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Perceptions

June 3, 2021

Yesterday, I took my dog Rem out for a walk on the trail to the Baptismal Pool (Posa) of Quetzalcoatl. To be accurate, Rem took me, and exhausted both of us in the process. 

From the starting point south of the village, the trail crosses a rock-filled stream, then follows a rough track up a hillside for a few hundred yards. Some distance further along, there is a mirador, an area with large, smooth rocks that overlooks the canyon through which the stream flows. Usually, hiking groups pause here before going on to the Posa.

This time, the place was filled with cheap plastic toys, coloured plates and cups, and it had a string of shrivelled balloons from one edge of the sitting area to the other. There was gold-coloured tinsel, too, and the remains of cookies in the grass. Glitter had been sprinkled all over. To one side sat two toy trucks. I couldn’t imagine who would or could have a children’s party and leave such a mess, but considering the trail to the Posa is seen as sacred, it seemed incredibly inconsiderate. This afternoon, I went back with a garbage bag, and began collecting the mess before all the plastic items were washed by the rains into the stream below.

As I was finishing up, disentangling the last bits of tinsel tied to a bush, Armando arrived. I don’t know him well, but we’ve had a nodding acquaintanceship for years. He had just been to the Posa himself, and had come to the mirador to rest for a few minutes. I explained what I was doing, and he nodded.

Then he began explaining. Something people here do a couple of times a year is come to the mirador to make offerings to the duendes (fairy folk, basically) and to children who have died. Hence the brightly coloured cups and plates, and the toys.

In older times, they left toys made of wood or clay, which of course degraded naturally over time in an exposed place. People now buy cheap plastic toys in the marketplace because that’s what their children play with, or would have played with if they had lived.

As most of my readers know, I edited magazines for the plastics industry in Canada for decades, so I’m acutely aware of the positives and negatives of synthetic polymers. Their use saves us a great deal in energy consumption every year, from production of parts through to shipping, while their disposal is often problematic. The local tendency to just throw pop bottles in a ditch saddens me no end, because I grasp where they’re going to end up. But for millennia, people here tossed aside what they no longer needed, or what was broken, and gave it little more thought.

There is also more of a sense here of rural people living in a continuum. The present is all, and who knows what the future will bring. The past though is still very much here, albeit in fragments and increasingly distorted memories. 

But the dead are not off in some faraway heaven, not all the time, anyway, but will visit a shrine in a house, and of course come back for the Days of the Dead. People will visit their relatives in the cemetery for a chat, or to ask advice. 

Thus, a lovely spot, with a view to the hills rising on the other side of the canyon, is a likely place to be able to reach out to lost children. And the mirador is on a sacred trail, too.

Armando saw both viewpoints. The tradition of leaving cookies and toys one a couple of days in the year goes back centuries, he said, while he also realised that you can’t just abandon plastics and assume they will dissolve with time. Their dissolution will happen after they reach a river and then the sea, and cause harm to sea-life. So, he didn’t criticise my desire to keep the place tidy for the next visitors. I finished gathering bits of tinsel, thanked him for his explanation, and headed back to the village.

And of course, I wondered if I was right to take what the bereaved parents had left for children no longer here. I decided, as I picked my way over the stones down to the stream, that I was.

All kids get to play with their toys for a while, then they need to be put away. I noted that I didn’t trip or slip on the way down, which is easy to do, so I think the guardian spirits of the trail, who protect it from profane visitors, agreed with me. 

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An Iffy Meal and a Good View

June 1, 2021

There are places to eat out that never fail to disappoint. Marco Polo, an Italian-style place in Cuernavaca (the Cuaunahuac of Lowry’s Under the Volcano) is one of them. I should know, because I go there about once a year, looking for the idea the place represents. 

The entrance to Cuernavaca Cathedral, from the Marco Polo restaurant balcony.

It’s self-described as a trattoria, which to me means somewhere where the pasta is unsubtly cheesy and tomato-y, with definite hints of oregano, onion and garlic. There’s a cheap Italian house red that’s hardly memorable, but is cheerful and zesty enough to complement minor sins in the kitchen, and red-check tablecloths. There are pizza options for the impecunious, and upscale cuts of meat for the businessmen.

