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Sounds of Unsilence

July 29, 2020

My dog Rem noticed the sound first last night, and once he shut up whimpering and growling for a few seconds, I could hear it too. I tried to calm and reassure him.

“Rem, it’s a cat in heat. And it’s behind our back wall, so you can’t chase it – or them –away.”

He wasn’t convinced, and kept whimpering for ten minutes. But eventually had to abandon his desire to hunt down this intrusion into our shared space, and went back to sleep. Dogs are super alert to sounds, but they can also shut them out very efficiently.

Any human who comes to a place like Amatlan has their senses awakened in ways that aren’t possible in an urban setting. My next-door neighbour keeps a pig, which makes the most extraordinary noises as well as, at times, producing an astoundingly pungent smell in its sty. Another neighbour has set up a poultry coop, and anyone who walks by it gets a whiff that certainly jolts the brain awake.

But sounds are perhaps the things I notice most here. Because we’re on one side of a valley, I can hear the rain failing on the opposite side, 400 yards away, before it falls here. Thunder, which we had with this afternoon’s rainstorm, likewise echoes off the hillsides, and can sound like the very knell of Doomsday.

This morning, I needed to listen hard for two artificial sounds. It was Wednesday, which is when the garbage truck comes around. And, our propane cylinder had given out, and needed replacement.

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The loaded garbage truck heads back into town through the nearby community of Huilotepec.

My house is about 180 yards from the street, and bends in both the lane and the street itself complicates any sense of direction. It used to be that the garbage trucks here were equipped with tinny sound systems, and they’d play the Mexican hit tunes from decades ago as they came by. You could hear them three or four blocks away. Now, the awful music is gone, and the drivers simply honk as they pass on the street. But determining, from 180 yards away, where the truck is, or will be, isn’t easy.

Also, people here honk because they’re outside Uncle Pedro’s house, and have come to pick him up. Or because someone else’s vehicle is blocking their way. Or to say hi to another driver. Honkish is a tough language to interpret, although the garbage guys do beep to a slower rhythm than agitated car drivers.

The gas trucks, two or three in number, come to the village in the morning, and occasionally later in the day. People here have employed propane for cooking and heating water for a couple of generations, and because thunderstorms easily cut our electrical power, we all still need and use it. The trucks are equipped with something resembling a car alarm to alert their customers, and while few people have car alarms here, some do, so again there’s the chance of confusion.

Anyway, here I was at 8.30, down on the street so as not to miss either truck. I was in time for the garbage guys, but the noise they make (their trucks don’t run quietly) made it hard to hear the propane vendors’ not-so-dulcet tones, as they passed by on the other side of the village. And I realised how I was straining to use my ears in ways I never used to do when I lived in a city.

The road from town ends near my house, with only footpaths going beyond through the hills. This is one reason there’s extensive birdlife here, and a lot of birdsong. There are always dogs barking at each other, or at passing cows or horses, and around 4.00 am the roosters start up. Humans, too, yell at their kids a lot. Someone is always building or fixing a house, so there’s the sound of power tools for much of the day, as well as banging and thumping of various kinds. And because my house is above the level of the main village, all these noises easily reach here.

I’m grateful that I still have good hearing, even if that means I can’t exclude much of this noise. This village is rarely a silent place, because it lacks the background noises of larger communities, which people living in them naturally learn to ignore. But I’m far more aware of all sensory inputs here than I ever was in Toronto.

The village symphony places significant demands on the ears of both dog and human. It also makes me wish that both the garbage vendors and the propane people had chosen something less unlovely to alert their clientele that they’ve arrived.

But that’s Mexico for you. It’s never likely to hold back on the noise. We live with it, or we at least learn to hold our peace on the topic.

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A Non-Festive Fiesta

July 21, 2020

The first rockets went off as anticipated at 6.00 am. But apart from that, the festival of Santa Maria Magdalena isn’t happening the way it always does

Mary Magdalene was made matron saint of this village, I understand, because it was previously dedicated to the mother of Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent. There are several different versions of his legend and of his specific parentage, but it was deemed necessary to place this small community under the tutelage of a famously penitent woman to expunge the memory of the pagan goddess. I can’t say how long this has been the state of things, and Amatlan has only recently grown beyond a population of a couple of hundred people, but every year the place would go crazy around July 22. Simply driving in or out of the village could take ten minutes longer than usual, with all the visitors’ cars blocking the streets and laneways.

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The main street during the fiesta, in a more usual year.

The fiesta always starts the day before the feast day, with a salvo of cohetes, the explosive rockets beloved by the faithful here, and loathed by many other people and all dogs. But where in other years the main street would be lined with stalls selling trinkets, kids’ toys, t-shirts, pizza and beer, this year there are only four or five such puestos in place. And I doubt they’re getting customers. The small midway that is usually set up behind the church is completely absent.

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The stalls set up for the fiesta this year – all four of them

People here have become resigned to their church being closed, though this evening there is a prayer service being held there. Apart from the occasional funeral, it’s scarcely had its doors open since March. I assume baptisms are done in people’s homes, and weddings are simply on hold.

I can’t pretend I’m personally upset at this, and the lack of rockets and bells before dawn on a Sunday morning isn’t unwelcome. I’ve always preferred more subdued forms of worship. But I’m wondering what the long-term effect will be.

Public Catholicism still has a firm grip on local people, even if evangelical groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons have made significant inroads here in recent decades. It’s so embedded in the lifestyle, and so significant as a means of generating a revenue stream through sales of flowers and cohetes, hiring of musicians for funerals and all the peripheral consumerism around the rituals of worship, that its absence is at least extremely odd, as well as financially painful for many people.

I doubt though, that closed churches will produce a decline in the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe or the many lesser saints with their parish churches. In the absence of workplace insurance for workmen, a wooden cross on a construction site is seen as a standard way of warding off harm, just as images of the Virgin are found on dashboards, in stores, or set into the walls of houses.

But this year, Santa Maria Magdalena, our local protectress, will have to be content with reduced festivities to honour her. Not that this has stopped the woman who leads the singing at the church from broadcasting her devotions from the speaker system atop the church tower this evening. She’s a nice lady, but “singing” is not what anyone could seriously call the noise she’s making.

I think I might almost prefer a few more cohetes instead.

 

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The Crowed Aisles of Walmart

July 16, 2020

Two to three times a week, I get the message or the email: “Did you see how many cases of Covid-19 Mexico is reporting?! Do you grasp what danger you might be in?!”

To which I always want to reply, “Gosh, no – er, what’s Covid-19, exactly?” Just to watch the reaction, you understand. I doread the updates daily, (or twice daily), but in my area we’ve been pretty safe. I chose to stay here because that was my guess back in the early spring. We have the advantage of low population density here.

In Amatlan (pop. around 1,200) I’m told we’ve had two (2) cases of the virus. Our municipality of Tepoztlan (pop. around 42,000) has an official count of 49 cases, of which two-thirds are considered recovered. No doubt the real tally is higher, but compared to the worst-hit areas of Mexico, so far we’ve dodged the bullet.

The story isn’t as good in larger places. Cuernavaca (pop. around 370,000 in the city itself), 17 km from here, has had over 900 cases, and its exurbs have more. As a historical parallel, its population was cut to 3,000 in 1918 during the Spanish flu, although it’s a fact that many people in the town had fled from the disease and the ongoing revolution of the time.

Cuernavaca is where I’ll go to shop for specialty foods, kitchenware or clothing, and its Walmart is often my shopping destination. Walmart’s a place I mostly scorned when I lived in Canada, resenting how its massive selection of Chinese-made goods had done great harm to North American manufacturing. Here, it’s a middle-class destination, stocking some Mexican-made goods – and the poorest people can’t afford it. But after nearly four months of not leaving the boundaries of Tepoztlan, my friend Ixchel and I decided we’d risk a trip there to get stuff we couldn’t find locally, or which needed replacement.

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The place of material plenty.

Yes, we can have goods delivered, both from Walmart and Amazon, but delivery in Mexico can be a fraught business. Drivers can’t always navigate unnamed streets or unnumbered houses, and other factors make delivery for those of us outside the main town complicated. So, we came up with our plan of attack, stressing we’d spend a minimum amount of time in the store. From memory we went through where each item would be in the place, and chose the route we’d take to get there in the Titanic. Our assumption was, we could do this efficiently, but we’d need our best smiles ready when we got back to Tepoztlan’s cordon sanitaire.

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Orange barriers at the checkpoint coming into Tepoztlan.

The Titanic is the 27-year-old Ford Explorer I currently have the use of, and while it shudders, shakes and makes a few alarming noises, it’s been reliable. In particular, it isolates us from other people. After having second thoughts about leaving the safety of our town – then third and fourth ones – we seat-belted ourselves in Tuesday afternoon, and headed out past the Tepoztlan quarantine barricade, near where the freeway exit comes into the community.

We’ve enjoyed a lot more personal freedom here than there is in many North American or European cities. For a start, we’re close to farmland and hillside trails, so we can go hiking for exercise without fear of running into large groups. And, with the low viral caseload here, we’ve been spared the hostile encounters or arguments about spacing and masking I read about in other places.

Not so Cuernavaca. Coming into the city, we found heavier traffic, and an increasing sense of greater tension. Once in Walmart’s underground parking, there were soon pedestrians yelling about us going the wrong way (like the four cars before us), and the hassle of locating a parking spot in a big, ancient SUV  And while objectively identifying a tense atmosphere is hard to do, I’d become so used to the more laid-back attitude in town, where drivers amiably yield to each other, that I wasn’t used to the city pace. I’ve lived most of my life in cities or large towns, but this was the usual city vibe plus an undeniable level of face-masked tension.

More strangely, the place was packed, on a Tuesday afternoon. I’d have expected this on a weekend, but we’d chosen Tuesday because it sounded safer.

We had to line up, buggies before us, masks on, and spaced at a two-metre distance, and slowly edge into the store. It was entirely … not what we’ve been used to. I’ve been in that store a hundred times or more, but now I felt like an asylum seeker at a border-post with especially hostile guards. Not that the security staff dispensing sanitiser were anything but polite, but an almost tangible edginess in everyone meant this was not a fun shopping experience. No, not at all.

Inside, there was none of the usual good-humoured interweaving of shopping carts and shoppers. People looked warily over their masks at each other as we navigated the crowded aisles. It felt very unMexican: a place without forgiveness. And dangerously crowded.

We made our separate beelines around the store, browsing as little as possible. Once we were back at the Titanic, we were both feeling an unfamiliar, fearful weirdness. Ixchel observed that what we’d just been through was what everyone we knew had been experiencing elsewhere.

Until this point, we’d been in our relatively safe Tepoztlan bubble, anxious about whether the pandemic would hit our community hard, but not confronted with actual cases. In the city, people were more aware of actual illnesses and deaths, and were under a corresponding pressure towards avoidance of contact.

We headed out with the loot from our retail raid without stopping until Tepoztlan, where we breezed straight through.  We ate a meal then decided to go to Ocotitlan, in the hills near here, for an early evening hike. The trees, the solitude and the meandering hillside trail helped expunge the tensions of the afternoon’s experience.

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The view above Ocotitlan, far from the crowded aisles.

The strange memories remain, though. We both decided Cuernavaca was off our list of places to visit again for the foreseeable future.

So yes, to return to my initial point: I do know what the country is facing, numerically speaking. But the dehumanisation that’s happening is now a lot clearer to me.

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Bugs and Climbing Birds

July 15, 2020

Gabriel, who’s living upstairs for a few months, identified the birds a week ago. We’d both been intrigued by their antics, as they climbed up the garage walls and the outside of the house, like lizards or squirrels.

Once he discovered the correct species, he also discovered an online recording of their song. Provided we limit the time we do it for, it’s fun to play this, and wait for a couple of them to pause and respond with their own versions.

I should explain that, since this house is built into a hillside, the builder decided to put the garage on the lowest level, so you could just drive in and park. He put the main floor (where I live) above that. Gabriel has the small apartment on the top floor.

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Our garage, where the Canyon Wrens like to hang around.

The garage is cavernous, being about 11 ft high and 35×17 ft in area. It’s open to the skies at both ends, so we get squirrels, all kinds of bugs and the birds coming in.

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A Canyon Wren. Note the long, strong toes, used for climbing.

The birds are Canyon Wrens (Catherpes Mexicanus).  From a distance they look superficially like sparrows, but do tricks no sparrow does, or (presumably) wants to do. They occur throughout western North America, from British Columbia down to Chiapas in Mexico, but since I lived most of my life in Ontario, I never saw one till I came here.

They like human-built spaces like our ground-floor garage, which is made from lava-rock. There are crevices for them poke into with their long beaks when they hunt insects. I’m guessing there are also spaces for them to nest, in greater quantity than they’d find in most actual canyons or cliff-faces. Their song can be piercing when they sing it right outside my window at 7.00 in the morning, but otherwise they’re fun to have around.

I’m wondering if, among their insectile prey, they include Cochineal bugs (Dactyloplus coccus), which live on prickly pear cacti; we have a couple in the garden here. To date, however, since these critters produce large amounts of carminic acid, a red pigment that’s toxic to predators, I’ve not seen the wrens go after them.

The bugs, which don’t really move much, used to be harvested for their colour, which stains wool particularly well. Today, they’re considered a pest, and farmers who grow these cacti (nopales) for food must spray them to keep the Cochineals off.

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The prickly pear, its leaves flopping and rotting after a summer of Cochineals eating it.

We had a magnificent nopal here until last summer, when these bugs attacked it, and soon it was covered in the white filaments they spin like cocoons, and was looking forlorn. The cactus is coming back this year, putting out new growth, and so far we have no Cochineals. The Canyon Wrens, though, seem to be having a good year, at least going by how often they’re around. I hope it stays that way.

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A Hole in the Road

July 5, 2020

Land in Mexico is like religion. You don’t trammel someone else’s acreage, and the fights over small incursions are debated with a near-theological attention to fine detail. I’ve just had first-hand experience of this.

The roadway that comes to my house divides a few yards before my entrance gates. One part continues at a lower level, seven or eight feet down from my entrance. The roadway I and another tenant here use continues past the gate, and stops a few yards further along at the gate of my neighbour, Marisa.

There is, or was, a slab of banked earth lying between the two bits of road, nourishing a tree and a bunch of shrubs whose roots held it in place. But the family that sold us this land originally, a dozen years ago, kept that piece of bank, and decided a couple of years ago to construct a small house there. Given the tiny space, and the fact that family has other land, this move was hard to explain. Then, the construction took a little of our roadway, negotiations about this broke down, and the local municipality issued a stop-construction order. The foundations of the house still sit there, with the initial walls that were built.

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The un-house seen from above, with the emerging subsidence to the right.

It still sits as an unresolved issue, tied up with counter-arguments and disputes over exact boundaries.

With the intense rains each summer, and no anchoring roots to hold it, earth from our upper roadway began to wash away. Small runnels became established, leading still more storm-water right to the eroding weak point. Last year, it was obvious a chunk of our roadway was disappearing, right in front of our garage doors. Given time, it was going to become a serious problem, making access dangerous or even impossible.

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The hole as it appeared two weeks ago.

Last month, before the rains began to fill up our cistern, I had to order a tanker-load of water, since we’re not on water-mains here. The truck was heavy, having all that water, and more earth around the hole subsided. The truck came close to going over the brink. The serious problem had arrived.

With my limited Spanish, I needed someone to negotiate with the owner of the odd little triangle of land out front, and that had to be Marisa. She’d had difficulties with the friend of mine who constructed the house I live in, so I had to pull out the diplomatic skills I’d needed as a magazine editor in my former life. (Attacking editors is a popular sport for some people).

Marisa, I should explain, is a local celebrity, who had a hit song called I’m Not the Same back when she was young, and she’s had a modest but steady career in the Mexican music scene ever since. That lends her a certain prestige, or maybe an image to live up to. She also has fluent English, and was gracious with me, understanding she had to intercede with the unfinished house’s owners, for both of us. I don’t know what she said, but she has powers of persuasion, and used them. Clearly, she understands the subtler ‘theological’ implications of “you’ve undermined my entrance.”

Now, to my mind the logical thing was to build a retaining wall in the rain-eroded space beside the un-house, then back-fill the space with earth that would then need to be compacted. And that’s sort of what’s happening, courtesy of the owner of the unfinished house. But the wall is being made in the manner of traditional field walls here, with heavy stones piled one on top of the other, without cement. And the soil behind it is not packed down very tightly. The structure looks makeshift.

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The new wall, with my entrance gate behind it.

In Mexico, you become used to some measure of disaster always being just around the corner. You tend to become a de facto anarchist, because under-enforced laws and under-budgeted government departments can’t be counted on. You either make peace with this reality, or go home. So, while the land’s owner is paying for this effort, it might be that Marisa and I will have to cough up the cash for a more serious structure in future. When it’s land you’re dealing with, even just a few square feet, the arguments tend to continue for years.

All I can do for now is be grateful that the issue’s at least kicked down the road for a while; and continue to ponder how people here manage to make their lives work in the face of constant uncertainties. But the rains this year are just beginning, and I suspect the loose-packed earth behind the wall will start to wash away before they end.

I can see being able to spin at least a half-dozen blog posts out of this spell-binding drama in the future.

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The Door Creaks Open

July 1, 2020

Canada is celebrating its national day today, something I’m marking by taking my dog Punky for a clip of his straggling wool. Yes, the Punkster and I know how to party.

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There is a dog, Punky,  inside this shapeless wool rug.

Our town of Tepoztlan is trying not to party, but might flunk that effort. After three months of more-or-less quarantine, and a small but continually growing caseload of virus infections, it’s opening more restaurants today, albeit with well-spaced tables, while hotels that carefully check their guests can also open again. The barricades at the two entrances to the town remain in place, but I’ve been noticing more outsiders showing up since mid-June.

I blogged earlier about how difficult it would be for a community with an economy heavily dependent on weekend tourists to stay locked down for long. My neighbour’s taxi often just sits outside his house these days. Some people have had to move back in with parents or other family to cover living expenses. Street vendors struggle to get by when there are no visitors. I’ve not even seen the musicians of varying talents who normally haunt the market in town, because they’d have no audience anyway.DSCF2387

Naty’s restaurant, named for the owner’s grandmother, has been a Tepoztlan institution since 1987. But until this past week, it had been shut since March.

Yep, same story as everywhere around the world. Now it’s supposed to change, though by gradual degrees. But as other governments in other countries have found, many people take any easing of restrictions as a green light to drop all caution. Add to them the people I know (and am avoiding) who still think all this is a hoax, or something overblown (cue those 5G Facebook memes!), and you can see the emerging problem. Our municipality’s case numbers to date were under 30 just ten days ago, and yesterday the tally was 43. That number should probably be multiplied by three or four to give an accurate figure.

So, my more sensible friends are nervous, and so am I. At the same time, the idea of having a meal at an outdoor restaurant is irresistible after the monotony of my own cooking since March. I’ve been to a couple of outdoor places that have remained open because they can distance their tables, but the hunger we all get is for variety more than for lunch.

Nobody has found a good answer to all this. Or rather, no-one had managed to convince enough people to be cautious enough for any decent answer to work well. Infection curves might be flatter, but in not many places are they actually flat. Mexico has been particularly bad, and most of the country is still seeing serious increases in cases. Our official death tally is just under 28,000, while the national case count is 226,000. But many cases in smaller towns go uncounted, and there’s always the problem of whether an older person who died did so because of the virus, or because of the virus plus an existing condition.

Whatever the numerical reality, we’re not at a good news point yet. I’m glad I’m in a village when plenty of open space and quiet trails where I can go for a walk. It does makes things easier.

 

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A Preference for Emergencies

June 23, 2020

When dramatic naturla events happen, I need to remember that most people think “danger.” I tend to think “Oh, cool!”

Yes, I guess I never did mature past age 15, but thanks for asking. Or, as I prefer to think, I’m not as old as I look.

I upset a couple of people last month with a post I dubbed “Oh, I’ve Seen Fire…” (scroll down for that) that was about forest fires near here, and how I found them exciting. Why? Because they are.

There’s the personal threat aspect, obviously, and I have the care of a house I rent, and a small pack of dogs who’d need to be moved if any situation became bad. But one reason I like life in Mexico is specifically because it isn’t like life in a Canadian suburb. When things get touchy here, it’s because of such fires, torrential thunderstorms, the occasional volcanic eruption and, as happened this morning, an earthquake. As a kid, I was raised to be safe, and never thought to take up rock climbing, martial arts or hang-gliding. It took me years to realise how deprived I felt of risk. Mexico is my compensation.

I’m not totally consistent in this. We had no proper water supply on the weekend, because we ran out sooner than I’d anticipated. That left me anxious and depressed, not exhilarated, until water had been delivered late Monday morning; I don’t like inconvenience. We were able to fill some bottles from a public tap in the village, while my housemate suggested filling the dog-bath there, and bringing it back in the beat-up Ford I’m currently using. That was not the best idea, since in a moving car, water in an open dog-bath slops around …

But the Ford’s almost dry now, and besides, it was all a short-lived problem. A quake is different.

We’re actually off the main fault-lines, and I can only recall a couple of occasions when I’ve felt the ground shake. I wasn’t here for the big one in 2017, though several big, old churches in this area are still being repaired after that one. When I felt I was tipping off my seat at a coffee shop this morning, I assumed it might be a persistent balance problem I have, not a temblor. It was only when I saw pictures on the wall swinging on their hooks that I knew it wasn’t me, but two tectonic plates shifting and grinding someplace.

