city at night

city at night

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Travelers Beware!

I have read that there is a gadget that thieves can use to read the information on your passport and credit cards even while those items are securely on your person.  Well, it would seem that I fell victim to that nasty technology.

I always take three credit cards with me when I travel.  Two of them I use frequently, but the third one is simply a backup in case of emergency.  I didn't even realize that the third, rarely used, card was going to expire at the end of this month.  When I returned from my recent trip to Mexico, my replacement card was there in the mail at home.  It wasn't until today that I got around to calling to activate the new card.  It was then that I discovered that my credit card had been blocked.  I talked to a service representative, and she explained that there had been some suspicious activity on the card.  She removed those charges and told me that she would send me a new card immediately.

During my entire time in Mexico I had never used that credit card.  In fact, I didn't even have it on me; it was tucked safely away along with my passport in the apartment.  The fraudulent charges (there were three of them; all through Doha, Qatar) were made on the day that I flew home.  The only possible explanation is that some crook scanned my wallet with one of those devices while I was in the airport... either in Mexico City, or, more likely, Newark, New Jersey. 

I double checked my other two cards, and there was no problem.  I will, however, be checking them more frequently than usual for a while, just to be sure. 

The pouch in which I carry my passport is supposed to block scanners.  I was just checking out some websites, and they also make wallets that will block those devices.  The problem is, I like the wallet I use when traveling.  It is a biker wallet with a chain that attaches to my belt.  I feel that it gives me more protection from pickpockets (although I still tuck my wallet in my front pants pocket when I'm on the subway or crowded buses).  I noticed that they also make small sleeves in which you can place your cards.  I'm going to order a few of those as a safeguard.


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Infamous Sanborns Episode

During my recent trip to Mexico City I mentioned the House of Tiles, the colonial mansion in the heart of the city which is today the flagship of the Sanborns chain of restaurants and stores.  I will never forget an incident which happened there many, many years ago when I took a group of my high school students to Mexico for the first time.

It was April of 1985.  A couple years before I had been transferred from the junior high to the high school.  I decided to organize a student trip to Mexico over Easter vacation, something which, as far as I know, had never been done in my school district before.  Twelve of my first year Spanish students signed up for the trip.  They were all good kids, and I could not have asked for a nicer group of students to travel with.

Our trip began in Mexico City.  We had finished a morning tour of the sights on the Zócalo, the main plaza in the heart of the colonial center.  We had the afternoon free, and it was time for lunch.  I told my group that if they wanted a menu that included some American food they could eat at Sanborns, or we could go to a nearby restaurant, Café Tacuba, for traditional Mexican food.  Half of the students opted for Sanborns, and half of them chose Café Tacuba.  So I dropped part of my group off at Sanborns, and told them they I would come back for them after lunch.  I suppose I was a bit naïve leaving half of my students by themselves.  But this was an era before Mexico had any reputation (deserved or not) as being dangerous, and, besides, what could happen to them at Sanborns?

My part of the group went on to Café Tacuba, and we had what turned out to be a very long, leisurely lunch.  We then returned to Sanborns.  We looked for my students in the main dining room, at the lunch counter, in the store and in the souvenir section.  There was no sign of them!  I figured that they had grown tired of waiting for us and had taken a taxi back to the hotel.

We returned to our hotel which was located in the touristy Zona Rosa neighborhood.  There was no sign of them at the hotel either.  "OK," I told myself, "they probably went out shopping."  By late afternoon I started to panic. 

I finally received a phone from one of my missing students.  "Señorwhere were you?" he said.

"The question is," I said, "where are you?!"  

"We're standing outside of Sanborns."   After loitering around in Sanborns waiting for us, they were starting to get suspicious looks from the employees.  So they went outside to wait.  However they were standing outside the rear entrance.  I had gone in through the front entrance, and had missed them completely.  For several hours they had waited, and stood through an afternoon rain shower.  There was a pay phone there, but they couldn't figure out how to use it.  Finally, some kind soul, working in an office across the street, saw the students huddled on the sidewalk, and went to see if he could be of assistance.  He showed them how to use the phone so that they could call the hotel.

I rushed out of the hotel, grabbed a taxi, and went to retrieve my students.  By the time we had returned to the hotel, we had missed dinner and had to hurry to get ready for a performance of the Ballet Folklórico that evening.

