Tag Archives: Lifestyle

Editor’s Letter

By Jane Bauer

When I was growing up, gym class was treated as a less important subject than math or English. It was grouped in with art and woodworking (which I wish I had taken). It was a class you would skip without being worried about falling behind and many girls I know routinely came up with reasons for being excused from it. However, in the real world, skills learned in gym class are incredibly useful: it forces people to get out of their physical comfort zones, and it teaches teamwork, discipline, and communication.

On a larger scale, sports unites or separates groups, depending on whether you are a glass half-full or half-empty kind of person. The swell of stadium calls and passionate allegiances to teams have led to violent riots but also to emotional triumphs that have lifted people up and improved their lives.

One such moment is happening as I write this. With the Taliban in Afghanistan returning to power, the world watches helplessly to see how this will play out. Women will most likely be prevented from working (except as teachers and nurses), they will be restricted to women-only spaces at university and I assume limited in the subjects they are allowed to learn. You can bet they won’t be allowed to play sports where any aggressiveness might be displayed, a challenge to the meek silent demeanor the Taliban wants to force upon women. In the face of this, members of the Afghanistan women’s junior football (soccer) team and their families have fled to neighbouring Pakistan.

The international organization Football for Peace worked out the arrangements; Fawad Chaudry, Pakistan’s information minister, tweeted that the team had entered Pakistan at the Torkham border crossing and were met by a representative of the Pakistan Football Federation. The news service Reuters later published a photo taken at the PFF headquarters in Lahore of the 81 people involved – the team, their families, and their coaches; another 34 people are expected shortly.

When it comes to communities where girls and women are restricted in public life, sports can have an effective social impact. Girls who play sports tend to have higher self-esteem, continue further in education, and I would also posit that they learn to value their bodies as action-based, rather than through the sexualized lens of the media and social media.

My philosophy has always been “If you want to help a community support the education of its women.” I think I can take that one step further and include supporting its sports teams.

See you next month,

Jane

Mexico’s Olympians: Bringing Home the Bronze

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

The 2020 summer Olympic Games was one of the strangest in modern history. They were played in 2021 in Tokyo after a year’s delay due to the raging coronavirus, with spectators banned from the events and Japanese residents outside the venues loudly protesting the games. The demanding circumstances took their toll on many athletes; the Olympians from Mexico were not exceptions.

Mexico’s athletes seem to thrive on crowds cheering them on. The best previous Mexican Olympic performances occurred in their own Mexico City in 1964, with stands packed with their screaming fans; they reaped 9 medals, three gold, three silver and three bronze. The next best was in 1984 in Los Angeles, a city rich with people with Mexican roots cheering in Spanish; they won six medals, two gold, three silver and one bronze.

Tokyo 2020 was, for the Mexican Olympians, at best “average.” Lacking fans rooting them on, they brought home four medals, all bronze. Only one medal was in a sport that ranks high in Mexico, football, or as those north of the border say, soccer.

Soccer is more a part of life than just a game in Mexico. It’s common to see boys, still toddlers unsteady on their feet, kicking balls all over the country. Fans are fiercely loyal to their teams and the clubs supporting them.

Although Mexico has competed in soccer in just five Olympic Games, they have brought home two medals, a gold from London and the bronze this year. Perhaps the lack of spectators worked in favor of the Mexico team in Tokyo, since they faced off against the Japanese team for the bronze. If the stadium had been packed with fans from Japan, the results might have been different from the win by Mexico with a 3-0 score.

More surprising than Team Mexico’s medal in soccer was the bronze taken by Alejandra Valencia and Luis Alvarez in the mixed doubles archery competition. To bring home the bronze, the team bested first Germany, 6-2, then shut out Britain (6-0). They lost to South Korea (which has won the gold 14 times). But in their final round, competing with the team from Turkey, they scored 6–2.

Although archery is hardly a major sport in Mexico, individual archers on Team Mexico had previously won a silver medal and two bronze at the summer games. However, this was the first competition in archery involving a team of two, a man and a woman, in which Mexico medaled. Of course, archery etiquette demands silence during key competition moments. So the absence of Alejandra’s hometown rooters from Hermosillo and Luis’s from Mexicali may have aided their focus – although the fans were no doubt missed after the win.

Aremi Fuentes Zavala’s bronze medal in the women’s 76 kilogram (167 lb) weightlifting competition may help blow away the film industry stereotype of Mexican women as beautiful adornments clinging to the men in their lives. From Chiapas, a state where whole villages of women are the wage-earners and men are responsible for home and hearth, Fuentes, who is 5 feet 2 inches tall, also took the silver in women’s 76 kilo weightlifting in the 2019 Pan American games in Lima. In interviews she exudes pride in being a strong woman.

Two other women Olympians from Mexico brought home the fourth bronze medal. Their event was synchronized diving from the 10 meter platform. For Alejandra Orozco, this was her second Olympic medal in the summer sport; her teammate, Gabriela Agúndez García was competing in her first Olympics. Both women are Armed Forces athletes stationed in Guadalajara. Both began as gymnasts at very early ages, which is evident in their performance both on the platform and while airborne.

