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Perceptions

June 3, 2021

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. 

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An Iffy Meal and a Good View

June 1, 2021

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. 

The entrance to Cuernavaca Cathedral, from the Marco Polo restaurant balcony.

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.

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A Morning Bird Hunt

May 27, 2021

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. 

Rem taking a well-earned rest after barking at a vulture for 15 minutes.

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.

My least black blob-ful photo of the zopilote.

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.

The wings are half open in this shot.

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.

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Closing the Ways

May 25, 2021

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.

The Sacred Tree, close to stones forming the bank of the new roadway. The Tree’s guardian spirit protects hikers on the trail.

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.

A double row of barbed wire fences blocks an old, alternative path going up and around the closed off zone.

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.

Another view of a fence cutting off the entrance to the old trail.

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.

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Bugs and Puppies

May 24, 2021

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. 

These critters – moyotes – are less than two cm long, but in photos like this, they look nice and scary.

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.

Canelita (‘little cinnamon’) trying to look like a Belgian Shepherd puppy, but with fluff.

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.

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Bumba’s Failed Escape

May 13, 2021

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.

Bumba heads down to the street.

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. 

I hope you enjoy your slops until it’s your time.

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Rains

May 11, 2021

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.

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Election Season

April 4, 2021

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. 

Two Futuro candidates for office. Futuro is one of the new parties.

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.

David Barragan wants to be Mayor of Tepoztlan.

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.

Is Morena still ‘The hope of Mexico’ ? Ulises Pardo hopes people think so.

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. 

I don’t know if David Barragan and Miriam Barragan are related. But both want to be Mayor.

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.

Felipe Ceja has the most banners up of any candidate in our village. Morena doesn’t seem short of electoral funds.

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.

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Fire is Tenacious

April 17, 2021

Yesterday, I burned my fingers. Not badly, but it was when I learned the ground can be hot after a forest fire.

Don’t play with fire, mother said. This, though, was unintentional.

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. 

The edge of Mordor? The foreground soil was black and charred, yet a hundred yards away, the trees were untouched.

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. 

Three inches or more of fine grey wood-ash, along with a few charred stumps of small trees.

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.

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Fire Season

April 13, 2021

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.

Hieronymus’ view of the infernal fires – not a blaze-dousing chopper in sight.

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.

A Mexican Air Force helicopter doing a water-bombing run this morning.

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.

Smoke rises from various locations on the hilly ridges north of Tepoztlan.

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.

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The Now and the Then

April 6, 2021

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.

Trail trash – discarded bottles and chip bags.

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

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The Last Emperor – I

March 26, 2021

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.

Maximilian and Charlotte, or Carlota, in 1857, the year of their wedding.

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.

Benito Juarez in the 1860s.

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.

Things didn’t go well for Maximilian.

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The Last Emperor – II

March 26, 2021

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.

A spot in the Garden of Borda, with the dome of Maximilian’s preferred church behind.

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.

The Museum of the Restoration of the Republic. Maximilian’s last few days were spent in an upstairs room.

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. 

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The Last Emperor – III

March 26, 2021

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. 

Inside the chapel on Hill of the Bells. Marble cubes mark where (L to R) Mejia, Miramon and Maximilian stood to die.

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.

Oliguibel’s statue of Benito Juarez.

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. 

And Carlota? 

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. 

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Vaccination Day

March 18, 2021

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. 

The line-up on the first afternoon. Cannier people brought chairs for family matriarchs (and patriarchs) to sit on.

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.

We had to play musical chairs under the awning, moving ahead to the next row of seats as others received injections.

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.

Rem, the canine anarchist.

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.

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A Season of Dryness

March 17, 2021

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.

Ruben and his water-truck, pictured last summer, delivering water before the cistern here had refilled.

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.

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Mexican Money Troubles

March 10, 2021

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. 

Here is Benito on the 500 peso bill ….
… and here he is on the 20 pesos.

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.

Here is Sor Juana on the old 200 peso bill …
…and here she is again, on the new 100 pesos.

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.

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Fire Season

February 26, 2021

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.

A photo I took in April 2012, when fires came to the edge of the village. The flames at this point, while
not visible in the photo, were less than 500 meters from the houses at the time.

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.

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Non-Paying Residents

February 5, 2021

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.

The biggest spider type I get in the house .

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.

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A Sartorial Crisis

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. 

Not there yet … but this could be my future.

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.

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Mi Casa Es … Mi Casa

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.

My house when it was almost complete, June 2012.

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. 

And renting it out won’t be easy.

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Lights Out

January 4, 2021

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.

Orion is one of the few constellations still clearly visible from Amatlan.

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. 

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Cool nights and colourful birds

January 1, 2021

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.

My favourite cazahuate tree in bloom.

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. 

A canyon wren. They hop up walls rather than climb them.

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.

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Making Tracks

November 30, 2020

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.

A section of the trackway blasted through an outcrop of volcanic rock.

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. 

A vista of distant mountains, and a loop in the modern intercity highway to Mexico City.

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. 

Rocks, many now tumbled, protect the side of an embankment.

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.

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Where I Live

November 12, 2020

“I don’t like going to Amatlan,” my friend Ana said to me once. “It’s ugly.” I don’t entirely agree with her, but I’d never tell people to come for the architecture. It’s pleasant enough on a quiet sunny afternoon, but not much more than that. It occurred to me last night that I rarely write about the village except in passing, so, I took a few pix of it today. You can judge its charms for yourself.

The community is proud of its spirit of independence, and often disdainful of the local municipality, Tepoztlan, of which it’s a reluctant part. The association, I’m told, goes back around fifty years, which means village elders recall a time when the town had no influence at all in local affairs. There is a specific and unique ambiance to Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl, ugly or not. But what did strike me, as I tried to frame shots, is that in every one there were electrical and phone cables strung on poles: it’s impossible to take pictures here without them. One day, we might bury them, but it’s not a priority.

Another thing is that any long shot inevitably includes the surrounding mountains, which are what draws most outsiders. Being this close to verdant cliffs and steep-sided hills, with the black vultures circling around the peaks, underlines that Amatlan isn’t an urban community, but one that nature could reclaim if it was abandoned for a year or two. During the bitter 1910 Revolution, the people did pull out for some years, but they re-established it in the 1920s. The church was restored, a few old houses were fixed up and others were replaced, and over the next ninety years, it slowly grew. 

It now has around 1,200 residents, some of them weekenders who come a dozen times a year to their vacation homes on the edges of the community. On its fringe, it has a half-dozen hotels and upscale spas, while the village proper has a dozen abarrotes or grocery-cum-variety stores; a couple of specialty stores such as a hardware outlet and a barbecued chicken vendor; and a bunch of places selling traditional Mexican foods like quesadillas and pozole, the locally popular meat-broth-with-maize. Kuna, a recent addition to the village’s gastronomic options, offers more European-style foods, since the owner is German, and learned to cook that way.  Otherwise, apart from two local schools and a sports field, that’s largely all we have in a dozen blocks.

Coming into the village, there are a couple of possible routes for a driver, but outsiders follow the obvious one. Vehicles pass walled homes, so that there’s a sense of passing through an entrance gateway.

The main road leading into the village.

Then, on the other side of this short section, there’s the plaza civica to the right, and to the left a slightly raised platform where a small market is held on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The grate on the left in the photo below is to catch rainwater, since the street behind it (not shown in this shot) slopes down to it; without it, there’d be hazardous summer torrents to manage.

The paved plaza civica is to the left of the red parked car, and is surrounded by trees.

