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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 deceent night shot.

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

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

Here, for instance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mountains Aren’t Necessarily Mountains

February 7, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illusion gone.

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

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Screeching a Living

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

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

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The mystery violinist outside the cathedral wall in Cuernavaca.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Turtles and Ditches

February 1, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Equation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Slogans on Shirts

January 18, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rock of Ages

January 15, 2020

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Today’s topic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Punky rolling around on the patio.
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Grave Difficulties

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

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

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Olive in his corral, pictured last week.

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

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

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

Yes, well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gabriel had a different thought.

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

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

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

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An Old Farmer

January 3, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All the Way to Eleven

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

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

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

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All the way up to eleven…

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

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

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

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The old master doing a windmill on his guitar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Then and Now – and Pizza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Storefront dreams

December 16, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Abarrotes Martin closed some time in the past year.

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

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

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

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

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Cuetlaxochitl

December 14, 2019

“Huh?” I hear most of you mutter at my headline. Which only goes to prove my hearing is still pretty good.

The cuetlaxochitl is sometimes known by its Latin name, Euphorbia pulcherrima (which none of the online translation sites will translate for me today), but more often it’s called by the one derived from the surname of the man who introduced it to the United States in 1822: Joel Roberts Poinsett. He was the US’ first Minister (i.e., ambassador) to Mexico. Odds are, half of you have one in your houses right now.

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A fine plant in front of a village house.

Poinsettias mostly grew till then on the Pacific coast of Mexico and one or two Central American countries. Since then, they’ve spread across central Mexico.

In other parts of the world, they’re deliberately grown infected by poinsettia branch-inducing phytoplasma, a bacterium that makes them more squat and produce more flowers. Around here, they’re in people’s back yards, a dozen feet high or more, and in late November, as the days shorten, they quite suddenly turn scarlet. They need just five consecutive nights of more than twelve hours of darkness, then voila. Already in the village, flowers (actually red leaves, or bracts) on some of the shrubs that no-one waters are beginning to wilt.

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An almost-tree Poinsettia in a front yard.

Today, the usual name here for the plants is flor de NocheBuena, Noche Buena being the Mexican Spanish term for Christmas Eve. I read that in Spain they’re used to mark Easter, though since the redness has ebbed by then, I’m not sure what that’s all about. But there’s a big trade around this town in smaller potted NocheBuenas for houses that don’t have shrubs (trees, almost) in their gardens. The plant is inescapable right now.

In preColumbian times, the plant was used medicinally for fever reduction. You’ll still find the leaves described as toxic, but this is inaccurate, and you’d have to eat a whole plant, or more than one, to make yourself ill. If you try this, which would be stupid as well as unappetizing, it’s not my fault.

Oddly, Mr. Poinsett died on December 12, the day of the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s national religious icon. In the US, this has become National Poinsettia Day. His other interests included promoting Freemasonry in Mexico, so his involvement with the country was long-term.

His social and political work is now, of course, only known to specialist historians. However, the plant he favoured has perpetuated his name through most of two centuries. After its brief spurt of glory at the end of year, it’s an unsightly weed, and a spindly shrub. Unlike bugambilia (called bougainvillea in some places), which produces coloured bracts all year long, it has to wait for its seasonal moment of glory. But since US trade in the things alone runs to $250-million, it’s in no danger of disappearing any time soon.

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Old Hat, New Hat

A hat is an essential thing in Mexico, particularly for someone who’s two-thirds bald. Me, for instance. I never set out to town without one on my head. I’m in the tropics, so for much of each day, the sun is virtually right above. It’s not such a problem around this time of year, but it still isn’t a good idea to expose pale skin to direct, overhead sunlight every day.

The hat I bought last December was an 80-peso cheapie. Friends told me it made me look like an Amish farmer, then said they liked the look on me. I still don’t know what I should have made of those remarks.

Regardless, a sombrero is an essential friend under the tropical sun.

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A stock photo of two random guys in hats totally unlike mine.

Now, if you’re going to a major city, wearing a straw sombrero is déclassé. It’s like you’re … well, some Amish farmer on an outing, gawking at the urban scene. That’s the one time I don’t take one with me. But before I made a visit to Mexico City last week, I went for a walk around the village, and then forgot to leave the hat at home when I left to catch a micro-bus into town. I realised when I was buying my ticket for the main bus to the city that I had my old friend on top of my head.

For some weeks, it had been looking sad. The woven straw was beginning to fray, and the coloured band around the crown had stretched and twisted. I’d been thinking of getting a new one, and while having a snack after reaching the city, decided on a sneaky strategy. I left it on a chair next to me.

I hadn’t, you understand, thrown it out, or discarded it, exactly. No, this was purposeful recycling. Someone needy could find the hat, and use it for his own needs.

It seems silly to say it, but I felt I’d let down a friend. I tried reasoning with myself – “You’re looking at this like you just abandoned a puppy on the roadside. It’s an inert object, for heaven’s sake. There’s a lot of poor workers round here, and someone will take it and use it.”

It didn’t work. That hat had been too much part of my style (such as it is), my presence, since I came back to Mexico a year ago. I had a case of the guilts all day.

Naturally, I bought a new hat on Wednesday. This one was 200 pesos, not 80, its label says it was made in Mexico, and it’s better finished. Unlike its predecessor, it even has a brand name: Tonpsom. A name, obviously, derived from respect for English elegance in earlier times. Finally, I might be becoming a fashion plate in my golden years.

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My fine new hat from the Tonpsom company.

So why do I still have the stupid guilts over the abandoned straw hat? I hope you’re doing okay, sombrerito. Wherever you are, or whoever’s head you’re on.

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Immigration Woes

December 6, 2019

Our introductory conversation was a tense one. She was worried about a friend, an Argentine like herself, who’d run afoul of the Mexican immigration authorities, and was now a prisoner in a Mexico City jail. A very nasty jail, she said, where food wasn’t provided, and there was a lot of violence.

When the US government began pressuring Mexico to block caravans of refugees heading through the country to the American border, Mexico launched a crackdown. I was myself checked by immigration police on the bus a couple of months ago. At the time, I had no ID at all on me, but I didn’t fit the profile they had, and they let me go. They were looking for younger people and poor people, and I was older, and respectably dressed by local standards.

But on the advice of seasoned adviser Don K, I now always carry a photocopy of my passport’s face-page along with a copy of my visa, just in case.

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Travel insurance – my Canadian passport, and accompanying visa. I carry a copy of these at all times.

My new friend admitted she was scared for herself. Her parents were from Argentina, but she was born when her father was working in Venezuela, before Hugo Chavez began installing the military dictatorship that’s wrecked the country. To renew her passport, she’d needed a copy of her birth certificate, and had waited two months in Caracas until a cold-faced army officer had told her he’d let her have it. She left for Mexico, where she’d grown up, right afterwards. Here, she has a residency permit, but the experience had marked her.

And she’s scared. She doesn’t have wrinkles on her face like me, and she speaks Spanish with a non-Mexican accent, so she doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt that aging gringos do. The immigration police, under Manuel Lopez-Obrador’s strict new rules, aren’t necessarily friendly people.

“Stay safe,” people often say to me about living here, to my irritation. Yet on my last visit to Toronto, in October, I was nearly run down (for the third time) by a driver texting on a cellphone, and there was a shooting a hundred yards from my former apartment in the city’s east end. That area still feels the hurt of the murderous rampage on Danforth Avenue that happened one night in July last year, when two people died, a couple were paralysed, and a dozen others were wounded. The bullet-hole in one restaurant door, at a place I visited frequently, was only filled in weeks after, and I still see the scar in the wood when I go there.

And Toronto is still one of the safest cities in North America. Yet by comparison, Tepoztlan is a quiet park for strolling.

So, is Mexico dangerous? Of course – everywhere is. There are parts of Mexico City where I’d be daft to go, even if I love to wander other neighbourhoods on a sunny afternoon. And some northern cities are too risky to visit.

But hazards for non-Mexicans are more complex than outsiders understand. Many Mexicans are genuinely concerned about people coming in from violence-torn parts of Nicaragua, Honduras or, especially, El Salvador. Lopez-Obrador’s policies, while following Washington’s lead, aren’t opposed across the board. People worry about conserving the kindness and humanity that is central to the Mexican character and history, but they also fear importing more violence.

That kindness, that decency, is what attracts many people from elsewhere. There are Chileans and Argentines who fled their countries during the dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s, and never went back. There are Venezuelans like my new friend, and many people who had their reasons for saying adios to places where they were born, or began their working lives. Maybe they ran from kidnapping threats, or because they’re gay, or because someone in their family was murdered by a gang.

Yes, the US is their most favoured destination, and Canada the secondary one; but here, they don’t need to learn a new language from scratch, and there’ve always been opportunities for the educated. But things are wilder now than they were a decade ago.

Once, people emigrated to new countries to find prosperity, or perhaps adventure. Now, it’s often done for safety. And that safety is eroding as the norms break down internationally. The young Argentine in jail is the third person I’ve heard about in recent months who’s had similar trouble.

I personally still feel very safe here. I know the risks, and discuss them with friends. And maybe one day, I’ll have to move on. But respect for older people, and the fact that retired people commit few crimes, keeps me secure from the authorities, and the local culture keeps me safe from theft and violent crime.

But I can’t help but feel concern for people caught up in the new push for tighter security and tighter rules. Mostly, they’re doing nothing very harmful, and every shift that erodes Mexico’s traditional spirit of hospitality only reduces its self-respect and social cohesion.

My new friend left me to go and visit her imprisoned compatriot, and to see if he could be let out. I just have to hope she succeeds.

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Tepoztlan Wall Art

December 1, 2019

Yesterday, I took a walk through a part of Tepoztlan I only visit every month or two. And lo, there were some new murals I’d not seen before, at a quiet intersection. I assume they were done by local artists, of which there are many, for the Days of the Dead, although there are obvious non-Mexican influences in them.

I love the street art here, and so I’m reproducing a selection of the finest work. No claims, naturally, are made to ownership of the images. I’m not even sure how copyright works in relation to murals in public places, but I’m happy to post these photos of my favourites. Some of the artists’ signatures are visible in the photos.Dark woman.jpg

This brooding lady of the night, complete with cartridge belts, evokes those who fought and fell in the 1910 Revolution.

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A little night music, perhaps? A skeletal trombonist.

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The Lord of Mictlan, I believe: the Land of the Dead.

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Skull and candle on a wall.

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A skeletal figure partying the night away.

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More ex-people partying.

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A brooding figure with a candle.
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Spooks in Retirement

Something I didn’t think to do when I came to Mexico was create a back-story for myself. I simply told people I was a former trade magazine editor from Canada, and figured that was enough.

Many of the expats round here are men of my own age. We’re often divorced, mostly retired, and not too flush with cash. We can afford to eat at local restaurants, and we go back for family visits once or twice a year. But our lives aren’t outwardly exciting.

Yet ask around here, and two or three people will tell you they used to work for the CIA, or the NSA. Yes – they’re ex-spooks, hanging out where their former Cold War enemies can’t find them to settle scores. Occasionally, they’ll confide, they get a call from their old colleagues, asking for help on a tough case, or they’re about an assassination they were involved with. But mostly, they’re sitting back, reminiscing about the good old days of the Cold War, before the arthritis came and waistlines ballooned.

In retrospect, I could have claimed I worked for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). It wouldn’t have quite the same impact as “CIA,”, but I could at least have made the effort to portray myself as an ex-spook. Given my persistent British accent, I could even have pretended to have worked for MI6, and grumble about how “that fraud Le Carre had no idea what it was all about, even if he made a fortune from his character Smiley in the novels.”

But I didn’t.

 

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A friend of mine, now deceased, knew his mother had done “something” in WW2 that she preferred not to talk about. What it was, he found out when books on British decryption of German wartime codes starting coming out in the mid-1970s. She finally admitted she’d been at Bletchley Park, and had known Alan Turing, but refused to say much more. Once you signed the Official Secrets Act, she explained, you could never divulge what you’d done without official authorisation.

People who’ve actually worked in intelligence are like that. It’s why they were hired in the first place.

Sometimes, listening to the made-up stories has filled in a boring afternoon. I sit and sip my cappuccino, and ask what Cambodia or Lebanon was actually like, and listen while silently counting the factual errors and anachronisms. Some are too blatant, like siting Beirut south of Tel Aviv, or forgetting when Gorbachev died; but mostly it’s interesting to see how some people fantasise, and how far they can spin a tale. One time, I’m sure I helped one of the ex-CIA men develop a whole new legend, simply from nudging him with leading questions.

Perhaps, though … it’s not too late? I’m now wondering if I should revise my own story and explain that the editor’s job I had was simply my cover. Those occasional business trips to Germany and Holland? I was really tracking stolen plutonium, or maybe trying to heist plans for components for new jet fighters. I used to write about technology and machine design, after all, and I’ve been in aircraft factories, so I could surely fake some of it.

The problem is, spies are presumably well paid, and therefore well-dressed. Think 007 in his tux. I’m going to have to do this in slightly faded jeans and the shirts I bought on sale at The Bay last month.

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James Bond probably doesn’t shop at The Bay very often.

“It’s required,” I’ll explain. “Too much elegance draws attention, even if I do miss the glamour of the old days. Ah, the sacrifices one has to make for one’s country.”

And I’ll look wistfully downwards for a few moments. Then, perhaps, try the distraction gambit.

“Did I ever tell you about the man John Le Carre based his George Smiley character on? We worked together for a time in the 1980s, when we had to help the Americans out of a spot of bother.”

Of course, I’ll withhold a few minor details. Just to preserve the confidentiality of the service, you understand.

“Ah, those were the days … and after it was all over, President Reagan even called in person from Washington to thank me …”

That’s how the other ex-spooks do it, anyway.

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Rock on

When I walk out of my living room and look up, right above me is La Ventana – the Window. It formed heaven knows how many years in the past, when a seismic event shook loose part of a pinnacle of rock, which fell between the pinnacle and the main body of the cliff to form what looks like an oblong aperture. Occasionally, I wonder if it or a portion of the main cliff-face could fall in another temblor, flattening this house.

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La Ventana, from my house in Amatlan. The oblong aperture is foreshortened because of the angle.

Yesterday, walking with some friends on a trail out of a village a few kilometres away, we noticed a big rock by the side of the path that we couldn’t recall from a hike in October. In the cornfield behind it was a bigger chunk of limestone, while as we looked back up the hill, we could see a cleared track with broken trees. It looked like a chunk of stone had recently broken off from the main hillside, rolled down the hill, and broken into a main piece and several smaller boulders.

Sure enough, two people we met on the trail confirmed that it had come down at the start of November – they even knew it had been at 5.30 in the afternoon, when they’d heard a loud noise. The next day, a fence needed repairing, though the corn in the field had already been safely harvested.

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The rollway of the errant boulder, which crushed or knocked aside a few trees on its way down.

The four of us in our group spent some time admiring the different pieces of rock, which must have weighed tens of tons altogether, and the swath of destruction they had caused. By the end of next rainy reason, the scar will be almost invisible, and fresh saplings will root themselves, but right now, it still looks like the Incredible Hulk’s play-slide.

