Sunday, June 23, 2013

San Cristóbal: World's most beautiful B&B

Roof views
Ah, back in my favorite city in Mexico, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas.

Patti and I arrived early Wednesday morning after a 12 hour overnight bus ride from Oaxaca. The first half of the bus trip was through mountains with many curves and probably bus-plunge-drop-offs, which thankfully we couldn't see, even with the almost full moon illuminating the landscape. But trying to sleep was a whole other story.

The bus stops at 3:00am in Júchitan, about 20 miles north of the Pacific coast. It was steamy hot. A dozen dogs were sacked out in the dirt all around the little bus stop where they were serving a buffet dinner for the bus drivers and whatever passengers could rouse themselves from slumber. Stepping out of the cold air-conditioned bus into swamp-like humidity made me sneeze.

We had smooth sailing after Juchitan. I had the best possible sleep, head pillowed up against the window, stretched out across two seats. I awoke long enough at the stop in Tuxtla to wonder where we were, and fell back asleep until the sparkling lights of San Cristóbal appeared in the dark foggy valley as we came over the pass.

June is the rainy season. It's usually not too bad, with a few days of heavy rains or just some thunderstorms in the afternoons. But this year has been exceptionally wet and cold. It's hard to believe we were in the tropics hunting all over town for fleece jackets and sweaters.

B&B common living area with art from all
over Mexico

The sun came out full force on Saturday and we happened to be wandering around looking for a bookstore when I remembered that I had wanted to photograph Nancy and David Orr's Bed and Breakfast on some sunny day. I met Nancy for the first time in January, though we had corresponded a lot prior to that.

Last summer, in Los Alamos, I had organized a mole dinner to raise money for the Casa de las Flores school for street children. I sent the money to Nancy, who organized the remodeling of the defunct bathroom at the school. You can see the photos of the wonderful new bathroom at this link: CasaFloresBathroom

Nancy and David are the movers and shakers behind Amigos de San Cristóbal, a group of people, both expats and locals, who raise and donate money to worthy non-profit groups. They are very selective about who gets money, and none of the money is used for advertising or salaries. The group is what might be called an integrious United Way. For more information on the Amigos program, go to AmigosDeSanCristobal.

They also own one of the most popular B&Bs in San Cristobal, Casa Felipe Flores.

So Patty and I went over to meet Nancy. She graciously gave us free rein to walk through the property, climb up all the staircases, and photograph any room that was open. You can see from the photos why it's top rated. You might even want to come to San Cristóbal just to stay here!

Fairly typical bedroom at the B&B
One room is on the roof, this
is it's view!

Fully tiled bathrooms

Owner's outdoor living space

In the entrance patio

Wall of the entrance patio

Patio area for guests

Another beautiful guest room

Art everywhere

Kitchen and the chefs

Dining room

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Oaxaca, Mexican Gem

Patty and I left Mexico city on a six-hour bus ride that stretched to eight hours because the bus went to the airport before leaving the city right at the "La Comida" hour when most people go home for lunch and a rest, ie rush-hour traffic.

I stayed in Oaxaca for a few days last year and had a great time in the city but a terrible tour of Monte Alban. (Click the link for that one!) Patty was getting sick the day of the bus ride and went downhill from there. She is a naturally thin person who doesn't eat when she feels bad (go figure!)  so she wasn't up for doing much exploring. After a couple of days though, she had energy and we took a tourista bus, not a tour, up to the ruins.

We were lucky with the weather which was was cool, breezy with clouds that came and went. We spent a full three hours in the ruins and more time in the small museum. We hired a young man with reasonably good English, after I grilled him thoroughly. Clemente had a degree in tour guiding. In Mexico, licensed guides have to know history, culture, languages, and a lot of psychology to make it as a tour guide and he turned out to be excellent.

Clemente gave us his version of the standing stelas which depict human beings in odd (and painful poses) as the Toltec version of a medical manual. Some had hunchbacks, deformed limbs, and mutilated genitals. One shows a woman giving birth to a breach baby. The bad guide said it was a woman giving birth to a God, but this man's version is that the stela was part of the group of medical anomalies, a Toltec Grey's Anatomy. Another theory is that the posers were all dead, or in the process of being tortured. From the expressions on the faces, I would think the latter. Since there are some existing icons of a written language that are not fully understood, I'm sure more information will emerge as studies progress.

