Thursday, December 31, 2015

Something I Didn't Know

Of course, I know that January 6th is celebrated throughout the Spanish-speaking world as "el Día de los Reyes Magos" (the Day of the Magi Kings)... the day which we know as Epiphany or the Twelfth Night.  According to tradition this is the day when the three wise men arrived in Bethlehem bearing gifts for the baby Jesus.  On the morning  of January 6th children wake up to discover gifts that have been delivered by the Magi during the night.  (In Mexico, where the cultural influence of the United States is so strong, children also receive gifts at Christmas from Santa Claus.)

Last night I was talking with my friend Alejandro on the phone, and we were discussing what his little nephew was going to receive from the three kings.  He told me about an aspect of the celebration that I did not know. 

Children in Mexico write letters to the Magi, just as children up here write letters to Santa Claus.  Then, prior to January 6th, the letters are attached to helium balloons and set lose to drift to the sky.  (Balloon vendors are a common sight in the parks and plazas of Mexico, but at this time of year they are even more ubiquitous.)  Obviously, what goes up, must come down, and you will frequently see deflated balloons tangled in the electrical wires throughout the city,  Parents explain that those were the balloons of children who have been naughty and who will not receive a gift from the Kings.

I am not sure if this is a custom unique to Mexico City, or if it occurs throughout the country.  Perhaps my readers from other parts of Mexico can tell me how widespread this custom is.

To all of my readers, best wishes for a very happy New Year!!!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Looking Back and Looking Forward

2015 was filled with travel.  It was another one of those years where it seemed that now and then I was at home.  2016 is also shaping up to be busy year.

2015 began with a long trip to Mexico in January and February.  I flew to Oaxaca with my friend Jane and spent two marvelous weeks there.  That time in Oaxaca will always hold bittersweet memories for me, since Jane sadly passed away earlier this month.  It was our last travel adventure together.

After Jane returned to Ohio, I continued on to Mexico City to visit my friend Alejandro. I was hoping to avoid most of the Ohio winter, but even after my return, the bitterly cold winter seemed to stretch on endlessly.   I made another trip to Mexico City in April for Alejandro's birthday.

In July Alejandro came up here for a visit, and during his two weeks north of the border, we took an excursion to Mackinac Island in Michigan.  It is one of my favorite places in the United States, and I think that Alejandro thoroughly enjoyed our time there.

In September I went to Spain.  I traveled to three historic cities that I had never visited before... Burgos, León, and Valladolid, and I had a chance to see my cousin who lives in Madrid.

Just a little over a month ago I went to Mexico City again.  For the past four years I have been traveling there in November.  No matter how often I visit, I always find new places to explore.

The new year of 2016 is nearly upon us.  In eight days I will be returning to Mexico.  I will begin in one of my favorite cities in Mexico... Mérida, the capital of the state of Yucatán.

A friend, Frank, will be traveling with me, and I will be playing "tour guide" once again.  Over the years I have taken many friends to Mérida, and they have all fallen in love with the city.  This will be Frank's first trip to Mexico, and I am hoping that he too will find Mérida to be a delightful city.

From Mérida I will continue on my own to Mexico City.  Fellow blogger, Kim, the author of "El Gringo Suelto" will be south of the border at the same time, and we are looking forward to meeting up again. 

Alejandro will be returning with me to Ohio for a visit.  He will have a chance to experience winter in Ohio.  Hopefully the weather will not be as brutal as it has been for the past two years.  (A mild winter is predicted thanks to "El Niño".)  However it would be nice if we had a bit of snow... just enough to make the landscape look pretty.

In August of next year I will return to Switzerland.  Three of my Swiss cousins will be celebrating their 60th birthdays that month, and I have been invited to the big party.  It will be wonderful to see my Swiss family again, and to meet even more of my distant cousins.

As long as I am on that side of the ocean, I have been thinking about visiting some other European country that I have not yet seen.  But no plans have been made yet.

I hope that my readers have a wonderful new year!

