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Snake Alive!

October 19, 2020

Let’s set the scene a bit here first. This is the patio of the house where I live. The door on the right leads to the kitchen, where at the time of the incident, I was just finishing a late lunch:

The view from the kitchen shows me the living room door, and a stone flower bed, with the screen door of the living room partly obscuring that:

Okay. So I was just sitting, contemplating the rest of the afternoon, right? I was in that post-eating state of being pleasantly unfocused, when I noticed an odd, thick line behind the screen door. And it was moving downwards. It could even be a snake, I mused, except the line kept moving downwards. I’d never seen a snake anywhere near this property that was over 15 inches long, so how could it be….

Snapping out of the post-meal trance, I realised that it was a snake and it wasn’t 15 inches long: it was two or three times that. And my dog Victoria was dozing in the living room.

I shrieked her name several times, rushing to where the snake was still slithering casually into the living room. She got up from her bed, looked at me, looked at it, and then let it slide past her. Then she looked at me again, as if to ask, “You want me to start barking like you, right?”

Victoria in her standard, non-snake-killing mode.

This wasn’t what was supposed to happen, right? Fierce dog attacks and kills snake, or snake kills dog: that’s the scenario. I don’t have anything against snakes on principle, you understand, but my preference was decidedly for the former option, and she wasn’t doing anything about it. 

I ran to a spot outside on the patio to grab a broom and a mop, since I had no idea if the snake’s bite would be poisonous or merely nasty. By now, it had slid behind a mattress I’d just bought that was leaning against the wall. I kept trying to think how I could get it to leave without harming it, but the risk to Vicki was my primary motivation. I did have the presence of mind (or stupidity) to take a quick photo of the snake, just to prove later on that I wasn’t hallucinating. 

I then tried pulling it out with the broom, the head of which quickly came off. (Recollected memo to self: if you live past the next five minutes, remember to buy a new broom). The snake, now with its jaws open and trying to look dangerous, took advantage of the moment and dived under the sofa.

I had to play with the exposure here to show the snake more clearly. The white ‘slab’ to the left in the image is the painted wall of the room.

I now pushed the bemused Vicki into my bedroom, making sure the door was properly shut. Then, I pulled away the sofa, startling a scorpion that had also come in at some point. (Scorpions I’m used to, as is Vicki; 45-inch snakes, not so much). The snake headed for the door, finally. 

Okay, what to do? Ideally, I thought, I should grab it behind the head, and either crush it and kill it or escort it off the property. But while I’ll kill a black widow spider, or a centipede threatening one of the dogs (local centipedes have a nasty bite), a have an ingrained reluctance to harm anything higher up the food-chain. 

I took a second photo, the old journalist in me triumphing over my inner white hunter. Then I tried to restrain it with the mop. Did you know snakes are strong?

The blue water bowl is 12 inches in diameter, so that gives you some sense of scale.

They’re strong. And they bend around mops very easily. The snake headed to the corner of the patio behind the little spiral staircase that leads to the upper patio, where a couple of pipes also lurk. It began inching upwards, ignoring further efforts with the mop. 

I dived into the kitchen and put an oven mitt on my right hand, thinking I might grab it, and would have some protection if it bit me. (My friends say I can be cynical, but this action proves I’m a total optimist). It had headed over the roof of the kitchen by the time I got up after it, warily watching for it to ambush me. My next efforts succeeding only in helping it fall over the edge into the dogs’ corral.

Down I went again, right hand still en-mitted, and trusty mop in my other hand. The snake was now heading into a cavity in the downstairs wall, but I grabbed its tail.

Did I mention snakes are strong?

This one was. I couldn’t make it budge. And I had a snake by the tail, which, it occurred to me, might be the most stupidly dangerous thing I’d done so far. It could turn any moment it wanted, the business end of it free to bite me. 

So, deciding to declare victory, I withdrew, released Vicki from the bedroom, and simply started looking up Mexican snakes online while my pulse-rate slowed. I posted a couple of the photos on Facebook, and friends suggested it was a gopher snake. I concluded it was Pituophis lineaticollis , the Middle American gopher snake, which is endemic to this state of Morelos and a couple of other states nearby. It has a very mildly poisonous bite, but it doesn’t attack dogs.

And as of now, it’s probably still hanging out in its hole. Rem, the only one of the dogs who goes regularly into the corral when it’s full of vegetation in rainy season, could easily finish it off if he found it (even without a mop or oven mitt…), so I’m assuming after its upsetting afternoon, it will escape tonight and go back into the wilds behind the house.

