For my last post, I wrote yet again about our dog Dori. We’d taken her to our preferred vet because her ribs were sticking out, and she was getting progressively thinner. After ruling out poisoning and a thyroid condition, Dr. Barajas said she needed surgery because she had a bullet or lead pellet in her liver; but more importantly, because her intestines were invisible on two x-rays. They just couldn’t be seen properly. Her operation, scheduled for Saturday, was postponed, but my friend Lucero, who initially rescued Dori, has a challenging timetable, and pushed for having the surgery today. It was just as well that she did.
(Trigger warning: If reading about the contents of dog intestines causes you embarrassment, reactivated trauma from infant toilet-training, or absolute boredom, read no further).
When he opened her up, the vet soon determined that her lower intestines were alarmingly swollen, and the colour of what should have been red (from natural bloodflow) was dark to the point of being nearly black.
He assumed at first that she had swallowed pebbles, because there were hard objects in her lower bowel. But an enema did nothing to move them. Perplexed, he decided to open her up, and discovered nine or ten dried and hardened plumstones. He showed them to us after, semi-mummified and of course dramatically stinky.
I detest the plum trees on our property, and always have. Hog-plums produce a lot of fruit, the stones of which litter the ground throughout the year. And I find them sour and unleasant. Our other large dog Rem likes to eat them, then charmingly vomits them up for me overnight. Many mornings, I start the day bent double with power towels in my hand. Dori copied Rem, except that she’s been swallowing the stones instead of regurgitating them. The result was today’s surgery.
Dogs absorb fats and other nutrients from the lower bowel, said Dr. Barajas, as well as extracting water. Dori has been on a high fat diet the past couple of weeks, which boosted her weight by two kilograms (around 4-½ lb), but she was unable to expel the plumstones. How they passed through two intestinal sphincters to reach her lower bowel, he couldn’t explain. But he was sure she must have hurt like hell.
She always goes crazy at feeding time, and sometimes attacks Rem right after eating. This is as her intestinal tract starts peristaltic contractions, with consequent cramping pain. The pain triggered the aggression, while her clogged bowel was minimising her nourishment. And her internal writhings to remove the blockages led to her intestines bunching up close to her chest cavity, hence their near-invisibility on the x-rays.
Poor, crazy dog.
The good doctor thinks his handiwork today will fix the problem, but we won’t be sure for a week or so. Cutting open a bowel is a dicey business, and the dog is now obviously on antibiotics. We were warned the next few days could be critical, with no guarantees. She has to be kept away from solid food for that time; and of course, we’re frantically scheming about how to limit the windfalls from the seven large plum trees on this property. Tomorrow, I’m buying a new, large saw.
The lead pellet, by contrast to the gut issue, was deemed harmless, and as Dr. Barajas had no wish to start cutting into another internal organ, it was left in place. He did, though, appreciate having a fascinating surgical case to handle. He was quietly smiling when he told us she’d likely have died in the next week if he hadn’t operated today.
I’m going to have a talk with Rem, and ask him to just keep vomiting if he must eat hog-plums. It’s unpleasant, but it’s a sign of the correct canine response to hard objects in the stomach. And paper towels are a heck of a lot cheaper than abdominal surgery.
Dori has featured in this blog several times. She began as Dory last spring when we acquired her, then became Dorada (‘golden’) and, finally, Midori, a Japanese word that literally means ‘green,’ but can also mean the force of the natural world. She’s indeed strong and forceful, while also being intensely affectionate. But we still call her Dori, because that’s the name she more or less recognises.
She began to look unusually thin a few months ago, and so our usual vet suggested a course of de-worming meds and some vitamins. I thought it had some effect, but not much.
Dr. Barajas, in the nearby city of Cuautla, is our guy for complicated cases. He has sophisticated equipment and a full operating theatre. He is also usually training a couple of young assistants, so the place is well-staffed. My friend Lucero, who rescued Dori early last year when her original owners largely abandoned her, came with me to see him yesterday, and to get a proper diagnosis of why our dog, while still a little wild and strong as a horse, has her ribs sticking out. We suspected she had a thyroid condition, but that isn’t what the good doctor found.
First, he ran a blood sample through an instrument that does counts automatically. Overall, she is in good condition, he said, so we’d not found the problem. So, next I got to help the assistants hold down Dori as she was given a sideways-on x-ray. Some dogs are a handful, but predictably, she was six handfuls.
“What do you see here?” he asked his assistants when the image came up on the screen, asking us to wait a minute for the verdict until they’d had a chance to offer their opinions.
“I can’t see her intestines – where are they?” one of them finally asked. “And is that a spot on her liver?”
And then he took us through what he’d found. Which, weirdly, was that she has almost no intestines where a dog always has intestines. The food goes in, and the by-product comes out the other end, but somehow her intestines are either not fully present, or more probably, are pushed up into her thorax. Dr. Barajas assured us he’d not seen a case quite like this before. The problem needs surgery to explore and, hopefully, to fix. But clearly, with strangely positioned or formed innards, she can’t extract maximum nutrition from her food.
But the round white spot – on the x-ray here, above the spinal column, about one-sixth the way from the right-hand edge of the image – was the other surprise. This x-ray was the second one, because the first showed where it was longitudinally, but not how deep into her body. Because, when he said it was a small lead bullet or gun-pellet, he had to determine if it was close to the skin (as we hoped), or deeper inside (which it was).
Outsiders still assume that gun-violence is a problem for humans in Mexico, and it is in some areas. But a lot of people own firearms of one type or another, and street-dogs can be considered legit for target practice. Dr. Barajas told us that with a street-rescue dog that’s brought in, he always checks to see if they’ve been shot.
Lucero and I were in shock by this point in his explanation. How does an animal survive in such a condition? She shows no external signs of distress, apart from the complete lack of fat on her body. But it’s possible the lead pellet is poisoning her slowly.
I’ve often remarked that being a woman in rural Mexico can be a tough gig, but being a dog would be a worse one. There are many half-starved dogs running around, sometimes with mange or matted hair. Survival is all they can achieve, and often, not even that for very long.
Ours often whine to be let out to run around and get into fights, and Dori still misses her half-wild first year or so of life, when she picked up various scars and gave birth to two litters of puppies. But letting them out the gate except on a leash, when they have an ample, hillside corral here in which to play and run, is something I’ve never done except through rare carelessness. I value them too much for that.
So, our Dori goes in for surgery. She’s on an enriched diet (she doesn’t complain at that) and we hope that builds her up a little. But as the vet says, she’s mostly healthy and strong for now, but that could change at any point. Accordingly, in fourteen days, he’s going to see what he can do about the presumably compacted intestines, and try to extract the lead pellet from her liver.
Dori is not an easy dog to live with. But boring, she isn’t.
“Well, it’s only once a year,” was John’s opinion this morning, as chatted outside Tepoz Cafe. My true opinion is, “Well, it shouldn’t be.” But I chose to live in Mexico, so things Mexican are what I let myself in for.
Very few parishes or villages are dedicated to Mary Magdalene. Since the Plumed Serpent Quetzalcoatl was, legendarily, born just outside Amatlan, his mother in Catholic doctrine was a very sinful being in need of penitence. Accordingly, the church here is dedicated to her, and July 22, her saint’s day, is when the village erupts in fiesta.
It starts a couple of days before, as people set up stalls to sell food, jewelry, cheap kids’ toys and t-shirts. The movable midway rides are trucked in, people put up awnings (it is rainy season after all) and the organisers book a dozen bands and order hundreds of cohetes or explosive rockets.There was no fiesta in 2020, and only a blessedly small one in 2021. This year, as a surge of Covid-19 cases runs through the area, they planned on the traditional bash, and so this village is almost unlivable this weekend.
But as my regular readers (thank you both!) know, it’s the cohetes that torment my dogs and drive me crazy. These are not your average July 4th (or July 1st) fireworks, but super-bangers that resonate their detonations off the cliffs surrounding the village. To stand under one as it goes off is to feel the pressure-wave and a slight hurting in your ears. My dogs loathe them, and since they have been let off consistently through the day until after midnight since Thursday (I write this on Saturday) my noise-fearing dog Victoria has spent the past two nights cowering in my bedroom, which at least gives her the illusion of security.
I lost it late on Thursday afternoon, when the whole show was getting under way. The designated rocketeer began letting them off every 12 to 15 seconds, and continued for 25 minutes. I ended up screaming at him – while safe, of course, in my house 300 yards from the churchyard, which is his launchpad. But I just cracked after that many consecutive explosions.
I’ve grumbled before that, along with the general treatment of animals and unconcern over litter, cohetes are one of the three things I hate about Mexico. Many gringos are like me, and we occasionally have the temerity to suggest they be abandoned. Every year there are reports of people being blinded, maimed or even killed over poorly timed detonations. But tradition rules here, not common-sense. Mexicans seem to enjoy eardrum-rending bangs, while we outsiders instead want to praise the relative peace of places such as Amatlan.
I tell Vicki that it will all stop after Sunday evening’s bull-riding jaripeo. But that’s 30 hours away, and dogs have no sense of ‘the day after tomorrow.’ The songbirds have mostly abandoned the village for the woods in the hills, my next-door neighbours are coining it selling tacos in their front yard to all the visitors, and those of us who don’t like raucous fiestas just have to wait it out.
Over the years, I’ve often visited friends who live in or have moved to California. I like the state a lot (and I know some people can’t stand it), but while I’m there I can never avoid making comparisons with life here in central Mexico. I recently spent a few days in the state, and was struck by several key issues.
The first thing, of course, was prices. Restaurant food isn’t cheap, and I don’t recall when 18 per cent became a standard minimum tip for a server. Here in Mexico, 10 per cent is typical, and many Mexicans will offer less. I’m avoiding looking at my Visa bill online until my next pension payment is deposited.
The state is in a water crisis, but rationing, while an obviously sensible idea, isn’t about to happen. Showers pour out water at three times the rate my shower here in Amatlan does, and sprinklers were sousing garden plants once the sun went down. There weren’t even notices in motels and hotels asking guests to minimise water consumption. Here, when we began to run low on water in April last year, anyone ordering water for their cistern was warned not to apply it to plants, and by May, some areas simply couldn’t get deliveries. People had to wash carefully, using drinking water, or buy a few buckets from fortunate neighbours. The year 2022, thankfully, wasn’t so difficult, and we made it through till the rains began. But Mexicans are realists about water.
Still nothing, for me, is more bothersome in California than air conditioning. In Mexico, I live at around 5,000 ft above sea level, which mitigates temperatures on all but the hottest days of April and May, so excessive heat isn’t a huge problem. But then, I can handle hot days with little difficulty.
In the southern portions of the US, it can seem as if simply being hot is seen as a dangerous health condition. The first thing I do when I arrive wherever I’m staying in California, therefore, is turn off the a/c. I’m not afraid of being warm, even if I might run it for 10 minutes before going to bed.
But in a time when energy use is tied so closely to global heating, it seems odd that nobody has started a “Stay cool, but not cold” movement. If they have, I’ve not noticed. So, I’m used to coming to a hotel or motel room, entering, and feeling I’ve just arrived at Inuvik.
But the places I’ve learned to dread most for their cold are American airports. In June, these are chilled to a point cooler than a barroom can of Budweiser. At my layover, which happened to be in Chicago, I wondered if I was getting ill, and pulled out a sweater. I was relieved to find the plane wasn’t as miserable to sit in, but I had a three-hour wait for it that I didn’t enjoy.
Sacramento airport was similarly cold, but there, I was both mobile and only temporarily present. But I was wary of the place because of a memory from my last visit.
That time, my flight back to Mexico was at 6.10 am, so I needed to be there by around 4.00 a.m. I also needed to return a rental car (which cost me a fortune – another story, that), which meant I needed to be on the road no later than 3.30. So, I decided to take an extended nap in the departures area rather than pay for half a night in a motel room, with the accompanying risk of sleeping too late.
By 1.00 am, the airport a/c was operating at full blast, and I was shivering as I tried to doze. I had no sweater that time, so I went into my carry-on bag and pulled out my decidedly worn bathrobe. No-one, I’d told myself when I set out, would need to know I owned such a shabby, stained item, so it was okay to bring it along.
But it wasn’t enough to offset the effects of the arctic air blasting through the waiting area. Worse, the airport cleaners were now coming through, and began staring at me. How did this homeless guy in his ratty old robe make it through security, they wondered as they stared at me. I spent the night drifting in an out of a shallow sleep, and intermittently being checked out by people pushing vacuums or mops.
When I woke, my legs had cramped up so much I could scarcely walk. I’d not been that chilled right through since an unforgettable January night in Montreal when the thermometer hit -37 degrees C (plus, or rather minus, the wind-chill), and I had to walk a half-dozen blocks to my hotel. And that was when I was still in my early thirties.
To top it off, in Sacramento my flight was cancelled, and I was put on one leaving at 11.30. I could have remained where I was staying and avoided the whole experience, and my robe of shame could have remained a secret. Happy, I was not.
California, I’m very fond of you. But as a Canadian, I’ve had my share of cold days and colder nights, and I really didn’t need you to chill my bones for no reason. Turning off the a/c when there’s no sun outside, and the outside air is cool, isn’t a crime, but a gesture of common sense.
Now I’m back in Amatlan. It’s rainy season, and while I slept last night there was a downpour. The skies are cloudy, and no-one is feeling hot.
And I miss the old friends I left back in Sacramento.
There’s no pleasing me. At least the dogs were witing for me.
The rains came early this afternoon, so I let the dogs in from the corral before they were soaked. Dori had found a piece of pig bone that she sat with and proceeded to reduce to fragments, Scarlett the pug decided to take yet another extended nap, and the others just chilled, waiting for the rain to let up.
Dori’s teeth rather preoccupy right now. She is still, after months living here, semi-feral in her ways, and often sets on one of the other dogs right after eating. My theory is that eating triggers some primal hunting instinct, and she can’t simply gulp her food like the others, then chill while she digests it. Friday evening, she set on Rem as they finished their food – he is nearest to her in size – and I tried to separate them.
Fortunately, Dori didn’t bite through my forefinger. But it still hurts, two days later. And until the rain hit that night, there were drops of my blood all over the patio outside the kitchen. I even found some on the kitchen wall. And yes, I did get mad and I whacked her. She didn’t seem impressed.
Her first owners were careless, and left her to roam the streets much of the time. This isn’t abnormal in Mexico, but the consequences are obvious. A dog learns what it must, and if it has to survive in a rough environment, it learns to be rough itself. When we acquired her, she needed chemotherapy for an infectious genital cancer, and she has various scars on her from previous violent encounters. She is also very domineering towards the others, and can’t relate to my efforts to reduce this.
By contrast, Vicki, her ailing and aging kennel-mate, who was brought here as a puppy, just doesn’t have that aggressive streak. She bit me once years ago, when I and my friends moved to the two houses on this site, but solely from fear over what was happening to her. I once had to separate her from a rival dog who had attacked her, felt her teeth on my arm, and saw her move them away fast – in the middle of the fight.
The individuality of different dogs is still astonishing to me. The actual limits of dog powers of reasoning and the personalities they develop are always fascinating. Rem is the most intellectual, and has learned to avoid Dori much of the time. He was a total pain for his first six months here, but he and I finally worked out a modus vivendi, and he goes along with that. He’s four or five years old now, the age of wisdom for a dog I think, and realises it’s cleverer to manipulate me than to defy me non-stop.
It’s also more entertaining for me, something he has possibly figured out. Do dogs know what a smile means? I’m not sure, but at times I look sardonically at him when he has outwitted me, and I often think he is looking sardonically at me. It’s a weird relationship, perhaps, but a treasured one.
Do I spend that much time trying to figure them out, these unruly quadrupeds? Maybe not. I let them in out of the rain, and I started this piece because my internet connection went down in the storm and a thought-train started. With the rainstorm preventing other activities for a while, I can’t help but wonder what actually goes through those doggie brains as they wait for me to quit playing with this laptop, and get them their dinner.
A few years ago, when the springtime fires in the hills were getting out of hand, a local man who holds to the old traditions performed a ceremony to call rain, and I went to watch and lend support. To my utter lack of surprise, it didn’t work. But rainmaking is still something that is practiced in local communities, and I’m sure sooner or later one of the shamans here got it to work. After all, the Pacific currents are pretty consistent, even if the actual amount of rain they deliver to us varies a little.
Our rain this year has been odd. We had unprecedented heavy showers in the early weeks of the year, and the cistern at this house filled up with enough water that I didn’t need to order a tanker-load to top it up. That, in my memory of here, was unique.
Rain came again as the cistern was running dry in late May (another unusual occurrence) so I hoped I could avoid ordering another pipa. The cost isn’t great – 700 pesos, or about C$47 a load – but there was the sense of ecological self-righteousness about subsisting all year solely on the rainfall for washing purposes.
But the rain stopped. The weather forecasts kept predicting storms, but all we got was light, three-minute showers. The cistern’s level was now such that the cement bottom was clearly visible, and my neighbour Fernando and I started rationing our usage. Surely, we assured each other, the rain would come on Wednesday, or Friday or Sunday. And it did, but in the form of the those three-minute sprinklings.
Monday, I cracked, and went to the local hardware store run by Jorge and his wife Evi. That’s where we can order a load of water. And lo, Alfredo showed up with his truck at 6.00 pm Tuesday afternoon, and emptied a few thousand litres into the cistern through a long green hose. Yes, Fernando and I told each other, it would rain soon, but not enough to make a significant difference. We could still run dry before the rainy season began in earnest, so this was a worthwhile purchase, as well as being a great relief. No more quickie showers!
The lightning began around 10.00 pm Tuesday night, and the rain hit at 10.30. It poured and poured for an hour. Wednesday night, the same thing happened, and now there’s mud all around us. And the cistern, which Alfredo filled to one-quarter, is nearly half full.
I’ve decided to take the positive view. I didn’t so much buy a tanker-load of water as perform a secular rainmaking ceremony. By the basic laws of absurdity laid down by the legendary prophet Murphy, buying the water made the actual rain come, in bucketloads.
I don’t think I’ll hire out my services, though, just in case. People in a village can be funny about such things when they involve gringos. I’ll just work on looking mysteriously powerful next year when I pay for my springtime tankful, and then assure people that storms are imminent. And smile softly when they show up the same night.
All hail the Mysterious Murphy!
I just hope Alfredo the tanker driver can keep my ‘shamanic’ secret.
Puerto Escondido (‘secluded or hidden port’) is south-east from Acapulco on Mexico’s Pacific coast. My travelling companion remembered it from many years ago, when there were no regular tourists, only hippies and backpackers, and she had hopes it might still be a livable place. As she found out, it is, if you have the requisite millions.
At just less than 16 degrees of latitude north of the Equator, this was the farthest south I’ve ever been. It is much hotter than here at home in the central mountains, with high humidity, and this was the first time I’ve ever resorted to air conditioning in Mexico.
The trip was a chaotic one. Five days before we left, I booked our plane tickets with Volaris, a cut-rate airline, which then cancelled the flight at midnight 36 hours before we were due to leave. They also cancelled alternative flights for the following days, presumably because the season was ending. A friend of mine, who had bizarrely booked on the exact same flight as us, was caught in the same trap. It took another friend of mine an hour with Volaris’ help-line to arrange a refund, since I didn’t want mere credits with an airline that performs shady moves like that. Viva Aerobus, the other cut-rate outfit that flies to the town from Mexico City, at least got us there, and on time.
At the right time of year, surfers come to Puerto Escondido in droves. May though, is not the right time, and the waves are between six and ten feet high – half what a surfer wants. The undertow is still enough to drag an inexperienced swimmer out and under, though, and swimming is only promoted in areas away from the long Playa Zicatela, the beach that carries the town’s original name. Zicatela means ‘place of large thorns,’ but I encountered none of those on this visit. The hotel we chose was above Zicatela beach, and only a three-block walk from the sand, so the location wasn’t bad.
