Friday, October 30, 2015

Seven Archaeological Wonders

Since ancient times people have been making lists.  Ancient Greek writers compiled a list of wonders of their known world... seven of them because they considered the number seven to represent perfection.

I have always been fascinated by vanished civilizations, so I thought I would make a list of my seven favorite archaeological sites.  Just as the Greeks did not have knowledge of the entire world, I have not traveled to many astounding places. I have not seen the Coliseum of Rome, the Parthenon of Athens, or the Great Pyramids of Egypt, just to name a few.  Obviously, since I have traveled so many times to Mexico, sites in that country are overrepresented. 

There are also some places I have visited which many travelers would probably put on their list, but which I have not included.  It is certainly amazing how the ancient inhabitants of Britain transported huge stones to create Stonehenge.  Yet that site did not "wow" me.  (The fact that visitors are no longer allowed to get close to the ruins did not help.)  The Mayan city of Chichén Itzá made it to the new list of wonders announced in 2007.  As impressive as it is, the hordes of day-trippers who flock there from Cancun and the army of annoying souvenir vendors have spoiled it for me.

So here is my very subjective list...   

7.  The Roman Aqueduct in Segovia, Spain

Every time I visit Segovia I catch my breath when I first glimpse this aqueduct built by the Romans 2000 years ago. It is nearly 100 feet high, and was built entirely without mortar.  The fact that it has survived the centuries and continued to provide water to the city until the 19th century is amazing.
6.  The Mayan Ruins of Uxmal, Mexico

With its pyramids, palaces, and intricately designed stone mosaic decorations, Uxmal is one of the most impressive Mayan cities.  When I take friends to the Yucatán, I take them here rather than to Chichén Itzá.   No crowds, no vendors, and you can still climb most of the ruins.

5.  Teotihuacán, Mexico

More than fifteen hundred years ago, Teotihuacán was one of the largest cities in the entire world.  And then it was mysteriously abandoned.  It's sheer size is astounding.  The Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest pyramid in the world.  Although it receives large numbers of visitors (it's located about 30 miles from Mexico City), the site's vastness easily absorbs the crowds.  The two pyramids can be climbed, offering impressive views.

4.  Palenque, Mexico

Located in the tropical rainforest of the Mexican state of Chiapas, Palenque is one of the most beautiful examples of classic Mayan art and architecture.  Although you are no longer permitted to climb the Pyramid of the Inscriptions and descend into the burial chamber of King Pakal, it remains a stunning and evocative site.

3.  Cantona, Mexico

Not many people have heard of this impressive site which is located about three hours from Mexico City near the border of the states of Puebla and Veracruz.  More than 1000 years ago it was a major city along the trade route from the Gulf coast to the Mexican highlands.  It is the largest archaeological site in Mexico.  The beautiful scenery all around you, and the fact that you have the place almost to yourself, make this one of my favorites.

2.  Monte Albán, Mexico

Two thousand years ago the Zapotec tribe leveled the top of a mountain to construct their huge ceremonial center.  It is an amazing construction feat. All around you are marvelous views of the mountains and valleys of Oaxaca.

1. Machu Picchu, Peru

There is absolutely no doubt that my favorite archaeological site is the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu in the Andes Mountains of Peru.  It was constructed 1000 feet above the valley floor on a saddle between two mountain peaks.  The astonishing Incan stonework combined with the spectacular mountain scenery combine to make this the most incredible place that I have ever visited!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Two Years

I can't believe that it was two years ago today that I first started this blog.  It began simply as a way to keep friends and family posted on my travels and to serve as a travel diary for myself.  I would have never imagined that I would have readers from a wide variety of countries, that I would meet and become friends with other bloggers, or that I would make contact with a cousin that I didn't know I had through this blog.

In the past two years I have traveled seven times to Mexico and three times to Europe.  Those trips have all been faithfully recorded here.  Almost every day when I am traveling, even if I'm tired and ready to go to bed, I have forced myself to post an entry with some pictures.  Sometimes it seems like a chore, but most of the time I enjoy writing about my experiences of the day.