I am glad I didn’t kill it, though. If it had been a rattlesnake, I would have made a different call, but it simply turned out to be no more than an exotic, if alarming, visitor. 

Now all I have to do is figure out where that scorpion from under the sofa went.

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Bird-brain

October 7, 2020

During rainy season, and often on other days, I leave my living room door open. It leads to a  patio, and the dogs can either cross the patio and go into the corral at the side of the house, or come indoors if it rains.

Often, butterflies and other insects fly in. Sometimes, I’ll catch them and release larger ones, although I only spend limited time trying. There’s also a window that I can open on the side of the living room opposite the door, so I can expel them that way.

More rarely, a bird will fly inside. Why? I have no idea. The living room is necessarily darker than the outside, and there are no flowering plants to create a smell that might attract them. Plus, since the door remains open, I can never understand why they don’t exit the way they came in.

If a dog is around at the time, he or she will go crazy barking at the bird as it tries to fly through the glass of the windows that I can’t open, or circles just under the ceiling. I therefore have a frantic bird in my house, and an equally agitated dog. Or maybe two dogs. That’s when the circus starts.

Yesterday, when I came back from a late morning walk, I heard a buzzing sound in the living room, and though a bee had come in. We get some large bees here, and they make a racket.

But I soon found it wasn’t an insect, but a ruby-throated hummingbird – Archilochus colubris, for the taxonomists among my readership. It was flying circles, a couple of inches below the ceiling. 

You can see the top of the door at the bottom of the photo. The hummingbird didn’t fancy it.

I kept hoping it would drop down a couple of feet and rediscover the door it had come in by. But no. Hummingbirds are tiny, and their brains are even tinier than other small birds. Ruby-throated hummingbirds weigh, on average, just over three grams: deductive intelligence is not their forte.

I’ve tried in the past to catch birds using a towel or maybe a discarded shirt from the laundry. They have frail bones, and I’m wary of injuring them using other methods, even if I’m not good with my preferred technique. Sometimes, birds have stunned themselves after hitting the window glass, and I can gently enclose them with my hands and take them outside. But what has proven most reliable has been my straw sombrero, which is not too rigid, and can encase most smaller birds without injury.

But three grams of birdlet, I figured, was a different proposition. Its bones had to be lighter than undersized matchsticks. The hat seemed dangerous.

Now first, I decided to see if it would drop down and either discover the window I opened, or go out the way it had come in. It was clearly tiring, taking frequent breaks to perch on a lampshade or the curtain rail, but it stubbornly refused to reduce its altitude by 20 inches, and make a graceful exit. I decided, against past experience, to get Monday’s discarded shirt, and try to use it as a net.

Thus began a drawn-out pursuit. The bird repeatedly traced the same course round the room, and every couple of minutes it came near to the door, where I was standing on a chair. I’d try tossing the shirt like a Mediterranean fisherman I’d once watched. But that was a man with years of experience, which I lack. And the bird moved fast when it wanted to. 

By now, two of the dogs had realised there was fun happening, and had come in to bark their support. So there was me on a chair with a shirt I couldn’t toss sufficiently far above the hummingbird, egged on by two mutts that hadn’t had any major distractions in the hours since two cows had passed by outside. I began to make progressively louder noises myself, each time I failed to net the bird, or deflect it down and out through the door.

After 10 minutes, I decided my method wasn’t working. I stepped down off the chair, took the photo I’ve used here, then waited to see if the bird might alter its flight-plan. Soon, I saw it was trying the glass window pane, and I briefly hoped it would have the sense to go to the right and out through the open window. But as noted above, sense was not part of its modus operandi.

And soon, it resumed its laps of the room three inches below the ceiling, egged on by the dogs’ yelping.

“I want to go make lunch,” I said to it plaintively. Well, maybe it wanted lunch too, but it wasn’t going to find any indoors. So we were locked in a duel of witlessness, both unable to eat, frantic prey and reluctant hunter. Only the dogs seemed to be having any fun.

Next, I tried again on the chair, this time with the hat. I figured if I could catch it in the crown, I might be able to sweep it down to the level of the top of the doorway, whence it could escape. No dice. Twice, it latched onto the brim of the hat, and I almost got it down to the opening before it made a tiny cheep, let go and headed off round the room again. Maybe I could have made the trick work if I’d been more ruthless, but I didn’t want to harm it, so I kept restraining my own motions.

