Tag Archives: Mexico

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.

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.

Unsettled in Santa Rosa

Hubris and optimism look very similar from the inside…

Other aspects of Tututepec aside, there are some basic factors that may limit our time here. The muggy heat is close to unbearable, for a start — although we suspect that may be exacerbated by our town, which is particularly windless. However, Karla is attacked by mosquitoes to such an extent that her legs look like she’s wearing polka dot leggings, and nothing she does seems to help. The baby and I have both developed a rash, probably a heat rash, but possibly from chlorine. And, while I’m whinging, food is more expensive here than in Cuernavaca. Apparently they transport the food to Oaxaca City and then back down to the rural areas, which strikes me as idiotic.

I’m also having trouble with my devices — my phone no longer connects to my computer, so I have to transfer video files to my tablet via Bluetooth, then move them (not copy them, it won’t do that, only move them) via SD card to my wife’s laptop, from there to a USB drive and from there to my desktop. Whenever I’m in the car I put on Bat Out Of Hell just so I can yell the line:

Nothing ever works in this rotten old hole, and everything is turning out lost
And nothing really rocks, and nothing really rolls, and nothing’s ever worth the cost.

Certainly, our current lifestyle is not one we wish to continue. It’s possible that if we bought land on the coast or in the hills — where there’s breeze — and built a house to suit us, and found people with similar world views to join us, we’d love it here. However, that’s a big investment for something that isn’t guaranteed.

Of course, this means our move here was a success, since the whole point was to see whether we’d enjoy living here as opposed to just coming for holidays. It would be a great place for a part-time house, though, where you didn’t stay here during the worst months.

There’s been a lot of cultural activity recently, and I’ll put up a post on that once I get my devices working.

Lagoon Birds in Escobilla

At the end of March we stayed at Escobilla where Karla had a workshop. One night we were paddled through the lagoon to the beach where the turltes leave the sea, ever so briefly, to lay eggs. It’s not turtle egg-laying season, but it’s a nice trip. It was dusk and I have a crappy camera, but here are a couple of photos of lagoon birds.

The Adaptable Can Settle

The holidays are over and the kids are back at school. Although we’re worried about how the kids are getting along in the social life of school, they seem a lot happier in the new house. They enjoy playing in the yard more than on the roof of the Cuernavaca house, they laugh more, they follow chickens and chase dogs from the yard and do things that adults can’t fathom.

The area is still hot and humid and windless, but we’ve found ways to mitigate the unsupportable. One of the first things we did was buy a fridge, the cheapest we could find in Puerto Escondido, but we now have ice and cold water, and the ability to store food.

I bought a couple of tarps and strung them across the concrete roof. My idea was that the house felt like an oven during the day because the sun blazed directly onto the roof, which then passed the heat through to the rooms. With the tarps blocking that sun and letting a bit of air flow over the roof, the house is a lot cooler. It’s still hot, but not baby-in-a-locked-car hot.

Karla climbed into the water tank and we emptied it, then she scooped out all the muddy dregs and wiped as much off the walls as she could. Then we refilled it from the groundwater. The water from there is a lot clearer now, and to be on the safe side we added chlorine.

Then there are the little things like tables and shelves, tubs to wash the dishes in and a rake to clear the detritus from the walking areas.

So much of living anywhere is figuring out how to adapt to the environment you find yourself in, in a way that doesn’t contribute to making the climate worse.

The Traveling View

Traveling is an odd experience, because everything changes. I don’t mean in the obvious sense that you move from one place to a different place, but that each time you take a route it is different.

I’ve done a lot of traveling recently. I drove down to Oaxaca, and then over Easter I drove back to Cuernavaca so the kids could see their friends, and then back to Oaxaca. Then Karla had yet another meeting that involved her staying away from home for two nights, so I drove another two hours along the coast to Escobilla, where there are some lovely cabins to stay in, a lagoon full of birds and crocodiles and a long beach where sea turtles come to nest. At this time of year there’s only the carcasses of the turtles that didn’t make it back to the sea, but I am not averse to the macabre.

turtlecorpseAnyway, each time you take a route it is different, the familiar sites and landmarks interspersed with the novel and strange. On the way back to Cuernavaca I was shocked at just how many Oxxos had appeared in the sparse weeks since I had left. They had been spreading fast before, but now they were sprouting like mushrooms after rain. Just outside Cuernavaca an old hotel with a classic facade had torn out several rooms and put in another one of those damn convenience stores.

More buildings are sprouting up along the highway outside of Cuernavaca, in some cases with quite serious foundations.

Marquelia has a new two-story mini-plaza… it doesn’t have any shops yet, but someone has set up a tiangui inside and hung clothes and hammocks from the stairs. At the turn-off to Pinotepa, in the triangle of grass between the meeting of three roads, they’ve put playground equipment for kids, so that is now on the list of good places to stop.

