Thursday, June 22, 2017

In the Historic Center Far from the Tourists

Mexico City's “Centro Histórico” is the largest colonial neighborhood in the Americas.  Many of the top tourist attractions of the city are located here.  But if you go a few blocks away from the tourist route, you enter an old city which has not been prettified or sanitized.  It is an assault on the senses with the crowds of people, the smells of street food, and the cacophony of vendors hawking their wares.  

Yesterday I wandered around the old city and actually saw some places I had not seen before.

I came across this colonial building.  It is now a cultural center run by the University of Mexico.  

I went inside, and the lady at the front desk said that I could enter and take pictures of the courtyard.

It looked older than many of the colonial buildings.  As I left, I asked the lady if she knew when it was built.  She said it dated back to the late 16th century... so it's more than 400 years old!  I later did a bit of research on the building.  It is known as the House of Talavera, and it was once the home of a Spanish nobleman, the Marquis of Aguayo.  When it was built, it was located on the shore of Lake Texcoco (the lake which once covered much of the valley where Mexico City is located).  The house originally had gates where canoes could pull up to it.

The street across from the house is called Talavera Street, and it is a pedestrian street.  

The street is also known as “Niño Dios” (God Child... i.e. Baby Jesus).  All along this block there are religious statues, including several of young Jesus, that were placed here through private donations.

Most of the stores along the street sell clothing for images of the Baby Jesus.  Every year for the Feast of Candlemas (February 2nd) people will take their Jesus doll that was brought out for Christmas, buy it a new set of clothes, and take it to church to be blessed.  Since this is not the time of year when there is a big demand for these clothes, the majority of the stores were closed.  However there were a few that were open, and I was able to take some pictures of outfits for little Jesus.

I am sure that in January all the stores are open and doing a thriving business.

At the next block the street changes its name to "Alhondiga".  It is still a pedestrian street, but here it is crowded with a "tianguis" (outdoor market).

If you dare, there are plenty of stalls selling street food.

Bins of different kinds of chile peppers.  The "chiles de árbol" in the lower right are "muy picoso"... very hot! 

Bins of dried beans and seeds.  Note the bin of "chía" seeds.  Yes, the same seeds that come with "chía pets".

One store along the street was selling soccer shirts.  If you've read much of this blog, you know that I collect Mexican and Spanish soccer shirts.  I spotted a shirt I don't have... "Los Tigres", the team from Monterrey.   They had my size, and the shirt was made in Mexico (not China), so I bought it for 160 pesos (less than $9 US).  I think I will have to return here and see what else they might have.

After a couple more blocks the street changes its name again.  Now it is "Santísima", named after the Church "Santísima Trinidad" in the background.  Now I am back in familiar territory although still not in an area visited by many tourists.

The façade of "Santísima Trinidad" (Most Holy Trinity), which dates back to 1735, is an excellent example of the ultra-baroque Churrigueresque style that was popular in colonial Mexico. 

The original ornate and gold-gilt interior was replaced with a simpler neo-classic style.

Over the years the church has sunk about nine feet.  (In Mexico City it is not uncommon for buildings to settle into the spongy soil.)  As a result Santísima Street and the intersecting Moneda Street have ramps descending to the level of the church.  The walls along those ramps have become a canvas for talented street artists.  This is something new that I had not seen the last time I passed through here.  Like the Romita neighborhood that I wrote about last week, the area around "Santísima Trinidad" has become a prime location to see Mexico City street art.

Be careful, however, because the paved area in front of the church seems to be a favorite spot for young skateboarders.

From there it is not a long walk down Moneda Street to the Zócalo, Mexico City's main square.

Looking down the street you see the tiled dome of the Church of Santa Inés, and beyond that, you can make out one of the towers of the Cathedral.

Back on the Zócalo... back in tourist territory...

The National Palace

The Metropolitan Cathedral

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

How's the Weather?

Summer is now officially here.  Looking at the weather reports I see that back home in Ohio they have already been dealing with quite a few days of temperatures at 90 F or above.  That is unseasonably hot for the month of June.