Then, after almost half an hour of the fruitless chase it tried the glass again, and seemed to get stuck or confused behind a net curtain. I crept up to the window, and tried with the hat again. I caught the bird under the brim, and it stopped moving.

“Great, I’ve killed it,” I announced to Rem, my more enthusiastic canine accomplice, who’d come to check how I was doing. He looked disappointed, probably because he wanted the privilege of executing the coup de grace himself.

Holding my hand over the bird so it didn’t fall to his jaws (partly for fear it carried parasites or disease), I went out to toss it into the wilderness than we call a garden.

And once I took my hand off, it came back into action and was gone into the trees. Not dead, just bluffing, I thought. Which of us was Dumb, I wondered, and which Dumber?

The species isn’t threatened, and is actually increasing in numbers. I could have spared myself a frustrating half hour, instead of wondering just how stupid I’d looked waving a shirt or a hat at a tiny bird, without endangering the population of Archilochus colubris. I should probably buy a proper net on a stick, I figured, this being far from the first time I’d had birds in here. It will happen again, no doubt. 

The one real compensation of such misadventures is that there’s a feeling of coming into unusually close contact with the natural world. I see hummingbirds here all the time, and wouldn’t think to interfere with them as they go flower to flower. But feeling compelled to catch one, then having an unusually close encounter with a wild creature feels, despite the absurdity of my flailing hunt this time, like a privileged moment. 

I’m just glad no-one saw how absurd I must have looked flailing at a bird with a stale shirt or a straw hat, and nearly falling off my chair in the process. For sure, the dogs did, but I bribed them with extra dogfood not to tell.

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Soggy Socks

September 29, 2020

Our rainy season continues, and will do so for another month, maybe longer. We’re getting the leftovers of all those typhoons, hurricanes, tropical depressions and such that occasionally make the weather news where you are. 

Yes, it’s wet here. 

Misty rainclouds drifting along the hilltops this morning.

As with snow falling late in a Canadian March, or even with the hot, dry weather we have here in April and May, I’ve had enough of it. Some people love the rains and dislike the heat, but except when it goes over the top in late spring, I’ll take the heat happily. Right now, the matches I use to light the gas stove in the kitchen fizzle or just disintegrate against the side of the matchbox. The dampness makes the air colder. 

Worst of all, my socks won’t dry.

There is a washing machine here but because of low water-pressure, it’s not reliable. I never use it. What hardly anyone seems to buy, though, is a dryer. “We have the Sun for that,” people explain, overlooking the fact that in July, August, September and October, its appearances can be restricted to weekends and alternate Tuesdays. And then only between unpredictable bursts of almost-sunlight.

I use a laundry service here for shirts and sheets and towels, but they don’t like accepting socks and underwear because these can be lost too easily. Thus, in true pioneering spirit, I hand-wash my socks and my gentleman’s unmentionables once a week, and hang them on the line to dry.

Damp, anxious socks await the arrival of sunlight.

In March or April, if I put them up by 9.30 in the morning, they’re dry by noon. In September … they aren’t. 

I hang them in the bathroom, where fitful afternoon sunshine comes through the window. I hang them in various places indoors that I hope aren’t too humid, but usually turn out to be so. I put them on the line outside, hoping that a brightening of the eastern sky indicates a couple of hours of direct sunlight, sometimes coming home to find that a short rainstorm has re-saturated them.

“Woe,” I cry, “And woe again!” but the clouds do not relent. Drying socks this week has been a three-day process, and half of them still aren’t wearable as a result.

Yes, I know – I should be worried about the virus, the US election and the fact that cruise-ship operators are going broke. Fie on such things I say, and fie some more! I want dry socks. 

I have to proceed by calculating percentages. Once the socks are rinsed, I figure they’ll lose their ‘really’ wet status with four hours outside, provided no rain falls; that’s a function of gravity. 

Then, I start my sky-gazing, watching clouds drift along the cliff-tops on the other side of the village, waiting for my opening. If I see none, they have to hang over chair-backs overnight, or in the bathroom. I know certain brands of sock I’ve bought dry faster, so I check those anxiously to see if those are almost wearable. Calvin Klein socks do not dry fast – take it from an expert.

Overnight, especially if I’ve been burning candles in the living room (and I do so in part because it’s marginally helpful for wet items of clothing), they might get down below 30 percent saturation. which is where the critical assessments of applied sock-craft come in. Some days, they need to stay inside so they get no wetter. Other days, I put them out and check them every 40 minutes. Yesterday, I noted a discernible decrease in dampness, but today, no such luck. I have one pair of dry socks left in the drawer, so I’m counting on a couple of hours of sunshine tomorrow morning to finish the job. But since weather forecasts in this mountainous area are notoriously unreliable, and even locals who work in the fields make wrong guesses, I won’t know till morning.

