“Well, it’s only once a year,” was John’s opinion this morning, as chatted outside Tepoz Cafe. My true opinion is, “Well, it shouldn’t be.” But I chose to live in Mexico, so things Mexican are what I let myself in for.
Very few parishes or villages are dedicated to Mary Magdalene. Since the Plumed Serpent Quetzalcoatl was, legendarily, born just outside Amatlan, his mother in Catholic doctrine was a very sinful being in need of penitence. Accordingly, the church here is dedicated to her, and July 22, her saint’s day, is when the village erupts in fiesta.
It starts a couple of days before, as people set up stalls to sell food, jewelry, cheap kids’ toys and t-shirts. The movable midway rides are trucked in, people put up awnings (it is rainy season after all) and the organisers book a dozen bands and order hundreds of cohetes or explosive rockets.There was no fiesta in 2020, and only a blessedly small one in 2021. This year, as a surge of Covid-19 cases runs through the area, they planned on the traditional bash, and so this village is almost unlivable this weekend.
But as my regular readers (thank you both!) know, it’s the cohetes that torment my dogs and drive me crazy. These are not your average July 4th (or July 1st) fireworks, but super-bangers that resonate their detonations off the cliffs surrounding the village. To stand under one as it goes off is to feel the pressure-wave and a slight hurting in your ears. My dogs loathe them, and since they have been let off consistently through the day until after midnight since Thursday (I write this on Saturday) my noise-fearing dog Victoria has spent the past two nights cowering in my bedroom, which at least gives her the illusion of security.
I lost it late on Thursday afternoon, when the whole show was getting under way. The designated rocketeer began letting them off every 12 to 15 seconds, and continued for 25 minutes. I ended up screaming at him – while safe, of course, in my house 300 yards from the churchyard, which is his launchpad. But I just cracked after that many consecutive explosions.
I’ve grumbled before that, along with the general treatment of animals and unconcern over litter, cohetes are one of the three things I hate about Mexico. Many gringos are like me, and we occasionally have the temerity to suggest they be abandoned. Every year there are reports of people being blinded, maimed or even killed over poorly timed detonations. But tradition rules here, not common-sense. Mexicans seem to enjoy eardrum-rending bangs, while we outsiders instead want to praise the relative peace of places such as Amatlan.
I tell Vicki that it will all stop after Sunday evening’s bull-riding jaripeo. But that’s 30 hours away, and dogs have no sense of ‘the day after tomorrow.’ The songbirds have mostly abandoned the village for the woods in the hills, my next-door neighbours are coining it selling tacos in their front yard to all the visitors, and those of us who don’t like raucous fiestas just have to wait it out.
Over the years, I’ve often visited friends who live in or have moved to California. I like the state a lot (and I know some people can’t stand it), but while I’m there I can never avoid making comparisons with life here in central Mexico. I recently spent a few days in the state, and was struck by several key issues.
The first thing, of course, was prices. Restaurant food isn’t cheap, and I don’t recall when 18 per cent became a standard minimum tip for a server. Here in Mexico, 10 per cent is typical, and many Mexicans will offer less. I’m avoiding looking at my Visa bill online until my next pension payment is deposited.
The state is in a water crisis, but rationing, while an obviously sensible idea, isn’t about to happen. Showers pour out water at three times the rate my shower here in Amatlan does, and sprinklers were sousing garden plants once the sun went down. There weren’t even notices in motels and hotels asking guests to minimise water consumption. Here, when we began to run low on water in April last year, anyone ordering water for their cistern was warned not to apply it to plants, and by May, some areas simply couldn’t get deliveries. People had to wash carefully, using drinking water, or buy a few buckets from fortunate neighbours. The year 2022, thankfully, wasn’t so difficult, and we made it through till the rains began. But Mexicans are realists about water.
Still nothing, for me, is more bothersome in California than air conditioning. In Mexico, I live at around 5,000 ft above sea level, which mitigates temperatures on all but the hottest days of April and May, so excessive heat isn’t a huge problem. But then, I can handle hot days with little difficulty.