Although at age 24, Orozco is two years older than Agúndez Garcia and at 1.58 meters high (5 feet 2 inches) is 0.02 meters (1 inch) taller, during their dives they appear to be almost identical twins. From the second their toes left the platform to the second their toes, gracefully pointed to the ceiling, disappeared into the water with minimal splash, they were so coordinated it was like seeing one diver and her mirror image piking and summersaulting.

Although all these splendid Olympians missed having in-person cheering spectators, people around the world and especially in Mexico were watching them via new technologies and applauding. And when the Summer Olympics will once again be held in Los Angeles in 2028, we can hope the cheering in Spanish will once again spur the Olympians from Mexico to more medals – perhaps even bringing home the gold.

Day of the Dead

History
Day of the Dead originated several thousand years ago with the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people, who considered mourning the dead disrespectful. For these pre-Hispanic cultures, death was a natural phase in life’s long continuum. The dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit—and during Día de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth. Today’s Día de los Muertos celebration is a mash-up of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Christian feasts. It takes place on November 1 and 2—All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on the Catholic calendar—around the time of the fall maize harvest.

Altars
The centerpiece of the celebration is an altar, or ofrenda, built in private homes and cemeteries. These aren’t altars for worshipping; rather, they’re meant to welcome spirits back to the realm of the living. As such, they’re loaded with offerings—water to quench thirst after the long journey, food, family photos, and a candle for each dead relative. If one of the spirits is a child, you might find small toys on the altar. Marigolds are the main flowers used to decorate the altar. Scattered from altar to gravesite, marigold petals guide wandering souls back to their place of rest. The smoke from copal incense, made from tree resin, transmits praise and prayers and purifies the area around the altar.

Food of the dead
You work up a mighty hunger and thirst traveling from the spirit world back to the realm of the living. At least that’s the traditional belief in Mexico. Some families place their dead loved one’s favorite meal on the altar. Other common offerings:

Common among offerings is pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, a typical sweet bread (pan dulce), , often featuring anise seeds and decorated with bones and skulls made from dough. The bones might be arranged in a circle, as in the circle of life. Tiny dough teardrops symbolize sorrow.

Sugar skulls are part of a sugar art tradition brought by 17th-century Italian missionaries. Pressed in molds and decorated with crystalline colors, they come in all sizes and levels of complexity.

Costumes
Day of the Dead is an extremely social holiday that spills into streets and public squares at all hours of the day and night. Dressing up as skeletons is part of the fun. People of all ages have their faces artfully painted to resemble skulls and don suits and fancy dresses to mimic the calavera (skull) called Catrina, who represents the decadence of the wealty just before the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Many revelers wear shells or other noisemakers to amp up the excitement—and also possibly to rouse the dead and keep them close during the fun.

Adapted from National Geographic

World Surf League Visits Mexico for the 2020-21 Championship Tour

By Julie Etra

We all know about the pipeline at Playa Zicatela in Puerto Escondido, and some of the surf spots just to the east of Huatulco, including La Bocana and Playa El Mojon. A bit farther east is Barra de la Cruz, known almost as much for its wildlife conservation activities as for its surfing.

The 2020-21 Tour (2020 canceled for COVID-19)

In August of this year, Barra de la Cruz hosted the Corona Open Mexico tournament, part of the World Surf League (WSL) Championship Tour. The Corona Open is an international competition, featuring professional surfers from France, Australia, Japan, South Africa, Brazil, Italy, and the United States, all being countries with good surf. The World Surf League, the governing body of professional surfers, started out in the 1960s, going through multiple organizational and name changes until it became the WSL in 2015, when it was acquired by an investor group with surfing and media interests. The majority backer is the American billionaire Dirk Ziff, an indication that surfing has now become serious and profitable business. The fact that surfing made the Tokyo Olympics this year doesn’t hurt!

Competition in Barra is completely different from what goes on in Puerto Escondido, famous for its huge waves that attract thrill-seeking adrenaline surf junkies. I am told this by my daughter-in-law Joycelyn Turk (aka Joy), who knows much more about surfing than I do. Joy is a “Tica,” living in Costa Rica as a professional chef and avid surfer, and has surfed, up close and in person, Zicatela, Mojon, and Barra. Barra has a “point break” wave, where the wave comes off a headland or point, while the famous Playa Zicatela is a “beach break” that forms huge waves off the ocean floor.

The WSL competition is very intense and difficult to manage due to tournament protocols and the unpredictability of both the surf and the surfers. This is the first year that competitors overlap during heats, with two paddling out about five minutes before the two previous surfers are still in competition. The competitors paddling out must give priority to the pair in the final minutes of their heat, meaning the second pair has to give way to any wave either of the previous competitors has taken.

The championships at Barra de la Cruz were swept by the Australians. For the men’s tourney, Jack Robinson approached Barra ‘”correctly,” by sitting in the critical position outside the farthest rock, where the wave can be bigger and starts off with a “dredging barrel.” For the women’s tournament, seven-time women’s world champion Stephanie Gilmore narrowly won against Hawaii’s Malia Manuel.

