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Those Guys

November 19, 2021

A question I’m asked by all my friends in Canada or the US at some point is, “How do you deal with the drug gangs in Mexico?” The topic received fresh emphasis on November 5, when two men were murdered (‘executed’ was the preferred media phrase) on a beach close to Cancun. Tourists hid out in their hotels, having dodged (or not) bullets from the assassins’ guns.

The origins of drug gangs in Mexico go back many years, and the details of their history are often foggy: criminal gangs don’t issue press releases when they select a new boss, or carry out a successful hit. There’s no question they grew in prominence and viciousness as a result of the misbegotten ‘War on Drugs’ that began 15 years ago, and the utter failure of that initiative provides a tragic case study in how shaping anti-crime initiatives according to political perceptions is a good way to get huge numbers of people killed.

Those of us who live in and around the town of Tepoztlan are aware of the killings. One or two tabloid newspapers sold in the town square and elsewhere usually feature a blood-soaked corpse on the front page, often with a bitter pun for a headline. And, to add a Freudian erosand-thanatos twist, a half-naked young woman beside it.

The city of Cuernavaca, around 25 kilometres from here, has gang-related murders. My friends and I hear or read about then, and we don’t assume we’re immune, or that the violence won’t come here. But we also have a well-grounded sense of immunity.

The first thing to remember is that, while the Cancun shootings were terrifying for tourists caught in the crossfire, the targets were strictly members of one gang who were pushing the understood limits of what’s allowed. Why the attacking gang’s heads chose to spook visitors to Mexico, who not only bring in significant revenue, but are often their customers as well, I can’t explain, but I doubt the error will be repeated in the near future. It was simply too stupid.

Openly defying the gangs is dangerous, but it’s still a fact that if you avoid the gangs, the gangs avoid you. (My one encounter with extortion, The Kidnappers, posted on August 11, wasn’t gang-related). I read all the time that this or that state or area is now gang-controlled, but foreigners are the least likely people to be directly affected. Your hotel’s owner might be paying protection to a gang, but as the guests, you won’t know this. Our money is always welcome, and even poorer gringos here are usually getting Social Security or Canada Pension payments every month. Some of our money doubtless ends up in cartel hands, but it goes there indirectly. 

Tepoztlan is not a big city. The total municipality, with a dozen small surrounding communities, has rather more than 40,000 residents, but the town itself has under 16,000 residents. If you want to set up a gang, you need poor districts from which to recruit your enforcers and product distributors. Tepoz isn’t big enough for a gang, and it doesn’t have run-down barrios. There’s poverty here, but not desperate hopelessness.

Secondly, it’s a tourist town, an officially recognised Pueblo Magico where people go on the weekend to have a few beers and walk around gawking at the tree-covered mountains. Scaring off these people wouldn’t kill the town, but it would soon be very ill. It’d be a poor business strategy.

Beyond that however, there’s the community factor. This isn’t foolproof, nor has it always worked in other places. But in a small town like this, it’s not a matter of “six degrees of separation,” but two degrees. Your husband, wife or neighbour will know people who, even if just slightly, between them know nearly every other family in the town. For years, this meant the police force was free of significant corruption: you can’t solicit bribes from your cousin without being yelled at by your aunt and uncle. And if you threatened a cop with violence, you’d have to deal with his 78 relatives. Our police are now affiliated with the state police, alas, but the local cops are still all from here.

There are no homeless people, for similar reasons. Some relative will always give you a space in which to sleep, and a plate of tortillas and beans for lunch. My own village has a couple of obnoxious drunks, one of whom has a reputation for violence, but they have homes to sleep it off at the end of the day. 

On the flip side of this coin, for a gang, gringos are an unknown quantity. We might be living on just our modest pensions, or be over-the-hill hippies, and not worth hassling; or we could be people who have money and could react unpredictably after being shaken down. The gangs know their own, and they don’t really know us. So mostly, they just ignore us. 

Just how the gangs are integrated into the society makes sense when you live here, but can’t be explained by logical analysis. There are particular dynamics integral to Mexican society, and after you’ve lived here a while, you figure out how to navigate these. But because of our outsider status, we simply aren’t included in the criminals’ plans or activities. 

I’m sure we could easily provoke them; but again, we learn to watch the vibes. Someone might steal your wallet, or even your car. But no-one is likely to kill you deliberately. If you can’t learn to live between worlds – staying connected to your original nation or culture, but dwelling here – you shouldn’t move to Mexico. 

Obviously there are certain places where psychotic gang leaders have essentially displaced the government. Similarly, while I go to Cuernavaca a couple of times a month, and feel fine sauntering around, I leave before it gets dark. I listen to what people tell me about certain towns and specific communities, and I avoid them. I don’t invite risk.