The waves were the main captivating feature, I decided. The area has Mexico’s usual range of modest restaurants, plus a selection of bars, but there is nothing historic or architecturally intriguing to explore. The town scarcely existed before the 1930s and has few ancient roots. The waves, though, crashing in all day and all night, make a satisfying roar, and of course each roller is subtly different and lands differently. At times the breaking waves are unspectacular, but certain places funnel the water into higher crests that reach further up the beach than most. Yes, I did get soaked. But the sense of this pounding energy having come much or all the way across the ocean is fascinating.
There is a swimming area in a bay below the main town, so we headed there for a couple of mornings. The waves here come in at under half-height, and while you can be pulled around by them and knocked off your feet, there’s little chance of being swept away.
There is a drawback, though. The waves combine the fine sand into a saline mixture, so that while you think you’re only in seawater, you’re in fact getting sand in your hair and all over your skin. And it sticks. Eliminating it was a pain, and took some of the fun off being in the sea.
So yes, I didn’t find Puerto Escondido a wonderful place to visit. It was my first experience of the Pacific coast south of California, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Hotels are mostly cheap (there are some high-end exceptions), but days after returning, I’m still eliminating small deposits of sand that got into my suitcase, my socks and my clothing.
But if you end up there, don’t miss the sunsets and the continuing roar of the surf into the night.
So old am I that I can remember being excited that I was getting on a plane. Yes, that old.
I had to cancel a visit to Toronto in January because of the Omicron variant, and I re-scheduled it for early April. By that point in the pandemic, airlines were actually letting people have a credit for cancelled flights, so I didn’t lose out too badly.
But we no longer just fly anywhere. First, we airport. (If there is no verb derived from the noun ‘airport,’ I hereby inaugurate it.). An airport is no longer a nexus between countries, but a Kafkaesque experience happening in a strange, anxious, liminal state, without access to fresh air while we’re legally constrained from the outer world behind misleadingly transparent glass.
Before flying, we Canadians prepare our ArriveCan document, spending 20 minutes online updating the data. Then we find that while we can enter Canada without a Covid test, the airline insists on one, so nothing’s changed that way. We pay more for a seat than we have in years, and we know there won’t be a meal served. We expect a micro-bag of pretzels instead. Hah! Naive cattle, to anticipate such generosity! Not on your two-hour flight, gullible peasants!
At the airport itself, we prepare ourselves to be treated as criminals under interrogation: “You have a bottle of water in your bag, and your glasses are in your shirt pocket, not in the tray. Feel shame, dog!”
On this trip, I had the misfortune to encounter a polite dragon-lady at the check-in counter in Mexico City’s Benito Juarez airport. Because of my re-scheduling, I had ended up staying three days over the term of my visa. Usually, in Mexico three days is something that’s winked at. She was not, however, a woman who winked. She made me go to down to the Immigration office to pay the usual C$40 penalty for being bad, refusing to issue my boarding pass till I returned with the receipt. I had the time, and the amount was not crippling, but I know from experience that someone younger would have ignored the date on my card, assuming it was less than a couple of weeks out of date.
Duly chastened, but finally possessing the pass I needed, I went for a restorative hit of caffeine. Now I have, I confess, been reading only the main news stories about the invasion of Ukraine, and not all the pundits’ analyses any more. But I decided the world might actually might be close to its end when I was charged C$9.00 for my cappuccino in Terminal One. True, I’d accepted the waiter’s crafty suggestion of a shot of Bailey’s in it, but it was a micro-capp, half the size of what I pay $2.25 for, back home in Tepoztlan.
Mexican prices used to be around 35 percent of those in Canada. No longer, obviously. Yes, airports charge insanely, but this was still Mexico … I thought.
Finally, I was airborne and away, and the pretzel-less flight reached George Bush International Airport in Houston – named for the elder Bush, not Dubya. For reasons no-one can explain, in some US airports there is no way for international travellers simply to transfer from their arrival gate to the one where an ongoing flight departs. It’s necessary to line up for perhaps 45 minutes (supposedly socially distanced, but you can imagine how that goes with 300 anxious people) to be photographed, checked by an immigration official for known terrorist affiliations, then told to have a nice flight. Or, be grilled for 10 minutes, as was one man in front of me, to the consternation of those of us lined up behind him. You then enter the US, and head to your ongoing flight at a terminal 400 yards away on a little airport train.
I had three hours to spend in Houston, and after finally finding from which terminal my flight to Toronto left (those big boards announcing departures seem to fading from use), and deciding the cappuccino and the apple juice had not offered much sustenance, I headed for one of the eateries. I remembered the maxim for eating in an airport: expect a high bill, and don’t cry when you get it. Put it on the Visa card, and instead cry when you check your account next day.
I once had an argument with a manager at a Toronto airport restaurant over the fact the touchscreen I had to use to order food showed no prices. I posted something snarky on the airport’s Facebook page the week after, which received plaudits from other annoyed people, but it was soon deleted. But digital menus in airports remain one of my pet mega-peeves.
Anyway, I found what looked like an okay place in the George Bush International Airport – El Premio (‘The Prize’). Then I realised there were no waiters, only touchscreens. Very well, I sighed to myself, this is post-Covid flying: inflated prices and non-existent service. So I ordered a shrimp and avocado salad (price, naturally, not listed), then a Pinot Grigio to make it a little more exciting.
Alas, I’d clicked on the icon for a bottle, not a glass, of wine. “$83,” the screen told me cheerlessly when it finally chose to divulge its secrets.
I tried to back up, and cancel the bottle. I thought I’d done so, and ordered a single glass. But now, my tally was at $121 – US of course, not Canadian. The beast had tallied the food, the bottle and the glass of wine. How, I wondered, does one glass of an everyday Italian white cost $38? Even in an airport? I tried to cancel the order, but there was no way to do this apart from trashing the screen. There was no Cancel button. I decided I’d rather make my ongoing flight than be arrested by airport security for screen-bashing, though I needed to reason it through for a minute or two. (“Satisfaction – or $2,000 fine…? Hmmm….”) I finally left, the smug figures on the screen no doubt mocking my glowering self as I left.
Fie, I thought, fie! I’ll try the eatery opposite.
Which I did. The meal I ordered was not exactly wonderful, but helped by sufficient ketchup and a cheap white wine (which normally clash), it was palatable. I downed the food, and wrote this snarky piece as my dessert.
Flying scares a lot of people (not me, really), but there’s no question airporting today is an exhausting and upsetting business. Passengers are essentially treated as criminals-cum-cash-cows, remaining under suspicion until we pay for something overpriced. Airlines tacitly resent the unhappy, demanding human meat they transport, and the airports just want ever more revenue.
I don’t own a car these days. But I’m seriously pondering somehow driving to and from Mexico in future. That way, I can enjoy bad food at tolerable prices. And pretzels (which I don’t actually like much) will be optional.
Meanwhile, I am having dreams involving touchscreens and baseball bats.
I was out when my bedroom floor erupted. Floors in this house are of tiles placed over concrete, and some combination of factors caused a bunch of them in my bedroom to heave out of place. The moment must have been quite noisy, but I can’t know just how noisy it actually was. I just saw what had happened when I got back, with pieces of tile across the floor and others lifted up to form shallow tents.
There’s an immense amount of construction around here these days. People from Mexico City, spooked by the pandemic, have bought existing houses or land that farmers are willing to sell, and they have begun expanding the old homes or starting on new ones. That’s created a huge demand on semi-skilled workers.
Thus, when we contacted Chucho, who was the original contractor for this house a decade ago, he was hard to reach. He is busy, probably looking to build up retirement savings as well as enjoy a prosperous moment. Inflation in Mexico right now is steep, running at 25 percent on some goods and services, and it’s no time to miss an opportunity to get ahead of the curve. And this inflation was happening before the attack on Ukraine began.
So, when I went to take my dog Victoria out for her morning sniff around the neighbourhood, I was a little surprised to find Chucho right outside, along with an assistant. They had come for the first phase of work, which involved hacking up most of the floor in the bedroom, while leaving tiles that were still firm in their places.
I was about to ask why he hadn’t notified me he was coming, but another thought gripped me. The gates of renovation hell had opened.
It’ll be at least three days to get the work done, and more if there’s a more pressing job elsewhere. With construction in Mexico, there’s rarely a guarantee that work will continue without a break. It’s just the way things happen, and you live with it. My bed wasn’t hard to move out … but when will it go back again? I don’t know.
While I’m currently exiled to my kitchen, the noise of chiselling and general bashing makes the whole house resound, and I can only achieve marginal relief from the noise. Some bits of tile remain stubbornly anchored in place, surrounded by accumulating cement chips, and Chucho’s man needs to apply fierce determination to remove the damaged tiles. And of course, a patina of dust is settling over the rest of the house.
I just hope it all gets done … soon. Chucho’s a good guy, and pretty honest, but I only ever see him when life goes into a phase of miserable disruption. I therefore can’t help associating him with expensive unhappiness. When you occupy a house in a seismically active area that gets annual deluges for four or five months, there’s no way to avoid periodical cacophonous misery.
I just hope none of the other floors are waiting to explode from their moorings.
The town of Chalma is around 60 miles from here. Every year, groups of pilgrims pass through our village en route to the shrine, which is Mexico’s second most popular religious destination after the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The legends surrounding it vary, but the central image of Christ in the Sanctuary is a reputed miracle-worker.
Pilgrims began arriving here two days ago. Often, they crash at night in the civic plaza, having brought mats, old eiderdowns or maybe just a blanket to sleep on under the stars. In the morning, they set off again for Tepoztlan, then head onto a route that again winds through the mountains of central Mexico.
Their mood is usually cheerful, though it’s clear some of the older pilgrims are suffering pain from the long walk. I know I couldn’t do it. Frequently, people carry a rock with them that represents accumulated sins, or some petition they wish to make to the Christ of Chalma. The one time I walked a short part of the route, with hiking buddy Ixchel Tucker, there was a young man whose rock must have weighed 15 lb, and maybe more. I can only hope he got what he wanted from all that effort. Ixchel and I were wiped out after our four or five miles (more if you count the steep ups and downs and ups), having started from near the town of Tlayacapan.
The pilgrimage is accompanied by buses or trucks. These can’t go on the rougher tracks, like the one we hiked, but they can come round and meet people as they complete a stretch of the hike. They might bring tents, bedding or spare clothes, so people don’t have to carry as much as they travel. It’s also possible some people might need to drop out, at least for part of the journey, so the trucks provide transportation for them, too.
I welcomed the sight of the pilgrims this week, after the deaths I reported in the last blog. It felt as if their passage through the village was a breeze blowing the ill mood away.
It’s always difficult to convey to non-Mexicans what death means here. Dying isn’t nearly as prohibited or distasteful a topic as it is in the US or Canada, as shown by the festival of the Days of the Dead. There’s a fatalism around its inevitability, and no-one assumes they’ll necessarily live into their dotage. Death is more of a companion than a forbidden subject for discussion, and not everyone was grief-stricken over the two deaths. Students of a friend of mine, who teaches English to Mexicans, thought it was funny: too typically Mexican to be considered a particular tragedy. However, the initial reaction here was by no means ironic. The anger was tangible.
In the past few days, the atmosphere here has become more like a kind of embarrassment, except for the families directly affected. The pilgrims seem to dispel that, and have redirected the mood and distracted the community.
I imagine, though, that next year, some of the people most directly involved with the deaths will themselves be making their own pilgrimages to the Black Christ of Chalma.
This village of Amatlan has long had a fraught relationship with the parent town of Tepoztlan. Tepoz represents rules and regulations, while Amatlan is a kind of anarchist collective. Defying authority is almost a civic duty here, and when the community acts together, it can be swift and scary.
Monday, February 21, was a strange day. Our internet was out till the early afternoon, so I was cocooned for a few hours from news about the virus, or the troubles in Ukraine. I found out later during the day that a close friend’s cat died, while another friend’s husband had to be rushed to hospital. And when my cleaning lady came, she was stung by a small scorpion that had found its way into my bedroom. I have an okay relationship with scorps, and while I sometimes see them in the house, none has stung me in almost eight years. But she went into an anaphylactic state, and needed several shots of anti-venin.
After all that, I went for a meal in town to settle my sense of upheaval. I came home at 3.30 in the combi micro-bus, and just outside the village, another combi driver heading out stopped our van and had words with the driver. I heard something about a traffic blockage, but when we came to it, it wasn’t what I expected.
As I found out in the next hour, three town officials had come to close an illegal beer-vending operation. The warning issued, two of them got into their vehicle, and their boss, a woman called Pilar Navarrete Morales, got into hers. What she didn’t see was that a local drunk had passed out on the street just behind her car, and when she backed up, she ran right over his body. He died where he lay.
The community went nuts. Some people blocked the main exit route with their vehicles, while in another part of the village locals piled rocks on a small bridge to make it impassable. The three officials went to the local sub-mayor’s office to avoid the angry mob, and soon a half-dozen police cars arrived to prevent what the Diario de Moreloscalled a potential ‘lynching.’
The man who died was married to a local woman, though I was told he wasn’t from Amatlan himself. I also have to wonder how much of a provider he was if he could drink himself into a stupor on the street. This became important later in the evening, when the woman official and the widow had a public interchange in front of an angry mob at the sub-mayor’s office. Ms. Navarrete Morales promised publicly to support the woman financially as long as she lived, while a crowd yelled support for the bereaved wife, and the widow asked how long such a promise would last.
But this wasn’t the day’s only death. Around 10.00 pm, a young man reported to be the brother of one of the officials was shot close to his home by an angry relative or friend of the deceased. The village had two violent deaths in one day, and it didn’t settle down for hours.
Yes, I know – why do I stay where it isn’t safe? As I get tired of saying, it is safe here. Nobody hates me, and I drive like a nervous old lady in and around the village. The community protects its own, even us outsiders, provided we don’t ever forget who we are, and who they are. My lifestyle is based on a series of choices that have not made me part of the community, but they have made me welcome around the community. The key thing is respect for the people themselves, even the drunks. I have a relationship to Amatlan that at times is frustrating, but for which I’m still grateful. That gratitude communicates to the people here, judging by their expressed attitudes.
I’m left wondering what Ms. Navarrete Morales is feeling. What she did was negligent, but hardly criminal. Passing out on the street was never a safe occupation, though three or four men here do it regularly: the deceased was their drinking buddy. The rest of us step around them, or drive carefully past the spot near the cemetery where they hang out.
But that woman is not as poor as some local people (not all locals are poor, though) and as a Tepozteca, she can never be liked here. Village-versus-town, as noted, is an old rivalry, and these events have only fuelled that.
Still, I’m sure she never thought for a moment that a routine disciplinary visit to our village would end up in something that would end one then two lives, and change her own so drastically.
So the story goes, when the first people in this village caught Covid-19 in 2020, a few of the neighbours wanted to burn down their house with them in it. This medieval method wasn’t used, thankfully, but there has been a lot of denial around catching the virus ever since. It’s a little like in the early 1900s when a man came back from a business trip with an ailment indicating he’d had a dalliance with a lady of the evening. The family hoped the Salvarsan would cure the disease, but it was never, ever to be mentioned.
Quite why people here are held responsible for infections more than the virus is, I can’t really say. I suspect it stems from general ignorance of how disease is transmitted, abetted by the flakiest of New Age theories on the topic propagated by superannuated hippies who live here. They are often confident enough in their beliefs that these bleed through to the native community around them. Thus, (you will hear) diseases can’t infect you without you having some karmic imperfection, some imbalance in your aura, or a similar idea. I’ve had someone shout at my face that without such an auric weakness, I couldn’t possibly get sick, so why did I wear a stupid mask? I did, I confess, savour the schadenfreude when I heard he too had a bad case of Covid.
Whatever the reason, to get the virus is a mark of shame, like a punishment from God.
All this was underlined last week when a Mexican friend came to stay at my place for a couple of days while attending an arts course being held locally. On Friday morning, she told me she had pain all down her body, a dreadful headache and fever. I was despatched to acquire Naproxen, Prednisone and vitamins from the village pharmacy; and like other substances made by the evil guys at Big Pharma, they worked – and without any auric adjustments. I was hopeful my recent booster jab, something she’d not had, might keep me safe, but by Saturday night I too felt low, and my throat was sore.
By Monday, it was plain she was on the mend, and my symptoms had become standard for a typical winter cold. I sneeze from time to time, my throat is a bit irritated, and my temperature is just under fever-level. Tylenol and plenty of fluids are my basic food-groups this week.
But she was insistent we create a cover story, and I had already reported to two friends who live elsewhere, plus my son in Toronto, that I probably had the bug. She let me know a mutual acquaintance of ours, who lives a ten-minute walk from this house, had Covid a few weeks ago, and has never told a soul. I had initial concerns about it getting serious, but it was almost a badge of macho pride. “Hey, I’m finally in the C-club!”
Monday, I was out of cash to buy food, and went into town, duly masked. I had the Titanic, the ancient Ford Explorer I drive, so I didn’t have to infect people, provided I was cautious. I did run into one American friend, and waved him off with hand-signals that he quickly grasped. Do not approach: I am a centre of pestilence. He signalled back: No problem – thanks for the warning! I still didn’t know I had actual Covid, and not a simple cold, but the probability lay with the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, since I’ve had an inflamed knee for a couple of months, my friend back at the house was telling people I was incapacitated by this, and I needed her to care for me.
She’s recovering – it doesn’t seem to be a bad case – and she has gone home. I’m still sneezing, but the thermometer tells me I’ll live.
But it has been an odd lesson in attitudes to disease. It has reminded me of an old book, Susan Sontag’s remarkable Illness as Metaphor, which focused on tuberculosis and cancer, but examined how people view diseases generally, especially those they don’t understand.
This all means, of course, that any caseload statistics from Mexico are meaningless. My cleaning lady, asked by my friend to postpone her weekly visit because “Edward has a bit of a cold right now” remarked that there were a lot of such colds around the village right now. But, naturally, no Covid-19. The C-word must not be uttered.
I rarely write here about expats, the principal minority tribe in my community. Since many of these are friends or acquaintances, I’m cautious gossiping about them in a public blog. They might not like me afterwards, after all.
There are a few Canadians here – about as many as I have fingers, maybe less. There are also people from various parts of Europe. However, five-sixths of expats, roughly, are Americans. For years, since most of them are people who will quote books they’ve read, I assumed they all fit the generic liberal profile: soft left in politics, supporting gay rights, reduced racism, and kindness to animals. They all seemed to like each other’s Facebook posts.
When Donald Trump was elected, I tried to understand what was happening in the US, and began spending time on conservative websites. I also discovered that while they were mostly less vocal than the liberals, there were a number of Republicans here. This seemed superficially hypocritical, since the last US administration was trying to keep Mexicans and Latinos generally out of its borders, yet its supporters felt okay about moving south. But they point out that their presence here is legal: they didn’t come over the border in the night.
B and I have spoken a lot in the past few months. Mostly, he speaks, and I listen. His partner died not long ago, he’s lonely and sad, and some of his anger at the US left possibly stems from that. He needs to vent. Unlike with a right-wing website though, I can make replies and ask him questions. He has worked in the US political system, and has interesting insights.
Mostly what I hear about, though, is the sheer panic happening across the US right now. M believes in ‘the steal,’ but is also lucid in describing popular anger in his home country. Other American friends tell me of their own fear and anger at what M’s side want, even if he draws back from advocating violence to settle the issue. But the endless talk of civil war has an audience. Or rather, two mutually suspicious audiences.
We’ve all read endless punditry on these topics, and it would be tedious to rehash all that here. But I do have a quirky lens here in Tepoztlan on what is currently tearing the US apart, and it’s sad and darkly fascinating.
