Rock of Ages

January 15, 2020

Eroding coral copy.jpg

Today’s topic.

I’ve been reading alarmed reports recently about repeated eruptions from Popocatepetl, with some people interpreting them as signs of an imminent seismic apocalypse. But in reality, Don Goyo, Mexico’s most famous volcano, lets off steam and a bunch of ash the same way that Toronto gets snow in winter: regularly and frequently, if slightly unpredictably.

It’s really neat to see a plume of smoke and ash rising from the cone, at least from the safe distance of 25 miles or so that lies between my village and the summit. The volcano is most beautiful after rain, however, which tends to fall at those heights as snow, and coats its enormous bulk in white.

Once, in unimaginably ancient times, this village was covered by seawater. There were coral reefs where there are now rocky hillsides, and seaweed where there are now jutting promontories and small peaks.

I guessed this to be the case when I first came here, since there were so many strata visible in the rockfaces. Volcanic activity here has come and gone over millions of years, changing the topography. At intervals, more sedimentary rocks have been laid down between the periods of volcanism.

Some seven or eight years ago, I was walking on a hillside trail when I spotted a large, patterned rock, just as I was close to finishing the house I was building. It was a chunk of fossilised coral, knocked out of a rockface by some unnoticed tremor, that with the rains of many years had eventually arrived where I was standing looking at it. It was a perfect ornament to go beside my outside stairs.

Years ago, when my kids were small, I would take them to a stream in Erin Mills, the part of Mississauga in Ontario where we lived, to find fossils of seashells. They had washed out from soft, sedimentary rock upstream, and they made neat talking-points on a bookshelf. I think, though, I was more interested in them than my kids, who just saw greyish-green stones with streaks on them, while I saw very ancient history. Anyway, for me finding the coral was an extension of that old pastime.

Now, getting the coral home wasn’t the same as fetching back a clamshell fossil that fit in my hand. This thing weighed 30 lb, and I had to lug it half a mile home. But, I felt, in doing this I was earning the ownership of it. And I’ve never seen a specimen as large or fine here since.

A couple of years passed, and I came back to Toronto to earn more money for my retirement. One time, I asked Ofelia, the woman who rented my house what had happened to my fossil, but she had no idea. I guessed it had been discarded as just another lump of rock.

More time passed, and I returned here. Ofelia had died, and someone else had taken it. He didn’t know about any fossil, either. But then one day, soon after I’d come back, there was a discussion about the security of the corral where our dogs spend their daytime hours.

“Well, just use the big rock to hold the gate shut,” said my friend Lucero.

“Which rock?” I asked, not thinking clearly, so she showed me.

It had been used for this purpose for some months, and much of the coral pattern had been worn away. What had been living creatures millions of years ago, and had taken many more to impress itself as a fossil in limestone, was largely erased for ever.

There was, obviously, a lesson in the philosophical concept of impermanence here. There was also an opportunity for me to extract some emotional leverage for the damage done to something irreplaceable. But I knew there must be more pieces of such petrified coral in existence, and this specimen was not unique. So, I opted for half-baked Buddhism, while privately lamenting the ancient pattern’s erasure. And since it was too late to prevent the harm, and it was – after all – a rock, I let the topic go.

But I do look at the rock from time to time, and gaze at the coral pattern still etched along the un-abraded edges. It’s a simple reminder of how easily the earth can display its immense age when it isn’t covered by concrete or asphalt.

From Mirador - 4  copy.jpg

Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl seen from a hillside above the village. Once, the ocean covered this place.

In such a mood, I took the photo at the top on our patio one afternoon a couple of weeks ago. I stepped back, admiring my worn find. I was soon joined by Punky, one of the three surviving dogs here. Examining the object of my attention, he commenced his own palaeontological enquiries, sniffing it from all possible angles. Did he, perhaps, detect some faint hint of saltwater impressed into the rock aeons ago? Or even grasp, from a lingering aroma of compressed lime and clay, how it had lain within the rock of the hillsides of so long?

I’ve no idea. For he then did what any sensible dog would do faced with the presence of immense history, and lifted his hind leg, anointing the damaged fossil with a pungent scent of his own.

