Rains

May 11, 2021

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

Welcome to rainy season in central Mexico.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Election Season

April 4, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

David Barragan wants to be Mayor of Tepoztlan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fire is Tenacious

April 17, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fire Season

April 13, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Now and the Then

April 6, 2021

A few Sundays ago, I saw something unusual here. It was a bad car accident. Two late-model passenger cars had been in a head-on collision, and there was an ambulance on scene and police directing traffic.

I’d guess that the average age of a motor vehicle around the Tepoztlan area is 12 to 15 years, and they tend to get fixed only when something fails. Yet serious accidents are extremely rare, and the head-on smash involved two people not from here.

Discussing it with friends later, we observed that people who live here show a pronounced situational awareness. They’re very connected to their surroundings through their senses, and as drivers, they’re courteous and try hard to avoid accidents. They know that wandering cows, horses, dogs and pedestrians are likely to be around every corner.

Even those of us who come here from urban environments in other countries change a little, so that we’re less in our heads and more aware of sensory inputs. Often, a person who’s just arrived here stands out because there’s a slightly glazed look to them, and they avoid eye-contact. Locals are the opposite.

This morning, I went for a hike with my friend Robin, before the heat of the day began. She had brought a couple of plastic grocery sacks, and when we came onto a well-walked part of our trail home, she pulled them out. We began stuffing discarded snackfood bags, pop bottles and bottle caps into them. After a couple of hundred yards, the bags were full, and ready to split.

Trail trash – discarded bottles and chip bags.

Along with cruelty to animals, or at least indifference to it, littering is one of the most depressing aspects to life here. People discard packages all along the roadways, and of course in the rainy season, they end up being washed into the streams. 

You know the rest of that sad story.

I’ve been told that the habit of discarding things comes from the fact that for centuries, anything people ate or used was degradable, or was ceramic or stone, and thus remained inert in the general environment. But it occurred to me this morning that the absence of car accidents is the other side of the coin to littering. 

In both cases, people are focused on the now, but have little concern about the future. If I say I’ll be at your place at 11.00, in Mexico you won’t be offended if I arrive at 11.20. If I ask a tradesman to fix a plumbing problem, I fully expect he could be an hour late, because he might not necessarily figure in the amount of time he’ll need to buy a length of pipe or a new tap. Or, if he does make that calculation, he doesn’t see making me wait as a significant problem. It’s simply an aspect of how things are.

Time here is experienced, but most people don’t structure it. I have one or two adult Mexican friends who cannot grasp that every action they perform uses up time, and who don’t really understand why they never arrive at a specified hour. They’re in now, but they pay no serious attention on then. Discarding a juice box gets rid of the juice box: it doesn’t relate to the package’s ultimate destination in the Gulf of Mexico, or the Atlantic.

In many ways, living in Mexico is an antidote to the frenzied lifestyle of modern cities. Coming here can feel like subtle punishment directed at the acquired need to organise every hour of our lives. 

However, while successful expats soon lose the temptation to lecture local people on how to live their lives ‘better,’ we always hope that some of our awareness of the world beyond today will rub off. After Robin and I had filled our bags, we both felt depressed by discovering six large garbage bags someone had abandoned along the trail. They had been disposed of in a now of some weeks or months ago, but they had begun to split and spread their contents over an extensive swathe of fields and tracks. Whoever abandoned them had given no serious thought to the bags’ impending then

The Last Emperor – I

March 26, 2021

Note: This is a long post, which I broke into three sections.

Some things in this world are beyond my understanding, One of them is why Andrew Lloyd Webber never made a musical about Maximilian I of Mexico, and his wife Charlotte (Carlota). They were at least as interesting as Juan and Evita Peron. 

Maximilian was born in 1832 as the younger brother of the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef. Intelligent and idealistic, and with a solid track record in the Austrian Navy and later as Viceroy of the Habsburg holdings in northern Italy, he clashed with his royal brother over a preference for liberal ideas. He was recalled from Milan in 1857, and soon after that, the Habsburgs’ Italian territories were lost to forces aligned with Giuseppe Garibaldi, the man who unified Italy.

Maximilian and Charlotte, or Carlota, in 1857, the year of their wedding.

So, finding himself with a young wife (his second cousin Charlotte), but no real job, Maximilian spent a few years in his castle of Miramare, on the Adriatic coast, where he pursued his lifelong interest in botany. He was capable and popular, but at a loose end.