But I’m never nervous being in Tepoztlan as dusk falls; in fact, it’s one of my favourite times of day. The town softly reverts to its old identity of a rural town off the main track, and a subtle magic creeps in as the lamps come on. There is no sense of threat, at least on a weeknight, when there are few visitors. I only head home when I start feeling guilty that my dogs expect to be fed around sundown, and I’m still half an hour from my door and their dog-bowls.

I won’t convince people that it’s safe here by writing a blog post. Two or three of my friends also blog about how peaceful their lives here are, and we all have readers who never want to believe us. Still, this is still a very livable part of the world, more threatened by the current round of rising food prices, and by house construction eating up farmland, than it is by violent gangs. 

Perhaps that will change, and the town will lose what it has at some point in the future. I always say I live in a very safe place, and I see no signs of potential violence. I usually make a joke of it, and say that because my application to join the local cartel was rejected on account of my age and physical condition, I’m highly unlikely to be targeted by a rival gang. But I’m being honest, regardless of there being no cartel here that I could ask for admittance.

Realistically, while I know there are fights and feuds in the town, and in my own village especially, I just don’t see myself being caught in a crossfire. Maybe struck by a lousy driver: yes, that’s possible, as is being hit by lightning in a summer storm or having a roof fall on me during an earthquake.

But lazy reporting on Mexico, which always concentrates on its violence, not its vibrant cultural scene nor its continuing sense of having a future, distorts the reality of living here. If I did feel worried about gang violence, I’d move. But I don’t.

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Hasta Pronto ?

November 9, 2021

The Tepoztlan town cemetery last week. It’s picturesquely located below the cliffs to the north of the town.

One of the things that I don’t much appreciate about the Days of the Dead is that it’s all about contacting your ancestors. Maybe it’s recent ones, like your parents or grandparents, but theoretically it might be about someone born before there were trains, telephones or effective toothpaste. Smelly ancestors, therefore.

I’ve never much wanted to meet my forebears. Nobody that I’ve heard about sounds particularly interesting. Going back well over a century, they were all from the English middle classes, whose main ambition was often to be come more middle-class than they were when they were born. And judging by the attitudes my own parents inherited, they’d be pretty scornful of someone like me, who has lived in three countries, and much of the time uses a language that isn’t English.

So, when everyone was partying in the village cemetery last week, I … wasn’t. After all, I just might have run into some discarnate predecessor of mine who would ask me questions he or she just wasn’t ready to have answered.

Mexicans, of course, can argue with or criticise their grandparents when they show up. “Why did you have to start an unending feud with the most aggressive family around here?” “What did happen with the cash from selling the old house?” “Was my little sister really dad’s, or …?”  But I know there’s no lost cash for me – according to family tradition there was some, but it turned out to be perpetually inaccessible – and I’m not embroiled in any feuds. 

Mostly, though, I’m just scared my deceased relatives would be snooty or boring. The Days of the Dead (nights, really, more than days) are a time for partying, and my ancestors were not, on the whole, party animals. A second glass of sherry was their idea of letting their hair down: consuming a third would have been cause for unending family scandal.

The big cemetery in town had a covered walkway put up at the entrance for the Days, with the word Bienvenidos (Welcome) on it traced in marigolds, the traditional flowers of this season (see photo above). Each time I passed it, I wondered whether this was meant to welcome back the deceased, or the still-living. I decided that since the deceased were already in residence, so to speak, it must have meant people currently walking around. 

Today, however, as the grave-visiting season ends, I saw the flowers had been renewed, and the wording had been changed. Hasta Pronto, it said. That’s the Mexican equivalent of “See you soon.” I keep wondering if it was someone’s idea of a joke, like the old undertaker’s crack about “We’re taking advance reservations.”

So, if I do end up expiring round here, perhaps I should first apply to be interred at one of the two cemeteries. If my own deceased relatives’ company doesn’t attract me (as it doesn’t), then people who can make sly jokes about human mortality are probably far more fun to chill with. 

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Fridaphilia Revisited

November 1, 2021

Frida Kahlo became such a ‘thing’ in the past couple of decades that writing about the thing itself became a thing. I had my own go at it two years ago. There is even a Frida Kahlo Corporation that has the rights to her name, works and reputation, including control of emojis that use her appearance.

As a professed Stalinist, she would have been horrified. Or, maybe, amused.

A traditional Stalinist Mexican fashion statement.

The painter, who died at 47 in 1954, has been a feminist icon, a scorned woman, a martyr to living life in a female body, an excessively celebrated artist, and (sometimes) an excessively denigrated one. A woman painter I know in my community becomes angry at the mere mention of her name, and starts listing female Mexican artists she thinks are better. Yet whatever is done to her, she doesn’t go away.

