Tag Archives: travel

A Business Owner’s Recap of 2020 in Huatulco

By Brooke Gazer

We began 2020 full of optimism; 2019 had been a good year for our B&B, and January’s bookings indicated this trend would continue. Many guests book months in advance, but about half make their travel decisions four to six weeks ahead. This means that after Christmas, we usually see a lot of requests for late February and into March. When this didn’t happen, I knew we had a problem but had yet to identify it.

People were talking about something called the “corona virus,” but no one seemed to be taking it too seriously. On February 1, one guest took a selfie with a pyramid of empty Corona beer cans. He posted it with the caption, “Recuperating in Mexico from the Corona Virus.” A month later, no one was laughing.

Hindsight is so much clearer, but to be objective, few of us saw this coming, nor could we imagine how rapidly the fabric of our society would be altered. On January 7, Canada’s Chief Public Health Official declared, “There has been no evidence to date that this illness, whatever it’s caused by, is spread easily from person to person; no health care workers caring for the patients have become ill; a positive sign.” Just over two months later, the World Health Organization uttered the dreaded word – “Pandemic.”

On March 14, Canada suggested that anyone abroad should return home; the USA seconded the motion days later, and flocks of snowbirds headed north. With several bookings throughout March and April, we faced a dilemma. My husband has a severe heart condition, putting him into the high-risk category, but on-line booking sites penalize properties for canceling reservations. Most of these were for Mexicans and Mexico had yet to acknowledge the severity of the crisis. Incredibly, Mexico’s President insisted that charms and amulets would protect him. With heavy hearts, on March 18, we began canceling future reservations. A week later, memos from booking sites urged us to waive any cancelation fees due to COVID-19. It seems we were ahead of the curve, but only slightly.

Before long, Mexico started implementing emergency restrictions. In Huatulco, hotels and bars were closed, a few restaurants stayed open but strictly for take-out, many stores and all tourist services shut down, and beaches were declared off limits. Even construction came to a halt.

In a town that exists for tourism, this caused unimaginable hardship. Mexico has no unemployment insurance and a lot of people live from payday to payday. Not working could mean not eating. But this is also a compassionate community, many businesses and individuals donated generously to food banks and soup kitchens. Our Municipal President realized that domestic violence is exacerbated by difficult economic conditions, so he prohibited the sale of alcohol. The section in supermarkets displaying spirits, wine and beer was roped off and Huatulco became a dry community.

As the death toll rose, many rural communities restricted travel to or from their region. Towns and villages without medical facilities erected blockades to restrict access and residents were unable to leave without good cause. Our full-time maid lives in Copalita, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Huatulco. In early April, Vicki arrived an hour late, explaining her town was locked down. At the end of the day, I paid her a month’s salary and drove her to the edge of Copalita. When the lock down extended through June, we paid her again; she has been a loyal employee for six years and has a family to support.

Our life changed significantly over the next several months, it was quieter but we’ve adjusted. Our property is open enough that I didn’t feel closed in and for this I feel fortunate. I can’t imagine the stress of many local families sequestered together in small apartments during the hottest months of the year.

Without guests, there was no need to shop daily and we limited our excursions to once a week. Driving through La Crucecita felt eerie, it seemed like a ghost town; most shops were closed, we saw almost no traffic, no street venders, and no one walking along the sidewalks.

Having lived with a daily maid for the past nineteen years, I had to relearn the art of housekeeping. Vicki swept and mopped the floor of our common room twice daily. I bought an industrial sized push broom and moved all the chairs into the entrance. This made sweeping the large area much easier, but I asked myself, ‘Does it really need to be done so frequently’? And I applied the same logic to a number of other household tasks.

I knew I’d need more to fill my time and might have worked on perfecting my Spanish, or taken an internet Master Class in cooking, photography, or writing. Instead I subscribed to Netflix and held marathon sessions of movie viewing.

Gyms were closed but walking through our neighborhood offered a reasonable alternative. I also had the pool all to myself. Enjoying my solitary walk or swim, I sometimes thought about those who had left early. In March and April, much of Canada is either coated in snow or a muddy mess of spring melt.

Throughout the lock down, we may have lamented the lost revenue and we missed the social interaction, but life was not so bad. If we had to be sequestered, there were far worse places to be. We counted our blessings.

Things in Huatulco got a little shaky towards the end of June when the region was hit with an earthquake of 7.4 magnitude. The epicenter was only a thirty-minute drive southwest of the La Crucecita, and for a moment it felt as if we were under attack. The earth roared as our villa swayed, and objects flew across the room as if hurled by angry poltergeists. Fortunately, due to Huatulco’s strict building codes, any damage we experienced was only cosmetic and most buildings in Huatulco also withstood the onslaught. Unfortunately, some homes in U2 were severely damaged and a few older apartment buildings had to be evacuated. Frequent aftershocks continued over the next two months; violent shakes, on top of the financial crisis and social isolation, caused even the most stoic of us to admit to feeling a bit harried.

It has been over seven months since Huatulco rolled up its red carpet. Masks are still mandatory and social distancing is the new norm, but things are gradually beginning to reopen. Beaches, some restaurants, and hotels can function at a limited capacity. It is a relief to have Vicki back, and gradually we are “expanding our bubble,” inviting friends for dinner or meeting for coffee. After being deserted for an extended period, Huatulco beaches are crystal clear with occasional wildlife wandering along the white sand.

