Monday, December 29, 2014

Another Quiz

Pictured below is a colonial plaza in the historic center of Mexico City.  Can you name it?


What religious organization once had its headquarters on one side of this plaza?

On another side of the plaza is a colonnade where a group of people have been practicing their unique profession since colonial times.  Can you name their occupation?

¡Buena suerte!


Joan, who correctly answered my two previous quizzes, is on a roll.  She identified the photo as the Plaza de Santo Domingo, named after the church of the same name which dominates the square.

Now can anyone answer the bonus questions???


Before I could even finish writing the above update, Joan attempted to answer the bonus questions.  She correctly answered the second question. 

The colonnade along the west side of the plaza has long been known as the "portal" of the scribes.  In days past when much of the population was illiterate, people would go to the scribes to have letters written or documents filled out.

Since most of today's population is literate, there is no longer a demand for the professional letter writers.  Today the "portal" is filled with merchants who print business cards and invitations.

One bonus question remains to be answered.  What religious organization once had its headquarters on one side of the plaza?
Joan correctly answered the first bonus question.  It is true, as Joan pointed out, that the Church and Monastery of Santo Domingo were the seat of the Dominican order in Mexico, but the religious institution that I was looking for was the Inquisition.  The Spanish brought with them the dreaded Church tribunal to root out heresy in their New World colonies.  The headquarters of the Inquisition in Mexico were located on the Plaza of Santo Domingo... a logical place, since the Dominicans were in charge of the tribunal. 

When Mexico won its independence from Spain, the Inquisition was abolished.  The building became the School of Medicine of the University of Mexico (UNAM).  In the 1950s the University moved to its new campus, but UNAM still owns the building.  It now contains the Museum of Medicine.  More recently, a second museum, the Museum of the Inquisition, was established in the building.  I visited that museum last year, and although it has some interesting information about the Inquisition, I found the exhibits to be quite tacky, like something out of a wax museum.
Congratulations to Joan!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

How to Sound Like You Really Know How to Speak Spanish

Whenever you travel to a foreign country it is always best to teach yourself some basic expressions in the language.  Even a few phrases will endear you to the locals.  When I went to Paris this summer, I could say about a dozen phrases in French.  Smiling and saying a well-pronounced "Bonjour" seemed to work wonders.  In spite of the stereotype that the Parisians are unfriendly, everyone that I encountered was very pleasant and helpful!  I even had one person compliment me on my French!  Ha! 

If you travel to Mexico or any Spanish-speaking country, you should learn the greetings... "Buenos días" (Good morning), "Buenas tardes" (Good afternoon), and "Buenas noches" (Good evening).  Know the golden phrases of politeness...  "Por favor" (Please), "Gracias" (Thank you) and "De nada" (You're welcome).  "Perdón" or, even better, "Disculpa" means "Pardon me".

Here are a couple other polite expressions which will make the natives think that you really know Spanish, or at least think that you are a very courteous person:

As you are leaving a restaurant, say to the people at the next table, "Buen provecho" or simply "Provecho."  It is the equivalent of the French "Bon appétit."  The diners will smile and say "Gracias."

Another handy expression is "Con permiso."  It literally means "with permission", and is used in the way that we use "Excuse me" when getting up from the dinner table.  If you are momentarily taking leave from someone, if you are trying to make your way through a crowd of people, or even if you are getting off the elevator, "con permiso" is the polite thing to say.  The response to that (particularly in Mexico) is "Propio", which I frankly don't quite understand.  "Propio" literally means "one's own" or "one's self", but that is what they say.

Of course, when you use your few phrases, people might start rattling off in Spanish to you. Then you can smile, and say, "No hablo mucho español." 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Not-so-fine Dining in Mexico

I have written on my blog about many wonderful restaurants in Mexico. However there is the other side of the coin.  For some years, Mexico has seen a proliferation of American fast-food chains.  Back when I first visited Mexico in the 1970s, American franchises were rarely seen (although I admit that the first time I ever ate at a Denny's was in Mexico City.)   There was a Mexican chain called "Burger Boy", but that has disappeared and has been replaced by McDonald's, Burger King, etc.

American fast food is probably most ubiquitous in the Mexico City neighborhood of the Zona Rosa, where I stayed on my last visit.  The Zona Rosa used to be one of the best places for fine dining in the city.  There are still some nice restaurants in the neighborhood, but now the visitor is struck by the number of American chains.  The pictures below were all taken within one block of each other...