And somehow, this place always gets it wrong. The decor is elegant and not a bad imitation of traditional Tuscan tiles and sculpture, and the menu was perfectly designed years ago. They make a delicious cheese-bread that augurs well for the main course to follow, and … then the main course follows.

I can hear the moans: “Well, go somewhere else, idiot, and stop complaining. Use your blog for telling people about cartels and extortion, or something.” I will write about how kidnappers recently tried to extort me in a day or two, but right now, I’m recalling ravioli that was just tolerable when Chef Boyardee would have come closer to excellence.

I have loved Italian food since I hit adulthood, and like I said, Marco Polo captures the idea of an Italian eatery perfectly. It’s just that they don’t seem to know you can go a couple of kilometres and get all the ingredients at Costco, or even Walmart, and your bolognese sauce will taste … maybe not like it would in Bologna, but like the acceptable imitations you get in other places here. Rich, balanced between sweetness and acidity, and probably available with all the spices and herbs already added in.

So, why did I go there today? The photo at the top is the reason.

I had actually gone to Cuernavaca hunting for the socks I forgot to buy on Friday when I was in a Walmart. And, having found some, plus some decent tea, I suddenly thought I wanted to eat on one of the four balconies Marco Polo has. I had to walk just three blocks, and was able to get a balcony table before other lunchtime customers grabbed them all. 

The restaurant, you see, is right opposite the Cathedral of Cuernavaca. That building is still, like other large religious buildings near here, under renovation from the 2017 earthquake, and access can be limited. But on either side of the main gate, there are two large, early chapels, which, unlike the cathedral, have not been extensively altered over the centuries. Both are currently open. The one at the left of my photo is the Santa Cruz chapel, which is just under 500 years old. 

Behind it are hills that are part of a long ridge leading into my current home town of Tepoztlan. Right of centre is the roof of a recently inaugurated museum of religious art, with a gold-topped cupola. In the cathedral courtyard there are cypresses, palm trees and other large plants.

If it looks like the thick walls of the courtyard are fortified, the perception is correct. Some native people were not cowed by beatings and burnings, nor won over by the newly imported faith, and there was intermittent armed resistance to Spanish rule throughout the 1500s. The convent in Tepoztlan is similarly fortified. 

When the cathedral gates are open, there are often crippled people and other beggars outside them: the impression is very medieval, and the urge to put a coin in their cups is hard to resist. Souvenir sellers, like the woman with her blue umbrellas, station themselves there also. Often, there are street musicians or, as there was today, a man dressed as a Toltec warrior playing a high-pitched flute. There are also the lamp standards, like the one in the middle of my image, which are over a century old. The cathedral itself is only visible here from its white ornamental roof turrets at the top right, and a small section of wall peeping through the trees, though it is quite impressive close up.

So, what draws me to Marco Polo isn’t the food, but the ambiance. This part of town was an Aztec stronghold until the Conquest exactly five centuries ago, so it retains some of that spirit, especially just up the road in the Palacio de Cortes, the Conquistador who took Mexico for Spain in the 1520s. There are large pieces of shattered sculptures there. 

Both the early efforts of missionaries and the more established devotions of later generations are embodied in the cathedral complex architecture. And there’s usually some bustle on the street outside.

I must have visited Marco Polo a half-dozen times over the years, and while a couple of meals were okay, most didn’t excite me. I never plan to go there, but always head up their stairs on a whim, as I did today. 

And while I do wish the ravioli was … raviolier, and bottles of the house wine were not kept sitting around for days on end, the view from the balconies is always the best compensation for visiting. Not that I’ll go back there again this year, I’m quite sure. I always tell myself not to go back. But if I do get the urge again some time next year, and I will probably will, the view will still be there to make up for the gastronomic deficiencies.

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A Morning Bird Hunt

May 27, 2021

My dog Rem has a loud bark, and he’s particularly fond of using it at night and in the morning. A lot. What can I say? He takes his guard duties very seriously, and I’m probably all the safer for it.

