Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mexico City - A Final Thought

My first visit to this massive metropolis was full of surprises, both good, and, sometimes, not so good. It is definitely a place that calls me back. It is fascinating, cosmopolitan and, importantly, affordable. I did not fully explore the massive Chapultepec Park and the museums that are located there. I would also like to experience the historic district at night.

I understand that the Mexican government is attempting to make the city more attractive to the gay traveler. I would be interested to see what they have proposed to do this.

It would also be interesting to see the completed district that was being constructed near my guesthouse. I would like to take day trips to the towns of Tasco and San Miguel de Allende. There are many places and areas left for me to explore, as well as places to experience again.


Teotihuacan - Unfortunately, Less Than I Had Expected

Let me say, first off, that when it comes to Mezoamerican ruins my standards are high. This is due to my time exploring the ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula. Yes, I know, the ruins at Teotihuacan are Aztec whereas the ones in the Yucatan are Mayan, however, the cultures and their monuments and structures bear many similarities. I hope, if I am ever fortunate enough to see the ruins in Guatemala or other Central American sites I will not be innured to their beauty, age and grandeur. Unfortunately,  the ruins at Teotihuacan left me cold, both literally and figuratively.

To get to the ruins you take a bus. The bus station is in an area most generously described as "rough". The station itself, however, is safe. The Metro goes directly to it so there is no need to deal with the neighborhood that surrounds it. The bus travels through a seemingly endless sea of cinder block structures before depositing you at the entrance to the ruins.

The ruins left me cold, literally, due to excessively strong winds that day. Trips to the tops of the towering pyramids were undergone at great risk of being blown off them after your ascent. Figuratively, I was left cold due to my prior experiences with ruins of this type. Before being abandoned by it's residents, the city of Teotihuacan was burned. None knows why or exactly when. The after effect of this is the almost complete destruction of the murals and carvings which once adorned the buildings and public spaces of the city. A small fragment of one of the murals, a Jaguar, remains on a charred wall. The carvings on the pillars of the inner court of the palace also remain. A sanctuary of beauty among the blackened ruins. The muraled fronts of two residential buildings, oddly underground, can also be seen.

The ruins in the Yucatan, by contrast, retain much of their detail and beauty. The carvings and buildings at Chichen Itza, reclaimed from the jungle, are extraordinary in their state of preservation and restoration. As well as what they have allowed us to learn, by the history depicted in them, about the ancient Mayans, the ruins in the Yucatan are surrounded by, and occasionally buried in, lush jungle. In Teotihuacan the ruins are set in a barren, almost desert like enviorment. Finally, in the ruins of the Yucatan we were able to explore them by ourselves, or with only a couple of other people around. Chichen Itza did swarm with tourists, but the area is vast enough so that there is not a feeling of a crowd. Teotihuacan is a mass of humanity, even on a frigid, windswept weekday.

Aside from the street lined with shops selling standard souvenir items at the entrance, there is a market selling crafts off to one side of the ruins. Added to this are the multitudes of vendors, carrying standard Mexican fare, that accost you every step of the way during your visit. They are even bold enough to follow you up the pyramids as you climb them. I spent much of my time that afternoon fending them off, holding up my hand and saying "No!". After saying this to one he actually cursed at me. The only word I understood was "gringo", but I got the basic gist of what was said.

Being somewhat unprepossed by the situation, and the place, I had lunch at the restaurant near the front of the ruins. With large windows affording a panoramic view of the ruins I was able to contemplate them in serenity as I ate.

There is a small museum located on the grounds. To get a short respite from the cold and wind I stepped inside. It was the most interesting part of my visit. It contained artifacts gathered from the site which showed the complexity of the society and the advanced state of civilization of the ancient people that built and inhabited the city.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Mexico City - Museum of Anthropology and A Sunday in the Park

Mexico City's Museum of Anthropology, the most important museum of it's kind in the world, is an impressive collection housed in an equally impressive structure. The central hall's main feature, which the galleries surround, is a carved pillar with cascades of water coming from a disk at it's top. Galleries have both indoor and outdoor exhibition areas. They contain more friezes, artifacts, art objects and history that can be fully absorbed in a single visit. The museum impresses upon the visitor the long history of the native people of the region as well as how large and diverse the country of Mexico is.

As I exited I came upon a group of acrobats of a sort. Several men climbed up a tall pole. At it's top was a wheel laid on it's side, it's center attached to the pole. As the men sat around the edge of the wheel they wound ropes around a central spoke. One began to turn the wheel with his feet while the others dropped backward off of the edge of the wheel. As they spun upside down the ropes, which were tied to their feet, unwound slowly lowering them to the ground head first. The sight of the men, flying out from the wheel suspended by their feet, was like nothing I have ever experienced before. Amazed, my eyes dazed and glassy, I dropped a number of pesos into the hat as it passed by me.

