Reflections on Guatemala

March 15, 2023

No city, let alone a country, can be assessed from a 36-hour visit. But I couldn’t obtain a full-term tourist visa after a short trip outside Mexico in January, and so I was required to go somewhere briefly and return, in order to remain here for six more months. Plane flights being absurdly pricey right now, I chose the cheapest destination: Guatemala City.

Despite visiting or living in Mexico for almost 20 years, I’d never previously been to a neighbouring Spanish-speaking country. Guatemala and its capital have the general reputation that the US State Department puts on Mexico: a terribly dangerous place. The city does have more street beggars than I’m used to, but it struck me as less grimy and gritty than most central Mexican cities. 

Given the short time I had there, I couldn’t take in Tikal or the other spectacular Mayan archeological sites off in the highlands. I therefore opted for the Museum of Archeology and Ethnology. Alas, my cab driver didn’t know it was under renovation, and closed except for Thursdays and Fridays. And this was a Tuesday. My tourism extravaganza therefore included the city’s Cathedral of Santiago (St. James), a brief look at the presidential palace and a saunter around the central part of the city. Not, I grant you, the basis of an in-depth profile, but enough to leave an impression.

The city’s core had an unusual number of cops around with serious-looking weaponry. It also had the predictable mix of traditional little tiendas selling tacos or household goods, as well as a bunch of upscale stores and cafes. On that sunny Tuesday morning, there was little sense of people being nervous to be out. But then, in some places people learn to live with wariness. And with the impoverished. Yes, I did buy a shine for my shoes, and added a reasonable tip. 

The Cathedral of Santiago in Guatemala City.

The cathedral’s design dates from the late 1700s, and wasn’t completed until 1815, a few years before independence from the waning Spanish empire. It was damaged in 20th Century earthquakes, and a lot of the exterior seems plastered over rather than having its original detail. It is a light-filled place, albeit not one full of fascinating old shrines and or artwork. From the purple banners around the city centre, marking the start of Easter season, it seemed this country is more devoutly Catholic than much of Mexico is these days.

Outside the cathedral, pillars commemorate the thousands who died in the civil unrest and wars between 1950 and 1996, a period when a Cold War-minded US contributed some of its most disgraceful interventions in other countries. A plaque in the entrance to the nearby presidential palace commemorates the people who fought in the 1944 revolution that ousted a dictatorship. But since voters after that didn’t choose a leader acceptable to Washington and to the United Fruit Co., which produced bananas on plantations with miserable working conditions, President Arbenz was overthrown. Interventions continued under other US presidents, notably Ronald Reagan.

The Presidential Palace dates from the early 20th Century, but uses an older architectural style.

While Mexico was able to establish a relatively stable system after the 1911 Revolution, Guatemala’s history was far more turbulent until recently. If anything, I was impressed by how the city and the society had held together following such events. Obviously, we can say there were no options other than keeping on keeping on, but Guatemala City is not some big slum. There are bad areas, undoubtedly – there are nearly three million people in the whole urban area, and around a million in the city proper. But it is not an ugly place.

While there are always rifts between the rich and the poor or indigenous people in Latin America, I’m constantly struck by how resilient these societies are. I always come back to the same idea about Mexico when people tell me how terrified I should be of kidnapping or murder: this country will find a way to hold it together while more developed nations wail about the loss of stability, security and prestige.

Guatemala strikes me as a similar place. Destroy the central authority, or corrupt all the elections, and people will still know what to do. Perhaps someday I’ll be back, and then I’ll make that trip to Tikal.


Waiting on the Jacarandas

March 2, 2023

Several people have remarked on it to me. By March last year, the jacaranda trees here had put on their usual splendid display of blue-violet flowers; this year, the flowers are absent. A half-dozen of them around the town have bloomed, while the rest are missing in action.

Jacaranda trees in bloom in Amatlan last year (2022).

Mexico more than much of the rest of North America is very dependent on the summer rainfall. Right now, the spring heat is upon us, and it will remain dry and hot until June. And since last year’s rainfall was adequate but not generous, presumably the flowering trees are unable to do much in 2023. Now, we wait for this year’s rains.

Any expat is always weighing options. We have chosen to be here, so we can choose to leave. Sometimes, we talk about where else we might go. The price of a truckload of water went up by a couple of hundred pesos since 2021, and there’s the perpetual threat that climate change will make central Mexico difficult to inhabit. The house I live in stores summer rainwater in a cistern, but last year’s supply ran out in mid-February. I paid for a tanker-load last week, and I might need to buy a second before the rains reappear.

