Sunday, May 31, 2015

Almost Like Being in Mexico

Last night we had heavy, but much needed, rain here.  Today is cool and drizzly, so I took a break from my gardening, and drove to the Mexican grocery store, "La Plaza", located about ten miles away on the west side of Cleveland.

I am testing out some new recipes for a Mexican dinner party that I am going to have in July.  My friend Alejandro will be coming up from Mexico at that time.  On his last visit here in October of 2014, my cousin Gail invited us to her place.  She prepared an early Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings so that Alejandro could experience our holiday feast.  It was a delicious meal, and such a kind gesture on her part.  I wanted to return the hospitality, so I have invited her and her husband to my place for a Mexican dinner while Alejandro is here.

A full Mexican dinner consists of several courses.  First there is "la sopa aguada"... the wet soup... which is like the soups that we are used to.  Second is "la sopa seca"... the dry soup... which is a rice or pasta dish.  Then comes the main course.  For that I am going to prepare my specialty, "chilaquiles".  My "chilaquiles" are not like the typical, easy to prepare dish you usually find in Mexican restaurants.  I sometimes refer to my version as "Mexican lasagna" because it consists of layers of tortillas, chicken in salsa,  Mexican "crema" (similar to our sour cream) and cheese, baked in a casserole.  Once I served it to Mexican friends, and they declared that they were "chilaquiles de lujo"... deluxe "chilaquiles".

For the first two courses, however, I wanted to try something new.  For the wet soup I am going to serve cream of "chile poblano" soup.  I found a recipe on the internet, and tried it out a couple weeks ago.  It was very good although I might have to adjust the recipe a bit.  Even though "poblanos" are a relatively mild pepper, it seems as if the ones up here are more spicy (yes, I removed the seeds and veins from the peppers).  It tasted good to me, but it might be a bit too "picante" for my guests.  So I will reduce the number of "poblanos'.

For the dry soup I wanted to try a dish that I have had in Mexico... "fideo seco al chipotle".  "Fideos" are a type of Mexican macaroni, similar to vermicelli, but shorter.  Although you can now find many Mexican food products in the larger grocery stores here, I could not find "fideos", hence the reason for my trip to the Mexican grocery store.  Yes, they had "fideos"!

Whenever I go to "La Plaza", I feel as if I am in a grocery store in Mexico City... except that it is less crowded and the aisles are wider.  And, oddly enough, you find more American products in a Mexico City store.  "La Plaza" is a specialty grocery, and most of the items sold are from Mexico and other Latin American countries.  There were a couple other "gringos" in the store, but most of the customers, and all of the staff, were Latinos, and speaking Spanish.  As I browsed the aisles I was disappointed that they no longer sell "rompope", a Mexican liqueur similar to our eggnog.   I asked the cashier, and she told me that they are now having problems importing it into the U.S.

At the back of the store are tables and a counter where you can order tacos.  So I had a lunch of three "tacos al pastor".  They weren't as good as those from my favorite "taquerías" in Mexico City, but they were tasty and more authentic than anything you would find at Taco Bell. 

Well, it's time for me to go to the kitchen and try my new recipe.  I will let you know how it turns out.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

More Gardening

Lately it seems as if this is a "gardening blog" instead of the "travel blog", but at this time of year it seems that I am a slave to my garden.  Last year I neglected my garden because of my trip to Europe, which means that this year there is more work than ever to do. 
My Siberian iris is beginning to bloom.
I have never had any luck with the more traditional "bearded iris". but the Siberian variety seem to thrive in my garden.
My lilac bush has also started to bloom, although this year it does not seem to have as many blossoms as usual.


My new rose bushes are also blooming.