A Kahlo-themed restaurant in my town of Tepoztlan.

Looking for something other than the Days of the Dead to write about, it occurred to me I’d never done a Frida knick-knacks piece. Even in Tepoztlan, a town that has no known connection to her (she might have visited here once), you can fill your heart, stomach and shopping bag with Frida-ry. A woman whose paintings feature much Mexican folklore imagery has become a touristic tchotchke herself.

Mexico’s most famous unibrow, between straw sombreros and a generic female image.

I remember, some 16 years ago, being in Amsterdam on business, and visiting the house where Anne Frank had hidden with her family and friends until they were betrayed to the Nazis in 1944. Visitors could tour the offices of the small food products company her father Otto had founded, and the ‘Secret Annexe’ above, where they all hid out, then head to the bookstore and gift shop next door. My feelings then were somewhat similar to the way I look on Kahlo. I realised this martyred teenager had become a brand, a name at the centre of a marketing exercise that, I was assured, supports charitable activities and tries to combat antisemitism. 

I couldn’t argue with the aim, and visiting the house was a moving experience, even if the gift shop was … not. It was all far more affecting than Kahlo’s output of 143 known paintings, 55 of which feature her in some form. Anne’s short life and miserable death in Auschwitz trump anything relating to Frida’s injuries or her life with the emotionally insensitive Diego Rivera. Frida had choices: Anne did not.

The drawback with fame lies in how it depersonalises the famous. Anne Frank is an icon who became an institution, and Frida Kahlo has become a tea towel: 

Frida tea towels.

Ah well. At least Kahlo helps provide income for the people in town who sell the souvenirs. I assume she would have at least supported the proletariat making a little cash out of her face. Especially if the Frida Kahlo Corporation doesn’t earn a peso.

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Non-rolling Stones

October 24, 2021

The Dominican convent in our town, a Unesco World Heritage site, was built around 450 years ago. Surrounding it was a substantial wall enclosing a large square space, with small shrines at three of the corners, and the convent itself occupying the fourth one. There was substantial damage in the 2017 earthquake, and while repairs slowly progress, services are held in a temporary structure in the square space in front.

The rainstorm that hit the town yesterday was extremely heavy, and while the water raged down the streets, a part of the wall collapsed. No-one, I understand, was injured, since the street vendors in front of it had taken shelter. Someone drowned in the village of San Juan Tlacotenco, up in the hills, but the wall was the only loss in town.

Tourists saunter past the fallen 16th Century wall. The metal struts are from souvenir stands it crushed in falling.

Historical monuments are meant to stir our imaginations, but the small details often offer the most intriguing bits of information. Looking at the rubble this morning, I found myself pondering the construction methods of those times. It looks as if stones were rather randomly cemented into place, then a layer of cement was put over it to keep the rain out. Initially, it had a defensive function as well as a perimeter-defining one, since the local people were by no means won over to Catholicism for some decades, or even centuries. It must have been a hundred years after the construction before the handful of monks in the convent felt safe from the people around them. 

The inside of the courtyard, with one of the rumbling corn-ershrines to the left.

There was a reluctance to worship indoors once conversion occurred, since indigenous worship had always been done by means of parades and dances held under the open skies. Local people argued that a roof separated them from the God they were asked to worship, and so the Church decided there was no harm in continuing outdoor services. The large courtyard facilitated a Christian version of this. 

A church like the convent cannot last forever, and only the of the corner shrines is still largely intact. But seeing the fallen stones was a reminder of the impermanence of even the most solid seeming structures. I have walked past that wall a hundred times, and taken it for granted. 

But not today. 

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They’re Ba-a-a-ck

October 19, 2021

The first salvo of rockets from the village church went off at exactly midnight on Sunday, followed right after by a brief peal of the bells. Yes, it’s almost the Days of the Dead again. The deceased were warned by this summons that it’s time to come and visit us again, though how they know this when so many other rockets are let off over the course of the year, I can’t figure out.

I’ve always been iffy about my ancestors.  Most of them were undistinguished, so I doubt they’d be interesting to talk to. I would like to meet the few who took part in famous battles or other noted events, but that’s about it. I also wonder what a centuries-dead person might seem like if they came to talk. Personally, I’ve always thought it would be bad form to come back and haunt my descendants after I’ve gone, so I’ve not been one for seances or communion with tmy forebears

But here, picking up on a tradition the Mixteca (Aztecs to you and I) followed, people welcome their ancestors at the end of every October and at the start of November. The markets fill up with pots of marigolds for sale, and all the little variety stores stock up on candies and sweet things for the incorporeal visitors.

