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Making Tracks

November 30, 2020

A couple of months ago, my friend Ixchel introduced me to the old train route that used to pass through San Juan Tlacotenco, a village sited close to a thousand feet above our town of Tepoztlan. We’re always looking for new places for a hike, and this extended loop proved fascinating to both of us. The railroad never made it to Tepoz, only to San Juan, but it ran until the 1990s, when the rails and sleepers were torn up. The trackway, though, was preserved as a rough road half-paved with small pieces of limestone that had once kept the sleepers in place. It passes through San Juan, on past the village cemetery, and still further to the city of Cuernavaca 17 kilometres away. Or, in the other direction, goes 94 km to Mexico City.

A section of the trackway blasted through an outcrop of volcanic rock.

Because trains can’t climb a steep gradient, train tracks have to be laid in extensive loops in mountainous areas. As a result, to walk, cycle or drive (yes, it’s drivable) along the route means you’re never quite sure what’s around the next bend. Our first couple of expeditions were pleasant strolls between trees arching above us. Later on, we decided to drive the parts we’d already walked, parking the aging Ford Explorer I use once we found a decent space for reversing, and continuing on foot to enjoy open sky, with vistas reaching for miles to the south and west, amid baking hot afternoon sunshine. 

A vista of distant mountains, and a loop in the modern intercity highway to Mexico City.

As we walked, it was hard not to notice how the railroad engineers of the late 1800s had addressed the variable terrain. In places, we’d be on high embankments, while in others, we’d be walking across small bridges that spanned gullies and stream-beds. And a lot of the time, we’d be walking through gaps blasted out of the original rock. There are no big wooden trestle bridges, as you see in old movies, but a lot of earth had to be piled up and packed tight in certain places.

Perhaps passengers of long ago noticed nothing of this construction, noting only the occasional panorama of hills and plains. But for pedestrians today, it’s easy to grasp. At some points where rock was blasted with dynamite, modest overhangs still provide shelter for snakes, bugs and things that we prefer not to disturb. In others, we can look 10 or 15 metres down an almost sheer drop, or into a gap where a stream long ago carved out a groove in the hillside. It’s plain that, with no trains passing through, trees have not had to be cut back radically, though the road seems to be maintained for the occasional vehicles that pass along it. If you’re in a car, and another one comes along, it can be hairy trying to find a space at the side that doesn’t give way to a drop-off, or to reverse until a wider piece of trackway opens up.

But I’m lastingly impressed by the sheer physical ingenuity and labour involved in cutting a way along the extensive hillsides. I’m also impressed by the huge quantities of explosives that were called for, and the amount of earth and rock to be moved.

Surveyors had to identify the optimal route, noting the obstacles along the way. Yes, there were steam-driven machines in the 1870s, and the construction trains themselves could carry cranes and boilers to generate steam power. Still, a lot of what was done had to be managed with muscle power by gangs of men. 

In one spot, I was impressed at the way chunks of blasted rock had been used to line the outside of an embankment preventing earth being washed away in the rainy season. At other points, we’d barely notice a very low parapet of a bridge (trains, being on rails, can’t drive off the sides) that told us the bushes to the sides masked a drop off. 

Rocks, many now tumbled, protect the side of an embankment.

The route that was cut had to be wide enough for at least one train, apparently only a few sections hosting double tracks. I described the San Juan train station a couple of posts ago, but I don’t doubt there were others, all needing staff. There would have been a signalling system, and a need for crews to cut back vegetation each year during and after the rainy season; and of course, at times, a need to repair whole sections of track that washed away. 

But mostly, the thing had to be built right in the first place. Putting in track in an area where soils were loose, or rocks were fractured, could lead to disaster.

I assume these skills still exist, but that they did so in the 1870s and 1880s is remarkable. Reliable infrastructure never comes cheap, and to observe how much had been constructed in just this one area clarified the efforts made under the long presidency of Porfirio Diaz to modernise Mexico. To see how it had been essentially abandoned after a century also gave pause for thought. 

Today, there are places along this walking route from which you can see the four-lane highway that has replaced the trains. That, too, needed huge investment, but it lacks the flexibility of a railroad. For me, there’s no romance in either giant trucks or intercity buses. 

Rail travel helped define the later part of the Industrial Revolution and the events of the 20th Century. As I mentioned in the recent piece on the surviving San Juan train station, I grew up with trains as a kid, and was ten or twelve years old before anyone I knew had flown on a jetliner. Trains are still preferred over air travel in the UK and Europe, since they’ll take you city centre to city centre, and without the same need for extreme security as occurs in airports. 

