Thursday, October 31, 2013

One more day!

Just one more day until departure!
My flight leaves in the afternoon, and, after a layover in Houston, I arrive in Mexico City at 8:30 P.M.  (10:30 our time.  Mexico changed from Daylight Savings Time last weekend, so this week they are two hours behind us.)  In the past I have left Cleveland on a very early flight and arrived in the early afternoon.  But I used my frequent flyer miles this time, and the choices of flight itineraries is more limited.

Like a kid with a new toy I have been spending a lot of time on this blog.  But I still managed to complete everything on my checklist of things to do before departure with time to spare.

Yesterday I had a sharp spike in visits to the blog. (270!)  I had given the address to a former colleague of mine, and he posted it on Facebook.  (Thanks, George, for putting my blog out there!)  Most of the visits, I assume, were from former students of mine.  I received a very nice comment from one of my students, the kind of comment that gladdens the heart of a teacher.  Comments are very welcome, and I would especially enjoy hearing from my estudiantes!

My next post will be from Mexico!

(image from the Web)

Hasta luego.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Día de los Muertos - Day of the Dead

Just three days until I return to Mexico!  The day after my arrival, November 2nd, is a holiday in Mexico... el Día de los Muertos - the Day of the Dead.

The Day of the Dead is not a Mexican version of our Halloween (although some of our customs such as dressing up in costumes or "trick-or-treating" have begun to infiltrate the celebration.)  It is an occasion that is both festive and solemn, and draws upon Catholic and pre-Hispanic traditions.  It is a day to remember and honor departed family members.  Families go to the cemeteries and place flowers on the graves of their loved ones.  (The traditional flower for the occasion is the orange marigold.)  In some places families will spend the night at the cemetery holding a candle lit vigil and picnic by the grave.  Favorite foods and beverages of the deceased will be set out in the belief that the spirits of the dead return to earth and consume the essence of those offerings.  In many homes an "ofrenda" is set up... a table decorated with flowers, candles, photographs and mementos of the departed relative, and food and beverage.  Bakeries sell "pan de muerto" (bread of the dead), a round loaf topped with dough or frosting decorations in the form of bones.  Children receive a special treat... little skulls made of sugar. 

"Ofrendas" are also set up in many commercial establishments, schools and museums. Some are humorous, as if to laugh in the face of death.  Below are some photographs of Day of the Dead "ofrendas" and displays that I have seen on previous trips to Mexico City during the month of November.

This "ofrenda" was set up by the bellringers of the Cathedral of Mexico in one of the bell towers.

Part of the "ofrenda" at the Hostería de Santo Domingo, the oldest restaurant in Mexico City

The Dolores Olmedo Museum sets up an especially elaborate "ofrenda"

A floral display at the entrance to the Church of San Francisco
"Seré recordado - I will be remembered"

And finally, I received a gift for Día de los Muertos...
a skull made, not of sugar, but of white chocolate!

Happy Halloween!
¡Feliz Día de los Muertos!


Monday, October 28, 2013

A Brief History of Mexico City

In high school my favorite subject was history, and when I started college, my intention was to become a history teacher.  My advisor however said that history teachers were "a dime a dozen" and suggested that I also continue my study of Spanish.  I had studied Spanish for four years in high school, enjoyed it, and had done very well in it.  But it wasn't until I started taking classes in college that I really fell in love with the language.  Within a year I had changed my major to Spanish, and history became my second area of certification.  My point in bringing this up is that I am a history buff, and I firmly believe that to understand a country, one must understand its history.

So here is a very brief history of Mexico City...

Long before there was a Mexico City, there was the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán.  According to Aztec lore, the city was founded in 1325 when the nomadic tribe wandered into the valley where Mexico City is located today.  (By the way, the Aztecs actually called themselves the Mexicas... hence the name of the country.)  At that time a good portion of the valley was covered by a shallow lake.  On an island in the lake the Mexicas settled and built a town which they called Tenochtitlán.  The Mexicas were a warlike tribe.  Soon they had dominated the other tribes in the valley, and in less than 2 centuries they controlled most of central Mexico.  As the power of the Mexicas grew, Tenochtitlán grew in size and splendor.  By the beginning of the 16th century it was the largest city in the Americas with a population of at least 200,000.  Similar to Venice, the city was crisscrossed with canals.  Causeways connected it to the mainland.  The city center was dominated by the Templo Mayor, the main temple.

