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Born to be Wild, Señor

September 14, 2021

Grumbling about driving in Mexico is one of those activities that even Mexicans join in with, albeit fatalistically.  You never see a car here with a sign saying something like ‘Marco’s Driving School‘ on top of it. A lot of people learn to drive on four hours’ instruction from their parents, or their elder brother, and the fine points of defensive driving are rarely discussed. While people will complain, they also laugh at the fact that Mexico will always be Mexico.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I find local drivers quite good, since they seem situationally aware enough to avoid fender-benders. But the moment someone passes me at 50 kilometres per hour on a local road, I know a city-dwelling outsider is on the way to a near-miss of a cow or horse grazing by the roadside.

A motorcyclist in Tepoztlan explains to traffic police why other drivers shouldn’t be driving where he wants to go.

A new threat emerged over the past couple of years. I’m told it was primarily Banco Azteca that promoted loans for motorbikes. Lots of people can’t afford a car, but for some people a motorbike is both sexier and cheaper. The problem comes when an increasing number of motorbikes combines with the aforementioned lack of driving expertise. 

A motorcycle can slide between a car and a sidewalk, and if an accident doesn’t happen, then the rule in Mexico is that it was a safe move. Twice in the past couple of weeks I’ve seen someone on a motorbike slip past the inside of a bus, just as it stopped to let off passengers. There are many places where there’s no curb to delineate the edge of the roadway, so the manoeuvre is possible. But if you’re an elderly passenger dismounting, or a mother with a small child and an armload of shopping, the risk is real. One of the two motorcyclists even had his own wife and kid on his bike, and still tried it. It happened outside a coffee shop where I sometimes get a cappuccino, and I had to sponge off the spilled coffee after watching this dumb move nearly result in an elderly woman being knocked down.

Perhaps local peer pressure will influence the motorcyclists in time, but a lot of them are young men with testosterone to burn. The instability of the motorbikes on wet roads with potholes, such as we have everywhere in rainy season, is a better hope.

A less dangerous but still annoying driver trait is corner parking. I don’t know why, but parking at a corner is something people here do all the time. This blocks cars trying to turn, make it difficult for others to pass, and generally create congestion. It seems to be a deeply compulsive activity, some inalienable right that should be exercised in particular at local bottlenecks.

The lady in the black car stopped for five minutes, several feet out from the curb, while she tried to figure out where to go.
The white car had to move around her. I took this from a restaurant balcony overlooking a busy corner.

Earlier this year, I was driving a friend home, and he asked me to stop at one of these spots so he could buy paint at a paint store. The store was on one side of the street at the corner, so I drove on forty or fifty feet to let him off. His incredulity that I would make him walk that far, versus my insistence that I don’t believe in blocking intersections, was like advancing an obscure point of quantum physics to a nine-year-old. Or, perhaps, like a silly Canadian fixation. Anything in Mexico can be covered with a smile and a quick “Disculpe!” or so some people feel. My gringo hang-up about avoiding creating a problem in the first place seemed to him like something I needed to get over.

Most of the time, it pays to avoid trying to import outsider values here; I’ve always felt I shouldn’t try to lecture Mexicans about how to behave. But our roads were made for a couple of cars a minute, and a truck five times an hour. Now, the local traffic police actually ticket illegal parkers on Saturdays because congestion in some spots is too severe, which is a bit like police in Alabama arresting people for owning guns.

This part of Mexico is too close to the 20-million people in the capital to avoid urban sprawl, although traffic problems happen everywhere. But if you ever do visit, remember that motorcyclists see you as something to get around, not someone to stop for. And as for parking away from an intersection … just what is your problem, señor?

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Election Season

April 4, 2021

Around sixteen years ago, when I first became interested in Mexico, I looked into its politics. At that time, apart from a few small, fringe parties, there were three of them: the National Action Party (PAN), which was Conservative; the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) which was Social Democratic; and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which was more or less centrist, but very definitely the immovable object in Mexican politics.

Whatever else Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has done since be became President in 2018, he has finished that set-up. A local friend told me last night that there are now fourteen parties vying for seats in the mid-term elections due on July 1. Bizarrely, PAN, PRI and PRD have formed an alliance to oppose Lopez Obrador and his bloc in the legislature. 

