The rains were restrained last summer. I scarcely recall any of the massive downpours of other years that, the morning after the storm, would leave the village streets still running with water. Thankfully, the maize crop around here was abundant despite the lower rainfall, but now we’re facing a problem with the water table.
The first clear sign emerged a couple of weeks ago when, sitting on the combi into town, I noticed a high plume of what first looked like cumulus cloud on the hills behind the village. I quickly realised the column of smoke was swirling in motion, indicating a blazing fire. Local teams had it put out by the next day, though on the day after that, a baby version came back for an hour or two.
Normally, forest fires round here are a risk in April or May, but the season has started early, presumably because of the dryness.
Today, the local town declared a partial emergency, announcing that “The City Council of Tepoztlán in coordination with the forestry civic groups, citizen brigades and environmental cultural promoters of the municipality, jointly made the decision to suspend any tourist activity in the Tepozteco Natural Protected Area.” In other words, they don’t want people hiking in the hills, for fear they will light cooking fires, discard cigarettes or drop bottles that might act as lenses for sunlight.
There’s also the problem that if a fire starts, either as a result of spontaneous combustion or from a farmer burning off his fields, hikers or simple bucolic wanderers might be cut off by rapidly advancing flames and smoke, and they’ll need a rescue. This assumes, of course, that anyone knows where they are, or even if they’re missing.
These are issues that anyone who lives here soon understands. although some farmers don’t seem to learn about burning a field with the proper safeguards. People often own fields well up into the hills, some distance from habitation, and if things get out of hand, there’s no-one around to help them. I’ve often wondered if there’s any safe way to burn fields in the dry season, but the practice continues, and most farmers never start a blaze that spreads. A key thing seems to be doing it early in the morning, when there’s a little condensation on the ground, not much wind, and the heat hasn’t built up in the atmosphere. This does mean people like myself find small bits of burned maize stalks have drifted in on the wind, and are all over the patio in the late morning. Still, a broom is a powerful tool in the hands of the determined.
There’s not a great deal we can do in advance, since this is a heavily wooded area, with a great deal of dry underbrush. And fires are one of natures tools for renewing woodlands.
Fires are, however, a fact of life here, like the occasional small earthquake. And they remind us that our ownership of land is at the mercy of nature’s whims.
As I have mentioned before (or rather, complained), I’m trying to rehabilitate the house I used to live in. There’s been no tenant there for almost three months, and by sluggish degrees, with some outside help, I’ve been cleaning, de-griming, re-plumbing and painting the joint.
The original plan was to have it ready for renting by December. Hah! Try April, at the current rate. I’m still amazed at how much paint a wall needs to cover it. And how much masking tape to hold down the newspaper that catches the splashes. Day by day, I’m becoming more expert in loathing the task of house painting.
What has fascinated me, however, is the sheer quantity of spider webs in the place. The insect screens keep out most flying creatures, even if small critters can crawl in under the door or through gaps around the window-frames. But there’s no food supply in the place, so many species aren’t drawn there, and the webs have very few such captives in them. What I find, when I look closely at what I sweep off the walls each day, is dead spiders.
I’ve never seen a tarantula here, although we do get occasional black widows. The creepiest-looking octopods are orb spinners, with their long front legs, who weave big nets between trees overnight; but few of them come into the house, since they need flying victims. The apex predator in there right now is a spider with a small body and very long legs, which can skitter around the corner or drop safely to the floor when I become threatening. And I don’t think those guys bite humans.
But as I splashed paint around a doorway this afternoon, chasing some of these critters out of the path of my brush, it occurred to me that there really is little for them to eat except other spiders. Big spiders eat small ones, small ones eat tiddlers and tiddlers, I assume, eat things I can scarcely see. Or maybe another tiddler’s babies: spiders don’t discriminate much, I believe. Whatever – the ecosystem in the house is essentially arachnoid: it’s like an entire eco-system based around spiders consuming spiders. Maybe if everything else gets destroyed, spiders can take over after us.
