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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.

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Noisy Saint

July 24, 2021

Every year around this time, I do a blog post about my least favourite point in the calendar: the feast of St. Mary Magdalene. Maria Magdalena is the matron saint of this village, either because of a legend that Quetzalcoatl’s mother was the goddess in charge of Toltec ladies of the evening (not well supported by evidence), or because Prince Ce Acatl Topiltzin, the most prominent human prototype for the Plumed Serepent, was born here eleven centuries ago. And therefore, the community must be forever in atonement.

Anyway, her feast day is July 22, which means that starting on July 21, the village gets going on making money, and my dogs have to endure a daily onslaught of hundreds of loud, explosive rockets. Victoria, my eldest hound, is terrified of these cohetes, and spent the night before last cowering in my bathroom, since they kept being let off until around 11.00 p.m. I think the bathroom is as far into the house as she can go, so it seems safer to her, even if the acoustics can’t be favourable when there are loud bangs sounding, and echoing off the cliffs around us.

Maria Magdalena’s image awaits her annual circumambulation aroud the village, in honour of her feast day.

For me, the insult is being awakened by these explosions at 6.00 in the morning, followed by a band playing down by the church a couple of hundred yards away. Vicki can’t sleep by day, and I can’t sleep past the hour determined by fun-loving Catholic devotees. 

Today, two days on from the main event, the fuss is over, and we’re sweeping up the broken beer bottles from the streets and clearing away the garbage. The brass bands have gone home, the rocket-fans are out of ammunition, and the impromptu taco stands in people’s front yards are closed. This year’s fiesta was four times as big as the pandemic-afflicted one last year, but not close to the scale of previous years. There was, for example, no children’s midway, nor a bull-riding jaripeo.

But even as the village reverts to its usual, slightly ratty appearance, concerns remain. Covid cases in Mexico last week were up 44 percent over the previous week. As the “Do” versus “No, don’t” wars over masks and distancing play out once more, there must have been some virus-spreading happening, even with light crowds.

And separate from that issue, there is the rain. After local wells ran dry this spring, we welcomed the heavy rains that started early, in May. Suddenly, the threat of fires in the hills was gone, and the water tanker drivers were not running half loads.

But in most previous years that I recall, the Magdalene’s feast day is overcast, if not sopping wet. This year, we’ve had gorgeous dry, sunny weather for the past six days, and there’s no rain predicted for a few days more. In our rainy season, this sort of interval rarely occurs. It’s too early to call a bad season, but there is cause to be concerned.

Golden Eyes

July 17, 2021

My friend Lucero is a serial dog rescuer, and she has acquired, by means legal (or otherwise) seven or eight dogs over the years. Four of them now live at this house, where there is space to run and play. Dory is the latest to arrive, and came at the end of June.

Golden-eyed Dory, with the scar on the right side of her nose.

The first question Lucero and I wondered was, “Who names a dog after a fish in a movie cartoon?”

The former owners, alas, respected neither dogs nor themselves, which essentially answered the question. They were not too concerned about giving her up, and seemingly indifferent to Lucero getting the dog neutered, so she would bear no more litters of puppies (she’s had at least two and she’s only 18 months old) to become semi-feral. The locality where she lived is noted for murderous fights by street dogs, and Dory bears a deep scar on her snout from one of these clashes. And she is, believe me, a very strong dog. I learned fast not to try restraining her with a leash when we’re on stairs. 

With any dog, I always end up wondering what goes on in its brain. They are intelligent animals, and also incapable of figuring out certain things that would seem obvious. After two weeks, Dory had figured out how to open the door to the corral where the dogs stay in the daytime. She wouldn’t be constrained like that.

But, when I constructed some obstacles with cinderblocks, to prevent her getting off the property and acquiring more scars from street fights, she pulled one of them down on herself, and gashed her tail. She can jump like a huge cat, but she can’t anticipate all the problems she can generate. She is still trying to figure out how she fits into the pack of three other dogs (or three other dogs and me, since I probably hold honorary dog status by now).

Dogs’ eyes are as revealing about their owners as human ones in some ways, though like humans, they can also be deceptive. And you have to look past the doggie ‘sadness’ to grasp what they’re about. Dory’s eyes are golden and still (to me) hard to read. Kennel-mates Rem and Victoria have more expressive eyes, less ready for trouble. 

For, with rescued dogs, there’s always the problem that they aren’t used to relaxing around people. They have to be warriors, or they end up in bad shape out on the street. Rem, who has been the resident hell-raiser here for more than two years, has gradually learned my routines and requirements, and at least plays along with them. It’s hard not to believe he smiles at times. Vicki looks anxiously for affection when others get attention, but she is an obedient dog, and easy to be with. Dory, though, still makes a mad rush when she sees a food bowl.