Unlike the peaceful, tranquil feeling of the park I had experienced during my weekday visit, on Sunday it becomes a street fair, full of color, sound, street performers and masses of people. A large crowd was gathered around a clown, laughing uproariously at his antics. As he was performing in Spanish, I, unfortunately, didn't understand a word. From carts vendors sell brightly colored toys, jewelry, balloons and Mexican wrestler masks.

This carnival atmosphere extended to the broad Paseo de la Reforma. Immediately outside the entrance to the park several people were selling odds and ends; vintage dishes, books, framed pictures, even hardware like old hinges and doorknobs, off of blankets on the sidewalks. Large dragon like creatures, art projects from a local school, lined the street on either side. A small demonstration was being held around the base of the golden angel statue protesting for, oddly, the right to protest. An American expat I met said it was even odder in that protests were fairly commonplace in the city.

My original plan had been to take the Metro to the park that beautiful Sunday afternoon. A delightful young woman who worked at the guesthouse made the suggestion that I walk there. It was a much shorter distance than I thought. She also pointed out that when you were in a new city it's always best to see it, as opposed to being whisked around underground. The experience of the walk to and from the park that day made me an extremely grateful for her suggestion.

Mexico City - On Saturday I Shopped

As Mexico City sprawled it swallowed up and annexed everything and anything in it's path. This is the case with the small, charming town of San Angel. An art fair and bazaar is held there on Saturdays. As I had only the single day to take advantage of this shopping opportunity, I hopped on the Metro.

Coming up from the Metro station I was not greeted with the charm I had anticipated. On one corner stood a large, featureless grocery store with an equally large and featureless parking lot. On another corner stood a Walmart. Along the sidewalk were carts vending odd and ends and prepackaged foods. I took a deep breath and set off in the direction my map told me to go.

The bland, frankly speaking, ugliness, lasted only a block or two before giving way to more visually appealing vistas. I first came upon a classic Art Deco style monument set in a lush park. A reflecting pool sported fountains spraying jets of water into the air. Going further, the advertised charm of the area continued to reveal itself. Colonial homes painted bright colors sat along cobblestone streets. A hacienda, the rooms around it's courtyard filled with the vibrant tones of flowers and small citrus trees had been converted into shops selling, soaps, scents, clothes and jewelry. Across the street a traffic triangle had been filled with tented stalls which sold everything from jewelry to vintage iron work. I found a vintage bottle opener, a jovial, slightly drunken looking, metal face with protruding teeth to snap off the bottle caps, irresistible, taking it with me. It graces the wall of our kitchen.

An adjacent park exhibited artwork. Bands performed in the parks bandshell. In an old church a Quinceanera was being held. Teenage Mexican boys were arriving looking somewhat uncomfortable in their tuxedos with their bright red cummerbunds and ties. On the far side of the park sat another, larger, hacienda. The shops in this one were more upscale then those in the first. An elegant restaurant, extremely busy, filled the courtyard. Vendors wandered through the streets and park carrying a variety of wares. Purchasing gifts, plus the bottle opener, I headed back to the Metro, stopping at a couple of the small shops on the street along the way.

After dropping my bags in my room I headed out again. I was staying just a short distance from the Zona Rosa, known as a tourist area, hence rife with shopping possibilities. I wandered through the silver market. Getting low on pesos I attempted to make a purchase with a credit card, figuring I would hit an ATM later. The proprietor, not wanting to the pay the price the credit card company would charge him for the transaction, accompanied me to a nearby ATM carrying the item I wanted to purchase with him. He was not about to lose the sale. I crossed the street and moseyed through a building lined with shops selling opulent antiques. More modest items were displayed on blankets laid out between the indoor shops.

My final stop was in a store to take a closer look at a black leather blazer I had been admiring in their window since my arrival. Figuring I would have to have the sleeves shortened, nothing ever fits me without having to be altered, I tried it on. It fit perfectly. I looked at the price and attempted to calculate pesos into dollars in my head. Giving up I mimed to the salesperson, who spoke no English, calculator movements. She understood, produced one and I did a rough calculation. Pleasantly surprised by the results I snapped up the blazer, this time using the credit card. At this point I, and my budget, were exhausted.

Returning once again to my room to drop off my packages I left the guesthouse to go to dinner. Walking across one of the broad pedestrian plazas a blanket filled with an array of stainless steel jewelry stopped me in my tracks. I had, as it turned out, not worn any jewelry when I left the room, which for me is almost unbelievable. By the time I got to dinner I was sporting a new necklace and ring.

