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Frightened Tribe

January 6, 2022

I rarely write here about expats, the principal minority tribe in my community. Since many of these are friends or acquaintances, I’m cautious gossiping about them in a public blog. They might not like me afterwards, after all.

There are a few Canadians here – about as many as I have fingers, maybe less. There are also people from various parts of Europe. However, five-sixths of expats, roughly, are Americans. For years, since most of them are people who will quote books they’ve read, I assumed they all fit the generic liberal profile: soft left in politics, supporting gay rights, reduced racism, and kindness to animals. They all seemed to like each other’s Facebook posts.

When Donald Trump was elected, I tried to understand what was happening in the US, and began spending time on conservative websites. I also discovered that while they were mostly less vocal than the liberals, there were a number of Republicans here. This seemed superficially hypocritical, since the last US administration was trying to keep Mexicans and Latinos generally out of its borders, yet its supporters felt okay about moving south. But they point out that their presence here is legal: they didn’t come over the border in the night.

B and I have spoken a lot in the past few months. Mostly, he speaks, and I listen. His partner died not long ago, he’s lonely and sad, and some of his anger at the US left possibly stems from that. He needs to vent. Unlike with a right-wing website though, I can make replies and ask him questions. He has worked in the US political system, and has interesting insights.

Mostly what I hear about, though, is the sheer panic happening across the US right now. M believes in ‘the steal,’ but is also lucid in describing popular anger in his home country. Other American friends tell me of their own fear and anger at what M’s side want, even if he draws back from advocating violence to settle the issue. But the endless talk of civil war has an audience. Or rather, two mutually suspicious audiences.

We’ve all read endless punditry on these topics, and it would be tedious to rehash all that here. But I do have a quirky lens here in Tepoztlan on what is currently tearing the US apart, and it’s sad and darkly fascinating. 

Like any Canadian (or Brit), I’ve always been wary of America’s power and its lack of interest in what other countries think of it. I’ve also had many happy experiences visiting the country, and like many people from there. However, I do find the old line that no American ever leaves their own country, wherever they live physically, is true in very many cases, and I have great difficulty persuading some Americans not to fear either social democrats or single-payer medical systems, having been around both all my life. Last month I spent several futile minutes trying to convince one less-educated man that I don’t get my opinions from either the New York Times or the Washington Post. That my views might have been informed and nourished outside the US, over many years, was too unsettling or bizarre a notion for him to handle. He ‘knew’ only corrupt Democrats had opinions like mine.

I try to stay level-headed as these things erupt. Americans have to solve their own problems, though some I encounter here are deeply distressed that their country is no longer a paragon among the democracies. I sometimes become the therapist, the outsider listening to people’s anxieties, but of course I have no prescriptions to offer. I hear about stupid family arguments, and I hear quotes from media columnists who provide excellent analysis but no plans of action. Mexico is a place of sanctuary from all this for these expats, but not an impregnable one. The strife travels across borders at the speed of an email.

And hardly nobody in the US seems able to imagine, or even necessarily to want, an effective bridge-builder between the sides. As B keeps reminding me, the anger is strong. He just can’t tell me where things will end up if and when it bursts out in full strength. After coffee and talk, we head off to do our day’s shopping or to meet friends, and the mild winter sunshine makes it seem to me like the problem is less likely to affect me than I know it eventually will. After all, it will take a lot of hurt and struggle to drain the resentments that are simmering just a single frontier away.

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Urban duendes

December 30, 2021

Victoria has had a rough week. She is terrified of loud noises, and since Christmas Eve we’ve had masses of explosive rockets let off. Opponents of these things are now pointing out how much air pollution they produce, but so far, it’s not having an effect. Vicki responds to the night rockets by crawling under my bed, after demanding to be let in with a sharp bark.

My friend Lucero, Victoria’s original rescuer, painted this portrait. I’m biased, but other people agree the likeness is amazing.

A few weeks back, she began a kind of rasping sound, like a cough or excessive throat clearing. At first I was afraid she’d tried to swallow something that was blocking her airway, but that wasn’t it. To Luis our trusted vet we went, and while he suggested it could be just a bronchial infection, he was pretty sure it was due to an incipient heart condition. At age thirteen, she’s into things like heart conditions. She’s slowing down, and a little deaf, but she’s still good company.

