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Place of Thorns … and Sand

May 10, 2022

The Pacific Ocean from near our hotel, with a morning mist still hiding the horizon.

Puerto Escondido (‘secluded or hidden port’) is south-east from Acapulco on Mexico’s Pacific coast. My travelling companion remembered it from many years ago, when there were no regular tourists, only hippies and backpackers, and she had hopes it might still be a livable place. As she found out, it is, if you have the requisite millions. 

At just less than 16 degrees of latitude north of the Equator, this was the farthest south I’ve ever been. It is much hotter than here at home in the central mountains, with high humidity, and this was the first time I’ve ever resorted to air conditioning in Mexico.

The trip was a chaotic one. Five days before we left, I booked our plane tickets with Volaris, a cut-rate airline, which then cancelled the flight at midnight 36 hours before we were due to leave. They also cancelled alternative flights for the following days, presumably because the season was ending. A friend of mine, who had bizarrely booked on the exact same flight as us, was caught in the same trap. It took another friend of mine an hour with Volaris’ help-line to arrange a refund, since I didn’t want mere credits with an airline that performs shady moves like that. Viva Aerobus, the other cut-rate outfit that flies to the town from Mexico City, at least got us there, and on time. 

At the right time of year, surfers come to Puerto Escondido in droves. May though, is not the right time, and the waves are between six and ten feet high – half what a surfer wants. The undertow is still enough to drag an inexperienced swimmer out and under, though, and swimming is only promoted in areas away from the long Playa Zicatela, the beach that carries the town’s original name. Zicatela means ‘place of large thorns,’ but I encountered none of those on this visit. The hotel we chose was above Zicatela beach, and only a three-block walk from the sand, so the location wasn’t bad.

Waves at a favourite place, where the seabed funnels them into breakers of greater height.

The waves were the main captivating feature, I decided. The area has Mexico’s usual range of modest restaurants, plus a selection of bars, but there is nothing historic or architecturally intriguing to explore. The town scarcely existed before the 1930s and has few ancient roots. The waves, though, crashing in all day and all night, make a satisfying roar, and of course each roller is subtly different and lands differently. At times the breaking waves are unspectacular, but certain places funnel the water into higher crests that reach further up the beach than most. Yes, I did get soaked. But the sense of this pounding energy having come much or all the way across the ocean is fascinating. 

There is a swimming area in a bay below the main town, so we headed there for a couple of mornings. The waves here come in at under half-height, and while you can be pulled around by them and knocked off your feet, there’s little chance of being swept away. 

There is a drawback, though. The waves combine the fine sand into a saline mixture, so that while you think you’re only in seawater, you’re in fact getting sand in your hair and all over your skin. And it sticks. Eliminating it was a pain, and took some of the fun off being in the sea.

So yes, I didn’t find Puerto Escondido a wonderful place to visit. It was my first experience of the Pacific coast south of California, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Hotels are mostly cheap (there are some high-end exceptions), but days after returning, I’m still eliminating small deposits of sand that got into my suitcase, my socks and my clothing. 

But if you end up there, don’t miss the sunsets and the continuing roar of the surf into the night.

The Sun sets over Zicatela beach.

 

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Airporting

April 7, 2022

So old am I that I can remember being excited that I was getting on a plane. Yes, that old.

I had to cancel a visit to Toronto in January because of the Omicron variant, and I re-scheduled it for early April. By that point in the pandemic, airlines were actually letting people have a credit for cancelled flights, so I didn’t lose out too badly.

But we no longer just fly anywhere. First, we airport. (If there is no verb derived from the noun ‘airport,’ I hereby inaugurate it.). An airport is no longer a nexus between countries, but a Kafkaesque experience happening in a strange, anxious, liminal state, without access to fresh air while we’re legally constrained from the outer world behind misleadingly transparent glass.

An interior shot of Terminal Two in Mexico City’s Benito Juarez Airport, featuring misleadingly transparent glass.

Before flying, we Canadians prepare our ArriveCan document, spending 20 minutes online updating the data. Then we find that while we can enter Canada without a Covid test, the airline insists on one, so nothing’s changed that way. We pay more for a seat than we have in years, and we know there won’t be a meal served. We expect a micro-bag of pretzels instead. Hah! Naive cattle, to anticipate such generosity! Not on your two-hour flight, gullible peasants!

