A Preference for Emergencies

June 23, 2020

When dramatic naturla events happen, I need to remember that most people think “danger.” I tend to think “Oh, cool!”

Yes, I guess I never did mature past age 15, but thanks for asking. Or, as I prefer to think, I’m not as old as I look.

I upset a couple of people last month with a post I dubbed “Oh, I’ve Seen Fire…” (scroll down for that) that was about forest fires near here, and how I found them exciting. Why? Because they are.

There’s the personal threat aspect, obviously, and I have the care of a house I rent, and a small pack of dogs who’d need to be moved if any situation became bad. But one reason I like life in Mexico is specifically because it isn’t like life in a Canadian suburb. When things get touchy here, it’s because of such fires, torrential thunderstorms, the occasional volcanic eruption and, as happened this morning, an earthquake. As a kid, I was raised to be safe, and never thought to take up rock climbing, martial arts or hang-gliding. It took me years to realise how deprived I felt of risk. Mexico is my compensation.

I’m not totally consistent in this. We had no proper water supply on the weekend, because we ran out sooner than I’d anticipated. That left me anxious and depressed, not exhilarated, until water had been delivered late Monday morning; I don’t like inconvenience. We were able to fill some bottles from a public tap in the village, while my housemate suggested filling the dog-bath there, and bringing it back in the beat-up Ford I’m currently using. That was not the best idea, since in a moving car, water in an open dog-bath slops around …

But the Ford’s almost dry now, and besides, it was all a short-lived problem. A quake is different.

We’re actually off the main fault-lines, and I can only recall a couple of occasions when I’ve felt the ground shake. I wasn’t here for the big one in 2017, though several big, old churches in this area are still being repaired after that one. When I felt I was tipping off my seat at a coffee shop this morning, I assumed it might be a persistent balance problem I have, not a temblor. It was only when I saw pictures on the wall swinging on their hooks that I knew it wasn’t me, but two tectonic plates shifting and grinding someplace.

The city hall in Tepoztlan was evacuated for forty-five minutes, as a precaution, so the adjoining market area was crowded for a while. Otherwise, nobody reacted much, and the evacuees even spaced themselves appropriately. I don’t think the waitress in the coffee shop even realised what had happened, it was so slight. I sat down again after a few moments on my feet, since the danger was minimal, and my seat was a mere three feet from the wide entrance. Only hours later, with people’s videos uploaded, could the extent of the event come clear. At least four people died, and there was a tsunami alert, since the epicentre was close to the Pacific Ocean. There were also, of course, aftershocks in that area.

So, while it might have been life-changing down in Oaxaca (“Wuh-HAH-kah”), here it was just a brief distraction. I spent way more time on Facebook explaining its insignificance (to us here), than I did being concerned over it. There just wasn’t enough kinetic energy where I was to make it memorable.

No matter. I can see the evening clouds gathering, so maybe we’ll get a real, rip-snorting, power- and internet-cutting thunderstorm tonight. One of those where the rain buckets down noisly, and the thunder crashes and echoes off the hills, and I lie in bed snug and dry, wondering how the wildlife out there handles it all.




The Equation

Sometimes when I make a post about my favourite volcano, or mentioning vicious dogs, people comment to say “Be careful,” or “Look after yourself.” And I confess, it irritates me.

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Scaffolding supports the main gate of the Tepoztlan cemetery after the 2017 quake.

I’m a grown-up, with no dependents other than the small pack of mutts I care for. My kids are adults, I have no significant other (the position is vacant), and I’ve hit seventy. Preserving myself ad infinitum isn’t my game-plan, and the idea of it all ending in an eruption (totally unlikely), an earthquake (possible but unlikely) or as a result of a gang shoot-out or an extortion attempt (possible, but also unlikely) doesn’t faze me. I’d rather go that way if/when it’s time, than be hooked up to tubes in a hospital bed.

So, when I make these posts, I tend to avoid things that shock people. Consider this your trigger-warning, because I’m writing about stuff that might shock you.

The church here sounds a death-knell when somebody dies. There are eight or ten strokes on one bell, following by two descending notes using both bells. In the past 48 hours, it’s sounded three times, perhaps more; though I’m not certain it’s because more than a couple of people have passed on. But I can hear the band playing now as the coffin goes down to the cemetery for its farewell. A Mexican funeral entails lively music as a send-off.

