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The couple I was traveling with had worked themselves up into a bit of a spat by the time we reached Mexico City. He was rabid to see everything. She was having stomach problems and wanted to be comfortable. It was beginning to look as if we might not make it to our destination- the Museo Nacional de Antropología – Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology.

“What do you care if we go,” he said. “You’ve already seen this museum.”

It was true. I had. Which is why I knew what to say next. “I have seen it, which is why I can tell you that it’s one of the best museums in the world. To be this close to it and not go would be really, really stupid.”

Revelateur Studio's photo of the National Museum of Anthropology.

Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology. Photo by Revelateur Studio.

We went to the museum and everyone was happy.

It stands to reason that this should be a great museum. The isthmus connecting North and South America was home to a variety of highly developed, pre-Columbian cultures, and the museum collection, which fills 23 rooms, has excellent examples. There are colossal Olmec heads, Mayan frescos, the gigantic Aztec “Calendar” stone, and scale models of Teotihuacán and Tenochtitlán (Mexico City). My friend fell in love with an Olmec sculptured masterpiece, the wrestler.

Michael McCarty's photo of the Aztec Calendar in Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology.

Aztec Calendar. Photo by Michael McCarty.

Any description of Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology would be incomplete if it didn’t mention what a masterpiece the museum itself is. The building was designed by Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, Jorge Campuzano and Rafael Mijares, and opened in 1964. The exhibit halls are laid out in a two-story u-shape around a central patio. On the bottom floor you will find a room displaying the artifacts of each pre-Columbian culture (ie, the Mayan room, the Toltec room, etc.). Climb the stairs to see a display showing how the people of that particular culture lived. Or pass through the exhibit hall to the garden and see some of the giant stone artifacts exhibited outside, among plants, as they must have looked in situ.

Although some of the pieces are only labeled in Spanish, many are labeled in Spanish and English. And whether or not you choose to read the descriptions, you will have plenty to keep you busy for the better part of a day.

CarlosVanVegas' photo from Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology.

Another pre-Columbian masterpiece. Photo by CarlosVanVegas.

Many travelers go to Mexico’s beach resorts and never come to see the capital. This is a mistake. I was lucky to spend two full weeks in Mexico City the first time I came to this country and I never ran out of things to see. Why not tack on a few days in Mexico City at either end of your trip to Cancun? There’s enough here to occupy a person for weeks, but at the very least, three must-see sights; the ruins at Teotihuacán, the Diego Rivera murals and the National Museum of Anthropology.

Nacho Facello's photo from the National Anthropology Museum.

Pre-Columbian art of all meso-America in once place…Photo by Nacho Facello.

Visiting Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology

The museum is located in Chapultepec Park, in the heart of Mexico City (easy to get there by Metro). Along with the outstanding collection mentioned above, the museum also hosts visiting cultural exhibits from around the world. Check the website for updates.

Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 9:00 AM to 7:00 PM, year round.

Admission: 59 Mexican Pesos. Sorry, no credit cards.

“It’s going to be a damned expensive cup of coffee,” my friend admitted.

Indeed.  Thousands of dollars.  She was telling me about her kitchen remodel and we were reflecting on the fact that in our travels, we’d both noticed that a lot of the best cooking comes out of the humblest of kitchens.

I’ve had home-made, gourmet meals prepared in one-room houses where the kitchen was nothing more than a fire pit.  I wonder if it’s a law of paradox: the better equipped your kitchen, the less cooking you do.  In the US we like large, elaborate kitchens, yet we love to eat out.

Which kitchen produces the most food?

jonl1973's photo of a Berber kitchen

Berber kitchen – photo by jonl1973

Karen's photo of an antique French kitchen

Old time French kitchn. Photo by Karen.

Ralf Kayser's photo of a Nepal kitchen

Ralf Kayser’s photo of a Nepal kitchen

SWIMPHOTO's remodeled kitchen.

SWIMPHOTO’s remodeled kitchen.