Other than an occasional sandwich from Subway, I never eat fast food at home.  Obviously I do not eat at these places in Mexico when there is so much fantastic Mexican cuisine to enjoy.  Unfortunately, the popularity of these chains with the Mexicans, along with their love of Coca Cola, have contributed to the epidemic of obesity and diabetes there.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

I'm Home... for a while

I returned home last night from my unplanned trip to Mexico City.  As I said earlier, my friend Alejandro came through his surgery very well. 

My journey home went smoothly.  Although the flights were very full, there were no problems.  It's seasonably cold here in Ohio, but there is no snow on the ground. 

Once Christmas is over, I have to prepare for my next trip... a trip that had been planned for some time.  On January 7th, I will be taking off again for Mexico.  This time I will be going to Oaxaca.

I hope that all my readers have a wonderful holiday season.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Las Posadas

Last night Alejandro's family hosted a "posada".  "Las Posadas" are the traditional Mexican celebrations which are held on the nine nights leading up to Christmas.  The previous night, Alejandro's next-door neighbor held a "posada", and tonight another neighbor is having one.  And so it will continue until Christmas Eve.  

The word "posada" means lodging, and the ceremony represents Joseph and Mary's search for room at the inn.

Around eight o'clock last night cars were moved to block their side street from traffic.  We blew whistles to let the neighbors know that it was time for the "posada".  Around sixty five neighbors gathered in front of the house.  It was actually a fairly small group; last year around 120 people had participated.

The participants formed a candle-light procession (although with the breeze that was blowing, not many of the candles stayed lit)..  At the head of the procession figures of Joseph and Mary were carried.  We walked up and down the street while one of the women chanted religious blessings.  

The group gathered in front of the door of Alejandro's house, and began singing the "posada" song.  "In the name of heaven, I ask you for lodging..."  Those outside beg for admittance, and those inside the door repeatedly turn them away. 

After several verses of the song, the doors are swung open, and the pilgrims are welcomed inside.

The figurines of Joseph and Mary are placed by the Nativity scene, and prayers are said.

The guests then returned to the street where the breaking of the piñatas took place.  The piñatas were hung from a rope strung across the street.  The children took turns trying to break the candy-filled vessels with a stick.  When the piñata was broken, the children scrambled for the candy which fell to the ground.

After the piñatas were broken, we returned inside, and we were served warm fruit punch and "tacos de canasta".  The tacos are the kind that are sold by street vendors from large baskets.  (Alejandro's family buys them from a place where they know that they are prepared hygienically.)  The tacos are filled with frijoles, potatoes, meat or "chicarrón" (pork rinds).  They are greasy, but oh so yummy.

I felt very privileged to have shared with Alejandro's family this most Mexican of Christmas traditions!

Christmas punch

When I arrived at Alejandro's house this afternoon, his mother was in the middle of making "ponche de frutas" for this evening's "posada".  "Ponche de frutas" is a Mexican fruit punch that is traditional for the Christmas season.

It contains quite a number of ingredients, some of which are not common in the United States.

In the top bowl are tamarind and apples.  To the left are "guayabas" (guavas), and to the right are "tejocotes", an acidic fruit which is unique to Mexico.

Cinnamon,  prunes and raisins are also added.

To sweeten the punch strips of sugar cane are added...

...as well as "piloncillo", cones of unrefined, Mexican dark brown sugar.

Everything is put in a huge kettle with water and allowed to simmer for several hours.  

The punch is served warm with chunks of the fruit and a strip of sugar cane as a garnish.  ¡Delicioso!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas Lights in Mexico City

Yesterday, after having spent the afternoon visiting Alejandro, I decided that I would venture to downtown Mexico City to see the Christmas lights.  I waited until around 7:30 P.M., hoping that the worst of the rush hour would be over.  I took the subway since there is a station only a block from my hotel.  The trains were packed like cans of sardines.  Five trains came and went, and I remained standing on the platform  It's not that I was being too docile and not pushing my way inside.  The locals also were just standing there.  There simply was no room for more people to cram themselves into the cars.  The station authorities must have reported the situation, because suddenly there appeared a train that was completely empty!  We were able to ride in relative comfort.

I took the subway to the Pino Suárez station.  From there I could have switched to a different line and gone to the Zócalo, the main plaza of Mexico City.  But I decided instead to leave the station, and walk the five or six blocks to the Zócalo.

  This Christmas tree stood outside the Pino Suárez station.