So, we tried antibiotics and a cough-soothing medicine, which had no effect. Wednesday, she and I went back to Luis, who checked Vicki and gave me a prescription for an echocardiogram. This has to be done in Cuernavaca, a half-hour drive away from Tepoztlan. I called the number once or twice, but no-one picked up. I had been thinking of going for some food shopping at the Walmart in Cuernavaca (their selection of imported foods is surprisingly varied for Mexico), and I noticed the veterinary clinic was a few hundred metres down the street from the mega-store. I decided to head off and find the clinic on foot, book and appointment then stock up on decent tea and some other stuff the same afternoon.

In central Mexico City, all the streets are identified by signs on the street corners. Not so other parts of Mexico. Not long ago, my friend Ixchel and I headed off to visit a hacienda on the far side of the city of Cuautla, and despite using a GPS on her phone, we became completely lost. I even got a traffic ticket, making an iffy turn back whence we’d come.

Cuernavaca has some signs, but not many. I decided to take a bus there, not wanting to be looking for an unfamiliar place while driving in traffic. Then, when I took Vicki in, I wouldn’t be looking for an unknown location.

Now, the tent where they sell bus tickets for Cuernavaca, next to a ramp leading to the main highway, was gone when I got there. The ramps are under reconstruction, and there was no sign to indicate where I should go. It’s sort of assumed here that someone has told someone who’s told you how things have changed. That’s simply how it works (or often, doesn’t work). Mexicans are highly conversational, and people just get to know stuff.

There is, however, a kind of duende (Spanish for an elf or pixie) who looks after the lost in Mexico. Invisible and inaudible, it shows up when it wants to, which might be an hour after you got lost, or three minutes. It somehow distracts you from your confusion, and indicates the place you need. Perhaps, in Mexican folklore, there’s a way of calling one, but I don’t know the method, beyond feeling and looking clueless. 

In this case, I walked 200 yards to the ticket office for the bus line I would use to go to Mexico City. A helpful young woman, no doubt a relative of a duende, or its accomplice, pointed across the street to where people sat in a previously abandoned storefront, which had no sign. I thanked her profusely, and after ten minutes, my bus came.

The clinic I needed in Cuernavaca is in a street named Legislative Power. Since this is a direct extension of Domingo Diez Avenue, which I know well, and I had the street number, it was just a matter of counting down numbers till I arrived. 

Or not. Not only do Mexicans eschew street identification and signage, they’re also not big on street numbers. You will see no. 221 come after no. 119, and figure no. 129 is a few doors down. Gotcha! No, the numbers re-start two blocks further along. I had carefully written directions from Luis, and I’d checked Google Earth too, but what I had written down didn’t translate into the ground-level reality.

Now, when you’re lost in Mexico, which is a frequent thing for Mexicans, not just gringos, you ask a local. People here love to help strangers, and the directions you get are sometimes even accurate. So, I started at a corner taco joint, figuring people at such a place must know their own neighbourhood. These women directed me further up towards Walmart, asserting that my cross-street was two or maybe three blocks away.

Four blocks on, I decided to tried a guy in a car parts store. After all, I figured, such people must drive their own cars, so they must know local streets. He suggested I had to go up through three streetlights, or about six blocks. I thanked him, and decided to hail a cab.

Ten minutes later, in busy, daylight Cuernavaca, no cab had come by, so I started walking again. On the very next block. I suddenly spotted a small sign advertising Science Diet dogfood. and realised I was at a veterinarian’s. I’d found the clinic! I’d been duende‘d!

The appointment made, I hoped on a combi microbus to get on to Walmart. Here I misjudged how far I’d walked, since I needed to get off again after two blocks. The driver, used to lost gringos, just shrugged. No duende was needed in this case, of course.

In line with the day, when I finally got to where the bus picks up passengers for Tepoztlan, it turned out to be closed for renovations. Probably it was another duende who helped me here as I walked grumblingly to where I could get a taxi. One of the older, less comfortable buses that go to my home town came along – I didn’t even know their route came through that area – so I clambered on it, and withstood twenty-five minutes of shaken bones without further complaint.

Thus ended what felt rather like an epic afternoon, with multiple inconveniences. I still have no idea what a duende might look like, if one were to appear before me. Perhaps they just look similar to average Mexicans, like the girl at the bus-ticket office. 

But, if you’re ever lost in Mexico, don’t forget the duendes. As long as you respond with noises of gratitude and relief, they seem to be happy they helped you. 

I just hope they aren’t dog-phobic, and that Vicki scares them off. Just in case I get us lost again when we go for the test on Tuesday, and I need help. She doesn’t need another bad week after this one.