Two Futuro candidates for office. Futuro is one of the new parties.

Knowing exactly what each new party is about can be a head-scratching quest for anyone, even people who live here, since the party names don’t always imply which way they lean. Our village and the town of Tepoztlan are gaudy with electoral banners, showing the smiling, handsome faces of the younger candidates, and many less fetching older ones.

It isn’t just an election for the federal legislature. All the Mexican states are also involved, as are the mayoral seats of most towns. The mayor of Tepoztlan died from Covid-19 last month, so the contest to take the local job is hot, and anybody who has ever been a local activist seems to be after it.

David Barragan wants to be Mayor of Tepoztlan.

Lopez Obrador (who goes by the acronym AMLO most of the time) used to be the head of the PRD, but a few years ago he launched Morena, which is left-of-centre but also populist (a dubiously elastic term). The party name comes from Movimiento Regeneracion National, a phrase that translates into English easily. It is also a term used for a dark-skinned woman. It thus refers to indigenous people, whom AMLO claims to represent, as well as the sacred image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the matron saint of Mexico. This was very clever marketing, and AMLO, who had been thwarted in his previous presidential ambitions, has been ensconced in the capital for three years, excoriating all of his critics as conservatives or as individuals in the pay of the right wing, as he has bent parts of the Constitution to his preference, and (my own view) been remarkably ineffectual at rooting out corruption as he claimed he would.

Not that rooting out corruption has ever been easy in Mexico, nor that anyone else recently has managed it. Vicente Fox, President from 2000 to 2006, is generally reckoned, despite other failings, to have been an honest man, but Felipe Calderon, who came after him (2006 to 2012) never seemed to shine as a leader, nor did Enrique Peña Nieto (2012 to 2018) burnish the presidential seal to any noticeable extent. Calderon was the primary author of the continuing, murderous war on drug cartels, and Peña Nieto is widely viewed as clueless, and possibly in the pocket of ‘El Chapo’ (Joaquin Guzman Loero), the jailed former head of the Sinaloa Cartel.

Is Morena still ‘The hope of Mexico’ ? Ulises Pardo hopes people think so.

But AMLO is better at spending money on dubious projects than either of his two predecessors. And since polls show his candidates should do well, he isn’t about to change tack. I know people who believe he could try to become President-for-Life before his six-year term is up.

The local campaigns are different, though. I’ve always been a believer that capable local government is critical to any stable society. Big initiatives at the national or regional level get the headlines, but good local politicians and local initiatives can make a great deal of difference to people’s lives. 

I don’t know if David Barragan and Miriam Barragan are related. But both want to be Mayor.

In this context, I always recall interviewing Barney Danson, who was a cabinet minister in the government of Canada’s Pierre Trudeau in the 1970s. He ran into flak as Minister of National Defence, but when he was at Urban Affairs, he launched a national program to subsidise sewage systems across the country, working flexibly with municipalities on their specific needs.

“I was so proud of that,” he told me. “It made a positive difference to the lives of tens of thousands of people, maybe hundreds of thousands, but I doubt it ever got more than a couple of inches of newspaper coverage.” And having begun my own career as a reporter on a local newspaper, I grasped his point and was happy to agree that he’d probably accomplished something truly worthwhile away from the limelight.

Felipe Ceja has the most banners up of any candidate in our village. Morena doesn’t seem short of electoral funds.

I don’t know if any of the local people whose campaign posters I’ve included here will make any significant difference if they’re elected in July. The later stages of the pandemic are a unfortunate time in which to make fresh starts, and Mexico is facing strong economic headwinds this year and probably for some years to come. But the optimism so many of them bring to their campaigns is a reminder that Mexico is a society that still believes in its own communities and its own future, and is not the basket case its less informed critics like to think it is.

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Fire Season

April 13, 2021

The late spring of 2012 offered the most memorable fire season that I can recall. That year, the various blazes in the hills around our village came right to the edge of it, and on the worst night, I kept thinking of Hieronymus Bosch’ painting of Hell in The Garden of Earthly Delights. My own photos didn’t do it justice, but my friends and I spent two hours anxiously going over our contingency plans to make a run for it with five dogs. Thankfully, we didn’t need to do this, but the flames hung around for two more days to keep us on edge and wreck our sleep.

