The Gasman Cometh

May 7, 2020

One of the sounds that’s partly disappeared from our village is from trucks coming to sell  or buy things. I no longer, for example, hear the bread-truck every evening playing the bread-vendor song from a classic 1950 movie, because it isn’t allowed through the quarantine barricade. Similarly, the pick-up that comes round buying scrap metal such as old stoves, furniture, or even mattresses (for the springs) no longer shows up.

Everyone here cooks and heats water using propane. Given that electrical storms easily knock out the power, it’s helpful to have a means of cooking that isn’t depending on lightning-stunned cables. To supply the propane, trucks usually come by every half-hour or so, selling cylinders of it. However, the quarantine has changed that, and only two trucks a day are allowed in.

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The propane cylinder in position, with my water heater on the wall to the left.

Yesterday as I was making lunch, I thought the gas-flame was a little low on the stove. My sage observation proved right five minutes later when it went out. Half my lunch remained uncooked.

Now, usually, I’d have waited thirty minutes or so for a sound like a car alarm, which would have told me a gas truck was in the village. But not yesterday. I sat at home for an hour or two, hoping to hear the familiar discordant sound, and there was nothing.

A helpful friend persuaded me to buy an electric hot-plate, because otherwise I’d have had no water for today’s first, essential mug of tea. But with no gas this morning for the water heater, all I had was a very fast cold shower. And i thda to be fast because I needed to listen for the gas guys.

Catching the gas truck is an art. I live 150 yards from the street, so I can’t just stick my head out the window and yell. I need to be ready, with shoes on, the moment I hear that discordant bleating, to get out the door fast. Since my house is on an incline, with cliffs behind me and to the north (left as I look out), the truck’s unlovely sound is directed and deflected in such a way that I then have to guess on which side of the village it’s moving.

So, it becomes like hunting for a dog that’s run off. I must select the more likely direction in which to head when I hit the street: to the right, and the road that more or less marks the western boundary of the village; or left, and into its centre. Which makes sense today? What do my ears tell me?

Ideally, they tell me it’s coming along the western roadway, and I can just wait and flag it down. The church is 200 yards towards the centre, and the gas trucks usually loop around it and its neighbouring cross-streets, so that they don’t miss a needy customer. But if I catch the truck there, I have to direct the driver back to my door. Sometimes it’s just one person on his own, and (in non-quarantine times) I can hop in. Sometimes though, like today, there are two men, who take turns carrying the heavy (100 lb+) cylinders. With no spare seat, I end up repeatedly explaining, with serious hand-signals, how to find my almost invisible laneway and my (from the street) invisible gate, then chasing back up the sloping roadway after the truck.

Dignity is not preserved.

The consequence of all this is, often, an absurd sense of victory that I have gas once more. I have found the truck, directed it to my entrance, and acquired the cylinder. I have succeeded in ensuring my comfort for another four or five weeks.

Then I can do it all again.

Here Comes the Rain Again

May 5, 2020

This year, our rainy season appears to have started a month early. Normally it hits in the later part of June, but a small storm on the night of April 30 began an intermittent pattern of rainfall that, combined with lightning strikes, has twice knocked out our electrical power.

I’m not a great fan of the rains, which tend to breed flies and mosquitoes, as well telling the plant life in the dogs’ corral that it now has permission to overgrow all the available space. This year, I also wonder if the drop in temperatures they bring, combined with less sunshine, will enable to virus to spread more easily. Covid-19 is a very strange disease, as we’ve all read, but there are indications it doesn’t like heat or sunshine, which we’ve had in abundance since February. That advantage now dissipates.

That said, the rain fills our cistern, running through a triple filter system that keeps out vegetation and small bits of stuff in general. That means we don’t need to buy non-potable water for a few months. It also produces aesthetic effects such as evocative cloud formations, or full-on Wrath of the Gods lightning storms. Those terrify at least one of the dogs, and I’m quite likely to find she’s disappeared yet again, only to show up cowering under my bed while sharp claps of thunder resound off the cliffs surrounding the village.

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Evocative cloud formations: misty wraiths stalk the hillside opposite my house. Photo from June 2019.

This May, after a long dry winter, there were fears of a vintage year for forest fires breaking out on the mountains behind us. That possibility is now drastically reduced.

