Thursday, February 28, 2008

No pix just the fax

A quick update in order to uphold the once-a-week blogging guarantee.

Highlights of the last week or so include:

Sasha's raging nestiness resulted in an emergency trip to the paint shop and a couple of gallons of a color called "Icelandic." Sergio painted the bedroom. Sasha prepped, nagged and supervised from a safely ventilated distance. This time around we painted the grown-up bedroom not the nursery. Of course, the next free weekend we're tackling the guest room/office/nursery. We're leaning toward "Fun Yellow" because we have a feeling babies like fun.

We also managed to squeeze in a few more movies just in time for the Oscars: Juno and There Will Be Blood. Mexico City seems to ramp up on the movies just in time for the awards shows. We loved Daniel Day Lewis and that kid from Arrested Development. Then we went to see Bob Dylan perform. By the way, we walked to all of this stuff from our apartment. Which is fantastic.

Dylan was good---Sasha was particularly impressed with his punctuality. The schedule said 8:30 and those guys were a couple of minutes into Rainy Day Woman #12 and 35 at 8:40. The auditorium was packed (sold-out) and sounded great.

Tomorrow morning we're headed to Austin to catch the wedding of Aaron de la Garza and Jennifer Lueckemeyer. We're pretty sure they fell for each other at our weddding! Even if we can't claim any credit for their happy union, we're really stoked to see them tie the knot and looking forward to visiting our old town.

In other news, just about everyone we know is having a baby in the next 7 months or so. And I'd like to give a special shout-out to my old friend Megan who is due any day now!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Brotherly love

Sergio's brother Luis came through town last weekend, along with his old friends Bill and Mike, so it was a carnival of 40-something dudes at Casa Moreno. As such, this post will be largely (and unfortunately) Sasha-free.

The fellas showed an amazing tourism drive-- arriving on Thursday night at close to 2 am, they nevertheless hopped in a taxi in a city none of them were familiar with to go get something to eat. Apparently they just said "Condesa" and that was that until almost dawn. Impressively, they were out the door by 10 am the next morning and climbing the Pyramid of the Sun shortly after that. A random Scotsman expressed approval of their celebratory beverage of choice.

Blue label, eh? Nice.

That night, Sergio introduced the boys to the joys of Mexico City's many Argentinian steakhouses. After converting from kilos we realized we had ordered four pounds of steak, which was brought to our table on a standing grill.

The next day we ran around the Centro, and did a considerable amount of shopping for four grown men on a quasi-bachelor weekend. The fellas were shocked to learn we had actually covered only a few square blocks, and really only about 5 miles from our house -- El Distrito is mad-dense, as we saw for ourselves from the top of the Seguros LatinoAmerica tower:

Note: those aren't clouds.

The markets were lively and the day was beautiful. Also, chickens were sleeping in the street.


There was another fantastic dinner on Saturday night, this time with Sasha there to keep things respectable. The boys ventured into the realm of true Mexican mole, and seemed to be sold on it.

Sunday afternoon was the most ambitious of all: a soccer game, followed by a bullfight. Sergio privately feared it couldn't be done. But it was.

The game completed the trifecta for Sergio of all 3 DF professional soccer teams. We went to see the Club Universidad Nacional, more commonly known as the Pumas of UNAM. Interestingly, they are essentially a college team, and play on a college campus, but are professional players playing in the First Division soccer league. Their fans are therefore particulary lively, as they are primarily 19-year-old kids. When they play the other Mexico City teams like Club America, it's as if the UT Longhorns were playing the Dallas Cowboys -- and it's competitive. The game we saw was against a clearly inferior team but the fans were no less rabid after all 4 goals:



The Pumas also play in a historic place: the stadium of the 1968 Olympic Games, known for the Rivera mural on its facade, and for this classic moment:

Oh wait I meant this one.

From there it was on to the Plaza de Toros for a Sunday afternoon bullfight and it was, well, it was a bullfight. Whatever your opinion of bullfighting (and it certainly is controversial), there is no doubt that unless you grew up in Mexico or Spain you've probably never seen anything remotely like it.

I mean, the image below is an actual photo. That is to say, the matador really wore that outfit.

It actually sparked a very long conversation about its meaning. If anyone has any ideas, feel free to share them. We ended up with more questions than anything else.

Overall it was a great weekend because our guests seemed truly enthralled by all they saw. And there's nothing like seeing family from afar.

Facial hair is a Moreno thing.

One last note: if you haven't heard, there's been some real terrible things happening at the US Embassy in Belgrade -- that is to say, people broke in to the Consular building and set it on fire. Fortunately, no Embassy staff were hurt, but speaking as people who work in the Consular building of an Embassy we can assure you that mob-fueled arson would be really not cool. Please take a moment to remember the many dedicated people that work overseas for our beloved country.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Last Chapter: San Cris-TO-bal

The last part of our trip was to the colonial town of San Cristobal de las Casas, perched high in the mountains in the center of the State. The most amazing thing about Chiapas is that it has such a wide variety of climate and terrain for such a small place. San Cristobal is dry and downright chilly at night. But less than 200 miles away is pure jungle where howler monkeys roam. And in between is about every type of land you could imagine: rolling hills, rocky mountains, green pastures, etc. It's simply beautiful.