We have made some minor changes to our business and hope that eventually things can return to some semblance of normalcy. Huatulco has suffered, but the death toll has remained relatively low compared to some regions. Mexico has weathered many storms, and this too will pass. Sooner or later regular national and international flights will resume and tourists will again flock to our pristine piece of paradise.

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, an ocean-view bed and breakfast (www.bbaguaazul.com).

Quarantining in Mexico, But Still …Places to Go and People to See

By Carole Reedy

For nearly eight months COVID-19 has driven living restrictions in Mexico, as it has elsewhere. As I write, the red/orange/yellow/green semáforo (stoplight) recommendation for quarantine teeters between orange and yellow, depending on the state in which you’re situated.

The state of Campeche is notable for having achieved green status. All of Mexico is given daily updates from our Presidente at 7 am and from our Sub-Secretaria de Salud at 7 pm.

Apart from federal requirements, each state or city has its own way of managing the quarantine. For example, you may find that in San Miguel de Allende, you’re stopped by police for not wearing a mask, whereas in Mexico City this is highly unlikely. The San Miguel mayor is taking particular precautions to protect this “best small city in the world” (Condé Nast Traveler, October 2020). Mexico City has many citizens who work day-to-day, so you’ll see more people on the street than in other places, mostly masked.

If you’re tired of sitting at home, working, or just in need of a diversion, Mexican culture and adventures beckon, albeit with restrictions. Here are some opportunities open to you.

MEXICO CITY

Apart from lying on a sunny beach under a blue sky, sipping a margarita on the Pacific Coast or the Yucatán, the pyramids of Teotihuacán, just a half-hour outside Mexico City, are a main attraction of this historically rich country. After being closed for six months, they’re now open to the public. Normally 6,000 visitors a day would visit the site on weekends, but the number has been cut to 30% occupancy.

Also note you will not be able to climb the Pyramids of the Sun or the Moon, and the museum remains closed. As with all other tourist attractions, museums, stores, and restaurants in the country, your temperature will be taken and your hands sanitized before you enter. You’ll be asked to wear a mask and honor social distancing of 1.5 meters (about 5 feet). Hours of operation also have been shortened. The site is now open 9 am to 3 pm every day of the week, and still free on Sundays.

(The archeological sites of the Yucatán, including the famous Chichen-Itza and Tulum, are also open with restrictions similar to those at Teotihuacán.)

Museums in Mexico City as well as other parts of the country are open with the restrictions stated above. A wonderful surprise is the re-opening and extensión of the multimedia Van Gogh Alive exhibit, sharing space on the plaza Monumento de la Madre at Insurgentes and Reforma streets. The exhibit will be held over for viewing through January. You can make a reservation through Superboletos.

Another notable exhibit is the The Paris of Modigliani and His Contemporaries at the white marble Museo Bellas Artes, one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, located in the centro histórico, Juarez and Lázaro Cárdenas streets. Open 11 am to 5 pm Tuesday thru Sunday, with COVID-19 restrictions.

Museo Soumaya, with its curving facade inspired by Auguste Rodin’s sculptures, houses more than 60,000 pieces of art, including works by Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh. Carlos Slim’s gift to the city is free to all and open every day of the year. Currently, just 30 percent occupancy is permitted along with other COVID-19 precautions. The Museo is located in the classy Polanco Colonia. It is quite airy and open with its high ceilings and lovely circular staircase.

Your other favorite museums are open too, but be sure to look online for shortened hours and to see if you need to reserve a place in advance. All require the strictest of Covid regulations.

A favorite pastime of visitors and residents alike is flaneuring through the streets and colonias of the city. Most parks are open, including Parque México and Parque España in Condesa.

Roaming the Avenida Reforma is a pleasure not only for the sculptures dotting the walkways, but for the people watching and window shopping. Yes, most stores are open and even offering discounts.

In Colonia Roma you can enjoy street art in the Romita section and then stroll along Álvaro Obregón where there are a number of outdoor restaurants offering everything from fine dining to street tacos. Here you will also find used and new bookstores as well as eclectic shops.

EL BAJÍO

The Bajio region includes parts of the states of Aguascalientes, Jalisco, Guanajuato, and Querétaro, located to the north and west of Mexico City. Go for the natural wonders in the midst of small colonial cities.

Tesquisquiapan Wine and Cheese Tours

Charming Pueblo Mágico (Magical Town) Tequisquiapan is known as La Ruta del Arte, Queso y Vino; it’s also famous for its mineral spas as well as its hand-woven crafts. The climate is perfect year-round, and it’s the jumping off point for the wine and cheese tours of the region. From Mexico City it will take about three hours by car or bus (from Mexico Norte bus station). It sits a mere 52 kilometers from Querétaro, the capital of the area, another interesting, but larger, colonial city.

Most of us think of the fine Mexican wines as those from Enseñada, Baja California, but this region boasts several excellent wineries: Ezequiel Montes, Freixenet, and Viñedos Azteca. Take your own car or join a tour from Tequisquiapan.

Speaking of wines, I’d like to mention my favorite Mexican wine, though it is from the state of Coahuila, not the Bajio region. The winery is Casa Madero, the oldest in Mexico. The wine is Casa Madero 3V, a dry, fruity, full-bodied red. Another favorite is the Casa Madero Chardonnay, a dry crisp white. Tours of the winery take place in Parras, Coahuila. Put it on your list!

