Oct 302014
 

Celebrations for Mexico’s Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) or, more correctly Night of the Dead (Noche de Muertos), date back to pre-Hispanic times. Indigenous Mexican peoples held many strong beliefs connected with death; for example that the dead needed the same things as the living, hence their bodies should be buried with their personal possessions, sandals and other objects.

With the arrival of the Spanish, the Indians’ pagan ideas and customs were gradually assimilated into the official Catholic calendar. Dead children (angelitos) are remembered on November 1st, All Saints’ Day, while deceased adults are honored on November 2nd, All Souls’ Day. On both days, most of the activity takes place in the local cemetery.

In many locations, festivities (processions, altars, concerts, meals, dancing, etc) now last several days, often beginning several days before the main days of November 1st and 2nd.

Day of the Dead: Top Nine Locations

Day of the Dead: Top Nine Locations

The Day of the Dead was designated an “intangible world heritage” by UNESCO in 2008. The official UNESCO description of Mexico’s “Indigenous Festivity dedicated to the Dead” summarizes its significance:

“As practised by the indigenous communities of Mexico, el Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) commemorates the transitory return to Earth of deceased relatives and loved ones. The festivities take place each year at the end of October to the beginning of November. This period also marks the completion of the annual cycle of cultivation of maize, the country’s predominant food crop.”

“Families facilitate the return of the souls to Earth by laying flower petals, candles and offerings along the path leading from the cemetery to their homes. The deceased’s favorite dishes are prepared and placed around the home shrine and the tomb alongside flowers and typical handicrafts, such as paper cut-outs. Great care is taken with all aspects of the preparations, for it is believed that the dead are capable of bringing prosperity (e.g. an abundant maize harvest) or misfortune (e.g. illness, accidents, financial difficulties) upon their families depending on how satisfactorily the rituals are executed. The dead are divided into several categories according to cause of death, age, sex and, in some cases, profession. A specific day of worship, determined by these categories, is designated for each deceased person. This encounter between the living and the dead affirms the role of the individual within society and contributes to reinforcing the political and social status of Mexico’s indigenous communities.”

The Day of the Dead celebration holds great significance in the life of Mexico’s indigenous communities. The fusion of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Catholic feasts brings together two universes, one marked by indigenous belief systems, the other by worldviews introduced by the Europeans in the sixteenth century.”

Here is a list, in no particular order, of the 9 best places to visit for Mexico’s Day of the Dead:

1. Michoacán

The single best-known location for Day of the Dead in the entire country is the Island of Janitzio in Lake Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. This is one of Mexico’s most famous major annual spectacles. Thousands of visitors from all over the world watch as the indigenous Purepecha people perform elaborate rituals in the local cemetery late into the night. Yes, it has become commercialized, but it remains a memorable experience, and also offers the opportunity to sample the local cuisine, which itself was declared an “intangible world heritage” by UNESCO in 2010!

Janitzio cemetery

Janitzio cemetery

Several other locations in the Lake Pátzcuaro area, including Ihuatzio, Tzintzuntzan, Arocutín and Jarácuaro, offer their own equally memorable (but less visited) festivities and rituals. Interesting observances of Day of the Dead also occur in many other places in Michoacán, including Angahuan (near Paricutin Volcano) and Cuanajo.

2. Mexico City

Two locations in the southern part of the city are well worth visiting for Day of the Dead.

In San Andrés Mixquic, which has strong indigenous roots, graves are decorated with Mexican marigolds in a cemetery lit by hundreds and hundreds of candles. Street stalls, household altars and processions attract thousands of capitalinos each year.

In Xochimilco, the canals and chinampas are the background for special night-time Day of the Dead excursions by boat (trajinera).

3. Morelos

Ocotepec, on the outskirts of Cuernavaca, is another excellent place to visit for Day of the Dead activities.

4. Veracruz

Xico, one of Mexico’s Magic Towns, has colorful Day of the Dead celebrations, including a flower petal carpet along the road to the graveyard. Don’t miss sampling the numerous kinds of tamales that are a mainstay of the local cuisine.

5. San Luis Potosí and Hidalgo

In the indigenous Huastec settlements of the mountainous area shared by the states of San Luis Potosí and Hidalgo, the celebrations for Day of the Dead are known as Xantolo. Multi-tiered altars are elaborately decorated as part of the festivities.

6. Chiapas

Several indigenous communities in Chiapas celebrate the Day of the Dead in style. For example, in San Juan Chamula, the festival is known as Kin Anima, and is based on the indigenous tzotzil tradition.