He wouldn’t stop his racket this morning, just as I was stumbling around in the mental fog of waking up, but he wasn’t at his usual post from which he can issue threats to other neighbourhood dogs. So, I went to see if something was up. It was – a zopilote, a black vulture (Coragyps atratus) was sitting in a tree in the garden. 

Rem taking a well-earned rest after barking at a vulture for 15 minutes.

One of the pleasures of being here in the mornings is seeing the zopilotes circling on thermals close to the cliffs that surround the village. They are very graceful birds – not huge, but with wings tipped with white feathers, and a span of close to five feet. Up close, they can be disgusting owing to a habit they have of soiling themselves to cool their legs (Nature has no class at all sometimes), but from more than 15 feet away, they are compelling.

I don’t have a camera that can do a decent job of photographing them when they circle hundreds of feet up, but with one right in the tree outside, I decided I’d try to get a shot. I went up to the roof, and tried from three angles. Each time, as I suspected and later on confirmed, I registered a black blob against the dark leaves of the trees.

My least black blob-ful photo of the zopilote.

But at one point, the bird spread those graceful wings, and hopped to another branch. Did I capture the image? Er, no, I just missed it. And missed it again twice more. 

Then it flew off. And then it came back again, up in the back garden, which is on a steep slope.

The main garden area is closed off, since Rem has used it in the past as an escape route off the property and out to mischief. For his own safety (people here own a lot of sharp machetes) I keep him within fenced bounds. But feeling the spirit of National Geographic descending on me, I unhooked the gate and headed up through the vegetation, which is rapidly sprouting after the onset of the rains. It was hard to find my footing with all the strong new stems that have come up, and soon, I was being bitten by ants. I don’t know why, because I was no threat to them, but I think being an ant might be boring, and having a large bipedal mammal to bite is possibly fun for them. So, they had fun.

Looking up from brushing them off my arms, I noticed the zopilote had once again spread its wings, so I swung my camera up to eye level. And of course, the wings folded once more. We did this twice more, until it became alarmed that I was coming close. It spread its wings yet again, just as I pushed aside some more tenacious vegetation, and … I missed the shot once more.

The wings are half open in this shot.

Rem, throughout all this, had stopped barking, satisfied that I was doing something to get rid of this intolerable interloper on the property he guards so determinedly. And in his terms, my mission looked successful, and he could go back to watching out for other dogs, at which he could bark from his favourite spot on the wall of his corral. As for me, I just decided, as I have before, that I wasn’t cut out to be a wildlife photographer, who needs things like telephoto lenses and very rapid responses from his camera. 

I’m still glad the vultures hang around here. If nothing us, they indicate there’s still a vibrant ecosystem here that can support scavengers and occasional hunters like them.

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Closing the Ways

May 25, 2021

This part of Mexico has seen a lot of changes in recent years. It’s hard for me to point a finger at people who’ve come here recently, because I’m an outsider myself. When yet another house starts going up along the road into town, I might regret the loss of another cow pasture or cornfield, but I did the same thing myself a decade ago.

However, certain changes can be hard to swallow. This community, Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl, is one of two or three legendary birthplaces of the Plumed Serpent (Quetzalcoatl means ‘serpent with feathers’) in Mexico, and the one with the best-attested legend. Every weekend, hikers and pilgrims set out for the Posa, the baptismal pool where the one-time ruler of central Mexico (and later deified king) was given his name. One or two local guides will take visitors for a fee, though after I’d been twice, I knew how to find the way myself. You head to the south end of the village and go down a stony slope to the Sacred Tree, where you make an offering of tobacco or other suitable substance and ask for protection on the rough walk. Then, take the fork in the road to the right if you’re going the regular way, the one that crosses the stream in the bottom of the little valley, or stay left if you want to follow the longer route with prettier views.

The Sacred Tree, close to stones forming the bank of the new roadway. The Tree’s guardian spirit protects hikers on the trail.