They are annoying, of course. Painting over smaller webs can be done, but it’s easier to remove what’s there before I start. It’s just amazing to me how many little webs show up. They’re not all orderly and symmetrical, some just being small clumps of silk. Painting over living spiders is problematic, since they wriggle and mess up the look I’m aiming for. But sometimes, they refuse to run away fast enough, and they end up drenched in white paint. And I do mean ‘end up.’
I’m looking forward to being finished in a week or two. After that, webs can simply be swept from their corners with a broom or the long-handled dusters that people here sell for 40 pesos. Soon, I hope, I’ll have a new tenant who can take over spider removal activities, and I can forget about fixing the place for a year or two, until rain, fierce sunlight and a pause between occupants means I have to do this again.
It’s just a pity spiders have no cash income. If I could rent to them at a couple of pesos each per week, I reckon the population I’ve currently reducing could stabilise, and I could just count the cash. And I could forget about buying still more paint tomorrow.
The tell-tale sign was what, just this morning, looked like a paint splash on one of my socks. On investigation, it turned out to be a large hole above the ankle, making me wonder how I’d caused it.
Buying clothes in Mexico can be hit-or-miss, and the sizing system is different to the US or Canada. I’ve therefore always made it a habit to stock up on replacement clothing during visits back to Toronto, looking for familiar outlets and familiar brands. But, not having been back for 15 months, I’m starting to notice extra wear and tear. A couple of other socks have passed the state of easy repair, one or two shirts are fraying at the cuffs, and a few stains on paler items of clothing won’t wash out.
Such are the horrors of international quarantine.
A further problem with replacing stuff locally is that our town of Tepoztlan has very limited shopping options for clothes. I’ll need to go to the nearby cities of Cuautla or Cuernavaca, which entails being on buses for up to an hour each way, then being in a place with a large number of people. Some major stores are partly closed, and a friend told me the Cuernavaca Walmart was recently not letting people wander the clothing aisles, where many potentially infected fingers might touch the same item.
Ordering clothes online makes me nervous, since I’ve never found collar or shoe sizes (for example) are precisely the same, brand to brand. Getting delivery here would require prolonged waiting for a driver to find my house in a village without street signs. And I need to try an item before I feel okay buying it. I don’t want to have to send stuff back, and re-order it.
After a year of the pandemic, I’m starting to find many things are getting on my nerves that formerly, I’d have let go by me, at least for a time. Having fresh clothing is a sign things are still basically in order: having frayed or stained khakis indicates they aren’t.
Forget, then, the statistics about virus caseloads, or stories about delays in delivering vaccines. I’m not even that concerned that Mexico’s President has Covid-19 himself. I’m facing a sartorial crisis.
I’ve occasionally been teased about wearing long-sleeves as opposed to tee-shirts, which are the local expat uniform. But I burn in the sun if I wear short sleeves, and a year or two back I needed a suspicious grey blotch taken off by a dermatologist that was, she assured me, a result of sun-damage. I end up looking oddly like many local older men, who still wear long-sleeved shirts, and this doesn’t hurt my acceptability in this rather closed community.
So, soon, I imagine, I’ll have to smother myself in my best KN-95 mask, board one of those buses, and go hose-hunting in one of those other cities. I’ll daringly risk acquiring a shirt bearing a hitherto unknown Asian label, or perhaps a pair of jeans. And back home, I’ll congratulate myself on my daring and practicality.
And if the socks and pants don’t last very long, I’ll have to console myself that it’s like my parents’ long-ago life in wartime. Sometimes, in times of prolonged crisis, you just have to settle for sub-standard threads.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I live in a house that’s on the same property as the bungalow I built for myself in 2012. I left it in 2015 to return to Canada and make some money, having rented it to Ofelia, a local yoga instructor.
Ofelia looked after the house beautifully, and I resisted raising her rent after I came for a visit and saw what she’d done, with a stairway up to the flat roof put in, and plants all over. She was one of those people for whom plants somehow signal, “Buy me and put me in a pot near a window, and I’ll adore you!” I didn’t want to lose such a thoughtful tenant. Nor one who’d brightened the place as she had.
