Thursday, December 12, 2013

Mexican round-up

We're home after our month in Mexico - a day later than scheduled, thanks to an unexpected ice-storm that left us stranded in Dallas for more than twenty-four hours.

Dallas ice storm

I'm finding it difficult to round out the tale of my time in Mexico. I'm almost too tired, too full of what I've seen, and too sad about what I've missed to be coherent. With this trip I've really had to face up to the fact that I'm unable physically to manage what once I would have taken for granted. But, tired as I am, I want to capture the remainder of my Mexican trip before places become too scrambled in my mind.

We visited Puebla - a grand colonial city a couple of hours south of Mexico City.

Puebla streetscape

Puebla was settled by the Spaniards in the 1531, and the planned gridded streets, elaborate, florid public buildings, decorated churches and colonnaded central plaza all reflect the status and wealth of Puebla during the colonial period. I particularly like the highly decorated surfaces of some of the grander buildings - especially those that intersperse decorative brickwork with local patterned tiles. It seems that too much decoration is never enough.

Puebla shop facadePuebla windowPuebla facade close-upPuebla facade

Given all this pattern and colour, it's perhaps predictable the Talavera Pottery with its riotous patterning was developed in Peubla. Some of the older and more beautiful examples, that I could never afford, are exquisite. These are simpler versions now produced for tourists but still lovely:

Puebla Talavera pottery

Unfortunately, photographs were banned at what, for me, was the highlight of our visit to Puebla. The Biblioteca Palafoxiana is the oldest public library in colonial Mexico. It was established in 1646 and the beautiful space in which it is still housed was built in 1733. There's a long, vaulted room with a worn floor of warm, rust-coloured tiles interspersed with blue and white patterned tiles. The mainly Latin language collection is housed in a double row of beautiful shelves with walkways for accessibility. Sometimes in the Western (northern?)world we can be very arrogant about the achievements of today's societies. One of the delights of travel is to be reminded of past successes.

We visited Merida, another of the grand colonial cities of Mexico, further to the east and the capital of Yucatan state. I love cities that have a grand central plaza - a zocalo. It provides a heart for the city. All the cities we'd so far visited - Mexico City, Oaxaca, and Puebla have grand zocalos; places for meeting up, for public celebrations, for drinking a leisurely coffee, and, most importantly, for strolling or making a paseo in the evenings. I particularly liked the Plaza Grande in Merida which had all these characteristics, but also offered insights to both the history and current culture of Merida.

Merida Plaza Grande

On one side of the Merida zocalo is the 1598 Catedral de San Ildefonso, more bulky and less decorated than the cathedrals of Oaxaca and Puebla, but probably more imposing as a consequence.

Merida Catedral de San Ildefonso 1598Merida Catedral and horse and cart

On another side is the facade of Casa de Montoya - the mid-sixteenth century residence of the Montoya family who colonised what is now Merida:

Merida Casa de Montejo 1549Merida Casa de Montejo 1549 detail

I loved the combination of austerity and decoration in this building, and can think of no more perfect patina than the weathered soft pink of its walls. The building is now maintained by a bank that has its premises inside, but the bank has also impeccably restored the front rooms of the Casa de Montoya as they would have been in the late nineteenth century. With one short visit you can imagine both the impact that Spanish colonisation must have had on the Mayan population in the mid-sixteenth century, and its continuity as an elite well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

On a third side of the zocalo is the late nineteenth century Palacio de Gobierno, currently painted pistachio green. If you persist past the well-guarded entrance you discover a beautifully proportioned colonnaded building from which modern Merida is administered. What I hadn't anticipated, though maybe I should have, given the importance of the muralismo movement in Mexican art and history, was the series of 1970s murals depicting the history of Merida - with a particular focus on its Mayan foundation myths and the often troubled and confrontational relations between the colonisers and the Mayan inhabitants.

Merida Governor's Palace courtyardMerida Governors palace stairs

You can take a paseo around the central square and become aware of the grandeur and diversity of Mexican history. But the zocalo still has a role in people's daily lives. On the evening we arrived we went in urgent search of food and happened upon large numbers of people dancing to a salsa group in one of the streets that border the plaza. Old people, young people, couples, individuals. We were too hungry to linger but it was a good introduction to Merida's zocalo. Later we were told that the whole plaza has free wifi, and that there is a scheme that enables people to borrow laptops to use within the space. I imagine there must be learned studies of the significance of the zocalo in people's lives, but even to the casual tourist observer it seems to be a most humanising space.