I don’t go often, because the Posa is a special place. It has a small waterfall and is enclosed on three sides by cliffs with dramatic rock formations. When I tried on my first visit to take a photo, my camera jammed, and I never tried again. The place demands respect, and offers a direct and significant link to the preColumbian traditions.

Hiking buddy Ixchel and I set off for the prettier route this afternoon, when we found someone had made some major changes in the path. The track, which is so old it is inches below the rest of the land it crosses, had been blocked by a new barbed wire fence. A roadway had been gouged out of the west side of the small valley, and accessing the Sacred Tree by clambering down large, loose boulders was likely to produce a sprained ankle. A hundred yards on, the path was no longer obstructed, but somebody had clearly been asserting property rights, and had plans for the land.

We headed back after an hour or so when storm-clouds threatened, and tried to get around the fences. But the man who had put them in had blocked any route bar the new roadway, which was still unfinished. Either we had to scramble under the barbed wire and risk snagging our clothing, or go back around to the new route.

A double row of barbed wire fences blocks an old, alternative path going up and around the closed off zone.

He or one of his friends was doing some work behind the gate of one of the fences when we came by the Sacred Tree again, and we asked him what the plan was. He replied that he was going to grow corn, plant trees and maybe grow flowers. But given that a narrow valley with limited sunshine is a poor spot to grow anything for profit, this was hardly convincing. We had to conclude that something else was in the offing that promised better profits than a field of maize. 

No doubt we’ll see soon enough what his intentions are. One possibility is using the main access to the camino leading to the Posa to charge admission. If there were more guardians of the traditional ways still alive, it’s unlikely anyone would attempt this, but the keepers of the old knowledge are dying off. Don Julio, who took the second Posa hike I ever went on, and who could describe the medicinal properties of plants along the way, died a few months ago. And there have been unpleasant incidents in the past year or two with guides from the village demanding a fee from groups going to the sacred site. If I go alone, I go on a weekday, when the almost non-existent visitors offer no attraction to such extortion.

Another view of a fence cutting off the entrance to the old trail.

Possibly the fencing effort and the new roadway will have little effect on the rest of the walk, and we’ll adjust to what this owner has done. But as more houses go up around the village, and the community changes in character from what it was, there is the temptation for local people to maximise personal gains at the expense of the old traditions. They see how much cash the weekenders who come here bring in their pockets, and they want the same thing. 

The village is gradually losing its links with its past. And it’s unlikely anyone will try to stop it.

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Bugs and Puppies

May 24, 2021

The onset of our summer rains kick-starts the natural cycle. Oddly, the mosquitoes in Amatlan started coming out weeks ago, before the first thunderstorm provided any water for breeding them, but now they have company.

In most years, large white butterflies show up, with seven-inch wingspans, a few weeks before the rains themselves. But since the rains themselves arrived early this year, the butterflies were behind schedule, and I only saw my first one last week. 

These critters – moyotes – are less than two cm long, but in photos like this, they look nice and scary.

The moyotes (June bugs, also called by the variant name mayotes in the local Nahuatl language) arrive next. I read that in some places these flying beetles are diurnal, but here, they show up at night, and love to come into the house. Why? I have no idea, since they don’t go for any food that’s around, nor do they spend excessive amounts of time flying into light-bulbs. Some of my friends and I call them ‘stupid bugs’ because they essentially come in to blunder into walls, then end up on the floor trying to get off their backs. In the morning, I sometimes start the day by fetching a broom and sweeping a half-dozen out onto the patio.

So far, the flying ants, which arrive in droves, also at night, and promptly shed their wings, are not in evidence. They do no damage (that I can see), but droves of any bug are annoying. Laura, who comes once a week to clean my house, tells me that cooked and ground up, they are delicious in sauces. I admit I’m willing to just take her word on that. But then, while people here treat chapulines (fried grasshoppers) as a delicacy, I’ve never wanted to venture into that experience, either. 