Hieronymus’ view of the infernal fires – not a blaze-dousing chopper in sight.

This year’s fires have come early; it’s a full two months till our rains start, and there’s a fear they’ll be on the meagre side, like last year.

They’ll be enough to stop the fires, but our current problem is a water shortage. Using helicopters to put out fires on steep hillsides works brilliantly, but it needs a lot of water that we don’t have to spare. This area has been in a partial drought for several years, and if we get more fires in the rest of April and in May, we’re in trouble.

Everyone loves watching the choppers. They make enough noise, and they get close enough to the flames before dropping their loads of water and fire retardant, that they’re impressively efficient looking. And, watching them tackle the spread-out blazes above the town of Tepoztlan this afternoon, I noticed that after 40 minutes, several of the lesser fires were gone. 

They’re effective, and we enjoy the sight of the pilots becoming heroes. Flying a helicopter close to a steep cliff, into the updraft of a blaze, is a lot riskier than it sounds, and you need to know this if you fly one.

A Mexican Air Force helicopter doing a water-bombing run this morning.

Mexicans accept natural disaster as a part of life, far better than other places. Communities pull together, governments reach beyond their frequent ineptitude, and those who can’t go into the hills to beat out flames at least buy water and food for the young men who do.

Yesterday, we had four separate areas ablaze, but this evening, only one is still active, and its range is declining. But it’s a part of the yearly cycle, not an exception to it, and no-one is screaming in terror. Most of us are careful not to go too close, but otherwise, we trust the smoke tomorrow will be diminished or contained.

Various things cause the fires. A few are from humans who are too stupid not to start campfires when everything around them is bone dry, or are farmers burning off last year’s crops at a time of day when the winds can spring up. Others are caused by discarded glass bottles acting as a lens for the hot sun: today, which was very sunny, we hit 31 degrees C. Spontaneous combustion, I learned today, usually happens in tightly packed, damp vegetable material, not things like the loose piles of dry leaves all over the hills, so it might not be a factor here.

Smoke rises from various locations on the hilly ridges north of Tepoztlan.

Fire has long been one of nature’s means of renewal as much as destruction, and the fires are not necessarily tragic for this reason. Some wildlife, alas, will be lost, but the vegetated areas on the hills grow back in a year, or two at most. I’m told, by old-timers, that nobody heeded the fires much in years past, though the growth of the towns and villages means there’s more of a threat today of outlying areas of housing being destroyed. As a result, fire-fighting has become a necessary skill.

Stoicism is necessary, though. As I noted, we’re a couple of months away from full-on rains, and we don’t have an alternative right now to being patient. When you choose to come and live closer to nature, you have to accept that nature doesn’t withdraw because just you’ve arrived. Rather, nature, in all its forms, is going to come closer to you.

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Vaccination Day

March 18, 2021

The past year has been hard on friendships. Some of us decided early on to mask up and avoid group situations, while others became anti-vax and anti-mask evangelists, and began delivering a relentless sermon that lasted all summer, all fall, and all winter. I now know every silly, unscientific theory in existence about vaccines, viruses and mendacious governments. And, of course, all about Bill Gates and his microchips. My social circle has been judiciously pruned as a result.

Finally, just before last weekend, Tepoztlan announced that the Pfizer vaccine would be made available to people over 60 for three days starting on Tuesday, March 16, the day after Benito Juarez Day. Two locations, a school in town and a soccer field, were being used for this.

There was widespread anticipation, and I planned to go in with my friend Ixchel as soon as a long-awaited plumber had turned up to install a water filter. However, by the time he was done and had left with my cash in his pocket, she had messaged and phoned me to tell me that the lines were insanely long, everything was backed up, and she was going home. 

A spontaneous protest by angry people who had waited in the sun with aging relatives closed the day’s operations, I heard. The cult of the abuela, the grandmother, is a strong one here, and protecting family matriarchs, or at least looking like you do, is a significant part of the social structure. 

The line-up on the first afternoon. Cannier people brought chairs for family matriarchs (and patriarchs) to sit on.

We both considered waiting for an opportunity next month, but decided to give it a second try today, Thursday, the last of the three days. So, this morning we put ourselves in the line for the school vaccination centre, and waited.  And waited.

