Category Archives: life

Sunset at a Desert Camp

The Dangers of the Desert

The desert is a dangerous place. We recently went on a peregrination with the Huicholes to Wirikuta, a sacred place in the deserts of San Luis Potosí. Every two years they make the peregrination to collect hikuri (peyote), which they use in ceremonies and for medicine for the two years. It also helps them raise funds for the tribe. Karla has been planning this trip for a while, but I joined at the last minute – actually, the night before we left – because her driver pulled out. So we left on Saturday – along with Lola, Ana and Hugo, who traveled with us – and stayed the night at a friend’s house in Querétaro. The next day we joined the caravan.

As I said, the desert is a dangerous place. For example, a fist-sized fly might invade your car as you’re driving along a straight and narrow road, and the efforts of the driver to remove the monstrous insect with his over-sized sombrero might cause the car to drift off the road and down the embankment, crushing scrub and flinging loose stones and nearly flipping over. That would have been the end of the journey, because the car weighs a couple of tonnes, but I’m not the kind of driver that flips cars.*

Sacred Waterhole with offeringsThe peregrination involves traveling to sites sacred to the huichol (Wixáritari in their language), which were invariably waterholes. This makes sense – in a desert, waterholes are going to be considered holy. There, the shamans gave people blessings with water from the sites. They also blessed vehicles, chanting and spitting water over the engines and keys. The pilgrims left offerings at the sites, such as candles with ribbons, handicrafts, and other things. I thought it was strange to leave man-made objects in these pure natural sites, but Karla pointed out that the rituals kept the sites important to the huicholes, and that protects the waterholes from more serious contamination.

We drove long into the night. During the day the wide desert surrounded by mountains on the horizon is majestic, and the sunsets are awe-inspiring, but at night the view from a moving car is desolate. Eventually we saw a long uneven row of red lights stretching across the horizon, blinking in unison. The line was too long to be some town’s decoration; the lights blinked across about a third of the horizon. Rigel insisted the lights were on ships, bobbing out on the sea, and because it was dark and we had no idea where we were we couldn’t definitively say she was wrong. We could only point out that lights on ships aren’t all red, and don’t blink on and off in unholy unison. All we could do was continue driving with that spooky and unnerving sight haunting the night on our left.**

The desert is a dangerous place. When you’re camping in the desert there are no toilets, and to relieve your bowels the best bet is to walk away from camp for 10 or 20 minutes and hope you find a clump of cactus big enough to squat behind. We’ve been scouts our whole lives, and we’ve taken the kids camping plenty of times, so this wasn’t an issue for us. Of course sometimes, in the dark, in the process of preparing the site you might get turned around 45 degrees or so. Normally this doesn’t matter, but in a place where everything has spines the consequences can be horrendous. I won’t go into excruciating detail, merely mention that some of those shrubs have long spine-covered branches that can go right between your legs as you bend, so always double-check your surrounds.

Symbols in blood on stoneAt one point we all chipped in to buy a lamb, and the peregrination went to the Cerro Donde Nace Las Lluvia – the hill that births the rain. Beyond this, we were told, the true desert began. Here there was a ceremony for the sacrifice of the lamb to appeal for our safe passage. The blood was used to bless things much like the water was, and to write symbols on the rocks of the hill. The children were quite upset about this, having already tried to feed carrots to the lamb. Rigel insisted it was not just that an animal was sacrificed for our safe passage, so Karla suggested we could make a blood sacrifice without killing anything. Rigel got very excited about that, and they used blood from Karla’s menstrual cup. Rigel used it to draw a lamb on the rocks.

We traveled down unpaved roads within an indigenous reserve, and made camp a short way from other groups on the peregrination. There was a scuffle to find or clear places for the tents and cars and fires, and as the sun went down we cooked pasta for the first meal of the day. You can tell we didn’t organise the meals, because there’s no way we’d conclude that food that needed to be boiled was the best choice to take to a desert. Anyway. Since the large bus that was bringing most of the huicholes couldn’t get down the rough roads of the desert, I drove back to the town to give some people a lift. In the dark there is only cactus shrub lining the ruts in the car’s headlights, and I could only hope the guide was good enough and the area uncomplicated enough to not get lost.

That night there was a ceremony around the main campfire, and the night resounded to the cacaphonic murmur of the blessings of the shamans and the rhythmic stamping of the feet of the crowd as they danced. Everyone contributed a stick of wood to the fire, and hikuri was passed around in a pot. The huicholes joked and laughed in their own language.

