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Where I Live

November 12, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

The main road leading into the village.

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

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

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

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

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

Groceries on weekdays, and pulque as well on weekends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The main street in Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl.

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

The church of Santa Maria Magdalena.

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

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The Quest for Home

August 25, 2020

Sometimes, on a grey, rainy day like today, I wonder why I’m here, and if I want to stay here. Amatlan is an outlying community, and insular in many ways. People aren’t unfriendly, but only a few welcome outsiders through their doors.

I’m a city person by nature, and when I was young and still living in the UK, I expected to spend most of my life in London, which was less than an hour away by train from my hometown. I ended up living in or around Toronto with its millions for forty years, and I still think of that as my home city.

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My long-term concept of home – Toronto’s waterfront, seen from Centre Island.

How I arrived there is an unusual tale, and for years I’ve tried writing a book about it. There are three incomplete drafts on my computer, none of which come close to satisfying me. Partly, it’s to do with shyness, or at least an internal debate over privacy; partly it’s to do with perfectionism; and partly because while what I went through back then still fascinates me, I don’t feel my personal story is particularly interesting. I was an observer of my small tribe of iconoclasts, not a major participant.

Now, not having finished a book puts me outside of a particular local club. My buddy Don Karp was first, writing his own memoir called The Bumpy Road a few years ago, detailing his various ups and downs before settling contentedly in nearby Tepoztlan. Shelley (Ixchel) Tucker, my frequent hiking partner, last year published Forever 25, about how she’s dealt with the death on military service of her son Gabriel, which happened while she was living in this village. And a few weeks ago, my neighbour Robin Rainbow Gate published Calling Myself Home, about how she finally found a sense of that mysterious entity called “home” in Amatlan.

Ixchel’s book strikes a powerful chord, since she and I bonded over finding we’d each lost a child. In my case, it was a three-year-old daughter with an undiagnosed condition: I was there with her on that terrible morning my Amanda went. In Ixchel’s case, her son died in Afghanistan, just at the end of his tour of duty, and thousands of miles from home. After publishing the book, she’s found a new community among survivors of war, and the families who’ve lost a child in war, while still living in Mexico, a forty-minute walk from my own home.

I finished Robin’s book three nights ago, and I found it tough going. She and I share certain attitudes to life and to our own selves, and various people crop up in her narrative that I know, or that have been part of my own experience. I can therefore fill in a few details she tactfully chose to omit from her narrative.

But she and I took opposite routes once we came here, a decade ago for me and 14 years for Robin. For her, it’s been a gradual journey into the community, where she has made a broad swath of friends and acquaintances. She’s studied and embraced some of the traditional ways, studying the herbs used in healing, and many of the old customs that linger among the local people.

I had some intentions to do the same thing when I arrived in 2010, but my core inclinations didn’t agree with the conscious intentions at all. I’d made a decent start on the language at The Spanish Centre in Toronto, and I figured I might achieve fluency when I’d been here long enough. But I made the mistake of going to a school here run by a woman who’d try to pack too much information into her students. She didn’t grasp that covering three tenses in one day wasn’t teaching, but a means of producing utter confusion. I left there with my confidence shattered, and spent months climbing back up to rudimentary proficiency. I finally figured out how to communicate with people, but I’ve always had to battle with local expressions, contractions and oddities of dialect.

Maybe if I’d come here earlier, I’d have had a more flexible attitude; Robin was two decades younger than I was at the point each of us found Amatlan. But I’ve always been frustrated by the language, even if at times I’ve felt “I was almost there today!” Going back to Canada for three years didn’t help, even if I did take more Spanish Centre lessons while I was in the city.

Reading Robin’s book, I’ve had to face that I’ve always needed to straddle two worlds. I chose living here because I didn’t have enough money to retire comfortably in Toronto. My long-term job disappeared after the 2008 financial crisis, and I arrived a couple of years before I’d planned to, with less preparation and less cash than I’d wanted. My plans to explore the country bit by bit didn’t get too far when cash became tight, I couldn’t work here legally, and my iffy language skills meant even illegal work would be limited.

And so on, and so on. But at root, I made a different choice.