The spiderworts are pretty in the spring and early summer.  However later in the season they become gangly and unattractive, and I usually cut them down.  They have also become quite invasive.  They are popping up everywhere, and I have dug up many of them.
Every year I plant some new perennials.  This is called an ice plant.  Unlike most perennials, which bloom only once, this plant is supposed to bloom all summer long and into the autumn.
Another perennial which I added this year is a blanket flower.  It too is supposed to bloom all summer.
We are now past the danger of frost, and it is safe to plant annuals (fingers crossed).  Yesterday I went to the nursery and bought over 100 begonias.  About fifty of them went into one of the beds in my front yard.  The plants are small, and do not look like much right now.   But in a month, they should form a blanket of bronze foliage with red, white and pink flowers.
Finally, perhaps one of my readers can help me.  I planted this attractive perennial with little star-shaped blossoms quite a few years ago.  I have forgotten its name.  Does anyone know what it is?

Friday, May 22, 2015

Whirlybird Season

Maple trees are very common here in Ohio.  (In fact, just as in New England and in Canada, pure maple syrup is one of our local products.)  I have three maple trees on my property, and the neighbors to either side of me have maple trees too.  In the spring the trees produce wing-like seeds which are sometimes called "whirlybirds" because when they fall they whirl in the breeze like a helicopter.

This year the trees produced a bumper crop of whirlybirds.  The lawn is covered with them, and there are thousands still on the trees.  The lawn mower will pick up most of them. Fortunately, if any start to sprout in the lawn, they will not sprout again when cut off during mowing.

Of course they have also covered the flower beds.  When the seeds have finished falling I will have to clean out the beds again and pull out any seedlings.

They also fill the gutters.  Those who are lazy and do not clean them out will find that they have a miniature forest growing in their gutters.  For years I climbed on a ladder and cleaned the gutters each spring and each autumn.  But I'm getting too old for that.  Now I call and hire someone to clear them out for me!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Quiz Time - What City Is It?

Time for another quiz... and this time it's not about Mexico.
Can you identify the city from the picture below?  The building is one of the tallest structures in the city, and it used to be owned by British Petroleum.

Good luck!
UPDATE:  We have a winner.  Joan correctly answered that the building pictured above is in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio.  The building is officially known as 200 Public Square, but most residents still refer to it as the BP Building.  At 201 feet and 45 stories tall, it is the third highest structure in Cleveland.
In 1981 Sohio (Standard Oil of Ohio) announced plans to build a new headquarters on Public Square, the heart of Cleveland.  The plans aroused controversy because the building was going to be taller than the city's iconic Terminal Tower, also located on Public Square.  The plans were changed so that the Terminal Tower would remain slightly taller.
(The Terminal Tower was, from its completion in 1930 until 1964, the tallest building in the world outside of New York City.)
By the time the new building was opened in 1987, British Petroleum had bought out Sohio, and it became the headquarters of BP America.  In 1998 BP America moved its operations to Chicago when it also bought out Amoco.  The building is now the headquarters of Huntington Bank.
The Terminal Tower did not remain the tallest structure in Cleveland.  In 1991 the Key Tower was built, also on Public Square.  At 947 feet in height, it is the tallest building between Philadelphia and Chicago, and is the tallest building in the Midwest outside of Chicago.
Congratulations to Joan!  I really thought that this one would go to one of my Ohio readers.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

More Blossoms

The columbines and the azaleas have begun to bloom in my garden.

The forecast calls for several days of rain, so I shall have a forced respite from my gardening chores.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Mayan Treasures

Mexico City's National Museum of Anthropology is one of the great museums of the world.  Nowhere else in the world will you see such a huge collection of artifacts from Mexico's many pre-Hispanic civilizations.  I have visited the museum countless times.  It is so enormous that trying to see it all in one day is not only impossible, but exhausting.  On my last several visits I have concentrated on just relatively small portions.  Last February I spent time in the Mayan Hall.  Here is a small sample of the Mayan treasures.

Most of the pre-Colombian civilizations had some form of picture writing, but the Mayas were the only ones to have a full-fledged writing system.  This Mayan stone is covered with  hieroglyphs.