Whenever I mention the hazards of living in Mexico, people send leave me admonitory warnings to watch out for myself. I appreciate the sentiments, but I will forever feel less safe in a big city, where people still drive and text at the same time – I’ve nearly been struck four times by them, and only survived through my own quick reactions, not the drivers’. In a place where sudden death from floods, an earthquake, or a falling rock, is a day-to-day occurrence, your perceptions shift, and you feel more alert and alive. It might sound masochistic, but I appreciate the natural threat level in this country: too much safety, or apparent safety, dulls the wits. Being this close to visible natural processes, which are far less discernible in and around built-up areas, adds a zest to living, and shifts your sense of who you are, and how you relate to the world around.

Every time I go into town, for example, I look to see if Popocatepetl is visible from the few hundred yards of vantage point where its cone is clear of obstructions. It’s charming to see it after rain, which falls on its slope as snow; interesting to watch when it’s emitting a lot of steam; and awesome, in that word’s original sense, when I can see an actual eruption of dust rising miles into the air. I sometimes joke that Popo is my favourite Mexican.

And now I have a favourite Mexican rock to admire as well.

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This is the biggest chunk that broke off my favourite Mexican Rock. It’s about five feet high and wide. You can just see the main boulder to the right at the back, sitting in the cornfield it ploughed through.
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Deaths in Sonora

The two times I’ve tried writing about the murders of the breakaway Mormon group in Sonora and Chihuahua states, I ran up against the problem that a tragedy is a tragedy is a tragedy. Killing mothers in front of their children is one of the ghastlier things people can do, and nothing that sect has done in the past, or is perceived to have done, merits that.

At the same time, it seemed that the Church of the Firstborn of the Fulness of Times received a degree of public sympathy that’s never accorded to other victims of Mexican gangs (I decline to call drug gangs “cartels”.) The barbarisms criminal organisations in this country sometimes practice is extreme. They’re largely inflicted on rival gang members, and for this reason they apparently they get little attention from outside media. On the other hand, the LeBaron community, sometimes known as this from their founder Alma Dayer LeBaron, has never before received such supportive coverage.

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Alma Dayer LeBaron, photo taken prior to 1951.

Polygamy, which included older men marrying young girls, was airbrushed out of some reports I read, as were the group’s squabbles with neighbours over its nut orchards. Nuts use immense quantities of water, making it unavailable to other farmers: a dispute in 2018 cited 395 illegally drilled wells on the church’s properties, which allegedly contravened a 1957 contract with the municipality. And in rural Mexico, land and access to the water it needs are virtually religious principles.

Some people have praised the group’s defiance of its scofflaw neighbours, and for sure, their stance wasn’t lacking in guts. But here I stumble around victim-blaming, since I always take the view that outsiders who choose not to accept the norms of mainstream Mexican society are insulting that society. Very well, stumble I will, because some of the facts point in a certain direction.

It suited the church’s purposes that law enforcement and the local community generally ignored them on the plural marriage issue decades ago, but later that insouciance came back to bite them. They asked for protection that was unlikely to come, and for the right to create their own security service, something no-one in Mexico can do legally.

Mormonism in general here exists in a slightly uneasy relationship with the Catholic majority. The faith, along with Pentecostalism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other imports, clashes not just on matters of belief, but on matters of culture and family networks. They are many cases of relatives who’ve not spoken in decades after a conversion.

Perhaps the farmers of Sonora and Chihuahua know nothing of the doctrinal conflicts within Mormonism; but while the main Latter-Day Saints church is still home to the vast majority of believers in Joseph Smith’s revelations, there are hundreds of separate factions and sects today. Usually, their reason for existing is that Smith taught plural marriage, which the mainstream church still acknowledges to be a valid doctrine, while excoriating any members who wish to practice it. It was abandoned by the main Church 130 years ago, in order to secure statehood for Utah under US law.

This created great hardship among existing polygamous families, who were told to split up and among followers convinced of the doctrine as scripturally sound, based on Old Testament teachings.

Within the LeBaron family, there have been various splits and not a few murders, mostly under the crazy direction of Ervil LeBaron (1925-1981). If you try to grasp all the details, you’ll need a large spreadsheet, and you’ll be scratching your head over the Why? of it all.

I don’t think the women and kids caught in the slaughter on November 4 were simply mistaken for members of another gang. I think the killings were deliberate, and aimed to send a signal to the group that it had crossed too many lines. The fact that the farms have now been partly evacuated shows the message was delivered. As for the eventual outcome, I’ve no idea beyond assuming that there’ll be no good result.

I was struck by several news stories after the killings that spoke of Mexico, yet again, as being or becoming a failed state. It would be silly to deny or downplay the impact gang violence has on the country as a whole, and nobody who lives here is unaware of the possibility of it moving into new areas. My area, thankfully, has been very quiet, and seems to be a kind of neutral zone, even though the gangs operate in neighbouring cities.

What strikes me as the unconsidered fact in this debate is the question of what Mexicans would view as a “successful” state. While there’s no objection to American-style wealth and success overall, that has yet to be a viable goal for many people here. They place their confidence in their society, their families (despite often horrible squabbles and feuds) and their specific communities. The peacefulness of this area owes, I think, a lot to the persistence of that cohesion. Gringos have few problems here if we respect Mexicanidad, the Mexican-ness, of the people around us. If we forget that, problems arise, and fast.

A sentiment once shared with me by a tour guide at the archeological site of Xochicalco has haunted me since he mentioned it a dozen or more years ago. He’d been an accountant in Los Angeles, with his own business, until it collapsed in a recession, and he said he was now happy simply to make ends meet by showing people around a significant part of his heritage.

“An economy always goes into recession sooner or later,” he told me. “But the culture never goes into recession.”

In saying that, he embodied a key feeling Mexicans have about their country. It took two revolutions a century apart, in the early 1800s and in 1910, to establish its independence from Spain, and then from the abusive power of rich landowners.

But if you’re primarily rooted not in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but in soil, family and (for most people here) the Virgin of Guadalupe, “success” is essentially defined in different terms to how it would be in the US or Canada.

That notion offers neither help nor hope to the Mormon cultists mourning their dead or their former homes. But it does, I feel, help define the issue of what a “failed” state would or would not be. Government isn’t the sole determining factor in the Mexican situation.

Perhaps if the Church of the Firstborn had grasped that theirs wasn’t the only bunch around that doesn’t offer its primary loyalty to a government, the events earlier this month might have transpired differently. Mormon dreams of a separate kingdom under their concept of God, attempted several times in Nineteenth Century America, were always impractical. I doubt they’ll abandon their central goals now, since martyrdom fuels fanaticism, and doesn’t often quench it. But the failed state in this case is Church of the Firstborn’s attempt to create a self-sufficient community in the middle of someone else’s. The eventual outcome was horrific, but not wholly unpredictable.

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Fear of Flying

November 14, 2019

The first time I noticed it, it was just … well, one of various things I noticed, and I thought little of it. The second time, I remembered that first time I noticed it. And as my return flight to Mexico left the gate in Atlanta a couple of nights ago, I realised I was seeing something consistent.

Many people on a plane like to look out the window as it takes off. Me, for instance. It’s interesting to see the city falling away from the rising aircraft, and to watch for familiar landmarks as they disappear. But my limited anecdotal observations indicate that Mexicans don’t like to look. They like to pretend it isn’t happening. Since for my latest flight I was assigned the dreaded middle seat of three, I couldn’t open a blind myself.

I was never surprised to see people crossing themselves before a flight. Logically, urban drivers in Mexico (as opposed to their politer rural counterparts) pose a far greater threat to human life than plane crashes. But the national imagination was shocked by the crash that killed the movie star Pedro Infante in 1957, and perhaps the continuing adulation of a man dead for over sixty years keeps that image within the public imagination. Death by plane crash is always untimely, though probably far less horrible than other exits from the human condition.

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Pedro Infante in the 1940s. He was an amteur pilot, and actually liked flying.

Mexicana Airlines crashed as a company in 2010, its last flight, oddly, being one to Toronto. But that was a business failure, not a technical one. It was scary for employees and suppliers owed money, and the winding down of its affairs still proceeds in 2019. But unless people unconsciously cross-connect that event with Infante’s demise, I’m not sure there’s an explanation in it.

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No longer airborne – an Airbus A318 jet of defunct airline Mexicana.

Maybe it’s just a natural fear that affects a huge number of people, and shutting out the view is a way of reducing that anxiety. Whatever the reason, numerous Mexicans, particularly those who, connected by an inscrutable magnetism, follow me onto flights in and out of Benito Juarez Airport, prefer to pretend take-off is an illusion. And moving over the ground, too. Also, landing.

Landing – now, that often alarms me, especially when there’s a strong cross-wind, as there was coming into Atlanta. Seeing the aircraft move up and down on its approach (apparently, the earth moving farther away then coming nearer) has a scary thrill to it. But I trust aircraft technology far more than I trust antsy Mexico City drivers on a highway. Those guys take crazy risks as they pass slow-moving trucks.

On flights with a large proportion of Mexicans, it can be hard to have that experience, then, where I can watch the journey culminate. I still get the sense of the lurchings the plane goes through as it slows and loses altitude, followed by the jolts and rumblings as it touches down on tarmac. Some people breathe rather than mutter a short prayer of gratitude, then we wait for the long minutes to reach the gate to pass.

But I do miss watching cities recede and come into view. I never used to ask for a window seat, preferring easy exit from one by the aisle. I might change my policy in future.

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Doctor Mexico

November 5, 2019

Two weeks ago, I returned to Toronto for one of my regular visits. I was scheduled to see doctors and my dentist, even though most such care I might need is available inexpensively in Mexico. As a general rule, though, it makes sense to me to continue with the same specialists over time, as my body gets older, and deteriorates the way nature apparently wants it to.

There is, however, a distinct difference in how said corpus behaves in Toronto and in Mexico. I often complain that Toronto feels full of tensions between people, and it’s hard for me to settle back into the groove here after being in Mexico. Involuntarily, I react to the city by tensing up various zones of my physical self.

To prove this point, one part of my body that caused a problem in 2018 reacted to being back here, and I ended up two Saturdays ago in the emergency department of the local hospital. I’m going to spare my more sensitive readers the details here, having found that regaling friends with them tended to put people off their lunch, and possibly subsequent meals as well. Suffice it to say that geezers have difficulties that younger men don’t need to dream about. I don’t have a life-threatening issue. but the new meds leave me a bit dizzy, and I don’t like them.

It’s dishonest to pretend I don’t miss the city where I lived for four decades. It was my hometown when my children were growing, when I was building a career in magazine publishing, and where I found many fine things, cultural, culinary and material, from all over the world. I have friends here I only get to see a few times a year. It remains a great city, and I wish my body liked it.

But my body likes Mexico, even if I did sprain an ankle (which healed completely) back in April.  The geezer problem stayed in the background the past year I was living in Amatlan. I lost weight and an inch or so of waistline, I walked hillside trails and grassy roadside paths and ate locally grown produce, and apart from intermittent vertigo, which started some years ago in Toronto, I didn’t have much to complain about. On a cold day or evening in Amatlan, I’d need just a sweater. Yes, the rains could be a bit much, and yes, there are too many mosquitoes around at times. But Mr. Body said he was happy there. Not here, though.

I’m coming finally to understand something about elderly people’s attitudes to the medical profession. (For the record, I just turned seventy, which I think counts as elderly). It isn’t, on the whole, the inconveniences of a body that’s no longer young that upset us, but the process of getting treated for those inconveniences.

There are few places more depressing than a hospital emergency room. That isn’t because you go there when you have a problem, but because, necessarily, you have to wait. The walls are bleak, the lighting is all artificial and yellow, and there are posters and signs on the walls that you suspect were put there in 1993. There’s a hint of the Ministry of Love scenes in Nineteen Eighty-Four in the decor – you know, “the place where there is no darkness.”

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John Hurt as Winston Smith in the Ministry of Love, from the film 1984.

Eventually, you get to see a medical professional, who comes in, subtly inhales lest you’re about to spew anger, and asks what your story is. You have, given the budgetary constraints of the health system, around fifteen minutes to sort things out. And most probably, you’ll need tests.

Doctors, sensibly, ask for their hunches to be confirmed with hard numbers. But tests take time to process, so you have to wait for days, or even weeks, for results to be available. Again, you go and wait for the doctor, who tries to soft-pedal any seriousness in what’s been found, but has to communicate the seriousness nonetheless.

In my case, three days after my emergency visit, I was subjected to a (very) hands-on investigation involving a tiny camera (ouch, yow-oooh, ow), which showed … nothing that serious. Yet the problem persists, so now I’m on meds that as noted, leave me dizzy.

When I was young, I’d laught at how the elderly, given half a chance, would tell you the woeful tale of their operations. But now I get it. It’s not the illness or the syndrome, but the helplessness you feel trying to get that illness addressed and healed, or at least reduced, that fills you with a need to tell all. The operation, the treatment, is the worst thing, because it’s done to you deliberately. It’s upsetting to become an object, a little baffled by why processes in your body have gone astray, and waiting to learn if there’s a simple treatment, or even an effective one. Your sense of agency diminishes to a fraction of its normal resilience.

I might be able to switch meds to a different regimen, and less dizziness, if matters have settled in a week or two. And because I’ll be back to Amatlan, I’m cautiously optimistic that the benign climate, and streets without tense, self-absorbed people will allow my body to relax and indicate to me, “Well, maybe I can do this.”

I never bad-mouth the Canadian health system, especially knowing various Americans in Mexico who’ve told me how they were fleeced by their own. The bureaucracy of the Ontario Health Insurance Program is unfortunate, but unavoidable. But to date, Doctor Mexico has been my most supportive clinician and nurse. I stay healthier there than I would with a well-medicated lifestyle in Toronto. For people who feel I’m being opportunistic, I point out that in Mexico I pay out of my own pocket for minor things that the public system would be called on to cover (at Canadian rates) if I were grumbling and coughing through a dire Ontario winter, and therefore overall I save OHIP cash. I still pay taxes to Canada, too.

Any serious study of long-term health involves a discussion of lifestyle. Rural Ontario for me would be isolating, and I’d need more money than I can count on having. So for now, I’m counting on Doctor Mexico to bring me back to a sense of command over my own physical well-being.

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The Filly

October 20, 2019

The blood was obvious before I noticed she was limping. The filly, perhaps two months old, was hopping around, and whinnying in pain and fear. Once Ixchel and I got closer, we could see the gash up on her left hind leg, and it was obvious the foal had been attacked by dogs.

Often in the mornings, I get up to the sound of the Belgian shepherd dog next door barking at cows or horses in the field outside. There’s lush grazing there, and the animals come to graze where there are noisy dogs, but no seriously vicious ones. The neighbours’ mutts join in the dawn chorus of yapping and growling, proving their macho guard-dog credentials, but nobody gets close to the bigger animals.

 

Horses grazing outside my living room window. The Belgian shephard dog that lives next door is visible as a silhouette in the gate, as he rears up and barks from the safety of being behind iron bars.

This was a different situation. The filly had presumably been with her mother, wandering through the streets of San Andres and munching on the plants and grass at the sides of the lanes and gardens. But a pack of dogs, presumably, likely with one much bolder than the rest, had gone for them, and they’d panicked. Together, they could have kicked out at their assailants, and driven them back, but isolated, such mutual protection wasn’t so easy. Now the filly was alone and scared, with blood running down her leg, and her mother nowhere in sight.

I’ve tried for years to understand the theory of ranching here, and I can’t. If livestock are allowed to wander around unchecked, they can go for miles, as well as being at risk from errant drivers and aggressive canines. Somehow, the ranchers keep track of their animals, perhaps through the cellphone equivalent of bush telegraph, but it leaves the animals unprotected in emergencies. It seems careless to me.