While the barricade outside the village is still manned by solid numbers of volunteers, 24 hours a day, there is anticipation that the town of Tepoztlan might relax its police-enforced separation from the rest of the country in a few weeks. That would mean the barricade, which is legally a very dubious enterprise, would follow suit. Anticipation is in the air along with frustration, but I’m sure we’re not yet ready to drop our protective measures.

And this assumes, of course, that the drop in temperatures, combined with possible relaxed social and commercial restrictions, doesn’t bring a surge in infection. In a week Tepoztlan has gone from two cases to five, which is not a lot, but is also isn’t encouraging. Everything this year is in question.

Hence, the rains themselves are reassuring, simply because they remind us we’re connected to a grander cycle of nature. That cycle doesn’t follow an exact calendar, but its existence, demonstrated most recently by last night’s brief storm, is one of the things we’re all clinging to in this bizarre, disorienting spring.

Meetings and Masks

May 3, 2020

Usually, exiting the barricade outside the village is easy. It’s getting back in when you need to smile your smiliest smile, and be ready with proof that you live here.

But they’ve changed the rules, and yesterday, when three of us went for shopping, we had to stop to obtain a ticket. The new requirement is that we get back within two hours. Which, for the three of us, was pushing it. We were headed into town to take care of a bunch of chores and shopping, and allowing us scarcely more than an hour in town to handle them was not going to be enough.

Robin is the best negotiator of the three of us, and she managed to get us a one-hour extension. So, we went on in, and I got the cash I needed, and the gas for the truck, and a few other things, while the others went off and bought what they needed.

There were far more facemasks in evidence now than there were even a week ago. Tepoztlan officially has two cases of the virus, though one source says three. Either way, to date we’ve dodged the worst of it. Since we’ve had an extended hot spell, with a lot of sunshine, I assume the weather been a major ally, since social distancing happens intermittently, at best.

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My collection of facemasks is growing. The fabric ones were a friend’s gift.

As we headed back, I wondered: would the barricade guardians turn us into a pumpkin and mice if we were late? But we never found out, and they just waved us back in.

In the afternoon, the village was holding an informational meeting, so I headed down to the civic plaza, to learn what I could learn. It was no surprise (this is Mexico) that the meeting started late, but they might have set a new record for waiting time. There was a diversion when a man showed up with a disinfecting unit to spray all round the plaza, and everyone had the sense to move away from him. But otherwise, we sat, a hundred or more of us, most of us in our masks, and waited. It was an hour and a half after the announced start that the community leaders were ready.

While I was waiting, a man came and sat next to me on the wall surrounding the plaza. He was not, unlike most of us, wearing a facemask. “It’s not started yet?” he asked, and I assured him it hadn’t. I inched further down the wall while he chatted with someone on his other side.

After some playing around with electrical supplies and a speaker, the meeting finally began.

There was, as a woman who lives on my street complained, no news. They needed more volunteers for the barricade,we were told, especially on the night shift. This disease can be really serious, especially for older people. And we have to avoid going out if we can. Which, for almost everyone, begged the question: Why then, are we here? It was like an outtake from a bad Monty Python movie. “We’ve called you here to remind you all to stay home as much as possible.”

After fifteen minutes, I became the second person to leave.

The battle here, obviously, is with educational standards and comprehension. The idea that an asymptomatic person could be a disease carrier is hardly ever mentioned, so most people still believe that if they have no symptoms, they’re fine. I saw two men greet each other with a handshake, and on the way to the meeting, passed a half-dozen people coming for a Saturday evening family gathering.

Mexico City, I read, has well over 5,000 cases, and accoding to health ministry staff, probably far more that are unreported. This state, Morelos, has around 400 in total, about a quarter as many as in the main city of Cuernavaca. But it isn’t social distancing and masks that are keeping us safe. I mentioned the warmth and the sunlight as possible helpful factors. But mostly, I think we’ve just had incredible luck so far.

A Doctor in Every Cafe

April 29, 2020

One of the things about this part of Mexico with which a newcomer must come to terms is that it’s full of New Agers. Some are young, some are middle aged, and quite a few are people who cut their philosophical teeth on the impressively dull books of Carlos Castañeda, 40 years ago. And they neither know nor care that he was stripped of the PhD he was initially awarded for his non-existent fieldwork in Mexico with Yaqui Indian shamans. I could never finish a Castañeda book, despite the acclaim he achieved in the 1970s, and when he was exposed as a fraud, I felt relieved that I’d truly missed nothing. He had remarkably little to say, and took several volumes to say it.

