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Rain and Bright Sun

May 29, 2020

Usually, if I ride the combi microbus into town, I want to sit on the side of it that’s to the north. The sun can be very hot on your back here, and I appreciate the shadow on that side. But around this time of year, a few weeks before the summer solstice, the tropical sun has actually swung to the north of us for much of the day, so I want to sit on the opposite side, the south.

I’ve tried taking a photo of the lighting conditions when this happens, but my camera responds by actually making the light seem greyer. In reality, the luminosity has an extra brightness, and I often wonder if the UV levels are bad for my eyes. The effect, though, is to add a special graciousness to the day, and a brilliance that makes some of the tackiness or the messiness of things fade into insignificance. It reminds me of certain Spanish guitar solos that (to me) sound like they’re about avoiding work on a sunny afternoon.

Patio

Flowers on the patio in late-morning sunshine. The greyish rug at the bottom right is my dog Punky.

The bright light comes with the rains. Last night we had a rain and wind storm that blew off a couple of neighbours’ roofing, and just before I began drafting this piece, an evening rainstorm started, with the rain bucketing down to the accompaniment of distant thunder. The rain is welcome this week because yet another fire had begun up in the hills, and last night’s showers extinguished that. This evening’s downpour ensures we don’t have a reprise.

I’m not a great fan of the rains otherwise. Somehow, water gets into the house every year during some of the storms, and there are days when it doesn’t let up. I don’t so much walk down the streets of the village, then, as wade or hop through an inch or more of water that can’t quite drain to the sides of the road. The true mega-storms are exciting to watch, obscuring the ground completely, but by August it all becomes a little tedious, and there are two more months to go at that point.

But that summer sunlight has a quality that, for me, transcends mundane human activity. If grey days and cloudy skies make for depression, or at least a melancholic pause, bright light has the opposite effect, and brings a specific uplift with it.

I assume the light also has a triggering effect on nature. Something I can never quite understand is that all the trees around me put out leaves at the start of May, before serious rain begins. We had a few showers a week or two back, but not enough (I’d have thought) to permit lush growth to start. The hog-plum trees growing in front of my home already have hard green fruit on them, however, and the ground is invisible between their branches. The village, from a distance, seems to disappear at this season, only to re-emerge after Christmas.

Trees green

The view from upstairs this evening, just before the rains hit. The main building is a local hotel, closed for now. The white tower of the village church pokes up through the leaves a short distance to its right.

The oddest fact in our climate is that with the rains, our temperatures cool, so that April and most of May are hotter than June or July. That bright, almost white, summer sunlight means we stay warm, with the only real dip into sweater-wearing weather coming around the New Year. And because the rainclouds are going to obscure the skies so much in the next four or five months, it’s all the more welcome.

The Big Wet

September 18, 2019

Water is wet. And lots of it can make things very, very wet.

My part of Mexico is well south of the country’s desert areas, which are mostly an extension of the geography of the U.S. southwest. Here in the mountains we usually get intense rainfall in late June and early July, then it tails off through September, and ends in October.

This year, it was desultory during the first half of the season, appeared to have stopped altogether in August, and is now, in September, pelting down almost every night. Bare ground was starting to reappear here two weeks ago, but by last weekend the jungle was back. I have to check the dogs for ticks every day.

On Friday, I joined three friends for lunch in town, which became an extended drinking session. The rain began during the meal, then became really dense, to the point the sound hitting the split bamboo roof over our table made conversation difficult. Even crossing the street outside would have meant becoming saturated, so we ordered another round or two and hung in. We left when the rain was merely heavy, when I tried to take photos of it splashing in the streets. The pictures, though, were iffy, and I ditched them. And any shots I took of streams came out as depictions of muddy sludge. So, you’ll just have to imagine what heavy rain looks like. You can probably handle it.

I had to adapt to the wetness when I came here. Today, after a lightning storm followed by rain that didn’t let up all night, the village streets had rivulets flowing over the cobbles, and I was hopping over some of the deeper parts. Sometimes, I get home and have to change my socks.