After 20 minutes, the line had not moved. Fortunately, the staff for this operation, which was admittedly a big one for a town this size, were now on top of what was going on, and came to recommend we go down to the soccer field, where there were few people waiting. We did this, and while a couple of hundred people were already there when we arrived, people were moving on through the system. Just getting under the protective awning past the entrance gate felt like hope. We kept having to shift forward one row of seats as people moved through the system, so we finally had the sense of making progress.

Sure enough, around an hour later, we had moved to the fronts of two different lines, and the anticlimactic moment of the actual jab happened. We were asked to wait another 20 minutes to ensure we had no adverse reactions, then left after receiving a basic certificate of vaccination, and a provisional date for the second injection.

We had to play musical chairs under the awning, moving ahead to the next row of seats as others received injections.

The feeling of freedom from anxiety wasn’t what I’d expected. But finally, other than being careful and avoiding the conspiracy-theory crowd entirely, we had a realistic protection against the wretched disease. After just one jab, it’s not the whole deal, but my body now has the tool it needs to build advance resistance to the virus, assuming I’ve not already encountered and defeated it sub-clinically. 

And the day just looked brighter as a result. We walked to a place for lunch, ran into a mutual friend who had also just had her jab and was feeling similarly relieved, and felt more gratitude than we had in months.

I had to go home to wait for a man to deliver a load of water, as I mentioned in my last post, so home I went after finishing my enchiladas. He came when expected, and later so did Jorge, our local blacksmith, who was coming to examine the front gate of the small house I’m fixing so I can rent it out. 

Indeed, if the pump on the water truck hadn’t surged fiercely, making the hose jump so that it bent the inner security gate out of alignment, and soaking the garage area, I’d have had a perfect day. But jump it did, and Jorge has to see if he can fix that gate, too. And Rem, my canine anarchist for whom the inner gate had to be installed in the first place, tried to bite Jorge, though thankfully he only chomped on a mouthful of jeans.

Rem, the canine anarchist.

So, apart from facing a combined 1,300 peso repair bill, and having to apologise for Rem’s over-protectiveness, this was a semi-perfect day. Either way, I have the jab now. If I do run into anti-vax evangelists in town, I can tell them I put my deltoid muscle where my mouth is, and I now consider myself a superior human as a result. Or at least a pandemically insulated one.

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Fire Season

February 26, 2021

The rains were restrained last summer. I scarcely recall any of the massive downpours of other years that, the morning after the storm, would leave the village streets still running with water. Thankfully, the maize crop around here was abundant despite the lower rainfall, but now we’re facing a problem with the water table.

The first clear sign emerged a couple of weeks ago when, sitting on the combi into town, I noticed a high plume of what first looked like cumulus cloud on the hills behind the village. I quickly realised the column of smoke was swirling in motion, indicating a blazing fire. Local teams had it put out by the next day, though on the day after that, a baby version came back for an hour or two.

A photo I took in April 2012, when fires came to the edge of the village. The flames at this point, while
not visible in the photo, were less than 500 meters from the houses at the time.

Normally, forest fires round here are a risk in April or May, but the season has started early, presumably because of the dryness. 

Today, the local town declared a partial emergency, announcing that “The City Council of Tepoztlán in coordination with the forestry civic groups, citizen brigades and environmental cultural promoters of the municipality, jointly made the decision to suspend any tourist activity in the Tepozteco Natural Protected Area.” In other words, they don’t want people hiking in the hills, for fear they will light cooking fires, discard cigarettes or drop bottles that might act as lenses for sunlight.

There’s also the problem that if a fire starts, either as a result of spontaneous combustion or from a farmer burning off his fields, hikers or simple bucolic wanderers might be cut off by rapidly advancing flames and smoke, and they’ll need a rescue. This assumes, of course, that anyone knows where they are, or even if they’re missing.

These are issues that anyone who lives here soon understands. although some farmers don’t seem to learn about burning a field with the proper safeguards. People often own fields well up into the hills, some distance from habitation, and if things get out of hand, there’s no-one around to help them. I’ve often wondered if there’s any safe way to burn fields in the dry season, but the practice continues, and most farmers never start a blaze that spreads. A key thing seems to be doing it early in the morning, when there’s a little condensation on the ground, not much wind, and the heat hasn’t built up in the atmosphere. This does mean people like myself find small bits of burned maize stalks have drifted in on the wind, and are all over the patio in the late morning. Still, a broom is a powerful tool in the hands of the determined.