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Dog Treats

December 22, 2021

‘Tis the season for feasting. And no-one believes in this more sincerely than my alpha dog, Rem.

I was blinking at the light this morning when I glanced out of the bathroom window. I’ve never understood why the house’s builder made this a large picture-window as opposed to the usual privacy-protecting piece of glass, but it does give me a fine view of the dogs’ corral beside the house. And I noticed there was a plastic bag there. This seemed unusual, since we get almost no real wind at this time of year, and nothing is likely to blow onto the property over the perimeter fence, apart from the occasional piece of ash from someone’s backyard fire.

“I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”

I forgot about the bag while I fed the dogs, checked email and went through the rest of my usual morning routine. Finally, I went into the kitchen to make my own breakfast, and couldn’t remember what I’d done with the loaf of bread I bought yesterday. It wasn’t in the fridge. And after running through the list of possible locations, it dawned on me that I’d left the loaf on the kitchen counter overnight.

Now, Rem has made plain to me the rules of the kitchen many times. Simply, if it’s in a cupboard, or the fridge, or out of his reach, it’s mine. If it’s accessible to a large-to-medium dog (him, for example), it’s his. Oatmeal, cheese, pecans, raisins – which he threw up, because grapes and raisins are toxic to dogs – and other stuff have often disappeared because I don’t follow the rules he laid down.

And at this point I recalled the bag in the corral.

Rem always asks to have any crumbs resulting from my slicing bread. So, when I reclaimed the bag, and menacingly shook it at him, he was excited because he thought I was giving him the crumbs left in it. You can’t, of course, punish a dog unless the dog knows what he’s being punished for, so all I could do was make the sort of threatening noises he interprets as “Human having a bad time, which is irrelevant to dogs.”

What I couldn’t understand was how Rem could have eaten an entire loaf – I found no leftover crusts – without harmful consequences. Dogs here often get tortillas, which are made from maize, as either a treat or (more sadly) a substitute for proper dogfood, but I’ve never known one to eat that much wholewheat bread at one time before. Clearly, Labrador-crosses in Mexico don’t suffer from gluten intolerance.

Later today, I was back at the bakery buying more bread, and the señorita in the shop smiled at my story of how this mutt had devoured an entire loaf. 

“I know the owner always wants to expand into new markets,” she grinned.

Maybe I should have asked if they’ll pay for Rem to be a model in an advertising campaign. After all (see photo above), he’s quite photogenic.

Somehow, though, I can’t see even good wholegrain bread replacing Dog Chow in the Mexican market.

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Attack of the Synthetic Reindeer

December 14, 2021

Across Mexico next week, the stockings will not be hung by the chimney with care. This, though, is not from a lack of interest in copying non-local seasonal traditions, but because there are hardly any houses with chimneys. In a few mountainous areas maybe, or in old residences, but not around where I live. But a lot of other Yuletide practices have migrated here.

We have just come through the extremely noisy festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe, preceded by the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8) and a few other excuses to let off explosive rockets. My poor dog Victoria cowers under a kitchen counter when this is happening, or perhaps under my bed. So, she has a few days’ break until the next fusillades go up. But here, Christmas Eve will not be a silent night, and the whole shindig doesn’t end until the Three Kings turn up on January 6. 

How do you scare your kid before Christmas? Make him pose by a huge teddy bear, of course! This is
somebody else’s child, no relative of mine. His mother snuck him in just as I clicked the shutter.

Apart from the rockets, though, and of course the specifically Catholic celebrations, a lot of what happens around Christmas is increasingly Walmart-ified. Tepoztlan has never recorded snow in its known history (not so Mexico City, however), so the synthetic reindeer and fake Christmas trees that are popping up all over always seem out of place. But Christmas was never a huge deal here until recent decades, the Virgin’s December 12 feast being more important, so there are no significant local Christmas traditions. Every house has a doll as a Christ-child substitute to take to the local church for blessing, and there’s rosca, a cake with candied fruit on the outside and plastic Baby Jesuses on the inside, that’s eaten on Tres Reyes (Three Kings); but nothing to compare to the roast turkey and trimmings of a Canadian or US Christmas. Often, Christmas dinner here has been barbecued chicken, or simply a regular daily meal.

A big synthetic tree in the zocalo of Cuernavaca, an hour from where I live.