Fortunately, the rest of the trip went smoothly, and we all had a great time. Needless to say, my students never forgot Sanborns, and neither will I. 

Here's a picture I found of our group at Chapultepec Park...

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Carranza and the Revolution

As I have mentioned before, Mexico City has more museums than any other city in the world.  On this last trip I was looking at a map and found a museum that I had never visited... the House of Carranza.  Venustiano Carranza was a major figure in the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century, and served as President from 1917 until 1920.

Portrait of Carranza in the museum

The museum was easy to reach.  It's located a short distance to the north of the "Paseo de la Refoma", the city's main boulevard.  The house served as Carranza's residence during his presidency.  It's a small museum; it's certainly not one of the city's "must-see" sights.  The rooms of the house are furnished as they were when Carranza lived here, and provide a glimpse of upper-middle class life in that era.

Adjoining the house are a couple of halls with exhibits on the Mexican Revolution.  They provided me with a refresher course on that confusing, chaotic era.  (All of the signage is in Spanish; this is not a museum which receives many foreign visitors.)

I will attempt to give you a very simplified summary of the events of the Revolution and Carranza's role.

For over thirty years President Porfirio Díaz had ruled Mexico.  Although he provided the country with a long period of stability, modernized the country, and encouraged investment, his rule was authoritarian.  His continual re-election was achieved through coercion or fraud.  While the upper class prospered, the plight of the working class and the landless peasants became more desperate.  In 1910 when he announced that he was running for President yet again, Francisco Madero, a wealthy landowner from northern Mexico, entered the race against Díaz.  The dictator had Madero jailed, and he declared himself the winner of the election by a landslide.  Madero (who had escaped from jail) called for a revolt on November 20, 1910 against Díaz.  

The armies of the dictator were quickly defeated, and in 1911 Díaz resigned and went into exile.  New elections were held, and Madero became the President.  Unfortunately Madero was idealistic and naïve and incapable of controlling the conflict between conservatives and those who sought radical social reform.  In 1913 General Victoriano Huerta, with the support of Díaz cronies and the connivance of the U.S. ambassador, staged a coup d'état against Madero, and had him murdered.  Huerta assumed the presidency.

All hell broke lose as different revolutionary camps united against the despicable Huerta.  The principal leaders were Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, Venustiano Carranza, and Alvaro Obregón.  In 1914, Huerta, facing defeat, resigned and went into exile.  Carranza, who was more interested in political reform than social reform, broke with Villa and Zapata.  There was a power struggle between them.  Eventually Carranza gained the upper hand, He called for a convention to write a new constitution for Mexico.  The finished product, the Constitution of 1917, was much more radical than Carranza wanted, and included provisions for land redistribution, labor reform, and severe limitations on the Church and foreign exploitation of Mexico's resources.

Carranza was elected as the first President under the new Constitution.  During his presidency Carranza continued to fight against opposing revolutionaries, and he put a bounty on Zapata's head.  He generally ignored the more radical provisions of the Constitution.  Carranza announced that he would not run for re-election in 1920. However he refused to support his old ally Alvaro Obregón for the presidency.  The rift between the two escalated until Obregón marched in Mexico City and deposed Carranza.  Carranza fled, and was ambushed and killed.  There is a certain element of karma in his death, since Carranza had been responsible for the ambush and murder of Emiliano Zapata.  

Obregón was elected President.  Although there were more upheavals to come, his presidency marks the gradual return to stability for Mexico.

Well, if that simplified summary seemed rather long, let me assure you that it was a bare-bones condensation of a very turbulent era in Mexico's history!

Friday, April 24, 2015

Portuguese cuisine in Mexico City

On the next-to-the-last night of my recent visit to Mexico City, Alejandro and I went to a restaurant that specializes in Portuguese cuisine.  The place is called "Lusitano" (a reference to the ancient Roman province which is today Portugal).  It is located in the neighborhood of Roma Norte, which is one of the "hot spots" for fine dining in Mexico City.  "Lusitano" is just a short walk from the apartment which I rented, and we had been there a couple times before on my previous visits to the city.  I have read that the owner of the restaurant is from Portugal.  Although Portuguese cuisine shares many characteristics with Spanish cooking, the food is distinctive and not very well known.    

