Mexican Folk Art: Alebrijes

Magical Realism—Zapotec Style

At the Casa de Montejo in Mérida, I stumbled onto a special exhibit of Mexican folk art by Jacobo and María Ángeles and their collaborators from the Zapotec town of San Martín Tilcajete in the State of Oaxaca. In general, I think that Mexican folk art is magical, but Jacobo and María are something else. They are known for their sculpted figured known as alebrijes in a series called “Tonas and Nahuales.” According to Wikipedia, “Alebrijes are brightly colored Mexican folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures.”

These particular sculptures are carved from the wood of the copal tree, which is sacred to many Meso-American peoples because it is the source of incense for worship. They are meticulously painted, and various other objects are frequently attached.

Magical Monkey

This was the first of several visits I made to see Mexican folk art in both Mérida and Valladolid. In every case, I was enthralled.

The Ángeles art group has an excellent website which can be accessed here. Of particular interest is a four-minute video in Spanish with English subtitles explaining their method of creating these alebrijes as well as a quick survey of their other activities:

Future posts will describe other works of Mexican folk art that caught my eye.

World Enough and Time

The Codz Pop at Kabah

Back in June, I had a very exaggerated picture of the ruins I would be visiting. Because I wanted to see everything, I imagined that it was feasible to criss-cross four Mexican states to see Maya sites that were hundreds of miles apart. Although theoretically it was possible, I quickly realized that there were too many long bus rides and tours that required more than several participants (or else pay a steep price for guides and transportation for a single paying customer). Here is what I wrote in June:

I have been to Yucatán four times in all, the last time with Martine in November 1992. During my visits between 1975 and 1992, I have visited about a dozen Maya archeological sights. Since then, scores more have been developed, including one of the largest at Calakmul in the State of Campeche. In addition, I hope to visit Cobá in Quintana Roo, Ek Balam and Kinich Kakmó in Yucatán, Edzna and several Rio Bec sites to be decided later in Campeche, and Yaxchilan and Bonampak in Chiapas. In addition, I plan to revisit some of the sites I have already seen such as Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Palenque.

In the end, these were the ruins I visited (the ones I saw for the first time are marked with an asterisk):

  • Kinich Kakmó *
  • Kabah
  • Sayil
  • Xlapak
  • Labna
  • Uxmal
  • Edzna *
  • Chichen Itza
  • Ek’ Balam *
  • Dzibilchaltún

The Korbel Arch at Kabah

Because I never made it to Chiapas, that meant that Palenque, Bonampak, and Chiapas were out of the question. Calakmul and the Rio Bec sites in the State of Campeche were too expensive for a single-person tour, and ditto for Cobá in Quintana Roo. I did not originally plan on seeing Dzibilchaltún again, which was the first Mayan ruins I visited in 1975, but I had some time on my hands in Progreso, so I hired a taxi to take me there.

In the end, if I had seen everything I originally planned for, I would have been gilding the lily. As it was, I was delighted with what I did see—and I have a motivation for returning to the Yucatán Peninsula for more.

 

The Tourist Axis

Mérida Is One of My Favorite Cities in the World

When I got off the plane at Manuel Crescencio Rejón Airport in Mérida (aka MID) on January 14, my spirits lifted. I had had a rough flight from LAX to Guadalajara and from thence to Mérida—all after a sleepless night—but my spirits lifted as soon as I found myself once more in “The White City.” The city’s tourist axis runs from the bus station north through the Plaza de Independencia (pictured above) and Calle 60, taking a slight jog eastward and continuing northward along the Paseo Montejo several miles to the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya.

Along this axis are numerous sixteenth century churches, hotels, museums, restaurants, and shops aimed at the tourist trade. No sooner did I dump my bags at the Hotel La Piazetta at the Parque de la Mejorada than I hoofed it to the Plaza Independencia and had a world class shoeshine. In past visits, I wore a set of custom-made hiking boots of chrome leather which the shoeshining fraternity stationed at the plaza polished to a gorgeous sheen. Then, as it was hot (90º F or 33º C) and humid, I went out for a  beer. My old favorite—Carta Clara from the Cervecería Yucateca—was no more, but Mexico still has good beers that make Budweiser and Coors taste like horse piss.

The Palacio Cantón Contains a Great Museum of Maya Antiquities

On my first full day in Mérida, I hiked to the Palacio Cantón on the Paseo Montejo, home to the Regional Museum of Anthropology. In it are primo examples of Maya sculpture, stelae, and glyphs—the best of the best! They are housed in a century-old mansion belonging to a former army general, who was also a millionaire.