Oaxaca is famous for its cuisine. Mole was invented by nuns who wanted to prepare something special for a visiting pope. Mole is a complex and sometimes day-long process of toasting seeds and spices, grinding, mashing, and frying various foods together to create a delicate and flavorful sauce. Many versions of mole exist. Now days there are mole stands in every market where you can buy a large glop of brown, red, or black mole paste, take it home, add water or tomato sauce, and violá, MOLE!

It is also an artistic community, something of interest to Patty who is an elementary art teacher. Weavers and stitchers are everywhere. Colorful rugs and embroidery fill the shops, along with carved wooden animals, blown glass, and pottery. Mexicans treat their whole world as an artistic canvas. The simplest plant in a pot can be an artistic achievement.

Inside the golden Santo Domingo Church


Cathedral, at the Zócalo

Santo Domingo Church

Ex-convento, next to the Santo Domingo Church,
now a cultural museum. The building is worth seeing,
and it houses all the gold jewelry found at Monte Alban.

More information:  Our guide, Clemente Perez can be contacted by email:
The tourist bus company is at 501 Mina. Or ask at the tourist information kiosk in the Zocalo, across from the Cathedral for a map and more information. Not all tours are terrible, but they all take you around to workshops and gift shops where I'm sure the company gets a kick-back. For more photos of this gorgeous city, see my previous post:

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Mexico: Teotihuacán

Pyramid of the Sun from the west side
In the previous post Teotihuacan was usurped by the more interesting religious icon of the Virgin of Guadalupe, but that's not to say that Teotihuacan isn't also fascinating.

It was started in approximately 100 years before Christ and according to our guide, the Pyramid of the Sun was completed in only 80 years. There was no written language to provide historical stories or dates like in most of the Mayan sites. For a long time it was attributed to the Toltecs,  but apparently that has now been tossed out. If you want to read more about it, there is a lot of good information at Teotihuacán

We explored the temple dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, a god who figured prominently in the Spanish Conquest. Since Teotihuacán means (in Nahuatl) the birthplace of the Gods, the Aztecs believed a story that Quetzalcoatl, a plumed and bearded serpent god, had gone off to the east and would return one day. Imagine their surprise (fear and trepidation) to be visited by an actual GOD when the Spaniards showed up with beards, in a boat with  wings, riding strange beasts, and coming from the east, the direction of Quetzalcoatl. It gave the Spaniards an edge they didn't even know they had.

Then we climbed the Pyramid of the Sun; not the tallest, or the biggest in Mexico, but certainly the most famous. It sits in an enormous plaza surrounded by smaller buildings and pyramids, as part of a large religious and commercial complex. It faces south and has an exact angle so that during the summer solstice, at noon, there are no shadows.

A portion of the city where people lived.
Then we walked the Avenue of the dead, where we saw the very few preserved murals. At one time every square inch of the complex was covered in deep red plaster, including the ground. Pieces of that thick plaster are visible everywhere, and in places, even the red color (and other colors) remain. It's been abandoned since the 8th century, and was eventually covered up with dirt and vegetation, though it never was lost to the jungle like most Mayan cities.

Patty climbed up the shorter staircase of the Pyramid of the Moon, at the far end of the Avenue of the Dead. But my knees were too shot to do it
. At that end, many buildings have been reconstructed, including an "office complex" where the business of the city was administrated. Most of the pyramids once had a structure on top that housed a god. Since those were usually wooden with a wood or palapa roof, they've long since disappeared.

What you rarely see in photos, due to the lack of drama, are the thousands of individual family homes. The city once had a population of 175,000 people. In the museum are models showing the extent of the city. Now, of course, other towns have been built on top. Like in Rome, just a few feet down, from the floor of any home, there is evidence of the previous occupants.

So here are a few photos of Teotihuacán, some you'll recognize, and some will be a surprise.

Evidence of colored plaster still in place

Interesting styling of the structures

Emerging serpent head on the pyramid to Quetzalcoatl

Plumed Serpent (Quetalcuatl) as it probably
looked in its day

Jaguar head

Another more stylized Jaguar

Pyramid of the Sun and further away, Pyramid of the Moon

Photo of me on top with the Pyramid
of the Moon in the distance

Pyramid of the Moon and the Avenue of the Dead

Avenue of the Dead

Rare surviving mural of a jaguar

Friday, June 14, 2013

Bucket List Knock-offs: Teotihuacan and Virgin of Guadalupe

It's difficult to visit Mexico and ignore the tremendous effects of religion on the culture and the individual lives of people.