In the southern portions of the US, it can seem as if simply being hot is seen as a dangerous health condition. The first thing I do when I arrive wherever I’m staying in California, therefore, is turn off the a/c. I’m not afraid of being warm, even if I might run it for 10 minutes before going to bed.
But in a time when energy use is tied so closely to global heating, it seems odd that nobody has started a “Stay cool, but not cold” movement. If they have, I’ve not noticed. So, I’m used to coming to a hotel or motel room, entering, and feeling I’ve just arrived at Inuvik.
But the places I’ve learned to dread most for their cold are American airports. In June, these are chilled to a point cooler than a barroom can of Budweiser. At my layover, which happened to be in Chicago, I wondered if I was getting ill, and pulled out a sweater. I was relieved to find the plane wasn’t as miserable to sit in, but I had a three-hour wait for it that I didn’t enjoy.
Sacramento airport was similarly cold, but there, I was both mobile and only temporarily present. But I was wary of the place because of a memory from my last visit.
That time, my flight back to Mexico was at 6.10 am, so I needed to be there by around 4.00 a.m. I also needed to return a rental car (which cost me a fortune – another story, that), which meant I needed to be on the road no later than 3.30. So, I decided to take an extended nap in the departures area rather than pay for half a night in a motel room, with the accompanying risk of sleeping too late.
By 1.00 am, the airport a/c was operating at full blast, and I was shivering as I tried to doze. I had no sweater that time, so I went into my carry-on bag and pulled out my decidedly worn bathrobe. No-one, I’d told myself when I set out, would need to know I owned such a shabby, stained item, so it was okay to bring it along.
But it wasn’t enough to offset the effects of the arctic air blasting through the waiting area. Worse, the airport cleaners were now coming through, and began staring at me. How did this homeless guy in his ratty old robe make it through security, they wondered as they stared at me. I spent the night drifting in an out of a shallow sleep, and intermittently being checked out by people pushing vacuums or mops.
When I woke, my legs had cramped up so much I could scarcely walk. I’d not been that chilled right through since an unforgettable January night in Montreal when the thermometer hit -37 degrees C (plus, or rather minus, the wind-chill), and I had to walk a half-dozen blocks to my hotel. And that was when I was still in my early thirties.
To top it off, in Sacramento my flight was cancelled, and I was put on one leaving at 11.30. I could have remained where I was staying and avoided the whole experience, and my robe of shame could have remained a secret. Happy, I was not.
California, I’m very fond of you. But as a Canadian, I’ve had my share of cold days and colder nights, and I really didn’t need you to chill my bones for no reason. Turning off the a/c when there’s no sun outside, and the outside air is cool, isn’t a crime, but a gesture of common sense.
Now I’m back in Amatlan. It’s rainy season, and while I slept last night there was a downpour. The skies are cloudy, and no-one is feeling hot.
And I miss the old friends I left back in Sacramento.
There’s no pleasing me. At least the dogs were witing for me.
The rains came early this afternoon, so I let the dogs in from the corral before they were soaked. Dori had found a piece of pig bone that she sat with and proceeded to reduce to fragments, Scarlett the pug decided to take yet another extended nap, and the others just chilled, waiting for the rain to let up.
Dori’s teeth rather preoccupy right now. She is still, after months living here, semi-feral in her ways, and often sets on one of the other dogs right after eating. My theory is that eating triggers some primal hunting instinct, and she can’t simply gulp her food like the others, then chill while she digests it. Friday evening, she set on Rem as they finished their food – he is nearest to her in size – and I tried to separate them.
Fortunately, Dori didn’t bite through my forefinger. But it still hurts, two days later. And until the rain hit that night, there were drops of my blood all over the patio outside the kitchen. I even found some on the kitchen wall. And yes, I did get mad and I whacked her. She didn’t seem impressed.
Her first owners were careless, and left her to roam the streets much of the time. This isn’t abnormal in Mexico, but the consequences are obvious. A dog learns what it must, and if it has to survive in a rough environment, it learns to be rough itself. When we acquired her, she needed chemotherapy for an infectious genital cancer, and she has various scars on her from previous violent encounters. She is also very domineering towards the others, and can’t relate to my efforts to reduce this.