I’m very fond of Punky, but I fear he just doesn’t have that much scientific curiosity.

Happy Punky-1 copy.jpg

Punky rolling around on the patio.

Grave Difficulties

Back in the summer, I wrote about the dog Oliver, whom I’ve cared for since I returned to Mexico just over a year ago. Ollie was always very thin, but a few weeks before Christmas, he seemed thinner than usual. His ribs stuck out, his waist was smaller, and there was little muscle on him. I tried changing his food, and giving him some anti-parasite meds, but his condition didn’t improve. This past Tuesday, since he was terrified of being taken to strange places like veterinarians’ offices, we called the vet in to look at him. The verdict, derived from blood and urine tests, plus a physical exam, was that he had no infections, but his kidneys seemed to be under stress, and probably there were other things wrong with him that needed further examinations. My neighbour Gabriel, who has bred show dogs, was a source of informed opinions, but he’s also an anxious man, and I was careful about accepting all his views.

Oliver was about thirteen years of age, which is very old for a large dog, especially one who’d been very sickly as a young animal. I’d realised he probably wouldn’t last the year, and began making an extra fuss of him at mealtimes, usually the only point in the day when he was okay about receiving attention.

DSCF2021 copy.jpg

Olive in his corral, pictured last week.

Friday, I was in town till the afternoon, and didn’t look for Ollie in the corral until dinnertime, around six. When I called him four or five times and he didn’t come, I looked more carefully, and I soon saw him.

My guess is that he’d died around midday, since rigor mortis had now set in. It might have been a stroke or a heart attack, or … we don’t really know. His body had been lying in the sun for some hours, and was beginning to swell. We could have called the vet to take his body and “dispose” of it, but that wasn’t what was going to happen. His former kennel-mate Kato is buried under the trees above the house, and Ollie deserved to lie there near him. So, Gabriel and I wrapped him in a couple of scotch-taped garbage bags to keep off the insects overnight, and put him into our large dog-bath with a further cloth covering. The sun was just going down, so we resolved to dig a grave in the morning.

It’s hard to describe the terrain here, because we’re on a steep slope. You climb stairs to get to the main back door, and the back wall of the property is thirty feet or more above the level of the back patio. Long ago, this was a cow pasture, but the municipality asked us to build a wall, and without grazing animals it’s become overgrown. After breakfast, I looked to find an appropriate flat area, and, using a rather small shovel the house’s owners keep here, dig out a place for Oliver. My feeling was he’d have appreciated a site with a view overlooking the corral where he lived, so I selected a flat patch and began shifting dirt.

Yes, well.

The soil here, known as tepetate, is a mix of clays and reddish volcanic dust. It’s very fertile, and for building, it has the merit that it doesn’t loosen much with earth tremors. It can absorb the energy of quite major quakes. However, it’s extremely hard, and has a lot of large stones and rocks. Before I began, I figured it would take me at least two hours to dig out a hole big enough for large dog, and since it was going to get really hot by midday, I set to it just before nine.

DSCF2040.jpg

Nearly three inches down into the hard tepetate. Yes, exactly.

I did well. After forty-five dehydrating minutes, I’d gotten down nearly three inches through the hard earth. With Gabriel’s help, I figured, and knowing our energy would sag the longer we worked, we might get a grave dug by sunset. That is, provided the small injuries I’d sustained hacking into the earth didn’t accumulate to become major ones.

Gabriel took his turn, and soon declared we needed a pickaxe to break up the hard-packed earth. I suggested we buy one from the large new hardware store on the edge of town, but before we got very far from the house, it occurred to him to ask the guy building a house in our laneway if we had one we could borrow. The man, Valentin, did, and was happy to get his teenage son to fetch it and lend it to us for an hour or so. We tried working with it, and concluded we might even finish by mid-afternoon. Ollie, in the heat of the central Mexican day, would by then be … deteriorating, shall we say.

DSCF2033.jpg

Gabriel trying his hand and breaking the earth. The tinaco, the water-tank, is visible above-right.