I can’t dismiss the adoption of Christmas trees entirely, since driving to Mexico City from here entails going up in altitude and passing through pine forest. Pines are indigenous here. But reindeer? Most deer species in Mexico have retreated to uninhabited areas, and none are large. And of course, it’s highly unlikely if there have ever been sleighs seen crossing the sides of Mexico’s mountains, let alone flying around them. Ditto snowmen with carrot noses.

Mexicans I know blame US commercial influence for the changes, but Mexicans have embraced them. My friend Estela, an older lady who used to share a house with me, would always put up a wreath of plastic holly, which played tinkly carols, or at least their first lines, out of rhythm. Fortunately it had a volume control, and eventually, as Estela often came home to find the awful sound turned off, she got the hint. Electronic bleeping will never be festive in my book, and I couldn’t see why it was in hers.  Probably, she was just following a growing fashion, not expressing a preference, and I think she was surprised to find how much I disliked the sound.

A luminous reindeer in the zocalo of Cuernavaca. Notice the sad lack of a red nose.

So far, though, I’ve yet to see a Santa ho-ho-ho-ing in a department store, so some things have stayed north of the Rio Grande. Nor has the festival cut itself off from its religious roots, the way it has in most large cities. Mexicans have always been up for having fun at a religious fiesta, after all.

I just wish on behalf of Victoria, and myself as well, that the *&^%ing rockets would suddenly become unavailable. Just for about …. oh, three weeks or so. 

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Those Guys

November 19, 2021

A question I’m asked by all my friends in Canada or the US at some point is, “How do you deal with the drug gangs in Mexico?” The topic received fresh emphasis on November 5, when two men were murdered (‘executed’ was the preferred media phrase) on a beach close to Cancun. Tourists hid out in their hotels, having dodged (or not) bullets from the assassins’ guns.

The origins of drug gangs in Mexico go back many years, and the details of their history are often foggy: criminal gangs don’t issue press releases when they select a new boss, or carry out a successful hit. There’s no question they grew in prominence and viciousness as a result of the misbegotten ‘War on Drugs’ that began 15 years ago, and the utter failure of that initiative provides a tragic case study in how shaping anti-crime initiatives according to political perceptions is a good way to get huge numbers of people killed.

Those of us who live in and around the town of Tepoztlan are aware of the killings. One or two tabloid newspapers sold in the town square and elsewhere usually feature a blood-soaked corpse on the front page, often with a bitter pun for a headline. And, to add a Freudian erosand-thanatos twist, a half-naked young woman beside it.

The city of Cuernavaca, around 25 kilometres from here, has gang-related murders. My friends and I hear or read about then, and we don’t assume we’re immune, or that the violence won’t come here. But we also have a well-grounded sense of immunity.

The first thing to remember is that, while the Cancun shootings were terrifying for tourists caught in the crossfire, the targets were strictly members of one gang who were pushing the understood limits of what’s allowed. Why the attacking gang’s heads chose to spook visitors to Mexico, who not only bring in significant revenue, but are often their customers as well, I can’t explain, but I doubt the error will be repeated in the near future. It was simply too stupid.

Openly defying the gangs is dangerous, but it’s still a fact that if you avoid the gangs, the gangs avoid you. (My one encounter with extortion, The Kidnappers, posted on August 11, wasn’t gang-related). I read all the time that this or that state or area is now gang-controlled, but foreigners are the least likely people to be directly affected. Your hotel’s owner might be paying protection to a gang, but as the guests, you won’t know this. Our money is always welcome, and even poorer gringos here are usually getting Social Security or Canada Pension payments every month. Some of our money doubtless ends up in cartel hands, but it goes there indirectly. 

Tepoztlan is not a big city. The total municipality, with a dozen small surrounding communities, has rather more than 40,000 residents, but the town itself has under 16,000 residents. If you want to set up a gang, you need poor districts from which to recruit your enforcers and product distributors. Tepoz isn’t big enough for a gang, and it doesn’t have run-down barrios. There’s poverty here, but not desperate hopelessness.

Secondly, it’s a tourist town, an officially recognised Pueblo Magico where people go on the weekend to have a few beers and walk around gawking at the tree-covered mountains. Scaring off these people wouldn’t kill the town, but it would soon be very ill. It’d be a poor business strategy.

Beyond that however, there’s the community factor. This isn’t foolproof, nor has it always worked in other places. But in a small town like this, it’s not a matter of “six degrees of separation,” but two degrees. Your husband, wife or neighbour will know people who, even if just slightly, between them know nearly every other family in the town. For years, this meant the police force was free of significant corruption: you can’t solicit bribes from your cousin without being yelled at by your aunt and uncle. And if you threatened a cop with violence, you’d have to deal with his 78 relatives. Our police are now affiliated with the state police, alas, but the local cops are still all from here.