We visited Chetumal, the capital of the state of Quintana Roo, in the south of the Yucatan Peninsula, on the border with Belize. Chetumal is definitely not one of the beautiful colonial cities of Mexico; in fact, the city was officially founded by the military as late as 1898, to protect the border that, after many years of disagreement, had finally been decided between Mexico and Great Britain. The small city has an air of practicality about it.


Internal immigration from other areas of Mexico is encouraged and there's the low-key bustle of people getting on with their daily lives. If you look, there's evidence of the Mayan character of the city and surrounding area. There's a small but well-displayed Museum of Mayan Culture where a dimly-lit recreation of the Mayan version of an underworld afterlife had Ana Maria enjoyably horrified.

Chetumal - Mayan underworld figure

There are a few reminders that the area around Chetumal is not only Mayan, but linked to the Caribbean. There are still occasional timber cottages in Chetumal - reminders of the British influence that was much disputed in this area in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Just outside of Chetumal is Laguna de Bacalar, a large lake that, together with the Rio Hondo, provided access to the interior of the region for traders, settlers and even privateers and pirates. There's a small fort dating from 1733 that's been recently restored and reminds the visitor of the turbulent eighteenth century history of this region with conflict over territory between the major sea-going nations of the world.

Bacalar Fort 1733, Quintana Roo

[My well-travelled grand-daughter was rather disappointed by the fort, comparing it unfavourably with the Castillo del Moro in Santiago de Cuba].

And finally, we visited Cancun to begin what turned out to be our challenging trip home to Australia. Such a contrast with so much we had seen. Cancun dates only from the mid-seventies, and if you focus only on the resorts and beaches and international hotels, you could be almost anywhere in the world.

Cancun beach

I certainly know much more about Mexico now than I did before this trip. I'm pleased we were able to visit different places with different histories and cultures. I'm impressed by the strength of Mexican identity and by both the 'official' and everyday ways that local and national identities are interlinked and enriched. I feel there is still so much to see and learn.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Crossing the border for lunch

If you grow up in a country that's also an island, especially if it's as big as Australia, crossing a border is a big deal. You have to make a special journey, either by plane of boat, to make a border crossing. So the idea of going to another country for lunch was astounding for 6 year old Ana Maria, and still had a certain frisson for me at more than eleven times Ana Maria's age. We're in Chetumal, in the state of Quintana Roo in the far south-eastern tip of Mexico, right on the border with Belize. A friend of my daughter offered to drive us across the border to Belize for lunch of rice and beans.

The border crossing hardly lived up to our expectations.

Belize border

We were simply waved through the border by immigration officials - no need to present identification and, sadly, no stamps in our passports.

Borders can be odd places - not quite one country; not quite the other; and sometimes spaces that are unclassifiable and global. Our brief visit to Belize included lunch in a casino dining room:

Belize casino

The casino itself could have been anywhere in the world, though our rice and beans with plantains, chicken and potato salad were distinctively and wonderfully Caribbean and we were served by English-speaking waiters in the only (officially) English-speaking country in central and south America.

Belize rice and beans

Lunch was followed by a short visit to a duty free shopping area. This had none of the try-hard gloss of duty-free shopping in large airports, but was an intersection of dusty streets selling cheap imports from India and Taiwan, probably to be on-sold at local markets for small profits. Again, we could have been in any such market around the world selling exactly the same cheaply-produced goods:

Belize duty-free

So we crossed the border for lunch and found a mixture of the local (the food) and a strangely borderless world.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Time in Oaxaca

We've decided that either Oaxaca has managed to get its tourism mix just right, and/or that we are the tourist demographic they're aiming for. Oaxaca attracts just enough tourists so that the facilities and services you need as a tourist are available (information, easily accessible day tours, a range of different foods) but not so many that you feel as if the tourists have swamped daily life for the locals.

So what did we find so attractive about Oaxaca? Of course there were the textiles of the last post, and the opportunities for wonderful shopping they provided. Top of the list, absolutely. But there were other attractions.