Dory play-fighting with kennel-mate Rem. He has a paw on her right ear.

Day by day, I have to watch her, and watch over her, as she learns the rhythms that caring for a bunch of dogs make necessary. No, she can’t go past the inner gate, so I don’t have to chase after her if she gets into trouble. No, she can’t join the midnight barkathon of neighbours’ dogs, and howl for five minutes after I’ve gone off to sleep. But I can’t imagine any of these rules seems truly necessary to her. She grasps that she’s in a place where the owner isn’t stoned all day and all night, and that meals come regularly. She gets to sleep indoors, not in a doorway.

But the connection between barricades and gates and her living here … will she ever understand that? I can’t imagine so. It will just be a case of “That’s how it is.” But she’s coming around slowly.

I did one thing for her, though, when I took her to the vet to check on her tail wound, and he asked her name. She is now officially ‘Dorada,’ or Golden, in any official records. Dory is, henceforth, just her nickname. No more fish-dog.

Venturing Out … Hopefully

June 26, 2021

Canada was being understandably cautious to re-open in the spring, while I was antsy to go … somewhere. Anywhere. I’ve not been out of Mexico in a year and a half, something I’ve never done before. And like many of us, I was starting to go a little strange. I always do if I can’t cross a frontier every six or eight months. I’m a homebody by nature, but I love to visit new places. 

Anyway, there was a standing invitation to visit friends in California, provided I’d had my Covid jabs, so I decided to take them up on it. Ports of entry there are already open, even if the airlines and the travel industry generally are not yet very together again. I’m now at the point of planning laundry cycles and a final virus test … and wondering just how wise it is to be going.

It’s always hard to explain to people who don’t live here what our seasons are like. Or rather, I can and do explain it, but people won’t believe me. 

The view from my roof on a typical cloudy summer’s morning here in Amatlan.

Our weather in central Mexico is already in the mid-twenties Celsius (close to 80 deg F) by February, and it hits the low thirties C by April. Then, when the rains come in late May or early June, the temperatures moderate, and sometimes drop quite low. I’m sitting at my computer this evening wearing a sweater, because it’s going down to 14 or 15 deg C (mid-50s F) this evening, and there’s been little sunshine hitting the house today. I’m actually cold. It will stay like this for some weeks, despite us being in the northern hemisphere in June and July, and it will warm up again when the clouds dissipate around October. 

Yes, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. But clouds in a mountainous area do what they do, and here they cool things off. Some summers, I long for November and warm, dry weather.

Now, my outgoing flight from Mexico City will pass through Phoenix, AZ. Today it hit a mild 108 deg F, or 42 deg C there. And the same elsewhere. That’s a drop from earlier this past week. Plus of course there are tales of forest fires in some of the western mountain ranges. Our forest fire season ended seven or eight weeks ago, when the first rains came.

“Well, you live in Mexico,” remarked one of my friends in the US, “so you’re used to that kind of thing.” 

Er, no. Cue another round of explanations. I’ve been in 108 deg F before, in Death Valley, and it’s not the end of the world, but we never get that hot here in Amatlan.

But, it doesn’t bode well for aircraft maintenance schedules. And the airlines are still re-hiring pilots and staff, and pilots apparently need to be re-certified after a year out of the cockpit. 

So, I now have visions of being stuck in a baking hot airport while my connecting flight is reportedly somewhere … on its way. Or having its melted tires peeled off a runway.

The new world of travel might not be what I was hoping it would be. 

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Perceptions

June 3, 2021

Yesterday, I took my dog Rem out for a walk on the trail to the Baptismal Pool (Posa) of Quetzalcoatl. To be accurate, Rem took me, and exhausted both of us in the process. 

From the starting point south of the village, the trail crosses a rock-filled stream, then follows a rough track up a hillside for a few hundred yards. Some distance further along, there is a mirador, an area with large, smooth rocks that overlooks the canyon through which the stream flows. Usually, hiking groups pause here before going on to the Posa.

This time, the place was filled with cheap plastic toys, coloured plates and cups, and it had a string of shrivelled balloons from one edge of the sitting area to the other. There was gold-coloured tinsel, too, and the remains of cookies in the grass. Glitter had been sprinkled all over. To one side sat two toy trucks. I couldn’t imagine who would or could have a children’s party and leave such a mess, but considering the trail to the Posa is seen as sacred, it seemed incredibly inconsiderate. This afternoon, I went back with a garbage bag, and began collecting the mess before all the plastic items were washed by the rains into the stream below.

As I was finishing up, disentangling the last bits of tinsel tied to a bush, Armando arrived. I don’t know him well, but we’ve had a nodding acquaintanceship for years. He had just been to the Posa himself, and had come to the mirador to rest for a few minutes. I explained what I was doing, and he nodded.

