Treats For An Ex-Pat In Chapala
By Carol L. Bowman
(Ed. Note: Our apologies for not including this highly topical article in an earlier issue.)
The harvest moon rose over Lake Chapala as a swarm of squealing munchkins pushed the buzzer with relentless eagerness. The bell ringers must have been told that houses with glowing outside lights signaled that a warm welcome awaited. I peeked out through the slated blinds to the wrought-iron gate. These novice participants wore dribs of lipstick, rouged cheeks and dark circles drawn on their faces with their mother’s eyeliner. No lavish costumes here. They carried pillowcases, plastic bags and other improvised candy totes. A new game for these Mexican kids, they were just catching on to this October 31st holiday. Innocence prevailed, as they had no idea what ‘trick’ meant. They practiced the only rules they knew: take to the cobblestone streets, look for the houses where foreigners live, ring the buzzer and grab as many goodies as possible. The simplicity made me smile.
Halloween in Mexico; but this date also marked the anniversary of a life-altering decision. Ten years ago this night, my husband and I pulled into the flagstone driveway of our newly purchased, totally empty, house in Chapala, Mexico. Gone was everything Pennsylvanian. We looked like tourists. We felt like scared children, waiting for the ghouls to jump out from the echoing brick and adobe walls. We slept on cold, ceramic tiles, wondering when the tractor trailer full of our comfortable ‘stuff’ would make it through customs at the Mexican border. We clung to each other during those first sleepless nights asdreaded scorpions scooted across the bare floors. Shocked by our new moniker ‘expat,’ our ghostly pallor mirrored the fact that we had retired−here. Egad! What had we done? The incessant buzzer interrupted my thoughts.
I carried a basket filled with individually wrapped candy and approached the hoard hanging onto the iron bars of our front gate. Wanting fingers stretched through the narrow spaces and snatched fists full of chocolate bars. I realized that unless I handed the candy out, the tub of sweets would be emptied by this first batch of ‘treaters.’ Teenage mothers, carrying babies, also poked free hands into the wicker container, craving a dulce to soothe their hard lives.
The throng shouted a well-rehearsed ‘Happy Halloween’ before continuing on to the next house with beckoning lights. They jammed into the back of a battered pick-up truck, clutching their bags, wearing enormous smiles and offering a chorus of gracias. Inevitable sugar-highs trailed after them.
The next day, November 1st, Mexicans would start preparations to celebrate Day of the Dead. I tried to get a head-start by lighting candles on the Dia de los Muertos altar I had assembled on the long table fronting the wall of glass doors. I had come to cherish this Mexican custom of creating a special place to honor friends and relatives who have passed, as much as those children making memories of an October American holiday.
Talavera pottery crosses, candlesticks graced by calaveras (skulls) and vivid orange and yellow cempesuchiles (marigolds) to brighten the way for the spirits to return provided a backdrop for the photos of my loved ones. It had been a year of losses. The crowded altar begged for a respite.
The daybreak sun silhouetted the steep mountainside of the Sierra Madre range that rises behind our house and pierced a seamless expanse of steel blue. Against this back-drop, Mexican families trudged through the silent streets, on their way to the local pantheon (cemetery) to prepare for the all-night vigil by the gravesites. Some pushed wheelbarrows loaded down with offerings of flowers, candles and favorite foods of those to be remembered, while others carried meager, but meaningful mementos to celebrate and reflect on the lives of their deceased relatives.
It was a day of contemplation for me, too. I plunged into the cold waters of our lap pool, sandwiched between the main house and the casita’s flower box, bursting with purple and fuchsia bougainvillea blooms. Face down, stroking through the water, competing thoughts raced through my head. My mind floated back through the past ten years of the ordeals and triumphs we had experienced while embracing a foreign culture and language.
I remembered my first attempt at Mexican grocery shopping, and recalled returning home from that initial encounter at the Mexican Supermarket giant, Soriana, in tears. With just two half-empty bags, I swore to my husband that we were going to starve. Nothing felt familiar, I couldn’t figure out the meat cuts, understand the signage, or be sure what I was buying. I felt like a food shopping cripple.
Then I realized that just this past week, I had flitted between the local family-owned store, El Torito and the Mexican high-end chain, Mega like a free bird, shopped at the butcher and meandered through the outdoor fruit and vegetable market. The vendors knew my name, we chatted in Spanish about their family, the weather, the cost of produce. It had become so easy, done in a language not my own, in a country not my native land, but in a foreign culture that I had assimilated into. Like the Mexican Halloweeners, I had learned the rules of a new game and was reaping the treats from playing it like a local. Gone was everything Pennsylvanian and I rejoiced in the simplicity of living the Mexican life.