San Juan Chamula

San Juan Chamula

7. Yucatán and Quintana Roo

In the Maya region, Day of the Dead celebrations are known as Hanal Pixan, “feast for the souls.” Families prepare elaborate food for the annual return of their dearly departed. The cemeteries in the Yucatán capital Mérida are well worth seeing, as are the graveyards in many smaller communities. See, for example, this account of the festivities in Pac Chen, Quintana Roo: Hanal Pixan, Maya Day of the Dead in Pac Chen, Quintana Roo

Tourist locations offer their own versions of Day of the Dead celebrations. For example, Xcaret theme park, in the Riviera Maya, is the scene of the Festival of Life and Death (Festival de la Vida y la Muerte) featuring parades, rituals, concerts, theater performances and dancing.

8. Oaxaca

There are rich and varied observances of Day of the Dead in the state of Oaxaca. Visitors to Oaxaca City can witness vigils in several of the city’s cemeteries and night-time processions called comparsas. The celebrations are very different on the Oaxacan coast, as evidenced by this account of Day of the Dead in Santiago Pinotepa Nacional.

9. Guanajuato
The city of San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato holds an annual four-day festival known as “La Calaca” with artistic and cultural events that are “integrated into the vibrant celebration of life and death known as Dia de Muertos”.

In Mexico, the age-old cultural traditions of Day of the Dead are still very much alive!

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Oct 292014
 

In a previous post, we saw how Mexico is a major net importer of “virtual” water. In this post we take a closer look at Mexico’s water footprint. The data throughout this post come from The Water footprint of Mexico in the context of North America (pdf file).

Individual products each have their own water footprint in terms of the total amount of water involved in their production, processing and marketing. For example a single cup of coffee represents (on average) a water footprint of 140 liters. Other water footprints include:

  • A single letter-sized sheet of paper – 10 liters
  • Microchip – 32 liters
  • Pair of leather shoes – 8000 liters
  • Glass of milk 200 liters
  • Glass of wine 120 liters
  • Tomato 13 liters
  • Hamburger (150 gram) 2400 liters

From numbers like these, it is possible to calculate the water footprint for an individual consumer in a particular country, and also for an average consumer in each country.

How does the water footprint in Mexico compare to other countries?

The water footprint of Mexico (WWF 2012)

The water footprint of Mexico (WWF 2012)

The graphic shows that Mexico’s total water footprint (all consumers) is 197,425 Hm³, of which 92% is agricultural, 3% industrial and 5% domestic. Only 57% of Mexico’s water footprint is internal, the remaining 43% is external (ie water used in other countries to make or produce items imported into Mexico). The average water footprint per person in Mexico comes to 5419 liters/day (or 1978 m³/year).

The global average water footprint (all countries, all consumers) in 2010 was 1,385 m³/y. However, some countries have much higher average water footprint/persons than others. For example, the average consumer in the USA has a water footprint of 2,842 m³/y, whereas in China and India the average water footprints are 1,071 and 1,089 m³/y respectively.

The water footprint of an average consumer worldwide  is primarily determined by their consumption of cereal products (contributes 27% to the average water footprint), followed by meat (22%) and milk products (7%).

It should be remembered that countries which heavily rely on foreign water resources may have significant impacts on water consumption and pollution elsewhere.

Full report:

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Oct 272014
 

The following account of Mexico’s traditional (folkloric) and introduced musical instruments consists of extracts from an article by Andrea Teter. [1]

Pre-Columbian instruments

Archaeologists have noted the existence of more than 1,400 musical instruments used in pre-Columbian Mexico and Central America. These were used primarily for religious, and healing rituals and for ceremonies, but also for war, dances, fiestas and entertainment. Some of these instruments, primarily the huehuetl, and teponaztli, both percussion, and the tlapitzalli, a four-hole flute, were considered divine or endowed with supernatural powers, say Mexican archeologists, and were worshiped as idols.

Teponaztli

Teponaztli

The Mexica (Aztecs) used flutes and trumpets made of clay, bamboo and metal. Drums, including the ayotl, made of tortoise shells, and other percussion instruments were used extensively. The huehuetl was the principal drum used by the Mexica and was made from animal skin stretched over a hollowed-out tree trunk. The teponaztli was made from hollowed-out trees or dried gourds, and sometimes gold and silver, with grooves or tongues cut into the top. Rich and varied tones are produced when played with small mallets. Pre-Columbian musicians also used cymbals, maracas, bells and even stones to produce their music.