Bernal
A short drive from Tequisquiapan is yet another Pueblo Mágico, Santiago de Bernal. The highlight for most travelers is the hike up the Peña de Bernal, the third largest monolith in the world. At night, you can see the dancing fountains at the foot of the monolith.

There are places to get shamanic cleanses or detoxing temazcal steam baths in the area. It is also a good place to purchase hand-made and loom-woven textiles.

Consider, too, exploring the San Antonio de Cal community behind the Peña de Bernal. Otomí-Chichimeca customs remain intact within this community, which is why UNESCO named the region a World Heritage Site.

San Miguel de Allende
Not only have readers of Traveler magazine repeatedly named San Miguel the “best,” but they’ve also given top marks to some hotels, including #1 status to The Rosewood. Even if your budget doesn’t allow for a sleepover at this deluxe inn, go for sunset drinks on the terrace.

San Miguel is a shopper’s and artisan’s delight. Just roaming the cobblestone streets is a delightful adventure (watch your step and wear sturdy shoes!) and good exercise. The Jardín (garden) in front of the Parroquia (main cathedral) is a popular meeting place and the center of Sunday meetings, dances in the evenings, and other entertainment.

International restaurants abound, as well as great taco places. Here you’ll find Lebanese food (La Fenice, my personal favorite), Peruvian (La Parada, another favorite), and Argentinian beef (Buenos Aires). The best bakery is Petit Four, now also serving a full breakfast in their new digs on Jesus, just around the corner from the Jardín. Do try the chocolate mousse cake. Outdoor terrace dining and drinks are always fun at Azotea, just off the Jardín.

Some of the more popular tours in the city have been canceled due to the virus. Visitors have enjoyed the regular Sunday morning House and Garden Tours as well as the History Tours offered by Patronato, which closed for the pandemic in March, but may be offering private tours or smaller tours (https://historicalwalkingtour.org/, historicalwt@patronatoproninos.org./, 415 152 7796). Investigate when you arrive as both tours are informative.

A few hot springs – La Gruta, Escondido, and Taboada – lie just a short drive outside of San Miguel, accessible by car, taxi or bus. Enjoy a day here dipping in the thermal waters and taking in the sun and the fresh air of the countryside away from the dust of the city. Food and drinks are served at some locals.

Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary
The brightly colored Monarch butterflies find their home in the mountains west of Mexico City. Morelia or Pátzcuaro are good bases for the tours, though there are tours out of San Miguel de Allende as well. November through March is the season, with mid-January being peak viewing. Look at the Mexperience.com site for more information about tours and access to this natural wonder.

La Ruta de la Independencia
A few other towns a short distance from San Miguel de Allende – Querétaro, Dolores Hildago, and Guanajuato, among others – are well-known as the Route of Independence because this is the place where Padre Hildago, Ignacio Allende, and others plotted and executed their plan for independence from the Spanish in 1810. It is a bloody, intriguing history and a trip to these well-preserved colonial sites is a must for Mexico travelers.

All of Mexico is vigilant about safety during this pandemic. Although your visit may be impeded somewhat by restrictions, the warmth of the people remains just as strong as ever.

A Shift Towards Realism: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

By Randy Jackson

Having a young son at a certain age when the Ninja Turtles were all the rage meant I knew the Ninja Turtles were named after four Italian Renaissance artists (Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael). Raphael (he was the one with the red eye sash) was the biggest of this group of unlikely superheroes. He was a snapping turtle and the leader of these anthropomorphic crime fighting turtles living in the sewers of New York City.

Until recently, beyond the Ninja Turtle character, I was only vaguely aware of the Renaissance artist Raphael’s contribution to the world of art. That changed when I came across a photo of a certain painting, and not even a painting by Raphael himself, but rather a painting by one of a group of painters trying to resist Raphael’s influence in painting some 400 years after Raphael set brush to canvas.

Raphael – Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520) – is widely considered to be the consummate high Renaissance painter. Following the traditions of Greek and Roman art in which artists sought to portray beauty in the ideal human form, Raphael painted humans with grace and dignity and with backgrounds of an idealized and ordered world. His influence endured for centuries and was particularly revered in the Victorian era in England.

By the mid-19th century, though, a group of young, highly talented artists resisted the historical style of painting practiced by Rafael and others. This group became known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The particular painting that caught my roaming attention was one of the Brotherhood’s earlier works portraying sacred subjects in a stark and realistic way. Painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, it was titled Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation). The Annunciation was the announcement by the Angel Gabriel that the Virgin Mary would bear the son of God in her womb.

Normally paintings of the Annunciation are portrayed as glorious events with a winged Angel Gabriel bathed in golden light towering over a pious Mary who is looking demure and apparently calmly accepting this dramatic world-changing event in which she would be a central figure.

In this painting, however, Mary is a scared, uncertain young girl, still in her sleeping clothes, pulling away against the wall of her tiny room while a draped but otherwise naked, all powerful angel tells her of her role as commanded by God.

This painting was like a gut punch to me, so it was of no surprise to learn of the powerful reaction against the painting in Victorian society of the time.