Then, in 1861, Mexico decided to default on its unmanageable foreign debts.

Britain, Spain and France, all of them owed a bundle, united to invade Mexico and force a change in fiscal policy. But France didn’t just want its cash, but rather to conquer the country and make it a colony. Britain and Spain negotiated a deal and pulled out, while France kept troops in Mexico till 1866. 

The French, ruled by the Catholic monarch Napoleon III, made an alliance with conservative (i.e., wealthy) Mexicans, who didn’t like the idea of democratic reforms. A delegation of such men went to see Maximilian in Europe, and overcame his initial hesitation to become their Emperor. He was intelligent, experienced in administration, energetic, and had royal blood. What could go wrong?

Well, plenty. For one thing, there was a legitimately elected Mexican president, Benito Juarez, who ruled from 1858 to 1872. Mexico’s struggle for independence from Spain had been long and bloody, as independence struggles are, and only a minority of people supported the conservatives. Even rich people weren’t unanimous in their support.

Benito Juarez in the 1860s.

Juarez, while he was driven into internal exile, would not give up the fight for a republic. Initially a wilderness figure during the years of the French presence, he received help and arms after the US Civil War ended, since the Americans, like him, didn’t want European Imperial powers back on the continent. Add to this Maximilian’s penchant for liberal ideas – land reform, religious freedom and extending the vote to a wider swathe of ordinary people – and you can imagine his conservative supporters recoiling in dismay. 

Further, while Juarez appreciated Maximilian on a personal level, he was an energetic realist, who detested the idea of his country falling back into colonial servitude. He was a republican to the core, and was one of those men who doesn’t give up when most people would have told him to. Fortune often favours the tenacious, and Juarez had tenacity.

Things didn’t go well for Maximilian.

The Last Emperor – II

March 26, 2021

What I feel is possibly the ugliest statue in existence towers over the place in the city of Queretaro where Maximilian was executed early on June 19, 1867. It is by Juan Olaguibel, who made several monumental sculptures using carved blocks joined by cement. It depicts, or tries to depict, Benito Juarez and was unveiled in the centenary year of Maximilian’s defeat, 1967. 

In its shadow lies the chapel that Maximilian’s relatives erected in 1901 over the spot where the Emperor and his chief generals, Miguel Miramon and Tomas Mejia, were shot. Conservative Catholics still, you’ll hear, come here to pray for the man who had embodied their hopes for a Mexico more closely shaped in the image of traditional, Catholic Spain.

Two memorials adjacent to each other, then, and two visions of what Mexico should or might be. I confess I’d prefer the site had been left as it was just after the execution, with three modest stones to mark where the Emperor stood to die, his two loyal generals to his right. But history always belongs to the people who build the monuments, and not to the cold, stark facts.

A dozen years ago, one a business trip to Vienna, I took an afternoon to hunt for the church where Maximilian and his wife had their last Mass on Austrian soil. I couldn’t locate it, confused by the local Mexico Kirche which was built later, and when the Vienna business executive who was my host too me for dinner, I told him of my disappointment. He smiled, and pointed across the Danube from his car.

“There it is,” he laughed. Ever since, I’ve repeatedly picked up the couple’s trail, and this week, I was finally able to visit where it all ended, in the city of Queretaro, north-east of Mexico City.

Leaving Europe on the warship Novara, Maximilian and Carlota (the Spanish version of her name) arrived in Mexico at the port of Veracruz, on the Gulf of Mexico, in 1864. Here, they discovered how slim their support was: they were dependent on French arms and a few wealthy conservatives. Otherwise, they were not wanted. But they set about making themselves known as the rulers of their new empire, and soon installed themselves in the palace on Chapultepec (Hill of the Grasshoppers) in Mexico City.

I’ve visited the palace, but it was used by other Mexican heads of state at various times, and has little that impressed me with a surviving Habsburg presence. What did captivate me was their acquiring the Garden of Borda in the city of Cuernavaca, the ‘Cuaunahuac’ of Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 novel Under the Volcano. My current home is scarcely an hour from this place. Here, living modestly (by royal standards) in the house on the property, the perpetual botanist Maximilian was able to plant and admire tropical plants that weren’t necessarily native to Mexico. In particular, from prior visits to the country, he had a liking for certain shrubs and trees from Brazil.

A spot in the Garden of Borda, with the dome of Maximilian’s preferred church behind.