Winning the WSL Championship

In 2021, the WSL is offering each of the winners (one man, one woman) of the entire tour a prize of $100,000. In addition the WSL has a prize pool of over $1 million, which is divided by competitive ranking among all competitors during each event.

The finals of this year’s WSL tour took place September 9-17 at Lower Trestles Beach in San Clemente, California; the men’s competition was won by Gabriel Medina of Brazil, who took fifth place in Barra, while American Carissa Moore, also fifth in Barra, took the women’s title.

According to the WSL, judging is on a scale of 1-10. The surfer’s performance on each wave is scored by five judges on five characteristics: difficulty; speed, power, and flow; and different assessments of the surfer’s maneuvers. The highest and lowest scores are dropped, and the three remaining scores are averaged. Then the two highest-scoring performances combine to become the surfer’s “heat total.”

The competition begins with 100 participants, male and female; occasional vacancies are filled with “wild card” competitors, which is how Huatulqueñan Regi (Regina Perez Paoli) was able to compete this year (more about Regi: https://www.montecito.mx/razones/surfing-huatulco – her scores were not available when this was written).

Why Did the Tour Come to Barra de la Cruz?
So, the next obvious question is WHY BARRA? The break, of course, the infrastructure to support the event and its large staffing and entourage, and – very important – COVID-19. Other potential host countries had less friendly protocols during the pandemic, with tourism and foreign arrivals curtailed or prohibited, although Joy and I viewed websites shouting RED status for COVID-19 in Huatulco, “LEY SECA!” (limits on alcohol sales), “50% occupancy!”

Interview with a Surfer
Naturally, to further my education on surfing, I took advantage of Joy’s visit to interview her on the topic.

How long have you been surfing? 22 years. It’s wild. All because of my friend Neal McCombs. We met in Carlsbad, California, where he and his family taught me how to surf. North County San Diego has a lot to offer surf-wise – something for everyone. I grew up in Tahoe so it was a natural transition from snowboarding to surfing, but still it took years to actually understand and be decent in the sport. I moved to New York City to work in Michelin kitchens and become a professional chef. While I was there, I was surfing at Rockaway in the city and out on Long Island in Montauk, before The Surf Lodge [a Montauk hotel/restaurant] opened, before it was as trendy as it is now. That’s also where I met another close friend, Danny DiMauro, who heavily influenced my surfing style.

Where is your favorite surf spot? That’s a hard question to answer. I have to say overall, five minutes from my house [in Costa Rica] is the break I’m at every day, all my friends are there, and the vibe is great (most of the time) and it’s always different. Some days it’s big and nasty, some days it’s small and playful, and almost every day it’s head-high for me because I’m short. Pavones would be a close second in Costa Rica because it is only a day of driving to get there and the second-longest left-hand wave in the world.

Tell me about Barra de la Cruz. Depending on the day, it can be very technical, starts off fast, and if it’s the right swell direction there’s potential to get some pretty serious barrel action both on the outside and on the inside of the wave. It can also be scary if there are large swells with overhead and double overhead waves. The current gets really strong during those moments and it’s hard to stay in position. And you have to get behind the rock and avoid falling into the rocks. If you are more to the inside of the rock, the takeoff is easier but that doesn’t mean it’s not intense.

The locals can be pretty territorial. which is normal for surfers, particularly in Mexico, which is completely understandable and ok, as long as you are respectful and give a friendly hello. It is a little different for women, we can get away with a little more, but we really have to prove ourselves. And we sometimes have to fight a little harder to get a good wave if there are a lot of people in the lineup. It has been my experience that, all too often, men will assume you can’t handle certain waves or that women can’t surf as well as men. So, you had better go when it’s your turn or you will forever be at the back of the line.

And other surf spots along the coast? Mojon is a gem. There are a lot of these gems along the coast. I cannot stress enough how important it is to speak Spanish or at least try. It goes a long way with the locals both in the water and on land. Also, really important, if you want to surf the more remote beaches, hire a guide. That will take you to hidden spots, get you some great waves and feed the local economy that depends on surf tourism. I have heard that Lalo with Surf Tours Salina Cruz is excellent.

I know this article is about Mexico and the competition, but where else have you surfed?
Most of Central America with the exception of Honduras because there’s not a whole lot of surf there.

Drew (my media naranja) and I met in Las Manzanas, Nicaragua, located on the Emerald Coast of the Pacific 45 minutes northwest of Chinandega. There’s lots of remote surfing up there, but none of the breaks really had names then. I was shocked to see another person in the surf and in true surfer fashion we thought the same thing at the same time “Who the f*** are you?”

El Tunco and Las Flores in El Salvador. The setup in Las Flores is very similar to Barra De la Cruz.

Bocas Del Toro, Panama, goes off during wet season and has a well-known big wave break called Silverbacks, and then lots of other breaks off the various islands that you can only get to by boat taxi.

Chile has Chicama and Los Lobos. both epic world-famous lefts, Chicama being the longest left in the world (makes goofy footers happy) at 2.2 kilometers from start to finish.

