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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.

Toronto

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.

Down past Xilo copy.jpg

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.

Vicki, May:19 copy
Vicki starting 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.

Dent - 3 copy.jpg

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Non-Festive Fiesta

July 21, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Crowed Aisles of Walmart

July 16, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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The place of material plenty.

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

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Orange barriers at the checkpoint coming into Tepoztlan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The view above Ocotitlan, far from the crowded aisles.

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

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

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Bugs and Climbing Birds

July 15, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Hole in the Road

July 5, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The hole as it appeared two weeks ago.

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

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

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

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

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The new wall, with my entrance gate behind it.

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

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

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

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The Door Creaks Open

July 1, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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A Preference for Emergencies

June 23, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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They’re Ba-a-a-a-ck

June 21, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Happy Trails

June 11, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rough trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 5, 2020

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

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

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The house under construction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 29, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Empty Nests

May 21, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oh, I’ve Seen Fire …

May 19, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Unbearabable Lightness of Quarantine

May 11, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Gasman Cometh

May 7, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dignity is not preserved.

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

Then I can do it all again.

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Here Comes the Rain Again

May 5, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Meetings and Masks

May 3, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Doctor in Every Cafe

April 29, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Waiting Game

April 23, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cicadas, Sanitizer and Hysterical Misery

April 18, 2020

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

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

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A cicada and its abandoned larval casing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Othering

April 8, 2020

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

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

I hoped my friend was right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Turning Up The Heat

April 12, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, people had gotten religion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Joys of Barkish

April 9, 2020

A friend of mine posted on her blog recently:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Woody in laid-back mode.

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

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

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

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Them Dry Bones

April 8, 2020

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

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

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

A cow skull.

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

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

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The cow vertebra.

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

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

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

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

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Embarrassment of Near-Riches

April 7, 2020

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

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

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Not worthless, but definitely worth less.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Delusions of Andres Manuel

April 4, 2020

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

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

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

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President Lopez Obrador – the man with the right hair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Week After Next

April 2, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Matter of Timing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Water, Cash and Almonds

March 28, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A corner of the Tepoztlan market.

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

“Señor, you forgot this last week.”

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

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Secret Places, Sacred Places

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Irrevocable Condition

March 23, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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The Worry Game

March 23, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We need these jobs, señor,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Muddling through

March 20, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Just Waiting

March 13, 2020

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

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

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A mug in my kitchen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The War that Antonio Lost

March 2, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blameless Erich Ludendorff.

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

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

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

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Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna in the 1840s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Walls of Rock

February 24, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Carnival in Tepoztlan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feliz fiesta, folks: it’s all yours.

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The High Hills

February 16, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fleeing from Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here, for instance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mountains Aren’t Necessarily Mountains

February 7, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illusion gone.

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

Foal Season

September 11, 2020

Not much is happening round here. The rainy season has been lighter than other years that I remember, but we’re getting enough water for the corn and other crops. The pandemic continues, but our corner of Mexico has a relatively light caseload.

The rains this month have brought forth a new batch of foals. They’re both cute and a little comical, being slightly unsteady on their new legs and very shy of strange humans who approach them.

This little filly (above) was old enough to to have the confidence to wander a few yards on her own, away from parental protection. Others that I came across near the village today (below) were much more skittish, and stayed close to their mothers.

And the chestnut colt below took one look at me and my camera, and made a run for it, following his mother up the road. No way was he staying around for a close-up.

My concern always with the animals roaming loose here is the traffic. Local people know they need to watch out for horses and cows, but some visitors see a clear stretch of road and step on the gas. Accidents are rare, but when they happen, they’re ugly.

As always, perspectives on life and death in Mexio are different to elsewhere. That said, I wouldn’t like to confront an angry farmer who saw me knock down one of his livestock.

San Miguelification

September 4, 2020

For several months, I’ve often pondered when might be a good time to make a visit to Toronto, where a bunch of small but essential tasks await me. And my answer each time has been “Not yet.” I’d have to travel on an intercity bus, go through an airport, onto a plane … You know where this goes.

The same reticence doesn’t seem to apply to a small coterie of people coming here to Mexico. Confident in their knowledge that Covid-19 is overrated and unlikely to kill them, they show up scouting for a place that would be better than where they live currently. 

A week or so back, I helped a Californian couple who couldn’t order their coffee in Spanish. The husband was using his Italian, which is not that different to Spanish, but still different enough. They made their requests, I made mine, and I went and sat at a table near them, explaining that the local regulations required distancing, and that non-compliant places have been closed by the authorities.

We chatted a bit, and they explained how they felt their home state was becoming unlivable, even before the fires and the pandemic. They planned to make their new home in Mexico, and while they’d first headed to San Miguel de Allende, they’d heard of Tepoztlan and had come to check it out. And they liked it.

San Miguel, if you don’t know it, is full of millionaires, and million-dollar homes. It’s about as Mexican as Rosedale is typical of Ontario, or Westmount is typical of rural Quebec. I went there once, to visit a well-off Canadian friend, and I’ve never been back. 

San Miguel de Allende, with its distinctive church.

Recently I read an article about wealthy people decamping to New Zealand. They couldn’t seem to grasp, the article’s author pointed out, that the country is how it is because the people there have a respect for certain things, including preserving the natural environment, or acknowledging the Maori people’s contributions. The country didn’t become what it is through having the uber-rich build bunkers on private estates.

The California couple, who in person were pleasant if prone to certain conspiracy theories, had the same problem, I felt. They thought they could leave behind the problems that they themselves no doubt helped create. The relatively small expat community here has some wealthier members, but most of us are not much richer than our Mexican neighbours. We live cheap, and we appreciate it.

We’re also aware that the more people with money come here, the more housing and food will cost for everyone. Local rents have doubled in the past five years, and gone up more than that in the preferred areas. All this affects local working people who themselves need homes, and have families to feed. 

In writing this blog, I do try to point out the downsides to life here. It’s no sub-tropical paradise, and I’m not writing an ongoing advertisement. My corner of Mexico can be challenging in several ways. The locals help, more than you might expect, but they owe us nothing. It’s their village, and their town, and they’re usually happier when visitors … visit. Then go away again.

I hope, then, that we don’t become the next San Miguel de Allende, or Lake Chapala, which has a gringo community of 30,000 retirees along its shores. My cost of living is fine for me now, but I wouldn’t appreciate a big hike in it. Nor do I want every conversation I hear or share to be in English. I didn’t come here for that. You never learn the secrets if you don’t listen in Spanish.

A friend of mine suggested that if San Miguel looks too expensive for people, and they want to see if Tepoztlan would be a better fit, they need the following advice: Drive south from Mexico City, and don’t stop till you see a sign saying “Guatemala, 5 km.” Tepoztlan will be a half hour’s drive past what looks deceptively like a border post.

Yes, that’s mean, and no, I wouldn’t do it. But if your country is starting to suck big-time, please consider that maybe it’s because people there consider they have an inalienable to ‘develop’ anything they can buy. And that trying that here will just replicate the problems you think you’re escaping.