Working through Robin’s book, I had to look at a number of things about me. I have only a qualified affinity for Mexican folk practices, or the messier aspects of rural life. I still flinch from the way animals here are treated, or how litter is tossed into ditches, eventually to make its way to the sea. I see popular Catholicism as a limiting thing, not an expression of emotionally moving traditions, and I’m not sure how deeply the non-Catholic practices are rooted in antiquity. Further, my spiritual perspectives come out of the “big” esoteric traditions, both Asian and European, not the ones field anthropologists come to study.

I want, in sum, my old lifestyle with its deep-rooted philosophical attitudes, but in a congenial climate that doesn’t feature five months of wind-chill each year. I want to wander hillside trails with vistas stretching miles, but also to know there are okay restaurants at the end of the walk. (There are).  And I want both local Mexican foods and food of a style closer to what I’ve always eaten. The quarantine makes everything harder, naturally, but I have to accept that I might live here with a permanent dissatisfaction.

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The view from a hillside trail with a vista stretching for miles, down over the town of Tepoztlan.

Robin describes times when it was difficult, but she’s pushed hard to make a multi-aspected life for herself. She’s fought to improve her understanding and reach, as the book shows, while I’ve often (not always) tended to think “Nah, not my thing.” And I’m going to continue feeling that way.

Maybe one day, I’ll go back to these three book drafts and try to convince myself I can lick that story into shape, and join the Amatlan Memoir Club. I sometime wonder, in fact, if for me “home” isn’t in a place, in Mexico, the UK or in Canada, but in being honestly rooted in shaping life-events, and the always forward thrust of life. Robin’s book, for example, traces her own history in some detail as she fought with what she’d been told or taught, and looked for what she truly wanted. Home isn’t necessarily found, so much as attained.

That’s a theme for another post, though.

 

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Sounds of Unsilence

July 29, 2020

My dog Rem noticed the sound first last night, and once he shut up whimpering and growling for a few seconds, I could hear it too. I tried to calm and reassure him.

“Rem, it’s a cat in heat. And it’s behind our back wall, so you can’t chase it – or them –away.”

He wasn’t convinced, and kept whimpering for ten minutes. But eventually had to abandon his desire to hunt down this intrusion into our shared space, and went back to sleep. Dogs are super alert to sounds, but they can also shut them out very efficiently.

Any human who comes to a place like Amatlan has their senses awakened in ways that aren’t possible in an urban setting. My next-door neighbour keeps a pig, which makes the most extraordinary noises as well as, at times, producing an astoundingly pungent smell in its sty. Another neighbour has set up a poultry coop, and anyone who walks by it gets a whiff that certainly jolts the brain awake.

But sounds are perhaps the things I notice most here. Because we’re on one side of a valley, I can hear the rain failing on the opposite side, 400 yards away, before it falls here. Thunder, which we had with this afternoon’s rainstorm, likewise echoes off the hillsides, and can sound like the very knell of Doomsday.

This morning, I needed to listen hard for two artificial sounds. It was Wednesday, which is when the garbage truck comes around. And, our propane cylinder had given out, and needed replacement.

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The loaded garbage truck heads back into town through the nearby community of Huilotepec.

My house is about 180 yards from the street, and bends in both the lane and the street itself complicates any sense of direction. It used to be that the garbage trucks here were equipped with tinny sound systems, and they’d play the Mexican hit tunes from decades ago as they came by. You could hear them three or four blocks away. Now, the awful music is gone, and the drivers simply honk as they pass on the street. But determining, from 180 yards away, where the truck is, or will be, isn’t easy.

Also, people here honk because they’re outside Uncle Pedro’s house, and have come to pick him up. Or because someone else’s vehicle is blocking their way. Or to say hi to another driver. Honkish is a tough language to interpret, although the garbage guys do beep to a slower rhythm than agitated car drivers.

The gas trucks, two or three in number, come to the village in the morning, and occasionally later in the day. People here have employed propane for cooking and heating water for a couple of generations, and because thunderstorms easily cut our electrical power, we all still need and use it. The trucks are equipped with something resembling a car alarm to alert their customers, and while few people have car alarms here, some do, so again there’s the chance of confusion.