And then there’s Indonesia and the Maldives and South Africa. So many waves, so little time.

To see almost an hour’s worth of the WSL tournament in Barra de la Cruz, check out this video:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJOKVxFHo8Y.

Fall Finds: Ten New Books By Old Friends

By Carole Reedy

“In stories we exist.”
Niall Williams, History of the Rain

In October we transition from summer to winter, lush green leaves turning bright bright orange, yellow, and red before falling, a portent of winter’s snow and dark days to come. The season itself anticipates the arrival of major Western holidays. But for me, October marks the publication of the most significant books of the year.

Why is the fall book so eagerly anticipated? Readers are tired of beach books, shoppers are making holiday purchases for bookworm friends, and serious book lovers are planning their winter reads to enjoy in front of the fireplace. In addition, like movie premieres, books published at year’s end remain fresh in the mind, augmenting the possibility of winning next year’s awards.

Whatever the reason, for avid readers this is a most marvelous time of the year, and Fall 2021 promises a brilliant selection from the most prominent and distinguished writers of our time. Here are ten books from ten of my favorite authors to savor over the next few months. Just reviewing them assuages feelings of anxiety that pandemic isolation has brought to our lives.

Crossroads, by Jonathan Franzen
For me, this is the most awaited book of the year. Franzen’s depiction of family life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been a theme in his novels, including Freedom (2010), Purity (2015), and, best of them all, The Corrections (2001).

Crossroads should be a blockbuster, and, fortunately for readers, it is the first in a promised trilogy “A Key to All Mythologies.” Once again, Franzen explores the motivations, habits, and impulses of a Midwest family, this time the Hildebrants, over a three-month period that includes those two major holidays, Christmas and Easter.

Franzen writes on other topics, but his family sagas of social realism contain his most compelling and insightful work.

Oh William! A Novel, by Elizabeth Strout
Olive Kitteridge fans, rejoice. Another masterpiece by Elizabeth Strout awaits you. No one will ever forget Olive Kitteridge, the personage or the book (2008) in which Strout magnificently yet simply sneaks a peak at the daily life of a curmudgeon with whom we all fall in love. The HBO miniseries (2015), starring the daring actor Frances McDormand, doesn’t quite capture the complexity of the character that the book so precisely portrays.

Oh William! stands on its own as a novel about a relationship, but if you’ve read My Name is Lucy Barton (2016) and Anything Is Possible (2017), your reading experience will be enhanced.

“Elizabeth Strout is one of my very favorite writers, so the fact that Oh William! may well be my favorite of her books is a mathematical equation for joy. The depth, complexity, and love contained in these pages is a miraculous achievement.”—Ann Patchett, author of The Dutch House: A Novel (Patchett’s latest book reviewed below).

The Magician: A Novel, by Colm Tóibiín
We know Colm Tóibín for the variety of novels he’s written over the past few years, the most popular being Brooklyn (2009), which was made into a heartwarming movie. With The Magician, Tóibín returns to his exploration of a famous writer, Thomas Mann. I fondly remember The Master (2004), his novel that takes us into four short years in the life of writer Henry James.

The Magician, on the surface, appears to be of the same style, but instead of four years, Tóibín analyzes 80 years of Thomas Mann, the famous novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist, essayist, and 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate. As Mann does, so goes Tóibín, with astute insight into the psychology of the intellectual.

It is quite a tome, covering seven decades and two World Wars. The entire family participates in the tale, including Mann’s parents, siblings, wife, and six children.

The Every, by Dave Eggers
It wasn’t an easy task, but Dave Eggers figured out how to circumvent the Amazon monopoly. “I don’t like bullies,” Eggers has written. “Amazon has been kicking sand in the face of independent bookstores for decades now.”

The hardback edition of The Every, his newest novel and a follow-up to the successful The Circle (2013), will arrive only in independent bookstores in October. Six weeks later, the paperback and e-book versions will be available in other stores and venues. The hardcover version will always be available only in independent bookstores and from McSweeney publishers, founded by Eggers.

“One of the themes of the book is the power of monopolies to dictate our choices, so it seemed a good opportunity to push back a bit against the monopoly, Amazon, that currently rules the book world,” he said. “So we started looking into how feasible it would be to make the hardcover available only through independent bookstores. Turns out it is very, very hard.”

Eggers is truly a Renaissance man. Not only the author of novels, Eggers was trained as a painter and his artwork has been exhibited in many galleries. He has won the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award for Education and the TED Prize, and has been a finalist for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2018, Eggers co-founded The International Congress of Youth Voices, an annual gathering of 100 extraordinary young writers.
Eggers is an admirable example for young people as well as being an insightful and entertaining writer. While the subject matter varies among his books, each is given the attention and feeling we’ve come to expect from this man of diverse talents.

Trust: A Novel, by Domenico Starnone
Starnone’s name may not be familiar in many countries, but in Italy he is currently the country’s most popular writer, possibly excepting Elena Ferrante. In fact, in the frenzied search to identify the real Ferrante (a penname), gossip mongers have speculated Starnone is the real Ferrante, or perhaps her husband.

