Monday, April 2, 2018

Semana Santa in Magical Mexico

I had the good fortune of spending Semana Santa in Mexico. For the first few days, I explored D.F., Mexico’s capital, with a group of girlfriends from college. One of my friends, Destry, is spending a year in Mexico on a special Fulbright-National Geographic grant doing research about Los Ninos de Morelia. Read more about her research project here

Destry and her partner Ari live in Coyoacan, a lush neighborhood most famous for its artists-in-residence of old, Frida and Diego. 

In front of the pyramid in the garden at Casa Azul
Over several days, I became totally Frida obsessed, visiting both her house, La Casa Azul, as well as the more modern house she and Diego built nearby with a bridge between their living/work spaces. Everywhere you go, you see remnants of the artistic influence that Diego and Frida left upon the world, and I find their lives to be infinitely fascinating, especially the way they dedicated themselves to the pursuit of truth and beauty. 

her last painting

Everywhere we went around Coyoacan—the plazas, the gardens, the markets—there was the pursuit of art. Walking around the park near Destry’s house on a Saturday morning, we ran into a jazz band, a theater troupe, a dance ensemble, and plenty of dogs—all of them making good use of this beautiful public space. 


It’s one of the things I notice most when I’m abroad—the availability of public space—something that’s unfortunately severely lacking in the United States. I enjoyed walking around El Bosque de Chapultepec, a park that boasts 5 museums, a zoo, several lakes, and a territory twice the size of New York’s Central Park.

view from Castillo de Chapultepec

Coyote sculpture in Coyoacan Plaza

jacarandas in full bloom!

more friends in parks!

In the midst of taking in all the art and inspiration of Mexico City, we made sure to indulge in its delicious gastronomy, too. Tacos, sopes, molletes, chilaquiles, tostadas, tortas (bowl of meat at el Coyoacan restaurant), and the ever-present mezcal. My favorite gastronomical discovery on this trip was pozole, a spicy soup dish made from corn, chiles, chicken (Diego’s favorite meal). And what could be better than a basket of warm tortillas wrapped up in cloth at the center of every meal?

birthday brunch for miss Destry
getting fancy

Our group went on Mexico’s version of a booze cruise, except much more artistically inclined than anything I’ve ever seen. The boats that travel on the Xochimilco canals are beautifully decorated with vibrant bursts of color, and it was certainly the place to be on a Sunday afternoon. While most of the boats are filled with passengers having a good time, there are smaller boats with vendors selling everything from micheladas (a Mexican favorite where they add a spicy mix to beer, but an acquired taste in my opinion) to mariachi bands. It was a crazy fun scene, and we didn’t want the evening to end.


dogs waiting onshore for some scraps

Click above to play video. For more videos from Xochimilco, go HERE

The next day, we woke up bright and early to make the hour-long trip to the pyramids of Teotihuacan in an effort to miss the midday crowds! As we trudged up the endless stairs of one pyramid after another, our guide explained the legend of Quetzalcoatl (the feathered serpent who is venerated all over Mesoamerica) and gave us a glimpse into the way life once was in this ancient trade and spiritual center. It’s hard to describe the sensation of standing in front of a pyramid that took several generations to build, a structure that was built with so much precision, forethought, and intention—qualities that are clearly missing from the development of our own civilization. Impressive, to say the least.

our guide!

ladies in front of the moon pyramid

After our full-on cityscape immersion, Norbert and I flew to the coastal region of Oaxaca. We landed in Puerto Escondido and then ventured onward to a little town called San Agustinillo, a seaside hamlet with gorgeous views on the Pacific. This region used to be known for its horrific turtle hunting operation, which took the lives of more than a thousand sea turtles each DAY. Thankfully, this practice has since been outlawed and the economy has come to rely more on ecotourism and yoga retreats.

sunset crowds at punta cometa

Our hosts suggested a morning boat ride to experience the wildlife and we took them up on the offer. You never know what gifts nature will offer on any given day, and this morning it happened to be several whale and dolphin sightings.

What a magical experience to witness these graceful animals in their wilderness state, and while I’m grateful to have been given the opportunity, I worry about what the future will bring. Our guide mentioned to us that they’d been experiencing a huge tourism boom ever since the area had been deemed a wildlife hotspot by the government—a good thing for the economy, but not so good for the animals that call these waters their home. While there used to only be a handful of boats bringing tourists to view the wildlife, I counted more than a dozen on our trip, all of them fighting to get closer to the animals, especially alarming when you consider the multiple duos of mama humpback and calf that we encountered. Looking towards land, our guide pointed out the remains of the cable lines that were once part of the turtle massacring operation. “The water here used to run red, not blue,” he said, pointing to the shore.