The plaza civica is famous for its statue of the plumed serpent, Quetzalcoatl. On Saturdays, a group of local re-enactment enthusiasts dance here to a simple, rhythmic tune, often for hours. People have varying degrees of belief in Quetzalcoatl’s actual continuing divinity, but there are definitely true believers among them. 

Quetzalcoatl, a little overshadowed by his protective tree. The altar in the front is used for flowers or incense.

Past the plaza civica, the Abarrotes Eben-Ezer stands out as a  modest but inescapable landmark. I seldom go in, since it’s quite small, but on weekends, it serves pulque, a traditional local hooch that has never impressed me, but which draws the customers.

Groceries on weekdays, and pulque as well on weekends.

The biggest and best-stocked store in the village, the Punto de Encuentro (Point of Encounter or Meeting Place), is where I usually buy eggs or bottled water. Felipe, who manages this family business, spent time out of the country, and has a sly wit that includes making risque jokes in English. His father, the store’s founder, was gunned down a short time after I moved here in 2010, an event that convinced me this isn’t a Mexican Shangri-La. Felipe is trying to extend the present store (to the left in the picture), but he can only do this in stages, as cash becomes available.

The Punto de Encuentro, the village’s largest grocery store.

Right opposite the store is the village cemetery, the Jardin de Descanso, or Garden of Rest. It was a busy place during the recent Days of the Dead, but it’s never a neglected site. People in this village treasure the tombs of their parents and forebears.

The gates of the village cemetery. The entrance steps are concealed in this shot, but they’re there.

A hundred meters or so up, the street makes a slight jog at the Gregorio Quintero primary school, named for a local writer who died a few decades ago. Right now, with the pandemic, it’s not used, but its striking mural of Prince Ce Acatl Topiltzin, the human prototype of Quetzalcoatl who was born just outside the village, is always worth a second glance. It’s my favourite piece of Mexican street art.

The Gregorio Quintero primary school is quiet in these days of pandemic.

The next picture was taken looking down the main street, not up, back to the primary school. The two guys in the middle were sober, but were goofing around as they walked up, so they look a little drunk. The building to the right is the Ayudante’s office, our ayudante being the sub-mayor for the village. Any time the community is upset about something, everyone gathers here to listen to local politicians’ excuses.

The main street in Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl.

Finally, the point where the combi micro-bus stops is the local church of Santa Maria Magdalena. It actually stops at the plain back wall of the church, which I didn’t photograph because it’s … well, it’s plain. The photo here shows the perimeter wall at the side, the church tower, the bandstand (most local churches have a bandstand), and a cascade of bougainvillea. People never tire of informing each other that the bright ‘flowers’ of bougainvillea are actually coloured leaves, or bracts, the actual flowers being small and white. Either way, the stuff grows all over the village, and will take over a whole garden quite easily if not regularly pruned.

The church of Santa Maria Magdalena.

And that’s the village. My house partly overlooks the church, a couple of hundred meters away from it, up a small laneway. Just turn right when you see Ysrael’s cement water cistern, the one with the cool cement version of Quetzalcoatl on it (though he insists he messed it up), and my gate is the metallic green one. 

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An Old Train Station

November 5, 2020

Trains were always around when I grew up. My home town in south-east England had – and still has – nine train stations on two lines within its municipal borders, and there was a train marshalling yard a few hundred yards from my primary school. The relative absence of passenger trains in Canada and the US always struck me as a noticeable lack.

A preserved steam engine from the early 1900s at the train museum in Cuautla, Morelos.

Mexico was slow to get going on railroads, and only had its first passenger line, from Mexico City to the port of Veracruz, operational in 1873. By then, the UK and the US had had trains for over four decades. Further, Mexico abandoned inter-city passenger lines in the second half of the 20th Century, only later realising their usefulness as the drawbacks of the internal combustion engine became progressively more apparent.

As an alternative to some of the more ankle-risking paths round here, Ixchel and I have recently been walking sections of old rail track above the town of Tepoztlan. The rails and almost all the sleepers are gone from it, with mostly broken limestone making up the trail. But it’s used by cars and a few trucks, and since it climbs at a shallow gradient, it doesn’t make for an arduous afternoon’s hike. The mountains rise up to the north, but at certain points, there are vistas over many miles to be seen to the south.

Along the former train tracks outside San Juan Tlacotenco.

The village of San Juan Tlacotenco is reached today by car or bus, the road corkscrewing up hundreds of feet above what is now the far larger town of Tepoztlan. But in 1897, when the rail line from Mexico City to the town of Cuernavaca (the Cuaunahuac of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano) was extended to this region, San Juan got the station, not Tepoz. Perhaps the decision was based on the relative importance of the two places, or the difficulty in building the line down the mountainside in that area. Our hikes had already shown us how much had to be done to create the line, blasting through rocks, spanning wide gulleys, and cutting into hillsides that could produce mudslides in the rainy season. Nineteenth Century infrastructure called for a lot of backbreaking labour and vast amounts of earth-moving. Nature has reclaimed the sides of the trail, but it’s still easy to imagine old steam trains, and the later diesels, chugging along the track.

We’d already been surprised on our walk by the village cemetery, picturesquely sited under steep hills, and feeling somehow busy after the Days of the Dead had filled it with marigolds and candles. Satisfied with photos we’d taken, and having compared the styles of grave compared to the types closer to where we live, we followed the track’s old loop past the fringes of the village, and back to the roadway where we’d parked our aging Ford Explorer. 

The long, red wooden shack seemed insignificant at first, until we noticed some hand-painted signage on it, and a pair of big, rusting wheels in front of it. We then realised it was the old station, abandoned since at least 1997, when this section of the line was torn up. We began taking photos, happy to have found what seemed to be a modest relic of a different time. A relic, too, that perhps wouldn’t last that many more years. Part of it had become a small grocery store, while another section had a sign indicating (I thought) that it was a photographic studio.

The former wooden station for El Parque, still in its traditional red paint.

Outside, weathered signs said the station was at 2,306 metres of altitude (7,576 ft), and 91.7 kilometres (56 miles) by rail from Mexico City. I’d seen such data at the train station museum in the nearby city of Cuautla, so I assume it was usual to include it.

We were about to move on, when a woman with a small child, who was at the edge of a sports field opposite the relic station, remarked to us that there was a museum to be seen. Without being asked, she went to fetch the grocery store owner, who opened the “photographic studio,” which I then realised was the one-room museum. Inside were mementoes of local soccer victories, and also a bunch of photos of trains going back a century. 

Photos on the little museum’s walls.

One that caught my attention showed federal troops at the station in Cuernavaca, presumably preparing to fight Emiliano Zapata’s revolutionaries. That period, with its dreadful upheavals, violence and sacrifice, fascinates me, and it’s still celebrated every year. Many of the most famous photographic images from the time show people on or beside trains, even though the decade of conflict actually degraded the rail system quite severely. Some Mexicans argue it never truly recovered, even after being nationalised in 1937.

Soldiers around 1910, waiting to board a train in Cuernavaca. Troops are lined up at the right.

The station, for reasons we didn’t discover, was called El Parque – the Park. The Chichinautzin nature preserve is all around San Juan, but that wasn’t formally created until 1947. The site was, however, always surrounded by trees and hillside farmland. One day, perhaps, we’ll find out why that name was selected.

Meantime, a hike we’d started simply for basic exercise had put us in touch with a fading but still remembered piece of Mexico’s history. It’s one of the benefits of living here that there are odd quirks and relics of human endeavours to be found all over the place. Some are fragments of ruins, signs of the ancient cultures of Mexico. And others are reminders of people and changes that have happened far more recently, but which are still treasured in memory.