The city hall in Tepoztlan was evacuated for forty-five minutes, as a precaution, so the adjoining market area was crowded for a while. Otherwise, nobody reacted much, and the evacuees even spaced themselves appropriately. I don’t think the waitress in the coffee shop even realised what had happened, it was so slight. I sat down again after a few moments on my feet, since the danger was minimal, and my seat was a mere three feet from the wide entrance. Only hours later, with people’s videos uploaded, could the extent of the event come clear. At least four people died, and there was a tsunami alert, since the epicentre was close to the Pacific Ocean. There were also, of course, aftershocks in that area.

So, while it might have been life-changing down in Oaxaca (“Wuh-HAH-kah”), here it was just a brief distraction. I spent way more time on Facebook explaining its insignificance (to us here), than I did being concerned over it. There just wasn’t enough kinetic energy where I was to make it memorable.

No matter. I can see the evening clouds gathering, so maybe we’ll get a real, rip-snorting, power- and internet-cutting thunderstorm tonight. One of those where the rain buckets down noisly, and the thunder crashes and echoes off the hills, and I lie in bed snug and dry, wondering how the wildlife out there handles it all.

 

 

 

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They’re Ba-a-a-a-ck

June 21, 2020

The rains are here, fitfully. That means the mosquitoes are multiplying. Hi, kids! We didn’t miss you.

Mosquitoes, if you look at them in real life and not in one of those blown-up photos, are oddly elegant little critters. Close up, they look like terrifying monsters, but in the normal range of scale, they’re oddly delicate, well-designed bugs. I try to focus on that when I realise three of them have bitten me on the ankles in five minutes.

Sometimes, I’ve clapped my hands and caught one, only to see it fly off when I open them again. They don’t crush easy. They’re flexible, like arthropodic ninjas. And they seem smart. I swear our local ones have psychic powers that tell them when they’re about to be swatted. Three times last night I had one touch down on my wrist, and was sure I could splat it. Each time, it was gone by the time my other hand struck the wrist, so the whole exercise seemed like a weird exercise in masochism.

I use a mosquito net at night, but often there’s at least one enterprising bug that makes it in under the hem of that. I read they’re attracted to carbon dioxide emissions, and other things the chemistry of our bodies produces. They’re amazingly well evolved for what they have to do, but I still wish they didn’t do it.

Now, dogs it seems, don’t react to mosquitoes’ anaesthetic saliva the way we do. They don’t itch. They get bitten, but when they’re scratching, it’s because of something else, not the mossies. I envy them that.

My four-legged buddy Rem, for example, has a particular sardonic expression for me when he sees me trying to swat the things. He looks up and out from the corner of his eye, giving the impression he’s seen through human antics by now, and thinks we’re nuts. At least, when I’m not feeding him, that is.

Mind you, he has thick fur, so he’s mostly protected against skeeters anyway. I’m getting him some anti-tick meds, because they also emerge with the rains, but mosquitoes aren’t his problem. And when I’ve tried explaining to him the drawback of not having thick body fur, he just gives me that look again, and goes back to sleep.

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Rem being unconcerned about mosquitoes. (He was too wary of the camera to look properly sardonic).

He does, though, lunge at bigger bugs, snapping his jaws. And every year when we get a kind of round, brown flying beetle that comes into the house at night, he makes himself ill by trying to eat a few. But I get no help with controlling the mosquitoes, not from him nor from the other dogs.

Citronella, despite its reputation, doesn’t seem to deter them much, and while I’ve heard they dislike cigarette smoke, that’s an aversion I share, so I’m not trying it. They come, they bite, and they ebb with the rains. That will put us in late October.

I’ll just have to keep swatting when I can, and being as tolerant as possible when I can’t. And Rem can keep on giving me that “Uh-huh, more useless effort” look.

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Happy Trails

June 11, 2020

Moctezuma II, the last-but-one emperor of the Mexica (Aztecs) was fond of fresh fish. Every day, he had some brought to him from the waters of the Caribbean by a relay system of runners.

Most of us who come here end up exploring some of the paths in the hills and mountains around us, and there can be a sense of discovering something when we do so. This feeling of pioneering only fades after we’ve had a few encounters with farmers and people gathering wood, and we realise these ancient trails are still in regular use.

They aren’t roads, they’re tracks, often with protruding rocks and short, steep stretches. A human can walk on them (carefully, of course) and presumably Moctezuma’s fish couriers ran on some of them. Since the Spanish came in the 1520s, horses, mules and the occasional burro have made the journey carrying burdens of various sizes.

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Burros are vanishing from the farms and villages of Mexico, but you can still come across them. This guy was friendly, and posed for his picture.

In the old days, there were actual roads in the lowlands, broad enough for people to pass easily. Today, these might be the routes of major highways. But the mountainous location of Tenochtitlan, which became Mexico City after the Conquest, is such that easy paths didn’t exist much. You’d have had to follow the trails the last part of the way with that fish, which of course had to arrive fresh.

Ask the right person in any community round here, and you can get information on where paths start, and where they go. Often, they’ll run for many kilometers, and it takes hours to go from one village to another. They can be fun to hike, or they can be dangerous, depending on how strong your legs are, and how flexible your knees and ankles. I’ve never had a bad accident on one, even if I’ve had a couple of tumbles, but I’m always respectful of the fact that they only exist because they were worn down by passing feet, not constructed in any sense.

Often, so many feet have passed along them that they exist in their own gulley. Summer rains assist in eroding these. The paths twist and turn their way up the hillsides, twist and turn some more through the heights, then twist and turn still more on the way down. Google Maps might show you some of them, but it can be misleading as to the actual distance you’ll need to march.

Rough trail

Where does it go – nowhere, somewhere, to a concealed valley?

Always, though, once you’re experienced, there’s that knowledge of how many generations of people might have walked along it. With paths that erode with the summer rains there’s often a more awkward one a little above the sections that fill up with mud. And sometimes land slips, and a whole new track has to be traced.

On some trails, there are also misleading almost-paths. This morning I hiked with my friend Gabriel near the village of Ocotitlan, and he wanted to avoid a return route that crossed a lot of fallen branches. He pointed out a trail that went near a cliff-edge, to which I agreed.

In 50 meters, it had dwindled to nothing. It was perhaps a track worn by deer, not people. We found ourselves in a patch of bushes that we had to push through in order to get back to a regular trail. The bushes had purple berries with red juice, and we’re still washing the stain of them out of our clothes.

But, tumbles and clothing stains aside, this is the pleasure of walking the trails. You never know exactly where one might lead – to a dead end, a cliff-edge, right back where you started an hour earlier, or to some small, otherwise invisible valley. I know my knees and other joints won’t allow me to walk on them for too many years more, but I’m postponing my retirement from trail-hiking for as many years as possible.

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The view from today’s trail – a village soccer field, farmland, and some wild rock formations.
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That Old-Time Architecture

June 5, 2020

Right now, any distraction is welcome entertainment. And my new neighbour Ysrael is constructing an old-fashioned hippie house with his wife or girlfriend. This counts as a successful distraction for me.

The heyday of hippie houses here was, I’m told, thirty to forty years ago. Land was ridiculously cheap, and there were virtually no zoning restrictions or building codes to worry about. However, most of those makeshift residences are long gone, blown down in summer storms or replaced by more substantial structures.

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The house under construction.

In time, some of the not-so-purist hippies (many of them expats) abandoned the makeshift shack concept, and, sometimes aided by a little cash from back home, constructed nicer houses out of adobe brick or cement. These days, therefore, the shacks I see made of sheet of corrugated metal, and whatever big scraps of board that are available, are quite probably built by local people with extremely limited funds.

Ysrael, who is eager to be friendly (the hippie spirit continues here), recently bought a narrow triangle of land at the end of my lane, and showed up a month or two back with a mechanical excavator to dig out foundations. He also installed a chain-link fence to keep out the cows and horses that have long used that land as pasture.

Things went quiet for a time, probably because he couldn’t get back here through the town’s quarantine measures, but by mid-May he was putting up a skeleton structure using obviously recycled wood. The week before last, walls started being infilled, and a sleeping loft, a hallmark of a true hippie house, was mostly finished last week when parts of the roof were added.

Watching it go up has felt nostalgic to me, and recalls imagery from Whole Earth Catalog days. I don’t see any signs that more than two people plan to live there, so it won’t be like those communes that still, in places, linger in parts of the western US and a couple of locations here. But it’s beguiling to see a counter-cultural emblem going up at the entrance of my laneway.

A home in Mexico does need certain things, such as a reliable water supply and solid walls and roofs (I mentioned the storms, above). You can do without a lot of things, and no-one in this village owns an air conditioner. But water is essential for cleaning both dishes and people. Electricity here is reasonably reliable except during high winds or lightning strikes (did I mention we get storms here?), and I don’t think even the last purists want to live without it now. But washing machines and a lot of appliance-type possessions can still be left out of a proper low-carbon-footprint home.

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My favourite house in the village – part Gaudi, part Tolkien, part whimsy.

I have to admire the neighbour’s energy. He and his partner, with help from a friend, have kept at it in hot weather, and say they’re determined to occupy the house by the time the rains start in a week or so.

At the same time, I look at the wooden posts that hold up the house, and wonder. Heavy rain and wood are not a long-term winning proposition. They’ve put up blankets to screen the sleeping loft for now, and I wonder if that could be in shreds by July.

And, it’s small. The house I built for myself, next door to where I now live, is scarcely 400 sq ft. That felt pretty minimalist, yet the house I’m writing about is about half that, including the loft and an outdoor bathroom. When the rains don’t let us go out for a day or two, that could get pretty confining

I hope it holds up, regardless of my concerns. Anyone building such a residence doesn’t have a lot of cash, but they have a dream. It might be one which the older hippies round here no longer heed very much, but it embodies an idealistic lifestyle concept that has largely faded, even as the need for it has grown. It’s certainly pleasant compared to one or two monster homes that have gone in around here in the past couple of years.

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My least favourite local house. I thought this would be a hotel, but it’s a private residence.
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Rain and Bright Sun

May 29, 2020

Usually, if I ride the combi microbus into town, I want to sit on the side of it that’s to the north. The sun can be very hot on your back here, and I appreciate the shadow on that side. But around this time of year, a few weeks before the summer solstice, the tropical sun has actually swung to the north of us for much of the day, so I want to sit on the opposite side, the south.

I’ve tried taking a photo of the lighting conditions when this happens, but my camera responds by actually making the light seem greyer. In reality, the luminosity has an extra brightness, and I often wonder if the UV levels are bad for my eyes. The effect, though, is to add a special graciousness to the day, and a brilliance that makes some of the tackiness or the messiness of things fade into insignificance. It reminds me of certain Spanish guitar solos that (to me) sound like they’re about avoiding work on a sunny afternoon.

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Flowers on the patio in late-morning sunshine. The greyish rug at the bottom right is my dog Punky.

The bright light comes with the rains. Last night we had a rain and wind storm that blew off a couple of neighbours’ roofing, and just before I began drafting this piece, an evening rainstorm started, with the rain bucketing down to the accompaniment of distant thunder. The rain is welcome this week because yet another fire had begun up in the hills, and last night’s showers extinguished that. This evening’s downpour ensures we don’t have a reprise.

I’m not a great fan of the rains otherwise. Somehow, water gets into the house every year during some of the storms, and there are days when it doesn’t let up. I don’t so much walk down the streets of the village, then, as wade or hop through an inch or more of water that can’t quite drain to the sides of the road. The true mega-storms are exciting to watch, obscuring the ground completely, but by August it all becomes a little tedious, and there are two more months to go at that point.

But that summer sunlight has a quality that, for me, transcends mundane human activity. If grey days and cloudy skies make for depression, or at least a melancholic pause, bright light has the opposite effect, and brings a specific uplift with it.

I assume the light also has a triggering effect on nature. Something I can never quite understand is that all the trees around me put out leaves at the start of May, before serious rain begins. We had a few showers a week or two back, but not enough (I’d have thought) to permit lush growth to start. The hog-plum trees growing in front of my home already have hard green fruit on them, however, and the ground is invisible between their branches. The village, from a distance, seems to disappear at this season, only to re-emerge after Christmas.

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The view from upstairs this evening, just before the rains hit. The main building is a local hotel, closed for now. The white tower of the village church pokes up through the leaves a short distance to its right.

The oddest fact in our climate is that with the rains, our temperatures cool, so that April and most of May are hotter than June or July. That bright, almost white, summer sunlight means we stay warm, with the only real dip into sweater-wearing weather coming around the New Year. And because the rainclouds are going to obscure the skies so much in the next four or five months, it’s all the more welcome.

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Empty Nests

May 21, 2020

April 8, I had a post (Othering) about the barricade some people from my village had put up. The idea was to keep out anyone from other local communities potentially carrying the Covid-19 virus. The flaw to my mind was the obvious one that the disease doesn’t come from “them” (hence my title), but from all of us behaving unthinkingly and carelessly. May 19, my post (Oh, I’ve Seen Fire…) was about the first serious forest fire of the season here.

The fire is now out, though water-bombing helicopters were still finishing off its last flare-ups this afternoon. And to the relief of many of us, after a violent altercation yesterday, last night it was decided to take down the barricade. People from here can now move into town freely, without “activists” from the community  interrogating or inspecting us. The barricade might have helped protect us, but with only eight official cases in a municipality of 42,000, we’ve so far dodged the bullet.

Which brings me to a different concern: the swallows. They’re here, and they want to nest, but the rain isn’t coming.

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A cliff swallow, Petrochelidon pyrrhonota. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

We did have a few showers earlier in May, and as a result puddles appeared. And when there are puddles here, there’s mud. But then the mud dried up, and while we’d be happy to have a cooling rainstorm or two, it’s stayed dry for two weeks. As a result, the swallows have not been able to rebuild their nests and lay eggs.

As far as I can determine, our swallows are the same cliff swallows from the Petrochelidon pyrrhonota species as the famous ones that come each year to San Juan Capistrano in California. Like those, they build their neat nests on the side of houses, mostly under eaves or the roofs of balconies. They’re relatively unafraid of humans, building just above arm’s reach, and you can watch the parents going in and out with food for their ravenous youngsters. At the first house I lived in here, we had a nest on the wall and the dogs would go crazy barking at the birds, which flew in beyond their ability to jump.

I’ve always regretted swallows have never set up house at this location. Yes, they poop on the ground a bit, but since they rear their young in the rainy season, the rains do a good job of cleaning that away. Their presence implies a blessing on any house they adopt as “theirs.”

But so far, as noted, the parents are mud-deprived, and can’t either build new nests or restore old ones. I see them swooping around, and I even tried to photograph a couple, but they move too fast for anything but a specialty camera with a high-speed lens. The best I could do was dig out a grainy photo of the nest at the old house.

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The nest here was built using an outdoor light-bulb as a support.

Maybe I should have asked one of the helicopter pilots to water-bomb the village. The kids here love to watch the choppers on fire-dousing missions, and the birds could finally have started on their most important annual chore: developing avian real estate. But I’m just a little wary of community activists after five weeks of the barricade.

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Oh, I’ve Seen Fire …

May 19, 2020

One of my earliest memories is of being upset at my parents because they didn’t wake me when a neighbour’s garage caught fire in the night. I’d heard of fires, even though I was perhaps four years old, but never seen one. Finally, one happened four doors down, and I missed it. I was not happy.

Just eight years ago, we had a very bad spring fire season here in Amatlan, and there were discussions about evacuating along with the dogs. It never got that serious, though people with asthma found it hard to breathe with the smoke coming down from fires on the cliffs above the village.

I confess, I enjoyed the drama, even if I was glad no homes were destroyed. Fires remain one of my guilty pleasures. They’re dramatic, and (as my friends and I had discussed) possibly life-threatening. They certainly break up the monotony of a semi-quarantined life.

Our weather from February through to late April was unusually hot and dry this year, and I was expecting the spring fires to be really bad again. But we had a week or so of intermittent nocturnal rains in early May, and it looked like we’d dodge the problem this time. However, the rains stopped, and the past ten days have, again, been hot and dry.

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Today’s fire belching smoke., seen from about half a mile away.

Apparently the state of Morelos has had other fires, but I saw my first local one this afternoon, driving with a friend to take a walk in a favourite area. The flames had broken out high in the hills where no-one could climb easily (the rock is often very friable), and huge clouds of smoke were rising up out of a canyon. I slowed down, nearly hit a motorcyclist, and after getting back where I should have been on the road, enjoyed the view for a few moments. I couldn’t take a photo till later, when only smoke could be seen, but the fire was clearly covering a fair bit of real estate.

We read these days that fires are a necessary part of good forest management. The problem, of course, is that people like to build homes up in the hills, surrounded by trees. Houses and forests prone to fires are a bad combination. I read online this evening that fifteen homes in the area of the blaze had been evacuated as a precaution.

I confess that the element of risk is what entices me about big fires. I don’t do truly stupid things around them (even if that motorcyclist might demur), but a couple of years, I tried to get as close to them as was reasonable without risking being caught by a sudden flare-up. Teams of volunteer firefighters go up to deal with the flames, beating them out or possibly creating fire-breaks, so I stayed a measured distance behind them.

The night-time imagery, which is almost impossible to capture with my camera, is the best. You can see the orange glow of flames behind a crest or a big rock, then a tree catches light and goes up like a torch. The effect can be very Hieronymus Bosch. It’s a reminder how dangerous nature can be, if a pandemic doesn’t do that for you.

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The fires above our village in 2012, photographed at night.

The smell of smoke here, two or three miles from the blaze, isn’t bad tonight. But now I have to wonder if it will be beaten out or water-bombed by tomorrow, or whether it will perhaps move closer in our direction. And, of course, whether other fires will occur, closer to here.

Like I said, it’s a guilty pleasure, and I don’t wish ill-will to my neighbours. On the other hand, if nature starts it, I’m always ready to appreciate it.

Provided, naturally, that it doesn’t come that close to my house.

 

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The Unbearabable Lightness of Quarantine

May 11, 2020

This afternoon, while I was lying around not really getting into a nap, it occurred to me that I’m doing this quarantine thing all wrong. I’m not, I realised, learning anything significant.

I am learning a lot of things, or maybe I should say observing a lot of things that I already knew. For example, that dogs are far better at handling tedium than humans. They sleep at least 14 hours a day, and can boost that by several hours if there’s a lack of stimulus on offer. Can dogs even get bored? I don’t know, but they seem designed for it much more than humans are.

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Victoria contemplates not needing to contemplate anything, because she’s a dog.

I’ve also observed that faith in commmunity barricades is misplaced. Each time I’m waved through the “frontier post” outside the village, I wonder just how much it keeps out anything. Last week, coming back on the combi microbus, I watched a young man offer a persuasive line and a dodgy document to the woman checking passengers. Given the knowing looks he and his girlfriend from the village exchanged after we were waved on, it looked like they’d pulled off a small scam. And I don’t doubt others manage this.

But then, trucks come in every day bringing propane, drinking water, and supplies for the stores. The combi drivers aren’t from the village. And so on: it isn’t one building being kept secure, it’s a community of 1200 people we live in, and the traffic, while light, is constant.

The oddest experience at the checkpoint came on Saturday when, after driving two friends into town to shop, so we wouldn’t have to share the bench seating in a combi, I was bidden to roll my windows shut. A man with a motorised spray system then stepped forward and subjected the aged vehicle I’m using to a stream of some form of antiseptic. Not us (there were by then just two of us in the truck), but the vehicle’s exterior.

Admittedly, it didn’t have a giant face-mask over its grille, and it might not have kept a two-metre distance from other vehicles in the parking lot, but somehow this seemed utterly pointless. Somebody had had an idea; and, like all those over-excited Youtube conspiracy videos I hide from, it perhaps seemed superficially plausible at first. But I can’t imagine spraying the fading paint-job preserved anyone’s safety.

Still, my main point is, I’d hardly call this a significant discovery. Have I realised that early 21st Century capitalism is failing? No, and I suspect it will come through this unhindered, at least in general. Will the pandemic persuade everyone to care more about other people? Possibly, but mostly, we’re all just getting grumpy with each other. Have I concluded we’ll finally grasp we have to stop overexploiting the planet’s resources? I haven’t, and I doubt it.

All I really notice is the aforementioned grumpiness; that, and a longing to sneak into town every morning for a coffee and a conversation, even a pointless one, as often occurs with randomly arriving acquaintances. For now, I see the two friends who came into town with me fairly regularly, but that’s it. And yes, we try to keep proper distance.

Meaning, and meaningful realisations, arise out of having a basic measure of social interactions to ground them. They can’t exist effectively in a field of abstraction. Even in prisons, people preserve their sanity by setting up routines. Solitary confinement drains that groundedness, that sense of meaning arising from connectedness. Being alone produces boredom, which vitiates even the need for meaning.

I’m therefore left with one learned truth, one positive conclusion so far. People are predicting more pandemics in future, and to be prepared from them, I’ve realised I need to come back in my next lifetime as a dog.

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The Gasman Cometh

May 7, 2020

One of the sounds that’s partly disappeared from our village is from trucks coming to sell  or buy things. I no longer, for example, hear the bread-truck every evening playing the bread-vendor song from a classic 1950 movie, because it isn’t allowed through the quarantine barricade. Similarly, the pick-up that comes round buying scrap metal such as old stoves, furniture, or even mattresses (for the springs) no longer shows up.

