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Water, Cash and Almonds

March 28, 2020

My corner of Mexico this past week was a little like the US stock market. That was gripped by dark realism for a week or so, then it bounced back, irrationally. This weekend, it seems a little of the caution that was cutting in here has been set aside. One restaurant in town that had closed even re-opened for the weekend traffic.

There are probably three main strands of social attitudes. A lot of people do believe bad stuff is coming (we have just 850 cases officially as of tonight), and are preparing and buying their face masks and sanitiser. Others think so too, but are having a last grab at fun before the lockdown we expect to come by Easter. And of course, there are still the denialists doing their best Jair Bolsonaro impression: it’s just a little flu, right? You can ignore those pesky doctors and so-called experts.

Legitimately, people here laughed at the toilet paper crisis. The stuff is still available in the stores. But we are securing certain basic supplies we’re going to need, and they’re probably different to what people in other parts of North America are after.

One is water, the most essential physical commodity of all. Our area has decent aquifers, but the water still has to move to people’s houses.

I think I’ve noticed the water delivery trucks working more than usual. We do have piped water in the village, but the system was hard to design for an area built across hillsides. Also, when it came in, people had to pay a large amount to get connected. On the elevated area where I’m living, there was no certainty of good water flow, so we never acquired it. We capture and store rainwater when it falls heavily from June to November, and that lasts us through to January or later.

But we do need to buy two or three tanker loads after that, to get us through to the next rains. My second load of the year is coming on Monday, and that should hold us through till May.  I trust the civic fathers not to risk their own lives by banning water deliveries. But anything could get more difficult under these conditions.

The other concern is one a card-based society might not think of. There’s a fear that currency might run low, and the banks will have to limit what they put in their machines. Some places, I hear, are already doing this.

 

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Mexican currency, ready to be concealed inside a sock … or someplace.

Hardly any small businesses except some restaurants and a few gourmet stores offer payment by credit card here. Fewer still offer debit capabilities, there being some lingering concerns over the security. Visa, which I use occasionally, commands a premium that the restaurant or store owners either swallow or, just as often, ask the customer to pay.

And so much business is based around neighbourhood abarrotes, the little grocery stores in every town and village, which won’t switch to electronic payment for years, if ever. Want to go into town by a combi, or a taxi? Cash only, thanks.

The quandrary is that if people hoard cash, it could become in short supply. And if they don’t, they might find it’s in short supply anyway, and they can’t buy essentials. A great deal of the economy is informal, and this sector might well keep us going when larger enterprises fold.

As a result, we’re all carefully hiding a few hundred extra pesos or more in our houses, just in case the banking system collapses. And I can even imagine a barter system emerging if things become truly bad. I’m not sure what I could barter for food, but I might have to get creative.

All this said, so far things round here are holding up. People still smile a good morning in the street, and the police are laid back. Civility is still with us.

I mix my own muesli cereal from seeds and grains I buy at a particular store in the market. A few days ago, I bought some sliced almonds, but when I got home I realised I’d misplaced it somewhere. Hardly the worst tragedy of my life, I decided, or even of this month.

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A corner of the Tepoztlan market.

Anyway, I stopped by the place today, to buy some extra supplies, including a replacement batch of almonds. The young woman who served me passed me my purchases, then her father stepped over, and pulled out a small bag from under the corner.

“Señor, you forgot this last week.”

They’d kept it there for me for four days. Its total value? Around 30 Canadian cents. Mexico is still Mexico, despite the craziness, and the determination to hold the society’s values in place hasn’t ebbed. The government might be clueless, but people are still looking out for each other in the small ways that are the most critical.

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.

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.