For the past few years, the city government has been setting up a skating rink on the Zócalo during the holiday season.  I am sure that going ice skating is a delightful and unique experience for the many local families that visit the rink.  However, the installation, which fills the entirety of the vast plaza, is, in my opinion, downright ugly and destroys the majesty of the historic Zócalo.  It is nothing like the beautiful holiday ice rink in front of New York's Rockefeller Center.   The facility is behind barricades, and you can't even see the skaters. The skating rink has also been a center of controversy.  Critics say that, in a city where half the population lives in poverty, the money could be put to much better use.

On the south side of the Zócalo, the twin buildings which house the city government were festively decorated with Christmas lights.

However, the public buildings on the other sides of the Zócalo... the National Palace and the Cathedral... were dimly lit.  I really expected more spectacular illumination for the holiday season, and I was rather disappointed.

 (The lighting of the Cathedral looks much brighter in this photo than it actually was. Most of the brightness is reflection from the lights on the skating rink.)

From the Zócalo I walked down pedestrianized Madero Street, the main street of the city's historic center.  The atmosphere was festive with crowds of people, but there were no Christmas lights nor decorations to speak of.  At the end of Madero Street is the Latin American Tower, which once was the city's tallest skyscraper. It was illuminated in shifting green lights. (At least, I think those are green lights; I'm mildly color blind.)

It had been quite a few years since I had been in Mexico City during the Christmas season. I remember the holiday decorations as being more impressive, so I was a bit disappointed in my excursion downtown.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Preparing for "Las Posadas"

Today I spent the day at the home of Alejandro and his family.

The courtyard of their home is decorated with a Christmas tree (a concept that was imported from the United States), the traditional "nacimiento" or Nativity scene, and poinsettias, a flower which is native to Mexico.  (In Spanish they are called "flor de Nochebuena"... Christmas Eve flower.)

After dinner we all began the preparations for "Las Posadas", the traditional Mexican celebrations which are held on the nine nights prior to Christmas.  Alejandro's family is hosting a neighborhood "posada" on Wednesday evening.  We made up the "aguinaldos", the little goodie bags that are given out to the children.

(photo taken by Alejandro)
For the "posada" they purchased not one, not two, but three piñatas!  You can find all sorts of piñatas in the marketplaces, but the traditional piñata is made with a clay pot, and has seven points which represent the Seven Deadly Sins.  Thus the breaking of the piñata originally represented the struggle against evil, but for Mexican children today it is simply part of the fun of the Christmas season.  We filled the piñatas with candy.

I will be attending Wednesday night's "posada".  It will be the first time that I have participated in one.  I will tell you more about this most Mexican of Christmas traditions in a future post.

Friday, December 12, 2014

A Day at the Hospital

Yesterday my friend Alejandro was scheduled for surgery.  The operation was at a newly-built hospital in the southern Mexico City district of Coyoacán.  I met the surgeon and he seemed not only very competent and professional but also very caring.  I am happy to report that the surgery went well.  Alejandro will have to take it easy for a couple of weeks, but everything is fine.  A great Christmas present for him, and his family, as well as for me and his many friends.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Supper at the Grandparents' House

Last night was Alejandro's "last supper" before his operation.  No, we did not go eat with relatives, as the title of this post might imply.  We went to a restaurant a couple blocks away from my hotel called "La Casa de los Abuelos" (Grandparents' House). 

"La Casa de los Abuelos" is a chain of restaurants with several locations throughout Mexico City as well as in Acapulco and Cancún.  They specialize in traditional Mexican food (supposedly grandma's recipes).  The food is neither spectacular nor gourmet nor innovative, but we found it to be a good place for ordinary Mexican cooking at a reasonable price.

Alejandro had "quesadillas", tortillas filled with cheese and other stuffings.

I had the Aztec soup (sort of a glorified "tortilla soup") and chicken breast covered with a "poblano" sauce.

It's not "fine dining", but I was pleased enough with the place that I was back there this morning for breakfast.  I had a very large and tasty Mexican breakfast for under $10 US.

Back in Mexico City

Wasn't I just here?

It was less than three weeks ago that I was in Mexico City, but here I am again, making an unexpected trip to be with my friend Alejandro while he has an equally unexpected surgery.

My flights yesterday went smoothly.  I was at Cleveland airport at the ridiculous hour of 3:30 A.M. to catch my 5:45 A.M. flight to Houston.   We left right on time. The plane was half empty.  I had my whole row of seats to myself, so I was able to stretch out comfortably.  In Houston I had a layover of more than three hours.  I am paranoid about flight delays (especially in the winter), so I always prefer to schedule a minimum of two hours for a layover.  As it turned out, the flight from Cleveland arrived in Houston a half hour early, so I had plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast at the airport, snooze a little and read the book I had brought with me.