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Rock Solid

November 1, 2020

As a child, I lived in Essex, in the part of England called East Anglia, which had been scoured almost flat by glaciers millennia before my ancestors moved there. Accordingly, the landscape wasn’t exciting, and when I saw pictures of mountains or even just rocky outcrops, I was intrigued. I would tell my parents I wanted “to see a rock,” but they couldn’t seem to grasp what I meant. 

Today, I live in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, the landscapes of which have been heaved up by eruptions, magma movements and other seismic events over millions of years. I’m almost never out of sight of bare rock on a cliff-face or of a fallen boulder close to a roadway. On my walks, I’ve found fossilised corals impressed in sedimentary rocks from an ancient seabed, lifted up long ago by geological action. I once brought a large sample home as a garden ornament: alas, in my absence for three years, it was used for mundane purposes, and much of the coral pattern is now worn off. 

There are still trace impressions of ancient coral on this rock I found.

The actual volcanic rock around here is a highly viscous lava, which when it erupted trapped many small pockets of gas (vesicles is the correct term). Today, these give the rock a spongy look, though of course it’s brittle, not soft.

During my aforementioned absence, somebody planned to build a house beside mine, and had a mound of rocks delivered for construction purposes. However, they lost interest or ran out of cash, so the pile became a haven for wildlife. For a time, there was a colony of squirrels in there. Today, it might be home to snakes or crawling critters of various kinds, so it’s left alone. 

Now, when I drive out of our garage, I need to reverse then make a half-turn. I often use a flat patch of ground just below the rock-pile for this. However, two weeks ago one of the rocks fell, and effectively blocked me from doing this. I tried moving it, but several efforts only shifted it a foot or so the side. It probably weighs as much as I do, and I couldn’t move it more than that.

The errant rock. It might look innocuous to you, but you didn’t try lifiting it like I did.

This reminded me how much we use rock here in central Mexico. The walls of this property are made from it, as are those of many other houses. The roadway up from the street consists of rock set in cement, and that’s survived ten rainy seasons without deterioration.

In many other places, brick is a more usual facing or structural material for a building. Even here, cinderblock is popular as a cheap means to construct a house. But inevitably, basic rock shows up at some point, even if it’s only in the paving of the street outside.

The downstairs wall of the house and the roadway outside, are made of cement-set volcanic rock.

This has been the case for thousands of years. Lava rock especially, while it’s heavy, can be chipped and shaped. Pyramidal and stepped-level remains from preHispanic cultures use it, sometimes on a grand scale. Farmers employ it to build loose walls that demarcate their fields, and sometimes, low remnant walls are a sign of an ancient perimeter for a sacred enclosure. The sense of continuity between then and today’s construction is part of the appeal of life in this area.

What always strikes me, though, is the problem I had in shifting the fallen rock: the stuff is heavy. I’ve seen rocks placed on a hillside that weigh well over a ton, yet farmers were able to shift them with the aid of their sons or neighbours. Rock know-how is something that has persisted down through the ages. And rocks are a surprisingly common component of economics in the construction industry. 

My conclusion? Just that it’s so easy to overlook something that isn’t manufactured. Until I came here, anything not man-made always seemed like a lazy short-cut. But some knowledge is passed down through the generations without anyone really noticing that it’s ancient. I don’t know how ecologically sound it is to move loads of rock around on diesel trucks, but the stuff is certainly durable, and connects a building to its underlying environment.

Still, I wish I could figure out how to move the reversing-space boulder. I suppose I could pay a couple of neighbours to lift and roll it. But now that it’s made me reflect to much on how the substrate of the ground here is used to much and so effectively, that almost feels like ingratitude. After all, my very young self asked for rocks: I shouldn’t complain that he finally came to them.

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A Lack of Naughty Forebears

I have little concept of most of my ancestors. After all, they were all dead before I showed up, except for one grandmother and my parents. They might have included a really interesting bunch of people, but my sense of them has always been otherwise. I’ve heard very few tales of people who were nonconformists or exceptional individuals. And I’ve had a lifelong desire to avoid them all, which might explain why I left England for Canada, then Canada for Mexico.

Marigolds for sale on a street in town.

So, here are all my neighbours putting out marigolds. Why does that concern me, you wonder? Because we’re coming up on the Days of the Dead, and the bright orange flowers are believed to be visible to the deceased in the dark. People put them out so the dead can find their way to the altars with offerings of sweet things and more flowers. And they’re all over town right now. 

A trail of marigolds leaning into a restaurant in Tepoztlan.

Sarcasm about my forebears aside, I’ve always been fascinated by the different notions about death and the dead that the Protestant world in which I grew up had from the place where I now live. A lot of horror movies make marginal sense here, because the dead are assumed to be hanging around anyway. In my upbringing, we feared ghosts, vampires and zombies, and our scariest movie villains weren’t alive in a conventional sense. We wanted the dead to remain inert, and preferably absent. Here, you at least invite them for dinner once a year.

This country still has a fascination with the ouch-y forms of human sacrifice once practiced from coast to coast. There used to be a theory that the Maya, at least, didn’t kill captives, but that turned out to be false. People before Columbus’ time expected to kill, and to be killed if captured. It was an honourable death, they believed, even if it was a nasty one. And there are lots of temples around whose primary purpose was for sacrificing people in order to sustain and nourish the gods with extracted hearts. 

The half covert pride in this is quite palpable. Quite possibly, a person’s fifteen-times-great grandad was sacrificed for the benefit of some now-forgotten deity. Cool, right? Yeah, I guess.

Coco did pretty well in capturing the essence and traditions of the Days of the Dead. (image: Disney Pixar).

I have tried with the Days of the Dead. There’s one day here for relatives and friends, and a second for lost children. So, I’ve lit candles and contemplated the memory of now-dead aunts and uncles I encountered. But I always end up thinking they were boring. The English middle classes could go to war (my uncles and great uncles did), and keep their most exciting and traumatic memories to themselves. Meanwhile, they avoided any appearance of creative originality. 

Where’s the fun in that?

Thus, I always end up shrugging, blowing out the candles and going to bed. I remain convinced that if you’re dead, it’s because you don’t belong here any more. Popping back for an annual visit and to sip a glass of tequila left on an altar seems out-of-place. 

The Tepoztlan cemetery is Party Central on November 2. BYOB, plus a few candles and some flowers, and you’re set.

Maybe, therefore, I’m a bit too like my uptight forebears. I need to drop my skepticism, and get drunk with a deceased wastrel, or at least someone who broke a few of the rules.

There was great uncle Willie, who did something bad with part of the family finances, but he did it without flair or success. They caught him, and he did time for it. Still, I suppose he’s the best option I have. Maybe I’ll buy some marigolds tomorrow, and put them out for him, with his name written on the pot. 

If he doesn’t show up, or can’t get to Mexico because of the pandemic, I’ll at least have some pretty flowers to brighten the patio.

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Snake Alive!

October 19, 2020

Let’s set the scene a bit here first. This is the patio of the house where I live. The door on the right leads to the kitchen, where at the time of the incident, I was just finishing a late lunch:

The view from the kitchen shows me the living room door, and a stone flower bed, with the screen door of the living room partly obscuring that:

Okay. So I was just sitting, contemplating the rest of the afternoon, right? I was in that post-eating state of being pleasantly unfocused, when I noticed an odd, thick line behind the screen door. And it was moving downwards. It could even be a snake, I mused, except the line kept moving downwards. I’d never seen a snake anywhere near this property that was over 15 inches long, so how could it be….

Snapping out of the post-meal trance, I realised that it was a snake and it wasn’t 15 inches long: it was two or three times that. And my dog Victoria was dozing in the living room.