After dinner that night I hit a couple of bars. All they sold was alcohol.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Mexico City - A Minor Disappointment, A Major Disappointment, A Wonderful Surprise

Mexico City's zoo houses several giant pandas. Rare in captivity, rarer still in North America. Zoo admission is free so I board the Metro and head to the immense Chapultepec Park, where the zoo is located. Also located in the park is the city's Museum Rufino Tamayo, which I had planned to visit after taking a gander at the pandas.

Pandas are nocturnal, so, if you go to see them during the day, the only time the zoo is open, they are sleeping. This is how I found them, in their enclosure, sacked out in the Mexican sun. At least I got to see the face of one of them. Even though it was in a deep sleep it was turned towards the glass front of the enclosure. Slightly disappointed I walked off. I then found out I could not go out the way I had come in. For some reason you have to follow arrows painted on the sidewalk requiring you to go through the entire zoo to exit.

I guess after the pandas the animals of the zoo felt I was owed a treat. On my way out of the zoo I passed the cage housing the California Condors. As I strolled by one rose up on it's perch and displayed it's incredible wingspan. The only other time I have been  lucky enough to see this was on a visit to the San Diego zoo when I was in my mid twenties. It is a truly amazing sight. One that is not easily forgotten.

Leaving the zoo I headed to the Museum Rufino Tamayo. Rufino Tamayo was a reknown Mexican artist. He and his wife donated their collection of more than 300 art works to the city in 1981.
The collection includes works by Dali, Miro, DeKooning, Rothko and Picasso, among others. I will have to take on faith the impressive nature of the collection as, at the time of my visit, the galleries were closed for renovation after a special exhibition. I had been looking forward to viewing the collection for some time. I was extremely disappointed. There was an exhibition of two artists I was not familiar with and frankly not impressed by, as well as a homage to the 1968 Olympics held in the city. I plan to return to Mexico City at some point. Perhaps I should make sure this collection will be on view before I make my travel plans.

After these disappointments I decided to make an attempt to salvage the day so I got on the Metro and headed to the area known as Condesa, notable for it's collection of Art Deco architecture. Stopping at a restaurant for lunch I pulled out my map to plan my next move. I spotted something called El Palacio de Hierro a few blocks away. Thinking it might be a palace, and perhaps of historic interest, after lunch I set off towards it. I discovered, once I got there the it is an upscale department store. Although this is not what I had anticipated my sojourn there resulted in the most pleasant surprise of the trip.

The store is located on Durango Street. It is a beautiful tree shaded avenue. The lush trees line both sides of the street as well as the wide median strip running down it's center. Also located in the parklike median was an open air used book dealer. I have a fondness for antique and vintage books, sometimes collecting them when I travel. The bookseller, whose English was limited, asked if he could help me. I told him I was looking for old books. He did not know the English word old, I did not know the Spanish word for it. I opened a book and pointed to the publishing date, in this case the 1930s. He understood and, with his assistance, I purchased two volumes, one with a beautiful red and black binding.

I continued my stroll down the street enjoying the lush landscape and cool shade. At the end of this delightful avenue stands a fountain. Sprays of water surround a statue, with a beautiful bluegreen patina, of a woman driving a chariot.

This was one of my favorite places in the city, yet it feels like a well kept secret, not mentioned in any of the travel guides I consulted. Coming upon it by surprise made it all the more special to me.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Mexico City - Torre de Latino Americano and again, I do not Blend

On the edge of Mexico City's historical center is the Torre de Latino Americano. Built in 1957 it's top floor observation deck, accessed via a special elevator for a modest fee, affords one an extensive view of the city. It was only from this vantage point that I was able to see at least one edge of the metropolis. Cinder block buildings crawl up a mountain on one side of the city ending about halfway to the top. As the historical buildings which surround it are smaller in scale than the tower  nothing impedes the view. Clusters of high rises mix with smaller structures throughout the city. From this vantage point the pollution which plaques the city is also visible It was not noticeable at ground level outside of a slight occasional itching of my eyes.

Also in the area is the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the home of the Ballet Folklorio de Mexico. A neo classical facade mixes with an art deco lobby. Inside the theatre the curtain was designed by Tiffany, however, the house was not open the day of my visit.

As I mentioned, although at 5'5" I am the same height as many of the residents of Mexico City, my skin tone and pale hair definitely identify me as a visitor from "north of the border". As I crossed the broad plaza in front of the theatre 4 teenage girls ran up to me. "Senor" they said, "Do you speak English?"

"Yes", I replied.

The girls then asked"Could we ask you some questions? It is for our English class."

After I agreed they launched into a short list of questions.

"Is this your first time in Mexico?"


"Is this your first time in Mexico City?"


