A Trek To Ajijic
By Dennis A. Crump
Long before the road from Chapala was paved, long before a stop light, long before the Libramiento, La Floresta, Vista Alegre, or Riberas del Lago. Long before the Malecon or raising the muelle and construction upon it, long before houses and businesses lined the highway from Chapala to Ajijic and beyond. A time when the Pemex gas station was the only business on the edge of town, and certainly long before Walmart gained its presence in Ajijic or Mexico.
Was the summer of 1958 arrives a brave recently widowed 30- year old lady with six kids to Ajijic Mexico - a quaint village on the north shores Lake Chapala,; as the light rain came down, they bounced long the rutted pothole riddled muddy road –loaded with bag & baggage on top of a white ‘57 Ford station wagon. Pulling up to a non-descript adobe building on the cobblestoned main street, Marcella got out and knocked on the door where a simple shingle hung “ Ral Estate.”
The “Life Change” began instantly! For Marcella, (“Malle” as she became affectionately known around town by her native Estonia name, and her 6 kids. Within a few days, it was out of the hotel near Los Arcos and the Glorieta de Minerva in Guadalajara, and into La Rusa’s cottage on the lakeshore.
Our first morning witnessed slow, unhurried activity as the morning sun bathed the village. Roosters crowed before the sun came up, burros roamed freely, some hee-hawed to announce intention of a pursuit, while most grazed along with horses on patches of the short grass that grew on the rocky brown sand shoreline. The “lirio” with purple flowers floated in large patches and drifted wherever the breezes pushed them.
A fisherman pushed off the shore and rowed hi heavy wood canoe in a large circle into the lake as the net fed itself into the water while he rowed back to the shore. On shore, the tedious job of pulling the net in by tugging on one end, slowly backing up step by step for 50-100 feet before going back to the water’s edge for another grasp of the net several hundred feet long, repeating the process until the they exposed the thin mess cloth section the last 20 feet long where a large catch of “charales” shimmered as they jumped and flipped around in a flurry. Also in the net would be a few carp and world famous delicacy - Chapala White Fish. On the shore the fish were sorted into baskets to sell, the White Fish to local restaurants, the carp mostly sold on the beach to the locals, and, the “charales” filled large baskets later to be spread on a large cloth manta or net sheet on the beach or on a sidewalk in front of some home where they dried to a crispin the Ajijic sun. After the days catch, the long nets were stretched along the beach on poles to dry and repairs made to any holes from the day’s catch. As the morning progressed, the women would gather on the shore to wash the family clothes then hang them on the bushes and shrubs to dry. Such would become a typical morning scene from vantage point of our cottage kitchen window.
Ajijic became Marcella and Crump kids’ home and the life as we knew Stateside would be different –very different, essentially disappear. Our trip was originally planned to be a 30-day vacation from Lake Charles, Louisiana where we lived, and our father was stationed as a USAF B-47 Strato-jet pilot and had been killed in a freak mid-air collision over the Gulf of Mexico a couple of years earlier.
Marcella – Malle, immersed herself in the Ajijic community immediately. She got involved with the local artists, writers, and gringos who had chosen Ajijic over the hustle and bustle of their lives in the U.S. While she rarely drank, Malle enjoyed engaging in conversation at La Posada. It was the gathering place for most of the gringos looking to socialize over eats and cocktails.
The Lakeside American colony in the late 1950’s was made up of approximately 500 from north of the border with a few others from Europe. Some were families with kids. The Gringo community was dispersed between Ajijic, Chula Vista and Chapala. Earlier arrivals included Neill James, La Rusa- Zara , Col. Williamson, Mercedes Boom, The Vertefueille (Greens), Batemans, Sendis along with many others.
Marcella -Malle quickly befriended everyone and became close friends with Laura Bateman and Alice Sendis, while us Crump kids got to know their kids who were close to our age. Other families followed, the Dennis, Lucas, Pepp in, Hopper and the Ajijic kids’ gang swelled to near three dozen during the first couple of years after we arrived.
Within a few weeks after arriving in Ajijic, Mom – Marcella –let it be known that we were going to stay in Ajijic for the remainder of our six-month tourist visa to learn Spanish and more about the Mexican culture. Mom sweetened the deal with three horses for me and my two sisters.
Mom quickly realized that her widow’s pension from my Dad’s death stretched much further in Ajijic, offering a better lifestyle and cultural learning opportunity. The six months turned into a lifetime for my two younger sisters who married and raised their families in Guadalajara and Mexico City, while three younger brothers remained for a few years longer before returning Stateside to attend school. I returned Stateside after high school to attend college in California.
Mom was active with several village and community activities through the years, school fundraisers, charity functions, and kept busy taking art lessons, visiting with her new found friends, and taking full advantage of all that the Ajijic community had to offer.
At some point during our first couple of years, Mom decided to buy a home in Ajijic. It would be a one-room adobe behind the church on Galeana. While the adobe was being expanded, we moved to a larger home on Calle Independencia across from La Rusa’s estate.
