My Poor, Stoned Dog

August 29, 2022

For my last post, I wrote yet again about our dog Dori. We’d taken her to our preferred vet because her ribs were sticking out, and she was getting progressively thinner. After ruling out poisoning and a thyroid condition, Dr. Barajas said she needed surgery because she had a bullet or lead pellet in her liver; but more importantly, because her intestines were invisible on two x-rays. They just couldn’t be seen properly. Her operation, scheduled for Saturday, was postponed, but my friend Lucero, who initially rescued Dori, has a challenging timetable, and pushed for having the surgery today. It was just as well that she did.

Dori looking pensive before her surgery.

(Trigger warning: If reading about the contents of dog intestines causes you embarrassment, reactivated trauma from infant toilet-training, or absolute boredom, read no further).

When he opened her up, the vet soon determined that her lower intestines were alarmingly swollen, and the colour of what should have been red (from natural bloodflow) was dark to the point of being nearly black.

He assumed at first that she had swallowed pebbles, because there were hard objects in her lower bowel. But an enema did nothing to move them. Perplexed, he decided to open her up, and discovered nine or ten dried and hardened plumstones. He showed them to us after, semi-mummified and of course dramatically stinky. 

I detest the plum trees on our property, and always have. Hog-plums produce a lot of fruit, the stones of which litter the ground throughout the year. And I find them sour and unleasant. Our other large dog Rem likes to eat them, then charmingly vomits them up for me overnight. Many mornings, I start the day bent double with power towels in my hand. Dori copied Rem, except that she’s been swallowing the stones instead of regurgitating them. The result was today’s surgery.

Dogs absorb fats and other nutrients from the lower bowel, said Dr. Barajas, as well as extracting water. Dori has been on a high fat diet the past couple of weeks, which boosted her weight by two kilograms (around 4-½ lb), but she was unable to expel the plumstones. How they passed through two intestinal sphincters to reach her lower bowel, he couldn’t explain. But he was sure she must have hurt like hell. 

She always goes crazy at feeding time, and sometimes attacks Rem right after eating. This is as her intestinal tract starts peristaltic contractions, with consequent cramping pain. The pain triggered the aggression, while her clogged bowel was minimising her nourishment. And her internal writhings to remove the blockages led to her intestines bunching up close to her chest cavity, hence their near-invisibility on the x-rays. 

Poor, crazy dog.

The good doctor thinks his handiwork today will fix the problem, but we won’t be sure for a week or so. Cutting open a bowel is a dicey business, and the dog is now obviously on antibiotics. We were warned the next few days could be critical, with no guarantees. She has to be kept away from solid food for that time; and of course, we’re frantically scheming about how to limit the windfalls from the seven large plum trees on this property. Tomorrow, I’m buying a new, large saw.

The lead pellet, by contrast to the gut issue, was deemed harmless, and as Dr. Barajas had no wish to start cutting into another internal organ, it was left in place. He did, though, appreciate having a fascinating surgical case to handle. He was quietly smiling when he told us she’d likely have died in the next week if he hadn’t operated today.

I’m going to have a talk with Rem, and ask him to just keep vomiting if he must eat hog-plums. It’s unpleasant, but it’s a sign of the correct canine response to hard objects in the stomach. And paper towels are a heck of a lot cheaper than abdominal surgery.


My brave, gutless dog

August 14, 2022

Dori has featured in this blog several times. She began as Dory last spring when we acquired her, then became Dorada (‘golden’) and, finally, Midori, a Japanese word that literally means ‘green,’ but can also mean the force of the natural world. She’s indeed strong and forceful, while also being intensely affectionate. But we still call her Dori, because that’s the name she more or less recognises.

Midori, or just Dori, but not Dory. When I took this pic last year, she was not as thin as she’s become.

She began to look unusually thin a few months ago, and so our usual vet suggested a course of de-worming meds and some vitamins. I thought it had some effect, but not much.