Marigold sellers in the Tepoztlan zocalo, a photo I took last year.

Marigolds, we’re told, are bright enough to guide the souls of the departed through the darkness to their old homes, or at least to a graveside party. There will be music in the cemeteries, myriads of candles, and people will keep all-night vigils.

Many people have seen Coco, the Disney movie which does an excellent job of presenting some of the traditions around the Days. I’ve watched it a couple of times, and marvel at how sympathetic the script is to its topic, even if it is a cartoon. It makes the celebrations much more elaborate than what I see here, but the intentions behind them are well captured.

The first stage of it all, that salvo of rockets I mentioned, happens right at the start of every October 18, and in this area of the country is particularly aimed at those who have no-one to greet them nor a place to visit. Then, on the following Saturday, prayers start in the local churches, and novenas (i.e., nine days of supplications) are made to remind the dead they are expected. Those who have died in accidents or tragedies, who are legion across Mexico, receive offerings on October 28 … and so on, and so on. One of the days in early November is particularly for children that have died.

People are not reticent about receiving guests at this time, though obviously individuals’ reactions and feelings vary. The deceased who have been gone for some time stir no strong emotions; the recently dead, or the lost children, can produce a different reaction. I’ve therefore always been cautious about intruding on the celebrations, even if the invitation is an open one. Once stepped on, cultural toes can be hard to un-step from.

None of my own forebears died anywhere close to this part of the world, so I don’t expect any humanoid spectrals to show up at this house. Still, next week I’ll buy some marigolds and light a votive candle, and leave the flame burning out of the breeze in the kitchen, with the outer door left open. Three of the dogs that have been companion animals here are buried in the garden above the house, and while the usual candies might not be appropriate, a few doggie treats left in a bowl on the retaining wall won’t go amiss. Even if they’re actually eaten by something other than ectoplasmic canine visitors in the night.

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The (Partly) Friendly Skies

September 25, 2021

I’m on a short trip to Toronto, my first in almost two years. Hallo again, my long-term domicile – I just came back here from Mexico City, via Houston Airport.

Most of the world’s airports shut down around 11.00 pm. Residents living nearby plead and lobby for the sound of jet engines to disappear while they sleep, and the authorities eventually comply. There are mostly cleaners and security guards around after that.

Benito Juarez Airport in Mexico City is a little different. Not many flights arrive after 11.00 pm but there are a few coming in from Asia and elsewhere. More to the point, an outgoing flock of jetliners take off before 6.30 am, so that people using these need to arrive very early in the morning. A simple alternative is to show up around midnight, and hang out there till flight-time.

Terminal One at Benito Juarez Airport, at 2.30 am.

My plane to Toronto was at 5.40 am, so I joined this strange nighttime community late on the evening before. I was surprised to find that several souvenir stalls stayed open till the small hours, while a couple of restaurants and some of the currency exchange windows never close. If you should ever become one of those stateless people stranded in an airport for months, Benito Juarez might be a decent place to do it. 

There’s always some activity, and the security staff are probably friendlier than you would find elsewhere. The noise level isn’t modest, especially since some of the floors are currently being ripped up and replaced at night in Terminal One. But Mexicans, who live with a lot of noise, can sleep through it till dawn, huddled down beside concrete pillars or on little-used stretches of corridor. I tried that, but ended up wandering from one end of Terminal One to the other in a slow, ambling stroll with my wheeled suitcase.

George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston was a very different proposition. I had to join a snaking line of people that took half an hour to reach the booths of the Homeland Security officers. Then, the terminals are connected by a driverless rail system, but getting from one to another still takes some minutes. With only ninety minutes between my flights, I started getting a little nervous. Then when I got to the security check needed before boarding. I became resigned to missing my second plane. It seemed chaotic, with different staff bawling about us getting rid of water bottles and such, like naughty kids in school. Most carry-on bags were being checked manually after the X-ray examination, and I finally got through, with my shoes back on my feet, just seventeen minutes before departure. 

I’d had no breakfast, so I stopped my headlong rush to my gate at a stand and grabbed a sandwich. Remember, there’s no real food for Economy-class passengers on flights under a few hours’ duration any more. Does C$18 seem a lot for an eight-inch sub? A friend of mine paid US$27 for not much more food, a few months ago, so I decided things were looking up in airportland as I resumed my headlong quick march to what seemed to be the furthest extreme of the building.

The last of the queue for my United Airlines flight was just going through the final ticket check when I reached the gate. I was third from the back of the line, as two other panic-stricken people ran up as I took my place, so I now felt I could relax.