The place itself is unremarkable today, yet it’s easy to imagine the young Emperor (he was in his mid-thirties at this point) wandering amid the broad-leafed tropical greenery, admiring exotic leaves and unusual formations of branches or flowers. Had he come here as a modest resident, not as a ruler, he might have kept the Garden for decades, and happily so.

There is a church overlooking the Garden where he and Carlota went to Mass, and it’s easy to stand inside and imagine how the grand interior and its paintings affected their thoughts. Some of their happiest times were spent in Cuernavaca, then a very modest city, albeit one with its own cathedral a block from the Garden residence. They posed for portraits and photographs, issued coins with Maximilian’s likeness, and tried to visit as many places as possible in their new domain, all in an effort to impress upon people that they were the rightful rulers of a country they loved.

Carlota seemingly was the devoted wife, the woman standing in the shadow of her blond, blue-eyed and rather taller husband. Privately, as the effort to establish their legitimacy was threatened constantly by Juarez’ small but determined bands of troops, the pair shared a rising sense of danger. It was this that led Maximilian to issue a decree that any person found to have taken up arms against the legitimate government (i.e., his government) could and would be summarily shot. An estimated 11,000 such men were killed, a measure that produced not subservience but bitter resentment. 

With the end of the Civil War in the United States, Maximilian began inviting Confederate veterans to settle in Mexico. This was not necessarily welcomed. Further, France decided it needed its troops elsewhere, and decided it had to pull out, warning Maximilian to leave while he could. The Garden of Borda didn’t see them again. But he wasn’t a man to run, having genuine courage as well as a desire to maintain acceptable form in public.

Carlota, though, was sent to plead her husband’s cause across Europe, but without any luck. Her failure and the overall strain sent her into a depressive breakdown, especially when she visited the Pope and was clearly paranoid about assassins, and she never returned to Mexico. 

Juarez, meanwhile, was able to pick up surplus arms and ammunition from the U.S., which no longer had to fight the Confederacy, and he was finally to launch a full offensive against the man he saw as a foreign interloper. The Emperor began to lose territory and supporters, and finally late in 1866 withdrew to the city of Queretaro as his final secure base.

Its intensely devoted Catholic population mostly welcomed him, though it was to suffer for doing so. Soon, the attacking Republican forces had the city surrounded, and were bombarding homes and factories. The aqueduct supplying Queretaro’s water, still a striking sight today, was cut. The town was heavily damaged, its economy collapsed, and food ran short. An effort to let the Emperor slip away in the night went wrong, and he made his last stand in the city, being captured on May 16. A simple white obelisk with a plaque marks the point where he handed his sword to the Republican General Escobedo.

The Museum of the Restoration of the Republic. Maximilian’s last few days were spent in an upstairs room.

He and his closest supporters were held in two or three different locations, spending their last few days in a building now called the “Museum of the Restoration of the Republic.” Here, there’s a reproduction of Maximilian’s condemned cell, with a small desk, a chair and a single bed. It wasn’t the most cruel of prisons, but after his summary trial in a local theatre, he knew it was his final home.

All along, there’d been an assumption that somehow the emperor would be allowed to return to Austria. But Juarez survived as long as he did from being a ruthless man, if relatively enlightened in his beliefs. He knew he had to stamp out monarchical ideas or his concept of Mexico would not survive. Despite heavy lobbying from European ambassadors, especially the British one, whose Queen was related to Maximilian through dynastic marriages, no reprieve was offered. 

The Last Emperor – III

March 26, 2021

Traditionally, condemned prisoners are put into a carriage or a cart to be taken for execution. The Emperor, however, walked about a kilometer to the Hill of Bells, where he and his two generals were to be shot. The hill rises just a hundred meters from where he had surrendered a month earlier. Perhaps he asked for this walk, so he could spend his last half-hour admiring the trees on his route and on the hillside, newly green from the first summer rains. 

The Hill of the Bells gets its name not because of any actual bells, but because of the metallic stones found there. Guides on the site will strike a large stone with a small one, producing a ringing sound, slightly resembling the sound of a bell. None were struck (so far as we know) on that June morning, but they add a strange mystique to the place, as do the little green parrots that fly between the trees. 

And so, just as the sun rose, the firing squad assembled. All reports indicate Maximiliano was polite and brave that morning. He provided a gold coin for each soldier, requesting that they not shoot at his head, so his mother could view his corpse without horror. He and General Miramon died almost instantly, while General Mejia lasted a minute or two after the fusillade. 

