Friday, November 28, 2014

"Where in Mexico?" Quiz

One of the blogs which I regularly read is "The Mexile" (you will find the link on my "bloglist" to the side).  It is written by Gary Denness, a fellow from England who lived in Mexico for a number of years.  On his latest entry, he posted a photo of a mural painting in Mexico, and asked his readers if anyone could identify it.  We quickly were able to name the artist, but, as of yet, no one has been able to identify the location of the painting.

I have enjoyed trying to figure it out, so I thought I would be a blatant copycat, and post my own little quiz. 

I went through an old photo album, and pulled out a picture that I took back in 1973 when I was a college student studying at the University of the Americas in Cholula, Mexico.  (Back in those days I was using a little "Kodak Instamatic" camera.)

So here is the photo...

I'm not going to ask you to name the artist, since.he was not internationally famous. (But kudos to you if you can... and even more kudos if you can spell his Nahuatl name correctly!)
Can any of my well-traveled readers tell me where this colorful mural painting is located?  I will tell you that it is not in Mexico City, but it is within a couple hours drive from the capital.
¡Buena suerte!
UPDATE: I had one incorrect guess on the location of the mural, so I will give you a clue...
                   It's location is to the east of Mexico City.
UPDATE: Another reader incorrectly guessed Puebla.  Here's another clue...
                 Unlike Puebla, which was founded by the Spanish, this city has Pre-Hispanic
UPDATE: We have a winner!  A reader by the name of Joan correctly answered Tlaxcala. 
The city of Tlaxcala is the capital of the state of Tlaxcala, the smallest state in Mexico.  It is located about two hours to the east of Mexico City.  In Pre-Hispanic Mexico the Tlaxcaltecas were one of the few tribes of central Mexico not to be subjugated by the Aztecs.  When the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived on the scene, the Tlaxcaltecas allied themselves with the Spanish against their enemies, the Aztecs.  Without their help, Cortés might not have succeeded in conquering Mexico.
The photo above is of small section of a series of murals in the government palace of Tlaxcala.  They were painted by a local artist by the name of Desiderio Hernández Xochitiotzin (1922-2007).  The paintings depict the history of Tlaxcala. (The portion above shows the chieftains of the tribe.)  Xochitiotzin began the murals in 1967, and upon his death he still was not finished.  The paintings are considered the last large scale work of the Mexican muralist movement.
Congratulations to Joan for answering correctly!!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Another Dining Recommendation

After our Saturday morning boat ride along the canals of Xochimilco, Alejandro and I drove back to my apartment.  The traffic was horrendous.  Not only was it a holiday weekend (Revolution Day was not until Thursday, but most people had Monday off), but it was also "el Buen Fin", the beginning of the Christmas shopping season.  It seemed as if everyone were on the road, and the drive took forever.

Back at my apartment, we were trying to decide what to do that afternoon.  I didn't want Alejandro to have to put up with any more weekend traffic, so I suggested that we take the subway downtown to the "Centro Histórico".  The subway was packed like sardines, and Madero Street, the pedestrianized main street of the "centro" was thronged with people too.  We went to the art exhibit at the Palacio de Iturbide which I had seen earlier in the week.  It was such an excellent exhibit that I did not mind visiting it again.  Alejandro was thoroughly impressed with the display of Mexican paintings which spanned the centuries from colonial times to the present day.  For me it was more fun the second time around since I had someone with me to comment on the art. 

It was then time to eat, and I suggested a well-known restaurant in the "centro"... El Cardenal.  I mentioned El Cardenal some months ago in an earlier post.  The restaurant receives high praise in the reviews on TripAdvisor.  I first visited the place three years ago for a late breakfast after attending a Sunday morning performance of the "Ballet Folklórico".  I was not that impressed.  However, on a later trip, I gave it another try, and I had an excellent dinner there. 

El Cardenal is a very elegant, old-style restaurant that serves traditional Mexican recipes.  One can imagine, in decades past, well-dressed society matrons and businessmen in suits and ties lunching here.  Today, the dress code is not so formal, but the atmosphere is still quite grand.  We were ushered into an elevator to take us to the upper story dining room.

