A Different View

Estancia seemed happy, sitting cross-legged on the mattress covering the landing of the unfinished top floor, as she watched the lake in the distance with the mobile phone in her hand. I imagined she waited for her friend to answer a text. I had seen the teen before from my second-story deck as she sat across the alley on her family’s roof. We all lived in a barrio sloping down toward the lake to the south of us. My house is situated a bit higher up than Esi’s.

She intrigued me, as well as the collection of items on her home’s roof. I named her Estancia, which means ranch or dwelling. I suspect such a substantial name would probably be shortened to Esi, or something similar. If only her little brother wouldn’t cry so much, Esi would be happier. She was supposed to look after him while her mother was busy with house cleanup on the ground floor with abuela, Esi’s grandmother. She sighed, and I saw her put down her mobile and pick up the baby from his playpen next to her. He stopped his fake crying abruptly. I named him Coco.

Baby Coco slumped against her, falling asleep on her lap. Esi picked up her phone and continued the chat with her friend. This usually was a lovely time of the day after the chores were done and all cooking and eating over with. Her siblings played in the alley with their friends. her brother called Pepe and her sister Rosi. Her father was probably snoozing in front of the TV on the ground floor, while her Abuelo was rummaging around in the small backyard.

Later, her family would come up to the roof, play some games, or just chat until the stars twinkled after dark. I saw the parents and their kids there most nights and observed the routine, while I enjoyed my evening meal and a glass of wine on my balcony, all of us overlooking the neighborhood with the lake in the distance until the brilliant sunset faded and the sun slid below the horizon into the dark. The many birds, darting and weaving around us to catch their last flying insects of the day lent a vibration of energy to the last hour of daylight. I love the many varieties, especially the swallows with their antics.

Esi’s papi must have construction skills, although the two-brick-high ledge around the roof’s edge fell far short of a proper four-foot half-wall for a third-floor mirador, a roof terrace. Surely her papi or Abuelo plans to finish the walls with more bricks at some point. Papi likely ran out of money, and Granddad had none either. That didn’t mean they couldn’t already use the roof as it is. I imagined Papi had told the children not to be on the roof without an adult, because I never saw them by themselves, except for Esi, who was already a teen and had grown into a responsible young woman.

She was put to work mothering her younger siblings, like in most child-rich families. Pressed at age seven to hold baby Pepe while Mami had to run out to buy milk in the tienda—the tiny convenience store across the road—her training took place gradually and naturally. Mami shopped for a couple of things needed most at that moment and left home, sometimes a few times on the same day. Money was always tight. Such was life.

When the COVID-9 pandemic closed restaurants and cancelled all cultural events, the circumstances of Esi’s family deteriorated as tourism slowed down to a crawl and her father lost his job. In her grandparents’ house, the cramped rooms now had to shelter all eight of them. That’s why the roof was a refuge and much-needed extra space.

Esi’s granddad was a gardener at a villa in the village, its wealthy owners from the city staying weekends. Most days, Esi’s papi now helped Abuelo in the garden. That large estate must have provided him with the discarded items stored on the roof. I imagined how that eye-catching collection of artifacts behind Esi on the roof had grown from humble beginnings, and wondered what it was meant to become.

On one special day, Papi started building something from the collected items, as his family watched: the sun-bleached boards, the large lid of a septic tank, and fallen trees reduced to sturdy poles—it all was put to good use. I feared for all those people on a roof without railings. What were they thinking? I realized I didn’t know the emergency number if someone would fall off to the ground below from the third story. But my Canadian preoccupation with safety is different from theirs: there’s none.

I watched with a full view of the north and west side of Esi’s house, intrigued by what was unfolding in front of me. Papi first erected four corner pillars and somehow attached the wooden poles to the base of the roof, the two-brick-high edge. For the north wall, he strung up a canvas vertically between those poles but it only reached partially. He lined up the planks of various widths and leftover pieces of discolored particleboard to finish the wall and made them stay with a nail pounded in here and there.

The west wall was another piece of art. Papi attached a pole horizontally from one corner pole to the other and hung three bicycle frames from the overhead pole. Somebody—probably Mami—had filled up the old playpen with Mami’s white dressmaking mannequin, old magazines, and a bunch of other things. Papi placed that solid barrier underneath the bike frames. The packed playpen and the bike frames securely blocked people from falling over the roof rim. But those items together formed only half of the length that was needed. In the middle of that side sat the concrete stairway leading to the floor below.

Papi wasn’t finished yet. To complete that side, he hung an old quilt from the overhead pole to protect the stairs from wind and rain. Anybody on the stairs would already stand below the two-brick edge, so would be safe from falling off the roof. To extend the “wall,” Papi attached a discoloured sky-blue solar blanket to the overhead horizontal pole next to the quilt, reaching from the landing to the corner of the house. That completed the west “wall.”

