Thursday, August 30, 2018

New Money

I just read that a new 500 peso bill will enter circulation in Mexico today.

(image taken from the web)

One side has a portrait of national hero President Benito Juárez.  (He is already featured on the twenty peso bill.)  In honor of the nation's natural heritage, the reverse side shows a gray whale.  This new bill will replace the existing 500 peso note which honors painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.  (I never thought that the likenesses of those two were very good.)

(image taken from the web)

The 500 peso bill is what I always dread receiving at the ATM.  Even though it is only worth a little more than $25 US, it seems that small businesses never have change for it.  Whenever I use the ATM in Mexico, I immediately go into the bank and ask to exchange the 500s for something smaller.

I read in the same article that in next two years new 200 and 1000 peso bills will be introduced.  The reverse of those notes will also feature ecological themes.  (By the way, I have never seen a 1000 peso bill, and many businesses will not even accept them.)

Finally, on another blog I read of plans for a new 50 peso bill.  The blogger did not mention whose portrait will be on the front (presently it has Morelos, a hero of the War for Independence).  However he showed the design for the reverse side which has a picture of an axolotl.

(image taken from the web)

An axolotl is a highly endangered amphibian related to the salamander.  It lives in the waterways of Xochimilco on the south side of Mexico City..  The blog did not mention when this new bill will enter circulation. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Poblano Peppers

Earlier this summer I planted a poblano pepper in a large pot and set it out on the patio.  By the time I returned from Mexico, the plant had grown a great deal and was full of small peppers.

Even though the peppers grow larger, I was eager to pick the biggest of the peppers on the plant.

The "chiles poblanos" are, of course, the peppers which are used in my favorite dish, "chiles en nogada",   However, that is a very complicated and time-consuming recipe.  I was not about to go through all that work for just one small poblano.  So I stuffed it with a mixture of canned chicken breast, sautéed onions and cheese and put it in the oven.  I wasn't "chiles en nogada", but it was quite tasty. 

Monday, August 27, 2018

Treasures from Mexico

If you were following my account of my recent trip to Mexico you know that this time I went overboard buying handicrafts.  Usually the things that I buy are gifts for others or items to donate to a charity auction.  I have enough stuff in my house.  But this time there were several things that I really wanted for myself.

You may recall that Alejandro and I ate at a restaurant called "El Conejo en la Luna" (The Rabbit in the Moon) near the ruins of Teotihuacan.  The restaurant had a gift shop, and I saw this piece of pottery from the state of Michoacán that really appealed to me.  It is signed by the artist, a talented fellow by the name of Alfredo Trejo.

I was able to learn more about Señor Trejo on the internet.  He belongs to the third generation of artisans in his family, and he has been making pottery for 35 years.  He is noted for his use of color, and he has won numerous awards for his work.  Wow!  And now I have one of his creations in my home!

(Image taken from the web)

As I walking around Alejandro's neighborhood, a part of the city that is not frequented by tourists, I saw a vendor selling his pottery on the street.  Most of his merchandise consisted of flower pots, but he also had some clay figures of pre-Hispanic gods.  I purchased this image of the Mayan god of prosperity.  I told him that if he went to a different part of the city, he could probably sell a lot of his figures to tourists.  I was very afraid that this piece would break on the journey home.  I wrapped it in bubble wrap, put it in my carry-on, and it made it home in perfect condition.

Nor could I resist buying these two hand-painted plates, examples of glazed Talavera ware from Puebla.

This little jaguar head is now hanging on my bedroom wall.  It is from the workshop of Eugenia and Roberto Sosa from the town of San Martín Tilcajete, Oaxaca, which is famous for the creation of colorful "alebrijes"... hand carved and painted wooden animals.

I bought the piece at a handicraft exposition at the World Trade Center, and I talked with Roberto Sosa there.  I have also found their work on some upscale websites selling Mexican handicrafts.

Just across the aisle was the booth of Nestor and Leticia Melchor, who are also from the town of San Martín Tilcajete and who also make "alebrijes". 

The coyote figure which I bought from them is the most expensive item I purchased while I was down there. Since returning home I have found their work on some websites.  My coyote, which cost $250 US, was relatively inexpensive compared to many of their pieces which cost thousands of dollars.