The Mayan hieroglyphs long baffled archaeologists.  In the second half of the twentieth century progress was made in deciphering the Mayan inscriptions, and today around ninety percent of the Mayan glyphs can be read.  I have read descriptions and seen TV documentaries about how the code was broken, and it remains beyond my comprehension.  Apparently the key was when the archaeologists realized that the glyphs represented syllables or were combined to represent several syllables. It was certainly one of the great archaeological achievements of recent times, and it has vastly increased our knowledge of the Mayan culture.

One feature found in the Mayan cities of the Classic Period (AD 250-900) were monuments known as stelae.  These large stone slabs are covered with carvings and inscriptions.  It was originally thought that they were representations of Mayan mythology, but now that the inscriptions can be read, archaeologists know that most of them commemorate important events in the lives of the Mayan kings.  They were art used as propaganda to glorify the kings.

The museum contains numerous examples of Mayan stelae.

On the small island of Jaina, just off the coast of Yucatan, more than 1000 Mayan burial sites have been excavated.  The graves contained large numbers of beautifully crafted ceramic figurines.  It is not known what the purpose of these figurines was, but they provide a window to the appearance, dress and daily life of the Maya.

One of the most important gods of the Maya was Chac, the rain god.  His image appears on many Mayan temples.  This mask of Chac is from a temple in the ruins of Kabah in Yucatan.  Chac is easily recognized by his long nose, similar to an elephant's trunk.


This statue is known as a "chac mool"   The "chac mool" is a reclining figure holding a bowl or plate over his belly.  These figures have been found in Toltec and Aztec sites, and several were found at the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá.  (The Mayan carvings are much more refined in style than those of the Toltecs and Aztecs.)  The actual name for these carvings is unknown.  In the 1800s a French archaeologist found one of the statues at Chichén Itzá, and erroneously thought that it depicted King Chaacmol.  The name stuck.  It is thought that offerings to the gods... food, flowers, incense, even human hearts.. were placed on the plate that the "chac mool" holds. 

One of the most fascinating sections of the Mayan Hall are the displays relating to the royal tomb of the city of Palenque.  Palenque, which is located in the southeastern state of Chiapas, was one of the most beautiful and powerful cities of the Classic Period.  In 1952, a Mexican archaeologist discovered a tomb deep within the city's principal pyramid.  The tomb contained the remains of King Pakal, and it was the first time that a burial had been discovered within a Mexican pyramid.

From the museum's Mayan Hall, you descend a flight of stairs to see a recreation of Pakal's burial chamber.

A large, intricately carved, stone slab covered the tomb.  Along the sides of the slab are hieroglyphics, which we know, now that Mayan writing has been deciphered, tell the family history of Pakal.  The top of lid portrays Pakal poised between the heavens and the underworld.  With great difficulty the slab was lifted, and beneath were the undisturbed remains of the king.

This stucco sculpture, found in the burial chamber, is thought to be a portrait of Pakal.

The king was buried with a trove of jade jewelry. (To the Mayas, jade was more valuable than gold.)  The jewelry, including the famous jade mask which covered his face, is on display in the museum.

On Christmas Eve of 1985, there was a robbery at the Anthropology Museum.  Two students, obsessed with archaeology, made their way into the museum through the air-conditioning duct, and stole over 100 small but priceless objects... including the jade mask of Pakal.  The objects were all so famous that it was doubted that the robbers would be able to successfully sell them.  It was feared that the treasures were lost forever.  Then, in 1989, police tracked down and arrested one of the thieves in Acapulco, and recovered almost all of the stolen goods.  Pakal's mask was returned to its place of honor... and, hopefully, the museum's security has been beefed up since then.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Time for Another Quiz

It's been quite a while since I've done a quiz here, so I looked through my pictures to find something for you to try to identify.  This one may be difficult.

On what Mexico City monument do these sculptures appear?