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Otomí Ceremonial Center

One of the major indigenous groups of central Mexico is the tribe known as the Otomí.  The Otomí people inhabited the highlands long before later tribes such as the Toltecs and the Aztecs arrived in the region.  They resisted conquest but their lands were eventually absorbed into the Aztec empire.  Today there are more than 300,000 Otomí-speaking people living in various states of Mexico.

On my latest trip to Mexico, Alejandro and I were driving outside of Mexico City when we saw a billboard advertising the Otomí Ceremonial Center.  Neither of us had ever heard of it, so on my last weekend in Mexico, we took an excursion to visit the place.

The ceremonial center is located in the State of Mexico.  (It's a bit confusing for foreign visitors, but within the nation of Mexico there is also a state called Mexico.)  We took the highway heading west from Mexico City toward the city of Toluca, the state capital.  Before reaching Toluca, we headed north on the bypass highway, and then took the exit for Temoaya.  Temoaya is a small town with a population of about 3000 people.  It has the highest percentage of Otomí-speaking people of any town in the country.  We continued along a country road beyond Temoaya, and at the foot of the mountains we finally reached the ceremonial center.

The center is impressive and monumental in scale, but is rather baffling.  At first glance it looks vaguely like a Pre-Hispanic archaeological site.  But its modernistic sculptures belie the fact that it is of recent construction.  Work on the center began in 1988.  There is no signage or visitors' center explaining the purpose of the site or the significance of its architectural design.  Afterwards I was able to find some information about it on the internet.  It was built as a tribute to the history and culture of the Otomí tribe, but there is scant archaeological evidence that their ancient centers looked anything like this.  The Otomí gather here on the second Sunday of each month to perform rituals, although, again, there are few records describing their Pre-Hispanic ceremonies.  There is an assembly hall here where the Otomí Supreme Council meets.  The site is a fanciful, rather bizarre creation.  I read that a portion of the James Bond film. "Licence to Kill" was filmed here.

After a long flight of steps, you come to a large statue which represents the Lord of Fire and Life.


Behind the statue is a wall decorated with paintings of Pre-Hispanic influence.  Beyond the wall is the assembly hall of the Supreme Council.

After more steps, you reach a huge circular plaza.  It is guarded by 45 columns which to me looked rather like a modernistic version of the statues of Easter Island.


At the top are twelve cone shaped structures which look like stone teepees.  In the center is an abstract sculpture which is supposed to represent the sun.

It was an unusual and interesting excursion... another example of the countless places to see in Mexico that are off the typical tourist track.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Mexican Postal Service Revisited

Last month, during my recent trip to Mexico City, I wrote that I sent a postcard to my cousin up here in Ohio.  I did it as an experiment to see how long it would take for my cousin to receive it.  I sent the card on November 13th.  Yesterday, December 18th, it finally arrived in the mail.  That's 35 days to deliver a postcard!  You can see why many years ago I gave up on sending anything to or from Mexico via the postal service.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

'Tis the Season for Fudge

One longstanding Christmas tradition in my family has been to make fudge.  By the time I am done this year, I will have made eight batches to give to friends, family and neighbors.

Decades ago, my father found a recipe for soldier's fudge, and began making it each holiday season.  Soldier's fudge is a very old recipe that has apparently been around since at least the time of the Civil War.  Because it is very easy to make and keeps well, it became popular to send it to loved ones serving in the military at Christmastime.

I took up the tradition of making fudge from my father, although over the years I have tweaked the original recipe.  Instead of adding nuts I have been adding dried cherries, and everyone seems to like that version even better.

The last couple years I have taken a batch of fudge down to Mexico as a gift for my friend Alejandro's family.  (Fortunately I have not run into any difficulties taking it through security or customs!)  They really like it, especially Alejandro's little nephew Ezra.  Last summer when Alejandro was visiting up here, we took a trip to Mackinac Island.  The island is famous for its fudge shops, and Alejandro bought some to take home with him.  Ezra tasted it, and proclaimed that it wasn't as good as my fudge!

So here is my recipe for Christmas fudge...