There are no homeless people, for similar reasons. Some relative will always give you a space in which to sleep, and a plate of tortillas and beans for lunch. My own village has a couple of obnoxious drunks, one of whom has a reputation for violence, but they have homes to sleep it off at the end of the day. 

On the flip side of this coin, for a gang, gringos are an unknown quantity. We might be living on just our modest pensions, or be over-the-hill hippies, and not worth hassling; or we could be people who have money and could react unpredictably after being shaken down. The gangs know their own, and they don’t really know us. So mostly, they just ignore us. 

Just how the gangs are integrated into the society makes sense when you live here, but can’t be explained by logical analysis. There are particular dynamics integral to Mexican society, and after you’ve lived here a while, you figure out how to navigate these. But because of our outsider status, we simply aren’t included in the criminals’ plans or activities. 

I’m sure we could easily provoke them; but again, we learn to watch the vibes. Someone might steal your wallet, or even your car. But no-one is likely to kill you deliberately. If you can’t learn to live between worlds – staying connected to your original nation or culture, but dwelling here – you shouldn’t move to Mexico. 

Obviously there are certain places where psychotic gang leaders have essentially displaced the government. Similarly, while I go to Cuernavaca a couple of times a month, and feel fine sauntering around, I leave before it gets dark. I listen to what people tell me about certain towns and specific communities, and I avoid them. I don’t invite risk.

But I’m never nervous being in Tepoztlan as dusk falls; in fact, it’s one of my favourite times of day. The town softly reverts to its old identity of a rural town off the main track, and a subtle magic creeps in as the lamps come on. There is no sense of threat, at least on a weeknight, when there are few visitors. I only head home when I start feeling guilty that my dogs expect to be fed around sundown, and I’m still half an hour from my door and their dog-bowls.

I won’t convince people that it’s safe here by writing a blog post. Two or three of my friends also blog about how peaceful their lives here are, and we all have readers who never want to believe us. Still, this is still a very livable part of the world, more threatened by the current round of rising food prices, and by house construction eating up farmland, than it is by violent gangs. 

Perhaps that will change, and the town will lose what it has at some point in the future. I always say I live in a very safe place, and I see no signs of potential violence. I usually make a joke of it, and say that because my application to join the local cartel was rejected on account of my age and physical condition, I’m highly unlikely to be targeted by a rival gang. But I’m being honest, regardless of there being no cartel here that I could ask for admittance.

Realistically, while I know there are fights and feuds in the town, and in my own village especially, I just don’t see myself being caught in a crossfire. Maybe struck by a lousy driver: yes, that’s possible, as is being hit by lightning in a summer storm or having a roof fall on me during an earthquake.

But lazy reporting on Mexico, which always concentrates on its violence, not its vibrant cultural scene nor its continuing sense of having a future, distorts the reality of living here. If I did feel worried about gang violence, I’d move. But I don’t.

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Hasta Pronto ?

November 9, 2021

The Tepoztlan town cemetery last week. It’s picturesquely located below the cliffs to the north of the town.

One of the things that I don’t much appreciate about the Days of the Dead is that it’s all about contacting your ancestors. Maybe it’s recent ones, like your parents or grandparents, but theoretically it might be about someone born before there were trains, telephones or effective toothpaste. Smelly ancestors, therefore.

I’ve never much wanted to meet my forebears. Nobody that I’ve heard about sounds particularly interesting. Going back well over a century, they were all from the English middle classes, whose main ambition was often to be come more middle-class than they were when they were born. And judging by the attitudes my own parents inherited, they’d be pretty scornful of someone like me, who has lived in three countries, and much of the time uses a language that isn’t English.

So, when everyone was partying in the village cemetery last week, I … wasn’t. After all, I just might have run into some discarnate predecessor of mine who would ask me questions he or she just wasn’t ready to have answered.

Mexicans, of course, can argue with or criticise their grandparents when they show up. “Why did you have to start an unending feud with the most aggressive family around here?” “What did happen with the cash from selling the old house?” “Was my little sister really dad’s, or …?”  But I know there’s no lost cash for me – according to family tradition there was some, but it turned out to be perpetually inaccessible – and I’m not embroiled in any feuds. 