Anyway, here I was at 8.30, down on the street so as not to miss either truck. I was in time for the garbage guys, but the noise they make (their trucks don’t run quietly) made it hard to hear the propane vendors’ not-so-dulcet tones, as they passed by on the other side of the village. And I realised how I was straining to use my ears in ways I never used to do when I lived in a city.

The road from town ends near my house, with only footpaths going beyond through the hills. This is one reason there’s extensive birdlife here, and a lot of birdsong. There are always dogs barking at each other, or at passing cows or horses, and around 4.00 am the roosters start up. Humans, too, yell at their kids a lot. Someone is always building or fixing a house, so there’s the sound of power tools for much of the day, as well as banging and thumping of various kinds. And because my house is above the level of the main village, all these noises easily reach here.

I’m grateful that I still have good hearing, even if that means I can’t exclude much of this noise. This village is rarely a silent place, because it lacks the background noises of larger communities, which people living in them naturally learn to ignore. But I’m far more aware of all sensory inputs here than I ever was in Toronto.

The village symphony places significant demands on the ears of both dog and human. It also makes me wish that both the garbage vendors and the propane people had chosen something less unlovely to alert their clientele that they’ve arrived.

But that’s Mexico for you. It’s never likely to hold back on the noise. We live with it, or we at least learn to hold our peace on the topic.

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A Non-Festive Fiesta

July 21, 2020

The first rockets went off as anticipated at 6.00 am. But apart from that, the festival of Santa Maria Magdalena isn’t happening the way it always does

Mary Magdalene was made matron saint of this village, I understand, because it was previously dedicated to the mother of Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent. There are several different versions of his legend and of his specific parentage, but it was deemed necessary to place this small community under the tutelage of a famously penitent woman to expunge the memory of the pagan goddess. I can’t say how long this has been the state of things, and Amatlan has only recently grown beyond a population of a couple of hundred people, but every year the place would go crazy around July 22. Simply driving in or out of the village could take ten minutes longer than usual, with all the visitors’ cars blocking the streets and laneways.

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The main street during the fiesta, in a more usual year.

The fiesta always starts the day before the feast day, with a salvo of cohetes, the explosive rockets beloved by the faithful here, and loathed by many other people and all dogs. But where in other years the main street would be lined with stalls selling trinkets, kids’ toys, t-shirts, pizza and beer, this year there are only four or five such puestos in place. And I doubt they’re getting customers. The small midway that is usually set up behind the church is completely absent.

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The stalls set up for the fiesta this year – all four of them

People here have become resigned to their church being closed, though this evening there is a prayer service being held there. Apart from the occasional funeral, it’s scarcely had its doors open since March. I assume baptisms are done in people’s homes, and weddings are simply on hold.

I can’t pretend I’m personally upset at this, and the lack of rockets and bells before dawn on a Sunday morning isn’t unwelcome. I’ve always preferred more subdued forms of worship. But I’m wondering what the long-term effect will be.

Public Catholicism still has a firm grip on local people, even if evangelical groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons have made significant inroads here in recent decades. It’s so embedded in the lifestyle, and so significant as a means of generating a revenue stream through sales of flowers and cohetes, hiring of musicians for funerals and all the peripheral consumerism around the rituals of worship, that its absence is at least extremely odd, as well as financially painful for many people.

I doubt though, that closed churches will produce a decline in the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe or the many lesser saints with their parish churches. In the absence of workplace insurance for workmen, a wooden cross on a construction site is seen as a standard way of warding off harm, just as images of the Virgin are found on dashboards, in stores, or set into the walls of houses.

But this year, Santa Maria Magdalena, our local protectress, will have to be content with reduced festivities to honour her. Not that this has stopped the woman who leads the singing at the church from broadcasting her devotions from the speaker system atop the church tower this evening. She’s a nice lady, but “singing” is not what anyone could seriously call the noise she’s making.

I think I might almost prefer a few more cohetes instead.

 

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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.

 

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A Matter of Timing

So much of life is about timing. You leave work a little early (in ordinary days), and get home half an hour before normal. You head for the airport ten minutes late, and you nearly miss your flight by getting caught behind an accident. In a village like Amatlan, some of the rhythms and synchronies of such matters become clearer because of the small scale of things.