Everyone here cooks and heats water using propane. Given that electrical storms easily knock out the power, it’s helpful to have a means of cooking that isn’t depending on lightning-stunned cables. To supply the propane, trucks usually come by every half-hour or so, selling cylinders of it. However, the quarantine has changed that, and only two trucks a day are allowed in.

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The propane cylinder in position, with my water heater on the wall to the left.

Yesterday as I was making lunch, I thought the gas-flame was a little low on the stove. My sage observation proved right five minutes later when it went out. Half my lunch remained uncooked.

Now, usually, I’d have waited thirty minutes or so for a sound like a car alarm, which would have told me a gas truck was in the village. But not yesterday. I sat at home for an hour or two, hoping to hear the familiar discordant sound, and there was nothing.

A helpful friend persuaded me to buy an electric hot-plate, because otherwise I’d have had no water for today’s first, essential mug of tea. But with no gas this morning for the water heater, all I had was a very fast cold shower. And i thda to be fast because I needed to listen for the gas guys.

Catching the gas truck is an art. I live 150 yards from the street, so I can’t just stick my head out the window and yell. I need to be ready, with shoes on, the moment I hear that discordant bleating, to get out the door fast. Since my house is on an incline, with cliffs behind me and to the north (left as I look out), the truck’s unlovely sound is directed and deflected in such a way that I then have to guess on which side of the village it’s moving.

So, it becomes like hunting for a dog that’s run off. I must select the more likely direction in which to head when I hit the street: to the right, and the road that more or less marks the western boundary of the village; or left, and into its centre. Which makes sense today? What do my ears tell me?

Ideally, they tell me it’s coming along the western roadway, and I can just wait and flag it down. The church is 200 yards towards the centre, and the gas trucks usually loop around it and its neighbouring cross-streets, so that they don’t miss a needy customer. But if I catch the truck there, I have to direct the driver back to my door. Sometimes it’s just one person on his own, and (in non-quarantine times) I can hop in. Sometimes though, like today, there are two men, who take turns carrying the heavy (100 lb+) cylinders. With no spare seat, I end up repeatedly explaining, with serious hand-signals, how to find my almost invisible laneway and my (from the street) invisible gate, then chasing back up the sloping roadway after the truck.

Dignity is not preserved.

The consequence of all this is, often, an absurd sense of victory that I have gas once more. I have found the truck, directed it to my entrance, and acquired the cylinder. I have succeeded in ensuring my comfort for another four or five weeks.

Then I can do it all again.

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Here Comes the Rain Again

May 5, 2020

This year, our rainy season appears to have started a month early. Normally it hits in the later part of June, but a small storm on the night of April 30 began an intermittent pattern of rainfall that, combined with lightning strikes, has twice knocked out our electrical power.

I’m not a great fan of the rains, which tend to breed flies and mosquitoes, as well telling the plant life in the dogs’ corral that it now has permission to overgrow all the available space. This year, I also wonder if the drop in temperatures they bring, combined with less sunshine, will enable to virus to spread more easily. Covid-19 is a very strange disease, as we’ve all read, but there are indications it doesn’t like heat or sunshine, which we’ve had in abundance since February. That advantage now dissipates.

That said, the rain fills our cistern, running through a triple filter system that keeps out vegetation and small bits of stuff in general. That means we don’t need to buy non-potable water for a few months. It also produces aesthetic effects such as evocative cloud formations, or full-on Wrath of the Gods lightning storms. Those terrify at least one of the dogs, and I’m quite likely to find she’s disappeared yet again, only to show up cowering under my bed while sharp claps of thunder resound off the cliffs surrounding the village.

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Evocative cloud formations: misty wraiths stalk the hillside opposite my house. Photo from June 2019.

This May, after a long dry winter, there were fears of a vintage year for forest fires breaking out on the mountains behind us. That possibility is now drastically reduced.

While the barricade outside the village is still manned by solid numbers of volunteers, 24 hours a day, there is anticipation that the town of Tepoztlan might relax its police-enforced separation from the rest of the country in a few weeks. That would mean the barricade, which is legally a very dubious enterprise, would follow suit. Anticipation is in the air along with frustration, but I’m sure we’re not yet ready to drop our protective measures.

And this assumes, of course, that the drop in temperatures, combined with possible relaxed social and commercial restrictions, doesn’t bring a surge in infection. In a week Tepoztlan has gone from two cases to five, which is not a lot, but is also isn’t encouraging. Everything this year is in question.

Hence, the rains themselves are reassuring, simply because they remind us we’re connected to a grander cycle of nature. That cycle doesn’t follow an exact calendar, but its existence, demonstrated most recently by last night’s brief storm, is one of the things we’re all clinging to in this bizarre, disorienting spring.

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Meetings and Masks

May 3, 2020

Usually, exiting the barricade outside the village is easy. It’s getting back in when you need to smile your smiliest smile, and be ready with proof that you live here.

But they’ve changed the rules, and yesterday, when three of us went for shopping, we had to stop to obtain a ticket. The new requirement is that we get back within two hours. Which, for the three of us, was pushing it. We were headed into town to take care of a bunch of chores and shopping, and allowing us scarcely more than an hour in town to handle them was not going to be enough.

Robin is the best negotiator of the three of us, and she managed to get us a one-hour extension. So, we went on in, and I got the cash I needed, and the gas for the truck, and a few other things, while the others went off and bought what they needed.

There were far more facemasks in evidence now than there were even a week ago. Tepoztlan officially has two cases of the virus, though one source says three. Either way, to date we’ve dodged the worst of it. Since we’ve had an extended hot spell, with a lot of sunshine, I assume the weather been a major ally, since social distancing happens intermittently, at best.

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My collection of facemasks is growing. The fabric ones were a friend’s gift.

As we headed back, I wondered: would the barricade guardians turn us into a pumpkin and mice if we were late? But we never found out, and they just waved us back in.

In the afternoon, the village was holding an informational meeting, so I headed down to the civic plaza, to learn what I could learn. It was no surprise (this is Mexico) that the meeting started late, but they might have set a new record for waiting time. There was a diversion when a man showed up with a disinfecting unit to spray all round the plaza, and everyone had the sense to move away from him. But otherwise, we sat, a hundred or more of us, most of us in our masks, and waited. It was an hour and a half after the announced start that the community leaders were ready.

While I was waiting, a man came and sat next to me on the wall surrounding the plaza. He was not, unlike most of us, wearing a facemask. “It’s not started yet?” he asked, and I assured him it hadn’t. I inched further down the wall while he chatted with someone on his other side.

After some playing around with electrical supplies and a speaker, the meeting finally began.

There was, as a woman who lives on my street complained, no news. They needed more volunteers for the barricade,we were told, especially on the night shift. This disease can be really serious, especially for older people. And we have to avoid going out if we can. Which, for almost everyone, begged the question: Why then, are we here? It was like an outtake from a bad Monty Python movie. “We’ve called you here to remind you all to stay home as much as possible.”

After fifteen minutes, I became the second person to leave.

The battle here, obviously, is with educational standards and comprehension. The idea that an asymptomatic person could be a disease carrier is hardly ever mentioned, so most people still believe that if they have no symptoms, they’re fine. I saw two men greet each other with a handshake, and on the way to the meeting, passed a half-dozen people coming for a Saturday evening family gathering.

Mexico City, I read, has well over 5,000 cases, and accoding to health ministry staff, probably far more that are unreported. This state, Morelos, has around 400 in total, about a quarter as many as in the main city of Cuernavaca. But it isn’t social distancing and masks that are keeping us safe. I mentioned the warmth and the sunlight as possible helpful factors. But mostly, I think we’ve just had incredible luck so far.

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A Doctor in Every Cafe

April 29, 2020

One of the things about this part of Mexico with which a newcomer must come to terms is that it’s full of New Agers. Some are young, some are middle aged, and quite a few are people who cut their philosophical teeth on the impressively dull books of Carlos Castañeda, 40 years ago. And they neither know nor care that he was stripped of the PhD he was initially awarded for his non-existent fieldwork in Mexico with Yaqui Indian shamans. I could never finish a Castañeda book, despite the acclaim he achieved in the 1970s, and when he was exposed as a fraud, I felt relieved that I’d truly missed nothing. He had remarkably little to say, and took several volumes to say it.

But I rarely mention that around here. He is still spoken of with reverence in certain circles.

My real problem, though, comes when there’s a mention of illness. You mustn’t mention that stuff in a local cafe. And right now, disease is at the top of everyone’s mind.

If I comment that my knee is a little inflamed because I’m getting arthritic (as is so this week), or that I don’t always sleep well, I risk inviting a lecture about the virtues of garlic, or turmeric, or oregano oil. If I say I’ve tried these without effect, or that (heresy of heresies) I think homeopathy simply works like any other placebo, I’m subjected to a half-hour lecture on my lack of understanding, or my failure to prepare the medicine properly, or my past programming. In the years I’ve been here, hardly anyone has ever said anything like “Well, acupuncture doesn’t work for everything;” or, “I didn’t find Ayurvedic medicine did a damned thing for me, either.” I can say I did find acupuncture significantly helped a joint injury; but its failure to address a minor but persistent infection will always be due to my lack of appreciation of the method’s gradual effects, not the fact it isn’t a panacea. And this, doubt it not, will be more important than my finding it positively helpful in certain ways.

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Sometimes it works. Sometimes … it doesn’t work.

Normally, I keep my grumbles to myself. This is, overall, a laid-back kind of place, and someone else’s obsessions aren’t my problem. But in the current situation, the most aggressively assertive “spiritual” people around me are suffering worse than the cynics and skeptics. They’re agitated, and to mention this to them is to invite probing queries about my own lack of equanimity. Which, admittedly, gets shaky.

But these people know that the virus is really a Chinese weapon, or a product of a CIA black ops program, or something that the Gates Foundation worked on for years. For some (I commend the tortured creativity that went into this one), it’s all three at once.

Alternatively, they know Covid-19 is really irrelevant, and the real problem is some failure of perfection or at least self-attunement in those who become ill from it. I should therefore ditch my face-mask and stop asking my lecturer to step back a few feet, and stop thinking “negatively.”

Such inflexible perspectives offer little in the way of enhanced resilience during a period of deprivation. Pop spirituality’s conceptual conceits don’t deal well with hard suffering. In my experience, only the people who hold to a more solid tradition, with firmer expectation of life’s graver ordeals, have significant inner resources to fall back on.

My case of the grumps over this is intensifying by the day now. I’ve “snoozed” several fervent anti-vaxxers on Facebook for 30 days, since my own agitation is sometimes a bit much for me, and reading theirs on top of it became intolerable. I sneakily try to avoid various true believers and the beliefs they’re true to if I happen to see them while out shopping. I pop my regular, allopathically prescribed pill every morning that treats a geezerish condition quite effectively, and avoid any discussion that includes the words “Big Pharma.”

But how long can I go on like this? If we’re locked down much longer (in the relative way that Mexico is locked down, which doesn’t seem to bother too many people in the village), will I end up lovingly sharpening the larger kitchen knives one morning? Will I start appraising the defensive capabilities of the garden implements? Will I start sticking needles into home-made poppets, and chanting the names of people who can’t hold their peace, or their prescriptions, around me?

Outside right now, there’s a wind blowing, and a spring rainstorm seems in the offing. It’s pleasant, and cooling, and calming, and the two dogs sleeping near my feet are enjoying the breeze after the extreme heat and humidity of the afternoon. Together, we can enjoy the quiet before the storm.

I can, anyway, as long as nobody mentions the curative properties of Chinese mushrooms, or tells me, with that tone that implies “O, thou unawakened one” that they’re a Reiki master who can eliminate my lockdown blues. Otherwise, everything might – might – be just fine.  And the knives can stay in their drawer.

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The Waiting Game

April 23, 2020

The little expat community of which I’m a part keeps wondering how Mexico will manage overall in the months and years to come. The indicators are grim, so we’re all gazing into whatever we keep around as our equivalent to a crystal ball.

To date, the officially confirmed Covid-19 caseload in our municipality remains at one. Reportedly, the patient visited the US some weeks ago, and came back with the virus. The nearby town of Yautepec has five, while the capital of our state of Morelos, Cuernavaca, has 43. Just 20 people in the state have died. This is low, and of course we keep wonder-hoping if it might just stay like this.

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A rainy season view from near my village, looking towards Cuautla, Morelos’ second city.

But as we all realise, this situation isn’t really about the reams of statistics that news media keep putting out because there are so few events their reporters can cover any more. The human impact bites closer to home, and it’s impossible to say how that will play out.

Eggs here are sold by the kilogram, not by the dozen. A month ago, I was paying 19 pesos for a half-kilo (eight eggs) once a week.  Last week, it was 22 pesos, and yesterday, I paid 24. Some fruits and vegetables seem to have gone up a little, though there are always variations from vendor to vendor here. But UHT milk, usually 19 pesos a litre, is also at 22 pesos a litre.

As I’ve blogged previously, my Canadian dollar is flying compared to the Mexican peso, and price-hikes are no problem for me. For my neighbours, several of whom are not working or are working part-time, it has to be a problem. Ergo, it could become a problem for me as the situation deteriorates, and desperation sets in. We supposedly end quarantine in early May, but that might make little practical difference. This community is hanging together, but stress is stress, and in my own life, few things have provoked as much stress as the times that my income barely matches my cost of living.

A fall in fuel prices has helped to some extent, since it makes shipping goods less expensive. And this is a farming community, with people well used to raising crops, so there’s no immediate threat to food supplies. We think.

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This is a farming community and this rooster agrees with that.

Still, we expats keep on speculating. The plunge in oil prices has hit the mostly state-owned oil producer Pemex, which has sent the Mexican peso into an ever-deeper downward spiral. Hence the higher prices for food, as the peso is worth less by the week. Manufacturing is mostly suspended, as of course are schools; and, in our town, restaurants, hotels, souvenir shops, and various food shops. Making face-masks is a new sideline for some people, but they only sell for a few pesos.

What, then, will the locals do when their meagre savings run out? How will Mexico handle a slowdown in demand from the US for its manufactured goods? When will the tourists come back? The questions always hang in the air.

Then, for us older people, there are pensions. Will our government pensions be cut as debt back home surges? How much will earnings based on dividends from investments dwindle? It’s unlikely Mexico will turf us out, since those pensions are valuable income. But will our communities tire of us, or decide we’re taking their food?

Thus goes the late-night narrative in our heads. So far, as I gladly and repeatedly note, the people around me are maintaining their usual good cheer, and a cynicism about the illusion of material progress or decline. I’m seeing more farmers who own one using their horses, to save having to buy gas or put wear on their pick-ups, but otherwise life goes on.

There are essentially no beggars in our village, and relatively few in the town. But I find myself reaching into my pocket for coins more readily when one does approach me. Visitors, their likeliest donors, are down by 95 per cent. I’m sensitive to being seen as a skinflint where a month ago I was more likely to be dismissive. I’m profligate with tips on the few occasions I buy prepared food. People have relatives, and they gossip about the tight-fisted.

So it goes. The President wants to re-open things at the end of May, while some state governors think that’s too risky. It’s okay, it seems to be okay, it might stay okay; but it might not remain okay. Nobody knows.

It’s a time when waiting is our only option. And sometimes argue. The town has a couple of Trump fans, who occasionally still stick their heads out, while there are other people who believe all this is from a karmic imbalance, not a virus, and who see no need to observe social distancing. Sharp words are exchanged where before we just smiled and shrugged it off.

Beyond that, we try to support each other as strangers in a not-so-strange land. And we wait.

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Cicadas, Sanitizer and Hysterical Misery

April 18, 2020

Yesterday, I heard a buzzing in the plants outside the kitchen. I found it came from a cicada that was having trouble. I tried to help it up, but then discovered it had developed with one wing shorter than another. In an hour, it was dead.

Which was not a problem for the cicada population as a whole. This morning, they began that high-pitched chorus that, at its peak, sounds like an iron foundry. It was so loud, I considered getting the earplugs I keep for when the dogs in the village stage a 1.00 am bark-athon.

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A cicada and its abandoned larval casing.

But I was glad to hear it, since it reminded me that most of nature was still doing its thing, unhindered.

In town, more stores seemed to have closed up, and the market was almost deserted. The Zocalo, the main square, is sealed off to prevent people socialising, and no-one can enter the market without first using hand sanitizer.

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Before entering the market, you must use hand sanitizer. Last week, they had young people policing everyone who tried to sneak in with their hands unsanitized.

Emma, who runs Buenos Tiempos cafe, was happy to see me for the first time in more than a week, even if I only wanted to risk a take-out cappuccino. Like most store owners in Tepoztlan, she has laid off her staff and is managing on her own.

I bought an oatmeal cookie that was dry, because she’s sold so little recently.  I hadn’t the heart to complain. This must be the toughest time she’s ever faced.

Back at home in the village, I noticed that the plum tree on the other side of this property is already coming into full leaf. There are even tiny plums forming in the branches.

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The plum tree is putting forth leaves, without benefit of rain.

We’ve had no significant rain for months, and nothing at all since March. How does nature manage to re-start when there is nothing to moisten the soil, or to signal to cicadas that it’s time to come out? I don’t know, but it happens, and it’s happening now.

The people manning the village “frontier barricade” are still there. Last evening I saw they had a bamboo rod to make a more visible barrier to incoming traffic. There’s often a small truck parked by the side of the road that they won’t admit. People here drive around collecting scrap metal, or selling bread or fruit, but they’re not being admitted to Amatlan. It’s hard for them.

Oddly, if you rent a place that you hardly ever use, but have a signed lease, you can still get in. I was out getting a tlacoyo for lunch (a folded-over taco, basically) when I passed a gaggle of rich hippie kids. Their tattoos were very professional, and their quasi-Indian clothing was clean and nicely finished. And until I said my “Buenas tardes,” which we do here, they were going to ignore me, like all the other rich hippie kids who come in on weekends.

The quarantine continues, but it’s selective. More reason, I felt, to feel fed up.

This afternoon, while I was in the bedroom cleaning, I heard what sounded like another stranded cicada, but in the living room. It turned out to be a lovely green songbird that had flown in through the open door, and was knocking itself out against the window. When I used my hat and my hand to trap it, it went limp, as if it assumed its time was up.

Moments later, it realised it was outside. I removed my restraining hand, and it shot off back to freedom. This happens once or twice ever year, because I leave the living room door to the patio open for two of the dogs to come in and out. It’s a little tense, since injuring small birds’ wings is easy to do. But each time it also makes a lovely moment of contact with the wild world that lives around my house, with the added pleasure of exhilaration as the creature flies free.

Then, yet another “Bill Gates is a terrible murderer” meme showed up on Facebook. In this episode, the tireless evildoer had, apparently, taken over one of India’s health agencies and forced children to receive a flawed polio vaccine, for which he was personally responsible. Many had died.

When I checked, I couldn’t find any actual source for this story beyond the meme. The fact that viable and safe polio vaccines have already existed for decades should have been the clue, but paranoid fantasies about this latest supervillain are apparently helping some people cope with the tension of the lockdown.

I kind of understand this. Simultaneously, I’m left sad and frustrated that so many think spreading nonsense is how they can “help.”

And now it’s late afternoon, and I’m sitting in my living room, lazily writing a blog post and looking out the windows. The Sun is shining on the cliffs opposite, creating that effect that makes the rocks, with their hundreds of partly eroded strata, look like the intricately carved temples of Angkor Wat. It’s hazy today, from dry-season dust and some farmers who are burning the stubble in their fields, but the detail is still there.

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The effect of “temples” is lost in a photo, but the strange beauty of the rocks is still evident.

The natural cycle goes on. And at some point, our human world will also pick up. Haltingly but steadily, with a lot of accumulated hurt, it will come back to something less scared, angry and bored. And perhaps the online mob of angry people, who wield memes instead of pitchforks, can calm their fevered imaginations.

Freud’s famous line comes to mind in this context:

“Much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health, you will be better armed against that unhappiness.”

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Othering

April 8, 2020

What concerns me right now isn’t getting the virus, but the hunt for scapegoats. China and the World Health Organisation, says Washington. The New World Order is in there, obviously. And somehow, Bill Gates became a bad guy, too. In Mexico, (apart from the annoying President), it’s anyone who’s “other.”

Sunday night, the village’s ayudante (a sub-mayor, basically) announced the new rules over the speaker system attached to the church. They were even repeated in somewhat halting English. A friend of mine reported feeling included by this, while I felt an implicit threat: “You too, gringos! So listen up.”

I hoped my friend was right.

Our nearby town, Tepoztlan, like many others in Mexico, has officially shut itself off from the outside, without perhaps considering how this will work. Or won’t work. Most of our food comes from neighbouring communities, as does … well, most of everything. With 80 truck drivers a day coming in, as well as various workers, how isolated can things be?

My village, as previously noted, has its own barricade on the highway. In theory, this could have helped, but it was put up weeks too late to make a difference. We have our first case of Covid-19 here, a woman who reportedly visited the U.S. recently. This morning, I chatted with my neighbour as we took our garbage down for the weekly collection, and she said there were also two cases in the town.

I had “the talk” with myself in late March, reminding myself that I was in Mexico, not Canada. If I chose to stay, I’d be responsible for myself. People here don’t necessarily grasp how viral infection operates, and social distancing only works when everyone realises they could be an unwitting carrier. I’d have to be look out for myself. Which, of course, would mean I was also looking out for others, even the ones who thought my face-mask was amusing.

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The village’s highway barricade, take from a safe, socially distant distance.