"How do you like the Mexican food?"

"It's excellent " I answered. It really is, I've never been disappointed by it in any of my visits to the country.

"How do you like the Mexican people?"

"They're very nice and friendly"

During this exchange one of the girls was holding a small tape recorder up to capture my answers. They thanked me and ran off.

I had not walked more that 5 more paces before an adorable group of teenage boy's ran up to me saying "Senor, do you speak English?"


"Could we ask you some questions?" one asked. "It is for" he struggled for a moment then came up with the word "Homework".

They then asked the same questions in the same order. They also thanked me and ran off. During this exchange one of the boys was holding up a tiny video camera to capture the moment.

Relaying this story to my partner after returning home he remarked "Oh great! Now you're going to turn up on YouTube as "the ultimate gringo!"

Friday, May 18, 2012

Mexico City - The Centro Historico

I disembark from the crowded train at the stop in the central historical district, the oldest part of the city. It has a massive square, the Zocolo whose immensity was diminished as there were bleachers and fencing around it due to an exhibition either coming up or just finished. It was around the time of year of The Day of the Dead, a major holiday in Mexico. Street performers wandered around the city's 16th century cathedral dressed in costumes and wearing skull masks. One of the bell towers of the cathedral was being worked on and was covered in netting, thus diminishing it's full visual impact.

The inside of the cathedral is dark, as Mexican cathedrals can sometimes be. Having had the privilege of being inside some of the most famous and awe inspiring cathedrals in the world I did not spend a lot of time there.

I am an amateur student of history and architecture, so, when I travel I do seek out and enjoy wandering the streets of the oldest portions of the cities I visit. Mexico City did not disappoint. At the end of one street lined with venerable buildings I discovered another church. The bell tower slanted off at an angle, either the result of the unstable soil of the city, or one of the strong earthquakes it has experienced. The stone pillars by it's massive wooden doors were elaborately carved. I stood, marveling at them for some time. Coming back toward the park at the other end of the historic area the colonial influence was everywhere. Arched doorways and arcades and the rich ornamentation on some of the buildings displayed an decidedly Spanish flavor.

The horseback police in the Parque Alameda, Mexico City's oldest park, wear traditional embroidered Mexican costumes, short jackets and tight toreador like pants, and large sombreros. Along the sidewalks of the park blankets are laid out everywhere selling everything from CD's and DVDs, many involving wrestling or bloody action movies, to traditional Mexican crafts and souvenirs.

The two most memorable moments of my visit to the old city involved attractions located directly across the street from one another. One is a great art treasure, the other a great historical one.

After much controversy a decision was made to demolish two colonial era homes across from the cathedral. During the demolition a large stone disk was discovered covered with Aztec markings. Demolition was halted and excavation began revealing the remains of the major temple pyramid of the Aztec civilization. Each Aztec emperor expanded the pyramid to make his reign more important the the preceding one. Museums and historical sites are partially state sponsored, as is the mass transit system, so after paying a modest fee I descended the catwalks that wind around the temple, which lies several feet below the street level. Signs in both Spanish and English relay information on the sights viewed from the catwalks. At one point a sacrificial altar was found in a mural filled room. It was in an amazing state of preservation due to it's being underground for so long. It was so well preserved that they were able to scrape the altar to analyze what had been sacrificed there. After the catwalks you go through the museum. Unfortunately, most of the information in this section is only in Spanish which left me somewhat bewildered as to what I was seeing.

As I exited the museum and started up the ramp leading to the street I encountered a group of very young school children, perhaps 6 or 7 years old, dressed in their uniforms. As I walked up the ramp their wonderful, cherubic faces lit up and they began to smile and wave to me saying "Good morning, good morning!" I waved back realizing that those may be the only two words of English they knew. They brought a smile to my own face. This was also the first time I came to the full realization that in Mexico City, I do not blend.

Across from the pyramid is Mexico City's Palacio National. Originally the site of Aztec emperor Montezuma II's castle, it was destroyed by Cortes who built his own palace on the site. For me, the highlight of this building is the mural by Diego Rivera. It covers the side and back walls of a staircase in the building and tells the history of Mexico from the Aztecs to the Mexican revolution of the early 20th century. One particularly disturbing image can be found in the lower left hand corner of the back wall where a group of friars are pulling out the tongue of an Aztec. A more uplifting image is on the left wall of the stairwell where Mexican revolutionaries are depicted publishing a socialist newspaper. Seen from a distance the piece is deeply moving due to it's sense of history and the mastery of the artwork. You can truly feel the sense of pride and love Rivera held for his native country.