Surprisingly enough, the most elaborate kitchens I’ve seen were not in the United States.  They were in Israel, in religious homes, where keeping kosher was taken the point of essentially having two kitchens side by side.  Two sinks, two ovens, two refrigerators.  Wow.

One of the reasons I wanted to stay with a family when I was in China was to try to learn the secrets of their cooking.  Mrs. Zhou’s kitchen had a cold water sink (hot water in the kitchen is also an uncommon luxury here in Mexico), a tiny (college dorm sized) refrigerator, a propane tank with a burner and a small table.  No oven.  No counters. No cupboards.  And with this she worked wonders; noodles, hot pot, and my favorite- dumplings.

You can buy coffee table books with photos of colorful, tile-covered Mexican kitchens. I’ve seen kitchens like this, but more often than not they’re in the homes of wealthy Gringos who like Mexican décor.  Most Mexican kitchens are fairly straight forward- stove, sink, fridge, a pressure cooker for making beans and dispenser that holds a garafón (a five-gallon bottle of drinking water).  They don’t seem to be nearly as fond of their hand-painted tiles as we are.  A blender and a molcajete (stone mortar and pestle) are ever present as well.  One does need to make salsa.

waywuwei's photo of the kitchen at a Mexican cooking school.

Susana’s Trilling’s Kitchen at Seasons of My Heart Cooking School Photo by waywuwei.

One thing I don’t see in Mexico, or in many places in the world, is a lot of space dedicated to storing food. No walk-in pantry here. Instead neighborhoods are littered with tiny fruit and vegetable stores, bakeries and butcher shops, which accommodate buying the food you need on a daily basis. In the US, we’re encouraged to hoard food in our homes. Gotta be prepared for when that big earthquake hits. But I sometimes wonder if we have internalized the metaphor, and if our habit of storing extra food in our homes feeds into the habit of storing extra food on our bodies (fat!).

So what are the common elements to every kitchen? I think I’ve identified two things, some kind of heat for cooking the food and a knife for cutting it. That’s it. Water can be carried from somewhere else, and refrigeration isn’t necessary if the food is fresh. Ah, and there is one other, all-important ingredient, the thing that real makes a kitchen – the person, usually a woman in my observations, that transforms those raw ingredients into wonderful things to eat. Here’s to the cooks wherever they’re cooking!

The best things we bring home from our travels aren’t things.  The treasures we acquire are greater understanding of ourselves and our world, the friends we meet along the way and the memories we bank up to enjoy in the future.  But what about the more tangible souvenirs? In my years of traveling, I’ve found some that there are some souvenirs I enjoyed for years, and others that don’t work out the way they’re supposed to.  So, what makes a good souvenir?

A Skill as a Souvenir

Knowing how to do something you didn’t before you left home rocks.  For the rest of your life you can think back on your trip and say that’s when I first learned how to ride a motorcycle, salsa dance, use chopsticks.  As far as I’m concerned the best thing you can learn is how to prepare all those delicious foods you’re eating. (Though I would put picking up a new languages as a close second.)  Many places now offer cooking classes.  Or you can just make a point of hanging out with local women, chatting up the cook in your favorite restaurants, and using the internet.  (I’m a veggie and was recently delighted to discover International Vegetarian Union Recipes Around the World.)

Clothes

In theory, clothes should make great souvenirs.  After all, you probably have to wear something.  So why not something that reminds you of your travel.  But it never quite works out for me.  Here’s what happens: I’m in some rural place admiring the beautiful clothes the indigenous women wear.  I give myself permission to splurge and buy one of these beautiful shirts/skirts/shawls.  And then, I don’t wear it because it’s too nice and I don’t want it to get ruined.

This is dumb, but I keep doing it.  I even know when I’m doing it.  I say to myself, “Now look.  Those women are wearing those skirts out here in the dust heading goats, washing their skirts in the dirty river and hanging them on a barbed wire fence to dry.  There’s no reason you can’t wear one of those to work.” But then when I’m home, the place where I bought the skirts seems so far away.  I know I could never replace it, so I don’t risk it.  I have a great looking closet.