But I rarely mention that around here. He is still spoken of with reverence in certain circles.

My real problem, though, comes when there’s a mention of illness. You mustn’t mention that stuff in a local cafe. And right now, disease is at the top of everyone’s mind.

If I comment that my knee is a little inflamed because I’m getting arthritic (as is so this week), or that I don’t always sleep well, I risk inviting a lecture about the virtues of garlic, or turmeric, or oregano oil. If I say I’ve tried these without effect, or that (heresy of heresies) I think homeopathy simply works like any other placebo, I’m subjected to a half-hour lecture on my lack of understanding, or my failure to prepare the medicine properly, or my past programming. In the years I’ve been here, hardly anyone has ever said anything like “Well, acupuncture doesn’t work for everything;” or, “I didn’t find Ayurvedic medicine did a damned thing for me, either.” I can say I did find acupuncture significantly helped a joint injury; but its failure to address a minor but persistent infection will always be due to my lack of appreciation of the method’s gradual effects, not the fact it isn’t a panacea. And this, doubt it not, will be more important than my finding it positively helpful in certain ways.

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Sometimes it works. Sometimes … it doesn’t work.

Normally, I keep my grumbles to myself. This is, overall, a laid-back kind of place, and someone else’s obsessions aren’t my problem. But in the current situation, the most aggressively assertive “spiritual” people around me are suffering worse than the cynics and skeptics. They’re agitated, and to mention this to them is to invite probing queries about my own lack of equanimity. Which, admittedly, gets shaky.

But these people know that the virus is really a Chinese weapon, or a product of a CIA black ops program, or something that the Gates Foundation worked on for years. For some (I commend the tortured creativity that went into this one), it’s all three at once.

Alternatively, they know Covid-19 is really irrelevant, and the real problem is some failure of perfection or at least self-attunement in those who become ill from it. I should therefore ditch my face-mask and stop asking my lecturer to step back a few feet, and stop thinking “negatively.”

Such inflexible perspectives offer little in the way of enhanced resilience during a period of deprivation. Pop spirituality’s conceptual conceits don’t deal well with hard suffering. In my experience, only the people who hold to a more solid tradition, with firmer expectation of life’s graver ordeals, have significant inner resources to fall back on.

My case of the grumps over this is intensifying by the day now. I’ve “snoozed” several fervent anti-vaxxers on Facebook for 30 days, since my own agitation is sometimes a bit much for me, and reading theirs on top of it became intolerable. I sneakily try to avoid various true believers and the beliefs they’re true to if I happen to see them while out shopping. I pop my regular, allopathically prescribed pill every morning that treats a geezerish condition quite effectively, and avoid any discussion that includes the words “Big Pharma.”

But how long can I go on like this? If we’re locked down much longer (in the relative way that Mexico is locked down, which doesn’t seem to bother too many people in the village), will I end up lovingly sharpening the larger kitchen knives one morning? Will I start appraising the defensive capabilities of the garden implements? Will I start sticking needles into home-made poppets, and chanting the names of people who can’t hold their peace, or their prescriptions, around me?

Outside right now, there’s a wind blowing, and a spring rainstorm seems in the offing. It’s pleasant, and cooling, and calming, and the two dogs sleeping near my feet are enjoying the breeze after the extreme heat and humidity of the afternoon. Together, we can enjoy the quiet before the storm.

I can, anyway, as long as nobody mentions the curative properties of Chinese mushrooms, or tells me, with that tone that implies “O, thou unawakened one” that they’re a Reiki master who can eliminate my lockdown blues. Otherwise, everything might – might – be just fine.  And the knives can stay in their drawer.

The Waiting Game

April 23, 2020

The little expat community of which I’m a part keeps wondering how Mexico will manage overall in the months and years to come. The indicators are grim, so we’re all gazing into whatever we keep around as our equivalent to a crystal ball.

To date, the officially confirmed Covid-19 caseload in our municipality remains at one. Reportedly, the patient visited the US some weeks ago, and came back with the virus. The nearby town of Yautepec has five, while the capital of our state of Morelos, Cuernavaca, has 43. Just 20 people in the state have died. This is low, and of course we keep wonder-hoping if it might just stay like this.

