Saturday, September 29, 2018

The Fake Parade

I wrote a while ago that I was once again contributing reviews and comments on the  TripAdvisor website.  Because I will be going to Mexico again this year for the Day of the Dead, I went to the Mexico City Forum to ask about the date of this year's parade.  There are a number of people on the Forum who assume an air of cultural superiority and dismissively refer to the the event as a "fake parade".

It is true that the parade is a recent invention.  The 2015 James Bond movie "Spectre" begins with a sequence portraying a Day of the Dead Parade in Mexico City... a parade which, in fact, had never existed.  After the film's release so many people asked, "When is the parade going to be held?", that the city decided in 2016 to hold its first Day of the Dead Parade.  I saw the second annual parade in 2017, and I intend to see it again this year on Saturday, October 27, the weekend before the Day of the Dead.  Last year we waited more than an hour along the street waiting for the parade to arrive, but the parade was great fun and worth the wait.

The critics say that the parade is not a part of the Day of the Dead tradition and is a mockery of its religious roots.  I responded by saying that this is NOT a Halloween parade... there is nary a jack-o-lantern nor witch on broomstick to be seen.  The parade is all about the Day of the Dead traditions going back to pre-Hispanic times.  And even though Day of the Dead is a religious observance, it also has its more festive side in which the inevitability of death is viewed with a sense of humor. Furthermore, traditions have to start somewhere.  I would not be surprised if years ago there were critics who said that the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade had nothing to do with Thanksgiving or its traditions.  One poster on the Forum agreed with me and said that perhaps this parade will continue on through the years long after the James Bond film has been forgotten.

Another person on the Forum said that if I want to experience the Day of the Dead I should go to a cemetery.  Indeed there are many tourists, in fact there are tour groups, that go to cemeteries to view the all-night, candlelight vigils which families hold by their loved ones' graves.  I am not going to criticize those tourists, because I admit that it would be an incredible sight to see.  But, as an outsider, I also feel that it is in poor taste to intrude upon their observances.  

So, when I return to Mexico in October, I shall be content to see the many "ofrendas" and decorations throughout the city, photograph the locals who are dressed as "catrinas" and "catrines" (elegantly dressed skeletons), have my own face painted... and, yes, view the "fake parade"!  



Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Orientation from the "Tour Guide"

Over the years I have escorted numerous friends and family members to Mérida, Mexico, and served as their "tour guide".  For most of them it was their first time in Mexico, so I wrote an orientation of several pages, printed it up, and gave it to them before the trip.  It gave them some advice on what to expect and some of the cultural differences that they would encounter.

Next month I will be playing "tour guide" for the first time in Mexico City when my friends Nancy and Fred come to visit me.  They had already been with me in Mérida, but the two cities are very, very different. So I wrote up an entirely new and even longer orientation for the Mexican capital.  Here are a few excerpts from it...

Mexico City, with a metropolitan population of over twenty million people, is a universe unto itself.  Sometimes you will think that you are in a large, modern U.S. city, other times you will feel as if you are in Europe, and sometimes you will cross through the looking glass into what Salvador Dalí called the most surreal place he had ever seen.  I have to admit that there are moments when I hate the place (especially when stuck in traffic), but most of the time I find it endlessly fascinating.  The key to enjoying this overwhelming city is to go with the flow, and just absorb its sights, sounds and smells. 

Obviously, in a huge city in which half the population lives in poverty, there is much more crime than in a place such as Mérida.  However, the responsible tourist is unlikely to have any problem.  Petty crime such as purse-snatching and pickpocketing are common, but Mexico City is less notorious for that than cities such as Barcelona or Rome. Use the precautions you would use in any big city… purse hung across the body, wallet tucked in the front pocket.  Be prudent, but you do not have to be paranoid.
As I have said before, your biggest dangers are the uneven sidewalks, and the traffic.  Be careful with bicyclists who tend to ignore traffic signals. 

The exchange rate is hovering just below 20 pesos to the dollar, so 1000 pesos is a little more than $50 US.  Remember that in Mexico they use our dollar sign with pesos, so don’t be shocked when, for example, you see $150 for a meal on the breakfast menu… that’s only around $7.50 in our money.
The ATMs tend to give out a lot of 500 peso bills.  Even though that is only $25 US, those bills can be hard to spend at some places.  (It’s amazing how many businesses don’t have change.)  Use those “big” bills at nicer restaurants and larger stores. 