Then, there’s concern over next year’s federal elections. President Lopez Obrador is trying to limit the power and activity of the National Electoral Institute (INE), which monitors election results. He is reminding people of his claim to have twice been robbed of the presidency in the early 2000s. Last weekend, close to half a million people demonstrated in Mexico City’s main square protesting this perceived grab at extending his power. He cannot legally run in 2024 for a second six-year term, but his designated successor, Claudia Sheinbaum, could become his front-person until 2030. 

(Where have I read this story before…?)

I am comfortable where I live. I know my neighbours, I know where facilities are in town, and I have access to two reasonably sized cities, each an hour away. The drug gangs, till now, have not moved into this municipality. The community is tight enough to resist them at the moment, but money can buy anything, if the gang leaders have patience. 

The future is always 100 per cent uncertain.

Behind any personal concerns, I also have concern for the people already here. Many own their own homes, and they have their families and their community. But as more and more outsiders come and build here (I plead guilty), the closeness of that community changes. The town of Tepoztlan had its Carnival last year, and everybody is complaining how wild and disorderly it was. Yes, the bars and the taco stands made a lot of money, but I’ve been hearing a lot about how much fun Carnival used to be. I can remember a different festival myself, a decade ago, when there was a more playful mood and fewer outsiders. 

No, I’m not giving up on Mexico. It has survived a great deal in its history and I still think it could hold together while a divided USA was arguing, fake-newsing, Alex Jones-ing and cross-accusing itself to pieces. And I was never a fan of winter weather anywhere else. Here, it’s a bit too warm today – 29 degrees C, or 84 F – but … I can handle that. 

Still, I keep looking at the huge jacaranda trees in the churchyard, which is a little below my home and not far away, and all I see is twigs. And I have to remember that things change, and then they change some more.


Rebuilding History

February 8, 2023

Back in November, I did a post on the renovation of the 460-year-old Convent of the Nativity in Tepoztlan. The old monastic church, which at times has served as stables, a prison and a storehouse, was badly damaged in the September 2017 earthquake. Some desultory repair work was done between then and the Covid pandemic, but it was only this past autumn that real restoration began.

I ignored the place for some time until I noticed one morning that the damaged towers at the front had been dismantled, to remove cracked stones. Going closer, I was able to see through the open front door inside the church, and was relieved to note that some of the stained glass windows were still intact. The severest damaged happened to the roof and the towers.

The next thing I saw was that rather than just repair damage, the crews had rebuilt an arcade beside the church that must have fallen down two centuries ago. They used brick instead of masonry, but the work is now mostly completed.

The front entrance of the Convent of the Nativity before the 2017 earthquake.

The exterior also received a new coat of cement in several places, so that the building looks deceptively new. I’m not sure if I like this or not, but it’s done now, and the form of the original structure is easier to see than it has been since the early 1800s.

It’s not clear exactly when the place will be opened to visitors again. The church bells need to be replaced in the towers, everything needs to be double-tested, and no doubt there are some things that still need a little shoring up. The connecting entrances from the cloisters to the church were sealed many years ago, so perhaps we’ll find they have been opened up again.

Scaffolding around the front towers as they are dismantled then reassembled by teams of stonemasons.

Whenever the doors are finally unsealed once more, it will be good to see this majestic structure from the inside once more. This as well as the half-dozen other 16th Century monasteries around the Popocatepetl volcano constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it has a unique atmosphere that I’ve often enjoyed in the past.

The arcade at the side of the church, rebuilt in brick. The main church walls are sealed now with a layer of cement.


December 27, 2022

The online paper Mexico News Daily recently ran an article on why more gringos than ever are moving to this country. I was surprised at the numbers of young families coming here, but since this area has a lot of older expats, the overall trend wasn’t surprising.

Expatriates form slightly uneasy communities. Many are people who have always been relative outsiders. This can help in dealing with cultural and linguistic difficulties, since oddballs expect to be treated oddly. The famous Mexican politeness helps smooth over a lot of the tougher moments.

Sometimes though, our bigger problems are with each other, rather than with the society around us. Ardent libertarians whose ideas never took root in the US after the end of the Sixties come here for another kick at that cat, and of course clash with people who prefer the idea of large, stable governments. This area around Tepoztlan draws a lot of seekers who, under their New Age exteriors, often harbour a lot of moralistic attitudes that can sideline their best values. 

The mountains of Tepoztlan, with their many legends and stories, draw seekers and would-be mystics from all over.

People who insist on extreme tolerance can be, in my experience, the least tolerant people of all. Anyone seeking capital-T Truth has trouble with the other such Truths popping up around them.