“Let’s just ask those guys if they want to earn some cash,” Gabriel suggested, an idea I’d already contemplated, though I wasn’t sure how to approach them. So we went back, and Gabriel negotiated a decent offer, and the two of them took us up on it. Valentin’s son is only fourteen, but he’s built like a football player, with bulging muscles and a strong back.  I was impressed by both of them as they attacked the tepetate. Mexicans’ ability to take the physical punishment of hard labout always astonishes me.

DSCF2031.jpg

Sixty pounds of rocks in a bucket? All in a morning’s work for Valentin.

Sure enough, in twenty minutes, they were down six or seven inches. But they’d hit a problem: rock. How much, how big? We couldn’t determine: you can’t when you’re digging downwards. But it was big enough. We could have asked them to dig elsewhere but the problem was, the conditions are the same all over the sloping wilderness that, once, we planned to turn into a hillside garden. Maybe, as happened with Kato’s grave six years ago, we’d hit a patch that was clear of large rocks down far enough. And maybe we’d try five locations and they’d all have boulders a few inches under the surface.

Valentin proposed the solution. Next to the rock platform with the tinaco, the water-tank we fill to have a gravity-feed of running water, there was a space with the property’s wall to one side. Why not bury Ollie just there, under the rocks and earth we’d already dug up?

General construction workers here always have a stash of everything they might need, and he had a little cal, or lime, that would prevent the occupant developing rich aromas and becoming a magnet for rats. We could pile the earth we’d already excavated, then some of the rocks, on top. Architecturally, it wouldn’t win prizes, but it would do the job.

I’m being matter-of-fact, almost flippant here, but all the while we had to deal with the fact we’d lost a friend. Gabriel was more dismayed than me, since he’d assumed Ollie might be cured of his current ailment and enjoy another year or so of life. I was – am – upset, having worked to make that scared animal feel secure and loved, but as I said, I also felt his time was very close. Having pets requires, at a certain point, a readiness to let them go, especially when they hit their dotage. Two others here – Ollie’s half-sister Victoria, and the little poodle-cross Punky, who’s now blind – are similarly in their last years, and I watch them for signs of decline. Ollie left us faster than I expected, but I was half prepared for his departure.

So, around 1.00 pm, with the dog’s remains placed in the grave and the lime, earth and some rocks placed over him, the job was done. Right next to his little tomb is the rock platform with the tinaco on it, and I can imagine his spirit standing on that, looking down over the corral and out into the field where the cows and horses wander to graze.

DSCF2044.jpg

Inelegant, perhaps, but secure, and with a nice view from the adjoining rock platform.

Faced with the actuality of anyone’s existence ending, we all conceive of different fates for those we’ve lost, and my idea here is that he’s looking down at Rem, our much younger Labrador-cross who’d try to steal his food, and thinking: “Dude, I’m above you now.”

Gabriel had a different thought.

“Did you leave his collar on him?” he asked me, and I replied that I had.

“That’s good, he has something to pay the boatman on his way to the afterworld.”

It was a mix of Greek and Mexican traditions, but I like the imagery.

An Old Farmer

January 3, 2020

Two or three times a week, he gets on the microbus heading into town, with his two churns of milk. One is bigger than the other, but since he appears my own age, both must feel really heavy for him to bring down to the roadway and hoist into the combi. Usually, somebody helps him position the churns as he gets on, as I did this morning.

This area is still cattle country, and cows in the road are a traffic hazard that has caught many an unwary outsider who’s forced to screech to a halt after taking a bend too confidently.

Cows copy.jpg

Cows here wander the roadways, like these I photographed near the entrance to the village. Drivers from elsewhere don’t expect to encounter them, and often have to brake hard when they do.

But every month, I see another plot of land has been hived off a field for someone to build a house, so the available pasturage is shrinking. There’s grazing up in the hillside meadows, where few people want to build, but even there the foundations and walls are arriving in a few places.

I figure, then, that he’s part of a dying breed. Many people comment on the waning of farming here, as the rewards for the effort keep diminishing. Some still like the independence of it, but once the next generation gives up on it, there’s no turning back. Land is sold, either for houses or, in some cases, consolidation under corporate ownership.

Not long ago a friend and I, out hiking, came across a cornfield that took ten or fifteen minutes to get right around. It was clearly not part of a traditional smallholding. And there are media stories about a problem in the tequila industry, where young men no longer want to harvest the blue agave plants for the usual wages.