Mostly, though, I’m just scared my deceased relatives would be snooty or boring. The Days of the Dead (nights, really, more than days) are a time for partying, and my ancestors were not, on the whole, party animals. A second glass of sherry was their idea of letting their hair down: consuming a third would have been cause for unending family scandal.

The big cemetery in town had a covered walkway put up at the entrance for the Days, with the word Bienvenidos (Welcome) on it traced in marigolds, the traditional flowers of this season (see photo above). Each time I passed it, I wondered whether this was meant to welcome back the deceased, or the still-living. I decided that since the deceased were already in residence, so to speak, it must have meant people currently walking around. 

Today, however, as the grave-visiting season ends, I saw the flowers had been renewed, and the wording had been changed. Hasta Pronto, it said. That’s the Mexican equivalent of “See you soon.” I keep wondering if it was someone’s idea of a joke, like the old undertaker’s crack about “We’re taking advance reservations.”

So, if I do end up expiring round here, perhaps I should first apply to be interred at one of the two cemeteries. If my own deceased relatives’ company doesn’t attract me (as it doesn’t), then people who can make sly jokes about human mortality are probably far more fun to chill with. 

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Fridaphilia Revisited

November 1, 2021

Frida Kahlo became such a ‘thing’ in the past couple of decades that writing about the thing itself became a thing. I had my own go at it two years ago. There is even a Frida Kahlo Corporation that has the rights to her name, works and reputation, including control of emojis that use her appearance.

As a professed Stalinist, she would have been horrified. Or, maybe, amused.

A traditional Stalinist Mexican fashion statement.

The painter, who died at 47 in 1954, has been a feminist icon, a scorned woman, a martyr to living life in a female body, an excessively celebrated artist, and (sometimes) an excessively denigrated one. A woman painter I know in my community becomes angry at the mere mention of her name, and starts listing female Mexican artists she thinks are better. Yet whatever is done to her, she doesn’t go away.

A Kahlo-themed restaurant in my town of Tepoztlan.

Looking for something other than the Days of the Dead to write about, it occurred to me I’d never done a Frida knick-knacks piece. Even in Tepoztlan, a town that has no known connection to her (she might have visited here once), you can fill your heart, stomach and shopping bag with Frida-ry. A woman whose paintings feature much Mexican folklore imagery has become a touristic tchotchke herself.

Mexico’s most famous unibrow, between straw sombreros and a generic female image.

I remember, some 16 years ago, being in Amsterdam on business, and visiting the house where Anne Frank had hidden with her family and friends until they were betrayed to the Nazis in 1944. Visitors could tour the offices of the small food products company her father Otto had founded, and the ‘Secret Annexe’ above, where they all hid out, then head to the bookstore and gift shop next door. My feelings then were somewhat similar to the way I look on Kahlo. I realised this martyred teenager had become a brand, a name at the centre of a marketing exercise that, I was assured, supports charitable activities and tries to combat antisemitism. 

I couldn’t argue with the aim, and visiting the house was a moving experience, even if the gift shop was … not. It was all far more affecting than Kahlo’s output of 143 known paintings, 55 of which feature her in some form. Anne’s short life and miserable death in Auschwitz trump anything relating to Frida’s injuries or her life with the emotionally insensitive Diego Rivera. Frida had choices: Anne did not.

The drawback with fame lies in how it depersonalises the famous. Anne Frank is an icon who became an institution, and Frida Kahlo has become a tea towel: 

Frida tea towels.

Ah well. At least Kahlo helps provide income for the people in town who sell the souvenirs. I assume she would have at least supported the proletariat making a little cash out of her face. Especially if the Frida Kahlo Corporation doesn’t earn a peso.

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Non-rolling Stones

October 24, 2021

The Dominican convent in our town, a Unesco World Heritage site, was built around 450 years ago. Surrounding it was a substantial wall enclosing a large square space, with small shrines at three of the corners, and the convent itself occupying the fourth one. There was substantial damage in the 2017 earthquake, and while repairs slowly progress, services are held in a temporary structure in the square space in front.

The rainstorm that hit the town yesterday was extremely heavy, and while the water raged down the streets, a part of the wall collapsed. No-one, I understand, was injured, since the street vendors in front of it had taken shelter. Someone drowned in the village of San Juan Tlacotenco, up in the hills, but the wall was the only loss in town.

Tourists saunter past the fallen 16th Century wall. The metal struts are from souvenir stands it crushed in falling.