Jewelry

While clothes haven’t really worked out for me, jewelry has. Small, cheap, easy to carry – everything I look for in a souvenir.  I have a collection of inexpensive and yet wonderful earrings I picked up in China, a jade  necklace I made myself in New Zealand and a “power bracelet” with the Mayan symbols for the date of my birth that I bought in Chiapas.  The only down side is that things that are small are also easy to lose.  (An excuse to go back…)

A souvenir you can eat out of!

House Stuff

I’ve purchased a lot of house wares on my travels (hand painted ceramics are a favorite for me here in Mexico), and if I’d had more money, I would have purchased a lot more.  The trouble is, if you keep traveling, you might not actually have a home to put these things in.  Or if you do, you may not spend much time there.

Little Things

My travel partner and I played a lot of cards in China.  Somehow, we found ourselves hanging out in Tsingtao Brewery tasting room without a deck.  So we bought one.  Small, inexpensive, useful, and the fact they are now beer stained just makes them a better souvenir.

There are things I haven’t tried.  I imagine that a tattoo could be an excellent reminder of a great adventure.  Unless things went badly at the ended and you decided that you didn’t want to remember…

And the worst possible thing you could bring home from your travels? A disease, social or otherwise.

What’s the best souvenir you have ever brought home from your travels?

My hostel was only a couple of blocks from the bus station, but I had already fallen in love with the town of Valladolid by the time I got there.  (Doubly remarkable if you consider the neighborhoods most bus stations are in.) The streets were colorful and tranquil.  An atmosphere of friendliness filled the air.

Downtown Valladolid

Meandering along, I came to the town square.  In any Mexican town you’ll find a zócalo- a town square with trees and benches, and a fountain or bandstand in the center.  Valladolid was no exception, except that  the statue in the middle of the fountain surprised me.  Statues tend to be of some political figure- Miguel Hidalgo or Benito Juarez, or some such man.  This statue wasn’t of a man at all.  It was of a woman.  She was dressed exactly like the local Mayan women who sat on the benches in the square, and she held a humble water jug.  How endearing to see the nobleness of women doing daily tasks celebrated!

Fountain in Valladolid. Admittedly, they could have painted her skin a little darker, but isn’t it great to see local life celebrated? Photo by ann-dabney.

Downtown Valladolid also has its own cenote.  A cenote is a limestone sinkhole, filled with cool fresh water – as in, the perfect place for hot, sweaty travelers to cool off.  Cenote Zací is conveniently located in a park in the center of town.

Time to cool off…Cenote Samulá. Photo by Frank Kovalchek.

Chocolate!

I wondered down the street towards the Templo de San Bernadino, but got distracted by the chocolate museum.  Yes, there’s a chocolate museum.  (See why I like this town!)  Now we all know that the ancient Maya created a brilliant civilization, what with their sophisticated calendar, complex writing system and coming up with the concept of zero.  But to my mind, nothing speaks so highly of the culture as their reverence for cocao.  The Mayans had a goddess of chocolate.  They sometimes used cocao beans as currency.  How ingenious is that! Not only does it solve one of life’s major dilemmas- money or chocolate, but it also meant that money literally grew on trees.  The museum illustrates the complex process involved in making raw cocao into chocolate (very similar to the process for making coffee beans into coffee) and, of course, ends with tasting and a chance to buy samples.

Resistance 

The museum of San Roque, located in the center of town, displays items from daily Mayan life, as well as historical information on the 1847 War of the Castes.  This was a bazaar episode in which, in an effort to win independence from authorities in Mexico City, the European rulers of Yucatan decided it would be helpful to arm their slaves.  Predictably, the enslaved Mayan population turned the weapons against their overlords.

In a subtle way, the Maya here are still fighting.  The day before coming to Valladolid, I had toured the ruins of Uxmal and Kabah, outside of the city of Mérida.  It was a long, hot day in the sun and I dozed off for a few minutes during the ride back to town.  When I woke, all the other passengers were asleep and the driver/guide seemed to be blinking a lot.  I decided it behooved me to make conversation, so I told the driver how nice it was that there were no vendors at the ruins we had just visited, and how I remembered there being many vendors at Chichén Itzá.