The couple of times I’ve been through the security barricade outside the village, I’ve noted some of the people manning it standing close to each other, maskless, and drinking. Not all of them, but if a third of the people don’t grasp what the problem is (and it’s probably more), then there’s no safety created. But hey, they’re keeping out the sick people, right?

Putting the blame onto someone else – outsiders – shifts responsibility. But at 11.00 last night, there was loud music at a house 200 yards away, and you don’t blast late at night just for yourself, unless perhaps you’re an unrepentant Black Sabbath fan. There are some in Mexico, but I knew the noise meant people were sharing some of the village’s rapidly diminishing supply of beer, and probably not sitting five or six feet from each other.

The nastiest thing that’s emerged has been attacks on medical staff at hospitals and health centres. I’d hoped it was just a couple of over-hyped instances, but yesterday I read that nurses and doctors had laid 28 reports of some form of attacks.

They’re “others,” the dangerous people who might be carrying the bug. Not like us people who aren’t sick – we’re not a problem, but those people in the green or white scrubs might be. No, you can’t get on this bus to go home, you dangerous, albeit self-sacrificing, hospital employee.

And no, you outsiders can’t come to this village where most of us continue to ignore any suggestion to maintain our distance from each other.

I can only hope such abuse doesn’t happen round here, and there’s some appreciation for the medical personnel risking their lives in the under-equipped health centres and hospitals. Those, I stress, are much better than what was on offer a couple of decades ago, but this pandemic will push many of them over the brink.

And yet … I realise that if I get seriously ill, it’ll be a risky business. But because there is space in this village, and wide streets creating no need to pass close to other residents, I feel honestly safer than people who live elsewhere probably assume I do.

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I’ve stocked up on essentials for the next month … or two.

Beyond that, I’ve stocked up on essentials, set up a mutual support group with local friends, and take exercise only where I don’t expect to run into anybody else.

Plus, just as every other pet owner has noticed, the dogs like having me around more. So I do feel appreciated.

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Turning Up The Heat

April 12, 2020

This past Thursday morning was when the manure hit the ventilation system. That was the day Mexico’s health ministry let it be known that while the national count of Covid-19 cases was officially still under 3,500, the reality was probably around 26,500. A low level of testing, and delays in getting test results, was affecting the national tally, so this was their best guesstimate.

Within hours the mayor of our town of Tepoztlan had sent police to the town’s entry point from the freeway that comes from Mexico City. Anyone not from this locality was turned back. Further, the main square in town, the zocalo, was sealed off, so people wouldn’t hang out there as they usually do.

A short while later, I discovered local residents had taken vigilante action, and had blocked the only road into my village. It helps that I’m part of a visible minority, and they knew I was a local resident and let me through. Oddly, I have no ID that has my current address on it. So, as often happens here, I had to trust to people’s nosiness (they know who I am better than I know them), plus their goodwill, to get me through.

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The barricade on the way into our village. (Photo: courtesy Robin Rainbow Gate)

Others were refused admittance. And since farmers have things like machetes, and aren’t afraid to use them for non-agricultural purposes, there wasn’t much argument.

The next day, I tried to buy a garafon or large bottle of drinking water. Every store in the village had been cleaned out, and there was no certainty about when re-stocking would happen. One little store had somewhat smaller bottles, so I bought two of those to last me till mid-week.

Finally, people had gotten religion.

But it wasn’t all common-sense and community well-being. One small town 20 miles from here had a minor riot when people protested against admitting patients with the virus to their local hospital. They actually threatened to burn down the facility if this happened, fearing the disease would be imported into their community.

In other places, nurses have reported being abused in public, for the same reason. This isn’t just a Mexican thing, I found out, and some stores and banks in Quebec are refusing to serve hospital personnel. “You’re heroic in what you’re doing, but stay away from me.” It’s understandable, but depressing at the same time. Any problem has a solution. How about a sign reading “Please wear a mask in here, ’cause even if we love you, we’re a bit scared of where you work,” for example?

The effects of the epidemic have become apparent by degrees over the past few weeks. The town was getting progressively more deserted, and my next-door neighbour, a cab driver, has been home a lot. Face-masks are finally starting to show up, and I’m seeing more ads for restaurants offering home delivery. The little cafe in our village that closed three weeks back is now offering coffee and a limited selection of meals on a take-out basis.

Mexico’s President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has been consistently unhelpful. After giving Bolsonaro-ish bad advice for weeks, he ordered many industries deemed inessential to shut down for a month, while demanding that company owners continue to pay the staff. I’m no rabid free marketeer, but I do understand basic economics. And we all know shutdowns can be extended.

First the breweries were ordered closed, and they complied: then they were told they could re-open. Then, they were again deemed inessential by the Health Ministry. Who’s in charge here? That depends on what you mean by “who” and “in charge.”

The best estimate right now is that Mexico’s wave of infections will peak by the month’s end, or maybe at the start of May. The very warm weather in this part of the country is probably minimising the count, but it hasn’t, as many people hoped, managed to stop the disease.

Social cohesion in general, however, seems solid right now, at least if we don’t count the attacks on nurses. Last night our village, which has a speaker system on its church, broadcast instructions in Spanish and English, issued by the local mayor. They were sensible and fair, given the circumstances, and the inclusion of expats who are predominantly English speakers was heartening. Even if their federal government is a dubious enterprise, I still maintain my support and gratitude to Mexicans as a people.

 

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The Joys of Barkish

April 9, 2020

A friend of mine posted on her blog recently:

“I guess I’ll have to settle for the cats and the dog for my wordless communications. I do feel fairly fluent in Cat, but I am still working on my Dog awareness.”

I’m the opposite. I used to be the personal attendant of a cat (they don’t have ‘owners’), and when I came home from work each evening, she’s miaow at me. I’d miaow back. Then she’d do a double miaow, and again I’d echo her. At one point we hit reciprocal triple miaows, but then she got bored, and gave up the game. Or maybe my Cattish accent was so bad, she had no patience with it. I probably sounded like a tourist lost here in Mexico, grinding through mis-vocalised vowels and badly conjugated verbs, trying to get directions for the hotel his GPS says is across the street, when it isn’t.

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There are rumours cats are evolving to be more like us.

Barkish is a different language. Having looked after a half-dozen or more dogs during my times in Mexico, I’m reasonably certain it’s a tonal language. There are variations in pitch that, if you can echo them, sound a bit like language to a dog. A single utterance can’t last more than three seconds, or it becomes too complex for the animal, but a short phrase, maybe hitting three pitches, each a couple of tones apart (no more), seems to make a dog listen.

I found this bizarre skill useful when I first returned to this village a year and a half ago. I always thought of myself as being “on” the team of dogs, but I was bitten by three in the space of four months. “That never used to happen,” I thought one time, as I looked at the red and purple wound above my ankle, and I tried to figure out what I was doing wrong.

Over time, I probably began smelling more like the local people. I’d eaten the food, drunk the water, used the local brands of soap, and gotten the dust of the streets into my clothing. But also, I learned that a soft, bitonal growl, made from the side of my mouth, seemed to disarm acts of aggression. I’ve not even been seriously threatened in a year now.

We naturally assume that any language is made up of nouns and verbs: names and actions, with some qualifying adjectives, prepositions and conjunctions thrown in. Barkish, if I’m right, is about states of being: Everything’s cool; You’re a jerk and I want to bite you; I think your tail is so cool; I want food now. I have to render these concepts in English words here, but the growls themselves don’t actually operate on that basis.

I tried one experiment a day or so ago that seemed to work, which might, in part, verify my theory. Two of the four dogs currently here stay in a corral beside the house all day. One, the incorrigible Rem, needs to be there to stop him getting out and killing the neighbours’ chickens for fun. His buddy, Woody, is in there because they’re pals, and dogs don’t like being alone all day.

When evening came, and I wanted to let them out of the corral to eat, Woody especially would bark at maximum volume. He’s not actually my dog, but one I’m looking after for someone who’s away, and he seems quite neurotic compared to my others. Since I had to bend to move a large stone that kept the corral gate shut, this being necessary to foil Rem’s ingenious escape techniques, each evening I’d have 90 decibels of Woody right in my ear.

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Woody in laid-back mode.

Finally, I decided to try my Barkish on him.
“Ah-row-ow-rah-ow!!!” I  uttered as loudly as possible.

I don’t know that he “understood” exactly, but as probably happened with my cat, it intrigued him long enough for me to clear the stone and get my ear safely more than 16 inches from his mouth.

I’m still working on the general theory of all this, but since I’m now spending more time at home, I have more time and opportunities to practice. My Spanish still sucks, but if I can ever publish my Barkish in Twelve Easy Yelps, I won’t have wasted this time in quarantine.

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Them Dry Bones

April 8, 2020

Once, not long after I’d come here, I was on a trail in the hills behind my home when I heard an odd sound, like a soft croaking or grinding. I suddenly came upon thirty or more xopilotes (sop-ill-OH-tezblack vultures) feasting on the carcase of an animal that had fallen and died. They often make that noise, I learned over time, even if they’re not eating.

I approached to see more clearly when they all rose up at once, scaring me that they might attack. But they’re shy of humans, so seeing me they simply rose up, in an amazing swoosh of wing-power, and dispersed till I’d inspected the bones of the cow or horse, and had walked on myself.

Large livestock wander freely here, finding grazing in the hillside valleys or in nearly forgotten meadows. As I’ve said before, I can’t understand how farmers locate their animals when they need them, but obviously the system works. A group of cattle is too valuable an asset to simply abandon, although they are physical hazards for an incautious hoof on the steeper hillsides, and those occasionally claim a life.Cow skull-2.jpg

A cow skull.

I can’t tell a horse skeleton from a bovine one, unless I can see the holes for the horns in the cranium. I found the cow skull in this picture last week, when I was walking a trail where contact with other people was unlikely. The other bones had been scattered, indicating the vultures had finished their job some time ago, probably succeeded by rats and racoons, then the usual suspects from the insect world. And some creature(s) had made small holes hrough the bone itself. It reminded me that the fossilized dinosaur skeletons we see in museums must have been covered over quite soon after death, or ancient scavengers would have dispersed the bones over a wide area. And of course most vertebrate fossils, let’s remember, are usually discovered piecemeal.

Today, walking a different trail, I came upon more bones, also (I think) bovine. I didn’t see the skull, but there were ribs, a leg bone, and a number of vertebrae. I brought one of the vertebrae home with me, since they’re fascinating shapes to study, and the original owner obviously wasn’t using it any more. They also help explain how our own human backbones work, with the spinal cord passing through the central hole, and the tendons and connecting tissues anchoring to rougher surfaces. One side has a projecting boss, the other a smooth indentation to receive the boss of the next vertebra in the column.

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The cow vertebra.

Skeletal design is a remarkable thing, but what most fascinates me about bone is how dense it is. I see it, and think it should be like a ceramic, and quite heavy in the hand. But it’s surprisingly light stuff, even in a creature as heavy as a cow. Bone from a butcher’s still has water-containing soft tissue inside it, making it heavier, but the pure bone almost floats on its own.

I’ll have to hide my small trophy from the dogs, who will no doubt consider it theirs by right of having bone-crunching teeth. I already keep a small collection of animal curiosities I’ve come across over the years, and this will sit with them.

For humans, the skeleton is so often a reminder of death and mortality. The Aztecs, for example, kept skull racks (tzompantli) for their victims, as a kind of reminder to their gods of what they had offered to the forces shaping their existence.

Animal bones, though, are actually reminders of how subtly and precisely nature puts itself together. They do show us, obviously, that life ends in its time, but they also demonstrate life’s self-renewing consistency. If I ever came upon the remains of an ox from a million years ago, I’d expect its vertebrae to be so similar to the one I retrieved today, I’d be hard put to tell them apart. Details would be different, but the basic pattern would follow a design that emerged long, long before bipedal primates ever walked the earth.

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Embarrassment of Near-Riches

April 7, 2020

A few days ago, there was a ‘scandal‘ in the UK over the fact that Somerset Capital Management, the investment firm founded by cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg in the UK, was advising customers which stocks to buy in the downturn. While I’m no friend of plutocratic investors (at least till my lottery ticket comes up, at which point it’ll be “So long, suckers!”), it struck me that SCM was like the dentist who tells you your molar needs a filling. The dentist makes profit providing the service, but he’s really only doing what he’s supposed to be doing: helping look after your teeth before they decay excessively.

I reflected on this when considering how I’m slightly embarrassed (but only slightly) over the fact that I’m mildly richer now than I have been since I moved back here. The Mexican peso, since 2018, has hovered between 12 and 14.5 to the Loonie. This evening, it’s down at 17.5.

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Not worthless, but definitely worth less.

I took out cash today and the withdrawal was substantially less, when I checked my Canadian bank account, than usual. I have more disposable income than I’m used to having. I also have virtually nothing to spend it on. I did buy extra dogfood, and put some gas and a litre of oil in the car I’m currently borrowing. But I don’t want to go to one of the nearby cities to do more serious shopping, since I’d be around lots of people. My sense of self-preservation told me to head home after dropping off some supplies I’d picked up for a friend. And, after talking with her for a while (in her garden, separated by 10 ft of air), I did so.

Most restaurants locally have either closed for the duration, or are concentrating on home deliveries. I had a sneaky hope while in town that I could stop at my favourite place for a take-out order of empanadas, but it was locked. Maybe the owners are still opening on weekends, but I have the impression they’ve given up for now. Another place I frequent, 200 metres away, was similarly shut.

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Argentine-style empanadas and a glass of vino tinto … now just a memory?

This transitory sense of wealth does bring some guilt, of course. I got myself a take-out coffee at a place I’ve been going to for years, and the owner was there alone. She’d laid off her staff, she told me, since business was almost non-existent. There was just the odd in-and-out person like me, the occasional pseudo-libertarian denialist, convinced that this is all a Chinese/American/George Soros hoax, and a few people who will tell you (sans face-mask) that you only have to beef up your aura or reinforce your chakras with the right mantra to deal with this. But those laid-off waitresses have zero income at the moment, whatever the condition of their chakras or auras.

The market isn’t usually busy on a Tuesday, but I still sometimes need to wait for a customer to finish a purchase. Today, people at the stalls were checking cellphones, to offset the boredom. The guilt/empathy here was double, since technically I’m supposed to have sequestered myself at home, where I grow no veggies and can’t bake my own bread. At some point, I imagine, the police, who have almost nothing to do but look for people to whom they can issue parking tickets, might start harassing older shoppers, but it doesn’t seem likely right now. There are few cases of virus in our state of Morelos, and there’s still the whispering hope that we’ll somehow continue like that. I’m more pessimistic, but I can’t help hoping that will be what comes to pass.

Ah, hope. When Pandora opened her box, hope was the one thing that remained after everything else flew out. But hope can be a tormentor, providing false optimism. Will the lockdown finish at the end of April? Will people go back to work soon? Will the kids go back to school? Will there be a cure-all antiviral medicine soon? How about garlic and turmeric? Hope, hope, hope.

Meanwhile, like a small-time Ebenezer Scrooge, I count my modest but accumulating dollars, shift them to my modest savings account, and wonder just how strange this will get before it’s all over.

And how will we know it’s truly over? The strangeness will stop, I imagine, and I’ll be back to my usual, almost hand-to-mouth existence. However, I think the strangeness will continue for a long time to come. And I’ll be financially semi-comfortable for a while.

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The Delusions of Andres Manuel

April 4, 2020

The last three Mexican Presidents are not looked on as howling successes. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is acronymmed as AMLO, and came to power in 2018, will probably go down as the worst of a weak bunch.

He’s had some international press for his most stupid remarks, including telling people to go to fiestas and continue eating in restaurants during this emergency. Having hugged as many people as he could reach at public events, he refused to quarantine himself, for fear that it would allow conservative opponents to take over while he was sequestered. The tale gets still sillier, but you probably have the point by now.

There are also well verified stories about him pulling funding from health programs last year, while presenting himself as the man who cares about poorer and indigenous people. An estimated 10,000 medical professionals were laid off across the country. He looks, by the way, about as blond as I do, except he has more thatch on his scalp. Mexican Presidents are rarely stellar, but a surprising number have had remarkably good hair.

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President Lopez Obrador – the man with the right hair.

I dwell on this man because people are starting to wonder if a coup might be necessary. Almost all coups are really bad, of course, and cause lasting damage to the countries in which they occur. But I caught the gossip this afternoon, after a trip into town, and wondered if it could happen. The country has no clear leadership – even a leader who postures and struts and moans about fake news, as I’ve heard might exist in at least on other place.

I’ve explained previously that people over 60 are supposed to stay home, and I’m 70. But there is no enforcement of this. My supposedly sneaky food-shopping trips into town only raise eyebrows because I wear a facemask; today I saw only eight or nine people with them on. Two were the people who “snuck” into town with me. The mixed messaging from the top has made people here decide to ignore any sense of alarm, and wait to see what God requires of them.

Now, I expected something like this, and I’m not shocked. As I’ve written already, I appreciate their attitude, as well as their refusal to try living on no income, private or governmental. But as the tally of Covid-19 cases rises, I keep wondering how people are going to manage the impact. The President is enabling denial, not trying to abolish it. The face-masks will come out here, but far too late to make much difference.

The one statement I keep hearing that does drive me bats is, “We’re probably safer here than in other places.” It’s obvious nonsense, since it only needs one person to transmit the virus, and away we go. But when the guy at the top indicates the situation’s not all that serious, then no-one here is going to be serious. Most of the state governors realise the risks, and there are some draconian measures being implemented (not always sound, I add), but “The Autonomous Republic of Tepoztlan” is going its own way, convinced it is uniquely admired and blessed by the Creator that endowed it with such splendid mountain scenery.

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The mountains north of Tepoztlan, taken from one of the highest.

The old journalist in me is fascinated by all this: the pride, the self-sufficient attitude and the sheer myopia of the approach. It’ll be a marvellous tale to tell later. The old guy inside me is nervous.

Tonight, though, I simply wonder whether that man in the Presidential residence (the Palace is only used for certain formal events now) really thinks he knows what he’s doing. Or whether, as a believer, he’s assuming God, or the Virgin of Guadalupe, the nation’s Mother-figure, will sort it all out for him. For the sake of the currently un-masked, I’d prefer he was an atheist.

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The Week After Next

April 2, 2020

As waitresses go round here, Reina is good. She’s alert, she knows how to smile, and she doesn’t mix up the orders.

Once a week, I’m at the restaurant where she works, hanging out with friends for a couple of hours. Our group went elsewhere for a while, to somewhere run by one of our members; but that place closed in March, so we came back. The food is okay, we’re there for our own company anyway, and Reina still remembered our names.

I often wonder how we seem to people like her. She’s young enough that life might not have been very rough on her yet, but we must seem so privileged. Mexicans generally are remarkably tolerant toward the outsiders in their midst, but we must grate at times. Us older types don’t draw much opprobrium, but some of the younger ones, who seem to exist on indiscernible means, sometimes amuse and sometimes irritate my more conservative neighbours. The pretty children of wealthy Mexico City parents often sport elaborate tattoos as they come to “Mystical Tepoztlan” to search for the meaning of having grown up rich. A decent tattoo here costs weeks of Reina’s salary,  but these wannabe hippie mystics can manage that. Most local people can’t.

The average wage for a waitress around here is 80 to 100 pesos a day, or five to six Canadian dollars. Wait staff need their tips, which are customarily around ten per cent. Sometimes people offer less; some of us leave more. My latest lunch bill, without any alcohol, was just under 200 pesos, or about what she could expect to take home after a whole day right now, tips included. I think she gets a free meal as part of her contract, but she can’t really afford to buy one in the place where she works.

This topic has been on my mind as businesses, restaurants included, start to close. As everyone here notes, it’s just not feasible for most Mexicans to stay home for a month or two. There’s no meaningful government assistance, and the economy largely functions on a just-enough-to-make-it basis. I’ve talked about this with friends, and we can’t understand how people survive. And as things get tighter in the next few weeks, I wonder how the folk here will feel about the expats among them.

Theoretically, as a person over 60, I’m under government orders to stay home until the end of April. But when this was announced, it was stated that there wouldn’t be any arrests or charges for older people found outside. It was a Mexican compromise: voluntary compulsion. Yesterday, with a friend, I went to the market in town to get some fresh food, and nobody even looked at us funny. They need customers, or they’ll starve.

While there, we decided to indulge in an ice cream (Mexican ice creams deserve a whole blog post), and sat in the grounds of the former Dominican convent, which is still undergoing repairs from the 2017 earthquake. After a short time, we heard a live band, which indicated a funeral was coming. Sure enough, the procession came in for a blessing, with maybe fifty people trailing the coffin, then headed down Avenida Revolucion to the cemetery. And we just gaped, like tourists. Social distancing doesn’t happen in a funeral procession.

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It seemed intrusive to go too close to the funeral procession to take a photo, so I kept a distance. The metal structure serves for religious services while the main church is repaired.

From an epidemiological perspective (try saying that after a third tequila…), what people are still doing is disastrous. From an economic and a social one, it’s a whole different matter. And while I monitor every small cough in case it’s a symptom, I’m more concerned about what happens if and when everything actually closes, and people begin to get desperate. How will people like Reina make it? Will she resent her former customers because we still have our pensions or our social security, while she has nothing very much?

I hope my personal answer to the question is too pessimistic.

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A Matter of Timing

So much of life is about timing. You leave work a little early (in ordinary days), and get home half an hour before normal. You head for the airport ten minutes late, and you nearly miss your flight by getting caught behind an accident. In a village like Amatlan, some of the rhythms and synchronies of such matters become clearer because of the small scale of things.