At the airport itself, we prepare ourselves to be treated as criminals under interrogation: “You have a bottle of water in your bag, and your glasses are in your shirt pocket, not in the tray. Feel shame, dog!” 

On this trip, I had the misfortune to encounter a polite dragon-lady at the check-in counter in Mexico City’s Benito Juarez airport. Because of my re-scheduling, I had ended up staying three days over the term of my visa. Usually, in Mexico three days is something that’s winked at. She was not, however, a woman who winked. She made me go to down to the Immigration office to pay the usual C$40 penalty for being bad, refusing to issue my boarding pass till I returned with the receipt. I had the time, and the amount was not crippling, but I know from experience that someone younger would have ignored the date on my card, assuming it was less than a couple of weeks out of date.

Duly chastened, but finally possessing the pass I needed, I went for a restorative hit of caffeine. Now I have, I confess, been reading only the main news stories about the invasion of Ukraine, and not all the pundits’ analyses any more. But I decided the world might actually might be close to its end when I was charged C$9.00 for my cappuccino in Terminal One. True, I’d accepted the waiter’s crafty suggestion of a shot of Bailey’s in it, but it was a micro-capp, half the size of what I pay $2.25 for, back home in Tepoztlan.

Mexican prices used to be around 35 percent of those in Canada. No longer, obviously. Yes, airports charge insanely, but this was still Mexico … I thought.

Finally, I was airborne and away, and the pretzel-less flight reached George Bush International Airport in Houston – named for the elder Bush, not Dubya. For reasons no-one can explain, in some US airports there is no way for international travellers simply to transfer from their arrival gate to the one where an ongoing flight departs. It’s necessary to line up for perhaps 45 minutes (supposedly socially distanced, but you can imagine how that goes with 300 anxious people) to be photographed, checked by an immigration official for known terrorist affiliations, then told to have a nice flight. Or, be grilled for 10 minutes, as was one man in front of me, to the consternation of those of us lined up behind him. You then enter the US, and head to your ongoing flight at a terminal 400 yards away on a little airport train.

I had three hours to spend in Houston, and after finally finding from which terminal my flight to Toronto left (those big boards announcing departures seem to fading from use), and deciding the cappuccino and the apple juice had not offered much sustenance, I headed for one of the eateries. I remembered the maxim for eating in an airport: expect a high bill, and don’t cry when you get it. Put it on the Visa card, and instead cry when you check your account next day.

I once had an argument with a manager at a Toronto airport restaurant over the fact the touchscreen I had to use to order food showed no prices. I posted something snarky on the airport’s Facebook page the week after, which received plaudits from other annoyed people, but it was soon deleted. But digital menus in airports remain one of my pet mega-peeves. 

Anyway, I found what looked like an okay place in the George Bush International Airport – El Premio (‘The Prize’). Then I realised there were no waiters, only touchscreens. Very well, I sighed to myself, this is post-Covid flying: inflated prices and non-existent service. So I ordered a shrimp and avocado salad (price, naturally, not listed), then a Pinot Grigio to make it a little more exciting.

Alas, I’d clicked on the icon for a bottle, not a glass, of wine. “$83,” the screen told me cheerlessly when it finally chose to divulge its secrets. 

Huh…? 

I tried to back up, and cancel the bottle. I thought I’d done so, and ordered a single glass. But now, my tally was at $121 – US of course, not Canadian. The beast had tallied the food, the bottle and the glass of wine. How, I wondered, does one glass of an everyday Italian white cost $38? Even in an airport? I tried to cancel the order, but there was no way to do this apart from trashing the screen. There was no Cancel button. I decided I’d rather make my ongoing flight than be arrested by airport security for screen-bashing, though I needed to reason it through for a minute or two. (“Satisfaction – or $2,000 fine…? Hmmm….”) I finally left, the smug figures on the screen no doubt mocking my glowering self as I left.

Fie, I thought, fie!  I’ll try the eatery opposite.

Which I did. The meal I ordered was not exactly wonderful, but helped by sufficient ketchup and a cheap white wine (which normally clash), it was palatable. I downed the food, and wrote this snarky piece as my dessert.

Flying scares a lot of people (not me, really), but there’s no question airporting today is an exhausting and upsetting business. Passengers are essentially treated as criminals-cum-cash-cows, remaining under suspicion until we pay for something overpriced. Airlines tacitly resent the unhappy, demanding human meat they transport, and the airports just want ever more revenue. 