Yep, life sure can be rough. I can feel your deep sympathy from here – thank you.

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Bovine Disbelief in Motor Vehicles

September 26, 2020

Today’s issue is that Mexican cows don’t believe in cars. I don’t know whether they can’t see them, or that they’re convinced that motor vehicles are fantasies, but they just won’t believe cars move.

This afternoon, I was driving to a friend’s, and came across a group of them on the country road that leads out of the village. Another vehicle, a pick-up, was coming the other way. One of the cows had settled down onto the warm asphalt for a rest, while the other five or six were just hanging out in the roadway, or grazing at the roadside.

Cows hanging out on the road into our village.

Now, the pick-up driver did what I never do. He honked, repeatedly. But I learned some years ago that cows might recognise a dog’s bark or a human’s call to get moving, but they don’t acknowledge honkish as a mean of communication. It’s just a minor distraction to them, and they’ll never respond to a horn. 

Anyway, the pick-up driver edged forward, one of the cows jumping aside as his front bumper nudged her. After that vehicle had gone, I eased into the gap it had created, only to have another cow walk in front of me. I thought I could get between it and the cow lying on the aasphalt, but my wing mirror caught the base of her tail, and was knocked out of alignment. The cow, startled, glared at me, but after flicking her tail twice, went to graze on the verge. No harm done, apparently. But I doubt she actually learned anything from the encounter.

I’ve long tried to understand bovine psychology in this matter. They must have noticed that humans are driving the cars, so even dim cud-chewers ought to realise after a while that cars move. They see the vehicles approach, but they never saunter out of the way. They learn nothing.

Horses, which also run free round here, are almost as bad, but they have developed a practical nervousness that means they’ll usually trot just far enough to let drivers get by. Maybe their greater agility helps, although cows can move fast when they want to. But, as noted, even if they want to, they don’t. 

Very occasionally, I’ve seen the ugly results of a collision, each time involving someone from out of the area. City people assume anything living will move when sufficiently honked at, but cows work on the assumption that cars will simply disappear when sufficiently ignored.

So, I never drive fast down the highway into town, because a cow or a calf can emerge from behind a bush at any moment. Today’s tail-clip was the closest I’ve ever come to hitting one, and I wouldn’t want to injure one, however irritating they are.

The mystery remains, then, and maybe one day I’ll figure it out. I’d rather the cows figured it out for me, and learned to move out of everyone’s way. But that isn’t how things in Mexico work.

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Mexican Back Power

September 17, 2020

A few days ago, my friend, who is not Mexican, was carrying a chair upstairs, and strained her back. This made me reflect on the backs of Mexicans, who will often carry what strike me as agonisingly heavy loads.

That same day my friend hurt herself, I was helping two other friends move a short distance from a small apartment in one house to a larger apartment in another. One item they were bringing was a circular washing machine. It was about 45 inches high, and half that in diameter, with the usual motor, tub and stabilising weights.

They’d recruited a neighbour to trundle it in a wheelbarrow over a rough, broken track that rose up, then descended for fifty yards. He managed to get it to the rise in the track, but then found it tended to tip or roll out of the wheelbarrow on the downslope. He could have called for us to help steady it in the barrow, but instead he decided to hoist it up on his back, and carry it the fifty yards.

How much did it weigh? Perhaps sixty or seventy pounds. It had casters, and I helped push it into the new apartment on these, but I would never have tried lifting it. If I had, I’d be laid up till November.

When my house was being built, eight years ago, I wondered as the labourers carried building materials up another, much shorter slope and piled them in a stack. Once the walls were done, and the wooden roofing formwork was in place, a gang of men hired for the day carried up full bucketloads of cement on their shoulders, and poured them onto the boards of the formwork. 

These guys had carried up all the blocks they’re shaping and
cementing for the walls around my house.

I didn’t even try to help. I just marvelled they could do it without visibly wincing.

Later, when we moved in, my neighbour Estela needed her large TV to be brought up a slope (we had no proper outside stairs yet) into her new living room. Aurelio, who was seventy-one, hoisted it on his back and carried it, his arms out like wings to stabilise it. I held my breath for nearly a minute as he force-marched himself up the muddy trackway. He needed help getting it down, but it was impressive.