The older man can’t make much money off his milk. His jeans and shirts are ragged, and even if they’re just work clothes, there are ranchers round here who are better dressed for their jobs. He looks like he barely makes ends meet. I don’t know the math of the milk business, or the capacity of his milk churns, but he only has a dozen gallons or less to take to the dairy each day. That he doesn’t own even a beat-up pickup for transportation is telling.

10_gallon_milk_churn_2.jpg

Milk churns – just in case you’ve never seen one, or have forgotten what they look like.

He’s a tall man for a Mexican, and thin, but shy, and doesn’t look to engage the other passengers, even the occasional friends he greets. I’ve never felt I could ask him personal questions. He is traditionally religious, raising his battered hat as we pass a church or roadside shrine. My assumption is that he’s been a dairy farmer for so long, he has no idea of what else he could or should so. He’ll simply continue as long as he can.

But as with so many people here, I wonder what he makes of the changes that have happened over the decades. His generation grew up with their parents and grandparents telling them stories about the 1910 Revolution, in houses without electricity or running water. The road to Amatlan was paved around fifty years ago, around the same time that cables on poles brought electrical power and the first pay telephone to the village. TV followed later in the 1970s, though not many people could afford even a second-hand set until the 1980s. Everything happened thirty or forty years later than it did elsewhere in North America.

Now, my farmer can see the old ways of farm life disappearing. How our food will be produced in future is shown by that big cornfield I mentioned, with its hundred acres or more. And this approach will keep down the cost of eating, whatever else we lose by it.

What I appreciate is that I can still see aspects of how it comes together – while, of course, not having to work at it myself. I pass fields of calabasas (zucchinis, or courgettes), tomatoes, nopales (edible cactus) and of course maize, and can watch to see how it develops. I even fret over the rainfall, as I did last summer, when so little came down in the first part of the growing season; and was cheered to see the reservoirs filled by the end of November.

Reservoir.jpg
A rain-fed reservoir outside of the village, where ranchers bring cows and horses for watering.

I like to think the man on the combi, despite the hardships of his livelihood, still enjoys that same connection to the rhythm of the seasons. Maybe his inherited knowledge won’t be needed when all our food comes from large corporate operations, but at least I’ve lived here while it still exists.

All the Way to Eleven

Often, like most expats, I complain about the Mexican love of explosive rockets. Cohetes are let off on religious festivals, at high points during a Mass, at any semi-significant halting point in a religious procession; to mark public holidays, birthdays, and any event considered vaguely worthy of a loud bang. In my village, this covers at least one occasion on most weekends. During the annual fiestas for the Marias – the Virgin of Guadalupe in December, Maria Magdalena in high summer – several hundred rockets are released in a day.

And of course, this being New Year’s Eve, people will have stocked up on rockets to let off at midnight. And for some time after that.

One or two of the dogs will spend the time cowering under my bed, and I’ve sometimes thought about joining them.

go-to-11-app-prototyping-tools.jpg

All the way up to eleven…

The Christmas season here includes a jarepeo, a three-evening event of bull-riding, which would have been fun if the band they hired had been (a) any good, and (b) had used a sound system that wasn’t designed for metal bands in their stadium-rock heyday. Standing with me sixty feet from the speakers, R and I got to enjoy the pounding from the bass and drums as a physical sensation in our chests. After three bulls had thrown their riders, we gave up. She was feeling physically uncomfortable, while I was reflecting on how Pete Townshend had lost most of his hearing.

I’ve been at family events here where the music is so loud, conversation in my broken Spanish becomes impossible. I arrive, I smile, mouth some greetings, eat some food, have a drink and seek my moment to leave. I could try prolonged, inane smiling, I know, but that has its communicative limits.

Why, I’ve always wondered, do people do this? There are occasions (The Who in their prime doing yet more damage to Townshend’s and Roger Daltry’s eardrums being one) where loudness is fun. At least it is, if you’re not Pete or Roger. But while some traditional music would be fine with the bull-riding, speech-blocking pounding is not.

pete_t_3355812b.jpg

The old master doing a windmill on his guitar.

