The swishing of the street cleaners’ broom wakes me from a light sleep. It is dark. Barking dogs wake up the doves near the terrace that roost for the night in a tree branch next to the skylight above my bed. They seem startled awake, their coos more like the dislodging of seed rather than birdsong. Beyond the hills, morning has begun to settle in, but in town, the rooftops and trees allow the cobalt darkness to nestle for just a bit longer and the garden doves still sleep, dreaming of whatever dove’s dream of. It is like a chain reaction - the broom, the dogs, the doves – all of us unintentionally moved somehow (except for the dust) from one place to the next and with the single, fleeting swish of a man’s broom, we are swept into another day.
Bare-faced and half asleep, I shuffle onto the terrace with the first golden light. The children, as usual, have beaten me. Already, a few of them are in the park, sporadic bursts of energy flashing across swings and slides. “I’m going to hug everybody today!” I hear one child yell. Good for you, I think. Only a kid would make such an insane proclamation, especially so early in the morning. I can’t think of a single instance where shortly after the whiplash of dawn, I’ve wanted to hug everyone. Particularly strangers. No rational adult would utter such words, especially before coffee is brewed and drunk. Maybe this kid already had his sippy cup of coffee y leche. In any case, I have to admit, it’s not a bad idea. Better to greet a new morning with a gentle embrace than being spanked into manana by the course bristles of a broom.
Good coffee, sun and birdsong have erased my abrupt beginnings. My rental casita and the surrounding trees feel like a veritable mother ship for myriad birds and winged mammals. Last night, at dusk, the “mondo bats,” as I call them, due to their astonishingly vast wingspan, burst from a massive palm and the neighboring belfry of the Parroquia, filling the night air with high pitched squeaks as they darted around the lampposts lining Calle Aldama. This morning, however, the music on the wing is of a far lighter spirit. One songbird sounds like a toy horn on a child’s tricycle, another like a harmonica. A red bird chirps something of a cross between a duck whistle and a fart in a bathtub, while another surely believes it was Maria Callas in a past life. I can’t help smiling. Early morning and I’m being serenaded by a feathered circus; the greatest hits of a horn tooting, harmonica playing, bathtub farting, cross-dressing birds’ choir.
The jacarandas just off the terrace are filling in and soon, they will explode with purple blossoms, hiding the dozens of nests that dot the limbs like a display of hand woven baskets. It’s been unseasonably hot and the potted geraniums and poinsettias are drooping, even the usually hardy cacti are slumping. Young boys are playing basketball in their red and black uniforms. The loudspeaker in the park begins the daily rehash of music, a rather odd mix of one-world “hits.” The reverberation of a hummingbird’s wings next to the yellow trumpet blossom is muted by the unexpected jolt of a Souza march. It’s followed by a calmer tune from the soundtrack of Cinema Paradiso. This in turn melds into a Mexican folk ballad, which not so eloquently trips like a woman in bad heels across these hard cobbled streets, into a Spanish version of Neal Diamond’s 1970 hit, Cracklin’ Rosie, only slightly less frightening in Spanish. Clothes, hung out to dry only a short time earlier, are already stiff and beginning to collect dust.
In a cooler corner of the stucco wall that drops down some twenty feet to the abandoned lot next door, and where a colonial ruin was reduced to further ruin to make way for Mexican Modern, a praying mantis does a lime green jig up the wall, back and forth, large black eyes intent on the minutia I cannot see or anticipate, lurking in and around a spider’s web. From the park I hear, “My name is Lola, just in case you wanted to know!” I glance over my shoulder at a tiny blond hanging upside down on the jungle gym. Below her is a little dark-headed boy, his shiny black hair all I see as he scrambles off the gym. Lola and the Praying Mantis. A good title, I think. For what, I don’t know.
Down on Reloj I stop for my weekly sinful indulgences at what the locals call The Blue Door Bakery. Family run, it is a sweet-lover’s heaven; warm, feather-light donuts sprinkled in sugar, cinnamon buns, cream-filled pastries, muffins, sugar cookies, churros, all vying for my attention. “Calm down,” I say, without moving my lips, “you’ll all get a turn, mi pequeno angeles.” I am not the only nut-filled ventriloquist present. Like kids in a candy store, adults here seem to walk around mumbling to themselves, smiling like we’re getting away with something, thankful for the steamy bakery air, tantalizing smells from our youth, and the very idea that we can buy and eat whatever we damn well please, without having to ask, “con permiso.” Sweet.