Like any Canadian (or Brit), I’ve always been wary of America’s power and its lack of interest in what other countries think of it. I’ve also had many happy experiences visiting the country, and like many people from there. However, I do find the old line that no American ever leaves their own country, wherever they live physically, is true in very many cases, and I have great difficulty persuading some Americans not to fear either social democrats or single-payer medical systems, having been around both all my life. Last month I spent several futile minutes trying to convince one less-educated man that I don’t get my opinions from either the New York Times or the Washington Post. That my views might have been informed and nourished outside the US, over many years, was too unsettling or bizarre a notion for him to handle. He ‘knew’ only corrupt Democrats had opinions like mine.
I try to stay level-headed as these things erupt. Americans have to solve their own problems, though some I encounter here are deeply distressed that their country is no longer a paragon among the democracies. I sometimes become the therapist, the outsider listening to people’s anxieties, but of course I have no prescriptions to offer. I hear about stupid family arguments, and I hear quotes from media columnists who provide excellent analysis but no plans of action. Mexico is a place of sanctuary from all this for these expats, but not an impregnable one. The strife travels across borders at the speed of an email.
And hardly nobody in the US seems able to imagine, or even necessarily to want, an effective bridge-builder between the sides. As B keeps reminding me, the anger is strong. He just can’t tell me where things will end up if and when it bursts out in full strength. After coffee and talk, we head off to do our day’s shopping or to meet friends, and the mild winter sunshine makes it seem to me like the problem is less likely to affect me than I know it eventually will. After all, it will take a lot of hurt and struggle to drain the resentments that are simmering just a single frontier away.
Victoria has had a rough week. She is terrified of loud noises, and since Christmas Eve we’ve had masses of explosive rockets let off. Opponents of these things are now pointing out how much air pollution they produce, but so far, it’s not having an effect. Vicki responds to the night rockets by crawling under my bed, after demanding to be let in with a sharp bark.
A few weeks back, she began a kind of rasping sound, like a cough or excessive throat clearing. At first I was afraid she’d tried to swallow something that was blocking her airway, but that wasn’t it. To Luis our trusted vet we went, and while he suggested it could be just a bronchial infection, he was pretty sure it was due to an incipient heart condition. At age thirteen, she’s into things like heart conditions. She’s slowing down, and a little deaf, but she’s still good company.
So, we tried antibiotics and a cough-soothing medicine, which had no effect. Wednesday, she and I went back to Luis, who checked Vicki and gave me a prescription for an echocardiogram. This has to be done in Cuernavaca, a half-hour drive away from Tepoztlan. I called the number once or twice, but no-one picked up. I had been thinking of going for some food shopping at the Walmart in Cuernavaca (their selection of imported foods is surprisingly varied for Mexico), and I noticed the veterinary clinic was a few hundred metres down the street from the mega-store. I decided to head off and find the clinic on foot, book and appointment then stock up on decent tea and some other stuff the same afternoon.
In central Mexico City, all the streets are identified by signs on the street corners. Not so other parts of Mexico. Not long ago, my friend Ixchel and I headed off to visit a hacienda on the far side of the city of Cuautla, and despite using a GPS on her phone, we became completely lost. I even got a traffic ticket, making an iffy turn back whence we’d come.
Cuernavaca has some signs, but not many. I decided to take a bus there, not wanting to be looking for an unfamiliar place while driving in traffic. Then, when I took Vicki in, I wouldn’t be looking for an unknown location.
Now, the tent where they sell bus tickets for Cuernavaca, next to a ramp leading to the main highway, was gone when I got there. The ramps are under reconstruction, and there was no sign to indicate where I should go. It’s sort of assumed here that someone has told someone who’s told you how things have changed. That’s simply how it works (or often, doesn’t work). Mexicans are highly conversational, and people just get to know stuff.
There is, however, a kind of duende (Spanish for an elf or pixie) who looks after the lost in Mexico. Invisible and inaudible, it shows up when it wants to, which might be an hour after you got lost, or three minutes. It somehow distracts you from your confusion, and indicates the place you need. Perhaps, in Mexican folklore, there’s a way of calling one, but I don’t know the method, beyond feeling and looking clueless.
In this case, I walked 200 yards to the ticket office for the bus line I would use to go to Mexico City. A helpful young woman, no doubt a relative of a duende, or its accomplice, pointed across the street to where people sat in a previously abandoned storefront, which had no sign. I thanked her profusely, and after ten minutes, my bus came.
The clinic I needed in Cuernavaca is in a street named Legislative Power. Since this is a direct extension of Domingo Diez Avenue, which I know well, and I had the street number, it was just a matter of counting down numbers till I arrived.
Or not. Not only do Mexicans eschew street identification and signage, they’re also not big on street numbers. You will see no. 221 come after no. 119, and figure no. 129 is a few doors down. Gotcha! No, the numbers re-start two blocks further along. I had carefully written directions from Luis, and I’d checked Google Earth too, but what I had written down didn’t translate into the ground-level reality.
Now, when you’re lost in Mexico, which is a frequent thing for Mexicans, not just gringos, you ask a local. People here love to help strangers, and the directions you get are sometimes even accurate. So, I started at a corner taco joint, figuring people at such a place must know their own neighbourhood. These women directed me further up towards Walmart, asserting that my cross-street was two or maybe three blocks away.
Four blocks on, I decided to tried a guy in a car parts store. After all, I figured, such people must drive their own cars, so they must know local streets. He suggested I had to go up through three streetlights, or about six blocks. I thanked him, and decided to hail a cab.
Ten minutes later, in busy, daylight Cuernavaca, no cab had come by, so I started walking again. On the very next block. I suddenly spotted a small sign advertising Science Diet dogfood. and realised I was at a veterinarian’s. I’d found the clinic! I’d been duende‘d!
The appointment made, I hoped on a combi microbus to get on to Walmart. Here I misjudged how far I’d walked, since I needed to get off again after two blocks. The driver, used to lost gringos, just shrugged. No duende was needed in this case, of course.
In line with the day, when I finally got to where the bus picks up passengers for Tepoztlan, it turned out to be closed for renovations. Probably it was another duende who helped me here as I walked grumblingly to where I could get a taxi. One of the older, less comfortable buses that go to my home town came along – I didn’t even know their route came through that area – so I clambered on it, and withstood twenty-five minutes of shaken bones without further complaint.
Thus ended what felt rather like an epic afternoon, with multiple inconveniences. I still have no idea what a duende might look like, if one were to appear before me. Perhaps they just look similar to average Mexicans, like the girl at the bus-ticket office.
But, if you’re ever lost in Mexico, don’t forget the duendes. As long as you respond with noises of gratitude and relief, they seem to be happy they helped you.
I just hope they aren’t dog-phobic, and that Vicki scares them off. Just in case I get us lost again when we go for the test on Tuesday, and I need help. She doesn’t need another bad week after this one.
‘Tis the season for feasting. And no-one believes in this more sincerely than my alpha dog, Rem.
I was blinking at the light this morning when I glanced out of the bathroom window. I’ve never understood why the house’s builder made this a large picture-window as opposed to the usual privacy-protecting piece of glass, but it does give me a fine view of the dogs’ corral beside the house. And I noticed there was a plastic bag there. This seemed unusual, since we get almost no real wind at this time of year, and nothing is likely to blow onto the property over the perimeter fence, apart from the occasional piece of ash from someone’s backyard fire.
I forgot about the bag while I fed the dogs, checked email and went through the rest of my usual morning routine. Finally, I went into the kitchen to make my own breakfast, and couldn’t remember what I’d done with the loaf of bread I bought yesterday. It wasn’t in the fridge. And after running through the list of possible locations, it dawned on me that I’d left the loaf on the kitchen counter overnight.
Now, Rem has made plain to me the rules of the kitchen many times. Simply, if it’s in a cupboard, or the fridge, or out of his reach, it’s mine. If it’s accessible to a large-to-medium dog (him, for example), it’s his. Oatmeal, cheese, pecans, raisins – which he threw up, because grapes and raisins are toxic to dogs – and other stuff have often disappeared because I don’t follow the rules he laid down.
And at this point I recalled the bag in the corral.
Rem always asks to have any crumbs resulting from my slicing bread. So, when I reclaimed the bag, and menacingly shook it at him, he was excited because he thought I was giving him the crumbs left in it. You can’t, of course, punish a dog unless the dog knows what he’s being punished for, so all I could do was make the sort of threatening noises he interprets as “Human having a bad time, which is irrelevant to dogs.”
What I couldn’t understand was how Rem could have eaten an entire loaf – I found no leftover crusts – without harmful consequences. Dogs here often get tortillas, which are made from maize, as either a treat or (more sadly) a substitute for proper dogfood, but I’ve never known one to eat that much wholewheat bread at one time before. Clearly, Labrador-crosses in Mexico don’t suffer from gluten intolerance.
Later today, I was back at the bakery buying more bread, and the señorita in the shop smiled at my story of how this mutt had devoured an entire loaf.
“I know the owner always wants to expand into new markets,” she grinned.
Maybe I should have asked if they’ll pay for Rem to be a model in an advertising campaign. After all (see photo above), he’s quite photogenic.
Somehow, though, I can’t see even good wholegrain bread replacing Dog Chow in the Mexican market.
Across Mexico next week, the stockings will not be hung by the chimney with care. This, though, is not from a lack of interest in copying non-local seasonal traditions, but because there are hardly any houses with chimneys. In a few mountainous areas maybe, or in old residences, but not around where I live. But a lot of other Yuletide practices have migrated here.
We have just come through the extremely noisy festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe, preceded by the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8) and a few other excuses to let off explosive rockets. My poor dog Victoria cowers under a kitchen counter when this is happening, or perhaps under my bed. So, she has a few days’ break until the next fusillades go up. But here, Christmas Eve will not be a silent night, and the whole shindig doesn’t end until the Three Kings turn up on January 6.
Apart from the rockets, though, and of course the specifically Catholic celebrations, a lot of what happens around Christmas is increasingly Walmart-ified. Tepoztlan has never recorded snow in its known history (not so Mexico City, however), so the synthetic reindeer and fake Christmas trees that are popping up all over always seem out of place. But Christmas was never a huge deal here until recent decades, the Virgin’s December 12 feast being more important, so there are no significant local Christmas traditions. Every house has a doll as a Christ-child substitute to take to the local church for blessing, and there’s rosca, a cake with candied fruit on the outside and plastic Baby Jesuses on the inside, that’s eaten on Tres Reyes (Three Kings); but nothing to compare to the roast turkey and trimmings of a Canadian or US Christmas. Often, Christmas dinner here has been barbecued chicken, or simply a regular daily meal.
I can’t dismiss the adoption of Christmas trees entirely, since driving to Mexico City from here entails going up in altitude and passing through pine forest. Pines are indigenous here. But reindeer? Most deer species in Mexico have retreated to uninhabited areas, and none are large. And of course, it’s highly unlikely if there have ever been sleighs seen crossing the sides of Mexico’s mountains, let alone flying around them. Ditto snowmen with carrot noses.
Mexicans I know blame US commercial influence for the changes, but Mexicans have embraced them. My friend Estela, an older lady who used to share a house with me, would always put up a wreath of plastic holly, which played tinkly carols, or at least their first lines, out of rhythm. Fortunately it had a volume control, and eventually, as Estela often came home to find the awful sound turned off, she got the hint. Electronic bleeping will never be festive in my book, and I couldn’t see why it was in hers. Probably, she was just following a growing fashion, not expressing a preference, and I think she was surprised to find how much I disliked the sound.
So far, though, I’ve yet to see a Santa ho-ho-ho-ing in a department store, so some things have stayed north of the Rio Grande. Nor has the festival cut itself off from its religious roots, the way it has in most large cities. Mexicans have always been up for having fun at a religious fiesta, after all.
I just wish on behalf of Victoria, and myself as well, that the *&^%ing rockets would suddenly become unavailable. Just for about …. oh, three weeks or so.
A question I’m asked by all my friends in Canada or the US at some point is, “How do you deal with the drug gangs in Mexico?” The topic received fresh emphasis on November 5, when two men were murdered (‘executed’ was the preferred media phrase) on a beach close to Cancun. Tourists hid out in their hotels, having dodged (or not) bullets from the assassins’ guns.
The origins of drug gangs in Mexico go back many years, and the details of their history are often foggy: criminal gangs don’t issue press releases when they select a new boss, or carry out a successful hit. There’s no question they grew in prominence and viciousness as a result of the misbegotten ‘War on Drugs’ that began 15 years ago, and the utter failure of that initiative provides a tragic case study in how shaping anti-crime initiatives according to political perceptions is a good way to get huge numbers of people killed.
Those of us who live in and around the town of Tepoztlan are aware of the killings. One or two tabloid newspapers sold in the town square and elsewhere usually feature a blood-soaked corpse on the front page, often with a bitter pun for a headline. And, to add a Freudian eros–and-thanatos twist, a half-naked young woman beside it.
The city of Cuernavaca, around 25 kilometres from here, has gang-related murders. My friends and I hear or read about then, and we don’t assume we’re immune, or that the violence won’t come here. But we also have a well-grounded sense of immunity.
The first thing to remember is that, while the Cancun shootings were terrifying for tourists caught in the crossfire, the targets were strictly members of one gang who were pushing the understood limits of what’s allowed. Why the attacking gang’s heads chose to spook visitors to Mexico, who not only bring in significant revenue, but are often their customers as well, I can’t explain, but I doubt the error will be repeated in the near future. It was simply too stupid.
Openly defying the gangs is dangerous, but it’s still a fact that if you avoid the gangs, the gangs avoid you. (My one encounter with extortion, The Kidnappers, posted on August 11, wasn’t gang-related). I read all the time that this or that state or area is now gang-controlled, but foreigners are the least likely people to be directly affected. Your hotel’s owner might be paying protection to a gang, but as the guests, you won’t know this. Our money is always welcome, and even poorer gringos here are usually getting Social Security or Canada Pension payments every month. Some of our money doubtless ends up in cartel hands, but it goes there indirectly.
Tepoztlan is not a big city. The total municipality, with a dozen small surrounding communities, has rather more than 40,000 residents, but the town itself has under 16,000 residents. If you want to set up a gang, you need poor districts from which to recruit your enforcers and product distributors. Tepoz isn’t big enough for a gang, and it doesn’t have run-down barrios. There’s poverty here, but not desperate hopelessness.
Secondly, it’s a tourist town, an officially recognised Pueblo Magico where people go on the weekend to have a few beers and walk around gawking at the tree-covered mountains. Scaring off these people wouldn’t kill the town, but it would soon be very ill. It’d be a poor business strategy.
Beyond that however, there’s the community factor. This isn’t foolproof, nor has it always worked in other places. But in a small town like this, it’s not a matter of “six degrees of separation,” but two degrees. Your husband, wife or neighbour will know people who, even if just slightly, between them know nearly every other family in the town. For years, this meant the police force was free of significant corruption: you can’t solicit bribes from your cousin without being yelled at by your aunt and uncle. And if you threatened a cop with violence, you’d have to deal with his 78 relatives. Our police are now affiliated with the state police, alas, but the local cops are still all from here.
There are no homeless people, for similar reasons. Some relative will always give you a space in which to sleep, and a plate of tortillas and beans for lunch. My own village has a couple of obnoxious drunks, one of whom has a reputation for violence, but they have homes to sleep it off at the end of the day.
On the flip side of this coin, for a gang, gringos are an unknown quantity. We might be living on just our modest pensions, or be over-the-hill hippies, and not worth hassling; or we could be people who have money and could react unpredictably after being shaken down. The gangs know their own, and they don’t really know us. So mostly, they just ignore us.
Just how the gangs are integrated into the society makes sense when you live here, but can’t be explained by logical analysis. There are particular dynamics integral to Mexican society, and after you’ve lived here a while, you figure out how to navigate these. But because of our outsider status, we simply aren’t included in the criminals’ plans or activities.
I’m sure we could easily provoke them; but again, we learn to watch the vibes. Someone might steal your wallet, or even your car. But no-one is likely to kill you deliberately. If you can’t learn to live between worlds – staying connected to your original nation or culture, but dwelling here – you shouldn’t move to Mexico.
Obviously there are certain places where psychotic gang leaders have essentially displaced the government. Similarly, while I go to Cuernavaca a couple of times a month, and feel fine sauntering around, I leave before it gets dark. I listen to what people tell me about certain towns and specific communities, and I avoid them. I don’t invite risk.
But I’m never nervous being in Tepoztlan as dusk falls; in fact, it’s one of my favourite times of day. The town softly reverts to its old identity of a rural town off the main track, and a subtle magic creeps in as the lamps come on. There is no sense of threat, at least on a weeknight, when there are few visitors. I only head home when I start feeling guilty that my dogs expect to be fed around sundown, and I’m still half an hour from my door and their dog-bowls.
I won’t convince people that it’s safe here by writing a blog post. Two or three of my friends also blog about how peaceful their lives here are, and we all have readers who never want to believe us. Still, this is still a very livable part of the world, more threatened by the current round of rising food prices, and by house construction eating up farmland, than it is by violent gangs.
Perhaps that will change, and the town will lose what it has at some point in the future. I always say I live in a very safe place, and I see no signs of potential violence. I usually make a joke of it, and say that because my application to join the local cartel was rejected on account of my age and physical condition, I’m highly unlikely to be targeted by a rival gang. But I’m being honest, regardless of there being no cartel here that I could ask for admittance.
Realistically, while I know there are fights and feuds in the town, and in my own village especially, I just don’t see myself being caught in a crossfire. Maybe struck by a lousy driver: yes, that’s possible, as is being hit by lightning in a summer storm or having a roof fall on me during an earthquake.
But lazy reporting on Mexico, which always concentrates on its violence, not its vibrant cultural scene nor its continuing sense of having a future, distorts the reality of living here. If I did feel worried about gang violence, I’d move. But I don’t.
One of the things that I don’t much appreciate about the Days of the Dead is that it’s all about contacting your ancestors. Maybe it’s recent ones, like your parents or grandparents, but theoretically it might be about someone born before there were trains, telephones or effective toothpaste. Smelly ancestors, therefore.
I’ve never much wanted to meet my forebears. Nobody that I’ve heard about sounds particularly interesting. Going back well over a century, they were all from the English middle classes, whose main ambition was often to be come more middle-class than they were when they were born. And judging by the attitudes my own parents inherited, they’d be pretty scornful of someone like me, who has lived in three countries, and much of the time uses a language that isn’t English.
So, when everyone was partying in the village cemetery last week, I … wasn’t. After all, I just might have run into some discarnate predecessor of mine who would ask me questions he or she just wasn’t ready to have answered.
Mexicans, of course, can argue with or criticise their grandparents when they show up. “Why did you have to start an unending feud with the most aggressive family around here?” “What did happen with the cash from selling the old house?” “Was my little sister really dad’s, or …?” But I know there’s no lost cash for me – according to family tradition there was some, but it turned out to be perpetually inaccessible – and I’m not embroiled in any feuds.
Mostly, though, I’m just scared my deceased relatives would be snooty or boring. The Days of the Dead (nights, really, more than days) are a time for partying, and my ancestors were not, on the whole, party animals. A second glass of sherry was their idea of letting their hair down: consuming a third would have been cause for unending family scandal.
The big cemetery in town had a covered walkway put up at the entrance for the Days, with the word Bienvenidos (Welcome) on it traced in marigolds, the traditional flowers of this season (see photo above). Each time I passed it, I wondered whether this was meant to welcome back the deceased, or the still-living. I decided that since the deceased were already in residence, so to speak, it must have meant people currently walking around.
Today, however, as the grave-visiting season ends, I saw the flowers had been renewed, and the wording had been changed. Hasta Pronto, it said. That’s the Mexican equivalent of “See you soon.” I keep wondering if it was someone’s idea of a joke, like the old undertaker’s crack about “We’re taking advance reservations.”