What I found remarkable, for such a national, not mention world art treasure, is how close you are allowed to get to the work. I was able to observe the brushwork, as well as the underlying sketchwork from mere inches away. It is as moving a piece of art as I have ever had the honor to witness.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Mexico City - Breakfast...Then My First Ride on the Metro

My first morning I go upstairs to the beautiful period dining room for breakfast. There I meet some of the other guests. There are a quartet of men from Ft. Lauderdale. Two are flight attendants who, along with their respective partners, are celebrating the birthday of one of their group with a long weekend in the city. There are two extremely nationalistic, somewhat hostile, Germans, taking a tour of several different cities in Mexico. Also a couple from The Netherlands, a Dutch man of about my age and his younger Mexican partner. The Dutch gentleman and I got along famously. Perhaps due to the similarity in our ages. At one point during my time there he and I sat in the jacuzzi for over two hours discussing a range of topics from politics to travel to our world view and philosophies.

After breakfast I walked to the Metro station, just a short distance away, paid my fare, equaling approximately 20 cents, went through the turnstile and took the escalator down to the platform. The system is remarkably easy to navigate and can transport you to virtually any portion of the city. It is color coded and each station has it's own unique icon. Thus there are no language barriers involved. During the excavations while building the subway an Aztec shrine was unearthed. It has been preserved, standing between two walkways connecting different Metro lines. Though the walkways are covered, the shrine is open to the air and during one transfer I watched as a small lizard climbed to the top of it. The icon for this station is a stylized silhouette of the shrine.

The ride is like nothing I have ever experienced. The trains run just minutes apart and all are packed so tight there is literally  no need to hang onto a pole, if standing, because the people pressed on each side of you will keep you upright should the train make a sudden stop. The crowds in the transfer stations resemble schools of fish as the move in swarms from one Metro line to another. It is an efficient way to get the millions of people inhabiting this city where they need to be. You get to your destination fairly quickly and, as long as you stay aware, and keep your hand or arm over the opening of your purse or bag, the system is safe. Assault is impossible as noone can move their arms.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Mexico City - Angels and Aztecs

When flying in or out of Mexico City you notice several things. One is the enormous size of the city. It spreads from horizon to horizon without visible end. Then there is El Angel de la Independencia, so imposing it can be seen from the air. It is a gold leaf covered statue which sits on a tall pedestal on the Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City's largest street. Another is the look of hardship and poverty in some portions of the city. The deteriorating blocky apartment complexes standing around empty swimming pools or the raw cinder block dwellings that abound in the area around the airport.

Poverty aside, there is an abundance of beauty and history in this ancient city. At first the capital of the Aztec civilization, it was conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century. Many of the structures in the central historical district date from that time.

My guesthouse was in an area of late 19th and 20th century townhouses mixed with newer construction. Luxury high rises were being built nearby during my visit there. A modern mall, with and ATM I found myself using, perhaps more frequently that I had planned on, was just 2 blocks from the hundred year old dwelling I was staying in. On one block not far from me was a group of abandoned buildings, including a graffiti scarred late mid century mid rise, perhaps waiting to be demolished for an urban renewal project. I wondered from the moment I first saw the mid rise how the taggers had managed to do their work so high above the street.

After unpacking I began to explore the nearby area. The large gold statute I had seen from the air towers above the grand Paseo de la Reforma, just a short walk from my guesthouse. The street, inspired by the Champs Elysee in Paris, is a broad 4 lanes with a large median strip in the center. I discover, almost immediately, that the city is much more lush than I had imagined. The median strip along this grand avenue is a tree filled park with benches providing numerous places to rest and enjoy the shade. I also discover after dark the benches provide a place for couples, many of them young gay men, a place to make out under the protective, semi private cover of the trees.

Also close by is Amberes Street. It is a brick pedestrian mall. The trees here are wrapped in tube lights. The luxury residential towers are being built at the foot of this street where it meets the Paseo de la Reforma. Formerly home to a large number of gay bars, there were, during my visit, more bars closed than open. Large banner stickers are affixed to the outside of the closed bars making it appear that the demise of these establishments may have been due to government action.

Every night throngs of people congregate in this area. Extremely young kids, many of them appearing to be barely 18, if not younger, mix with business people, mostly men, from the offices in the area. As the night wears on the number of kids grows larger as the number of business people diminish. I find a restaurant, with an awing covered outdoor seating area, where I take most of my evening meals as it affords me a front row seat to the parade of humanity. I also discover that the word "Margarita" means the same thing in both English and Spanish.

Mexico City On My Own

I had flown in and out of Mexico City several times en route to other destinations south of the border, more than once enduring 4 hour plus layovers. I had, however, never gone further than the airport terminals. Finally my curiosity got the better of me and I decided it was time to venture outside of the airport and into the vast metropolis itself. No one I could find seemed interested in accompanying me on this adventure, so, deciding the hell with all y'all, I set off by myself. I reserved an affordably priced room in a gay run establishment near a major tourist zone, made flight arrangements, packed my bags and set off.