Last evening, I went walking in the village. I was approaching the church on my way home, when I saw my next-door neighbour’s daughter approaching with a guy who looked like a new boyfriend. We waved, but she was obviously in a significant conversation, a trip to the store apparently offering a pretext for them to get away for a few minutes’ privacy.

Coming closer to the church, I saw a small car dash up past me, and brake suddenly. The driver and a woman got out, and the driver began shouting at another man, then pummeling him. It was one of the most vicious fist-fights I’ve seen: and social distancing was wholly abandoned. Naturally – though strictly in the spirit of sociological investigation, of course – I stopped to watch.

After a couple of minutes, the pummel-ee retreated through his gate, and the hubbub halted. The neighbour’s daughter and her beau now came back from the store, and passed me as I stood beside the church. I almost said there’d been a fist-fight, but there was now nothing to see, so I just smiled. And since I suspected they didn’t want me trailing right behind them, I stayed where I was in the street to let them get 40 metres or so ahead of me.

I was about to start home again when the fight broke out in a second round. I decided there was not much to learn at this point; there was also a slight risk of getting myself entangled as more neighbours came out, and the vortex of the violence potentially intensified. I don’t know how it ended, but I heard no police sirens, so I assume it subsided a short while after.

Up ahead, the neighbour’s daughter and her guy remained oblivious of what had happened, enjoying their saunter through the warm evening sunshine.

One minute earlier or later, and their walk would have been memorable for reasons wholly opposite to what they’d wanted.

Clouds and Rain

Our neighbourhood would be an ideal one for someone who wanted to study the way meteorology works. To the north of us are the mountains that surround Mexico City, and in passing through them, the bus goes past stretches of pine trees and alpine forest, with signs warning of ice that forms in bad weather. At 10,000 ft above sea-level, it’s not a hot part of Mexico.

On this side of that high crest, the mountains slope south and downward, breaking to form a kind of uneven shelf a mile wide and roughly five miles from east to west.  Roughly, it’s about 5,000 ft, or one mile, above sea-level. That’s where I am. At the west end of this shelf is a volcanic ridge, with the town of Tepoztlan rising up it. Here at the east end, the high hills push south to end the shelf, and provide a barrier between us and the volcano, Popocatepetl, about 25 miles away. This village, Amatlan, is surrounded by the high cliffs these hills form, while to the south, the shelf drops quite steeply down about 800 ft to the valley where the towns of Oacalco and Yautepec sit. Beyond that, still further south, are more ranges of hills.

 

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This reservoir for horses and cattle to drink is half full this August: a dark horizontal line on the left shows where the maximum water level would be. The reservoir is in sunshine, while the mountains to the north are crowned with rainclouds. Yet no rain came on this day.

From different vantage points, therefore, a person can see clear skies or looming storm-clouds, while immediately above there can be the opposite. A couple of nights ago, I watched a fierce lightning storm down in the Yautepec valley, while a light shower sprinkled this village.

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Looking down to the Yautepec valley, which is covered in clouds, to the south of us.

A few mornings ago, skies here were clear, but the clouds had settled low in the valley, and I was looking down on their tops. I might wake to clear blue above, but then, in the rainy season, wraiths of mist form on the hilltops, and for a time in the early morning we’re overcast.

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Early morning wraiths of mist on the hilltops around Amatlan.

The result is quite a complex series of wind and rain patterns in a relatively small area and, of course, it makes weather prediction no easy task. The forecast might say we’re getting a storm in the evening and we have a barely noticeable sprinkle of raindrops. Another day during the rainy summer, no storm is expected, but suddenly we’re engulfed in a downpour.

And so on.

This year rain has been sparse here, and there’s some fear the corn won’t be done growing before it stops. Everywhere’s green, but the water table has dropped from last year, and the streams are just trickles when they should be flowing steadily. Now, 2018 had a lengthy and intense rainy season, so we’re not in a crisis in 2019; but the overall sequence seems to be changing from how it was a decade ago.

Our rain comes in across the Pacific, and the typhoons and other storms there affect the quantities we receive, and also where the rain arrives. How it will change in years to come is anyone’s guess.

 

I’m Not Saying It’s Aliens

June 3, 2019

There are many guidebooks and tourist websites promoting Mexico’s ancient ruins. Cities such as Chichen Itza, Xochicalco or Teotihuacan, while hard to pronounce for newcomers, impress immediately with their stately proportions, the relief carvings, and, very often, the gorgeous locations their builders chose for them.