Sadly, in 2018, she had her second bout with breast cancer, and this took her life some months before I came back here in November of that year. The place was rented to a man who is an architect, a job-title indicating construction project management as much as design in Mexico. He stayed for a little over two years, before moving away to take on a major professional project, and I had to think about what to do with the house.
When I lived there, my friend Lucero (who owns the property) had her mother living in my current home, and visited often. I took care of their five dogs, and kept an eye on her mother, while her mom occasionally translated for me with tradespeople or on local issues. The dogs spent much of the day in the corral on the far side of the property to my own residence, but since I could just walk across to it, there were no practical issues of access to overcome.
Since Ofelia’s time, however, there’s been a fence between the two houses. And Lucero’s mom isn’t independent enough any more to live here. So, staying in my old place with its small amount of open ground, when the surviving dogs are again my responsibility, wouldn’t be convenient.
Anyway, nearly three weeks ago, I finally got into cleaning and painting the old place, after having a couple of structural problems fixed by a professional. It’s not the classic ‘renovation hell,’ but I’m a terribly sloppy painter. Also, I found it became slow going when I kept getting stoned on paint thinner. As a friend of mine quipped, “Yep, cheap drugs give you the worst highs.”
More to the point perhaps, the architect who’d lived there was as as much into housekeeping as I am into house painting, and there are layers of grime to remove. I began washing the windows this afternoon, and after two hours I was only half done. I still have to tackle accumulated grease in the kitchen. I was planning to rent the place in February, but that isn’t likely right now.
Still, the process of removing flaking or chipped paint, along with generations of spider webs, is having its effect. And it isn’t what I was expecting. This is, after all, my own old house, designed and redesigned over and over, during afternoons when I was supposed to be working at my old day-job. We have a bond, the house and I, and it’s probably starting to forgive me for abandoning it for five years.
A couple of people have asked me about renting it, since inexpensive places round here have become scarce, but I don’t really want anyone in there, unless Ofelia cloned herself before leaving us. After the architect, whom I did like as a friend, I’m wary of anyone having it. I also enjoy my solitude, even as I recognise that it’s practical at my age not to live in isolation.
So, I’ve noticed that I’ve been spinning out the work, rather than rushing to complete it. If and when I do rent the house, I want it to be in half-decent condition. But for now, despite paint fumes and having to be on my knees scraping the floor at times, I’m simply enjoying renewing acquaintance with it.
Back in Toronto in the 20-Oughts, I’d sometimes count the stars visible overhead on a clear night. It wasn’t hard, because it doesn’t take long to count to 40. It was a little sad that I’d have to drive an hour outside the city to see a real night sky. However, during one of my first visits to Amatlan, I found there were well over 160 to be seen, and I could only estimate an accurate count. Even after an iffy day, that later became a compensation for living here.
In the 15 years or so since that night, more people have moved into this area and built houses. More powerful street lights have gone in, especially on the highway south of us, and I can’t see half as many stars now.
Three years ago, the municipality gifted our village with new street lighting, something nobody had asked for, and which is largely superfluous to our needs. There’s very little nocturnal street crime, and of course the lights further block out the stars.
Worse than this is the fact that the lights are usually positioned on 14-ft poles in front of people’s houses. If your bedroom is on that side of the house, then sleeping can be like trying to snooze in a room with all the light-bulbs on. Some people asked the men installing the poles not to position them right in front of bedroom windows, or not to put in light-bulbs, and they’d agree not to. Then, they’d plant them in cement where the plans said they had to go, add the bulbs, and move on to the next job.
Now, I wouldn’t want to imply that at this house, we did or paid for anything bad – no, not at all. After all, I certainly couldn’t climb up a 14-ft pole any more, if I ever could have done. But fortuitously, the light-bulb in the pole right outside my bedroom has gone two years without a working light-bulb. I hope it stays that way. And two weeks ago, I noticed my neighbour’s pole no longer had a working light on it: she, too, had given up trying to live with the glare. The pole at the entrance to the laneway that our six or eight houses are on still works, which makes sense since the roadway rises in a tricky curve. But three out of six poles in this lane are dark now.