I don’t own a car these days. But I’m seriously pondering somehow driving to and from Mexico in future. That way, I can enjoy bad food at tolerable prices. And pretzels (which I don’t actually like much) will be optional.

Meanwhile, I am having dreams involving touchscreens and baseball bats.

Sunlit Springtime

March 15, 2022

The central Mexican spring is a strange thing. We get a little rain in January, virtually none in February, and zero in March. Clothing left on the line overnight is dry by morning, the humidity is so low. Yet suddenly, the flowering trees, like the jacarandas, are out in bloom, and in some places we walk over a carpet of violet flowers that have dropped from the branches.

A jacaranda tree in full bloom.

Technically, this is winter, which makes it even stranger. The weather is hot, but foliage has not emerged on most trees. The result is that they look like wintry trees, bleak and leafless, except for the ones that are in flower. There must be a mechanism whereby the flowering ones either store moisture, or tap into it deep underground, but I don’t know the botany well enough to explain it. By late May or early June, we’ll have rain again, and the leaves will be out. Meanwhile, we’re in this thirst-making time, where dehydration is more of a risk than wind-chill will ever be.

The people I run into at the coffee shop all make some reference to the fighting in the winter weather thousands of miles away, but it’s almost as if it’s in poor taste to say much. Mexico ended WW2 technically at war with Germany, but the Revolution aside, it largely avoided warfare in the 20th Century. In our furtive conversations over coffee we sometimes ponder how safe we’d be if things get really bad in Ukraine, but the answer is always that we’re probably safe as houses, unless someone uses a nuke and there’s fallout. Mexico’s President, Andres Manuel Lopez-Obrador, recently declined to join sanctions against Russia, saying he would welcome Russian tourists. The likelihood of any Aeroflot flights coming here right now is close to zero but AMLO is not noted for addressing difficult topics head-on.

So, we complain about the heat, admire the jacarandas that have finally put on a first-rate display, and congratulate ourselves for having chosen to live here. Or be born here, as the case may be.

Like I said, the central Mexican spring is a strange thing. We waited through the pandemic, we wait through the sunlit afternoons, and with everyone else, we wait for something we prefer not to mention, in case it actually happens.

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Cacophony Days

March 8, 2022

I was out when my bedroom floor erupted. Floors in this house are of tiles placed over concrete, and some combination of factors caused a bunch of them in my bedroom to heave out of place. The moment must have been quite noisy, but I can’t know just how noisy it actually was. I just saw what had happened when I got back, with pieces of tile across the floor and others lifted up to form shallow tents.

A section of the floor with shattered tile. The little ‘tents’ are harder to see.

There’s an immense amount of construction around here these days. People from Mexico City, spooked by the pandemic, have bought existing houses or land that farmers are willing to sell, and they have begun expanding the old homes or starting on new ones. That’s created a huge demand on semi-skilled workers.

Thus, when we contacted Chucho, who was the original contractor for this house a decade ago, he was hard to reach. He is busy, probably looking to build up retirement savings as well as enjoy a prosperous moment. Inflation in Mexico right now is steep, running at 25 percent on some goods and services, and it’s no time to miss an opportunity to get ahead of the curve. And this inflation was happening before the attack on Ukraine began.

The maestro: Chucho when he was originally constructing the house.

So, when I went to take my dog Victoria out for her morning sniff around the neighbourhood, I was a little surprised to find Chucho right outside, along with an assistant. They had come for the first phase of work, which involved hacking up most of the floor in the bedroom, while leaving tiles that were still firm in their places.

I was about to ask why he had’t notified me he was coming, but another thought gripped me. The gates of renovation hell had opened.

It’ll be at least three days to get the work done, and more if there’s a more pressing job elsewhere. With construction in Mexico, there’s rarely a guarantee that work will continue without a break. It’s just the way things happen, and you live with it.  My bed wasn’t hard to move out … but when will it go back again? I don’t know.

While I’m currently exiled to my kitchen, the noise of chiselling and general bashing makes the whole house resound, and I can only achieve marginal relief from the noise. Some bits of tile remain stubbornly anchored in place, surrounded by accumulating cement chips, and Chucho’s man needs to apply fierce determination to remove the damaged tiles. And of course, a patina of dust is settling over the rest of the house. 