Neither Ixchel nor I had any idea how to help a wounded foal in distress, and a farmer in a paddock nearby seemed unconcerned by what was happening. He seemed to indicate that somehow, some way, things would be okay … or they wouldn’t. And neither of us could do anything constructive. We continued on our hike for a few miles, finally deciding we were in danger of having to walk for too long to come to a bus route back home, and headed back the way we’d come.

San Andres de la Cal is a little larger than my home village of Amatlan, which has around 1,100 inhabitants. Both are farming communities, Amatlan to the east of Tepoztlan, the main local centre, and San Andres to the west, on the other side of the mountain ridge on which Tepoztlan sits.

Giant roots of amate trees along a hillside trail near San Andres de la Cal.

Neither has a great deal to commend it other than relative peace and rural beauty, with steep hills and cliffs not far away. But the trails are excellent for an afternoon walk, and there are intriguing rock formations to discover as well as amate trees with their exposed roots like massed, connected drainpipes, and at this time of year lots of butterflies. We came back complaining that, as usual, we’d walked too far and were done for the day, and checked with a couple of locals that we were on the right street to get a micro-bus back.

Then Ixchel saw the mare trotting along as we strolled to the correct corner, whinnying constantly, and checking each side-street. It wasn’t hard to guess it was the mother of the filly, searching for her foal, and unable to locate her.

Again, we couldn’t help. We didn’t know where the foal had wandered in the intervening two hours, nor whether someone had caught her and had treated the wound or given her water.

And I don’t have a happy ending. We just had to assume the two would eventually connect with each other, and the foal would, in time, recover from the savage bite. But I’ve been bitten two or three times by dogs this year, and not remotely near as nastily as that.

Mexico is a place of much kindness, and immense beauty. It’s nothing like the violence-ridden hell-hole I read about so often in mass media. But it also has a cruel side, as does any culture based around a rural lifestyle. Dogs are kept to protect property, not because people like furry pets. I was caught on a quiet street at dusk a week ago, and had to use my fists to fend off three aggressive guardians who went for me. My crude technique, drawn more or less from the Bif! Bam! Pow! of the old Batman TV series, did the trick, but the knuckles of my right hand are still a little bruised. Dogs here attack, dogs here bite, and quite often, there’s blood.

So, we can only hope that the persistently whinnying mare found her child, and the child found her mother, and they both live more or less okay ever after. And that’s where we had to leave it.

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The Rebuilder

October 8, 2019

Leopoldo Batres (1852-1926) isn’t well known outside of his native Mexico, and even there he’s little appreciated. This is a pity, because he did an enormous amount, both good and bad, to establish the image of his country’s history for today’s tourists. If you visit ruins in Mexico, the odds are good that Batres was one of the first to investigate them.

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Leopoldo Batres, photographed around 1900.

I first came across his name … well, all over the place: at Teotihuacan, which I wrote about in my last post; at Xochicalco, where he excavated major ruins on a splendid hillside location; at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan, and other places. It was as if some archeologist had been everywhere and chalked a “Kilroy was here” sign.

Trained for a time in France, he returned to cover tens of thousands of miles in his career, receiving a presidential appointment as Inspector of Monuments and going all round Mexico to find and bring back objects for the museum in Mexico City. In my town of Tepoztlan, then little more than a village, he got into a squabble with Francisco Rodriguez, a local engineer who had taken sculptures from the temple of Tepozteco above the town, and set up a small museum for them in the community.

The two men ended up in a shouting match on the main street about who had the right to them, the locals or Batres as the federal Inspector. Batres won, and to see them today you have to go to Mexico City. The small Museo Carlos Pellicer in town has only a few pieces, mostly copies of the originals.

Batres was a restorer as well as a gatherer of relics, and restoration of ancient sites is problematic. Different rulers alter features or build new ones, and in Mexico in particular, there’s often a process of accretion where extra layers are added, so an original structure becomes merely the core. The so-called Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan was named by the Aztec emperors who went there to offer sacrifice, a half millennium and more after the original city’s decline. They made some alterations to the top of it by adding a temple (maybe, several there and round about), which the Spanish later demolished.

So, when a temple or pyramid is restored, the question is: to what period or state? Today, the answer is usually “Leave it as it is, with interpretive materials for visitors to read,” but it took misadventures such as Batres’ efforts at Teotihuacan to get us to that point.

Porfirio Diaz, president of Mexico, gave Batres the job of restoring the old city near Mexico City in 1905, a project that was to be ready for the centenary of independence in 1910. Batres had a big budget, top-level governmental support, and a will strong enough to carry it off. Some people still wish he’d lacked all of those. But he did have them, and set to his assignment with gusto.

Post-conquest chroniclers and artists almost uniformly depicted the Pyramid of the Sun, as the most visible part of the ruined site, in an odd way: they tried to make it look like an Egyptian pyramid, in style and proportions. But it’s nowhere near as steep-sided as the monuments of the Nile Valley, it doesn’t have a stone core, but simply piled up earth and rubble, and the casing stones are unlike the solid blocks we see at Gizeh or Saqqara. Further, it is subdivided into four steps or stages, a style that only the earliest Egyptian models used, and then in differing proportions. And the walls aren’t straight, as they seem from a distance, but convex. Yet so strong was the old idea that Mexico had copied the culture of Ancient Egypt, that people inevitably assumed this was the case. Pseudoarcheologists still push this idea, despite the vast amount of data today showing the contrary.

Early researchers in Mexico, therefore, were caught between demonstrating pride in how their historic cultures continued those of the Old World, and supporting the still-uncertain theory that Mexico did it all alone. There was also a desire, which emerged strongly later in the Twentieth Century, to give Mexicans a sense of pride in their pre-Christian heritage. It was thus a project of great nationalistic anxiety that the sprawling ruins close to Mexico City should be a site worthy of a visit for the country’s guests. Not least among the tacit aims was sticking it to snooty university scholars and other American visitors:

“New York? Yes, we’ve heard of it – but do take a look at what we did two thousand years ago!”

Enough of the site was left undisturbed for later, more conservative archeologists to dig up, that Batres’ bloopers weren’t catastrophic. But in his efforts he added an extra level to the Pyramid of the Sun, and damaged the structure when he removed more than the surface vegetation and superficial rubble, assuming the core would be solid: the summer rains that began to wash away original material disabused him of that idea.

The so-called Street of the Dead (Calzada de Muertos) has a few structures that he put together with inspired guesswork. He wasn’t necessarily wrong, and his work is at least consistent; but once a structure has been rebuilt, it becomes far harder to determine its original form. His vision therefore determines the way we see the ancient city today. More than any other site he touched, Teotihuacan today bears the stamp of Batres’ presence.

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The Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, with other structures that Batres restored on the central plaza and down the Calzada de Muertos, seen from the Pyramid of the Moon at the western end of the site.

All strong-willed men make enemies, and Batres made more than his share. Diaz fell from power in 1911, and went to exile in Paris, where I serendipitously came across his relatively modest tomb this past April. Following Diaz’ exit, Batres lost his position to, of all men, the same Francisco Rodriguez with whom he’d argued on the street in Tepoztlan years earlier. He spent the next dozen years till his death defending his reputation. His roughshod methods and sketchy scholarship meant he was banished to the dustier attics of archeological memory, while better trained and scientific researchers took over, finally establishing the supervisory bodies Mexico’s heritage has today.

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Not quite Teotihuacano in style – the austere tomb of Porfirio Diaz in Paris’s Montparnasse cemetery.

But while his Indiana-Jones-with-a-certificate approach was crude, I’ve also come to appreciate that he helped not just to recreate monuments, but left us a particular window for understanding Mexico’s own past. Teotihuacan as it is today is a special part of that legacy. The mixed feelings I get standing below the Pyramid of the Sun, with its one-too-many decks, force me to accept that he has his own place there, beside the original builders and the Aztec revisionists who came centuries later.

Some years ago, I wandered round one of those decks running round the pyramid, a place where tourists scrambling for the summit usually don’t go. On the north face, I found an odd little brass pulley and some other metal parts set into the cemented stonework, and wondered why they were there. After a few minutes, I realised these were relics from Batres’ reconstruction, left in place at the conclusion of work. As he’s described in Prof. Christina Bueno’s excellent book The Pursuit of Ruins , which supplied facts for this piece, we know Batres was a very hands-on manager. He doubtless intended to take them out, but the loss of his position made that impossible, and perhaps no longer important.

While other people have favourite spots on the site that they visit in reverence or enthusiasm, I like to seek the slowly corroding remnants of that device, and recall who put it there, and why.

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The brass pulley, set into cement on a sloping flank of the Pyramid of the Sun.

The original builders must have had similar devices, though without brass components. The brass pieces link us back to the enthusiastic official of a hundred years ago and, by implication, to the unknown workmen who toiled in the same place two millennia before. The ability to interpret this artefact for myself explains my affection for it, along with the sense of connection I get from it to the man who did what he could to bring The Place Where the Gods Were Born back to life. It’s an object that, because it’s overlooked, retains a simple but specific connection to someone who lived large and proud, and opened the past for us to admire today.

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Birthplace of the Gods

October 6, 2019

Teotihuacan is one of the most visited archeological sites in Mexico: four-million people a year go there, and I’m happy to be one of them. Less than 90 minutes from downtown Mexico City, it has frequent bus connections, a huge size that accommodates large crowds (still, don’t go on a weekend) and some of the most impressive structures in the Americas.

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Afternoon storm clouds gather behind the Pyramid of the Sun.

Nobody knows what the original inhabitants called it, nor what they called themselves.  The modern name is Nahuatl and is often translated as “Place where the gods (or, the Sun) were (was) born.” We don’t know the names of those gods or the rulers, though we do think there was a major goddess and also a rain god. They also built the earliest major temple to the Plumed Serpent, Quetzalcoatl. The city seems to be oriented towards the point of Equinoctial sunset, and there might have been a cult around the perceived motions of the planet Venus.

After that, it’s largely suppositions and guesswork. If you enjoy a mystery, Teotihuacan’s your place.

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Original carved images of the Plumed Serpent at the temple of Quetzalcoatl, with what has been interpreted as a sacred headdress.

The city began some centuries before the Common Era as a small community. A popular theory is that the devastating eruption of the Xitle volcano south of Mexico City, made the residents of Cuicuilco head out, and that their skills in producing large earthen constructions (Cuicuilco still has a large elliptical ‘pyramid’ on its site today) fed into the scheme to build the big pyramid at Teotihuacan.

But most aspects of Teotihuacan’s story remain obscure. Anyone who visits today is struck not by lists of dates and kings (no writing has been found) by how harmonised it is with its physical situation, and how the main pyramids seem to echo the contours of the hills surrounding the city. Add in the celestial orientations, and you begin to sense that the city, even in its ruined state, is midway between heaven and earth, but well connected to both.

The site covers about eight square miles, and was home to 125,000 people, maybe more, who came from across what we now call Mexico; two thousand years ago, it was one of the half-dozen largest cities on earth. Today, that largest pyramid, named (possibly wrongly) the Pyramid of the Sun, is the dominant feature, and it’s hard not to be impressed by its massiveness. I don’t try – I’ve climbed it, climbed around it (where it’s permitted), and have gazed from the top of it a bunch of times. It still never exhausts my sense of wonder.            Courtyard.jpg

A courtyard in what was probably priests’ quarters near the Temple of the Moon. The red pigment is largely original, as are parts of the relief carvings of Quetzal birds and owls on the pillars.

Much of what we see today was restored by a man called Leopoldo Batres in the early 1900s. He was the dominant official in Mexican archeology in his day, explored scores of sites across Mexico, and messed up a couple of them with over-enthusiastic ‘restorations.’ His biggest blooper at Teotihuacan was trying to restore the five levels of the Pyramid of the Sun when in fact it only had four originally. I have to appreciate his enthusiasm and desire to celebrate Mexico’s past glories even if, like so many early archeologists, he didn’t know when to leave well alone. He lived large, and his story is one I’ll write about in another post.

The site is threatened by development, including the sight of electricity pylons marching across neighbouring farmland, as well as a WalMart built in one of its outlying areas a few years ago. At least the store was ordered to keep its signage modest and unilluminated.

Yet Teotihuacan survives all this. The millions of us visitors exert fresh wear and tear, but key parts of the site are kept sealed off, including (sadly) a recently discovered underground mountain landscape, with mercury for lakes and crystals, such as iron pyrites, to simulate a starry sky. The place is just too unsafe and fragile to admit tourists.

On any given day, you might notice one or more archeological groups working there: on one visit a few years ago, I found four of them, from different universities and organisations, all exploring different parts of the site, looking for clues, hints, secrets, tunnels, tombs … and anything that explains a little more of what produced the immense economic and political vitality of this city of mysteries.

And even if they find little to answer those questions, the peace and majesty of the site are still worth the visit. Not everyone responds to it that way – I have friends who find it oppressive – but I personally always feel refreshed and encouraged by a visit. It survived internal upheavals (religious structures were burned late in its original period), appropriation by Aztec emperors who were inspired to make an equally grand city in what is now Mexico City, wilful destruction by Spanish Conquistadors, and erosion by rain, earth tremors and the passage of time. And it is still a place that inspires superlatives.

You say the names as:
Cuicuilco – Kwee-KWIL-co
Nahuatl – NAH-whot (the final ‘l’ is almost silent).
Quetzalcoatl – KET-sal-CO-at (again, a near-silent final ‘l’)
Teotihuacan – Teh-OH-tee-wah-KHAN
Xitle – SHEET-leh

 

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Wall Art in Tepoztlan

October 5, 2019

I’ve previously posted photos of Tepoztlan wall art. This is a small selection of things that have appeared in recent months, or that I never noticed before. Most of it has no specific intent, beyond being beguiling.

And some of it has intentions that I can barely guess. But a huge part of all modern Mexican visual art is to create a sense of intriguing mystery.

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An ant, painted on the bandstand outside the Church of the Holy Spirit. There are so many armies of different kinds of ants here, they’ve become emblematic of the area. And for some reason, perhaps for their untiring industriousness, they’re often shown on churches or structures associated with them.

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The make-up on this boy’s face echoes the traditional figure of Tezcatlipoca, the dark alter-ego of the Plumed Serpent, Quetzalcoatl. His expression isn’t that menacing, but he certainly isn’t entirely innocent of some kind of mischief.
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There are no hippos around here – honest. This one almost disappears into the vegetation around it. Why did the artist choose this animal? Because he or she wanted to, that’s all.

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I have no idea. And I can’t read the 3-D letters. Can anybody else? Either way, it’s an arresting image.
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This is a favourite. It’s on the front wall of a small hotel in town.

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A serpent’s head, in the typical style used on many temples throughout central Mexico.

 

 

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Critters Galore

October 2, 2019

Let’s start with hummingbirds. They’re fun to watch. They’re the baby helicopters of the natural world. We get a lot of them round here, swooping in to drink from the tree blossoms in spring, and later on, from the flowers on the cacti in our garden. I don’t have a camera that can get a decent picture of one, but I’ve sometimes watched them from just a few feet away, slurping away, all unconcerned about my presence.

The strangest encounters, though, happen when I leave the living room door open for the dogs, and one of them flies in and crashes against the window. This has happened twice in recent weeks. I might miss its entry because I’m in another room, but I’m alerted to what’s happened by the thrumming sound of the wings as the bird desperately tries to pass through the glass.