Alejandro had chicken covered in a salsa prepared in a "molcajete".  A "molcajete" is the Pre-Hispanic version of a mortar and pestle.  It is made of volcanic stone, and, before the advent of the electric blender, it was used for grinding the ingredients for salsa.  Alejandro said his meal was delicious.

I had pork with "mole negro".  "Mole"  (pronounced - MOH- lay) is a complex sauce made with a huge variety of ingredients.  There are many different kinds of "moles".  "Mole Negro" is from the state of Oaxaca, and is considered "the King of Moles".  One of its many ingredients is chocolate, which gives it its dark color.  It was excellent!  Alejandro, who is a very good judge of "mole", had a taste, and he concurred.  The meal was served with wonderful, hot, home-made tortillas.  Alejandro says, "You can't have 'mole' without tortillas!"
(photo taken by Alejandro)

For dessert we both had "flan".  "Flan" is a custard that is typical in both Spain and Mexico.  I think it was perhaps the best "flan" that I have ever had in a restaurant!

The prices at El Cardenal are not cheap, but you definitely get good quality for your money.  I would have to place it up there with our favorite restaurant, Angelopolitano,. as a recommended place for superb Mexican dining.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Other Side of Xochimilco

In Pre-Hispanic times, much of the Valley of Mexico, where Mexico City is today located, was covered with a series of shallow, connected lakes.  More than 1000 years ago, the residents of the valley began building rafts made of tree branches..  They would pile mud from the lake bottom upon the rafts, and use them as agricultural plots.  Over the course of time these "floating gardens" became rooted to the lake bottom, creating little islands, known as "chinampas", with a network of canals between them. 

After the arrival of the Spanish, most of the lakes were gradually drained away to protect Mexico City from disastrous floods which would periodically occur.  Today a remnant of this ancient agricultural system survives on the south side of the city at Xochimilco.  Here there are still more than 110 miles of canals crisscrossing the "chinampas".  Xochimilco was once a separate town, but now is a part of the urban sprawl of Mexico City.  The "floating gardens" of Xochimilco are a favorite place for Mexico City families to take a weekend outing as well as a popular destination for foreign tourists.  They rent small, flat-bottomed boats called "trajineras", similar to gondolas, and boatmen take them on a ride along the canals.  The "trajineras" have arches supporting a roof to protect the visitors from the sun.  The arches were traditionally decorated with colorful flowers, but today most of them are simply brightly painted.

Most visitors to the "floating gardens" go to the docks, or "embarcaderos" located in the center of Xochimilco.  On weekends the canals here are crowded with "trajineras" and other boats with vendors selling food, flowers and souvenirs to the visitors. Other boats carry bands of musicians who, for a fee, will row alongside a party of tourists, and serenade them.  A few years ago, Alejandro took me to Xochimilco, along with a couple of visiting cousins of his, and we enjoyed the party atmosphere along the busy canals.


Separate from the main area of the Xochimilco docks, there is another "embarcadero" called Cuemanco.  It is located near the site where the rowing competitions were held for the 1968 Summer Olympics.  Although Cuemanco receives a fair number of local visitors, it is virtually unknown to foreign tourisits.

On my last visit to Mexico City, Alejandro took me to Cuemanco, and we hired a young boatman to take us on an hour and a half trip along the canals.

The "embarcadero" at Cuenmanco
(photo taken by Alejandro)

With our boatman Carlos

Alejandro on our "trajinera"

We set off along the canals of Cuemanco.
Although it was a holiday weekend, it was still morning, and there were very few other visitors.  The morning was mostly cloudy and misty.  As we traveled the silent canals, it was almost surreal to imagine that we were in the middle of a metropolis of 20 million people.  It seemed that we were a thousand miles away from the hustle and bustle of one of the world's largest cities.

As the morning progressed, we began to see a few other boats with local families enjoying a peaceful holiday outing.

There were even a couple of boats of "norteño" musicians hoping to be hired by visitors to play.
The area is an important waterfowl sanctuary.