We began our meal with "sopa de habas", a soup made with something very similar to our lima beans.  At first taste it seemed a bit salty, although its taste grew on us.  

For his main course, Alejandro ordered "bife a café", a dish that is perhaps more Brazilian than Portuguese, or perhaps an invention of the chef.  Alejandro had it the last time we were here, and he really liked it.  It is a beef steak covered in a sauce made with coffee.

I had a more traditional dish... "bacalau com natas".  "Bacalau" ("bacalao" in Spanish) is salted codfish, and is a mainstay of Iberian cuisine.  This was a casserole with shredded codfish in a rich béchamel sauce,  It was delicious and quite filling.  The next time I go there, I will definitely sample another one of the many "bacalau" dishes on the menu.

I highly recommend "Lusitano" in Mexico City when you want a break from Mexican cuisine!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

I'm Home

Yesterday I made the journey home from Mexico City to Cleveland.  The flights went smoothly.  There were no available upgrades to first class, but I was upgraded on both flights to "Economy Plus".  Between the extra leg room and the fact the no one was seated next to me on either flight, it was a comfortable trip.  The one aggravation was going through passport control at Newark Airport. (Yes, I know, flying from Mexico City, to Newark, to Cleveland, is a bit of a round-about route.  However, that was what was available to me if I wanted to redeem frequent flyer miles.)  The line was the longest and slowest I have ever experienced upon my return to the United States.  I have gone through Newark numerous times upon returning from trips to Europe, but it has never been this bad.  I waited 70 minutes to get through passport control.  Fortunately I had a three hour layover in Newark, but I wonder how many people missed connecting flights because of the long line.

I was greeted by chilly Ohio weather when I returned home.  The temperature was 39 F in Cleveland, and there were actually a few snow flakes in the air.  I was hoping for more spring-like weather at this point in April.  After the 80 degree temperatures in Mexico City it felt COLD!!

In spite of the chill, the grass is green, some of the flowering trees are in blossom, and more of the perennials in my garden have sprouted.  The hyacinths have bloomed and are past their prime, and the daffodils are blooming.

I hope that the weather warms up, and that by May, I will be able to start working in the garden.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Time to Say "Hasta La Vista"

Another trip to Mexico has nearly come to an end.  Tomorrow morning I will depart from Mexico City International Airport, and by early evening I will be home in Cleveland.  At least this time I will not be returning to snow and cold, although the weather will not be as nice as what I have had here.  Prior to my arrival here, it had seemed as if the rainy season had begun early.   But in my two weeks here it has sprinkled a couple times.  There was one heavy rainfall, but I was inside the apartment at the time.  There has been plenty of sunshine, and the temperatures have been ideal... highs in the mid-70s to the mid-80s.  Even at night I have not had to wear the jacket that I brought with me.

It's time for me now to pack my suitcases.

Do come back and visit my blog.  I still have a couple more things to write about from this trip.  And my regular readers know that even when I am between travels, I write posts about places that I have visited in the past.

¡Hasta la vista, México!

Construction Update

Last November I wrote a post about the many construction projects going on along Mexico City's iconic boulevard, the "Paseo de la Reforma".  Yesterday I took a walk from my apartment to "Reforma" to see how some of the buildings were progressing.

 As you can see in this picture, taken from a few blocks away on Chapultepec Avenue, the lower stretch of "Reforma" is dominated by three skyscrapers, two of which are still under construction.

The "Torre Mayor" has held the title of tallest building in Mexico City since its completion in 2003.  In fact, until 2010, it was the tallest building in all of Latin America.  It has 55 stories and is 738 feet tall.  It originally had an observation deck open to the public, but that has been closed.  My friend Alejandro says (and I have not been able verify this story) that the U.S. Embassy obtained office space in the tower for the FBI, and that they insisted that the general public should not be allowed to go up to the top of the tower.

Right across the "Reforma" from the "Torre Mayor" is the rival "Torre BBVA Bancomer".  I have been watching the progress of this building for several years since it is visible from the Condesa neighborhood where I usually stay on my visits to Mexico City.  It was supposed to be completed in 2014, but, although it appears to have attained its full height, it is still not complete.  When I was there yesterday, there was a long line of hardhats returning from their lunch break.  The skyscraper will be the headquarters of Mexico's largest bank.  I have read that it is supposed to be taller than the "Torre Mayor", but I have also read that its height is 738 feet, the same as the "Torre Mayor".