Unlike the flight from Cleveland, the flight to Mexico City was packed.  There was not a single vacant seat.  When I made the reservations I saw that all the flights to Mexico City this week are very full.  It is still a bit early for holiday travelers, so I suspect that people are flying down to make a pilgrimage to the Basilica of Guadalupe. (The Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe is this Friday, and millions of pilgrims come to Mexico City annually from all over the world.) In spite of the full plane, the flight went smoothly.  I always book an aisle seat so that I feel a bit less cramped.  The flight left Houston and arrived in Mexico City on time.

After I passed through customs, Alejandro was there waiting for me.  He drove me to my hotel, Hotel Eurostars in the Zona Rosa district of the city.  For this last minute trip, I did not book an apartment as I usually do.  The Hotel Eurostars is a Spanish chain of modern hotels that are generally moderately priced.  I have stayed at this Eurostars in Mexico City a number of times, and the accommodations are very acceptable.

After Alejandro dropped me off at the hotel, he then returned to the office.  However, in the evening he returned, and we went out for supper together.  His operation is on Thursday, and, of course, he will have to fast the night before, so this was our only chance to go out to eat..


Sunday, December 7, 2014

An Unplanned Trip

Usually I plan my trips months in advance, but a few days ago I made last-minute reservations to return to Mexico City.  My friend Alejandro is going to have surgery next week, and I am going down there to lend him moral support.

Obviously, this is not going to be my typical sightseeing trip, but I will try to write a few entries while I am there.  Things have been a bit hectic trying to get ready for Christmas and an unexpected trip.  However my bags are almost packed, and I am nearly ready for my Tuesday departure. 

My next post will be from Mexico City.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

¡Feliz Navidad!

As I have mentioned before, each year I do a small painting which I scan to the computer and then print off as a Christmas card.  My cards are usually based on a photo that I took during my travels in the course of the year.

This year's card is taken from my visit to France.  I chose a street scene that I snapped while wandering through the village of Giverny, famous as the home of the Impressionist painter Claude Monet.  I changed it into a winter scene, and, voilà, I had my Christmas card.


My friends have come to expect my card to be the first that they receive.  I always send them right after Thanksgiving.  The last several years I have been spending a couple weeks in Mexico in November.  So I print the cards in October and take them with me to Mexico.  While I am there I spend an hour each day making out my cards, and by the time I return home they are finished. 

I hope that all my readers have a very joyous holiday season, and that the new year of 2015 is filled with happiness!

¡Feliz Navidad!

Thursday, December 4, 2014


In my previous post I mentioned the archaeological site of Xochicalco which is located about 50 miles to the southwest of Mexico City.  I had never visited the site until Alejandro took me there on a trip that I made in April of 2013.  I was expecting interesting but minor ruins, so I was quite surprised by how expansive and impressive Xochicalco is.

The city was founded around A.D. 650 by the Olmeca-Xicalanca, a tribe related to the Mayas.  They originated along the Gulf coast and had a reputation as merchants.  As the great city of Teotihuacan fell into decline, Xochicalco rose to prominence as one of the most important commercial and religious centers of central Mexico.  It was at its height between A.D. 700 and 900 when it may have had a population of around 20,000.  Around 900, the city was burned and destroyed.  Recent archaeological studies suggest that the city fell victim to internal class warfare.  This theory is based on the fact that in the upper-class sections of the city many of the household items appear to have been deliberately smashed.  In the poorer sections of the city, however, such damage is not found. 

The site has a small but interesting museum displaying items from the city.

It is quite a hike from the museum to the ruins.  That's the museum off in the distance.
The city was built on top of a flattened and terraced mountain.  The location provided an excellent defensive position overlooking major trade routes.

The ruins include numerous small pyramids and temples as well as the remains of residences.

Two ball courts have been excavated.

The most exceptional structure at Xochcalco is the Temple of Queztalcoatl.  This temple is adorned on all sides with outstanding carvings of Quetzalcoatl, the Feather Serpent god.  The building shows influence from both Teotihuacan and the Mayan culture.

One unusual feature of Xochicalco is the so-called Observatory.  This is a modified cave with a chimney-like hole in the ceiling.  Between April and August a beam of sunlight falls through the hole onto the floor of the cave, and the priest-astronomers could study the movement of the sun.

Although Xochicalco does not receive many foreign visitors, it is certainly among the most important archaeological sites of central Mexico.