The "chinampas" are still used for agriculture.  Vegetables and flowers are grown here.  Our boatman told us that marigolds, the traditional flower for the Day of the Dead, are cultivated on these islands.  We didn't see any flowers, however.  I suspect that they had all been harvested a couple weeks before for the Day of the Dead.  We did see a lot of dairy farming.  The farmers use the milk to make cheese which they sell in the markets.
After about an hour and a half, we returned to the "embarcadero".
Our excursion was a tranquil break from the busy capital.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Swanky Polanco

The neighborhood of Condesa where I usually stay when I am in Mexico City, is an affluent, upper-middle class district.  However, it is not where the very rich live.  There are other neighborhoods, such as Lomas de Chapultepec, El Pedregal, and Polanco that are much more exclusive. 

Some Americans have an image of Mexico City as one vast slum.  Indeed, probably one half of the city lives in poverty, but there are also many millionaires.  Metropolitan Mexico City has a population of over twenty million people.  The top two percent would constitute more than 400,000 people... that's more than the population of my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio.

The most accessible of the posh neighborhoods is Polanco.  Although it is close to the attractions of Chapultepec Park, and has many upscale hotels and restaurants, it is not a district that I frequently visit.  There is very little of touristic interest here... unless one's idea of a vacation is to shop in ritzy designer shops.  However, on my latest visit to Mexico City I decided to spend some time wandering around the neighborhood and taking some pictures for my blog.

Polanco was first developed in the late 1930s, and became the new "in" place for the city's elite.  The original homes there were luxurious mansions built in neo-colonial style.  Some of those older houses still exist.

However, as the neighborhood continued to develop, many of the old mansions were torn down, or converted into embassies or commercial offices and businesses.  Modern homes and high-rise apartment buildings filled the district.  An apartment in Polanco can cost millions of dollars.
The main street in Polanco is Avenida Presidente Masaryk (named after the first President of Czechoslovakia).  When the more central "Zona Rosa" neighborhood became less fashionable, most of the upscale stores moved here.  Today Avenida Presidente Masaryk is often compared to Rodeo Drive.
At the time that I was there, construction work was being done on the avenue and the sidewalks, so it seemed a bit less glamorous than usual.
Some of the shops along the avenue had signs advertising sales for "el Buen Fin".  "El Buen Fin" is a weekend in November that is comparable to our "Black Friday".  It is the official beginning of the holiday shopping season, and stores are offering discounts.
However, the majority of the stores along the avenue were not offering "Buen Fin" specials.  After all, one does not shop at Gucci or Tiffany's expecting bargains!

This is one Mexico City neighborhood where I, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, felt like a plebian.  I did not go into any of the shops.  The intimidating doormen / security guards, dressed in suits and ties, would have probably looked down their noses at me if I had entered these domains of the very rich.

Friday, November 21, 2014


When I returned home from Mexico on Tuesday, I was greeted with bitter cold and snow.  But here in the western suburbs of Cleveland we only had enough snow to barely cover the ground... nothing compared to the 60 inches which hit western New York state, or even the heavier snowfall in the "snow belt" of Cleveland's eastern suburbs.

Last night it snowed again, and this is what I woke up to...

Again, it's nothing compared to what some parts of the country are suffering, but it is still a shock to jump straight into winter after eighteen days of 70 degrees and sunshine in Mexico City!
I really should go out and start up the snow blower, but I don't have to go anywhere today, and tomorrow the temperature is going to approach 50 degrees.  So, I think I will just be lazy and stay inside!

Postscript to Revolution Day

Last night thousands of protestors gathered in Mexico City's main plaza, "el Zócalo".  I have not read an estimate of the number present, but they filled the enormous city square and the streets leading into "el Zócalo".  Again, the speeches demanded the return of the missing students... "¡Vivos los queremos!" (We want them alive!).  It's understandable that the parents of the missing hold out hope that their children are still alive, but, after nearly two months, I think that the possibility of that is virtually nil. 