I shrieked her name several times, rushing to where the snake was still slithering casually into the living room. She got up from her bed, looked at me, looked at it, and then let it slide past her. Then she looked at me again, as if to ask, “You want me to start barking like you, right?”

Victoria in her standard, non-snake-killing mode.

This wasn’t what was supposed to happen, right? Fierce dog attacks and kills snake, or snake kills dog: that’s the scenario. I don’t have anything against snakes on principle, you understand, but my preference was decidedly for the former option, and she wasn’t doing anything about it. 

I ran to a spot outside on the patio to grab a broom and a mop, since I had no idea if the snake’s bite would be poisonous or merely nasty. By now, it had slid behind a mattress I’d just bought that was leaning against the wall. I kept trying to think how I could get it to leave without harming it, but the risk to Vicki was my primary motivation. I did have the presence of mind (or stupidity) to take a quick photo of the snake, just to prove later on that I wasn’t hallucinating. 

I then tried pulling it out with the broom, the head of which quickly came off. (Recollected memo to self: if you live past the next five minutes, remember to buy a new broom). The snake, now with its jaws open and trying to look dangerous, took advantage of the moment and dived under the sofa.

I had to play with the exposure here to show the snake more clearly. The white ‘slab’ to the left in the image is the painted wall of the room.

I now pushed the bemused Vicki into my bedroom, making sure the door was properly shut. Then, I pulled away the sofa, startling a scorpion that had also come in at some point. (Scorpions I’m used to, as is Vicki; 45-inch snakes, not so much). The snake headed for the door, finally. 

Okay, what to do? Ideally, I thought, I should grab it behind the head, and either crush it and kill it or escort it off the property. But while I’ll kill a black widow spider, or a centipede threatening one of the dogs (local centipedes have a nasty bite), a have an ingrained reluctance to harm anything higher up the food-chain. 

I took a second photo, the old journalist in me triumphing over my inner white hunter. Then I tried to restrain it with the mop. Did you know snakes are strong?

The blue water bowl is 12 inches in diameter, so that gives you some sense of scale.

They’re strong. And they bend around mops very easily. The snake headed to the corner of the patio behind the little spiral staircase that leads to the upper patio, where a couple of pipes also lurk. It began inching upwards, ignoring further efforts with the mop. 

I dived into the kitchen and put an oven mitt on my right hand, thinking I might grab it, and would have some protection if it bit me. (My friends say I can be cynical, but this action proves I’m a total optimist). It had headed over the roof of the kitchen by the time I got up after it, warily watching for it to ambush me. My next efforts succeeding only in helping it fall over the edge into the dogs’ corral.

Down I went again, right hand still en-mitted, and trusty mop in my other hand. The snake was now heading into a cavity in the downstairs wall, but I grabbed its tail.

Did I mention snakes are strong?

This one was. I couldn’t make it budge. And I had a snake by the tail, which, it occurred to me, might be the most stupidly dangerous thing I’d done so far. It could turn any moment it wanted, the business end of it free to bite me. 

So, deciding to declare victory, I withdrew, released Vicki from the bedroom, and simply started looking up Mexican snakes online while my pulse-rate slowed. I posted a couple of the photos on Facebook, and friends suggested it was a gopher snake. I concluded it was Pituophis lineaticollis , the Middle American gopher snake, which is endemic to this state of Morelos and a couple of other states nearby. It has a very mildly poisonous bite, but it doesn’t attack dogs.

And as of now, it’s probably still hanging out in its hole. Rem, the only one of the dogs who goes regularly into the corral when it’s full of vegetation in rainy season, could easily finish it off if he found it (even without a mop or oven mitt…), so I’m assuming after its upsetting afternoon, it will escape tonight and go back into the wilds behind the house.

I am glad I didn’t kill it, though. If it had been a rattlesnake, I would have made a different call, but it simply turned out to be no more than an exotic, if alarming, visitor. 

Now all I have to do is figure out where that scorpion from under the sofa went.

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Bird-brain

October 7, 2020

During rainy season, and often on other days, I leave my living room door open. It leads to a  patio, and the dogs can either cross the patio and go into the corral at the side of the house, or come indoors if it rains.

Often, butterflies and other insects fly in. Sometimes, I’ll catch them and release larger ones, although I only spend limited time trying. There’s also a window that I can open on the side of the living room opposite the door, so I can expel them that way.

More rarely, a bird will fly inside. Why? I have no idea. The living room is necessarily darker than the outside, and there are no flowering plants to create a smell that might attract them. Plus, since the door remains open, I can never understand why they don’t exit the way they came in.

If a dog is around at the time, he or she will go crazy barking at the bird as it tries to fly through the glass of the windows that I can’t open, or circles just under the ceiling. I therefore have a frantic bird in my house, and an equally agitated dog. Or maybe two dogs. That’s when the circus starts.

Yesterday, when I came back from a late morning walk, I heard a buzzing sound in the living room, and though a bee had come in. We get some large bees here, and they make a racket.

But I soon found it wasn’t an insect, but a ruby-throated hummingbird – Archilochus colubris, for the taxonomists among my readership. It was flying circles, a couple of inches below the ceiling. 

You can see the top of the door at the bottom of the photo. The hummingbird didn’t fancy it.

I kept hoping it would drop down a couple of feet and rediscover the door it had come in by. But no. Hummingbirds are tiny, and their brains are even tinier than other small birds. Ruby-throated hummingbirds weigh, on average, just over three grams: deductive intelligence is not their forte.

I’ve tried in the past to catch birds using a towel or maybe a discarded shirt from the laundry. They have frail bones, and I’m wary of injuring them using other methods, even if I’m not good with my preferred technique. Sometimes, birds have stunned themselves after hitting the window glass, and I can gently enclose them with my hands and take them outside. But what has proven most reliable has been my straw sombrero, which is not too rigid, and can encase most smaller birds without injury.

But three grams of birdlet, I figured, was a different proposition. Its bones had to be lighter than undersized matchsticks. The hat seemed dangerous.

Now first, I decided to see if it would drop down and either discover the window I opened, or go out the way it had come in. It was clearly tiring, taking frequent breaks to perch on a lampshade or the curtain rail, but it stubbornly refused to reduce its altitude by 20 inches, and make a graceful exit. I decided, against past experience, to get Monday’s discarded shirt, and try to use it as a net.

Thus began a drawn-out pursuit. The bird repeatedly traced the same course round the room, and every couple of minutes it came near to the door, where I was standing on a chair. I’d try tossing the shirt like a Mediterranean fisherman I’d once watched. But that was a man with years of experience, which I lack. And the bird moved fast when it wanted to. 

By now, two of the dogs had realised there was fun happening, and had come in to bark their support. So there was me on a chair with a shirt I couldn’t toss sufficiently far above the hummingbird, egged on by two mutts that hadn’t had any major distractions in the hours since two cows had passed by outside. I began to make progressively louder noises myself, each time I failed to net the bird, or deflect it down and out through the door.

After 10 minutes, I decided my method wasn’t working. I stepped down off the chair, took the photo I’ve used here, then waited to see if the bird might alter its flight-plan. Soon, I saw it was trying the glass window pane, and I briefly hoped it would have the sense to go to the right and out through the open window. But as noted above, sense was not part of its modus operandi.

And soon, it resumed its laps of the room three inches below the ceiling, egged on by the dogs’ yelping.

“I want to go make lunch,” I said to it plaintively. Well, maybe it wanted lunch too, but it wasn’t going to find any indoors. So we were locked in a duel of witlessness, both unable to eat, frantic prey and reluctant hunter. Only the dogs seemed to be having any fun.