So, if I do end up expiring round here, perhaps I should first apply to be interred at one of the two cemeteries. If my own deceased relatives’ company doesn’t attract me (as it doesn’t), then people who can make sly jokes about human mortality are probably far more fun to chill with.
Frida Kahlo became such a ‘thing’ in the past couple of decades that writing about the thing itself became a thing. I had my own go at it two years ago. There is even a Frida Kahlo Corporation that has the rights to her name, works and reputation, including control of emojis that use her appearance.
As a professed Stalinist, she would have been horrified. Or, maybe, amused.
The painter, who died at 47 in 1954, has been a feminist icon, a scorned woman, a martyr to living life in a female body, an excessively celebrated artist, and (sometimes) an excessively denigrated one. A woman painter I know in my community becomes angry at the mere mention of her name, and starts listing female Mexican artists she thinks are better. Yet whatever is done to her, she doesn’t go away.
Looking for something other than the Days of the Dead to write about, it occurred to me I’d never done a Frida knick-knacks piece. Even in Tepoztlan, a town that has no known connection to her (she might have visited here once), you can fill your heart, stomach and shopping bag with Frida-ry. A woman whose paintings feature much Mexican folklore imagery has become a touristic tchotchke herself.
I remember, some 16 years ago, being in Amsterdam on business, and visiting the house where Anne Frank had hidden with her family and friends until they were betrayed to the Nazis in 1944. Visitors could tour the offices of the small food products company her father Otto had founded, and the ‘Secret Annexe’ above, where they all hid out, then head to the bookstore and gift shop next door. My feelings then were somewhat similar to the way I look on Kahlo. I realised this martyred teenager had become a brand, a name at the centre of a marketing exercise that, I was assured, supports charitable activities and tries to combat antisemitism.
I couldn’t argue with the aim, and visiting the house was a moving experience, even if the gift shop was … not. It was all far more affecting than Kahlo’s output of 143 known paintings, 55 of which feature her in some form. Anne’s short life and miserable death in Auschwitz trump anything relating to Frida’s injuries or her life with the emotionally insensitive Diego Rivera. Frida had choices: Anne did not.
The drawback with fame lies in how it depersonalises the famous. Anne Frank is an icon who became an institution, and Frida Kahlo has become a tea towel:
Ah well. At least Kahlo helps provide income for the people in town who sell the souvenirs. I assume she would have at least supported the proletariat making a little cash out of her face. Especially if the Frida Kahlo Corporation doesn’t earn a peso.
The Dominican convent in our town, a Unesco World Heritage site, was built around 450 years ago. Surrounding it was a substantial wall enclosing a large square space, with small shrines at three of the corners, and the convent itself occupying the fourth one. There was substantial damage in the 2017 earthquake, and while repairs slowly progress, services are held in a temporary structure in the square space in front.
The rainstorm that hit the town yesterday was extremely heavy, and while the water raged down the streets, a part of the wall collapsed. No-one, I understand, was injured, since the street vendors in front of it had taken shelter. Someone drowned in the village of San Juan Tlacotenco, up in the hills, but the wall was the only loss in town.
Historical monuments are meant to stir our imaginations, but the small details often offer the most intriguing bits of information. Looking at the rubble this morning, I found myself pondering the construction methods of those times. It looks as if stones were rather randomly cemented into place, then a layer of cement was put over it to keep the rain out. Initially, it had a defensive function as well as a perimeter-defining one, since the local people were by no means won over to Catholicism for some decades, or even centuries. It must have been a hundred years after the construction before the handful of monks in the convent felt safe from the people around them.
There was a reluctance to worship indoors once conversion occurred, since indigenous worship had always been done by means of parades and dances held under the open skies. Local people argued that a roof separated them from the God they were asked to worship, and so the Church decided there was no harm in continuing outdoor services. The large courtyard facilitated a Christian version of this.
A church like the convent cannot last forever, and only the of the corner shrines is still largely intact. But seeing the fallen stones was a reminder of the impermanence of even the most solid seeming structures. I have walked past that wall a hundred times, and taken it for granted.
The first salvo of rockets from the village church went off at exactly midnight on Sunday, followed right after by a brief peal of the bells. Yes, it’s almost the Days of the Dead again. The deceased were warned by this summons that it’s time to come and visit us again, though how they know this when so many other rockets are let off over the course of the year, I can’t figure out.
I’ve always been iffy about my ancestors. Most of them were undistinguished, so I doubt they’d be interesting to talk to. I would like to meet the few who took part in famous battles or other noted events, but that’s about it. I also wonder what a centuries-dead person might seem like if they came to talk. Personally, I’ve always thought it would be bad form to come back and haunt my descendants after I’ve gone, so I’ve not been one for seances or communion with tmy forebears
But here, picking up on a tradition the Mixteca (Aztecs to you and I) followed, people welcome their ancestors at the end of every October and at the start of November. The markets fill up with pots of marigolds for sale, and all the little variety stores stock up on candies and sweet things for the incorporeal visitors.
Marigolds, we’re told, are bright enough to guide the souls of the departed through the darkness to their old homes, or at least to a graveside party. There will be music in the cemeteries, myriads of candles, and people will keep all-night vigils.
Many people have seen Coco, the Disney movie which does an excellent job of presenting some of the traditions around the Days. I’ve watched it a couple of times, and marvel at how sympathetic the script is to its topic, even if it is a cartoon. It makes the celebrations much more elaborate than what I see here, but the intentions behind them are well captured.
The first stage of it all, that salvo of rockets I mentioned, happens right at the start of every October 18, and in this area of the country is particularly aimed at those who have no-one to greet them nor a place to visit. Then, on the following Saturday, prayers start in the local churches, and novenas (i.e., nine days of supplications) are made to remind the dead they are expected. Those who have died in accidents or tragedies, who are legion across Mexico, receive offerings on October 28 … and so on, and so on. One of the days in early November is particularly for children that have died.
People are not reticent about receiving guests at this time, though obviously individuals’ reactions and feelings vary. The deceased who have been gone for some time stir no strong emotions; the recently dead, or the lost children, can produce a different reaction. I’ve therefore always been cautious about intruding on the celebrations, even if the invitation is an open one. Once stepped on, cultural toes can be hard to un-step from.
None of my own forebears died anywhere close to this part of the world, so I don’t expect any humanoid spectrals to show up at this house. Still, next week I’ll buy some marigolds and light a votive candle, and leave the flame burning out of the breeze in the kitchen, with the outer door left open. Three of the dogs that have been companion animals here are buried in the garden above the house, and while the usual candies might not be appropriate, a few doggie treats left in a bowl on the retaining wall won’t go amiss. Even if they’re actually eaten by something other than ectoplasmic canine visitors in the night.
I’m on a short trip to Toronto, my first in almost two years. Hallo again, my long-term domicile – I just came back here from Mexico City, via Houston Airport.
Most of the world’s airports shut down around 11.00 pm. Residents living nearby plead and lobby for the sound of jet engines to disappear while they sleep, and the authorities eventually comply. There are mostly cleaners and security guards around after that.
Benito Juarez Airport in Mexico City is a little different. Not many flights arrive after 11.00 pm but there are a few coming in from Asia and elsewhere. More to the point, an outgoing flock of jetliners take off before 6.30 am, so that people using these need to arrive very early in the morning. A simple alternative is to show up around midnight, and hang out there till flight-time.
My plane to Toronto was at 5.40 am, so I joined this strange nighttime community late on the evening before. I was surprised to find that several souvenir stalls stayed open till the small hours, while a couple of restaurants and some of the currency exchange windows never close. If you should ever become one of those stateless people stranded in an airport for months, Benito Juarez might be a decent place to do it.
There’s always some activity, and the security staff are probably friendlier than you would find elsewhere. The noise level isn’t modest, especially since some of the floors are currently being ripped up and replaced at night in Terminal One. But Mexicans, who live with a lot of noise, can sleep through it till dawn, huddled down beside concrete pillars or on little-used stretches of corridor. I tried that, but ended up wandering from one end of Terminal One to the other in a slow, ambling stroll with my wheeled suitcase.
George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston was a very different proposition. I had to join a snaking line of people that took half an hour to reach the booths of the Homeland Security officers. Then, the terminals are connected by a driverless rail system, but getting from one to another still takes some minutes. With only ninety minutes between my flights, I started getting a little nervous. Then when I got to the security check needed before boarding. I became resigned to missing my second plane. It seemed chaotic, with different staff bawling about us getting rid of water bottles and such, like naughty kids in school. Most carry-on bags were being checked manually after the X-ray examination, and I finally got through, with my shoes back on my feet, just seventeen minutes before departure.
I’d had no breakfast, so I stopped my headlong rush to my gate at a stand and grabbed a sandwich. Remember, there’s no real food for Economy-class passengers on flights under a few hours’ duration any more. Does C$18 seem a lot for an eight-inch sub? A friend of mine paid US$27 for not much more food, a few months ago, so I decided things were looking up in airportland as I resumed my headlong quick march to what seemed to be the furthest extreme of the building.
The last of the queue for my United Airlines flight was just going through the final ticket check when I reached the gate. I was third from the back of the line, as two other panic-stricken people ran up as I took my place, so I now felt I could relax.
But late-phase pandemic airline travel isn’t something to relax over.
After we were airborne, a man two rows up from me suddenly found from neighbours that he was on the wrong flight: he was supposed to be on a plane to Cincinnati. He was European, and tried to put a brave face on it, not demanding his rights, since Canada isn’t a dangerous destination, but obviously his day was being far more stressful than mine.
An hour or two along in the air, we hit serious and persistent turbulence, presumably related to a rainy storm-front further north. The pilot then came on the speaker system to tell us that ‘the company’ had instructed him to make a stop in Cincinnati to refuel, so he had to do this. When we had touched down, a young and serious-looking United Airlines representative came on, and approached the mis-planed passenger, to escort him off. And, I would guess, to sign some legal documents relating to the airline’s non-liability.
The pilot made various noises about the refuelling process and its paperwork, but there were skeptics among us passengers. Pilots always take off with an emergency fuel reserve in case of bad weather or a delay in landing. I imagine if the ticket-checkers can’t put you on the correct aircraft properly, the airline faces a potentially big lawsuit.
I had deliberately planned my day so that time wasn’t an issue, and when we took off around the hour the flight should have been at Pearson International in Toronto, I wasn’t really bothered. Other passengers, who might have missed connections, might have felt less anguine.
As I’ve often reflected before, while Mexico has the reputation of being inefficient and lazy, it seems to do quite well managing most of its transportation systems. I don’t want to dump on Texas, but … heck, yes, I do want to dump on Texas. A cramped, noisy security area with staff barking at the passengers doesn’t give anyone a sense that things are properly in hand. A truly wise airport administration would figure out a way to connect international travellers direct to ongoing flights so they don’t have to leave a secure area and need not be checked by customs officers or searched for illegal stuff in their luggage. The practice is common in a number of European airports: just stay within designated areas or sections, so you have never technically entered the country. Your security check where you boarded should be enough to keep everyone safe. And even if a further luggage check is called for, the whole passports performance for people who aren’t actually going into the US could be skipped entirely.
As for the cabin crew who directed a passenger onto the wrong flight … well, I imagine somebody’s employment prospects diminished after that.
Not my problem, though.
And at Pearson, the Customs and Immigration people had me through in under eight minutes, even with a check on my new ArriveCAN vaccination documentation. Nobody in the arrivals hall spoke in anything above a polite Canadian murmur.
No, my title isn’t a reference to Christmas. It’s the feminine form of El Santo, the Saint (1917-1984), Mexico’s most famous and popular wrestler/actor from a few decades past.
I wrote recently about Dorada, the rescued street dog who came to live here two months ago. Three weeks back, I noticed a strange growth on her rear quarters, and two different vets confirmed she had a case of canine transmissible venereal tumour. (Careful – the pictures are gross). It starts small, but it easily spreads, both inside the dog that has it and to others with which she has contact. Dogs sniff and lick each other all the time, so it has an easy means of spreading. And it’s quite prevalent in Mexico.
Before she was rescued, and spayed, she had at least two litters of puppies fathered by other street dogs, so there was no mystery about how she acquired the condition. Thankfully, the treatment, a form of chemotherapy, is highly effective.
But Dori is an amazingly strong dog, as I mentioned in my first post. I’ve wrangled large dogs before, but I’ve never encountered one with the strength of a small horse, like this one. She would give the original El Santo a run for his pumped-up biceps. If I didn’t know this before, I discovered the reality on Tuesday.
For her first chemotherapy session, her rescuer Lucero took her, with me, to the vet, and we jointly managed the dog. For her session this week, she couldn’t drive me, so we arranged with Gabino, the next door neighbour, to use his taxi-cab to get there.
He meticulously insisted on a clean blanket for the back seat to catch the dog-hairs, and on the journey there, she was mostly well behaved. So far, I thought, so more-or-less good. He dropped us off, agreeing to come back in a short while.
The vet’s office was not yet open, so I had to wait for five minutes while Dori tried to escape my firm grip on the leash. I soon had red welts on my hand and wrist from the pressure her lunges applied to the chain wrapped around them.
But the fun began inside. The vet, a woman, asked me to control here while she put in a needle, and Dori was having none of it. She had disliked the procedure the week before, and ‘Cooperation’ is definitely not her other name. I was leaning on top of her, trying to keep her from moving, while she demonstrated that she really was El Santo’s female canine equivalent, La Santa. She had no mask, but with my face pressed to her head, my anti-Covid N-95 rode up over my eyes so I couldn’t see. And the dog kicked and writhed and kicked some more.
The vet finally gave up and asked her daughter, who is …. well, not small, to come and force the dog’s hind quarters to be still while I managed the front end. Finally, the jab was administered, the vet confirmed that the chemo had already started to reduce the tumour, and I paid and went outside to wait for Gabino.
Dori was now truly upset, and not willing to be patient. I had to move away from the vet’s doorway, because she wanted to lunge at any animal that was brought to it. She particularly wanted to kill and eat a cat or two, it seemed, since she howls at cats anyway, and three came for treatment while we waited. Gabino was five minutes late, then ten, then fifteen, and by this point we had moved in spasmodic jerks a hundred yards up the street and back again. My shoulders were beginning to ache from the effort, and my hands were raw in places from the tightened chain of the leash. I didn’t topple as she dashed around my legs, but I had to skip a light fandango at times to prevent it.
Gabino got us back safely to his house, but a truck was blocking the lane in front of us. No worries, I thought, it’s only thirty yards. Thanks, and see ya later, amigo.
And at this point, Gabino’s own dogs dashed out, and Dorada went nuts. With me yelling her name at her, and her waiting for the moment I shifted my grip on the leash to make a fresh lunge, we staggered yard by yard to the gate, where I tried to remain still as I put the key in the lock, the dog blanket draped over my arm and beginning to drag on the ground if I didn’t hold my arm high.
This was her big chance, she realised. With one almighty leap, she almost got away from me, only the leash being wrapped round my left fist preventing her. But I went crashing down onto my left hip and shoulder, the friction tore some skin off my finger, and it was arguable whether her barking dogfully or me barking her name was the louder contribution to the pandemonium. I finally dragged her to the gate, got her inside, and let her run off with the leash still attached while I caught my breath, and watched blood ooze over my left hand.
She let me retrieve the leash once she was re-quarantined in the corral where she has to stay for another week. And yes, I’m fine, apart from a bruise or three, and a missing piece of skin.
But while I’m used to dogs being cantankerous, this one is the strongest and most single-minded mutt I’ve ever tried to manage.
Dogs are wonderful companions, and they can be rays of sunshine on a grey day. But they never show anything I can recognise as gratitude. This one has also cost a pretty peso in vet bills and in cinderblocks to close her exit-points for escaping. I won’t say I felt homicidal towards her as I limped up the stairs to put iodine and a bandage on my finger, but let’s say she has been testing my affections to the Nth degree.
The first call came in on the landline at 5.00 am, so it woke me out of a deep sleep. It was intended to do so, of course. My foggy brain couldn’t understand the man at first, who seemed to be threatening my friend A. Then, I got the word ‘secuestrado,’ which means ‘kidnapped,’ and registered that he was using past tenses. She had been kidnapped, and he was demanding that I pay her ransom.
Part of me was alarmed, but more of me was annoyed at being woken up. Yes, I am selfish that way. My sleep is precious to me. But I also smelled a rat.
My friend H was caught by a similar scam a few years ago. Her ‘nephew’ called her to ask for help in getting a ransom, so the people who had kidnapped him while backpacking in Mexico would let him go. She did have a nephew of that age, and the circumstantial details supplied meant she was sufficiently drawn in to help. She went to get money from her bank account, and only on the way home did it occur to her to do some checking. Phone calls to her brother confirmed his son was safe in the US, and nowhere near Mexico. So, when the ‘kidnap victim’ and his captor called again, she told them she had a problem – she only had one nephew, and he was away at college, in the middle of his term. Could they clarify just who was calling, please? The would-be extortionists had a script to deal with this, but it wasn’t up to scratch. They suddenly hung up, aware they’d been rumbled.
How these morning callers had connected me with A, I don’t know, but plenty of people in Mexico are willing to share supposedly private information for a fee. And we have often mentioned each other to friends over the years.
Anyway, I was half persuaded, when “A” came on the line. Sobbing in terror, she was talking far too fast for me to follow her Spanish, but I got the message. They were going to torture or kill her if I didn’t pay up.
There were only two problems. One was that it didn’t sound at all like A, whose voice is lower-pitched. The second was, she speaks fluent English, and would have used it with me if she really needed help. Still acting out of a semi-conscious state, I said “No, gracias,” and hung up.
The phone rang again a few moments later, and the man was back with his best Dirty Harry voice. This time, I was really annoyed over my interrupted sleep, and yelled something I would never usually say to a Mexican: “Speak English, dammit!! If this is really about A, let her speak to me in my own language!”
Again, the Spanish was all too fast and growly for me to follow, but the fake A came back on the line – again unable to use English.
“Oh, for heaven’s sakes, you didn’t even sound like her! I repeat – speak English!!!” And when more gabbled Spanish followed, I hung up a second time.
Kidnapping for ransom is a dangerous business in Mexico, but gringos are usually avoided as victims. We have governments that might intervene, and it’s far easier for the gangs to prey on poorer Mexicans, who might be more easily intimidated, or more aware their movements and relationships would be easier to trace. Because we are not integral parts of the social infrastructure, gringos’ reactions can be unpredictable. It’s better to leave us alone.
This pair were doing their best, and maybe they were connected with a major gang. But they didn’t have a plan B. Also, they had no information apart from the phone number, which could have been obtained from a utility company or some government agency that had required it. They were, basically, amateurs with a rudimentary script, and not much creativity.
It was all a reminder that you need a certain anarchist streak to survive here. Going to the authorities for anything other than an innocuous matter can be positively dangerous, since they would need personal information I’d prefer not to share. So, telling would-be extortionists to take a hike – and I was going purely on sleepy instinct here, not calculated bravery – is more effective than trying to play by a formal rule-book. Had they called when I was properly awake, I might have been more cautious. Summoned from the depths of peaceful slumber, I was suitably angry.
It’s been three months since that morning. Since then, I’ve had to dodge a few reckless drivers, had a bad sting from a bee, and gotten lost in an unfamiliar city. But no-one has called again, except about everyday matters, nor have I been threatened in any other way. This particular corner of Mexico is still safer than others, and I don’t think about the incident if the phone rings.
And I do cherish the brief, third call that came in, right after the first two were done.
“FAHK YEW!” said the woman, as menacingly as she could. I don’t know if she hung up before me, but I had a satisfied grin on my face as I put the receiver down. At least she had finally spoken what limited English she actually knew.
