Monday, July 30, 2007


OK, so you're in Mexico City, you're obligated to go see Teotihuacan. Much of it was constructed between 100 and 650 AD, thus predating the more famous civilizations that the Spanish encountered. Teotihuacan, in fact, was a ruin when the Mexica (Aztecs) were the dominant empire.

I stitched together this panorama from a few shots. It's taken from the second largest pyramid on these grounds, known as the "Pyramid of the Moon." On the left side of this main footpath is the third-largest pyramid in the world, known as the "Pyramid of the Sun." (Those at Cheops and Cholula are bigger.) Still, it weighs more than three million tons, and was constructed without the wheel or animal labor. This means that if there were a million people working on the structure, they would each have to move 6,000 pounds of rubble. Yet the population of this town peaked at 175,000 -- though they probably used tribute labor from other parts of the empire to help build it. In any case, a mammoth achievement. Although this pyramid is known as "of the Sun," recent evidence indicates that it was actually used to worship the rain god, Tlaloc. (Known by the name of a similar deity worshipped by the Mexica, since the name used at Teotihuacan is not known. Teotihuacanese glyph writing has not been deciphered.) In the picture below, which I took half-way up the pyramid, you can see more evidence of this. People have been leaving notable sacrifices to Tlaloc, though we will have to see if the God of Fresca's jealousy is needlessly aroused for a lack of contributions.

It is very difficult to imagine Teotihuacan as it was more than 1500 years ago. A pile of rock today, the pyramids would have been covered in plaster and paint. The Pyramid of the Sun was apparently red, which is a terrifying and intriguing prospect. A few segments of mural that have survived. They can be found in a beautiful but out-of-the-way museum, and an impressive original structure that is equally out of the way. (They're both outside of the official grounds of the archaeological site.) This picture is from the latter site, so you can see both the richness and the limitations of what remains:


This weekend's trip took us about three hours to the south of Mexico City, to the "preserved" colonial city of Taxco. ("Preserved" in quotations because it has grown, but government enforcement requires any new building to be constructed in style of the older structures there. Even the taxi fleet of Volkswagen beetles have been painted entirely white to match the buildings.) It is a beautiful city, with thin and winding streets twisting their way through the hills. In this picture, you can see the hillside covered in houses, and if you click on the picture to magnify it you may be able to make out the open-armed Jesus statue on the hill in the upper right corner:

Taxco was once a silver boom town, but since the veins have tapped out, the town has re-created itself as a center for silver design. Lots of what you get in other countries as "Mexican silver" was worked in Taxco, and there are hundreds of shops and galleries. But you don't get to see those, you get to see part this eighteenth century church:

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Gulf Coast II

After spending our day in Veracruz, we headed about 30 kilometers to the north to a beach frequented by Mexican families from other parts of the country. The most unusual features were the sand dunes, which Nicole, having gone and "read" a "book", knew were five kilometers away. Five kilometers, said I? No way. Five kilometers later, we arrived, a bit footsore but happy to be there.

There were pieces of sand dollar strewn up and down the beach. When I went to the beach as a child, I always used to wonder how one particular uncle always managed to find whole sand dollars. I had never in my life found one, but I found one this weekend. I think I discovered the trick to the process: just walk far enough that no one else has picked them up first. Having found it, I became curious about what the animals is like when alive. As it happens, when swimming later on, I stepped on one out in the ocean. I picked it up, and then, having pulled it out of the water, discovered it was brown and covered with little spines. Having found this, I quickly threw it back. It's a strange animal: it seems like the "dollar" must make up 95+% of the mass, with a very tiny fleshy part inside.

The other area attraction were the ruins of Cempoala, the center of a local empire that Cortes encountered when he landed in this area. The buildings here are relatively modest, but 500 years ago, they were apparently covered in plaster, and one of Cortes' footmen mistook them for silver. Today, they are surrounded by farmland, mostly sugarcane, and indeed some of the buildings are fenced off, inaccessible, in the middle of people's fields.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Gulf Coast

