Monday, June 11, 2012

A House In My Stocking

Wise and Wonderful

This is Petra. I met her at El Sagrario, ( from the post, A Wealth of Knowledge ) and immediately fell in love with her. She is always regal and elegant beneath the dirt and well worn clothes and although she can neither read nor write, she is very wise. When I met her she was 82 years old, at least she thought she was, I guess it ‘s a little difficult to be sure. She is very soft spoken and gracious, with a ready smile and a mischievous glint in her eye.

The other folks at El Sagrario thought that she had money because she always seemed to have a lot of clothes and she has such a regal bearing. She chats politely with the others while waiting for food but seems a little aloof and never joins in the gossip. For these reasons the others gossip about her and say that she has money and that she puts herself above them. They could not possibly be more wrong.

My friend, neighbour and fellow volunteer, Doug Butler drove Petra home one day after lunch at El Sagrario and discovered the truth about her living conditions.

Petra's house previously
The Mansion

The house, and I use the term loosely, was about 8 to 10 feet square. The walls were cobbled together from bits of wood and small tree trunks found here and there and there were holes in them large enough to stick your arm through. There was only half a roof, the rest having fallen away and been used as fire wood long ago.

It was the beginning of December and unseasonably cold. Normally there is no rain in Patzcuaro between the end of October and the beginning of June, but for some reason it was also wet and that meant damp cold as well. Actually that winter you could see your breath in the air inside MY house. The floor of the house is dirt so it was just a puddle of mud on the side that had no roof.

Petra does have a lot of clothes. She loved to sew when she could see better and they are all made by hand. Now her eyesight is so bad that she sees very little clearly. All her clothes were stuffed in bags and had become moldy with the damp. She was sleeping on a bag that had been rags sown together and stuffed with more rags. It was filthy. She did have a few warm blankets, probably gotten from donations to El Sagrario. She had a little stone ring for a cooking fire in one corner but it was too wet to do anything with.

When Doug saw this, he and his wife Kathy decided to build her a proper house and  when they told us about Petra’s living conditions we wanted to help. Todd and I decided that the money we would spend on the house would be our Christmas present to each other.

Petra's house being repaired
A New Roof

We hired a couple of local workmen, both of which had worked on our houses in Corazon de Durazno. They basically tore down the entire house and started over.  Poor Petra was terrified when we started hauling everything out and dismantling her little home. David and Jorge worked quickly though and soon she was able to see that everything was going to be alright. They put in strong beams on all four corners and the roof and then put the walls back up with no holes. Then they made an inner wall of plywood with about 4 inches of air space between the inner and outer walls for a bit of insulation. The entire house was then covered with laminate and Petra was so proud. She said she had the shiniest house on the block.

Kathy and I gathered up all of Petra’s clothes and took them to our respective homes to wash and mend. It was unreasonably difficult to part Petra from her clothes even for long enough to wash them. I think she was afraid she wouldn’t get them back and they were really all she had. It broke my heart.

Then we went shopping. We bought her a mattress and flannel sheets and flannel pajamas. We also bought a small wardrobe for her clothes that had an area for a washstand, a small desk and stool, a cute little bench and some reed mats to cover the dirt floor. We also bought a chiminea, a little ceramic fireplace that David and Jorge put a chimney on and vented outside. You can see the hocote in the hanging basket in the picture below. It is wood, sticky with sap, that lights a fire very quickly.

Petra's house cleaned
The New Mansion

Petra in her- (3)
Petra at Home

Petra with her-
Defending the Homestead

The rifle isn’t real, I think her son made it for her. But from a distance she does look like she’s defending the homestead doesn’t she?

Probably the most difficult thing for me about living in Mexico is seeing the poverty. I’ve met so many wonderful people here and I want to do something to help them all. Unfortunately I just don’t have enough money to do that. However, I have discovered, that there are a lot of things that we can do without spending a lot of money and the rewards are unending. I know that I can’t save the world or even Mexico. But I can try to make a difference in my little corner of it.

Once again these wonderful photos are compliments of Kathy Butler.


  1. Shannon,
    I think, so far, this is my favourite experience you have had...

  2. It's one of mine too Judy. Petra is an amazing woman.

  3. What a great recap and so inspiring. Thank you for all you do and have done, as well as Todd, Doug, Kathy, and David and Jorge. All of you are angels here and a blessing in so many ways. Gracias!

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    1. Thanks Oriana, that's very kind and thank you for your donation. It was a group effort! I can't tell you how much I miss Patzcuaro and everyone there. Hopefully I will find something like El Sagrario to get involved with here once I can walk again.