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Once a Year … Thankfully

July 23, 2022

“Well, it’s only once a year,” was John’s opinion this morning, as chatted outside Tepoz Cafe. My true opinion is, “Well, it shouldn’t be.” But I chose to live in Mexico, so things Mexican are what I let myself in for.

Very few parishes or villages are dedicated to Mary Magdalene. Since the Plumed Serpent Quetzalcoatl was, legendarily, born just outside Amatlan, his mother in Catholic doctrine was a very sinful being in need of penitence. Accordingly, the church here is dedicated to her, and July 22, her saint’s day, is when the village erupts in fiesta.

The main street this morning, as people set up for the day.

It starts a couple of days before, as people set up stalls to sell food, jewelry, cheap kids’ toys and t-shirts. The movable midway rides are trucked in, people put up awnings (it is rainy season after all) and the organisers book a dozen bands and order hundreds of cohetes or explosive rockets.There was no fiesta in 2020, and only a blessedly small one in 2021. This year, as a surge of Covid-19 cases runs through the area, they planned on the traditional bash, and so this village is almost unlivable this weekend.

But as my regular readers (thank you both!) know, it’s the cohetes that torment my dogs and drive me crazy. These are not your average July 4th (or July 1st) fireworks, but super-bangers that resonate their detonations off the cliffs surrounding the village. To stand under one as it goes off is to feel the pressure-wave and a slight hurting in your ears. My dogs loathe them, and since they have been let off consistently through the day until after midnight since Thursday (I write this on Saturday) my noise-fearing dog Victoria has spent the past two nights cowering in my bedroom, which at least gives her the illusion of security.

I lost it late on Thursday afternoon, when the whole show was getting under way. The designated rocketeer began letting them off every 12 to 15 seconds, and continued for 25 minutes. I ended up screaming at him – while safe, of course, in my house 300 yards from the churchyard, which is his launchpad. But I just cracked after that many consecutive explosions.

Rocket Man runs to fetch more ammo after releasing a salvo of cohetes.

I’ve grumbled before that, along with the general treatment of animals and unconcern over litter, cohetes are one of the three things I hate about Mexico. Many gringos are like me, and we occasionally have the temerity to suggest they be abandoned. Every year there are reports of people being blinded, maimed or even killed over poorly timed detonations. But tradition rules here, not common-sense. Mexicans seem to enjoy eardrum-rending bangs, while we outsiders instead want to praise the relative peace of places such as Amatlan.

Hah. 

Victoria checks to see if it’s safe to come out for a while and get a drink of water.

I tell Vicki that it will all stop after Sunday evening’s bull-riding jaripeo. But that’s 30 hours away, and dogs have no sense of ‘the day after tomorrow.’ The songbirds have mostly abandoned the village for the woods in the hills, my next-door neighbours are coining it selling tacos in their front yard to all the visitors, and those of us who don’t like raucous fiestas just have to wait it out.

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Urban duendes

December 30, 2021

Victoria has had a rough week. She is terrified of loud noises, and since Christmas Eve we’ve had masses of explosive rockets let off. Opponents of these things are now pointing out how much air pollution they produce, but so far, it’s not having an effect. Vicki responds to the night rockets by crawling under my bed, after demanding to be let in with a sharp bark.

My friend Lucero, Victoria’s original rescuer, painted this portrait. I’m biased, but other people agree the likeness is amazing.

A few weeks back, she began a kind of rasping sound, like a cough or excessive throat clearing. At first I was afraid she’d tried to swallow something that was blocking her airway, but that wasn’t it. To Luis our trusted vet we went, and while he suggested it could be just a bronchial infection, he was pretty sure it was due to an incipient heart condition. At age thirteen, she’s into things like heart conditions. She’s slowing down, and a little deaf, but she’s still good company.

So, we tried antibiotics and a cough-soothing medicine, which had no effect. Wednesday, she and I went back to Luis, who checked Vicki and gave me a prescription for an echocardiogram. This has to be done in Cuernavaca, a half-hour drive away from Tepoztlan. I called the number once or twice, but no-one picked up. I had been thinking of going for some food shopping at the Walmart in Cuernavaca (their selection of imported foods is surprisingly varied for Mexico), and I noticed the veterinary clinic was a few hundred metres down the street from the mega-store. I decided to head off and find the clinic on foot, book and appointment then stock up on decent tea and some other stuff the same afternoon.

In central Mexico City, all the streets are identified by signs on the street corners. Not so other parts of Mexico. Not long ago, my friend Ixchel and I headed off to visit a hacienda on the far side of the city of Cuautla, and despite using a GPS on her phone, we became completely lost. I even got a traffic ticket, making an iffy turn back whence we’d come.