Just a little disorder. It should all be gone … eventually.

I just hope it all gets done … soon. Chucho’s a good guy, and pretty honest, but I only ever see him when life goes into a phase of miserable disruption.  I therefore can’t help associating him with expensive unhappiness. When you occupy a house in a seismically active area that gets annual deluges for four or five months, there’s no way to avoid periodical cacophonous misery.

I just hope none of the other floors are waiting to explode from their moorings.

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Walking to the Black Christ

February 26, 2022

The town of Chalma is around 60 miles from here. Every year, groups of pilgrims pass through our village en route to the shrine, which is Mexico’s second most popular religious destination after the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The legends surrounding it vary, but the central image of Christ in the Sanctuary is a reputed miracle-worker.

The main entrance of the shrine of the Black Christ in Chalma.

Pilgrims began arriving here two days ago. Often, they crash at night in the civic plaza, having brought mats, old eiderdowns or maybe just a blanket to sleep on under the stars. In the morning, they set off again for Tepoztlan, then head onto a route that again winds through the mountains of central Mexico.

Their mood is usually cheerful, though it’s clear some of the older pilgrims are suffering pain from the long walk. I know I couldn’t do it. Frequently, people carry a rock with them that represents accumulated sins, or some petition they wish to make to the Christ of Chalma. The one time I walked a short part of the route, with hiking buddy Ixchel Tucker, there was a young man whose rock must have weighed 15 lb, and maybe more. I can only hope he got what he wanted from all that effort. Ixchel and I were wiped out after our four or five miles (more if you count the steep ups and downs and ups), having started from near the town of Tlayacapan.

Pilgrims on the march. The man in front is carrying a religious banner.

The pilgrimage is accompanied by buses or trucks. These can’t go on the rougher tracks, like the one we hiked, but they can come round and meet people as they complete a stretch of the hike. They might bring tents, bedding or spare clothes, so people don’t have to carry as much as they travel. It’s also possible some people might need to drop out, at least for part of the journey, so the trucks provide transportation for them, too.

I welcomed the sight of the pilgrims this week, after the deaths I reported in the last blog. It felt as if their passage through the village was a breeze blowing the ill mood away.

A truck with supplies and gear for pilgrims passing through our village.

It’s always difficult to convey to non-Mexicans what death means here. Dying isn’t nearly as prohibited or distasteful a topic as it is in the US or Canada, as shown by the festival of the Days of the Dead. There’s a fatalism around its inevitability, and no-one assumes they’ll necessarily live into their dotage. Death is more of a companion than a forbidden subject for discussion, and not everyone was grief-stricken over the two deaths. Students of a friend of mine, who teaches English to Mexicans, thought it was funny: too typically Mexican to be considered a particular tragedy. However, the initial reaction here was by no means ironic. The anger was tangible.

In the past few days, the atmosphere here has become more like a kind of embarrassment, except for the families directly affected. The pilgrims seem to dispel that, and have redirected the mood and distracted the community.

I imagine, though, that next year, some of the people most directly involved with the deaths will themselves be making their own pilgrimages to the Black Christ of Chalma.

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Just Another Manic Monday

February 22, 2022

This village of Amatlan has long had a fraught relationship with the parent town of Tepoztlan. Tepoz represents rules and regulations, while Amatlan is a kind of anarchist collective. Defying authority is almost a civic duty here, and when the community acts together, it can be swift and scary.

Monday, February 21, was a strange day. Our internet was out till the early afternoon, so I was cocooned for a few hours from news about the virus, or the troubles in Ukraine. I found out later during the day that a close friend’s cat died, while another friend’s husband had to be rushed to hospital. And when my cleaning lady came, she was stung by a small scorpion that had found its way into my bedroom. I have an okay relationship with scorps, and while I sometimes see them in the house, none has stung me in almost eight years. But she went into an anaphylactic state, and needed several shots of anti-venin.

A crowd beside a police vehicle argues what happened in the late afternoon sunshine.

After all that, I went for a meal in town to settle my sense of upheaval. I came home at 3.30 in the combi micro-bus, and just outside the village, another combi driver heading out stopped our van and had words with the driver. I heard something about a traffic blockage, but when we came to it, it wasn’t what I expected.