The painting was considered scandalous and morally shocking. The author Charles Dickens wrote scathing criticisms of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, calling them “odious, repulsive, and revolting.” Dickens articulated the concern that an artist’s search for beauty is inspired by an ideal and not found in the raw reproduction of reality.

In fact, this painting of the Annunciation was not the work that drew the most scorn and criticism of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The full weight of condemnation fell upon them with their showing of a painting by John Everett Millais titled Christ in the House of His Parents.

In this painting, a thin timid looking Christ is being comforted after an apparent injury by an old, ordinary looking Mary. A bald, unremarkable Joseph works at his table, while John the Baptist, a half-naked street urchin, appears cowed and subdued with a bowl of baptismal water. This depiction of the sacred family of Jesus with details such as toenails that are broken and dirty shocked Victorian society. It was viewed by many as scandalously sacrilegious. Queen Victoria had this painting brought to her so she could see for herself what all the controversy was about. This left the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood nearly broken by the condemnation.

The challenge by the Brotherhood was to the Renaissance portrait of beauty as an ideal in art. This method of painting was represented by Raphael’s style and artists espoused it centuries. However, the Pre-Raphaelite kerfuffle was not just a reaction against a false ideal of beauty. It needs to be seen in the wider context of the time. Kenneth Clark’s Civilization (a 1969 BBC television series, followed by a history textbook) has a segment/chapter on “The Worship of Nature.” Clark argues that starting in the year 1725, Christianity as a source of creativity markedly declined, especially in England. Over the following hundred years people came to the notion that divinity is expressed in Nature. The artistic shift towards realism portrayed by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was an expression of this shift away from the artistic notions of the ideal and towards nature as it actually is.

As radical as these early works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood seemed to be at the time, they were also understood by some as an expression of the concurrent Naturalism Movement. One such person was the highly influential artist, philosopher, patron, and social thinker John Ruskin. Ruskin became a principal defender of the Pre-Raphaelites against their critics. He encouraged all artists to “go to Nature in all singleness of heart rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.” Nature, according to Ruskin, should be reflected in art in a realistic way, not an idealized version. What’s more, Ruskin believed truth is reflected in realism.

Ruskin’s view and influence won the day and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood went on to achieve outstanding success in their lifetimes. They became significant contributors to the evolution of art in the western world. The Brotherhood quickly moved beyond the paintings of sacred subjects discussed here. The majority of their subsequent paintings portrayed the stark reality of many aspects of everyday life in the Victorian era; we should note that Charles Dickens, shocked as he might have been by the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, addressed shocking Victorian social conditions throughout his novels.

Much more information is readily available on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including:

A BBC Documentary on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkWONORqHZw

Artist Movements on the Art Story Website:
https://www.theartstory.org/movement/pre-raphaelites/artworks/

A BBC Drama series on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, “Desperate Romantics”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAiv1_qZ2Cw

Editor’s Letter

By Jane Bauer

“The years thunder by, The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed.”
— Sterling Hayden

I am writing this month’s editorial from an apartment in Athens, Greece. While this may seem like the worst possible time to leave your house, I am seizing the chance to be a global pandemic traveler.

I embraced the first few months of the COVID-19 lockdown by taking an online class in Greek mythology, learning German with Duolingo, writing, cooking new dishes, reading the pile of books on my bedside table, biking in Huatulco’s National Park and meeting up with only a few friends. My daughter was home from university and it was wonderful to be able to spend time together without having to schedule it in and rush off to work.

If this pandemic has shown me anything it is that the time for living is today. No longer can we count on putting off our dreams for a later that may not come. So when the opportunity to do a little jet-setting came up, I didn’t hesitate.

The practicalities of the travel part have been quite painless with almost empty airports, mask-wearing, hand sanitizing and temperature-taking. My first stop was Switzerland where I was required to quarantine for 10 days. I got a studio apartment in the countryside and was able to take short walks with views of cows and even a couple of deer one early morning. After quarantine I was able to hike, go to a concert on the Stockhorn mountain, attend yoga classes and float down the Aare river in an inflatable boat. I have never valued these freedoms more than now.

With rising cases and restrictions being softened and then tightened, in almost every country, it makes it impossible to know what the future will hold. But did we ever really know? Even before the world came to a standstill, wasn’t each day a gift and the concept of the future just a comforting illusion? For myself, I will not stop making plans, they may change, but I cannot sit still waiting.

There has never been a better moment to set sail for the unknown, the entire world is poised alongside you, filled with uncertainty, and time is ticking away at the same speed as before. I am approaching each day with wonderment at the variety of possibilities it holds.

This month our writers share their stories of learning and growing during these times. I hope you will be as inspired as I have been. Stay physically safe; wear your mask, wash your hands and listen to your heart.

See you next month,

Jane

I Do Not Want to Go Back to Normal! Re-Learning the Craft of Storytelling

By Susan Birkenshaw

A friend of mine is a fine art photographer; to keep herself occupied, she has been revisiting her travels by looking at her past virtual albums. She shares one new photo each day with the world and tells us a short story about her memories of that image. She is not following any set timeline or single trip – simply what catches her interest on any given day. As I write this, she states that it is Day 176 of lock-down in Buenos Aires, Argentina – she has lived there for many years and has no intention of changing that even in the face of the pandemic gripping the world at present. My friend is one example of numerous creative ways we are finding of keeping our brains active in the face of difficult and changing times.