Last evening, I went walking in the village. I was approaching the church on my way home, when I saw my next-door neighbour’s daughter approaching with a guy who looked like a new boyfriend. We waved, but she was obviously in a significant conversation, a trip to the store apparently offering a pretext for them to get away for a few minutes’ privacy.

Coming closer to the church, I saw a small car dash up past me, and brake suddenly. The driver and a woman got out, and the driver began shouting at another man, then pummeling him. It was one of the most vicious fist-fights I’ve seen: and social distancing was wholly abandoned. Naturally – though strictly in the spirit of sociological investigation, of course – I stopped to watch.

After a couple of minutes, the pummel-ee retreated through his gate, and the hubbub halted. The neighbour’s daughter and her beau now came back from the store, and passed me as I stood beside the church. I almost said there’d been a fist-fight, but there was now nothing to see, so I just smiled. And since I suspected they didn’t want me trailing right behind them, I stayed where I was in the street to let them get 40 metres or so ahead of me.

I was about to start home again when the fight broke out in a second round. I decided there was not much to learn at this point; there was also a slight risk of getting myself entangled as more neighbours came out, and the vortex of the violence potentially intensified. I don’t know how it ended, but I heard no police sirens, so I assume it subsided a short while after.

Up ahead, the neighbour’s daughter and her guy remained oblivious of what had happened, enjoying their saunter through the warm evening sunshine.

One minute earlier or later, and their walk would have been memorable for reasons wholly opposite to what they’d wanted.

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Water, Cash and Almonds

March 28, 2020

My corner of Mexico this past week was a little like the US stock market. That was gripped by dark realism for a week or so, then it bounced back, irrationally. This weekend, it seems a little of the caution that was cutting in here has been set aside. One restaurant in town that had closed even re-opened for the weekend traffic.

There are probably three main strands of social attitudes. A lot of people do believe bad stuff is coming (we have just 850 cases officially as of tonight), and are preparing and buying their face masks and sanitiser. Others think so too, but are having a last grab at fun before the lockdown we expect to come by Easter. And of course, there are still the denialists doing their best Jair Bolsonaro impression: it’s just a little flu, right? You can ignore those pesky doctors and so-called experts.

Legitimately, people here laughed at the toilet paper crisis. The stuff is still available in the stores. But we are securing certain basic supplies we’re going to need, and they’re probably different to what people in other parts of North America are after.

One is water, the most essential physical commodity of all. Our area has decent aquifers, but the water still has to move to people’s houses.

I think I’ve noticed the water delivery trucks working more than usual. We do have piped water in the village, but the system was hard to design for an area built across hillsides. Also, when it came in, people had to pay a large amount to get connected. On the elevated area where I’m living, there was no certainty of good water flow, so we never acquired it. We capture and store rainwater when it falls heavily from June to November, and that lasts us through to January or later.

But we do need to buy two or three tanker loads after that, to get us through to the next rains. My second load of the year is coming on Monday, and that should hold us through till May.  I trust the civic fathers not to risk their own lives by banning water deliveries. But anything could get more difficult under these conditions.

The other concern is one a card-based society might not think of. There’s a fear that currency might run low, and the banks will have to limit what they put in their machines. Some places, I hear, are already doing this.

 

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Mexican currency, ready to be concealed inside a sock … or someplace.

Hardly any small businesses except some restaurants and a few gourmet stores offer payment by credit card here. Fewer still offer debit capabilities, there being some lingering concerns over the security. Visa, which I use occasionally, commands a premium that the restaurant or store owners either swallow or, just as often, ask the customer to pay.

And so much business is based around neighbourhood abarrotes, the little grocery stores in every town and village, which won’t switch to electronic payment for years, if ever. Want to go into town by a combi, or a taxi? Cash only, thanks.

The quandrary is that if people hoard cash, it could become in short supply. And if they don’t, they might find it’s in short supply anyway, and they can’t buy essentials. A great deal of the economy is informal, and this sector might well keep us going when larger enterprises fold.

As a result, we’re all carefully hiding a few hundred extra pesos or more in our houses, just in case the banking system collapses. And I can even imagine a barter system emerging if things become truly bad. I’m not sure what I could barter for food, but I might have to get creative.

All this said, so far things round here are holding up. People still smile a good morning in the street, and the police are laid back. Civility is still with us.

I mix my own muesli cereal from seeds and grains I buy at a particular store in the market. A few days ago, I bought some sliced almonds, but when I got home I realised I’d misplaced it somewhere. Hardly the worst tragedy of my life, I decided, or even of this month.

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A corner of the Tepoztlan market.

Anyway, I stopped by the place today, to buy some extra supplies, including a replacement batch of almonds. The young woman who served me passed me my purchases, then her father stepped over, and pulled out a small bag from under the corner.

“Señor, you forgot this last week.”

They’d kept it there for me for four days. Its total value? Around 30 Canadian cents. Mexico is still Mexico, despite the craziness, and the determination to hold the society’s values in place hasn’t ebbed. The government might be clueless, but people are still looking out for each other in the small ways that are the most critical.

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Secret Places, Sacred Places

Mexico has some very famous ancient religious sites: Chichen Itza, Palenque, Teotihuacan. They’re often referred to as ancient cities, but cities always grew up around a sacred structure and an annual program of rituals and festivals. Urban and administrative functions were mostly secondary.

I’ve never verified the number, but one guide at a site I visited told me there are an estimated 4,000 ball-courts in Mexico, for playing a ceremonial game that might have had a fatal outcome for the winners or losers. The Spanish destroyed all the records in the 1500s, so we have only documentation of pre-Conquest Mexico from the few friars who chose to record information for posterity, plus what’s been found by archaeologists. The picture becomes more complete all the time, but a huge amount of it is murky, or is derived from comparing what’s been found in one place with what appears to have been going on elsewhere.

It’s surprisingly common to visit a site of ancient worship that has very little documentation or artefacts. In the hills right behind my house are a couple of concentric, low walls for what was once a place of ritual reverence. In accord with local custom, it’s referred to as a ruined piramide. Who was worshipped there? We’re not sure. This is the village of the Plumed Serpent, the legendary birthplace of the ruler Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl. Maybe it was him, though his mother, two or three names for whom have come down to us from different sources, was also presumably worshipped here.

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The piramide above my home. The stones looks like nothing in particular, but the walls are too low to function as physical barriers, and archaeologists in the 1950s realised this was a small sacred site.

A few days ago, avoiding people and buses, and exploring a trail out of a nearby village, hiking buddy Ixchel and I came first upon walls made of piled-up stones, which are very common here, but then upon a variety of rocks and small boulders a little higher up, in a place that was suspiciously impractical for field agriculture. One almost flat rock looked as if it had toppled off a few supporting stones, and might once have been an altar. The site had an east-west orientation, perhaps implying a solar connection, but all we had to go on was the flatness of part of the area, the mountains rising close to it, a bizarre tree that was in fact three different species that had grown onto each other, and a distinctive if indescribable atmosphere to the place. The tree was the kind of thing people here in central Mexico would automatically associate with divine powers, so it was the combination of all these factors that impressed us. Maybe we over-interpreted what we were seeing, but given how many sacred sites there are in this area, it’s quite likely we didn’t.

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A farmer’s stone walls, of the type common in fields around here…
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…and the larger rocks at our suspected sacred site, scattered a long time ago, which would have required gangs of people to put them in place.

I’ve read a fair bit about mesoAmerican mythology, without coming to terms with it. The gods are wholly unlike the almost-human deities of Greece, the strong, uncluttered, natural forces I’ve come to associate with the deities of the Nile Valley, or the dreamy mahadevas of India. They seem crude at first, ‘chthonic,’ to borrow a term that Jung used a lot, and strongly identified with the natural world. Human sacrifice was frequently part of the regular worship, but very rarely on the Aztecs’ industrial scale of bloody slaughter. But behind that earthy immediacy, you find a subtler essence lurking, hard to define, but not devoid of warmth or mythic depth.

A problem – or perhaps a pleasure – of archaeological work is site interpretation. The cool objects make it into the museum, artfully lit in cases, but many sites yield just a few pieces of pottery or some cooked seeds. The configuration of the whole thing gives the clues, along with the geographical or stellar orientation, and you have to visit the place to appreciate that properly.

So with our ‘discovery’ the other day, which was no doubt pre-empted years ago by the archaeologists who’ve prowled over this area. The location, beneath an almost sheer cliff, and the way it had to be approached, indicated a place charged by its surroundings. We were there in the late afternoon, when the mountains already blocked the Sun, but in the morning it would have been a bright place, with a view down the plain in the south-east, hundreds of feet below us.

Possibly we can find out who excavated it, and what was found. But archaeology itself can seem a sterile science, because it’s restricted to what it can ascertain, not what might have been, but has left no traces behind. The reason people visit such places is because of the aura of mystery and the unknown, not to affirm that such-and-such a place is post-Classic or some other term for dating ancient ruins.

There’s no harm in letting our imaginations build up an idea of what was once there, and of trying to respond to the subtle clues of terrain and mountain, gulley and natural platform. And quite often, I’ve learned, allowing yourself to do this can open a genuine intuition about what you’re looking at, and what it might have been for. If sacred sites were chosen because of the landscape (as they were almost always in Mexico), and these human interventions are still at least somewhat discernible, there’s a part of us that can jump to a sense of what it was all for, and then ponder what the people who went there must have hoped and prayed for.

 

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The Irrevocable Condition

March 23, 2020

Some people live in the same town, even the same house, for decades. The idea of home, for them, is presumably a clear-cut one.

I never managed that. A divorce, and the desire to live closer to work and friends, meant I left the suburbs that I’d never much liked, and came closer to the centre of Toronto, the city where I lived most of my life. As a single adult, I stayed in one apartment there for 14 years, and that was my longest spell under one roof.

But Mexico was a thing for me from the age of perhaps four. I liked a BBC TV cartoon featuring a soulless Mexican villain and the occasional, intriguing saguaro cactus. (It’d never make it to the screen today, but this was over sixty years ago). Something important seemed for me to be in that rudimentary landscape.

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Saguaro cacti, which captivated me as a pre-schooler.

As a young adult, I lived with people who’d spent time on the Yucatan coast, and my fascination for the country deepened. It was hardly an obsession, but Mexico was there in the background over the years. My friend Lucero, whom I met in Toronto in the 1990s, and who owns the house I live in now, got me to visit fifteen years ago, and when my job evaporated after the 2008 economic meltdown, I moved here. I did go back, to earn some more cash and pay off the small house I’d built (currently rented), but at the end of 2018, I reversed that move. A vacation visit in 2017 showed me I’d been remembered here, and I felt there was a welcome waiting.

Is this home? I often feel it isn’t. I struggle with Spanish verbs and local expressions, and sometimes simply with people’s accents. I miss foods I’m used to, or the presence of browsable bookstores. Yet I don’t feel homesick, and I can’t identify another actual home for myself. This village, Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl is imperfect, but I can live here.

Perhaps, I could have gone back to England, where I was born, found a little cottage and grown roses. But I’ve been gone so long, the country feels foreign to me. I’ve missed a half-dozen prime ministers, Thatcherisation, the Tony Blair years, austerity and Brexit. I can’t read the place.

With the current threat of an epidemic, and the option to run back to Toronto where I have some badly missed family and friends, I chose to stay here in my Mexican village, and I’m trying to grasp exactly why. On the rational side, I do think I’m a little safer here; or, maybe, there’s less worry in the air, and if the worst happens in the coming weeks, it’s a nicer, easier place to go through a bad time. I can’t explain that to people who don’t live here, who often think all of Mexico is an unsafe place. But other expats share the sentiment. I’d trust strangers to help me if I was desperate, in a way I wouldn’t and couldn’t in Canada.

The epidemic also seems to have opened some doors. In the absence of robust social and medical services, people are more conscious of their neighbours, and I’m having more spontaneous encounters with people in the community.

Still, I’m an outsider, and always will be. In reality, I scarcely touch the essence of this community, and I’m always careful not to cause offence.

It’s likely my outsider status fits in with my long-term sense that I have no home. As an immigrant, I felt only partly Canadian (whatever that might mean), though a huge percentage of Canadians are also first-generation immigrants, and I still own being Canadian as my nationality. Here, I’m not even partly Mexican, yet somehow the place has gotten into me.

While I won’t disconnect from Toronto, and I stay in touch with family in the UK, somehow ‘home’ and Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl are fused for me. This crisis has made me realise I’ve made a commitment.

James Baldwin has the famous line in Giovanni’s Room, “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” I’m not entirely sure I understand it, and it’s about a feeling for a person, not a place. But he seems to be saying that ‘home’ is a state of being, of safety, and embrace.

I’m here. That’s not to say I always love it, or even like it. But it’s where I was drawn to live. And I know it’s a shocking thought to some people, but with the wave of disease coming, and thoughts hitting the de profundis level, I would not be upset to know that here life might end.

 

 

 

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The Worry Game

March 23, 2020

Pepe has sold flowers from his corner close to the San Miguel church as long as I’ve lived here. I had visitors coming for part of last weekend, and one was an older woman who likes roses, so I went to buy some to put in the house.

My guess is, he was offering unsold flowers from the day before, since he was pulling off dead outer petals when I found him. The government had finally asked people not to do unnecessary things, so no-one was going to visit grandma and show up with a bunch of flowers. He was almost surprised to have a customer, but relieved as well. His profit on a dozen roses is perhaps half what a  waitress, for example, might make in a day. The town lives off visitors, and while we’re not in quarantine or a lockdown situation, people are starting to avoid a lot of things they’d normally do.

You’re probably wondering why I was allowing visitors at home, but this had been pre-agreed. One of the women, a close friend for many years, was having her birthday, and there was a small fiesta planned for here in the village. She and I had had, to borrow a phrase from the field of diplomacy, “a full and frank exchange of the issues,” but a scaled-down event was finally decided on. For the eight of us there, it was probably our last social get-together for weeks to come.

As it turned out, two of the other guests were heading back to Mexico City that night, and offered my friends a ride, which they accepted. Thus, I was home alone by 8:30 when the doorbell rang.

Now, this is Mexico. You don’t usually answer the door after dark, unless you recognise who’s knocking or ringing. I leaned out the window, and found it was some young people working for the national census, which is being held this month.

I went and answered their questions, and remarked to the senior of them that it was perhaps a little odd to be going door to door, talking to huge numbers of people, during a nascent epidemic. He shrugged and nodded slightly.

“We need these jobs, señor,” he said.

And that’s the problem here. Pepe probably has a tiny pension that would scarcely feed him, so in his seventies, he still sells flowers on a street corner. This town has maybe forty hotels and posadas, and a greater number of restaurants. Between them, they employ hundreds of people, maybe even a figure in the low thousands. They don’t have access to lines of credit, or cash advances on their credit cards. Many don’t even have credit cards.

This morning Lindsey, our local organic baker, moaned to me that he wanted to close, because all day he handles money and breathes other people’s breath. But he has someone who helps him, and minds the store while he’s making deliveries, and to lay him off would mean the man has no income. He doesn’t know how to tell his employee “Sorry, but you’ll have to starve for a few weeks, since this business is too small for me to continue paying you.”

And even the gangs are having a tough time. A lot of fake goods, plus the ingredients for the fentanyl they produce, come from China, and they’re running out of supplies. Viruses are very democratic in this way.

I’m reasonably philosophical about what could happen in the next few weeks. I’ve laid in some supplies, including extra dogfood. I’m currently alone in the house, so I’m appropriately isolated. My next door neighbour and I are looking out for each other, and a bunch of us expats have made ourselves available to each other if one or more get infected, and there’s a need to deliver food or water. Also, as a Canadian on a pension, my own income is guaranteed at a time when the peso has lost 20 per cent of its value against the loonie.

I also have a close family member who got the virus, but not seriously, so I’m hoping we have immune system abilities in common. He’s recovering okay after a week at home, though he can’t go outside for a while, as he might still be infectious.

But Mexico will be very hard hit as the economy starts to sink. GM and Volkswagen have closed their plants for now, and schools are also shut. People are holding it together for now, but they have either few options or none if they’re forced to stay home and not work. So while I’m not very worried about the disease, I’m seriously concerned about how this society will handle the next months, as recession sets in.

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Muddling through

March 20, 2020

We’re into the rumour season now. Yesterday, I was reliably informed that while the combi microbuses would continue to operate, taxis would come off the streets. Also, all the restaurants and hotels in town were to close by Monday

Today,Gabino my neighbour, who drives a cab for a living, says he’s heard of no such plan. The restaurants are taking some steps, one having closed, and another I went to yesterday (daring fool that I am!) was spacing out its tables so our small group couldn’t get too close to each other. But shutting down hotels and restaurants in a town that lives off tourism would of course push hundreds of people into destitution. Which doesn’t mean it won’t happen. But right now, it’s unlikely.

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Tepoztlan in carnival season. Even on a regular Sunday, the place is this full of visitors.

One article I’ve read (there’ve been scores, at the least) points out that governments are all proceeding on their way here on the basis of rather limited information. Additionally, I suspect, elected officials charged with doing something are, unfortunately, doing “something,” rather than doing useful things. I do wonder if many of them have ever actually looked after kids when a bug is raging through a classroom, and parents learn fast about infections and how they spread. I suspect not.

At the same time, regular people are bombarded with far too much information, and we can’t organise it. When our electrical power cuts out here, as it often does in the stormy rainy season, we think about food in the freezer spoiling if it lasts too long. Otherwise, we accept that there’s no internet, that we have to break out the candles we keep on hand, and so on. We can organise the information, and organise ourselves. With this, there’s too much information to prioritise, much of it contradictory or unclear, and that doesn’t help.

Should I isolate? I do much of the time, anyway, thanks to my lifelong membership in the Dedicated Introverts Society.

Should I avoid other people? Only to a limited extent, because friends are very useful in a crisis. I ran into one this morning, and we pretended to shout at each other from 10 feet apart, in a spontaneous street-comedy routine. No doubt such scenes have been replicated around the world. But she and I don’t live far from each other, so if one of us gets the bug, the other would be the one to bring food or supplies to the afflicted person’s door, because there’d be no official body to aid us.

Mexicans are loath to abandon physical greetings, and I feel like a gringo party-pooper by refusing to hug or shake hands. It is, though, is a sensible step, like heavy-duty hand washing, even if it doesn’t offer very much protection. Like flimsy face-masks, which are starting to show up in town, such refusal does a little something, and the little somethings might make the difference.

But the truth is, most people here aren’t going to do a lot to protect themselves or  – the real point of quarantining or isolating – protect the community as a whole. Mexico’s official case tally is around 100, but since you have to travel a long way to get a test, that figure is doubtless misleadingly low. All of us, natives and expats, are largely trusting to God (in some form), sunny weather, and fresh air, to get us through. Plus luck.

Some people have gone back to their home countries, but a lot of us are gambling that the odds of safety are a little bit better here than in the US, Canada or Europe. People won’t do a lot more, not for now. And maybe not later.

 

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Just Waiting

March 13, 2020

The weather here in central Mexico has been very hot and dry for the past couple of weeks. There’s some dust blowing around from the parched earth, and additionally, some farmers are burning off their fields. As usual, that’s given me a slight cough, and I also wake with nasal congestion. On the combi micro-bus coming home from town today, I noticed two other people with a similar condition. Nobody looked concerned.

Mexico’s response to the virus (no one says ‘COVID-19’) has been laid back. But then, it would be. The Mexican relationship to death and dying is full of irony and humour, harking way back to when human sacrifice was a regular religious requirement. All the souvenir stalls in town sell painted ceramic skulls, or mugs and t-shirts with skull imagery, and you’re all aware of some of the Days of the Dead traditions in November. Death is always waiting round the corner anyway, is the attitude: sit back and have another tequila while you’re waiting for Her.

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A mug in my kitchen.

So far, no-one is cancelling events or school programs. There’s a weekend music festival in town that’s going ahead, and no doubt the cafes and bars will be full of visitors. There are no warning posters around related to hand-washing or appropriate coughing.

In part, it’s also because we’re trusting that dry heat to keep us relatively safe. And also in part, it’s because the various levels of government are not testing very much, so our tally of affected people – just a dozen last night – is not very accurate. There are no alarming death-counts showing up yet.

Other than avoiding handshakes, in case my cough is about more than just the dryness, I’m carrying on my life as usual. Only one of my neighbours is truly worried, mostly I think because he has no real family any more, and fears no-one would look after him if he falls sick.

My own concern is that my tourist visa is up in April, and I’m supposed to come back to Toronto for a week or two, then return to Mexico to renew it, as I do twice every year. Right now, it looks like flights will be cancelled before then, so I’ll have to do the thing I least want to do: go to the Mexico City airport to renew it.

If a real epidemic does break out here, people understand that they’ll have to fend for themselves, since the health services aren’t fully prepared. I keep a few days’ supply of food for myself and the dogs here at all times, as well as fresh drinking water, which I buy in reusable bottles.

Otherwise, like everyone else, I wait. And, the dryness and smoke aside, enjoy the warm, sunny weather.

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The War that Antonio Lost

March 2, 2020

The conversation around the table had been going well, with my creaky Spanish enabling me to hold forth at moderate length. The five women who’d stayed as other people drifted home were gracious and witty. Oddly, since technical terms and longer words often are very similar in English and Spanish, it can sometimes be easier to discuss economics or microbiology with people here than it can be to discuss a new bus route or a recipe for cooked chicken, and we were speaking of the economic future at this point.