The desert is a dangerous place. The ceremony went all night, with people dancing and eating hikuri. So people were tired and high when they went to evacuate their bowels. In the morning there was a wide semi-circle of effluent just a couple of metres outside the campsite, and one unfortunately-place steaming pile in a path directly between two tents. It made us long for the days when all we had to watch out for were spines.

The next day we missed the caza de hikuri (hikuri hunt); the huicholes left early to scour the desert for the cactus and were gone most of the day. We took the kids out for a hunt with some of our friends who know the rituals. Hikuri are small cactus, just a little nubbin on the surface with a root system, normally growing under bushes or in the midst of other cacti. Traditionally, the first one that is found is left in the ground, and an offering placed around it – ours consisted of a candle, an “eye of god”, some chocolate and some home-grown tobacco. Some songs were sung to celebrate the hikuri. Then we searched for more of the cactus. The kids became surprisingly good at it, finding a dozen or so between them. I found four, two of which I gave to Karla and two which I left, and then I started collecting them. I came back with five. In the harvesting process the top of the hikuri is cut off and the roots left behind so the cactus regrows. In addition to the first one, any hikuri with flowers is also left behind.
Adults and kids singing in the desert
Karla stayed awake all that night trying different recipes for hikuri, and went most of the following day before the lack of sleep caught up with her. That day we drove to Real de Catorce, which requires driving through a very long mining tunnel before arriving at the town. I was exhausted and had a headache, so Karla took the kids on horseback to the next place on the peregrination while I slept in the hotel. After so long in the desert we all loved the flush toilet and hot shower in the hotel room.

That was the end of our peregrination, bar the drive home. We stopped in Querétaro for a dinner held in honour of Hugo Blanco, the old man who was traveling with us, who turned out to be a very important and respected Peruvian agrarian reform activist. He’s had a serious life, being gaoled for his activism, deported from his own country, and barely escaping Pinochet by being smuggled out of Chile by the Swedish consulate. He’s a very interesting activist, who incorporates environmental protection as a necessary component of improving the lives of indigenous and working people.

People at Dinner with Hugo BlancoWe left Hugo in Querétaro after the dinner and drove back to Cuernavaca. We were stopped in Toluca by some police for a bit of extortion, but Lola called her brother and, after speaking to him on the phone, the police waved us on. I’m not sure what happened, but I’d like to learn how to do that myself. Coming over the mountains to the west of Cuernavaca we passed some fire trucks and police cars parked by the road, and later saw a line of small, recently lit fires from the road into the forest. Cuernavaca has experienced an unusual and sudden burst of forest fires that have threatened the outer suburbs and burned nearby towns, all in the week after the parliament passed a law allowing the governor to sell land in state-owned reserves. There’s a common train of thought that the fires are deliberately set to devalue the land so there is no opposition to its sale, and the police are there as part of the project.

Cities can be dangerous places, too.

* Although, to be fair, I can no longer say that I’m not the kind of driver that runs off the road.
** The following day, while driving down either the same or a different road, we had no way of knowing, we saw a huge installation of electricity generating windmills, and realised these must be the source of the blinking red lights.

Anonymous Sources And Respectable Media

The use of anonymous sources is vital for the effectiveness of the fourth estate. There are plenty of situations where telling the truth can get someone into a lot of trouble (see Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning), even when it’s a truth that the general public has a right, or even a need, to know. The journalists and their editors make a judgment call on the trustworthiness of their source, and the reader needs to make a judgment on the sagacity of the journalists and editors in who they trust.

The Washington Post published a story citing anonymous sources who claimed that a secret CIA report concluded that actors linked to Russia affected the US election to help Donald Trump get elected. A lot of people dismissed this report out of hand simply because it was in the “mainstream media”, and they think that just because they misunderstood news stories in the past then the mainstream media lies.

There is a difference between “true” and “factual”. The Washington Post article is factual. It does not claim that Russia attempted to help Trump get elected, nor does it claim that the CIA thinks Russia attempted to help Trump get elected. It reports on claims by anonymous sources. The journalists and their editors obviously trust these sources, but how does the reader assess the trustworthiness of the source?

