Saturday, March 14, 2009

Gladys the Good Karma Mutt


Nine months or so ago everything connected with the sale of our existing home, and construction of the new one, seemed a tangle of dead-ends.

It was about that time that a black-and-brown mutt appeared in the parking lot of our condo complex. Her life was a much bigger mess than ours.

A medium-size female, probably seven or eight months old at the time, showed up at the start of the rainy season, toward the end of June. We adopted her, probably saving her life. Did she return the favor by somehow turning our fortunes around too? We are sure she did.

For those used to the rhythm of a Midwestern climate, the temperature and rain cycles in San Miguel can be oddly unnerving. In Chicago some form of moisture falls year-round, be it rain, snow, hail, sleet or any combination. In San Miguel you have eight months of sunshine and no rain whatsoever--from October to June--followed by a tropical turn in the weather that brings daily downpours, typically in the late afternoon.

Spring begins in February, roughly in the middle of the dry season. As if receiving a cue from outer space, the cacti start to flower, using only the water stored in their plump, spongy leaves. Jarrillas, delicately leaved bushes that grow rampant along the roads, also cover themselves with small yellow flowers. Within a few weeks the flowers turn into seed-carrying cotton puffs that waft all over the fields, where they will lie waiting a few months more for the rains they need in order to sprout. The old jingle about May flowers following immediately after April showers just doesn't happen here.

Late June, early July, the rains start and rapidly build up into daily monsoons. Steep streets become torrents; it's not unusual to find boulders and other heavy objects that were swept along overnight. The arroyos (a euphemism that literally means "creeks" or "brooks" but is used to describe storm sewer ditches running through San Miguel) fill up to capacity and turn into brown rivers angrily racing somewhere. The landscape turns from brown to kelly green almost overnight.

A few months before the rains had started last year we had decided to sell the condo where we lived and which we had purchased two years before, almost at the height of the San Miguel real estate frenzy. Though it is a beautiful place with stunning views (you can really see San Miguel's collection of churches from our terraces, without climbing three flights of stairs or straining your neck) buying this unit was a decision that didn't work at all for us.

We wanted to garden yet we didn't have land. We wanted solitude, yet the place is too conveniently close to the center of town. We like pets but they could not be happy within the confines of a condo development. What were we thinking?

Our exit strategy--which quickly went awry--was this. The sale of the condo would neatly coincide with the closing on the ranch land in Jalpa sometime in July. The money from the sale would immediately go toward construction. We would need a four-wheel-drive truck to get back and forth to the ranch through the muddy roads. We would hire the same architect we had worked with on our previous attempt to build a house. The architect would be ready, plans in hand, to proceed as soon as we got our hands on the money from the sale.

Pronto, presto.

We confidently launched a for-sale-by-owner campaign, using every piece of marketing artillery we could imagine, including a website, brochures, open houses and newspaper ads.

Not even a nibble. We had suspicions that San Miguel's real estate bubble may have burst, but didn't realize the market had very nearly flat-lined. We hired a realtor who at first didn't seem particularly optimistic either.

We closed on the land alright but ran into problems getting the seller, a bull-headed old rancher named Don Lucas, to deliver on his promise to provide an essential connection to a community well. He seemed eager and accommodating until he got his money and then forgot about our water. As he stalled, we contemplated suing but friends told us that civil litigation in Mexico most often goes nowhere and takes forever to get there.

The purchase of a used pickup also stalled. Over several weeks we must have looked at a dozen trucks, each with at least one, if not more, fatal flaws. Most notable were ridiculous prices despite major mechanical problems, along with clearly fake odometer readings or plausible readings in the hundreds of thousands of miles. Buying a used vehicle in Mexico is not for the naive.

We then had a falling out with the previous architect, who turned up with what we felt were inflated budgets, unreasonable financing demands and amateurish designs. We fired the architect. That cost us a few thousand dollars for services already rendered.

Every facet of our plans to build a new house seemed jinxed.

Then the rains started. One day Stew and I noticed a medium size, sopping wet mutt staring at us through one of the kitchen windows. Around the neck she had the remains of a rope, the end of which was frayed, as if it had broken off or she had chewed through it to get away. Her ears were cocked back, apprehensive as her eyes. Her tail was not the upright, tightly curled-up model you expect on a pedigreed mutt; it drooped and twisted clumsily. She limped when she finally walked away, and we noticed a sore on her right rear leg. She was sad.

As if reading my mind, Stew promptly warned me not to even think about taking in another dog. We had adopted a stray puppy a year before that had turned into a lovable, 50-pound galoot, that seemed stuck in the canine equivalent of a toddler's "terrible two's."

So I did the next best thing, short of inviting her in. With some plastic bins, food dishes and blankets I built the visitor a waterproof shelter on the side of the condo, where she could hide during the heavy rains. She kept hanging around nervously, and wouldn't let anyone touch her.

I casually mentioned to Stew that helping this poor animal could be good karma for us. You do something good, and good comes back to you in some form.

We should try to catch her, I suggested, have her spayed and then take her to the animal shelter for adoption. The last part of the plan quickly got shot down when we were told the shelter didn't have any room and the dog would have to go on a waiting list potentially several weeks long.

By now, the stray had taken to playing with Lucy at a nearby field and cautiously approaching Stew. She then took a ballet-like leap: One afternoon Stew was sitting on a rock with Lucy and the stray dog landed on his arms and wouldn't leave. Of course Stew had brought an extra leash, just in case.

We named her Gladys and she stayed.

The vet who did the spaying said that judging by the extent of her injuries, Gladys either had been hit by a car or mistreated by her previous owners. Indeed her rear legs are not quite in line, and the tail is permanently crooked and pointing down. Even at her most delirious, Gladys can only wag her tail a couple of inches each way; she frequently pees on herself when she squats, unable to get that gimpy appendage out of the way. Though she can keep up with Lucy and her running sprees, Gladys sometimes limps for no apparent reason.

A far more complicated problem is that she is afraid of strangers and will growl at anyone she doesn't recognize or trust. She finds women wielding stick-like objects--such as our maid carrying a broom--particularly alarming. We worked with a dog trainer and she is gradually mellowing. But clearly Gladys hasn't forgotten whatever happened to her before she met us.

The upside is that she is completely tame and loving with us and Lucy. She is equally affectionate with a friend who runs a kennel and took care of her after the spaying. There are a few others she trusts. If such calculus is possible by a dog, we think Gladys knows her friends and counts her blessings.

So do we. Within a few weeks after we took Gladys in, our realtor found a buyer, no small feat in such a bad market. The sales agreement allows us to stay here for six months after closing. The realtor also sold us a Nissan Frontier pick-up with four-wheel drive, precisely the car we wanted. Don Lucas, the grumpy old rancher, one day showed up with a backhoe and began the trench that would bring the water pipe to our land. And more importantly, we found a most simpatico and capable architect who is now building our house.

It would take a couple more months before we actually broke ground. But Gladys' arrival marked a dramatic turnaround for so many things that had seemed hopelessly stuck.

Cynics and skeptics will tell you there can't be any connection between the arrival of a mutt in the rain and a sudden turn in one's fortunes.

But in our case Stew and I believe Gladys is indeed responsible. It's karma. We know it.

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