Maya Stela

It is unlikely you will find better examples of Maya carvings anywhere else in Mexico. Even in the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, several miles north, there is a slight drop-off in quality compared to the Palacio Cantón.

 

 

Back to Yucatán After 28 Years

I Began My Travels There 45 Years Ago

Yucatán is where I began my travels (in 1975), and I had returned three times because I couldn’t get enough of it (the last time in 1992). You know what: I still can’t. The busy streets of Mérida, the classical Maya ruins of Uxmal, a steaming hot bowl of sopa de lima, and an ice cold Dos Equis cerveza after a sweaty day visiting the ruins—no, I’m still not tired of the place.

Today Martine asked me if I wouldn’t really rather live in Mexico. I told her no, but I don’t mind going there again. And again. And again..

I returned yesterday afternoon after a long two-leg journey that took me from Mérida to Guadalajara, and from Guadalajara to LAX. I was exhausted, as I woke up at 1:30 am Pacific time and didn’t hit the sack until 9:30 pm, at which point I was barely able to pour myself between the sheets. At Martine’s request, I bought her two guayabera shirts and the makings for some great hot chocolate from ki’XOCOLATL in Mérida’s Santa Lucia Park.

Some things I missed from previous trips: Jugos California was apparently no more, as was Calle 60’s Restaurant Express. But I loved Chaya Maya on Calle 55. Passenger railroad service from Mexico DF to Mérida was no more, but bus service was vastly improved. The ratty old second class buses from the Unión de Camioneros de Yucatán were replaced by shiny new air-conditioned vehicles bearing the logos of Oriente, Mayab, ATS, and Sur—and their windows weren’t cracked and broken either!

One thing that hasn’t changed: The Mexican people were great hosts. It broke my heart that I didn’t have the Spanish to carry on a fluent conversation with the men and women I met, but I had no great difficulty communicating with them on a basic level. Plus: Over the years of traveling in Latin America, my Spanish had improved by leaps and bounds.

Okay, I’m ready to go back….

 

Meat-a-Palooza

Dan Carefully Measures the Internal Temperature of the Meat

One of the highlights of my weekend trip to visit my brother and family in Palm Desert is a growing family tradition known as Meat-a-Palooza. Dan is an incredible chef, and he loves to prepare a feast featuring a variety of meat dishes. Incredibly, he is able to single-handedly prepare a multi-course feast that is all ready to be served at the same time. I can’t even do that with two dishes, let alone a dozen.

I don’t think I’m a bad cook, but I simply can’t compare with Dan. Everybody always asks him why he doesn’t open a restaurant. In answer, he merely smiles and begs to differ. He knows that running a restaurant is more than anything a form of slavery, involving long hours seven days a week. Visiting Dan’s place is always a special treat for me.

The Same Beef Dish on Serving Plate

The curious thing is that I am gradually turning into a vegetarian, but that all is put on hold when it is Meat-a-Palooza time. Dan’s dishes are always top drawer and worth eating irrespective of one’s foodie beliefs.

The Groaning Table Gradually Fills Up

 

Family Portrait

A Family Portrait at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens

Standing in the above picture (left to right) are me; my sister-in-law Lori Paris; the children’s nanny Katia from Toluca, Mexico; my brother Dan; Lori’s son Danny Duche; my niece Hilary Paris Moorman; Lori’s daughter Jennifer Duche. In the front row are Oliver Moorman, Joseph Moorman, and Ely Moorman. The photo was snapped by a friendly tourist who was reciprocating for a picture we took of them. I kind of look like a fire hydrant who wandered into the picture.

The ten of us came to Palm Desert from L.A. (me), Seattle (Joe, Hilary, and sons with Katia the au pair), San Francisco (Jennifer), and Denver (Danny Duche). It was nice to see the whole family all in one place.

The Next Generation

Oliver Moorman, Age 4, with Palo Verde Tree in Background

I just returned today from the Coachella Valley where I attended a family reunion on the occasion of several birthdays appearing close together. Plus I had the chance to spend more time with the youngest members of the family, my niece Hilary’s two sons. Oliver and Ely. As she lives in the Seattle area, I don’t have too many occasions to see her, her husband Joe, and their two boys.

Yesterday, we spent several hours at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert, where my brother Dan lives. You will see several pictures taken there over the next week or so. According to Condé Nast Traveler, it is one of the ten best zoos in the United States. In my opinion, it is the very best. At present, it concentrates on the desert animals on two continents: North America and Africa. Under construction is a small enclave dedicated to the plants and animals of Australia.