Dr. Barajas, in the nearby city of Cuautla, is our guy for complicated cases. He has sophisticated equipment and a full operating theatre. He is also usually training a couple of young assistants, so the place is well-staffed. My friend Lucero, who rescued Dori early last year when her original owners largely abandoned her, came with me to see him yesterday, and to get a proper diagnosis of why our dog, while still a little wild and strong as a horse, has her ribs sticking out. We suspected she had a thyroid condition, but that isn’t what the good doctor found.

First, he ran a blood sample through an instrument that does counts automatically. Overall, she is in good condition, he said, so we’d not found the problem. So, next I got to help the assistants hold down Dori as she was given a sideways-on x-ray. Some dogs are a handful, but predictably, she was six handfuls.

“What do you see here?” he asked his assistants when the image came up on the screen, asking us to wait a minute for the verdict until they’d had a chance to offer their opinions. 

Dori’s second x-ray. Her head was to the right.

“I can’t see her intestines – where are they?” one of them finally asked. “And is that a spot on her liver?”

And then he took us through what he’d found. Which, weirdly, was that she has almost no intestines where a dog always has intestines. The food goes in, and the by-product comes out the other end, but somehow her intestines are either not fully present, or more probably, are pushed up into her thorax. Dr. Barajas assured us he’d not seen a case quite like this before. The problem needs surgery to explore and, hopefully, to fix. But clearly, with strangely positioned or formed innards, she can’t extract maximum nutrition from her food.

But the round white spot – on the x-ray here, above the spinal column, about one-sixth the way from the right-hand edge of the image – was the other surprise. This x-ray was the second one, because the first showed where it was longitudinally, but not how deep into her body. Because, when he said it was a small lead bullet or gun-pellet, he had to determine if it was close to the skin (as we hoped), or deeper inside (which it was).

Outsiders still assume that gun-violence is a problem for humans in Mexico, and it is in some areas. But a lot of people own firearms of one type or another, and street-dogs can be considered legit for target practice. Dr. Barajas told us that with a street-rescue dog that’s brought in, he always checks to see if they’ve been shot.

Lucero and I were in shock by this point in his explanation. How does an animal survive in such a condition? She shows no external signs of distress, apart from the complete lack of fat on her body. But it’s possible the lead pellet is poisoning her slowly.

I’ve often remarked that being a woman in rural Mexico can be a tough gig, but being a dog would be a worse one. There are many half-starved dogs running around, sometimes with mange or matted hair. Survival is all they can achieve, and often, not even that for very long. 

Ours often whine to be let out to run around and get into fights, and Dori still misses her half-wild first year or so of life, when she picked up various scars and gave birth to two litters of puppies. But letting them out the gate except on a leash, when they have an ample, hillside corral here in which to play and run, is something I’ve never done except through rare carelessness. I value them too much for that.

So, our Dori goes in for surgery. She’s on an enriched diet (she doesn’t complain at that) and we hope that builds her up a little. But as the vet says, she’s mostly healthy and strong for now, but that could change at any point. Accordingly, in fourteen days, he’s going to see what he can do about the presumably compacted intestines, and try to extract the lead pellet from her liver.

Dori is not an easy dog to live with. But boring, she isn’t.


Once a Year … Thankfully

July 23, 2022

“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.

The main street this morning, as people set up for the day.

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.

Rocket Man runs to fetch more ammo after releasing a salvo of cohetes.

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.


Victoria checks to see if it’s safe to come out for a while and get a drink of water.

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.


Cool California

July 5, 2022

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 garden of a large house near Nevada City – in this case, the home of the owners of the Empire Gold Mine .

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.

Sacramento Airport – sometimes, the coldest place south of Inuvik.

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.


Dog Day Afternoon

June 19, 2022

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.

Breaking news – Scarlett the pug naps yet again.

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. 

Bad move.

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.

Dori reducing a pig bone to fragments. I prefer her doing this to chomping on my fingers.

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.

Rem is, for some reason, camera-shy, and I can never capture his goofily cheerful doggie-smile.

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. 


Lord, Didn’t It Rain

June 9, 2022

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. 

The water truck. I took this photo eight years ago, but the truck and driver are both exactly the same as then.

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.


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.




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. 


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.


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 hadn’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.