Mexicans seem immune to it, or able to shrug off the assault, but I wonder if they’re aware it could be turned down with enough requests. Sporting events, and the jarepeo is a sport, call for making comments at every skillful turn or dextrous act of balance, but 145 decibels of electronically enhanced bass-strings tend to pre-empt that possibility. R was so distracted at one point, she didn’t catch the crowd’s roar as a bull came out, the roar being drowned by the band.

Brass bands have long been a mainstay of local culture, and a local funeral isn’t a properly discharged affair without musical accompaniment following the deceased to the cemetery. But that’s unamplified: it’s music at the level where it can be appreciated, unless of course the deceased was a close friend or relative. In that instance, it’s hoped the deceased appreciates it via some post-mortem capability that I can’t imagine.

But the village church, for example, likes to broadcast religious music and even some ceremonies over a speaker system on its 55-ft tower. Since my house is on a rise 300 yards away, I can enjoy this at its best when it starts at 6.00 am (or earlier) on a Sunday morning.

And sometimes, people come here to hold a Saturday wedding that keeps on partying till 3.30 am. You can’t very well argue that a wedding should be less boisterous, but there is a point where other people wish they could get to sleep.

I don’t know if Mexico will ever lose its love of loudness. I think there’s a sense in which it unifies people: if you can’t think, you have to join in the collective mood. Still, the best thing about it is that eventually it stops.

“I like Amatlan, because it’s so peaceful there,” people often say to me.

Yes, I say between clenched teeth, it is. At least part of the time. But not tonight.

Then and Now – and Pizza

Tim, who runs Juanito’s restaurant in town, wants to open a second place, with a different menu. One of his motivations, he told me, was a slice of pizza he had a while ago, which was soggy, and flopped in his hand. Tim has worked in foodservice for most of his life, and he knows his pizza, and he knows the proper recipe.

All the news media have been running retrospective lists of everything that happened in 2019, so I’ve found myself reflecting back through the year and then back to my own earliest visit here around 2006. Tepoztlan was a quieter town then, and Amatlan, my village, was perhaps twenty percent less populous. From a certain point along the road into town, I could see the lights down in the plain below, and there were fewer of them than there are today.

There were also just two places in town offering uniformly limp pizza, something I’ve successfully avoided in Mexico since.

J, who has lived here since the 1980s, tells me Tepoztlan was a paradise when she first came here. I don’t know if that observation includes the experience the local people had of their lives, but it was definitely much quieter and more traditional. My first visit showed me a place that seemed barely awake at 10.00 am on a weekday. There was no Moroccan restaurant, nor an Indian one, almost no bars, and far fewer hotels. And no Juanito’s, of course, so the only available burgers were pretty bad. The town that attracted filmmakers (The Magnificent Seven and Two Mules for Sister Sara were partly shot here) because of its unchanged nature is now filling up with souvenir stalls and posadas offering weekend getaways.

Mercado in 1950.jpg

The main square, pictured here with a half-dozen fruit and food stalls around 1950, is now home to the main Tepoztan market.

The specific trigger for this post today was the sight of three men trying to heave a large metal signpost into place. It indicates which way to drive for this hotel or for that location, where ten years ago, a visitor would simply have asked a local person for directions. Even now, travel articles still refer at times to Tepoztlan as a village, despite it having around 14,000 permanent residents.

Mercado copy.jpg

Inside the market today, on a quiet Tuesday. There are about 60 stalls, more on special market days. The fountain is still there in the middle, though it’s often dry.

There’s little point complaining about the changes, since all of us who’ve come here have helped drive them. Weekend refugees from Mexico City have bought or built houses here, and Airbnb has had a bad effect on the availability of rooms and apartments, helping push up rental costs by more than half in the past four years.

Revolucion in 1950.jpg

The Avenida de la Revolucion 1910, pictured c. 1950. There were, reportedly, only two or three cars in the town then. The big church is the Convent of the Nativity.

This being Christmas week, the town is full of visitors and people here to stay with family. The Avenida Revolucion de 1910 is closed to allow the slightly (or severely) drunken to wander safely past the stalls selling t-shirts with cutesy Frida Kahlo images on them, quasi-shamanic tchotchkes, or gaily painted terracotta skulls. I go there to buy food, but I don’t stay long when the town is so full.