Next, I tried again on the chair, this time with the hat. I figured if I could catch it in the crown, I might be able to sweep it down to the level of the top of the doorway, whence it could escape. No dice. Twice, it latched onto the brim of the hat, and I almost got it down to the opening before it made a tiny cheep, let go and headed off round the room again. Maybe I could have made the trick work if I’d been more ruthless, but I didn’t want to harm it, so I kept restraining my own motions.

Then, after almost half an hour of the fruitless chase it tried the glass again, and seemed to get stuck or confused behind a net curtain. I crept up to the window, and tried with the hat again. I caught the bird under the brim, and it stopped moving.

“Great, I’ve killed it,” I announced to Rem, my more enthusiastic canine accomplice, who’d come to check how I was doing. He looked disappointed, probably because he wanted the privilege of executing the coup de grace himself.

Holding my hand over the bird so it didn’t fall to his jaws (partly for fear it carried parasites or disease), I went out to toss it into the wilderness than we call a garden.

And once I took my hand off, it came back into action and was gone into the trees. Not dead, just bluffing, I thought. Which of us was Dumb, I wondered, and which Dumber?

The species isn’t threatened, and is actually increasing in numbers. I could have spared myself a frustrating half hour, instead of wondering just how stupid I’d looked waving a shirt or a hat at a tiny bird, without endangering the population of Archilochus colubris. I should probably buy a proper net on a stick, I figured, this being far from the first time I’d had birds in here. It will happen again, no doubt. 

The one real compensation of such misadventures is that there’s a feeling of coming into unusually close contact with the natural world. I see hummingbirds here all the time, and wouldn’t think to interfere with them as they go flower to flower. But feeling compelled to catch one, then having an unusually close encounter with a wild creature feels, despite the absurdity of my flailing hunt this time, like a privileged moment. 

I’m just glad no-one saw how absurd I must have looked flailing at a bird with a stale shirt or a straw hat, and nearly falling off my chair in the process. For sure, the dogs did, but I bribed them with extra dogfood not to tell.

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Soggy Socks

September 29, 2020

Our rainy season continues, and will do so for another month, maybe longer. We’re getting the leftovers of all those typhoons, hurricanes, tropical depressions and such that occasionally make the weather news where you are. 

Yes, it’s wet here. 

Misty rainclouds drifting along the hilltops this morning.

As with snow falling late in a Canadian March, or even with the hot, dry weather we have here in April and May, I’ve had enough of it. Some people love the rains and dislike the heat, but except when it goes over the top in late spring, I’ll take the heat happily. Right now, the matches I use to light the gas stove in the kitchen fizzle or just disintegrate against the side of the matchbox. The dampness makes the air colder. 

Worst of all, my socks won’t dry.

There is a washing machine here but because of low water-pressure, it’s not reliable. I never use it. What hardly anyone seems to buy, though, is a dryer. “We have the Sun for that,” people explain, overlooking the fact that in July, August, September and October, its appearances can be restricted to weekends and alternate Tuesdays. And then only between unpredictable bursts of almost-sunlight.

I use a laundry service here for shirts and sheets and towels, but they don’t like accepting socks and underwear because these can be lost too easily. Thus, in true pioneering spirit, I hand-wash my socks and my gentleman’s unmentionables once a week, and hang them on the line to dry.

Damp, anxious socks await the arrival of sunlight.

In March or April, if I put them up by 9.30 in the morning, they’re dry by noon. In September … they aren’t. 

I hang them in the bathroom, where fitful afternoon sunshine comes through the window. I hang them in various places indoors that I hope aren’t too humid, but usually turn out to be so. I put them on the line outside, hoping that a brightening of the eastern sky indicates a couple of hours of direct sunlight, sometimes coming home to find that a short rainstorm has re-saturated them.

“Woe,” I cry, “And woe again!” but the clouds do not relent. Drying socks this week has been a three-day process, and half of them still aren’t wearable as a result.

Yes, I know – I should be worried about the virus, the US election and the fact that cruise-ship operators are going broke. Fie on such things I say, and fie some more! I want dry socks. 

I have to proceed by calculating percentages. Once the socks are rinsed, I figure they’ll lose their ‘really’ wet status with four hours outside, provided no rain falls; that’s a function of gravity. 

Then, I start my sky-gazing, watching clouds drift along the cliff-tops on the other side of the village, waiting for my opening. If I see none, they have to hang over chair-backs overnight, or in the bathroom. I know certain brands of sock I’ve bought dry faster, so I check those anxiously to see if those are almost wearable. Calvin Klein socks do not dry fast – take it from an expert.

Overnight, especially if I’ve been burning candles in the living room (and I do so in part because it’s marginally helpful for wet items of clothing), they might get down below 30 percent saturation. which is where the critical assessments of applied sock-craft come in. Some days, they need to stay inside so they get no wetter. Other days, I put them out and check them every 40 minutes. Yesterday, I noted a discernible decrease in dampness, but today, no such luck. I have one pair of dry socks left in the drawer, so I’m counting on a couple of hours of sunshine tomorrow morning to finish the job. But since weather forecasts in this mountainous area are notoriously unreliable, and even locals who work in the fields make wrong guesses, I won’t know till morning.

Yep, life sure can be rough. I can feel your deep sympathy from here – thank you.

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Bovine Disbelief in Motor Vehicles

September 26, 2020

Today’s issue is that Mexican cows don’t believe in cars. I don’t know whether they can’t see them, or that they’re convinced that motor vehicles are fantasies, but they just won’t believe cars move.

This afternoon, I was driving to a friend’s, and came across a group of them on the country road that leads out of the village. Another vehicle, a pick-up, was coming the other way. One of the cows had settled down onto the warm asphalt for a rest, while the other five or six were just hanging out in the roadway, or grazing at the roadside.

Cows hanging out on the road into our village.

Now, the pick-up driver did what I never do. He honked, repeatedly. But I learned some years ago that cows might recognise a dog’s bark or a human’s call to get moving, but they don’t acknowledge honkish as a mean of communication. It’s just a minor distraction to them, and they’ll never respond to a horn. 

Anyway, the pick-up driver edged forward, one of the cows jumping aside as his front bumper nudged her. After that vehicle had gone, I eased into the gap it had created, only to have another cow walk in front of me. I thought I could get between it and the cow lying on the aasphalt, but my wing mirror caught the base of her tail, and was knocked out of alignment. The cow, startled, glared at me, but after flicking her tail twice, went to graze on the verge. No harm done, apparently. But I doubt she actually learned anything from the encounter.

I’ve long tried to understand bovine psychology in this matter. They must have noticed that humans are driving the cars, so even dim cud-chewers ought to realise after a while that cars move. They see the vehicles approach, but they never saunter out of the way. They learn nothing.

Horses, which also run free round here, are almost as bad, but they have developed a practical nervousness that means they’ll usually trot just far enough to let drivers get by. Maybe their greater agility helps, although cows can move fast when they want to. But, as noted, even if they want to, they don’t. 

Very occasionally, I’ve seen the ugly results of a collision, each time involving someone from out of the area. City people assume anything living will move when sufficiently honked at, but cows work on the assumption that cars will simply disappear when sufficiently ignored.

So, I never drive fast down the highway into town, because a cow or a calf can emerge from behind a bush at any moment. Today’s tail-clip was the closest I’ve ever come to hitting one, and I wouldn’t want to injure one, however irritating they are.

The mystery remains, then, and maybe one day I’ll figure it out. I’d rather the cows figured it out for me, and learned to move out of everyone’s way. But that isn’t how things in Mexico work.

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Mexican Back Power

September 17, 2020

A few days ago, my friend, who is not Mexican, was carrying a chair upstairs, and strained her back. This made me reflect on the backs of Mexicans, who will often carry what strike me as agonisingly heavy loads.