First, consider the Washington Post as a source. It relies on its reputation to conduct its business, as opposed to, for example, which relies on the patronage of the Russian government, or, which seems to rely on clickbait headlines. If the Washington Post publishes too many stories based on anonymous sources that turn out to be false, their reputation — and therefore their business — is going to take a hit, so they’re very careful not to do that.

Second, consider what the anonymous sources are saying. Is it likely to be corroborated or refuted in the future? In this case we’re talking about a government agency, which is unlikely to let a completely false report of its findings stand. Further, this sort of story tends to get investigated, and indeed senior Republicans are calling for a bipartisan investigation into the matter, so the veracity is going to be checked. The Washington Post knew that would happen, and wouldn’t have gone ahead with the story unless they were certain of vindication.

The CIA could be mistaken, of course. This sort of intelligence is a notoriously slippery beast. However, we should assume they have a basic competency at their job. Could the CIA be outright lying? Again, it’s possible, but what would they gain? They’re likely to see their powers expanded under Trump, even more than they were with the previous few presidents.

Try to remember that you have to live with uncertainty, and rejecting or accepting something based solely on whether it fits the worldview you’ve concocted isn’t a valid way to interact with reality. If it makes you feel any better, even if something does contradict with your worldview it doesn’t mean your worldview is wrong.

The End of a Six-Month Anti-Hiatus

For complicated reasons involving rushed decision making and decapitated pig heads I went back to university this past semester. My plans to post my writing here collapsed after a few weeks, partly because I joined a lot of uni societies but mostly because leaving five years between finishing the prerequisites for a second-year maths course and studying the second year maths course makes the process really quite difficult. I pulled a credit though, so dropping this paid off.

Now I shall explore the peculiarities of this world and this life, through science, literature, film & TV, things written for university subjects, and general musings.

Landing Down Under

I left Mexico a week ago, and it seems like longer. The plan to get ready to move to Australia had a hiccough when my university told me the subjects I studied earlier in the decade can’t be used if they were finished more than five years ago, so if I start second semester 2016 they are valid, whereas if I wait until first semester 2017 I’ll lose them all.

So a couple of weeks later I’m here, near the bottom of Australia, trying to acclimatise to some unnaturally cold weather.

Despite more than a decade overseas, and moving to a different city within Australia, this place has the familiarity of home. The broad Australian accent, the frequent and insincere apologies, the rampaging “thank-yous”, the big sky and the brick houses and the smörgåsbord of international restaurants.
Pineapple Tim Tams
There are other things that I forgot about, and that I’ve gotten used to being missing. The footpaths are wide and flat and people actually use them. Whenever I paused to cross the road the cars would stop for no reason, and I’d think they were nuts but I’m impatient so I’d just walk… and then after the third time I realised the cars were stopping because of the pedestrian crossing I was on. Actually stopping at a pedestrian crossing.

There’s a lot I’m going to miss about Mexico, but it’s good to be home.

Leaving Oaxaca

We left Oaxaca, just before all this mess with the teachers and the government started. That was a coincidence, but the school our kids went to there is one where the teachers are at the protests, so I hope they’re all OK.

My wife’s contract ran out, and although there were offers to extend it a number of factors convinced us to leave. Mainly the heat, and the bugs, and the unclean water. We all had persistent heat rash and we were all sick, and although the mosquitoes are slow and stupid there is an inexhaustible supply… so we packed up and came back to Cuernavaca.

When we were finalising the decision we had a discussion with a gringa who has been living there about four years, married to a local and running Sexy Pizza (which has really good pizza, by the way, especially the supreme). We asked her what the rainy season was like, to see if the plain horridness of the climate would soon come to an end.

“Last year it was awful, it didn’t rain. It’s supposed to rain in May, but it didn’t. Then it didn’t rain in June, either, not ’til the end of July. It just kept getting hotter and hotter. It was horrible,” she said. “But it’s not always like that, my first two years here it did rain. It was crazy. There were hurricanes and storms and everything flooded. So, you know.”

“Yeah. We’re gonna leave.”

So we did. We’re reveling in the cool, and thinking that our trip to Oaxaca was a great success. The main goal was to check that we actually liked living there instead of just holidaying there, and we did discovered we don’t like living there. The government forces killing the protesting teachers is also getting closer to where we lived, to the point where our social networks started seeing posts on how to protect ourselves and warnings to take the kids away.

A lack of internet and free time meant that I didn’t post as much as I hoped to while in Oaxaca. There are some good memories I’d like to share before I drop this trip for good and concentrate on my move to Australia.