At the end of the demonstration, there were skirmishes between a miniscule fraction of the crowd and the troops guarding the National Palace.  Fortunately there was no repeat of the infamous massacre of 1968, in which the government fired upon and murdered hundreds of protestors.  I think that President Peña Nieto realizes that is not an option... that such an action would provoke a crisis far greater than what he already faces.

(image from the web)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Revolution Day

One hundred four years ago, on November 20, 1910, the Mexican Revolution began. 

Today Mexico City saw massive demonstrations protesting the missing 43 students and corruption in the Mexican government.  Thousands of people gathered around 5:00 P.M. at three locations in the heart of the city... at the Independence Monument along the Paseo de la Reforma (one of the city's major boulevards), at the Revolution Monument, and at the Plaza of the Three Cultures (the site where in 1968 the government killed hundreds of student protestors).  The demonstrators marched and converged at the Zócalo, the vast main plaza of the city.  

Earlier in the day there was violence when hundreds of students blocked the highway leading to the airport.  The police threw tear gas at the students, and some responded by throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at the police.  The main protest this evening, however, appears to be peaceful.  The marchers are primarily students and union members.  However they have been joined by professors, Catholic groups, businessmen leaving their offices along the Paseo de la Reforma, families with children, and even senior citizens.

Protests were also held in cities throughout Mexico.  Rallies were held in Latin America, Europe, Asia and even the United States.  


(images from the web)

The protestors chanted "Vivos los queremos" ... Want them alive... and "Fuera EPN"... Out (President) Enrique Peña Nieto. 
Unfortunately I think it is extremely unlikely that the 43 students are alive after all this time.  There is some talk that the students are being held somewhere, and that the army will eventually "find" and "rescue" them, and that Peña Nieto then can claim to be a "hero".  But in my opinion, that is simply a mixture of conspiracy theory and wishful thinking. 
In all fairness, corruption in Mexico extends far beyond Peña Nieto and his political party.  After all, the mayor who is allegedly responsible for the students' disappearance is a member of the leftist party.  And there are despicable far-right members of the conservative party who wish that these protestors would be exterminated as they were in 1968.
In spite of what is going on, I have no fear of returning to Mexico in January.  I certainly will stay away from any protest marches, but I see no danger to visitors to the country.  Barring any cataclysmic events, there is no need to cancel travel plans.
I love Mexico, but I grieve for her.  Corruption is nothing new, and is not unique to Mexico.  It is quite likely that, after the protests die down, nothing will really change.  But I keep my fingers crossed that the "missing 43" will spark some positive, peaceful reforms.  

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

I'm Home

I am back home in cold, snowy Ohio, wishing that I were still in warm, sunny Mexico City.

My journey home went very smoothly.  My flight from Mexico City to Houston was going to be delayed by five hours... meaning that I would miss my connection to Cleveland.  Fortunately, I had arrived at the airport early enough that they were able to put me on an earlier flight out of Mexico City.  The plane was not crowded; I had the entire section of three seats to myself!  I sat by the window, and from the runway I could see the two volcanoes, Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl, which are usually obscured by air pollution.  As we took off I was able to see two of Mexico's other major mountains, La Malinche and Pico de Orizaba, the country's tallest peak.  Darn, I didn't think to take out my camera and take some pictures!

Upon arrival in Houston, for the first time I didn't have to wait in line at all at customs, and going back through security went very quickly and smoothly.  I did have a long layover in Houston, but my flight to Cleveland was two thirds empty, and once again the two seats next to me were vacant.  I wonder if Tuesday might not be the best day of the week for air travel!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Back to Winter

Tomorrow morning I leave Mexico City.  When I return to Cleveland, around 8:00 P.M., the temperature there will be 16 degrees Fahrenheit, with a wind chill of -1.  Brrrrrrr!

I still have some more pictures and stories to share with you, so come back and read more about Mexico City.

¡Hasta luego!

"Gringo" Food in Mexico City

We have had an incredible variety of food while I have been in Mexico City.  Of course we have had plenty of traditional Mexican food, including dishes typical to the Mexican states of Puebla and Oaxaca.  We have also been to Spanish, Catalán, Indian/Pakistani, and Portuguese restaurants.