I did learn some years ago to live with a certain population of bugs, and they don’t faze me the way a couple of silverfish might have if I’d found them in my old apartment in Toronto. You move into a property at the edge of a Mexican nature reserve, and you get … nature. Several spiders have taken up residence in corners of my large kitchen, and I leave them to catch as many of the flying insects as they can. They also help deter more aggressive insects.

What is actually more of a problem for me is the amount of vegetation that proliferates when the rains get going. The area the dogs use to relieve themselves is easy to clean right now, but in two weeks, I’ll need to take a machete to the plants that crop up. Similarly, there is a large corral for the dogs to hang out in, that gets choked quite easily. I left it too late to attack that last year, and half of it became simply impenetrable until November when the die-off was under way.

The one surge of new life that is truly appealing this year is the litter of puppies to which Xilonen (Shee-LOH-nen), the dog next door, gave birth a couple of weeks ago. They remained invisible until this week, but now I see groups of them – there are eight in total – romping in my neighbour’s large yard. Naturally, every time I’ve been down with some kind of camera, they decide they all need a nap, and disappear completely.

Canelita (‘little cinnamon’) trying to look like a Belgian Shepherd puppy, but with fluff.

So, defeated in that effort this evening, I simply took a couple of shots of my other neighbour’s fluff-ball, Canelita, who was happy to pose for her close-up. She’s certainly more photogenic than the moyotes. And she’s actually no larger than any of the pups. So, imagine her multiplied by eight, and without the fluff, and you’re close to the look of the pack.

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Bumba’s Failed Escape

May 13, 2021

The path from the street to my front gate is a steep one, and nobody runs up it. I certainly don’t. So, when I saw the funny-looking dog in front of my neighbour’s house, I thought perhaps that breathlessness was distorting my vision.

But it wasn’t a dog. Bumba (‘Boom-bah’) the pig was making a bid for freedom. At least, she was until she found some garbage to investigate, which fatally slowed her escape.

Bumba heads down to the street.

I always have mixed feelings about the pigs the people next day occasionally raise. Their obvious destiny is a barbecue, and the loud, cheerful snorting they make at mealtimes only underlines that fate. The fatter the pig, the pork-choppier its eventual end.

But maintaining good relations with the locals is essential in a small place like Amatlan, so I went and called Eli (‘Eh-lee’), the wife of the owner of the house. She was off helping somebody at a house further along our lane, but her son was home. He checked the sty, then ran off to fetch his mother, while I went to see where Bumba had gone.

It wasn’t hard to find her. Other neighbours – housewives cleaning yards, Ysrael working on his garden plot – had seen this creature passing by, and the hue and cry had begun. It ended when Eli’s two teenaged daughters came back from the grocery store, and laughingly began to urge Bumba homewards. Teresa, the younger one, was the most committed, perhaps she is usually the one that feeds the animal. As Eli herself came back at the behest of her son, Teresa shooed the small beast back into its cramped home, while her sister Ana grinned at watching the chase.

As Eli pointed out, had some of the village dogs found Bumba, her end could have been unpleasant. A large pig can defend itself against various animals, but a fat little porker would have had no chance. Better the slaughter’s knife, quick and sure, than being torn to pieces by half-feral dogs.

So, I’m sorry, Bumba. Maybe if you’d made your breakout at night-time, when you could have slunk up into the hills, it would have worked. But your timing was off. 

I hope you enjoy your slops until it’s your time.

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Rains

May 11, 2021

The shift happens suddenly every year. One day we have hot, dry days, the sun baking the last bits of grass clinging on at the roadsides. Then the clouds come in around sunset, a wind blows up, and the lightning starts.

Welcome to rainy season in central Mexico.

Just as the first snowfall in Toronto was always magical, the first rains here are a welcome relief. The temperature drops, the threat of more wildfires in the hills disappears, and farmers start looking to this year’s planting. This year, the rains have begun close to a month early, which is good considering that last year they came late, and the total rainfall was meagre.

The other side of the rains is inconvenience. Thunderstorms often cut our electrical power, and a few nights ago it went off around midnight and was not restored until late morning. With the loss of electrical power, so go our internet connections. There is no tower here in the village for cellphones, and the mountains block the ones in town.