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A rainy season view from near my village, looking towards Cuautla, Morelos’ second city.

But as we all realise, this situation isn’t really about the reams of statistics that news media keep putting out because there are so few events their reporters can cover any more. The human impact bites closer to home, and it’s impossible to say how that will play out.

Eggs here are sold by the kilogram, not by the dozen. A month ago, I was paying 19 pesos for a half-kilo (eight eggs) once a week.  Last week, it was 22 pesos, and yesterday, I paid 24. Some fruits and vegetables seem to have gone up a little, though there are always variations from vendor to vendor here. But UHT milk, usually 19 pesos a litre, is also at 22 pesos a litre.

As I’ve blogged previously, my Canadian dollar is flying compared to the Mexican peso, and price-hikes are no problem for me. For my neighbours, several of whom are not working or are working part-time, it has to be a problem. Ergo, it could become a problem for me as the situation deteriorates, and desperation sets in. We supposedly end quarantine in early May, but that might make little practical difference. This community is hanging together, but stress is stress, and in my own life, few things have provoked as much stress as the times that my income barely matches my cost of living.

A fall in fuel prices has helped to some extent, since it makes shipping goods less expensive. And this is a farming community, with people well used to raising crops, so there’s no immediate threat to food supplies. We think.

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This is a farming community and this rooster agrees with that.

Still, we expats keep on speculating. The plunge in oil prices has hit the mostly state-owned oil producer Pemex, which has sent the Mexican peso into an ever-deeper downward spiral. Hence the higher prices for food, as the peso is worth less by the week. Manufacturing is mostly suspended, as of course are schools; and, in our town, restaurants, hotels, souvenir shops, and various food shops. Making face-masks is a new sideline for some people, but they only sell for a few pesos.

What, then, will the locals do when their meagre savings run out? How will Mexico handle a slowdown in demand from the US for its manufactured goods? When will the tourists come back? The questions always hang in the air.

Then, for us older people, there are pensions. Will our government pensions be cut as debt back home surges? How much will earnings based on dividends from investments dwindle? It’s unlikely Mexico will turf us out, since those pensions are valuable income. But will our communities tire of us, or decide we’re taking their food?

Thus goes the late-night narrative in our heads. So far, as I gladly and repeatedly note, the people around me are maintaining their usual good cheer, and a cynicism about the illusion of material progress or decline. I’m seeing more farmers who own one using their horses, to save having to buy gas or put wear on their pick-ups, but otherwise life goes on.

There are essentially no beggars in our village, and relatively few in the town. But I find myself reaching into my pocket for coins more readily when one does approach me. Visitors, their likeliest donors, are down by 95 per cent. I’m sensitive to being seen as a skinflint where a month ago I was more likely to be dismissive. I’m profligate with tips on the few occasions I buy prepared food. People have relatives, and they gossip about the tight-fisted.

So it goes. The President wants to re-open things at the end of May, while some state governors think that’s too risky. It’s okay, it seems to be okay, it might stay okay; but it might not remain okay. Nobody knows.

It’s a time when waiting is our only option. And sometimes argue. The town has a couple of Trump fans, who occasionally still stick their heads out, while there are other people who believe all this is from a karmic imbalance, not a virus, and who see no need to observe social distancing. Sharp words are exchanged where before we just smiled and shrugged it off.

Beyond that, we try to support each other as strangers in a not-so-strange land. And we wait.

Cicadas, Sanitizer and Hysterical Misery

April 18, 2020

Yesterday, I heard a buzzing in the plants outside the kitchen. I found it came from a cicada that was having trouble. I tried to help it up, but then discovered it had developed with one wing shorter than another. In an hour, it was dead.

Which was not a problem for the cicada population as a whole. This morning, they began that high-pitched chorus that, at its peak, sounds like an iron foundry. It was so loud, I considered getting the earplugs I keep for when the dogs in the village stage a 1.00 am bark-athon.

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A cicada and its abandoned larval casing.

But I was glad to hear it, since it reminded me that most of nature was still doing its thing, unhindered.

In town, more stores seemed to have closed up, and the market was almost deserted. The Zocalo, the main square, is sealed off to prevent people socialising, and no-one can enter the market without first using hand sanitizer.

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Before entering the market, you must use hand sanitizer. Last week, they had young people policing everyone who tried to sneak in with their hands unsanitized.