Then he began explaining. Something people here do a couple of times a year is come to the mirador to make offerings to the duendes (fairy folk, basically) and to children who have died. Hence the brightly coloured cups and plates, and the toys.

In older times, they left toys made of wood or clay, which of course degraded naturally over time in an exposed place. People now buy cheap plastic toys in the marketplace because that’s what their children play with, or would have played with if they had lived.

As most of my readers know, I edited magazines for the plastics industry in Canada for decades, so I’m acutely aware of the positives and negatives of synthetic polymers. Their use saves us a great deal in energy consumption every year, from production of parts through to shipping, while their disposal is often problematic. The local tendency to just throw pop bottles in a ditch saddens me no end, because I grasp where they’re going to end up. But for millennia, people here tossed aside what they no longer needed, or what was broken, and gave it little more thought.

There is also more of a sense here of rural people living in a continuum. The present is all, and who knows what the future will bring. The past though is still very much here, albeit in fragments and increasingly distorted memories. 

But the dead are not off in some faraway heaven, not all the time, anyway, but will visit a shrine in a house, and of course come back for the Days of the Dead. People will visit their relatives in the cemetery for a chat, or to ask advice. 

Thus, a lovely spot, with a view to the hills rising on the other side of the canyon, is a likely place to be able to reach out to lost children. And the mirador is on a sacred trail, too.

Armando saw both viewpoints. The tradition of leaving cookies and toys one a couple of days in the year goes back centuries, he said, while he also realised that you can’t just abandon plastics and assume they will dissolve with time. Their dissolution will happen after they reach a river and then the sea, and cause harm to sea-life. So, he didn’t criticise my desire to keep the place tidy for the next visitors. I finished gathering bits of tinsel, thanked him for his explanation, and headed back to the village.

And of course, I wondered if I was right to take what the bereaved parents had left for children no longer here. I decided, as I picked my way over the stones down to the stream, that I was.

All kids get to play with their toys for a while, then they need to be put away. I noted that I didn’t trip or slip on the way down, which is easy to do, so I think the guardian spirits of the trail, who protect it from profane visitors, agreed with me. 

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An Iffy Meal and a Good View

June 1, 2021

There are places to eat out that never fail to disappoint. Marco Polo, an Italian-style place in Cuernavaca (the Cuaunahuac of Lowry’s Under the Volcano) is one of them. I should know, because I go there about once a year, looking for the idea the place represents. 

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

It’s self-described as a trattoria, which to me means somewhere where the pasta is unsubtly cheesy and tomato-y, with definite hints of oregano, onion and garlic. There’s a cheap Italian house red that’s hardly memorable, but is cheerful and zesty enough to complement minor sins in the kitchen, and red-check tablecloths. There are pizza options for the impecunious, and upscale cuts of meat for the businessmen.

And somehow, this place always gets it wrong. The decor is elegant and not a bad imitation of traditional Tuscan tiles and sculpture, and the menu was perfectly designed years ago. They make a delicious cheese-bread that augurs well for the main course to follow, and … then the main course follows.

I can hear the moans: “Well, go somewhere else, idiot, and stop complaining. Use your blog for telling people about cartels and extortion, or something.” I will write about how kidnappers recently tried to extort me in a day or two, but right now, I’m recalling ravioli that was just tolerable when Chef Boyardee would have come closer to excellence.

I have loved Italian food since I hit adulthood, and like I said, Marco Polo captures the idea of an Italian eatery perfectly. It’s just that they don’t seem to know you can go a couple of kilometres and get all the ingredients at Costco, or even Walmart, and your bolognese sauce will taste … maybe not like it would in Bologna, but like the acceptable imitations you get in other places here. Rich, balanced between sweetness and acidity, and probably available with all the spices and herbs already added in.

So, why did I go there today? The photo at the top is the reason.

I had actually gone to Cuernavaca hunting for the socks I forgot to buy on Friday when I was in a Walmart. And, having found some, plus some decent tea, I suddenly thought I wanted to eat on one of the four balconies Marco Polo has. I had to walk just three blocks, and was able to get a balcony table before other lunchtime customers grabbed them all. 

The restaurant, you see, is right opposite the Cathedral of Cuernavaca. That building is still, like other large religious buildings near here, under renovation from the 2017 earthquake, and access can be limited. But on either side of the main gate, there are two large, early chapels, which, unlike the cathedral, have not been extensively altered over the centuries. Both are currently open. The one at the left of my photo is the Santa Cruz chapel, which is just under 500 years old. 

Behind it are hills that are part of a long ridge leading into my current home town of Tepoztlan. Right of centre is the roof of a recently inaugurated museum of religious art, with a gold-topped cupola. In the cathedral courtyard there are cypresses, palm trees and other large plants.