We all dry laundry in the sunshine, but when there is none, socks and shirts stay damp, maybe for days. Plagues of bugs appear from nowhere, and I have to shut doors that I normally leave open for the dogs. We collect rainwater for washing purposes, but the storms build up piles of leaves on the roof, so that sweeping these away is essential before anything is collected. 

And of course, the dogs hate it when they can’t go outside without getting soaked. 

This year, apart from the series of fires we had in April, there was also a threat of diminished water supplies. We did not get to the point of rationing, but when I had to order a tanker of water because our cistern was almost empty, I was warmed not to use it for garden plants. They had to make do with waste sock-washing water, or what I used for cleaning the kitchen dishes. I wondered how much detergent the soil could safely take, but to this point, I’ve seen no adverse reactions. 

Most of my friends celebrate the arrival of the rains, but you can probably tell from the tone of this piece that I’m not a big fan. I wish we had rain throughout the year, in moderate amounts, but the tropical climate doesn’t work like that. It’s all controlled by currents in the Pacific Ocean (occasionally with the help of Caribbean weather patterns), and we are in the hands of weather-gods operating far beyond human pleading and prayers. 

The underlying feeling right now, though, is that we’re grateful we’re unlikely to face the drought conditions that last year affected California and Australia. Overall, Mexico’s rainfall has diminished over the past decade, as climate change begins to alter the old rhythms, and agriculture is threatened. The storms, one of which looks like it’s on its way as I write this, are welcomed as at least a temporary antidote to that situation. Unless these rains tail off early, the skies will give us what the community needs to make it through for another year.

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Election Season

April 4, 2021

Around sixteen years ago, when I first became interested in Mexico, I looked into its politics. At that time, apart from a few small, fringe parties, there were three of them: the National Action Party (PAN), which was Conservative; the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) which was Social Democratic; and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which was more or less centrist, but very definitely the immovable object in Mexican politics.

Whatever else Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has done since be became President in 2018, he has finished that set-up. A local friend told me last night that there are now fourteen parties vying for seats in the mid-term elections due on July 1. Bizarrely, PAN, PRI and PRD have formed an alliance to oppose Lopez Obrador and his bloc in the legislature. 

Two Futuro candidates for office. Futuro is one of the new parties.

Knowing exactly what each new party is about can be a head-scratching quest for anyone, even people who live here, since the party names don’t always imply which way they lean. Our village and the town of Tepoztlan are gaudy with electoral banners, showing the smiling, handsome faces of the younger candidates, and many less fetching older ones.

It isn’t just an election for the federal legislature. All the Mexican states are also involved, as are the mayoral seats of most towns. The mayor of Tepoztlan died from Covid-19 last month, so the contest to take the local job is hot, and anybody who has ever been a local activist seems to be after it.

David Barragan wants to be Mayor of Tepoztlan.

Lopez Obrador (who goes by the acronym AMLO most of the time) used to be the head of the PRD, but a few years ago he launched Morena, which is left-of-centre but also populist (a dubiously elastic term). The party name comes from Movimiento Regeneracion National, a phrase that translates into English easily. It is also a term used for a dark-skinned woman. It thus refers to indigenous people, whom AMLO claims to represent, as well as the sacred image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the matron saint of Mexico. This was very clever marketing, and AMLO, who had been thwarted in his previous presidential ambitions, has been ensconced in the capital for three years, excoriating all of his critics as conservatives or as individuals in the pay of the right wing, as he has bent parts of the Constitution to his preference, and (my own view) been remarkably ineffectual at rooting out corruption as he claimed he would.

Not that rooting out corruption has ever been easy in Mexico, nor that anyone else recently has managed it. Vicente Fox, President from 2000 to 2006, is generally reckoned, despite other failings, to have been an honest man, but Felipe Calderon, who came after him (2006 to 2012) never seemed to shine as a leader, nor did Enrique Peña Nieto (2012 to 2018) burnish the presidential seal to any noticeable extent. Calderon was the primary author of the continuing, murderous war on drug cartels, and Peña Nieto is widely viewed as clueless, and possibly in the pocket of ‘El Chapo’ (Joaquin Guzman Loero), the jailed former head of the Sinaloa Cartel.