After I’d been here a few months, back in 2010, we had a shooting at a store I still visit twice a week, one night as the owner was about to pack up. His wife had just gone home to fix a late meal, and (so the tale goes), people connected to someone he’d helped kidnap years before showed up and gunned him down.


The funeral procession of Sofia’s husband pauses at the store they owned.

So, I came to appreciate quickly that life here can end violently, separate from any activity directly connected to the gangs that news media call ‘cartels.’ The widow summoned her son back from the States, and he now manages the store, making bilingual quips to customers like me, and trying to expand the business.

Then today, I learned Victor had died. Victor was, perhaps, forty, and often drunk.

A strikingly handsome man, though sometimes disfigured by cuts on his face after he’d fallen down while wasted, he purportedly had skill as an artist, and lived with a patient girlfriend just outside our village. Some drunks are mean, but he was an amiable one.

That was his problem, since many people (me, for instance), don’t want to be pals with a person who can barely stand. He would often call a greeting to me when I tried to sneak past him in town, or want to talk with me on the combi (microbus). Sometimes, combi drivers refused to let him on in that condition.

Whoever he accosted last week didn’t appreciate the attention, either. He’s now gone.

My actual current concern isn’t with him or whoever’s being buried today, but with a lady I’ll call A. She’s cleaned house for me at times, and lives in a small house a few hundred yards from here. She has a couple of sons, and the eldest and his wife think he should have the place, not her. On New Year’s Eve, he got drunk and attacked her, putting her in hospital. After she got home again, she was afraid to step outside in case she ran into him. Worse, her uncle and brothers think that as a single woman, she should go to live with another son, and not hang onto the old family home for herself.

If I tried to interfere, I’d get nothing for my pains but a minor version of what happened to Victor. Women in rural Mexico still face not just the annoyances of simple sexism, but the threat of actual violence. Things change slowly, year by year, but … slow is slow. A’s daughter-in-law is egging on her husband to brutalise and evict her, so it isn’t just the men who bear responsibility. Since social atitudes shift so gradually, if a woman wants a house for herself, she can be willing to harm her own sex to get what she can.

Understanding all this through a conventional North American lens doesn’t work. For example, taking out drug-gang leaders (“We got El Chapo! Now he’s in jail for life!”) is popular elsewhere, but completely counter-productive in combating the gangs. President Lopez-Obrador is widely mocked for his “hugs not bullets” slogan, but it contains germs of truth. You can’t stamp out systemic violence with systemic violence, however much you’d like to. In the case of the gangs, when they’ve lost leaders they’ve simply found new bosses or split into rival factions; if left alone, they might well have come to a point of self-regulation, like the New York mafia did decades ago.

Now, that’s not possible. Only ‘Mexicanidad,’ Mexican-ness, works on Mexico.

Why, then, do I live here? How do I balance the equation? Well, for one thing, I appreciate the society.

Yes, I did just write that. People are warm, they like to like you, and provided you don’t provoke them, bearing in mind this is a conservative, ostensibly Catholic society, they’ll help you if you need help. The woman that sold two female friends and I the land where I live promptly regretted doing so, and now resents us. This happens a lot, since if you trade part of your patrimony for cash, it’s lost for good. But when the younger of the friends drove her vehicle off the roadway into a rut a couple of months ago, the middle-aged son of the angry matriarch came out to help her push it back onto the roadway. Because in a small Mexican village, you do that.

Another friend lives in an area of Mexico City where one neighbour constantly steals hubcaps, mirrors and other car-parts. He seems himself, I’m told, as a radical recycler, not a thief. But when the 2017 earthquake hit, and people were buried under rubble, he was right there with his largest crowbar, spending hours digging out the homes of people he usually steals from.

To me, in my last years living in Toronto, the city was increasingly losing its sense of human complexity. Here, the people who smile at me when I say good morning might equally be killers if provoked the wrong way, yet somehow the paradox is understood and accepted. I quickly figured out how to dress, act and conduct myself so as not to push the wrong buttons, so I’m apparently looked on as an aging gringo eccentric who poses little threat to the community.

The honesty of human emotion here is challenging for an introverted English-Canadian like me, but nourishing. Add to that the lush beauty of the green mountains around me and the sunshine on 340 days a year, not to mention the lower cost of living, and the advantages are clear.