But late-phase pandemic airline travel isn’t something to relax over.

After we were airborne, a man two rows up from me suddenly found from neighbours that he was on the wrong flight: he was supposed to be on a plane to Cincinnati. He was European, and tried to put a brave face on it, not demanding his rights, since Canada isn’t a dangerous destination, but obviously his day was being far more stressful than mine.

An hour or two along in the air, we hit serious and persistent turbulence, presumably related to a rainy storm-front further north. The pilot then came on the speaker system to tell us that ‘the company’ had instructed him to make a stop in Cincinnati to refuel, so he had to do this. When we had touched down, a young and serious-looking United Airlines representative came on, and approached the mis-planed passenger, to escort him off. And, I would guess, to sign some legal documents relating to the airline’s non-liability.

The pilot made various noises about the refuelling process and its paperwork, but there were skeptics among us passengers. Pilots always take off with an emergency fuel reserve in case of bad weather or a delay in landing. I imagine if the ticket-checkers can’t put you on the correct aircraft properly, the airline faces a potentially big lawsuit.

I had deliberately planned my day so that time wasn’t an issue, and when we took off around the hour the flight should have been at Pearson International in Toronto, I wasn’t really bothered. Other passengers, who might have missed connections, might have felt less anguine.

As I’ve often reflected before, while Mexico has the reputation of being inefficient and lazy, it seems to do quite well managing most of its transportation systems. I don’t want to dump on Texas, but … heck, yes, I do want to dump on Texas. A cramped, noisy security area with staff barking at the passengers doesn’t give anyone a sense that things are properly in hand. A truly wise airport administration would figure out a way to connect international travellers direct to ongoing flights so they don’t have to leave a secure area and need not be checked by customs officers or searched for illegal stuff in their luggage. The practice is common in a number of European airports: just stay within designated areas or sections, so you have never technically entered the country. Your security check where you boarded should be enough to keep everyone safe. And even if a further luggage check is called for, the whole passports performance for people who aren’t actually going into the US could be skipped entirely.

As for the cabin crew who directed a passenger onto the wrong flight … well, I imagine somebody’s employment prospects diminished after that. 

Not my problem, though. 

And at Pearson, the Customs and Immigration people had me through in under eight minutes, even with a check on my new ArriveCAN vaccination documentation. Nobody in the arrivals hall spoke in anything above a polite Canadian murmur.

Born to be Wild, Señor

September 14, 2021

Grumbling about driving in Mexico is one of those activities that even Mexicans join in with, albeit fatalistically.  You never see a car here with a sign saying something like ‘Marco’s Driving School‘ on top of it. A lot of people learn to drive on four hours’ instruction from their parents, or their elder brother, and the fine points of defensive driving are rarely discussed. While people will complain, they also laugh at the fact that Mexico will always be Mexico.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I find local drivers quite good, since they seem situationally aware enough to avoid fender-benders. But the moment someone passes me at 50 kilometres per hour on a local road, I know a city-dwelling outsider is on the way to a near-miss of a cow or horse grazing by the roadside.

A motorcyclist in Tepoztlan explains to traffic police why other drivers shouldn’t be driving where he wants to go.

A new threat emerged over the past couple of years. I’m told it was primarily Banco Azteca that promoted loans for motorbikes. Lots of people can’t afford a car, but for some people a motorbike is both sexier and cheaper. The problem comes when an increasing number of motorbikes combines with the aforementioned lack of driving expertise. 

A motorcycle can slide between a car and a sidewalk, and if an accident doesn’t happen, then the rule in Mexico is that it was a safe move. Twice in the past couple of weeks I’ve seen someone on a motorbike slip past the inside of a bus, just as it stopped to let off passengers. There are many places where there’s no curb to delineate the edge of the roadway, so the manoeuvre is possible. But if you’re an elderly passenger dismounting, or a mother with a small child and an armload of shopping, the risk is real. One of the two motorcyclists even had his own wife and kid on his bike, and still tried it. It happened outside a coffee shop where I sometimes get a cappuccino, and I had to sponge off the spilled coffee after watching this dumb move nearly result in an elderly woman being knocked down.

Perhaps local peer pressure will influence the motorcyclists in time, but a lot of them are young men with testosterone to burn. The instability of the motorbikes on wet roads with potholes, such as we have everywhere in rainy season, is a better hope.

A less dangerous but still annoying driver trait is corner parking. I don’t know why, but parking at a corner is something people here do all the time. This blocks cars trying to turn, make it difficult for others to pass, and generally create congestion. It seems to be a deeply compulsive activity, some inalienable right that should be exercised in particular at local bottlenecks.