Even in between trips I try to post on a fairly regular basis. I admit that sometimes it's difficult to come up with something to write about. Outside of my traveling, my life is rather mundane.  I'll dig out some old pictures and write about trips from before I began blogging.  Now and then I'll post a travel quiz which is always fun.  Sometimes the teacher in me comes out, and I do a mini-lesson about the history of one of the places I visit. Or I'll just write about gardening or cooking or the weather.  I have read some blogs whose authors have a gift for writing profound, philosophical musings.  I really don't have that gift.  Hopefully my entries don't come across as banal drivel.

I guess, however, there must be people out there who find my writing interesting.  I get repeat visitors from the same cities on a regular basis, and some people arrive directly rather than through "Google" or links on other blogs.  I suppose that means that they have enjoyed my blog enough to "bookmark" it on their computer. 

To everyone who takes the time to read my ramblings, my sincere thanks.  I hope to continue traveling and blogging for many years to come.  

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Island of Vieques

A couple posts ago I wrote that I was not a "beach person".  But today's entry is going to include more pictures of beaches.  Go figure!

Just eight miles off the eastern shore of Puerto Rico is the little island of Vieques.  Just twenty one miles long by four miles wide, Vieques is Puerto Rican territory.  During World War II, the United States Navy took over two thirds of the island and established a base here.  After the war the Navy continued using the island as a firing range and a testing ground for bombs and missiles.  The local population protested the expropriation of their land, and the protests intensified and gained national attention after a civilian employee of the Navy was killed by a misfired bomb in 1999.  Under pressure, in 2003 the Navy closed the base.  The former military area was designated a national wildlife refuge. Most of it is open to the public except for a portion which is deemed as contaminated due to weapons testing. Since the Navy's withdrawal, the island has become a destination for tourists seeking an undeveloped tropical island of beautiful beaches.

In 2008 when a friend and I visited Puerto Rico, we included a couple days on Vieques.  The island is accessible by ferry boat or by small plane from San Juan.  We flew to the island, and it was quite an experience.  The plane carried perhaps a dozen passengers, and my friend sat next to the pilot.

There are two towns on the island.  We stayed at the smaller of the two, Esperanza, which is located on the southern shore.  It was the complete antithesis of over-developed resorts like Cancun.  There were no high-rise hotels; just small guest houses.  There were a few restaurants and even fewer tourist shops.

Along the shore at Esperanza

To explore the island it's necessary to rent a jeep since the roads into the wildlife refuge are unpaved.

This was one of the better stretches of road.
The most accessible and most "crowded" of the beaches is Sun Bay Beach.
Heading further out along the shore, we came to this beautiful beach.  We were the only people there!
However, the beaches of Vieques were not our reason for coming to this island.  Unfortunately, I have no photos of its most unique attraction, the Bioluminescent Bay.  The waters of this inlet are the home of a micro-organism known as a dinoflagellate.  At night these tiny creatures glow when the water is disturbed.
We had scheduled our visit to Vieques to coincide with the new moon because the darker the night, the better the luminescence.  We signed up for a tour to the bay.  An old school bus took us over a deeply rutted road to the shore where we boarded a small boat.  In the middle of the bay we were allowed to jump into the water.  As I would lift my arms out of the water the drops of water glowed like sparkling gems.  It was a truly magical experience.
I hope in the years since then that this little island has remained relatively undeveloped. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Nature's Wrath

Yesterday Hurricane Patricia slammed into Mexico's Pacific coast between the cities of Manzanillo and Puerto Vallarta.  Patricia, which had rapidly intensified from a tropical storm to a Category 5 Hurricane, at one point had winds of up to 200 miles per hour, making it the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere.  Fortunately landfall was along a less populated stretch of coastline, and the winds had diminished somewhat.  However, with winds of 165 miles per hour, it was still a potentially deadly Category 5 storm.  At this point there are no reports of casualties, but I have to wonder how long it will be before we have the full report of deaths and damage from more remote areas of the country.  The storm weakened as it hit the mountains, but there was still the danger of flash floods and mudslides.  As Patricia crosses the border into Texas there is the threat of serious flooding there.  One can only hope that when the full extent of the storm's effects are known, the reports of casualties will remain very low.  This could have been a natural disaster rivaling Mexico City's 1985 earthquake, but for now it seems that Mexico might have dodged a bullet.