Most birds won’t let you capture them: they’ll do anything to avoid direct contact with a large animal like a human. Maybe it’s the shock of striking glass that lets me entrap hummingbirds in my hands, but there also seems to be a fatalism in their general attitude. As my fingers enclose them, while being careful not to apply harmful pressure, they stop flapping, as if expecting to be unavoidably eaten. Then, when we’re outside the door, I can open my hands and the bird is quick to take advantage of the opportunity for escape.

And there’s this lingering sense that my world touched theirs, without any mutual comprehension, even if there was a mutual benefit.

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Not one of my photos – but  we get these little guys round here.

Urban experience doesn’t equip us to deal with the wild world. I like teasing city friends with tales of scorpions and other bugs, or of letting a large moth walk onto my fingertips. But I was always super-squeamish for most of my life, and before I came here, I’d have shuddered at the notion of direct contact with such creatures. I had to re-educate myself in Mexico, so that I was no longer appalled at the profligacy and oddness of the world of arthropods and other creatures.

Stick insects are a favourite find. Some people tell me stick insects bite, and while I don’t have confirmation of that, I think they bite each other. Two of them were on my screen door three days ago, and while they might have been mating, I think one was trying to consume the other. The smaller one seemed to be minus a leg or two when I got a photo of it, having first positioned a sheet of paper behind it to outline its contours.

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My stick insect visitor.

Most of us who move to this area proclaim a love of the natural world and the views of the mountains. But the place does force us to accept the life-and-death processes that small creatures are always part of. I’m not kind to all creature regardless, despatching cockroaches as swiftly and ruthlessly as possible, as well as happily squishing any of the mosquitoes perpetually treating me as a large, moving buffet, that I can catch.

But I’ve developed an affection, or at least a tolerance, for many kinds of small critters, including beetles and the seemingly endless number of species of moths that seek out my lights at night. I also recognise they represent a reliable food supply for many of the songbirds that visit, so their rich numbers are a good sign.

And far above, through much of the day, there are the black vultures, with their white wingtips, circling on thermals, waiting for something to die, or watching for something to catch. Their rattling croaks have sounded over the half-valley of this village for millennia, and they’ll probably still be here when we’re all gone.

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Fridaphilia

There were four women in a group, obviously here To Experience Mexican Culture. Spotting Javier’s painting on the wall of the coffee shop, which he entitled Frida, one of them declared, “Oh, it’s a Frida!” When one of her friends pointed out that was its title, not the artist, there was a slight deflation of the group’s elan, but not much else.

I often like to chat with visitors to the town, offering tips on things to see, or to avoid. In this case, the froth on my cappuccino suddenly became an object of intense fascination to me. How could anybody look at Javier’s caricatured pseudo-portrait and think it was by Kahlo? He is a local painter who uses the walls of Buenos Tiempos as a gallery, and every few weeks sells one of his works thereby. He has a tendency to paint kitsch, but he knows his market, which … well, likes kitschy stuff. But his Frida has a sarcastic edge he doesn’t usually employ.

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Kahlo in her prime, in the late 1930s. Note the ‘hands’ earrings.

When I discovered Hayden Herrera’s book on Frida Kahlo’s paintings around fifteen years ago, I lapped it up. It explained a lot to me about Mexico, and the relations between Mexican men and women. For a time, before I moved here, I had a Kahlo poster on my office wall, and received plaudits from several female editors and salespeople working in my area. Frida the wounded-genius-surrealist (more rarely, Frida the ardent communist) became a feminist icon after Herrera’s 1983 biography of her came out, followed by the book on the paintings. Herrera herself is fair and honest, but Kahlo was appropriated, you might say, by people who project a lot onto her that was hardly true.

For a start, the surrealist label: her aims and methods were different to the surrealists, even if she enjoyed the attention they paid her. It was necessary for her, because Mexico ignored her throughout much of her life, even if it adored her husband, Diego Rivera. Her main sales came in the U.S. She was a feminist from necessity, since as a Mexican woman she was expected to keep her place, and wouldn’t.

And then there were her physical afflictions, including polio (or, possibly, spina bifida) when she was a child, and her appalling traffic accident during her teen years, when her abdomen was penetrated by a bar of metal. She spent months in a body cast after that.

When an artist is ‘claimed’ by an audience with an agenda, reactions can be harsh. I have Mexican friends who despise her, seeing her as the privileged wife of a wealthy painter and muralist (Rivera) who kept her beyond material need her whole adult life, while she exploited traditional Mexican art and identity beyond her right to do so. The pair of them lived self-indulgently, travelling, partying, having affairs, and somehow finding time to paint as well. The injury was hard for her, leaving her unable to bear a child to term as well as causing her lifelong pain. But we can see her, at times, exploiting her level of disability. Did she really need thirty surgeries, or was there an element of attention-getting in some of them?

Her paintings, repeatedly featuring herself, have been dismissed as high-end selfies. They’re far more than that, obviously, but her fascination with herself can become wearing. She tends to denigrate her appearance, emphasising her slight moustache or her unibrow. Photographs show a woman with a sense of fun and a far from ugly face (to my eyes), while the paintings often harden her features. In some self-portraits by other artists, we gaze into the painter’s eyes. Kahlo, in hers, gazes into ours, and it isn’t a friendly look she offers. It is the plaintive look of someone attempting to gain respect as a woman in a macho society; it is also, I often feel, about something that’s not my problem. Go and paint other people and their lives, I want to tell the pictures.

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A 1940 self-portrait; note the wound on her neck (and the hands earrings again).

Someday, but I’m sure it won’t be yet, she will find her place as simply an artist. A great one? I don’t know, but certainly a striking one, with a unique style. But while presumed fans of hers can mistake a small-scale, caustic parody for one of her own works, she is clearly at the mercy of people who are reverent to aspects of her legacy, but fit her into their own mythologising and fail to see who she actually was.

It’s sad, because I always see her as a greatly flawed person, who wasn’t ashamed to be seen that way. That is her true uniqueness and value. And if she was pulled off the pedestal onto which she’s been hoisted, she might finally fall into her natural place as a creative spirit. It’s just as easy, I find, to create seemingly positive, lush stereotypes of Mexico and its culture as it is to demonise it as the home of corruption and violence. In both cases, the truth slides away from us, and yet once more, we pass by a useful mirror of ourselves.

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Battling Irregular Verbs on Tuesdays

September 20, 2019

Two or three of us get together on Tuesdays to practice our Spanish dialogue. We have what people here call Survival Spanish (“A kilo of beans, please; doctor, I think I’ve broken my finger; where can I catch a bus home?”) but deeper non-English conversation is a rarity for us. We end up hanging out a lot with other expats, and feel a touch guilty for doing so. But otherwise, we’d hardly have a real conversation with anyone. By and large, expatriates here are educated people, and we’re used to nuanced discussions and well-phrased arguments. Unless our Spanish is top-rate, we always feel frustrated and disappointed in how a talk goes.

A few people I know have been around long enough that they’ve mastered Mexican Spanish to the point that they can converse for minutes on end, or more. A lot of us, though, choke on the irregular verb endings, and even the regular ones. And don’t get me started on the “por” and “para” business; two words, both of which can mean “for,” that seem almost interchangeable but have clearly different connotations to native Spanish speakers.

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Then, there are the vowel sounds. English abbreviates its vowels, and a lot of words have the nondescript short er sound, as in “the,” or the second vowel sound in “forward” as it’s commonly pronounced. Spanish, by contrast, extends its vowels, giving the lips a workout. I imagine lip-reading Spanish is far easier than doing it with English-speakers.

You have to train your lips and mouth away from whatever regional English or North American accent you have to express yourself comprehensibly. Midwestern accents, in particular, subject Spanish vowels to horrible abuse, because (I think) of the need to switch to using the lips and tongue, not the throat, to make sounds. For English people, the need is to bring sound production out of the nasal cavity.

 

 

Tenses in Spanish were, I realised long ago, designed in an unrecorded sub-circle of Dante’s Inferno:  a sort of Area 51 of the Underworld, except it chose to release its grammatical aliens, not keep them a secret. For example, a present-tense English verb like ‘make’ is identical in all parts except the third-person singular: I make, you make, she makes, we make… It changes to ‘made’ in the perfect (past) tense, but then every individual takes the same ending: I made, he made, we made, etc. There’s no “mades” in the third-person. Our spelling, admittedly, was probably put together in a linguistic assembly hall situated next to the infernal Spanish tense-designers, but we’re talking speech here, not reading and writing.

Then there are extra tenses in Spanish, such as the conditional, that we don’t have in English. People also drop the person, so one doesn’t say “Yo soy,” (“I am”) but merely “Soy,” the “I’ being implied by the verb ending. This is deeply disconcerting at first. And later on, as well.

Often, it becomes easier to cheat and default to present-tense verbs. People will understand essentially what we’re trying to communicate, and we won’t accidentally change our intended meaning from one verb to another because we wrongly guessed an ending or perhaps misused a stem-change, where the middle part of the verb becomes something different.

Then, not everyone who lives in a Mexican village produces grammatically perfect speech. Some people never learned good grammar from their parents or friends. And there are local abbreviations: “hasta luego,” or “see you later,” sometimes becomes “hasta logo.” Or “por favor” (“please”) becomes porfa. Grasping such details is a separate learning process on its own.

We end up smiling and nodding a lot, and wishing we could do better, but we can’t. When I first settled here in 2010, a friend of mine chastised me for not just plunging in and picking it up like a thirty-year-old acquaintance of hers had done. But memory doesn’t work as well after your forties, and won’t absorb complex new information easily. I’ve learned some constructs a half-dozen times, yet they’ve not stuck in my brain. And if you don’t use an expression, then you don’t really learn it, so you become stuck on a hamster-wheel, going round and around again, but not making any progress.

It frustrates me that while my French wasn’t great in school, I still have more of it today than I do Spanish. One time I had to interview a businessman from Paris who wasn’t able to speak much English. But his Sorbonne-educated French was grammatically perfect, and I understood almost all he said to me in a forty-minute conversation, as he understood my own halting constructs. In Paris a few months ago, I found I was still at least as fluent in French as I was in Spanish. Not that says much, but it was still noticeable.

There is no alternative to trying, though. You can’t move to a foreign country and expect the locals to speak English. There are 440-million native Spanish speakers in the world, compared to an estimated 360-million native English speakers, so there’s no assumption that “I know my language is obscure,” as Danes or Dutch people have said to me. Sure, more people have English as a second language, while there are under 100-million who know some Spanish, but after Mandarin Chinese, Spanish is regularly used by more people in everyday life than any other language.

So, we’ll get together on Tuesday with our dictionaries and my tattered old book of irregular Spanish verbs, and muddle our way through for an hour or so. Sometimes, one of us knows a word or phrase that the other does not, and we can share that. Sometimes, we can clarify a point of grammar that was previously obscure. And sometimes we just stall, because of what we don’t know, then work around the problem with simpler or clumsier phrasing.

We’re stubborn, though, and we’ll stay here. We like bright colours, savoury foods and the collective acceptance that a person can be twenty minutes late without society collapsing. We like not freezing our butts off in the northern U.S. or Canada, we like being able to eat out regularly even though we might have under thousand dollars a month, and we appreciate that this place has mountains, green trees all year round, and a graciousness that isn’t always available elsewhere.

But oh, those irregular verbs… those irregular @#$&ing verbs ….

 

 

 

 

 

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The Big Wet

September 18, 2019

Water is wet. And lots of it can make things very, very wet.

My part of Mexico is well south of the country’s desert areas, which are mostly an extension of the geography of the U.S. southwest. Here in the mountains we usually get intense rainfall in late June and early July, then it tails off through September, and ends in October.

This year, it was desultory during the first half of the season, appeared to have stopped altogether in August, and is now, in September, pelting down almost every night. Bare ground was starting to reappear here two weeks ago, but by last weekend the jungle was back. I have to check the dogs for ticks every day.

On Friday, I joined three friends for lunch in town, which became an extended drinking session. The rain began during the meal, then became really dense, to the point the sound hitting the split bamboo roof over our table made conversation difficult. Even crossing the street outside would have meant becoming saturated, so we ordered another round or two and hung in. We left when the rain was merely heavy, when I tried to take photos of it splashing in the streets. The pictures, though, were iffy, and I ditched them. And any shots I took of streams came out as depictions of muddy sludge. So, you’ll just have to imagine what heavy rain looks like. You can probably handle it.

I had to adapt to the wetness when I came here. Today, after a lightning storm followed by rain that didn’t let up all night, the village streets had rivulets flowing over the cobbles, and I was hopping over some of the deeper parts. Sometimes, I get home and have to change my socks.

We know it’s life-giving, and that a good water supply makes life livable for all of us who’ve packed ourselves into this area: expats, locals and their extended families, and weekend refugees from Mexico City who maintain getaways here. We also know we have to rainproof our houses, and deal with the fact that our walls eventually need re-plastering and our window-frames corrode.

As the rainfall patterns change with the altered climate, we also wonder how it will be in the years to come. For now, we have enough water in the reservoirs and in the soil to support the livestock and bring in a good maize harvest, as well as supply a modern lifestyle for people. But this year’s herky-jerky rains gave everyone cause for concern about whether it will remain that way.

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An Annual Tradition

September 12, 2019

Mosaic art made from seeds shows up in many places. I don’t know who began the tradition in Tepoztlan, but it dates back at least fifteen years, to before I started coming here.

Every summer, the main gateway of the former convent is decorated with panels depicting a traditional Mexican story. Last year the theme was Quetzalcoatl’s visit to the underworld, and this year it’s about part of the story of Ce Acatl Topiltzin (Seh-Akat’l-Topeeltseen – Our Prince One Reed), the human being who became (or was, or embodied) the Feathered Serpent, Quetzalcoatl.

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The panels adorning the gateway. Behind are coloured streamers from a separate religious celebration.

According to what has survived of the old legends, he was born in a cave near my village of Amatlan, a few miles from Tepoztlan. He rose to become a revered Toltec leader and teacher. The ‘One Reed’ in his name derives from an early mesoAmerican calendar, identifying his birth-date as May 13 in 895 CE.

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The left-hand panel, showing incidents from Ce Acatl Topiltzin’s early life.

I’m cautious about the details of his life, since what was recorded seems intended to make the Spanish see him as an okay guy. The invaders burned all old records of the peoples they conquered, and it was Franciscan monks who later copied down versions of the myths, to provide the most trusted account. They appear to have been diligent scribes, but without original corroborating sources, it can be frustrating knowing what is true and what was altered or edited to appease the Mexicans’ new overlords.

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The right-hand panel, combining scenes from his adult life.

There is no such ambiguity about the seed mosaics. Using beans that are white, green, yellow red-orange, brown and black, the panels are designed afresh every summer, and installed over the gateway for visitors to admire. A friend of mine was invited to join the team making them, since it’s meant to be a collective local effort, not one artist’s solo effort. Also, covering over 100 sq ft of panels with tight-packed seeds is very labour-intensive.

After its year of glory, when it is photographed thousands of times, and features in countless selfies, the mosaic will be taken down and discarded. The creative process adheres to the principles of perishability governing the panels’ organic ingredients.

I find that a little sad, but well in tune with the traditions the bean-art is trying to acknowledge. The connection to the land and the natural cycles is still strong here, and the seed mosaics celebrate this fact instead of ignoring it.

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The Daily Barkathon

September 8, 2019

The first indication that they’ve arrived is the dogs barking. In the photo below, you might just see my neighbour’s dog in the gate, his paws up between the bars as he yelps. He is often bored, so barking at horses and cows is a diversion for him. Shortly after, a couple of my dogs will be at it –the pair who most prefer to be outside – plus three or four of the dogs of families living on this laneway.

