’d say. No one had ever seen him use it, so no one knew where the habit came from).
The flight was like nothing Hiram and Maude remembered from the last time they were on a airplane. When their lunch arrived, they looked at each others selection and sat for a minute unknowing how to react to such a small, cold tray of what could not possibly be called a meal. The kids had warned them about this, but for whatever reason they ignored their recommendation to bring along their own sandwiches. When Hiram was ready for a nap, he was flabbergasted to learn he had to pay for a pillow and a blanket. Hiram had reached the end of his patience with the entire business with this news. He leveled one of his stern looks at the stewardess, the one he had been giving Maude on regular occasion these past few days. His look was returned by the woman with a look of pity, but mostly confusion. As far as she ever knew, added benefits, like blankets and pillows, always came with a fee.
“The only ‘benefit,’” Hiram grumbled to Maude with another one of his stern looks, “to any of this absurd situation is the limit of the number of suitcases you can check on-board nowadays.”
While the fees for checking more than one suitcase per person upset him as much as learning that pillows and blankets came at a cost, it was good to know he would not be traversing half the globe with several suitcases, garment bags and whatever the hell else Maude deemed necessary, as she typically did for the annual trip to the lake. Maude begged him to pay for at least one additional bag, but he refused. She spent every day between the afternoon she booked the trip to the morning they left in near tears trying to figure out how to pare her list of absolute essentials down to fit in just three bags that weighed under 25 pounds each between the two of them.
The flight to Los Angeles, the hold-over there with dinner in an over-priced chain outfit, and then the red-eye to Mexico City was exhausting. They both were in desperate need of a long bath and a comfortable bed, so it was a small miracle Maude had enough wits about her to come up with a plan to tag along with a tourist group in order to make it through customs. Taken as part of the group, Hiram and Maude were moved through with little bother. Thank God for small wonders, Hiram thought. Now. For the bus to San Miguel.
The rental agency sent very explicit instructions how to get from the airport in Mexico City to the house in San Miguel: “Once you have exited the Customs holding area, walk straight forward through the terminal until you see a check-in stand for rental cars (the sign will read “Alamo Coches de Alquiler”). Turn 90-degrees to your right and walk outside the terminal through the sliding glass doors. From there, look to your right, approximately 30-degres, or the 2:00 position. Ahead is the bus terminal…” It reminded Hiram of treasure hunts his aunts used to make for him as a young boy. All the details were laid specifically out before him, and played out exactly as described. He found this a tremendous comfort.
The bus from Mexico City to San Miguel was also an easier part of the trip, at least for Hiram. They were relieved to learn that, even though Maude’s Mexico! On and Budget! and Fodors reassured its readers that many Mexicans speak English, especially in the more prominent tourist areas and airports, many of the people the Rhodes encountered did, in fact, speak English, and very well.
There was slight confusion at the bus ticket counter regarding their pre-purchased tickets that became a far more dramatic a situation than Hiram thought necessary (the computer didn’t pull up the reservation as promptly as a clerk would have liked it, which frustrated the young man quiet a lot) but other than that, the several-hour trip was amazingly uneventful. Except maybe for the speed at which the driver hurled them along their way. Regardless, Hiram was so deeply exhausted, he fell asleep quickly; the rocking of the coach luring him to sleep like a gently swaying hammock.
If Hiram could be described as simply impatient and in a foul mood by the time they landed in Mexico City, then Maude would be considered an outright wreck. Every minute was fraught with chaos and the unknown. She felt as though she was having one long, non-stop heart attack. The limit of just three bags, the way they were rushed along in the airport in Los Angeles and Mexico City without a single moment to gather their wits (only to end up sitting around the boarding area with nothing to do for over an hour), the absurdly small meals on the plane, the additional fees for just about everything, and embarrassing inspections that made her feel somewhat violated, were all just too, too much. Then, once in Mexico, all the new things she’d never encountered before…dense smog, dirty, narrow, congested, noisy streets, hot sun, old dilapidated buildings shoved together cheek-to-jowl, choking the already narrow, pot-holed streets, and throngs of people who looked as unfamiliar as she ever considered a fellow human being to look…all of it was twisting her nerves into giant knots of pure, unadulterated anxiety.
On the bus ride to San Miguel, as Hiram somehow miraculously slept, she clawed her fingers into the arm rests, desperately willing the driver to slow down. Her mind was whirling as she tried to come to grips with all that had transpired since leaving their comfortable, cozy home. As the scenery flew by in a blur of barren landscape, broken only by the occasional dwellings that could only be described as a kind of permanent Hoover-towns, Maude started to wonder why Hiram wanted to retire in the first place. He could have just worked until very old age, or until illness forced the issue. Then he could have sat around all he wanted, for all she cared.