Inside the chapel on Hill of the Bells. Marble cubes mark where (L to R) Mejia, Miramon and Maximilian stood to die.

Maximilian’s body was embalmed, and displayed to those who cared to view it. A couple of months later, it was taken to the warship Novara, which three years earlier had brought him to Veracruz, and carried back for burial in Vienna.

Queretaro became a despised place, the Ciudad Maldita – “The accursed city ” – for years afterwards, its citizens viewed as traitors to the young nation, although today it is prosperous and receives many visitors. The current pandemic has hurt its industrial economy, but the old core of the town, rebuilt after the fighting of 1867, is a delight for fans of colonial streets and churches. It fell into disrepute 150 years ago, but today it draws many people curious about Maximilian’s short, three-year imperium, and his efforts to install a progressive-minded monarchy in a country that had little appetite for one.

It’s easy to dismiss him as a naive dreamer, for naivete was his downfall. He was advised not to go in the first place, by various sensible people. But, his decree to execute those who fought against him aside, he was a capable and well-intentioned ruler who might have shaped Mexico very differently. Benito Juarez, who died in office of a heart attack five years after his imperial opponent, became more autocratic in his later years, ruling by decree when he couldn’t obtain legislative majorities any more. Establishing a stable democracy was not a simple task, and in a few years Juarez’ Republican rival, Porfirio Diaz, had become the country’s virtual dictator. Revolution was to come in 1910, and Diaz went to France, where he died.

Each of these men had a vision, and the ability to realise it. Wandering the streets of Queretaro this past week, I could feel how their ghosts, or at least the idea of their ghosts, still haunts the place. Following Maximilian’s walking route to the Hill of the Bells, and being in the building where he spent his last few days and nights, made this well-intentioned man seem a little more real than he had in my earlier explorations of places he’d known.

Oliguibel’s statue of Benito Juarez.

Olaguibel’s ugly black pile of stones, the final revenge of Republicans on their last Emperor, disrespects Maximilian, and thereby fails to obliterate him as was intended. 

And Carlota? 

Her breakdown was extreme enough to leave her on the sidelines of royal life. She was cared for well enough, by the standards of her time, but she was never again a public figure. She kept her souvenirs of Maximilian, and Mexico, close by her until her death from pneumonia in 1927, at the age of 86.

But at the time it happened, her psychiatrist, with the agreement of relatives, refused to let her know her husband had been killed. She was even persuaded to go to Belgium for care, under the pretext of an invented telegram from her already-dead spouse. And some historians believe the information was concealed from her, by careful references to long-term imprisonment, until the day she died. 

Vaccination Day

March 18, 2021

The past year has been hard on friendships. Some of us decided early on to mask up and avoid group situations, while others became anti-vax and anti-mask evangelists, and began delivering a relentless sermon that lasted all summer, all fall, and all winter. I now know every silly, unscientific theory in existence about vaccines, viruses and mendacious governments. And, of course, all about Bill Gates and his microchips. My social circle has been judiciously pruned as a result.

Finally, just before last weekend, Tepoztlan announced that the Pfizer vaccine would be made available to people over 60 for three days starting on Tuesday, March 16, the day after Benito Juarez Day. Two locations, a school in town and a soccer field, were being used for this.

There was widespread anticipation, and I planned to go in with my friend Ixchel as soon as a long-awaited plumber had turned up to install a water filter. However, by the time he was done and had left with my cash in his pocket, she had messaged and phoned me to tell me that the lines were insanely long, everything was backed up, and she was going home. 

A spontaneous protest by angry people who had waited in the sun with aging relatives closed the day’s operations, I heard. The cult of the abuela, the grandmother, is a strong one here, and protecting family matriarchs, or at least looking like you do, is a significant part of the social structure. 

The line-up on the first afternoon. Cannier people brought chairs for family matriarchs (and patriarchs) to sit on.

We both considered waiting for an opportunity next month, but decided to give it a second try today, Thursday, the last of the three days. So, this morning we put ourselves in the line for the school vaccination centre, and waited.  And waited.

After 20 minutes, the line had not moved. Fortunately, the staff for this operation, which was admittedly a big one for a town this size, were now on top of what was going on, and came to recommend we go down to the soccer field, where there were few people waiting. We did this, and while a couple of hundred people were already there when we arrived, people were moving on through the system. Just getting under the protective awning past the entrance gate felt like hope. We kept having to shift forward one row of seats as people moved through the system, so we finally had the sense of making progress.