The lady in the black car stopped for five minutes, several feet out from the curb, while she tried to figure out where to go.
The white car had to move around her. I took this from a restaurant balcony overlooking a busy corner.

Earlier this year, I was driving a friend home, and he asked me to stop at one of these spots so he could buy paint at a paint store. The store was on one side of the street at the corner, so I drove on forty or fifty feet to let him off. His incredulity that I would make him walk that far, versus my insistence that I don’t believe in blocking intersections, was like advancing an obscure point of quantum physics to a nine-year-old. Or, perhaps, like a silly Canadian fixation. Anything in Mexico can be covered with a smile and a quick “Disculpe!” or so some people feel. My gringo hang-up about avoiding creating a problem in the first place seemed to him like something I needed to get over.

Most of the time, it pays to avoid trying to import outsider values here; I’ve always felt I shouldn’t try to lecture Mexicans about how to behave. But our roads were made for a couple of cars a minute, and a truck five times an hour. Now, the local traffic police actually ticket illegal parkers on Saturdays because congestion in some spots is too severe, which is a bit like police in Alabama arresting people for owning guns.

This part of Mexico is too close to the 20-million people in the capital to avoid urban sprawl, although traffic problems happen everywhere. But if you ever do visit, remember that motorcyclists see you as something to get around, not someone to stop for. And as for parking away from an intersection … just what is your problem, señor?

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La Santa

August 25, 2021

No, my title isn’t a reference to Christmas. It’s the feminine form of El Santo, the Saint (1917-1984), Mexico’s most famous and popular wrestler/actor from a few decades past.

El Santo in his prime. The silver mask was never publicly removed until a week before he died

I wrote recently about Dorada, the rescued street dog who came to live here two months ago. Three weeks back, I noticed a strange growth on her rear quarters, and two different vets confirmed she had a case of canine transmissible venereal tumour. (Careful – the pictures are gross). It starts small, but it easily spreads, both inside the dog that has it and to others with which she has contact. Dogs sniff and lick each other all the time, so it has an easy means of spreading. And it’s quite prevalent in Mexico.

Before she was rescued, and spayed, she had at least two litters of puppies fathered by other street dogs, so there was no mystery about how she acquired the condition. Thankfully, the treatment, a form of chemotherapy, is highly effective.

But Dori is an amazingly strong dog, as I mentioned in my first post. I’ve wrangled large dogs before, but I’ve never encountered one with the strength of a small horse, like this one. She would give the original El Santo a run for his pumped-up biceps. If I didn’t know this before, I discovered the reality on Tuesday.

For her first chemotherapy session, her rescuer Lucero took her, with me, to the vet, and we jointly managed the dog. For her session this week, she couldn’t drive me, so we arranged with Gabino, the next door neighbour, to use his taxi-cab to get there. 

He meticulously insisted on a clean blanket for the back seat to catch the dog-hairs, and on the journey there, she was mostly well behaved. So far, I thought, so more-or-less good. He dropped us off, agreeing to come back in a short while. 

The vet’s office was not yet open, so I had to wait for five minutes while Dori tried to escape my firm grip on the leash. I soon had red welts on my hand and wrist from the pressure her lunges applied to the chain wrapped around them.

But the fun began inside. The vet, a woman, asked me to control here while she put in a needle, and Dori was having none of it. She had disliked the procedure the week before, and ‘Cooperation’ is definitely not her other name. I was leaning on top of her, trying to keep her from moving, while she demonstrated that she really was El Santo’s female canine equivalent, La Santa. She had no mask, but with my face pressed to her head, my anti-Covid N-95 rode up over my eyes so I couldn’t see. And the dog kicked and writhed and kicked some more. 

The vet finally gave up and asked her daughter, who is …. well, not small, to come and force the dog’s hind quarters to be still while I managed the front end. Finally, the jab was administered, the vet confirmed that the chemo had already started to reduce the tumour, and I paid and went outside to wait for Gabino.

Dori was now truly upset, and not willing to be patient. I had to move away from the vet’s doorway, because she wanted to lunge at any animal that was brought to it. She particularly wanted to kill and eat a cat or two, it seemed, since she howls at cats anyway, and three came for treatment while we waited. Gabino was five minutes late, then ten, then fifteen, and by this point we had moved in spasmodic jerks a hundred yards up the street and back again. My shoulders were beginning to ache from the effort, and my hands were raw in places from the tightened chain of the leash. I didn’t topple as she dashed around my legs, but I had to skip a light fandango at times to prevent it.

Gabino got us back safely to his house, but a truck was blocking the lane in front of us. No worries, I thought, it’s only thirty yards. Thanks, and see ya later, amigo.

