by Joyce Wycoff
I have just developed a severe case of writer envy.
Occasionally, you find a book that doesn’t tell you a story, but rather, gently lures you into a story, making you part of it until you see every color and detail, smell the pungent earth, know the cadence and quirks of each character, feel the air change with each season, experience the daily rhythms of life as if you were right there.
In the 1940s, writer Dane Chandos came to Ajijic, a true outback to his international friends and even to those in Guadalajara and Chapala who thought him a bit mad. He found a bit of land, decided to build a house, and in the year of construction, created a household and wrote about his daily life, month by month, beginning in June.
For those of us who have come later, reading his account is a chance to roll back the cobblestones, whisk away the gourmet restaurants, erase the colorful wall murals, turn out the lights, and sink back into the days when you might find three or four little pigs under a bed and eggs would be hand-delivered by a child, one at a time still warm from the hen.
|Chupinaya trail (see footnote 1)|
The book begins in June, when the author learns that if you go up the mountain you will find a spring called the Chupinaya which he was told had, “fresh water that comes out cool cool. If you drink some water from the Chupinaya, you will never leave Ajijic again.” At the time, he was not interested in never leaving Ajijic again. Interesting how plans change.
“It is only five miles from Chapala,” the author begins, “but they are bad miles. Between Chapala and San Antonio, the village before you come to Ajijic, there were four bridges. All had holes in them, and two of them were impassable, so that one had to go round them, coaxing the car down a steep slippery bank, fording a narrow stony torrent, and climbing up the bank again on the other side. It was, and is, no road for a low car or a good car."
The cast of characters
In this first month of his first year, Chandos begins to pull together his household. He finds that, “In Mexico, anyone you want to contact is usually the cousin of a friend or the friend of the cousin of the friend. And if he is not that, he is the cousin of a friend’s wife.”
In this month, we begin to meet the characters who gradually become family: Candelaria, the cook who is "middle-aged, plain and rather deaf” … and charmed by the ordinary things of life; Nieves (actually Mary of the Nieves (snow)), the shy housekeeper, and Eugenio, the house man whom Candelaria doesn’t hold out much hope for but doesn’t have a better recommendation. Not much later Eugenio “puts himself in a tremendous drunk" and is replaced by likable Cayetano, who earned a place in the household and the opportunity to wear a white coat and work in the shade, a very attractive employment benefit.
With this cast and and the constant comings and goings of minor characters, village folks and international visitors, life settles into the rhythm of life and death, trials and celebrations. Many of the houses around the time Chandos was writing might have looked much like this old adobe which still stands in the midst of Ajijic.
Transformation of the rainy season
July begins with a description that all of us who have lived here through a rainy season recognize:
“... violent rainstorms about every other night. And suddenly one morning I noticed that the mountains had ceased to be golden. As though the rain were some subtle blue wash mixing with the yellow hillsides, everywhere they had taken on a tinge of green.”
Chandos attention is wide ranging from what happens to unprotected adobe when it gets wet (it crumbles) to the types of fish the fishermen pull from the lake with what kind of nets, to the burros that are everywhere
“And, of course there is the burro," he writes.
"All the donkey-using countries have a common aspect. From Syria to Mexico, there are the processions on the roads, bulging panniers of basket- or network, the same little family groups—probably with the man riding and the woman afoot—and from frontier to frontier, from dawn to dusk, you hear the clippety-cloppety of asses’ hoofs. Somebody ought to write a history of the burrow. The empires he has supported would make tame history compared to his. In Mexico you are practically never out of sight of a burro and a mountain.”
|Huitzitzlin, traumatized by a cat but saved|
No detail is too small for Chandos to find its charm. To attract hummingbirds, he “arranged several sugar water tubes for the hummers to come to. Any small glass tube, wrapped in a bit of tinfoil or a colored silk, will attract their attention. They like it attached to a small branch at an angle of forty-five degrees, and there should be another small horizontal twig on which they can perch between drinks.
"They say that hummers can fly across the Caribbean, but in that case they must make, as do other migrant birds, temporary adjustments of their alimentary system, for ordinarily a hummingbird must feed every ten minutes of his waking hours in order to live, and he doesn’t want to stay far from his food.
"Plant this branch in a flowerpot full of earth and keep the sugar water changed, and you will have plenty of visitors. It seems as if they cannot hear low notes, for I found that human voices did not disturb them at all, whereas the smallest movement did. Until, that is, they had become used to me. Then they didn’t mind my typewriter.”