But Mexico before the 1970s had few cities over a hundred thousand population, and trains therefore linked a lot of smaller places, bringing about growth in population as well as encouraging manufacturing or larger farming operations as the chance to ship out goods and food presented itself. That huge effort is commemorated by people who maintain train museums in the cities of Puebla and Cuautla, but it isn’t well appreciated by the general population. 

People who can recall Mexican passenger trains tell me they were slow and uncomfortable, and they’re rarely missed. There are some commuter and tourist trains around, and a new line, the Maya Train, is being built in the south of the country. But buses are the main way we mostly travel between cities, and aircraft replace these for longer hauls. 

Whatever – I’m glad at least this segment of the old rail system is left for people to explore and to expand on with a little imagination. And I do wonder if, with all his egotism and other faults, any Mexican leader has yet equalled what old Porfirio Diaz accomplished a century and more ago.

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Where I Live

November 12, 2020

“I don’t like going to Amatlan,” my friend Ana said to me once. “It’s ugly.” I don’t entirely agree with her, but I’d never tell people to come for the architecture. It’s pleasant enough on a quiet sunny afternoon, but not much more than that. It occurred to me last night that I rarely write about the village except in passing, so, I took a few pix of it today. You can judge its charms for yourself.

The community is proud of its spirit of independence, and often disdainful of the local municipality, Tepoztlan, of which it’s a reluctant part. The association, I’m told, goes back around fifty years, which means village elders recall a time when the town had no influence at all in local affairs. There is a specific and unique ambiance to Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl, ugly or not. But what did strike me, as I tried to frame shots, is that in every one there were electrical and phone cables strung on poles: it’s impossible to take pictures here without them. One day, we might bury them, but it’s not a priority.

Another thing is that any long shot inevitably includes the surrounding mountains, which are what draws most outsiders. Being this close to verdant cliffs and steep-sided hills, with the black vultures circling around the peaks, underlines that Amatlan isn’t an urban community, but one that nature could reclaim if it was abandoned for a year or two. During the bitter 1910 Revolution, the people did pull out for some years, but they re-established it in the 1920s. The church was restored, a few old houses were fixed up and others were replaced, and over the next ninety years, it slowly grew. 

It now has around 1,200 residents, some of them weekenders who come a dozen times a year to their vacation homes on the edges of the community. On its fringe, it has a half-dozen hotels and upscale spas, while the village proper has a dozen abarrotes or grocery-cum-variety stores; a couple of specialty stores such as a hardware outlet and a barbecued chicken vendor; and a bunch of places selling traditional Mexican foods like quesadillas and pozole, the locally popular meat-broth-with-maize. Kuna, a recent addition to the village’s gastronomic options, offers more European-style foods, since the owner is German, and learned to cook that way.  Otherwise, apart from two local schools and a sports field, that’s largely all we have in a dozen blocks.

Coming into the village, there are a couple of possible routes for a driver, but outsiders follow the obvious one. Vehicles pass walled homes, so that there’s a sense of passing through an entrance gateway.

The main road leading into the village.

Then, on the other side of this short section, there’s the plaza civica to the right, and to the left a slightly raised platform where a small market is held on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The grate on the left in the photo below is to catch rainwater, since the street behind it (not shown in this shot) slopes down to it; without it, there’d be hazardous summer torrents to manage.

The paved plaza civica is to the left of the red parked car, and is surrounded by trees.

The plaza civica is famous for its statue of the plumed serpent, Quetzalcoatl. On Saturdays, a group of local re-enactment enthusiasts dance here to a simple, rhythmic tune, often for hours. People have varying degrees of belief in Quetzalcoatl’s actual continuing divinity, but there are definitely true believers among them. 

Quetzalcoatl, a little overshadowed by his protective tree. The altar in the front is used for flowers or incense.

Past the plaza civica, the Abarrotes Eben-Ezer stands out as a  modest but inescapable landmark. I seldom go in, since it’s quite small, but on weekends, it serves pulque, a traditional local hooch that has never impressed me, but which draws the customers.

Groceries on weekdays, and pulque as well on weekends.

The biggest and best-stocked store in the village, the Punto de Encuentro (Point of Encounter or Meeting Place), is where I usually buy eggs or bottled water. Felipe, who manages this family business, spent time out of the country, and has a sly wit that includes making risque jokes in English. His father, the store’s founder, was gunned down a short time after I moved here in 2010, an event that convinced me this isn’t a Mexican Shangri-La. Felipe is trying to extend the present store (to the left in the picture), but he can only do this in stages, as cash becomes available.

The Punto de Encuentro, the village’s largest grocery store.

