Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hard to write a Travel Blog when you haven't traveled.

If anybody is still reading this, I thank you for your continued interest and support! It’s been a while since I last blogged. Honestly, since the theme of it is “our travels”, it’s hard to write when we haven’t traveled. Oh sure, I’ve been to sea. I went to Hawaii and back on the Alaska run, but I’ve already written about that. Plus, nothing exciting happened. Don’t get me wrong, that’s the way I like it. The more boring the trip, the better the trip was for me. But like all media outlets, only sensational stories will hold the attention of my intended audience. My trip to Alaska would have read “calm seas, nice people, no accidents, we were on time.” Yeah, pretty lame. Same with the Hawaii run: “the weather was nice, I played some pickle ball with the Captain, spent a lot of money on taxis in Honolulu, went home.” Real interesting.

I did go back to Jackson Hole this September, but I already did a “September is my favorite month” article (still is). I had a great time, but I did all the same things I blogged about last September. What's to write about then?

We bought a house when we got back from Mexico. It’s wonderful and it has been fun meeting all our great neighbors while remodeling the garage.

But being a homebody is hardly conducive to writing a travel blog. It’s been interesting preparing our neighbors for our lifestyle. We spent a long time talking about our career, but when it came time for us to go to sea (at different times of course) they were all shocked to hear how long Grant and I would be away from each other. Literally a few days would go by, and they would ask me if Grant was coming home soon. Uh…No. He just left. Yesterday one neighbor peered into my eyes, hand on my shoulder, and asked if I was ok…but really are you ok? She doesn’t understand that Grant and I have been leaving each other for months on end for 10 years. She truly wanted to make sure I wasn’t sad or having a hard time. It is hard to say goodbye, but I think our neighbors are having a harder time adjusting than we ever did! But that’s the great thing about our new house. Our neighbors are awesome! They all care about us, and we all watch out for each other. I have never lived in a place where so many open and kind people live so close together. We are damn lucky.

Right, but back to the “Travel” part of this travel blog. I’m turning 30 in a few months, and I decided that I have a lot of goals for year 30. So let me lay out some of my plans and goals for 2011 and hopefully I’ll report back on all of them:

- Rafting through the Grand Canyon. This is actually my father-in-law’s long time goal, but we’re going to make it happen this summer.

- Go to Rocky Grass. We have both been at sea for this fun Colorado bluegrass festival for far too many years, and we will not miss it this year!

- Travel to India…or somewhere in Asia. I’ve been to Asia many times on my ships, but I’ve never traveled there for fun. I have not met people outside of the stinking, ugly, mean container terminals and port towns I go to. I do not have a fair view of this region of the world, as longshoremen and sailors generally don’t accurately represent any society, and I would like to open my mind to the culture and people.

- I want to climb Middle Teton. It’s not mountaineering per se, but is about twice as far as I’ve ever hiked before and would be my first real summit.

-Speaking of, I’m going to do some backpacking in the Tetons. I’ve done countless day hikes, but have never been fit enough to get really deep into those mountains.

-I want to take my boat on an actual boat trip. I’ve had it in the Puget Sound for seven years for the purpose of sailing around the islands, and I have never done it. What a shame, and I’m going to change that this year.

So this is the start of my list. It’s going to be a busy summer, so I’ll have to get going on this stuff. Wish me luck and please check back. In the mean time, here are some pictures of the Tetons. I never get bored of them, and neither should you. Please, if you have any questions about going to sea, please leave a comment and I will try my best to write about it.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Mexico Part 3 teaser

OK, I am sorry it has been a while before finishing the blog about our awesome trip to Mexico. I am in port right now, so instead of going too in-depth, I'm going to throw a whole bunch of pictures up with some captions, and assure you that we had a fantastic time! Without further ado....

Oaxaca - The Ruins

There is a lot of neat, ancient history in and around Oaxaca. The cool thing about the ruins here, they are not totally overrun by tourists like the Yucatan or many other places in Mexico and Central America we've been. Although now that the word is getting out, I will not be surprised if things change very soon.


Mitla is a small town in the valley that never really stopped living with the old Zapotec structures. You can't dig a hole in anybody's yard without finding artifacts, and the old structures butt right up against the currently-used ones. No jungle or massive agriculture overwhelmed this area as it has been continuously inhabited. As is common all over Mexico, when the conquistadors made it to this spot, they tore down the old temples and used the materials to build the town's new Catholic church. Out with the old, in with the new, whether you like it or not! They do like it now as they are mostly Catholic, but the people here also maintain their old language, many not even speaking Spanish, and are very proud of their ancestry. Here are some pictures of Mitla.

Here is the heart of the town, as in most Mexican towns, the Catholic church. As mentioned above, it is built with the stones of the Zapotec temple, a hard message to miss!

And here is the back of the church where you can see the thousand-years-old structures still built into the walls of the church. Unbelievable.

More of the site.