That same day my friend hurt herself, I was helping two other friends move a short distance from a small apartment in one house to a larger apartment in another. One item they were bringing was a circular washing machine. It was about 45 inches high, and half that in diameter, with the usual motor, tub and stabilising weights.

They’d recruited a neighbour to trundle it in a wheelbarrow over a rough, broken track that rose up, then descended for fifty yards. He managed to get it to the rise in the track, but then found it tended to tip or roll out of the wheelbarrow on the downslope. He could have called for us to help steady it in the barrow, but instead he decided to hoist it up on his back, and carry it the fifty yards.

How much did it weigh? Perhaps sixty or seventy pounds. It had casters, and I helped push it into the new apartment on these, but I would never have tried lifting it. If I had, I’d be laid up till November.

When my house was being built, eight years ago, I wondered as the labourers carried building materials up another, much shorter slope and piled them in a stack. Once the walls were done, and the wooden roofing formwork was in place, a gang of men hired for the day carried up full bucketloads of cement on their shoulders, and poured them onto the boards of the formwork. 

These guys had carried up all the blocks they’re shaping and
cementing for the walls around my house.

I didn’t even try to help. I just marvelled they could do it without visibly wincing.

Later, when we moved in, my neighbour Estela needed her large TV to be brought up a slope (we had no proper outside stairs yet) into her new living room. Aurelio, who was seventy-one, hoisted it on his back and carried it, his arms out like wings to stabilise it. I held my breath for nearly a minute as he force-marched himself up the muddy trackway. He needed help getting it down, but it was impressive.

Sure, there’s a macho attitude in Mexico that makes men proud to demonstrate their strength. If you can’t carry a bucket full of wet cement up a stairway, or push a truck out of a ditch, you’re not in the club. But the human body has limits, and I often wonder how labourers survive their working lives without early and serious injuries. I often see men in their early fifties carrying heavy loads, and I can only marvel at the sight.

I think similarly when I visit archeological sites. There were no horses, oxen nor elephants to move those stone blocks into place: it was done by brute human force. 

The most famous example is the Aztec Sun Stone, commissioned by the last-but-one Emperor, Moctezuma II, between 1502 and 1520.

The Sun Stone, moved to Mexico City’s Museum of Anthropology by diesel power, not muscles.

It weighs 25 tons, and was probably moved 22 kilometres for its original installation. Since mesoAmerica never discovered the use of the wheel, that must have been a very slow, exhausting journey. But they did it, they carved it, and they set it in its proper ceremonial place. 

I can only look on in wonder, whether at the monolithic monuments or at guys who carry washing machines and TVs on their backs. Every time I see such a thing, I reflect on the arduous task of making those ancient monuments, and wonder whether there is something in Mexican spinal structures that can take punishment that would give me permanently dislocated joints and disks. But maybe there is just an insensitivity to pain that pampered gringos like me will never understand.

Whatever the explanation, I’m impressed.

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The Quest for Home

August 25, 2020

Sometimes, on a grey, rainy day like today, I wonder why I’m here, and if I want to stay here. Amatlan is an outlying community, and insular in many ways. People aren’t unfriendly, but only a few welcome outsiders through their doors.

I’m a city person by nature, and when I was young and still living in the UK, I expected to spend most of my life in London, which was less than an hour away by train from my hometown. I ended up living in or around Toronto with its millions for forty years, and I still think of that as my home city.

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My long-term concept of home – Toronto’s waterfront, seen from Centre Island.

How I arrived there is an unusual tale, and for years I’ve tried writing a book about it. There are three incomplete drafts on my computer, none of which come close to satisfying me. Partly, it’s to do with shyness, or at least an internal debate over privacy; partly it’s to do with perfectionism; and partly because while what I went through back then still fascinates me, I don’t feel my personal story is particularly interesting. I was an observer of my small tribe of iconoclasts, not a major participant.

Now, not having finished a book puts me outside of a particular local club. My buddy Don Karp was first, writing his own memoir called The Bumpy Road a few years ago, detailing his various ups and downs before settling contentedly in nearby Tepoztlan. Shelley (Ixchel) Tucker, my frequent hiking partner, last year published Forever 25, about how she’s dealt with the death on military service of her son Gabriel, which happened while she was living in this village. And a few weeks ago, my neighbour Robin Rainbow Gate published Calling Myself Home, about how she finally found a sense of that mysterious entity called “home” in Amatlan.

Ixchel’s book strikes a powerful chord, since she and I bonded over finding we’d each lost a child. In my case, it was a three-year-old daughter with an undiagnosed condition: I was there with her on that terrible morning my Amanda went. In Ixchel’s case, her son died in Afghanistan, just at the end of his tour of duty, and thousands of miles from home. After publishing the book, she’s found a new community among survivors of war, and the families who’ve lost a child in war, while still living in Mexico, a forty-minute walk from my own home.

I finished Robin’s book three nights ago, and I found it tough going. She and I share certain attitudes to life and to our own selves, and various people crop up in her narrative that I know, or that have been part of my own experience. I can therefore fill in a few details she tactfully chose to omit from her narrative.

But she and I took opposite routes once we came here, a decade ago for me and 14 years for Robin. For her, it’s been a gradual journey into the community, where she has made a broad swath of friends and acquaintances. She’s studied and embraced some of the traditional ways, studying the herbs used in healing, and many of the old customs that linger among the local people.

I had some intentions to do the same thing when I arrived in 2010, but my core inclinations didn’t agree with the conscious intentions at all. I’d made a decent start on the language at The Spanish Centre in Toronto, and I figured I might achieve fluency when I’d been here long enough. But I made the mistake of going to a school here run by a woman who’d try to pack too much information into her students. She didn’t grasp that covering three tenses in one day wasn’t teaching, but a means of producing utter confusion. I left there with my confidence shattered, and spent months climbing back up to rudimentary proficiency. I finally figured out how to communicate with people, but I’ve always had to battle with local expressions, contractions and oddities of dialect.

Maybe if I’d come here earlier, I’d have had a more flexible attitude; Robin was two decades younger than I was at the point each of us found Amatlan. But I’ve always been frustrated by the language, even if at times I’ve felt “I was almost there today!” Going back to Canada for three years didn’t help, even if I did take more Spanish Centre lessons while I was in the city.

Reading Robin’s book, I’ve had to face that I’ve always needed to straddle two worlds. I chose living here because I didn’t have enough money to retire comfortably in Toronto. My long-term job disappeared after the 2008 financial crisis, and I arrived a couple of years before I’d planned to, with less preparation and less cash than I’d wanted. My plans to explore the country bit by bit didn’t get too far when cash became tight, I couldn’t work here legally, and my iffy language skills meant even illegal work would be limited.

And so on, and so on. But at root, I made a different choice.

Working through Robin’s book, I had to look at a number of things about me. I have only a qualified affinity for Mexican folk practices, or the messier aspects of rural life. I still flinch from the way animals here are treated, or how litter is tossed into ditches, eventually to make its way to the sea. I see popular Catholicism as a limiting thing, not an expression of emotionally moving traditions, and I’m not sure how deeply the non-Catholic practices are rooted in antiquity. Further, my spiritual perspectives come out of the “big” esoteric traditions, both Asian and European, not the ones field anthropologists come to study.

I want, in sum, my old lifestyle with its deep-rooted philosophical attitudes, but in a congenial climate that doesn’t feature five months of wind-chill each year. I want to wander hillside trails with vistas stretching miles, but also to know there are okay restaurants at the end of the walk. (There are).  And I want both local Mexican foods and food of a style closer to what I’ve always eaten. The quarantine makes everything harder, naturally, but I have to accept that I might live here with a permanent dissatisfaction.