Next door to the "Torre Mayor" is another contender... "Torre Reforma".  This skyscraper has progressed quckly since my last visit.  It appears now to be as tall, or perhaps a tad taller, than the "Torre Mayor".  When completed it will have 57 stories and be 800 feet tall.

I walked a few blocks behind the two buildings, and from this perspective you can see that the "Torre Reforma" is now as tall as the "Torre Mayor".

Going up the Paseo de la Reforma a bit, another skyscraper has just about attained its planned height.  The "Torre Diana" is actually a block from "Reforma", but overlooks the boulevard's Diana Fountain.  This building, however, will only be 33 floors high with a height of 518 feet.

Before long, however, all of these buildings will move down in ranking.  There are a couple more buildings under construction that will be even taller.  On the city's south side the "Torre Mítikah" will be 60 stories tall with a height of 876 feet.

(image from the web)

 Artist's conception of the "Torre Mítikah"

However, by the time it is finished, Mexico's tallest skyscraper will not be in Mexico City.  In the city of Monterrey, the "Torre KOI" will, upon completion, be the nation's tallest.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Colonial Querétaro

Saturday we traveled three hours to the northwest of Mexico City to Querétaro, a growing city of around one million people, and one of the most prosperous cities in the country.  Querétaro is booming with new construction, but its colonial heart remains picturesque and filled with architectural gems.  There are pleasant plazas and gardens, quaint pedestrianized streets, and numerous churches.  It is also considered one of the cradles of Mexican independence.

The Church of San Francisco was begun in 1540, and is one of the oldest in the city.


From beside the church a pedestrian street winds through the heart of the old colonial city.

The street leads to the Plaza de Armas, one of several attractive plazas.  Unlike most Mexican cities, Querétaro does not have a "zócalo", a town square on which the principal government and religious buildings are all located.

Facing the Plaza de Armas is the building in which the Spanish colonial magistrate, the "corregidor", had his residence.  In 1810 the "corregidor" was Miguel Domínquez.  His wife, Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez, was known as La Corregidora".   Josefa developed an interest in the writings of the philosophers of the Enlightenment, and sympathy for those who were oppressed under Spanish colonial rule.  Under the guise of hosting "literary discussion groups" she opened her home to a group of rebels who were conspiring to break away from Spanish rule.  The conspiracy was discovered, and the "corregidor" supposedly locked his wife in a room so that she could not warn the others.  The story goes that she whispered a warning through the keyhole of the door to one of the group, Ignacio Pérez.  Pérez, sort of like a Mexican Paul Revere, galloped off to warn the other conspirators.  Thus began Mexico's War of Independence from Spain.

This monument in honor of "La Corregidora" was built on the centennial of Mexico's independence.  The figure at the base is Ignacio Pérez.

A short walk to the east of the Plaza de Armas takes you to the Church and Monastery of Santa Cruz (Holy Cross). 

The monastery in colonial times was a center for the training of missionaries to convert the indigenous peoples throughout the Spanish Empire.  Among the friars who spent time here was Junípero Serra who went on to found the missions of California.

Legend says that in 1697 a friar planted his staff in the meadow where the monastery now stands.   The staff sprouted leaves and grew into a tree.  The tree does not bear flowers or fruit... only thorns in the shape of the cross.  The tree still stands in the monastery courtyard.  In the plaza in front of the church there are vendors' stalls where the thorns are for sale.  I was chatting with one of the vendors.  He asked me if I was Catholic, and when I told him that I was not, he gave me one of the thorns.  Perhaps he was hoping to convert me.

The colonial center extends also to the west of the Plaza de Armas with more streets lined with colonial buildings...

...such as this colonial mansion which is now a boutique hotel.

The Church of Santa Clara was built in 1606.

It is noted for its baroque, gold gilt altarpieces.

The church faces yet another pretty plaza.

(photo taken by Alejandro)

A few blocks away, the Church of Santa Rosa de Viterbo is another example of baroque architecture.