Here in Mexico the rainy season is supposed to start sometime in June.  On the evening of my arrival on June 7th we had heavy rain.  For several days after that we had rain... anything from a good downpour to a "chipichipi" (a light drizzle).  I assumed that the rainy season had begun.  The rain came, in the normal manner for Mexico, in the late afternoon or evening.  The mornings and even the early afternoons were bright and sunny.  The "rainy season" was not preventing me from being out and about.  

However, the last few days have been without rain, so I am not so sure if the "rainy season" is truly upon us or not.  Saturday, June 24th, is the Day of St. John the Baptist.  When the native tribes of Mexico were converted to Christianity they associated the Catholic saints with their ancient gods.  St. John was associated with Tlaloc, the god of rain.  After Saturday the long range forecast calls for rain and storms for the following ten days.  We will see if Tlaloc starts doing his thing.

As far as the temperature goes, it has been very pleasant here, although the locals think it is very hot.  Most days, the high is in the low 80s... summery but not sweltering.  Even in the evening, it has still been warm enough to go out in shirt sleeves.  I will be very happy if the weather continues like this for the rest of the month.

A Corner of Tranquility

On the edge of the neighborhood of San Rafael, next to the "Circuito Interior" (the inner belt freeway) is a spot that I never knew existed until I read about it on the internet.

Here in Mexico City there is a U.S. Military Cemetery.  

The Mexico City National Cemetery was established in 1851 as a burial place for U.S. soldiers who died in the vicinity of Mexico City during the Mexican American War.  Buried here are also veterans of the Civil War, the Indian Campaigns, and the Spanish-American War as well as their families and members of the U.S. diplomatic service.  Congress closed the cemetery in 1924, and since then it has been operated by the American Battle Monuments Commission.  The one acre cemetery is a well tended oasis in the busy city.

The remains of 750 unknown U.S. soldiers who died in the final battles of the war as the troops advanced upon Mexico City are buried in a common grave.

When the adjacent freeway was built, the cemetery lost about half of its land.  The 813 other bodies buried here were moved and placed in vaults in the walls that were constructed along the sides of the property.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The End of the Line

I have written about Insurgentes Avenue, Mexico City's longest road, and the Metrobus line that runs its entire length.  I ride the Metrobus all the time, but I have never ridden it all the way to its southern terminus.  So one day last week, just for the heck of it, I decided to take the bus to the end of the line.  

It is a long bus ride even though my neighborhood bus stop is already south of center.  It took at least forty minutes.  I can imagine how long it must take to cross the entire city from north to south!  Fortunately, shortly after boarding, a seat was free, and I was able to sit down and enjoy the ride.

The final stop is called "Caminero".  It gets its name from the fact that there is monument nearby in honor the workers who built Mexico's highway system.  It is here that Insurgentes Avenue ends and becomes the Federal highway that crosses the mountains to Cuernavaca.  That highway was the first four-lane toll road in the country, and in its day it was considered quite an engineering feat.  So, this is a very appropriate spot for the monument.  After getting off the bus, I wandered around a bit, but I never did find the monument.

There did not seem to be anything to see in the area around the bus terminus.  It was just a very busy traffic area.  From a pedestrian bridge crossing the highway I got a picture of Ajusco, the nearly 13,000 foot high volcanic peak at Mexico City's southern limit.

I was soon back on the bus.  Since it was the beginning of the route, I had a seat, of course.

The Mortar Meets the Pestle

Last week I wrote that I had purchased a "molcajete", the stone mortar and pestle that has been a part of Mexican food preparation for millennia.  Yesterday I put my molcajete to use.  I found a "salsa de molcajete" that sounded authentic and fairly simple.  It required only four ingredients:  tomatoes, chiles, onion and garlic.

The electric blender will be sitting this one out. 
I'll be making salsa the old-fashioned way.

The stove in my kitchen has a griddle... or "comal" as the Mexicans call it... so I will be able to easily roast the ingredients.  I covered the griddle with foil so that I wouldn't make a mess.
First I roasted the cloves of garlic and slices of onion until they were slightly blackened.

I peeled the skins from the roasted garlic, and then mashed them in the "molcajete".  Then the blackened onions were mashed in with the garlic.

Next I put three "serrano" chiles on the griddle and let them blister.  (The recipe called for four "chiles de árbol", but I don't think that "serranos" are quite as hot.)