Gossip aside, Starnone enjoys international fame with his short psychological novels such as Ties (2017) and Trick (2018). Distinguished for his tight, compact writing, not wasting a word with anything inessential to convey the meaning and emotion of the moment, Starnone dazzles us in subtle ways.

Trust, his fourth novel to be translated into English, by none other than Jhumpa Lahiri, explores the age-old tradition of secret keeping. A loving couple reveals their darkest secrets to each other, but the novel is about more than the trust between two people. It’s also an exploration into what we look for and thus create for ourselves in the other person.

“Richly nuanced while also understated, Starnone’s latest appearance in English is a novel to be savored,” Kirkus Reviews.

Fight Night: A Novel, by Miriam Toews
The women in Toews’s novels demonstrate a combination of strength, competence, and compassion. And while the subject matter is often controversial and difficult, the ease with which she opens up the world of the protagonists and weaves a tale has established her as a formidable writer of the 21st century.
A notable example is All My Puny Sorrows (2019), which depicts the struggle of a family and its concert pianist member who can’t control her urge to commit suicide.
Women Talking: A Novel (2020) is the tale of Mennonite women who suffer abuse from men in the community and the resulting decisions they must make (based on true incidents).
This latest is the story of three generations of women, with a grandmother and nine-year-old girl named Swiv at the center of the story; Publishers Weekly called this newest novel “a knockout!”

These Precious Days: Essays, by Anne Patchett
Respected author Patchett takes a sharp turn from her usual path in her newest book. Many of us have been enchanted by her novels, which sparkle with excellent plots and engaging characterizations.
In Patchett’s latest, we’re confronted with a compilation of very personal essays that reveal the author’s feelings on home, family, and friendships.

Harlem Shuffle, by Colson Whitehead
Harlem Shuffle, a combination of historical fiction, crime, and family saga, takes a different turn from Whitehead’s previous successes. Whitehead calls it his “love letter to Harlem.”
Whitehead has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize twice for his novels The Underground Railroad (2016) and Nickel Boys (2019). He has also received the MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships. With ten published books, Whitehead has established himself as a dynamic force in American prose.

State of Terror, by Louise Penny and Hillary Clinton
Who could resist a new novel by Louise Penny, guided by the insight of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? Obviously, it’s a tale of political intrigue and mystery that should appeal to Penny’s worldwide fan base for her Three Pines mysteries.
Penny says this about working with Clinton: “When it was suggested my friend Hillary and I write a political thriller together, I could not say yes fast enough. What an incredible experience, to get inside the State Department. Inside the White House. Inside the mind of the Secretary of State as high stake crises explode. Before we started, we talked about her time as Secretary of State. What was her worst nightmare? State of Terror is the answer.” Thus, the book was created.

Bewilderment: A Novel, by Richard Powers
Readers and nature lovers are eagerly anticipating Powers’ latest, which arrives on the coattails of his Pulitzer-Prize winning The Overstory: A Novel (2018). Bewilderment already is long-listed for the Booker Prize and is one of the most anticipated books of the year.

The protagonist, a professor of astrobiology, deals with explaining our endangered planet to his nine-year-old son, whom he’s raising alone after the death of his wife. Dig into this marvelous story of experimental neurotherapy and speculation on alien life.

Here’s to a fall and winter of reading, contemplation, and joy.

Play Ball! Play Mesoamerican Ball! Play Ulama!

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

It’s Mexico’s oldest sport, played formally with rules, courts, and rituals for at least 3,000 years, and informally for a millennium or more before that – it’s also the world’s oldest team sport. While the folks of the “Initial” and “Early Formative” periods in Mesoamerican culture (1900-1000 BCE) played all kinds of ballgames, with all kinds of balls, when we say “Mesoamerican Ball,” we’re talking about a sport that is thought to have originated in the lowlands of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador, probably because that’s where the rubber for the rubber ball was most common.

Mesoamerican ball (ōllamalīztli, ōllama in Nahuatl, pitz in Classic period Maya) is a fundamental feature of pre-Columbian culture in the region – archaeologists have identified nearly 2,500 ball courts (tlachti in Nahuatl), with the oldest known court (originally thought to be from about 1400 BCE, but recently redated to 1650 BCE) in Paso de la Amada in the coastal lowlands of Chiapas.

The oldest court in the Mesoamerican highlands dates from 1374 BCE, and was just found in 2020, under another ballcourt in San Mateo Etlatongo by Jeffrey P. Blomster and Victor E. Salazar Chávez, archaeologists from George Washington University. (Etlatongo is 90 km (54 miles) northwest of Oaxaca City, off Routes 190 and 135D.)

Of course, discovering the second oldest Mexican ball court in the Oaxacan highlands has upended the idea that the game came from the lowlands, so the academics are in a bit of a tizzy right now. We, however, are happy that the discovery tells us more about the sport itself.

How to Play (Really Ancient) Ball!