Cuernavaca has some signs, but not many. I decided to take a bus there, not wanting to be looking for an unfamiliar place while driving in traffic. Then, when I took Vicki in, I wouldn’t be looking for an unknown location.

Now, the tent where they sell bus tickets for Cuernavaca, next to a ramp leading to the main highway, was gone when I got there. The ramps are under reconstruction, and there was no sign to indicate where I should go. It’s sort of assumed here that someone has told someone who’s told you how things have changed. That’s simply how it works (or often, doesn’t work). Mexicans are highly conversational, and people just get to know stuff.

There is, however, a kind of duende (Spanish for an elf or pixie) who looks after the lost in Mexico. Invisible and inaudible, it shows up when it wants to, which might be an hour after you got lost, or three minutes. It somehow distracts you from your confusion, and indicates the place you need. Perhaps, in Mexican folklore, there’s a way of calling one, but I don’t know the method, beyond feeling and looking clueless. 

In this case, I walked 200 yards to the ticket office for the bus line I would use to go to Mexico City. A helpful young woman, no doubt a relative of a duende, or its accomplice, pointed across the street to where people sat in a previously abandoned storefront, which had no sign. I thanked her profusely, and after ten minutes, my bus came.

The clinic I needed in Cuernavaca is in a street named Legislative Power. Since this is a direct extension of Domingo Diez Avenue, which I know well, and I had the street number, it was just a matter of counting down numbers till I arrived. 

Or not. Not only do Mexicans eschew street identification and signage, they’re also not big on street numbers. You will see no. 221 come after no. 119, and figure no. 129 is a few doors down. Gotcha! No, the numbers re-start two blocks further along. I had carefully written directions from Luis, and I’d checked Google Earth too, but what I had written down didn’t translate into the ground-level reality.

Now, when you’re lost in Mexico, which is a frequent thing for Mexicans, not just gringos, you ask a local. People here love to help strangers, and the directions you get are sometimes even accurate. So, I started at a corner taco joint, figuring people at such a place must know their own neighbourhood. These women directed me further up towards Walmart, asserting that my cross-street was two or maybe three blocks away.

Four blocks on, I decided to tried a guy in a car parts store. After all, I figured, such people must drive their own cars, so they must know local streets. He suggested I had to go up through three streetlights, or about six blocks. I thanked him, and decided to hail a cab.

Ten minutes later, in busy, daylight Cuernavaca, no cab had come by, so I started walking again. On the very next block. I suddenly spotted a small sign advertising Science Diet dogfood. and realised I was at a veterinarian’s. I’d found the clinic! I’d been duende‘d!

The appointment made, I hoped on a combi microbus to get on to Walmart. Here I misjudged how far I’d walked, since I needed to get off again after two blocks. The driver, used to lost gringos, just shrugged. No duende was needed in this case, of course.

In line with the day, when I finally got to where the bus picks up passengers for Tepoztlan, it turned out to be closed for renovations. Probably it was another duende who helped me here as I walked grumblingly to where I could get a taxi. One of the older, less comfortable buses that go to my home town came along – I didn’t even know their route came through that area – so I clambered on it, and withstood twenty-five minutes of shaken bones without further complaint.

Thus ended what felt rather like an epic afternoon, with multiple inconveniences. I still have no idea what a duende might look like, if one were to appear before me. Perhaps they just look similar to average Mexicans, like the girl at the bus-ticket office. 

But, if you’re ever lost in Mexico, don’t forget the duendes. As long as you respond with noises of gratitude and relief, they seem to be happy they helped you. 

I just hope they aren’t dog-phobic, and that Vicki scares them off. Just in case I get us lost again when we go for the test on Tuesday, and I need help. She doesn’t need another bad week after this one.

Snake Alive!

October 19, 2020

Let’s set the scene a bit here first. This is the patio of the house where I live. The door on the right leads to the kitchen, where at the time of the incident, I was just finishing a late lunch:

The view from the kitchen shows me the living room door, and a stone flower bed, with the screen door of the living room partly obscuring that:

Okay. So I was just sitting, contemplating the rest of the afternoon, right? I was in that post-eating state of being pleasantly unfocused, when I noticed an odd, thick line behind the screen door. And it was moving downwards. It could even be a snake, I mused, except the line kept moving downwards. I’d never seen a snake anywhere near this property that was over 15 inches long, so how could it be….

Snapping out of the post-meal trance, I realised that it was a snake and it wasn’t 15 inches long: it was two or three times that. And my dog Victoria was dozing in the living room.

I shrieked her name several times, rushing to where the snake was still slithering casually into the living room. She got up from her bed, looked at me, looked at it, and then let it slide past her. Then she looked at me again, as if to ask, “You want me to start barking like you, right?”

Victoria in her standard, non-snake-killing mode.