Clemente and Victor removed the tile from over the carrizo mat, and with the aid of myself, my horse and others gathered from around town, we managed to pull the whole carrizo mat off in one piece, first one side – then the other. Everyone was duly impressed with our ingenuity and effort, making light of an otherwise slow and tedious job. We added a concrete brick addition – Master bedroom, boys & girls bedrooms and a couple of bathrooms.
Looking back on the experience, I can say that was the real beginning of my 45 year career as a Contractor and Construction Project Manager. Thanks to Jack & Laura Bateman, we used their concrete brick fabrication process –making two bricks at a time in a special mold Jack Bateman had designed and had fabricated for the construction of their homes. The concrete bricks would cure over a couple weeks. Eventually we had made enough to actually start building.
And that was the beginning of our long relationship with a small corner of paradise in the world that has remained in our heart as “Home” for more 60 years. While I returned occasionally through the years, Malle would return to Ajijic frequently, even though she had rented her house for a long periods. She would stay at my sisters’ homes in Guadalajara, , Mexico City, or visit with the Batemans and other longtime friends..
As a young teenager, a couple of my buddies and I had become involved with an archeological group in Ajijic. Malle quickly joined in on the explorations with the Club de la Sociedad de Archeologia de Chapala conducted in the neighboring Sayula – Zacoalco – Saguayo dry lakes region. This led to Malle going back to school, attending Long Beach State to study Archeology and Anthropology. Being the adventurer she was – she seized upon an opportunity to go to Costa Rica for a visit with some her school colleagues. True to form, her three- week trip turned into a year and half field research and exploration with the National Museum of Costa Rica and University of Costa Rica where she was a part of their field exploration team to investigate and study archeological digs and sites. Malle applied her artistic talents making exceptionally accurate drawings of the sites and detailed sketches of the artifacts. Her work would later be included in the museum and university archeological publications.
Malle advanced her studies at San Francisco State and subsequently joined a team of field investigators at the Desert Research Institute in Reno Nevada where she worked with the U.S. Forest Service to investigate and survey mining sites and potential mining sites around Nevada and eastern sierras of California. The work was to insure there weren’t Native American and Pre-Columbian sites and artifacts in the mining areas. The Forest Service would often offer her a helicopter to investigate remote areas.
Malle was born and raised in Estonia. Around the age of 18, she had to escape the Russian and German occupation of Estonia during WW II. They would eventually end up behind what were the Allied lines and the safety of the Allied forces. Mom & Dad – a B-17 pilot in the U.S. Army Air corps would meet in Augsburg, Germany, where they were married and I was born.
So now the third summer after Dad’s accident was upon us and Mom wanted to go to Europe. I wasn’t convinced it was a good idea – barely 10 years old with the youngest of my siblings still in diapers, it seemed to a big challenge for anyone without six young kids. Mom & I discussed the pros & cons - mostly cons in my eyes but not hers. In the spring of 1958, Malle came up with a compromise idea to go to Mexico on a month’s vacation. We could drive, and it was fairly close to our home in Lake Charles, LA.
Well –maybe that would be OK for us to do. “But Mom how are we going to talk to anyone,” I remember asking. True to Malle’s optimistic and adventurous spirit, – her response was “Not to worry, we will manage.” – this coming from a woman who spoke Estonian, English, Russian, German and hold her own in French and a couple of Scandinavian languages. Language was least of her concerns or barriers.
So there’s a small glimpse into our Malle, this truly amazing and extraordinary woman who left her mark and lasting impression on so many people with whom she came in contact during her 91 years. Even an attending emergency room physician on a recent visit couldn’t escape - taken aback with her response “ are you stupid?” to his question regarding me dispensing a certain medication for her when he wanted to be sure she didn’t take more than the prescribed dosage. “ I’m mad at him,” she declared, referring to me. The doctor roared in laughter, falling back on a gurney he was sitting on while Mom sat in a wheelchair. This would be one many episodes during the past year and a half where I learned more about Mom’s sense of humor – and certainly her sometimes stinging tongue. Malle didn’t always have such a direct approach to what she considered to be a crazy idea.
Malle had a heart that took in so many people of all walks of life and of all ages. She gave what she could and had to anyone in need. There was always shelter for others, comforting words, or no words if the situation warranted, always an open kitchen for friends, family, others including complete strangers we brought home to raid the refrigerator or indulge on Lupe’s sandwiches or whatever she was making.
Mom & I came back to Ajijic twice this past year 2016 – Her 90th birthday in February and again for three months in September, October, and November. The first trip was a reunion with several of our friends and family, many who had returned to Ajijic when they retired. It was in Ajijic at the beginning of November 2016 that we could see that something was not going well for Mom. She passed away on April 28, 2017, – peacefully at our home in Phoenix. She was annoyed. Her body was saying “enough already Marcella,” but her mind was determined to go to Africa – a life‘s dream and back to Europe and Estonia at least one more time. And then “I want to die in Ajijic. Just leave my body on the mountainside for nature to deal with. Near the cross would be good.”
Thank You Mom for a lifetime full of experiences. Love you forever & ever.