Emma, who runs Buenos Tiempos cafe, was happy to see me for the first time in more than a week, even if I only wanted to risk a take-out cappuccino. Like most store owners in Tepoztlan, she has laid off her staff and is managing on her own.

I bought an oatmeal cookie that was dry, because she’s sold so little recently.  I hadn’t the heart to complain. This must be the toughest time she’s ever faced.

Back at home in the village, I noticed that the plum tree on the other side of this property is already coming into full leaf. There are even tiny plums forming in the branches.

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The plum tree is putting forth leaves, without benefit of rain.

We’ve had no significant rain for months, and nothing at all since March. How does nature manage to re-start when there is nothing to moisten the soil, or to signal to cicadas that it’s time to come out? I don’t know, but it happens, and it’s happening now.

The people manning the village “frontier barricade” are still there. Last evening I saw they had a bamboo rod to make a more visible barrier to incoming traffic. There’s often a small truck parked by the side of the road that they won’t admit. People here drive around collecting scrap metal, or selling bread or fruit, but they’re not being admitted to Amatlan. It’s hard for them.

Oddly, if you rent a place that you hardly ever use, but have a signed lease, you can still get in. I was out getting a tlacoyo for lunch (a folded-over taco, basically) when I passed a gaggle of rich hippie kids. Their tattoos were very professional, and their quasi-Indian clothing was clean and nicely finished. And until I said my “Buenas tardes,” which we do here, they were going to ignore me, like all the other rich hippie kids who come in on weekends.

The quarantine continues, but it’s selective. More reason, I felt, to feel fed up.

This afternoon, while I was in the bedroom cleaning, I heard what sounded like another stranded cicada, but in the living room. It turned out to be a lovely green songbird that had flown in through the open door, and was knocking itself out against the window. When I used my hat and my hand to trap it, it went limp, as if it assumed its time was up.

Moments later, it realised it was outside. I removed my restraining hand, and it shot off back to freedom. This happens once or twice ever year, because I leave the living room door to the patio open for two of the dogs to come in and out. It’s a little tense, since injuring small birds’ wings is easy to do. But each time it also makes a lovely moment of contact with the wild world that lives around my house, with the added pleasure of exhilaration as the creature flies free.

Then, yet another “Bill Gates is a terrible murderer” meme showed up on Facebook. In this episode, the tireless evildoer had, apparently, taken over one of India’s health agencies and forced children to receive a flawed polio vaccine, for which he was personally responsible. Many had died.

When I checked, I couldn’t find any actual source for this story beyond the meme. The fact that viable and safe polio vaccines have already existed for decades should have been the clue, but paranoid fantasies about this latest supervillain are apparently helping some people cope with the tension of the lockdown.

I kind of understand this. Simultaneously, I’m left sad and frustrated that so many think spreading nonsense is how they can “help.”

And now it’s late afternoon, and I’m sitting in my living room, lazily writing a blog post and looking out the windows. The Sun is shining on the cliffs opposite, creating that effect that makes the rocks, with their hundreds of partly eroded strata, look like the intricately carved temples of Angkor Wat. It’s hazy today, from dry-season dust and some farmers who are burning the stubble in their fields, but the detail is still there.

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The effect of “temples” is lost in a photo, but the strange beauty of the rocks is still evident.

The natural cycle goes on. And at some point, our human world will also pick up. Haltingly but steadily, with a lot of accumulated hurt, it will come back to something less scared, angry and bored. And perhaps the online mob of angry people, who wield memes instead of pitchforks, can calm their fevered imaginations.

Freud’s famous line comes to mind in this context:

“Much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health, you will be better armed against that unhappiness.”

Othering

April 8, 2020

What concerns me right now isn’t getting the virus, but the hunt for scapegoats. China and the World Health Organisation, says Washington. The New World Order is in there, obviously. And somehow, Bill Gates became a bad guy, too. In Mexico, (apart from the annoying President), it’s anyone who’s “other.”

Sunday night, the village’s ayudante (a sub-mayor, basically) announced the new rules over the speaker system attached to the church. They were even repeated in somewhat halting English. A friend of mine reported feeling included by this, while I felt an implicit threat: “You too, gringos! So listen up.”

I hoped my friend was right.