How long till the lighting folk come come to fix things? I hope it isn’t soon.
I miss my multiple stars. When I came here, I had ambitions to resume my juvenile career as an amateur astronomer, but we’re so close to the cliffs that it proved hard to align a telescope; the angle for viewing was just too extreme. Mercury, for example, has never been seen from Amatlan, since it disappears in the glare of the sun before it ascends over those same cliffs.
And other sights in the skies are harder to see now, even if the angle isn’t too bad. I sold my telescope five years ago, and didn’t acquire a replacement.
Some cities have addressed light pollution. The last time I visited Los Angeles, I was struck that the skies were better than in Toronto, because the city has taken steps to improve matters. If the citizens band together, they can get ordinances passed that give them back some of their stars. Here, there’s no political pressure to do this. It simply isn’t a priority, and you’d have to go much further south, or east into the Yucatan, to find a bejewelled night sky.
But I do like to think that in removing the light outside … er, I mean following the happenstance that the light went out prematurely, a few of the stars overhead were saved for our observing pleasure.
Understanding the seasons here in Amatlan can be difficult. Our rains in 2020 finished on schedule in November, but it was some weeks after that many of the flowers came out on the trees and shrubs. How they manage to draw enough water from deep in the earth when there’s been no rain for a month baffles me, but they manage it. And the hummingbirds are grateful, as they buzz around the flowers for nectar to suck.
The cazahuate trees put on a brilliant show of white flowers, and one near the entrance to the village always seems to have the best presentation. It’s on a slope, so it receives more sun than other such trees, like the one in our back yard. I assume that’s a factor in the display, but why, I can’t say.
Along with the hummingbirds, a whole bunch of colourful finches and songbirds show up at this, the coldest part of our year. I don’t know how the little colibris (okay, hummingbirds…) handle these cool nights around the New Year, when temperatures dip to nine or ten degrees Celsius, and stay cool till the sun comes up over the mountains opposite us, but they seem to thrive regardless.
I’ve mentioned before that the house in which I live was designed haphazardly, with the plans altered several times during construction. It also incorporates some oddities that you don’t find in most residences. One of its eccentricities is that the bathroom window, instead of being a smallish opening high on the wall, is actually five feet wide and four tall. Outside is the quasi-wilderness of the dogs’ corral, where we put them if workmen come to fix the sometimes failing plumbing and wiring. They also like to hang out there when the sun shines, and they can absorb the rays without any chill morning breezes.
What they ignore, lacking a cat’s climbing abilities, is the songbirds I mentioned above. I sometimes stand at the bathroom window, wrapped in a towel, watching and listening to orange, yellow and green birds sequentially assert their dominance over a particular tree or branch. I can’t get photos of them that are worth reproducing, nor do I know their names so I can filch images from online, but this little area does become a bird sanctuary at certain times of the year. The birds, along with the little canyon wrens that hop up or along the garage walls, devour some of the plentiful (far too plentiful…) insects we have, so apart from their prettiness, I also appreciate their pest control services.
But why they all show up when the rains are over, and the trees are starting to dry out, I can’t say. I’m just happy that they do.
Around two weeks ago, I noticed a significant shift as I went into town on the combi micro-bus. Previously, only around half of the passengers wore face-masks, and even that percentage had been dwindling since the town re-opened in the fall. But suddenly, three-quarters of the people were masking, and even some of our libertarian holdouts with their much touted bulletproof auras and invincible immune systems were wearing them. The police began to stop the unmasked, warning them of fines, and the bus drivers started requesting that people put them on as well.
As has happened anywhere, we’ve had all sorts of ups and downs, and ons and offs, with the pandemic. Once the town of Tepoztlan put up barricades at its two primary entrances, back in the spring, our village of Amatlan copied it. My friends weren’t allowed in to visit, and when I went out, I needed proof of residency to be allowed back. For once, my gringo face, which always stands out, was a benefit in avoiding repeated checks.