Is Morena still ‘The hope of Mexico’ ? Ulises Pardo hopes people think so.

But AMLO is better at spending money on dubious projects than either of his two predecessors. And since polls show his candidates should do well, he isn’t about to change tack. I know people who believe he could try to become President-for-Life before his six-year term is up.

The local campaigns are different, though. I’ve always been a believer that capable local government is critical to any stable society. Big initiatives at the national or regional level get the headlines, but good local politicians and local initiatives can make a great deal of difference to people’s lives. 

I don’t know if David Barragan and Miriam Barragan are related. But both want to be Mayor.

In this context, I always recall interviewing Barney Danson, who was a cabinet minister in the government of Canada’s Pierre Trudeau in the 1970s. He ran into flak as Minister of National Defence, but when he was at Urban Affairs, he launched a national program to subsidise sewage systems across the country, working flexibly with municipalities on their specific needs.

“I was so proud of that,” he told me. “It made a positive difference to the lives of tens of thousands of people, maybe hundreds of thousands, but I doubt it ever got more than a couple of inches of newspaper coverage.” And having begun my own career as a reporter on a local newspaper, I grasped his point and was happy to agree that he’d probably accomplished something truly worthwhile away from the limelight.

Felipe Ceja has the most banners up of any candidate in our village. Morena doesn’t seem short of electoral funds.

I don’t know if any of the local people whose campaign posters I’ve included here will make any significant difference if they’re elected in July. The later stages of the pandemic are a unfortunate time in which to make fresh starts, and Mexico is facing strong economic headwinds this year and probably for some years to come. But the optimism so many of them bring to their campaigns is a reminder that Mexico is a society that still believes in its own communities and its own future, and is not the basket case its less informed critics like to think it is.

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Fire is Tenacious

April 17, 2021

Yesterday, I burned my fingers. Not badly, but it was when I learned the ground can be hot after a forest fire.

Don’t play with fire, mother said. This, though, was unintentional.

Ixchel Tucker and I had headed up to the village of San Juan Tlacotenco, where the temperature right now is noticeably less oppressive than in the lower area where we both live. We aimed to walk a little and check out the route we can never quite find that leads back over the mountains to a village on ‘our’ side of part of the range of cerros. To finish up, before the sun began to slide behind the trees, we checked out a path she’d been on before, trying to identify if it was close to the route that interested us.

We had barely gone 300 yards when we realised we were in an area that had recently been hit by the hillside fires. The ground was not uniformly black, nor were all the trees scorched, but there was a discernible smell of woodsmoke still in the air. 

The edge of Mordor? The foreground soil was black and charred, yet a hundred yards away, the trees were untouched.

Looking about, I found a small wisp of smoke still rising from the earth beside the trail. I tried kicking soil over the hot-spot with my shoe, but the smoke kept rising. So, I bent down to scoop the soil better with my fingers.

I didn’t know that earth itself, which has a lot of organic matter in it, can keep burning without a visible flame. However, one ‘Ouch’ later, I found out. Fire in a forest isn’t just a surface phenomenon, but one that gets down into the ground. Ixchel had a story of finding that a small fire at a place here where she’d lived had followed the line of a root towards its parent tree, and having to act fast to prevent the tree igniting. (She worked once in the insurance business, and is a mine of knowledge about the ways fire can do damage).

Further away, but down a slippery slope, there was a stronger veil of smoke rising. We assumed the local firefighters, who have lengthy collective experience, were letting this burn out, and had not just overlooked it. But the experience did bring home how and why fires are so hard to put out on verdant mountainsides. 

Three inches or more of fine grey wood-ash, along with a few charred stumps of small trees.

Simply eliminating the flames is a first step, but the ground stays hot and, in some cases, remains in combustion. There’s an element of whack-a-mole to firefighting in such places, along with the complications arising from weather conditions. A steady rain-shower a few nights ago helped extinguish the big fires we had in the hills, but that was after a couple of days of intensive firefighting led by trained teams, and heavily supported by water-dumping helicopters. And still, as my slightly singed fingertips told me, there was the potential for a new flare-up.