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U.S. troops take Chapultepec Castle, the presidential palace in Mexico City, in 1847.

From there, we got onto NAFTA and its successor, the USMCA. One factor that differentiated Canada and Mexico, I suggested, was that Upper and Lower Canada, with help from Britain and the Duke of Wellington, won their war with the U.S. (that of 1812-14) while Mexico was beaten in its war (1846-48). It gave up 55 per cent of its territory as a result: more than 800,000 square miles comprising California, New Mexico, Arizona, most of Utah and Colorado, and bits of Kansas and Wyoming.

However, history, I promptly discovered, is national property, and citizens of any nation have the right to interpret it as they believe it to be. Mexico, I was angrily informed, hadn’t lost. No, not at all. One does not dispute historical fact with certain people in certain places.

I’m familiar with this attitude. As a child in England, I was taught how wonderful our Empire had been, and what glorious victories we’d won. I never heard about how the Dutch attacked and burned Chatham dockyard in 1667, capturing the Royal Navy’s flagship, or the various slaughters imposed during our rule of India. And in the 1950s and 1960s, when I was in school, nobody was mentioning how prior to WW2, many public figures, especially in the Conservative Party, had been tacitly or overtly pro-Hitler. But there were plenty, as you might recall in the fictionalised but realistic presentation in from The Remains of the Day  (Try 5.30 – 6.30 in this clip).

Americans know how in recent decades their defeat and withdrawal from Vietnam has not necessarily been described as the loss it was. And Germans might recall how the blunders their High Command made in 1918, which led directly to collapse of their Western Front and the end of WW1, were attributed to socialists, malcontents and, of course, Jews, back in Germany. General Ludendorff, who made the worst of those blunders, wrote a book about this to ensure the blame didn’t fall on him.

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Blameless Erich Ludendorff.

So, I shouldn’t have been wholly surprised to learn that Mexico didn’t lose its war. But for a few minutes, I was.

To me,it’s plain that if your country is invaded, your army is repeatedly defeated, and your capital city is captured and occupied by an invader, you lost your war. California had been captured by John C. Fremont with a few hundred men, while Alexander Doniphan took New Mexico, then pushed further south, with a force of volunteers from Missouri. Coming in from Mexico’s east coast were more substantial U.S. forces under Winfield Scott, which included half the future heroes and villains of the Civil War (Ulysses S. Grant, William Sherman, Zachary Taylor, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and many others). The U.S. had more modern cannon and rifles, better-trained officers and men, and the impetus of the idea of Manifest Destiny behind its invasion. Mexico had religious faith and a still-developing sense of nationhood. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 sealed the deal, and the effect on the still-emerging Mexican Republic was devastating. If you want an outline of how the conflict came about, and the details, try here.

However, for a Mexican apologist who dislikes the usual narrative, there’s a scapegoat and a camouflaging presence. His name was Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (usually pronounced as Sant’ana).

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Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna in the 1840s.

This man was extraordinary. Vain, greedy, brilliant, charismatic, utterly unreliable and the father of a string of illegitimate children, he was also one of Mexico’s best military field commanders – intermittently, anyway – as well as serving as President of his country eleven times. Yes, eleven; though often it was for a very short period. He is best known for having led the assault and capture of the Alamo in 1836, and less known for losing the battle of San Jacinto a few weeks later and getting captured while in disguise, after neglecting to post sentries round his camp.

Some historians still speak of the early 19th Century in Mexico as the Age of Santa Anna, so large did he loom over his time. But his greed and corruption led him in 1846 to put out feelers to the U.S. government about persuading his country to cede territories the Americans wanted. Yet having got his deal, and a $10,000 advance, he promptly reneged, and went back to fighting for Mexico where he distinguished himself (on the whole) in the subsequent war. The U.S. lost 13,000 men in the conflict, more from disease than from combat, while Mexico lost up to 25,000.

Santa Anna was an inveterate gambler (betting on cock fighting was a favourite pastime), hence his trying for a hunk of cash. From this action, it has become possible to blame him for the loss of the war. If the U.S. did win by cheating and betrayal, then it wasn’t an honest victory, so its victory can be denied.

And that’s where I found myself Friday night – debating the true nature of fake news with some remarkably agitated Mexican ladies.

National pride is a touchy thing: I understand that. But as a history buff trained as a journalist, always looking for confirmatory evidence of wild assertions, I was frustrated. But I left the topic, and we talked about something else; though I forget what. I did learn the Santa Anna bribery story is presented in schools and in TV programs here with him being the Mexican Benedict Arnold, or perhaps as Trotsky was depicted in Stalin’s Russia. The reality of the man, which was beyond extraordinary, is glossed over, as he’s taken on ownership of much other Mexican failure and corruption over the years, not just his own.

He was a larger-than-life figure who made corruption into an art form, but I can’t see that he actually sold out his country. Perhaps he wasn’t offered what he wanted; perhaps he felt he was helping by cheating the enemy; or perhaps his vanity beat out his greed, and the man who’d been repeatedly decorated for valour and once lost a leg in battle came forth once more to offer what he had to his nation in its hour of need.

Either way, the war with the U.S. remains a scarring memory for Mexicans, and one they can’t expunge. A dozen years ago Absolut Vodka got into hot water with an ad showing how the map of Mexico would look in an “Absolut’ world, where the war had never happened. It still shows up from time to time, a practice I’m happy to repeat here.

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The absolute Vodka ad from 2008, showing how Mexico might have looked wthout the war.

But the fact of the loss, and the discoveries of gold in California in 1849 and gas and oil in various of the lost territories decades later, can’t be denied. Accordingly, Antonio has posthumously shouldered the blame for it. I’d be more sympathetic to him, but I have the feeling he’s somewhere off in the afterworld watching a celestial cockfight, and laughing his head off.

Besides, two of those women at the dinner table probably still think I’m just another disdainful gringo for not buying the story they’ve chosen to believe. I’m still ticked off over that, and Antonio’s actual graft and fiscal plundering don’t help me make my case.

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Walls of Rock

February 24, 2020

Walking in the hills around my village, I’m always finding farmer’s fields in unexpected places. Land passes down through the generations, and people continue to use it for growing corn, avocados and nopales (cactus), or as cattle or horse pasture, even if it’s on a hillside that’s difficult to access.

This past Sunday, three friends and I made the hike from this village of Amatlan to Ocotitlan, which is seven to eight kilometres away over a rough uphill trail. In Nahuatl, the ‘tlan‘ suffix means, basically, ‘place’ or ‘place of,’ so that Amatlan is the place of the Amate trees, and Ocotitlan the place of the Ocotes, conifers whose resin-rich wood is used to light fires.

It was an exhausting hike, but a rewarding one. There’s lava from long-extinct volcanoes lining the trail most of the way, so you need to make sure you don’t stumble. And much of the walk involved passing between fields bounded by walls made of stacked hunks of such lava.

Usually, trying to avoid tripping or stumbling, I don’t notice the walls much, especially since they’re everywhere round here. But at one point I realised we’d walked past one wall that was hundreds of yards long, and that building it must have been a huge job. Some of the rocks might be the size of an average brick, while others have the dimensions of an outsize beach ball. So, their weight varies from a few pounds to a couple of hundred. These big ones can only be dug up and rolled into place, not lifted, and it would take two or three men to stack one on top of another.

Land here is religion – so goes a common saying. If it’s not demarcated clearly, then it’s not hard for a violent dispute to start. However, if there’s a wall of stacked rocks that’s been there since your grandfather’s day, then it’s as good, or even better than, a notarised land deed. They’re also a haven for wildlife like lizards and rodents. These things don’t spring up overnight, but take time to construct, and they take on an almost sanctified character with the passing years.

Rock wall copy.jpgA portion of a lava rock wall, hundreds of yards long.

Sunday was hot and sunny, and it hit 29 degrees C by noon. We were watching our water as we hiked, and making jokes about how much we’d charge each other when someone’s bottle was empty. You can’t work up there in the heat without water, and the springs are often dry between the year’s end and the start of the rains in June. So, simply to stack boulders, you need to bring water with you.

At that point, as if on cue, a man with a burro showed up, on his way to water his new avocado plants. The animal carried a couple of water bottles filled from a spring that hadn’t failed yet, and the man was happy to see someone else and to give us advice on how to stay on track. I assume, but didn’t think to ask, that he, too, has rock walls to maintain, and must lift them back up when they fall after a quake, or simply from the passage of time.

Some farmers have opted for barbed wire in recent years, which is far easier to install and maintain. But there are advantages from using the rocks, not least because nobody can move a rock wall easily. Their documentary testimony is hard to impeach, while a barbed wire fence can be put up in an afternoon.

It’s hard to use the word ‘technology’ in relation to farming, but farmers need to know and learn a tremendous amount about how to manage their land. Most of us never begin to consider that, any more than I often think about the labour that goes into a rock wall. Conglomerates have taken over some of the low-lying or flatter farmland, but up in the hills, it’s all still a business of scattered smallholdings and generational pride.

I’m assuming many of the walls – there are miles of them in total around here – are put up by families, not someone making a solo effort. The work must be dangerous: to drop a heavy rock, or have it topple after it’s positioned, can easily be a bone-breaking event. Up on the trails, I’m conscious that a twisted ankle or a sprained knee would mean a painful hobble to get help, but having 120 pounds of lava fall on my foot would be a whole other problem.

So, I tip my straw hat to the guys who can construct and maintain these things. The walls are often a guide to the route I need to take, and they also indicate the long, long heritage of land cultivation around here.

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Carnival in Tepoztlan

Two or three of the best restaurants in town closed yesterday, and this afternoon, the largest coffee shop followed suit. This morning, I saw a truck coming in with police reinforcements from a neighbouring town. We expats are all passing on the word to each other about avoiding the place till next week, and looking for places to hang out that can be reached without passing through it.

Corona Virus hit us, you think? Or we had a dire prediction of an earthquake from one of the more noted local seers? Nope. It’s Carnival time, as happens each February.

Yesterday, the people who work in the market began pulling it apart. Every year at this time, it moves to the adjoining streets. They have to make space for a midway, a lot of oompah bands and dancing, and a huge milling crowd that will be impossible to push through by Sunday.

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Kids in home-made Chinelo hats parade down the Avenida Cinco de Mayo on Carnival’s opening day. The ones in the black outfits, near the left, are actual Chinelos.

When I first learned Tepoztlan had a carnival, I was optimistic it would be fun, full of folkloric activities and old traditions. Mostly, though, it’s just a matter of booze and food. And while I’m personally downbeat about noisy celebrations, I discovered last year that some of the restaurant owners can’t stand Carnival.

“I just hate the drunks,” one restaurant owner confided to me.

“Don’t they spend money, though?” I responded.

“One fight, and you can lose a lot of revenue,” he replied mournfully.

I’ve learned the hard way to stay out of town on the Carnival weekend, and to minimise my visits on the surrounding days, and I know what he meant. One time I went in to see what Carnival Sunday was like, and was compressed into a crowd that crawled and staggered down the main street and into the zocalo. I was possible the only sober person among three thousand people, and I’m by no means a disapproving abstainer. Once caught up in that mass of staggering people, I had no way of escape until they veered into the open space, and I could slip to the side of the mob and out of the surge.

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All mixed in with a brass band, people dance round the marketplace as Carnival opens.

The town council, I think, is trying to reclaim Carnival as a family event, as well as still one for local people, as it used to be. It doesn’t publicly start till tomorrow, but today there was an opening Chinelos’ dance around the marketplace, where the traditionally robed celebrants did their hopping samba led by a brass band and accompanied by two hundred schoolkids in home-made Chinelo hats. The largest parking space in the centre has a stage set up in it: the city fathers and mothers don’t want people driving into the downtown, and then drunkenly trying to leave it. The musical program is also promoted more this year than in the past.

There’s supposedly a ban on selling alcohol in the streets, but there’s also a rule that people who’ve held a Carnival vending permit for decades can continue to obtain it every year. A lot of those who have such permits operate small bars in the closed-off main streets. So, that idea is almost unenforceable.

I am, I confess, no fan of noisy celebrations, and as some other posts here make plain, Mexicans can make noise like nobody else. There are local people who are happy they’ll make a tidy sum selling enchiladas and quesadillas, or micheladas (beer with lime-juice and chili), but otherwise the event tends to overwhelm the town. It’s promoted online and elsewhere, then the place waits for the onslaught. Wiser residents stock up on basic food, and pretend it isn’t happening.

Feliz fiesta, folks: it’s all yours.

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The High Hills

February 16, 2020

As the sun comes up every morning, it hits the upper cliffs behind me, to the west, some minutes before I see it rise over the ridge in the east. If I walk part of the way into town, as I did today, my path runs for a couple of miles south of the same mountains in which the village nestles, while ahead of me I can see long-extinct volcanoes rising several miles west of the town.

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The cliffs over which the Sun rises each morning. This was taken in late afternoon, so they’re sunlit.

My perspective here is always governed by the mountains around me. And I’m not just surrounded by mountains, but by stratified mountains. The layers in the rockfaces are very clear in many places, and the sense of how many thousand of centuries were needed to lay them down isn’t far from my thoughts. I don’t know a lot about the seismic forces that heaved up these mountains that once formed the bed of a lost sea, but the whole deal took a very, very long time. Even a young mountain, like the volcano Popocatepetl, dates back an estimated 730,000 years.

On a purely human level, this village is reported by archeologists to have been populated for 3,500 years. There are petroglyphs around in various places, and in the town nearby are some ruined walls that are seven centuries old, or older. An hour’s drive would bring me to a half-dozen places that date back anywhere from six centuries to two millennia.

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The cerros along the trail into town. The rise and fall of ancient seabeds is recorded in those rocks.

I wouldn’t say people spend a lot of time brooding on how ancient things are in this area, but it’s hard to be unconscious of how far back everything goes. Before I came here I’d spent four decades in Toronto, which only dates back a couple of centuries as a built-up town. And there are no nearby mountains or large, exposed rocks, with the exception of the Scarborough Bluffs. The oldest European settlements in Canada date to the mid-1500s, a short time after Cortes and the other Conquistadores began taking what we now call Latin America. The Spanish were dreadful at destroying the records of their predecessors on this continent, but enough information has survived to give us some idea of what those ancient people did, and what they believed. Archeology has excavated other civilisations that were old and gone before the Spanish booked their fateful ocean cruises.

This sense of always being surrounded in Mexico by old things has an effect on my perceptions. I might, as I did in my last post, lament the recent developments around me, but the age of the land, along with the length of human habitation –a habitation interwoven with an appreciation of that land – offers a counterpoint to all that. It underlines the change that’s happening, but geology also has a way of mocking human efforts to copy mountains with much smaller piles of stones. The inhabitants themselves still carry the look of indigenous people, reminding the eye that so much has come and gone, or come and not left.

Mexico can infuriate someone used to tidy streets and gardens. It can stun us at times with poverty, and it can seem hidebound by its rich yet hardly intellectual Catholicism.

But it always offers also the presence of things from times memorial and immemorial. In this way, it has an antidote to the frenetic, frantic pace of things around us: the divided politics, the rush to pave and exploit the land, and the recurrent fear that we might be losing everything.

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Hexagonal basalt rocks overhang a walkway at the Salto de San Anton waterfall in nearby Cuernavaca. At the bottom centre, you can see where a fall of these rocks in 2017 destroyed part of the balustrade.

And it reminds us, too, how no culture survives forever. No-one knows for sure who was here those three-and-a-half millennia back, but new peoples and empires washed over this land in that time, and were in turn replaced.

Compared to all that, electoral cycles, economic ups and downs, and the latest epidemic slot into a very different world-view to the mainstream perspectives. I don’t necessarily find the mountains friendly – they can be overwhelming – but they do teach a perpetually important lesson in frenzied times.

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Fleeing from Yourself

They’d come from San Miguel de Allende, they said, to check out Tepoztlan. Retired Americans, San Miguel had been their home for many years, but now it was starting to become overrun with chilangos.

The term ‘chilango‘ refers to someone from Mexico City, and implies a self-absorbed obliviousness to local people and local traditions. My friend and I tried to explain that Tepoztlan, too, is a chilango magnet on weekends, as well as becoming increasingly built up and expensive. We made some suggestions about outlying communities, but the mountains here and the slightly less expensive lifestyle than San Miguel were clearly drawing these two.

San Miguel is a combination of legend and tourist trap. Its artistic associations are rich, and it’s a refuge for many wealthier Americans and Canadians. My own solitary visit left me turned off by the degree of private wealth on display, since in Mexico you’re never far from people struggling to get by with little. Tourism does provide a substantial cashflow, though, and the outside presence offers a lot of poorer Mexicans an opportunity to build a better life. It was just a bit too much for me.

The discussion with the two people reminded me of an observation I’d made a few nights before, coming home just after sunset. There’s a point on the road into this village where the land drops away past a meadow, and you can see the lights all over the plain below. I remember it when I first came here, speckled with lamps; today by comparison, it’s ablaze with street lights and illumination from housing developments.

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The view down to the plains and their communities – though I couldn’t manage a decent night shot.

Some months ago, I chatted with an architect working on a small construction project outside the village. He described his half-dozen homes as offering an alternative to city congestion, a notion that struck me as a little ridiculous: spreading urban sprawl into the countryside solves nothing. It’s like trying to flee from yourself – you’ll never get away.

But, Mexico’s population is growing, there’s more money than there used to be, and people want homes. Nice homes, if possible, with a garden and a garage. And in nice places.

Here, for instance.

There’s no point in my complaining that this area is getting built up. I end up sounding like a driver complaining that he can’t get somewhere because of all the traffic, when he’s part of the problem. There’s still land available round here, even if the price has doubled in the past four years, and lots of people – chilangos, expats, local people who’ve saved or borrowed enough ­– are going to buy it and build on it.

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Workers building a house in our village –  in this case, mine.

But the issue preoccupies me, since like the San Miguel refugees, at times I think of going somewhere less popular. And since I spend too much time reading news and news analysis, I’m very aware of the increasing environmental crunch that we’re all helping to bring on through our spread. There’s now even an emerging specialty of psychotherapy for people distressed by what’s happened and what’s coming environmentally.

Determining exactly what the breaking point is for any particular zone or region could only be possible after the infrastructure and community structures have failed. A lot of things will take many years or decades to hit that point, and I can’t see the entire planet collapsing. Maybe that’s just because I simply can’t imagine it doing so, but generally I have a good imagination for disasters. Disintegration is going to occur sporadically, as far as we can foresee it.

That leaves me watching the continuing influx of people who are doing just what I did a decade ago, and hoping that not everything disappears. We want homes, this corner of Mexico is still affordable for most gringos and for better-off Mexicans, and the houses will continue to go up.

But you can’t ignore the changes, or pretend their effect doesn’t count.

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Mountains Aren’t Necessarily Mountains

February 7, 2020

You can tell a mountain is a mountain, because it’s big, and high, and probably involves exposed rock. But when you spend time on a mountain, unless you’re really up high on a barren or icy area, you’re on ground. There’s probably grass plus some small plants, and many mountains, like those around my home, have lots of trees on them. In short, they tend to be just like regular countryside, only steeper. They’re less mountainy, the more mountain-sided I am as an observer.

My ambiguity about mountains stems partly from living right under one: familiarity breeds maybe not contempt, but a certain boredom. About sixty yards back of my house, there’s a cliff that rises and recedes in stages for several hundred feet. To the right, or north, there’s a jagged area of exposed rock where a bunch of the stuff came down a long time ago. I often wonder if there’s more of it waiting for a good quake in order to come down on the house, but no-one here remembers it falling in their lifetime.

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Mountains near my home. The ridge at the rear is to the north, and rises almost a thousand feet above our village.

But my favourite view from here isn’t of the bluffs curving round to the north and across the east, with the little valley that clefts them. Nor is it the more dramatic bluffs a few hundred yards to the east, which screen the rising Sun from the village, and ascend as much as 700 ft from the village streets, which are already at 4500 ft above sea level. Rather, it’s the view to the south, where the hills and mountains are five or six miles away, or further.

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The view from my home down to the hills around Yautepec, a short time before sunset.

There, they recede in a blue haze of uncertain detail, which means they can imply almost anything: wildness, inaccessible heights, or concealed caves with giants, heroes or dragons. I don’t mean that I believe in such things, having seen no dragons nor giants, and encountered few real heroes in this part of Mexico. But the effect of seeing them calls on such ideas from deep within.

It’s this ilusion of mountains that began to fascinate me after a year or so. They are, I decided, much more interesting as ideas than as concrete realities, which means they’re much more appealing from a mile or two away. And seen from a dozen times that distance, they conjure up all kinds of fantasies and mythic whisperings.

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On a day when it has no snow, but is giving off a faint halo of steam from the summit, the cone of Popocateteptl rises over a low point in the hills east of my village.

My point is that we’re programmed for mountains to inspire us. Up close, as I said, they’re just a lot of raised ground, often hard to ascend comfortably. The best they can offer (which can be very good indeed) is a vie down across lowlands towards other mountains.

This morning, wanting to go somewhere I’d not been recently, I headed to the town of Yautepec, a few miles south of here. It nestles in those hazy blue southern hills I mentioned above, with three or four lines of mountainous slopes marching off in the distance beyond it.