But he did retire, before age or illness rendered him unable, and now, as a result of his … whatever…lack of interest… she was in one of the most stressful predicaments in her whole life. You bet this ranks higher than the two days she suffered through giving birth to Julie. What in God’s-Green-Earth was she thinking when she booked this trip? She closed her eyes, took in those long breaths she was coached to do during childbirth, and tried to calm her nerves. Maude did not notice Hiram had awakened and was watching her.
For someone who had appeared so cheerful at having put this absurdity together, Hiram thought she looked strangely distressed. It irritated him. She was not at all accustomed to, nor liked these unusual sorts of things any more than he. There may be a great number of mysteries about his wife that Hiram may never figure out, but of this, he was sure: She hated this kind of nonsense as much as he did. He began to feel a certain gratification at seeing how anxious she was. He hoped she had learned her lesson. He settled back into his seat, closed his eyes again and began thinking of how relieved he will be 10 days from now to be on the return trip home.
2 | SMdA
San Miguel de Allende. Well, now that they were here, which felt and looked as strange as Hiram knew it would, he asked himself the same question. Why are we doing this? He sighed and declared,
“Ok, let’s just get to this house.”
A man, obviously a native of the area, standing near him drew his attention. The man was looking at him with kindly, yet amused look. He remarked in English, “What’s the hurry?” It was the most curious question Hiram had ever heard.
According to the instructions that were sent by the agency, they were to take a taxi. The instructions provided how much to pay in US dollars, even though Hiram had made the effort to go to the bank before heading out on their trip to exchange dollars for pesos (this was not an easy task, as it turned out. Hiram had to drive into the city to one of those national banks to make the exchange). He was not about to try to tell the driver their destination, since he knew he could not pronounce anything in Spanish, let alone actually read it, so he simply showed the driver the address on the instruction sheet.
As the driver made a mad, reckless dash out into congested traffic, Maude sat quietly, mostly out of sheer emotional exhaustion, staring blankly out the window. Hiram did pretty much the same, except this time he was awake, so he noticed the passing scenes: Long stretches of adobe walls, one block after the other. The hillsides that rose to one side and then a quick glimpse down a long, straight and broad boulevard of what was probably the river valley he read about in his National Geographic (this time, he read the damn thing). There was a seemingly endless stream of red tiled roofs, and the number of churches and belfrys was remarkable. He had read in his National Geographic that this was a deeply devoted Catholic culture, but the number of church steeples and belfrys they passed on their drive was astounding.
The keys to the walled-in “hacienda” with the “absolutely stunning” courtyard were under a pot of geraniums at the front door. Not exactly secure, Hiram thought. They walked in and halted almost immediately. The windows were curtained with heavy drapes, so they couldn’t make out anything of the features when they first entered. It was surprisingly cool inside compared to the heat outside, and the little bit of light coming in from the open door revealed flooring of extremely large clay tile in a sort of odd, geometric shape. Maude made her way to the first set of heavy drapes and pulled them back in two long pulls on the cord. A cloud of dust billowed out through the wide swath of sun that came pouring into the room like a gush of water through a broken dam. The sunlight was in such stark contrast to the darkness of the large room, it was as if a wall of pure light had cut the place in two.
“Better open all the curtains,” he ventured. She agreed.
The place was enormous. The walls were white washed adobe…. (AUTHOR’S NOTE: I am still compiling a detailed description of the place by reading through letters my folks sent and talking to friends and family who visited them when they were house-sitting. What I know so far is that it was “palatial,” typically Mexican colonial, but strangely featured a lot of African masks, and that it had a fantastic courtyard or backyard tended by a regular gardener).
Maude and Hiram selected one of the bedrooms that Maude wisely noted would not face the afternoon sun and therefore might be a cooler spot to sleep at night. All the rooms were so large it was hard to tell which one was the master bedroom.
“I’m hungry,” he declared.
“As am I,” replied Maude.
“Do those instructions say where the grocery store is?”
“Well, not exactly,” Maude ventured. “It said something about a market place and also listed a number of places where you can buy vegetables, meat, fish and even a liquor store, but…”
“Well, I’ve read in our books that you have to be careful. They don’t have the same food standards as we do and it’s easy to get ‘Montezuma’s Revenge,’ even at the resorts.”
“Well, from what I understand, food poisoning, I think.”
Maude had reassured Hiram that staying in a private home would be, “in every way,” as she emphatically put it time, like staying at the Julie’s in-law’s lake house. Hiram never recalled, in the twelve or so summers at the lake house, anyone ever being brought down with food poisoning. He was becoming very practiced a leveling his stern looks at his wife. It may have been confusing to the stewardess, but Maude knew exactly his meaning. She turned away and headed back to the living room.