The Youtube clip below is one interpretation of what some of Mexico’s indigenous musical instruments may have sounded like when played:

Europeans arrive

With the invasion of the Spanish, these musical instruments were immediately used to help convert the indigenous population to Christianity, while the Conquistadors began introducing European musical methods and instruments. A Franciscan missionary, Pedro de Gante, established the first music school in Mexico in 1523 and trained students in the construction and playing of European instruments.

Little by little, all of the European instruments were introduced to Latin America, starting in the 16th century with organs, guitars, harps and flutes, and later followed by the violins, trumpets, mandolins and accordions. Especially important and influential were guitars, which rose to prominence in the seventeenth century, as an easier-to-play alternative to the lute.

Six-string guitars, viheulas, became extremely popular in Mexico with other instruments of the same family also put into general use: five-string charangos, tiples, or treble guitars, and a large 12-string guitar similar to a bass, the bajo sexto.

Another string instrument that became popular in Mexico was the mandolin. The mandolin, which comes from Southern Italy, is the most recent development of the lute family. It was popularized in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and Verdi’s “Othello”.

The salterio, originally from Egypt, is a stringed instrument a little larger than a briefcase with a sound resembling a harpsichord and a playing method resembling a steel guitar or autoharp. The musician plucks the 97 strings while it rests on his knees; the sound is unique and quite beautiful.

Once the Spanish began importing slaves from Africa, these blacks began constructing marimbas, which imitated the African xylophone. As early as 1545, a Spanish scribe in the state of Chiapas wrote of an instrument of eight wood bars played with heavy sticks by the local natives at tribal ceremonies. The modern sophisticated Mexican marimbas was developed by Chiapas musician Corazon Borraz, who in 1896 brilliantly added a second row of half-tone bars to the common single row (like a piano’s black keys) adding to the musical scope of the original instrument, allowing it to play more complex music.

marimba

A marimba band: two marimbas plus guitar and drums

Today, a concert marimba can be three meters long, have 70 keys and weigh more than 55 kilos. This grand instrument demands four musicians; the bass man at the wide end with two sticks or baguetas having small rubber balls on the striking tips. This end has long resonance boxes hanging below the sound keys. Then the harmonics man with one or two sticks in each hand above shorter resonance boxes. Then comes the melody maker and leader, wielding two sticks per hand; then the narrow end controlled by the treble master, a stick in each hand producing counterpoint to the melody. Talk about a compact orchestra!

The variety of instruments Mexican musicians and composers have access to has resulted in a distinctive music for this country. At least one Mexican composer, Carlos Chavez, has gained international fame with his integration of Mexican pre-Hispanic instruments in his works such as “Sinfonia India,” “Xochipilli” and “Macuilxochitl.”

Some Mexican composers have been even more innovative. For example, Julián Carrillo (nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1950), one of Mexico’s top violinists, invented a microtonal music system known as Sonido 13. The system became sufficiently famous that Carrillo’s birthplace in the state of San Luis Potosí felt obliged to rename itself Ahualulco del Sonido 13: an interesting place to visit for any geographers interested in microtonal music! Ahualulco del Sonido 13 is located 39 kilometers northwest of the city of San Luis Potosí. Leaving that city, first follow federal highway 49 towards Zacatecas and then turn north on the road signed Charcas.

Note:

[1] The bibliographic details for Andrea Teter’s article are currently unknown. Please contact us if you are able to supply any further information about these extracts, so that we can update to include the full reference.

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Oct 252014
 

Remittances (the funds sent by migrant workers back to their families) are a major international financial flow into Mexico. Remittances bring more than 21 billion dollars a year into the economy, an amount equivalent to 2.5% of Mexico’s GDP.

For an introduction, with links to some of the key pages on this blog, see

Causes and trends:

How do remittances work?

Impacts of Mexican migrants on the USA and Canada:

Links between communities – “migration channels”.

The five major “states of origin”—Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacán, San Luis Potosí and Zacatecas:

What happens to migrants who are deported back to Mexico?

Changes in Mexico that may impact migration:

Internal migration:

Foreign migrants living in Mexico:

Practical Exercise (Mapwork):

This index page is updated periodically.

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Oct 232014
 

The online Atlas of Economic Complexity is now interactive, allowing users to choose and combine a large number of variables related to imports, exports, date and country. In the webpage’s own words, it is “a powerful interactive tool that enables users to visualize a country’s total trade, track how these dynamics change over time and explore growth opportunities for more than a hundred countries worldwide.”

What is economic complexity?

