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Rock Solid

November 1, 2020

As a child, I lived in Essex, in the part of England called East Anglia, which had been scoured almost flat by glaciers millennia before my ancestors moved there. Accordingly, the landscape wasn’t exciting, and when I saw pictures of mountains or even just rocky outcrops, I was intrigued. I would tell my parents I wanted “to see a rock,” but they couldn’t seem to grasp what I meant. 

Today, I live in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, the landscapes of which have been heaved up by eruptions, magma movements and other seismic events over millions of years. I’m almost never out of sight of bare rock on a cliff-face or of a fallen boulder close to a roadway. On my walks, I’ve found fossilised corals impressed in sedimentary rocks from an ancient seabed, lifted up long ago by geological action. I once brought a large sample home as a garden ornament: alas, in my absence for three years, it was used for mundane purposes, and much of the coral pattern is now worn off. 

There are still trace impressions of ancient coral on this rock I found.

The actual volcanic rock around here is a highly viscous lava, which when it erupted trapped many small pockets of gas (vesicles is the correct term). Today, these give the rock a spongy look, though of course it’s brittle, not soft.

During my aforementioned absence, somebody planned to build a house beside mine, and had a mound of rocks delivered for construction purposes. However, they lost interest or ran out of cash, so the pile became a haven for wildlife. For a time, there was a colony of squirrels in there. Today, it might be home to snakes or crawling critters of various kinds, so it’s left alone. 

Now, when I drive out of our garage, I need to reverse then make a half-turn. I often use a flat patch of ground just below the rock-pile for this. However, two weeks ago one of the rocks fell, and effectively blocked me from doing this. I tried moving it, but several efforts only shifted it a foot or so the side. It probably weighs as much as I do, and I couldn’t move it more than that.

The errant rock. It might look innocuous to you, but you didn’t try lifiting it like I did.

This reminded me how much we use rock here in central Mexico. The walls of this property are made from it, as are those of many other houses. The roadway up from the street consists of rock set in cement, and that’s survived ten rainy seasons without deterioration.

In many other places, brick is a more usual facing or structural material for a building. Even here, cinderblock is popular as a cheap means to construct a house. But inevitably, basic rock shows up at some point, even if it’s only in the paving of the street outside.

The downstairs wall of the house and the roadway outside, are made of cement-set volcanic rock.

This has been the case for thousands of years. Lava rock especially, while it’s heavy, can be chipped and shaped. Pyramidal and stepped-level remains from preHispanic cultures use it, sometimes on a grand scale. Farmers employ it to build loose walls that demarcate their fields, and sometimes, low remnant walls are a sign of an ancient perimeter for a sacred enclosure. The sense of continuity between then and today’s construction is part of the appeal of life in this area.

What always strikes me, though, is the problem I had in shifting the fallen rock: the stuff is heavy. I’ve seen rocks placed on a hillside that weigh well over a ton, yet farmers were able to shift them with the aid of their sons or neighbours. Rock know-how is something that has persisted down through the ages. And rocks are a surprisingly common component of economics in the construction industry. 

My conclusion? Just that it’s so easy to overlook something that isn’t manufactured. Until I came here, anything not man-made always seemed like a lazy short-cut. But some knowledge is passed down through the generations without anyone really noticing that it’s ancient. I don’t know how ecologically sound it is to move loads of rock around on diesel trucks, but the stuff is certainly durable, and connects a building to its underlying environment.

Still, I wish I could figure out how to move the reversing-space boulder. I suppose I could pay a couple of neighbours to lift and roll it. But now that it’s made me reflect to much on how the substrate of the ground here is used to much and so effectively, that almost feels like ingratitude. After all, my very young self asked for rocks: I shouldn’t complain that he finally came to them.

Fleeing from Yourself

They’d come from San Miguel de Allende, they said, to check out Tepoztlan. Retired Americans, San Miguel had been their home for many years, but now it was starting to become overrun with chilangos.

The term ‘chilango‘ refers to someone from Mexico City, and implies a self-absorbed obliviousness to local people and local traditions. My friend and I tried to explain that Tepoztlan, too, is a chilango magnet on weekends, as well as becoming increasingly built up and expensive. We made some suggestions about outlying communities, but the mountains here and the slightly less expensive lifestyle than San Miguel were clearly drawing these two.

San Miguel is a combination of legend and tourist trap. Its artistic associations are rich, and it’s a refuge for many wealthier Americans and Canadians. My own solitary visit left me turned off by the degree of private wealth on display, since in Mexico you’re never far from people struggling to get by with little. Tourism does provide a substantial cashflow, though, and the outside presence offers a lot of poorer Mexicans an opportunity to build a better life. It was just a bit too much for me.

The discussion with the two people reminded me of an observation I’d made a few nights before, coming home just after sunset. There’s a point on the road into this village where the land drops away past a meadow, and you can see the lights all over the plain below. I remember it when I first came here, speckled with lamps; today by comparison, it’s ablaze with street lights and illumination from housing developments.

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The view down to the plains and their communities – though I couldn’t manage a decent night shot.

Some months ago, I chatted with an architect working on a small construction project outside the village. He described his half-dozen homes as offering an alternative to city congestion, a notion that struck me as a little ridiculous: spreading urban sprawl into the countryside solves nothing. It’s like trying to flee from yourself – you’ll never get away.