In most cities around the world, the options for activities have simply been closed to help the population stay strong and safe. This means – art galleries are closed; restaurants have been forced to shrink their seating, create take-out menus or to simply close their doors; movie theatres are closed; schools for any age are just re-opening (not necessarily a good thing) and even churches are unavailable. The way we survive has changed and isolation has become a new way of living for many.

As we pass the time in isolation, the most common thing I have watched is that many of my contacts share stories of their successes and down times with equal passion. We seem to want to share our “airtime” – written, video call or even new hobbies – with our connections to show we are alive, surviving and moving forward.

After following my friend’s retro travelogue for so many days, I began to ponder what I really miss about my “early days” and to look for a common theme in what I learned as I went through my life. As you probably know from my previous articles, I have been blessed to be able to travel extensively throughout the world, to have lived in several vastly different places and to have experienced numerous cultures. I have learned many things about the history, the arts, and most importantly the storytelling of many of those cultures. So, it is not surprising to me that what I really miss and want to learn more about is just how stories and cultures are passed down through the years.

You might be interested in what triggered this longing – earlier this summer I was looking for something to decorate my freshly painted bright red door and I remembered the trip we had taken to the Canadian Maritimes in 2017. There, the lobster fishing industry had been in trouble for many years, so many people spent their off time and long winters creating folk art from the floats, traps and even the ropes and wires involved in their industry.

I ventured to create a door decoration in the same manner. After a number of tries, I have succeeded with bits of driftwood between four red birds to match the door. I painted each bird in the same manner I had seen in Nova Scotia, using left-over door paint and extra craft acrylics to add a variety of wings, beaks, and tails for simple fun. My project was quite time consuming, complicated and a learning process.

I remembered that the artist I chose to emulate was a man who lives on the eastern shore of Nova Scotia. Barry Colpitts carves every one of his pieces to be fun, whimsical and have a story behind it. Family, neighbours and events are all favourite subjects of his. Maybe, after many more attempts, my folk art will shine through as his does. The “Not for Sale” pieces adorn his home inside and out, but if you get there, take a wander into his workshop just to get lost and mesmerized by his stories.

After my folk art effort, I have been wandering down memory lane and remembering that each of my major travel memoirs holds a specific experience of storytelling, passing history from generation to generation.

One of our adventures took us to Machu Picchu. On the way, we stopped for an overnight home-stay at Lake Titicaca (between Peru and Bolivia); this huge body of water is the largest freshwater lake in South America. It is also said to be the highest of the world’s large lakes. It sits at 3810 metres (12,500 feet) above sea level. From the shore, we took a small boat to Taquile Island to “enjoy” our local home stay – from their docks we climbed up another 300-plus feet. The ancestors of the Taquileños, who have occupied the island since pre-Columbian times, paid homage to the Sun God – that’s a lot of cultural stories to be chronicled.

The Taquileños created a small welcome event for us. Each family gave us appropriate garb to wear for this event. My blouse was a beautiful display of large red roses and poppies, with splashes of sunshine, and greenery. The blouse had obviously been lovingly preserved for many years. Once in the communal hall, we learned that the culture had created their own unique method of communication through these blouses. Our group consisted of 16 people – 9 women now dressed in 9 white cotton blouses with entirely different embroidery on the front. We learned that each design represented its family. The stories included their way of life, the background, where they originally came from and possibly even the types of animals that were involved in their lives.

There is virtually no electric power on this island, so before we began stumbling back to our host house in the very dark, we were reminded that the embroidery on each woman’s blouse was specific to each hostess, to each of the homes, and if we got lost or needed help on our way, all we had to do was knock on the next door, show them my shirt and they would get us “home”!

When we were taking our leave the next day, we were also told that it was impossible to purchase one of these beautiful shirts as the husband in each family creates these beautiful works of art. They create them for their new bride for the day of their marriage. His story for and commitment to his coming marriage and the beauty that would be their lives together – all carefully embroidered on his gift. I think that they did not tell us this tidbit until we were done – no damage, no spills and back in safe hands. While this experience was only two days, it truly is one of my most memorable and humbling experiences. I must think that these blouses could even be a burial outfit, as the young women of the culture would receive their own upon their marriage – my imagination runs wild!

Our most recent travels before COVID-19 were to Asia in October/November 2019. Primarily travelling in Vietnam and Cambodia, we had the opportunity to visit and explore a variety of craft shops producing some of the most beautiful things we had ever seen – hand-tooled silverware, lacquerware, and mostly prized intricate scarves in both silk and cotton.

Every Cambodian has a krama – a scarf of various colours and patterns which is widely accepted as the symbol of their country. It is most commonly made from cotton – often woven by the local women and worn and used in a variety of ways – warmth, personal covering, belt, baby carrier, marketing bag (to and from), pet carrier or even mask for protection. In the time we were in Cambodia, we did not see anyone without a krama and if we asked them what it represented, we were often told “everything” – family, practicality, and beauty. Mom usually designed, created, and then passed on the first one – with her stories woven into the threads.

The common theme in each of these craft studios/shops was that the stories and skilled craftsmanship behind had been passed down from generation to generation. The patterns on each product all had great personal meaning to the craftspeople and these interpretations were readily shared. Any questions we had were willingly answered and the openness filled us with welcome.