Sure enough, around an hour later, we had moved to the fronts of two different lines, and the anticlimactic moment of the actual jab happened. We were asked to wait another 20 minutes to ensure we had no adverse reactions, then left after receiving a basic certificate of vaccination, and a provisional date for the second injection.

We had to play musical chairs under the awning, moving ahead to the next row of seats as others received injections.

The feeling of freedom from anxiety wasn’t what I’d expected. But finally, other than being careful and avoiding the conspiracy-theory crowd entirely, we had a realistic protection against the wretched disease. After just one jab, it’s not the whole deal, but my body now has the tool it needs to build advance resistance to the virus, assuming I’ve not already encountered and defeated it sub-clinically. 

And the day just looked brighter as a result. We walked to a place for lunch, ran into a mutual friend who had also just had her jab and was feeling similarly relieved, and felt more gratitude than we had in months.

I had to go home to wait for a man to deliver a load of water, as I mentioned in my last post, so home I went after finishing my enchiladas. He came when expected, and later so did Jorge, our local blacksmith, who was coming to examine the front gate of the small house I’m fixing so I can rent it out. 

Indeed, if the pump on the water truck hadn’t surged fiercely, making the hose jump so that it bent the inner security gate out of alignment, and soaking the garage area, I’d have had a perfect day. But jump it did, and Jorge has to see if he can fix that gate, too. And Rem, my canine anarchist for whom the inner gate had to be installed in the first place, tried to bite Jorge, though thankfully he only chomped on a mouthful of jeans.

Rem, the canine anarchist.

So, apart from facing a combined 1,300 peso repair bill, and having to apologise for Rem’s over-protectiveness, this was a semi-perfect day. Either way, I have the jab now. If I do run into anti-vax evangelists in town, I can tell them I put my deltoid muscle where my mouth is, and I now consider myself a superior human as a result. Or at least a pandemically insulated one.

A Season of Dryness

March 17, 2021

My first two summers here didn’t impress me. When the rains began, they’d be heaviest at night, then in the morning, the street would be an inch deep with flowing water. There was no dryer in the house, so air drying clothes could take days. I got used to damp socks. And whenever the annual Fiesta of Maria Magdalena came, on and around July 22, visitors knew they had to bring umbrellas.

Last summer, I wondered where the storms were. Sure, it rained, but not torrentially. We had occasional downpours, but only on one or two mornings did I have to play hopscotch over the cobbles in the street. The corn crop, oddly, was plentiful, pushing down prices, but the underground aquifer here was not fully replenished. There is a rudimentary piped water system in place, but most of us still order a truckload of water for washing purposes a few times a year. Since the piped system doesn’t yet run up to our little street, which lies above much of the village, a water-truck isn’t a rare sight.

At the start of March, the warning went out that people needed to conserve water. Some parts of the hills were declared off-limits because of the fire risk from people leaving bottles that might concentrate solar rays, or even discarding cigarette butts. 

This house has a system for capturing rainwater, and there’s been no need to top it up since the rains ended at the start of November. But with last year’s low yield, I’m finally down to eight or nine inches of water, so today I ordered a tanker-load. Evi, who coordinates the deliveries, says Ruben will come with the water tomorrow.

Ruben and his water-truck, pictured last summer, delivering water before the cistern here had refilled.

Usually, placing my order with Evi at the village hardware store is straightforward, but this time it came with caveats. I mustn’t use water on plants, and of course there’s to be no topping-up of swimming pools. A pool I don’t have, though I will have to watch some plants wilt over the next three months before the new rains (hopefully) start. They’ll have to manage with the rinse water from when I hand-wash my socks.

Predictions that I’ve read about La Niña and El Niño events don’t seem to explain the fluctuation in the rainfall pattern that we had last year (meteorologist readers, please clarify this if you can), so I don’t know what we can expect in summer 2021. Oddly, when I was bemoaning the streams running down our main street in 2010 and 2011, northern Mexico and the southern US were experiencing drought conditions, due to a prolonged La Niña event. Most things I read online only refer to Mexico as a whole, which doesn’t help, since the country’s weather zones are very diverse, and don’t fit into one single pattern.

But like anyone who ponders possible climate shifts, I wonder how, if and when we’ll see a long-term shift to drier (or, even, wetter) summers. With no vast network of northern Canadian rivers and lakes to draw on for water, we know that here a prolonged drought would cause not just a need to let the garden shrubs die, but many other unpleasant effects to follow.