This wasn’t what was supposed to happen, right? Fierce dog attacks and kills snake, or snake kills dog: that’s the scenario. I don’t have anything against snakes on principle, you understand, but my preference was decidedly for the former option, and she wasn’t doing anything about it. 

I ran to a spot outside on the patio to grab a broom and a mop, since I had no idea if the snake’s bite would be poisonous or merely nasty. By now, it had slid behind a mattress I’d just bought that was leaning against the wall. I kept trying to think how I could get it to leave without harming it, but the risk to Vicki was my primary motivation. I did have the presence of mind (or stupidity) to take a quick photo of the snake, just to prove later on that I wasn’t hallucinating. 

I then tried pulling it out with the broom, the head of which quickly came off. (Recollected memo to self: if you live past the next five minutes, remember to buy a new broom). The snake, now with its jaws open and trying to look dangerous, took advantage of the moment and dived under the sofa.

I had to play with the exposure here to show the snake more clearly. The white ‘slab’ to the left in the image is the painted wall of the room.

I now pushed the bemused Vicki into my bedroom, making sure the door was properly shut. Then, I pulled away the sofa, startling a scorpion that had also come in at some point. (Scorpions I’m used to, as is Vicki; 45-inch snakes, not so much). The snake headed for the door, finally. 

Okay, what to do? Ideally, I thought, I should grab it behind the head, and either crush it and kill it or escort it off the property. But while I’ll kill a black widow spider, or a centipede threatening one of the dogs (local centipedes have a nasty bite), a have an ingrained reluctance to harm anything higher up the food-chain. 

I took a second photo, the old journalist in me triumphing over my inner white hunter. Then I tried to restrain it with the mop. Did you know snakes are strong?

The blue water bowl is 12 inches in diameter, so that gives you some sense of scale.

They’re strong. And they bend around mops very easily. The snake headed to the corner of the patio behind the little spiral staircase that leads to the upper patio, where a couple of pipes also lurk. It began inching upwards, ignoring further efforts with the mop. 

I dived into the kitchen and put an oven mitt on my right hand, thinking I might grab it, and would have some protection if it bit me. (My friends say I can be cynical, but this action proves I’m a total optimist). It had headed over the roof of the kitchen by the time I got up after it, warily watching for it to ambush me. My next efforts succeeding only in helping it fall over the edge into the dogs’ corral.

Down I went again, right hand still en-mitted, and trusty mop in my other hand. The snake was now heading into a cavity in the downstairs wall, but I grabbed its tail.

Did I mention snakes are strong?

This one was. I couldn’t make it budge. And I had a snake by the tail, which, it occurred to me, might be the most stupidly dangerous thing I’d done so far. It could turn any moment it wanted, the business end of it free to bite me. 

So, deciding to declare victory, I withdrew, released Vicki from the bedroom, and simply started looking up Mexican snakes online while my pulse-rate slowed. I posted a couple of the photos on Facebook, and friends suggested it was a gopher snake. I concluded it was Pituophis lineaticollis , the Middle American gopher snake, which is endemic to this state of Morelos and a couple of other states nearby. It has a very mildly poisonous bite, but it doesn’t attack dogs.

And as of now, it’s probably still hanging out in its hole. Rem, the only one of the dogs who goes regularly into the corral when it’s full of vegetation in rainy season, could easily finish it off if he found it (even without a mop or oven mitt…), so I’m assuming after its upsetting afternoon, it will escape tonight and go back into the wilds behind the house.

I am glad I didn’t kill it, though. If it had been a rattlesnake, I would have made a different call, but it simply turned out to be no more than an exotic, if alarming, visitor. 

Now all I have to do is figure out where that scorpion from under the sofa went.

A Nose for the Facts

August 24, 2020

The dog detective used to be a staple of kids’ TV programs. Usually, it was a photogenic German shepherd, or maybe a collie, that sniffed out the truth of a mystery, woofing the results of its investigations in the last two minutes, then enjoying well-deserved pats from its appreciative owners as the credits rolled.

Victoria isn’t in quite that investigative category, but she’s always been a good security guard. In my early times here, she used to spend her days in the corral here with two other dogs, both now departed, then I’d bring her into my small house for the night. She’d always check around, and if I saw her staring at the wall, it meant she’d detected an intrusive scorpion. I considered it her way of showing appreciation for the dry accommodation, even if I never had that many scorpions coming in.

Vicki, May:19 copy
Vicki staring at … something or other.

She’s a little arthritic and slow these days, and recently had to have a few bad teeth extracted under anesthetic. She still has keen hearing, however and, I realised this week, a reliable sense of smell.

I don’t own a car, but my friend Lucero is living elsewhere for a time, and has left her old Ford Explorer for me to use. The emphasis here is on the word ‘old,’ since it’s a model year 1993, and shows, shall we say, a few signs of its age. However, the motor is still sound, and since I don’t want to ride on public transportation right now, it’s a useful alternative.