With my magic tongs, I fill an aluminum tray with an artistic mound of melt-in-your-mouth airy sugared fluff and bring it to the counter. It is gently placed in a brown paper bag, warm butter and oil already seeping through the paper. I carry it, like so many loose eggs, to the cashier. How, I wonder, can anyone resist a bag filled with a taste of heaven, or as Dutch friend used to say when describing something incredibly delicious, “it tastes like angels pissing on your tongue.” I pay my fifteen pesos and float out the door.
Rounding the corner on Mesones I look for the Avocado Lady. I first saw her two years ago. She was sitting on the stone steps of a church. She was selling mounds of avocados, buckets of calla lilies, a few limes and sprigs of oregano. She had the loveliest face. It was framed by a black shawl draped over her head. She never stopped smiling. It made the jagged crevices lining her weathered skin even deeper and wider. I found her again, this trip. She now sits on different stone steps down the street next to El Tomate. As before, she tends to mounds of avocados and limes resting on woven cloth. A basket of fresh herbs. She smiles like she knows me. I ask her how she is doing, “Hola, buenos tardes, Senora, como esta usted?” She is fine, she says. She looks older, but so do I.
I remembered her for many reasons. Her beauty is just one. There was and is something different about her of which I cannot fully explain. She radiates patience. That said, she never allows me to purchase the avocados I choose. She smiles, then pushes them away as her wrinkled hands roll over different fruit, ever so gently pressing the skin. “Para hoy?” she asks. “Yes,” I say, for today. And one for tomorrow, too. She hands me two that feel much too firm. I smile and shake my head. She smiles and nods. I buy the two she chooses. She is never wrong. I want the ones that feel soft to the touch, ready, now. She knows better. She suggests patience. I want instant gratification. Carpe diem. She sells me avocados that will ripen with time, perfect, and perfectly delicious. No hurry, she seems to say. There is wisdom in tomorrow. We can seize the day without forfeiting the beauty of manana, the blossoming, the magic of the ripening. Sometimes the process can be as wonderful as the end result. Would the bread taste as sweet if we didn’t smell it rising in the oven? The chicken soup as savory without the day long aroma filling the air with an intangible comfort and longing? There is something to be said about the thrill of anticipation. These are things she tells me, without words.
There is treasure in the waiting; in allowing for the unexpected. That is why I never forgot the Avocado Lady. And why I continue to look for her on those stone steps. I could buy my avocados elsewhere, but why would I? She knows something I do not. But I’m learning. She is beautiful because she seizes the day while embracing tomorrow. I like that. I slip my seemingly way too hard avocados into my basket and grinning, we bid one another, “Hasta luego!”
Heading home with a basket heavy with locally made mango yogurt, warm corn tortillas, a head of broccoli, Oaxacan cheese, a papaya, avocados, limes and pastries, I stop to rest in the central jardin. The Concheros ceremonial dancers have just begun. The first Friday of every March, they arrive here by the dozens to celebrate the Senor de la Conquista. They celebrate by dancing non-stop for hours on end in front of the ancient Parroquia church. The dancers, clad in pre-Hispanic costumes with elaborate headdresses of peacock feathers, are honoring the tradition based on early agricultural rites, asking the Lord of the Conquest for healthy crops, a good harvest. They will dance throughout the night, followed by offerings of fennel and flowers.
Deafening drumbeats all around are making my heart skip beats. The dancing is wild. Multi-colored feathered heads and bare, brown limbs are slashing at the hot late afternoon air. A wide-eyed infant, strapped to his mother’s back, is watching the spectacle in front of him. School children, under the watchful eye of their teacher, sit in neat, straight lines on the Parroquia steps. You can tell they want to move, to dance with the Concheros. They squirm in their neat line unable to sit still. The line gets wavy. A dog darts into the circle of dancers and miraculously, makes it out amidst the flurry of stomping feet. I swear its tail is wagging in time with the drums. My heart is beating to the dog’s tail.
On my terrace, the sun is setting pink and gold behind the dome of San Antonio Church. Behind that still, the soft undulating line of hills and mountains are muted by the pastel wash of dusk. Birds are flying towards their evening roosts. Soon, bats will begin to stir. My hand soaks up the moisture from the sweating margarita glass. Kids are still playing. Odd music continues to blare from the park, mingling with the distance drumbeats from the jardin. Lola is gone. The praying mantis is gone. A refreshing north wind picks up and rustles the tree limbs and nests. I’m still in short sleeves. I catch the smells of neighboring kitchens wafting through open windows. Cumin, chipotle, tortillas, pollo. The lanterns lining Aldama street turn on. The mondos take flight. I’m still smiling. I've forgotten about the street cleaners' broom.
And all the while, back home, it is snowing in Maine.