Our nearby town, Tepoztlan, like many others in Mexico, has officially shut itself off from the outside, without perhaps considering how this will work. Or won’t work. Most of our food comes from neighbouring communities, as does … well, most of everything. With 80 truck drivers a day coming in, as well as various workers, how isolated can things be?

My village, as previously noted, has its own barricade on the highway. In theory, this could have helped, but it was put up weeks too late to make a difference. We have our first case of Covid-19 here, a woman who reportedly visited the U.S. recently. This morning, I chatted with my neighbour as we took our garbage down for the weekly collection, and she said there were also two cases in the town.

I had “the talk” with myself in late March, reminding myself that I was in Mexico, not Canada. If I chose to stay, I’d be responsible for myself. People here don’t necessarily grasp how viral infection operates, and social distancing only works when everyone realises they could be an unwitting carrier. I’d have to be look out for myself. Which, of course, would mean I was also looking out for others, even the ones who thought my face-mask was amusing.

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The village’s highway barricade, take from a safe, socially distant distance.

The couple of times I’ve been through the security barricade outside the village, I’ve noted some of the people manning it standing close to each other, maskless, and drinking. Not all of them, but if a third of the people don’t grasp what the problem is (and it’s probably more), then there’s no safety created. But hey, they’re keeping out the sick people, right?

Putting the blame onto someone else – outsiders – shifts responsibility. But at 11.00 last night, there was loud music at a house 200 yards away, and you don’t blast late at night just for yourself, unless perhaps you’re an unrepentant Black Sabbath fan. There are some in Mexico, but I knew the noise meant people were sharing some of the village’s rapidly diminishing supply of beer, and probably not sitting five or six feet from each other.

The nastiest thing that’s emerged has been attacks on medical staff at hospitals and health centres. I’d hoped it was just a couple of over-hyped instances, but yesterday I read that nurses and doctors had laid 28 reports of some form of attacks.

They’re “others,” the dangerous people who might be carrying the bug. Not like us people who aren’t sick – we’re not a problem, but those people in the green or white scrubs might be. No, you can’t get on this bus to go home, you dangerous, albeit self-sacrificing, hospital employee.

And no, you outsiders can’t come to this village where most of us continue to ignore any suggestion to maintain our distance from each other.

I can only hope such abuse doesn’t happen round here, and there’s some appreciation for the medical personnel risking their lives in the under-equipped health centres and hospitals. Those, I stress, are much better than what was on offer a couple of decades ago, but this pandemic will push many of them over the brink.

And yet … I realise that if I get seriously ill, it’ll be a risky business. But because there is space in this village, and wide streets creating no need to pass close to other residents, I feel honestly safer than people who live elsewhere probably assume I do.

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I’ve stocked up on essentials for the next month … or two.

Beyond that, I’ve stocked up on essentials, set up a mutual support group with local friends, and take exercise only where I don’t expect to run into anybody else.

Plus, just as every other pet owner has noticed, the dogs like having me around more. So I do feel appreciated.

Turning Up The Heat

April 12, 2020

This past Thursday morning was when the manure hit the ventilation system. That was the day Mexico’s health ministry let it be known that while the national count of Covid-19 cases was officially still under 3,500, the reality was probably around 26,500. A low level of testing, and delays in getting test results, was affecting the national tally, so this was their best guesstimate.

Within hours the mayor of our town of Tepoztlan had sent police to the town’s entry point from the freeway that comes from Mexico City. Anyone not from this locality was turned back. Further, the main square in town, the zocalo, was sealed off, so people wouldn’t hang out there as they usually do.

A short while later, I discovered local residents had taken vigilante action, and had blocked the only road into my village. It helps that I’m part of a visible minority, and they knew I was a local resident and let me through. Oddly, I have no ID that has my current address on it. So, as often happens here, I had to trust to people’s nosiness (they know who I am better than I know them), plus their goodwill, to get me through.

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The barricade on the way into our village. (Photo: courtesy Robin Rainbow Gate)

Others were refused admittance. And since farmers have things like machetes, and aren’t afraid to use them for non-agricultural purposes, there wasn’t much argument.

The next day, I tried to buy a garafon or large bottle of drinking water. Every store in the village had been cleaned out, and there was no certainty about when re-stocking would happen. One little store had somewhat smaller bottles, so I bought two of those to last me till mid-week.

Finally, people had gotten religion.