Nicole and I made a weekend trip to the Mexico's Gulf Coast, to take some time to think (away from the archives), while at the beach. Our first stop, about a six hour bus ride through a surprisingly diverse range of ecosystems, was the port city of Veracruz. I suppose Veracruz is probably most famous for getting invaded, sometimes significantly. Like Cortes, on his way to "Mexico City," in 1519. Or the US Navy, occupying the port during the Mexican Revolution in 1914. The city's highlight (for me, at least) was the site of San Juan de Ulúa, where fortifications were built in the sixteenth century, and where subsequent phases of building have added depth and complexity. (An overhead view of the place can be seen at its Wikipedia article.) You can see three of the main phases of the building in this photo, with the tower at the back left belonging to one of the oldest phases:

The base level (which is really large), is, astonishingly, made of coral. Sometimes bits of wall have worn away, and the coral can be seen underneath. Other times it seems not to have been covered at all. Here, you can the coral seawall (SJdU used to be an island, but filled land has since made it a peninsula) and a bridge over a canal.

Other parts of the site have been used as a prison, including to house future President Benito Juarez. The cells were very damp, and in a short period of time (a couple hundred years) stalactites and stalagmites have formed there. Water torture--constant, inescapable dripping on one's head--was apparently used to make some of the prisoners crazy. (It is a myth, a tour guide said, that the water would eventually bore through your skull. Not a myth I'd heard before, actually.) Apart from the cells and part of one tower that holds a bizarre assortment of bombs and shells belonging to the Mexican Navy (and a couple of seamen), the ex-island is now quite a nice place: a nice place, that is, to employ my one photographic skill. Thus:

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Mexico City V

Noted without comment.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


Yesterday, a trip to a Mexico City suburb known as Tlalpan, which people say is like what Coyoacan used to be like before it was swallowed by the city. It wasn't out of the smog bowl, but atmospherically it did feel like leaving the swell and crash of the urban environment. We (me + Nicole + some of my cherished university friends) had a relaxed lunch at a cafe on the main plaza, where a gathering of international shamanic medicine was holding a reunion of drumming, incense, and placebo cures. What amazes me most is how similar these subcultures are all around the world. Ancient wisdom + goop = hope for the weary.

The main purpose of our visit, however, was not pseudoscientific, but architectural: specifically, the work of Pritzker Prize-winner Luis Barragán. Check out his biography at the link, and pictures of some of his work here. We were visiting the place listed at the bottom, the Convento de las Capuchinas. We were all awed by what he did with light: follow that link to the Convento and look at the way the gradient of light along the wall brings out the cross in relief in the picture at the lower-left. The effect was remarkably peaceful, and if one had to spend 49 years there without leaving (as the nun who gave us the tour had done), this might be one of the lovelier places to do so. We weren't permitted to take pictures in the chapel, but here's one of a fountain in the courtyard.

Also, look again at the effect of the light on the fountain:

Monday, July 09, 2007

Mexico City IV

This is the famous Plaza de las Tres Culturas (Three Cultures Plaza), representing the pre-hispanic, the colonial, and the contemporary (the words are those of an on-site brochure, not mine). This is Tlatelolco (site also of the famous massacre of 1968), once the seat of the Aztec/Mexica empire, then sorta buried and dismantled--some of the stones were used to build the cathedral on the same location. Much later, obviously, the white building you see in the distance was added to house the Foreign Relations secretariat. (Though that's now in a building across the street; I'm doing some research there.) But if the Spanish once showed their dominance of this space by their control of the built environment--there are new rulers now. Some ruins have been recently uncovered, but they can't be excavated because that would mean breaking up the street that's since paved over them, one of Mexico City's busiest. The new masters: not men, but machines.

Mexico City III

The last days have been full ones, and have included my first opportunity to get to the archives. This picture, though, was not taken at the archives, but instead in front of the National Anthropology Museum, a massive (and massively nationalistic) collection of pots and life-size dioramas. This pole, about six stories tall, is quite near to the museum, and as we were leaving we saw a group of Totonacs preparing to perform their famous ritual, the danza de los voladores. The men climb up, tie themselves in, wrap their ropes around the center, and then spin down to the bottom, while one of them plays a flute and drum. What was once religious ritual (and may still be somewhere) is now plied for the coins of tourists. It's something of a scholarly joke that no one can say anything about the Totonacs without talking about this very distinctive custom--a failing that I'm afraid I haven't overcome.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Mexico City II

A view of the Paseo de la Reforma from the Chapultepec Castle. In the foreground, among the trees, is a monument to the six "Hero Cadets" who, according to legend, wrapped themselves in Mexican flags and threw themselves to their deaths when they realized that Mexico City would be taken by the US army in 1847, rather than surrender.