Actually, getting the room was not as simple as it might seem. Apparently my internet server would not talk to the server the guesthouse used for reservations. Using an alternate address for the guesthouse and after a brief struggle with Pay pal all was resolved and my room was secured.

Mexico City is a metropolis made up of small neighborhoods. Apparently is is so vast that it is the only way to figure out where something is located. Street names, since there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of them are virtually useless, excepting, of course the major avenues and thoroughfares. In spite of the area map the hotel had provided me with, after we had resolved our internet connection issues, the taxi driver was still somewhat confused about where, exactly, the guesthouse was. All, however was sorted out and I found myself on a street of grand late 19th and early 20th century townhouses standing in front of a locked, solid wood door ringing a bell and hoping someone would answer. I felt a little conspicuous standing on the sidewalk with my suitcase next to me. The door was unlocked, opened and I was ushered inside.

The front portions of the guesthouse retained many of the townhouse's original details. For instance, the staircase in the entry and the elegant dining area on the second floor where breakfast was served each morning. The back portion of the house had been opened up to make space for more guest rooms, a sauna and, in a courtyard, a jacuzzi and pool. Unfortunately the pool was unheated so intolerably cold due to Mexico City's cool evenings. An opaque canopy hung high above the courtyard diffusing the sun and shielding the guesthouse from the dust created by the renovations going on in the building next door. On the fourth floor was a tiny sundeck, common room and workout space containing a couple of machines, a weight bench and small dumbbells.

My room was on the ground floor just off the courtyard. I unpacked my bag, programmed a combination into the in room safe and settled in.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

New Orleans - The Garden District

The next morning we decide to take a brief tour of the Garden District before leaving for Memphis. It is a lovely area whose oak shaded streets are lined with large, old, gracious, graceful homes. Mardi gras beads dangle from the trees, landing there over the years after being thrown from floats, looking like glittering Spanish moss. We drive by the convent which was the former home of gothic novelist Anne Rice and then plot our route out of town.

Since coming in we took the bridge over Lake Pontchartrain, we decide to depart traveling along it's marshy shoreline. The road is built on a causeway due to the waterlogged condition of the terrain. Towering cypress tress wear their red mantle of fall, tall white cranes feed and wade among the reeds. Apparently caiman also call this area home, however, we didn't see any of those.

Later, as we made our way through Tennessee, cotton fields flanking the road on either side my travel buddy remarked,"Well, we did set out to see fall color, the first color we're seeing is white."

We did spend one night in Memphis seeing what was left of Beale Street and doing a drive by of the site of Sun Records. I, to this day, have never been to St. Louis.

New Orleans - Coffee in a Courtyard, Shopping and More Wonderful Food

When I wake up the next morning I find my friend asleep in the other bed. He tends to rise late, I am generally up early. I quietly shower, dress and head downstairs for coffee. Sitting in the gracious courtyard of the guesthouse, drinking my morning coffee from a delicate porcelain cup and saucer makes me feel most genteel. The courtyard is like many in New Orleans, lushly landscaped with the half house, originally servant quarters, running along the back of the property. I sit under the eaves of a veranda, a romantic space of lattice trellises and white wicker.

A British couple joins me on the veranda and we have a pleasant conversation covering travel, current events and English royalty past and present. Eventually I return to the room and find my travel buddy beginning to stir. He pulls himself together and we depart the room to eat. I no longer am aware of what I am eating as all food in this culinary heaven leaves me numb with pleasure.

We walk to the French Market and begin to shop our way through. It is a maze of, among other things, mardi gras beads, voodoo dolls, jewelry and kitchy souvenirs. I am captivated by the Polish amber pieces on view. I had never owned amber, amazing considering the jewelry I've amassed over the years. By the time we leave the market I have two Art Nouveau inspired rings.

Lunch and dinner are both had at restaurants that have balcony seating. We are only there a short time and I want to experience all the color and street life possible.

There is a pub crawl associated with the party the previous evening. A line of boys, including the massively muscled couple, travel from bar to bar resembling a gay tour group. Bands perform and straight tourists stagger though the streets, fanciful drinks in hand, all played out against the Quarter's backdrop of  French doors, wrought iron and lush Boston Ferns.

Although we also have drinks that evening we stay in control and return to the guesthouse walking in straight lines with a sure step.