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The ruined city of Xochicalco, dating from 700–900 C.E., is set high on a hill.

They’re also baffling in a lot of ways, and pose many questions regarding their functions, their population, and their histories. The Maya had a system of writing, but other cultures in MesoAmerica usually lacked one, leaving us a few glyphs, or murals and some statuary. Archeologists therefore have to puzzle out chronologies and the places’ cultural significance.

Now, one thing that’s always irritated me in the study of ancient civilisations is “ancient aliens” theories. These cities didn’t suddenly spring up on their own; they were preceded by generations, often centuries, of more basic structures and experimentation. In Egypt, we see a clear pattern of simple tombs leading to the Step Pyramid at Saqqara and, from that, the huge structures erected in the 6th Dynasty. Along the way, there were major errors, like the pyramid of Meidum, where there was a major collapse of the outer casing because the builders went beyond their existing level of competence. In Mexico, even as late as the Aztecs in the 14th and 15th centuries of our era, their city of Tenochtitlan was built on ground subject to earth tremors, so that what’s left of their primary temple today leans at a crazy angle. So, asking how a large ruin “suddenly” came into being is like asking how any person “suddenly” came to be. A lot happened beforehand.

Where in Mexico do we find the precursors of the big cities? The answer is: pretty much everywhere. People began piling rocks to delineate sacred places for worship a long time ago, then gradually became more ambitious, creating more elaborate structures. Actual buildings at such locales were often simple wood buildings with thatched roofs, with stone temples – the stuff that lazy thinkers assume their aliens constructed – being the final step.

Along with hiking buddy Ixchel Tucker, a few months ago I visited the recently opened Tlatoani Pyramid at Tlayacapan, and was impressed at how many rings of piled stones circled its hilltop site. The precise function of each level was obscure to us, but it’s not an unlikely guess, given how later sites were set up, that each consecutive circle represented a more sacred part of the site. The word “pyramid” here is a conventional term, and doesn’t mean a quadrangular edifice. Rather, it’s a generic expression for stones piled in a purposeful manner.

At Tlatoani, there’s an actual temple structure at the top centre, partly restored by archeologists, which confirms my assumption.

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Ixchel in front of the rows of walls at Piramide Tlatoani, outside Tlayacapan.

At other places, there are simply a few petroglyphs, perhaps partly restored so we can see them, but baffling to the interpretive modern mind. Whatever god or hero is commemorated by them is for today’s visitor to decide in silence.

This past weekend, Ixchel and I put on our Indiana Jones boots (running shoes, actually), and hiked up to a small site behind this village of Amatlan. The pyramid there is rudimentary – a couple of rows of stones that are easy to overlook. But it was, local people say, sacred to the grandmother of Quetzalcoatl, the god-king whose was legendarily born just outside the village.

What did we discover?

The structure itself is maybe the least important feature of the site. More impressive was the location and the view down over the village and beyond. The ledge it sits on is near the mouth of a valley down which a stream flows in the rainy season, and the setting itself is surely the reason for the temple. People still go up there for vision quests, sitting through the night (or longer) to obtain insight that’s been lost in the world below them.

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The view from the Amatlan pyramid.

Behind it, rain-sculpted rocks tease the imagination towards legends of heroes and serpents, beneficent deities and rulers of societies. Assigning a specific story to them, as scholarship (and alien-mongers) would do, defeats grasping the sacredness. It all just feels strange, with the path leading up occupying spaces and trackways that don’t look like they could exist when seen from below. But for people dependent on rain and the caprices of natural forces for their crops and animals, creating a link to the heavens makes perfect sense in such a place.

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Easy to overlook, these stones were laid to demarcate the site. A second row can be glimpsed above it.

From the stones set there centuries ago, almost certainly by ancestors of the people still living here, you can look down on the village, and see relationships between the mountains and the farmlands. The “point” of the place lies in its connection between the everyday and the heights, the intersection of the mundane and the awe-inspiring.

I love the spectacular sites in Mexico. But these smaller places, which have only their modern names, are what whisper the secrets of what has been, and hint at what the ancient people who built them hoped and dreamed.