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Rain and Bright Sun

May 29, 2020

Usually, if I ride the combi microbus into town, I want to sit on the side of it that’s to the north. The sun can be very hot on your back here, and I appreciate the shadow on that side. But around this time of year, a few weeks before the summer solstice, the tropical sun has actually swung to the north of us for much of the day, so I want to sit on the opposite side, the south.

I’ve tried taking a photo of the lighting conditions when this happens, but my camera responds by actually making the light seem greyer. In reality, the luminosity has an extra brightness, and I often wonder if the UV levels are bad for my eyes. The effect, though, is to add a special graciousness to the day, and a brilliance that makes some of the tackiness or the messiness of things fade into insignificance. It reminds me of certain Spanish guitar solos that (to me) sound like they’re about avoiding work on a sunny afternoon.

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Flowers on the patio in late-morning sunshine. The greyish rug at the bottom right is my dog Punky.

The bright light comes with the rains. Last night we had a rain and wind storm that blew off a couple of neighbours’ roofing, and just before I began drafting this piece, an evening rainstorm started, with the rain bucketing down to the accompaniment of distant thunder. The rain is welcome this week because yet another fire had begun up in the hills, and last night’s showers extinguished that. This evening’s downpour ensures we don’t have a reprise.

I’m not a great fan of the rains otherwise. Somehow, water gets into the house every year during some of the storms, and there are days when it doesn’t let up. I don’t so much walk down the streets of the village, then, as wade or hop through an inch or more of water that can’t quite drain to the sides of the road. The true mega-storms are exciting to watch, obscuring the ground completely, but by August it all becomes a little tedious, and there are two more months to go at that point.

But that summer sunlight has a quality that, for me, transcends mundane human activity. If grey days and cloudy skies make for depression, or at least a melancholic pause, bright light has the opposite effect, and brings a specific uplift with it.

I assume the light also has a triggering effect on nature. Something I can never quite understand is that all the trees around me put out leaves at the start of May, before serious rain begins. We had a few showers a week or two back, but not enough (I’d have thought) to permit lush growth to start. The hog-plum trees growing in front of my home already have hard green fruit on them, however, and the ground is invisible between their branches. The village, from a distance, seems to disappear at this season, only to re-emerge after Christmas.

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The view from upstairs this evening, just before the rains hit. The main building is a local hotel, closed for now. The white tower of the village church pokes up through the leaves a short distance to its right.

The oddest fact in our climate is that with the rains, our temperatures cool, so that April and most of May are hotter than June or July. That bright, almost white, summer sunlight means we stay warm, with the only real dip into sweater-wearing weather coming around the New Year. And because the rainclouds are going to obscure the skies so much in the next four or five months, it’s all the more welcome.

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Empty Nests

May 21, 2020

April 8, I had a post (Othering) about the barricade some people from my village had put up. The idea was to keep out anyone from other local communities potentially carrying the Covid-19 virus. The flaw to my mind was the obvious one that the disease doesn’t come from “them” (hence my title), but from all of us behaving unthinkingly and carelessly. May 19, my post (Oh, I’ve Seen Fire…) was about the first serious forest fire of the season here.

The fire is now out, though water-bombing helicopters were still finishing off its last flare-ups this afternoon. And to the relief of many of us, after a violent altercation yesterday, last night it was decided to take down the barricade. People from here can now move into town freely, without “activists” from the community  interrogating or inspecting us. The barricade might have helped protect us, but with only eight official cases in a municipality of 42,000, we’ve so far dodged the bullet.

Which brings me to a different concern: the swallows. They’re here, and they want to nest, but the rain isn’t coming.

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A cliff swallow, Petrochelidon pyrrhonota. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

We did have a few showers earlier in May, and as a result puddles appeared. And when there are puddles here, there’s mud. But then the mud dried up, and while we’d be happy to have a cooling rainstorm or two, it’s stayed dry for two weeks. As a result, the swallows have not been able to rebuild their nests and lay eggs.