I have always been very critical of people who travel to foreign country and end up eating at McDonald's or any other American fast food chain.  However, during my wanderings around the neighborhood, I found an American-style diner just a short distance from the apartment.  It's called "Barracuda Diner", and it's located on Avenida Nuevo León.

We decided to eat there one night last week.  I must say that the prices are quite high, even by American standards.  However, the quality of the food is very high.  The hot dogs are kosher, the hamburgers are of organic beef, and the buns are home baked.

When Alejandro is in the United States, he really likes root beer which is something not commonly found in Mexico.  When I looked at the menu, I told him, "They have root beer floats!"  So that it what we had to drink.  Alejandro thought the root beer float (made with A&W Root Beer) was delicious.  We then shared a serving of chili fries... something else new to him. 

Alejandro had a hamburger, and I had a hot dog with sauerkraut.  We both had onion rings.  He had never had macaroni and cheese either, so we shared a serving of that.  It wasn't like the stuff from a box... it was really good, home-made mac and cheese.

Even though it's expensive, and "muy gringo", the "Barracuda Diner" made it onto our list of places to revisit!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Art in "El Centro"

I had been in Mexico City for nearly two weeks, and I had not ventured into "el Centro Histórico", the colonial heart of the city.  Finally on Thursday I took the metro into "el Centro".  There were no signs of protests, until, as I was walking down pedestrianized Madero Street, I saw this "mini-march" of less than a dozen people with banners calling for the resignation of President Peña Nieto. (Fuera Peña - Peña out)

Along Madrero Street, I went into the eighteenth century mansion known as Iturbide's Palace. It was the residence of Agustín Iturbide during his short reign (1822-1823) as Emperor of Mexico.  

Today the building is owned by Banamex (the Bank of Mexico), and is used as a site for cultural exhibits.  I have been to several exhibits there, and they are always worth seeing.  I have seen shows of Latin American handicrafts, the works of Mexican silversmiths, and architectural drawings and photographs of Mexico City architecture.  Presently, to celebrate Banamex's 130th anniversary, they are displaying 130 paintings from the bank's private collection.  Unfortunately, photography is never allowed at these shows, so I can't show you any pictures.  The exhibit was excellent with artwork dating from Mexico's colonial era all the way to the present day.

From Iturbide's Palace, I walked a couple blocks to the Palace of Fine Arts.  This opulent building of white marble was constructed between 1904 and 1934 to replace the National Theater which stood on the same site.  

Posing in front of the Palace of Fine Arts there were some dancers from the Ballet Folklórico de México which performs regularly in the main theater of the palace.  The Ballet Folklórico is a "must-see" for visitors to Mexico City.

Entering the palace you come into the main hall which is four stories high.  It is designed in art-deco style

Pre-Hispanic motifs are incorporated into the art-deco style.  Here you see the image of Chac, the Mayan rain god, with his curling, elephant-like nose.

The main hall contains paintings by a some of Mexico's most famous 20th century muralists.

"Catharsis" by José Clemente Orozco

"The Torment of Cuauhtemoc" by David Siqueiros
portrays the torture of the last Aztec emperor
by the Spanish.

The most famous mural in the Palace of Fine Arts is "Man at the Crossroads" by Diego Rivera. In 1933 Rivera, who had gained an international reputation, was commissioned by John D. Rockefeller to paint a mural for the lobby of the newly built Rockefeller Center.  

 A painter, who was an avowed Communist, was going to paint for the world's richest capitalist.  It's not really surprising that a conflict was going to arise between the two men.

At one side of the painting, the wealthy, including J.D. Rockefeller himself, are drinking, dancing and playing cards...

...while the hungry unemployed are beaten down by the police.

To the other side of the mural, the proletariat unites under Marx, Engels and Trotsky...


...and Lenin leads the way to a better society.

Obviously, the Rockefellers were not at all happy with Rivera's mural.  They had it painted over.  The next year, Rivera did the mural over again in Mexico City's Palace of Fine Arts.