You can see the mess the onions and garlic left.  I was glad I put foil on the griddle.

I cut the stems off the peppers, and ground them into the mixture.  Next the tomatoes are blackened.

One by one they are carefully mashed... carefully, because you don't want to be squirted with hot tomato juice!

So here is the finished product.  

It looks really authentic!  How does it taste?  Alejandro tasted it, and he approved.  He said that all it needed was a dash of salt.  So, I guess my experiment with the "molcajete" was a success!

Monday, June 19, 2017

Fathers' Day

In Mexico, Mothers' Day is always celebrated on May 10th.  However, Fathers' Day is the third Sunday of June, just as it is in the United States.

When I showed Alejandro the "Club América" soccer shirt I bought at Woolworths last week, he said that he should buy one as a Fathers' Day present, since "América" is his dad's favorite team.  So on Saturday we headed to Woolworths, and Alejandro picked out a shirt for his father.

On Sunday afternoon we were all invited to a family gathering at Alejandro's aunt's home.  First, he and I stopped at a bakery shop and bought a "pan de elote" to take to the party.  "Pan de elote" would translate as "corn bread", but this is nothing like the corn bread that we know in the United States.  It is much moister, and I think that cheese is mixed into the batter.

After that we went to his parents' house, and we helped his mom prepare "alitas en adobo" to take to the get-together.  "Alitas" are chicken wings, and "adobo" is a kind of sauce.  However, it is not classified as a "salsa" because neither red nor green tomatoes are used in its preparation.  As I remember, the main ingredients are "guajillo" chile peppers, onion, garlic, and cinnamon.  Alejandro gave his father his gift, and he was very pleased with his soccer shirt.  In fact, he wore it to the party.

Around three o'clock we headed to his aunt's house.  It was a fairly long drive; she lives in the southern part of the city in a area called Culhuacan.  There was quite a crowd.  I have been to a couple of these family gatherings, and I am still learning the names of his aunt's children, their spouses, the grandchildren and even great grandchildren.  I have to admit that after a while my head starts to grow weary trying to follow all of the conversations in Spanish.  (But Alejandro admits that the same thing happens to him when he is in Ohio, and we are with a bunch of my friends.)

It was, however, a very nice time.  And his aunt made delicious "mole" from scratch! 

Under the Sea

On Saturday, Alejandro and I went to the swank neighborhood of Polanco.  The newest and glitziest area of Polanco is Plaza Carso, a development that was backed by billionaire Carlos Slim, one of the richest men in the world.  It is centered around the Soumaya Museum, a striking, modern structure which houses Slim's art collection.

The Plaza Carso area also includes office and apartment towers, a theater (currently featuring a Spanish-language version of "The Lion King") and a couple of shopping malls, one of them anchored by Saks Fifth Avenue.

Alejandro and I came here to visit the latest addition to Plaza Carso, the Imbursa Aquarium.

The aquarium is sponsored by Imbursa, a Mexican banking and insurance company.  The exhibits are all underground; you take an elevator three floors below street level as if you were descending beneath the sea.

You exit the elevator at the lowest level where you find an enormous tank filled with a large variety of ocean fish, including a several kinds of sharks and rays.

From there you head to the levels above where you find smaller tanks exhibiting 
everything from jelly-fish to sea horses to colorful tropical fish to fresh water fish.

There are also penguins, and a few amphibians and reptiles.  I have not been to many aquariums, so I cannot really rank the quality of the place.  However I enjoyed my visit there.

One rare and strange amphibian on display is the axolotl.  The axolotl is native to the lakes of the Valley of Mexico (where Mexico City is located).   Because those waters have either been drained away, or are polluted, the axolotl in the wild is near extinction.

The animal is unusual because it can regenerate injured body parts and organs.  Unlike most other amphibians, axolotls usually retain their gills for their entire life and remain aquatic.  (It would be as if a tadpole grew legs but never developed into a frog.)

While viewing the axolotl, I could not help but remember a short story by the Argentinian author Julio Cortázar which I read in college.  In that story, the narrator visits an aquarium.  He becomes obsessed with the axolotl that he sees.  He stares into the amphibian's eyes until finally, the narrator becomes an axolotl.

I did not stare into the axolotl's eyes!