It turned out that until 2010 Chichén Itzá was privately owned, first by the American, Edward Thompson, who shuttled some of the artifacts off to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, and later by the wealthy Barbachano family.  Somewhere a long the line, the local Mayan population decided that they have as much right as anyone to be profiting from the site. Fair point, I suppose.  So, they began swarming in, without permits, to sell their wares.  It remains a sticky issue.

In the Neighborhood

Valladolid makes an excellent base for visiting Cenote Dzitnup and Cenote Samulá, as well as the nearby Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá and Ek´Balam.   Visiting the ruins while staying in Valladolid gives one a chance to notice how similar the local people look to the faces in the thousand-year-old carvings.  The Maya live on.

Assembling an altar for the Virgin of Sorrows

Sitting on my balcony at three in the afternoon on Holy Friday, I am enjoying something which can be hard to come by in Mexico – silence.  This respite from the sounds of city life is due to the fact that almost everyone is in church, watching or participating in a reenactment of the crucifixion. This is the day, bigger even than Easter.

But we’ve had a lot of notable days in the past few weeks.

Two weeks ago, Pope Benedict came – a big deal for my small city.  People responded in different ways.  Guanajuato is said to be the most Catholic city in Mexico, and for many here it was a monumental event.  Yellow and white Vatican flags flew from balconies all over town.  Banners with various slogans – Bienvenido Benedicto XVI, Welcome Holy Father and Friend, Vilcomen, You are St Peter, Guanajuato Receives You With Open Arms –  hung throughout the city. Faithful Catholics lined up to cheer him, “Benedicto, hermano, ya eres Mexicano!” Not being Catholic, this all seemed a little strange, but I believe the cheering throngs to be genuine in their faith.

Others viewed the visit as money-making opportunity.  People with homes along the Papal route rented space on their balconies.  Souvenirs were made and sold.  A man with a life-sized, cut out of the Pope charged people ten pesos for the photo opportunity.  I don’t do photos, but found myself tempted by the absurdity of the situation.

After the faithful and the capitalists came the third group – those of us who just wanted to ride out the storm with as little chaos as possible.  Only two roads reach the center of Guanajuato and both were closed for several days for security purposes.  This meant that goods which enter the city by vehicle couldn’t arrive.  Preparing for the Pope was a lot like preparing for a blizzard:

  • Make sure you have enough food, propane and drinking water.  Delivery trucks will not be able to enter the city.
  • Carry ID (showing your address) at all times.
  • ATMs will probably get emptied out by the tourists coming in.  Be sure you have enough cash on hand.

When the big night arrived, I stayed in and watched the festivities on TV.  It was a chance to learn some new Spanish vocabulary- useful words like Pope-mobile (Papa-movíl), and to enjoy seeing places I regularly traverse on television.  The next day he held a mass with half a million people in attendance (a massive mass!).  Then it was suddenly over and everything went back to normal.

Sandwiched between Holy Week and the Pope’s visit are two of the days I like best in Guanajuato: Dia de las Flores (Day of the Flowers) celebrated on Thursday, and Viernes de Dolores (Friday of Sorrows).  Dedicating the sixth Friday of Lent to the sorrowful Virgin is a tradition that originated in Germany in the 1400’s.  The Virgin of Sorrows is the Virgin Mary in her grief and suffering. She is considered the patron saint of Guanajuato, perhaps because the city was founded on mining and people relate to the sorrow of losing a loved one.

Virgin de Dolores altar

Virgen de Dolores altar (2)

Elaborate altars to the Virgin appear all over the city.  They contain many elements- a picture of the Virgin, candles, purple to represent the pain of Calvary and white representing the purity of the Virgin. Chamomile, wheat, oranges and fennel are also used, each assigned a specific meaning.  People need flowers to decorate their altars and the day before Viernes de Dolores has now become a festival in itself.

Buying flowers on Dia de las Flores

The streets are jammed with vendors selling flowers and decorated eggs, hollowed out and full of confetti.  Colorful, meaningful and local- these two days encompass everything a visitor could hope to see in a traditional celebration.

