by Whitney Smith
Re-posted from http://www.wildculture.com
TEPOZTLAN, MEXICO — On a balmy Sunday evening in winter, February 26th, 2017, six friends are sitting around the kitchen table in a house just outside the town of Tepoztlan, in Central Mexico, to plan a massive celebration. Shots of mescal are lined up and emptied, and when there is no more mescal, the tequila is brought out. A plate of limes picked off the trees outside the door is passed around to quell the sharp taste.
But it’s not just the liquor that has bite here. This group of friends have lived together, on and off, for decades — three-and-a-half, to be exact. So, being mature but not quite elderly, and very savvy about each other’s ornery ways, they know that at any moment a heated debate might be right around the corner.
Tonight things have started out calmly. Quesadillas warm off the stove and bowls of green salsa keep company with the drinks, and the conversation is peppered with dry, affectionate teasing. For an hour or so irony and laughter rule. Then, as expected, the talk swerves precipitously into communal operations. In this case, it’s the upcoming 35th-anniversary celebration, in the planning stages for weeks and now six days away.
The faces around the table are directed at Alberto who, as usual, is at the centre of organizing most things in the community.
“So is it a fiesta or is it a festival?” asks Kathleen.
“It’s definitely a fiesta,” says Alberto.
“How many people are we expecting?” says Giovanni.
Whoever made the comment about the hazardous passion of idealism got the last word.
Alberto frowns and stares out into space, silently calculating the fruits of their networking. “Six hundred. Maybe more.”
“That is not a fiesta!”
“We agreed before. Remember? It’s not a festival.”
“And it won’t be,” says Alberto, nonplussed. While he explains why his numbers won’t be a problem, Liora and Kathleen lock eyes. Beneath the surface of the wobbly start to the discussion is an abiding love and respect by and for each person around the table. Yet that doesn’t mean things are, or ever have been, easy in Huehuecoyotl.
Alberto, the charismatic Mexican-born leader/non-leader — son of a man famous for discovering the royal tomb inside the temple of inscriptions in Palenque, among other things — is being questioned about logistics: Will alcohol be allowed? What if people bring their dogs? What about smokers and tossed butts and roaches during the most fire-prone season of the year? What if people go walking on the mountain in the middle of the night? What’s expected of volunteers and what are they expecting of us? Can we feed everyone? The list goes on.
Alberto’s tranquil manner belies either a natural style or pure strategy. Though he’s as experienced as anyone here in these types of events, those around the table also know what it’s like to work and live with him — what shines bright and what sucks light: just as he is with them. With most compellingly attractive and visionary leaders, the path of glory can also bring a lot of surprises, not all good.
Kathleen asks questions about feeding 600 people. She lists what might go wrong in the kitchen.
“It will be fine,” says Alberto, as if waving away a wasp. “It will be great.”
The faces around the table show, if not doubt, a lack of commitment. As if they’re saying, “Sure, we can imagine a rosy outcome. But let’s first give the dirty details a going-over.”
“It will be fine?” says Kathleen. “Let’s hope so.”
The gathering breaks up on a friendly note, yet, as they bid goodbye, the person made the comment about the hazardous passion of idealism got the last word.
Land and Opportunity
The 5-acre plot of land on which the ecovillage of Huehuecoyotl (meaning “very old coyote”) is built was purchased in 1982 for $50,000. “Today,” says Alberto, “you might be able to buy a tiny piece of it for that.” Huehue, as it is called by locals, is near the town Tepoztlan (population 15,000), about a 90-minute drive south from Mexico City. Located in a valley surrounded by a uniquely majestic, jagged mountain chain called a sierra, said to be similar only to one other in China, Tepoztlan is designated a puebla magico (magic town) by the Mexican government — not just for the beauty of its surroundings but also for its proximity to the ancient and sacred El Tepozteco temple and pyramid at the top of a mountain, within view of the town. As a result — and because annual temperatures are between 60-80˚F/16-27˚C — the region is a popular tourist destination, and for residents of Mexico City a favourite weekend retreat. For all these reasons an ex-pat seeking a cheap lifestyle in Mexico should look elsewhere. Though there are lots of beautiful places in this astonishing country, there is only one Tepoztlan.
Huehue is a 20-minute drive up the mountain from Tepoztlan on land tucked alongside the bottom of a steep, spectacular mountain rock face. The community has reached its limit of fourteen houses of various sizes, built in close proximity; the two furthest ones are a two-minute walk from each other. In some ways, living here is not unlike growing up on a suburban block where a resident knew, and maybe was friends with, most of the thirty or forty neighbours who shared the same residential space; and, with luck, its micro-regional identity.
What’s different about Huehue is that there is an expectation to participate in the community: an expectation to contribute to communal expenses, have a designated role, and be an active contributor to community events — like the 35th Anniversary ‘fiesta’. As with all situations where people are required to work together, some do more than others, and some are more capable or easier to get along with. Given that all human beings are not all made the same and not mutually obliging, wouldn’t it be wiser for people to live in their own homes, only have restricted occurrences in which they have to interact with each other, where people live in fenced-off tracts of land in subdivisions where no one has to depend on anyone else? Simple enough: Pay your taxes, keep your nose clean, don’t get into trouble with the Sovereign. The 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes thought the natural state of mankind was as a “warre of every man against every man”. Far fetched perhaps, but for some, this is the ideal and desirable state — the preferred norm.