There's some haze, of course, but those are mostly clouds you're seeing in the air. If things were clear, we'd be able to see mountains, which were somewhat visible from other vantages.

Mexico City

Well, I've arrived in Mexico City for a couple of months of summer research. Flying in was a strange experience - we came in at night, so as we approached we began to see more and denser networks of corridors of electricity draped like burning blankets over the mountains. The airport was enormous. We came in a small plane, three seats across, routed from Houston, and I felt like a toy box rather than a serious aircraft, like the enormous ones from Europe and Asia. There were mobile transport vehicle gates (I have seen similar things at Dulles airport in Washington, DC) that picked people up from planes sitting on the tarmac, settled down to the ground, conveyed them to the terminals, and then rose up again to let them disembark at terminal level. Our little plane, however, was met simply by a huge bus that took us, after getting stuck in a line of traffic -- on the tarmac -- to a dilapidated concrete door. It was truly the stuff of dystopian science fiction, and if I hadn't know better, I would have thought Mexico City to be a nightmare City of Machines.

That said, as bad as the smog is, it is notably better (at least so far) compared to what I experienced in Santiago last (southern hemisphere) winter. After settling in to our hostel (more about that at Nicole's blog), we took today to walk in Chapultepec Park. We had intended to go to an art museum, but were unable to cross Paseo de la Reforma due to some kind of parade or protest, it was hard to tell. So we climbed to the Castillo de Chapultepec, which is the preserved for many reasons, but today houses the national history museum and the European-style castle of Emperor Maximilian and his wife Carlota.

There are large and extraordinarily yellow butterflies throughout Mexico City, called the mariposa papalote (comet butterfly). I got extremely lucky to be able to take this picture of one (it flew away a second later), with some of the skyscape in the background.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

West Coast road trip

The internet is a permanent and public space - hence the policy of this blog not to publish the names or photos of other people, except under very unusual circumstances (like, for example, if that person lives in southern Argentina.) So if I tell you that I've been to a family reunion in Vancouver, BC, you'll have to let me leave it at that. This has meant driving from San Francisco to Canada up highway 101; here are some pictures from the trip.

First through redwood country in Northern California. We took a detour that takes you along a stretch of forest known as the "Avenue of the Giants" because of the size of the trees there. I learned recently from the latest BBC nature documentaries that a huge amount of the world's biomass can be found in redwood forests like these, but because most of that is inedible and locked up in spiny leaves, there is relatively little animal life here, even when compared with a seasonal deciduous forest. I suppose that may be why places like this are so often described as "peaceful" and "quiet." Except when there are passing trucks, of course.
We then drove up the Oregon and Washington coasts (it was raining), and stopped in Seattle for the second night of the trip. The next morning we arrived in Vancouver. Here you can see the iconic totem poles in Stanley Park, which I have photographed using my one and only photographic trick (something in foreground, interesting thing in background out of focus).

Having spent so much time in the car, we hiked up Grouse Mountain. The trail rises 2800 feet in a little over 2 miles. We finished in an hour and 26 minutes, only slightly less than the estimated hour and a half. Some regular runners went charging by, finishing in 35 minutes or so. Here you can see Vancouver from the top, as well as the cables of the tram that you use to descend - it's too steep to descend the same way you came up.

Finally, on the return trip, a bit of a pilgrimage. We stopped in Portland, which looked to me to be one of the most attractive and livable cities I've ever seen in the US. I swear it wasn't just because of Powell's City of Books, the largest bookstore in the world. The place rests heavily on a full city block and contains seven enormous rooms filled floor to ceiling with new and used material. (I had a dream last night, after going to Powell's, that I had too many books in my house and my floor was sagging dangerously.) It's impossible to capture the size of the place in a picture. Let me put it this way: this was one little hallway in one of the rooms: perhaps 1/15 of 1/7 of the bookstore. Dreamy. If that isn't enough, there are five other branch locations, some of them specialized stores, in the Portland area. In case you're wondering (and you're not), the Powell's in Chicago seems to have been started by the same person who started the Powell's in Oregon, but the companies are totally independent of each other. M. Powell, whoever you are, thank you.