We know it’s life-giving, and that a good water supply makes life livable for all of us who’ve packed ourselves into this area: expats, locals and their extended families, and weekend refugees from Mexico City who maintain getaways here. We also know we have to rainproof our houses, and deal with the fact that our walls eventually need re-plastering and our window-frames corrode.

As the rainfall patterns change with the altered climate, we also wonder how it will be in the years to come. For now, we have enough water in the reservoirs and in the soil to support the livestock and bring in a good maize harvest, as well as supply a modern lifestyle for people. But this year’s herky-jerky rains gave everyone cause for concern about whether it will remain that way.

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.

 

The Saturated Dog Catcher

June 15, 2019

A month ago, I wrote about our rescued dog Oliver, who’s the shyest of the four we have here. He’s as close to me as to anyone else, which isn’t saying much. He lets me stroke his head when I give him his food, but remains immobile as I do so. He just does his thing, whatever it is, without playing much with the other dogs.

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Oliver doing his thing, whatever it is.

A couple of nights ago, as my old hometown of Toronto was on tenterhooks for the NBA finals, I’d planned to catch the game online. But somehow, someone had left our main gate open, and Ollie had wandered out of it.

With the other dogs, I’d be concerned about them causing trouble. With Ollie, I was concerned he’d draw trouble on himself. When you’re a timid dog with minimal social skills around other canines, even if you’re quite big, the world around here isn’t much fun. To go down to the street, he’d have to pass three, maybe five other dogs of varying levels of aggressiveness. Down on the street are some notably mean mutts. So, he went into a place behind the houses, among the rocks under the cliffs, and hid. I went to look for him there, but probably didn’t go up far enough, so I spent most of the evening combing this side of the village for him, and asking neighbours if they’d seen him. None had. By night-time, the Raptors had won, and I was still missing our most vulnerable dog.

I left the front door to the property ajar all night, on the theory that he might come back, and if any of the other dogs got out, they at least knew how to get home. But Ollie lives in a private world of long-entrenched fears; he likely found shelter under a big rock and stayed there. Early the morning after, having slept little and with Toronto no doubt still in a condition of hangover, I went out to look for him again. I’d held off notifying his original rescuer, my friend Lucero, that he was missing, hoping he’d turn up, but I felt I couldn’t postpone letting her know. She was distraught. She was also three hours away, and couldn’t help.

Among other places, I checked the cemetery, where dogs hang out seeking shelter among the tombs. And I found the body of a freshly killed dog, his probable assailants snarling at me from close by.  Seriously – dogs here can be vicious. But at least this poor critter wasn’t Ollie they’d torn into.

Finally, back again behind our house I saw him, to my great relief, and knew … the fun was about to start. The rocks where Ollie was hanging out made it tough for anything on two legs to move fast, and I absolutely didn’t want him to associate recapture with ill-treatment. But he wasn’t going to help much. 

Any of our other dogs come when called. Oliver won’t. Whatever traumas he underwent as a pup are always with him, and he’ll run from me, even if I’m bringing him food. So I began an hours-long process of trying to tempt him home. I went and rattled kibble in his bowl, then decided he was probably more thirsty than hungry, and tried this with his water-bowl. He looked at the familiar green object, came to a few yards away, then turned back into some scrub.

Eventually, I went into town to keep a lunch date with a friend, then started round two. No dice. Then it began to rain. Suddenly, heavily, and … well, wetly. Very wetly indeed. I skidded on mud for the hundred yards back home.

Then, drying out in the living room, I had that “You know what you gotta do, cowboy” moment. Which involved more wetness but not, thankfully, of the kind with which that line of dialogue is associated.

So, I trudged back through the mud to the rocks with Ollie’s water bowl, since even with the rain he had no decent source of water. And a dog gets pretty thirsty after a whole day.

He continued the same process we’d been through a score of times already. I’d call him, he’d come close enough to check things out, then veer off. He was soaking, I was soaking, but he was also tired, and hungry, and cold. At one point he wandered into a kind of shallow trench, paused, and stopped, worn down. I think he tried to jump out and couldn’t. I was finally able to get to him, and slip a leash on his collar.