And at this point, Gabino’s own dogs dashed out, and Dorada went nuts. With me yelling her name at her, and her waiting for the moment I shifted my grip on the leash to make a fresh lunge, we staggered yard by yard to the gate, where I tried to remain still as I put the key in the lock, the dog blanket draped over my arm and beginning to drag on the ground if I didn’t hold my arm high.

This was her big chance, she realised. With one almighty leap, she almost got away from me, only the leash being wrapped round my left fist preventing her. But I went crashing down onto my left hip and shoulder, the friction tore some skin off my finger, and it was arguable whether her barking dogfully or me barking her name was the louder contribution to the pandemonium. I finally dragged her to the gate, got her inside, and let her run off with the leash still attached while I caught my breath, and watched blood ooze over my left hand.

She let me retrieve the leash once she was re-quarantined in the corral where she has to stay for another week. And yes, I’m fine, apart from a bruise or three, and a missing piece of skin.

But while I’m used to dogs being cantankerous, this one is the strongest and most single-minded mutt I’ve ever tried to manage. 

Dogs are wonderful companions, and they can be rays of sunshine on a grey day. But they never show anything I can recognise as gratitude. This one has also cost a pretty peso in vet bills and in cinderblocks to close her exit-points for escaping. I won’t say I felt homicidal towards her as I limped up the stairs to put iodine and a bandage on my finger, but let’s say she has been testing my affections to the Nth degree.

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The Kidnappers

August 11, 2021

The first call came in on the landline at 5.00 am, so it woke me out of a deep sleep. It was intended to do so, of course. My foggy brain couldn’t understand the man at first, who seemed to be threatening my friend A. Then, I got the word ‘secuestrado,’ which means ‘kidnapped,’ and registered that he was using past tenses. She had been kidnapped, and he was demanding that I pay her ransom.

A nasty snake.

Part of me was alarmed, but more of me was annoyed at being woken up. Yes, I am selfish that way. My sleep is precious to me. But I also smelled a rat.

My friend H was caught by a similar scam a few years ago. Her ‘nephew’ called her to ask for help in getting a ransom, so the people who had kidnapped him while backpacking in Mexico would let him go. She did have a nephew of that age, and the circumstantial details supplied meant she was sufficiently drawn in to help. She went to get money from her bank account, and only on the way home did it occur to her to do some checking. Phone calls to her brother confirmed his son was safe in the US, and nowhere near Mexico. So, when the ‘kidnap victim’ and his captor called again, she told them she had a problem – she only had one nephew, and he was away at college, in the middle of his term. Could they clarify just who was calling, please? The would-be extortionists had a script to deal with this, but it wasn’t up to scratch. They suddenly hung up, aware they’d been rumbled.

How these morning callers had connected me with A, I don’t know, but plenty of people in Mexico are willing to share supposedly private information for a fee. And we have often mentioned each other to friends over the years.

Anyway, I was half persuaded, when “A” came on the line. Sobbing in terror, she was talking far too fast for me to follow her Spanish, but I got the message. They were going to torture or kill her if I didn’t pay up.

There were only two problems. One was that it didn’t sound at all like A, whose voice is lower-pitched. The second was, she speaks fluent English, and would have used it with me if she really needed help. Still acting out of a semi-conscious state, I said “No, gracias,” and hung up.

The phone rang again a few moments later, and the man was back with his best Dirty Harry voice. This time, I was really annoyed over my interrupted sleep, and yelled something I would never usually say to a Mexican:
“Speak English, dammit!! If this is really about A, let her speak to me in my own language!”

Again, the Spanish was all too fast and growly for me to follow, but the fake A came back on the line – again unable to use English. 

“Oh, for heaven’s sakes, you didn’t even sound like her! I repeat – speak English!!!” And when more gabbled Spanish followed, I hung up a second time. 

Kidnapping for ransom is a dangerous business in Mexico, but gringos are usually avoided as victims. We have governments that might intervene, and it’s far easier for the gangs to prey on poorer Mexicans, who might be more easily intimidated, or more aware their movements and relationships would be easier to trace. Because we are not integral parts of the social infrastructure, gringos’ reactions can be unpredictable. It’s better to leave us alone.

This pair were doing their best, and maybe they were connected with a major gang.  But they didn’t have a plan B. Also, they had no information apart from the phone number, which could have been obtained from a utility company or some government agency that had required it. They were, basically, amateurs with a rudimentary script, and not much creativity. 

It was all a reminder that you need a certain anarchist streak to survive here. Going to the authorities for anything other than an innocuous matter can be positively dangerous, since they would need personal information I’d prefer not to share. So, telling would-be extortionists to take a hike – and I was going purely on sleepy instinct here, not calculated bravery – is more effective than trying to play by a formal rule-book. Had they called when I was properly awake, I might have been more cautious. Summoned from the depths of peaceful slumber, I was suitably angry. 