Shorts are generally a no-no.  First of all, it is not going to be that hot.  The people that you see wearing shorts are often jogging, bicycling or headed to the gym.  Younger people now seem to be wearing shorts more often, but, among people our age, they are not common.

I have read articles saying that it is OK to flush the paper down the toilets as long as you don’t use too much.  However the idea persists that the paper will clog the toilet.   At your hotel, unless you see any signs to the contrary, I wouldn’t worry about throwing toilet paper into the bowl.  In the restrooms of restaurants or museums I suppose you should comply if there is a sign that says to put the paper in the wastebasket.
Always carry a wad of toilet paper with you in case there is none in the restroom.  It occasionally happens even in nice restaurants.
So for what it is worth, that is a bit of my advice for the first time visitor to Mexico City

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Ordering My New Harley

(Image taken from the web)

I usually don't shop online, but yesterday I made an exception, and I went to the Harley-Davidson website.  No, I am not a member of a motorcycle gang.  I do not even own a motorcycle.  In fact I have only been on a motorcycle once in my life, and that was quite enough for me.

However, whenever I travel, my wallet of choice is a biker wallet... you know, the kind that has a chain that attaches to the belt.  I bought one of those wallets at least twenty five years ago at a Harley-Davidson store, and it has served me very well.  I feel as if I am safer from pickpockets with that kind of wallet.  I am sure that there are some dexterous masters of the art who could deftly relieve me of my billfold, but probably most would see the chain and decide to go for easier pickings.  I have walked the Ramblas of Barcelona and been crammed in the Mexico City subway, and, knock on wood, I have never had my pocket picked.  

After so many years, my wallet is starting to show its age.

The stitching on the decorative, brown leather panel with the Harley-Davidson logo is coming loose.  The wallet is still serviceable, but I decided it was time to buy a new one.  Thus I went onto the internet to shop.  Most of the biker wallets are larger than the standard men's billfold.  That is the reason I was hanging on so long to the wallet I have... it fits nicely into my pants pocket without sticking out.  

I did a Google search of "biker wallets with chain", and it led me to various online shops.  I saw a couple possibilities, but then I went to the Harley-Davidson website.  There I found the wallet I wanted.  It was quite expensive, but I figured if it lasts as long as my old one, it is worth it.  

In about a week I will have my brand-new traveling wallet!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A Double Anniversary

photo taken from the web
The 1985 quake

Today marks a tragic double anniversary for Mexico City.  

At 7:17 A.M. on September 19th, 1985, the city was struck by an 8.0 earthquake. It was the worst disaster in Mexico City's history with at least 10,000 deaths (the exact death count will never be known), and 412 collapsed buildings.

Fast forward to 2017, the 32nd anniversary of the quake.  At 11:00 A.M. the city held its annual earthquake drill.  Just over two hours later, the real thing occurred... a 7.1 quake wreaked havoc in Mexico City and in the neighboring states of Morelos and Puebla.   More than 300 people died, the majority of them in the capital.

My friend Alejandro tells me that today will be marked with a moment of silence... and the annual drill.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Happy Birthday Mexico

It was 208 years ago today that a parish priest by the name of Miguel Hidalgo ran the bell of his church in the little town of Dolores, gathered his parishioners together, and in a stirring speech began Mexico's War of Independence against Spain.

Society in the Spanish colonies was very stratified.  At the top were native-born Spaniards, "peninsulares", who occupied all positions of power.  The "criollos", the people of pure Spanish ancestry who were born in the New World, were considered inferior due to the fact that they were not born in Spain.  They were often wealthy and well-educated, but they had no role in the governance of the colony.  Below them, the "mestizos", people of mixed Spanish and native ancestry, the indigenous peoples and Africans were oppressed underclasses.

In the early 19th century, many "criollos", resenting their lack of political power, toyed with the idea of breaking away from Spain.  When Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808 and installed his brother as King, the movement for independence gained momentum, and "criollos" could support such a cause without appearing disloyal to the Mother Country.  Although the "criollos" were inspired by the writings of the philosophers of the Enlightenment... books that were banned by the Inquisition... most of them were not really interested in equality for all.  They simply wanted to assume the power held by the "peninsulares".