Our temperatures remain high, predicted to average 30 deg C through the coming week. Even at night, they only go down to about 15 degrees. That makes the mornings very fresh and pleasant, but the afternoons oppressive. And it does little to suppress emerging or continuing fires.

We aren’t simply fire-gawkers, and we weren’t looking to get close to the areas the fires had touched. We both appreciate that a live fire can spread fast, especially if an evening wind springs up. But for the next few weeks, we need to be watchful if we go hiking on the hillsides, to be sure that not only do we avoid the live fires, but also look out for the residue of fires supposedly quenched.

Featured

Fire Season

April 13, 2021

The late spring of 2012 offered the most memorable fire season that I can recall. That year, the various blazes in the hills around our village came right to the edge of it, and on the worst night, I kept thinking of Hieronymus Bosch’ painting of Hell in The Garden of Earthly Delights. My own photos didn’t do it justice, but my friends and I spent two hours anxiously going over our contingency plans to make a run for it with five dogs. Thankfully, we didn’t need to do this, but the flames hung around for two more days to keep us on edge and wreck our sleep.

Hieronymus’ view of the infernal fires – not a blaze-dousing chopper in sight.

This year’s fires have come early; it’s a full two months till our rains start, and there’s a fear they’ll be on the meagre side, like last year.

They’ll be enough to stop the fires, but our current problem is a water shortage. Using helicopters to put out fires on steep hillsides works brilliantly, but it needs a lot of water that we don’t have to spare. This area has been in a partial drought for several years, and if we get more fires in the rest of April and in May, we’re in trouble.

Everyone loves watching the choppers. They make enough noise, and they get close enough to the flames before dropping their loads of water and fire retardant, that they’re impressively efficient looking. And, watching them tackle the spread-out blazes above the town of Tepoztlan this afternoon, I noticed that after 40 minutes, several of the lesser fires were gone. 

They’re effective, and we enjoy the sight of the pilots becoming heroes. Flying a helicopter close to a steep cliff, into the updraft of a blaze, is a lot riskier than it sounds, and you need to know this if you fly one.

A Mexican Air Force helicopter doing a water-bombing run this morning.

Mexicans accept natural disaster as a part of life, far better than other places. Communities pull together, governments reach beyond their frequent ineptitude, and those who can’t go into the hills to beat out flames at least buy water and food for the young men who do.

Yesterday, we had four separate areas ablaze, but this evening, only one is still active, and its range is declining. But it’s a part of the yearly cycle, not an exception to it, and no-one is screaming in terror. Most of us are careful not to go too close, but otherwise, we trust the smoke tomorrow will be diminished or contained.

Various things cause the fires. A few are from humans who are too stupid not to start campfires when everything around them is bone dry, or are farmers burning off last year’s crops at a time of day when the winds can spring up. Others are caused by discarded glass bottles acting as a lens for the hot sun: today, which was very sunny, we hit 31 degrees C. Spontaneous combustion, I learned today, usually happens in tightly packed, damp vegetable material, not things like the loose piles of dry leaves all over the hills, so it might not be a factor here.

Smoke rises from various locations on the hilly ridges north of Tepoztlan.

Fire has long been one of nature’s means of renewal as much as destruction, and the fires are not necessarily tragic for this reason. Some wildlife, alas, will be lost, but the vegetated areas on the hills grow back in a year, or two at most. I’m told, by old-timers, that nobody heeded the fires much in years past, though the growth of the towns and villages means there’s more of a threat today of outlying areas of housing being destroyed. As a result, fire-fighting has become a necessary skill.

Stoicism is necessary, though. As I noted, we’re a couple of months away from full-on rains, and we don’t have an alternative right now to being patient. When you choose to come and live closer to nature, you have to accept that nature doesn’t withdraw because just you’ve arrived. Rather, nature, in all its forms, is going to come closer to you.