If that seems like a lot a money, look at the incredible detail which is all painted by hand... with a very tiny brush!

This definitely is more than a handicraft; it is a work of art.

I can say that I brought home some real treasures on this trip!

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Dreadful Dining

Back in 1973 when I attended the University of the Americas in Cholula, the little town didn't have much in the way dining options... especially for a gringo such as I, worried about Montezuma's Revenge.  I ate at the university cafeteria or occasionally I took the bus to Puebla to dine at "Sanborns", considered a "safe" place for tourists to eat.

Today Cholula has become a tourist destination, and there are loads of restaurants.  The problem is that a lot of them are tourist traps that are more interested in making a buck off of the day trippers, than providing a fine dining experience.  Alejandro and I wandered around, looking at menus and trying to decide where to eat.  We sat down at a table at a sidewalk restaurant on the main plaza, but after waiting ten minutes for a menu, we got up and left.  We went to another place we had noticed earlier.  It was in the very pretty courtyard of an old house.  As it turned out, its attractive setting was the only good thing about the place.

The waiter brought us our menus, and immediately told us that they were out of chicken.  Well, that eliminated half the items.  We asked him what kind of "aguas frescas" they had. ("Aguas frescas" are the beverages of flavored water that are so popular in Mexico.)  He said that they were all out, so we ordered soft drinks... a Coke for Alejandro and a "Sidral" (apple flavored pop) for me.  Apparently they were out of glasses too, because he served us the drinks in the bottle.  

We decided on "cecina", a slice of cured, marinated beef.  Alejandro ordered the plain "cecina" and I ordered the "cecina enchilada" with a spicy coating.  After waiting for a while, the waiter brought Alejandro's dinner, but not mine.  I told Alejandro to go ahead and eat, but he couldn't because he didn't have a knife.

Smiling for the photo, but not happy about the service.

We finally got the waiter's attention, and told him that Alejandro needed a knife.  At least fifteen minutes later, he received his knife, and I received my dinner.  The food was very mediocre.  My "frijoles" were watery.  The menu boasted that the tortillas were hand-made, but ours were lukewarm and hard.   When the bill arrived, the suggested tip was already included.  Even though we are both generous tippers, we paid less than the suggested amount.  We have eaten in many places from fancy restaurants to little holes-in-the-wall, but we agreed that this was our worst dining experience.

Needless to say, when we bring my friends Nancy and Fred here in November, we will not return to this place!

Friday, August 24, 2018

Two of Thirty Seven

As I mentioned in the previous post, Cholula was the sacred city of pre-Hispanic Mexico.  There were supposedly 365 temples in the ancient city, one for each day of the year.  The Spanish tore down all of the temples, and built churches on top of many of them.  Thus it was said that Cholula had 365 churches.  Not true.  There are only thirty seven.  The most important is the Church of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios which was constructed atop the Great Pyramid.  On this recent visit to Cholula, Alejandro and I did not climb the pyramid or visit that church, but we did visit a couple of the churches in the center of the town.

The Church of San Gabriel faces Cholula´s main plaza.  It was built in 1529 by the Franciscan Order on the site of the pre-Hispanic temple of Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent God.  By the time that the Spanish arrived, the Great Pyramid had already been abandoned for centuries, and was covered with dirt and vegetation as it is today.  The temple to the Feathered Serpent was the most important of the city's many shrines and drew pilgrims from all over Mexico.  The temple of course was demolished, and the Franciscans, who were the first order of missionaries to arrive here, built a monastery here.

The earthquake of September of 2018 hit not only Mexico City, but also the state of Puebla where Cholula is located.  San Gabriel was one of a number of churches in the area to suffer damage in the quake.

The church remains open, but the front entrance is closed while work continues to repair the damage.  You can see scaffolding around the bell tower.  If you look closely you might notice that the round stained-glass window above the door is also broken.

 Pieces that fell from the roof and the bell tower are sitting in front of the church.

Connected to the church of San Gabriel is a large chapel known as the "Capilla Real"  (Royal Chapel), also called the "Capilla de los Naturales" (Indigenous Chapel).  