But of course, there's also a lot of this:

And before we got into town, we took a strange detour through the little village of Amatenango del Valle. About the size of a standard Home Depot, Amatenango is famous in the region for their "animalitos:" miniature earthen-ware animal figurines that are sold all over the State but which all are made by local women here. It's oft-mentioned in the guidebooks and it was on the way so we decided to stop in.

What we had forgotten was that last Tuesday was carnival day (i.e. mardi gras) all over the Catholic world. So when we rolled into the town square, we happened upon this scene, happening right in front of the Church:

And they were all dancing to this band, whose music we swear sounded exactly like the the trio from the cantina scene in Star Wars:

Not a single stringed instrument.

We were fascinated by this curious scene, and took a seat to one side to quietly observe. Very quickly, however, we began to notice a few things:

  1. All of the dancers, including those dressed as women, were men.
  2. Except for Sasha, there was not a single female within 50 yards of this "party."
  3. None of the other bystanders seemed to be amused by any of this. Most were old farmer men, watching quietly, speaking to no one.
  4. Several of the dancers were carrying something on a string:

It's hard to tell from the photo, but that's a dead coyote. On a string. This reveler was making the carcass dance to the music.

We decided at that point to leave Amatenango del Valle. For good measure, we bought some animalitos on our way out. We were both raised Catholic, and neither one of us can explain the first thing about what we saw there.

Moving along, San Cristobal is a beautiful town, and we stayed in a lovely B&B run by an American ex-pat. This was the view from our window in the morning:

Our place was also super close to a Church market where we could shop for the textiles that Sasha by now had so begun to covet. In addition to the standard crafts market in the plaza, there was an amazing Cooperative selling really high quality textiles from representative indigenous groups. (After a lot of hemming and hawing, we went home with a fabulous marigold-colored bedspread. Now we just need to buy a bed worth of the thing. Government-issued beds---not that hot.)

We snapped this photo as much as for the fact that it is the historic town gate as for the local woman in the foreground:

Her black, furry skirt (wool?) is a signature garment of the region. We were impressed at how many women and girls still wear very traditional indigenous clothing on a daily basis, even in the cities. And as noted earlier, many of the vendors spoke Spanish that was just as broken as ours, opting instead for their indigenous dialects, which could be heard throughout the markets.

The weather was mild, even by local standards, and the sunlight reflected off the colorful buildings throughout town was gorgeous. And sunset wasn't too shabby either.

Check out that baby bump!

Our last agenda item was to pick up some good local coffee for Sergio and as gifts for our dog-sitting friends. We visited a coffee museum/coffee shop that smelled amazing. And so here's one last bit of arcania: Chiapas, despite being the smallest state in the country, makes fully 60% of the coffee produced in Mexico. And the vast majority of that is parceled together from crops grown by individual producers on farms less than 10 acres in size. We don't generally like to proselytize here, but if you have the choice to buy "certified fair-trade" coffee instead of your standard store-bought joe, you should really consider it. It means a hell of a lot to a lot of very poor people. Tastes better, too.

Off my soapbox now.

Anyway, that's the end of our long Chiapas adventure. Thanks for taking the time to read about it. We look forward to the day when we can bore you again with another long series of bad vacation shots and semi-educated travel guidance. We're always planning the next adventure...

And oh yeah, Sasha's feeling good and we're diving into the 6th month of pregnancy now. Besides Sasha's ever-expanding belly, her other major symptom appears to be a compulsive case of Nesting. Which means lots of paint chips around the house and furniture rearranging.

Stay tuned this week for Luis Moreno's arrival in Mexico City and another long holiday weekend here in vacationland!

Chapter Five: Chinkultic

As noted before, one thing about living in Mexico is that it can cause you to take ancient ruins for granted. It seems like almost every town has some kind of pyramid which is really cool but you sometimes get to feeling like if you've seen one you've seen them all. Palenque was a first good reminder on this trip of how amazing these places are. And on our way back from the lakes we stopped at Chinkultic, the local ruins just down the road from our hotel.

"Now that's what I call a pyramid!"

It was basically a time-killing trip until dinnertime, but what a magnificent spot. The pyramid sits atop a steep mountain and the top offers a stunning panorama of the whole valley including two virtually hidden lagoons.

The best part about these out-of-the way spots is that you're not overwhelmed by people: other tourists, trinket vendors, etc. We had a good 20-30 minutes on top of this temple all to ourselves, and we of course took advantage of the opportunity to compose juvenile staged photographs such as this:

An offering to the God of Dorkiness.

The place was also overgrown with lots of lush greenery, so even the long slog up and down the mountain was full of pleasant scenery. Keeping with the nerd theme, in some places it looked like the Shire.