It’s been three months since that morning. Since then, I’ve had to dodge a few reckless drivers, had a bad sting from a bee, and gotten lost in an unfamiliar city. But no-one has called again, except about everyday matters, nor have I been threatened in any other way. This particular corner of Mexico is still safer than others, and I don’t think about the incident if the phone rings.

And I do cherish the brief, third call that came in, right after the first two were done.

“FAHK YEW!” said the woman, as menacingly as she could. I don’t know if she hung up before me, but I had a satisfied grin on my face as I put the receiver down. At least she had finally spoken what limited English she actually knew.

But in retrospect, she also sounded closer to a sob of unhappiness than an expression of anger. She’d blown her big moment, and she possibly had to pay for it afterwards. After all, you don’t get into that line of business because you find the career rewarding.

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Dirty Harry Does Tires

August 3, 2021

Tire guys here don’t smile. I’m guessing it’s one of those cultural things that has been that way since the first cars came here eighty years ago.

A short time after I came here, I was driving the 1993 Ford Explorer that I call the Titanic back from the town of Cuautla. And I suddenly realised that the thumping I was hearing was due to one of its (very) old tires having developed a split. I drove back up the single-line highway on shredded rubber, hoping I hadn’t damaged the wheel beyond repair, a chorus of frustrated drivers honking at me all the way.

Not my vehicle, but an image I’m using in case you’ve never seen a flat tire.

I knew there was a llanteria, a tire repair place, a short distance from the exit from the highway. I found it, and anxiously used my very limited Spanglish+hand-signals to explain to the owner, Snr. Garcia, the problem I had. I was doubly anxious because I only had 200 pesos on me, and if changing the tire cost more than that, I would have to get more cash in town.

Snr. Garcia did not smile. He was not reassuring. He just looked at the tire, went to the back of the truck, checked there was another tire concealed behind the back axle, and proceeded to switch the shredded rubber for the slightly less worn spare tire.

And then he looked at me, and said something I didn’t understand. And I didn’t understand it because ‘treinta’ is Spanish for ‘thirty,’ and I thought he meant 230, or more. But he meant what he said, which was about $2.50 Canadian at that point.

I drove off, grateful for his help, and baffled as to how anyone could survive charging ridiculously low prices. I don’t enjoy being soaked by people taking advantage of me, but equally, I figure a necessary service justifies a fair price.

Last October, the Titanic received a complete a new set of Pirelli tires, but recently the back rear tire began going flat every couple of days. I finally decided I had to get it fixed, and went to see Snr. Garcia as my first choice of helper. I actually passed him, walking to work. However, I waited for ten or fifteen minutes at his tienda, and he never appeared, so I decided to try elsewhere. As I headed off, he reappeared, having presumably stopped to talk to someone along his way. Reversing wasn’t easy at that location, though, so I headed off, to a llanteria closer to town.

The man there was on his phone when I arrived, and didn’t look up at me. That’s about as unMexican as you can get. 

“Straighten it” he finally said, for I was parked at an angle. I told him I had a suspected puncture, and he grunted. Was he, I wondered, a graduate of the Garcia charm school? 

He set to work taking the wheel off the car, and spraying it with that polymeric spray tire guys use. Soon, the point where the escaping air created bubbles was obvious, so he began the work of getting the tire off the wheel-rim. That is no light task.

After less than twenty minutes, he had removed the small nail that had caused the problem, patched the hole, reinflated the tire, and put the wheel back on the Titanic. He had said about six words all this time, and no complete sentences. Finally, he looked at me and said something I didn’t understand. Echoes, I thought, of my first visit to Snr. Garcia. I asked him to repeat it.

“Cincuenta,” he said again. Fifty pesos. Which, today, is around $3.20 Canadian. Then when I looked surprised, he added, “Barato,” which means “Low price.” 

I couldn’t complain, and I didn’t. I just wondered, yet again, why a man would work up a sweat yanking a wheel off a car, and a tire off and back onto the wheel, all for three bucks. The Dirty Harry act, I thought, with no hint of a smile, must be hard to maintain in this society. Car repairs here are always far cheaper than in the US or Canada, but surely tire guys like to eat and pay their rent …?

Or maybe, with their bulging muscles (tires are heavy) and tough line of work, they’re secretly making penance for a lifetime of overcharging tourists for something or other. The low wages must go with the lack of smiles.

Still, I can recommend either of these taciturn operatives to any friend around here who needs work done on a tire. The value for money ratio is incomparable.