Living here, I’m close to nature, which is about being on close terms with life and death, both human and animal.

I miss many urban advantages, and at times long for things I can’t have here. But in my final Toronto year, I was nearly struck three times by people texting as they drove. My sense of control and safety of how I live is much stronger here than in Canada, not less.

Shaken Churches

May 29, 2019

The earthquake that hit central Mexico on September 19, 2017, caused the most loss of life of any to hit the country in this century. The official death-toll was 370, but 6,000 more were injured as buildings collapsed in many towns and villages outside Mexico City. Some people, obviously, didn’t survive their injuries; there are also persistent rumours about poorer, undocumented people who didn’t survive the day.

The magnitude 7.1 temblor brought down many old structures as well as new ones that weren’t constructed according to quakeproof codes. Particularly hit were the monastic churches or conventos around the volcano Popocatepetl, which together constitute a UNESCO World Heritage site dating back to the 1500s. There is one in my town of Tepoztlan, the Convent of the Virgin of the Nativity, dating to the period 1555-1580, and another in the nearby town of Tlayacapan, dedicated to St. John the Baptist.


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The Tlayacapan convent of St. John the Baptist under repair.

The monastery in Tepoztlan was built on a massive scale, yet only four or five monks lived in the place at first. The expected uprisings didn’t happen in central Mexico, and the forced conversion of the native people went ahead with few glitches. The old religion with its multiple gods and goddesses persisted underground for many years, as a folk-faith, but the Cross essentially supplanted it.

Mexico has a complex relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. The religion arrived in the wake of Hernan Cortes’ conquest in the 1520s as a triumphalist follow-up to the military campaign. Some of the monks, notably the Franciscans, adopted a gentle approach, and others, notably the Dominicans, didn’t. For centrally run societies like those of the Aztecs and other MesoAmerican kingdoms, the defeat and the death of their leaders, followed by the epidemics that came with the conquistadors, resulted in a collapse of morale.

Later, the Virgin of Guadalupe largely supplanted the worship of Jesus Christ, though hardly any Catholics will admit this. While she has her own miracle story, she arose largely as a transformed version of the Toltec goddess Tonantzin, and some people see her in this guise this today. Christ is respected, but Guadalupe is loved. She is the glue holding much of Mexican society together, and no church in Mexico lacks a copy of her image.

The monasteries were seized by the state decades ago, and remain state property, even though they perform their traditional religious functions. The Tepoztlan one has served at times as a prison and a stable, and was falling into ruin after the Mexican Revolution ended a century ago. However, then-President Lazaro Cardenas saw it in the 1930s, and opted to restore it. Parts of the surrounding structures were lost, but the cloisters and monastic quarters today house a museum, and the church was usable … at least until September 2017.

No-one was sure, after the roofs began to cave in and outside stonework fell to the ground, if the monasteries could be restored. Such a project is very expensive, and a calls for special expertise to work using the old construction methods. Naturally, there are people who object to so much money going to restore old religious buildings, when the state is technically secular to the point of official atheism. But tourism is money, and Mexico without tourism would be …well, Panama North. Not too many people visit Panama. Thus, the money was found.

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Restoring the Convent in Tepoztlan.

So, stone by stone, and roof-beam by roof-beam, the damaged monasteries are being restored. Interior wall paintings are lost, but the appearance of the actual structures was well documented before the ‘quake hit, and is being faithfully replicated.

Like all old buildings, they need constant, ongoing maintenance. I wonder, each time I look at a rack of scaffolding with a man perched on it, what will be done if there’s another massive temblor. I thought this five years ago, when the towers in Tepoztlan were being repaired by men on precarious wood gantries. Mexico always rebuilds, but there’s a suspicion a new fault-line might have opened up or widened 20 months ago. If so, there’s a question mark over the future. Years of renovation efforts can end in seconds if a fierce enough shaking happens.

But Mexico is, depending on your standpoint, fatalistic or philosophical. Mexicans might hate their governments, their presidents and their smug richer class, but they love their ‘Mexicanidad,’ their Mexican-ness. And even if the church disgusts them as an institution, they will still want to see its monuments rebuilt, even if they secretly detest the past oppression those walls represent. In a way many western societies seem to have forgotten, they grasp the living power of symbols, and how essential they are in a world that’s losing its footing more every year.

Or, they know that to lose the oppressor’s monuments is also to forget the oppression.