Sure, there’s a macho attitude in Mexico that makes men proud to demonstrate their strength. If you can’t carry a bucket full of wet cement up a stairway, or push a truck out of a ditch, you’re not in the club. But the human body has limits, and I often wonder how labourers survive their working lives without early and serious injuries. I often see men in their early fifties carrying heavy loads, and I can only marvel at the sight.

I think similarly when I visit archeological sites. There were no horses, oxen nor elephants to move those stone blocks into place: it was done by brute human force. 

The most famous example is the Aztec Sun Stone, commissioned by the last-but-one Emperor, Moctezuma II, between 1502 and 1520.

The Sun Stone, moved to Mexico City’s Museum of Anthropology by diesel power, not muscles.

It weighs 25 tons, and was probably moved 22 kilometres for its original installation. Since mesoAmerica never discovered the use of the wheel, that must have been a very slow, exhausting journey. But they did it, they carved it, and they set it in its proper ceremonial place. 

I can only look on in wonder, whether at the monolithic monuments or at guys who carry washing machines and TVs on their backs. Every time I see such a thing, I reflect on the arduous task of making those ancient monuments, and wonder whether there is something in Mexican spinal structures that can take punishment that would give me permanently dislocated joints and disks. But maybe there is just an insensitivity to pain that pampered gringos like me will never understand.

Whatever the explanation, I’m impressed.

Foal Season

September 11, 2020

Not much is happening round here. The rainy season has been lighter than other years that I remember, but we’re getting enough water for the corn and other crops. The pandemic continues, but our corner of Mexico has a relatively light caseload.

The rains this month have brought forth a new batch of foals. They’re both cute and a little comical, being slightly unsteady on their new legs and very shy of strange humans who approach them.

This little filly (above) was old enough to to have the confidence to wander a few yards on her own, away from parental protection. Others that I came across near the village today (below) were much more skittish, and stayed close to their mothers.

And the chestnut colt below took one look at me and my camera, and made a run for it, following his mother up the road. No way was he staying around for a close-up.

My concern always with the animals roaming loose here is the traffic. Local people know they need to watch out for horses and cows, but some visitors see a clear stretch of road and step on the gas. Accidents are rare, but when they happen, they’re ugly.

As always, perspectives on life and death in Mexio are different to elsewhere. That said, I wouldn’t like to confront an angry farmer who saw me knock down one of his livestock.

San Miguelification

September 4, 2020

For several months, I’ve often pondered when might be a good time to make a visit to Toronto, where a bunch of small but essential tasks await me. And my answer each time has been “Not yet.” I’d have to travel on an intercity bus, go through an airport, onto a plane … You know where this goes.

The same reticence doesn’t seem to apply to a small coterie of people coming here to Mexico. Confident in their knowledge that Covid-19 is overrated and unlikely to kill them, they show up scouting for a place that would be better than where they live currently. 

A week or so back, I helped a Californian couple who couldn’t order their coffee in Spanish. The husband was using his Italian, which is not that different to Spanish, but still different enough. They made their requests, I made mine, and I went and sat at a table near them, explaining that the local regulations required distancing, and that non-compliant places have been closed by the authorities.

We chatted a bit, and they explained how they felt their home state was becoming unlivable, even before the fires and the pandemic. They planned to make their new home in Mexico, and while they’d first headed to San Miguel de Allende, they’d heard of Tepoztlan and had come to check it out. And they liked it.

San Miguel, if you don’t know it, is full of millionaires, and million-dollar homes. It’s about as Mexican as Rosedale is typical of Ontario, or Westmount is typical of rural Quebec. I went there once, to visit a well-off Canadian friend, and I’ve never been back. 

San Miguel de Allende, with its distinctive church.

Recently I read an article about wealthy people decamping to New Zealand. They couldn’t seem to grasp, the article’s author pointed out, that the country is how it is because the people there have a respect for certain things, including preserving the natural environment, or acknowledging the Maori people’s contributions. The country didn’t become what it is through having the uber-rich build bunkers on private estates.

The California couple, who in person were pleasant if prone to certain conspiracy theories, had the same problem, I felt. They thought they could leave behind the problems that they themselves no doubt helped create. The relatively small expat community here has some wealthier members, but most of us are not much richer than our Mexican neighbours. We live cheap, and we appreciate it.

We’re also aware that the more people with money come here, the more housing and food will cost for everyone. Local rents have doubled in the past five years, and gone up more than that in the preferred areas. All this affects local working people who themselves need homes, and have families to feed. 