As far as I can determine, our swallows are the same cliff swallows from the Petrochelidon pyrrhonota species as the famous ones that come each year to San Juan Capistrano in California. Like those, they build their neat nests on the side of houses, mostly under eaves or the roofs of balconies. They’re relatively unafraid of humans, building just above arm’s reach, and you can watch the parents going in and out with food for their ravenous youngsters. At the first house I lived in here, we had a nest on the wall and the dogs would go crazy barking at the birds, which flew in beyond their ability to jump.

I’ve always regretted swallows have never set up house at this location. Yes, they poop on the ground a bit, but since they rear their young in the rainy season, the rains do a good job of cleaning that away. Their presence implies a blessing on any house they adopt as “theirs.”

But so far, as noted, the parents are mud-deprived, and can’t either build new nests or restore old ones. I see them swooping around, and I even tried to photograph a couple, but they move too fast for anything but a specialty camera with a high-speed lens. The best I could do was dig out a grainy photo of the nest at the old house.

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The nest here was built using an outdoor light-bulb as a support.

Maybe I should have asked one of the helicopter pilots to water-bomb the village. The kids here love to watch the choppers on fire-dousing missions, and the birds could finally have started on their most important annual chore: developing avian real estate. But I’m just a little wary of community activists after five weeks of the barricade.

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Oh, I’ve Seen Fire …

May 19, 2020

One of my earliest memories is of being upset at my parents because they didn’t wake me when a neighbour’s garage caught fire in the night. I’d heard of fires, even though I was perhaps four years old, but never seen one. Finally, one happened four doors down, and I missed it. I was not happy.

Just eight years ago, we had a very bad spring fire season here in Amatlan, and there were discussions about evacuating along with the dogs. It never got that serious, though people with asthma found it hard to breathe with the smoke coming down from fires on the cliffs above the village.

I confess, I enjoyed the drama, even if I was glad no homes were destroyed. Fires remain one of my guilty pleasures. They’re dramatic, and (as my friends and I had discussed) possibly life-threatening. They certainly break up the monotony of a semi-quarantined life.

Our weather from February through to late April was unusually hot and dry this year, and I was expecting the spring fires to be really bad again. But we had a week or so of intermittent nocturnal rains in early May, and it looked like we’d dodge the problem this time. However, the rains stopped, and the past ten days have, again, been hot and dry.

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Today’s fire belching smoke., seen from about half a mile away.

Apparently the state of Morelos has had other fires, but I saw my first local one this afternoon, driving with a friend to take a walk in a favourite area. The flames had broken out high in the hills where no-one could climb easily (the rock is often very friable), and huge clouds of smoke were rising up out of a canyon. I slowed down, nearly hit a motorcyclist, and after getting back where I should have been on the road, enjoyed the view for a few moments. I couldn’t take a photo till later, when only smoke could be seen, but the fire was clearly covering a fair bit of real estate.

We read these days that fires are a necessary part of good forest management. The problem, of course, is that people like to build homes up in the hills, surrounded by trees. Houses and forests prone to fires are a bad combination. I read online this evening that fifteen homes in the area of the blaze had been evacuated as a precaution.

I confess that the element of risk is what entices me about big fires. I don’t do truly stupid things around them (even if that motorcyclist might demur), but a couple of years, I tried to get as close to them as was reasonable without risking being caught by a sudden flare-up. Teams of volunteer firefighters go up to deal with the flames, beating them out or possibly creating fire-breaks, so I stayed a measured distance behind them.

The night-time imagery, which is almost impossible to capture with my camera, is the best. You can see the orange glow of flames behind a crest or a big rock, then a tree catches light and goes up like a torch. The effect can be very Hieronymus Bosch. It’s a reminder how dangerous nature can be, if a pandemic doesn’t do that for you.

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The fires above our village in 2012, photographed at night.