That ballgame was there at the creation, so to speak, as part of the origin myths of the Mayan people recorded in the Popol Vuh, an ancient sacred text of the Maya. The version we have was prepared from oral recitations of the story, first (most probably) as a phonetic rendition by a Spanish scribe in Santa Cruz del Quiché, Guatemala, sometime after 1524, when the area was conquered Pedro de Alvarado. No one’s ever found any such manuscript, but we do know that the priest Francisco Ximénez, who served in Santo Tomás Chichicastenango (or Chullá or Chilá), prepared a manuscript of “the histories of the origin of the Indians of this province of Guatemala.” It was “translated from the Quiché language into Castilian for the convenience of the ministers of the holy gospel.” The Ximénez document, produced between 1701 and 1703, put the phonetic version on the left and Spanish on the right. Given the Spanish penchant for destroying indigenous documents and artifacts, it is a remarkable contribution to what we know of ancient Mayan thought.

And what does the Popol Vuh have to say about the ballgame? Not all that much about the rules, although it implies sacred, political, and ritual components of the game.

Hun Hunahpu and his brother Vucub Hunahpu are playing ball on a court set up by the lords of the underworld, Xibalba. The noise of the brothers’ game annoys the lords; when the brothers fall asleep, the Xibalba lords capture them, kill them, and bury them in the ball court. All except Hun Hunahpu’s head, which they hang in a fruit tree. Along comes a goddess, and Hun’s head spits into her hands; she becomes pregnant and bears his sons, the Hero Twins, who through a series of adventures, end up in a ballgame with the lords of Xibalba; the Twins win.

The myth links the ballgame with overcoming death, with heroic mortals overcoming underworld deities on a field that links death with life, thus creating the universe in which we mortals live in.

As for how the game was, is, and would be played in our time, the Popol Vuh doesn’t really tell us. What we do know is that it was played in different ways in different places; our information comes from the balls themselves, of various sizes; excavated ball courts, with bouncing walls (rather like handball) or rings mounted high on the wall (rather like basketball); paintings of ball games, even in places where no ball courts have been found; remnants of pottery figurines of ballplayers showing the player wearing a protective yoke, with a loincloth below (confirmation that the hip-ball version, rather than hand- or foot- or stick-ball, was predominant); human vertebrae (confirmation of the notion that losing a ball game could be fatal).

The games were played sometimes one on one, or in teams of up to four players. In places with no upper goal rings, the point is to keep the ball in play. Scoring is very complicated – when one team allowed the ball to go out of bounds, the other team scored. If a player let the ball bounce twice before returning it to the other team, a penalty. With goal rings, some think a failed attempt penalized the team that tried, when the ball actually went through the ring, the game was over. Others think the goal ring, which was a difficult target for a hip-shot ball, was just for bonus points.

As for the human sacrifices, certainly foreshadowed in the Popol Vuh, sometimes yes, mostly no. There’s evidence that the upper classes played the game, so sacrifice was out. As the ballgame moved from the Maya to the Aztecs, however, issues of war and prisoners of war became more prominent, and sacrifice was in. There is evidence of human sacrifice at the huge Zapotec ballcourt at Monte Albán, but doubt as to whether it was the winners or losers who were sacrificed. At Chichen Itza, home to skull racks and unconfirmed rumors that the game was played with severed heads, it’s definitely the winning team that gets done in.

About That Ball …

We don’t know much about the size or weight of the balls used in play, although the ball is responsible for the “lowland paradigm” among archeologists, i.e., that because the Panama rubber tree (Castilla elastica) grows along the coast, the game developed there. And wrapping around the rubber tree was the white moonflower (Ipomea alba), a night-blooming morning glory. Combining the sap of these two plants created a particularly bouncy rubber, which fascinated the Spanish conquistadors – rubber was virtually unknown in Europe at the time.

It may have been the ball more than the game that led Hernan Cortés to take a team of indigenous players back to Spain in 1528, seven years after the Conquest, when he went to plead his case for continuing to rule Mexico (even some of the Spanish found the destruction of the Aztec Empire unnecessarily brutal). While Cortés brought many “wonders” back to the Spanish court, the ballgame – especially the bouncing rubber ball – was apparently a big hit. Columbus might also have brought rubber balls back to the Spanish court, but not accompanied by teams of barely clad but completely literate, extremely athletic players – we even have a 1528 drawing of them at play!

Although the clergy present supposedly muttered about human skulls in the core of the ball, two representatives from the Nahua teams (we know one was Benyto Maçatlaquemi – the scanty records do not name the second) went off to visit Pope Clement VII. They had learned both Spanish and Latin, as well as Court and Vatican etiquette – Cortés presented them as gentlemen scholar athletes, in their finest indigenous clothing, dyed scarlet with cochineal, iridescent with quetzal feathers. Clement bounced the ball, and cardinals laughed. Clement bestowed on the Nahuas the usual Vatican gifts, e.g., Italian clothing, but he also gave each of them a gold chain, a mark of rank and status, made by the most noted goldsmith in 16th-century Rome, Pompeo de’ Capitaneis. Clement prepared four papal bulls in the wake of the ballplayers’ visit: he established churches for indigenous peoples in Mexico City, in Culhuacán and Tlatelolco, now parts of Mexico City, and in the neighboring state of Tlaxcala.

