Stones and Memories

November 11, 2022

The 2017 earthquake that struck central Mexico was the worst that anyone born after 1985 could remember. The death-toll was a few hundred (totals are contested) but it damaged or destroyed many buildings, especially the old churches and monasteries in the area around the volcano Popocatepetl. Together, these constitute a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Convent before the 2017 earthquake.

Our Convent of the Nativity in Tepoztlan, built between 1555 and 1580, is almost cathedral-sized, and has been a tourist attraction since then-President Lazaro Cardenas came across it in 1935, and declared it worthy of conservation. Until the ‘quake, it was a popular destination for weddings, and hosted four or five Masses on a typical Sunday. I would often drop it into the adjoining monks’ quarters, which are a museum, to enjoy the quiet and the restored 16th Century wall-paintings.

Restoration work began a short while after the ‘quake, but stalled in the pandemic. More recently, a scientifically qualified team took over, not just to rebuild the damaged walls and roof, but also to research the original materials to see what survived through the centuries, and what failed. This became especially important because torrential rains here in 2021 did further damage, and part of the Convent’s perimeter wall collapsed.

I’ve been heartened to watch these people working on the site. The two damaged towers at the front are being partially dismantled so that the original stones can be re-cut and used again. The facade is covered in scaffolding, men and women in orange safety gear are clambering around, and the restoration work is much more ambitious than was originally planned. It will take another year or two to finish, but the work is finally proceeding at a discernible pace. Additionally, the chapels at the corners of the extensive courtyard are being rebuilt, and previously unknown wall paintings have been discovered by researchers using modern equipment.

The Convent has a dark side, of course. It was the work of Dominican monks, who were generally intolerant of traditional customs. (Remember, these are the guys who ran the Inquisition, which had its Mexican headquarters in Mexico City). But they appreciated the local people’s attitude that if God was up in the sky, then worshipping Him underneath a church roof made no sense. As a result, many old churches in Mexico have outside chapels, allowing God an unobstructed view of His converts’ devotions. This was true in Tepoztan as well as elsewhere.

Restoration work proceeding on the chapel in the north-west corner of the grounds. This is the best-preserved one on the site.

Further, the structure was set up as a fortified compound. The natives were not considered entirely friendly for very many years, and a need for defence was recognised. The Convent usually had less than half a dozen monks in residence, despite its size, but it could easily accommodate a few score musketeers and other soldiers if needed. 

But this very contradictory aspect to the structure makes it all the more fascinating. Its history is complex, and it embodies all the paradoxes and tragedy of the Spanish Conquest. Even for people who re-enact what little is known of old, preHispanic traditions, it throws into sharp relief the oppression, conflicts and subtler interactions between the traditional inhabitants and their new masters, and offers value as an object for meditation on the past.

Scaffolding for the work on the southern front tower. First it must be partly dismantled, then re-assembled.

At a time when we are reconsidering the colonial history of the Americas and their peoples (even if some obstinately refuse to join in the reconsidering), this massive structure, a monument to the faith and aspirations of the conquerors, is coming back to life. I can’t look at it without knowing what its darker side represents, but I also value it as something expressing a hope for a better world from a half-millennium ago.

And beyond that, its sheer size and grace commend it for a visit. I’ll be happy when once again I can walk through the doors under the angels carved in relief above the entry.

The interior of the Convent cloisters. The circular emblem divided in eight parts is the escutcheon of the Dominican Order.

Bumps in the Road

November 7, 2022

There are two categories of drivers here. One is locals, who often drive decrepit relics like the Titanic, the 1993 Ford Explorer I use but don’t own. We know there are likely to be cows or horses in the road, grazing on the verges or crossing to check out other vegetation, and as a result we don’t stomp on the gas pedal. Farmers whose wandering calves or foals are killed can be remarkably vengeful people, and they tend to view paved roads as an intrusion on their ancestral pastures. 

The other category is visitors who can’t grasp that winding country roads are often occupied by cows and horses. Also by dogs, old ladies and the occasional chicken. Their stupidity is irritating, but they drive as if they’re on a main highway.

The local counter-measure to speeding is the tope (TOH-peh) or speed-bump. There used to be 29 of them between our village of Amatlan and the town centre in Tepoztlan, five miles away – I used to count the up-down-ouches as I passed over them. By now there must be closer to 40, but I’ve lost count of the precise tally. Last week, the total went to 42, but on Sunday morning, the additions had been removed.