A country with a high Economic Complexity has a wide range of complex knowledge capabilities related to productive enterprises. Its economy is likely to produce sophisticated products that require a very wide and diverse set of knowledge capabilities. For example, relatively few countries have the capabilities to produce highly complex chemicals or pharmaceuticals, since their production requires very specialized equipment and very precise measuring instruments. Equally, very few countries have nuclear power stations or space stations, since they lack the range of knowledge capabilities needed to build them. At the other end, a very large number of countries have far less complex economies that are capable of producing simple products (basic foods, mineral ores, lumber, garments, shoes, glass, kitchen utensils, furniture) but not products involving more complicated processes or technology

We first discussed the Atlas in 2012 in How “complex” is the Mexican economy?, when we noted that the Atlas ranked Mexico’s Economic Complexity Index (ECI) as #20 of the 128 countries studied. The interactive nature of the online Atlas has added the opportunity to explore many more trends in trade, generating a range of related, visually-appealing infographics.

In particular, choosing Mexico as the country, the Atlas can answer questions such as:

  • What does Mexico import and export?
  • How has Mexico’s trade evolved over time?
  • What are the drivers of Mexico’s export growth?
  • Which new industries are likely to emerge in Mexico? Which are likely to disappear?
  • What are the GDP growth prospects of Mexico over the next 5-10 years, based on its productive capabilities?

Playing with the variables and dates in the Atlas is a really interesting way to explore just how Mexico’s exports and imports have changed over the years. For example, compare these infographics for Mexico’s exports in 1964 and 2010 respectively:

What_did_Mexico_export_in_1964_

Mexico’s exports in 1964

Mexico's exports in 2010

Mexico’s exports in 2010

It is sometimes hard to imagine just how much Mexico has changed in the past fifty years! Overall, at rank #20, Mexico turns out to have an unusually high Economic Complexity Index given its income level. (All the other countries in the top 20 have significantly higher incomes than Mexico).

According to the Atlas, during the rest of this decade Mexico’s GDP should grow relatively rapidly, bringing its GDP rank more in line with its Economic Complexity Index. In general, analyses in the Atlas indicate that during the last few decades countries with higher than expected ECIs compared to their income levels experience more rapid economic growth.

Note, though, that while this relationship is empirically true, it does not explicitly include other factors thought to be important to economic growth such as governance and institutional quality, corruption, political stability, measures of human capital and competitiveness indicators.

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Oct 202014
 

Which of Mexico’s states have the fastest growing economies? The map below, based on INEGI data, shows each state’s percentage change in GDP for the three year period from 31 March 2011 to 31 March 2014.

Change in GDP by state, 2011-2014. Data: INEGI. Credit: Geo-Mexico

Change in GDP by state, 2011-2014. Data: INEGI. Credit: Geo-Mexico

Only one state – Campeche – registered “negative growth” over the period. In Campeche, production from the oil fields that have long been a mainstay of the local economy has been gradually declining.

Besides Campeche, six states grew far slower than the average for Mexico: Durango, Veracruz, Tabasco, Chiapas and Guerrero. Not entirely coincidentally, several of these states are among the poorest in the nation, so their failure to grow as quickly as the average leaves them further behind, increasing the economic inequalities that plague Mexico’s development.

At the other end of the spectrum, the economic growth of six states – Sonora, Chihuahua, Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, Michoacán and Querétaro – easily outpaced the average for the country. Sonora, Chihuahua, Guanjuato, Querétaro, and to a lesser extent Aguascalientes, all benefited from foreign direct investments and new industries, such as those involved in  the vehicle manufacturing and aeronautical sectors.

The case of Michoacán is something of an anomaly, since that state’s economy is still heavily dependent on primary products such as avocados and iron ore. The positive growth in that state may prove to be mainly due to its negative growth in the preceding three years (2008-2011), which meant that it started the three year period shown on the map at an unusually low level. Perhaps more importantly, given the state’s recent political upheavals and gang-related violence, it is highly unlikely that Michoacán will continue to grow anywhere as quickly over the next three years.

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Oct 182014
 

As a species, monarchs are native to North America, but subsequently island-hopped their way around the world—across the Pacific to Hawaii, Tonga, Samoa, Australia and New Zealand, and across the Atlantic to Europe. In parts of Mexico, particularly in the area around Lake Chapala, there is a healthy population of non-migrating monarch butterflies; these butterflies can count on year-round access to milkweed plants on which to lay their eggs. As a result, it is reasonable to conclude that the species itself is in no danger of extinction.