The Wedding of the Year

Further along our block some neighbours built a stage that completely blocked the street and had a party, with a full-sized big band playing. They let off the loudest fireworks I’ve ever heard – the sort that remind you of anti-aircraft batteries. We found out the huge party was for a wedding, and the size of the party meant “the bride must be very valuable”, according to one local mother. Across the road they dug a fire pit, about three metres long, one metre wide and I have no idea how deep. They butchered a cow to cook there. They butchered it in one of the neighbouring yards, and there were huge buckets of offal along with all the bits that they would toss into the fire. That’s a lot of meat.

Fire Pit

A Small Dip in Rio Grande

A great way to cool off in Santa Rosa, if you have an hour or two, is to drive to Rio Grande for a dip in the river. It’s mostly shallow beside the town, and the kids loved going there to swim and chase tadpoles and frogs. As you walk you stir up the sand on the bottom, and fish swim in looking for food, so they swarm around you. People wash their clothes there, so there’s some soap and rubbish from that, but besides that it’s very nice.

I said it’s mostly shallow, but Poncho managed to find the one place where he couldn’t stand and had to bounce up above the water before I dragged him out. He was scared, but fine – but for some reason Nerida thought it looked like fun and kept trying to copy him by going into the deep part. She’s an odd girl.

Kids swimming in a river

The General Vibe

In Santa Rosa people sleep in houses, but mostly live outdoors. A lot of houses have the kitchen outside, often surrounded by plants and vines, maybe with a tarpaulin roof. So as you walk along the street you’ll hear sizzling and chopping, and smell cooking. People will sat and chat in the veranda or yard, because it’s too hot to sit indoors. We spent most of the time outside in the hammock and chairs, with the kids on the tire swings.

Just down the street from us there’s a rickety shed built from corrugated iron, and orange light seeps through the slits and holes at night, and sad ranchera music is played inside. I thought it rural romantic, until I realised it is someone’s house, not shed.

Santa Rosa has its own festivals just like every other town in Mexico. This is from a large printed lona with information on the town and calendaria festival:

It is for this that Santa Rosa de Lima is a magical community rich for its popular culture, art, architecture and natural resources, but above all for its people proud of their culture ((milenarias)) which is the expression of a town that has a past, a present and a future.

I think they cut and pasted this from some brochure. I suppose you could argue for the town having culture, and art in the form of traditional clothing, and natural resources in the form of dirt and mosquitoes. But there’s no way you could argue the architecture is anything to take any not of whatsoever.

I return to my homeland of Australia and to university… what zany adventures await me? I bet they involve calculus!

I Hear The Rain

Well, not really. It didn’t rain, but we weren’t the only ones fooled. The evil ants went looking for a new home and picked the dumbest of places – some tried nesting on top of the water in our water tank. I had to scoop them out with a sieve.

We drove to Puerto Angel tonight, and there were frogs and crabs edging across the road. Here comes the wet season…

(and yes, another Femmes reference)

Life is Sweat. Anyone Who Tells You Differenty Doesn’t Live In Santa Rosa

I have to shut down in the afternoon because the heat and humidity is too oppressive. Unfortunately the kids don’t shut down…

If I’m not inside motionless with the fan directly on me, I’m motionless outside in the shade hoping for a stray breeze. I’m actually glad there’s no room inside for the kitchen – the heat would be insupportable.

Many people live outside in this way… there’s a house around the corner with the kitchen outside and beside the street. They’ve surrounded it with vines and pot plants, so as you walk past a wall of green you hear the sounds of a kitchen and smell cooking chili and wood smoke, because most people still cook over wood.

At night, as you walk down our street, you see a ricketty shed built from corrugated iron and scrap wood, with orange light seeping through the holes and sad ranchero music blaring out. It’s a great visual, and you wonder if it’s some kind of off-the-record bar or just some guy spending time in his shed eith a beer and radio and maybe some mates. In the day you think to look in the yard to try to figure it out, and see it’s the only building on the property – there’s just chickens and banana trees and a sheet hung in the corner for some bathing privacy.