New Orleans - Our First Night, More Food

Waking mid afternoon we set out to explore the Quarter. It is what you see in photos. Narrow streets, elaborate wrought iron, balconies lush with boston ferns. Courtyards can be seen through archways. Music seems to be ubiquitous, as are the historical markers on the sides of the venerable, 18th century structures. Fussy victorian antiques are displayed in shop windows next door to establishments vending standard souvenir fare. As we pass one of the shotgun houses the door is open affording us a glimpse of the expensively furnished interior. Living in the Quarter does not appear to come cheap.

We have dinner on a balcony while a band plays in the street below. The seafood ravioli and crayfish poorboy sandwich exceed the culinary heights of the breakfast. Midway through dinner my friend mentions that I will be in the background of countless vacation shots as we are above one of the most picturesque corners in the quarter and hordes of tourists are snapping photos like people gone mad.

It is the weekend prior to Halloween and, unbeknowst to us, there is a large gay "circuit" party taking place in the city this Saturday night. As the party's start time approaches costumed revelers begin to fill the streets. Many are in groups, some are couples. A group appears on a balcony in bare chests, black pants with long black capes and top hats in a variety of colors. Two hugely muscled men walk by in tank tops, not bothering with costumes. We see them on several occasions throughout our time there, always wearing tight fitting sleeveless shirts to display their formidable arms and chest. Vampires, gladiators and fanciful drag queens wander down the history filled streets of the Quarter. The gay bars in the area are lightly populated for a Saturday night as most people seem to be going to the party.

Me and my friend split up and go our separate ways for the remainder of the evening. I return to the guesthouse earlier than he and fall into bed.  

A Weekend in New Orleans or I Think We Missed the Exit

It was the last weekend in October and my road trip buddy and I had decided to take in the fall color along the Mississippi River. Our plan was to spend time in St. Louis and Memphis while also touring the more natural areas along the river shoreline. We had 4 days and 4 nights to accomplish this.

We leave mid afternoon on a Friday and head south towards St. Louis, our intended first stop. Much of the midwest is given over to farmland due to it's nutrient rich prairie soil. Along both sides of the road grew amber waves of corn. We make good time and near St. Louis relatively early. It then occurs to me that the next day is Saturday and maybe not the best time to visit the iconic St. Louis Arch as it could be awash with weekend day trippers and their multitudes of small children. I suggest that, perhaps we should hit Memphis first and then work our way back north.

My travel buddy muses for a moment then replies "We could go to St. Louis, continue on to Memphis or...I could drive all night and we could go to New Orleans."

To that point I had never been to "The Big Easy" which I mentioned. After a few minutes of convincing me that he could drive the considerable distance there, and, in fact, had done it on several occasions before, we by passed St. Louis and continued south.

I like to say about this weekend that we were headed to St. Louis and missed the exit.

It took 18 hours of driving to make the journey from Chicago to New Orleans. Once we got to Louisiana we turned off at every rest stop because we had to get out of the confines of the car. The roads in the northern part of the state were lined with cypress trees. There was no moon. It was pitch black save for the double beam of our headlights. It was like driving through a tunnel. Like driving through the world's longest, darkest, most mind numbing tunnel.

We reached Lake Pontchartrain just as dawn was breaking and headed across the bridge to the city. The bridge is almost 24 miles long. From it's center we could not see land.

As I mentioned, I had never before been to New Orleans. This visit was prior to Katrina and the devastation that she brought to the city. I was unaware and unprepared for the poverty evident in the city at the time., The first words I uttered as we drove down Canal Street, New Orleans main drag, past the wig shops, dollar stores and nail salons were "It's so poor!" With the romantic vision of the city I had in my head,the conditions came as something of a shock.

The French Quarter is the New Orleans most people are familiar with. The New Orleans of postcards and photographs. It does not disappoint. It is, however, like the oldest, most historic parts of many cities a rather small portion of the whole. We stopped at a hotel in the Quarter my friend was familiar with. There was a wedding party there that weekend and they had no vacancies. Just across Rampart Street, technically the Quarters boundary, we found a 200 year old mansion converted into a guesthouse named, appropriately, The New Orleans Guesthouse. After checking in and depositing our bags in the room we headed out to breakfast prior to what we knew would be a long nap. We had traveled all night and not slept.

Just before leaving the guesthouse for breakfast I phoned my partner.

"Guess where we are."

"St. Louis?'



"No further south and below sea level."


"New Orleans."


I hung up the phone and we left the room.

We found a small restaurant near the city's famous St. Louis Cathedral. It stood on a corner and the walls were a series of french doors open to the temperate weather outside. It was my first encounter with the extraordinary cuisine I would experience over the next two days. Crab cakes Benedict, an English muffin topped with crab cakes, instead of the usual Canadian bacon, covered with some of the tastiest hollandise sauce I have ever had. From the sounds I was making during this meal you would have thought I was having a 30 minute orgasm. In a sense I was, it's just that it was taking place in my mouth.