The smell of smoke here, two or three miles from the blaze, isn’t bad tonight. But now I have to wonder if it will be beaten out or water-bombed by tomorrow, or whether it will perhaps move closer in our direction. And, of course, whether other fires will occur, closer to here.

Like I said, it’s a guilty pleasure, and I don’t wish ill-will to my neighbours. On the other hand, if nature starts it, I’m always ready to appreciate it.

Provided, naturally, that it doesn’t come that close to my house.

 

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The Unbearabable Lightness of Quarantine

May 11, 2020

This afternoon, while I was lying around not really getting into a nap, it occurred to me that I’m doing this quarantine thing all wrong. I’m not, I realised, learning anything significant.

I am learning a lot of things, or maybe I should say observing a lot of things that I already knew. For example, that dogs are far better at handling tedium than humans. They sleep at least 14 hours a day, and can boost that by several hours if there’s a lack of stimulus on offer. Can dogs even get bored? I don’t know, but they seem designed for it much more than humans are.

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Victoria contemplates not needing to contemplate anything, because she’s a dog.

I’ve also observed that faith in commmunity barricades is misplaced. Each time I’m waved through the “frontier post” outside the village, I wonder just how much it keeps out anything. Last week, coming back on the combi microbus, I watched a young man offer a persuasive line and a dodgy document to the woman checking passengers. Given the knowing looks he and his girlfriend from the village exchanged after we were waved on, it looked like they’d pulled off a small scam. And I don’t doubt others manage this.

But then, trucks come in every day bringing propane, drinking water, and supplies for the stores. The combi drivers aren’t from the village. And so on: it isn’t one building being kept secure, it’s a community of 1200 people we live in, and the traffic, while light, is constant.

The oddest experience at the checkpoint came on Saturday when, after driving two friends into town to shop, so we wouldn’t have to share the bench seating in a combi, I was bidden to roll my windows shut. A man with a motorised spray system then stepped forward and subjected the aged vehicle I’m using to a stream of some form of antiseptic. Not us (there were by then just two of us in the truck), but the vehicle’s exterior.

Admittedly, it didn’t have a giant face-mask over its grille, and it might not have kept a two-metre distance from other vehicles in the parking lot, but somehow this seemed utterly pointless. Somebody had had an idea; and, like all those over-excited Youtube conspiracy videos I hide from, it perhaps seemed superficially plausible at first. But I can’t imagine spraying the fading paint-job preserved anyone’s safety.

Still, my main point is, I’d hardly call this a significant discovery. Have I realised that early 21st Century capitalism is failing? No, and I suspect it will come through this unhindered, at least in general. Will the pandemic persuade everyone to care more about other people? Possibly, but mostly, we’re all just getting grumpy with each other. Have I concluded we’ll finally grasp we have to stop overexploiting the planet’s resources? I haven’t, and I doubt it.

All I really notice is the aforementioned grumpiness; that, and a longing to sneak into town every morning for a coffee and a conversation, even a pointless one, as often occurs with randomly arriving acquaintances. For now, I see the two friends who came into town with me fairly regularly, but that’s it. And yes, we try to keep proper distance.

Meaning, and meaningful realisations, arise out of having a basic measure of social interactions to ground them. They can’t exist effectively in a field of abstraction. Even in prisons, people preserve their sanity by setting up routines. Solitary confinement drains that groundedness, that sense of meaning arising from connectedness. Being alone produces boredom, which vitiates even the need for meaning.

I’m therefore left with one learned truth, one positive conclusion so far. People are predicting more pandemics in future, and to be prepared from them, I’ve realised I need to come back in my next lifetime as a dog.

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The Gasman Cometh

May 7, 2020

One of the sounds that’s partly disappeared from our village is from trucks coming to sell  or buy things. I no longer, for example, hear the bread-truck every evening playing the bread-vendor song from a classic 1950 movie, because it isn’t allowed through the quarantine barricade. Similarly, the pick-up that comes round buying scrap metal such as old stoves, furniture, or even mattresses (for the springs) no longer shows up.