My own loose community here has faced a crisis recently when one man, someone a number of us liked for his intelligence and worldly knowledge, underwent a form of psychological break. He threatened a couple of women in my circle, and there was a protective closing of ranks against him. At one point, he got into a fight and the police were called. But the somewhat efficient local police were absorbed into the mistrusted State police a year or two back; a squad car never showed up. 

Several of us felt he should go on antipsychotic meds, without having any idea how to force him. One or two thought he could be talked down from his paranoia, a method they’ve tried without success so far. He knows he’s fine, and like the New Agers, but in exaggerated form, he thinks the problem is everybody else. 

The eternal question posed by people who don’t know Mexico is about how we expats deal with the cartels. The answer is, we don’t. They tend to avoid us, preferring to extort their own people except in certain high-end resorts, where there is occasional violence against tourists. Yes, we all learn certain street-smarts, particularly when we go to large cities. But being overcharged for a cab ride is the extent of the crime I’ve personally dealt with here.

But we are often dependent on each other or our Mexican neighbours when things go bad. Our disturbed friend is still somewhere around, doubtless suffering and possibly homeless. And we’re all reminded that we chose Mexico because, while government agencies are always difficult and sometimes (like the State police) pretty useless, the willingness of people here in helping others is the social safety net. 

But at some point, as illness, physical or mental, arises, sometimes we look fondly at the more effectively bureaucratic societies we’ve left. I hope the young families coming here understand this.


Adios 2022

December 18, 2022

This was a hard autumn. A friend my own age that I would chat with in the coffee shop and who’d lost his partner of 50 years in 2021, died in early October. I’d watched him get thinner and thinner, but expected him to hang in a while longer. But he didn’t.

On a brief visit to Toronto I found a close family member was dealing with long-term Covid symptoms, and needed help. While I was away, I was worried about my aging dog Victoria, who had been sick with heart and kidney problems all year, followed by complications in walking. She waited for me, though, and finally died on November 16. I took her to the vet to be put down that morning, because she could no longer stand to relieve herself, her back legs were so weakened. Weirdly, she died in my arms just as I carried her into the vet’s reception area, and I buried her that afternoon in the grave I had recently dug in the wilderness we euphemistically call ‘the garden.’ A mango tree was planted in the grave, as we’ve adopted a practice here of doing this for dogs who leave us.

Victoria, painted by my friend Lucero Milchorena.

Two women I used to hang out with in my early twenties, and whose subsequent careers I followed from time to time, died within a week or two of each other. I then learned of a male friend who had entered some kind of psychological break, and was behaving poorly while blaming other people for his plight. Finally, my other old dog, little Punky, whom I expected would die last year, began having severe mobility problems, and it’s become plain he won’t be with us much longer. 

Punky in his prime, painted by Lucero Milchorena.

But there were bright spots, one being that I decided to acquire a new dog. Poor five-year-old Rem, who is still eminently healthy, had become bored with no other dog to play with while I was out. For a time I’d had Midori, a boisterous dog of immense strength (she could pull ne over when on the leash), but I finally had to give her up because she was unmanageable. She now lives at a friend’s house in Mexico City, apparently to the delight of an older man who looks after her, and lets her play the alpha among a pack of three mutts.

Anyway, I was told about a woman in the village who rescued street dogs, along with her husband. But the husband died recently, leaving her struggling emotionally and financially, and she needed to cut down on the dogs she had. She showed me two candidates when I went round, an elderly labrador that I guiltily rejected, and a small, white mix called Perlita (Little Pearl). Perly took one look at me, and planted her paws on the side of my leg, her tail wagging fast enough to fall off her. The decision wasn’t hard. 

She has a wall-eye on the left side, but she’s definitely a party animal, regardless of that. She’s smaller than Rem, who now looks huge beside her, but she is a sweet-natured animal who took 48 hours to settle in, then decided to show us she knew how to break the rules. Rem pretends to be annoyed by her, but he has been more active since she showed up. Estela, the older lady currently living in this house took to her right away. 

Perly didn’t take long to settle in. Painted portrait to follow … later.

So many losses in one year, with Punky (probably) to follow soon. I don’t usually get excited about the end of a year, since essentially calendars are somewhat arbitrary. But I’ll be glad to say goodbye to 2022, especially the second part of it.

Now for 2023. Thank you, but I don’t need to be warned that it could be worse than this year. In my seventies, I realise friends and relatives can leave the world at any moment. But it would be nice if there was a slight reduction in next year’s body count. 


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.