Relief – I could finally get this daft dog back where he’d be safe! Cue the John Williamson orchestral chords!

Then the real fun began. When he feels trapped, Ollie will go limp. So, he went limp. He sat down, his back legs splayed, and refused to budge. I’m sure in his mind he was trying to resist an anticipated beating or other punishment, perhaps remembering his dreadful puppyhood, but I had to get him down a slippery slope. So: sodden man dragged sodden dog downwards, sliding on the stones of the ciruelos (hog-plums) that grow all around here.

Hog-plum stones are God’s way of saying He enjoys watching people in Mexico fall over. Think of outsized organic ball-bearings, on a hillside also lined with vegetation that grabbed at my ankles, or the dried sticks of which provided roller-bearings to complement the plummy ball-bearings. To this visualisation, add any quantity of mud you like, and the sound of divine laughter coming down amid the rain-supporting thunderclaps.

Add me, determined to do this without swearing at a dog who won’t help me get him to home, food and safety. Now picture me lifting this dead-weight of a wet, muddy dog (22 kilos, or close to 50 lb, plus a little extra from water-content in his saturated fur) and carrying him the last 70 yards back to our front gate. Where I finally had to shove his wet, muddy butt through the doorway.

You could say Ollie was admirably stoic through it all. It was a serious tussle: his single-minded inertia versus my single-minded intention to get him back behind locked gates. I was truly impressed by his ability not to contribute anything useful whatsoever.

Then, once through the door, he flipped. There was his half-sister Victoria, Rem our little pack’s alpha male, and a known environment. He began wagging his tail at full speed.

Hey, what about me, dawg? And look at my clothes! But no appreciation for me was forthcoming. At times of stress, I think he can only anticipate bad things happening. A genius dog he isn’t, but his behaviour made no sense at all in human terms.

Or maybe it did, mimicking some dafter human obsessive tendencies. He’d been scarcely two dog-minutes from the door of home, where there was water, a dry place to sleep, and a regular supply of food. But he confined himself to the illusory safety of an uncomfortable space, deprived of company, sustenance or security. Only when he surrendered from tiredness did he get home – where he obviously preferred to be.

I might just have waited him out for a few days, but I couldn’t make myself do that. I really wasn’t sure he could reason his way out of the situation he was in, simply come back, and bark at the door like any sensible canine miscreant would.

I was aware I looked ridiculous standing in the rain with a bowl of water, calling a dog who wouldn’t come (and who’d still largely avoid me), then carrying him back here. No-one else round here would do that. But I felt wildly relieved he was back on the property, where deep-rooted fears still run his life, but where at least I can prevent the worst of them from happening.

Waiting on Water

May 16, 2019

This evening, it’s raining a little. Not hard enough, and maybe not long enough, but it’s a promise of the rains to come.

By August, I’ll hate the daily downpours. They make it impossible to dry washed clothes outside, they turn the hillside paths to mud-swamps and run streams down the village’s main street, and they breed bugs. But right now a real downpour would be welcome.

Fires start in the forests at this time of year from lightning strikes, from broken glass that concentrates sunlight onto dry leaves, or simply from spontaneous combustion. Outside, I can smell the smoke, and on a couple of nights, I’ve gone to bed with the choking scent of it in my room.

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Fire burning on a hillside near Tlayacapan, May 11, 2019.

Many farmers, too, are burning their fields to clear them for planting, which makes the hills on the other side of the village sometimes invisible. In Mexico City today, the air quality was so bad they told kids to stay home from school. I don’t know if that does much, since they’re still breathing the smoky air at home, but the authorities don’t want kids running around in a playground in this. The city, remember is in a series of valleys, with forest-land to the east, and no easy exit for bad air. Several friends of mine who have asthma or other breathing problems are sounding scared.

Rains in central Mexico usually start at the beginning of June, and terminate in October. That’s not an absolute rule, and sometimes the torrents come down by late May, or hang around, as they did last year, until the end of November. But this cycle means the second half of May is a fraught time, since there have only been a few rare showers since before Christmas.