He even explores the words for hummingbirds. “In Nahuatl the hummer is called huitzitzlin, and it is the most perfect name for him. It shimmers and it almost catches the whir and time beat of his wings, which move so swiftly that they are always a blur. In Spanish he has many names, charming but less graphic, such as chupamiel, chuparosa—honeysucker, rosesucker—or sometimes picaflor—flowerpricker. But unfortunately he is more frequently called colibri, which is far less attractive.”
The new household draws Chandos into its rhythms, engaging him in a million details such as buying material to create “shakers” (dust cloths), how and where to buy a tin of linseed oil, deciding on which fish to buy from which fisherman, and installing mosquito netting when a scorpion falls on him in the middle of the night. There is always a drama that requires much hand wringing and discussion, at the end of which, it usually evaporates and life goes on.
“In Mexico, just when everything seems impossible,
where there seems to be no solution at all, suddenly a door opens,
everything its arranged quite quickly,
and everybody behaves as if there had never been any difficulty at all."
|Of course, the painted pier wasn't there then, but the lake in September!|
Chandos was trying to buy land that belonged to a family, each owning their own piece and having their own issues and ideas about what should happen. Some were gone or never replied, some wanted more than the author could pay, some didn’t want to sell at all. Now, after months, it all came together and he could begin to build his house. It was September.
“The month opened with delightful weather, cool, rain-washed, and fine. Everything was growing, thrusting up greenness with every handful of dirt. Usually, if the rains are mild, they will be long, perhaps starting early and going right on into October. If they are violent, then they are of shorter duration, and September will see them out. We have had fierce drenching storms this year, and now there is a little lull. Whatever the weather is like, it will probably go on being the same for ten days or so.”
|Lake Chapala from Jocotopec - October|
Chandos makes me hear the family's daily conversations, each member coming alive gradually, each voice distinct, such as Aurora, the downtrodden washerwoman.
My compadre’s sister-in-law, Aurora, washes very nicely,’ Candelaria had said, so Aurora came to see me. She looked sixty and was probably forty-five or less, a little shrunken woman with a wrinkled face, the color of potato peel, dusty wispy hair, gnarled hands and arms and a slight limp. She smiled perpetually with the look of a dog that cringes for fear of being kicked. She had been abandoned by her husband and had five children. She had a thin whining voice.
'Yes, of course I know how to wash and starch and iron, but who knows if it will be done the way you like it. We can only see.'When asked what wage she wants, she answers, 'Pues, you will see, whatever you think right, you will see what you will pay me when you see my work. Maybe you will like it and maybe you won’t, but what shall we do pues?'A little later, still smiling ingratiatingly and sighing despairingly, she limped out of the house with a big washing basket on her tousled head.
|Lake Chapala - March|
For some reason, those words really struck me: He knew how to sit still.The story is told by Primitivo, a prominent character in the book. The author asked Primitivo what they would do when the boat was becalmed and Primitivo answers:“Nothing. They just waited. They would make a fire and cook and the gringo gentleman fished. He was like us, he didn’t have to be doing something all the time. He knew how to sit still.”
After reading this book, I have a powerful sense of Dane Chandos as a person. I know what I’d want to talk about if we sat down to lunch; I think I’d even know what he might order. I would feel comfortable hanging out on his new mirador with him watching the changing colors of the sunset and can imagine the slow conversation, languid with pauses as we just sat still absorbing the world around us.
The only problem is that Dane Chandos isn’t a person.
He is a pseudonym for three men: Peter Lilly and Nigel Millet who collaborated on A Village in the Sun and House in the Sun. After Millet’s death in 1946 (he is buried in the Ajijic cemetery next to his father), Lilly collaborated with Anthony Stansfield on other books.(2)
I truly don’t understand how a collaboration can have such a singular and powerful voice, but I still feel like I know someone named Dane Chandos, a man accustomed to creature comforts yet still able to accept, appreciate and enjoy a world significantly different from what he has known.
The book is available in the Lake Chapala Society library. Obviously, I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to understand a bit more about this special place we live.
On the Day of the Dead this year, I was walking through the Ajijic cemetery putting flowers on unremembered graves when I found the grave of Nigel Millet. Later I found out that Antonio Ramblés, creator of the amazing Riberas Authors, had cleaned the grave of weeds and debris but didn't have time to replace the broken grave stone. We've agree to do so by Day of the Dead, 2019. If anyone would like to help with this project ... either with money or time next year to make sure that he is remembered as a creative contributor to our community, please PM me on Facebook or Antonio at Riberas Authors.
(1) There is a Facebook page: Chupinaya Ajijic, about an authentic and traditional mountain race, called the Queen of the West Test.
(2) For more about Dane Chandos and other local writers from the Lake Chapala area, see Riberas Authors.