But in retrospect, she also sounded closer to a sob of unhappiness than an expression of anger. She’d blown her big moment, and she possibly had to pay for it afterwards. After all, you don’t get into that line of business because you find the career rewarding.
Tire guys here don’t smile. I’m guessing it’s one of those cultural things that has been that way since the first cars came here eighty years ago.
A short time after I came here, I was driving the 1993 Ford Explorer that I call the Titanic back from the town of Cuautla. And I suddenly realised that the thumping I was hearing was due to one of its (very) old tires having developed a split. I drove back up the single-line highway on shredded rubber, hoping I hadn’t damaged the wheel beyond repair, a chorus of frustrated drivers honking at me all the way.
I knew there was a llanteria, a tire repair place, a short distance from the exit from the highway. I found it, and anxiously used my very limited Spanglish+hand-signals to explain to the owner, Snr. Garcia, the problem I had. I was doubly anxious because I only had 200 pesos on me, and if changing the tire cost more than that, I would have to get more cash in town.
Snr. Garcia did not smile. He was not reassuring. He just looked at the tire, went to the back of the truck, checked there was another tire concealed behind the back axle, and proceeded to switch the shredded rubber for the slightly less worn spare tire.
And then he looked at me, and said something I didn’t understand. And I didn’t understand it because ‘treinta’ is Spanish for ‘thirty,’ and I thought he meant 230, or more. But he meant what he said, which was about $2.50 Canadian at that point.
I drove off, grateful for his help, and baffled as to how anyone could survive charging ridiculously low prices. I don’t enjoy being soaked by people taking advantage of me, but equally, I figure a necessary service justifies a fair price.
Last October, the Titanic received a complete a new set of Pirelli tires, but recently the back rear tire began going flat every couple of days. I finally decided I had to get it fixed, and went to see Snr. Garcia as my first choice of helper. I actually passed him, walking to work. However, I waited for ten or fifteen minutes at his tienda, and he never appeared, so I decided to try elsewhere. As I headed off, he reappeared, having presumably stopped to talk to someone along his way. Reversing wasn’t easy at that location, though, so I headed off, to a llanteria closer to town.
The man there was on his phone when I arrived, and didn’t look up at me. That’s about as unMexican as you can get.
“Straighten it” he finally said, for I was parked at an angle. I told him I had a suspected puncture, and he grunted. Was he, I wondered, a graduate of the Garcia charm school?
He set to work taking the wheel off the car, and spraying it with that polymeric spray tire guys use. Soon, the point where the escaping air created bubbles was obvious, so he began the work of getting the tire off the wheel-rim. That is no light task.
After less than twenty minutes, he had removed the small nail that had caused the problem, patched the hole, reinflated the tire, and put the wheel back on the Titanic. He had said about six words all this time, and no complete sentences. Finally, he looked at me and said something I didn’t understand. Echoes, I thought, of my first visit to Snr. Garcia. I asked him to repeat it.
“Cincuenta,” he said again. Fifty pesos. Which, today, is around $3.20 Canadian. Then when I looked surprised, he added, “Barato,” which means “Low price.”
I couldn’t complain, and I didn’t. I just wondered, yet again, why a man would work up a sweat yanking a wheel off a car, and a tire off and back onto the wheel, all for three bucks. The Dirty Harry act, I thought, with no hint of a smile, must be hard to maintain in this society. Car repairs here are always far cheaper than in the US or Canada, but surely tire guys like to eat and pay their rent …?
Or maybe, with their bulging muscles (tires are heavy) and tough line of work, they’re secretly making penance for a lifetime of overcharging tourists for something or other. The low wages must go with the lack of smiles.
Still, I can recommend either of these taciturn operatives to any friend around here who needs work done on a tire. The value for money ratio is incomparable.
Every year around this time, I do a blog post about my least favourite point in the calendar: the feast of St. Mary Magdalene. Maria Magdalena is the matron saint of this village, either because of a legend that Quetzalcoatl’s mother was the goddess in charge of Toltec ladies of the evening (not well supported by evidence), or because Prince Ce Acatl Topiltzin, the most prominent human prototype for the Plumed Serepent, was born here eleven centuries ago. And therefore, the community must be forever in atonement.
Anyway, her feast day is July 22, which means that starting on July 21, the village gets going on making money, and my dogs have to endure a daily onslaught of hundreds of loud, explosive rockets. Victoria, my eldest hound, is terrified of these cohetes, and spent the night before last cowering in my bathroom, since they kept being let off until around 11.00 p.m. I think the bathroom is as far into the house as she can go, so it seems safer to her, even if the acoustics can’t be favourable when there are loud bangs sounding, and echoing off the cliffs around us.
For me, the insult is being awakened by these explosions at 6.00 in the morning, followed by a band playing down by the church a couple of hundred yards away. Vicki can’t sleep by day, and I can’t sleep past the hour determined by fun-loving Catholic devotees.
Today, two days on from the main event, the fuss is over, and we’re sweeping up the broken beer bottles from the streets and clearing away the garbage. The brass bands have gone home, the rocket-fans are out of ammunition, and the impromptu taco stands in people’s front yards are closed. This year’s fiesta was four times as big as the pandemic-afflicted one last year, but not close to the scale of previous years. There was, for example, no children’s midway, nor a bull-riding jaripeo.
But even as the village reverts to its usual, slightly ratty appearance, concerns remain. Covid cases in Mexico last week were up 44 percent over the previous week. As the “Do” versus “No, don’t” wars over masks and distancing play out once more, there must have been some virus-spreading happening, even with light crowds.
And separate from that issue, there is the rain. After local wells ran dry this spring, we welcomed the heavy rains that started early, in May. Suddenly, the threat of fires in the hills was gone, and the water tanker drivers were not running half loads.
But in most previous years that I recall, the Magdalene’s feast day is overcast, if not sopping wet. This year, we’ve had gorgeous dry, sunny weather for the past six days, and there’s no rain predicted for a few days more. In our rainy season, this sort of interval rarely occurs. It’s too early to call a bad season, but there is cause to be concerned.
Yesterday, I took my dog Rem out for a walk on the trail to the Baptismal Pool (Posa) of Quetzalcoatl. To be accurate, Rem took me, and exhausted both of us in the process.
From the starting point south of the village, the trail crosses a rock-filled stream, then follows a rough track up a hillside for a few hundred yards. Some distance further along, there is a mirador, an area with large, smooth rocks that overlooks the canyon through which the stream flows. Usually, hiking groups pause here before going on to the Posa.
This time, the place was filled with cheap plastic toys, coloured plates and cups, and it had a string of shrivelled balloons from one edge of the sitting area to the other. There was gold-coloured tinsel, too, and the remains of cookies in the grass. Glitter had been sprinkled all over. To one side sat two toy trucks. I couldn’t imagine who would or could have a children’s party and leave such a mess, but considering the trail to the Posa is seen as sacred, it seemed incredibly inconsiderate. This afternoon, I went back with a garbage bag, and began collecting the mess before all the plastic items were washed by the rains into the stream below.
As I was finishing up, disentangling the last bits of tinsel tied to a bush, Armando arrived. I don’t know him well, but we’ve had a nodding acquaintanceship for years. He had just been to the Posa himself, and had come to the mirador to rest for a few minutes. I explained what I was doing, and he nodded.
Then he began explaining. Something people here do a couple of times a year is come to the mirador to make offerings to the duendes (fairy folk, basically) and to children who have died. Hence the brightly coloured cups and plates, and the toys.
In older times, they left toys made of wood or clay, which of course degraded naturally over time in an exposed place. People now buy cheap plastic toys in the marketplace because that’s what their children play with, or would have played with if they had lived.
As most of my readers know, I edited magazines for the plastics industry in Canada for decades, so I’m acutely aware of the positives and negatives of synthetic polymers. Their use saves us a great deal in energy consumption every year, from production of parts through to shipping, while their disposal is often problematic. The local tendency to just throw pop bottles in a ditch saddens me no end, because I grasp where they’re going to end up. But for millennia, people here tossed aside what they no longer needed, or what was broken, and gave it little more thought.
There is also more of a sense here of rural people living in a continuum. The present is all, and who knows what the future will bring. The past though is still very much here, albeit in fragments and increasingly distorted memories.
But the dead are not off in some faraway heaven, not all the time, anyway, but will visit a shrine in a house, and of course come back for the Days of the Dead. People will visit their relatives in the cemetery for a chat, or to ask advice.
Thus, a lovely spot, with a view to the hills rising on the other side of the canyon, is a likely place to be able to reach out to lost children. And the mirador is on a sacred trail, too.
Armando saw both viewpoints. The tradition of leaving cookies and toys one a couple of days in the year goes back centuries, he said, while he also realised that you can’t just abandon plastics and assume they will dissolve with time. Their dissolution will happen after they reach a river and then the sea, and cause harm to sea-life. So, he didn’t criticise my desire to keep the place tidy for the next visitors. I finished gathering bits of tinsel, thanked him for his explanation, and headed back to the village.
And of course, I wondered if I was right to take what the bereaved parents had left for children no longer here. I decided, as I picked my way over the stones down to the stream, that I was.
All kids get to play with their toys for a while, then they need to be put away. I noted that I didn’t trip or slip on the way down, which is easy to do, so I think the guardian spirits of the trail, who protect it from profane visitors, agreed with me.
There are places to eat out that never fail to disappoint. Marco Polo, an Italian-style place in Cuernavaca (the Cuaunahuac of Lowry’s Under the Volcano) is one of them. I should know, because I go there about once a year, looking for the idea the place represents.
It’s self-described as a trattoria, which to me means somewhere where the pasta is unsubtly cheesy and tomato-y, with definite hints of oregano, onion and garlic. There’s a cheap Italian house red that’s hardly memorable, but is cheerful and zesty enough to complement minor sins in the kitchen, and red-check tablecloths. There are pizza options for the impecunious, and upscale cuts of meat for the businessmen.
And somehow, this place always gets it wrong. The decor is elegant and not a bad imitation of traditional Tuscan tiles and sculpture, and the menu was perfectly designed years ago. They make a delicious cheese-bread that augurs well for the main course to follow, and … then the main course follows.
I can hear the moans: “Well, go somewhere else, idiot, and stop complaining. Use your blog for telling people about cartels and extortion, or something.” I will write about how kidnappers recently tried to extort me in a day or two, but right now, I’m recalling ravioli that was just tolerable when Chef Boyardee would have come closer to excellence.
I have loved Italian food since I hit adulthood, and like I said, Marco Polo captures the idea of an Italian eatery perfectly. It’s just that they don’t seem to know you can go a couple of kilometres and get all the ingredients at Costco, or even Walmart, and your bolognese sauce will taste … maybe not like it would in Bologna, but like the acceptable imitations you get in other places here. Rich, balanced between sweetness and acidity, and probably available with all the spices and herbs already added in.
So, why did I go there today? The photo at the top is the reason.
I had actually gone to Cuernavaca hunting for the socks I forgot to buy on Friday when I was in a Walmart. And, having found some, plus some decent tea, I suddenly thought I wanted to eat on one of the four balconies Marco Polo has. I had to walk just three blocks, and was able to get a balcony table before other lunchtime customers grabbed them all.
The restaurant, you see, is right opposite the Cathedral of Cuernavaca. That building is still, like other large religious buildings near here, under renovation from the 2017 earthquake, and access can be limited. But on either side of the main gate, there are two large, early chapels, which, unlike the cathedral, have not been extensively altered over the centuries. Both are currently open. The one at the left of my photo is the Santa Cruz chapel, which is just under 500 years old.
Behind it are hills that are part of a long ridge leading into my current home town of Tepoztlan. Right of centre is the roof of a recently inaugurated museum of religious art, with a gold-topped cupola. In the cathedral courtyard there are cypresses, palm trees and other large plants.
If it looks like the thick walls of the courtyard are fortified, the perception is correct. Some native people were not cowed by beatings and burnings, nor won over by the newly imported faith, and there was intermittent armed resistance to Spanish rule throughout the 1500s. The convent in Tepoztlan is similarly fortified.
When the cathedral gates are open, there are often crippled people and other beggars outside them: the impression is very medieval, and the urge to put a coin in their cups is hard to resist. Souvenir sellers, like the woman with her blue umbrellas, station themselves there also. Often, there are street musicians or, as there was today, a man dressed as a Toltec warrior playing a high-pitched flute. There are also the lamp standards, like the one in the middle of my image, which are over a century old. The cathedral itself is only visible here from its white ornamental roof turrets at the top right, and a small section of wall peeping through the trees, though it is quite impressive close up.
So, what draws me to Marco Polo isn’t the food, but the ambiance. This part of town was an Aztec stronghold until the Conquest exactly five centuries ago, so it retains some of that spirit, especially just up the road in the Palacio de Cortes, the Conquistador who took Mexico for Spain in the 1520s. There are large pieces of shattered sculptures there.
Both the early efforts of missionaries and the more established devotions of later generations are embodied in the cathedral complex architecture. And there’s usually some bustle on the street outside.
I must have visited Marco Polo a half-dozen times over the years, and while a couple of meals were okay, most didn’t excite me. I never plan to go there, but always head up their stairs on a whim, as I did today.
And while I do wish the ravioli was … raviolier, and bottles of the house wine were not kept sitting around for days on end, the view from the balconies is always the best compensation for visiting. Not that I’ll go back there again this year, I’m quite sure. I always tell myself not to go back. But if I do get the urge again some time next year, and I will probably will, the view will still be there to make up for the gastronomic deficiencies.
My dog Rem has a loud bark, and he’s particularly fond of using it at night and in the morning. A lot. What can I say? He takes his guard duties very seriously, and I’m probably all the safer for it.
He wouldn’t stop his racket this morning, just as I was stumbling around in the mental fog of waking up, but he wasn’t at his usual post from which he can issue threats to other neighbourhood dogs. So, I went to see if something was up. It was – a zopilote, a black vulture (Coragyps atratus) was sitting in a tree in the garden.
One of the pleasures of being here in the mornings is seeing the zopilotes circling on thermals close to the cliffs that surround the village. They are very graceful birds – not huge, but with wings tipped with white feathers, and a span of close to five feet. Up close, they can be disgusting owing to a habit they have of soiling themselves to cool their legs (Nature has no class at all sometimes), but from more than 15 feet away, they are compelling.
I don’t have a camera that can do a decent job of photographing them when they circle hundreds of feet up, but with one right in the tree outside, I decided I’d try to get a shot. I went up to the roof, and tried from three angles. Each time, as I suspected and later on confirmed, I registered a black blob against the dark leaves of the trees.
But at one point, the bird spread those graceful wings, and hopped to another branch. Did I capture the image? Er, no, I just missed it. And missed it again twice more.
Then it flew off. And then it came back again, up in the back garden, which is on a steep slope.
The main garden area is closed off, since Rem has used it in the past as an escape route off the property and out to mischief. For his own safety (people here own a lot of sharp machetes) I keep him within fenced bounds. But feeling the spirit of National Geographic descending on me, I unhooked the gate and headed up through the vegetation, which is rapidly sprouting after the onset of the rains. It was hard to find my footing with all the strong new stems that have come up, and soon, I was being bitten by ants. I don’t know why, because I was no threat to them, but I think being an ant might be boring, and having a large bipedal mammal to bite is possibly fun for them. So, they had fun.
Looking up from brushing them off my arms, I noticed the zopilote had once again spread its wings, so I swung my camera up to eye level. And of course, the wings folded once more. We did this twice more, until it became alarmed that I was coming close. It spread its wings yet again, just as I pushed aside some more tenacious vegetation, and … I missed the shot once more.
Rem, throughout all this, had stopped barking, satisfied that I was doing something to get rid of this intolerable interloper on the property he guards so determinedly. And in his terms, my mission looked successful, and he could go back to watching out for other dogs, at which he could bark from his favourite spot on the wall of his corral. As for me, I just decided, as I have before, that I wasn’t cut out to be a wildlife photographer, who needs things like telephoto lenses and very rapid responses from his camera.
I’m still glad the vultures hang around here. If nothing us, they indicate there’s still a vibrant ecosystem here that can support scavengers and occasional hunters like them.
This part of Mexico has seen a lot of changes in recent years. It’s hard for me to point a finger at people who’ve come here recently, because I’m an outsider myself. When yet another house starts going up along the road into town, I might regret the loss of another cow pasture or cornfield, but I did the same thing myself a decade ago.
However, certain changes can be hard to swallow. This community, Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl, is one of two or three legendary birthplaces of the Plumed Serpent (Quetzalcoatl means ‘serpent with feathers’) in Mexico, and the one with the best-attested legend. Every weekend, hikers and pilgrims set out for the Posa, the baptismal pool where the one-time ruler of central Mexico (and later deified king) was given his name. One or two local guides will take visitors for a fee, though after I’d been twice, I knew how to find the way myself. You head to the south end of the village and go down a stony slope to the Sacred Tree, where you make an offering of tobacco or other suitable substance and ask for protection on the rough walk. Then, take the fork in the road to the right if you’re going the regular way, the one that crosses the stream in the bottom of the little valley, or stay left if you want to follow the longer route with prettier views.
I don’t go often, because the Posa is a special place. It has a small waterfall and is enclosed on three sides by cliffs with dramatic rock formations. When I tried on my first visit to take a photo, my camera jammed, and I never tried again. The place demands respect, and offers a direct and significant link to the preColumbian traditions.
Hiking buddy Ixchel and I set off for the prettier route this afternoon, when we found someone had made some major changes in the path. The track, which is so old it is inches below the rest of the land it crosses, had been blocked by a new barbed wire fence. A roadway had been gouged out of the west side of the small valley, and accessing the Sacred Tree by clambering down large, loose boulders was likely to produce a sprained ankle. A hundred yards on, the path was no longer obstructed, but somebody had clearly been asserting property rights, and had plans for the land.
We headed back after an hour or so when storm-clouds threatened, and tried to get around the fences. But the man who had put them in had blocked any route bar the new roadway, which was still unfinished. Either we had to scramble under the barbed wire and risk snagging our clothing, or go back around to the new route.
He or one of his friends was doing some work behind the gate of one of the fences when we came by the Sacred Tree again, and we asked him what the plan was. He replied that he was going to grow corn, plant trees and maybe grow flowers. But given that a narrow valley with limited sunshine is a poor spot to grow anything for profit, this was hardly convincing. We had to conclude that something else was in the offing that promised better profits than a field of maize.
No doubt we’ll see soon enough what his intentions are. One possibility is using the main access to the camino leading to the Posa to charge admission. If there were more guardians of the traditional ways still alive, it’s unlikely anyone would attempt this, but the keepers of the old knowledge are dying off. Don Julio, who took the second Posa hike I ever went on, and who could describe the medicinal properties of plants along the way, died a few months ago. And there have been unpleasant incidents in the past year or two with guides from the village demanding a fee from groups going to the sacred site. If I go alone, I go on a weekday, when the almost non-existent visitors offer no attraction to such extortion.
Possibly the fencing effort and the new roadway will have little effect on the rest of the walk, and we’ll adjust to what this owner has done. But as more houses go up around the village, and the community changes in character from what it was, there is the temptation for local people to maximise personal gains at the expense of the old traditions. They see how much cash the weekenders who come here bring in their pockets, and they want the same thing.
The village is gradually losing its links with its past. And it’s unlikely anyone will try to stop it.
The onset of our summer rains kick-starts the natural cycle. Oddly, the mosquitoes in Amatlan started coming out weeks ago, before the first thunderstorm provided any water for breeding them, but now they have company.
In most years, large white butterflies show up, with seven-inch wingspans, a few weeks before the rains themselves. But since the rains themselves arrived early this year, the butterflies were behind schedule, and I only saw my first one last week.