Historical monuments are meant to stir our imaginations, but the small details often offer the most intriguing bits of information. Looking at the rubble this morning, I found myself pondering the construction methods of those times. It looks as if stones were rather randomly cemented into place, then a layer of cement was put over it to keep the rain out. Initially, it had a defensive function as well as a perimeter-defining one, since the local people were by no means won over to Catholicism for some decades, or even centuries. It must have been a hundred years after the construction before the handful of monks in the convent felt safe from the people around them. 

The inside of the courtyard, with one of the rumbling corn-ershrines to the left.

There was a reluctance to worship indoors once conversion occurred, since indigenous worship had always been done by means of parades and dances held under the open skies. Local people argued that a roof separated them from the God they were asked to worship, and so the Church decided there was no harm in continuing outdoor services. The large courtyard facilitated a Christian version of this. 

A church like the convent cannot last forever, and only the of the corner shrines is still largely intact. But seeing the fallen stones was a reminder of the impermanence of even the most solid seeming structures. I have walked past that wall a hundred times, and taken it for granted. 

But not today. 

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They’re Ba-a-a-ck

October 19, 2021

The first salvo of rockets from the village church went off at exactly midnight on Sunday, followed right after by a brief peal of the bells. Yes, it’s almost the Days of the Dead again. The deceased were warned by this summons that it’s time to come and visit us again, though how they know this when so many other rockets are let off over the course of the year, I can’t figure out.

I’ve always been iffy about my ancestors.  Most of them were undistinguished, so I doubt they’d be interesting to talk to. I would like to meet the few who took part in famous battles or other noted events, but that’s about it. I also wonder what a centuries-dead person might seem like if they came to talk. Personally, I’ve always thought it would be bad form to come back and haunt my descendants after I’ve gone, so I’ve not been one for seances or communion with tmy forebears

But here, picking up on a tradition the Mixteca (Aztecs to you and I) followed, people welcome their ancestors at the end of every October and at the start of November. The markets fill up with pots of marigolds for sale, and all the little variety stores stock up on candies and sweet things for the incorporeal visitors.

Marigold sellers in the Tepoztlan zocalo, a photo I took last year.

Marigolds, we’re told, are bright enough to guide the souls of the departed through the darkness to their old homes, or at least to a graveside party. There will be music in the cemeteries, myriads of candles, and people will keep all-night vigils.

Many people have seen Coco, the Disney movie which does an excellent job of presenting some of the traditions around the Days. I’ve watched it a couple of times, and marvel at how sympathetic the script is to its topic, even if it is a cartoon. It makes the celebrations much more elaborate than what I see here, but the intentions behind them are well captured.

The first stage of it all, that salvo of rockets I mentioned, happens right at the start of every October 18, and in this area of the country is particularly aimed at those who have no-one to greet them nor a place to visit. Then, on the following Saturday, prayers start in the local churches, and novenas (i.e., nine days of supplications) are made to remind the dead they are expected. Those who have died in accidents or tragedies, who are legion across Mexico, receive offerings on October 28 … and so on, and so on. One of the days in early November is particularly for children that have died.

People are not reticent about receiving guests at this time, though obviously individuals’ reactions and feelings vary. The deceased who have been gone for some time stir no strong emotions; the recently dead, or the lost children, can produce a different reaction. I’ve therefore always been cautious about intruding on the celebrations, even if the invitation is an open one. Once stepped on, cultural toes can be hard to un-step from.

None of my own forebears died anywhere close to this part of the world, so I don’t expect any humanoid spectrals to show up at this house. Still, next week I’ll buy some marigolds and light a votive candle, and leave the flame burning out of the breeze in the kitchen, with the outer door left open. Three of the dogs that have been companion animals here are buried in the garden above the house, and while the usual candies might not be appropriate, a few doggie treats left in a bowl on the retaining wall won’t go amiss. Even if they’re actually eaten by something other than ectoplasmic canine visitors in the night.

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The (Partly) Friendly Skies

September 25, 2021

I’m on a short trip to Toronto, my first in almost two years. Hallo again, my long-term domicile – I just came back here from Mexico City, via Houston Airport.

Most of the world’s airports shut down around 11.00 pm. Residents living nearby plead and lobby for the sound of jet engines to disappear while they sleep, and the authorities eventually comply. There are mostly cleaners and security guards around after that.

Benito Juarez Airport in Mexico City is a little different. Not many flights arrive after 11.00 pm but there are a few coming in from Asia and elsewhere. More to the point, an outgoing flock of jetliners take off before 6.30 am, so that people using these need to arrive very early in the morning. A simple alternative is to show up around midnight, and hang out there till flight-time.