As I found out in the next hour, three town officials had come to close an illegal beer-vending operation. The warning issued, two of them got into their vehicle, and their boss, a woman called Pilar Navarrete Morales, got into hers. What she didn’t see was that a local drunk had passed out on the street just behind her car, and when she backed up, she ran right over his body. He died where he lay.

The community went nuts. Some people blocked the main exit route with their vehicles, while in another part of the village locals piled rocks on a small bridge to make it impassable. The three officials went to the local sub-mayor’s office to avoid the angry mob, and soon a half-dozen police cars arrived to prevent what the Diario de Morelos called a potential ‘lynching.’

People blocked a bridge over a ravine near my house, using the boulders that are plentiful round here.

The man who died was married to a local woman, though I was told he wasn’t from Amatlan himself. I also have to wonder how much of a provider he was if he could drink himself into a stupor on the street. This became important later in the evening, when the woman official and the widow had a public interchange in front of an angry mob at the sub-mayor’s office. Ms. Navarrete Morales promised publicly to support the woman financially as long as she lived, while a crowd yelled support for the bereaved wife, and the widow asked how long such a promise would last.

But this wasn’t the day’s only death. Around 10.00 pm, a young man reported to be the brother of one of the officials was shot close to his home by an angry relative or friend of the deceased. The village had two violent deaths in one day, and it didn’t settle down for hours. 

Yes, I know – why do I stay where it isn’t safe? As I get tired of saying, it is safe here. Nobody hates me, and I drive like a nervous old lady in and around the village. The community protects its own, even us outsiders, provided we don’t ever forget who we are, and who they are. My lifestyle is based on a series of choices that have not made me part of the community, but they have made me welcome around the community. The key thing is respect for the people themselves, even the drunks. I have a relationship to Amatlan that at times is frustrating, but for which I’m still grateful. That gratitude communicates to the people here, judging by their expressed attitudes.

I’m left wondering what Ms. Navarrete Morales is feeling. What she did was negligent, but hardly criminal. Passing out on the street was never a safe occupation, though three or four men here do it regularly: the deceased was their drinking buddy. The rest of us step around them, or drive carefully past the spot near the cemetery where they hang out. 

But that woman is not as poor as some local people (not all locals are poor, though) and as a Tepozteca, she can never be liked here. Village-versus-town, as noted, is an old rivalry, and these events have only fuelled that.

Still, I’m sure she never thought for a moment that a routine disciplinary visit to our village would end up in something that would end one then two lives, and change her own so drastically.

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Say No Evil

February 2, 2022

So the story goes, when the first people in this village caught Covid-19 in 2020, a few of the neighbours wanted to burn down their house with them in it. This medieval method wasn’t used, thankfully, but there has been a lot of denial around catching the virus ever since. It’s a little like in the early 1900s when a man came back from a business trip with an ailment indicating he’d had a dalliance with a lady of the evening. The family hoped the Salvarsan would cure the disease, but it was never, ever to be mentioned.

Susan Sontag, photographed in 1979 by Lynn Gilbert. See below.

Quite why people here are held responsible for infections more than the virus is, I can’t really say. I suspect it stems from general ignorance of how disease is transmitted, abetted by the flakiest of New Age theories on the topic propagated by superannuated hippies who live here. They are often confident enough in their beliefs that these bleed through to the native community around them. Thus, (you will hear) diseases can’t infect you without you having some karmic imperfection, some imbalance in your aura, or a similar idea. I’ve had someone shout at my face that without such an auric weakness, I couldn’t possibly get sick, so why did I wear a stupid mask? I did, I confess, savour the schadenfreude when I heard he too had a bad case of Covid.

Whatever the reason, to get the virus is a mark of shame, like a punishment from God.

All this was underlined last week when a Mexican friend came to stay at my place for a couple of days while attending an arts course being held locally. On Friday morning, she told me she had pain all down her body, a dreadful headache and fever. I was despatched to acquire Naproxen, Prednisone and vitamins from the village pharmacy; and like other substances made by the evil guys at Big Pharma, they worked – and without any auric adjustments. I was hopeful my recent booster jab, something she’d not had, might keep me safe, but by Saturday night I too felt low, and my throat was sore.

By Monday, it was plain she was on the mend, and my symptoms had become standard for a typical winter cold. I sneeze from time to time, my throat is a bit irritated, and my temperature is just under fever-level. Tylenol and plenty of fluids are my basic food-groups this week.