A couple of days after the drinks party Kathleen Sartor’s mood has changed; she’s pensive and more serious than usual. Sure, she was working hard on the preparation for the fiesta — pruning unruly bushes, cleaning up the community grounds, making lists with a team of women who were taking charge of the kitchen, doing whatever else she noticed needed to be done to host the outside world, which was, in her case, a lot. But something else is preoccupying her. Perhaps it’s that, like any astute event organizer, she’s carrying the anticipation of what might go wrong and prevent the fiesta from being a smashing success.
“Yes, it’s that, partly. But we’re also having some problems with our house.”
The problem is the drainage on the upper slope of their property. In the wet monsoon season, from June to October, the rain pours down from the mountain and turns Huehue into a spectacularly beautiful green landscape that, if there is no natural course or constructed channel to direct the water further down the mountain, the water seeks places to pool and flood. To not manage water flow carefully is to invite a flood in your kitchen or bedroom — or worse, your neighbour’s — what everyone strives to avoid. The terms striving to avoid and avoiding are not transferable when it comes to ‘the call of nature’ in the sierra of Central Mexico. Therefore each homeowner depends on a lot of what her neighbours do.
“It’s one of our bioregional problems. If you haven’t dealt with your water issues by June, tough luck.”
To explain, Kathleen takes me to see her house and the rock wall that needs to be rebuilt. On the way there, across Huehue’s common green space that doubles as a soccer field, with goal standards on either end, she runs into Laulin Osher (pronounced Lau-leen), the daughter of one of the founders of Huehue. Laulin, 30, is a school teacher and a member of the fiesta planning committee. Though the fiesta itself will have a healthy attendance of her peers, Laulin is the committee’s only member in her age group. As she and Kathleen talk about what needs to be done for the fiesta, now three days away, Laulin demonstrates a full grasp of several aspects of the event: the roster of performers and those participating in ceremonies, the sound and lighting, and much else. She’s clearly a bright and accomplished young woman who’s taken on a lot of responsibility, and her confidence somewhat mirrors how Alberto sees things: “Of course there’s a lot to do and a lot to think about, but it’ll be great . . . sure it will!”
As Laulin departs, Kathleen gives a little rah-rah fist strike in the air — as if Laulin’s energy and attitude will carry the day.
Kathleen and Giovanni’s house is two-stories, and painted rust-orange (a colour common in Huehue houses) with a small workshop built a few metres away; beyond the workshop is a dry latrine (about 75% of the 14 houses in the community have flush toilets). Abundant, dry foliage surrounds the patio and the house: palms, cactuses and an enormous agave plant with a thin rod the thickness of a man’s arm sticking four metres in the air; from the plant’s centre sprouts numerous hard, spear-like leaves. If Agatha Christie were here, she might imagine a shadowy night where someone is accidentally impaled on one of these. No wonder tequila packs a punch.
Around the back of her house, Kathleen inspects the upturned wall of rocks. It doesn’t help that one of her neighbours, who is out of the country for several months, “isn’t exactly cooperating”, and that the neighbours above her got rid of the concrete drainage canal when they put in their new gardens.
These are acts Kathleen regards without acrimony. “It’s not that they’re bad people and not friends. Like me, they have their own set of things to deal with. We’re people living our lives.”
But isn’t an ecovillage the kind of place where such interconnections get worked out from the beginning; or at least get resolved through some process of consensus, or some other facilitation technique where groups of people looking for a solution are brought to a common agreement?
Like a teacher with a curious but thick student, she measures her words.
“If only it were so . . .”
Kathleen crouches by the rock pile, staring into it as if she can see into earth space. “I need to find Giovanni.”
When she gets to the theatre where he’s been working on a giant papier-maché coyote mask, now laying forlornly half-finished on a table, without its maker, she leaves and stands outside surveying the soccer field. The sound of singing and guitar playing comes from Andreas’ house, about thirty metres away.
Half Sun Dancer, Half a Dozen Things
Andres King Cobos is one of the original members of The Illuminated Elephants, the group of activists, environmentalists and artists that included Alberto, Kathleen, Giovanni, Liora and others who travelled in the Europe, India the US and Mexico before they created Huehue. Its founders discovered this land only after spending years as nomads, first without, then with converted vans and school buses. They toured until they decided the state of Morelos in Mexico was their preferred region, and when they came to HueHue, they were convinced to settle on site when they discovered its enormous, multi-branched amate tree growing out of a rock face like a resplendent, grey octopus. If an ecovillage’s purpose is to live with respect and sensitivity to the land it inhabits, then this tree was a regal reminder — un arbol magicó.
It is Andres, as much as anyone in this community, who diligently practices intuitive communication with the forces that beckoned them here. For two decades he has been Danzante del Sol