I find it interesting that my memories of the krama are mirrored by my experience in a vastly different country. Over the ten years we lived in Ecuador, I collected makana, scarves produced with the ikat technique of weaving. I love the texture, warmth, and fine detail of each one. The one atelier we frequented was a short drive from our home in Cuenca, Ecuador. La Familia Jiménez live and work in this small open-air adobe home. Here they work hard to protect and grow the knowledge from generations from long before them in weaving and dying methods.

My memories from my first visit are still strong – they showed us how they used a variety of plants, insects, flowers, nuts, and minerals to make specific colours. The purple is made from part of an insect with a bit of water – add lime juice to this purple – blazing red! Then they showed us how they weave and create each pattern – painstaking patience, back-breaking movements and long hours sitting on the floor in a backstrap loom.

Ikat patterns are often similar to each other; they all have themes of strength and passion, but as time goes on the family ventures out to be a bit more innovative in designs and stories to be told.
The dying process can be months long in a barrel of colour – these colours are then mixed to find the exact colour the artisan has in mind. Tightly wrapped bits of string create a unique dyed pattern. There are never two the same – the designs are personal to each family member and like the background stories, each has a different woven ending. (Thanks, Tina Paul, for reminding me of this.)

Surprisingly, my most enduring learning about storytelling, fables and customs being passed down each generation comes from the Inuit culture. I have learned from Bryce and Natali, the owners of http://www.inuitsculptures.com, that there a number versions of the background of these small fascinating pieces. They all have stories, meaning and value to the carver and the collector alike.

In the beginning days of the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company (circa 1830), the traders found the toys that the Inuit carved for their children were both fascinating and valuable. While the locals simply saw these beautiful, imaginative, and inventive pieces as way to distract and entertain their young ones, the fur traders chose to trade them for day-to-day items. Today they are highly prized and collectible artifacts.

Creating narratives – tangible art or simply the spoken word – has been with us since before history. Right now, we cannot wander the world, and I find myself trying to keep my brain from daydreaming in the past to avoid feeling sorry for myself. My reading has moved from whodunits and biography to stories with more fantasy, history, and mystery. As for telling my own stories, I’m not likely to be taking up the fabric arts or carving beauty out of rock. I’ll be going down the paints and crafts road – a bit messy, but my own stories! Clearly, this will be coming with new adventures, as travel and learning may never be the same again.

Photos for this article were taken by the author, and from http://www.spottedfrog.ca, http://www.incaworldperu.com, http://www.eluniverso.com, http://www.cuencahighlife.com, and http://www.withapast.com.

 

Where Foodies Can Still Get Their Kicks: A Quarantined Summer in San Miguel de Allende

By Carole Reedy

The virus is on our minds, and frustration fills our hearts with dread. Most of the readers of The Eye are travelers, wanderers, and adventurers, so staying inside is anathema to us. Yours truly, who lives in Mexico City, struggled with the same, especially after the cancellation of a months-long Italian trip scheduled for the fall.

As a result, I opted to take refuge in San Miguel de Allende, my second home.

The tranquil pueblo of San Miguel de Allende (SMA) is just a three-and-a-half-hour drive from the hustle and bustle of the megapolis of Ciudad de Mexico, with its population of over 20 million. SMA was recently listed as the second-best city in the world by the magazine Travel + Leisure. (Oaxaca City grabbed first-place accolades, and the country of Mexico had four out of 25 mentions on the coveted list, more than any other country.)

Fearful of a bus ride filled with 30 potential virus-carrying passengers, I opted for a private car and driver from the reliable BajioGo company. It’s also possible to order a shared-car ride, but that, too, seemed a bigger risk than I wanted to take.

The deluxe bus ride is very reasonably priced at approximately US $30 a person (half that for seniors who have Mexican residency), whereas my private car was US $250. The price of a shared car/van ride depends on the number of passengers, of course. Vale la pena was my thought!

Eating in quarantine
The quarantine situation in SMA was much the same as Mexico City: stay home and wear a mask when out. No restaurants, stores other than grocery or food businesses, or hotels are open. This is scheduled to change on July 15, when the next phase takes over. Hotels are set to open at 40% capacity, as will some restaurants.

One of the attractions of San Miguel is the breadth of its international and local eateries. Like most major cities, the scrumptious food of the region can be delivered to your door or picked up. And the La Europea and Cava Sautto wine stores fortunately are open daily for your imbibing needs.

The local tortillerías are also working daily, so you can have freshly made tortillas for your tacos. The small and large fruit, vegetable, and flower markets are open too for purchasing (at drop-dead low prices) the freshest regional produce, with avocado, papaya, melón, mango, jícama, cilantro, and broccoli topping the list of the vast range of fruits and vegetables available year-round in Mexico.

For those with a kitchen in which to cook at home, in San Miguel we are fortunate to have a grocery store right in centro.

Bonanza has graced the street of Mesones for many years. It’s a favorite of the gringos due to its range of imported items, including sweet relish, horseradish, and New Zealand butter. They also carry delicious homemade yogurt and ice cream. There’s a deli section and a back room with a variety of spices and nuts. The prices are higher than the La Comer just outside of town, but the convenience is incomparable. My favorite purchase is the pickled herring in a jar, an item I have trouble finding even in Mexico City. I would shy away from buying wine here though. The prices are often double that of La Europea or Cava Sautto.