The Vatican’s goals were to teach indigenous peoples how to read and write Spanish, to preserve indigenous languages in the Roman alphabet, and to encourage indigenous peoples to write their own histories. These goals were undertaken by the Jesuit priests of New Spain; their efforts are generally credited with the creation of Latin American humanities. It should be noted that the influence went both ways – crimson-dyed clothing and featherwork became very popular across Europe.

Play Ulama!

Mesoamerican ball is still played in a number of Latin American countries, both at home and against each other. An exhibition game was played at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City (see article elsewhere in this issue).

Now called “pok ta pok,” after a 1932 adaptation by a Danish archaeologist from a Yucatecan word, as often as “ulama,” the sport’s last World Cup (the third) was won by the Black Jaguars of Belize, beating out El Salvador, Mexico, Panama, Guatemala, and Honduras. The Mayan Ball Game World Cup is held every two years – if COVID allows, the fourth World Cup is coming right up in Mérida, in the Yucatán, December 2-6, 2021.

At the Xcaret eco-archaeological park, there’s an ulama court where exhibition games are played. Mexico City has an ulama court where amateurs form up teams to play matches. And Mexico’s Secretariat of Culture has been urged by other government agencies to “formulate, establish, or evaluate the candidacy of the ulama tradition that comes down from the pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican ball game, practiced in some Sinaloa communities,” to be considered for UNESCO’s designation as an intangible cultural heritage.

Editor’s Letter

By Jane Bauer

“From my earliest memory, times of crisis seemed to end up with women in the kitchen preparing food for men.”
Barbara Kingsolver

To say that I regard food as important is an understatement. For me food is a religion and I try to make choices that reflect my values the same way we do when picking our sins.

Although throughout the past year, the world has been struggling with random closures and socially-distanced dining, I have had some very memorable food moments. Here are my top 5 in chronological order.

  1. Blue Corn Tortilla with Quesillo in San Jose del Pacifico, after spending the morning participating in a mushroom ceremony led by a Shaman. Even without the drugs I’m pretty sure the tortilla made with heirloom corn, warm off the comal, would have been one of the year’s food highlights.
  2. Sea Bream in Athens. First off, it was wondrous to be in Athens sitting in a restaurant on a pedestrian street in what is known as the ‘anarchist’ neighbourhood. The fish was served with garlic potatoes, tzatziki and a glass of crisp white wine. Plus, I was sharing the meal with my Huatulco neighbor half-way around the world.
  3. Raclette with Chorizo and Pineapple. Eating raclette with Mexicans in Switzerland is a different affair than how my German father prepared it. I was skeptical at first but was soon won over by the tanginess of the pineapple with the chorizo and cheese.
  4. Rabbit Biryani. I made this dish using a mixture of different recipes- which is something I often do. I added slivered almonds, dried apricots and dates. The fragrant scents of cinnamon, ginger and turmeric that filled my kitchen were a delight.
  5. Chacales in Copalita. The taste of home. Similar to crawfish, fried in garlic butter and served with crispy tostadas, black beans and a tangy mayonnaise onion dip. Absolutely finger licking!

We hope you enjoy our Food Issue.
Thanks for reading,

Jane

On the Beaten Path in CDMX: Small Eateries with Big Flavors

By Carole Reedy

In a city of 20 million, not all restaurants receive the recognition they deserve, especially smaller venues without the funds for publicity. Reviewers try their best to visit the countless eating establishments in Mexico City, but they do have their limits.

Here I present small (sometimes tiny) eateries, a few of which may be short on ambience but big on flavor. I discovered them while flaneuring through the city or from friends who introduced me to them by enthusiastically declaring “You MUST try … ”

El Auténtico Pato Manila

This might be the best-kept secret in Mexico City. My downstairs, restaurant-going neighbor recommended this tiny venue on the spur of the moment one day as I climbed to my third-floor apartment in Roma Sur. Upon hearing my footsteps he opened his door and said, “Shall we pop out for a bite to eat? Feel like duck tacos?”

That was the start of many visits to Manila Tacos. What a find! The owner has created a small, eclectic menu, with just five items offered:
· Tacos Manila: four duck tacos on corn tortillas
· Tacos Kim: two duck tacos on flour tortillas
· A torta filled with duck (carnitas style) and avocado
· Won ton
· Spring rolls, filled with duck or without

Enjoy these delicacies while sitting at the counter in the wee locale. Take-out and delivery are available too. Each item is made to order and served piping hot with several sauces. A variety of beers is also available, as well as soft drinks. And that’s it! Perhaps you, as I have, will make this a staple in your diet.

Location: I frequent the Manila in Condesa at Culiacán 91. There is also a Manila in Roma Norte on Álvaro Obregón, close to Casa Lamm.

La Selva (move over Starbucks)

Hooked on Starbucks? Mexico offers many high-quality alternatives at much cheaper prices. One of these is La Selva in Condesa, located conveniently a short block from Parque México. Here you will find organic coffee from the Lacandona jungle in Chiapas.