In a double boiler combine two 12 ounce bags of semi-sweet chocolate chips, two quarter ounce squares of unsweetened chocolate, and about one and a half 14 ounce cans of sweetened condensed milk.  Heat the mixture, stirring constantly, until the chocolate has melted.  It should have a satiny smooth texture. If it is grainy, stir in a bit more sweetened condensed milk. (I think that the more you stir it the smoother it becomes.  After the chocolate has thoroughly melted, I have the habit of giving it 100 more stirs.)

Remove the mixture from the heat, and add a splash of vanilla extract and one and a half 5 ounce bags of dried cherries.  Combine thoroughly.  Spoon the fudge into a pan.  Allow it to cool and then refrigerate overnight. 

The next day you can cut the fudge into squares.  (That's probably the hardest part of the whole process.)  It keeps well and does not require refrigeration.

For me, it wouldn't be Christmas without fudge!!!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Taste of Mexico in Chicago

Last weekend I visited some friends of mine in Chicago.  Whenever I visit we always make it a point to go to "Las Mañanitas", a Mexican restaurant just a few blocks from their condo.  I've never had a bad meal there, and the food there is more authentic than the typical restaurant in the United States which is more "Tex-Mex" than truly Mexican.

I have nothing against good "Tex-Mex" food.  However it always annoys me that so many "gringos" don't realize that Mexican cuisine consists of so much more than tacos and enchiladas, and that concoctions such as "chimichangas" are no more authentically Mexican than chop suey is authentically Chinese.

Yes, the menu at "Las Mañanitas" includes dishes that cater to the "gringo" perception of Mexican cooking.  But there are also many items, especially among the daily specials, which are not normally seen in restaurants up here.  My friends tell me that the owner frequently travels back to Mexico to get recipe ideas.  I ordered something that was obviously inspired by the cuisine of the Yucatán...  chicken "fajitas" flavored with the Yucatecan seasoning "achiote" and bitter oranges.  It was scrumptious!

We visited the restaurant on the eve of the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and at the entrance an altar was set up in honor of Mexico's patron saint.

My Mexican experience went beyond our dinner at "Las Mañanitas".  One morning we went to a nearby diner for breakfast.  I ordered a Mexican inspired variation of eggs Benedict.  Instead of Canadian bacon, it was served with "chorizo" (Mexican sausage), and instead of hollandaise sauce it was covered with a "poblano" pepper sauce.  A very inventive and delicious dish!

When I went to O'Hare Airport for my flight home, I was looking for a place to have lunch.  I found a little restaurant owned by Rick Bayless.  Rick Bayless is a chef from Chicago who specializes in Mexican cooking.  I have watched many of his TV shows on PBS, but I have never been to any of his restaurants on my visits to Chicago.  I went in and had corn and "poblano" pepper chowder, and a chipotle chicken "torta".  (A "torta" is a type of Mexican sandwich of a crusty roll.)  Another very tasty meal.

So, I definitely had my fix of Mexican food to hold me until my next trip to Mexico!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Happy Holidays

I think that by this time everyone on my Christmas card list has received their cards (I sent them the day before Thanksgiving), so I shall unveil it here on the blog.

My regular readers know that each year I do a small painting which I then scan to the computer and print off as cards.  Usually I do a painting based on a photo taken on one of my trips during the course of the year.  This year's painting is of the church "Preciosa Sangre de Cristo" in the small town of Teotitlán del Valle which is located about twenty miles from the city of Oaxaca, Mexico.  The church was begun in 1581 and was completed in 1758.  The residents of Teotitlán are mainly members of the Zapotec tribe and are famed as weavers who produce fine woolen goods.  I visited the town last January on my trip to Oaxaca.

To all of my readers, I send best wishes for a joyous holiday season and a very happy new year!

¡Feliz Navidad y Próspero Año Nuevo!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Bringing Back a Bit of Holiday Cheer

Between the depressing headlines and the death of my friend Jane (see previous post) this has not been a very cheerful holiday season.