Looking for a long-lost restaurant, I began climbing a street running up a hillside, and kept going as a view to the east opened up. Between my village’s mountains and the hills of Yautepec, there’s a flat area that runs for a considerable distance eastwards, and sometimes you can see the volcano in that direction. And today, the top 5,000 ft. of the active Popocatepetl and its extinct neighbour, Ixtaccihautl, were both snow-covered, while the air was as clear as it can get in the 21st Century. Coming to the summit of the hillside street, I had an unobstructed view of both these mountains over someone’s roof, and spent twenty minutes absorbing the beauty of the vista, while lamenting that I didn’t have anything with me to take a photo.

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This range of hills, south of my village and closer to the town of Tepoztlan, have their own air of mystery.  There are trails up there, but you need a guide to find them.

The full range they form is around twenty miles long, and I don’t think I’d ever seen the pair as clearly as this before. I’ve been to their foot, at Amecameca, which is still, I believe, a starting point for people climbing Ixtaccihuatl. Popocatepetl, of course, is off limits to climbers, since even if some people don’t fear scorching hot ash descending on them, the rescue teams don’t want to risk getting killed themselves, recovering asphyxiated bodies.

Eventually, I came back down the street, and took the bus back home. Coming up from the plain, I admired the smaller mountains directly ahead of me. They looked suitably steep, green and dramatic, and very attractive, more so than up close – a perspective I know well, since I live amid them. Eventually the bus, which was old, lumbered and shuddered up the road into this scenery, and the drama faded away. Once again, I was in simple rising ground, slopes punctuated by trees and rocky outcroppings … but not ‘mountains.’

Illusion gone.

I’m glad Popocatepetl is off-limits, and I can never go on it. That means it will retain its mystique. It will stay a mountain.

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Screeching a Living

The first time I heard her, which was before I saw her, was about six years ago. There are often crippled beggars outside the cathedral in Cuernavaca, making for a very medieval scene. There are also musicians, mostly working the patios of the various cafes. They’re usually guitarists but a violinist is not unknown.

She, however, was a violinist only in the narrowest sense of the word. Simply put, she couldn’t hit a note, phrase a melody nor keep time. She was terrible. She was like an eight-year-old after her first lesson: keen to try, but not yet capable of varying the sounds the bow makes on the strings.

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The mystery violinist outside the cathedral wall in Cuernavaca.

Periodically, I’d encounter her again and think: Surely you’re learning a bit? I can’t play a violin, but if I played as much as you do, I’d have figured out how to make it sound more or less acceptable by now.

But she wasn’t learning, and I had no idea if she was even trying. In our market in Tepoztlan, there are often one or two ‘musicians’ whose sole aim is to annoy you so much that you give them a few pesos just to go away and let you eat your quesadilla in peace. Perhaps, I wondered, she’s like them.

But they wander around. She puts out a music stand, or props her sheet music on a bundle-buggy, and remains in one place for an hour or so, producing bits of (I think) Bach, Vivaldi or Mozart. Somebody taught her fingering, judging by how she holds the instrument, but she seems tone deaf to her own sounds. Maybe she’s wholly deaf, I sometimes speculate, but she does try to tune her instrument before starting, which a deaf person couldn’t manage.

She initially irritated me, then amused me, and finally intrigued me. But she’s very wary of human contact, never even muttering a quick “Gracias” if I drop a sympathetic five pesos in her violin case. The first time I tried to take a photo of her, she dodged behind a pillar, staring warily at me till I went away. I felt mean for trying, even though the street is a public place, and her chosen venue is a busy tourist destination.

I forgot about her for the three years I was back in Toronto, and I was surprised to find her still on the same street last year. She’s still somehow determined to eke out a borderline living from a complete lack of musical skill.

If anything, she might have become worse in the intervening years. One day I’d like to interview her, just to find out what she feels she’s doing, but as I noted, she avoids direct acknowledgement of other people. She’s an institution now, a living monument to artistic ineptitude.

She’s not yet out of middle age. But one day she’ll be gone, perhaps with her identity still a mystery. Some other street performer –– a mime, a singer, a mandolin player – will replace her, and squeezing the visitors for cash will continue as it probably has since before there was even a Christian house of worship here. But when she does go, something uniquely quirky will have disappeared from Cuernavaca. Few people, I figure, would ever dare make such a tuneless noise in a public place, and tacitly ask donations for doing so.

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Turtles and Ditches

February 1, 2020

Vendors in the market in town are trying to cut down on plastic bags. It’s causing some problems.

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A marketplace fruit stand in Tepoztlan market exhorting customers not to require plastic bags.

I always have mixed feelings on this topic, since I spent three decades of my life working for trade magazines covering packaging and plastics. Paper as a substitute for plastics uses more energy to produce, and we chop down a lot of trees to produce it, even when some recycled fibre is employed. There’s also a lot of toxic waste from paper production that you don’t get with plastics; paper usually ends up being more expensive because of the high energy demands it has.

On the other hand, you never see photos of turtles unable to eat because they’re trapped inside floating paper bags. Paper breaks down in weeks or months, where plastics can require decades. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the material used for most pop and water bottles, uses polymers of such a high molecular weight that there’s no known micro-organism that can break them down. Only UV light from the Sun, the salt in seawater, and the passage of time will do that.

I often used to wonder, writing about ever more efficient machinery for producing plastic film or PET bottles, what was to happen to the production after use. There was a lot of talk about recycling – I served on committees concerned with it, and wrote earnest editorials about biodegradable additives and similar approaches. But while the issue’s easy to preach about, it’s difficult to resolve in practice. A safe food supply requires reliable packaging, and people who preach about reusable plastic containers that you wash out at home usually have little idea what nasty bacterial colonies lurk in their tubs’ and bottles’ water-retaining micro-cracks. Glass breaks into dangerous fragments (my mother’s leg was scarred by a bottle that burst on her), and it needs far more energy to produce and to transport than plastics … and so it goes. Move from forthright slogans to nitty-gritty practicalities, and you’re into a swamp of aggravating fine detail. Municipal politicians, the people who usually have to implement the solutions, learn to hate the entire topic of waste disposal with a scornful despair.

The simplest action we can all perform is the one that many Mexicans apparently find hard to implement: don’t litter. Littering, though, is among the world’s most chronic pollution issues. I’ve mentioned here before people’s tendency to throw empty pop bottles and chip bags into a roadside ditch. When the rains come, these things find their way into streams, then rivers … and on to the turtles, or other sea creatures. But throwing something aside is a macho thing, a disdainful gesture, and it’s hard to eradicate from this society. There are slogans, lectures given in school, signs asking people not to do it – and little changes.

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Shredded bags, a foam cup, a milk container and other trash in the roadway near my home.

The bags they give out in the market when I buy vegetables or nuts are minor priorities, since they’re used and disposed of in the kitchen. It’s easy to capture a domestic waste-stream, far more so than the snack-food bags teenagers toss aside on the way home. And Mexican kids consume an enormous amount of chips. Even the ones who prefer a cup of fruit sticks on the way home still have a plastic cup to get rid of afterwards, and I see many of them in the ditches on my walks.

But the market vendors are visible dispensers of plastics, and so are a visible target. Also, some of them care enough to try to eliminate what they see as a problem. Most now charge me a peso or two for a plastic shopping bag when I forget to bring one, and work to cut down their small bag usage.

A couple of stalls now refuse to issue any kind of bag (which is impractical with larger quantities), while one family selling grains and dried fruit tried paper cones. These they were folding on their own, and anchoring with scotch tape. I imagine their packaging costs tripled (and they have a popular stall), and they ran into problems estimating the size of cone they needed. Last week, what would have been a small plastic bag of raisins – 200 grams – needed two of their cones. I noticed two days ago they’d switched back to small, clear bags.

Some of the plastic waste in the oceans is post-industrial, though not many manufacturers are daft enough to waste raw materials. Some is from sloppy recycling operations or regular garbage collection, which is a problem here: the Wednesday garbage truck is usually loaded past its capacity by the time it heads home, and some trash falls out.

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PET bottles and other trash in a ditch near where I live. The rains will wash them into the river.

But the littering is the worst thing, since there’s little desire to prevent the problem. My next door neighbours, generally friendly people, have a garbage system that their dogs get into, so that the front of their house is always strewn with old yogurt cups or water bottles. I could ask them to be more careful, but I doubt they’d take the request amiably. I’m not the lifelong resident here, after all.

The only thing to hope for is that educators find ways to penetrate the culture of tossing disposables beside the road. I’m told, in times past, the only waste was food waste, which animals would soon take, or things like ceramic bowls or flasks, which remained inert. Perhaps such old habits underlie the issue. Until they’re fixed, though – and in scores of places, not just Mexico – the seas will continue to receive far too much plastic garbage.

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The Equation

Sometimes when I make a post about my favourite volcano, or mentioning vicious dogs, people comment to say “Be careful,” or “Look after yourself.” And I confess, it irritates me.

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Scaffolding supports the main gate of the Tepoztlan cemetery after the 2017 quake.

I’m a grown-up, with no dependents other than the small pack of mutts I care for. My kids are adults, I have no significant other (the position is vacant), and I’ve hit seventy. Preserving myself ad infinitum isn’t my game-plan, and the idea of it all ending in an eruption (totally unlikely), an earthquake (possible but unlikely) or as a result of a gang shoot-out or an extortion attempt (possible, but also unlikely) doesn’t faze me. I’d rather go that way if/when it’s time, than be hooked up to tubes in a hospital bed.

So, when I make these posts, I tend to avoid things that shock people. Consider this your trigger-warning, because I’m writing about stuff that might shock you.

The church here sounds a death-knell when somebody dies. There are eight or ten strokes on one bell, following by two descending notes using both bells. In the past 48 hours, it’s sounded three times, perhaps more; though I’m not certain it’s because more than a couple of people have passed on. But I can hear the band playing now as the coffin goes down to the cemetery for its farewell. A Mexican funeral entails lively music as a send-off.

After I’d been here a few months, back in 2010, we had a shooting at a store I still visit twice a week, one night as the owner was about to pack up. His wife had just gone home to fix a late meal, and (so the tale goes), people connected to someone he’d helped kidnap years before showed up and gunned him down.

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The funeral procession of Sofia’s husband pauses at the store they owned.

So, I came to appreciate quickly that life here can end violently, separate from any activity directly connected to the gangs that news media call ‘cartels.’ The widow summoned her son back from the States, and he now manages the store, making bilingual quips to customers like me, and trying to expand the business.

Then today, I learned Victor had died. Victor was, perhaps, forty, and often drunk.

A strikingly handsome man, though sometimes disfigured by cuts on his face after he’d fallen down while wasted, he purportedly had skill as an artist, and lived with a patient girlfriend just outside our village. Some drunks are mean, but he was an amiable one.

That was his problem, since many people (me, for instance), don’t want to be pals with a person who can barely stand. He would often call a greeting to me when I tried to sneak past him in town, or want to talk with me on the combi (microbus). Sometimes, combi drivers refused to let him on in that condition.

Whoever he accosted last week didn’t appreciate the attention, either. He’s now gone.

My actual current concern isn’t with him or whoever’s being buried today, but with a lady I’ll call A. She’s cleaned house for me at times, and lives in a small house a few hundred yards from here. She has a couple of sons, and the eldest and his wife think he should have the place, not her. On New Year’s Eve, he got drunk and attacked her, putting her in hospital. After she got home again, she was afraid to step outside in case she ran into him. Worse, her uncle and brothers think that as a single woman, she should go to live with another son, and not hang onto the old family home for herself.

If I tried to interfere, I’d get nothing for my pains but a minor version of what happened to Victor. Women in rural Mexico still face not just the annoyances of simple sexism, but the threat of actual violence. Things change slowly, year by year, but … slow is slow. A’s daughter-in-law is egging on her husband to brutalise and evict her, so it isn’t just the men who bear responsibility. Since social atitudes shift so gradually, if a woman wants a house for herself, she can be willing to harm her own sex to get what she can.

Understanding all this through a conventional North American lens doesn’t work. For example, taking out drug-gang leaders (“We got El Chapo! Now he’s in jail for life!”) is popular elsewhere, but completely counter-productive in combating the gangs. President Lopez-Obrador is widely mocked for his “hugs not bullets” slogan, but it contains germs of truth. You can’t stamp out systemic violence with systemic violence, however much you’d like to. In the case of the gangs, when they’ve lost leaders they’ve simply found new bosses or split into rival factions; if left alone, they might well have come to a point of self-regulation, like the New York mafia did decades ago.

Now, that’s not possible. Only ‘Mexicanidad,’ Mexican-ness, works on Mexico.

Why, then, do I live here? How do I balance the equation? Well, for one thing, I appreciate the society.

Yes, I did just write that. People are warm, they like to like you, and provided you don’t provoke them, bearing in mind this is a conservative, ostensibly Catholic society, they’ll help you if you need help. The woman that sold two female friends and I the land where I live promptly regretted doing so, and now resents us. This happens a lot, since if you trade part of your patrimony for cash, it’s lost for good. But when the younger of the friends drove her vehicle off the roadway into a rut a couple of months ago, the middle-aged son of the angry matriarch came out to help her push it back onto the roadway. Because in a small Mexican village, you do that.

Another friend lives in an area of Mexico City where one neighbour constantly steals hubcaps, mirrors and other car-parts. He seems himself, I’m told, as a radical recycler, not a thief. But when the 2017 earthquake hit, and people were buried under rubble, he was right there with his largest crowbar, spending hours digging out the homes of people he usually steals from.

To me, in my last years living in Toronto, the city was increasingly losing its sense of human complexity. Here, the people who smile at me when I say good morning might equally be killers if provoked the wrong way, yet somehow the paradox is understood and accepted. I quickly figured out how to dress, act and conduct myself so as not to push the wrong buttons, so I’m apparently looked on as an aging gringo eccentric who poses little threat to the community.

The honesty of human emotion here is challenging for an introverted English-Canadian like me, but nourishing. Add to that the lush beauty of the green mountains around me and the sunshine on 340 days a year, not to mention the lower cost of living, and the advantages are clear.

Living here, I’m close to nature, which is about being on close terms with life and death, both human and animal.

I miss many urban advantages, and at times long for things I can’t have here. But in my final Toronto year, I was nearly struck three times by people texting as they drove. My sense of control and safety of how I live is much stronger here than in Canada, not less.

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Slogans on Shirts

January 18, 2020

She was, I guessed, around 60, which meant she might have been a Ramones fan during their heyday. But somehow I doubted that a village woman in central Mexico would have even known they existed. The t-shirt she was wearing with their name on it, therefore, was a hand-me-down, and like so many people here, she had no idea what her clothing said.

A couple of years ago, every third shirt around here seemed to say “Fly Emirates.” Until someone explained to me how used and second-quality clothing is shipped to Mexico and sold in small stores, I kept trying to figure out how all these people had found the money or inclination to use a Middle Eastern airline. As a marketing campaign, it might have been a brilliant move, except the people seeing the company logo everywhere had neither the cash for overseas travel, nor any real conception of the Emirates or their airline.

Other oddities include things like unsold shirts from school reunions, and concerts by half-forgotten bands. (“The Bangles – 2000 Reunion Tour“). One man I saw recently had an unspotted shirt from a 1996 college event in Ohio, which had probably sat in storage until someone had the sense to re-purpose it and some related leftovers. Mostly, though, it tends to be the Abercrombie & Fitch logo ad nauseam.

I wanted to take some photos to illustrate this post, but I immediately hit up against some practical issues. Foremost was having to respond to that famous opener for the start of a male bonding session, “Dude, why are you taking photos of my girlfriend’s chest?” Explaining that my blog is a form of light-hearted anthropological research could have been hard to do in my so-so Spanish, so I’ve decided to use only some stock art. You’ll have to take my word for it on the rest of this.

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Probably not my neighbours’ 17-year-old daughter. She’s dark-haired.

Apart from the Emirates shirts, what often strikes me is the number of f-bombs appearing on the streets in town. A matronly woman in her forties with a t-shirt tell people to “F– Off” was, I realised, blissfully unaware that her latest bargain was not something to wear to a family gathering.

Some people, of course, are aware of what they’ve chosen to wear. At least a third of the men in my village, maybe more, have at some point come to Canada to pick tomatoes or other fruit in the summer, so they know a few basic phrases in English. Their English often mirrors my halting Spanish, which I sometimes think is deteriorating rather than advancing. But I could figure out a scatological message, so probably they can, too. On a worksite, it’s not important how you’re dressed, while the slogan might relieve some of the frustration of having to do hard work for poor wages.

The kids are taught English in school, though only a few seem to master simple conversation. However, I’m sure most know the meaning of the racier messages.

The latest trend I’ve noticed is shirts with ‘Honey‘ across the front.  Was this last summer’s vogue elsewhere? I don’t recall it. My neighbour’s 17-year-old daughter no doubt knows what her t-shirt with this on it means, but I’m not sure her strict Catholic (and unilingual) parents do. So, English can become a code between teenagers, who can, if challenged, claim not to have understood that the neat lettering they liked was provocative. I still remember translating a message being passed among eleven-year-old schoolgirls for a mother who lived next to me, and her expression when I explained it said “CPR training – only cute guys need apply.”

I still sometimes wish I’d said it merely meant “I love fluffy kittens,” but I didn’t think of that at the time. But yes, Juanita, these days they do grow up early.

Obviously, in a poorer society, it’s easy to mock people’s clothing choices when they must buy what they can afford. A family of five can live here on income that wouldn’t support a single adult in Toronto, but that does require constant attention to bargain-hunting, whether it’s buying your vegetables in the Sunday market in nearby Ixcatepec, or previously rejected t-shirts that might need a stitch or two on the seams.

It is, though, hard not to be amused when someone’s unconscious fashion statement crosses a particular cultural line, or configuration of lines.  I noticed a man trying to sell ice-cream from a cart last weekend, whose shirt slogan was “Who Needs This Shit?” I still think he might have achieved more commercial success with a different selection.

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Rock of Ages

January 15, 2020

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Today’s topic.

I’ve been reading alarmed reports recently about repeated eruptions from Popocatepetl, with some people interpreting them as signs of an imminent seismic apocalypse. But in reality, Don Goyo, Mexico’s most famous volcano, lets off steam and a bunch of ash the same way that Toronto gets snow in winter: regularly and frequently, if slightly unpredictably.

It’s really neat to see a plume of smoke and ash rising from the cone, at least from the safe distance of 25 miles or so that lies between my village and the summit. The volcano is most beautiful after rain, however, which tends to fall at those heights as snow, and coats its enormous bulk in white.

Once, in unimaginably ancient times, this village was covered by seawater. There were coral reefs where there are now rocky hillsides, and seaweed where there are now jutting promontories and small peaks.

I guessed this to be the case when I first came here, since there were so many strata visible in the rockfaces. Volcanic activity here has come and gone over millions of years, changing the topography. At intervals, more sedimentary rocks have been laid down between the periods of volcanism.

Some seven or eight years ago, I was walking on a hillside trail when I spotted a large, patterned rock, just as I was close to finishing the house I was building. It was a chunk of fossilised coral, knocked out of a rockface by some unnoticed tremor, that with the rains of many years had eventually arrived where I was standing looking at it. It was a perfect ornament to go beside my outside stairs.

Years ago, when my kids were small, I would take them to a stream in Erin Mills, the part of Mississauga in Ontario where we lived, to find fossils of seashells. They had washed out from soft, sedimentary rock upstream, and they made neat talking-points on a bookshelf. I think, though, I was more interested in them than my kids, who just saw greyish-green stones with streaks on them, while I saw very ancient history. Anyway, for me finding the coral was an extension of that old pastime.

Now, getting the coral home wasn’t the same as fetching back a clamshell fossil that fit in my hand. This thing weighed 30 lb, and I had to lug it half a mile home. But, I felt, in doing this I was earning the ownership of it. And I’ve never seen a specimen as large or fine here since.

A couple of years passed, and I came back to Toronto to earn more money for my retirement. One time, I asked Ofelia, the woman who rented my house what had happened to my fossil, but she had no idea. I guessed it had been discarded as just another lump of rock.

More time passed, and I returned here. Ofelia had died, and someone else had taken it. He didn’t know about any fossil, either. But then one day, soon after I’d come back, there was a discussion about the security of the corral where our dogs spend their daytime hours.

“Well, just use the big rock to hold the gate shut,” said my friend Lucero.

“Which rock?” I asked, not thinking clearly, so she showed me.

It had been used for this purpose for some months, and much of the coral pattern had been worn away. What had been living creatures millions of years ago, and had taken many more to impress itself as a fossil in limestone, was largely erased for ever.

There was, obviously, a lesson in the philosophical concept of impermanence here. There was also an opportunity for me to extract some emotional leverage for the damage done to something irreplaceable. But I knew there must be more pieces of such petrified coral in existence, and this specimen was not unique. So, I opted for half-baked Buddhism, while privately lamenting the ancient pattern’s erasure. And since it was too late to prevent the harm, and it was – after all – a rock, I let the topic go.

But I do look at the rock from time to time, and gaze at the coral pattern still etched along the un-abraded edges. It’s a simple reminder of how easily the earth can display its immense age when it isn’t covered by concrete or asphalt.

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Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl seen from a hillside above the village. Once, the ocean covered this place.

In such a mood, I took the photo at the top on our patio one afternoon a couple of weeks ago. I stepped back, admiring my worn find. I was soon joined by Punky, one of the three surviving dogs here. Examining the object of my attention, he commenced his own palaeontological enquiries, sniffing it from all possible angles. Did he, perhaps, detect some faint hint of saltwater impressed into the rock aeons ago? Or even grasp, from a lingering aroma of compressed lime and clay, how it had lain within the rock of the hillsides of so long?