In writing this blog, I do try to point out the downsides to life here. It’s no sub-tropical paradise, and I’m not writing an ongoing advertisement. My corner of Mexico can be challenging in several ways. The locals help, more than you might expect, but they owe us nothing. It’s their village, and their town, and they’re usually happier when visitors … visit. Then go away again.

I hope, then, that we don’t become the next San Miguel de Allende, or Lake Chapala, which has a gringo community of 30,000 retirees along its shores. My cost of living is fine for me now, but I wouldn’t appreciate a big hike in it. Nor do I want every conversation I hear or share to be in English. I didn’t come here for that. You never learn the secrets if you don’t listen in Spanish.

A friend of mine suggested that if San Miguel looks too expensive for people, and they want to see if Tepoztlan would be a better fit, they need the following advice: Drive south from Mexico City, and don’t stop till you see a sign saying “Guatemala, 5 km.” Tepoztlan will be a half hour’s drive past what looks deceptively like a border post.

Yes, that’s mean, and no, I wouldn’t do it. But if your country is starting to suck big-time, please consider that maybe it’s because people there consider they have an inalienable to ‘develop’ anything they can buy. And that trying that here will just replicate the problems you think you’re escaping.

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The Quest for Home

August 25, 2020

Sometimes, on a grey, rainy day like today, I wonder why I’m here, and if I want to stay here. Amatlan is an outlying community, and insular in many ways. People aren’t unfriendly, but only a few welcome outsiders through their doors.

I’m a city person by nature, and when I was young and still living in the UK, I expected to spend most of my life in London, which was less than an hour away by train from my hometown. I ended up living in or around Toronto with its millions for forty years, and I still think of that as my home city.

Toronto

My long-term concept of home – Toronto’s waterfront, seen from Centre Island.

How I arrived there is an unusual tale, and for years I’ve tried writing a book about it. There are three incomplete drafts on my computer, none of which come close to satisfying me. Partly, it’s to do with shyness, or at least an internal debate over privacy; partly it’s to do with perfectionism; and partly because while what I went through back then still fascinates me, I don’t feel my personal story is particularly interesting. I was an observer of my small tribe of iconoclasts, not a major participant.

Now, not having finished a book puts me outside of a particular local club. My buddy Don Karp was first, writing his own memoir called The Bumpy Road a few years ago, detailing his various ups and downs before settling contentedly in nearby Tepoztlan. Shelley (Ixchel) Tucker, my frequent hiking partner, last year published Forever 25, about how she’s dealt with the death on military service of her son Gabriel, which happened while she was living in this village. And a few weeks ago, my neighbour Robin Rainbow Gate published Calling Myself Home, about how she finally found a sense of that mysterious entity called “home” in Amatlan.

Ixchel’s book strikes a powerful chord, since she and I bonded over finding we’d each lost a child. In my case, it was a three-year-old daughter with an undiagnosed condition: I was there with her on that terrible morning my Amanda went. In Ixchel’s case, her son died in Afghanistan, just at the end of his tour of duty, and thousands of miles from home. After publishing the book, she’s found a new community among survivors of war, and the families who’ve lost a child in war, while still living in Mexico, a forty-minute walk from my own home.

I finished Robin’s book three nights ago, and I found it tough going. She and I share certain attitudes to life and to our own selves, and various people crop up in her narrative that I know, or that have been part of my own experience. I can therefore fill in a few details she tactfully chose to omit from her narrative.

But she and I took opposite routes once we came here, a decade ago for me and 14 years for Robin. For her, it’s been a gradual journey into the community, where she has made a broad swath of friends and acquaintances. She’s studied and embraced some of the traditional ways, studying the herbs used in healing, and many of the old customs that linger among the local people.

I had some intentions to do the same thing when I arrived in 2010, but my core inclinations didn’t agree with the conscious intentions at all. I’d made a decent start on the language at The Spanish Centre in Toronto, and I figured I might achieve fluency when I’d been here long enough. But I made the mistake of going to a school here run by a woman who’d try to pack too much information into her students. She didn’t grasp that covering three tenses in one day wasn’t teaching, but a means of producing utter confusion. I left there with my confidence shattered, and spent months climbing back up to rudimentary proficiency. I finally figured out how to communicate with people, but I’ve always had to battle with local expressions, contractions and oddities of dialect.