Easter eggs on Dia de las Flores

Fabulous beaches, pre-Columbian ruins, fresh guacamole… one can think of so many reasons to visit Mexico.  Don’t forget the art.  During the first half of the last century, Mexico enjoyed one of the most vibrant art scenes in the world.  The legacy these artists left is in itself a compelling reason to go to Mexico.  Here are some tips for appreciating the Mexican Murals:

  • Mexican Muralism was a movement, not just an art fad. Prior to this movement, art tended to be stuffy; portraits of rich people, landscapes and still-lifes and, of course, religious themes. The Mexican muralists believed that art should be public and idealistic. They used their talent as a means of social protest and made art for and about the masses.
  • The Mexican murals are true frescos, meaning that the painting had to be done while the plaster was still wet.  The artists not only had to ascend an elaborate scaffolding in order to do their work, but they had to do so under the time pressure of drying plaster.  Keeping this in mind as you view the murals makes their accomplishments seem even more remarkable.
  • There are murals everywhere, not just the famous ones.  Pop into the Town Hall of many a Mexican city and you’ll likely see a mural which either celebrates a triumph of the people or laments their suffering.  That being said, things become famous for a reason and you do not want to miss out on seeing the work of the “Big Three”.

Mural from the National Palace. Photo by Darij & Ana

The most famous Mexican muralist, and probably one of the most famous Mexicans period, is Diego Rivera.  His work can be seen in various places around the country, but the best examples are in Mexico City.  Some folks may feel intimidated by a mega-tropolis of this scale, but Mexico City is safe (it has a lower crime rate, including a lower drug-related crime rate than Washington DC), has an excellent Metro system and boasts at very least three “must see” items, including the Diego Rivera Murals, the National Museum of Anthropology and Teotihuacán.

The murals Rivera painted in the National Palace are the most famous and my favorite examples of his work.  However, I recommend saving these until after you have seen the murals in the Secretary of Public Education (SEP) building. Visiting the SEP first will allow you to view some of Rivera’s early work and therefore see his artistic development. More importantly, it’s a reminder that the true father of Mexican Muralism was not a muralist at all, or even an artist, but rather a bureaucrat. Jose Vasconcelos, who served as Mexico’s Secretary of Education in the 1920s, commissioned artists to decorate numerous public buildings.  It’s likely that muralism movement would not have happened without his support.

Diego Rivera mural in the National Palace. Photo by Joaquín Martínez Rosado

Rivera’s paintings celebrate traditional Mexican life and the Mexican Revolution.  The noble “trinity of the revolution” – farmers, soldiers and factory workers- is a recurring theme.  Rivera was not one to be shy about his politics and if you scrutinize his paintings you may notice that the background on the left side depicts a more bountiful landscape than the background on the right.  Of course, you can only see that in the paintings that actually have a background. Rivera tended to pack his murals full of people, often well-known public figures whom it can be fun to identify.  The best example of this is his Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda – a painting so revered that even an earthquake showed it respect (leaving the painting intact while the building around it crumbled)!

Travel to Guadalajara to see a smattering of public buildings adorned with the work of Jose Clemente Orozco.  His image of Hidalgo is iconic.  (I think Lonely Planet actually used a photo of it for the cover of one of their books once.) When I went to the Hospico Cabañas, I was lucky enough to see another visitor lying flat on his back on a bench, staring up at cupola overhead.  When he left, I followed suit.  This was the perfect angle from which to view Orozco’s masterpiece Man of Fire.  Seen from below, the painted image truly seemed to be ascending through the ceiling.  Orozco literally executed these paintings one-handed, having lost his left hand in a childhood accident.  Orozco was less enamored with the Revolution than Rivera.  His images explore themes related to suffering and the dark side of humanity.