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A photo taken by leaning dangerously out of my living-room window.

They all make more noise than they would if a pack of dogs from the main part of the village had come in for a rumble. Big ruminants are a scandal to the canine world, apparently. There’s no mistaking, therefore, that cows or horses have arrived outside.

The laneway is only half built-up, and on the side opposite to where I live, there’s still a meadow. This offers grazing, but so does the central reservation of the lane, and its fringes. We’re still getting the occasional rainshower, so all this is green and lush right now.

I’ve never been able to understand how the farmers keep track of their animals. Theoretically, they could wander miles, up into the hills or off to a village miles away. Horses are still branded, so they can be identified, but there must be arguments over the cows.

And, occasionally, an out-of-town driver doesn’t realise a large animal could emerge onto the road at any moment, and present a costly compensation case when it’s hit at speed. You don’t want to run down someone’s horse or cow, believe me. Somebody will always know someone who knows the real owner.

So somehow they do work it out.

Most days, mothers, calves or foals come meandering into our cul-de-sac for a meal, seemingly ignoring the dogs’ racket. Sometimes, a dog gets nippy, and gets a hoof in the face. More rarely, a cow or bull lowers its head and threatens the dog with a horn. I’ve not seen a dog killed or injured in such an encounter, but it must happen.

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A foal just a few days old, with its mother, at the entrance of our laneway.

Meantime, the livestock are cheering to look at. They keep the village’s agricultural heritage intact, and they’re often beautiful animals as well.

So I’m glad the dogs start a barkathon when they come by. It reminds me to stop and look out.

 

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March of the Zombies

August 26, 2019

The first time I did it (and the only time, actually) was outside Pape subway station in Toronto. He was about nineteen, and marching along determinedly, face glued to his smartphone, apparently watching a YouTube video. I’d been dodging people who were doing the zombie walk for months, and fed up with it, I braced myself, lowered my head, and waited for him to cannon into me.

He didn’t drop his phone, but he was really stunned to discover that someone else already occupied some space he thought naturally belonged to him. He muttered an apology after yelping, and I walked off without more than a disdainful look, and a slight sense of regret that being a grumpy old geezer wasn’t more fun.

What had triggered me was an encounter the previous Saturday, in the middle – the middle – of Spadina Avenue, at Queen. The girl just wandered out as other people did, not checking if the pedestrian light had actually changed, and bumped into me in the middle of the street. That is, in the middle of six lanes of traffic (including the streetcar tracks), on a busy afternoon. I did the reflexive Canadian thing, a formulaic “Sorry,” then as she wandered off, face re-attached to her cellphone, thought, “Heck no – I’m not remotely sorry.  You might be stupid, but do you actually want to remove yourself from the gene-pool?”

I have no idea if some Higher Power thought it might be an idea if she did; I don’t get a lot of clear communications from Higher Powers. But I did decide it was time to make some sort of statement at the combined stupidity and rudeness of people walking along the street without looking at who’s ahead. Hence the deliberate Pape subway collision.

I don’t think I effected any useful sociological change.

This was a couple of months before my return to Mexico last year. And I kept telling people, “Look, where I’ll be living the sidewalks have too many steps and things to trip over, and so many tripping points caused by earth movement, no-one can walk along looking at a cellphone. You’d be on your face on the ground inside five minutes.”

Hah.

Hah!

Mexicans are the most adaptable people. Sure, three or four years ago nobody could do the zombie walk down an uneven sidewalk. As a matter of fact, back then only wealthy people had smartphones. But cheaper models came onto the market, and people who had always lived with uneven sidewalks and rocky pathways adapted their new skills to the ones they’d learned in childhood.

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Born to walk on uneven ground.

Sigh. No phone-entranced pedestrians. It was a nice fantasy while it lasted.

Now, my pal A. – he says he threw away his cellphone into a ditch. He felt it was taking over too much of his life, he said, and did something about it. That, I feel, is a courageous move. Unless of course, he had tried zombie walking and fell flat on his face, and didn’t want to admit it.

I know I won’t try it. I nearly fall over something here once every other day, just admiring the scenery. If I tried zombie walking, I’d be down in thirty seconds. And if I deliberately block a Mexican who is doing it … the culture here is different. I might find I regret it.

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Mechanical aptitude and feeling stupid

                                                                                                                                                                        August 23, 2019

Exactly how Lucero and her mother met Chucho, I don’t recall, but it was before I came to Mexico. When we started talking about building houses, he was already the designated builder.

My family was not, you might say, very mechanically minded. This failing passed on to me We didn’t have a car when I was young, though my dad could mend a fuse. (Remember doing that? Probably not). I never owned a car myself till I was in my late twenties, and was never one of those people who’d change the oil or a tire with enthusiasm: “Oh boy, macho car stuff to do!”

Now, any young male in Mexico learns how to get an old car moving. The girls are taught to cook and launder, the boys learn how to fix stuff. Yes, it’s very old fashioned, but that’s how it is. Many of the boys also learn construction skills, and Chucho was one of those. How to mix cement, how plumbing works, how to wire a house, how to lay bricks or cinderblocks … he does it all.

He even figured out once how to get his car back on the paved roadway after I reversed it off and got it jammed in a deep rut. I learned then why ancient Mexicans managed to build monumental temples. Forget all that stuff about aliens or influences from across the Atlantic; Mexicans for centuries have been born with an innate grasp of the physics of piled stones. Left to my own ignorance, I’d probably still be walking past that stranded car today.

And continuing to feel as stupid as I did when Chucho looked at it, laughed, and began figuring out how to get it on the roadway again.

A couple of months ago Vinicio, who lives in the adjoining house, had a problem with getting water up from the cistern to the tank on his roof. So, we called Chucho. Chucho came when Vini was out, played around with the system for a few minutes, then checked the heavy lid of the cistern.

“It’s empty,” he said to me, in that sort of tone that implied he didn’t want to call me an idiot, since he figured it was self-evident anyway.

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The guy who fixes all the stuff: Chucho in front of my house during construction.

So, I ordered a truckload of water, Chucho came back, and Vini soon had the airlock in his plumbing fixed. But my track record wasn’t improving.

Now, for weeks recently, the shower in my house hasn’t yielded more than a splatter of hot water. That wasn’t so bad when the hot weather was with us, but as things have cooled off, it’s been more annoying. My Spartan sensibilities are no more developed than my mechanical skills.

So, having played with water volumes, put new batteries in the water-heater’s ignition system and tried stoicism (which dissolves fast under chilling shower-water), I called Chucho. He came round, and I showed him how I could get warm water out of the tap in the sink, but not the shower. He went through the checklist of checkable stuff, then shook the big propane tank.

“It’s empty,” he said, “can you hear? There’s no sound of propane in it.”

Now, I knew it was close to the time that I’d new a new cylinder of propane, but since the problem had existed for several weeks, I didn’t think that was the core of the issue. But once you’ve given a man a convincing reason to think you’re a bit daft in the head, the opinion tends to confirm itself. Get a new cylinder, Chucho suggested, and things would be fine.

So, cursing the timing of the cylinder’s expiry, I did so – and yes, things were better. I now get a minute or two of warm water if I run hot water through the tap in the sink first. It requires fast action with the soap and equally fast rinsing, but things sorta work. But while Chucho doesn’t mind being paid to attend to the foibles of the intellectually constrained, I mind paying him and more important, I mind feeling stupid.

There’s a leak developing in the kitchen skylight that could probably use his skills. No doubt when he comes to fix it, there’ll be some ridiculously obvious reason why the rain comes in through there after a storm, which I should have figured out for myself.

But what the heck – if I move the kitchen table a foot or two, I don’t actually get rainwater splashing into my breakfast. And the rains are mostly done till next year anyway.

I don’t need to feel any stupider this year, so I’ll pretend I haven’t noticed the drips after a storm.

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Clouds and Rain

Our neighbourhood would be an ideal one for someone who wanted to study the way meteorology works. To the north of us are the mountains that surround Mexico City, and in passing through them, the bus goes past stretches of pine trees and alpine forest, with signs warning of ice that forms in bad weather. At 10,000 ft above sea-level, it’s not a hot part of Mexico.

On this side of that high crest, the mountains slope south and downward, breaking to form a kind of uneven shelf a mile wide and roughly five miles from east to west.  Roughly, it’s about 5,000 ft, or one mile, above sea-level. That’s where I am. At the west end of this shelf is a volcanic ridge, with the town of Tepoztlan rising up it. Here at the east end, the high hills push south to end the shelf, and provide a barrier between us and the volcano, Popocatepetl, about 25 miles away. This village, Amatlan, is surrounded by the high cliffs these hills form, while to the south, the shelf drops quite steeply down about 800 ft to the valley where the towns of Oacalco and Yautepec sit. Beyond that, still further south, are more ranges of hills.

 

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This reservoir for horses and cattle to drink is half full this August: a dark horizontal line on the left shows where the maximum water level would be. The reservoir is in sunshine, while the mountains to the north are crowned with rainclouds. Yet no rain came on this day.

From different vantage points, therefore, a person can see clear skies or looming storm-clouds, while immediately above there can be the opposite. A couple of nights ago, I watched a fierce lightning storm down in the Yautepec valley, while a light shower sprinkled this village.

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Looking down to the Yautepec valley, which is covered in clouds, to the south of us.

A few mornings ago, skies here were clear, but the clouds had settled low in the valley, and I was looking down on their tops. I might wake to clear blue above, but then, in the rainy season, wraiths of mist form on the hilltops, and for a time in the early morning we’re overcast.

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Early morning wraiths of mist on the hilltops around Amatlan.

The result is quite a complex series of wind and rain patterns in a relatively small area and, of course, it makes weather prediction no easy task. The forecast might say we’re getting a storm in the evening and we have a barely noticeable sprinkle of raindrops. Another day during the rainy summer, no storm is expected, but suddenly we’re engulfed in a downpour.

And so on.

This year rain has been sparse here, and there’s some fear the corn won’t be done growing before it stops. Everywhere’s green, but the water table has dropped from last year, and the streams are just trickles when they should be flowing steadily. Now, 2018 had a lengthy and intense rainy season, so we’re not in a crisis in 2019; but the overall sequence seems to be changing from how it was a decade ago.

Our rain comes in across the Pacific, and the typhoons and other storms there affect the quantities we receive, and also where the rain arrives. How it will change in years to come is anyone’s guess.

 

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August Sunshine

Our weather in central Mexico is, as I’ve often noted, odd. We have hot weather in April, and hotter weather in May, then for June and July the temperature drops as the rains come. Then, in mid-August, the sunshine increases in some way so that it’s brighter and cheerier than at any other time of the year.

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The view from the roof at midday, looking east.

I should probably wear eye protection of some kind at this point in time, since I’m sure the UV levels are way up. But there’s something so uplifting about the brightness that I don’t want to. It tends to dissolve the day-to-day annoyances such as the increasingly erratic internet connection we’re all getting in the village this week. I even joined in a conversation with some of the ex-hippies here in a coffee house this morning, and didn’t flinch at words like “the Pleiadeans predicted….” or “the planet Nibiru is approaching.” Tepoztlan has been a hippie haven since the 1970s, and the chit-chat often involves extremely arguable topics, especially about putative earthquakes and major earth-changes.

But it ain’t gonna quake today, not in this sunshine. The rains held off last night also, and the half-Moon was clear above the village at 10.00 pm.

I know it won’t last. The rains will come back, we’ll lose electrical power at some point, and the internet will remain iffy. And my hot-water heater isn’t heating hot at all.

But it’s beautifully sunny outside now, there are more butterflies than usual around, and the dogs can’t be bothered to get excited in the heat.

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Colonels

Emiliano Zapata is an enduring figure in this part of Mexico. Where his northern rival, Pancho Villa, engendered a swaggering, brutal image, Zapata over the years has retained a reputation for integrity of purpose combined with military ability. Both men were key figures in the revolution that broke out in 1910, but where Villa survived until he was assassinated some years after it ended, Zapata was betrayed and murdered close to its culmination. As a commander, he had lost and regained territory, and survived several setbacks. Only a clever deception by a presumed ally snared him, and he was killed in an ambush at a hacienda (plantation) in Chinameca on April 10, 1919.

For the actual centenary, a local history group compiled documents and photos of people who served under him, and mounted it in the square in town. Zapata was born fifteen miles from here in 1879, and this area saw some of the most intense fighting of the decade-long conflict. The effort to sever the rich plantation owners from their control of most of the farmland (and of the farmers) was partly successful, and it reshaped the agricultural landscape. But Zapata’s murder at Chinameca was the hacenderos’ way of ensuring they retained a measure of power, and his dream was never wholly fulfilled.

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The statue over Zapata’s tomb in Cuautla, Morelos. (‘Gral’ is an abbreviation for ‘general.’)

I wanted to write about the revolt when I saw the photo exhibit, but found it hard because it moves me in ways that surprise me. Usually, revolutions and revolutionaries leave me cold, but there was a desperate nobility to the struggle here. Moreover, it WAS here. Going through the photos, I saw surnames I recognised, and references to villages whose streets I’ve walked down. When I first visited here fifteen years ago, two of Zapata’s children were still alive.

Zapata, and his movement, live on today, and not just in the Zapatistas of Chiapas further south in Mexico. On the bus to the nearby city of Cuautla, I pass a couple of tall brick chimneys, the walls below them still standing, that belonged to haciendas where sugarcane was grown and processed, and which Zapata’s men attacked while Europe was wracked by its own more massive war. In the north, the U.S. sent General Pershing to help put down Villa, who learned the hard way what machine-guns would do to his cavalry; while Zapata had to fight against his own countrymen and supporters who switched sides. In my local town of Tepoztlan, citizens fled from the fighting to hide in caves for weeks on end.

Yes, it was bloody.

The photos showed some absurdly young officers, generals and colonels scarcely out of their teens. The forces under their command were modest, perhaps a few score for a colonel and a couple of hundred for some generals. A few of them were educated, like Zapata; others look like they couldn’t write their own names, but were trusted by their troops because they’d all grown up together.

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A photo of a few of Zapata’s colonels, from the exhibit in Tepoztlan, where some had fought.

One time, my Spanish language teacher showed us students a documentary made in the 1990s, featuring interviews with old men who’d been fighters seventy years before. Two of them, I remember, tried to mimic the distinctive cluck-click noise their rifles made when a bullet was loaded into the chamber. A third, who’d been one of those post-adolescent colonels, pulled out his old weapon, and demonstrated the actual sound for the interviewer.

It was a brilliant bit of editing. The fact that these were simple farmers, not fighters, with little weaponry beyond these German-made rifles, was something I never forgot. They’d grown up in a hardscrabble life, with no real civil rights, and were fighting for their children to have something better.

Other men, politicians who’d played their own part in the revolution, tried to complete Zapata’s dream of land redistribution in the decades after the conflict ended. In the end, though, a changing world was what defeated that dream. Today, people round here sell off the land won with blood so that outsiders can build hotels and houses. Trucks roar through small towns that were once villages where half-forgotten battles and skirmishes were fought. And since so many fighters couldn’t write, records of the battles are often sketchy or non-existent.

Zapata, though, since he died before power could corrupt him, remains an admired figure. I try to be coolly cynical about his image, but I can’t be. One thing that ties me to this place is respect for those peasant soldiers who found the strength to rebel against brutality and poverty through the will of a leader who dared risk it all; and how he paid for that with his life in an ambush.