My Niece Hilary with Youngest Son Ely, Aged 1½, at the Living Desert Petting Zoo

One of the most fun things about visiting a place like the Living Desert is to see its effect on young children. Ollie and Ely were as if in a magical realm, in which awe predominates. Even the goats in the Petting Kraal were a revelation to the two boys. Then there was the feeding of the giraffes, with their long tongues wrapping around the Romaine Lettuce the boys held out to them. Even the carousel, featuring endangered species worldwide, caught Ollie’s attention, as he rode on a giant hummingbird.

Ollie with My Brother Dan on Carousel

Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind spending more time at the Living Desert. I am not immune to being overawed.

 

Oasis

The Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery

As each breath I take fills my lung with ash from the Getty Fire, which is just a few miles north of my front door, I look back to the unexpected highlight of last week’s trip to the Eastern Sierras. I am referring to the Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery in Independence, California.  Built in 1916, the hatchery was run by the California Department of Fish and Game until 1996, when the State found they couldn’t afford its upkeep. It was then that a nonprofit organization called the Friends of Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery was formed to run the former hatchery as a museum, with an interpretive center and gift shop.

The real highlight are the grounds, which include a pond well stocked with rainbow trout and visiting ducks. A small number of fish (mostly trout) are still hatched there as part of the museum.

Martine fell in love with the gift shop, which included two items of special interest to her: some attractive and reasonably-priced quilts made by a woman in Bakersfield and a bucket filled with packets of fish food. We purchased one of the quilts, and several packets of fish food.

It turns out that the ducks were more aggressive about begging for the fish food than the trout. That was all right with Martine, as she enjoyed feeding the ducks more, while I thought of them as shameless beggars.

We actually visited the Fish Hatchery on both Thursday and Friday last week. It was a beautiful and peaceful place.

A wildfire in July 2007 burned 55,000 acres west of the hatchery. Then, a year later that same month, a heavy thunderstorm caused a mudslide that damaged part of the hatchery as well as two of the employee residences. I am delighted that the Friends of the Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery managed to clear the damage and re-open the facility.

If you find yourself on Highway 395 and desire a couple of peaceful hours in a beautiful locale, I highly recommend a visit to the hatchery. And say alone to the ducks and trout for me.

 

The Devil’s Postpile

The Columnar Basalt Formation at Devil’s Postpile National Monument

The last of the three major destinations of our recent Eastern Sierra road trip was the Devil’s Postpile National Monument near Mammoth Lakes. There are a number of locations around the world where thick lava formations, in cooling, form cliff faces of hexagonal columns. Probably the most famous are the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland and the Isle of Staffa in the Scottish Hebrides.

The nearest such formation to me is the Devil’s Postpile. The Monument can be reached primarily by taking a shuttle bus from the Mammoth Mountain ski area to Stop #6, from which there is an easy half-mile hike to the cliff face. The top of the columns looks like this:

What the Columns Look Like from Up Top

We didn’t actually take the hike to the top of the columns, but only because we didn’t want to push ourselves too hard at high altitude.

The hike to the basalt columns follows the San Joaquin River through a pine and juniper forest of surpassing loveliness. In fact we liked the surroundings so much that the columnar basalt formation was almost a letdown considering the lead up to it.

I would like to return in future and extend the hike to Rainbow Falls, which is also in the Monument.

 

Towers of Tufa

Mono Lake and Tufa Towers

On our way down the mountain from the ghost town of Bodie, we stopped at the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve and took a little hike. Mono Lake has numerous towers formed of pure calcium carbonate when the calcium of the underground water met the heavy carbonate content of the saline lake water. As the volume of the lake fell due to being siphoned off by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP), the towers, which were formerly underwater features, now appeared as pinnacles looming along the south shore of the lake.

The Yellow Water is Composed of Trillions of Brine Shrimp

Mono Lake is teeming with life, beginning with the brine shrimp which teem in the waters, along with the alkali flies that feed on them and the birds that feed on the insects and the brine shrimp. As one walks along the shore of the lake, one sees billions of bobbing alkali flies, visible in the photograph directly above.

Brine Shrimp

Because of a 1990s court decision that went against the DWP, an attempt will be made to allow Mono Lake to refill—up to a point. The intention is not to submerge all the tufa towers, but to encourage the life forms that dominate the lake.