There’s not a great deal we can do in advance, since this is a heavily wooded area, with a great deal of dry underbrush. And fires are one of natures tools for renewing woodlands. 

Fires are, however, a fact of life here, like the occasional small earthquake. And they remind us that our ownership of land is at the mercy of nature’s whims.

Merry Christmask

December 22, 2020

Around two weeks ago, I noticed a significant shift as I went into town on the combi micro-bus. Previously, only around half of the passengers wore face-masks, and even that percentage had been dwindling since the town re-opened in the fall. But suddenly, three-quarters of the people were masking, and even some of our libertarian holdouts with their much touted bulletproof auras and invincible immune systems were wearing them. The police began to stop the unmasked, warning them of fines, and the bus drivers started requesting that people put them on as well.

Some of your author’s collection of face-masks.

As has happened anywhere, we’ve had all sorts of ups and downs, and ons and offs, with the pandemic. Once the town of Tepoztlan put up barricades at its two primary entrances, back in the spring, our village of Amatlan copied it. My friends weren’t allowed in to visit, and when I went out, I needed proof of residency to be allowed back. For once, my gringo face, which always stands out, was a benefit in avoiding repeated checks.

The village barricade was always problematic, and had at least one shooting incident. It wasn’t officially sanctioned, and even the one the town put in place was technically illegal. When first the village reten was cleared, and a week or two after the town began admitting visitors again, everyone breathed sighs of relief.

Then, of course, the pandemic continued and worsened. With 122 recorded cases in the municipality to date (we have over 40,000 people), we’re in much better shape than some nearby communities, where the infection rate has been up to four or five times as high. Why, we don’t know, but we’re dangerously smug about it.

Last week, the governor of this state of Morelos warned about a complete Christmas lockdown. Our town nearly went that route, but our exhausted mayor, who toughed it out for months but couldn’t keep telling desperate, angry people their livelihoods were cancelled, declared on the weekend that he wasn’t closing up again. Christmas visitors are coming in, so I’m trying to avoid the town as much as I can. I miss the friends who live there, but it doesn’t feel that safe with all the outsiders.

If I compare our caseload to Toronto, which as of this writing has tallied around 53,000 people infected, we’re slightly better in our numbers. With minimal hospital facilities for a pandemic, that’s something to appreciate, and it’s far from like this in Mexico taken as a whole. This nation, with three times Canada’s total population, has now reported 1.3-million cases, and 120,000 deaths. And as they are elsewhere, the indicators aren’t good. Even the denialists are suddenly asking when the vaccines will be made available. 

So, I can’t put much of a positive seasonal spin on this post, beyond being grateful I’m in a place where I can at least get out and about, and the risk level has somehow stayed low. All I can do is make sure my face-masks are clean, and that my fingertips stay dry and a little cracked from all the gel and washing with soap they go through.

I hope you all continue to stay as safe. My best wishes for 2021, and thanks for reading my posts.

Edward.

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The Door Creaks Open

July 1, 2020

Canada is celebrating its national day today, something I’m marking by taking my dog Punky for a clip of his straggling wool. Yes, the Punkster and I know how to party.

Punky Jun 20 copy.jpg

There is a dog, Punky,  inside this shapeless wool rug.

Our town of Tepoztlan is trying not to party, but might flunk that effort. After three months of more-or-less quarantine, and a small but continually growing caseload of virus infections, it’s opening more restaurants today, albeit with well-spaced tables, while hotels that carefully check their guests can also open again. The barricades at the two entrances to the town remain in place, but I’ve been noticing more outsiders showing up since mid-June.

I blogged earlier about how difficult it would be for a community with an economy heavily dependent on weekend tourists to stay locked down for long. My neighbour’s taxi often just sits outside his house these days. Some people have had to move back in with parents or other family to cover living expenses. Street vendors struggle to get by when there are no visitors. I’ve not even seen the musicians of varying talents who normally haunt the market in town, because they’d have no audience anyway.DSCF2387

Naty’s restaurant, named for the owner’s grandmother, has been a Tepoztlan institution since 1987. But until this past week, it had been shut since March.