By contrast, Vicki, her ailing and aging kennel-mate, who was brought here as a puppy, just doesn’t have that aggressive streak. She bit me once years ago, when I and my friends moved to the two houses on this site, but solely from fear over what was happening to her. I once had to separate her from a rival dog who had attacked her, felt her teeth on my arm, and saw her move them away fast – in the middle of the fight.
The individuality of different dogs is still astonishing to me. The actual limits of dog powers of reasoning and the personalities they develop are always fascinating. Rem is the most intellectual, and has learned to avoid Dori much of the time. He was a total pain for his first six months here, but he and I finally worked out a modus vivendi, and he goes along with that. He’s four or five years old now, the age of wisdom for a dog I think, and realises it’s cleverer to manipulate me than to defy me non-stop.
It’s also more entertaining for me, something he has possibly figured out. Do dogs know what a smile means? I’m not sure, but at times I look sardonically at him when he has outwitted me, and I often think he is looking sardonically at me. It’s a weird relationship, perhaps, but a treasured one.
Do I spend that much time trying to figure them out, these unruly quadrupeds? Maybe not. I let them in out of the rain, and I started this piece because my internet connection went down in the storm and a thought-train started. With the rainstorm preventing other activities for a while, I can’t help but wonder what actually goes through those doggie brains as they wait for me to quit playing with this laptop, and get them their dinner.
A few years ago, when the springtime fires in the hills were getting out of hand, a local man who holds to the old traditions performed a ceremony to call rain, and I went to watch and lend support. To my utter lack of surprise, it didn’t work. But rainmaking is still something that is practiced in local communities, and I’m sure sooner or later one of the shamans here got it to work. After all, the Pacific currents are pretty consistent, even if the actual amount of rain they deliver to us varies a little.
Our rain this year has been odd. We had unprecedented heavy showers in the early weeks of the year, and the cistern at this house filled up with enough water that I didn’t need to order a tanker-load to top it up. That, in my memory of here, was unique.
Rain came again as the cistern was running dry in late May (another unusual occurrence) so I hoped I could avoid ordering another pipa. The cost isn’t great – 700 pesos, or about C$47 a load – but there was the sense of ecological self-righteousness about subsisting all year solely on the rainfall for washing purposes.
But the rain stopped. The weather forecasts kept predicting storms, but all we got was light, three-minute showers. The cistern’s level was now such that the cement bottom was clearly visible, and my neighbour Fernando and I started rationing our usage. Surely, we assured each other, the rain would come on Wednesday, or Friday or Sunday. And it did, but in the form of the those three-minute sprinklings.
Monday, I cracked, and went to the local hardware store run by Jorge and his wife Evi. That’s where we can order a load of water. And lo, Alfredo showed up with his truck at 6.00 pm Tuesday afternoon, and emptied a few thousand litres into the cistern through a long green hose. Yes, Fernando and I told each other, it would rain soon, but not enough to make a significant difference. We could still run dry before the rainy season began in earnest, so this was a worthwhile purchase, as well as being a great relief. No more quickie showers!
The lightning began around 10.00 pm Tuesday night, and the rain hit at 10.30. It poured and poured for an hour. Wednesday night, the same thing happened, and now there’s mud all around us. And the cistern, which Alfredo filled to one-quarter, is nearly half full.
I’ve decided to take the positive view. I didn’t so much buy a tanker-load of water as perform a secular rainmaking ceremony. By the basic laws of absurdity laid down by the legendary prophet Murphy, buying the water made the actual rain come, in bucketloads.
I don’t think I’ll hire out my services, though, just in case. People in a village can be funny about such things when they involve gringos. I’ll just work on looking mysteriously powerful next year when I pay for my springtime tankful, and then assure people that storms are imminent. And smile softly when they show up the same night.
All hail the Mysterious Murphy!
I just hope Alfredo the tanker driver can keep my ‘shamanic’ secret.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Moreloscalled a potential ‘lynching.’
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.