But it wasn’t all common-sense and community well-being. One small town 20 miles from here had a minor riot when people protested against admitting patients with the virus to their local hospital. They actually threatened to burn down the facility if this happened, fearing the disease would be imported into their community.

In other places, nurses have reported being abused in public, for the same reason. This isn’t just a Mexican thing, I found out, and some stores and banks in Quebec are refusing to serve hospital personnel. “You’re heroic in what you’re doing, but stay away from me.” It’s understandable, but depressing at the same time. Any problem has a solution. How about a sign reading “Please wear a mask in here, ’cause even if we love you, we’re a bit scared of where you work,” for example?

The effects of the epidemic have become apparent by degrees over the past few weeks. The town was getting progressively more deserted, and my next-door neighbour, a cab driver, has been home a lot. Face-masks are finally starting to show up, and I’m seeing more ads for restaurants offering home delivery. The little cafe in our village that closed three weeks back is now offering coffee and a limited selection of meals on a take-out basis.

Mexico’s President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has been consistently unhelpful. After giving Bolsonaro-ish bad advice for weeks, he ordered many industries deemed inessential to shut down for a month, while demanding that company owners continue to pay the staff. I’m no rabid free marketeer, but I do understand basic economics. And we all know shutdowns can be extended.

First the breweries were ordered closed, and they complied: then they were told they could re-open. Then, they were again deemed inessential by the Health Ministry. Who’s in charge here? That depends on what you mean by “who” and “in charge.”

The best estimate right now is that Mexico’s wave of infections will peak by the month’s end, or maybe at the start of May. The very warm weather in this part of the country is probably minimising the count, but it hasn’t, as many people hoped, managed to stop the disease.

Social cohesion in general, however, seems solid right now, at least if we don’t count the attacks on nurses. Last night our village, which has a speaker system on its church, broadcast instructions in Spanish and English, issued by the local mayor. They were sensible and fair, given the circumstances, and the inclusion of expats who are predominantly English speakers was heartening. Even if their federal government is a dubious enterprise, I still maintain my support and gratitude to Mexicans as a people.

 

The Joys of Barkish

April 9, 2020

A friend of mine posted on her blog recently:

“I guess I’ll have to settle for the cats and the dog for my wordless communications. I do feel fairly fluent in Cat, but I am still working on my Dog awareness.”

I’m the opposite. I used to be the personal attendant of a cat (they don’t have ‘owners’), and when I came home from work each evening, she’s miaow at me. I’d miaow back. Then she’d do a double miaow, and again I’d echo her. At one point we hit reciprocal triple miaows, but then she got bored, and gave up the game. Or maybe my Cattish accent was so bad, she had no patience with it. I probably sounded like a tourist lost here in Mexico, grinding through mis-vocalised vowels and badly conjugated verbs, trying to get directions for the hotel his GPS says is across the street, when it isn’t.

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There are rumours cats are evolving to be more like us.

Barkish is a different language. Having looked after a half-dozen or more dogs during my times in Mexico, I’m reasonably certain it’s a tonal language. There are variations in pitch that, if you can echo them, sound a bit like language to a dog. A single utterance can’t last more than three seconds, or it becomes too complex for the animal, but a short phrase, maybe hitting three pitches, each a couple of tones apart (no more), seems to make a dog listen.

I found this bizarre skill useful when I first returned to this village a year and a half ago. I always thought of myself as being “on” the team of dogs, but I was bitten by three in the space of four months. “That never used to happen,” I thought one time, as I looked at the red and purple wound above my ankle, and I tried to figure out what I was doing wrong.

Over time, I probably began smelling more like the local people. I’d eaten the food, drunk the water, used the local brands of soap, and gotten the dust of the streets into my clothing. But also, I learned that a soft, bitonal growl, made from the side of my mouth, seemed to disarm acts of aggression. I’ve not even been seriously threatened in a year now.

We naturally assume that any language is made up of nouns and verbs: names and actions, with some qualifying adjectives, prepositions and conjunctions thrown in. Barkish, if I’m right, is about states of being: Everything’s cool; You’re a jerk and I want to bite you; I think your tail is so cool; I want food now. I have to render these concepts in English words here, but the growls themselves don’t actually operate on that basis.

I tried one experiment a day or so ago that seemed to work, which might, in part, verify my theory. Two of the four dogs currently here stay in a corral beside the house all day. One, the incorrigible Rem, needs to be there to stop him getting out and killing the neighbours’ chickens for fun. His buddy, Woody, is in there because they’re pals, and dogs don’t like being alone all day.