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The Ford Explorer, showing just a few signs of its age.

I take Vicki out twice a day, essentially for mental stimulus, since the arthritis means she’s not into long walks, or running about in the field outside my home. She sniffs what she considers needs to be sniffed, then begins hinting she wants to go back.

Recently, she began stopping on the way back in to sniff a back wheel of the Ford. I assumed another dog had peed against I when it was out, and I couldn’t understand her determined fascination with it.

Saturday, I went shopping with a friend into town, and noticed coming back that the brakes were very soft and slow to react. We’d planned to go to a village with interesting trails for an afternoon hike, but my friend was nervous about that. The drive would have been entirely uphill and, more critical, the drive back is non-stop downhill. For four kilometres or more. With iffy brakes. We watched a movie at her place instead.

I took the car in for servicing today, having found an honest and reliable mechanic in July. Since I’ve mostly driven front-wheel drive cars, it never occurred to me that the main braking system for the rear-wheel drive Explorer was at the back (duh), but right away the mechanic showed me the dripping brake fluid that Vicki had been sniffing.

It wasn’t expensive to put in a new brake cylinder, and a couple of hours later the Explorer was fine again; or at least, as fine as an aging, 27-year-old SUV is going to be. But heading back home from the mechanic’s, it occurred to me Vicki had been my early warning system for the pungent (to a dog) brake fluid, and that she only gets obsessive about dangerous things.

Okay kid, there’s some chicken for your dinner tonight. You tried to help, even if I was too slow to pick up on the hint you were providing.

The noble canine detective tradition lives on!

The Unbearabable Lightness of Quarantine

May 11, 2020

This afternoon, while I was lying around not really getting into a nap, it occurred to me that I’m doing this quarantine thing all wrong. I’m not, I realised, learning anything significant.

I am learning a lot of things, or maybe I should say observing a lot of things that I already knew. For example, that dogs are far better at handling tedium than humans. They sleep at least 14 hours a day, and can boost that by several hours if there’s a lack of stimulus on offer. Can dogs even get bored? I don’t know, but they seem designed for it much more than humans are.

Vicki.jpg

Victoria contemplates not needing to contemplate anything, because she’s a dog.

I’ve also observed that faith in commmunity barricades is misplaced. Each time I’m waved through the “frontier post” outside the village, I wonder just how much it keeps out anything. Last week, coming back on the combi microbus, I watched a young man offer a persuasive line and a dodgy document to the woman checking passengers. Given the knowing looks he and his girlfriend from the village exchanged after we were waved on, it looked like they’d pulled off a small scam. And I don’t doubt others manage this.

But then, trucks come in every day bringing propane, drinking water, and supplies for the stores. The combi drivers aren’t from the village. And so on: it isn’t one building being kept secure, it’s a community of 1200 people we live in, and the traffic, while light, is constant.

The oddest experience at the checkpoint came on Saturday when, after driving two friends into town to shop, so we wouldn’t have to share the bench seating in a combi, I was bidden to roll my windows shut. A man with a motorised spray system then stepped forward and subjected the aged vehicle I’m using to a stream of some form of antiseptic. Not us (there were by then just two of us in the truck), but the vehicle’s exterior.

Admittedly, it didn’t have a giant face-mask over its grille, and it might not have kept a two-metre distance from other vehicles in the parking lot, but somehow this seemed utterly pointless. Somebody had had an idea; and, like all those over-excited Youtube conspiracy videos I hide from, it perhaps seemed superficially plausible at first. But I can’t imagine spraying the fading paint-job preserved anyone’s safety.

Still, my main point is, I’d hardly call this a significant discovery. Have I realised that early 21st Century capitalism is failing? No, and I suspect it will come through this unhindered, at least in general. Will the pandemic persuade everyone to care more about other people? Possibly, but mostly, we’re all just getting grumpy with each other. Have I concluded we’ll finally grasp we have to stop overexploiting the planet’s resources? I haven’t, and I doubt it.

All I really notice is the aforementioned grumpiness; that, and a longing to sneak into town every morning for a coffee and a conversation, even a pointless one, as often occurs with randomly arriving acquaintances. For now, I see the two friends who came into town with me fairly regularly, but that’s it. And yes, we try to keep proper distance.

Meaning, and meaningful realisations, arise out of having a basic measure of social interactions to ground them. They can’t exist effectively in a field of abstraction. Even in prisons, people preserve their sanity by setting up routines. Solitary confinement drains that groundedness, that sense of meaning arising from connectedness. Being alone produces boredom, which vitiates even the need for meaning.

I’m therefore left with one learned truth, one positive conclusion so far. People are predicting more pandemics in future, and to be prepared from them, I’ve realised I need to come back in my next lifetime as a dog.