Pyramid of the Sun as seen from the Quetzalcoatl pyramid.
On my bucket list, for many years, has been the Teotihuacan site, northeast of Mexico City, and the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Neither of which would have been built without the tremendous emotional power exerted by religion.

Teotihuacan was thought to have been built by the Aztecs. By the time I was 18 in Mexico for the first time, that theory had been revised and it was thought the Toltecs built it. Certainly the Olmecs, Mexico's "mother culture", were not responsible. But now, according to our quite knowledgeable guide, the archeologists have unearthed enough ceramic evidence that no one knows for sure who actually built it. However, the fact that these enormous pyramids, set at strategic places along an east-west axis avenue dedicated to the dead, were built at all, shows the power of religion.

The place where Don Diego showed the
Bishop the cloak with the Virgin's image.
And the whole story of the Virgin of Guadalupe held a few surprises for me, especially since I thought I already knew it. For one thing, in 1531, when the miracle of the Virgin's appearance happened, there were no roses in Mexico, they were yet to come to the new world from the old. (I thought it was because roses didn't bloom in December!) And the Virgin that appeared to Don Diego had a dark skinned faced, like his own indigenous people. That part I knew, but what I didn't know was that there was a previous dark faced Virgin of Guadalupe, from the Spanish region of Extremadura, and it was a virgin known to the Spaniards in the New World. When Don Diego met the bishop, outside of the town, purely by accident, and told him about the vision he had seen, the Bishop didn't believe him. But when he showed up with the roses, and then the image of the Virgin was miraculously on his cloak, the Bishop recognized the Virgin from the old country and became a believer.

A basilica was built near that spot, just as the Virgin had commanded. It stands today, tilting off to the east as the land beneath has subsided, and earthquakes have taken their tole. It was a bit un-nerving to be inside with the floor sloping dramatically and pillars tilting in several different directions.

A new basilica was built for the tens of thousands of pilgrims who come every year, and it holds about 10,000 people, packed. We went into it and there at the front was a golden frame around the original cloak. Mass is delivered daily, every hour from 9 in the morning till 7 in the evening. There were several thousand people inside the basilica when we arrived, many still crawling in on hands and knees.

The building has been designed to have a tunnel with an opening underneath the hanging madonna. People can go down into the tunnel where there are several moving walkways, like you often see in airports, going in both directions. You stand on the walkway and it slowly moves past the Madonna while you look up. This sacred object looks nothing like a cloak. It's quite squared off, and looks like a painting. I might have actually been more convinced if it had looked like something someone might wear. It does have marks though, where it had been folded for some time, just like the shroud of Turin.

Looking up at Don Diego's cloak,
now framed and venerated
After the basilica, we went into a gift shop across the street where a digitized photo of the original has been reproduced. And the right eye of the madonna has been further blown up so that you can look with a magnifying glass and see the pixelated (and blurry) image of a bearded man that is supposed to be Don Diego. The only problem with that is Don Diego was an Aztec, and not of mixed race. This whole event happened only ten years after the fall of Tenochititlan. Aztecs didn't have beards.

Patti, my companion, was raised Catholic (now lapsed). She brought over an information sheet that showed the Virgin's image deconstructed with all kinds of symbolism pointed out. For instance, the very evenly spaced stars on her cloak had been connected to look like certain constellations. My favorite Orion was one of them, but for the life of me, I could see no connection. It was drawn over the Virgin's image, but looking at the life-size digitized image, I couldn't find any points at all that corresponded to Orion. Ditto for the faintest shadows that supposedly represented King Solomon, and the list went on and on. I think if a person were a true believer, this kind of stuff might be fascinating and deepen the faith, but for a skeptic like me, it was just more proof that there are a lot of con artists out in the world.

Inside the new Basilica dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe

Down into the tunnel with
the moving walkways.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Science in the Cathedral: Mexico City

I'm back in Mexico. Staying at the moment in Mexico City with my friend Patti. She's a teacher and can't come on one of my scheduled tours during the winter, so she wanted to spend a few weeks going around with me, practicing her high school Spanish, and seeing new parts of Mexico. I could use more Mexico time and some exploration myself, since I want to expand my little tour business.