The village barricade was always problematic, and had at least one shooting incident. It wasn’t officially sanctioned, and even the one the town put in place was technically illegal. When first the village reten was cleared, and a week or two after the town began admitting visitors again, everyone breathed sighs of relief.
Then, of course, the pandemic continued and worsened. With 122 recorded cases in the municipality to date (we have over 40,000 people), we’re in much better shape than some nearby communities, where the infection rate has been up to four or five times as high. Why, we don’t know, but we’re dangerously smug about it.
Last week, the governor of this state of Morelos warned about a complete Christmas lockdown. Our town nearly went that route, but our exhausted mayor, who toughed it out for months but couldn’t keep telling desperate, angry people their livelihoods were cancelled, declared on the weekend that he wasn’t closing up again. Christmas visitors are coming in, so I’m trying to avoid the town as much as I can. I miss the friends who live there, but it doesn’t feel that safe with all the outsiders.
If I compare our caseload to Toronto, which as of this writing has tallied around 53,000 people infected, we’re slightly better in our numbers. With minimal hospital facilities for a pandemic, that’s something to appreciate, and it’s far from like this in Mexico taken as a whole. This nation, with three times Canada’s total population, has now reported 1.3-million cases, and 120,000 deaths. And as they are elsewhere, the indicators aren’t good. Even the denialists are suddenly asking when the vaccines will be made available.
So, I can’t put much of a positive seasonal spin on this post, beyond being grateful I’m in a place where I can at least get out and about, and the risk level has somehow stayed low. All I can do is make sure my face-masks are clean, and that my fingertips stay dry and a little cracked from all the gel and washing with soap they go through.
I hope you all continue to stay as safe. My best wishes for 2021, and thanks for reading my posts.
A couple of months ago, my friend Ixchel introduced me to the old train route that used to pass through San Juan Tlacotenco, a village sited close to a thousand feet above our town of Tepoztlan. We’re always looking for new places for a hike, and this extended loop proved fascinating to both of us. The railroad never made it to Tepoz, only to San Juan, but it ran until the 1990s, when the rails and sleepers were torn up. The trackway, though, was preserved as a rough road half-paved with small pieces of limestone that had once kept the sleepers in place. It passes through San Juan, on past the village cemetery, and still further to the city of Cuernavaca 17 kilometres away. Or, in the other direction, goes 94 km to Mexico City.
Because trains can’t climb a steep gradient, train tracks have to be laid in extensive loops in mountainous areas. As a result, to walk, cycle or drive (yes, it’s drivable) along the route means you’re never quite sure what’s around the next bend. Our first couple of expeditions were pleasant strolls between trees arching above us. Later on, we decided to drive the parts we’d already walked, parking the aging Ford Explorer I use once we found a decent space for reversing, and continuing on foot to enjoy open sky, with vistas reaching for miles to the south and west, amid baking hot afternoon sunshine.
As we walked, it was hard not to notice how the railroad engineers of the late 1800s had addressed the variable terrain. In places, we’d be on high embankments, while in others, we’d be walking across small bridges that spanned gullies and stream-beds. And a lot of the time, we’d be walking through gaps blasted out of the original rock. There are no big wooden trestle bridges, as you see in old movies, but a lot of earth had to be piled up and packed tight in certain places.
Perhaps passengers of long ago noticed nothing of this construction, noting only the occasional panorama of hills and plains. But for pedestrians today, it’s easy to grasp. At some points where rock was blasted with dynamite, modest overhangs still provide shelter for snakes, bugs and things that we prefer not to disturb. In others, we can look 10 or 15 metres down an almost sheer drop, or into a gap where a stream long ago carved out a groove in the hillside. It’s plain that, with no trains passing through, trees have not had to be cut back radically, though the road seems to be maintained for the occasional vehicles that pass along it. If you’re in a car, and another one comes along, it can be hairy trying to find a space at the side that doesn’t give way to a drop-off, or to reverse until a wider piece of trackway opens up.
But I’m lastingly impressed by the sheer physical ingenuity and labour involved in cutting a way along the extensive hillsides. I’m also impressed by the huge quantities of explosives that were called for, and the amount of earth and rock to be moved.