But she was insistent we create a cover story, and I had already reported to two friends who live elsewhere, plus my son in Toronto, that I probably had the bug. She let me know a mutual acquaintance of ours, who lives a ten-minute walk from this house, had Covid a few weeks ago, and has never told a soul. I had initial concerns about it getting serious, but it was almost a badge of macho pride. “Hey, I’m finally in the C-club!”

Monday, I was out of cash to buy food, and went into town, duly masked. I had the Titanic, the ancient Ford Explorer I drive, so I didn’t have to infect people, provided I was cautious. I did run into one American friend, and waved him off with hand-signals that he quickly grasped. Do not approach: I am a centre of pestilence. He signalled back: No problem – thanks for the warning! I still didn’t know I had actual Covid, and not a simple cold, but the probability lay with the coronavirus. 

Meanwhile, since I’ve had an inflamed knee for a couple of months, my friend back at the house was telling people I was incapacitated by this, and I needed her to care for me.

She’s recovering – it doesn’t seem to be a bad case – and she has gone home. I’m still sneezing, but the thermometer tells me I’ll live. 

But it has been an odd lesson in attitudes to disease. It has reminded me of an old book, Susan Sontag’s remarkable Illness as Metaphor, which focused on tuberculosis and cancer, but examined how people view diseases generally, especially those they don’t understand.

This all means, of course, that any caseload statistics from Mexico are meaningless. My cleaning lady, asked by my friend to postpone her weekly visit because “Edward has a bit of a cold right now” remarked that there were a lot of such colds around the village right now. But, naturally, no Covid-19. The C-word must not be uttered.

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Frightened Tribe

January 6, 2022

I rarely write here about expats, the principal minority tribe in my community. Since many of these are friends or acquaintances, I’m cautious gossiping about them in a public blog. They might not like me afterwards, after all.

There are a few Canadians here – about as many as I have fingers, maybe less. There are also people from various parts of Europe. However, five-sixths of expats, roughly, are Americans. For years, since most of them are people who will quote books they’ve read, I assumed they all fit the generic liberal profile: soft left in politics, supporting gay rights, reduced racism, and kindness to animals. They all seemed to like each other’s Facebook posts.

When Donald Trump was elected, I tried to understand what was happening in the US, and began spending time on conservative websites. I also discovered that while they were mostly less vocal than the liberals, there were a number of Republicans here. This seemed superficially hypocritical, since the last US administration was trying to keep Mexicans and Latinos generally out of its borders, yet its supporters felt okay about moving south. But they point out that their presence here is legal: they didn’t come over the border in the night.

B and I have spoken a lot in the past few months. Mostly, he speaks, and I listen. His partner died not long ago, he’s lonely and sad, and some of his anger at the US left possibly stems from that. He needs to vent. Unlike with a right-wing website though, I can make replies and ask him questions. He has worked in the US political system, and has interesting insights.

Mostly what I hear about, though, is the sheer panic happening across the US right now. M believes in ‘the steal,’ but is also lucid in describing popular anger in his home country. Other American friends tell me of their own fear and anger at what M’s side want, even if he draws back from advocating violence to settle the issue. But the endless talk of civil war has an audience. Or rather, two mutually suspicious audiences.

We’ve all read endless punditry on these topics, and it would be tedious to rehash all that here. But I do have a quirky lens here in Tepoztlan on what is currently tearing the US apart, and it’s sad and darkly fascinating. 

Like any Canadian (or Brit), I’ve always been wary of America’s power and its lack of interest in what other countries think of it. I’ve also had many happy experiences visiting the country, and like many people from there. However, I do find the old line that no American ever leaves their own country, wherever they live physically, is true in very many cases, and I have great difficulty persuading some Americans not to fear either social democrats or single-payer medical systems, having been around both all my life. Last month I spent several futile minutes trying to convince one less-educated man that I don’t get my opinions from either the New York Times or the Washington Post. That my views might have been informed and nourished outside the US, over many years, was too unsettling or bizarre a notion for him to handle. He ‘knew’ only corrupt Democrats had opinions like mine.

I try to stay level-headed as these things erupt. Americans have to solve their own problems, though some I encounter here are deeply distressed that their country is no longer a paragon among the democracies. I sometimes become the therapist, the outsider listening to people’s anxieties, but of course I have no prescriptions to offer. I hear about stupid family arguments, and I hear quotes from media columnists who provide excellent analysis but no plans of action. Mexico is a place of sanctuary from all this for these expats, but not an impregnable one. The strife travels across borders at the speed of an email.