First, the charming streetscapes. Oaxaca is a low-rise town. As for medieval cities in Europe, the highest structures are the steeples of the churches.

Oaxaca Streetscape and Santo Domingo

Few buildings are higher than two storeys, so the streets have a regularity of scale that's pleasing and very human.

Oaxaca, Alcala

Then there's the colour. While there are a few grander buildings in rather austere stone, most of the buildings are painted in colours it would be impossible to replicate in other contexts - soft orange, sky blue, occasionally pistachio green, and my favourite, a golden, mustardy yellow.

Oaxaca street-scene

Secondly, if you're interested in, but not obsessive about archeological sites, the splendid Monte Alban is only a twenty minute drive from the centre of Oaxaca. There's more than enough history, myth, grandeur and the sense of a lost civilization to keep you deeply interested for hours, without leaving you overwhelmed. Monte Alban was the foremost centre for Zapotec politics, society and economy for close to a thousand years, from around 500BC to 600AD when the habitation of the site petered out.

Monte AlBan - Gran Plaza

A hilltop was levelled to create a grand plaza - about 200 x 300 metres in size - and then surrounded by pyramidal buildings with different ritual or social purposes. As always with such evidence of past grandeur you are struck by the skill, strength and sheer hard labour that were needed to achieve such an impressive structure with only the most basic construction technologies.

Monte Alban - altar (foreground) and Platforma Sur

Third, if you are a fancier of old churches, Oaxaca will satisfy your fancies. At almost every corner there is a glimpse of steeples or church roofs with colourful tiled domes.

Oaxaca Santo Domingo towers

Most of the churches were built in the sixteenth century and are a reminder of the power and wealth of Spain and its colonial impact upon Mexico. The most imposing of the churches is the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman whose every millimetre is richly covered in decoration:

Templo Santo Domingo

Just when you think you have seen the most elaborate church decoration ever, you turn to the side chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary and discover the already elaborate decoration is covered in what must have been kilos of gold leaf:

Oaxaca Templo Santo Domingo - Rosary Chapel

The churches are still in use - we happened upon a christening in the Rosary Chapel, and an ongoing mass in another church I visited - and they are clearly cared for and valued (though there are reports of gold and other effects being stolen in recent years). But the catholic church in Mexico is quite separate from the state and I was left with the impression that religion is a private affair and the churches are seen equally as part of their heritage as they are places of worship.

Fourth, there are some interesting museums, if you're a museum fan. We'd had rather a museum splurge in Mexico City and missed some of the recommended Oaxaca museums. But apart from the inspirational textile museum of the last post, we visited the Museum of Contemporary Art that displays exhibitions by well-known local artists. It's located in one of the grand old buildings of courtyards and colonnades and balconies, with rooms opening one into another to provide views of how the works you've just seen relate to those still to come.

Oaxaca Museum of Contemporary Art
Oaxaca Museum of Contemporary Art interior

When the old building was adapted to its new purpose the painted decoration around some of the doors was preserved so that you are reminded that the building had had a history other than the spare, contemplative spaces that now exist.

The Jardin Etnobotanico was a different kind of museum. The space and buildings that are now a large garden had originally been the monastery for the Templo Santo Domingo and then, in the nineteenth century, a barracks and parade ground for the military. In the early 1990s there were plans to convert the space to a luxury hotel, but some of the famous local artists led a successful campaign to create a special kind of botanical garden - one that focuses on the plants of the Oaxaca region. The garden is now almost twenty years old and apart from being beautiful, it's fascinating, with special sections for plants for medicinal use, for food, for dyeing and other practical uses.

Oaxaca Jardin Ethnobotanico

Oaxaca Jardin Etnobotanico

And the fifth and final reason - the food. Yum. I thought I wasn't a great fan of Mexican food, but clearly my exposure to it had been very limited. Between recommendations from a colleague of my daughter, and a remarkably well-informed edition of the Lonely Planet we had some wonderful meals (and drinks). The restaurants we tried used local foods in modern ways.

Oaxaca foodOaxaca - saladOaxaca - sangria, blue tortilla, chilliOaxaca risotto

We had lots of mole sauces (the traditional bitter-chocolate based sauces that in Oaxaca come in black, red or yellow versions); beautifully soft, slow-cooked pork; local herbs; and the inevitable tortilla based accompaniments, including the blue tortillas topped with soft local cheese in the bottom left-hand photo. I even had risotto topped with foam! The risotto, by the way was wonderful with pumpkin, pumpkin flowers and caramelised pumpkin seeds.