Just at that moment the doorbell rang. They both shot a look at one another, as if expecting the other to suddenly declare that they had invited a stranger they just met on the plane or the bus to the house. The bell rang again seconds later, jolting them out of their mutually accusing confusion. Hiram answered the door. An abundantly full figure of a smiling woman, accompanied by a much smaller, darker woman was standing on the stoop.
“ꜟHola, Señor Rhodes?! I am Sra. Alarcon de Sandoval!”
“Yes,” Hiram faltered, “how do you do, I’m Hiram Rhodes.”
Sra. Alarcon de Sandoval giggled, “Sí, yes, I know! May we come in?”
The women’s visits were unexpected, but then, Hiram was accustomed to unexpected visits from firm clients. He had long ago learned to make adjustments accordingly. Maude, on the other hand, was still standing like a stunned bird that had just flown into a plate glass window.
As the two strangers came into the house, the larger one walked over to Maude and re-introduced herself, while the other made a bee-line to the back of the house. Maude shook the woman’s hand and tried to repeat Sra. Alarcon de Sandoval’s name.
“Oh, that’s OK. You may call me Mrs. Sandoval. Or, Erica, my first name. Most of my Norte Americano clients do. It’s easier. My husband’s Guatemalan and they have the longest last names, so Sandoval is…”
“Erica?” Hiram sounded surprised.
“Yes. My great grandmother on my mother’s side was Swedish. I’m named for her.”
“Hiram and I also have family names,” Maude suddenly blurted, “How nice!”
Sra. Erica Alarcon de Sandoval smiled a broad, generous smile at Maude.
At that moment, the other woman came back into the room with what looked like a bundle of sheets, and then disappeared through an interior door just off the entry that Hiram hadn’t noticed earlier. He could hear the unmistakable sound of footfalls on creaky wood stairs.
“That is Ynez. Señorita Ynez Gutierrez. She is Señor/Sra. Edwards’ housekeeper.”
“Oh, yes, the owners! They live in Chicago, right? No, Canada! Toronto I think…” Maude was so excited to have some things actually fall back into place in her brain, and because she was so exhausted, and still a bit uneasy, she was overreacting.
“Yes, and I am their property manager. I have come to make sure you are comfortably settled, introduce you to Ynez, who I must tell you does not speak any English except for a few words, and see if there are any questions I can answer. I guess you received the information about the house, or else you would not have been able to get inside,” Sra. Sandoval continued.
“Yes, yes…yes, thank you, they have been most helpful!” Maude said again with just a bit too much effort to be happy.
Hiram never imagined he would feel such a relief at meeting not only another Mexican who spoke English (did she say her husband was Guatemalan, or that she was?), but a kind human being that had come to their rescue. He hoped this woman would check in on them every day.
“How did you know we’d arrived already?” Hiram asked. Maude nodded excitedly.
“An educated guess, as you say. I know there are only so many buses arriving from the airport in Cuiadad de Mexico, and generally speaking, most Norte Americanos arrive on one of three of them. I planned on stopping by after each one until at last I met you.”
Hiram was impressed with this woman’s professionalism. “You provide this service for all your clients, then?”
Sra. Sandoval giggled again, “Only for those that pay the appropriate fee, of course! Senor y Sra. Edwards insist that anyone leasing their home be treated as their personal guests!”
This statement prompted Hiram into the sudden urge to review the breakdown of the cost to lease this house. Certainly the owners were passing this fee onto the renters, but he didn’t recall seeing anything like a service fee on the invoice Maude eventually let him review. On second thought, he mused, who actually cares. A penny wise, a pound foolish, etc. etc. Some things are, quite simply, money well spent.
Sra. Sandoval prompted, “I know you are just arrived, but are there any questions you might have?”
“Oh, many,” Maude jumped right in. “I’d love it if you would give us a tour of the house and where everything is. We’re not accustomed to travel, so strange places are, well, strange!” She let out a long, uncomfortable laugh.
“And, we’re hungry,” Hiram added.
“Of course you are!” Sra. Sandoval exclaimed. “Let us take a quick tour of the house and then I would be happy to take you to the nearest restaurant. It is very good, and easy to walk to, and very popular with other Norte Americanos,” she looked at her watch, “in fact, if we leave soon, I’ll be able to introduce you to some of the people who live here year-round, as you say. They usually are there about this time of day.”
During their orientation of the house, Maude and Hiram learned about who built the place in the 1930s (a German who was rumored to be a Nazi, though Sra. Sandoval disclaimed this to be nothing but gossip, just because the man was German and it was the ‘30s). It was sold a number of times to various people, primarily from Mexico City and “Norte Americana,” as she continuously referred to the U.S and Canada, and once to a Japanese gentleman during the late ‘80s.