The moyotes (June bugs, also called by the variant name mayotes in the local Nahuatl language) arrive next. I read that in some places these flying beetles are diurnal, but here, they show up at night, and love to come into the house. Why? I have no idea, since they don’t go for any food that’s around, nor do they spend excessive amounts of time flying into light-bulbs. Some of my friends and I call them ‘stupid bugs’ because they essentially come in to blunder into walls, then end up on the floor trying to get off their backs. In the morning, I sometimes start the day by fetching a broom and sweeping a half-dozen out onto the patio.
So far, the flying ants, which arrive in droves, also at night, and promptly shed their wings, are not in evidence. They do no damage (that I can see), but droves of any bug are annoying. Laura, who comes once a week to clean my house, tells me that cooked and ground up, they are delicious in sauces. I admit I’m willing to just take her word on that. But then, while people here treat chapulines (fried grasshoppers) as a delicacy, I’ve never wanted to venture into that experience, either.
I did learn some years ago to live with a certain population of bugs, and they don’t faze me the way a couple of silverfish might have if I’d found them in my old apartment in Toronto. You move into a property at the edge of a Mexican nature reserve, and you get … nature. Several spiders have taken up residence in corners of my large kitchen, and I leave them to catch as many of the flying insects as they can. They also help deter more aggressive insects.
What is actually more of a problem for me is the amount of vegetation that proliferates when the rains get going. The area the dogs use to relieve themselves is easy to clean right now, but in two weeks, I’ll need to take a machete to the plants that crop up. Similarly, there is a large corral for the dogs to hang out in, that gets choked quite easily. I left it too late to attack that last year, and half of it became simply impenetrable until November when the die-off was under way.
The one surge of new life that is truly appealing this year is the litter of puppies to which Xilonen (Shee-LOH-nen), the dog next door, gave birth a couple of weeks ago. They remained invisible until this week, but now I see groups of them – there are eight in total – romping in my neighbour’s large yard. Naturally, every time I’ve been down with some kind of camera, they decide they all need a nap, and disappear completely.
So, defeated in that effort this evening, I simply took a couple of shots of my other neighbour’s fluff-ball, Canelita, who was happy to pose for her close-up. She’s certainly more photogenic than the moyotes. And she’s actually no larger than any of the pups. So, imagine her multiplied by eight, and without the fluff, and you’re close to the look of the pack.
The path from the street to my front gate is a steep one, and nobody runs up it. I certainly don’t. So, when I saw the funny-looking dog in front of my neighbour’s house, I thought perhaps that breathlessness was distorting my vision.
But it wasn’t a dog. Bumba (‘Boom-bah’) the pig was making a bid for freedom. At least, she was until she found some garbage to investigate, which fatally slowed her escape.
I always have mixed feelings about the pigs the people next day occasionally raise. Their obvious destiny is a barbecue, and the loud, cheerful snorting they make at mealtimes only underlines that fate. The fatter the pig, the pork-choppier its eventual end.
But maintaining good relations with the locals is essential in a small place like Amatlan, so I went and called Eli (‘Eh-lee’), the wife of the owner of the house. She was off helping somebody at a house further along our lane, but her son was home. He checked the sty, then ran off to fetch his mother, while I went to see where Bumba had gone.
It wasn’t hard to find her. Other neighbours – housewives cleaning yards, Ysrael working on his garden plot – had seen this creature passing by, and the hue and cry had begun. It ended when Eli’s two teenaged daughters came back from the grocery store, and laughingly began to urge Bumba homewards. Teresa, the younger one, was the most committed, perhaps she is usually the one that feeds the animal. As Eli herself came back at the behest of her son, Teresa shooed the small beast back into its cramped home, while her sister Ana grinned at watching the chase.
As Eli pointed out, had some of the village dogs found Bumba, her end could have been unpleasant. A large pig can defend itself against various animals, but a fat little porker would have had no chance. Better the slaughter’s knife, quick and sure, than being torn to pieces by half-feral dogs.
So, I’m sorry, Bumba. Maybe if you’d made your breakout at night-time, when you could have slunk up into the hills, it would have worked. But your timing was off.
The shift happens suddenly every year. One day we have hot, dry days, the sun baking the last bits of grass clinging on at the roadsides. Then the clouds come in around sunset, a wind blows up, and the lightning starts.
Welcome to rainy season in central Mexico.
Just as the first snowfall in Toronto was always magical, the first rains here are a welcome relief. The temperature drops, the threat of more wildfires in the hills disappears, and farmers start looking to this year’s planting. This year, the rains have begun close to a month early, which is good considering that last year they came late, and the total rainfall was meagre.
The other side of the rains is inconvenience. Thunderstorms often cut our electrical power, and a few nights ago it went off around midnight and was not restored until late morning. With the loss of electrical power, so go our internet connections. There is no tower here in the village for cellphones, and the mountains block the ones in town.
We all dry laundry in the sunshine, but when there is none, socks and shirts stay damp, maybe for days. Plagues of bugs appear from nowhere, and I have to shut doors that I normally leave open for the dogs. We collect rainwater for washing purposes, but the storms build up piles of leaves on the roof, so that sweeping these away is essential before anything is collected.
And of course, the dogs hate it when they can’t go outside without getting soaked.
This year, apart from the series of fires we had in April, there was also a threat of diminished water supplies. We did not get to the point of rationing, but when I had to order a tanker of water because our cistern was almost empty, I was warmed not to use it for garden plants. They had to make do with waste sock-washing water, or what I used for cleaning the kitchen dishes. I wondered how much detergent the soil could safely take, but to this point, I’ve seen no adverse reactions.
Most of my friends celebrate the arrival of the rains, but you can probably tell from the tone of this piece that I’m not a big fan. I wish we had rain throughout the year, in moderate amounts, but the tropical climate doesn’t work like that. It’s all controlled by currents in the Pacific Ocean (occasionally with the help of Caribbean weather patterns), and we are in the hands of weather-gods operating far beyond human pleading and prayers.
The underlying feeling right now, though, is that we’re grateful we’re unlikely to face the drought conditions that last year affected California and Australia. Overall, Mexico’s rainfall has diminished over the past decade, as climate change begins to alter the old rhythms, and agriculture is threatened. The storms, one of which looks like it’s on its way as I write this, are welcomed as at least a temporary antidote to that situation. Unless these rains tail off early, the skies will give us what the community needs to make it through for another year.
Around sixteen years ago, when I first became interested in Mexico, I looked into its politics. At that time, apart from a few small, fringe parties, there were three of them: the National Action Party (PAN), which was Conservative; the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) which was Social Democratic; and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which was more or less centrist, but very definitely the immovable object in Mexican politics.
Whatever else Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has done since be became President in 2018, he has finished that set-up. A local friend told me last night that there are now fourteen parties vying for seats in the mid-term elections due on July 1. Bizarrely, PAN, PRI and PRD have formed an alliance to oppose Lopez Obrador and his bloc in the legislature.
Knowing exactly what each new party is about can be a head-scratching quest for anyone, even people who live here, since the party names don’t always imply which way they lean. Our village and the town of Tepoztlan are gaudy with electoral banners, showing the smiling, handsome faces of the younger candidates, and many less fetching older ones.
It isn’t just an election for the federal legislature. All the Mexican states are also involved, as are the mayoral seats of most towns. The mayor of Tepoztlan died from Covid-19 last month, so the contest to take the local job is hot, and anybody who has ever been a local activist seems to be after it.
Lopez Obrador (who goes by the acronym AMLO most of the time) used to be the head of the PRD, but a few years ago he launched Morena, which is left-of-centre but also populist (a dubiously elastic term). The party name comes from Movimiento Regeneracion National, a phrase that translates into English easily. It is also a term used for a dark-skinned woman. It thus refers to indigenous people, whom AMLO claims to represent, as well as the sacred image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the matron saint of Mexico. This was very clever marketing, and AMLO, who had been thwarted in his previous presidential ambitions, has been ensconced in the capital for three years, excoriating all of his critics as conservatives or as individuals in the pay of the right wing, as he has bent parts of the Constitution to his preference, and (my own view) been remarkably ineffectual at rooting out corruption as he claimed he would.
Not that rooting out corruption has ever been easy in Mexico, nor that anyone else recently has managed it. Vicente Fox, President from 2000 to 2006, is generally reckoned, despite other failings, to have been an honest man, but Felipe Calderon, who came after him (2006 to 2012) never seemed to shine as a leader, nor did Enrique Peña Nieto (2012 to 2018) burnish the presidential seal to any noticeable extent. Calderon was the primary author of the continuing, murderous war on drug cartels, and Peña Nieto is widely viewed as clueless, and possibly in the pocket of ‘El Chapo’ (Joaquin Guzman Loero), the jailed former head of the Sinaloa Cartel.
But AMLO is better at spending money on dubious projects than either of his two predecessors. And since polls show his candidates should do well, he isn’t about to change tack. I know people who believe he could try to become President-for-Life before his six-year term is up.
The local campaigns are different, though. I’ve always been a believer that capable local government is critical to any stable society. Big initiatives at the national or regional level get the headlines, but good local politicians and local initiatives can make a great deal of difference to people’s lives.
In this context, I always recall interviewing Barney Danson, who was a cabinet minister in the government of Canada’s Pierre Trudeau in the 1970s. He ran into flak as Minister of National Defence, but when he was at Urban Affairs, he launched a national program to subsidise sewage systems across the country, working flexibly with municipalities on their specific needs.
“I was so proud of that,” he told me. “It made a positive difference to the lives of tens of thousands of people, maybe hundreds of thousands, but I doubt it ever got more than a couple of inches of newspaper coverage.” And having begun my own career as a reporter on a local newspaper, I grasped his point and was happy to agree that he’d probably accomplished something truly worthwhile away from the limelight.
I don’t know if any of the local people whose campaign posters I’ve included here will make any significant difference if they’re elected in July. The later stages of the pandemic are a unfortunate time in which to make fresh starts, and Mexico is facing strong economic headwinds this year and probably for some years to come. But the optimism so many of them bring to their campaigns is a reminder that Mexico is a society that still believes in its own communities and its own future, and is not the basket case its less informed critics like to think it is.
Yesterday, I burned my fingers. Not badly, but it was when I learned the ground can be hot after a forest fire.
Ixchel Tucker and I had headed up to the village of San Juan Tlacotenco, where the temperature right now is noticeably less oppressive than in the lower area where we both live. We aimed to walk a little and check out the route we can never quite find that leads back over the mountains to a village on ‘our’ side of part of the range of cerros. To finish up, before the sun began to slide behind the trees, we checked out a path she’d been on before, trying to identify if it was close to the route that interested us.
We had barely gone 300 yards when we realised we were in an area that had recently been hit by the hillside fires. The ground was not uniformly black, nor were all the trees scorched, but there was a discernible smell of woodsmoke still in the air.
Looking about, I found a small wisp of smoke still rising from the earth beside the trail. I tried kicking soil over the hot-spot with my shoe, but the smoke kept rising. So, I bent down to scoop the soil better with my fingers.
I didn’t know that earth itself, which has a lot of organic matter in it, can keep burning without a visible flame. However, one ‘Ouch’ later, I found out. Fire in a forest isn’t just a surface phenomenon, but one that gets down into the ground. Ixchel had a story of finding that a small fire at a place here where she’d lived had followed the line of a root towards its parent tree, and having to act fast to prevent the tree igniting. (She worked once in the insurance business, and is a mine of knowledge about the ways fire can do damage).
Further away, but down a slippery slope, there was a stronger veil of smoke rising. We assumed the local firefighters, who have lengthy collective experience, were letting this burn out, and had not just overlooked it. But the experience did bring home how and why fires are so hard to put out on verdant mountainsides.
Simply eliminating the flames is a first step, but the ground stays hot and, in some cases, remains in combustion. There’s an element of whack-a-mole to firefighting in such places, along with the complications arising from weather conditions. A steady rain-shower a few nights ago helped extinguish the big fires we had in the hills, but that was after a couple of days of intensive firefighting led by trained teams, and heavily supported by water-dumping helicopters. And still, as my slightly singed fingertips told me, there was the potential for a new flare-up.
Our temperatures remain high, predicted to average 30 deg C through the coming week. Even at night, they only go down to about 15 degrees. That makes the mornings very fresh and pleasant, but the afternoons oppressive. And it does little to suppress emerging or continuing fires.
We aren’t simply fire-gawkers, and we weren’t looking to get close to the areas the fires had touched. We both appreciate that a live fire can spread fast, especially if an evening wind springs up. But for the next few weeks, we need to be watchful if we go hiking on the hillsides, to be sure that not only do we avoid the live fires, but also look out for the residue of fires supposedly quenched.
The late spring of 2012 offered the most memorable fire season that I can recall. That year, the various blazes in the hills around our village came right to the edge of it, and on the worst night, I kept thinking of Hieronymus Bosch’ painting of Hell in The Garden of Earthly Delights. My own photos didn’t do it justice, but my friends and I spent two hours anxiously going over our contingency plans to make a run for it with five dogs. Thankfully, we didn’t need to do this, but the flames hung around for two more days to keep us on edge and wreck our sleep.
This year’s fires have come early; it’s a full two months till our rains start, and there’s a fear they’ll be on the meagre side, like last year.
They’ll be enough to stop the fires, but our current problem is a water shortage. Using helicopters to put out fires on steep hillsides works brilliantly, but it needs a lot of water that we don’t have to spare. This area has been in a partial drought for several years, and if we get more fires in the rest of April and in May, we’re in trouble.
Everyone loves watching the choppers. They make enough noise, and they get close enough to the flames before dropping their loads of water and fire retardant, that they’re impressively efficient looking. And, watching them tackle the spread-out blazes above the town of Tepoztlan this afternoon, I noticed that after 40 minutes, several of the lesser fires were gone.
They’re effective, and we enjoy the sight of the pilots becoming heroes. Flying a helicopter close to a steep cliff, into the updraft of a blaze, is a lot riskier than it sounds, and you need to know this if you fly one.
Mexicans accept natural disaster as a part of life, far better than other places. Communities pull together, governments reach beyond their frequent ineptitude, and those who can’t go into the hills to beat out flames at least buy water and food for the young men who do.
Yesterday, we had four separate areas ablaze, but this evening, only one is still active, and its range is declining. But it’s a part of the yearly cycle, not an exception to it, and no-one is screaming in terror. Most of us are careful not to go too close, but otherwise, we trust the smoke tomorrow will be diminished or contained.
Various things cause the fires. A few are from humans who are too stupid not to start campfires when everything around them is bone dry, or are farmers burning off last year’s crops at a time of day when the winds can spring up. Others are caused by discarded glass bottles acting as a lens for the hot sun: today, which was very sunny, we hit 31 degrees C. Spontaneous combustion, I learned today, usually happens in tightly packed, damp vegetable material, not things like the loose piles of dry leaves all over the hills, so it might not be a factor here.
Fire has long been one of nature’s means of renewal as much as destruction, and the fires are not necessarily tragic for this reason. Some wildlife, alas, will be lost, but the vegetated areas on the hills grow back in a year, or two at most. I’m told, by old-timers, that nobody heeded the fires much in years past, though the growth of the towns and villages means there’s more of a threat today of outlying areas of housing being destroyed. As a result, fire-fighting has become a necessary skill.
Stoicism is necessary, though. As I noted, we’re a couple of months away from full-on rains, and we don’t have an alternative right now to being patient. When you choose to come and live closer to nature, you have to accept that nature doesn’t withdraw because just you’ve arrived. Rather, nature, in all its forms, is going to come closer to you.
A few Sundays ago, I saw something unusual here. It was a bad car accident. Two late-model passenger cars had been in a head-on collision, and there was an ambulance on scene and police directing traffic.
I’d guess that the average age of a motor vehicle around the Tepoztlan area is 12 to 15 years, and they tend to get fixed only when something fails. Yet serious accidents are extremely rare, and the head-on smash involved two people not from here.
Discussing it with friends later, we observed that people who live here show a pronounced situational awareness. They’re very connected to their surroundings through their senses, and as drivers, they’re courteous and try hard to avoid accidents. They know that wandering cows, horses, dogs and pedestrians are likely to be around every corner.
Even those of us who come here from urban environments in other countries change a little, so that we’re less in our heads and more aware of sensory inputs. Often, a person who’s just arrived here stands out because there’s a slightly glazed look to them, and they avoid eye-contact. Locals are the opposite.
This morning, I went for a hike with my friend Robin, before the heat of the day began. She had brought a couple of plastic grocery sacks, and when we came onto a well-walked part of our trail home, she pulled them out. We began stuffing discarded snackfood bags, pop bottles and bottle caps into them. After a couple of hundred yards, the bags were full, and ready to split.
Along with cruelty to animals, or at least indifference to it, littering is one of the most depressing aspects to life here. People discard packages all along the roadways, and of course in the rainy season, they end up being washed into the streams.
You know the rest of that sad story.
I’ve been told that the habit of discarding things comes from the fact that for centuries, anything people ate or used was degradable, or was ceramic or stone, and thus remained inert in the general environment. But it occurred to me this morning that the absence of car accidents is the other side of the coin to littering.
In both cases, people are focused on the now, but have little concern about the future. If I say I’ll be at your place at 11.00, in Mexico you won’t be offended if I arrive at 11.20. If I ask a tradesman to fix a plumbing problem, I fully expect he could be an hour late, because he might not necessarily figure in the amount of time he’ll need to buy a length of pipe or a new tap. Or, if he does make that calculation, he doesn’t see making me wait as a significant problem. It’s simply an aspect of how things are.
Time here is experienced, but most people don’t structure it. I have one or two adult Mexican friends who cannot grasp that every action they perform uses up time, and who don’t really understand why they never arrive at a specified hour. They’re in now, but they pay no serious attention on then. Discarding a juice box gets rid of the juice box: it doesn’t relate to the package’s ultimate destination in the Gulf of Mexico, or the Atlantic.
In many ways, living in Mexico is an antidote to the frenzied lifestyle of modern cities. Coming here can feel like subtle punishment directed at the acquired need to organise every hour of our lives.
However, while successful expats soon lose the temptation to lecture local people on how to live their lives ‘better,’ we always hope that some of our awareness of the world beyond today will rub off. After Robin and I had filled our bags, we both felt depressed by discovering six large garbage bags someone had abandoned along the trail. They had been disposed of in a now of some weeks or months ago, but they had begun to split and spread their contents over an extensive swathe of fields and tracks. Whoever abandoned them had given no serious thought to the bags’ impending then.
Note:This is a long post, which I broke into three sections.
Some things in this world are beyond my understanding, One of them is why Andrew Lloyd Webber never made a musical about Maximilian I of Mexico, and his wife Charlotte (Carlota). They were at least as interesting as Juan and Evita Peron.
Maximilian was born in 1832 as the younger brother of the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef. Intelligent and idealistic, and with a solid track record in the Austrian Navy and later as Viceroy of the Habsburg holdings in northern Italy, he clashed with his royal brother over a preference for liberal ideas. He was recalled from Milan in 1857, and soon after that, the Habsburgs’ Italian territories were lost to forces aligned with Giuseppe Garibaldi, the man who unified Italy.
So, finding himself with a young wife (his second cousin Charlotte), but no real job, Maximilian spent a few years in his castle of Miramare, on the Adriatic coast, where he pursued his lifelong interest in botany. He was capable and popular, but at a loose end.
Then, in 1861, Mexico decided to default on its unmanageable foreign debts.
Britain, Spain and France, all of them owed a bundle, united to invade Mexico and force a change in fiscal policy. But France didn’t just want its cash, but rather to conquer the country and make it a colony. Britain and Spain negotiated a deal and pulled out, while France kept troops in Mexico till 1866.