Everyone here cooks and heats water using propane. Given that electrical storms easily knock out the power, it’s helpful to have a means of cooking that isn’t depending on lightning-stunned cables. To supply the propane, trucks usually come by every half-hour or so, selling cylinders of it. However, the quarantine has changed that, and only two trucks a day are allowed in.

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The propane cylinder in position, with my water heater on the wall to the left.

Yesterday as I was making lunch, I thought the gas-flame was a little low on the stove. My sage observation proved right five minutes later when it went out. Half my lunch remained uncooked.

Now, usually, I’d have waited thirty minutes or so for a sound like a car alarm, which would have told me a gas truck was in the village. But not yesterday. I sat at home for an hour or two, hoping to hear the familiar discordant sound, and there was nothing.

A helpful friend persuaded me to buy an electric hot-plate, because otherwise I’d have had no water for today’s first, essential mug of tea. But with no gas this morning for the water heater, all I had was a very fast cold shower. And i thda to be fast because I needed to listen for the gas guys.

Catching the gas truck is an art. I live 150 yards from the street, so I can’t just stick my head out the window and yell. I need to be ready, with shoes on, the moment I hear that discordant bleating, to get out the door fast. Since my house is on an incline, with cliffs behind me and to the north (left as I look out), the truck’s unlovely sound is directed and deflected in such a way that I then have to guess on which side of the village it’s moving.

So, it becomes like hunting for a dog that’s run off. I must select the more likely direction in which to head when I hit the street: to the right, and the road that more or less marks the western boundary of the village; or left, and into its centre. Which makes sense today? What do my ears tell me?

Ideally, they tell me it’s coming along the western roadway, and I can just wait and flag it down. The church is 200 yards towards the centre, and the gas trucks usually loop around it and its neighbouring cross-streets, so that they don’t miss a needy customer. But if I catch the truck there, I have to direct the driver back to my door. Sometimes it’s just one person on his own, and (in non-quarantine times) I can hop in. Sometimes though, like today, there are two men, who take turns carrying the heavy (100 lb+) cylinders. With no spare seat, I end up repeatedly explaining, with serious hand-signals, how to find my almost invisible laneway and my (from the street) invisible gate, then chasing back up the sloping roadway after the truck.

Dignity is not preserved.

The consequence of all this is, often, an absurd sense of victory that I have gas once more. I have found the truck, directed it to my entrance, and acquired the cylinder. I have succeeded in ensuring my comfort for another four or five weeks.

Then I can do it all again.

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Here Comes the Rain Again

May 5, 2020

This year, our rainy season appears to have started a month early. Normally it hits in the later part of June, but a small storm on the night of April 30 began an intermittent pattern of rainfall that, combined with lightning strikes, has twice knocked out our electrical power.

I’m not a great fan of the rains, which tend to breed flies and mosquitoes, as well telling the plant life in the dogs’ corral that it now has permission to overgrow all the available space. This year, I also wonder if the drop in temperatures they bring, combined with less sunshine, will enable to virus to spread more easily. Covid-19 is a very strange disease, as we’ve all read, but there are indications it doesn’t like heat or sunshine, which we’ve had in abundance since February. That advantage now dissipates.

That said, the rain fills our cistern, running through a triple filter system that keeps out vegetation and small bits of stuff in general. That means we don’t need to buy non-potable water for a few months. It also produces aesthetic effects such as evocative cloud formations, or full-on Wrath of the Gods lightning storms. Those terrify at least one of the dogs, and I’m quite likely to find she’s disappeared yet again, only to show up cowering under my bed while sharp claps of thunder resound off the cliffs surrounding the village.

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Evocative cloud formations: misty wraiths stalk the hillside opposite my house. Photo from June 2019.

This May, after a long dry winter, there were fears of a vintage year for forest fires breaking out on the mountains behind us. That possibility is now drastically reduced.