I’ve no idea. For he then did what any sensible dog would do faced with the presence of immense history, and lifted his hind leg, anointing the damaged fossil with a pungent scent of his own.

I’m very fond of Punky, but I fear he just doesn’t have that much scientific curiosity.

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Punky rolling around on the patio.
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Grave Difficulties

Back in the summer, I wrote about the dog Oliver, whom I’ve cared for since I returned to Mexico just over a year ago. Ollie was always very thin, but a few weeks before Christmas, he seemed thinner than usual. His ribs stuck out, his waist was smaller, and there was little muscle on him. I tried changing his food, and giving him some anti-parasite meds, but his condition didn’t improve. This past Tuesday, since he was terrified of being taken to strange places like veterinarians’ offices, we called the vet in to look at him. The verdict, derived from blood and urine tests, plus a physical exam, was that he had no infections, but his kidneys seemed to be under stress, and probably there were other things wrong with him that needed further examinations. My neighbour Gabriel, who has bred show dogs, was a source of informed opinions, but he’s also an anxious man, and I was careful about accepting all his views.

Oliver was about thirteen years of age, which is very old for a large dog, especially one who’d been very sickly as a young animal. I’d realised he probably wouldn’t last the year, and began making an extra fuss of him at mealtimes, usually the only point in the day when he was okay about receiving attention.

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Olive in his corral, pictured last week.

Friday, I was in town till the afternoon, and didn’t look for Ollie in the corral until dinnertime, around six. When I called him four or five times and he didn’t come, I looked more carefully, and I soon saw him.

My guess is that he’d died around midday, since rigor mortis had now set in. It might have been a stroke or a heart attack, or … we don’t really know. His body had been lying in the sun for some hours, and was beginning to swell. We could have called the vet to take his body and “dispose” of it, but that wasn’t what was going to happen. His former kennel-mate Kato is buried under the trees above the house, and Ollie deserved to lie there near him. So, Gabriel and I wrapped him in a couple of scotch-taped garbage bags to keep off the insects overnight, and put him into our large dog-bath with a further cloth covering. The sun was just going down, so we resolved to dig a grave in the morning.

It’s hard to describe the terrain here, because we’re on a steep slope. You climb stairs to get to the main back door, and the back wall of the property is thirty feet or more above the level of the back patio. Long ago, this was a cow pasture, but the municipality asked us to build a wall, and without grazing animals it’s become overgrown. After breakfast, I looked to find an appropriate flat area, and, using a rather small shovel the house’s owners keep here, dig out a place for Oliver. My feeling was he’d have appreciated a site with a view overlooking the corral where he lived, so I selected a flat patch and began shifting dirt.

Yes, well.

The soil here, known as tepetate, is a mix of clays and reddish volcanic dust. It’s very fertile, and for building, it has the merit that it doesn’t loosen much with earth tremors. It can absorb the energy of quite major quakes. However, it’s extremely hard, and has a lot of large stones and rocks. Before I began, I figured it would take me at least two hours to dig out a hole big enough for large dog, and since it was going to get really hot by midday, I set to it just before nine.

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Nearly three inches down into the hard tepetate. Yes, exactly.

I did well. After forty-five dehydrating minutes, I’d gotten down nearly three inches through the hard earth. With Gabriel’s help, I figured, and knowing our energy would sag the longer we worked, we might get a grave dug by sunset. That is, provided the small injuries I’d sustained hacking into the earth didn’t accumulate to become major ones.

Gabriel took his turn, and soon declared we needed a pickaxe to break up the hard-packed earth. I suggested we buy one from the large new hardware store on the edge of town, but before we got very far from the house, it occurred to him to ask the guy building a house in our laneway if we had one we could borrow. The man, Valentin, did, and was happy to get his teenage son to fetch it and lend it to us for an hour or so. We tried working with it, and concluded we might even finish by mid-afternoon. Ollie, in the heat of the central Mexican day, would by then be … deteriorating, shall we say.

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Gabriel trying his hand and breaking the earth. The tinaco, the water-tank, is visible above-right.

“Let’s just ask those guys if they want to earn some cash,” Gabriel suggested, an idea I’d already contemplated, though I wasn’t sure how to approach them. So we went back, and Gabriel negotiated a decent offer, and the two of them took us up on it. Valentin’s son is only fourteen, but he’s built like a football player, with bulging muscles and a strong back.  I was impressed by both of them as they attacked the tepetate. Mexicans’ ability to take the physical punishment of hard labout always astonishes me.

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Sixty pounds of rocks in a bucket? All in a morning’s work for Valentin.

Sure enough, in twenty minutes, they were down six or seven inches. But they’d hit a problem: rock. How much, how big? We couldn’t determine: you can’t when you’re digging downwards. But it was big enough. We could have asked them to dig elsewhere but the problem was, the conditions are the same all over the sloping wilderness that, once, we planned to turn into a hillside garden. Maybe, as happened with Kato’s grave six years ago, we’d hit a patch that was clear of large rocks down far enough. And maybe we’d try five locations and they’d all have boulders a few inches under the surface.

Valentin proposed the solution. Next to the rock platform with the tinaco, the water-tank we fill to have a gravity-feed of running water, there was a space with the property’s wall to one side. Why not bury Ollie just there, under the rocks and earth we’d already dug up?

General construction workers here always have a stash of everything they might need, and he had a little cal, or lime, that would prevent the occupant developing rich aromas and becoming a magnet for rats. We could pile the earth we’d already excavated, then some of the rocks, on top. Architecturally, it wouldn’t win prizes, but it would do the job.

I’m being matter-of-fact, almost flippant here, but all the while we had to deal with the fact we’d lost a friend. Gabriel was more dismayed than me, since he’d assumed Ollie might be cured of his current ailment and enjoy another year or so of life. I was – am – upset, having worked to make that scared animal feel secure and loved, but as I said, I also felt his time was very close. Having pets requires, at a certain point, a readiness to let them go, especially when they hit their dotage. Two others here – Ollie’s half-sister Victoria, and the little poodle-cross Punky, who’s now blind – are similarly in their last years, and I watch them for signs of decline. Ollie left us faster than I expected, but I was half prepared for his departure.

So, around 1.00 pm, with the dog’s remains placed in the grave and the lime, earth and some rocks placed over him, the job was done. Right next to his little tomb is the rock platform with the tinaco on it, and I can imagine his spirit standing on that, looking down over the corral and out into the field where the cows and horses wander to graze.

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Inelegant, perhaps, but secure, and with a nice view from the adjoining rock platform.

Faced with the actuality of anyone’s existence ending, we all conceive of different fates for those we’ve lost, and my idea here is that he’s looking down at Rem, our much younger Labrador-cross who’d try to steal his food, and thinking: “Dude, I’m above you now.”

Gabriel had a different thought.

“Did you leave his collar on him?” he asked me, and I replied that I had.

“That’s good, he has something to pay the boatman on his way to the afterworld.”

It was a mix of Greek and Mexican traditions, but I like the imagery.

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An Old Farmer

January 3, 2020

Two or three times a week, he gets on the microbus heading into town, with his two churns of milk. One is bigger than the other, but since he appears my own age, both must feel really heavy for him to bring down to the roadway and hoist into the combi. Usually, somebody helps him position the churns as he gets on, as I did this morning.

This area is still cattle country, and cows in the road are a traffic hazard that has caught many an unwary outsider who’s forced to screech to a halt after taking a bend too confidently.

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Cows here wander the roadways, like these I photographed near the entrance to the village. Drivers from elsewhere don’t expect to encounter them, and often have to brake hard when they do.

But every month, I see another plot of land has been hived off a field for someone to build a house, so the available pasturage is shrinking. There’s grazing up in the hillside meadows, where few people want to build, but even there the foundations and walls are arriving in a few places.

I figure, then, that he’s part of a dying breed. Many people comment on the waning of farming here, as the rewards for the effort keep diminishing. Some still like the independence of it, but once the next generation gives up on it, there’s no turning back. Land is sold, either for houses or, in some cases, consolidation under corporate ownership.

Not long ago a friend and I, out hiking, came across a cornfield that took ten or fifteen minutes to get right around. It was clearly not part of a traditional smallholding. And there are media stories about a problem in the tequila industry, where young men no longer want to harvest the blue agave plants for the usual wages.

The older man can’t make much money off his milk. His jeans and shirts are ragged, and even if they’re just work clothes, there are ranchers round here who are better dressed for their jobs. He looks like he barely makes ends meet. I don’t know the math of the milk business, or the capacity of his milk churns, but he only has a dozen gallons or less to take to the dairy each day. That he doesn’t own even a beat-up pickup for transportation is telling.

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Milk churns – just in case you’ve never seen one, or have forgotten what they look like.

He’s a tall man for a Mexican, and thin, but shy, and doesn’t look to engage the other passengers, even the occasional friends he greets. I’ve never felt I could ask him personal questions. He is traditionally religious, raising his battered hat as we pass a church or roadside shrine. My assumption is that he’s been a dairy farmer for so long, he has no idea of what else he could or should so. He’ll simply continue as long as he can.

But as with so many people here, I wonder what he makes of the changes that have happened over the decades. His generation grew up with their parents and grandparents telling them stories about the 1910 Revolution, in houses without electricity or running water. The road to Amatlan was paved around fifty years ago, around the same time that cables on poles brought electrical power and the first pay telephone to the village. TV followed later in the 1970s, though not many people could afford even a second-hand set until the 1980s. Everything happened thirty or forty years later than it did elsewhere in North America.

Now, my farmer can see the old ways of farm life disappearing. How our food will be produced in future is shown by that big cornfield I mentioned, with its hundred acres or more. And this approach will keep down the cost of eating, whatever else we lose by it.

What I appreciate is that I can still see aspects of how it comes together – while, of course, not having to work at it myself. I pass fields of calabasas (zucchinis, or courgettes), tomatoes, nopales (edible cactus) and of course maize, and can watch to see how it develops. I even fret over the rainfall, as I did last summer, when so little came down in the first part of the growing season; and was cheered to see the reservoirs filled by the end of November.

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A rain-fed reservoir outside of the village, where ranchers bring cows and horses for watering.

I like to think the man on the combi, despite the hardships of his livelihood, still enjoys that same connection to the rhythm of the seasons. Maybe his inherited knowledge won’t be needed when all our food comes from large corporate operations, but at least I’ve lived here while it still exists.

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All the Way to Eleven

Often, like most expats, I complain about the Mexican love of explosive rockets. Cohetes are let off on religious festivals, at high points during a Mass, at any semi-significant halting point in a religious procession; to mark public holidays, birthdays, and any event considered vaguely worthy of a loud bang. In my village, this covers at least one occasion on most weekends. During the annual fiestas for the Marias – the Virgin of Guadalupe in December, Maria Magdalena in high summer – several hundred rockets are released in a day.

And of course, this being New Year’s Eve, people will have stocked up on rockets to let off at midnight. And for some time after that.

One or two of the dogs will spend the time cowering under my bed, and I’ve sometimes thought about joining them.

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All the way up to eleven…

The Christmas season here includes a jarepeo, a three-evening event of bull-riding, which would have been fun if the band they hired had been (a) any good, and (b) had used a sound system that wasn’t designed for metal bands in their stadium-rock heyday. Standing with me sixty feet from the speakers, R and I got to enjoy the pounding from the bass and drums as a physical sensation in our chests. After three bulls had thrown their riders, we gave up. She was feeling physically uncomfortable, while I was reflecting on how Pete Townshend had lost most of his hearing.

I’ve been at family events here where the music is so loud, conversation in my broken Spanish becomes impossible. I arrive, I smile, mouth some greetings, eat some food, have a drink and seek my moment to leave. I could try prolonged, inane smiling, I know, but that has its communicative limits.

Why, I’ve always wondered, do people do this? There are occasions (The Who in their prime doing yet more damage to Townshend’s and Roger Daltry’s eardrums being one) where loudness is fun. At least it is, if you’re not Pete or Roger. But while some traditional music would be fine with the bull-riding, speech-blocking pounding is not.

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The old master doing a windmill on his guitar.

Mexicans seem immune to it, or able to shrug off the assault, but I wonder if they’re aware it could be turned down with enough requests. Sporting events, and the jarepeo is a sport, call for making comments at every skillful turn or dextrous act of balance, but 145 decibels of electronically enhanced bass-strings tend to pre-empt that possibility. R was so distracted at one point, she didn’t catch the crowd’s roar as a bull came out, the roar being drowned by the band.

Brass bands have long been a mainstay of local culture, and a local funeral isn’t a properly discharged affair without musical accompaniment following the deceased to the cemetery. But that’s unamplified: it’s music at the level where it can be appreciated, unless of course the deceased was a close friend or relative. In that instance, it’s hoped the deceased appreciates it via some post-mortem capability that I can’t imagine.

But the village church, for example, likes to broadcast religious music and even some ceremonies over a speaker system on its 55-ft tower. Since my house is on a rise 300 yards away, I can enjoy this at its best when it starts at 6.00 am (or earlier) on a Sunday morning.

And sometimes, people come here to hold a Saturday wedding that keeps on partying till 3.30 am. You can’t very well argue that a wedding should be less boisterous, but there is a point where other people wish they could get to sleep.

I don’t know if Mexico will ever lose its love of loudness. I think there’s a sense in which it unifies people: if you can’t think, you have to join in the collective mood. Still, the best thing about it is that eventually it stops.

“I like Amatlan, because it’s so peaceful there,” people often say to me.

Yes, I say between clenched teeth, it is. At least part of the time. But not tonight.

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Then and Now – and Pizza

Tim, who runs Juanito’s restaurant in town, wants to open a second place, with a different menu. One of his motivations, he told me, was a slice of pizza he had a while ago, which was soggy, and flopped in his hand. Tim has worked in foodservice for most of his life, and he knows his pizza, and he knows the proper recipe.

All the news media have been running retrospective lists of everything that happened in 2019, so I’ve found myself reflecting back through the year and then back to my own earliest visit here around 2006. Tepoztlan was a quieter town then, and Amatlan, my village, was perhaps twenty percent less populous. From a certain point along the road into town, I could see the lights down in the plain below, and there were fewer of them than there are today.

There were also just two places in town offering uniformly limp pizza, something I’ve successfully avoided in Mexico since.

J, who has lived here since the 1980s, tells me Tepoztlan was a paradise when she first came here. I don’t know if that observation includes the experience the local people had of their lives, but it was definitely much quieter and more traditional. My first visit showed me a place that seemed barely awake at 10.00 am on a weekday. There was no Moroccan restaurant, nor an Indian one, almost no bars, and far fewer hotels. And no Juanito’s, of course, so the only available burgers were pretty bad. The town that attracted filmmakers (The Magnificent Seven and Two Mules for Sister Sara were partly shot here) because of its unchanged nature is now filling up with souvenir stalls and posadas offering weekend getaways.

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The main square, pictured here with a half-dozen fruit and food stalls around 1950, is now home to the main Tepoztan market.

The specific trigger for this post today was the sight of three men trying to heave a large metal signpost into place. It indicates which way to drive for this hotel or for that location, where ten years ago, a visitor would simply have asked a local person for directions. Even now, travel articles still refer at times to Tepoztlan as a village, despite it having around 14,000 permanent residents.

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Inside the market today, on a quiet Tuesday. There are about 60 stalls, more on special market days. The fountain is still there in the middle, though it’s often dry.

There’s little point complaining about the changes, since all of us who’ve come here have helped drive them. Weekend refugees from Mexico City have bought or built houses here, and Airbnb has had a bad effect on the availability of rooms and apartments, helping push up rental costs by more than half in the past four years.

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The Avenida de la Revolucion 1910, pictured c. 1950. There were, reportedly, only two or three cars in the town then. The big church is the Convent of the Nativity.

This being Christmas week, the town is full of visitors and people here to stay with family. The Avenida Revolucion de 1910 is closed to allow the slightly (or severely) drunken to wander safely past the stalls selling t-shirts with cutesy Frida Kahlo images on them, quasi-shamanic tchotchkes, or gaily painted terracotta skulls. I go there to buy food, but I don’t stay long when the town is so full.

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This week, Avenida de la Revolucion 1910 is closed so more people can stroll the stalls. The Convent towers peek into the frame, top left.

I have no cause to complain about the changes, since my presence here helps fuel them. My village is still a farming community, with splendid views from the right spots, and clean air. There’s no rush-hour, no pressure, no harried commuters. The micro-bus gets full in the evenings, but people retain their courtesy and mutual goodwill.

The year-end being a time to consider what’s worthwhile in life, this is a pretty good place to be. But like all things, it’s changed, and it keeps on changing. The next generation of expats might need to look for somewhere else.

Unless, of course, Tim has, by then, improved the pizza.

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Storefront dreams

December 16, 2019

On my lane – it’s narrow, and a dead end, not an actual street – someone constructed a new house earlier this year. Initially, I thought the downstairs was a garage, but soon I could see it was too small for a regular car. Finally, the neighbour told me it would be an abarrotes.

When I came across this word abarrotes, I couldn’t at first make sense of it. It comes from a verb meaning “to pack,” but in the vernacular it simply means “groceries.” In some communities people use the word miscelanea instead, which carries the connotation of a general store, but in Amatlan and other places nearby, abarrotes is the preferred term. The word can refer to anything from a small space selling bottled water, canned beans and packets of snackfood to a slightly larger enterprise offering vegetables, milk, packaged cold cuts and cleaning supplies. But, a supermarket it’s not.

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Abarrotes Eben-Ezer: a supermarket it’s not. The sign on the ground in front advertises ice (hielo).

The village’s economy made little sense to me in the early days, since it seemed as if a community of just a thousand people couldn’t support more than three or four little grocery outlets. And there were six or seven abarrotes. Now, we have nine functioning stores in and around the village, plus a couple that open at odd times – and that’s not counting the one the neighbour is readying.

The attraction, of course, is the low cost of entry. Retail’s a lousy way to earn a living, but if you have a house with street frontage, it isn’t hard to convert part of it to a small shop. Around here, every second male over twenty has worked in construction, so help in the conversion is available within the family circle. The initial batch of stock can be modest, and in time can be expanded to include cigarettes, beer or tequila, and whatever you notice that no-one else is offering in the immediate vicinity. The biggest place in the village, for example, does a solid trade in sacks of dry dogfood, there being a couple of hundred dogs here.

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Abarrotes Sara wasn’t doing much business when I took this shot.

The cliche of small business in Mexico is the taco stand. That, too, doesn’t cost much to open, but it’s labour-intensive. You need to prepare each meal, as well as chop up a lot of ingredients before starting for the day. Then, there’s only business around meal-times. You also have to allow for wastage on slow days. Two or three times, people have tried launching actual restaurants here, but each time they’ve failed.

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This store just has a banner on the front. Its sideline is selling tortillas by the dozen (“por docena”). Mexicans love their soda pop and snack-foods, and have a high rate of diabetes as a result.

Another option is the hairdressing salon, which often offers manicures or other beauty care. Again, the cost of entry is slight (you don’t really need a revolving barber chair), the main expense being the necessary training to cut and style hair. And since a lot of women learn to do this for people in their families, that skill-set isn’t hard to acquire.

With a tiny grocery store, though, you can leave your twelve-year-old in charge while you feed the baby or cook the family meal, and of course hs or her labour comes free. The business can expand with time, or – this seems to be the most popular option – remain a sideline. Doña Sofia, just opposite the church, opens her place at unpredictable hours, and perhaps only sees two dozen customers a day. She sells canned goods, water, soda-pop, fresh eggs, candies and knick-knacks, and spends much of the day in front of her TV in the living room behind the store.

She’s elderly now, and if she hears me enter, takes a couple of minutes to come to the front. But her place is the closest to my house, and that’s an advantage for carrying bottled water, though Sofia doesn’t stock the most reliable brand. I could get water delivered, but then I’d lose a point of connection with the community. I decided some years ago that keeping the old ladies on my side was sound neighbourhood politics.

But other than the two or three largest places, it’s obvious an abarrotes here doesn’t produce much of a revenue stream. The aim in Mexico, so often, is to multiply the ways your family generates income. Possibly the father works in construction or farming, the eldest kids work in the market in town or, if they’re a little educated, in municipal government office or a bank, and the mother runs the store. All put together, these are enough to support a family. It’s not an easy life, but the children learn responsibility at an early age – and everyone eats.

At the same time, the abarrotes concept often seems to be one of those hopeful things that doesn’t necessarily play out well. I usually buy a preferred brand of drinking water from a store that has a steady stream of customers. I rarely go into other places, like Doña Sofia’s, that don’t. Skulking round today photographing different places, I found three that I thought were still in business, but weren’t.

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Abarrotes Martin closed some time in the past year.

Sometimes, the effort to maintain a small sideline isn’t worth the time or the electricity bill for the cooler for the soda pop. And sometimes, even a modest dream can be too hard to pull off. After all, that pop and the chips might be popular, but people are learning they’re prime contributors to the nationwide surge in diabetes.

That little place my neighbour is building? The house looks fine for a small family, but there are only seven houses fronting onto our lane. To reach it from the street, you have to walk up a short but disconcertingly steep incline.

Somehow, I don’t see it taking off. So, maybe his plan B should be to buy an extremely small car; he has a pre-built garage, after all.

Update, December 30, 2019: Two people have told me you get a government subsidy here for opening a small business. So, this is a factor in why people like to start an abarrotes.