Yep, same story as everywhere around the world. Now it’s supposed to change, though by gradual degrees. But as other governments in other countries have found, many people take any easing of restrictions as a green light to drop all caution. Add to them the people I know (and am avoiding) who still think all this is a hoax, or something overblown (cue those 5G Facebook memes!), and you can see the emerging problem. Our municipality’s case numbers to date were under 30 just ten days ago, and yesterday the tally was 43. That number should probably be multiplied by three or four to give an accurate figure.

So, my more sensible friends are nervous, and so am I. At the same time, the idea of having a meal at an outdoor restaurant is irresistible after the monotony of my own cooking since March. I’ve been to a couple of outdoor places that have remained open because they can distance their tables, but the hunger we all get is for variety more than for lunch.

Nobody has found a good answer to all this. Or rather, no-one had managed to convince enough people to be cautious enough for any decent answer to work well. Infection curves might be flatter, but in not many places are they actually flat. Mexico has been particularly bad, and most of the country is still seeing serious increases in cases. Our official death tally is just under 28,000, while the national case count is 226,000. But many cases in smaller towns go uncounted, and there’s always the problem of whether an older person who died did so because of the virus, or because of the virus plus an existing condition.

Whatever the numerical reality, we’re not at a good news point yet. I’m glad I’m in a village when plenty of open space and quiet trails where I can go for a walk. It does makes things easier.

 

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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.

 

 

 

Here Comes the Rain Again

May 5, 2020

This year, our rainy season appears to have started a month early. Normally it hits in the later part of June, but a small storm on the night of April 30 began an intermittent pattern of rainfall that, combined with lightning strikes, has twice knocked out our electrical power.

I’m not a great fan of the rains, which tend to breed flies and mosquitoes, as well telling the plant life in the dogs’ corral that it now has permission to overgrow all the available space. This year, I also wonder if the drop in temperatures they bring, combined with less sunshine, will enable to virus to spread more easily. Covid-19 is a very strange disease, as we’ve all read, but there are indications it doesn’t like heat or sunshine, which we’ve had in abundance since February. That advantage now dissipates.

That said, the rain fills our cistern, running through a triple filter system that keeps out vegetation and small bits of stuff in general. That means we don’t need to buy non-potable water for a few months. It also produces aesthetic effects such as evocative cloud formations, or full-on Wrath of the Gods lightning storms. Those terrify at least one of the dogs, and I’m quite likely to find she’s disappeared yet again, only to show up cowering under my bed while sharp claps of thunder resound off the cliffs surrounding the village.

Clouds June 2019 copy.jpg

Evocative cloud formations: misty wraiths stalk the hillside opposite my house. Photo from June 2019.

This May, after a long dry winter, there were fears of a vintage year for forest fires breaking out on the mountains behind us. That possibility is now drastically reduced.

While the barricade outside the village is still manned by solid numbers of volunteers, 24 hours a day, there is anticipation that the town of Tepoztlan might relax its police-enforced separation from the rest of the country in a few weeks. That would mean the barricade, which is legally a very dubious enterprise, would follow suit. Anticipation is in the air along with frustration, but I’m sure we’re not yet ready to drop our protective measures.

And this assumes, of course, that the drop in temperatures, combined with possible relaxed social and commercial restrictions, doesn’t bring a surge in infection. In a week Tepoztlan has gone from two cases to five, which is not a lot, but is also isn’t encouraging. Everything this year is in question.

Hence, the rains themselves are reassuring, simply because they remind us we’re connected to a grander cycle of nature. That cycle doesn’t follow an exact calendar, but its existence, demonstrated most recently by last night’s brief storm, is one of the things we’re all clinging to in this bizarre, disorienting spring.

Cicadas, Sanitizer and Hysterical Misery

April 18, 2020

Yesterday, I heard a buzzing in the plants outside the kitchen. I found it came from a cicada that was having trouble. I tried to help it up, but then discovered it had developed with one wing shorter than another. In an hour, it was dead.