Why it was called the Royal Chapel is something of a mystery, but its other name would indicate that this was a place that the native population could attend.  (Generally the Spanish and the Indians did not worship in the same churches.)

The interior of the chapel is simple, but its architecture is unique.  Its construction is similar to that of a mosque.  In fact, I have read that its design was inspired by the great mosque of Córdoba, Spain.  The structure has 49 cupolas, and inside there are seven naves lined with round and octagonal columns.  It is a bit of Moorish influence in Mexico.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Regional Museum of Cholula

Last Saturday, as my trip was drawing to a close, Alejandro and I took a day trip to Cholula, a historic city about two hours from Mexico City.  I have known Cholula since 1973 when I spent three months there studying at the University of the Americas.  In the intervening forty five years Cholula has changed tremendously.  It used to be a sleepy, rural town located some distance from the major city of Puebla.  Now, Cholula is a suburb of Puebla with a population of over 100,000 people.  You don't know where Cholula ends and Puebla begins.  Before there was no tourism infrastructure; now there are hotels, restaurants and a plethora of souvenir shops.  On this trip I was surprised to find that there are "virtual" parking meters along the streets... parking meters that you pay via an "app" on your cellular phone.  There is also now a high speed tourist train that runs between downtown Puebla and Cholula.

The reason for the boom in tourism is that Cholula has the world's largest pyramid in terms of volume.  it is covered with dirt and vegetation, and looks like a large hill rising abruptly from the edge of town.  A Spanish colonial church sits atop the pyramid.  The town has been declared a "Pueblo Mágico" and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

However, Alejandro and I had not come to Cholula to climb the pyramid.  That is something I have done numerous times.  In fact when I was a student here, I would sometimes go up to the top with my books, and do my homework reading there.  We came to Cholula to visit a new museum which opened just last year.  The Regional Museum of Cholula is located at the base of the pyramid.

It is located in an old building that I remember very well from my days as a student there.  It had a large sign on it saying "Sanitorio" (Sanitarium).  I did not realize at that the time that it was a psychiatric hospital built in 1910 in the final days before the Mexican Revolution.

Surrounding the courtyard of the former hospital are eight rooms devoted to the geography, history and arts of the region.

The pyramid looms over the museum.

The first room deals with the geography of the area... especially the snow-covered volcanos Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl which dominate the landscape.

An oil painting of the two volcanos

An old photograph taken from the top of the pyramid with the peak of "Popo" in the background.

Several rooms deal with Cholula's pre-Hispanic history.  The town may very well be the oldest continuously inhabited community in the Americas.  The area has been occupied for at least three thousand years.  At its peak, when it was a part of the Aztec empire, Cholula was a sacred city that whose temples attracted pilgrims.  It was also a major commercial center that was famous for its polychrome pottery.

After the Spanish conquest Cholula declined in importance, although it was still noteworthy for the number of churches.  (The Spanish had a penchant for building a church over every site once occupied by a pagan temple.)  Several rooms contain religious art from the colonial period.

The museum is beautifully laid out... but let's face it, you can only see so many pieces of old pottery or religious carvings before museum fatigue sets in.  However, the museum's last two rooms really perked up my interest level.   The special exhibition hall contains a collection of "alebrijes", the colorful, fantastic animal sculptures that have become one of Mexico's most famous forms of popular art.  This collection is on loan from the Mexican Museum in San Francisco, California.  

There are examples of the large, cardboard "alebrijes" which come from Mexico City.

And there were also the smaller, intricately painted, wooden "alebrijes" that come from several villages in the state of Oaxaca.  There were some carvings from the workshop of Jacobo and María Angeles.  Some years ago I purchased a rather expensive "alebrije" from their workshop.  It's nice to know that I have a "museum quality" piece of Mexican art.

The final room of the museum was devoted to the various handicrafts from all over the state of Puebla, the state in which Cholula is located.

Puebla is famous for its glazed "Talavera" pottery.