Xmas on Revolucion.jpg

This week, Avenida de la Revolucion 1910 is closed so more people can stroll the stalls. The Convent towers peek into the frame, top left.

I have no cause to complain about the changes, since my presence here helps fuel them. My village is still a farming community, with splendid views from the right spots, and clean air. There’s no rush-hour, no pressure, no harried commuters. The micro-bus gets full in the evenings, but people retain their courtesy and mutual goodwill.

The year-end being a time to consider what’s worthwhile in life, this is a pretty good place to be. But like all things, it’s changed, and it keeps on changing. The next generation of expats might need to look for somewhere else.

Unless, of course, Tim has, by then, improved the pizza.

Storefront dreams

December 16, 2019

On my lane – it’s narrow, and a dead end, not an actual street – someone constructed a new house earlier this year. Initially, I thought the downstairs was a garage, but soon I could see it was too small for a regular car. Finally, the neighbour told me it would be an abarrotes.

When I came across this word abarrotes, I couldn’t at first make sense of it. It comes from a verb meaning “to pack,” but in the vernacular it simply means “groceries.” In some communities people use the word miscelanea instead, which carries the connotation of a general store, but in Amatlan and other places nearby, abarrotes is the preferred term. The word can refer to anything from a small space selling bottled water, canned beans and packets of snackfood to a slightly larger enterprise offering vegetables, milk, packaged cold cuts and cleaning supplies. But, a supermarket it’s not.

DSCF1965.jpg

Abarrotes Eben-Ezer: a supermarket it’s not. The sign on the ground in front advertises ice (hielo).

The village’s economy made little sense to me in the early days, since it seemed as if a community of just a thousand people couldn’t support more than three or four little grocery outlets. And there were six or seven abarrotes. Now, we have nine functioning stores in and around the village, plus a couple that open at odd times – and that’s not counting the one the neighbour is readying.

The attraction, of course, is the low cost of entry. Retail’s a lousy way to earn a living, but if you have a house with street frontage, it isn’t hard to convert part of it to a small shop. Around here, every second male over twenty has worked in construction, so help in the conversion is available within the family circle. The initial batch of stock can be modest, and in time can be expanded to include cigarettes, beer or tequila, and whatever you notice that no-one else is offering in the immediate vicinity. The biggest place in the village, for example, does a solid trade in sacks of dry dogfood, there being a couple of hundred dogs here.

DSCF1985.jpg

Abarrotes Sara wasn’t doing much business when I took this shot.

The cliche of small business in Mexico is the taco stand. That, too, doesn’t cost much to open, but it’s labour-intensive. You need to prepare each meal, as well as chop up a lot of ingredients before starting for the day. Then, there’s only business around meal-times. You also have to allow for wastage on slow days. Two or three times, people have tried launching actual restaurants here, but each time they’ve failed.

DSCF1990.jpg

This store just has a banner on the front. Its sideline is selling tortillas by the dozen (“por docena”). Mexicans love their soda pop and snack-foods, and have a high rate of diabetes as a result.

Another option is the hairdressing salon, which often offers manicures or other beauty care. Again, the cost of entry is slight (you don’t really need a revolving barber chair), the main expense being the necessary training to cut and style hair. And since a lot of women learn to do this for people in their families, that skill-set isn’t hard to acquire.

With a tiny grocery store, though, you can leave your twelve-year-old in charge while you feed the baby or cook the family meal, and of course hs or her labour comes free. The business can expand with time, or – this seems to be the most popular option – remain a sideline. Doña Sofia, just opposite the church, opens her place at unpredictable hours, and perhaps only sees two dozen customers a day. She sells canned goods, water, soda-pop, fresh eggs, candies and knick-knacks, and spends much of the day in front of her TV in the living room behind the store.

She’s elderly now, and if she hears me enter, takes a couple of minutes to come to the front. But her place is the closest to my house, and that’s an advantage for carrying bottled water, though Sofia doesn’t stock the most reliable brand. I could get water delivered, but then I’d lose a point of connection with the community. I decided some years ago that keeping the old ladies on my side was sound neighbourhood politics.