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The view from a hillside trail with a vista stretching for miles, down over the town of Tepoztlan.

Robin describes times when it was difficult, but she’s pushed hard to make a multi-aspected life for herself. She’s fought to improve her understanding and reach, as the book shows, while I’ve often (not always) tended to think “Nah, not my thing.” And I’m going to continue feeling that way.

Maybe one day, I’ll go back to these three book drafts and try to convince myself I can lick that story into shape, and join the Amatlan Memoir Club. I sometime wonder, in fact, if for me “home” isn’t in a place, in Mexico, the UK or in Canada, but in being honestly rooted in shaping life-events, and the always forward thrust of life. Robin’s book, for example, traces her own history in some detail as she fought with what she’d been told or taught, and looked for what she truly wanted. Home isn’t necessarily found, so much as attained.

That’s a theme for another post, though.

 

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A Nose for the Facts

August 24, 2020

The dog detective used to be a staple of kids’ TV programs. Usually, it was a photogenic German shepherd, or maybe a collie, that sniffed out the truth of a mystery, woofing the results of its investigations in the last two minutes, then enjoying well-deserved pats from its appreciative owners as the credits rolled.

Victoria isn’t in quite that investigative category, but she’s always been a good security guard. In my early times here, she used to spend her days in the corral here with two other dogs, both now departed, then I’d bring her into my small house for the night. She’d always check around, and if I saw her staring at the wall, it meant she’d detected an intrusive scorpion. I considered it her way of showing appreciation for the dry accommodation, even if I never had that many scorpions coming in.

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Vicki staring at … something or other.

She’s a little arthritic and slow these days, and recently had to have a few bad teeth extracted under anesthetic. She still has keen hearing, however and, I realised this week, a reliable sense of smell.

I don’t own a car, but my friend Lucero is living elsewhere for a time, and has left her old Ford Explorer for me to use. The emphasis here is on the word ‘old,’ since it’s a model year 1993, and shows, shall we say, a few signs of its age. However, the motor is still sound, and since I don’t want to ride on public transportation right now, it’s a useful alternative.

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The Ford Explorer, showing just a few signs of its age.

I take Vicki out twice a day, essentially for mental stimulus, since the arthritis means she’s not into long walks, or running about in the field outside my home. She sniffs what she considers needs to be sniffed, then begins hinting she wants to go back.

Recently, she began stopping on the way back in to sniff a back wheel of the Ford. I assumed another dog had peed against I when it was out, and I couldn’t understand her determined fascination with it.

Saturday, I went shopping with a friend into town, and noticed coming back that the brakes were very soft and slow to react. We’d planned to go to a village with interesting trails for an afternoon hike, but my friend was nervous about that. The drive would have been entirely uphill and, more critical, the drive back is non-stop downhill. For four kilometres or more. With iffy brakes. We watched a movie at her place instead.

I took the car in for servicing today, having found an honest and reliable mechanic in July. Since I’ve mostly driven front-wheel drive cars, it never occurred to me that the main braking system for the rear-wheel drive Explorer was at the back (duh), but right away the mechanic showed me the dripping brake fluid that Vicki had been sniffing.

It wasn’t expensive to put in a new brake cylinder, and a couple of hours later the Explorer was fine again; or at least, as fine as an aging, 27-year-old SUV is going to be. But heading back home from the mechanic’s, it occurred to me Vicki had been my early warning system for the pungent (to a dog) brake fluid, and that she only gets obsessive about dangerous things.

Okay kid, there’s some chicken for your dinner tonight. You tried to help, even if I was too slow to pick up on the hint you were providing.

The noble canine detective tradition lives on!

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Mask Wars

August 17, 2020

Most people I know are trying to keep things polite, but friction does emerge from time to time. Even the modest level of quarantine we have here produces a sense of being crammed into a tight space, psychologically speaking, and irritation is never far from the surface. This is being multipled by anxiety over political problems in the broader world.

The masks, or their absence – cubrebocas in local lingo – are my own constant trigger. Officially, anyone riding a combi microbus is required to wear one, but often it’s just the driver and two or three passengers who comply with that. There’s no enforcement.

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Sunday market in Ixcatepec: staff at the stalls are policed on their use of masks, but not the customers.

The anti-mask factions seem to fall into three broad tribes, the biggest of them being people who are indifferent. They have no symptoms of the virus, so they don’t worry about it. The concept of being an asymptomatic carrier is unreal to them, and they believe if they or people round them get sick, it’ll be God’s will: end of story.

Then, there’s the militant Clan of the Ideologues. They’ve seen forty-seven Youtube videos saying it’s all a conspiracy, or caused by 5G (which we don’t have in Mexico), or (boo, hiss) Bill Gates. From such unimpeachable sources, Plandemic being merely the most infamous, they’ve determined that masks are useless, or they make you sick, or they’re a plot to take away your freedom. Or all three.

Thirdly, there are the hippie kids, some of whom are pushing forty. They’re not that numerous, but by dress and lifestyle, they stand out. Many of them came here to live amid the physical beauty and the vibes of ancient Toltec spirituality, while flouting conventional local rules of conduct. They refuse to consider any form of social distancing, and since many of them appear to come from wealthy families, they carry that secure sense that they’re superior creatures (while fervently denying any such thing), as well as knowing they can always go back home or call for cash if they need to.

Like anyone, I dislike masks. They make my face feel hot, loose fibres become itchy, and overall they’re a nuisance. They’re far from infallible as systems of mutual protection, but they’re a key option for keeping infections to a minimum.

Officially, our municipality has only a dozen or so currently active cases of Covid-19. However, from anecdotal evidence, the numbers are far higher than that. A close friend of mine told me two days ago of a conversation with a local healer who treats the sick with a mix of modern and traditional methods, and who has handled several suspeected cases in just our village. People are reluctant to get formally tested, because of a fear of being placed in isolation, away from family. As a result, the official numbers across Mexico – today they’re at well over a half-million cases, with 57,000 dead – are wholly unreliable, and way below a true total.

I try to contain my frustration with the maskless tribes, but I don’t do well around demonstrated stupidity. I simply avoid the ideologues as much as possible these days, mostly by avoiding the town. But I occasionally want to choke some of the hippie kids. Last week I was riding the combi after shopping, and a young woman without a mask got on, immediately embracing a couple of guys she knew, who also had no masks. Soon, she was launched quite loudly into a discussion about her “camino spiritual,” making me wonder how any spiritual path could include callous indifference to the well-being of other people. But then, the sort of vacuous New Age nostrums many people here espouse tend to exist in co-dependency with an underlying passive aggression. Question their positive, Light-emanating and “non-judgemental” philosophy with any serious questions, and watch the hackles go up. “Negative” skeptical attitudes like mine aren’t tolerated.

At least that gives me an excuse to avoid these folks. For yes, such people are my bugbear. And since I’ve chosen to live in place with a high concentration of them, my bear is bugged frequently. Be it so: I am Boomer, hear me bitch.

At some point, the pandemic will ebb, and we’ll all try to make up again. I’ll even stop being ticked off as much as I am right now, which would be nice. But currently, I’m disappointed and fed up with people who refuse to perform a simple act of good citizenship in a dangerous time. What their attitudes have to do with any meaningful concept of freedom, I’ll never understand; nor do I want to.

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Unlovable Trees

August 12, 2020

Plum trees are my topic this time. Specifically, the ciruelo, which bears sour, tannic fruit, and is quite widely planted round here. And mostly, I hate it.

When my friends and I came to this property to build our houses, the ayudante, the village administrator, was not an accommodating person. He insisted that, unlike our neighbours, we had to put a wall around our property. And on my side, right in front of where I was building my house, there was a ciruelo that I was told was not to be cut down nor harmed. The species is valued here, and protected by law. So he said, anyway.