(image taken from the web)

In 1965, when I was in junior high school, we were living near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and experienced Hurricane Betsy.  The storm was the most costly that the state had experienced up to that point.  It seemed that Betsy's northward track was going to miss Florida all together.  But then it took an extreme change of course and headed southwest toward Florida.  For me, a thirteen year old who had never experienced anything like that, it was an exciting adventure.  And classes, of course, had been cancelled.  I remember the next-door neighbor coming over to help us with the hurricane shutters.  All of the windows had metal awnings which could be lowered and screwed into the wall, covering the windows.  We never lost electricity.  We sat in the house, unable to see outside, watching old movies that were broadcast continually on the TV station.  (This was long before the Weather Channel and its constant coverage.)  When it was over, there was a lot of standing water and debris all over, but our neighborhood suffered no major damage.  However, five people in Florida died, and there was $139 million worth of damage.

Of course, here in Ohio, we don't have to worry about hurricanes.  We did, however, experience the remnants of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.  Gusts of 68 miles per hour were reported in the Cleveland area.  I remember lying awake in bed that night, listening to the wind howling, and hoping that the trees around my house would not topple.  The next morning, other than a lot of small branches strewn all over, there was no damage in the neighborhood.  When I went out to run some errands, though, I saw numerous trees that had been uprooted, and at least one which had fallen on a house.  I was lucky.

I am hoping against hope that the people in Mexico have also "lucked out".

Thursday, October 22, 2015

On the Beach

To each his/her own, but I have never understood people whose idea of a vacation is to simply spend one or two weeks sitting on a beach.  Yes, I realize that being by the water can be stress-relieving therapy, but after a day or two relaxing on a tropical beach I start to get antsy, and I want to do some sightseeing.  I want to visit museums, clamber over ancient ruins, or just wander the streets of an interesting town.  For me, the colonial city of Mérida, Mexico and its nearby archaeological sites hold much more appeal than the beach resorts of the Mayan Riviera just a few hours down the highway.

That said, I do admit that Puerto Rico has some lovely beaches.  One of the most famous beaches is Luquillo Beach.  On one trip to Puerto Rico I took a guided bus tour (ugh!) of El Yunque rainforest and Luquillo Beach.  I was disappointed that more time was devoted to the beach than to exploring the rainforest.  On a later trip, a friend and I rented a car and drove to the town of Luquillo where we stayed for three nights.  We used Luquillo as a base for spending an entire day at El Yunque.  The next day we spent an afternoon on the beach.  It was very pleasant, but after a few hours I had my "beach fix", and I was ready to move on. 

Everyone has their own concept of the ideal vacation.  For those of you who yearn for tropical waters and swaying palm trees, here are some photos of Luquillo Beach...

The dark mountain in the background is the location of El Yunque tropical rainforest which I discussed in an earlier post.
Oh my!  Yours truly 25 years ago!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Last Blossoms

My flower beds have all been cleared out.  However, the flower box of annuals behind my bedroom, although looking wild and untended, is still blooming.   I don't have the heart to pull out the plants.  So until we get a killing frost, I will allow them to continue flowering.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Autumn Colors... and Some White Stuff

Yesterday it was very chilly with temperatures in the 40s.  It was, however, a bright sunny morning, so I decided to drive down to the park and take some pictures of the fall foliage.  One of the entrances to the Cleveland Metroparks is just a five minute drive from my house.  As luck would have it, shortly after I arrived in the park, the clouds rolled in, and the wind picked up making it feel even colder.

The autumn color this year does not seem to be especially spectacular.  Some trees have already lost most of their leaves, others are still green, and many of the trees that have turned are not brilliant in color.

Nevertheless, here are some pictures that I took as I hiked to the top of Cedar Point Hill (not to be confused with the famous Cedar Point Amusement Park in Ohio).