If it looks like the thick walls of the courtyard are fortified, the perception is correct. Some native people were not cowed by beatings and burnings, nor won over by the newly imported faith, and there was intermittent armed resistance to Spanish rule throughout the 1500s. The convent in Tepoztlan is similarly fortified. 

When the cathedral gates are open, there are often crippled people and other beggars outside them: the impression is very medieval, and the urge to put a coin in their cups is hard to resist. Souvenir sellers, like the woman with her blue umbrellas, station themselves there also. Often, there are street musicians or, as there was today, a man dressed as a Toltec warrior playing a high-pitched flute. There are also the lamp standards, like the one in the middle of my image, which are over a century old. The cathedral itself is only visible here from its white ornamental roof turrets at the top right, and a small section of wall peeping through the trees, though it is quite impressive close up.

So, what draws me to Marco Polo isn’t the food, but the ambiance. This part of town was an Aztec stronghold until the Conquest exactly five centuries ago, so it retains some of that spirit, especially just up the road in the Palacio de Cortes, the Conquistador who took Mexico for Spain in the 1520s. There are large pieces of shattered sculptures there. 

Both the early efforts of missionaries and the more established devotions of later generations are embodied in the cathedral complex architecture. And there’s usually some bustle on the street outside.

I must have visited Marco Polo a half-dozen times over the years, and while a couple of meals were okay, most didn’t excite me. I never plan to go there, but always head up their stairs on a whim, as I did today. 

And while I do wish the ravioli was … raviolier, and bottles of the house wine were not kept sitting around for days on end, the view from the balconies is always the best compensation for visiting. Not that I’ll go back there again this year, I’m quite sure. I always tell myself not to go back. But if I do get the urge again some time next year, and I will probably will, the view will still be there to make up for the gastronomic deficiencies.

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A Morning Bird Hunt

May 27, 2021

My dog Rem has a loud bark, and he’s particularly fond of using it at night and in the morning. A lot. What can I say? He takes his guard duties very seriously, and I’m probably all the safer for it.

He wouldn’t stop his racket this morning, just as I was stumbling around in the mental fog of waking up, but he wasn’t at his usual post from which he can issue threats to other neighbourhood dogs. So, I went to see if something was up. It was – a zopilote, a black vulture (Coragyps atratus) was sitting in a tree in the garden. 

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

One of the pleasures of being here in the mornings is seeing the zopilotes circling on thermals close to the cliffs that surround the village. They are very graceful birds – not huge, but with wings tipped with white feathers, and a span of close to five feet. Up close, they can be disgusting owing to a habit they have of soiling themselves to cool their legs (Nature has no class at all sometimes), but from more than 15 feet away, they are compelling.

I don’t have a camera that can do a decent job of photographing them when they circle hundreds of feet up, but with one right in the tree outside, I decided I’d try to get a shot. I went up to the roof, and tried from three angles. Each time, as I suspected and later on confirmed, I registered a black blob against the dark leaves of the trees.

My least black blob-ful photo of the zopilote.

But at one point, the bird spread those graceful wings, and hopped to another branch. Did I capture the image? Er, no, I just missed it. And missed it again twice more. 

Then it flew off. And then it came back again, up in the back garden, which is on a steep slope.

The main garden area is closed off, since Rem has used it in the past as an escape route off the property and out to mischief. For his own safety (people here own a lot of sharp machetes) I keep him within fenced bounds. But feeling the spirit of National Geographic descending on me, I unhooked the gate and headed up through the vegetation, which is rapidly sprouting after the onset of the rains. It was hard to find my footing with all the strong new stems that have come up, and soon, I was being bitten by ants. I don’t know why, because I was no threat to them, but I think being an ant might be boring, and having a large bipedal mammal to bite is possibly fun for them. So, they had fun.

Looking up from brushing them off my arms, I noticed the zopilote had once again spread its wings, so I swung my camera up to eye level. And of course, the wings folded once more. We did this twice more, until it became alarmed that I was coming close. It spread its wings yet again, just as I pushed aside some more tenacious vegetation, and … I missed the shot once more.

The wings are half open in this shot.

Rem, throughout all this, had stopped barking, satisfied that I was doing something to get rid of this intolerable interloper on the property he guards so determinedly. And in his terms, my mission looked successful, and he could go back to watching out for other dogs, at which he could bark from his favourite spot on the wall of his corral. As for me, I just decided, as I have before, that I wasn’t cut out to be a wildlife photographer, who needs things like telephoto lenses and very rapid responses from his camera. 

I’m still glad the vultures hang around here. If nothing us, they indicate there’s still a vibrant ecosystem here that can support scavengers and occasional hunters like them.