I buy a half-kilo of organic dark roast coffee for about $7 US. There are small eating areas both inside and outside. on the tree-lined street at Iztaccihuatl 36. Unlike Starbucks, La Selva serves full breakfasts and lunches instead of sweetened pastries and expensive sandwiches.

People watching is a satisfying pastime at this location any day, but especially on Sundays when the park is most active.

Location: Iztaccihuatl 36, a short tree-lined street that runs between Parque México and Av. Insurgentes Sur.

Pastelería Alcazar

Good bakeries are a satisfying alternative to restaurants for breakfast or a snack. Alcazar is one of my favorites as they serve marvelous croissants and an English biscuit, a type of scone that my guests request during every visit.

There’s also a selection of small cookies and rich, flavorful cakes, unlike the cardboard, elaborately decorated sugary cakes that adorn many party tables in Mexico. The chocolate truffle cake from Alcazar is especially decadent, with several types of chocolate precisely layered. There are pies too, from lemon-lime to the sweeter fruit pies with whipped cream. Candles and other adornments needed for your celebration are also available.

For lunch, Alcazar offers sandwiches, both vegetarian and meaty, as well as a few salads. In my neighborhood of Roma Sur, all the medical personnel from the hospitals stop at Alcazar for a coffee or lunch, which in my book is a great recommendation.

Need a quick gift? Pop in and buy a packet of chocolate-covered almonds or coffee beans. Coffee sold by the kilo and a variety of teas also make for thoughtful gifts. There’s even a fun selection of coffee cups for sale.

Location: Pastelería Alcazar has many locations around the city … fortunately for us!

Cafebrería El Péndulo

You may think yours truly is confusing her regular book column with this month’s food article. Actually, not only is El Péndulo the most attractive and original bookstore in the city, its cafés offer surprisingly good food. There are seven locations throughout the city, and all have the same cozy ambience of rooms lined with books in Spanish, English, and other languages.

The coffee shops serve not just java but also light meals. The breakfasts are especially tasty. I was happily impressed that a simple goat cheese and spinach omelet could radiate such distinct flavors.

Location: The Polanco location is at Alejandro Dumas 81; in Condesa, it’s at Nuevo León 115; in the Zona Rosa, it’s at Hamburgo 126; and in Roma, Álvaro Obregón 86.

Mallorca

Believe it or not, this little-known restaurant, named for the large island off the coast of Spain in the Mediterranean Sea, is smack dab in the middle of Avenida Reforma, near the Ángel de la Independencia. It is indoor/outdoor, no better ambience for people watching.

Spanish and Mexican cuisine easily blend to give diners a variety of excellent choices and flavors. You’ll find the traditional Spanish serrano ham, as well as our beloved Mexican chilaquiles. Entrees such as salmon a la plancha, risotto, and the traditional cream soup from Córdoba, Salmorejo, star on this appetizing menu.

There’s also a magnificent pastry shop attached to the restaurant that’s filled with scrumptious treats such as brownies, chocolates, scones, chocolatíns, croissants, marmalades, and fine breads.

The hours shift daily, but most days the restaurant is open from 7-8 am until 9-11 pm.

Location: Avenida Paseo de la Reforma 365; there’s another one in Lomas de Chapultepec, at Avenida Explanada 710.

Little Tokyo

Foreign influences abound in Mexico City. Most tourists understand the French and Spanish architectural and culinary fingerprints left all over the city, but there is a considerable Asian influence here as well, including that of the Japanese.

Many of you are aware that Mexico’s landmark tree, the jacaranda, native to South America, was installed in Mexico City by Japanese imperial gardener Tatsugoro Matsumoto in the late 1800s. Ever since, these stately trees with purple blooms have adorned the avenues of the city, most notably in Coyoacán, Avenida Reforma in Cuauhtémoc, and colonia Roma, among many locales. If you visit from February through April you’ll relish the blooms followed by the carpets of purple they drop on the streets. (For the tale of Matsumoto and the jacaranda, see “How the Jacaranda and Blue Hanami Came to Mexico – and the Japanese Paisajista Who Made It Happen,” The Eye, July 2020.)

After World War II, with the many Japanese immigrants arriving on Mexican shores, the area around the Japanese embassy in the neighborhood known as Cuauhtémoc became a popular spot to gather. Here you’ll see the beginning – and subsequent growth and success – of Little Tokyo, in the area north of Reforma around the Ángel of Independencia.

Of course, it began with small informal restaurants but has grown into a formidable Japanese cultural area. This includes the finest of Japanese cuisine and even a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, if you choose to spend a night or two in the area. The inn Ryo Kan boasts a blend of Japanese and Mexican culture, with four tubs on the roof of the inn for your viewing and relaxing pleasure.

Most of the restaurants, the Toki Doki Market with Japanese gourmet goods, and shops line the street of Rio Pánuco. There is a Japanese contemporary art bookstore called EXIT La Librería at number 138. And at number 170 the popular Daikoku Restaurant serves all your favorite Japanese specialties.

A day exploring Avenida Reforma with a stop at Little Tokyo is a perfect way to ease yourself out of the isolation of the pandemic.

Wherever you roam, Buen Provecho!