Which was not a problem for the cicada population as a whole. This morning, they began that high-pitched chorus that, at its peak, sounds like an iron foundry. It was so loud, I considered getting the earplugs I keep for when the dogs in the village stage a 1.00 am bark-athon.

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A cicada and its abandoned larval casing.

But I was glad to hear it, since it reminded me that most of nature was still doing its thing, unhindered.

In town, more stores seemed to have closed up, and the market was almost deserted. The Zocalo, the main square, is sealed off to prevent people socialising, and no-one can enter the market without first using hand sanitizer.

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Before entering the market, you must use hand sanitizer. Last week, they had young people policing everyone who tried to sneak in with their hands unsanitized.

Emma, who runs Buenos Tiempos cafe, was happy to see me for the first time in more than a week, even if I only wanted to risk a take-out cappuccino. Like most store owners in Tepoztlan, she has laid off her staff and is managing on her own.

I bought an oatmeal cookie that was dry, because she’s sold so little recently.  I hadn’t the heart to complain. This must be the toughest time she’s ever faced.

Back at home in the village, I noticed that the plum tree on the other side of this property is already coming into full leaf. There are even tiny plums forming in the branches.

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The plum tree is putting forth leaves, without benefit of rain.

We’ve had no significant rain for months, and nothing at all since March. How does nature manage to re-start when there is nothing to moisten the soil, or to signal to cicadas that it’s time to come out? I don’t know, but it happens, and it’s happening now.

The people manning the village “frontier barricade” are still there. Last evening I saw they had a bamboo rod to make a more visible barrier to incoming traffic. There’s often a small truck parked by the side of the road that they won’t admit. People here drive around collecting scrap metal, or selling bread or fruit, but they’re not being admitted to Amatlan. It’s hard for them.

Oddly, if you rent a place that you hardly ever use, but have a signed lease, you can still get in. I was out getting a tlacoyo for lunch (a folded-over taco, basically) when I passed a gaggle of rich hippie kids. Their tattoos were very professional, and their quasi-Indian clothing was clean and nicely finished. And until I said my “Buenas tardes,” which we do here, they were going to ignore me, like all the other rich hippie kids who come in on weekends.

The quarantine continues, but it’s selective. More reason, I felt, to feel fed up.

This afternoon, while I was in the bedroom cleaning, I heard what sounded like another stranded cicada, but in the living room. It turned out to be a lovely green songbird that had flown in through the open door, and was knocking itself out against the window. When I used my hat and my hand to trap it, it went limp, as if it assumed its time was up.

Moments later, it realised it was outside. I removed my restraining hand, and it shot off back to freedom. This happens once or twice ever year, because I leave the living room door to the patio open for two of the dogs to come in and out. It’s a little tense, since injuring small birds’ wings is easy to do. But each time it also makes a lovely moment of contact with the wild world that lives around my house, with the added pleasure of exhilaration as the creature flies free.

Then, yet another “Bill Gates is a terrible murderer” meme showed up on Facebook. In this episode, the tireless evildoer had, apparently, taken over one of India’s health agencies and forced children to receive a flawed polio vaccine, for which he was personally responsible. Many had died.

When I checked, I couldn’t find any actual source for this story beyond the meme. The fact that viable and safe polio vaccines have already existed for decades should have been the clue, but paranoid fantasies about this latest supervillain are apparently helping some people cope with the tension of the lockdown.

I kind of understand this. Simultaneously, I’m left sad and frustrated that so many think spreading nonsense is how they can “help.”

And now it’s late afternoon, and I’m sitting in my living room, lazily writing a blog post and looking out the windows. The Sun is shining on the cliffs opposite, creating that effect that makes the rocks, with their hundreds of partly eroded strata, look like the intricately carved temples of Angkor Wat. It’s hazy today, from dry-season dust and some farmers who are burning the stubble in their fields, but the detail is still there.

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The effect of “temples” is lost in a photo, but the strange beauty of the rocks is still evident.

The natural cycle goes on. And at some point, our human world will also pick up. Haltingly but steadily, with a lot of accumulated hurt, it will come back to something less scared, angry and bored. And perhaps the online mob of angry people, who wield memes instead of pitchforks, can calm their fevered imaginations.

Freud’s famous line comes to mind in this context:

“Much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health, you will be better armed against that unhappiness.”