If you’d rather not cook, let me recommend some take-out/delivery options. I’m finding comfort foods more satisfying these days than the fancy “tasting” options many restaurants are offering.

Let’s start with a brimming bowl of pozole. On the Ancha San Antonio, at # 35, you will find Victoria’s, a tiny restaurant hidden among the larger venues that sell Mexican artesanías (handcrafts). There are just a few tables inside and you’ll wait just a few minutes for your take-out order of green or red pozole, chicken or pork. Accompanying your large or small portion are fried tortillas and the fixings to top your pozole: lettuce, radish, and red onion.

Hecho in Mexico, at Ancha San Antonio, # 8, is a favorite among both the gringo crowd and Mexicans due to the highly consistent quality of each item on the menu. The variety of selections is staggering: everything from enchiladas and tacos to hamburgers, salads, soups, and (my personal favorite) the Reuben sandwich. This is a large, mostly outdoor venue, which makes it ideal for social distancing.

Il Castello Ristorante Pizzeria, at Animas 20, serves the real thing when it comes to Italian food at reasonable prices. There is fabulous pizza, stromboli, calzones, and the best eggplant and chicken parmesan around (a personal favorite). Small seating area only, but like all other restaurants, they are prepared to give you take-out. The portions are ample and the location is easy, just up from the market at the Plaza Cívica on the charming street of Animas.

Garambullo, at Animas 46, just down the street from Il Castello, serves breakfast and lunch only in a beautiful courtyard. It’s been described as a small jewel in the midst of the hustle-bustle of the nearby market. Garambullo, by the way, is a Mexican fruit that has many healthy properties, and the restaurant reflects its name in the quality of their food. There are salads, eggs dishes, beans, sandwiches, and enchiladas, all made from the freshest ingredients.

La Parada, at Recreo 94. During normal times you need a reservation for seating at this popular spot featuring Peruvian food. Of course, you must start by sipping a tart Pisco Sour. Follow it with a meal choice from the variety of seafood and wonderful pork dishes, including a yummy pork sandwich, a favorite of many friends. Portions are ample and all very fresh. The waitstaff is exceptional, which makes every visit a special occasion.

Buenos Aires Bistro, at Mesones 62, serves some of the best steaks, arrachera, and lamb chops in town. My personal favorite is the polenta with vegetables or pork; another friend always orders the octopus salad. It is a charming restaurant just steps from the Jardín.

Zenteno, at Hernandez Macías 136, has by far the best coffee in town. That and their breakfast pastries are served daily in this miniscule space with just four tables. You might find yourself alone in here during these pandemic days, but during normal times you’d see many happy patrons on their iPads sipping coffees. One day I even spotted Robert Reich, the American economist, in a quiet corner. I buy my freshly ground coffee here by the kilo.

Tostévere, at Codo 4, is known for their tostadas. Forget your image of a Mexican tostada because here they create their own version of the popular Mexican dish. The chef and staff present a small menu, but it’s filled with unique variations on the traditional tostada. Think octopus, soft-shelled crab, corn, a variety of vegetables, and carpaccio, all served in a manner you’ve not experienced before. There’s a full bar with a variety of popular cocktails and a friendly, knowledgeable staff.

Whether dining out or in, you’re sure to find variety, quality, atmosphere, and charm in this small yet grande colonial city of Mexico. Come visit when you feel comfortable traveling.

The Gift of Travel

By Susan Birkenshaw

Every year as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day come up and the stores are full of cards to honour mom and pop, I find myself looking back at the many things that my parents taught me as I grew up! Besides fierce independence from my Mom, my Dad would not let me get my driver’s license without knowing how to change my tire, check my oil/fluid levels and in a horrid emergency, how to change my fan belt with my panty hose. Yes, this was a very long and distant time ago!

In reminiscing now, I know without a doubt that the most important gift my parents gave me was a series of lessons about how important it is to be a traveller. I realized from a time very early on that I never would be a tourist in the classic definition. My family always took the local route through the places we travelled: local hostels, local food markets and even local fairs. I look back now and realize that my mom always chose routes and locations to travel that had something local going on and something to teach us, everything from music festivals, farm fairs and even a full-moon in Stonehenge.

I am not sure where my mother’s curiosity came from except to say that her parents were voracious readers and had the most fascinating friends and peers – worldwide travel was not really a thing in the days of my grandparents. I do have a series of postcards that catalogue a ’round the world’ trip that a spinster great-aunt took in 1960. My mother protected those bits of history and exotic travel for her entire life and my sense is that’s where her absolute need to travel was born. Aunt Annie was always a most welcome guest in our home as we were growing up and we spent many hours listening to her adventures that couldn’t be described on the backs of postcards.

This is where my story truly begins. In late 1961, when my Aunt had finally returned from her magical trip, my Mom and Dad started talking about travel. Where should we go first, what would we like to see and who might we know who might know someone who could help us? All questions that kept coming up at the dinner table. Finally, all this wishful thinking and dreaming led my mom to set a variety of plans into place.