After hours of wandering the streets of Querétaro, we returned to the Plaza de Armas to eat (and rest our legs) at one of the outdoor restaurants.  Alejandro ordered ostrich.  I had never eaten ostrich before.  I had a taste, and it was delicious.

There was much that we were not able to see during the short time that we were in Querétaro.  I would enjoy a return visit.  To my travel-buddy Jane... if you are reading this, how does Querétaro sound as a Mexico destination in the future?

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Greetings from Querétaro

Today Alejandro and I headed out of Mexico City for an overnight trip to Querétaro, a thriving commercial and industrial center about three hours to the northwest of the capitalQuerétaro is also a very historic city, and its colonial center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I will write more tomorrow, but after walking around the city for over six hours, I am very tired.

Hasta mañana.


Friday, April 17, 2015

Open to Visitors Again

The enormous National Palace occupies one entire side of the Zócalo, the main plaza of Mexico City.  It has also long been a major tourist destination because of the mural paintings by Diego Rivera which adorn one of its courtyards.  Beginning last autumn after the disappearance and likely murder of forty three students, the Zócalo was the frequent venue for anti-government demonstrations.  The National Palace was closed to all visitors.  Prior to this trip, I had read on TripAdvisor that it was open once again.  I had not been there for a couple years, and I had never posted any pictures of the murals on my blog, so I decided to return.

The National Palace was built shortly after the Spanish conquest on the site of an Aztec palace.   Over the course of nearly five centuries the building has been destroyed, rebuilt, renovated and expanded.  It was originally built as a palace for the "conquistador" Hernán Cortés and his family.  In 1562 the Spanish Crown purchased it from the son of Cortés, and the palace became the residence of the Spanish viceroys.  After Mexico won its independence, the building became of the headquarters of government ministries as well as the presidential residence for much of the 19th century.  (Today the presidential home is "Los Pinos" in Chapultepec Park.)  Today the National Palace is the seat of offices of the executive branch of government.

The famous mural painter Diego Rivera was commissioned by the government to do a series of paintings on the staircase of the main courtyard of the National Palace.  Rivera worked on these murals between 1929 and 1935.

The largest of the three murals is like a Cecil B. DeMille movie... an epic with a cast of thousands (OK, well maybe hundreds).  Into this huge painting Rivera has crammed the events and famous people of the history of Mexico, from the Spanish conquest to the 20th century.

The side mural to the left clearly reveals Rivera's political stance.  The capitalists are raking in the money with the help of corrupt politicians and clergy.  (Notice the priest with the half naked women.)  Above them Karl Marx is leading the workers to a better future.

The side mural to the right depicts the story of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god.  According to mythology, the god was embodied by a white-skinned Toltec king.  Quetzalcoatl left Mexico, sailing away on a raft of snakes, but he had promised to return.  It is thought that the Aztec emperor Montezuma believed that the Spaniard Hernán Cortés was the returning god, and was thus hesitant to fight against him and his army.

In 1945 Rivera began painting more murals on the second floor corridor of the courtyard.  The plan was to paint panels all the way around the courtyard depicting Mexico's history.  He only completed eleven panels before his death in 1957.  The paintings depict Mexico's pre-Hispanic civilizations and end with the arrival of the Spanish conquerors.

Perhaps the most impressive of these panels is Rivera's depiction of the bustling Aztec market with a panorama of their capital, Tenochtitlán (present-day Mexico City) in the background.

Even though the Spanish invaders wrote that Tenochtitlán was a spectacular city, Rivera appears to have idealized the place.  Notice the snow-covered volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl in the background.

Amidst the crowd of people in the market, this woman with tattooed legs stands out.  She is a prostitute.  Notice that a prospective client is offering her the severed arm of a Spanish soldier as payment.

The final panel, "The Arrival of Cortés", portrays the violent subjugation of the native peoples by the Spanish.  

Rivera takes his vilification of the Spanish invaders to a ridiculous extreme by portraying Cortés as a hunch-backed, deformed, syphilitic monster.

The native woman shown in this mural is "La Malinche", the mistress of Cortés.  On her back she carries their child, a blue-eyed baby.  Here, amidst the cruelty of the conquest, Rivera portrays the future of Mexico... a people of mixed indigenous and Spanish ancestry.