After I returned home, in spite of the chill in the air, I decided to continue clearing out my flower garden... a task which is about 75% completed.  As I was trimming back my rose bushes, I thought I noticed a few white flakes in the air.  A few minutes later, as I was bringing some flower pots in from the patio, it began to snow.  Well, it wasn't exactly snow.  It was more like ice crystals instead of flakes... but it was definitely white stuff, and it was coming down quite rapidly.  It only lasted a few minutes, and it wasn't sticking to the ground.  But at that point I decided to wait for another day to continue my yard work!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Gardens in the Museum

Our Cleveland Museum of Art is currently displaying a special exhibit entitled "Painting the Modern Garden - Monet to Matisse".  The show, organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Royal Academy of Arts in London, will run until January 5, 2016, and will then move on to London.  The exhibit examines the garden as a source of inspiration for late 19th and early 20th century painters. 

(image from the web)
"The Artist's Garden at Eragny" by Camille Pisarro

Today, a high school friend of mine and I went to see the exhibit.  It was truly impressive.   The show contains more than 100 paintings gathered from museums and private collections from around the world.  Many great names in art are represented...  Renoir, Pisarro,  Gaughin, Van Gogh, Manet, Cezanne, Matisse, and others.  Most of all it spotlights a large number of works by the painter who is most associated with gardens, Claude Monet.  Monet was an avid horticulturalist, and the gardens at his homes were the subject of many of his works. 
One of the gems of Cleveland's permanent collection is a large (14 x 6 feet) painting of the water lilies in the water garden at his home in Giverny.  I did not realize that it is part of a much larger triptych of three canvasses.  For this exhibit the other two paintings, on loan 
from museums in Kansas City and St. Louis, were brought to Cleveland.  They are hung together to create one enormous painting.  It is one of the highlights of the show.
 (image from the web)
Cleveland's portion of the Monet triptych

   (image from the web)
The three water lily canvasses reunited

Cleveland is the only United States venue for this exhibit.  So, if you are within driving distance, I recommend that you visit our art museum to see this outstanding show.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Film Recommendation

Columbus Day has come and gone along with the debate over whether the navigator should be viewed as a hero or a villain who began the brutal exploitation of the native peoples of the Americas.

A while ago I saw an excellent movie from Spain called "Even the Rain" ("También la lluvia" in Spanish) which deals with this topic.  The movie was made in 2010, and stars well-known Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal.  The movie was nominated for numerous Goya Awards (Spain's equivalent to the Oscars), and was also nominated as Best Foreign Film for the 2011 Academy Awards.

(image from the web)

I don't want to give too much away, but the premise is that a Spanish film crew is making a movie about Columbus which depicts the enslavement of the indigenous people.  So you have a movie within a movie.  The company is filming this in Bolivia, of all places.  Early in the film someone asks (and I paraphrase), "Why are we making a movie about Columbus in a landlocked nation that was never visited by the explorer?"  The answer is economics; production costs are low.  Locals can be hired as extras and set workers for only $2 a day.  Ironic that the Columbus movie, which sermonizes about exploitation, is using cheap labor.
(As a side note, when "Even the Rain" was released, film critics asked, "How much did they pay the locals employed for the movie's production?"  A valid question.)
The producer and director of the Columbus movie soon realize that exploitation of the indigenous population is not a thing of the past.  While they are filming in Bolivia, life is disrupted by demonstrations protesting price hikes for water.  This is based on actual events that occurred in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba in 2000.  The government had privatized the municipal water utility, handing it over to a consortium of foreign investors.  The consortium immediately raised the water rates by 35%, something that the poor could ill afford.  They also took over and metered the privately owned irrigation wells which the native farmers of the area had dug themselves.  The way the privatization law was written, the consortium could even conceivably charge for the rain water collected by the farmers... hence the name of the movie.
I thought that this was a very thought provoking film.  The story, the acting, and the cinematography were all excellent.  If you are interested in Latin American history and don't mind reading subtitles, I highly recommend it!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

It's a Jungle Out There

I few days ago I wrote about San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Another place on the island which I have visited is El Yunque National Forest.  Located in the northeastern corner of Puerto Rico and just a 25 mile drive from San Juan, El Yunque is the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest system.