While the barricade outside the village is still manned by solid numbers of volunteers, 24 hours a day, there is anticipation that the town of Tepoztlan might relax its police-enforced separation from the rest of the country in a few weeks. That would mean the barricade, which is legally a very dubious enterprise, would follow suit. Anticipation is in the air along with frustration, but I’m sure we’re not yet ready to drop our protective measures.

And this assumes, of course, that the drop in temperatures, combined with possible relaxed social and commercial restrictions, doesn’t bring a surge in infection. In a week Tepoztlan has gone from two cases to five, which is not a lot, but is also isn’t encouraging. Everything this year is in question.

Hence, the rains themselves are reassuring, simply because they remind us we’re connected to a grander cycle of nature. That cycle doesn’t follow an exact calendar, but its existence, demonstrated most recently by last night’s brief storm, is one of the things we’re all clinging to in this bizarre, disorienting spring.

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Meetings and Masks

May 3, 2020

Usually, exiting the barricade outside the village is easy. It’s getting back in when you need to smile your smiliest smile, and be ready with proof that you live here.

But they’ve changed the rules, and yesterday, when three of us went for shopping, we had to stop to obtain a ticket. The new requirement is that we get back within two hours. Which, for the three of us, was pushing it. We were headed into town to take care of a bunch of chores and shopping, and allowing us scarcely more than an hour in town to handle them was not going to be enough.

Robin is the best negotiator of the three of us, and she managed to get us a one-hour extension. So, we went on in, and I got the cash I needed, and the gas for the truck, and a few other things, while the others went off and bought what they needed.

There were far more facemasks in evidence now than there were even a week ago. Tepoztlan officially has two cases of the virus, though one source says three. Either way, to date we’ve dodged the worst of it. Since we’ve had an extended hot spell, with a lot of sunshine, I assume the weather been a major ally, since social distancing happens intermittently, at best.

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My collection of facemasks is growing. The fabric ones were a friend’s gift.

As we headed back, I wondered: would the barricade guardians turn us into a pumpkin and mice if we were late? But we never found out, and they just waved us back in.

In the afternoon, the village was holding an informational meeting, so I headed down to the civic plaza, to learn what I could learn. It was no surprise (this is Mexico) that the meeting started late, but they might have set a new record for waiting time. There was a diversion when a man showed up with a disinfecting unit to spray all round the plaza, and everyone had the sense to move away from him. But otherwise, we sat, a hundred or more of us, most of us in our masks, and waited. It was an hour and a half after the announced start that the community leaders were ready.

While I was waiting, a man came and sat next to me on the wall surrounding the plaza. He was not, unlike most of us, wearing a facemask. “It’s not started yet?” he asked, and I assured him it hadn’t. I inched further down the wall while he chatted with someone on his other side.

After some playing around with electrical supplies and a speaker, the meeting finally began.

There was, as a woman who lives on my street complained, no news. They needed more volunteers for the barricade,we were told, especially on the night shift. This disease can be really serious, especially for older people. And we have to avoid going out if we can. Which, for almost everyone, begged the question: Why then, are we here? It was like an outtake from a bad Monty Python movie. “We’ve called you here to remind you all to stay home as much as possible.”

After fifteen minutes, I became the second person to leave.

The battle here, obviously, is with educational standards and comprehension. The idea that an asymptomatic person could be a disease carrier is hardly ever mentioned, so most people still believe that if they have no symptoms, they’re fine. I saw two men greet each other with a handshake, and on the way to the meeting, passed a half-dozen people coming for a Saturday evening family gathering.

Mexico City, I read, has well over 5,000 cases, and accoding to health ministry staff, probably far more that are unreported. This state, Morelos, has around 400 in total, about a quarter as many as in the main city of Cuernavaca. But it isn’t social distancing and masks that are keeping us safe. I mentioned the warmth and the sunlight as possible helpful factors. But mostly, I think we’ve just had incredible luck so far.