A lot of people round here like the fruit when it’s in season. I never have, being used to a fleshier, juicier type of plum. But the taste of the things isn’t one of the things that bother me about it.

First off, it produces fruit with a large stone, especially in proportion to the small size of the plums. The tree is prolific, so that every year a large number of stones fall to the ground, and they don’t go away. They just hang around being round and wrinkly, for years.

Then, once my house was finished, I realised the tree in front of it was prolific with its branches. It blocked the light, and it kept on blocking ever more. Soon, I transgressed the ayudante’s injunctions, and began cutting off individual branches, so that on a morning after a rainstorm, I wouldn’t have to walk out into a bunch of wet leaves. The branches come out at quite low levels, and since the tree emerges from ground a couple of feet below the front entrance, I always had to duck. Eventually, my surgical removal of small branches became a cutting of larger limbs and, a times, a frustrated tearing away of new twigs.

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The offending tree, with the house behind it trying to peek through its branches.

The tree wasn’t bothered. Every year, it replaced what I’d chopped or torn off, then spread a little more. The house became gloomier as it expanded its limbs over the full front. I never wanted to attract the ayudante’s wrath or that of his successors, but I’ve often wondered if anyone would really have noticed if it met with (say) an unfortunate ‘lightning strike’ that necessitated its removal by bow-saw one weekend. Or, had succumbed to gradual poisoning by other methods.

But I returned to Toronto for a period in 2015, and didn’t follow through. Since late 2018, I’ve lived in the second house on the property, 25 feet away, where I thought the ciruelo couldn’t annoy me. However, I noticed last week that with the rains, it was starting to obstruct the stairs down to the gate with its latest foliage. I’ve tugged off a few branches, but they seem to grow back in days.

Somebody planted ciruelo orchards round here years ago, though most don’t seem to be tended any more. Our local flora is mostly sub-tropical or (we’re quite high up) temperate, so they add an element that doesn’t belong in the traditional landscape; and standing in spaced groups, they create a strange, un-Mexican atmosphere. Walking through such an orchard, I expect a hobbit or some similar Tolkienian being to emerge from behind a tree, and start a conversation about orcs, or having cucumber sandwiches for tea. Their trunks are nearly black, and their twisting limbs seem like something out of a fairy story. They’re atmospheric, for sure, and in that way, attractive.

Trees

A black trunk with twisting limbs: a ciruelo near to my house.

But in having to deal with one this close to where I live, I easily find the attraction dissipates. One of these days, in a black enough mood, I might just resort to full-on arbicide. (Yes, that is a word). The plumstones will no doubt take years to disappear, since there’s always another one ready to roll in and replace any I remove. But mine enemy shall be slain, and only the relentless indigenous vegetation will remain to overrun the paths and stairs on the property.

The hour cometh, I tell you.

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Maybe I’ll Open a Tortilla Stand – or Not

August 4, 2020

Her friends saw her waving, and called out to the combi driver to stop for her. She clambered onto the van that’s the standard form of bus here, no facemask in sight, smiled at everyone and went to hug and cheek-kiss the guys who’d done the calling. Who also had no masks, despite them supposedly being mandatory on public transport.

Soon, she was explaining the latest changes in her camino spiritual to the young men, while I fumed silently that one way of manifesting such a camino would be to give a hoot about other people’s wellbeing via a mask. But the hippie kids who move here from the cities almost all seem to come from comfortably off families, and carry that sense of divine exemption from the everyday rules that the wealthy can assume.

One of the problems with this quarantine is irritation. I used to be determinedly patient with everybody’s naive theories and wacko explanations for how things are; after all, I have my own set of beliefs that don’t coincide with 21st Century materialism. But I’ve finally reached a level of impatience such that I sat on the bus pondering what might happen if I hit the hippie girl over the head with the roll of paper towels I’d bought in town. For certain, most of the other passengers were glaring at her over their masks. In the end, I just grumbled silently to myself until she finally got off.

Tres Combis.jpgCombis in town, waiting for passengers. Each holds about sixteen people, or twenty-two, if people jam in and stand.

Quarantine here isn’t like that of a big city. Mexico City, I understand, is much more uptight, and some people there have not been farther than their street corner in months. This morning, though, as Ioften do I went for a two-mile walk along a mountainside trail, and (with mask on) bought some bananas at the Thursday open-air market in the village. Such amenities are partly why I chose to stay here instead of going back to Canada.

Most restaurants in town have reopened (with spaced tables), but sales of alcohol are banned, in case drunk people start to forget the distancing requirements. And we’re supposed to eat and leave within an hour – no lingering. At least one major restaurant doesn’t seem to be coming back, and a hotel in the centre of our village has also taken down its signage and locked its gates. Boredom is miserable, but losing the business you poured your heart and your savings into for years has to be far worse.

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Luna Mextli (the names mean ‘Moon’ in both Spanish and Nahuatl) was one of the first places I ever ate at in town, well before I moved here from Toronto. It’s shown no signs of reopening.

But boredom is bad enough. I need new shoes, but I’d have to go on two buses to a nearby city to get a decent pair. I can’t any longer head into town and have a 90-minute conversation over a cappuccino with whoever’s around. I can’t make a day-trip to an archeological site and wander about, pondering what it was like in its heyday fifteen centuries ago.  I’m having to remind myself that the pandemic is still expanding in Mexico, even according to the utterly unreliable official numbers.

And writing blog posts about being bored (beyond this one, obviously) isn’t much of an option. I wouldn’t read them myself, so why post them?

I’ve been trying to gauge how the pandemic is changing Mexican society. Normally, everyone assumes the President is corrupt and ineffectual. This one’s unhelpful remarks, however, have polarised the society, with many of those who voted for Lopez-Obrador still holding him out as a paragon of equality, and the rest of the country increasingly mistrusting him. He’s thus emulated his northern neighbour in sharply splitting public opinion, and in conceding nothing to his critics.

And while round here families have so far been able to hold up each other, I’m seeing some indicators of economic stress beyond restaurants that have not reopened. For example, my next door neighbour’s wife, who usually does a little caretaker work for absentee homeowners but is mostly a homemaker, has just opened a little store selling tortillas. The price is six cents Canadian, or four cents US, per tortilla. I tried guesstimating the math, but I can’t be certain of my results. Maybe she’s making six dollars a day, but possibly she’s operating at a loss. I hope that’s too pessimistic, but I’ve decided against opening my own competing operation on the other side of the village.

Either way, I doubt that boredom is her primary concern. Though I’d understand if, like me, she was getting irritated. Or worse.

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Sounds of Unsilence

July 29, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Non-Festive Fiesta

July 21, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Crowed Aisles of Walmart

July 16, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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The place of material plenty.

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

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Orange barriers at the checkpoint coming into Tepoztlan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The view above Ocotitlan, far from the crowded aisles.

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

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

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Bugs and Climbing Birds

July 15, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Hole in the Road

July 5, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The hole as it appeared two weeks ago.

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

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

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

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

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The new wall, with my entrance gate behind it.

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

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

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

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The Door Creaks Open

July 1, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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A Preference for Emergencies

June 23, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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They’re Ba-a-a-a-ck

June 21, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Happy Trails

June 11, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 5, 2020

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

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

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The house under construction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 29, 2020

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

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

Patio

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

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

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

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

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

Trees green

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

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

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Empty Nests

May 21, 2020

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

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

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

270px-Petrochelidon_pyrrhonota_-California,_USA-20May2006

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

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

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

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

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

Cliff swallow -1 copy

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

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