The forest is located on the windward side of the Luquillo Mountains. As the winds from the Atlantic hit the mountains, they release their moisture.  The rainy climate (around 240 inches of rainfall annually) has created a lush environment of tropical foliage.

The paved highway which goes through the forest passes next to one of its most photographed spots, Coca Falls.  The falls have a height of 85 feet.

Continuing along the highway, you come to the Yokahu Observation Tower.  Weather permitting, the tower offers spectacular views of the forest and of the Atlantic coast in the distance.

There are numerous hiking trails in the forest.  One of the most popular is La Mina Trail.  Although it is a short hike (less than a mile) it is rated as moderate in difficulty since it descends 500 feet in that short distance.  It follows La Mina River and ends at La Mina Falls.

A trip to El Yunque is a "must" for any visitor to Puerto Rico.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Still Standing

As I continue to clear out my flower beds, there is one perennial which I have left standing... the toad lily.

The toad lily is an autumn bloomer.  I planted it several years ago in a shady spot of the garden.  This year it really took off, and the plant is about three feet in height.   The flowers are small, but are very exotic in appearance. They look like tiny orchids. 

The plant is full of buds.  The weather this week is turning colder, and by next weekend they are predicting low temperatures in the 30s.  I am hoping that the first frost holds off so that my toad lily may continue to bloom in splendid isolation. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

In Old San Juan

One of my travel destinations about which I have not written up to now is Puerto Rico.  I have visited the Caribbean island three times.  The first time was back in 1985.  I took my father on a Caribbean cruise the Christmas after my mother had passed away, and we had one much too brief day in San Juan.  Subsequently I took two other trips, flying to Puerto Rico to do more extensive sightseeing and to visit a high school friend who is a lawyer in San Juan.

My favorite part of the island is Old San Juan, the colonial heart of the island's capital.  I dug out my old slides, and uploaded a few of them to the computer to show you a bit of that picturesque city.

San Juan was founded in 1509 by Juan Ponce de León (whom we remember for his exploration of Florida in search of the "Fountain of Youth").  The town was originally named Puerto Rico (Rich Port).  By 1521 the settlement was renamed San Juan, and Puerto Rico was used as the name for the entire island.  Old San Juan is built in a defensive location on a small island at the entrance to the harbor.  It is connected to the mainland of Puerto Rico by bridges.

Today Old San Juan is a maze of cobblestone streets lined with colorful colonial buildings.

A monument to Christopher Columbus, the first European to visit the island...

The Cathedral of San Juan was originally built in 1521, making it the second oldest cathedral in the Americas.  (Only the Cathedral of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic is older.)  The original structure was destroyed in a hurricane, and the present cathedral was built in 1540.

Inside the cathedral is the tomb of Ponce de León.

The Church of San José, built in 1532, is one of the oldest structures on the island.

Another historic sight in Old San Juan is "La Casa Blanca" (the White House).  It was built in 1521 as a residence for Ponce de León and his family.  However, he never had a chance to occupy the house because he was killed on his ill-fated expedition to Florida before it was completed.  Today it is a museum filled with colonial furnishings.

San Juan was a major port for the treasure ships headed back to Spain.  Because of this, the city was a target for pirates, including Sir Francis Drake.  To defend the city the Spanish
built walls around San Juan and constructed two large fortresses.  The more famous of the two, El Morro, stands at the entrance to San Juan harbor.

The fort was begun in 1539 and was enlarged throughout the colonial period.  When Puerto Rico became a United States territory as a result of the Spanish-American War of 1898, El Morro became a U.S. army post.  In 1961 control of the fortress was transferred to the National Park System, and it became part of the San Juan National Historic Site.  El Morro is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and today it is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Puerto Rico.

At the opposite end of Old San Juan is another fortress, the Fort of San Cristóbal.  It was built in 1783 to protect the city from land attack.  It is also part of the San Juan National Historic Site.