A mural in the Museum of Anthropology depicting Tenochtitlán at its height

A model in the Museum of Anthropology depicting the center of Tenochtitlán.  The large building was the Templo Mayor.
In the heart of Mexico City, archaeologists have uncovered the foundations of the Templo Mayor.
In 1519, the Spanish adventurer, Hernán Cortés (we call him Cortez in English), arrived on the Gulf coast of Mexico with a small band of soldiers.  Having heard of the great city of Tenochtitlán, they made the arduous journey inland.  When they arrived they were awestruck by the city's  magnificence.  They wrote that it was more impressive than any of the cities of Europe at that time.  The Spanish set out to conquer the mighty Mexica empire.  The Mexicas put up a heroic defense, but in August of 1521 the city fell to the Spanish invaders.  Sadly, Tenochtitlán was leveled to the ground.  The stones from the temples and palaces were used to construct a new European-style city, Mexico City.
The Spanish ruled Mexico for three centuries.  The colony was known as New Spain, and Mexico City was its capital.  By the 1600's when the English settlements in North America were rustic towns, Mexico City was a bustling city with baroque churches,  palaces, schools and even a university. Through the years, the marshy lake was largely drained until only a small remnant of it remains today.  The heart of Mexico City, "el centro histórico", has the largest concentration of colonial buildings in the Americas.
Here are a few examples of colonial architecture in "el centro histórico"...
An altar in the Cathedral of Mexico
Ornate carvings on the Church of La Santísima Trinidad
The Iturbide Palace
By the beginning of the 19th century resentment toward Spanish colonial rule was growing.  On September 16, 1810, the war for Mexico's independence began.  The protracted struggle finally ended in 1821.  Mexico became an independent nation, but wealth and power remained in the hands of the "criollos", the Mexicans of Spanish ancestry.
Throughout the 19th century the capital was at the center of the nation's tumultuous events.  In 1848 at the end of the Mexican American War, the city was invaded and occupied by the United States army.  In 1861 the country was invaded again, this time by the French under Napoleon III.  The legal president, Benito Juárez, was forced to flee the city.  Napoleon set up a puppet government with the Hapsburg prince Maximillian as emperor.  Maximillian and his wife Carlota resided for a short time in imperial splendor at Chapultepec Castle.  But resistance from the Mexican people and pressure from the United States forced the French to withdraw.  Maximillian was defeated and executed, and in 1867, Juárez returned in triumph to Mexico City.  Juárez, who was an indigenous Zapotec Indian, is regarded as the country's greatest hero.  He sought to improve the lot of the underclass and to reform the economic and educational systems.  However soon after the death of Juárez, General Porfirio Díaz became the dictator.  During his more than thirty years of rule Mexico enjoyed a period of stability and economic growth, and the capital became a modern city.  But the prosperity benefited mainly the upper class and the foreigners who invested in Mexican businesses and industries.  Political opposition was crushed, and the poor were more downtrodden than ever.
In 1910, as the nation was celebrating the centennial of its independence, revolution erupted.  Díaz was forced to go into exile.  But without the dictator's iron grip, the country fell into years of chaos in which different factions fought each other.  The Mexican Revolution brought about huge social and economic changes, but true democracy remained elusive.  From 1920 until 2000 the country was ruled by one political party, PRI.  Entrenched in power, PRI became more and more corrupt and self serving.  Nevertheless, Mexico has continued to become more modern and industrialized.  Although there is huge disparity between the "haves" and "have-nots", the middle class continues to grow.
Disaster struck Mexico City in 1985.  An earthquake measuring over eight on the Richter scale killed 10,000 people.  Many buildings were flattened, and it was years before all the rubble was cleared.  The catastrophe revealed the corruption and inefficiency of the government.
Clamor for democratic reform grew throughout the late 20th century, and finally in the 2000 election, an opposition candidate, Vicente Fox, won the presidency. Fox, was the candidate of PAN, the conservative party. PAN won again in 2006.  In 2012 PRI regained the presidency.  Corruption and fraud are still a part of Mexican politics, but it seems that the country is moving toward democracy. 
The population of Mexico City has mushroomed as people from poor rural areas flock to the city seeking economic opportunities. Millions settled in slums on the outskirts of the city.  The metropolitan population is now at least 20 million, making it one of the biggest cities in the world.  One fifth of the nation's population lives in the metropolitan area.  Mexicans refer to their capital as "el monstruo" (the monster).  Mexico City suffers from all the problems of big cities everywhere, but on a gargantuan scale.  Traffic is horrendous, and air pollution has long been a serious problem.  In 1992 the United Nations ranked Mexico City as the most polluted city in the world.  Since then efforts have been made to reduce pollution.  The air quality now is comparable to that of Los Angeles... much better than it was but still a problem.
In spite of its many problems, Mexico City is one of the world's great cities... a vibrant blend of the old and the new.
Some views of old and new in Mexico City... 
The House of Tiles, a famous colonial landmark
The Torre Mayor, Latin America's tallest skyscraper
The Church of San Francisco
Ultra-modern architecture