Father Hidalgo was himself the son of a wealthy "criollo" family.  However, he was interested in the downtrodden masses.  He cultivated grapes and raised silkworms to create new industries to benefit his poor parishioners.  These activities violated the laws which protected the Spanish monopoly on wine and silk production. 

After proclaiming his crusade to fight against the Spaniards, Hidalgo quickly gathered together a ragtag army of 800 men.  They left Dolores, and, as they marched across the countryside, more and more people joined the rebellion.  Most of them were poor Indians and "mestizos".  They killed any native-born Spaniards they encountered and looted the towns through which they marched.  By the time they reached the rich, silver mining city of Guanajuato, Hidalgo's army had grown to more than 20,000.  The Spanish loyalists of the city barricaded themselves within the fortress-like granary building, but the insurgents broke through, and killed more than 500 men, women and children.  The violence unleashed by the rebellion horrified many of the "criollos" who had previously supported a separation from Spain. The saw their privileged position threatened by the rabble, and switched their support to the Spanish colonial government.

Hidalgo marched on to Mexico City.  He now had an army of 100,000.  He reached the mountains above the city, and had forced the Spanish army to retreat to the capital.  Then, with victory in his grasp, Hidalgo turned back.  Historians have debated the reason behind his decision.  Perhaps he feared that Mexico City would be subjected to a bloodbath even more horrific than that in Guanajuato.  In any event, that was the turning point.  Spanish forces gained the upper hand and pursued Hidalgo northward.  He was captured just six months after he had started the rebellion.  He was defrocked and excommunicated by the Church, and then found guilty of treason by a military court.  He and three other leaders of the revolt were executed on July 30, 1811.  Their bodies were then decapitated, and their heads were hung from the corners of the granary building in Guanajuato.

It was a serious blow to the struggle for independence, but the war continued until 1821.  Ironically, it was only after a liberal regime took power in Spain, a regime that conservative "criollos" saw as a threat to their status quo, that Mexico finally achieved its independence... an independence much different from what was envisioned by Father Hidalgo.   

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Another Gig as "Tour Guide"

If you have read this blog for any length of time, you know that I thoroughly enjoy playing the "tour guide" for friends and family members who travel with me.  You also know that this October I will be showing my friends Nancy and Fred around Mexico City, the first time that I have planned a tour there.

Well, now I have yet another gig as "tour guide".  In January I will once again be showing the sights in Mérida... this time to one of my former students and her husband.  Meredith was in my high school Spanish class many years ago, and she was an excellent student.  We have kept in touch, and she is a frequent reader of my blog.  She and her husband Chuck have done a lot of traveling, but they had never been to Mexico.  Meredith  mentioned that they should go down there sometime with me.  A few weeks ago, I asked them if they would like to go to Mérida, and they accepted my invitation.  They will be spending four days with me in the lovely capital city of the state of Yucatán.  I have reserved two rooms in my favorite hotel there, "Luz en Yucatán".  It is very popular place, and we were fortunate to get the last two rooms available for those dates!  

I have given the tour of Mérida eight times over the years, and it never gets boring for me.  Everyone who has gone with me to the Yucatán has loved Mérida, and I am sure that Meredith and Chuck will too.  

Friday, September 7, 2018

Hello Dollies

I have known Amy, the daughter of one of my former teaching colleagues, since she was a baby.  Whenever I would travel to another country, I would buy her a doll.  Over the years, she accumulated quite a collection... a collection which she has kept.  

Now Amy is a grown woman with a little daughter of her own, Angela.  During my trip to Mexico City last April, there was an international fair with booths from nations from all over the world.  Many of the booths were selling handicrafts, including dolls in traditional attire.  I immediately thought of Amy and Angela, and I bought several dolls from countries which I had never visited.  When I returned home, I shipped them to Amy via UPS, and they were thrilled.

On my latest trip to Mexico City I was at another handicraft fair, and when I saw more dolls, I couldn't resist.  Next week I must get these dolls packed and sent off to Amy and Angela.

This very elegant doll is dressed in the traditional costume of the state of Yucatán.

The more primitive doll to the left was created by the native women of the Mexican state of Chiapas.   The little fellow to the right is similar to the dolls that you see being made and sold on the sidewalks of Mexico City, except that this one is of a "muchacho".