Right opposite the store is the village cemetery, the Jardin de Descanso, or Garden of Rest. It was a busy place during the recent Days of the Dead, but it’s never a neglected site. People in this village treasure the tombs of their parents and forebears.

The gates of the village cemetery. The entrance steps are concealed in this shot, but they’re there.

A hundred meters or so up, the street makes a slight jog at the Gregorio Quintero primary school, named for a local writer who died a few decades ago. Right now, with the pandemic, it’s not used, but its striking mural of Prince Ce Acatl Topiltzin, the human prototype of Quetzalcoatl who was born just outside the village, is always worth a second glance. It’s my favourite piece of Mexican street art.

The Gregorio Quintero primary school is quiet in these days of pandemic.

The next picture was taken looking down the main street, not up, back to the primary school. The two guys in the middle were sober, but were goofing around as they walked up, so they look a little drunk. The building to the right is the Ayudante’s office, our ayudante being the sub-mayor for the village. Any time the community is upset about something, everyone gathers here to listen to local politicians’ excuses.

The main street in Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl.

Finally, the point where the combi micro-bus stops is the local church of Santa Maria Magdalena. It actually stops at the plain back wall of the church, which I didn’t photograph because it’s … well, it’s plain. The photo here shows the perimeter wall at the side, the church tower, the bandstand (most local churches have a bandstand), and a cascade of bougainvillea. People never tire of informing each other that the bright ‘flowers’ of bougainvillea are actually coloured leaves, or bracts, the actual flowers being small and white. Either way, the stuff grows all over the village, and will take over a whole garden quite easily if not regularly pruned.

The church of Santa Maria Magdalena.

And that’s the village. My house partly overlooks the church, a couple of hundred meters away from it, up a small laneway. Just turn right when you see Ysrael’s cement water cistern, the one with the cool cement version of Quetzalcoatl on it (though he insists he messed it up), and my gate is the metallic green one. 

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An Old Train Station

November 5, 2020

Trains were always around when I grew up. My home town in south-east England had – and still has – nine train stations on two lines within its municipal borders, and there was a train marshalling yard a few hundred yards from my primary school. The relative absence of passenger trains in Canada and the US always struck me as a noticeable lack.

A preserved steam engine from the early 1900s at the train museum in Cuautla, Morelos.

Mexico was slow to get going on railroads, and only had its first passenger line, from Mexico City to the port of Veracruz, operational in 1873. By then, the UK and the US had had trains for over four decades. Further, Mexico abandoned inter-city passenger lines in the second half of the 20th Century, only later realising their usefulness as the drawbacks of the internal combustion engine became progressively more apparent.

As an alternative to some of the more ankle-risking paths round here, Ixchel and I have recently been walking sections of old rail track above the town of Tepoztlan. The rails and almost all the sleepers are gone from it, with mostly broken limestone making up the trail. But it’s used by cars and a few trucks, and since it climbs at a shallow gradient, it doesn’t make for an arduous afternoon’s hike. The mountains rise up to the north, but at certain points, there are vistas over many miles to be seen to the south.

Along the former train tracks outside San Juan Tlacotenco.

The village of San Juan Tlacotenco is reached today by car or bus, the road corkscrewing up hundreds of feet above what is now the far larger town of Tepoztlan. But in 1897, when the rail line from Mexico City to the town of Cuernavaca (the Cuaunahuac of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano) was extended to this region, San Juan got the station, not Tepoz. Perhaps the decision was based on the relative importance of the two places, or the difficulty in building the line down the mountainside in that area. Our hikes had already shown us how much had to be done to create the line, blasting through rocks, spanning wide gulleys, and cutting into hillsides that could produce mudslides in the rainy season. Nineteenth Century infrastructure called for a lot of backbreaking labour and vast amounts of earth-moving. Nature has reclaimed the sides of the trail, but it’s still easy to imagine old steam trains, and the later diesels, chugging along the track.

We’d already been surprised on our walk by the village cemetery, picturesquely sited under steep hills, and feeling somehow busy after the Days of the Dead had filled it with marigolds and candles. Satisfied with photos we’d taken, and having compared the styles of grave compared to the types closer to where we live, we followed the track’s old loop past the fringes of the village, and back to the roadway where we’d parked our aging Ford Explorer. 

The long, red wooden shack seemed insignificant at first, until we noticed some hand-painted signage on it, and a pair of big, rusting wheels in front of it. We then realised it was the old station, abandoned since at least 1997, when this section of the line was torn up. We began taking photos, happy to have found what seemed to be a modest relic of a different time. A relic, too, that perhps wouldn’t last that many more years. Part of it had become a small grocery store, while another section had a sign indicating (I thought) that it was a photographic studio.

The former wooden station for El Parque, still in its traditional red paint.