The south side stayed wall-free. The neighboring houses on their south side were lower down in elevation, so weren’t blocking any views. I realized Papi had created a closed-in private space with a lake view—a mirador—as large as the roof’s surface.

To top it all off, Papi somehow got hold of a couple of waved asphalt roof panels and maneuvered those horizontally across the two sets of corner poles. Voilà! The rooftop patio was now covered against the harsh sun and the rain. Esi’s mami immediately took possession of it by stringing many clotheslines between the poles for drying her daily laundry.

Since then I only saw glimpses of the family members through gaps in the boards and wall hangings. The best thing for the family was that Esi’s grandparents didn’t need to be grumpy anymore with a whole extra floor added for their extra occupants.

The family spent much time on the mirador and even slept there on some nights. They played games together as a family, and sometimes they barbequed. Their presence had replaced my peace and privacy. Oh, and there was their dog, a dachshund I called Daki. While the family ate and did their chores on the ground floor, the dog went crazy in their absence at night, alone on the roof. It warned his masters of every dog and person walking below in the alley, and there were many. I talked to him across the alley to calm him down. Sometimes that worked. I never saw Daki out in the streets, so the roof was his domain, safe enough for the dog and not unusual in México. I saw Esi’s papi clean the roof regularly.

Frankly, the whole construction on the roof was ramshackle construction. One good storm would send every part flying. From where I sat, it looked like hippies had moved into the elevated beach hut across from me. The worst of it, this “hut” was smack-dab in the middle of my previously unspoiled vistas of the town and Lake Chapala, the largest lake in México.

Although I’m a rather wealthy guest in Mexican eyes (and I do feel fortunate) and should behave like one—generous and accommodating to the locals—I cannot get over the loss of my evening delight. I cannot simply accept the hovel and search for solutions. Sad that my lake view is wrecked, I considered sponsoring my beach-hut family for some real construction materials.

To the right of me, the owner of the empty lot began building his second-story home adjacent to mine during my last absence. The house was going up rapidly. By the time the hovel across from me was up, the next-door brick wall had reached my view of the sunsets, gardens and palm trees. One evening, I witnessed the men covering my view, brick by brick under my protests. They laughed awkwardly. I began then to grieve my losses.

I’m a good neighbor. I gladly pick up the garbage in my street, a lost art in this society of takeout and street food. I chat with people and everybody knows me. I buy the fresh, homemade buns from the boy up the street. My heart breaks for the many neglected and hungry dogs roaming the streets, “free” but often not treated well. I daily fed my neighbor’s dogs left out to fend for themselves whenever they show up.

I discovered no solutions for my wrecked views, or for the dogs, as life doesn’t work that way. We will see what happens when I return next winter, I told myself. Things might resolve in six months. At a distance from the immediate problems, in cool and organized Canada, I reflected on my options.

As many North Americans moved south, the Mexican situation opened up. The pandemic had accelerated many retirements. The acceptance of working from home online created the freedom to stay south longer. Both changes in circumstances created a lively uptick in real estate trade in México and unreasonable price hikes in Canada. A realtor friend had previewed my home and made suggestions for some repairs, which I followed. He sold my home within three days before I returned to México. It’s not my nature to walk away from problems, and I dig in. However, this time I learned to admit defeat. Not able or willing to stay away from warm and easy living, I now rent a home, with a view.

Johanna lives in Kelowna B.C., Canada, and Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico. She is an immigrant from The Netherlands (1982) and a Canadian citizen. After acquiring technical skills on the job for many years as a child protection social worker, she discovered her love of writing short stories in her late fifties. She attended UBS online EdX courses with Nancy Lee and Annabel Lyon, participated in writer’s conferences and workshops, and completed in-class intensive summer courses at UBC with Laisha Rosnau.

 Some of her stories made the shortlist in contests (Glimmer Train, CBC/UBC Short Story Contest with Fort Good Hope) and more recently, she was the winner of the Wine Country Writers’ Festival story contest – nonfiction 2021 with Prejudice and Necrotizing Enterocolitis.

Several stories were published locally and online (Maple Tree Literary Supplement; Sage-ing—magazine for aging with grace, with Birth of a Book.

 Johanna self-published two novels and completed three more novels, two of which were accepted by Histria Books – Addison & Highsmith of Las Vegas, member of IPG Independent Publishers Guild.

On Thin Ice, (2012). e-Book. Bookbaby

Guardians’ Betrayal (2018). E-book and paperback. Bookbaby 

Between A Rock And A Hard Place (Dec 1, 2021 hardcover, August 1, 2023, paperback & e-book). Histria Books.

Murder In The Strata (2017), long-listed for the Three-Day-Novel Writing contest in BC, unpublished.

The Imposter (scheduled for January 16, 2024). Hardcover. Histria Books.

Johanna’s blog: https://babyboomerwrites.wordpress.com


For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com


Johanna van Zanten
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