Clearly, we've enjoyed our visit to Oaxaca. Wonderful. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Textile heaven

We've had almost a week in Oaxaca in the south of Mexico. Oaxaca is heaven for textile fanciers. Everywhere you turn there are beautiful textiles to lure you - people wearing them, shops and markets selling them, hawkers showing them, and museums displaying them. We began by visiting the Museo de Textil de Oaxaca to get an idea of the traditions of the region. It's a relatively small museum in an elegantly restored colonial building. Over our visit I was delighted by the way the street facades of these old buildings open to tranquil courtyard spaces - but that's another story. The museum displays only part of its collection at any one time, but displays it beautifully. There's much to examine and admire.

Textile Museum display
Textile museum black dressTextile Museum black dress close-up

All the older textiles, and many of the modern ones are hand-woven, using either backstrap or pedal looms depending on the outcome that's needed. Often the fabrics are then elaborately hand-embroidered. An earthy red colour predominates in the fabrics that originally, and still sometimes today, are dyed with cochineal - the tiny beetle that produces the deep red dye that was so desired and traded during the colonial period and brought much wealth to this area.

Upstairs in the museum there was an exhibition of modern huipil (the name of the simple sleeveless garment, whether short or long), still displaying exquisite hand-embroidery:

Textile Museum short huipil 1Textile Museum short huipil 2Textile Museum short huipil 4Textile Museum short huipil 3

[I bought a fine handwoven checked pink and yellow reboso - a scarf or shawl]

We went to a huge local market in the village of Tlacolula; the kind of market where you could have bought almost anything you wanted or needed - fruit and veg, meat and fish, hardware, underclothes, children's toys, cups of the delicious local hot chocolate (yum). Many of the women traders were dressed in local style - brightly coloured longish pleated or gathered skirts, often in shiny fabrics, a blouse with puffed sleeves and a lace collar, an apron decorated with embroidery, and a reboso. Many had their long plaits intertwined with ribbons.

Tlacolula market

A cross-street of the market was lined with stalls selling woven and embroidered huipils, blouses and dresses. Even though the quality was not as fine as the work we saw in the Museum and the Museum shop, it was still of good quality and the riotousness and inventiveness of the colour combinations was astonishing. There were also amazing bargains to be had.

[I bought a cream calico dress with vibrant multi-coloured hand embroidery. I hope I have the courage to wear it.]

In town there are shops selling handcrafts on almost every corner - grey pottery characteristic of the area, tinware, brightly coloured wooden fantasy animals (alebrijes), and of course the woven and embroidered textiles and clothes. One day we happened upon a group of older women selling their work in the entrance to the public library. It was at another level of excellence altogether.

Embroidered huipil
Embroidered huipil 2

As the maker proudly pointed out, the dresses combined four techniques - the flowered embroidery, elaborate drawn-thread work, crochet borders and inserts (the red in the first picture above), and a small line of smocking, incorporating the tiniest embroidered human figures, at the join of the yoke and body of the dress. All of the women were working as they waited for customers - this woman was crocheting the neck border for a dress at extraordinary speed:

Woman crocheting

[I resisted an bought nothing for myself here. But I did buy a bright yellow dress covered in just as bright blue embroidery for my grand-daughter.]

Some of the higher end shops in town displayed their work like cameos of loveliness. Of course it helps if the store is located in a restored colonial building and you have antique furniture in which to store and display it.

Oaxaca Juana Cata shop

The shop in the photo above specialised in weaving, rather than embroidery. I was astonished at the variety of the hand-weaving techniques still practised and available for sale. Where it's appropriate, some of the fabrics are still made using back-strap looms and then the narrow strips of fabric are sewn together with decorative stitching to produce huipils or ponchos.

[I bought a hand-woven striped huipil in what are relatively subdued colours for Oaxaca. I returned the next day to buy a long skirt to go under the huipil, having been seduced by the sight of elegant women in the streets wearing this traditional combination.]

Oh, and I forgot to mention the rugs and carpets, often dyed with the natural dyes that are so characteristic of this region.

Textile heaven, indeed.