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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.

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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.

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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.

Despatch from the Ypres Salient

July 22, 2019

Once a year, in the fourth week of July, this village of Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl erupts in a celebration of its matron saint, Maria Magdalena. It’s the time of year when I have more homicidal thoughts than any other. In fact, all the murderous fantasies I have come out during these few days.

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People in traditional Toltec dress, bringing banners and smoking copal incense, parade around the village to the accompaniment of post-Toltec rockets.

It’s the rockets. Since I typed the above paragraph, with hardly a pause, four of them have gone off. They’re explosive, so their detonation several hundred feet up echoes off the cliffs and jars the ears of the most sanguine of people. Some, like the bombs dropped by Stuka dive-bombers in WW2, are equipped with whistles that shriek as they ascend to explode.

Last night, after well over a hundred, and maybe twice that, were let off during the day, I thought we’d reached nocturnal calm at 11:00, when I went to bed. Two salvoes just after midnight scotched that idea, and I needed another hour to settle back into sleep. Then, the first salvo of the day came this morning at 5:45. Victoria, one of the dogs I care for, spent most of the night cowering under my bed, while the others just seem stunned by it all.

My headline refers to a segment of the Western in Front in WWI that hardly shifted for three years, and which often underwent attacks and counter-attacks. Many men serving there came out haunted for life by the incessant bombardments. Yes, I know this is a series of explosions without physical injury, and it will be all over by Wednesday. But it grates on the nerves of many of us as well as frightening our pets.

I always try to switch off my murder fantasies by shifting them to a more practical dream. I know the rockets are stored in a building adjacent to the village church, and I’d love to take a 50-gallon drum of water there at 2.00 am, and soak all of them in it. It would upset the rocket launcher-in-chief no end, for I’m sure he loves the sense of power involved in sending the things up into the air over the village, knowing their boom will be heard far away. But if I was caught, the community would never forgive me, even if some other people must hate the noise. I therefore abstain for fear of discovery, but not because I feel it would be wrong.

The theory, I understand, is that firing rockets upward during religious ceremonies underlines the idea of pointing to Heaven above us. Why prayer, music and bells can’t do the job here as they do elsewhere in the world, I’ve no idea, but I do grasp that rockets are fun. When there’s a parade around the village, they’re let off every time the procession passes a shrine to the Virgin Mary that’s in someone’s front wall. There are a lot of such shrines, so there are a lot of rockets.

Fireworks are part of life in Mexico, as they are in many countries, but the affection is very pronounced here. I’ve always enjoyed them in a display, but not when they only produce loud bangs. Right now, sleep-deprived, and having spent time trying to reassure traumatised dogs, I’m simply hoping that by tomorrow, or at least the day after, the village runs out of ammunition. Last time I was here for the fiesta, somebody was firing off two a minute for a solid hour. That becomes unbearable.

I suppose I don’t really want to kill the launcher, or at least I do only when he’s just awakened me from sleep. But at times, I do hope he goes deaf. And that one day, the loud explosions are banned.

From the Ypres Salient, where all is not quiet on the Western Front, over and out.