Surveyors had to identify the optimal route, noting the obstacles along the way. Yes, there were steam-driven machines in the 1870s, and the construction trains themselves could carry cranes and boilers to generate steam power. Still, a lot of what was done had to be managed with muscle power by gangs of men.
In one spot, I was impressed at the way chunks of blasted rock had been used to line the outside of an embankment preventing earth being washed away in the rainy season. At other points, we’d barely notice a very low parapet of a bridge (trains, being on rails, can’t drive off the sides) that told us the bushes to the sides masked a drop off.
The route that was cut had to be wide enough for at least one train, apparently only a few sections hosting double tracks. I described the San Juan train station a couple of posts ago, but I don’t doubt there were others, all needing staff. There would have been a signalling system, and a need for crews to cut back vegetation each year during and after the rainy season; and of course, at times, a need to repair whole sections of track that washed away.
But mostly, the thing had to be built right in the first place. Putting in track in an area where soils were loose, or rocks were fractured, could lead to disaster.
I assume these skills still exist, but that they did so in the 1870s and 1880s is remarkable. Reliable infrastructure never comes cheap, and to observe how much had been constructed in just this one area clarified the efforts made under the long presidency of Porfirio Diaz to modernise Mexico. To see how it had been essentially abandoned after a century also gave pause for thought.
Today, there are places along this walking route from which you can see the four-lane highway that has replaced the trains. That, too, needed huge investment, but it lacks the flexibility of a railroad. For me, there’s no romance in either giant trucks or intercity buses.
Rail travel helped define the later part of the Industrial Revolution and the events of the 20th Century. As I mentioned in the recent piece on the surviving San Juan train station, I grew up with trains as a kid, and was ten or twelve years old before anyone I knew had flown on a jetliner. Trains are still preferred over air travel in the UK and Europe, since they’ll take you city centre to city centre, and without the same need for extreme security as occurs in airports.
But Mexico before the 1970s had few cities over a hundred thousand population, and trains therefore linked a lot of smaller places, bringing about growth in population as well as encouraging manufacturing or larger farming operations as the chance to ship out goods and food presented itself. That huge effort is commemorated by people who maintain train museums in the cities of Puebla and Cuautla, but it isn’t well appreciated by the general population.
People who can recall Mexican passenger trains tell me they were slow and uncomfortable, and they’re rarely missed. There are some commuter and tourist trains around, and a new line, the Maya Train, is being built in the south of the country. But buses are the main way we mostly travel between cities, and aircraft replace these for longer hauls.
Whatever – I’m glad at least this segment of the old rail system is left for people to explore and to expand on with a little imagination. And I do wonder if, with all his egotism and other faults, any Mexican leader has yet equalled what old Porfirio Diaz accomplished a century and more ago.
“I don’t like going to Amatlan,” my friend Ana said to me once. “It’s ugly.” I don’t entirely agree with her, but I’d never tell people to come for the architecture. It’s pleasant enough on a quiet sunny afternoon, but not much more than that. It occurred to me last night that I rarely write about the village except in passing, so, I took a few pix of it today. You can judge its charms for yourself.
The community is proud of its spirit of independence, and often disdainful of the local municipality, Tepoztlan, of which it’s a reluctant part. The association, I’m told, goes back around fifty years, which means village elders recall a time when the town had no influence at all in local affairs. There is a specific and unique ambiance to Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl, ugly or not. But what did strike me, as I tried to frame shots, is that in every one there were electrical and phone cables strung on poles: it’s impossible to take pictures here without them. One day, we might bury them, but it’s not a priority.
Another thing is that any long shot inevitably includes the surrounding mountains, which are what draws most outsiders. Being this close to verdant cliffs and steep-sided hills, with the black vultures circling around the peaks, underlines that Amatlan isn’t an urban community, but one that nature could reclaim if it was abandoned for a year or two. During the bitter 1910 Revolution, the people did pull out for some years, but they re-established it in the 1920s. The church was restored, a few old houses were fixed up and others were replaced, and over the next ninety years, it slowly grew.