And hardly nobody in the US seems able to imagine, or even necessarily to want, an effective bridge-builder between the sides. As B keeps reminding me, the anger is strong. He just can’t tell me where things will end up if and when it bursts out in full strength. After coffee and talk, we head off to do our day’s shopping or to meet friends, and the mild winter sunshine makes it seem to me like the problem is less likely to affect me than I know it eventually will. After all, it will take a lot of hurt and struggle to drain the resentments that are simmering just a single frontier away.

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Urban duendes

December 30, 2021

Victoria has had a rough week. She is terrified of loud noises, and since Christmas Eve we’ve had masses of explosive rockets let off. Opponents of these things are now pointing out how much air pollution they produce, but so far, it’s not having an effect. Vicki responds to the night rockets by crawling under my bed, after demanding to be let in with a sharp bark.

My friend Lucero, Victoria’s original rescuer, painted this portrait. I’m biased, but other people agree the likeness is amazing.

A few weeks back, she began a kind of rasping sound, like a cough or excessive throat clearing. At first I was afraid she’d tried to swallow something that was blocking her airway, but that wasn’t it. To Luis our trusted vet we went, and while he suggested it could be just a bronchial infection, he was pretty sure it was due to an incipient heart condition. At age thirteen, she’s into things like heart conditions. She’s slowing down, and a little deaf, but she’s still good company.

So, we tried antibiotics and a cough-soothing medicine, which had no effect. Wednesday, she and I went back to Luis, who checked Vicki and gave me a prescription for an echocardiogram. This has to be done in Cuernavaca, a half-hour drive away from Tepoztlan. I called the number once or twice, but no-one picked up. I had been thinking of going for some food shopping at the Walmart in Cuernavaca (their selection of imported foods is surprisingly varied for Mexico), and I noticed the veterinary clinic was a few hundred metres down the street from the mega-store. I decided to head off and find the clinic on foot, book and appointment then stock up on decent tea and some other stuff the same afternoon.

In central Mexico City, all the streets are identified by signs on the street corners. Not so other parts of Mexico. Not long ago, my friend Ixchel and I headed off to visit a hacienda on the far side of the city of Cuautla, and despite using a GPS on her phone, we became completely lost. I even got a traffic ticket, making an iffy turn back whence we’d come.

Cuernavaca has some signs, but not many. I decided to take a bus there, not wanting to be looking for an unfamiliar place while driving in traffic. Then, when I took Vicki in, I wouldn’t be looking for an unknown location.

Now, the tent where they sell bus tickets for Cuernavaca, next to a ramp leading to the main highway, was gone when I got there. The ramps are under reconstruction, and there was no sign to indicate where I should go. It’s sort of assumed here that someone has told someone who’s told you how things have changed. That’s simply how it works (or often, doesn’t work). Mexicans are highly conversational, and people just get to know stuff.

There is, however, a kind of duende (Spanish for an elf or pixie) who looks after the lost in Mexico. Invisible and inaudible, it shows up when it wants to, which might be an hour after you got lost, or three minutes. It somehow distracts you from your confusion, and indicates the place you need. Perhaps, in Mexican folklore, there’s a way of calling one, but I don’t know the method, beyond feeling and looking clueless. 

In this case, I walked 200 yards to the ticket office for the bus line I would use to go to Mexico City. A helpful young woman, no doubt a relative of a duende, or its accomplice, pointed across the street to where people sat in a previously abandoned storefront, which had no sign. I thanked her profusely, and after ten minutes, my bus came.

The clinic I needed in Cuernavaca is in a street named Legislative Power. Since this is a direct extension of Domingo Diez Avenue, which I know well, and I had the street number, it was just a matter of counting down numbers till I arrived. 

Or not. Not only do Mexicans eschew street identification and signage, they’re also not big on street numbers. You will see no. 221 come after no. 119, and figure no. 129 is a few doors down. Gotcha! No, the numbers re-start two blocks further along. I had carefully written directions from Luis, and I’d checked Google Earth too, but what I had written down didn’t translate into the ground-level reality.