The French, ruled by the Catholic monarch Napoleon III, made an alliance with conservative (i.e., wealthy) Mexicans, who didn’t like the idea of democratic reforms. A delegation of such men went to see Maximilian in Europe, and overcame his initial hesitation to become their Emperor. He was intelligent, experienced in administration, energetic, and had royal blood. What could go wrong?
Well, plenty. For one thing, there was a legitimately elected Mexican president, Benito Juarez, who ruled from 1858 to 1872. Mexico’s struggle for independence from Spain had been long and bloody, as independence struggles are, and only a minority of people supported the conservatives. Even rich people weren’t unanimous in their support.
Juarez, while he was driven into internal exile, would not give up the fight for a republic. Initially a wilderness figure during the years of the French presence, he received help and arms after the US Civil War ended, since the Americans, like him, didn’t want European Imperial powers back on the continent. Add to this Maximilian’s penchant for liberal ideas – land reform, religious freedom and extending the vote to a wider swathe of ordinary people – and you can imagine his conservative supporters recoiling in dismay.
Further, while Juarez appreciated Maximilian on a personal level, he was an energetic realist, who detested the idea of his country falling back into colonial servitude. He was a republican to the core, and was one of those men who doesn’t give up when most people would have told him to. Fortune often favours the tenacious, and Juarez had tenacity.
What I feel is possibly the ugliest statue in existence towers over the place in the city of Queretaro where Maximilian was executed early on June 19, 1867. It is by Juan Olaguibel, who made several monumental sculptures using carved blocks joined by cement. It depicts, or tries to depict, Benito Juarez and was unveiled in the centenary year of Maximilian’s defeat, 1967.
In its shadow lies the chapel that Maximilian’s relatives erected in 1901 over the spot where the Emperor and his chief generals, Miguel Miramon and Tomas Mejia, were shot. Conservative Catholics still, you’ll hear, come here to pray for the man who had embodied their hopes for a Mexico more closely shaped in the image of traditional, Catholic Spain.
Two memorials adjacent to each other, then, and two visions of what Mexico should or might be. I confess I’d prefer the site had been left as it was just after the execution, with three modest stones to mark where the Emperor stood to die, his two loyal generals to his right. But history always belongs to the people who build the monuments, and not to the cold, stark facts.
A dozen years ago, one a business trip to Vienna, I took an afternoon to hunt for the church where Maximilian and his wife had their last Mass on Austrian soil. I couldn’t locate it, confused by the local Mexico Kirche which was built later, and when the Vienna business executive who was my host too me for dinner, I told him of my disappointment. He smiled, and pointed across the Danube from his car.
“There it is,” he laughed. Ever since, I’ve repeatedly picked up the couple’s trail, and this week, I was finally able to visit where it all ended, in the city of Queretaro, north-east of Mexico City.
Leaving Europe on the warship Novara, Maximilian and Carlota (the Spanish version of her name) arrived in Mexico at the port of Veracruz, on the Gulf of Mexico, in 1864. Here, they discovered how slim their support was: they were dependent on French arms and a few wealthy conservatives. Otherwise, they were not wanted. But they set about making themselves known as the rulers of their new empire, and soon installed themselves in the palace on Chapultepec (Hill of the Grasshoppers) in Mexico City.
I’ve visited the palace, but it was used by other Mexican heads of state at various times, and has little that impressed me with a surviving Habsburg presence. What did captivate me was their acquiring the Garden of Borda in the city of Cuernavaca, the ‘Cuaunahuac’ of Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 novel Under the Volcano. My current home is scarcely an hour from this place. Here, living modestly (by royal standards) in the house on the property, the perpetual botanist Maximilian was able to plant and admire tropical plants that weren’t necessarily native to Mexico. In particular, from prior visits to the country, he had a liking for certain shrubs and trees from Brazil.
The place itself is unremarkable today, yet it’s easy to imagine the young Emperor (he was in his mid-thirties at this point) wandering amid the broad-leafed tropical greenery, admiring exotic leaves and unusual formations of branches or flowers. Had he come here as a modest resident, not as a ruler, he might have kept the Garden for decades, and happily so.
There is a church overlooking the Garden where he and Carlota went to Mass, and it’s easy to stand inside and imagine how the grand interior and its paintings affected their thoughts. Some of their happiest times were spent in Cuernavaca, then a very modest city, albeit one with its own cathedral a block from the Garden residence. They posed for portraits and photographs, issued coins with Maximilian’s likeness, and tried to visit as many places as possible in their new domain, all in an effort to impress upon people that they were the rightful rulers of a country they loved.
Carlota seemingly was the devoted wife, the woman standing in the shadow of her blond, blue-eyed and rather taller husband. Privately, as the effort to establish their legitimacy was threatened constantly by Juarez’ small but determined bands of troops, the pair shared a rising sense of danger. It was this that led Maximilian to issue a decree that any person found to have taken up arms against the legitimate government (i.e., his government) could and would be summarily shot. An estimated 11,000 such men were killed, a measure that produced not subservience but bitter resentment.
With the end of the Civil War in the United States, Maximilian began inviting Confederate veterans to settle in Mexico. This was not necessarily welcomed. Further, France decided it needed its troops elsewhere, and decided it had to pull out, warning Maximilian to leave while he could. The Garden of Borda didn’t see them again. But he wasn’t a man to run, having genuine courage as well as a desire to maintain acceptable form in public.
Carlota, though, was sent to plead her husband’s cause across Europe, but without any luck. Her failure and the overall strain sent her into a depressive breakdown, especially when she visited the Pope and was clearly paranoid about assassins, and she never returned to Mexico.
Juarez, meanwhile, was able to pick up surplus arms and ammunition from the U.S., which no longer had to fight the Confederacy, and he was finally to launch a full offensive against the man he saw as a foreign interloper. The Emperor began to lose territory and supporters, and finally late in 1866 withdrew to the city of Queretaro as his final secure base.
Its intensely devoted Catholic population mostly welcomed him, though it was to suffer for doing so. Soon, the attacking Republican forces had the city surrounded, and were bombarding homes and factories. The aqueduct supplying Queretaro’s water, still a striking sight today, was cut. The town was heavily damaged, its economy collapsed, and food ran short. An effort to let the Emperor slip away in the night went wrong, and he made his last stand in the city, being captured on May 16. A simple white obelisk with a plaque marks the point where he handed his sword to the Republican General Escobedo.
He and his closest supporters were held in two or three different locations, spending their last few days in a building now called the “Museum of the Restoration of the Republic.” Here, there’s a reproduction of Maximilian’s condemned cell, with a small desk, a chair and a single bed. It wasn’t the most cruel of prisons, but after his summary trial in a local theatre, he knew it was his final home.
All along, there’d been an assumption that somehow the emperor would be allowed to return to Austria. But Juarez survived as long as he did from being a ruthless man, if relatively enlightened in his beliefs. He knew he had to stamp out monarchical ideas or his concept of Mexico would not survive. Despite heavy lobbying from European ambassadors, especially the British one, whose Queen was related to Maximilian through dynastic marriages, no reprieve was offered.
Traditionally, condemned prisoners are put into a carriage or a cart to be taken for execution. The Emperor, however, walked about a kilometer to the Hill of Bells, where he and his two generals were to be shot. The hill rises just a hundred meters from where he had surrendered a month earlier. Perhaps he asked for this walk, so he could spend his last half-hour admiring the trees on his route and on the hillside, newly green from the first summer rains.
The Hill of the Bells gets its name not because of any actual bells, but because of the metallic stones found there. Guides on the site will strike a large stone with a small one, producing a ringing sound, slightly resembling the sound of a bell. None were struck (so far as we know) on that June morning, but they add a strange mystique to the place, as do the little green parrots that fly between the trees.
And so, just as the sun rose, the firing squad assembled. All reports indicate Maximiliano was polite and brave that morning. He provided a gold coin for each soldier, requesting that they not shoot at his head, so his mother could view his corpse without horror. He and General Miramon died almost instantly, while General Mejia lasted a minute or two after the fusillade.
Maximilian’s body was embalmed, and displayed to those who cared to view it. A couple of months later, it was taken to the warship Novara, which three years earlier had brought him to Veracruz, and carried back for burial in Vienna.
Queretaro became a despised place, the Ciudad Maldita – “The accursed city ” – for years afterwards, its citizens viewed as traitors to the young nation, although today it is prosperous and receives many visitors. The current pandemic has hurt its industrial economy, but the old core of the town, rebuilt after the fighting of 1867, is a delight for fans of colonial streets and churches. It fell into disrepute 150 years ago, but today it draws many people curious about Maximilian’s short, three-year imperium, and his efforts to install a progressive-minded monarchy in a country that had little appetite for one.
It’s easy to dismiss him as a naive dreamer, for naivete was his downfall. He was advised not to go in the first place, by various sensible people. But, his decree to execute those who fought against him aside, he was a capable and well-intentioned ruler who might have shaped Mexico very differently. Benito Juarez, who died in office of a heart attack five years after his imperial opponent, became more autocratic in his later years, ruling by decree when he couldn’t obtain legislative majorities any more. Establishing a stable democracy was not a simple task, and in a few years Juarez’ Republican rival, Porfirio Diaz, had become the country’s virtual dictator. Revolution was to come in 1910, and Diaz went to France, where he died.
Each of these men had a vision, and the ability to realise it. Wandering the streets of Queretaro this past week, I could feel how their ghosts, or at least the idea of their ghosts, still haunts the place. Following Maximilian’s walking route to the Hill of the Bells, and being in the building where he spent his last few days and nights, made this well-intentioned man seem a little more real than he had in my earlier explorations of places he’d known.
Olaguibel’s ugly black pile of stones, the final revenge of Republicans on their last Emperor, disrespects Maximilian, and thereby fails to obliterate him as was intended.
Her breakdown was extreme enough to leave her on the sidelines of royal life. She was cared for well enough, by the standards of her time, but she was never again a public figure. She kept her souvenirs of Maximilian, and Mexico, close by her until her death from pneumonia in 1927, at the age of 86.
But at the time it happened, her psychiatrist, with the agreement of relatives, refused to let her know her husband had been killed. She was even persuaded to go to Belgium for care, under the pretext of an invented telegram from her already-dead spouse. And some historians believe the information was concealed from her, by careful references to long-term imprisonment, until the day she died.
The past year has been hard on friendships. Some of us decided early on to mask up and avoid group situations, while others became anti-vax and anti-mask evangelists, and began delivering a relentless sermon that lasted all summer, all fall, and all winter. I now know every silly, unscientific theory in existence about vaccines, viruses and mendacious governments. And, of course, all about Bill Gates and his microchips. My social circle has been judiciously pruned as a result.
Finally, just before last weekend, Tepoztlan announced that the Pfizer vaccine would be made available to people over 60 for three days starting on Tuesday, March 16, the day after Benito Juarez Day. Two locations, a school in town and a soccer field, were being used for this.
There was widespread anticipation, and I planned to go in with my friend Ixchel as soon as a long-awaited plumber had turned up to install a water filter. However, by the time he was done and had left with my cash in his pocket, she had messaged and phoned me to tell me that the lines were insanely long, everything was backed up, and she was going home.
A spontaneous protest by angry people who had waited in the sun with aging relatives closed the day’s operations, I heard. The cult of the abuela, the grandmother, is a strong one here, and protecting family matriarchs, or at least looking like you do, is a significant part of the social structure.
We both considered waiting for an opportunity next month, but decided to give it a second try today, Thursday, the last of the three days. So, this morning we put ourselves in the line for the school vaccination centre, and waited. And waited.
After 20 minutes, the line had not moved. Fortunately, the staff for this operation, which was admittedly a big one for a town this size, were now on top of what was going on, and came to recommend we go down to the soccer field, where there were few people waiting. We did this, and while a couple of hundred people were already there when we arrived, people were moving on through the system. Just getting under the protective awning past the entrance gate felt like hope. We kept having to shift forward one row of seats as people moved through the system, so we finally had the sense of making progress.
Sure enough, around an hour later, we had moved to the fronts of two different lines, and the anticlimactic moment of the actual jab happened. We were asked to wait another 20 minutes to ensure we had no adverse reactions, then left after receiving a basic certificate of vaccination, and a provisional date for the second injection.
The feeling of freedom from anxiety wasn’t what I’d expected. But finally, other than being careful and avoiding the conspiracy-theory crowd entirely, we had a realistic protection against the wretched disease. After just one jab, it’s not the whole deal, but my body now has the tool it needs to build advance resistance to the virus, assuming I’ve not already encountered and defeated it sub-clinically.
And the day just looked brighter as a result. We walked to a place for lunch, ran into a mutual friend who had also just had her jab and was feeling similarly relieved, and felt more gratitude than we had in months.
I had to go home to wait for a man to deliver a load of water, as I mentioned in my last post, so home I went after finishing my enchiladas. He came when expected, and later so did Jorge, our local blacksmith, who was coming to examine the front gate of the small house I’m fixing so I can rent it out.
Indeed, if the pump on the water truck hadn’t surged fiercely, making the hose jump so that it bent the inner security gate out of alignment, and soaking the garage area, I’d have had a perfect day. But jump it did, and Jorge has to see if he can fix that gate, too. And Rem, my canine anarchist for whom the inner gate had to be installed in the first place, tried to bite Jorge, though thankfully he only chomped on a mouthful of jeans.
So, apart from facing a combined 1,300 peso repair bill, and having to apologise for Rem’s over-protectiveness, this was a semi-perfect day. Either way, I have the jab now. If I do run into anti-vax evangelists in town, I can tell them I put my deltoid muscle where my mouth is, and I now consider myself a superior human as a result. Or at least a pandemically insulated one.
My first two summers here didn’t impress me. When the rains began, they’d be heaviest at night, then in the morning, the street would be an inch deep with flowing water. There was no dryer in the house, so air drying clothes could take days. I got used to damp socks. And whenever the annual Fiesta of Maria Magdalena came, on and around July 22, visitors knew they had to bring umbrellas.
Last summer, I wondered where the storms were. Sure, it rained, but not torrentially. We had occasional downpours, but only on one or two mornings did I have to play hopscotch over the cobbles in the street. The corn crop, oddly, was plentiful, pushing down prices, but the underground aquifer here was not fully replenished. There is a rudimentary piped water system in place, but most of us still order a truckload of water for washing purposes a few times a year. Since the piped system doesn’t yet run up to our little street, which lies above much of the village, a water-truck isn’t a rare sight.
At the start of March, the warning went out that people needed to conserve water. Some parts of the hills were declared off-limits because of the fire risk from people leaving bottles that might concentrate solar rays, or even discarding cigarette butts.
This house has a system for capturing rainwater, and there’s been no need to top it up since the rains ended at the start of November. But with last year’s low yield, I’m finally down to eight or nine inches of water, so today I ordered a tanker-load. Evi, who coordinates the deliveries, says Ruben will come with the water tomorrow.
Usually, placing my order with Evi at the village hardware store is straightforward, but this time it came with caveats. I mustn’t use water on plants, and of course there’s to be no topping-up of swimming pools. A pool I don’t have, though I will have to watch some plants wilt over the next three months before the new rains (hopefully) start. They’ll have to manage with the rinse water from when I hand-wash my socks.
Predictions that I’ve read about La Niña and El Niño events don’t seem to explain the fluctuation in the rainfall pattern that we had last year (meteorologist readers, please clarify this if you can), so I don’t know what we can expect in summer 2021. Oddly, when I was bemoaning the streams running down our main street in 2010 and 2011, northern Mexico and the southern US were experiencing drought conditions, due to a prolonged La Niña event. Most things I read online only refer to Mexico as a whole, which doesn’t help, since the country’s weather zones are very diverse, and don’t fit into one single pattern.
But like anyone who ponders possible climate shifts, I wonder how, if and when we’ll see a long-term shift to drier (or, even, wetter) summers. With no vast network of northern Canadian rivers and lakes to draw on for water, we know that here a prolonged drought would cause not just a need to let the garden shrubs die, but many other unpleasant effects to follow.
The new Mexican 500 peso notes came out last year. They’re not the old dull brown colour, but an attractive blue, exactly like the 20 peso bills. And, most confusingly, 500s no longer feature a surprisingly bad engraving of Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo, but a good likeness of Benito Juarez, a 19th Century Mexican President. The problem is, Juarez is the featured Mexican on the current 20 peso bill as well.
Who, the TV pundits as well as people buying food in the market all ask, was the genius who came up with this idea? No-one is claiming credit, but presumably it was the same genius who came up with the new 100 peso bills, launched in November.
These new bills feature Sor Juana (1649-1695) a nun who was a proto-feminist of her times, and who, predictably, ran afoul of the Catholic Church. That would be great, except for the fact that the same Sor Juana is found on the old 200 peso bills. On the new 200s, she has been replaced by two martyrs of the first Mexican Revolution, Miguel Hidalgo and Jose Maria Morelos. Morelos, you will find, if you visit Mexico is also on the current 50-pesos bill, though alone.
The new 100s have been scarce, and I don’t see a lot of the new 500s, either. I’m wondering if perhaps someone in the National Bank of Mexico had second thoughts, but I doubt it. Most things in Mexico are moving slowly during the pandemic, and it’s somehow unMexican to admit you goofed and retract a dumb decision, particularly in government.
What several people have said to me is that it frustrates them that Mexico couldn’t find any other national heroes to put on its currency. Most of the recent Presidents have been iffy, excepting perhaps Lazaro Cardenas (in office 1934-1940), but it has had numerous fine painters, and people still legendary in the realm of film, such as Dolores Del Rio or Maria Felix. Or, there’s a Nobel Prizewinner, the author and diplomat Octavio Paz, or the composer Manuel Ponce. These are all people I knew of before I came to Mexico, and there are scores more who are famous here.
But no, none of this seems to have occurred to those who design the currrency. Somebody in Mexico City just shuffled the old safe set of faces, so now we need to check our money carefully, especially the 500s. Beyond that, we all just mutter and shake our heads. Or, more meanly, hope we accidentally get what someone thinks is a 20 peso bill, but isn’t.
The rains were restrained last summer. I scarcely recall any of the massive downpours of other years that, the morning after the storm, would leave the village streets still running with water. Thankfully, the maize crop around here was abundant despite the lower rainfall, but now we’re facing a problem with the water table.
The first clear sign emerged a couple of weeks ago when, sitting on the combi into town, I noticed a high plume of what first looked like cumulus cloud on the hills behind the village. I quickly realised the column of smoke was swirling in motion, indicating a blazing fire. Local teams had it put out by the next day, though on the day after that, a baby version came back for an hour or two.
Normally, forest fires round here are a risk in April or May, but the season has started early, presumably because of the dryness.
Today, the local town declared a partial emergency, announcing that “The City Council of Tepoztlán in coordination with the forestry civic groups, citizen brigades and environmental cultural promoters of the municipality, jointly made the decision to suspend any tourist activity in the Tepozteco Natural Protected Area.” In other words, they don’t want people hiking in the hills, for fear they will light cooking fires, discard cigarettes or drop bottles that might act as lenses for sunlight.
There’s also the problem that if a fire starts, either as a result of spontaneous combustion or from a farmer burning off his fields, hikers or simple bucolic wanderers might be cut off by rapidly advancing flames and smoke, and they’ll need a rescue. This assumes, of course, that anyone knows where they are, or even if they’re missing.
These are issues that anyone who lives here soon understands. although some farmers don’t seem to learn about burning a field with the proper safeguards. People often own fields well up into the hills, some distance from habitation, and if things get out of hand, there’s no-one around to help them. I’ve often wondered if there’s any safe way to burn fields in the dry season, but the practice continues, and most farmers never start a blaze that spreads. A key thing seems to be doing it early in the morning, when there’s a little condensation on the ground, not much wind, and the heat hasn’t built up in the atmosphere. This does mean people like myself find small bits of burned maize stalks have drifted in on the wind, and are all over the patio in the late morning. Still, a broom is a powerful tool in the hands of the determined.