Wooden carrousel horses

A clay "Tree of Life" candelabra 

Onyx candlesticks

A carved wooden jaguar mask

Whimsical Day of the Dead figures

The museum is a fine addition to this town which has changed so much over the years.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Those Dangerous Bars of Soap

Yesterday I flew home from Mexico City.  As always, Alejandro drove me to the airport.  I didn't have to check any luggage (all I had were my carry-on and my backpack) and my boarding passes had already been printed.   I did not have to wait in line at the United desk for check-in.  My flight was scheduled to begin boarding at 7:00 AM.  We had breakfast at the airport, and at 6:30 we said goodbye, and I headed through the security checkpoint.  

I went through the normal routine... took my laptop out of my backpack, took off my belt, emptied all my pockets.  At least in Mexico City, you do not have to take off your shoes.  After my carry-on went through the x-ray, the security guy asked me to open it.  I hoped that I wouldn't have to unwrap any of the fragile handicrafts that were thoroughly encased in bubble wrap.  However, it was the bars of soap that had triggered his suspicions.  I had packed at least a dozen bars of artesanal soaps that I had bought in various places as gifts for friends back home.  I have brought home soaps numerous times from Mexico without any trouble.  But the guy told me that soaps were not permitted in carry-ons, and another security officer was called to confirm that.  "But they are not liquids," I argued, but they were adamant. 

I was allowed to leave the security area and give the soaps to Alejandro.  He was still just outside the checkpoint watching the problems that I was having.  So I put myself back together and repacked the laptop... went out to give Alejandro the soaps... and then went through security once again.  After all this hassle, by the time I reached my gate, the flight was already boarding.  

The plane landed in Houston, and there immigration and customs were a breeze.  When I went through security, there were not many people.  I asked the TSA officer about the soaps.  She said that she had never heard of such a thing before, and that people frequently have bar soap in their carry-ons.   After I arrived home, I talked to Alejandro on the phone.  He said that he asked a policeman about the soap and was told that it was a new rule at Mexican airports that had just gone into effect a couple weeks ago.

So, I guess that unless I am checking luggage, there will be no more gifts of soap when I return from Mexico!    

Monday, August 20, 2018

Wrapping Up Another Trip

It's hard to believe, but another trip to Mexico City is drawing to a close.  The five weeks have flown by.  Tomorrow I return to Ohio.

Last Friday I took care of sending the handicrafts that I couldn't fit into my suitcase.  There is (or I should say "there was") a business across the street from my apartment with a sign that says packing and shipping, and it had a Fed Ex logo.  I thought, "How convenient!"  But in spite of having stayed at this apartment for the last six trips, I had never paid attention to the fact that the place has obviously gone out of business.  The shutters on the entrance are never rolled up.  So I looked for someplace else to go.  There is a DHL office not far from me.  They do shipping, but not packing.  Then I found a local branch of a company called "Todo de Cartón" on the other side of Insurgentes Avenue.

I have used this business on previous trips to pack and ship purchases from Oaxaca and Mérida.  So I put my handicrafts in a bag, and took them over to "Todo de Cartón".  The young lady there carefully packed everything into a box.  None of my items were breakable, but she still wrapped things up in bubble wrap.  The box has been shipped out via Fed Ex, and it will arrive at my home two days after I do.  Shipping is not cheap.  The cost was half as much as all the souvenirs were worth.  

On Friday evening Alejandro and I went to a nearby restaurant called "World Food Center"... a play on words since the World Trade Center is less than a block away.  It features cuisine from a number of countries. The place is very pricey by Mexican standards, but the food is very good.  We ordered "chiles en nogada".  It was the fourth time that I have had them since arriving here in July, and it was the third time Alejandro has had them this month.  I am not going to say that they were the very best that I have had, but they were top-notch.

On Saturday we took a day trip to the city of Cholula, a couple hours away in the state of Puebla.  It is the home of the largest pyramid in the world (in terms of volume).  

I have several posts to write about Cholula, but that will have to wait until I return home.

Sunday was a rather lazy day, and Alejandro and I went to the movie theater to see "Christopher Robin", which was a sweet, enjoyable film

Now I must get everything organized for tomorrow's early morning departure.  I will spend tonight at Alejandro's family's house, since they live closer to the airport.

"Hasta luego", readers.  Do come back, because, as I said, there is still more for me to write about this trip.