They don’t make them like Emiliano Zapata any more.

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Requiescat in Sartagine

The time had come, we agreed, to give Rem the dog a bath. He had roamed freely in our large back yard (or wilderness) for months, and rolled in a few too many patches of mud. He had been white and brown, and now he was several blended shades of murky grey. This morning being the first sunny one in days, and good for drying wet dogs, my friend Lucero and I warmed some water, and began the assault on his fur.

All considered, he didn’t take it too badly. Perhaps he was exhausted after barking at a cornered squirrel for most of the previous evening, or maybe he’s a masochist and only pretended to resent it to maintain his canine credentials with the other dogs.

Sure, he tried to make a bolt for it three of four times, but between my efforts and the leash that anchored him to a window grille, he didn’t get anywhere. Even when Lucero was working on the thick mass of grit and plant material in the fur around his neck, he largely tolerated the insult in silence. Finally, Lucero rested her tired arms, I let him off the leash, and we jumped away from the inevitable wet-dog-shaking-itself shower-bath. Then I gave him a late breakfast, which he accepted with grace (by then, he was starving, a condition he insists is constant), following which he took advantage of the morning sunshine to dry off. And, we concluded, he probably felt better for getting rid of all the crap in his under-fur.

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A washed Rem dries out in the sun.

A short while later, Lucero had to visit friends in the village, and left in our neighbour’s car with a cheery wave. But Rem, ever swift and resourceful, slipped out the door as the neighbour held it open. At night, he roams around if he escapes. In the daytime, he chases the neighbours’ chickens.

Maybe his bringing us a freshly killed hen in his jaws was his way of saying “Thanks for cleaning me up.” That’s Lucero’s take, anyway. Ever the cynic, I wondered if it was his way of saying “F*^% you and your petty rules, unworthy owners of a noble hound and fierce hunter like me.” Also, he might have felt piqued over last evening’s escaped squirrel. Either way, there he was, trotting home with a dead black chicken in his jaws, and the neighbour and two of her kids in determined pursuit.

This was chicken-hit number three for Rem. His reputation as a chicken-killer is now established. The woman was easier to deal with than we expected, however, and asked only for a modest payment. This was a creature grown for meat, after all, not a pet. We doubled the amount, as a goodwill gesture. I half-heartedly spanked the dog (I dislike hitting animals, even naughty ones) and made penitent faces at the neighbour, and Lucero left.

A few minutes later, she called me. If the neighbours hadn’t retrieved the dead bird, could I bring it over to Don Aurelio’s? Then he and his family could have chicken for dinner.

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All  that remains – a black chicken feather.

Well, they hadn’t, and I could, so I did, and they will. We sat around Aurelio’s kitchen, while his wife Cecilia plied us with their home-grown coffee and tamales, which are a kind of bean-filled sandwich made from masa (maize dough). And we swapped dog stories, of which everyone in this village of five hundred dogs has many, and reflected on the short life of chickens.

I so easily forget how interwoven with life and death an agricultural community can be. A fact that, I don’t doubt, the delinquent dog who started this incident appreciates better than I do. I just wish he’d realise that when your recreational hunting activities annoy too many people, you become a target yourself. And in case he doesn’t, or won’t, we’re putting an extra gate on the property.

But Cecilia’s a wonderful cook, and I’m now thinking of excuses to stop by at dinner-time. If Rem did bring the chicken to Lucero and myself as a gift in gratitude, it behoves me to check out what she did with it, right?

  • The heading is Latin for “Rest in (a) Frying Pan.”
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Despatch from the Ypres Salient

July 22, 2019

Once a year, in the fourth week of July, this village of Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl erupts in a celebration of its matron saint, Maria Magdalena. It’s the time of year when I have more homicidal thoughts than any other. In fact, all the murderous fantasies I have come out during these few days.

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People in traditional Toltec dress, bringing banners and smoking copal incense, parade around the village to the accompaniment of post-Toltec rockets.

It’s the rockets. Since I typed the above paragraph, with hardly a pause, four of them have gone off. They’re explosive, so their detonation several hundred feet up echoes off the cliffs and jars the ears of the most sanguine of people. Some, like the bombs dropped by Stuka dive-bombers in WW2, are equipped with whistles that shriek as they ascend to explode.

Last night, after well over a hundred, and maybe twice that, were let off during the day, I thought we’d reached nocturnal calm at 11:00, when I went to bed. Two salvoes just after midnight scotched that idea, and I needed another hour to settle back into sleep. Then, the first salvo of the day came this morning at 5:45. Victoria, one of the dogs I care for, spent most of the night cowering under my bed, while the others just seem stunned by it all.

My headline refers to a segment of the Western in Front in WWI that hardly shifted for three years, and which often underwent attacks and counter-attacks. Many men serving there came out haunted for life by the incessant bombardments. Yes, I know this is a series of explosions without physical injury, and it will be all over by Wednesday. But it grates on the nerves of many of us as well as frightening our pets.

I always try to switch off my murder fantasies by shifting them to a more practical dream. I know the rockets are stored in a building adjacent to the village church, and I’d love to take a 50-gallon drum of water there at 2.00 am, and soak all of them in it. It would upset the rocket launcher-in-chief no end, for I’m sure he loves the sense of power involved in sending the things up into the air over the village, knowing their boom will be heard far away. But if I was caught, the community would never forgive me, even if some other people must hate the noise. I therefore abstain for fear of discovery, but not because I feel it would be wrong.

The theory, I understand, is that firing rockets upward during religious ceremonies underlines the idea of pointing to Heaven above us. Why prayer, music and bells can’t do the job here as they do elsewhere in the world, I’ve no idea, but I do grasp that rockets are fun. When there’s a parade around the village, they’re let off every time the procession passes a shrine to the Virgin Mary that’s in someone’s front wall. There are a lot of such shrines, so there are a lot of rockets.

Fireworks are part of life in Mexico, as they are in many countries, but the affection is very pronounced here. I’ve always enjoyed them in a display, but not when they only produce loud bangs. Right now, sleep-deprived, and having spent time trying to reassure traumatised dogs, I’m simply hoping that by tomorrow, or at least the day after, the village runs out of ammunition. Last time I was here for the fiesta, somebody was firing off two a minute for a solid hour. That becomes unbearable.

I suppose I don’t really want to kill the launcher, or at least I do only when he’s just awakened me from sleep. But at times, I do hope he goes deaf. And that one day, the loud explosions are banned.

From the Ypres Salient, where all is not quiet on the Western Front, over and out.

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The Hermitage

The Hermitage of St. Michael the Archangel in Tepoztlan dates, I’d guess, from no later than 1995. The small church (there’s no hermit there, nor, I’m sure was there ever one, though there’s a modern house at the back) is rarely open, so when I was passing it today with a camera in my pocket and saw the door wasn’t locked, I went in.

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Ermita de San Miguel Arcangel from the outside.

The curious thing about it is that while it has some standard Catholic iconography, including a shrine at the side to St. Nicholas of Bari, its main feature is that it highlights the Seven Archangels of (I’m sure you’ve heard of this guy) Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Three of these – Raphael, Michael and Gabriel – are mentioned in the Scriptures, and with the non-canonical Uriel, they are sometimes shown in central Mexican churches instead of the Four Evangelists, positioned round a dome over the altar. But Jofiel, Camual and Zadkiel only turn up in Kabbalistic angelologies (usually as Yophiel, Kamael and Tzadqiel), and this particular group of seven are otherwise only written about by Dionysius and a few later occultists such as the Renaissance author Cornelius Agrippa.

 

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The Jofiel window, which echoes Agrippa’s attribution to the realm of Saturn (bottom of image).

I’ve tried to find out who built the chapel, and why, but so far I’ve come across no solid information. There’s nothing in the place to indicate its history or ownership, and the people on the street seem to see it as just a chapel with a suitably big and scary painting of Michael spearing a suitably supine Satan. There’s a parish church 100 yards east of it, so clearly it isn’t one of the neighbourhood chapels that people can pop into in a quiet moment, without having to walk a few blocks to an actual church.

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The Archangel Michael beats up his usual Adversary.

“Tepoz” has had the reputation of being a sacred or mystical place since well before the Spanish came in the 1520s, and part of its attraction for tourists lies in various places where you can have your aura photographed, take a yoga session, acquire a Toltec astrological chart or obtain a personal angel reading. Yet hardly any visitors go to the Ermita, it isn’t mentioned on the websites, and no signposts indicate it.

Mexico’s relationship with Catholicism can be complex and sometimes fraught. Many people in recent years have fled it for the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormonism, while numerous small sects and groups flourish; for many years, an outpost of Samael Aun Weor’s Gnostic Movement had a meeting place in Tepoz. Mostly, people seek some kind of accommodation with Rome, as with the cult of Holy Death (Santa Muerte), where an extra element is introduced into the mainstream faith that allows people to move back and forth between the two. The Ermita seems to fit with this approach, stressing a Christian orientation, while obviously revering the influence of its Archangelic patrons. And it goes without saying that somebody, or a group of somebodies, spent a fair bit of money on constructing it.

It’s bright and pleasant to sit in, apart from the rather muddy St. Michael painting, and the stained glass windows with their Archangel images are intriguing. The couple of times I’ve been there, I’ve been content to sit in one the short pews for a while, and soak in the atmosphere.

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Zadkiel, who, we’re told below, can help us when we’re coming through distressing situations, and lighten spiritual loads.

The white walls, inside and out, lend a quality of light and airiness, which isn’t always what comes with Mexican Catholicism. There are explanatory texts under the stained glass windows, which is almost unknown in Catholic places of worship. Somebody cleans the place, and presumably some people worship there, but never when I’ve passed by. And no services are announced outside or in.

It remains a neat little mystery, and I’d love to know how it came to be.

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Divisions

Mexico City is a study in contrasts. All big cities are, but here the divisions are more extreme. The poverty is all around: homeless people; people selling household supplies on the street, or on the subway; ramshackle buildings, or buildings seriously in need of a coat of paint; and so on. And there are wonderful houses, high-rises with dramatic designs or using bright colours, and the same luxury stores you find around the world. It also has a cornucopia of museums and art galleries.

One of the things that always enticed me about Mexico was the artistic creativity of so many people. My iffy Spanish skills mean I can’t comment on the literature comfortably, but a huge proportion of people can play a musical instrument, and a significant number of people produce paintings and sculpture. Some of the 20th Century painters, like Diego Rivera, his wife Frida Kahlo, David Siqueiros or Jose Orozco have worldwide followings, and there are other artists who are commercially successful today, at least in Mexico. I noticed one time that my home town of Tepoztlan had three art supplies stores, a tally which, extrapolated for the higher population, would add up to scores, maybe even hundreds, in a city such as Toronto.

Last weekend included a visit with a friend to the Museo Jumex, to see an exhibit combining the work of Jeff Koons and Marcel Duchamp (he of the infamous Fountain), including some of both men’s best pieces. I’d always liked Duchamp, and my appreciation of his cubist pieces was enhanced by seeing them in actuality, the fine balance of colours and hues being something that’s lost in an art book. Koons … okay, he’s fun.

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A blow-up copy of a Koons work outside Museo Jumex.

I left pondering the relationships between art and the people on the street. Both Duchamp and Koons were or are keen to disrupt that dividing line, the humour and eroticism of Koons’ work making it easy to approach. At the same time, people selling tacos on the street might be paying their way in the world, but they don’t get rich doing it. And the fact that Koons can charge millions for a commissioned work puts him a category not only outside that of most Mexicans, but possibly outside of their comprehension.

On the bus back home in the evening, the man in the next seat wanted to practice his English on me, so we talked for a while. He said that as a waiter, he scarcely made a thousand pesos in his home city of Cuautla every week, so he was working in Mexico City, where he makes three times that. The downside is, he can only go home twice a month to see his wife and six-year-old son. They all make the best of it, and I admired the man’s commitment to supporting them. But the strain on them all must be tough.

It’s easy to juxtapose people and situations like this: a waiter living in one room most of the week set against pop art that sells for a fortune. But Mexico City draws it out more than other places, there being little or no social safety net.

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The eye-popping Museo Soumaya, named for Carlos Slim’s late wife, opposite the Mueo Jumex.

Oddly, there’s also often a commonality between the communities. “Mexicanidad,” shared Mexican-ness, is a reality. The Museo Jumex, like other galleries, is open for free on Sundays, so anyone can come in. Multi-billionnaire Carlos Slim’s Museo Soumaya across the street is the same. You can’t pin it down, and snobbery and classism are rampant, but the connecting threads exist.

It’s easy to make glib remarks that ignore how different a hardscrabble life is from one where you can afford to spend money on paintings and sculpture, but there’s a national consciousness here that bridges the two. I can’t offer a glib “And it’s all wonderful” wrap-up sentence or two, because it isn’t so, and it won’t be, but I’m forever impressed that Mexico has found a way to survive that is so different from the standards and the overall approach of the rest of North America.

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The Saturated Dog Catcher

June 15, 2019

A month ago, I wrote about our rescued dog Oliver, who’s the shyest of the four we have here. He’s as close to me as to anyone else, which isn’t saying much. He lets me stroke his head when I give him his food, but remains immobile as I do so. He just does his thing, whatever it is, without playing much with the other dogs.

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Oliver doing his thing, whatever it is.

A couple of nights ago, as my old hometown of Toronto was on tenterhooks for the NBA finals, I’d planned to catch the game online. But somehow, someone had left our main gate open, and Ollie had wandered out of it.

With the other dogs, I’d be concerned about them causing trouble. With Ollie, I was concerned he’d draw trouble on himself. When you’re a timid dog with minimal social skills around other canines, even if you’re quite big, the world around here isn’t much fun. To go down to the street, he’d have to pass three, maybe five other dogs of varying levels of aggressiveness. Down on the street are some notably mean mutts. So, he went into a place behind the houses, among the rocks under the cliffs, and hid. I went to look for him there, but probably didn’t go up far enough, so I spent most of the evening combing this side of the village for him, and asking neighbours if they’d seen him. None had. By night-time, the Raptors had won, and I was still missing our most vulnerable dog.

I left the front door to the property ajar all night, on the theory that he might come back, and if any of the other dogs got out, they at least knew how to get home. But Ollie lives in a private world of long-entrenched fears; he likely found shelter under a big rock and stayed there. Early the morning after, having slept little and with Toronto no doubt still in a condition of hangover, I went out to look for him again. I’d held off notifying his original rescuer, my friend Lucero, that he was missing, hoping he’d turn up, but I felt I couldn’t postpone letting her know. She was distraught. She was also three hours away, and couldn’t help.

Among other places, I checked the cemetery, where dogs hang out seeking shelter among the tombs. And I found the body of a freshly killed dog, his probable assailants snarling at me from close by.  Seriously – dogs here can be vicious. But at least this poor critter wasn’t Ollie they’d torn into.

Finally, back again behind our house I saw him, to my great relief, and knew … the fun was about to start. The rocks where Ollie was hanging out made it tough for anything on two legs to move fast, and I absolutely didn’t want him to associate recapture with ill-treatment. But he wasn’t going to help much. 

Any of our other dogs come when called. Oliver won’t. Whatever traumas he underwent as a pup are always with him, and he’ll run from me, even if I’m bringing him food. So I began an hours-long process of trying to tempt him home. I went and rattled kibble in his bowl, then decided he was probably more thirsty than hungry, and tried this with his water-bowl. He looked at the familiar green object, came to a few yards away, then turned back into some scrub.