These patterns are unmistakably Mitla by design, and are found incorporated into modern Oaxaca folk art and tapetes, including one of ours. After visiting this site, then shopping for rugs, we shouted out in recognition "Mitla! Es Mitla, no?" Si. Yes. Unique to these particular people in this tiny town. Really fun.

And in these lesser known sites, you can climb right into the tombs! Awesome!

Monte Alban -

Monte Alban is the most significant site in Oaxaca. The site is impressive, sitting atop a mountain with panoramic views of the valley. They basically leveled the top, built these pyramids and structures, then the rest of the town and agriculture spread out down towards the valley in terraced hillsides, much like today (though the main town is on the valley floor, not the top of the mountains!)

Besides the awesome views and beautiful site, nobody is here! We went on a Sunday when it was free to all Mexicans, and there still weren't very many people there. Incredible. Absolutely incredible.

One Monte Alban structure.

The main site of Monte Alban

The valley as seen from Monte Alban

One of the great things about Monte Alban is the superb museum located in Oaxaca city. A lot of artifacts and art pieces excavated from the Monte Alban ruins are still there in the local museum. Incredible pieces of gold, an intricate jade-covered skull, old pottery etc. There is also a great exhibit about the excavation of the archeological site as well. We really enjoyed touring the ruins, and later in the week looking through the museum for a more full understanding of the significance of the site and it's history.

And we went to the beach. The beach in Oaxaca state was so nice, so perfect, that I refuse to tell you where it was, because then it will be overrun by high-rise gringo hotels and all the nice palapas will disappear. You will have to find your own beach, but this was ours:

Last but not least, we left the Oaxaca area for Cancun to meet up with Grant's sister and brother-in-law for more beach time on the Yucatan peninsula. I hate to give this section so little time, as it was the time of my life. We had such a great time, and it was really hard to leave. This was not so much a cultural experience, though we always strive to meet the locals, but was mainly a fantastic beach vacation. We spent a lot of time in Tulum, a nearby secluded bay, and at various cenotes. Cenotes are fresh water swimming holes (well, actually spiritual places) that are a result of the catastrophic meteor impact of the area. The meteor impact apparently knocked a bunch of holes into the limestone plateau of the penninsula. The resulting holes filled up with the rain water and the occasional underground river system. The cenotes are open, semi open, underground, and the type right next to the beach that feed into ocean. Very cool. I'll come back and speak more about this section, but for now, enjoy some pictures.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Mexico 2010 - Part 2 - Oaxaca Crafts

Oaxaca – The Crafts

Some of our stuff!

One of the main draws to the Oaxaca region is the beautiful folk art. Much of it is now made specifically for the tourism trade, but that makes it no less beautiful, and it does all have cultural roots. As mentioned before, this is not kitsch stuff (though kitsch versions can be found). As a rule, it is all hand-made from natural local materials, and unique to certain villages, or groups of villages spreading out to the valleys surrounding the city of Oaxaca.

Our first foray into the craft world, besides being overwhelmed by the markets in the city, was to take a little tour that brought us to see the famous black pottery of Dona Rosa, and the alebrijes of Reyna y Zeny Fuentes. The tour sort of sucked because they only took us directly to those shops, and we did not get to see the towns. However the shops they took us to clearly produce some of the best work.

BARRO NEGRO (ba-roll the R- oh Nae-gro)

The workshop of Dona Rosa - Dona Rosa passed away in the 80's

The shiny black pottery is a unique method developed by an old woman named Dona Rosa back in the 50's that produces an ebony black shine on the pieces without the use of glaze or chemicals. The clay they use is unique to their village of San Bartolo Cayotepec, and something similar is only found in one other place in the world, somewhere in the United States’ Southwest. When fired the traditional way, the terracotta clay turns a matte gray and is super hard. It even sounds like metal when you beat on it with a stick. Before cheap Walmart-style plastic containers came around, this craft was exclusively used by the indigenous Zapotec people for carrying water, eating and storing food ,etc…for thousands of years. (The same pottery style and clay sourced from this village can be found in various ruins including Monte Alban and Mitla!) There was not much of a commercial market for their work until Dona Rosa came up with the technique of making it glossy black by using quartz crystal to polish the dried ceramic, and then firing it for a shorter time and lower temperature to produce this beautiful pottery. The funny thing about doing this is despite how it looks, it does not hold water when polished, so is of a purely decorative nature. Plus, it is not nearly as strong as the original method, as we found in our box of stuff we shipped home. Too bad. That Jaguar head was really cool before it broke!

Dona Rosa's Son (or grandson? She was really old when she died in the 80's)
Demonstrates the whole process)

The pottery is hand-built, shaping by hand and using large coils

Notice no pottery wheel is used. They put what's basically two inverted shallow bowls on each other to assist with turning by hand. They accomplish the perfect shapes and even roundness purely by hand with a seemingly innate ability. (In truth, they have been doing this since childhood, so they have a lot of practice!)

