Tuesday, March 21, 2023

the crucible of neighborliness

Life's lessons show up on our doorsteps at some of the most inopportune times.

Friday afternoon I was preparing for visitors when I heard a commotion in the street in front of my house. Rushing feet on gravel. Shouts of concern. A scent in the air that something was amiss.

But that was not the only scent. When I opened the front door, the street was filled with smoke so dense I could barely make out my neighbor's house across from me.

Another neighbor, who owns one of the better taco restaurants in San Patricio and who lives just a block east from me, ran by shouting for the young woman and her three children to get out of their house. I offered sanctuary in mine.

He was correct. Even though her house is concrete and brick, the smoke was quickly filling her house. The cause? The empty lots next to her place are part of an old coconut plantation. Because they are unimproved, they are the natural habitat for vegetation -- and other people's gardening debris.

That is not necessarily bad. But we are now at the end of the dry season and the grass, weeds, and trees are a shade of gray that could be best described on a paint chip card as ash tinder.

Somehow, a fire had started on one of the lots. It appears it was started by the owner of one lot who was preparing to put it on the market. However, it happened, the fire (essentially having no regard for property lines) quickly spread to the other two lots. When I stepped outside, the flames were not only lapping at the side of my neighbor's house, they had also raced through the trees, climbing high enough to damage a couple of coconut fronds.

I am accustomed to these small fires. For those of us raised in northern forests, the scent of smoke is enough to cause concern. Here, the fires usually burn out on their own without endangering anyone.

Not this time.

While the woman of the house tried to summon help, I reeled out my hose and offered up my pool as a reservoir for a bucket brigade formed by the neighbors who showed up to help. At first, it appeared we were not going to be able to contain the fire. It just kept spreading. The tide finally turned in our favor -- even though a persistent breeze threatened to breach our fire lines.

Our area recently joined the 911 system for emergency calls. While we were fighting the fire, the woman across the street tried calling 911, the bomberos (fire fighters), and the police. She could not get through to anyone. Nor did anyone other than the neighbors respond to the fire.

I make the last point because I have recently talked with some northerners who believe they were told that 911 is available to solve all of their emergencies. That may be true. But I would not count on it.

If someone has a medical emergency, relying on 911 as your sole resource is potentially obituary bait. If the emergency is bad enough, I hope people have an alternative plan to call a friend who can drive them to a hospital in Manzanillo with far more dispatch than 911 could (or will) ever respond.

Mexico, or at least this area of Mexico, reminds me a lot of the rural area where I grew up in the 1950s. And a lot of the infrastructure feels as if it is from that era. It is one chief reasons I live here.

A place where you can count on a neighbor, rather the government, when you are in need.

To raise a barn -- or to keep it from burning down.

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