Flood Proofing Streets Tututepec Style

Hey, remember that street near my house that went underwater when it rained? They’re fixing it. First they pushed over a lot of trees, for some reason…maybe to accommodate ridiculously large dump trucks.
Street Repairing
Then they brought in several of those trucks and dumped maybe a dozen tonnes of sand in the street, and then they flattened it out. The street is now roughly two feet higher, and now lies above the concrete paved road that joins it. My first thought was since the street flooded because the properties that lined it didn’t leave anywhere for the water to drain, now the water will flow off the street and onto those properties. However, our street didn’t flood because it was a foot or so higher, piled with sand. So maybe this will work.

That implies that the water will be there as it was before, soaked into the sand, but people will be able to walk and drive on the sand above the water. Which in turn suggests that maybe the water table is far closer to the surface here than I gave it credit for.

Since the crazy weather, they’ve come and scrapped the sand off our street, so I’m a little concerned as to what will happen when the rains come.

I await the wet season.

Festival Time In Tututepec

Tututepec has its celebration for the anniversary of the foundation of the town in mid-April, a large event that combines the regions cultural highlights – basically dancing and livestock. During the day there was an animal show, a guess-the-calf’s-weight raffle, singers, free food and a horse dancing show. The kids were most impressed when one of the dancing horses shat in the middle of the arena, but that’s kids for you.

At night there was a demonstration of traditional dances. These events are quite common — anyone who has traveled to a Mexican city has likely seen a show like this, with groups from around Mexico dancing on stage. The main difference here is that all the groups were from individual towns within the municipality, demonstrating the traditional dances of that particular town. This is why Mexico is described as having a mega-diverse culture… it’s not just the country or the states that have different customs and traditions, it’s each town, and quite often each suburb or diocese. It’s possible these traditions will ebb away as highways are built across the land and TV and the internet become more common, but it’s equally possible they’ll be maintained, even if it’s only a in retro or anachronistic way.

I was most impressed by the dance from Jamiltepec. It’s the Mexican think I’ve ever seen — and the dancers from Juquila included an El Torrito. The Jamiltepec dance was a little bit cantina, and a lot wedding-of-the-year. The women wore colourful dresses with intricate designs and the men wore the traditional white outfit of rural Mexico. The dancers moved frenetically, had a lot of fun, and shouted a lot. They had a cry of excitement and warning, like a mix between a baying dog and a cock crowing, which they’d let off at random intervals and which reverberated around the square. At one point they formed a circle, and one woman put her fingers on her head like horns, pretending to be a bull, and charged at a man dancing like a matador and waving his paleacate (bandana) like a bullfighter. At the end the man fell over.

The most Mexican part was when the dancing was paused for insults. Everyone would stop and a couple would go up to the microphone, and the man would make vulgar comments about what they wanted to do to the woman sexually. The woman would then give a scathing reply that the man was too pathetic to even jerk off to the woman and it would be a pleasant day in Santa Rosa before she slept with him, and then people would laugh and give the baying crow in appreciation.

The dances from Juquila were very similar to those from Jamiltepec, except that the men wore colourful shirts and the movements were a tad more constrained. However, at the end they pulled out an El Torrito, which is a paper-maché bull in a wooden frame covered in fireworks. They light the fireworks and then charge at people with it, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. This one was different from those in Cuernavaca in that they concentrated on fireworks that made painfully loud noises rather than ones that spat out dangerous amounts of sparks.

The dances from other towns varied more (and they may have been from other towns in Oaxaca, rather than just the municipality). The most indigenous style had people dressed with colourful semi-circles on their heads that were maybe a metre across, and other garb and decorations that showed prehispanic roots. It’s the first dance I’ve seen that actually included people leaping and gamboling, with a graceful movement where the dancers seemed to follow a curved path in the air. The trick probably involved swinging the legs, and it’s damn impressive.

Another group reminded me of Chinelos on stilts. The dancers were on stilts, dressed in a crude mockery of old-style Spain, and danced to music that jitters and twirls like latino jazz. The dance itself was a weird shuffle, but the movements were precisely defined. I’m sure it was developed in the same way the Chinelos of Morelos were — too mock the Spaniards.

There was a very Spanish dance with just two people, in which they moved energetically and the woman lifted her dress a lot. The final dance was from the municipal capital, Tututepec itself, and was far more sedate. The women wore a white sheet wrapped around them leaving them backless, and the dancers moved slowly and elegantly through the moves.

At the end of each group’s demonstration the dancers through things into the crowded, various bread products in brightly coloured wrapping. The kids passed out long before the end, though, it finished pretty late.