There’s not a great deal we can do in advance, since this is a heavily wooded area, with a great deal of dry underbrush. And fires are one of natures tools for renewing woodlands.
Fires are, however, a fact of life here, like the occasional small earthquake. And they remind us that our ownership of land is at the mercy of nature’s whims.
As I have mentioned before (or rather, complained), I’m trying to rehabilitate the house I used to live in. There’s been no tenant there for almost three months, and by sluggish degrees, with some outside help, I’ve been cleaning, de-griming, re-plumbing and painting the joint.
The original plan was to have it ready for renting by December. Hah! Try April, at the current rate. I’m still amazed at how much paint a wall needs to cover it. And how much masking tape to hold down the newspaper that catches the splashes. Day by day, I’m becoming more expert in loathing the task of house painting.
What has fascinated me, however, is the sheer quantity of spider webs in the place. The insect screens keep out most flying creatures, even if small critters can crawl in under the door or through gaps around the window-frames. But there’s no food supply in the place, so many species aren’t drawn there, and the webs have very few such captives in them. What I find, when I look closely at what I sweep off the walls each day, is dead spiders.
I’ve never seen a tarantula here, although we do get occasional black widows. The creepiest-looking octopods are orb spinners, with their long front legs, who weave big nets between trees overnight; but few of them come into the house, since they need flying victims. The apex predator in there right now is a spider with a small body and very long legs, which can skitter around the corner or drop safely to the floor when I become threatening. And I don’t think those guys bite humans.
But as I splashed paint around a doorway this afternoon, chasing some of these critters out of the path of my brush, it occurred to me that there really is little for them to eat except other spiders. Big spiders eat small ones, small ones eat tiddlers and tiddlers, I assume, eat things I can scarcely see. Or maybe another tiddler’s babies: spiders don’t discriminate much, I believe. Whatever – the ecosystem in the house is essentially arachnoid: it’s like an entire eco-system based around spiders consuming spiders. Maybe if everything else gets destroyed, spiders can take over after us.
They are annoying, of course. Painting over smaller webs can be done, but it’s easier to remove what’s there before I start. It’s just amazing to me how many little webs show up. They’re not all orderly and symmetrical, some just being small clumps of silk. Painting over living spiders is problematic, since they wriggle and mess up the look I’m aiming for. But sometimes, they refuse to run away fast enough, and they end up drenched in white paint. And I do mean ‘end up.’
I’m looking forward to being finished in a week or two. After that, webs can simply be swept from their corners with a broom or the long-handled dusters that people here sell for 40 pesos. Soon, I hope, I’ll have a new tenant who can take over spider removal activities, and I can forget about fixing the place for a year or two, until rain, fierce sunlight and a pause between occupants means I have to do this again.
It’s just a pity spiders have no cash income. If I could rent to them at a couple of pesos each per week, I reckon the population I’ve currently reducing could stabilise, and I could just count the cash. And I could forget about buying still more paint tomorrow.
The tell-tale sign was what, just this morning, looked like a paint splash on one of my socks. On investigation, it turned out to be a large hole above the ankle, making me wonder how I’d caused it.
Buying clothes in Mexico can be hit-or-miss, and the sizing system is different to the US or Canada. I’ve therefore always made it a habit to stock up on replacement clothing during visits back to Toronto, looking for familiar outlets and familiar brands. But, not having been back for 15 months, I’m starting to notice extra wear and tear. A couple of other socks have passed the state of easy repair, one or two shirts are fraying at the cuffs, and a few stains on paler items of clothing won’t wash out.
Such are the horrors of international quarantine.
A further problem with replacing stuff locally is that our town of Tepoztlan has very limited shopping options for clothes. I’ll need to go to the nearby cities of Cuautla or Cuernavaca, which entails being on buses for up to an hour each way, then being in a place with a large number of people. Some major stores are partly closed, and a friend told me the Cuernavaca Walmart was recently not letting people wander the clothing aisles, where many potentially infected fingers might touch the same item.
Ordering clothes online makes me nervous, since I’ve never found collar or shoe sizes (for example) are precisely the same, brand to brand. Getting delivery here would require prolonged waiting for a driver to find my house in a village without street signs. And I need to try an item before I feel okay buying it. I don’t want to have to send stuff back, and re-order it.
After a year of the pandemic, I’m starting to find many things are getting on my nerves that formerly, I’d have let go by me, at least for a time. Having fresh clothing is a sign things are still basically in order: having frayed or stained khakis indicates they aren’t.
Forget, then, the statistics about virus caseloads, or stories about delays in delivering vaccines. I’m not even that concerned that Mexico’s President has Covid-19 himself. I’m facing a sartorial crisis.
I’ve occasionally been teased about wearing long-sleeves as opposed to tee-shirts, which are the local expat uniform. But I burn in the sun if I wear short sleeves, and a year or two back I needed a suspicious grey blotch taken off by a dermatologist that was, she assured me, a result of sun-damage. I end up looking oddly like many local older men, who still wear long-sleeved shirts, and this doesn’t hurt my acceptability in this rather closed community.
So, soon, I imagine, I’ll have to smother myself in my best KN-95 mask, board one of those buses, and go hose-hunting in one of those other cities. I’ll daringly risk acquiring a shirt bearing a hitherto unknown Asian label, or perhaps a pair of jeans. And back home, I’ll congratulate myself on my daring and practicality.
And if the socks and pants don’t last very long, I’ll have to console myself that it’s like my parents’ long-ago life in wartime. Sometimes, in times of prolonged crisis, you just have to settle for sub-standard threads.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I live in a house that’s on the same property as the bungalow I built for myself in 2012. I left it in 2015 to return to Canada and make some money, having rented it to Ofelia, a local yoga instructor.
Ofelia looked after the house beautifully, and I resisted raising her rent after I came for a visit and saw what she’d done, with a stairway up to the flat roof put in, and plants all over. She was one of those people for whom plants somehow signal, “Buy me and put me in a pot near a window, and I’ll adore you!” I didn’t want to lose such a thoughtful tenant. Nor one who’d brightened the place as she had.
Sadly, in 2018, she had her second bout with breast cancer, and this took her life some months before I came back here in November of that year. The place was rented to a man who is an architect, a job-title indicating construction project management as much as design in Mexico. He stayed for a little over two years, before moving away to take on a major professional project, and I had to think about what to do with the house.
When I lived there, my friend Lucero (who owns the property) had her mother living in my current home, and visited often. I took care of their five dogs, and kept an eye on her mother, while her mom occasionally translated for me with tradespeople or on local issues. The dogs spent much of the day in the corral on the far side of the property to my own residence, but since I could just walk across to it, there were no practical issues of access to overcome.
Since Ofelia’s time, however, there’s been a fence between the two houses. And Lucero’s mom isn’t independent enough any more to live here. So, staying in my old place with its small amount of open ground, when the surviving dogs are again my responsibility, wouldn’t be convenient.
Anyway, nearly three weeks ago, I finally got into cleaning and painting the old place, after having a couple of structural problems fixed by a professional. It’s not the classic ‘renovation hell,’ but I’m a terribly sloppy painter. Also, I found it became slow going when I kept getting stoned on paint thinner. As a friend of mine quipped, “Yep, cheap drugs give you the worst highs.”
More to the point perhaps, the architect who’d lived there was as as much into housekeeping as I am into house painting, and there are layers of grime to remove. I began washing the windows this afternoon, and after two hours I was only half done. I still have to tackle accumulated grease in the kitchen. I was planning to rent the place in February, but that isn’t likely right now.
Still, the process of removing flaking or chipped paint, along with generations of spider webs, is having its effect. And it isn’t what I was expecting. This is, after all, my own old house, designed and redesigned over and over, during afternoons when I was supposed to be working at my old day-job. We have a bond, the house and I, and it’s probably starting to forgive me for abandoning it for five years.
A couple of people have asked me about renting it, since inexpensive places round here have become scarce, but I don’t really want anyone in there, unless Ofelia cloned herself before leaving us. After the architect, whom I did like as a friend, I’m wary of anyone having it. I also enjoy my solitude, even as I recognise that it’s practical at my age not to live in isolation.
So, I’ve noticed that I’ve been spinning out the work, rather than rushing to complete it. If and when I do rent the house, I want it to be in half-decent condition. But for now, despite paint fumes and having to be on my knees scraping the floor at times, I’m simply enjoying renewing acquaintance with it.
Back in Toronto in the 20-Oughts, I’d sometimes count the stars visible overhead on a clear night. It wasn’t hard, because it doesn’t take long to count to 40. It was a little sad that I’d have to drive an hour outside the city to see a real night sky. However, during one of my first visits to Amatlan, I found there were well over 160 to be seen, and I could only estimate an accurate count. Even after an iffy day, that later became a compensation for living here.
In the 15 years or so since that night, more people have moved into this area and built houses. More powerful street lights have gone in, especially on the highway south of us, and I can’t see half as many stars now.
Three years ago, the municipality gifted our village with new street lighting, something nobody had asked for, and which is largely superfluous to our needs. There’s very little nocturnal street crime, and of course the lights further block out the stars.
Worse than this is the fact that the lights are usually positioned on 14-ft poles in front of people’s houses. If your bedroom is on that side of the house, then sleeping can be like trying to snooze in a room with all the light-bulbs on. Some people asked the men installing the poles not to position them right in front of bedroom windows, or not to put in light-bulbs, and they’d agree not to. Then, they’d plant them in cement where the plans said they had to go, add the bulbs, and move on to the next job.
Now, I wouldn’t want to imply that at this house, we did or paid for anything bad – no, not at all. After all, I certainly couldn’t climb up a 14-ft pole any more, if I ever could have done. But fortuitously, the light-bulb in the pole right outside my bedroom has gone two years without a working light-bulb. I hope it stays that way. And two weeks ago, I noticed my neighbour’s pole no longer had a working light on it: she, too, had given up trying to live with the glare. The pole at the entrance to the laneway that our six or eight houses are on still works, which makes sense since the roadway rises in a tricky curve. But three out of six poles in this lane are dark now.
How long till the lighting folk come come to fix things? I hope it isn’t soon.
I miss my multiple stars. When I came here, I had ambitions to resume my juvenile career as an amateur astronomer, but we’re so close to the cliffs that it proved hard to align a telescope; the angle for viewing was just too extreme. Mercury, for example, has never been seen from Amatlan, since it disappears in the glare of the sun before it ascends over those same cliffs.
And other sights in the skies are harder to see now, even if the angle isn’t too bad. I sold my telescope five years ago, and didn’t acquire a replacement.
Some cities have addressed light pollution. The last time I visited Los Angeles, I was struck that the skies were better than in Toronto, because the city has taken steps to improve matters. If the citizens band together, they can get ordinances passed that give them back some of their stars. Here, there’s no political pressure to do this. It simply isn’t a priority, and you’d have to go much further south, or east into the Yucatan, to find a bejewelled night sky.
But I do like to think that in removing the light outside … er, I mean following the happenstance that the light went out prematurely, a few of the stars overhead were saved for our observing pleasure.
Understanding the seasons here in Amatlan can be difficult. Our rains in 2020 finished on schedule in November, but it was some weeks after that many of the flowers came out on the trees and shrubs. How they manage to draw enough water from deep in the earth when there’s been no rain for a month baffles me, but they manage it. And the hummingbirds are grateful, as they buzz around the flowers for nectar to suck.
The cazahuate trees put on a brilliant show of white flowers, and one near the entrance to the village always seems to have the best presentation. It’s on a slope, so it receives more sun than other such trees, like the one in our back yard. I assume that’s a factor in the display, but why, I can’t say.
Along with the hummingbirds, a whole bunch of colourful finches and songbirds show up at this, the coldest part of our year. I don’t know how the little colibris (okay, hummingbirds…) handle these cool nights around the New Year, when temperatures dip to nine or ten degrees Celsius, and stay cool till the sun comes up over the mountains opposite us, but they seem to thrive regardless.
I’ve mentioned before that the house in which I live was designed haphazardly, with the plans altered several times during construction. It also incorporates some oddities that you don’t find in most residences. One of its eccentricities is that the bathroom window, instead of being a smallish opening high on the wall, is actually five feet wide and four tall. Outside is the quasi-wilderness of the dogs’ corral, where we put them if workmen come to fix the sometimes failing plumbing and wiring. They also like to hang out there when the sun shines, and they can absorb the rays without any chill morning breezes.
What they ignore, lacking a cat’s climbing abilities, is the songbirds I mentioned above. I sometimes stand at the bathroom window, wrapped in a towel, watching and listening to orange, yellow and green birds sequentially assert their dominance over a particular tree or branch. I can’t get photos of them that are worth reproducing, nor do I know their names so I can filch images from online, but this little area does become a bird sanctuary at certain times of the year. The birds, along with the little canyon wrens that hop up or along the garage walls, devour some of the plentiful (far too plentiful…) insects we have, so apart from their prettiness, I also appreciate their pest control services.
But why they all show up when the rains are over, and the trees are starting to dry out, I can’t say. I’m just happy that they do.
A couple of months ago, my friend Ixchel introduced me to the old train route that used to pass through San Juan Tlacotenco, a village sited close to a thousand feet above our town of Tepoztlan. We’re always looking for new places for a hike, and this extended loop proved fascinating to both of us. The railroad never made it to Tepoz, only to San Juan, but it ran until the 1990s, when the rails and sleepers were torn up. The trackway, though, was preserved as a rough road half-paved with small pieces of limestone that had once kept the sleepers in place. It passes through San Juan, on past the village cemetery, and still further to the city of Cuernavaca 17 kilometres away. Or, in the other direction, goes 94 km to Mexico City.
Because trains can’t climb a steep gradient, train tracks have to be laid in extensive loops in mountainous areas. As a result, to walk, cycle or drive (yes, it’s drivable) along the route means you’re never quite sure what’s around the next bend. Our first couple of expeditions were pleasant strolls between trees arching above us. Later on, we decided to drive the parts we’d already walked, parking the aging Ford Explorer I use once we found a decent space for reversing, and continuing on foot to enjoy open sky, with vistas reaching for miles to the south and west, amid baking hot afternoon sunshine.
As we walked, it was hard not to notice how the railroad engineers of the late 1800s had addressed the variable terrain. In places, we’d be on high embankments, while in others, we’d be walking across small bridges that spanned gullies and stream-beds. And a lot of the time, we’d be walking through gaps blasted out of the original rock. There are no big wooden trestle bridges, as you see in old movies, but a lot of earth had to be piled up and packed tight in certain places.
Perhaps passengers of long ago noticed nothing of this construction, noting only the occasional panorama of hills and plains. But for pedestrians today, it’s easy to grasp. At some points where rock was blasted with dynamite, modest overhangs still provide shelter for snakes, bugs and things that we prefer not to disturb. In others, we can look 10 or 15 metres down an almost sheer drop, or into a gap where a stream long ago carved out a groove in the hillside. It’s plain that, with no trains passing through, trees have not had to be cut back radically, though the road seems to be maintained for the occasional vehicles that pass along it. If you’re in a car, and another one comes along, it can be hairy trying to find a space at the side that doesn’t give way to a drop-off, or to reverse until a wider piece of trackway opens up.
But I’m lastingly impressed by the sheer physical ingenuity and labour involved in cutting a way along the extensive hillsides. I’m also impressed by the huge quantities of explosives that were called for, and the amount of earth and rock to be moved.
Surveyors had to identify the optimal route, noting the obstacles along the way. Yes, there were steam-driven machines in the 1870s, and the construction trains themselves could carry cranes and boilers to generate steam power. Still, a lot of what was done had to be managed with muscle power by gangs of men.
In one spot, I was impressed at the way chunks of blasted rock had been used to line the outside of an embankment preventing earth being washed away in the rainy season. At other points, we’d barely notice a very low parapet of a bridge (trains, being on rails, can’t drive off the sides) that told us the bushes to the sides masked a drop off.
The route that was cut had to be wide enough for at least one train, apparently only a few sections hosting double tracks. I described the San Juan train station a couple of posts ago, but I don’t doubt there were others, all needing staff. There would have been a signalling system, and a need for crews to cut back vegetation each year during and after the rainy season; and of course, at times, a need to repair whole sections of track that washed away.
But mostly, the thing had to be built right in the first place. Putting in track in an area where soils were loose, or rocks were fractured, could lead to disaster.
I assume these skills still exist, but that they did so in the 1870s and 1880s is remarkable. Reliable infrastructure never comes cheap, and to observe how much had been constructed in just this one area clarified the efforts made under the long presidency of Porfirio Diaz to modernise Mexico. To see how it had been essentially abandoned after a century also gave pause for thought.
Today, there are places along this walking route from which you can see the four-lane highway that has replaced the trains. That, too, needed huge investment, but it lacks the flexibility of a railroad. For me, there’s no romance in either giant trucks or intercity buses.
Rail travel helped define the later part of the Industrial Revolution and the events of the 20th Century. As I mentioned in the recent piece on the surviving San Juan train station, I grew up with trains as a kid, and was ten or twelve years old before anyone I knew had flown on a jetliner. Trains are still preferred over air travel in the UK and Europe, since they’ll take you city centre to city centre, and without the same need for extreme security as occurs in airports.
But Mexico before the 1970s had few cities over a hundred thousand population, and trains therefore linked a lot of smaller places, bringing about growth in population as well as encouraging manufacturing or larger farming operations as the chance to ship out goods and food presented itself. That huge effort is commemorated by people who maintain train museums in the cities of Puebla and Cuautla, but it isn’t well appreciated by the general population.
People who can recall Mexican passenger trains tell me they were slow and uncomfortable, and they’re rarely missed. There are some commuter and tourist trains around, and a new line, the Maya Train, is being built in the south of the country. But buses are the main way we mostly travel between cities, and aircraft replace these for longer hauls.
Whatever – I’m glad at least this segment of the old rail system is left for people to explore and to expand on with a little imagination. And I do wonder if, with all his egotism and other faults, any Mexican leader has yet equalled what old Porfirio Diaz accomplished a century and more ago.
The central Mexican spring is a strange thing. We get a little rain in January, virtually none in February, and zero in March. Clothing left on the line overnight is dry by morning, the humidity is so low. Yet suddenly, the flowering trees, like the jacarandas, are out in bloom, and in some places we walk over a carpet of violet flowers that have dropped from the branches.
Technically, this is winter, which makes it even stranger. The weather is hot, but foliage has not emerged on most trees. The result is that they look like wintry trees, bleak and leafless, except for the ones that are in flower. There must be a mechanism whereby the flowering ones either store moisture, or tap into it deep underground, but I don’t know the botany well enough to explain it. By late May or early June, we’ll have rain again, and the leaves will be out. Meanwhile, we’re in this thirst-making time, where dehydration is more of a risk than wind-chill will ever be.
The people I run into at the coffee shop all make some reference to the fighting in the winter weather thousands of miles away, but it’s almost as if it’s in poor taste to say much. Mexico ended WW2 technically at war with Germany, but the Revolution aside, it largely avoided warfare in the 20th Century. In our furtive conversations over coffee we sometimes ponder how safe we’d be if things get really bad in Ukraine, but the answer is always that we’re probably safe as houses, unless someone uses a nuke and there’s fallout. Mexico’s President, Andres Manuel Lopez-Obrador, recently declined to join sanctions against Russia, saying he would welcome Russian tourists. The likelihood of any Aeroflot flights coming here right now is close to zero but AMLO is not noted for addressing difficult topics head-on.
So, we complain about the heat, admire the jacarandas that have finally put on a first-rate display, and congratulate ourselves for having chosen to live here. Or be born here, as the case may be.
Like I said, the central Mexican spring is a strange thing. We waited through the pandemic, we wait through the sunlit afternoons, and with everyone else, we wait for something we prefer not to mention, in case it actually happens.