Chapter 5: El Rancho
One bright Sunday morning, after church, we walked quickly up Prolongacion de Aldama dressed in our finest clothing nothing more than creative new renditions of what we wore the week before, but our Sunday best nevertheless. We skirted ancient trucks, smoke-belching buses and large families of ambling Mexicans strolling leisurely up the hill.
Enjoying food and conversation at El Rancho.
As we dodged a rusting Volkswagen bug, a rickety “camioneta” (van) pulled up alongside us. Javier, our friend from Bellas Artes, leaped out, an enormous grin on his face and an “¡Hola guapas!” on his lips. After the customary hug and kiss on the cheek, he offered his hand in true gentlemanly fashion, to help us maintain equilibrium as we climbed into the van in our dresses and skirts. He turned the key in the ignition and the van came to an inauspicious start, making ominous noises as we turned to go back up the hill to the purple villa.
After several jolting attempts to get up the final hill, our privada, the van reluctantly gave a final heave of energy and we pulled up to our door. Enrique, our substitute piano teacher when Marta (our regular, very tough piano teacher) is on tour, and Abigail (“A-bee-gah-eel”), Javier’s delightful wife, followed on foot. This was our first meeting with Abigail, a stout woman with that twinkling eye and warm smile that so typify Mexican kindness and conviviality. Javier, Abigail and Enrique were entertained by Oliver, the orphaned kitten we adopted, while we threw on jeans and t-shirts and sunblocked the fairest members of our crew.
Stuffing all the refrescos and cervezas we had bought for the much-anticipated occasion in our bolsas and laughing at the constant stream of boisterous mirth that flows out of Javier’s mouth, we filed into the old camioneta. We perched on various seats of cushioned plywood, without any form of seatbelt, our victuals and drinks on the floor between us. Nopales (cactus pads), tunas (cactus fruits), aguacates and jitomates slid every which way, like marbles on a table. Gravity pulled us swiftly back down the hill and Mom and Abigail struck up a conversation that would continue until we arrived at “El Rancho.” Javier handed out pistachios and the sounds of cracking shells and munching nuts accompanied our conversation for the rest of the trip.
The scenery changed from colorfully urban to colorfully rural in a matter of minutes. The vibrantly painted buildings of San Miguel melted into groves of jade-green Huizache trees. We sped along the highway for half an hour or so and then suddenly slowed to a bumpy snail’s-pace at a cobblestone road. I was gazing dreamily at the Sierra Madres when a gasp from Mom made me turn to the other window. Nearly hidden by the surrounding green sat a fantastically exotic thatched-roof abode. It was situated overlooking a particularly verdant area, dotted with golden wildflowers, lush palm trees and bizarre cacti and set against a backdrop of the Sierra Madres and a turquoise sky. The views from the building must be spectacular. I placed the image in a mental file of places I would like to live someday, as we rumbled down the road.
Shortly afterward, we came to an anomaly in the wild rural landscape: a pristine, whitewashed bridge. On one side stood a grinning, windblown Paco (another piano student at Bellas Artes), his sister, Sarahi, and a young man we hadn’t met before. They squeezed into the camioneta Mexicans seem to have a Mary Poppins-like ability for packing, both their belongings and themselves and everyone began conversing at once, at lightening speed. We abruptly screeched to a halt and I emerged dizzily from the maelstrom of Spanish into a grove of mesquite trees, shading a table set with green and yellow manteles, encircled with deck chairs: “El Rancho.”
Our hostess, Paco’s mother, Luz Maria, came over to welcome us, beaming joy and hospitality. After the customary introductions, she sat us all down under the billowing mesquites and one cool breeze swept away the vertiginous feeling in my stomach.
Refreshed, I took a better look at our motley group. On my right sat Juan, the newcomer, who had a wicked scar streaking like a bolt of lightening across his cheek. Born in Mexico, he and his family moved to Los Angeles when he was a toddler. It did not go well. He joined an L.A. gang and several drive-by shootings later, he landed in jail for five years. Now he has returned to his homeland and his welcoming aunt, uncle and cousins, to turn his life around. On my left sat Luz Maria, chatting with Abigail, whom she had just met for the first time, though they seemed as if they had known each other for years. Javier was making faces that threw Annie and Laurie into gales of laughter; Enrique was conversing with Sarahi, who is as exotically beautiful as her name. Paco, ready for action and anxious to find pet tortugas for Annie and Laurie, decided it was time for a paseo so we set off through the fields.
After walking through a wide open meadow of “flores del campo” no one could come up with a more specific name hemmed on one side by the deep blue Sierra Madres and the other by the mesquite-fringed horizon, we came to a leaning straw shack and a small pool of clear water. Juan explained that it was a natural spring, which seem to be omnipresent around San Miguel. Javier rushed up to the pool, threw his hands in the water and splashed his face with its refreshing coolness. Turning his glistening face to the sky, he cried, “¡Me siento libre!”
Abigail tiptoed behind her husband, her hand poised to push him into the pool, when he whirled around, saw his wife and declared,
“¡Ya no me siento libre!”
After Javier had been properly chastised by his wife, we continued our paseo to “the place where there are turtles.”
Javier and Enrique tried to remember the lyrics to a Mexican folk song as Paco led the way, frequently stopped by Sarahi, who was certain he had taken the wrong path. He led us into the ruins of an antiquated church the crumbling stones made our voices echo eerily across the fields. Javier took this opportunity to tell us tales of all the buried treasure in and around San Miguel. His aunt’s house had doubtless been a site. During the remodeling, gold coins surfaced and the workers disappeared. Asi es la vida…