First, she began saving in a number of ways that would include each of her kids (three in total). For example, she created a 25-cent box that lurked in the front hall closet. The function of this box was simple – anything she picked up that was not in place hit the box. To get it out: “25 cents, please.” and 50 cents for a pair, all from your pocket or your allowance. There was an accounting at the end of each month. Every now and then, she would announce, “We have enough for 5 tickets to enter the Louvre.”

So, our instructions were to “go off and find out what you can find about that museum.” The result? The kids did the research about a specific place, gallery, castle, war field or king – so as the trip in Mom’s mind started to gel, our interests guided her planning for the route. Little did we know that we also learned how to use a library, how to read the Encyclopedia Britannica, sift through the old dusty National Geographics that were hoarded all through the house and to even ask the elders who hung around our house.

Around that time, the time frame was established simply because in 1962, Max Ward of Wardair established the trans-Atlantic charter market. “Four charter tickets to London, please!” The trip summer would be 1966 – it had to be before the Centennial in 1967 (obviously, we had to travel Canada that year).

Starting in 1962, my mother wrote over 100 air mail letters, on flimsy Aerogrammes, to various pensions, hotels, hotels, ferries, car rentals, euro-rail outlets and restaurants that might be part of our itinerary. At that time, it took at least four weeks for a response – if the letter was responded to immediately. Mom resorted to overseas phone calls only for the very big stuff – a hotel in Paris, a hotel in Venice and a hotel in London. The rest was all done by post! It still stuns me! Our bookings were all made at least a year out with no way to confirm closer to our travel date. I can’t begin to imagine what a leap of faith this process took.

When I think back on that planning time, I realize it actually took a couple of years to research and to plot the hoped-for itinerary, and another year to get most of the reservations and then to finally consider the massive undertaking of packing five people – what on earth did we need for two months of travel?

On July 3, 1996, after almost five years of dreaming, researching, saving and planning and changing plans, the Birkenshaw family took off! After arrival at Gatwick Airport, we met Dad in Hyde Park. He only had one month of vacation, so Mom was going to drive around England with three almost-teens for the second month. At the time, it made sense, and I am sure during the second month it was mostly nuts. Many years later, as we’ve became adults, we all understand just how much this was an act of both craziness and love from Mom and Dad, and we often talk about just how much guts Mom had to survive month two.

Our tour’s first month took us from London and its tower, to Dover and its White Cliffs, across the Channel by ferry, to Paris and to the top of the Eiffel Tower, to Versailles and its Room of Mirrors, through many French wine valleys, Austria, Switzerland and to the top of the Matterhorn, on to Milan and to attend mass being held in the Duomo, to Venice and a ride in the iconic gondolas, to Vienna and through its Opera House, finally through Germany and on to the Netherlands with its dikes, tulips, windmills and fabulous people!

When we arrived in England after a very rough ferry crossing, we were able to relax a bit, say goodbye to Dad and get a different car for our whistle-stop tour throughout England.

Castles, royal jewels, battlefields, bookstalls, theatres and opera houses, formal gardens and not so formal fields, churches and cathedrals – the history throughout Europe and England cannot be easily described in a few words. Each time I return to Europe, the things and places I see for a second time, make me realize how much the ’66 trip meant to my Mom. It was a gift and a university degree all rolled into one!

My brothers and I have talked about this trip many times over the years and I know that none of us would have missed it for anything and that the next generation already knows well the gift of travel. know that my answer to the question … are you a Tourist or a Traveller? … will always be a Traveller! Tourist is the first step to be sure, but if we can turn ourselves towards more, a Traveller will always learn and thrive!

Thanks, Mom and Pop, for the gift of travel!

Editorial April 2020

“We found that trees could communicate, over the air and through their roots. Common sense hooted us down. We found that trees take care of each other. Collective science dismissed the idea. Outsiders discovered how seeds remember the seasons of their childhood and set buds accordingly. Outsiders discovered that trees sense the presence of other nearby life. That a tree learns to save water. That trees feed their young and synchronize their masts and bank resources and warn kin and send out signals to wasps to come and save them from attacks.”
― Richard Powers, The Overstory

We are facing harrowing times. Looking at the news each morning we wonder what devastation today will bring. The number of cases and deaths is mounting as coronavirus sweeps across the globe – affecting each country in turn, in a domino effect.

In Huatulco, tourists rushed to head home as governments issued travel warnings and encouraged people to stay inside. Businesses are heeding the call and temporarily closing their doors to protect employees and customers. The streets around the world are quiet. Each of us is glued to various screens for updates and connection.

We don’t know how long this will last or what the long-term effects will be as we realize just how fragile our normalcy is. There have been glimmers of hope, however, and testaments to the strength of the human spirit. The day Italians sang from their balconies filling the streets with joyful song, the number of videos being uploaded offering free classes, concerts and museum tours, shows just how important creativity is to the human experience.

There has also been a shift in our thinking, a need to think of the collective rather than the individual. The idea of working on preventing the spread by staying indoors – not to protect yourself but those around you. If there are repercussions to this world crisis, let this way of thinking remain. Let us carry it over into times of peace. Let us understand the limits of the boundaries we have created: race, class, status. The borders and boundaries we have erected in our desire to claim our identity. These are human-made divisions and if there is something we are learning from this crisis, it is that nature doesn’t care.

Nature will not be stopped by a wall or by how much money you have. As individuals, we are small and made smaller by thinking we stand alone – we are all in this together.

Until next month, stay safe.

Jane