It now has around 1,200 residents, some of them weekenders who come a dozen times a year to their vacation homes on the edges of the community. On its fringe, it has a half-dozen hotels and upscale spas, while the village proper has a dozen abarrotes or grocery-cum-variety stores; a couple of specialty stores such as a hardware outlet and a barbecued chicken vendor; and a bunch of places selling traditional Mexican foods like quesadillas and pozole, the locally popular meat-broth-with-maize. Kuna, a recent addition to the village’s gastronomic options, offers more European-style foods, since the owner is German, and learned to cook that way. Otherwise, apart from two local schools and a sports field, that’s largely all we have in a dozen blocks.
Coming into the village, there are a couple of possible routes for a driver, but outsiders follow the obvious one. Vehicles pass walled homes, so that there’s a sense of passing through an entrance gateway.
Then, on the other side of this short section, there’s the plaza civica to the right, and to the left a slightly raised platform where a small market is held on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The grate on the left in the photo below is to catch rainwater, since the street behind it (not shown in this shot) slopes down to it; without it, there’d be hazardous summer torrents to manage.
The plaza civica is famous for its statue of the plumed serpent, Quetzalcoatl. On Saturdays, a group of local re-enactment enthusiasts dance here to a simple, rhythmic tune, often for hours. People have varying degrees of belief in Quetzalcoatl’s actual continuing divinity, but there are definitely true believers among them.
Past the plaza civica, the Abarrotes Eben-Ezer stands out as a modest but inescapable landmark. I seldom go in, since it’s quite small, but on weekends, it serves pulque, a traditional local hooch that has never impressed me, but which draws the customers.
The biggest and best-stocked store in the village, the Punto de Encuentro (Point of Encounter or Meeting Place), is where I usually buy eggs or bottled water. Felipe, who manages this family business, spent time out of the country, and has a sly wit that includes making risque jokes in English. His father, the store’s founder, was gunned down a short time after I moved here in 2010, an event that convinced me this isn’t a Mexican Shangri-La. Felipe is trying to extend the present store (to the left in the picture), but he can only do this in stages, as cash becomes available.
Right opposite the store is the village cemetery, the Jardin de Descanso, or Garden of Rest. It was a busy place during the recent Days of the Dead, but it’s never a neglected site. People in this village treasure the tombs of their parents and forebears.
A hundred meters or so up, the street makes a slight jog at the Gregorio Quintero primary school, named for a local writer who died a few decades ago. Right now, with the pandemic, it’s not used, but its striking mural of Prince Ce Acatl Topiltzin, the human prototype of Quetzalcoatl who was born just outside the village, is always worth a second glance. It’s my favourite piece of Mexican street art.
The next picture was taken looking down the main street, not up, back to the primary school. The two guys in the middle were sober, but were goofing around as they walked up, so they look a little drunk. The building to the right is the Ayudante’s office, our ayudante being the sub-mayor for the village. Any time the community is upset about something, everyone gathers here to listen to local politicians’ excuses.
Finally, the point where the combi micro-bus stops is the local church of Santa Maria Magdalena. It actually stops at the plain back wall of the church, which I didn’t photograph because it’s … well, it’s plain. The photo here shows the perimeter wall at the side, the church tower, the bandstand (most local churches have a bandstand), and a cascade of bougainvillea. People never tire of informing each other that the bright ‘flowers’ of bougainvillea are actually coloured leaves, or bracts, the actual flowers being small and white. Either way, the stuff grows all over the village, and will take over a whole garden quite easily if not regularly pruned.
And that’s the village. My house partly overlooks the church, a couple of hundred meters away from it, up a small laneway. Just turn right when you see Ysrael’s cement water cistern, the one with the cool cement version of Quetzalcoatl on it (though he insists he messed it up), and my gate is the metallic green one.
Trains were always around when I grew up. My home town in south-east England had – and still has – nine train stations on two lines within its municipal borders, and there was a train marshalling yard a few hundred yards from my primary school. The relative absence of passenger trains in Canada and the US always struck me as a noticeable lack.