The detail work is done using a variety of very basic tools.

The last step before firing is to tediously polish the dried piece with quartz crystal.
This whole process actually takes several weeks, not five minutes like in this demo!

ALEBRIJES (Al-lay-bree-hays)

Cute little Rabbits

The alebrijes are whimsical beasts carved out of wood, dried, then painstakingly painted using the needle of the cactus for the detail dot work. The good pieces are all carved from a single piece of wood, so no glue or nails here kiddos. Though now they are mainly created for tourists, originally they were created to represent each person’s totem, assigned to them at birth (or something. Look guys, we’re not wikipedia. Just going by memory of our crappy Spanish skills, so don’t yell at us if this is wrong. Just enjoy our story.)

The men carve the objects (they claim they have the hard job)

This will be a spectacular piece when complete. It is all carved from a single piece of wood.
He did NOT glue the baby onto the back!!!

The women paint the alebrijes. Her daughter helps, but mom does the fine work. Even the designs on the beasts themselves have meaning, such as representing the sea, the sky, the earth, and something else. The sun might be the center, with the moon and sky above. We didn't get too deep into what it means when, but it's all symbolically painted onto the beasts according to your totem (or whatever you like as the tourist!)

They had much to chose from, and it was not cheap!

TAPETES - (Tah-pae-tae's)

Robin with "The Maestro" Isaac Vasquez Garcia at their home and shop
"The Bug in the Rug"
The tapete was actually made by his son.

The third art form we were very interested in was the art of weaving wool throw-rugs, called “TAPETES”. The Zapotec Indians specialize in this craft in and around Teotitlan. It is not an original art form. The technique is from Spain and they were forced into doing it as slaves to tithe to the ilks of Cortes, but they continued the craft incorporating Zapotec designs and meaning into their work. We actually got to take the chicken bus to Teotitlan and walk around. It’s just like the guidebooks say; you can walk around and see the looms in people’s homes. When they see you peeking through the door, they will often invite you in, show you the loom, and demonstrate the process. The home we went to was totally a family affair, with the young child, maybe 7, spinning wool into yarn, while the father was weaving. Now, before you get your panties in a knot about child labor, it was after siesta, so the kids were home from school, and the child got to run around in circles playing, then run back to the spinner and spin a little more yarn, run for a snack, spin some yarn, laugh at the gringos, do a little more work. This is not China people, and like it or not, this is how most families make their living in this particular village. In fact, each of the senior members of the family had their own loom and each loom had a work-in-progress of their own design. Each would weave for a few hours a day in addition to whatever else they did to keep the house running i.e. cooking, cleaning, working etc.

A little about the beautiful colors of these rugs. The dyes us all natural ingredients. The stunning reds and maroons come from the insects (cochinilla) that live naturally on the cactus plant. The little larvae, or whatever, live in white cocoon-like bits, and when you smear the bugs, they make the beautiful red. Then when you add other ingredients, such as lime, water, or lye, it changes to different shades of red, even to a dark maroon, almost brown color. A nice person at a different shop (Artesanias Gonazlez, all organic) demonstrated this to us on Grant’s hand. I mean, we watched him scrape this white stuff off the cactus on to his hand, squeeze the lime, etc… Well hell. Here are the pictures:

This is the cochinilla on the cactus

After scraping some onto Grant's hand, he rubbed it quickly with his finger producing this bright red smear.

He added some lime, to make it a brilliant red, then added water and lye to show the different shades of red it turns.

Here is a close-up of the different colors. Grant's hand was stained for days!

The green, yellow, and blue all come from plants. The blue is really cool. They take it from this plant here, boil it, concentrate it, and then dry it to these indigo chunks.

The plant that makes blue/indigo

Chunks of blue dye, made from the above plant

All the natural products used to dye the wool. From the top clockwise:
Blue, black, yellow, insects for red, then a salt that sets the colors (I think).

Each batch of yarn is different, though they try to match colors. Obviously you can use the same batch of dye to make progressively lighter shades of color. We made our first purchase from a shop in Oaxaca city from a women’s collective, then stopped by the Maestro’s house. As much as we love our first rug, the Maestro’s work, and that of his family’s, was noticeably finer quality, and I had to have another. The Maestro has been featured in museums around the world, in National Geographic, and a variety of other magazines. We met him ourselves, and he graciously showed us the whole process.

Yarn drying

The Maestro's loom. His work is much, much more intricate and fine than the products
other people graciously demonstrated for us. All are beautiful though.

There were a few other weaving specialties, such as for tablecloths, curtains, that sort of thing, but we purchased the above products. We have never bought souvenirs of any type in our travels, so I think it says a lot about the quality and beauty of the products made around Oaxaca.

This three part series is going to be a four part series because I just could not fit the ancient ruins and coast into this post. Please bear with me, as we’re really busy trying to be a grown up right now, so get a little behind on our work. We love Mexico and are really excited about this last trip, so more is on its way!