¡Buena suerte!  Good luck!
UPDATE - Well, I thought this one would take longer than the previous quizzes, but we already have a correct answer. 
Joan, a reader who has answered all the previous quizzes, gave a good but incorrect guess by saying the Monument to the Revolution.  The sculptures are from the same era, and of similar themes (although those on the Revolution Monument are more stylized.)  In fact I was considering using a photo of a sculptural detail from the Revolution Monument for this quiz, but I thought that it would be too easy.
(Carvings on the Monument to the Revolution)
The winner is Gary Denness, the author of "The Mexile", a blog that I frequently visit.  He correctly identified these sculptures as being from the Monument to Alvaro Obregón, which is located in Bombilla Park on Insurgentes Avenue in the southern neighborhood of San Angel.  Obregón was a general in the Mexican Revolution and the President of Mexico from 1920 to 1924. The monument was constructed in 1936 on the former site of a restaurant where the President was assassinated. 
Here is a photo of the park and the monument.
Congratulations, Gary!
If you would like to visit Gary's blog, "The Mexile", there is a link to it to the side under my bloglist. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

50,000 and Counting

Sometime during the night the counter on my blog hit the 50,000 mark.  That may seem impressive since I have only had my blog for about a year and a half.  However, that number is of page visits not of individual visitors.  So if someone looks at several pages during a visit, that increases the number.

Also a sizeable percentage of that number are not from legitimate visitors.  In the first months of writing, when I would look at my statistics, the leading traffic sources were two websites... "vampirestat" and "7secretsearch".  They advertise themselves as "domain and site appraisal" services.  I did a bit of research, and one blogger who writes about tech issues said...

" just ignore all of that, as it is the product of worthless scumbag referrer spam-bots. Automated, unattended software programs generate these supposed "hits" on your site. They do not represent any human visitors and are not of any interest whatsoever. Do not visit the referring sites, because there is a high probability of malware."   (Tech lore by Igor)

I had over 5000 hits from those two sites.  I am also suspicious of the fact that I have had over 2100 views from Malaysia, over 1200 from Ukraine, and nearly 600 from Russia.  That seems a bit fishy to me.

I am also puzzled by the statistics on the most viewed posts.  Last February I wrote a post about the Mexican artist, José María Velasco.  That entry has been viewed 1309 times, and each day the number increases.  I did a "google search" of José María Velasco, and my blog post does not show up anywhere in the first several pages.  So where are these constant hits coming from??? 

Of course I have had many genuine, human visitors!  Some time ago I added a  "live traffic feed" gadget on the side of my blog.  It shows the cities of my visitors.  I know when some of my friends are reading my blog by the cities which are listed.  If I click on the "traffic feed" I can also see from where the visitors arrived.  Whenever I see one of the other blogs with which I am linked (such as "Babsblog" or "Marcoyucatan"), I am confident that those are legitimate visitors.  There are also a number of people who arrive directly.  I assume that they have liked my blog enough to bookmark it on their computer, and they come back to see what I have written.  There are some who visit on a daily basis... like the people from Albion, Pennsylvania or Norwich, England.  I would love for them to write a comment and say "hello", but I am pleased that they find my blog interesting enough to check daily. 

Well, even though that 50,000 number looks nice, it is actually a meaningless statistic.  But I truly appreciate the visits from living, breathing human beings out there!  ¡Muchas gracias!   

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Planting Begins

Today I made the first trip of the season to a local nursery to buy plants for my flower gardens.  Even though today the temperature reached 80 F, it is still too early to buy annuals.  Here in northern Ohio the rule of thumb is that after Memorial Day the danger of frost is minimal.  (Next week is going to be much cooler; one day the high is predicted to be only 55 degrees.)

However, it is safe to plant perennial plants, so I bought some for the island in my front yard.

The creeping phlox is so beautiful this spring that I bought several more clumps to plant along the border. I wish that it would bloom all summer!  I had already extended the island a bit, and I bought two more rose bushes to add to the three that I already have there.  I had thought that our cold winter had done a number on my existing rose bushes.  Except for a few leaves at ground level, the branches were all bare.  When I went to trim down the dead wood, I discovered that most of the branches were still alive, and I think I see the very beginnings of leaves sprouting on them. 