Outside, weathered signs said the station was at 2,306 metres of altitude (7,576 ft), and 91.7 kilometres (56 miles) by rail from Mexico City. I’d seen such data at the train station museum in the nearby city of Cuautla, so I assume it was usual to include it.

We were about to move on, when a woman with a small child, who was at the edge of a sports field opposite the relic station, remarked to us that there was a museum to be seen. Without being asked, she went to fetch the grocery store owner, who opened the “photographic studio,” which I then realised was the one-room museum. Inside were mementoes of local soccer victories, and also a bunch of photos of trains going back a century. 

Photos on the little museum’s walls.

One that caught my attention showed federal troops at the station in Cuernavaca, presumably preparing to fight Emiliano Zapata’s revolutionaries. That period, with its dreadful upheavals, violence and sacrifice, fascinates me, and it’s still celebrated every year. Many of the most famous photographic images from the time show people on or beside trains, even though the decade of conflict actually degraded the rail system quite severely. Some Mexicans argue it never truly recovered, even after being nationalised in 1937.

Soldiers around 1910, waiting to board a train in Cuernavaca. Troops are lined up at the right.

The station, for reasons we didn’t discover, was called El Parque – the Park. The Chichinautzin nature preserve is all around San Juan, but that wasn’t formally created until 1947. The site was, however, always surrounded by trees and hillside farmland. One day, perhaps, we’ll find out why that name was selected.

Meantime, a hike we’d started simply for basic exercise had put us in touch with a fading but still remembered piece of Mexico’s history. It’s one of the benefits of living here that there are odd quirks and relics of human endeavours to be found all over the place. Some are fragments of ruins, signs of the ancient cultures of Mexico. And others are reminders of people and changes that have happened far more recently, but which are still treasured in memory.

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Rock Solid

November 1, 2020

As a child, I lived in Essex, in the part of England called East Anglia, which had been scoured almost flat by glaciers millennia before my ancestors moved there. Accordingly, the landscape wasn’t exciting, and when I saw pictures of mountains or even just rocky outcrops, I was intrigued. I would tell my parents I wanted “to see a rock,” but they couldn’t seem to grasp what I meant. 

Today, I live in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, the landscapes of which have been heaved up by eruptions, magma movements and other seismic events over millions of years. I’m almost never out of sight of bare rock on a cliff-face or of a fallen boulder close to a roadway. On my walks, I’ve found fossilised corals impressed in sedimentary rocks from an ancient seabed, lifted up long ago by geological action. I once brought a large sample home as a garden ornament: alas, in my absence for three years, it was used for mundane purposes, and much of the coral pattern is now worn off. 

There are still trace impressions of ancient coral on this rock I found.

The actual volcanic rock around here is a highly viscous lava, which when it erupted trapped many small pockets of gas (vesicles is the correct term). Today, these give the rock a spongy look, though of course it’s brittle, not soft.

During my aforementioned absence, somebody planned to build a house beside mine, and had a mound of rocks delivered for construction purposes. However, they lost interest or ran out of cash, so the pile became a haven for wildlife. For a time, there was a colony of squirrels in there. Today, it might be home to snakes or crawling critters of various kinds, so it’s left alone. 

Now, when I drive out of our garage, I need to reverse then make a half-turn. I often use a flat patch of ground just below the rock-pile for this. However, two weeks ago one of the rocks fell, and effectively blocked me from doing this. I tried moving it, but several efforts only shifted it a foot or so the side. It probably weighs as much as I do, and I couldn’t move it more than that.

The errant rock. It might look innocuous to you, but you didn’t try lifiting it like I did.

This reminded me how much we use rock here in central Mexico. The walls of this property are made from it, as are those of many other houses. The roadway up from the street consists of rock set in cement, and that’s survived ten rainy seasons without deterioration.

In many other places, brick is a more usual facing or structural material for a building. Even here, cinderblock is popular as a cheap means to construct a house. But inevitably, basic rock shows up at some point, even if it’s only in the paving of the street outside.

The downstairs wall of the house and the roadway outside, are made of cement-set volcanic rock.

This has been the case for thousands of years. Lava rock especially, while it’s heavy, can be chipped and shaped. Pyramidal and stepped-level remains from preHispanic cultures use it, sometimes on a grand scale. Farmers employ it to build loose walls that demarcate their fields, and sometimes, low remnant walls are a sign of an ancient perimeter for a sacred enclosure. The sense of continuity between then and today’s construction is part of the appeal of life in this area.