If they clear out scrub by the side of the road (normally by burning it) what had seemed like forest now gives a clear view over fields, and further along banana trees get replaced by papayas and suddenly I feel like I’ve taken a wrong turn somehow, and am driving down some strange road to an unknown destination. Even the time of day has this effect – the sun sets on my left so I look to the right more, and instead of seeing the abarrotes I see a run-down enramada with people selling quesadillas and huaraches, and that same feeling of being on a different route in a different timeline sneaks over me.

The only way I know for sure that I haven’t taken the wrong turn is that the Coastal Highway is pretty much the only paved road for several hundred kilometres, and there are no turn-offs to mistakenly take.

Coming back from Oaxaca in February I was a passenger in a bus rather than driving a car, and for the first time I could look at the scenery instead of the road. It’s beautiful, and a very different experience than the jostle of traffic.

If you stay in the one place it changes, of course, but you see each increment so you don’t really notice. Only by traveling is the nature of the world revealed, the constant change emphasised through the staccato visions you have of each place, and each journey.

So keep on truckin’, my friends.

The Excitement Of Going Pear-Shaped

I am now very grateful our house has a floor.

On Wednesday Karla got up and out the door so early that most civilised people would still refer to it as Tuesday night. She spent the next 28 hours or so traveling to Yucatan, and I got up a bit later, got the kids ready for school, and watched my six-year-old daughter wander off down the sandy road the house is on because she insisted she could and should walk to school by herself.

That afternoon, while we were at El Costa waiting for a babysitter, rain thundered down. It continued to thunder down for the rest of the day. I’ve gotten less wet in a shower than getting the kids into the car to take them home – and a real shower, not the dribbly kind I find so often here. This was an intense storm, two months before the wet season is supposed to start… I dread that time if the rain is anything like this storm.

The paved road near our house became a river. Apparently when the people built their houses on this road they didn’t allow for drainage, so it’s a fairly common problem, and a problem that’s fairly common in the town. Our road is sand, and about a foot higher than the paved road, so it was merely damp. It turns out the babysitter didn’t show up because the river near her village is in flood and she couldn’t get past it. I shudder to think what happens to people whose houses don’t have floors.
El Calle del Rio
As we were coming inside lightning struck near us and we lost power as well. This doesn’t just mean no light, it means that the pump doesn’t work and we can’t get groundwater into the tank, but most horrifying of all: The fan doesn’t work. The storm made it a pretty cool night and scared all the bugs away, but if following days also lacked power I was getting ready to move to a nice hotel in Puerto Escondido.

And no coffee in the morning, but I don’t want to turn this into a complete horror story.

This sort of thing happened all over Mexico. My wife saw super-heat and super-winds in Merida (although to be fair, we don’t know what the weather is normally like there), it hailed in Mexico City and the highway between there and Cuernavaca was covered in ice. It snowed in Guanajuato. This is what I picked up through Whatsapp and mobile FB, since I don’t have internet connection.

As crappy as it was here and as basic as this house is, for the municipality we’re in it’s pretty good. Also, I had the ability to drive into Rio Grande and feed the kids pizza, which is not universal.

The kids took it in their stride. On Tuesday we went into Rio Grande to get some metal shelves, and while we were waiting for them to be assembled the kids found a feed place with cages of chicks for sale, and we took five of them home. I kind of wish we’d planned better first – although there was no way we could have planned for the storm flooding the yard and us having to keep them inside.

Well, we kept them in the box they traveled in and let them out to peck at ants, and the kids love them to death. Almost, anyway. Rigel mostly leaves them alone to feed, just playing with them occasionally. Poncho annoys them a fair bit, because he’s convinced they can fly, but doesn’t do too much damage. Nerida, the two-year-old, doesn’t seem to see a significant difference between the chicks and a toy. I spent today trying to teach her to be gentle, and then in the afternoon she shook a chick like a maraca and killed it.

Cue tears, and me trying to emphasise to Nerida what a terrible thing she’d done while trying to convince the other two (sobbing) kids that she wasn’t actually the devil incarnate. It was Poncho’s chick, and I told him he should say goodbye, because it was still breathing but it wasn’t going to get better. Rigel was pleading for it to get better, and it’s eye was fluttering, and I was trying to prepare them for the inevitable, and then it’s beak opened and closed.

So I told them we’d take care of it and see if it got better, but I really thought it wouldn’t last the night and they’d have to prepare themselves for that, and then the chick sat on its feet and I began to admit that – as bad as it looked – it was looking less bad as time went on. Then it started running around my hand, and I put it on the ground and it joined its friends. It turned out Nerida had only knocked it unconscious somehow, which is still pretty bad, but I’m not sure how brain-damaged a chicken can really get.

I’m just glad that when I thought it’s neck was broken and it was panting in agony I didn’t put it out of its misery.

In the afternoon a little girl on a pushbike asked me if I had power, and when I replied in the negative she assured me I’d have it by the following day. I have no idea who she was or on what authority or knowledge she pronounced the activities of the electricity utility, but I have to admit that just after sundown the light did come back on, and I can write this astonishing piece of real-life drama.