Maybe if I’d come here earlier, I’d have had a more flexible attitude; Robin was two decades younger than I was at the point each of us found Amatlan. But I’ve always been frustrated by the language, even if at times I’ve felt “I was almost there today!” Going back to Canada for three years didn’t help, even if I did take more Spanish Centre lessons while I was in the city.

Reading Robin’s book, I’ve had to face that I’ve always needed to straddle two worlds. I chose living here because I didn’t have enough money to retire comfortably in Toronto. My long-term job disappeared after the 2008 financial crisis, and I arrived a couple of years before I’d planned to, with less preparation and less cash than I’d wanted. My plans to explore the country bit by bit didn’t get too far when cash became tight, I couldn’t work here legally, and my iffy language skills meant even illegal work would be limited.

And so on, and so on. But at root, I made a different choice.

Working through Robin’s book, I had to look at a number of things about me. I have only a qualified affinity for Mexican folk practices, or the messier aspects of rural life. I still flinch from the way animals here are treated, or how litter is tossed into ditches, eventually to make its way to the sea. I see popular Catholicism as a limiting thing, not an expression of emotionally moving traditions, and I’m not sure how deeply the non-Catholic practices are rooted in antiquity. Further, my spiritual perspectives come out of the “big” esoteric traditions, both Asian and European, not the ones field anthropologists come to study.

I want, in sum, my old lifestyle with its deep-rooted philosophical attitudes, but in a congenial climate that doesn’t feature five months of wind-chill each year. I want to wander hillside trails with vistas stretching miles, but also to know there are okay restaurants at the end of the walk. (There are).  And I want both local Mexican foods and food of a style closer to what I’ve always eaten. The quarantine makes everything harder, naturally, but I have to accept that I might live here with a permanent dissatisfaction.

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The view from a hillside trail with a vista stretching for miles, down over the town of Tepoztlan.

Robin describes times when it was difficult, but she’s pushed hard to make a multi-aspected life for herself. She’s fought to improve her understanding and reach, as the book shows, while I’ve often (not always) tended to think “Nah, not my thing.” And I’m going to continue feeling that way.

Maybe one day, I’ll go back to these three book drafts and try to convince myself I can lick that story into shape, and join the Amatlan Memoir Club. I sometime wonder, in fact, if for me “home” isn’t in a place, in Mexico, the UK or in Canada, but in being honestly rooted in shaping life-events, and the always forward thrust of life. Robin’s book, for example, traces her own history in some detail as she fought with what she’d been told or taught, and looked for what she truly wanted. Home isn’t necessarily found, so much as attained.

That’s a theme for another post, though.

 

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A Nose for the Facts

August 24, 2020

The dog detective used to be a staple of kids’ TV programs. Usually, it was a photogenic German shepherd, or maybe a collie, that sniffed out the truth of a mystery, woofing the results of its investigations in the last two minutes, then enjoying well-deserved pats from its appreciative owners as the credits rolled.

Victoria isn’t in quite that investigative category, but she’s always been a good security guard. In my early times here, she used to spend her days in the corral here with two other dogs, both now departed, then I’d bring her into my small house for the night. She’d always check around, and if I saw her staring at the wall, it meant she’d detected an intrusive scorpion. I considered it her way of showing appreciation for the dry accommodation, even if I never had that many scorpions coming in.

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Vicki starting at … something or other.

She’s a little arthritic and slow these days, and recently had to have a few bad teeth extracted under anesthetic. She still has keen hearing, however and, I realised this week, a reliable sense of smell.

I don’t own a car, but my friend Lucero is living elsewhere for a time, and has left her old Ford Explorer for me to use. The emphasis here is on the word ‘old,’ since it’s a model year 1993, and shows, shall we say, a few signs of its age. However, the motor is still sound, and since I don’t want to ride on public transportation right now, it’s a useful alternative.

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The Ford Explorer, showing just a few signs of its age.

I take Vicki out twice a day, essentially for mental stimulus, since the arthritis means she’s not into long walks, or running about in the field outside my home. She sniffs what she considers needs to be sniffed, then begins hinting she wants to go back.

Recently, she began stopping on the way back in to sniff a back wheel of the Ford. I assumed another dog had peed against I when it was out, and I couldn’t understand her determined fascination with it.

Saturday, I went shopping with a friend into town, and noticed coming back that the brakes were very soft and slow to react. We’d planned to go to a village with interesting trails for an afternoon hike, but my friend was nervous about that. The drive would have been entirely uphill and, more critical, the drive back is non-stop downhill. For four kilometres or more. With iffy brakes. We watched a movie at her place instead.