What always strikes me, though, is the problem I had in shifting the fallen rock: the stuff is heavy. I’ve seen rocks placed on a hillside that weigh well over a ton, yet farmers were able to shift them with the aid of their sons or neighbours. Rock know-how is something that has persisted down through the ages. And rocks are a surprisingly common component of economics in the construction industry. 

My conclusion? Just that it’s so easy to overlook something that isn’t manufactured. Until I came here, anything not man-made always seemed like a lazy short-cut. But some knowledge is passed down through the generations without anyone really noticing that it’s ancient. I don’t know how ecologically sound it is to move loads of rock around on diesel trucks, but the stuff is certainly durable, and connects a building to its underlying environment.

Still, I wish I could figure out how to move the reversing-space boulder. I suppose I could pay a couple of neighbours to lift and roll it. But now that it’s made me reflect to much on how the substrate of the ground here is used to much and so effectively, that almost feels like ingratitude. After all, my very young self asked for rocks: I shouldn’t complain that he finally came to them.

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A Lack of Naughty Forebears

I have little concept of most of my ancestors. After all, they were all dead before I showed up, except for one grandmother and my parents. They might have included a really interesting bunch of people, but my sense of them has always been otherwise. I’ve heard very few tales of people who were nonconformists or exceptional individuals. And I’ve had a lifelong desire to avoid them all, which might explain why I left England for Canada, then Canada for Mexico.

Marigolds for sale on a street in town.

So, here are all my neighbours putting out marigolds. Why does that concern me, you wonder? Because we’re coming up on the Days of the Dead, and the bright orange flowers are believed to be visible to the deceased in the dark. People put them out so the dead can find their way to the altars with offerings of sweet things and more flowers. And they’re all over town right now. 

A trail of marigolds leaning into a restaurant in Tepoztlan.

Sarcasm about my forebears aside, I’ve always been fascinated by the different notions about death and the dead that the Protestant world in which I grew up had from the place where I now live. A lot of horror movies make marginal sense here, because the dead are assumed to be hanging around anyway. In my upbringing, we feared ghosts, vampires and zombies, and our scariest movie villains weren’t alive in a conventional sense. We wanted the dead to remain inert, and preferably absent. Here, you at least invite them for dinner once a year.

This country still has a fascination with the ouch-y forms of human sacrifice once practiced from coast to coast. There used to be a theory that the Maya, at least, didn’t kill captives, but that turned out to be false. People before Columbus’ time expected to kill, and to be killed if captured. It was an honourable death, they believed, even if it was a nasty one. And there are lots of temples around whose primary purpose was for sacrificing people in order to sustain and nourish the gods with extracted hearts. 

The half covert pride in this is quite palpable. Quite possibly, a person’s fifteen-times-great grandad was sacrificed for the benefit of some now-forgotten deity. Cool, right? Yeah, I guess.

Coco did pretty well in capturing the essence and traditions of the Days of the Dead. (image: Disney Pixar).

I have tried with the Days of the Dead. There’s one day here for relatives and friends, and a second for lost children. So, I’ve lit candles and contemplated the memory of now-dead aunts and uncles I encountered. But I always end up thinking they were boring. The English middle classes could go to war (my uncles and great uncles did), and keep their most exciting and traumatic memories to themselves. Meanwhile, they avoided any appearance of creative originality. 

Where’s the fun in that?

Thus, I always end up shrugging, blowing out the candles and going to bed. I remain convinced that if you’re dead, it’s because you don’t belong here any more. Popping back for an annual visit and to sip a glass of tequila left on an altar seems out-of-place. 

The Tepoztlan cemetery is Party Central on November 2. BYOB, plus a few candles and some flowers, and you’re set.

Maybe, therefore, I’m a bit too like my uptight forebears. I need to drop my skepticism, and get drunk with a deceased wastrel, or at least someone who broke a few of the rules.

There was great uncle Willie, who did something bad with part of the family finances, but he did it without flair or success. They caught him, and he did time for it. Still, I suppose he’s the best option I have. Maybe I’ll buy some marigolds tomorrow, and put them out for him, with his name written on the pot. 

If he doesn’t show up, or can’t get to Mexico because of the pandemic, I’ll at least have some pretty flowers to brighten the patio.

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Snake Alive!

October 19, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did I mention snakes are strong?

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

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

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

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

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

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Bird-brain

October 7, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Soggy Socks

September 29, 2020

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

Yes, it’s wet here. 

Misty rainclouds drifting along the hilltops this morning.

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

Worst of all, my socks won’t dry.

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

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

Damp, anxious socks await the arrival of sunlight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bovine Disbelief in Motor Vehicles

September 26, 2020

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

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

Cows hanging out on the road into our village.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mexican Back Power

September 17, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever the explanation, I’m impressed.