I mentioned previously that this winter the hungry deer chewed up two of the large evergreen bushes on the side of the house.  They are so bad that I doubt that they will ever look good again... especially if the deer continue to feed on them every winter.  So this week I chopped them down and dug out the roots... a backbreaking job.  I wasn't too upset about losing the shrubs.  They had been planted by my father years ago too close to the house.  Sometime down the road, I need to have new siding put on the house.  The bushes would have to go anyway, since there would be no room for work to be done.  I bought a miniature lilac (it grows to about 5 feet in height), and I planted that today also... well away from the house.  I haven't decided on what other kind of bush to plant.

I still have a lot to do, but at least I feel as if I have made a good start on my gardening.

Monday, May 4, 2015

A Weekend of Gardening

This weekend we enjoyed glorious weather with sunshine and temperatures in the upper 70s.  I spent most of Saturday and Sunday taking advantage of the weather and beginning work on my flower beds in earnest.  By late Sunday afternoon my muscles were aching from the hours of work.  It is only the beginning.  Every sunny day in May, and on into June I will be outside.  I have only cleaned out and prepared the beds in my front yard; I haven't touched the flower gardens in the back.  It is still to early to plant annuals since a killing frost is still a danger until late May.

The creeping phlox has begun to bloom.
The severe winter has taken its toll.  My rose bushes are mostly dead wood.  New growth has started to appear on some of them, but I fear that some of the bushes did not survive the winter.
The deer population is a major problem for gardeners here.  Our gardens are a tempting salad bar for the herds of deer that pass through our yards each night.  This spring, after such a harsh winter, they seem to be especially hungry and have been chewing voraciously on the young growth.  I have a lot of hostas in my flower beds.  The hostas are a favorite of the deer.  Usually, however, the plants have a chance leaf out before the deer start nibbling, and I have a chance to spray repellent on the plants before they inflict much damage.  This year however they are chomping off the young sprouts.  They have also been eating the leaves of my day lilies.  As I finish each flower bed, I have been liberally spraying everything with deer repellent.  Hopefully it will all grow back.
During the last two winters, the deer have also been eating something that they have never bothered before... the large taxus bushes at the side of my house.  Even though the bushes are still alive, the deer have chewed so much of the green needles off of the sides of the shrubs that I fear that they will never look nice again (especially if they continue nibbling every winter).  So yesterday I tackled tearing out one of the bushes.  I got it chopped down to the base, but I still have the even more difficult task of digging out by the roots what is left.  I am thinking about planting a lilac bush in its place.
Today I have to mow the lawn before rain comes through later this afternoon.  The rain is supposed to continue tomorrow.  So my muscles will have a day of rest.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Worst Trip Ever

Of all the trips that I have taken in the past 40 years, there was only one which was terrible.  It was a student trip to Mexico which I organized in 1987.  This was the third time that I took students south of the border.  The previous two trips had gone flawlessly (other than the one incident at Sanborns that I wrote about a few day ago.My big mistake was to switch tour companies, but I had found a different company that offered an itinerary that included some places not usually included on student tours.

I had a group of around ten students.  In addition, two of my teaching colleagues, Jane, who taught Spanish with me, and my buddy Gary, who taught industrial arts, went along as chaperones.  The mother of one of the students, and the grandmother of another, as well as another female adult signed up for the trip as well.

Our trip started in Mexico City.  I knew the city well enough that I told our company tour guide, Carlos, that we wouldn't need him for the first couple days.  I felt that I could better gauge the attention span of my students, and not be too long-winded and boring.  Those were probably the best days of the trip.  I took the kids on a tour of the highlights of the Anthropology Museum.  I guess I was doing a good job since we soon had several other people following along with us!

On the first day, however, I already had an inkling as to the character of Carlos.  A suitcase of one of the students had not arrived with us on the flight to Mexico City.  Carlos wanted me to pay him to go back to the airport to pick it up.  I told him no; that was a part of his job.