Eventually, I went into town to keep a lunch date with a friend, then started round two. No dice. Then it began to rain. Suddenly, heavily, and … well, wetly. Very wetly indeed. I skidded on mud for the hundred yards back home.

Then, drying out in the living room, I had that “You know what you gotta do, cowboy” moment. Which involved more wetness but not, thankfully, of the kind with which that line of dialogue is associated.

So, I trudged back through the mud to the rocks with Ollie’s water bowl, since even with the rain he had no decent source of water. And a dog gets pretty thirsty after a whole day.

He continued the same process we’d been through a score of times already. I’d call him, he’d come close enough to check things out, then veer off. He was soaking, I was soaking, but he was also tired, and hungry, and cold. At one point he wandered into a kind of shallow trench, paused, and stopped, worn down. I think he tried to jump out and couldn’t. I was finally able to get to him, and slip a leash on his collar.

Relief – I could finally get this daft dog back where he’d be safe! Cue the John Williamson orchestral chords!

Then the real fun began. When he feels trapped, Ollie will go limp. So, he went limp. He sat down, his back legs splayed, and refused to budge. I’m sure in his mind he was trying to resist an anticipated beating or other punishment, perhaps remembering his dreadful puppyhood, but I had to get him down a slippery slope. So: sodden man dragged sodden dog downwards, sliding on the stones of the ciruelos (hog-plums) that grow all around here.

Hog-plum stones are God’s way of saying He enjoys watching people in Mexico fall over. Think of outsized organic ball-bearings, on a hillside also lined with vegetation that grabbed at my ankles, or the dried sticks of which provided roller-bearings to complement the plummy ball-bearings. To this visualisation, add any quantity of mud you like, and the sound of divine laughter coming down amid the rain-supporting thunderclaps.

Add me, determined to do this without swearing at a dog who won’t help me get him to home, food and safety. Now picture me lifting this dead-weight of a wet, muddy dog (22 kilos, or close to 50 lb, plus a little extra from water-content in his saturated fur) and carrying him the last 70 yards back to our front gate. Where I finally had to shove his wet, muddy butt through the doorway.

You could say Ollie was admirably stoic through it all. It was a serious tussle: his single-minded inertia versus my single-minded intention to get him back behind locked gates. I was truly impressed by his ability not to contribute anything useful whatsoever.

Then, once through the door, he flipped. There was his half-sister Victoria, Rem our little pack’s alpha male, and a known environment. He began wagging his tail at full speed.

Hey, what about me, dawg? And look at my clothes! But no appreciation for me was forthcoming. At times of stress, I think he can only anticipate bad things happening. A genius dog he isn’t, but his behaviour made no sense at all in human terms.

Or maybe it did, mimicking some dafter human obsessive tendencies. He’d been scarcely two dog-minutes from the door of home, where there was water, a dry place to sleep, and a regular supply of food. But he confined himself to the illusory safety of an uncomfortable space, deprived of company, sustenance or security. Only when he surrendered from tiredness did he get home – where he obviously preferred to be.

I might just have waited him out for a few days, but I couldn’t make myself do that. I really wasn’t sure he could reason his way out of the situation he was in, simply come back, and bark at the door like any sensible canine miscreant would.

I was aware I looked ridiculous standing in the rain with a bowl of water, calling a dog who wouldn’t come (and who’d still largely avoid me), then carrying him back here. No-one else round here would do that. But I felt wildly relieved he was back on the property, where deep-rooted fears still run his life, but where at least I can prevent the worst of them from happening.

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The Bugs is Coming

June 11, 2019

Read no further, entomophobes, for I write today of bugs. Big bugs, swarms of bugs, and odd bugs.

My first summer here, I learned the rains in central Mexico bring with them crowds of insects. I decided I had to make peace with them, or be driven to an equally low-cost residence somewhere in the Arctic. Then I read about giant Arctic mosquitoes and decided I was far better off here.

Besides, a lot of the bugs in Mexico are quite gorgeous.

This year, the first group to make itself felt was June bugs, which here are known as May bugs. They’re like flying coffee-beans, and end up … well, everywhere. I sweep a half-dozen out of the kitchen every morning, and more from the living room. I think of them as “stupid bugs,” since they seem devoid of any kind of plan other than getting into the house, and making a crunchy noise when I step on those the broom missed.

Hot on their heels at the start of June were las hormigas de San Juan – St John’s ants, which are flying critters that, like the stupid bugs, get everywhere. Then they shed their wings. Then local people eat the ants.

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Mmm-mmm, crunchy: hormiga de San Juan.

I’ve not tried them, but I’m told they’re tasty. But I’m still, along with stupid bugs, sweeping up discarded wings.

But, along with occasional groups of houseflies, there are also creatures that enchant. This evening, a moth with a five-inch (12 cm) wingspan flew into my kitchen. Earlier in the day, a bird flew into my living room, almost knocked itself out trying to pas through the window, and was so dazed it let me grab it and release it outside. The moth, though, was having none of that stuff, and while I got it onto my fingers for a few moments, it promptly flew towards the overhead kitchen light, where it’s still sitting as I write.

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The Black Witch on the kitchen light.

I know some people fear moths, but the oddly named Black Witch (which is beige and grey) is an attractive creature, and harmless. Occasionally, we get morpho butterflies, the ones with the fluorescent blue scales on their wings, and other large lepidoptera. They’re benign, they’re solitary so you don’t get a bunch of them in the kitchen, and on the rare occasions I have one on my hand, I don’t freak out to feel their bug-feet on my fingers.

I’m told centipedes here have a nasty bite, so while some species look like nothing worse than spindly caterpillars, I avoid them. And even caterpillars here can sting, as one that got into a sock on the washing line proved to me. Fortunately, the sting was baby stuff, and passed off after ten minutes.

Stick insects, which aren’t rare but are hard to spot, also have a mild sting, I’m told, but they’re fascinating, and haven’t gone for me yet.

Other favourites of mine include creatures camouflaged to look like green leaves. If you approach one too closely, it flies off, spoiling the illusion; but they’re neat little critters regardless.

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Can you see me? You can? Oh.

But my undying fascination is with scorpions. They’ve stung me twice, but unlike some people my metabolism doesn’t freak out in response to their venom. The pain’s unpleasant but not terrible, and the worst effect is that the bite kills or numbs the nerves  near the point of penetration for days or even weeks. We get two primary species here, a black one (scientific name uncertain) with a mild sting, and a yellow-brown one (Centruroides vittatus) with a nastier one.

They’re durable bugs that can be thrown out the window without injury, after first being trapped by an upturned glass tumbler. Some adopt a militant stance, but more usually, they curl up in terror. They can’t jump, and they scarcely run, depending on their stingers for protection. Since a lot of birds eat them, catching them by the stingers, this arrangement isn’t as efficient as it might seem.

The local attitude is mostly that if we don’t kill them, they won’t bite us. They seem to be honourable creatures who respect this arrangement, and while a tiny black one stung me when I bent down to pick up what I thought was a piece of black fluff (yes, I needed better glasses, while it wrongly felt attacked), the only other time I’ve been caught was after accidentally stepping on one. Later, when I went to take my towel off the line where it was drying in the sun, I discovered a yellow-brown scorpion had made its way onto it (they like coolness and damp) and it took an arthropod’s karmic revenge on my hand.

If you go to the health centre after a bite, they make you sit to see if you develop breathing difficulties. If you don’t after two hours, they tell you to go home, and if necessary, swallow Tylenol. A local lady who cleaned house here at one point wasn’t so lucky, and needed four shots of antivenin to stabilise her. That stuff is quite bad for us, so I’m glad I seem to tolerate the stings.

But mostly, right now it’s small moths, small beetles and small “What-the-heck-is-that?” bugs. I can’t say I welcome them when the rains bring the mass hatchings, but my insect acceptance level is far better than it ever was in Canada. If nothing else, they’re a sign of a healthy ecosystem, and they support a good population of songbirds, lizards and (my favourites) dragonflies.

Also, the golondrinas, the swallows, are starting to build or restore their mud nests as the rains create puddles. They’re pest-control officers par excellence, and they’re also fun to watch as they swoop and loop. None has ever chosen to make a nest at this house, but they’re comfortable living close to humans, which means that the small bugs and mosquitoes are kept numerically in line.

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The Giant Next Door

June 8, 2019

The summer rains have started, but erratically. Today I woke to clear blue skies, and two hours later, Popocatepetl was still visible from the high point that the combi into town passes.  A sighting, for me, feels like a good-luck charm on the day.

I understand why people feel threatened by volcanoes. They occasionally explode, or more usually erupt in half-a-dozen less nasty ways, and they also make threatening noises at times. They sit atop fault lines that produce earthquakes, and of course there’s the idea of buried Pompeii and Herculaneum to caution us that sometimes the things can get very nasty.

I don’t care. I like being (relatively) close to a volcano, even though from my village it’s invisible. Perhaps if I didn’t have the mountainous shield that I do, plus a 20-mile space-cushion, it would make me more nervous.

Its legend, of a warrior who wanted to marry the princess Ixtaccihuatl, is well-known. Popocatepetl was cheated out of his bride, and now he watches over her eternally, for she is the volcanic mountain to the north of his, though she has been silent for many centuries. He has been emitting smoke (his name means “Smoking Mountain”), and quite often more than that, since 1991. Sometimes, the ash is so bad, flights into and out of Mexico City have to divert, and we find a brownish-grey grit to sweep up on our patio.

The mountains around here run to between 6,000 and 10,000 feet in altitude. Popocatepetl is 5,450 metres in height, or 17,880 ft, so that it dominates the surrounding scenery. It is Mexico’s second-highest peak after Pico de Orizaba.

I always look for it when the skies are relatively clear. The ideal sighting comes after a rainstorm, because despite the fact we’re in the Tropics, at that altitude the rain falls as snow and the great cone is entirely white.

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The volcano after rain that fell as snow, from the village of Huilotepec, 25 miles from the summit.

It easily disappoints. I took two friends to see it up close some years ago, and all I could show them was a huge cloud-bank. This afternoon, I went to Cuautla, a town to the south of the volcano, and while it had been clear at 10.00 am, by 1.30 it was completely concealed. Sometimes, it can still be seen from downtown Mexico City, as it usually was until fifty years ago, but this is increasingly rare. Malcolm Lowry’s famous novel of a man’s disintegration, Under the Volcano, is set in Quauhnahuac, the city called Cuernavaca today. I once glimpsed the cone from there a few years ago, but otherwise, it’s been invisible at that distance. I’ve never seen it red and glowing at night, as some photos show it to be during major eruptions, though I have seen a massive grey cloud ascending from it in the daytime. Naturally, I had no camera on me at the time, so here I’ve poached an image of a rather smaller ash-cloud.

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The volcano erupting in July 2013, seen from the west.

In 1901, the British mountaineers Oscar Eckenstein and Aleister Crowley ascended it, later inviting a sarcastic Mexican journalist to join them, then glissading with the alarmed man all the way back down to the bottom. The British sense of humour was always very dry, and the periodista was suitably subdued after the experience.

Centuries earlier, an Aztec emperor sent warriors to investigate the summit, and they came back down with lung damage from the high altitude. In 1520, Hernan Cortes mined sulphur from up near the cone to make gunpowder when he fought the Aztec empire, so presumably he chose men for this who’d had experience with great heights.

Today, though, the mountain is off limits because it’s simply not safe to ascend. It’s a sight to see, not to touch, and only webcams offer close-quarters access to its activities.

To say a lot about Popocatepetl is to miss the point. It’s so overwhelmingly itself, so dominant and majestic in the landscape, that it produces more silence than commentary in anyone who sees it.  It has produced highly fertile soil for agriculture, as many volcanoes do, but it can just as easily turn on that sort of enterprise.

My own affection for it stems in part from the fact that there’s no currently conceivable technology that could contain it. Monitoring has improved, but nothing can block a few hundred thousand tons of magma on the move. There are Ruta de Evacuacion signs all around it in the nearby communities, but that’s the only option if it does go full-on. You leave, or you die. It won’t stop to argue.

It’s a god, for sure. A proud one, a noble one, and a beautiful one.

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I’m Not Saying It’s Aliens

June 3, 2019

There are many guidebooks and tourist websites promoting Mexico’s ancient ruins. Cities such as Chichen Itza, Xochicalco or Teotihuacan, while hard to pronounce for newcomers, impress immediately with their stately proportions, the relief carvings, and, very often, the gorgeous locations their builders chose for them.

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The ruined city of Xochicalco, dating from 700–900 C.E., is set high on a hill.

They’re also baffling in a lot of ways, and pose many questions regarding their functions, their population, and their histories. The Maya had a system of writing, but other cultures in MesoAmerica usually lacked one, leaving us a few glyphs, or murals and some statuary. Archeologists therefore have to puzzle out chronologies and the places’ cultural significance.

Now, one thing that’s always irritated me in the study of ancient civilisations is “ancient aliens” theories. These cities didn’t suddenly spring up on their own; they were preceded by generations, often centuries, of more basic structures and experimentation. In Egypt, we see a clear pattern of simple tombs leading to the Step Pyramid at Saqqara and, from that, the huge structures erected in the 6th Dynasty. Along the way, there were major errors, like the pyramid of Meidum, where there was a major collapse of the outer casing because the builders went beyond their existing level of competence. In Mexico, even as late as the Aztecs in the 14th and 15th centuries of our era, their city of Tenochtitlan was built on ground subject to earth tremors, so that what’s left of their primary temple today leans at a crazy angle. So, asking how a large ruin “suddenly” came into being is like asking how any person “suddenly” came to be. A lot happened beforehand.

Where in Mexico do we find the precursors of the big cities? The answer is: pretty much everywhere. People began piling rocks to delineate sacred places for worship a long time ago, then gradually became more ambitious, creating more elaborate structures. Actual buildings at such locales were often simple wood buildings with thatched roofs, with stone temples – the stuff that lazy thinkers assume their aliens constructed – being the final step.

Along with hiking buddy Ixchel Tucker, a few months ago I visited the recently opened Tlatoani Pyramid at Tlayacapan, and was impressed at how many rings of piled stones circled its hilltop site. The precise function of each level was obscure to us, but it’s not an unlikely guess, given how later sites were set up, that each consecutive circle represented a more sacred part of the site. The word “pyramid” here is a conventional term, and doesn’t mean a quadrangular edifice. Rather, it’s a generic expression for stones piled in a purposeful manner.

At Tlatoani, there’s an actual temple structure at the top centre, partly restored by archeologists, which confirms my assumption.

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Ixchel in front of the rows of walls at Piramide Tlatoani, outside Tlayacapan.

At other places, there are simply a few petroglyphs, perhaps partly restored so we can see them, but baffling to the interpretive modern mind. Whatever god or hero is commemorated by them is for today’s visitor to decide in silence.

This past weekend, Ixchel and I put on our Indiana Jones boots (running shoes, actually), and hiked up to a small site behind this village of Amatlan. The pyramid there is rudimentary – a couple of rows of stones that are easy to overlook. But it was, local people say, sacred to the grandmother of Quetzalcoatl, the god-king whose was legendarily born just outside the village.

What did we discover?

The structure itself is maybe the least important feature of the site. More impressive was the location and the view down over the village and beyond. The ledge it sits on is near the mouth of a valley down which a stream flows in the rainy season, and the setting itself is surely the reason for the temple. People still go up there for vision quests, sitting through the night (or longer) to obtain insight that’s been lost in the world below them.