Fortunately, I have a busy schedule this week, and I have not been just moping around the house.  On Monday I got to see my friends Don and Tressa  whom I have not seen for many years.  Don was a science teacher at the junior high school where I taught before I moved on to the high school.  At that time I organized a trip to Mexico City over Christmas vacation for a small group of my teaching colleagues.  Don and his wife Tressa were among them, and they absolutely loved Mexico.  Don has a great interest in archaeology, and later he and I took a lengthy summer trip to Yucatan to visit a number of Mayan ruins.  (That was my first time in Yucatan.)  After Don and Tressa retired they bought a house in Arkansas.  So, although we keep in touch, I have not seen them very often.  They came back up to Ohio for a short visit, and we were able to get together for lunch.  It was great to see them after such a long time.  We talked and laughed and reminisced.  I need to take a road trip down to Arkansas sometime and spend more time with them.

Yesterday, I had lunch with my cousin Gail, the cousin about whom I have written in earlier posts.  Even though we live five minutes away from each other, we did not know of each other's existence until Gail by chance stumbled upon this blog and read about my genealogical research.  We now get together on a regular basis.  We had a very good meal at an Italian restaurant and lots of good conversation.  Gail and her husband have done a lot of traveling, but she has never had a desire to visit Mexico... that is, until she started reading my blog.  Hopefully one of these days, I will get to play "tour guide" with them south of the border.  We also hope sometime to go to Switzerland so that I can introduce them to our many distant cousins there.

Tomorrow I will leave on a short trip to Chicago to visit friends there.  Every December they have a big Christmas party, and I make it a point to try to attend.

So in spite of all the sad news, the holiday season is upon us, and some Christmas cheer has returned.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

In Memoriam

In 1985, as I was entering my twelfth year as a teacher, there was an opening for a position in the foreign language department at my school.  The job went to Jane, an experienced teacher who had previously taught Spanish in a small town high school.  For seventeen years we were colleagues, and became dear friends.  Jane was an outstanding teacher, respected by the faculty and students.  She was a kind, sweet, caring person with a wonderful sense of humor.  Our department was close knit, and we had many enjoyable evenings going out for dinner after school.  During the course of our time together we took groups of students on two trips to Mexico and one to Spain.

Jane retired in 2002, two years before me.  We did not see each other as often as we would have liked since we lived an hour away from each other, but we still remained close and got together on a fairly regular basis.

In 2013 Jane's husband passed away.  It had been a very difficult year for her. The following winter, I rented a two bedroom house in Mérida, Mexico, and I invited her to spend a week with me there. It was a much needed getaway for her, and we had a wonderful time.  She was a great traveling companion. In January of this year we spent two weeks together in Oaxaca.  Jane loved to travel, and our plan was to go to a different part of Mexico each year.  For 2016, however, she and her cousins had planned a winter trip to Hawaii.  She was so apologetic when she told me. "Please don't think that I don't want to continue going to Mexico with you, but next year I'll be going to Hawaii."

Jane did not get to go to Hawaii, nor did she and I take the Mexican trips that we had discussed.  In September she was diagnosed with cancer.  The disease spread very quickly, and a couple weeks ago she went to stay with her sister where she received hospice care.  I was able to visit her last Monday.  She was feeling good, and in good spirits.  We talked and laughed for an hour.  Today, I received word that she had passed away.

Dear, sweet Jane, you will be greatly missed.  I am so grateful for our years of friendship.


Street Food, Yes or No?

Everywhere you go in Mexico City you will find food vendors who have set up their stands along the sidewalks.  Well, not everywhereI don't recall seeing any vendors in the ritzy Polanco district, or along Madero Avenue, the spruced up centerpiece of the city's historic district.  But in most parts of the city you don't have to go far to have a snack along the street.  I took the following photos on one short stroll through the fairly affluent neighborhood of Roma Norte...