However, what may be “endangered” is the annual migration of Monarch Butterflies to and from Mexico. This annual migration is categorized as an “endangered phenomenon” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Threats to the migration come from climatic change and extremes, as well as from the impacts of human activity. In some years, unusually cold snaps and hailstorms have caused the premature death of millions of butterflies, though, as yet, this has had little if any discernible effect on total monarch numbers. Human activity has greatly reduced the area of the monarchs’ natural overwintering habitats, in both California, for real estate developments, and in Michoacán, due to forest clearance for timber and agriculture. Farming activities in the US have also resulted in the loss of milkweed along the Monarchs’ migratory pathways. This loss may have far more serious consequences on the long-term viability of the annual migration. Without milkweed, the female Monarchs are unable to lay their eggs on a suitable host plant, and the Monarch caterpillars will never acquire their chemical defenses against predation.

The numbers of Monarchs overwintering in Mexico have varied greatly from one year to the next. The graph below, reproduced widely in the press, has been used as evidence that the numbers of migrating Monarchs are in sharp decline. A note of caution is needed, though, since the estimates of numbers used for the graph are based on the area of trees occupied by the butterflies, and not on a direct count (which is clearly impractical!)

Monarch-Trends-1994-2013

The challenge for researchers is to be certain that the density and architecture of trees is similar from one year to the next. If the trees are less densely grouped, for example, one year than the next, in the particular areas occupied by the butterflies, then the area the butterflies need will be correspondingly larger. The lower area in recent years could be at least partially explained by a higher tree density in the overwintering areas, allowing the same number of butterflies to co-exist in closer proximity to each other.

This is not to say that there is not cause for concern. According to the National University (UNAM)’s Environmental Geography Research Center, at current rates of deforestation, the area of overwintering sites for the Monarch butterflies could be reduced by 75% in the next 18 years, leaving just 12,000 ha of suitable habitat. The protected area, established in 2000, covers 560 square kilometers (56,000 ha. or 216 sq. mi) but includes land cleared for pasture, settlement and cultivation. Researcher José López García claims the reserve is losing 3% of its forest each year. He blames clearance and changes of land use more than illegal logging. The rate of forest clearance has been exacerbated by a rapid rise in the population of the El Rosario ejido. El Rosario is the gateway to the most-visited part of the reserve, attracting thousands of tourists annually. The ejido’s population rose by an average of 5.65%/year between 2005 and 2010.

What is Mexico doing about this?

The Mexican conservation strategies for the butterflies are designed to protect their overwintering habitat and provide alternative sources of revenue and employment for local campesinos who depend on the land and forest for their livelihood. After some doubtful years in the early 1980s, there is now a system of formally protected monarch butterfly reserves, and concerted conservation efforts to prevent further destruction of the monarchs’ unique overwintering habitat.

The modest entrance fees to Monarch Butterfly reserves help fund development projects in the local communities. There is a strict code of conduct for tourists to prevent noise, littering and straying from the well-marked paths.

While the new rules have undoubtedly had some success, it is still preferable to visit, if at all possible, during the week and not at the weekend when the reserves are at their crazily busiest.

On a quiet day,pausing to catch your breath in the peace of the forest as you climb the trail, you will then be just as surprised as I first was when you realize that the gentle swishing sound you can hear around you is not the sound of the wind blowing through the tree limbs but the sound caused by millions of tiny wings beating as the butterflies flutter about in the sky.

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Oct 162014
 

Geography is not only about things that can be seen, touched and measured. Many branches of geography consider how people think, how communities make decisions and how nations interact.

At a local scale, one of the characteristics that is often overlooked is sound. We often ignore the soundscapes of places, either because we are “too busy” to listen and take in the local sounds, or because we are “too busy” tuning any distinctive local sounds out while using our cell phones or listening to favorite music.

Soundscapes vary greatly from rural areas to urban areas, and from one region to another; Mexico’s urban soundscapes are among the most distinctive on the planet.

In previous posts, we listened to The distinctive sounds of Mexico’s towns and cities; covered our ears as we analysed Noise pollution in Mexico; and also described the amazing Whistled language of the Chinantec people in Oaxaca.

In this post, we take a look at Chris Watson’s intriguing 2011 album “El Tren Fantasma”:

U.K.-based Chris Watson is a preeminent freelance recordist of wildlife and natural phenomena, whose work has been featured in many BBC programs including David Attenborough’s series, The Life Of Birds. As Watson has remarked, sound recording allows you to put a microphone where you can’t put your ears, to enable you to listen to sounds such as the groaning ice of a moving glacier. His work for the BBC was audio vérité but more recently, including in El Tren Fantasma, Watson has experimented with post production techniques to meld field recordings into a narrative.