After a couple days in the capital, we were to travel to the nearby pyramids of Teotihuacán, and then continue on to Guanajuato... about five hours away.  What should arrive in front of the hotel to transport us, but a dinky school bus.  I was used to nice motor coaches on the previous trips.  I said that the bus was unacceptable.  Yes, we would fit in it, but it would be uncomfortable for our long trip. Besides, there was no luggage compartment, and our suitcases would have to be stacked in the aisle.  A representative of the company was called, and we had a "discussion" in Spanish on the sidewalk in front of the hotel.  I lost my cool, and uncharacteristically started yelling at the representative.  My students were watching with mouths agape wondering if I were cussing him out in Spanish.  We finally came to an agreement.  We would take the school bus to the pyramids, and a motor coach would be sent with our luggage to meet us for the journey to Guanajuato.

On the way to the pyramids, Carlos (whom the students started calling "Carlos the Creep") sat next to the female adult that was with us, and was hitting on her.  Later, at Teotihuacán, he was telling "off-color" jokes in front of the students.  

After visiting the pyramids, a coach was there for us.  We had traveled some distance when we were stopped by the police.  The license tags on the bus had expired.  The bus driver got off the bus, locking us inside, and he gave the police everything he had in his wallet as a "mordida" (bribe).   After that incident, we continued on our way... but the bus was traveling so slowly.  Gary could tell from the way that the driver was driving that something was wrong with the steering.  

We arrived in Guanajuato late at night at a nice hotel on the outskirts of the city.  The next day we set off in the bus for a tour of colonial Guanajuato.  We stopped at a monument atop a hillside for a panoramic view of the city.  When we continued down the hill, the steering mechanism gave out completely.  If it had not been for the concrete abutment at the edge of the road, we would have gone over the edge.  We had to get off the bus, walk down the hill, and continue our tour on foot.

At this point, if it were not for my friends Jane and Gary, I would have probably had a nervous breakdown.  And the students would come up to me and say, "It's all right, señor, we're having a good time."

We were supposed to leave that afternoon for Guadalajara.  But, of course, we had to wait for another bus to be sent from Mexico City.  Night fell, and we were still waiting in the hotel lobby.  We had already missed one supper the previous night because of our late arrival in Guanajuato, and now we were going to miss another meal.  After wrangling with Carlos the Creep, I finally convinced him to have the hotel provide us with some food.

At last the bus arrived.  The driver drove like a crazy man along the twisting mountain roads.  When we approached a curve, the driver would turn off the headlights so that he could see if anyone was coming around the bend in the opposite direction.  I was sitting next to Jane.  We had both traveled extensively in Mexico, and were used to Mexican drivers.  But I looked at Jane and asked her, "Are you scared?"  She nodded.

At long last we arrived in Guadalajara in one piece, and settled into our hotel.  The next morning when we were set to do our day of sightseeing in the city, the bus wouldn't start!  We all got out and push-started the coach.

After our stay in Guadalajara, we flew to our final destination, Ixtapa, for a couple days of relaxation on the beach.  I hoped that we would be leaving Carlos the Creep in Guadalajara, but no such luck.  He continued with us on to Ixtapa.

Our hotel was a beautiful... a luxurious high rise on the beach.  The one good thing that I can say about the tour is that all of the hotels were very nice.

I think it was our second day in Ixtapa that Carlos and I were called into the office of the hotel manager.  I seems that Carlos had been ordering meals at the hotel and charging them to our group's account.  "Who is going to pay?" the manager asked.  I looked the Creep in the eyes and said, "Not I."

Carlos had a ground floor room with an outdoor terrace.  He had washed out his underpants and hung them on the railing around the terrace to dry.  A couple of the boys in our group, went to his terrace and filled the Creep's underpants with shaving cream.  Normally, I would have been angry about such shenanigans, but instead I applauded their prank.

When we arrived at the airport for our journey home, I suppose that Carlos was expecting the customary tip.  But he received not a "centavo" from any of us.  

After returning home, I wrote an angry letter to the tour company, detailing everything that had happened. I demanded that we be given a refund for the cost of the ground transportation and tour guide.  I never received a reply from the company.

That was the last time I ever organized a student trip to Mexico!!