I hope that Angela enjoys these additions to her collection!

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Tis the Season

(image taken from the web)

The calendar says that it is early September.  The temperature is forecast to hit 91F today, and it feels like the middle of August.  Nevertheless, it is time to work on this year's Christmas card.  As always, I am painting a picture to use for my card, and I am presently about half-way done with the painting.  I usually scan the picture to my computer, and then print the cards myself at home.  This year, however, I am planning to make life easier, and take the completed painting to a professional printer.  A friend of mine, who is an artist, recommended a printing company.  They will print the card inside and out, fold the cards, and even provide envelopes.  That will save me a whole bunch of time!

It has always been a bit of a crunch to get my Christmas cards ready before I leave on my October / November trip to Mexico.  I take the cards with me, and during my free moments I make them out.  By the time I return home just before Thanksgiving, my cards are ready to send.

So what is the subject of the painting for this year's card?  That is always a secret until the cards have been mailed, so you will have to wait until December to see.  

Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Advisor is Back

(image taken from the web)

I used to be a frequent contributor to TripAdvisor.  (In case you are not familiar with it, TripAdvisor is a website where people write reviews of hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions from all over the world.  They also have travel forums in which people can ask questions about their upcoming trips.)  I was active on the site between 2005 and 2011.  During that time I wrote 52 reviews and 462 posts on the forums. I was classified as a Top Contributor, and they sent me a nice canvas bag that I still use when I travel.  My user name on the site was (is) "wmsf".

I enjoyed sharing my travel experiences and giving advice on the forums.  In spite of controversy about fake reviews, I have also found it helpful when planning trips, especially for picking hotels.  I never had a bad experience with a hotel that had received mostly good reviews.  I found restaurant reviews to be much more subjective, and there were a number of times when a restaurant that received rave reviews on TripAdvisor was disappointing to me.

Anyway, after six years, I got away from posting on TripAdvisor.  My last review was in November of 2011, and my last forum post was in December of 2013 (about the same time that I started my blog).  A couple days ago I returned to being an active contributor again.

As I have mentioned, I will be playing tour guide in Mexico City this autumn when a couple of my friends travel down there.  In spite of spending so much time in Mexico City, there were a couple things about which I wasn't sure... and, after all, the tour guide should know everything!  It had been so long since I had logged in that I guess my password was no longer valid.  They had to send me a new one.  Even though I had not written anything for so long, "wmsf" was still there as a "Top Contributor".  Well, actually, they have changed the classifications since I was last on the site.  I am now ranked as a "Level 6" contributor, and they give badges for participation.  I have earned 30 badges, including "Top Contributor" for writing over 50 reviews, a "Helpful Contributor" badge for receiving over 200 "thumbs up" votes from members, and a "Readership" badge for having been read by over 20,000 members. 

So I logged in, and posted a couple of questions on the Mexico City Travel Forum.  I wanted to know how much the authorized taxi would cost for my friends to go from the airport to their hotel near the World Trade Center.  Within in a day, someone had given me an answer... 254 pesos.

I also had a question about the ruins of Teotihuacan, the enormous archaeological site north of the city.  From end to end, it stretches about 2.5 miles... quite a bit of walking to do, especially if we plan to climb both pyramids as well.  There are several entrances to the site.  I asked if one can park at one entrance, see what there is to see, go back to the car, drive to another entrance, and be able to reenter with the ticket stubs.  Within an hour, I had received a response.  Yes, you are allowed to drive from one parking lot to another, and reenter the site with your ticket. 

I also wrote some restaurant reviews.  I had never done a review of my favorite restaurant in Mexico City, Angelopolitano, so I wrote a glowing recommendation.  (I noticed that most of the other reviews were very favorable also.)  I then wrote a scathing review of the terrible place where we ate in Cholula.  There were also a couple restaurants which I had reviewed some years ago.  The first time I ate at El Cardenal, for some reason I was not that impressed, and I wrote a so-so review.  Now the place is one of my favorites, so I rectified my old review with a second more favorable one.   There was another restaurant that got a rave review from me seven years ago.  They serve "chiles en nogada" all year long, and I would go there on every trip.  But a few years ago it seemed that the quality had gone downhill, so I wrote a second review saying, "Sorry, they are not as good as they used to be."