Mexico was slow to get going on railroads, and only had its first passenger line, from Mexico City to the port of Veracruz, operational in 1873. By then, the UK and the US had had trains for over four decades. Further, Mexico abandoned inter-city passenger lines in the second half of the 20th Century, only later realising their usefulness as the drawbacks of the internal combustion engine became progressively more apparent.
As an alternative to some of the more ankle-risking paths round here, Ixchel and I have recently been walking sections of old rail track above the town of Tepoztlan. The rails and almost all the sleepers are gone from it, with mostly broken limestone making up the trail. But it’s used by cars and a few trucks, and since it climbs at a shallow gradient, it doesn’t make for an arduous afternoon’s hike. The mountains rise up to the north, but at certain points, there are vistas over many miles to be seen to the south.
The village of San Juan Tlacotenco is reached today by car or bus, the road corkscrewing up hundreds of feet above what is now the far larger town of Tepoztlan. But in 1897, when the rail line from Mexico City to the town of Cuernavaca (the Cuaunahuac of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano) was extended to this region, San Juan got the station, not Tepoz. Perhaps the decision was based on the relative importance of the two places, or the difficulty in building the line down the mountainside in that area. Our hikes had already shown us how much had to be done to create the line, blasting through rocks, spanning wide gulleys, and cutting into hillsides that could produce mudslides in the rainy season. Nineteenth Century infrastructure called for a lot of backbreaking labour and vast amounts of earth-moving. Nature has reclaimed the sides of the trail, but it’s still easy to imagine old steam trains, and the later diesels, chugging along the track.
We’d already been surprised on our walk by the village cemetery, picturesquely sited under steep hills, and feeling somehow busy after the Days of the Dead had filled it with marigolds and candles. Satisfied with photos we’d taken, and having compared the styles of grave compared to the types closer to where we live, we followed the track’s old loop past the fringes of the village, and back to the roadway where we’d parked our aging Ford Explorer.
The long, red wooden shack seemed insignificant at first, until we noticed some hand-painted signage on it, and a pair of big, rusting wheels in front of it. We then realised it was the old station, abandoned since at least 1997, when this section of the line was torn up. We began taking photos, happy to have found what seemed to be a modest relic of a different time. A relic, too, that perhps wouldn’t last that many more years. Part of it had become a small grocery store, while another section had a sign indicating (I thought) that it was a photographic studio.
Outside, weathered signs said the station was at 2,306 metres of altitude (7,576 ft), and 91.7 kilometres (56 miles) by rail from Mexico City. I’d seen such data at the train station museum in the nearby city of Cuautla, so I assume it was usual to include it.
We were about to move on, when a woman with a small child, who was at the edge of a sports field opposite the relic station, remarked to us that there was a museum to be seen. Without being asked, she went to fetch the grocery store owner, who opened the “photographic studio,” which I then realised was the one-room museum. Inside were mementoes of local soccer victories, and also a bunch of photos of trains going back a century.
One that caught my attention showed federal troops at the station in Cuernavaca, presumably preparing to fight Emiliano Zapata’s revolutionaries. That period, with its dreadful upheavals, violence and sacrifice, fascinates me, and it’s still celebrated every year. Many of the most famous photographic images from the time show people on or beside trains, even though the decade of conflict actually degraded the rail system quite severely. Some Mexicans argue it never truly recovered, even after being nationalised in 1937.
The station, for reasons we didn’t discover, was called El Parque – the Park. The Chichinautzin nature preserve is all around San Juan, but that wasn’t formally created until 1947. The site was, however, always surrounded by trees and hillside farmland. One day, perhaps, we’ll find out why that name was selected.
Meantime, a hike we’d started simply for basic exercise had put us in touch with a fading but still remembered piece of Mexico’s history. It’s one of the benefits of living here that there are odd quirks and relics of human endeavours to be found all over the place. Some are fragments of ruins, signs of the ancient cultures of Mexico. And others are reminders of people and changes that have happened far more recently, but which are still treasured in memory.