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The view from the Amatlan pyramid.

Behind it, rain-sculpted rocks tease the imagination towards legends of heroes and serpents, beneficent deities and rulers of societies. Assigning a specific story to them, as scholarship (and alien-mongers) would do, defeats grasping the sacredness. It all just feels strange, with the path leading up occupying spaces and trackways that don’t look like they could exist when seen from below. But for people dependent on rain and the caprices of natural forces for their crops and animals, creating a link to the heavens makes perfect sense in such a place.

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Easy to overlook, these stones were laid to demarcate the site. A second row can be glimpsed above it.

From the stones set there centuries ago, almost certainly by ancestors of the people still living here, you can look down on the village, and see relationships between the mountains and the farmlands. The “point” of the place lies in its connection between the everyday and the heights, the intersection of the mundane and the awe-inspiring.

I love the spectacular sites in Mexico. But these smaller places, which have only their modern names, are what whisper the secrets of what has been, and hint at what the ancient people who built them hoped and dreamed.

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Shaken Churches

May 29, 2019

The earthquake that hit central Mexico on September 19, 2017, caused the most loss of life of any to hit the country in this century. The official death-toll was 370, but 6,000 more were injured as buildings collapsed in many towns and villages outside Mexico City. Some people, obviously, didn’t survive their injuries; there are also persistent rumours about poorer, undocumented people who didn’t survive the day.

The magnitude 7.1 temblor brought down many old structures as well as new ones that weren’t constructed according to quakeproof codes. Particularly hit were the monastic churches or conventos around the volcano Popocatepetl, which together constitute a UNESCO World Heritage site dating back to the 1500s. There is one in my town of Tepoztlan, the Convent of the Virgin of the Nativity, dating to the period 1555-1580, and another in the nearby town of Tlayacapan, dedicated to St. John the Baptist.

 

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The Tlayacapan convent of St. John the Baptist under repair.

The monastery in Tepoztlan was built on a massive scale, yet only four or five monks lived in the place at first. The expected uprisings didn’t happen in central Mexico, and the forced conversion of the native people went ahead with few glitches. The old religion with its multiple gods and goddesses persisted underground for many years, as a folk-faith, but the Cross essentially supplanted it.

Mexico has a complex relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. The religion arrived in the wake of Hernan Cortes’ conquest in the 1520s as a triumphalist follow-up to the military campaign. Some of the monks, notably the Franciscans, adopted a gentle approach, and others, notably the Dominicans, didn’t. For centrally run societies like those of the Aztecs and other MesoAmerican kingdoms, the defeat and the death of their leaders, followed by the epidemics that came with the conquistadors, resulted in a collapse of morale.

Later, the Virgin of Guadalupe largely supplanted the worship of Jesus Christ, though hardly any Catholics will admit this. While she has her own miracle story, she arose largely as a transformed version of the Toltec goddess Tonantzin, and some people see her in this guise this today. Christ is respected, but Guadalupe is loved. She is the glue holding much of Mexican society together, and no church in Mexico lacks a copy of her image.

The monasteries were seized by the state decades ago, and remain state property, even though they perform their traditional religious functions. The Tepoztlan one has served at times as a prison and a stable, and was falling into ruin after the Mexican Revolution ended a century ago. However, then-President Lazaro Cardenas saw it in the 1930s, and opted to restore it. Parts of the surrounding structures were lost, but the cloisters and monastic quarters today house a museum, and the church was usable … at least until September 2017.

No-one was sure, after the roofs began to cave in and outside stonework fell to the ground, if the monasteries could be restored. Such a project is very expensive, and a calls for special expertise to work using the old construction methods. Naturally, there are people who object to so much money going to restore old religious buildings, when the state is technically secular to the point of official atheism. But tourism is money, and Mexico without tourism would be …well, Panama North. Not too many people visit Panama. Thus, the money was found.

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Restoring the Convent in Tepoztlan.

So, stone by stone, and roof-beam by roof-beam, the damaged monasteries are being restored. Interior wall paintings are lost, but the appearance of the actual structures was well documented before the ‘quake hit, and is being faithfully replicated.

Like all old buildings, they need constant, ongoing maintenance. I wonder, each time I look at a rack of scaffolding with a man perched on it, what will be done if there’s another massive temblor. I thought this five years ago, when the towers in Tepoztlan were being repaired by men on precarious wood gantries. Mexico always rebuilds, but there’s a suspicion a new fault-line might have opened up or widened 20 months ago. If so, there’s a question mark over the future. Years of renovation efforts can end in seconds if a fierce enough shaking happens.

But Mexico is, depending on your standpoint, fatalistic or philosophical. Mexicans might hate their governments, their presidents and their smug richer class, but they love their ‘Mexicanidad,’ their Mexican-ness. And even if the church disgusts them as an institution, they will still want to see its monuments rebuilt, even if they secretly detest the past oppression those walls represent. In a way many western societies seem to have forgotten, they grasp the living power of symbols, and how essential they are in a world that’s losing its footing more every year.

Or, they know that to lose the oppressor’s monuments is also to forget the oppression.

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Ear Worms

May 25, 2019

The lady in the photo below is probably grateful that her image isn’t too clear. Often, street musicians in Mexico like photos, because it means they get a tip after it. This woman, I decided after watching her one day from a safe distance, gets no donations at any time. And she was very wary of me and my camera.

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Mexico has a long and wonderful tradition in music: everybody knows La Cucaracha or the Mexican Hat Dance, while several other song styles sound immediately familiar, even if the words aren’t. And Mexico without mariachis would be … well, southern Texas.

Now, there are people who play music in public in Tepoztlan that are truly bad. They are marketplace musicians who hit on people eating at the taco stands in my town, and while I’m fond of one or two of them, and am at least polite to a couple more, there are some so bad that adjectives fail me.

One man comes around with a leaf or blade of grass between his thumbs, and blows onto it like the reed of a wind instrument. As a kid I did this for fun, with no intention to produce an actual song. Grass-man doesn’t really produce one either, but he makes up in volume what he lacks in tunefulness.

And seriously, he is loud: he must have practiced for years to attain that level of off-key volume. He knows three songs, and plays them, faltering and re-starting their phrases, until somebody slips him five pesos to shut up. Even then, he just moves on a few yards to the next stand, from which he’s still painfully audible, and repeats the performance.

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The Tepoztlan market: music, good and bad, is always present.

A new threat emerged in town a week ago with a man who plays a guitar with a certain dangerous flair, posturing and flinging it around him as he strums (more or less) his way through old Zeppelin songs, or the AM radio hits of the 1980s. He has a speech impediment, so that he both sings and speaks in a way few non-Mexicans can grasp. But he seems immune to rejection … so there goes another regular five pesos on the “Thanks and please leave now” principle.

But the woman in my photo is in a league of her own, and I’d prefer she stays in the nearby city of Cuernavaca, where I first noticed her late last year. She has sheet music (Vivaldi, Schubert), she knows how to hold a violin and bow, and she looks like she’s about to give a passable rendition of a sonata or a movement from somebody’s chamber piece.

Instead, what comes from her instrument is a sound that two mating cats might make on a hot summer’s night, but with extra disharmonic resonances. She can’t hit any single note accurately, nor does she have any concept of phrasing. If you know the music of Pierre Boulez or Luigi Nono, and imagine either one of them performing it at four in the morning after an all-night bender on cheap gin augmented by several joints, you wouldn’t come close. The concept of keys is abandoned, the idea of discernible tempo is as absent as rye whisky at a Mormon Christmas social, and the notion that anyone would enjoy her sound is beyond my capabilities of imagination.

Maybe I’m being too mean here, but … hey, I’ve heard her, and you haven’t. Why, I wonder, does she do it? Is it a bet with a friend? Some sort of public atonement for having betrayed a painful confidence? An obscure sociological experiment, with her waiting to see if someone offers to put her violin out of its misery?

I don’t know. But she’s in a class of her own, beyond the worst of the marketplace minstrels I’ve heard. I thought it might be that she simply has no other job skills; but she doesn’t have this job skill, so why doesn’t she just beg for change? People might actually stop for her then.

She remains a mystery: a cacophonous, counter-melodic, string scraping mystery.  I just hope she doesn’t come to Tepoztlan. She might make some of the existing sonic terrorists more ambitious than they already are.

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Edible Cactus

The first time I was offered cooked cactus, I felt I was being daring to try it. The letdown came with the taste, which was very slightly tart but otherwise bland: think zucchini without the slight sweetness or the touch of green bitterness. Since then, I eat it when it’s offered, but I don’t seek it out. When I was told it’s used a lot to feed livestock, I wasn’t surprised, though I did feel a pang of empathy for the cattle who have to eat it. It is, however, rich in magnesium, and is a modestly useful source of vitamin C.

I naively assumed, for some time, that people wanting to consume it went and picked pieces of wild prickly pear. I had no idea there were 3-million hectares (about 6.6-million acres) of the over-100 edible species of Opuntia cacti grown across Mexico. So, the first time I saw a field of nopal, the cacti growing in long rows, I was fascinated. I suppose someone who disliked broccoli or tomatoes would feel the same way to see rows of broccoli plants or swelling red fruit in a large greenhouse.

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A large field of nopales near the town of Tlayacapan, Morelos.

Growing them doesn’t seem complex. Prickly pear are native here, and so they respond well to the natural climate cycle. In some cases, they’re grown to attract cochineal insects, which love them, and from which carmine dye is extracted. This fell into disuse in the 20th Century, with the growth in synthetic dyes, but it’s made a comeback for food colouring and lipstick as concerns over synthetics generally have increased.

The downside to this fact is that if you want to grow the nopales for food, then the cochineals are a pain, and you have to spray to keep them at bay. The plants seem to continue growing when infested with cochineals, though; one in our back yard is covered in them but seems otherwise healthy.

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Cochineals conceal themselves under a soft screen of white fibres on our backyard nopal.

Some of the fields growing nopal aren’t much larger than an average back yard – in other words, it’s a small sideline for a small farmer – while others are surprisingly extensive. The town of Tlayacapan, a few miles from where I live, has large swathes of nopal in the flatter areas among the hills.

If you’ve ever been given a piece of prickly pear by someone who owns one, you know you can plant it and it will put down roots and also grow new cladodes, the technical term for the flattened, leaf-like stems ‘leaves’ that in time become actual stems. The things can grow as big as small trees, given time, but a nopal farmer wants to harvest young cladodes, which obviously are more tender and tasty to eat.

Some growers break off entire cladodes, but at least one grower whose crops I examined was cutting them in half. The bisected leaves then put our two new cladodes each, so there is uninterrupted  food production: two pieces of edible cactus where there was one before. Somebody, of course, has to scrape off all those teeny little spines, which can stay in your skin for days, and I often see women in the market in town doing this with scrapers. I assume the nopal pickers themselves wear gloves; either that, or they perversely enjoy feeling like human porcupines.

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This farmer has sliced his nopales‘ cladodes, selling half of each and letting new leaves grow from each sliced surface.

Staring at the lines of cacti, scarcely two feet in height, I’ve considered that it can’t be hard to grow a crop. And they’re kinda pretty to look at. But my passing horticultural fantasies always disappear when I consider one basic fact: I still don’t like them enough to want to eat them much. And I’m sure they’d end up on my plate a lot simply because there’d always be some available.

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Waiting on Water

May 16, 2019

This evening, it’s raining a little. Not hard enough, and maybe not long enough, but it’s a promise of the rains to come.

By August, I’ll hate the daily downpours. They make it impossible to dry washed clothes outside, they turn the hillside paths to mud-swamps and run streams down the village’s main street, and they breed bugs. But right now a real downpour would be welcome.

Fires start in the forests at this time of year from lightning strikes, from broken glass that concentrates sunlight onto dry leaves, or simply from spontaneous combustion. Outside, I can smell the smoke, and on a couple of nights, I’ve gone to bed with the choking scent of it in my room.

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Fire burning on a hillside near Tlayacapan, May 11, 2019.

Many farmers, too, are burning their fields to clear them for planting, which makes the hills on the other side of the village sometimes invisible. In Mexico City today, the air quality was so bad they told kids to stay home from school. I don’t know if that does much, since they’re still breathing the smoky air at home, but the authorities don’t want kids running around in a playground in this. The city, remember is in a series of valleys, with forest-land to the east, and no easy exit for bad air. Several friends of mine who have asthma or other breathing problems are sounding scared.

Rains in central Mexico usually start at the beginning of June, and terminate in October. That’s not an absolute rule, and sometimes the torrents come down by late May, or hang around, as they did last year, until the end of November. But this cycle means the second half of May is a fraught time, since there have only been a few rare showers since before Christmas.

We’ve not had a terrible year for forest fires in Amatlan, like 2011, when we were planning evacuation and there were flames on the cliffs all around us. However, other communities have had to recruit teams of volunteers to put them out when they become too big, or get too close to houses. Last weekend, while visiting a friend in a nearby town, I counted eight or nine blazes on the hillsides, some of which burned out, but a few of which had to be contained.

In a couple of weeks, three or four at most, we’ll see actual rains. They’ll cool off our 28-degrees C days, remove the threat of fires and eliminate the smoke, and re-start the annual growth cycle here. But the rain that I mentioned when I began this piece has already stopped, and the evening sky is clearing. The real thing isn’t here yet.

So, we wait.

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Ready for the World

A girl’s fifteenth birthday is a special event here. The tradition of the quinceañera goes back a long time, and has taken various forms over the years. But in essence, it declares a girl is now becoming a woman.

On the simplest level it says: “Our daughter is marriageable. Young men may now legitimately declare their lustful interest.” In today’s Mexican society, where the old custom of teenage marriages in the villages has declined, it has become more a rite of passage to adulthood, even if the older meaning still pertains.

A party is a must, of course, while some families can afford to accompany their daughters on a trip elsewhere in Mexico, or even overseas. The party easily lasts all afternoon and into the evening, and everyone can remark how the girl in question was just a rug-rat not long ago, and now look at her.

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Janika, all dressed up and all grown up, too.

Depending on a family’s means and status, it might be a modest celebration with immediate family and friends, or a full-on blow-out. At times, I’ve seen embarrassed young girls in colourful dresses paraded round the village accompanied by a band and a phalanx of protective male relatives. Janika’s, to which I was invited last weekend was in the upper range. There were over 150 people attending, a DJ, and hired waiters.

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Sobriety was not the aim of the event, even if the young lady at the centre of it can’t yet drink.

To round things out, a squad of costumed Chinelos was on hand to get everyone dancing. The Chinelo dance could be described as a vigorous solo samba, sometimes with the occasional touch of Saturday Night Fever thrown in, but it requires only minimal skill to get into. It’s hard to disgrace yourself, in other words, even if you’re naturally as flat-footed as I am.

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Flanked by her posse of close pals and relatives, Janika leads her squad of Chinelos to the dance-floor.

Janika’s family is a prominent one in the community, and we had barbecued pork, unlimited beer and a bottle of tequila on every table. There isn’t so much a guest-list on these occasions as an expectation that everyone who knows the parents and grandparents will show up to celebrate the girl’s emergence into the community. This young woman is about to graduate from her middle school, and will soon be moving with her family to Canada, so there was also a sense of a generous farewell and a lasting reminder of her roots.

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A very small Chinelo on the dance-floor.

Some families involve their small children in the Chinelo tradition, which conveys a measure of cool to the kids who have their own elaborate costumes made for them. I think the one in the photo above was a daughter who, in a few more years, will be having her own quinceañera.