I took the car in for servicing today, having found an honest and reliable mechanic in July. Since I’ve mostly driven front-wheel drive cars, it never occurred to me that the main braking system for the rear-wheel drive Explorer was at the back (duh), but right away the mechanic showed me the dripping brake fluid that Vicki had been sniffing.

It wasn’t expensive to put in a new brake cylinder, and a couple of hours later the Explorer was fine again; or at least, as fine as an aging, 27-year-old SUV is going to be. But heading back home from the mechanic’s, it occurred to me Vicki had been my early warning system for the pungent (to a dog) brake fluid, and that she only gets obsessive about dangerous things.

Okay kid, there’s some chicken for your dinner tonight. You tried to help, even if I was too slow to pick up on the hint you were providing.

The noble canine detective tradition lives on!

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Mask Wars

August 17, 2020

Most people I know are trying to keep things polite, but friction does emerge from time to time. Even the modest level of quarantine we have here produces a sense of being crammed into a tight space, psychologically speaking, and irritation is never far from the surface. This is being multipled by anxiety over political problems in the broader world.

The masks, or their absence – cubrebocas in local lingo – are my own constant trigger. Officially, anyone riding a combi microbus is required to wear one, but often it’s just the driver and two or three passengers who comply with that. There’s no enforcement.

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Sunday market in Ixcatepec: staff at the stalls are policed on their use of masks, but not the customers.

The anti-mask factions seem to fall into three broad tribes, the biggest of them being people who are indifferent. They have no symptoms of the virus, so they don’t worry about it. The concept of being an asymptomatic carrier is unreal to them, and they believe if they or people round them get sick, it’ll be God’s will: end of story.

Then, there’s the militant Clan of the Ideologues. They’ve seen forty-seven Youtube videos saying it’s all a conspiracy, or caused by 5G (which we don’t have in Mexico), or (boo, hiss) Bill Gates. From such unimpeachable sources, Plandemic being merely the most infamous, they’ve determined that masks are useless, or they make you sick, or they’re a plot to take away your freedom. Or all three.

Thirdly, there are the hippie kids, some of whom are pushing forty. They’re not that numerous, but by dress and lifestyle, they stand out. Many of them came here to live amid the physical beauty and the vibes of ancient Toltec spirituality, while flouting conventional local rules of conduct. They refuse to consider any form of social distancing, and since many of them appear to come from wealthy families, they carry that secure sense that they’re superior creatures (while fervently denying any such thing), as well as knowing they can always go back home or call for cash if they need to.

Like anyone, I dislike masks. They make my face feel hot, loose fibres become itchy, and overall they’re a nuisance. They’re far from infallible as systems of mutual protection, but they’re a key option for keeping infections to a minimum.

Officially, our municipality has only a dozen or so currently active cases of Covid-19. However, from anecdotal evidence, the numbers are far higher than that. A close friend of mine told me two days ago of a conversation with a local healer who treats the sick with a mix of modern and traditional methods, and who has handled several suspeected cases in just our village. People are reluctant to get formally tested, because of a fear of being placed in isolation, away from family. As a result, the official numbers across Mexico – today they’re at well over a half-million cases, with 57,000 dead – are wholly unreliable, and way below a true total.

I try to contain my frustration with the maskless tribes, but I don’t do well around demonstrated stupidity. I simply avoid the ideologues as much as possible these days, mostly by avoiding the town. But I occasionally want to choke some of the hippie kids. Last week I was riding the combi after shopping, and a young woman without a mask got on, immediately embracing a couple of guys she knew, who also had no masks. Soon, she was launched quite loudly into a discussion about her “camino spiritual,” making me wonder how any spiritual path could include callous indifference to the well-being of other people. But then, the sort of vacuous New Age nostrums many people here espouse tend to exist in co-dependency with an underlying passive aggression. Question their positive, Light-emanating and “non-judgemental” philosophy with any serious questions, and watch the hackles go up. “Negative” skeptical attitudes like mine aren’t tolerated.

At least that gives me an excuse to avoid these folks. For yes, such people are my bugbear. And since I’ve chosen to live in place with a high concentration of them, my bear is bugged frequently. Be it so: I am Boomer, hear me bitch.

At some point, the pandemic will ebb, and we’ll all try to make up again. I’ll even stop being ticked off as much as I am right now, which would be nice. But currently, I’m disappointed and fed up with people who refuse to perform a simple act of good citizenship in a dangerous time. What their attitudes have to do with any meaningful concept of freedom, I’ll never understand; nor do I want to.