What about second breakfast?

All this beauty and still 2 days left on the trip! You're on the edge of your seat, admit it...

Chapter Four: Chiapas, The Great Lake State

Lagunas de Montebello is an area of 5o small lakes in the pine-forested border between Guatemala and Mexico. Because Sasha is always at least a tiny bit homesick for Michigan summers, she ranked this as among her favored destinations in Chiapas. There is a Mexican National Park here, and it was uncrowded and as promised, full of lakes. With great anticipation, we drove from our hacienda the 10 miles or so to the park entrance and made a day out of lake-hopping. The first stop was a trail that led to underwater caves and river.

There were lots of men eager to take us on horses down to the Grutas, the riverside caves we were after, but Sasha was a little hesitant to hop on board a horse on such steep terrain. So instead, we scrambled on foot through some woods and wandered past a few houses (apparently when the area became a national park, the folks who were already living here were allowed to stay.) and up the ubiquitous stairs and hillsides before stumbling onto a rushing river.

We checked out the caves and determined that absolutely jaguars lived in there. No question.

Obviously an enormous scratching post.

Rivers are great and all (they sound awesome), but we were ready for some lakes so we trotted back to another area of the park to visit some of these famous lagoons. The first one we spotted was called Laguna Ensueno and indeed it did look pretty dreamy. The color was such an intense turquoise.

We kept moving after lots of "Wow that really is blue!" comments which would become a theme of the day.

We toured around some of the other Lagunas de Colores (5 blue lakes), and then headed to one of the largest lakes in the park, La Canada.

They call that rock "King Kong."

We noticed that there were signs about renting "balsas" near the lakeshore and after investigating, figured out that we could paddle around the lake on a rented raft made of cork trees. With a guide and a fee, of course!

Seaworthy? Really?

So we hopped on board with Hector, a local man who pointed out the sights and told Sasha that in fact the nearest toucan birds were about 5 hours away. Sigh. But he showed us a spot of rock that looked "just like" the Virgen de Guadalupe and told us the names of flowers and a little bit about the history of the area so it certainly wasn't all bad news. According to Hector, the color of the lakes is due to their great depth and possibly something to do with volcanoes.

"Volcanoes" is the catch-all to explain everything.

We paddled around to the "secret side" of the lake and docked the raft for a short climb to yet another stunning vista. Hector pointed out that a few Guatemalan families lived closeby, relying on the lake for their drinking water, and showed us a bunch of washing boards and stands used for doing laundry in the lake. In the shallows of the lake you could really see how pristine the water was. And kind of cold too. Not Michigan lakes cold, but surprisingly crisp!

Hector took a photo of us in front of the hidden lake behind Canada.

And then we were headed back to the dock again...

to find something to eat in Tziscao, the only town of any size in the park. We had a confusing time of it Tziscao, it is tiny and not really the town we had in mind. But we found an open kitchen at a lakefront motel and settled down to eat. Sergio sampled some local cuisine:

And Sasha got really excited about pointing out Guatemala which she understood to be right across Lake Tziscao. Only she was pointing in the wrong direction...

Not the only time Sasha's navigational skills proved faulty on this trip.

After fueling up, we headed to Laguna de Montebello for a swim. We drove right up to the beach and realized that the clouds were coming in and that in fact it wasn't particularly hot anymore. Oh well. Sergio tried to give the rental car some added sex appeal while warming himself on the hood.

Like "Low Rider" magazine, except hotter.

And in the end, Sergio had his own "Into the Wild" moment in the lake after all.

Fortunately you can't see his junk.

Chapter Three: Parador Means "Awesome Place to Stay"

For the second and third nights of our stay in Chiapas, we traded up from palapa to parador. It was an extremely good move.

Our hotel was in the farmland south of Comitan and strategically located next to the Lakes district and an off-the-beaten path set of ruins; it was originally a 19th Century hacienda and coffee plantation.

Real coffee beans grown on-site!

The current owners of the property are antiques dealers or hobbyists or some such thing, and they have transformed the old farm's chapel into a tiny but impressive religious art museum.

The main building on the property houses the half dozen hotel rooms.

The porch was the perfect spot for surveying the property and soaking up lots of quiet.

And we were both delighted with the room. It had a great fireplace, a funky enormous bathtub tiled in talavera tile and these great timbered ceilings.

And the country was just perfectly peaceful---dairy cows grazing just beyond the farmhouse walls, an overgown thicket of citrus trees and coffee plants and the most beautiful old shade tree on the perimeter of the lawn. Every morning the valley was covered with spooky Wuthering Heights mist, which would later burn off in the glorious sunshine. Just smashing every way you turned.


A local resident, clearly unimpressed with us.

Hey I think that's an UGLI. He's holding a grapefruit.

The roots have actually grown into and through the stone wall.

Sasha is hopeful that the experience has convinced Sergio that living in a place in the country in striking distance of inland lakes is a fantastic idea! If only she could think of a place like that in the USA...

Sergio drives, and I'm in charge of this.