While in the area, I was able to connect with an artist friend who I met at the Art Farm in Nebraska several years ago, Joan Waltemath. She’s an extraordinary artist and woman, I was thankful to get to catch up with her and see the place that she calls home here in Mazunte, Mexico—when she’s not in New York, Baltimore, or Nebraska, of course! She’s a big reason why I’ve been wanting to visit Oaxaca for a while now.

But the main reason for our trip to Oaxaca was still a few days away.

After ogling iguanas and swimming in beautiful beaches, most significantly a natural jacuzzi protected from the rough Pacific surf by enormous rocks, we made our way away from the coast and up into the mountains. I’d been warned by many about the twisty-turny bus ride, but I was sure my stomach of steel could handle it. Alas, I was wrong. This ride through the Sierras can make even the strongest of us queasy. But the uncomfortable 6 hour journey was well-worth it. Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s gems, a city that is known for it’s impressive artistry and delicious cuisine. I didn’t even know that there was an important ancient city nearby, Monte Alban, although this being Mexico, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Norbert and I spent an afternoon napping in the shade and exploring the excavated caves. The next day, we visited the museum that held most of the valuables that had been found in the tombs – intricately carved objects, gold jewelry, jade-embossed conch shells. It’s one thing to visit the vast stone structures left behind by these civilizations, but it’s a whole other experience to see the beautiful items they made with incredible detail and care. Mexico is a treasure trove of ancient civilizations, and it takes my breath away to peek into their mysterious past.

On Good Friday, we watched the Procession del Silencio, an elaborate parade conducted completely in silence that reenacts the trial, crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus. There were countless sculptures of Jesus on the cross and the Virgin Mary in various states of grief. There were school children holding candles and young men hauling huge wooden crosses down the stone streets.


Although this had been a draw to visit Oaxaca during the festive week of Semana Santa, the main event occurred the following day, when I was able to reconnect with a dear friend of mine.

Espiri Rios and I met back in 2011 when I was apprenticing on an organic farm in western Massachusetts. I was becoming quite enamored with bread baking and a friend of mine had a connection at an artisanal bakery called El Jardin. That’s where I met Espiri. He was the head baker, spending long nights mixing enormous buckets of sourdough, shaping hundreds of loaves, and loading them into the wood-fired oven. I had the good fortune of working beside Espiri one night a week, learning about caring for the delicate sourdough starter and listening to stories about his life and family back in Mexico. I came to El Jardin to learn about the mechanics of bread baking, but my most lasting memory from my time at the bakery is my friendship with Espiri. (Read an essay about my time at El Jardin HERE) I’d heard so much about Espiri’s family as we shaped loaves of sourdough, so it was a real treat to sit with them at their kitchen table and get to know them over some typical Oaxacan sweet bread (hojaldra), memelitas, churros and a delicious drink called champurrado made from atole and chocolate.

Espiri is still the same warm-hearted friend that I made so many years ago, and I loved having the chance to introduce him to my future husband. Also, after losing contact all of these years, it was great to see that Espiri and his family are all doing well. I’ve often wondered how they were doing.

Another favorite experience in Oaxaca was wandering through the tangled alleys of the city’s many markets, tasting everything in our path, from tlayudas to chapulines—spicy grasshoppers! With a heavy heart and a kilo of Oaxacan chocolate in our bag, we headed back to Mexico City for one last hurrah.

meat hall!

grinding chocolate


mezcal, anyone?

giant mounds of Copal

Grasshoppers for sale!

Back in the capital, we made the most of our last day by doing a few important things we had missed the first time around. At the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Norbert and I sat awestruck in front of Diego Rivera’s masterpiece mural, “Man, Controller of the Universe”. In the historic center, we received a spiritual cleansing from a Teotihuacano and watched them do their ritual dances in full garb to the beating of their traditional drums. We did our best to take everything in at the Museo Nacional del Antropologia, A Louvre-like mammoth of a museum housing gems from precolonial civilizations all over Mesoamerica. We finished off the day with a vibrant performance by the must-see Ballet Folklorico de Mexico.

There’s still a lot that to experience in Mexico City, but I think we got ourselves a pretty good taste for our first time. I’d love to come back to Mexico and linger a while longer. I can see why my father was such a fan of this country, spending much of his twenties vagabonding from coast to coast, selling odds and ends from his van, spear-fishing for his dinner, and befriending anyone who crossed his path. “El Guero” was his affectionate nickname during his adventures throughout Mexico, which refers to a region of Mexico where the people are very white, a nod to his own light skin.