But other than the two or three largest places, it’s obvious an abarrotes here doesn’t produce much of a revenue stream. The aim in Mexico, so often, is to multiply the ways your family generates income. Possibly the father works in construction or farming, the eldest kids work in the market in town or, if they’re a little educated, in municipal government office or a bank, and the mother runs the store. All put together, these are enough to support a family. It’s not an easy life, but the children learn responsibility at an early age – and everyone eats.

At the same time, the abarrotes concept often seems to be one of those hopeful things that doesn’t necessarily play out well. I usually buy a preferred brand of drinking water from a store that has a steady stream of customers. I rarely go into other places, like Doña Sofia’s, that don’t. Skulking round today photographing different places, I found three that I thought were still in business, but weren’t.

DSCF1991.jpg

Abarrotes Martin closed some time in the past year.

Sometimes, the effort to maintain a small sideline isn’t worth the time or the electricity bill for the cooler for the soda pop. And sometimes, even a modest dream can be too hard to pull off. After all, that pop and the chips might be popular, but people are learning they’re prime contributors to the nationwide surge in diabetes.

That little place my neighbour is building? The house looks fine for a small family, but there are only seven houses fronting onto our lane. To reach it from the street, you have to walk up a short but disconcertingly steep incline.

Somehow, I don’t see it taking off. So, maybe his plan B should be to buy an extremely small car; he has a pre-built garage, after all.

Update, December 30, 2019: Two people have told me you get a government subsidy here for opening a small business. So, this is a factor in why people like to start an abarrotes.

Cuetlaxochitl

December 14, 2019

“Huh?” I hear most of you mutter at my headline. Which only goes to prove my hearing is still pretty good.

The cuetlaxochitl is sometimes known by its Latin name, Euphorbia pulcherrima (which none of the online translation sites will translate for me today), but more often it’s called by the one derived from the surname of the man who introduced it to the United States in 1822: Joel Roberts Poinsett. He was the US’ first Minister (i.e., ambassador) to Mexico. Odds are, half of you have one in your houses right now.

DSCF1969 copy.jpg

A fine plant in front of a village house.

Poinsettias mostly grew till then on the Pacific coast of Mexico and one or two Central American countries. Since then, they’ve spread across central Mexico.

In other parts of the world, they’re deliberately grown infected by poinsettia branch-inducing phytoplasma, a bacterium that makes them more squat and produce more flowers. Around here, they’re in people’s back yards, a dozen feet high or more, and in late November, as the days shorten, they quite suddenly turn scarlet. They need just five consecutive nights of more than twelve hours of darkness, then voila. Already in the village, flowers (actually red leaves, or bracts) on some of the shrubs that no-one waters are beginning to wilt.

DSCF1976.jpg

An almost-tree Poinsettia in a front yard.

Today, the usual name here for the plants is flor de NocheBuena, Noche Buena being the Mexican Spanish term for Christmas Eve. I read that in Spain they’re used to mark Easter, though since the redness has ebbed by then, I’m not sure what that’s all about. But there’s a big trade around this town in smaller potted NocheBuenas for houses that don’t have shrubs (trees, almost) in their gardens. The plant is inescapable right now.

In preColumbian times, the plant was used medicinally for fever reduction. You’ll still find the leaves described as toxic, but this is inaccurate, and you’d have to eat a whole plant, or more than one, to make yourself ill. If you try this, which would be stupid as well as unappetizing, it’s not my fault.

Oddly, Mr. Poinsett died on December 12, the day of the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s national religious icon. In the US, this has become National Poinsettia Day. His other interests included promoting Freemasonry in Mexico, so his involvement with the country was long-term.

His social and political work is now, of course, only known to specialist historians. However, the plant he favoured has perpetuated his name through most of two centuries. After its brief spurt of glory at the end of year, it’s an unsightly weed, and a spindly shrub. Unlike bugambilia (called bougainvillea in some places), which produces coloured bracts all year long, it has to wait for its seasonal moment of glory. But since US trade in the things alone runs to $250-million, it’s in no danger of disappearing any time soon.