The result is strangely compelling, dramatic and in some respects, awesome!

The soundscapes of El Tren Fantasma (the title is identical to that of a 1927 Mexican movie) offer a trip from the Pacific Coast to the Gulf Coast of Mexico condensed into little more than an hour.

The first six tracks cover the section of railway best known as the Copper Canyon line, one of the few remaining routes in Mexico with regular passenger service.

El Tren Fantasma has 10 tracks (pun intended):

  1. La Anunciante
  2. Los Mochis
  3. Sierra Tarahumara
  4. El Divisadero
  5. Crucero La Joya
  6. Chihuahua
  7. Aguascalientes
  8. Mexico D.F.
  9. El Tajin; El dia y La noche
  10. Veracruz

If you don’t have time to listen to all 10 tracks, the most interesting, from a geographical point of view, are probably the following:

The trip was nicknamed the ghost train by Watson because there are no longer any passenger trains connecting the two coasts. Several years ago, Watson was the sound recordist for a film crew making a program in the BBC TV series Great Railway Journeys. Even then, part of the line was freight only, but in earlier times, there had been regular scheduled passenger trains across the country.

The promotional material asks potential listeners to, “Take the ghost train from Los Mochis to Veracruz and travel cross country, coast to coast, Pacific to Atlantic. Ride the rhythm of the rails on board the Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México (FNM) and the music of a journey that has now passed into history.”

“In this album, the journey of the ‘ghost train’ is recreated, evoking memories of a recent past, capturing the atmosphere, rhythms and sounds of human life, wildlife and the journey itself along the tracks of one of Mexico’s greatest engineering projects.”

Reviews were almost universally positive.

Several reviewers recognized the connection between the soundscapes of El Tren Fantasma and geography, in some cases also attributing reasons for the decline of passenger train services in Mexico. For example Martin Hoyle, writing in The Financial Times, described how “From desert to rainforest, hummingbirds’ wings to the boom of heat rising from the Copper Canyon, it recalls a beloved passenger train system abandoned by privatisation.”

Pete Naughton in The Daily Telegraph wrote that the sound portrait painted by Watson “jostles with human, animal and mechanical life, filling the room with an atmosphere that is more richly evocative of Central America than any TV travel show I’ve seen. Diesel engines thrum, cicadas chirrup and passengers chatter, sing and argue.”

A reviewer in The Milk Factory (UK) drew attention to the “tremor of excitement as the sound of a diesel engine temporarily swallows the clunking noise of metal on metal and the strident hisses as wheels grind again rails and breaks against wheels”, before adding that, “Watson doesn’t aim to recreate the journey in any consistent chronology. Instead, he gives a taste of what this journey actually was by using nature and wildlife sounds to hint at the landscapes passed on the way.”

Spencer Grady, reviewing El Tren Fantasma for BBCi (UK), wrote that: “While Chris Watson’s previous sets – such as 2003’s critically acclaimed Weather Report – have generally concerned themselves with this planet’s myriad beasts and habitats, this narrative inevitably bears an anthropological mark. Indeed, the first voice we hear doesn’t belong to a cuckoo or coyote, but station announcer Ana Gonzalez Bello putting out one “last call for the ghost train”. It’s an unusually contrived opening gambit, from which point the listener is jettisoned into a collision of screeching breaks, rolling stock rattle and hot hydraulic huff. Over half of El Tren Fantasma’s tracks (pun definitely intended) are given over to locomotive sound – gears shifting, hoots, bells and whistles – climaxing with El Divisadero, where Watson manipulates the monolithic machinations into a surging, phantasmal bellow, like a choir of angels struggling to be heard over the rumbling thrum of running gear.”

For an academic geographer’s perspective on El Tren Fantasma, a good place to start (for those with academic library access) is a recent issue of Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (Vol 39, No 3, 2014). In “El tren fantasma : arcs of sound and the acoustic spaces of landscapes”, George Revill, of the Open University, draws on Chris Watson’s soundwork “El tren fantasma” to consider “how sound participates in the production of the railway corridor as a complex, animate and deeply contoured historically and geographically specific experience of landscape.”

El Tren Fantasma offers an extraordinarily evocative sound summary of a trip across Mexico; what a shame that there are now so few passenger services left on Mexican railways!