While they moved from room to room, learning about all the odd things that hung on the walls, such as all the tribal African masks, which seemed odd, but happened to be a passion of the current owners, Hiram would glimpse sight of Ynez, always with some sort of towel, blanket, pillow, sheet, broom or rag in hand. At one point, they all nearly collided as Maude, Hiram and Sra. Sandoval came out of one room just as Ynez came out of the other across the hall. Ynez shyly said, “Oh, I’m very sorry,” remarkably without a discernible accent.
“Ynez will be here every few days to clean and do laundry, so don’t worry at all about cleaning or whatever, as I’m sure you read in the information we sent you. You are here to enjoy yourselves! I’d take you down to the basement to show you the laundry, it’s all very new, but it’s not necessary. Ynez is fantastic. I mentioned she doesn’t speak English? (Hiram and Maude mumbled acknowledgement), Well, she is really shy, so don’t worry about making conversation. She’s happier if she’s left alone to just go about her business. Did I mention she is the gardener’s niece? (Hiram and Maude mumbled a “no”). Oh, well, you’ll meet him in the next day or so. He is quite good, too. His name is Senor Lorenzo Veras. Very nice man. He does speak English, by the way. He’s been tending gardens in haciendas of Norte Americano and Europa ex-patriots, as you say, all over San Miguel for many years. San Miguel has always been a very sought after destination for people from all over the world.”
“Yes! So I have read in all my books!” again, Maude, with the too much eagerness.
Hiram was lost in thought about nothing much in particular as they wandered from room, to hall, to another room, to another hall, up and down stairs, etc., as Maude made little excited sides about how relieved she was to find that the house actually had functioning toilets, running hot/cold water, electricity, a television and modern appliances in the kitchen—even though the information outlined all these things as part of the house’s amenities—it was like discovering how many people actually spoke English at the airport and bus depot, she was relieved to see all of these things for herself.
They followed Sra. Sandoval around the corner of an outer hall between the dining room and the living room and, as Sra. Sandoval opened a set of French doors, Hiram snapped out of his withdrawn state. They were escorted onto probably the most stunning courtyard he had ever seen in the pictorials of his National Geographics.
Hiram looked around at the lush flowering shrub, cascading over the walls of the courtyard in all the colors of the most brilliant sunset he had ever seen. A large, burbling fountain sat in the middle of the perfectly laid-out painted and polished clay tile patio. An easy arrangement of a rough-wood outdoor dining table was situated alongside rod-iron lounge chairs with plush cushions near an overarching tree dripping with garlands of lavender blossoms. In a far corner were two chairs and a small table painted with bright flowers. Scattered all about were gigantic clay planters overflowing with the most spectacular array of the real thing; flowers of all sorts of shapes, sizes and colors.
However, it was the unimpeded view to one side of the courtyard that held them all captive; a panorama that reached over the red-tiled roofs and white-washed walls of the city below, with a vista reaching towards a vast, serene plain dotted with various trees, fields of bright yellow, and patches of nondescript but nevertheless obvious harvest-worthy green that gracefully faded into the hazy profile of a distant mountain range.
“Oh, my,” Maude finally said.
Sra. Sandoval knew that a sunny and well-appointed courtyard with such a view was what those who came to any colonial Mexican city from wherever in the world were hoping to find, like some sort of lost treasure of Spanish gold. And this courtyard was right on the money, as the Norte Americanos say. Whatever the Rhodes’ reservations were, which was something she sensed about the two of them the minute she met them, she knew that saving this elegant courtyard for last thing on the tour would guarantee they would be back again. The Edwards would be so pleased with her.
“Now. Are you still hungry?” Sra. Sandoval abruptly asked.
Hiram and Maude reluctantly broke their reverie to reply.
“Yes, of course. Where did you say that restaurant was?” Maude asked.
“I’ll take you, of course.”
She turned toward the house and called something out in Spanish. She paused, turned back to Maude and Hiram with a half-smile, then turned back to the house again and shouted, “Ynez !”
The young woman came back into view, again with an armful of linens. Sra. Sandoval gave Ynez what was unmistakably an instruction and then pulled her wallet out of her purse, pulled out three bills and handed them to her. Ynez nodded and then disappeared back into the depths of the house.
“Come,” Sra. Sandoval said gesturing to Maude and Hiram, “Ynez will lock up when she’s finished.”
Off in a corner of the courtyard, atop a lantern that lit the pathway on that side of the hacienda, sat Red Bird, fascinated with the sudden appearance of activity of people after such a long, long time of having the place all to himself.