When evening came, and I wanted to let them out of the corral to eat, Woody especially would bark at maximum volume. He’s not actually my dog, but one I’m looking after for someone who’s away, and he seems quite neurotic compared to my others. Since I had to bend to move a large stone that kept the corral gate shut, this being necessary to foil Rem’s ingenious escape techniques, each evening I’d have 90 decibels of Woody right in my ear.

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Woody in laid-back mode.

Finally, I decided to try my Barkish on him.
“Ah-row-ow-rah-ow!!!” I  uttered as loudly as possible.

I don’t know that he “understood” exactly, but as probably happened with my cat, it intrigued him long enough for me to clear the stone and get my ear safely more than 16 inches from his mouth.

I’m still working on the general theory of all this, but since I’m now spending more time at home, I have more time and opportunities to practice. My Spanish still sucks, but if I can ever publish my Barkish in Twelve Easy Yelps, I won’t have wasted this time in quarantine.

Them Dry Bones

April 8, 2020

Once, not long after I’d come here, I was on a trail in the hills behind my home when I heard an odd sound, like a soft croaking or grinding. I suddenly came upon thirty or more xopilotes (sop-ill-OH-tezblack vultures) feasting on the carcase of an animal that had fallen and died. They often make that noise, I learned over time, even if they’re not eating.

I approached to see more clearly when they all rose up at once, scaring me that they might attack. But they’re shy of humans, so seeing me they simply rose up, in an amazing swoosh of wing-power, and dispersed till I’d inspected the bones of the cow or horse, and had walked on myself.

Large livestock wander freely here, finding grazing in the hillside valleys or in nearly forgotten meadows. As I’ve said before, I can’t understand how farmers locate their animals when they need them, but obviously the system works. A group of cattle is too valuable an asset to simply abandon, although they are physical hazards for an incautious hoof on the steeper hillsides, and those occasionally claim a life.Cow skull-2.jpg

A cow skull.

I can’t tell a horse skeleton from a bovine one, unless I can see the holes for the horns in the cranium. I found the cow skull in this picture last week, when I was walking a trail where contact with other people was unlikely. The other bones had been scattered, indicating the vultures had finished their job some time ago, probably succeeded by rats and racoons, then the usual suspects from the insect world. And some creature(s) had made small holes hrough the bone itself. It reminded me that the fossilized dinosaur skeletons we see in museums must have been covered over quite soon after death, or ancient scavengers would have dispersed the bones over a wide area. And of course most vertebrate fossils, let’s remember, are usually discovered piecemeal.

Today, walking a different trail, I came upon more bones, also (I think) bovine. I didn’t see the skull, but there were ribs, a leg bone, and a number of vertebrae. I brought one of the vertebrae home with me, since they’re fascinating shapes to study, and the original owner obviously wasn’t using it any more. They also help explain how our own human backbones work, with the spinal cord passing through the central hole, and the tendons and connecting tissues anchoring to rougher surfaces. One side has a projecting boss, the other a smooth indentation to receive the boss of the next vertebra in the column.

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The cow vertebra.

Skeletal design is a remarkable thing, but what most fascinates me about bone is how dense it is. I see it, and think it should be like a ceramic, and quite heavy in the hand. But it’s surprisingly light stuff, even in a creature as heavy as a cow. Bone from a butcher’s still has water-containing soft tissue inside it, making it heavier, but the pure bone almost floats on its own.

I’ll have to hide my small trophy from the dogs, who will no doubt consider it theirs by right of having bone-crunching teeth. I already keep a small collection of animal curiosities I’ve come across over the years, and this will sit with them.

For humans, the skeleton is so often a reminder of death and mortality. The Aztecs, for example, kept skull racks (tzompantli) for their victims, as a kind of reminder to their gods of what they had offered to the forces shaping their existence.

Animal bones, though, are actually reminders of how subtly and precisely nature puts itself together. They do show us, obviously, that life ends in its time, but they also demonstrate life’s self-renewing consistency. If I ever came upon the remains of an ox from a million years ago, I’d expect its vertebrae to be so similar to the one I retrieved today, I’d be hard put to tell them apart. Details would be different, but the basic pattern would follow a design that emerged long, long before bipedal primates ever walked the earth.