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Oct 132014
 

The concept of “virtual water” was developed by Professor J.A. Allan of King’s College (London University) and the School of Oriental and African Studies. Allan used it to support his argument that Middle Eastern countries could save their scarce water resources by relying more on food imports. The idea was sufficiently novel for Allan to be awarded the 2008 Stockholm Water Prize.

In Allan’s words, “The water is said to be virtual because once the wheat is grown, the real water used to grow it is no longer actually contained in the wheat. The concept of virtual water helps us realize how much water is needed to produce different goods and services. In semi-arid and arid areas, knowing the virtual water value of a good or service can be useful towards determining how best to use the scarce water available.”

As one example, producing a single kilogram of wheat requires (on average) around 1.5 cubic meters of water, with the precise volume depending on climatic conditions and farming techniques. The amount of water required to grow or make a product is known as the “water footprint” of the product.

Hoekstra and Chapagain have defined the virtual-water content of a product, commodity, good or service, as “the volume of freshwater used to produce the product, measured at the place where the product was actually produced”. The virtual water content is the sum of the water used in the various steps of the production chain.

Additional examples, showing the water footprint of producing one kilogram of:

  • biodiesel from soya –  11.4 cubic meters
  • beef –  15.4 cubic meters
  • butter –  5.5 cubic meters
  • chocolate – 17.0 cubic meters
  • pasta –  1.85 cubic meters
  • sugar (from cane) –  0.2 cubic meters

While the idea of virtual water has attracted some attention, its methodology is contested, and its quantification is not yet sufficiently precise to offer much potential for policy decisions.

Imports and exports of virtual water represent the “hidden” flows of water involved when food and other commodities are traded from one place to another. The map below (from Hoekstra and Mekonnen, 2012) shows the net imports (imports minus exports) of virtual water for different countries for the decade 1996-2005. Note that only the major flows are shown.

water-virtual-tradeIn North America, both the USA and Canada have a significant positive virtual water balance (i.e. they are major exporters of virtual water), whereas Mexico has a significant negative water balance, and is clearly one of the world’s largest importers of virtual water.

As Allan’s original work suggests, this is not necessarily bad news since it may imply that Mexico is currently using less of its own (limited) water resources than it might otherwise have to. In other words, Mexico’s virtual water imports may be delaying the inevitable crunch time when water usage becomes a critical limiting factor in the nation’s development.

Source of map

A.Y. Hoekstra and M.M. Mekonnen. 2012. The water footprint of humanity. Proc. Nat. Academy of Sciences, 109, 3232-7. Map was reproduced in “Spotlight on virtual water” by Stuart N. Lane in Geography, vol 99-1, Spring 2014, 51-3.

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Oct 112014
 

Most monarch butterflies never migrate, but one generation of the North American monarch population undertakes an annual, long distance migration, a journey without parallel in the insect world. Every winter, some one hundred million monarch butterflies fly south into Mexico from the U.S. and Canada. They congregate and spend the winter in a dozen localities high in the temperate pine and fir forests of the states of México and Michoacán.

Where do the Monarchs overwinter?

The exact sites where the butterflies overwinter were only found in the mid 1970s after a search of nearly forty years. Scientists are still unable to explain all the details of this enigmatic annual migration, but their unexpectedly sophisticated navigational ability seems to rely on an incredible innate accuracy in pinpointing their position by using their eyes and antennas to measure the angles of the sun’s rays, compensating for time of day, and ensuring they continue to fly in a southerly direction towards the state boundary separating Michoacán from the State of México.

How fast can they fly?

The tagging of butterflies has proven that they make the 2500 kilometer trip each way at an impressive average speed of 20 km/h, with maximum speeds of up to 40 km/h (25 mph). Monarchs don’t fly at night, partly because they need daylight to navigate and partly because they fly best when sunlight has warmed their wings, like miniature solar panels, raising their body temperatures some 10 to 15 degrees Celsius above ambient air temperatures.

The butterflies are energy-efficient flyers, making regular nectar stops along the way to refuel. One third of their dry body weight is energy-giving fat but far from losing weight on their exhausting journey south, they actually appear to gain it! There are still many mysteries about the monarchs but they certainly provide one of the most amazing natural spectacles to be seen anywhere on earth. Millions of orange butterflies, with black and white-spotted wings, whether flying overhead or, as on cooler days, clinging apparently lifeless to the grey-green fir trees in such numbers that the trees appear to be in blossom, are an absolutely unforgettable sight.

Based on original map design created by Paul Mirocha (paulmirocha.com) for Monarch Watch.