The food vendors are definitely a part of the ambiance and chaos that is Mexico City.   Their aromas can be tantalizing;  the fact that they take up half of the busy sidewalks can be aggravating.  There are those who proclaim that the tastiest, most authentic... and cheapest... food in the city is to be found at these sidewalk stalls.
I must admit that I have never partaken of the culinary delights of street food in Mexico. Call me a scaredy cat if you like, but no matter how tempting the food might look and smell, it still seems to me an invitation to experience "Montezuma's Revenge".   I know, I know, one can dine at the classiest restaurants anywhere in the world and still come down with food poisoning, e-coli or salmonella.  But I have traveled to Mexico countless times, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that I have suffered intestinal distress.  So I think that my caution has paid off.  And I am not alone.  My friend Alejandro, a native-born "chilango" who is in no way an elitist snob, never eats street food.
I would be interested in hearing from my readers who travel to Mexico or who live there... do you eat the street food or not?  

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Hall of Teotihuacán

I rarely go to Mexico City without paying a visit to the National Museum of Anthropology.  It is the crown jewel of the more than 100 museums in the city.  It is arguably one of the greatest museums in the world... definitely one of the world's greatest archaeological museums.

Because the museum is so large, on my last several visits I have concentrated on just one hall and have taken more time studying the displays and artifacts and reading the descriptive information. On my most recent trip I spent more than an hour in the hall devoted to the ancient city of Teotihuacán. 

The vast ruins of Teotihuacán are located about 30 miles to the north of Mexico City.   1600 years ago it was a thriving metropolis with a population of more than 100,000 people.  (Some estimate that it may have had as many as 250,000 people.)  It was the first great city in the Americas, and was probably one of the largest cities in the world at that time.  No one knows who founded Teotihuacán or why the city was eventually abandoned.  When the Aztecs migrated into central Mexico centuries later, they were so impressed by its ruins that they thought that the place had surely been built by the gods.  And so they gave it the name by which we know it today... Teotihuacán, the Place of the Gods.

As you enter the Teotihuacán Hall of the museum, you are immediately struck by the life-size reconstruction of a portion of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent.

The façade is covered with images of two of their principal gods. 

These images have long been identified with the Aztec gods Queztalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, and Tlaloc, the rain god.  We don't know what the people of Teotihuacán actually called these gods, but they may indeed have been the prototypes of the deities which were worshipped by later tribes such as the Aztecs.

The religion of Teotihuacán included the practice of human sacrifice.  Within the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, archaeologists found the remains of decapitated sacrificial victims.  A reconstruction of the excavation is on display in the museum.

This monumental sculpture is thought to represent the Goddess of the Waters.

There is also a reconstruction of the entrance to one of Teotihuacán's palaces... the Palace of the Feathered Butterfly.

The walls of the city's palaces and temples were covered with mural paintings which have deteriorated through the centuries.  Here is a fragment of an original mural.

From what remains of the murals, archaeologists have been able to recreate how these paintings must have appeared in their original vibrant colors.

It was long assumed that this mural was of the rain god.  (Notice the drops of water dripping from the headdress and the hands of the deity.)  Archaeologists now believe that it is a representation of a fertility goddess, which they call the Great Goddess of Teotihuacán.

The hall is filled with artifacts that attest to the artistic skill of the Teotihuacán civilization.

This elaborate necklace includes human teeth.  (There was no explanation, but I have to wonder if the teeth came from sacrificial victims. Were the people alive when the teeth were pulled?  Ouch!)

Many masks such as this one have been found.  It was once thought that they were funerary masks, but they were not found in gravesites.
Teotihuacán was an important center of trade and manufacturing.  Their trade network stretched across most of Mesoamerica.
Their most important products were obsidian tools...

and beautiful pottery.

Teotihuacán pottery has been found as far away as the lands of the Mayas.

This painted conch shell is evidence of trade with coastal regions.

Teotihuacán was a cosmopolitan city. The population included immigrants from many different parts of Mexico.  There was, for example, an entire neighborhood of Zapotecs from Oaxaca.  This sculpture of a Zapotec god is one of many objects found in that section of the city.

Around A.D.550, Teotihuacán, after centuries of glory, fell into decline.  No one knows the reason for the city's downfall.  There is evidence that many of the temples and palaces were looted and burned.  We also know that at that time there was a period of severe drought and famine.  Some scholars believe that there might have been a revolt by the poor against the ruling classes that led to the collapse of the civilization.