But, Mexico’s population is growing, there’s more money than there used to be, and people want homes. Nice homes, if possible, with a garden and a garage. And in nice places.

Here, for instance.

There’s no point in my complaining that this area is getting built up. I end up sounding like a driver complaining that he can’t get somewhere because of all the traffic, when he’s part of the problem. There’s still land available round here, even if the price has doubled in the past four years, and lots of people – chilangos, expats, local people who’ve saved or borrowed enough ­– are going to buy it and build on it.

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Workers building a house in our village –  in this case, mine.

But the issue preoccupies me, since like the San Miguel refugees, at times I think of going somewhere less popular. And since I spend too much time reading news and news analysis, I’m very aware of the increasing environmental crunch that we’re all helping to bring on through our spread. There’s now even an emerging specialty of psychotherapy for people distressed by what’s happened and what’s coming environmentally.

Determining exactly what the breaking point is for any particular zone or region could only be possible after the infrastructure and community structures have failed. A lot of things will take many years or decades to hit that point, and I can’t see the entire planet collapsing. Maybe that’s just because I simply can’t imagine it doing so, but generally I have a good imagination for disasters. Disintegration is going to occur sporadically, as far as we can foresee it.

That leaves me watching the continuing influx of people who are doing just what I did a decade ago, and hoping that not everything disappears. We want homes, this corner of Mexico is still affordable for most gringos and for better-off Mexicans, and the houses will continue to go up.

But you can’t ignore the changes, or pretend their effect doesn’t count.

Mechanical aptitude and feeling stupid

                                                                                                                                                                        August 23, 2019

Exactly how Lucero and her mother met Chucho, I don’t recall, but it was before I came to Mexico. When we started talking about building houses, he was already the designated builder.

My family was not, you might say, very mechanically minded. This failing passed on to me We didn’t have a car when I was young, though my dad could mend a fuse. (Remember doing that? Probably not). I never owned a car myself till I was in my late twenties, and was never one of those people who’d change the oil or a tire with enthusiasm: “Oh boy, macho car stuff to do!”

Now, any young male in Mexico learns how to get an old car moving. The girls are taught to cook and launder, the boys learn how to fix stuff. Yes, it’s very old fashioned, but that’s how it is. Many of the boys also learn construction skills, and Chucho was one of those. How to mix cement, how plumbing works, how to wire a house, how to lay bricks or cinderblocks … he does it all.

He even figured out once how to get his car back on the paved roadway after I reversed it off and got it jammed in a deep rut. I learned then why ancient Mexicans managed to build monumental temples. Forget all that stuff about aliens or influences from across the Atlantic; Mexicans for centuries have been born with an innate grasp of the physics of piled stones. Left to my own ignorance, I’d probably still be walking past that stranded car today.

And continuing to feel as stupid as I did when Chucho looked at it, laughed, and began figuring out how to get it on the roadway again.

A couple of months ago Vinicio, who lives in the adjoining house, had a problem with getting water up from the cistern to the tank on his roof. So, we called Chucho. Chucho came when Vini was out, played around with the system for a few minutes, then checked the heavy lid of the cistern.

“It’s empty,” he said to me, in that sort of tone that implied he didn’t want to call me an idiot, since he figured it was self-evident anyway.

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The guy who fixes all the stuff: Chucho in front of my house during construction.

So, I ordered a truckload of water, Chucho came back, and Vini soon had the airlock in his plumbing fixed. But my track record wasn’t improving.

Now, for weeks recently, the shower in my house hasn’t yielded more than a splatter of hot water. That wasn’t so bad when the hot weather was with us, but as things have cooled off, it’s been more annoying. My Spartan sensibilities are no more developed than my mechanical skills.

So, having played with water volumes, put new batteries in the water-heater’s ignition system and tried stoicism (which dissolves fast under chilling shower-water), I called Chucho. He came round, and I showed him how I could get warm water out of the tap in the sink, but not the shower. He went through the checklist of checkable stuff, then shook the big propane tank.

“It’s empty,” he said, “can you hear? There’s no sound of propane in it.”

Now, I knew it was close to the time that I’d new a new cylinder of propane, but since the problem had existed for several weeks, I didn’t think that was the core of the issue. But once you’ve given a man a convincing reason to think you’re a bit daft in the head, the opinion tends to confirm itself. Get a new cylinder, Chucho suggested, and things would be fine.

So, cursing the timing of the cylinder’s expiry, I did so – and yes, things were better. I now get a minute or two of warm water if I run hot water through the tap in the sink first. It requires fast action with the soap and equally fast rinsing, but things sorta work. But while Chucho doesn’t mind being paid to attend to the foibles of the intellectually constrained, I mind paying him and more important, I mind feeling stupid.

There’s a leak developing in the kitchen skylight that could probably use his skills. No doubt when he comes to fix it, there’ll be some ridiculously obvious reason why the rain comes in through there after a storm, which I should have figured out for myself.

But what the heck – if I move the kitchen table a foot or two, I don’t actually get rainwater splashing into my breakfast. And the rains are mostly done till next year anyway.

I don’t need to feel any stupider this year, so I’ll pretend I haven’t noticed the drips after a storm.