Now, when you’re lost in Mexico, which is a frequent thing for Mexicans, not just gringos, you ask a local. People here love to help strangers, and the directions you get are sometimes even accurate. So, I started at a corner taco joint, figuring people at such a place must know their own neighbourhood. These women directed me further up towards Walmart, asserting that my cross-street was two or maybe three blocks away.

Four blocks on, I decided to tried a guy in a car parts store. After all, I figured, such people must drive their own cars, so they must know local streets. He suggested I had to go up through three streetlights, or about six blocks. I thanked him, and decided to hail a cab.

Ten minutes later, in busy, daylight Cuernavaca, no cab had come by, so I started walking again. On the very next block. I suddenly spotted a small sign advertising Science Diet dogfood. and realised I was at a veterinarian’s. I’d found the clinic! I’d been duende‘d!

The appointment made, I hoped on a combi microbus to get on to Walmart. Here I misjudged how far I’d walked, since I needed to get off again after two blocks. The driver, used to lost gringos, just shrugged. No duende was needed in this case, of course.

In line with the day, when I finally got to where the bus picks up passengers for Tepoztlan, it turned out to be closed for renovations. Probably it was another duende who helped me here as I walked grumblingly to where I could get a taxi. One of the older, less comfortable buses that go to my home town came along – I didn’t even know their route came through that area – so I clambered on it, and withstood twenty-five minutes of shaken bones without further complaint.

Thus ended what felt rather like an epic afternoon, with multiple inconveniences. I still have no idea what a duende might look like, if one were to appear before me. Perhaps they just look similar to average Mexicans, like the girl at the bus-ticket office. 

But, if you’re ever lost in Mexico, don’t forget the duendes. As long as you respond with noises of gratitude and relief, they seem to be happy they helped you. 

I just hope they aren’t dog-phobic, and that Vicki scares them off. Just in case I get us lost again when we go for the test on Tuesday, and I need help. She doesn’t need another bad week after this one.

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Dog Treats

December 22, 2021

‘Tis the season for feasting. And no-one believes in this more sincerely than my alpha dog, Rem.

I was blinking at the light this morning when I glanced out of the bathroom window. I’ve never understood why the house’s builder made this a large picture-window as opposed to the usual privacy-protecting piece of glass, but it does give me a fine view of the dogs’ corral beside the house. And I noticed there was a plastic bag there. This seemed unusual, since we get almost no real wind at this time of year, and nothing is likely to blow onto the property over the perimeter fence, apart from the occasional piece of ash from someone’s backyard fire.

“I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”

I forgot about the bag while I fed the dogs, checked email and went through the rest of my usual morning routine. Finally, I went into the kitchen to make my own breakfast, and couldn’t remember what I’d done with the loaf of bread I bought yesterday. It wasn’t in the fridge. And after running through the list of possible locations, it dawned on me that I’d left the loaf on the kitchen counter overnight.

Now, Rem has made plain to me the rules of the kitchen many times. Simply, if it’s in a cupboard, or the fridge, or out of his reach, it’s mine. If it’s accessible to a large-to-medium dog (him, for example), it’s his. Oatmeal, cheese, pecans, raisins – which he threw up, because grapes and raisins are toxic to dogs – and other stuff have often disappeared because I don’t follow the rules he laid down.

And at this point I recalled the bag in the corral.

Rem always asks to have any crumbs resulting from my slicing bread. So, when I reclaimed the bag, and menacingly shook it at him, he was excited because he thought I was giving him the crumbs left in it. You can’t, of course, punish a dog unless the dog knows what he’s being punished for, so all I could do was make the sort of threatening noises he interprets as “Human having a bad time, which is irrelevant to dogs.”

What I couldn’t understand was how Rem could have eaten an entire loaf – I found no leftover crusts – without harmful consequences. Dogs here often get tortillas, which are made from maize, as either a treat or (more sadly) a substitute for proper dogfood, but I’ve never known one to eat that much wholewheat bread at one time before. Clearly, Labrador-crosses in Mexico don’t suffer from gluten intolerance.

Later today, I was back at the bakery buying more bread, and the señorita in the shop smiled at my story of how this mutt had devoured an entire loaf. 

“I know the owner always wants to expand into new markets,” she grinned.

Maybe I should have asked if they’ll pay for Rem to be a model in an advertising campaign. After all (see photo above), he’s quite photogenic.

Somehow, though, I can’t see even good wholegrain bread replacing Dog Chow in the Mexican market.