Based on original map design created by Paul Mirocha (paulmirocha.com) for Monarch Watch.

The journey south

In September and October, as temperatures in the U.S. and Canada fall, and food supplies become scarce, the monarchs fly south in small groups. Some of these groups fly only as far as Florida or western California where they spend their winters in milder conditions. But many of the small groups from east of the Continental Divide eventually coalesce and fly much further south, as far as Mexico, arriving en masse in the state of Michoacán towards the end of November.

This migratory group is comprised of as many as 120 million individuals and spends the winter in semi-dormancy, on the pine and oyamel (sacred fir, Abies religiosa) trees found at elevation of about 3050 meters (10,000 feet) along Mexico’s central Volcanic Axis. Until spring comes, in March or April, these butterflies cling to the branches and trunks of the trees, enjoying temperatures between 10 and 16 degrees Celsius, protected from cold northerly winds. Their metabolism slows down in these low temperature, low oxygen conditions and they exhibit movement only on warm, sunny, days.

The generation that flies into Mexico does not mature sexually until the following spring. In February and March, the best months to see them, early spring sunlight begins to penetrate the groves of fir trees, temperatures begin to rise and the forest floor slowly comes alive with new plant growth. The butterflies, having successfully overwintered the worst weather, unfurl their wings and flutter about in search of food and water. As they regain their strength, so they become sexually mature and the mating process starts.

The journey north

After mating, the butterflies begin to leave the reserves, flying back towards the north. Five days later, in northern Mexico and the southern U.S., each female lays two to three hundred eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves. They first check (by smell and touch) that no eggs have already been laid there, and then space their eggs in such a way so as to ensure that each larva that hatches two to three days later will have an adequate supply of food. The larvae grow quickly, changing their skins five times before becoming pupae. After a further two weeks, butterflies emerge, and fly northwards. Each generation of monarchs probably acquires a different chemical “blueprint”, based on the exact species of milkweed it eats, giving it the information it needs to know where to fly. Eventually, by April, the northernmost butterflies reach Canada.

No individual butterfly completes the entire 5000 kilometer round trip. Most of those that fly south die soon after mating in spring (with males often dying in the reserves and never starting their homeward trip), while those who head north cannot hope to survive long into the summer, when normal reproductive cycles, each lasting from four to six weeks, are reestablished.

The last generation of each summer, perhaps prompted by shorter days, soon departs on the next wave of mass migration to Mexico. Those from furthest north will cross the Great Lakes on their return in a single day’s flight, an impressive feat in its own right. They have been spotted flying south at heights up to 1500 meters and exploit thermals to gain height and save energy.

Where to see Monarch Butterflies

Several monarch reserves are open to the public each year. Each has its own distinctive character. Two of the most important reserves are close to the town of Angangueo. Sierra Chincua, north of the town, is the site where the first Canadian-tagged monarch was found in the mid 1970s. This is also where I first saw the butterflies, in 1980, while looking for a potential site for geography fieldwork. It was a serendipitous discovery, and led to me being mistaken for a BBC reporter, but that’s another story!

Angangueo. Sketch by Mark Eager; all rights reserved.

Angangueo. Sketch by Mark Eager; all rights reserved.

The most accessible reserve open to the public is El Rosario, south of Angangueo, where there are dozens of souvenir stalls and rustic snack stands—don’t miss sampling the delicious hand-made blue-corn tortillas. The narrow trails in the sanctuary, with information boards at regular intervals, wind steeply several hundred meters uphill, reaching a maximum altitude of 3050 meters. This altitude can cause some shortage of breath and air temperatures are generally low, so be sure to bring a sweater.

El Rosario can be reached from either Angangueo (steeper but more direct approach) or Ocampo. Anyone driving their own vehicle to El Rosario is advised to use the route via San Felipe (on Highway 15) and then Ocampo. From Ocampo any vehicle with adequate ground clearance, including the local taxis, can negotiate the fourteen kilometers to the monarch sanctuary parking lot.

The San Felipe-Ocampo junction on Highway 15 is marked by a line of fruit and soft-drink stalls, many of which in season sell delicious granadas (pomegranates). Also at this junction is an interesting sixteenth century church which, until as recently as 1995, had tombstones in its atrium, unusual in Mexico. Normally, the Spanish buried their dead as far away from the churchyard as possible, presumably to avoid the risk of disease.

Want to read more?

This post is based on chapter 36 of my “Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury” (link is to Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature), also available as either a Kindle edition or Kobo ebook.

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