Is it safe to travel to Mexico?

In a few days I will be traveling once again to Mexico. 

In recent years the media has been focusing on the drug wars south of the border, and some would have you believe that the entire country is a dangerous, lawless place with corpses littering the streets.  Indeed, the drug wars are a very real problem for Mexico, and there are some areas, particularly in the northern border region, that are considered dangerous.  For example, I have no desire to visit Ciudad Juárez (the city right across the border from El Paso, Texas) which is infamous as the murder capital of Mexico. But the truth is that most of the country is no less safe for tourists than anywhere else in the world.

I will soon be in Mexico City.  The thought of visiting this huge metropolis of around 20 million people might strike fear in the minds of some people.  However, I have read that Mexico's capital has a murder rate that is lower than Washington, D.C., or Las Vegas.  Whether that statistic is true or not, I can say that I have never felt unsafe in Mexico City.  Of course there are some parts of the city that have high crime rates, but that is true for any large city anywhere in the world.  Those neighborhoods are not places that a tourist is likely to visit anyway.  Naturally, I take the precautions that I would take in any large city.  I am aware of my surroundings, in crowded areas my wallet is tucked into my front pocket, and I don't carry around more than one credit card or more cash than I need.

Another Mexican city which I frequently visit is Mérida, the capital of the state of Yucatán.  Mérida, which has a population of around one million people, has a reputation as the safest large city in the country.  Even petty crime rates are lower than in major cities in the U.S. and Europe.  Over the years I have taken numerous friends to Mérida, and they have all thoroughly enjoyed their visit and have felt perfectly safe.

In anticipation of my upcoming trip, here are a few photos from previous visits to Mexico City.

The Palace of Fine Arts

The Independence Monument
Chapultepec Castle
A couple years ago I showed a friend some pictures that I had taken of Mexico City.  She was amazed.  She said that she had always imagined Mexico City as one huge slum.  She had no idea that there were so many beautiful places in the city.

Sunday, October 27, 2013


I decided to create a blog to share with others my travel experiences.

For 30 years I worked as a high school Spanish teacher. (I also occasionally taught classes of geography and history.)  My first trip outside of the United States was way back in 1973.  I spent the winter quarter of my junior year of college studying at the University of the Americas in Cholula, Mexico.  It was a great experience.  I fell in love with Mexico, and I knew that one my priorities in life would be to travel as much as possible.  Throughout my teaching career I returned to Mexico repeatedly.  I have lost track of the number of times that I have been to Mexico, but it is certainly at least 50.  I also traveled to Spain and Puerto Rico, and made two trips to South America, visiting Peru, Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil.  I sought to instill in my students a love of travel.  They endured (and hopefully enjoyed) countless slide shows of my trips.  A number of times I organized tours of Mexico for my students.  It was extremely rewarding to watch them discover a new culture.  I am still in touch with some of my former students, and it gives me great satisfaction to hear of travels that they have made.

                                                     The Cathedral of Mexico City

                            The Mayan ruins of Uxmal in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico

                                                 The Royal Palace in Madrid, Spain

                                                       Sunset at Vieques, Puerto Rico

                                  Iguazu Falls on the border between Argentina and Brazil

Now that I am retired, I need not confine my travels to summer vacation.  And I have expanded my travel experiences beyond the Spanish-speaking world.  One of my retirement hobbies has been to trace my family genealogy.  Through my research I have made contact with distant cousins from the English and Swiss branches of my family, and I have gone to England and Switzerland to visit them.

The house in Othmarsingen, Switzerland, where my great grandmother from the Swiss branch of my family was born.
The church in East Garston, England, where my great grandparents from the English branch of my family were married.