We’ve not had a terrible year for forest fires in Amatlan, like 2011, when we were planning evacuation and there were flames on the cliffs all around us. However, other communities have had to recruit teams of volunteers to put them out when they become too big, or get too close to houses. Last weekend, while visiting a friend in a nearby town, I counted eight or nine blazes on the hillsides, some of which burned out, but a few of which had to be contained.

In a couple of weeks, three or four at most, we’ll see actual rains. They’ll cool off our 28-degrees C days, remove the threat of fires and eliminate the smoke, and re-start the annual growth cycle here. But the rain that I mentioned when I began this piece has already stopped, and the evening sky is clearing. The real thing isn’t here yet.

So, we wait.

Water

When I came back from Mexico to Toronto three years ago, I stayed in a friend’s house in the suburbs. One of the things that shocked me was the amount of water gushing from her shower-head: it was four times what I was used to here. To her, it was a normal amount, and she found my concern odd.

When your city is right beside one of the largest lakes on earth, fed by one of the greatest freshwater systems anywhere, water itself gets little respect. When your water supply comes in form the Pacific during four months of the summer, your attitude shifts. I was used to the notion of conserving water. At this house, we order a 5,000-litre tanker truck to come when the rain-filled cistern is empty – and we aren’t profligate with what we use.

Mexico is a great teacher regarding water, although it doesn’t always heed its own lessons. Mexico City, for example, is built on a drained lake-bed, and now suffers a severe water shortage. It doesn’t feed rain into household cisterns, or do what farmers here do: collect it in reservoirs for livestock through the dry months, which run from October to June.

The phrase “tropical downpour” is one I heard used in Toronto sometimes during a summer storm. Part of Lakeshore Boulevard becomes unusable, or a section of the Don Valley Parkway, and some people’s basements flood; but usually within hours, the roads are normal, and in a day or so homeowners pump out their floodwater.

I had to come here to experience a true monsoon storm. My little house, built on sloping land, has a stone staircase outside, and I could look out my window and see the stones disappear entirely under the cascading torrent. In town, while an umbrella protected my upper body, I had to wade across streets, even sloping ones. My shoes were wet all one week because every time I went out with them half dried, they became soaked again.

“Just try sandals,” a friend suggested, ten minutes before the rain got to the straps on his pair, and they came apart. He walked home in bare feet. I continued to change my socks every day when I got home.

Heavy rain demonstrates gravity better than most things. In the market, everyone has vinyl awnings over their stalls, but that means there are gaps between them. I can’t saunter as I usually would, but rather hop from one bit of cover to the next, hoping to dodge the streamlets of water fallin between awnings.

A straw sombrero helps, deflecting the rainwater away from my neck and shoulders; but nobody stays entirely dry in July and August, the months of the heaviest rainfall. Tropical rain is inescapable.

Then, it’s gone. Some time in October, or the end of November as it was last year, the downpours stop. There is no more ferocious lightning to cut the electrical power, the dogs don’t cower from repeated thunderclaps, and persistent puddles dry out. Teams of volunteers go out to fill in the potholes that inevitably form on the road to the village, the swarms of flies and mosquitoes diminish, and there’s a sense of relief.

By February the greenness has gone, and certain houses and landmarks that were masked by bushes and leafy trees have reappeared. By late April, the threat is no longer getting soaked, or losing food in the freezer from a long power outage: occasional forest fires begin in Chichinautzin, the nature reserve north and east of our village. Volunteers this time go out with rakes and brooms, while the rest of us chip in for bottled water for them to take into the hills as they beat down the flames.

To preach about water supply in a world where weather patterns are shifting is unproductive. The issue becomes real when it actually hits, not because of a headline. And long before we became aware how climate changes, water here was a concern. It can produce flooding, and its absence can produce famine. It’s always been an inescapable presence.

I had to experience its extremes – downpours and months of drought, as well as anxiously waiting for the water truck a couple of times – before I appreciated just how much we use, and how life is different when it’s in short supply.