Terminal One at Benito Juarez Airport, at 2.30 am.

My plane to Toronto was at 5.40 am, so I joined this strange nighttime community late on the evening before. I was surprised to find that several souvenir stalls stayed open till the small hours, while a couple of restaurants and some of the currency exchange windows never close. If you should ever become one of those stateless people stranded in an airport for months, Benito Juarez might be a decent place to do it. 

There’s always some activity, and the security staff are probably friendlier than you would find elsewhere. The noise level isn’t modest, especially since some of the floors are currently being ripped up and replaced at night in Terminal One. But Mexicans, who live with a lot of noise, can sleep through it till dawn, huddled down beside concrete pillars or on little-used stretches of corridor. I tried that, but ended up wandering from one end of Terminal One to the other in a slow, ambling stroll with my wheeled suitcase.

George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston was a very different proposition. I had to join a snaking line of people that took half an hour to reach the booths of the Homeland Security officers. Then, the terminals are connected by a driverless rail system, but getting from one to another still takes some minutes. With only ninety minutes between my flights, I started getting a little nervous. Then when I got to the security check needed before boarding. I became resigned to missing my second plane. It seemed chaotic, with different staff bawling about us getting rid of water bottles and such, like naughty kids in school. Most carry-on bags were being checked manually after the X-ray examination, and I finally got through, with my shoes back on my feet, just seventeen minutes before departure. 

I’d had no breakfast, so I stopped my headlong rush to my gate at a stand and grabbed a sandwich. Remember, there’s no real food for Economy-class passengers on flights under a few hours’ duration any more. Does C$18 seem a lot for an eight-inch sub? A friend of mine paid US$27 for not much more food, a few months ago, so I decided things were looking up in airportland as I resumed my headlong quick march to what seemed to be the furthest extreme of the building.

The last of the queue for my United Airlines flight was just going through the final ticket check when I reached the gate. I was third from the back of the line, as two other panic-stricken people ran up as I took my place, so I now felt I could relax.

But late-phase pandemic airline travel isn’t something to relax over.

After we were airborne, a man two rows up from me suddenly found from neighbours that he was on the wrong flight: he was supposed to be on a plane to Cincinnati. He was European, and tried to put a brave face on it, not demanding his rights, since Canada isn’t a dangerous destination, but obviously his day was being far more stressful than mine.

An hour or two along in the air, we hit serious and persistent turbulence, presumably related to a rainy storm-front further north. The pilot then came on the speaker system to tell us that ‘the company’ had instructed him to make a stop in Cincinnati to refuel, so he had to do this. When we had touched down, a young and serious-looking United Airlines representative came on, and approached the mis-planed passenger, to escort him off. And, I would guess, to sign some legal documents relating to the airline’s non-liability.

The pilot made various noises about the refuelling process and its paperwork, but there were skeptics among us passengers. Pilots always take off with an emergency fuel reserve in case of bad weather or a delay in landing. I imagine if the ticket-checkers can’t put you on the correct aircraft properly, the airline faces a potentially big lawsuit.

I had deliberately planned my day so that time wasn’t an issue, and when we took off around the hour the flight should have been at Pearson International in Toronto, I wasn’t really bothered. Other passengers, who might have missed connections, might have felt less anguine.

As I’ve often reflected before, while Mexico has the reputation of being inefficient and lazy, it seems to do quite well managing most of its transportation systems. I don’t want to dump on Texas, but … heck, yes, I do want to dump on Texas. A cramped, noisy security area with staff barking at the passengers doesn’t give anyone a sense that things are properly in hand. A truly wise airport administration would figure out a way to connect international travellers direct to ongoing flights so they don’t have to leave a secure area and need not be checked by customs officers or searched for illegal stuff in their luggage. The practice is common in a number of European airports: just stay within designated areas or sections, so you have never technically entered the country. Your security check where you boarded should be enough to keep everyone safe. And even if a further luggage check is called for, the whole passports performance for people who aren’t actually going into the US could be skipped entirely.

As for the cabin crew who directed a passenger onto the wrong flight … well, I imagine somebody’s employment prospects diminished after that. 

Not my problem, though. 

And at Pearson, the Customs and Immigration people had me through in under eight minutes, even with a check on my new ArriveCAN vaccination documentation. Nobody in the arrivals hall spoke in anything above a polite Canadian murmur.