Gravel marks an ex-tope in Colonia Carmen.

Halfway between Amatlan and Tepoz is Colonia Carmen, which is a scattered village that is gradually becoming more built-up. It is, by repute, a lawless place, and a local wag once changed the village sign to read Colonia Crimen, meaning roughly “Crime-town.” Like Amatlan, it has scant respect for the municipal bureaucracy in Tepoz.

The two topes the community installed 10 days ago weren’t approved by any official. But many Mexican men learn to mix cement as a basic life-skill, the way their sisters learn to cook and clean, even if they dream of greater things. The week before last, I passed a score of them making a new tope, then a second, to slow drivers passing their community. 

The design of what they put in was in the older style that faced out a decade ago, which can rip out the underside of sports cars or other vehicles that are low-slung. The current official design is bigger, but sloped, so it risks less harm to a muffler or suspension. It’s also painted yellow, with a floral decoration, to be seen better. 

That design difference, I assume, was what caused the complaints as much as it being an unofficial initiative. The vans with bench-seats that serve here as microbuses weaved onto the grass verge around the topes rather than go over them. And obviously, deliberately cocking a snoot at the mayor and his staff was itself bound to invoke the karmic forces from town.

On Sunday, as I headed to a local market for cheap fruit and veg, I saw exactly the same gang of people as before standing close to the topes. But in place of the up-down-ouch of the speed-bumps, I realised there was a smooth road surface. Someone had come and removed their handiwork, and I’d arrived just around the time they discovered it was gone. 

The anarchic militancy of local communities is a source of both confusion and entertainment to outsiders like myself. Baiting town officials is almost as important an activity here as soccer or religious processions, and even more likely to draw out passionate responses. While the whole topic might seem trivial to someone not from here, it does show how local decision-making actually comes about. When a bunch of guys are upset enough to take matters into their own hands, governments start to take note. It’s a very direct form of democracy, but it can produce results.

I’m fascinated to see if the topes reappear in the next few months, in the approved form. There’s only one reasonable route into town from where I live, and just who ‘owns’ it is never a settled issue.


Everything Old is Almost New Again

October 17, 2022

A year or two ago, before the pandemic was in full spate, the Mexican federal government cut funding for maintaining monuments. This seemed – and was – absurd, since a huge amount of the nation’s income is from tourists wanting to look at old stuff. If the old stuff is shuttered, the nation’s purse contracts. 

The saddest aspect to the decision was that after the earthquake of September 2017 (8.5 on the scale), many old churches in my part of the country were badly damaged, and therefore were inaccessible to visitors. Here in Tepoztlan, the Dominican Convent of the Nativity is part of a group of 16th Century monasteries that together constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and to see its front towers held together by baulks of timber was simply depressing.

Serious scaffolding around the Tepoztlan Convent. Work is finally re-started.

I don’t recall reading how and when the funding decision was reversed, but one of the most gladdening things recently has been to see the repair work re-started. In the nearby city of Cuernavaca recently, I noticed two weeks ago that the clock-tower on the Palace of Cortes was finally rebuilt. The Palace is a thick-walled government building the conquistadors constructed on top of an old Aztec site used for collection of tribute, and is not very ‘palatial’ in style. It was made to be defended against the newly subjugated (it dates to the 1520s, right after the Conquest), and at one point it served as a jail. The incongruously but cheerfully pink clock tower, scarcely more than a century old, is out of place with the main architecture, but it makes the place less grim.

The palacio of Cortes in Cuernavaca, with the clock-tower rebuilt.

The really pleasing thing for me, though, is that the Tepoztlan convent is once more surrounded by scaffolding, and that on weekdays, workers in safety gear can be seen on it, cementing cracked stonework and doing whatever needs to be done to bring the church back into a usable condition. It used to be a popular location for fashionable weddings, and it made the town more than what it’s been recently on weekends, which is a hang-out for people from Mexico City who come to get drunk amid the mountains that surround us. 

I don’t know how long repairs to the convent will take. Before work stopped, there had already been two years of effort put in, with little visible result. The new phase of work looks like it’s back with enough cash to get the place into shape once more, but obviously not this year.

That’s okay. It’s survived other earthquakes, annual rains and the 1910 Revolution since it was finished around 1580, so it’s a patient old thing.


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.