Jose Clemente Orozco’s mural of Hidalgo. Photo by Liz Saldaña

Orozco’s Man of Fire. Photo by Sachavir

Final among the “Big Three” and probably the most political we have David Alfaro Siqueiros.  Compared to Rivera and Orozco, Siqueiros painted in a more futuristic and abstract style.  He used an airbrush and overhead projector.  Having studied architecture before turning to art, Siqueiros refused to be bound by two dimensions, as seen in the mural The People to the University, the University to the People which covers the side of the National Autonomous University of Mexico  (UNAM) in Mexico City.  His work shows a fascination with angles and movement and geometry.

The People to the University, the University to the People by David Alfaro Siqueiros. Photo by Mr. Theklan

I would be remiss in my duties if I did not point out that the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City is a great place to see the work of all three masters.  Maybe you’ll be inspired to go home and paint a mural on one of your own walls!

I was home from the ceremony by midnight, but could still here the blaring ranchero music when I drifted off to sleep around two.  I had expected it to be a loud night and didn’t really mind.  It’s not every day you turn two-hundred.  This was the culmination for me, having traveled through North America and been in each country for its Independence Day.  But I should start at the beginning…

July 1st, Victoria, BC

Canada

“How independent is Canada really?” I teased my friend. It’s true, she confessed.  The Queen was visiting that Canada Day and an editorial in the newspaper seemed to capture the national sentiment – supporting a European Monarchy is ridiculous, but the Queen herself is so perfect no one has the heart to change things.

July 1st was also the first day of a new tax, the “harmonized sales tax”.  I found this name hilarious.  I assured my friends that in the U.S. we would never refer to a tax as harmonious.  We would never use those two words in the same sentence.

The streets were filled with festivities.  Everyone was dressed in red and white and seemed to be in an alcohol-assisted state of happiness.  This all fit with what I’ve heard about Canadians, extremely polite, and rather fond of beer.  According to my friend, a good deal of Canada’s current national identity can be linked back to a Molson’s commercial.

July 4th Gig Harbor, WA

USA

On July 4th, we sailed from Victoria to Port Angeles, Washington.  A sign at the ferry terminal said, “Happy Independence, neighbor.”  We were eventually on our way to Portland which has a fabulous Blues Festival fourth of July weekend.  However, we spent the night in the small town of Gig Harbor on Puget Sound.  Things were fairly subdued. We sat at Tides Tavern and watched boat sail up to the dock to order to-go food.  It was early evening.  There was no municipal fireworks display and restaurants were closing.  “Everyone wants to go home and BBQ and let off fireworks with their family,” I explained to the Canadians, feeling a little embarrassed.

The lack of hoopla was fine with me.  I’m a bit uncomfortable with patriotism.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate what I have.  A representative, secular democracy is a great thing.  But I didn’t do anything to earn the privileges I enjoy.  I don’t feel proud to be American- I feel lucky.

September 16 –  Guanajuato, Gto

Mexico

And now I am in Mexico for what is not just any Independence Day, but the Bicentennial.  And, I’m not just anywhere, but in Guanajuato where the first battle in the struggle for independence was fought and won.  Victory did not come swiftly.  The leaders of the fight for independence did not live to see the success of their efforts the way Washington and Jefferson did.  They were martyrs to the cause. For ten years, the Spanish displayed the cut-off heads of “the conspirators” hung in cages on the corners of the Alhondiga, a building which is now a museum.

Mexicans are night owls, so the big party was on the eve of Independence Day. People with flags, horns and confetti flooded down to the plaza in front of the Alhondiga.  Musicians performed, a slide show depicted images of Mexico’s history and people, a giant digital clock counted down the minutes until the “grito”. The “grito” is an annual reenactment of the cry for independence which was first given by the priest Miguel Hidalgo 200 years ago.  Now politicians repeat it to cheering crowds and one did so now.  We all yelled ¡Vive!, sang and watched fireworks.

Independence isn’t all its cracked up to be.   It’s hard to say if the world is really making progress.  Sometimes it seems that given the chance at self-determination, what people are determined to do is make war with their neighbors.  Fair and democratic elections have brought some really bad people to power.  One wonders if we have simply shifted from political to economic imperialism.  And of course, Mexico is having a hard time right now.  In the end though, it beats the alternative.  ¡Vive la Independencia!