I haven't been to Mexico City in 42 years, since I spent the summer of 1971 in school, in Cholula, Puebla, a few hours south. I spent a week with my mother's cousin Peggy, who had lived here for 30 years at that time and still spoke Spanish with a thick Texan accent. She had a dozen dogs, mostly schnauzers, though unrecognizable as schnauzers since they were unshaven with floppy ears. And two parrots.

Jocko was an African Gray that had belonged to Peggy's parents and ended up with her because parrots tend to outlive their owners, especially when the owners are already elderly. And Pedro was a green bird from South America. Carmela the maid, only spoke Spanish, so she interacted with Pedro all the time, as he spoke Spanish too. So poor Jocko, who only spoke Texan, sat on his perch in the corner of the kitchen and slept. But every morning, Jocko would say, to the first man to enter the room, "Good Morning Ben". He never said it to a woman, and never said it at any other time than morning.

Pedro, on the other hand, could sing songs, had a mind of his own, was often stubborn, and was the only pet with a job. His job was to get on Peggy's stick in the morning, go with her outside where she put him on a stair railing. He would then climb, beak over feet up the rail, to the door of Carmela's apartment and call her name to get her up. When she was good and ready, she'd let him climb on her arm and she'd carry him back to the kitchen.

When Carmela was gone and Pedro was bored, he would get off his perch and go over to the edge of the kitchen counter. I watched as he leaned over, looked around, saw there were no dogs, and then he barked madly! From all over the house, dogs came running, ready to kill whatever strange dog was in the kitchen. That crazy parrot bobbed up and down like he was laughing. And the dogs were such living-in-the-moment creatures that Pedro could do this many times a day, they always came running.

But alas, Peggy is gone now, as are the parrots, Carmela and the dogs. Mexico City is unrecognizable to me, except for the basic locations of places like the National Archeology Museum, and the Zocalo.

Seismic equipment
Today, Patti and I walked down a long andador, a street closed off to cars. We had intended to see the cathedral, Templo Mayor, the Zocalo, and return to visit the Bellas Artes museum. The cathedral was interesting. A small parroquia, a parish church, was part of the complex, and in fact was much more beautiful, if not as dramatic as the cathedral itself. What struck both of us is how much the cathedral has tilted. The entire right side is canted, with all the pillars slanting right. And throughout the cathedral, metal rods are attached high on the pillars with a plumb line dropping straight down into a seismic reader, housed in a box to prevent anyone from bumping it.

Several readers are strategically placed beneath pillars, and in the very center, where a candelabra has been pulled off to the side, a pendulum hangs from the top of the dome, it's point only a millimeter or two from the floor. On the floor is a white drawing in stone, showing where the pendulum has swung over the centuries. Meanwhile, the pendulum is swaying right, then left, then in an oval shape, moving up to four inches in any direction, and it didn't quit moving. That cathedral is vibrating.

The eternally moving pendulum

Mexico is so prone to earthquakes, and it doesn't help at all that it was once an old lake bed. The cathedral and Templo Mayor (what is left of the once fabulous temple of the Aztecs) were built on what was once an island. Probably a water logged island, but still land above the usual water line. Now days, with drainage systems and deep foundations, water isn't as much an issue as the fact that clay soils tend to slide and wiggle in an earthquake. The entire former lake that is now Mexico City shakes like a big bowl of jello in a bad quake.

It's something I think about all the time I'm here. I wonder what slab of concrete is going to crash down on my head, or give out from under me as I sleep soundly in my hotel bed. I can't wait to get out of the airport as I can see the gray concrete roof and walls, knowing it could all come crashing down in just a few seconds under the wrong circumstances.

Through the door in the listing building. 
We passed by an open door on the way to Templo Mayor. The doorway led into a building that was leaning to the east about 10 degrees. Inside, it turned out to be an empty church, now used for artistic exhibitions. The floor tilted so badly, and the walls listed in such a way that it felt like those old 1950s fun-houses that were meant to disorient and terrify you. Looking up at the solid block ceiling, thinking thoughts like this place would have been condemned in the US - not used as an exhibition hall, and feeling myself inexorably pulled downhill on the unlevel floor, all I could think about was earthquakes. Suddenly there was a bang and a loud squeak came shooting out of my mouth. It was just a door closing, but it scared me something awful. Nothing to do but get the hell out of that place, it felt haunted!