Returning to the guesthouse we found a sign on the door announcing "No Vacancy". We must have gotten the last room available. We went upstairs, darkened the room and fell into an exhausted sleep.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Who Wears Short Shorts?

Before we know it the Summer Olympics will be upon us.  For me, the Summer Olympics have always been more stimulating, at least visually,  than the winter ones. This is due largely to the apparel of the various athletes.

Let me begin with swimmers. If you think back to the days of Mark Spitz, incidentally an alumni of the same high school as I, male swimmers sported the traditional speedo style suit. It was tight, brief and gave the swimmer great freedom of movement as they sped through the water. It also gave the spectator the opportunity to appreciate the toned legs and buttocks of the swimmers as they leaned forward preparing to dive into the pool at the beginning of an event.

Alas, technology has made the speedo obsolete, at least in terms of Olympic level competitions. Today's swimmer wears a knee length or longer suit designed to reduce the drag of the water on the body, thus increasing the athletes speed. My personal feeling is that the time of the swimmers today should not be judged by the swimmers of yesterday because of this technological advantage. Perhaps two records should be created. I suggest speedo records (sr) and post speedo records (psr).

We can at least satisfy our visual appetites with the divers as the more modest suits, thus far, have not caught hold with these competitors.

We move on to wrestling singlets. Again,the singlets of yore were low cut on top and short on the bottom giving one a fine view of the wrestler's muscled bodies as they grappled. Today, the singlet moves higher up the torso and further down the leg. While still form fitting we are forced to use our imaginations more so than in the past.

In basketball, both at the pro and Olympic level, the shorts worn by the players are getting longer and longer as time goes on. Before we know it they will be playing in full length pants. Again, if one looks at the teams of the past, the shorts worn by the players were short almost to the point of indecency, not that I'm complaining. These shorts were occasionally worn as fashion during the disco era. The great irony of this is that the shorter shorts were more well suited to the game than then those worn today.

Track and Field has also traded in the short shorts formerly associated with that sport. At least they wear form fitting lycra which still showcase the thighs of the athletes so I will give them a pass, at least for now.

We can count ourselves as fortunate that gymnast's uniforms have not changed much over the years. Tight, scoop necked tanks and, at least for floor exercises, brief shorts were sported both then and now. 

My final observations are in regards to Beach Volleyball. For women Beach Volleyball "uniforms" consist of bra tops and bikini bottoms. They look as if they were designed by straight men for the visual pleasure of straight men. The male uniforms of this sport consist of loose, knee length board shorts.

This uneven level of modesty between the sexes extends to everyday behavior as well. In a level of hypocrisy I find confusing, I have, more that once, heard women complain about a man's beach attire as being too revealing, even as their breasts are on virtually full display. They then complain about men objectifying them.

In closing, this is why I enjoy gay and gay friendly beach areas. We can be comfortable wearing revealing or skimpy attire. There is no hypocrisy nor do we have hidden agendas. Objectification is the object. At least we're honest about it and, while lying on our towels, know exactly where we stand.  

Sunday, May 6, 2012

2 Things You Can't Do Anymore

I've written before about the three months I was fortunate enough to spend road tripping thorugh Europe with my parents when I was in my teens. One place we visited on that trip was Athens, ancient, fasinating other worldly and filthy.

As is almost required when in Athens we hiked to the top of the Acropolis. It has been worn smooth as glass by the countless number of feet that have trod across it over the millenia. We saw the famed Maiden Porch, noting that the replicas that stand in place of the one's spritied off to England are a distinctly different shade that the others. We gazed out over Athens and it's maze of streets from this sky high vantage point and walked through the remains of the Parthenon, crossing a floor over 2000 years old. Unfortunatly the interior of the ruins of the temple have now been closed due to safety concerns and can only be viewed from outside the iconic, legendary structure.

Decades later my sister and I spent several days in Cancun. She was a flight attendant at the time and flew free, I used a buddy pass, one of the perks of her job. It being the off season, we were able to find affordable lodgings at the Intercontinental Hotel. We found the resort town of Cancun itself to be almost completely charm free, outside of the iguanas that have made a home at the upscale resorts and content themselves with sunning about the hotel pools much to the chagrin of the pampered tourists being forced to share the space with them.

While there we arranged a day trip to the Mayan Ruins at Chichen Itza. It was my first experience with this ancient culture. We had a great guide for this excursion, knowledgeable and personable. The information gleaned that afternoon began my fascination with the Mayan culture. During the time we were allotted to explore the site on our own my sister and I hiked a short distance back into the jungle to discover the site of the steambath the ball players used for purification rituals prior to their performance in the ball courts. The ground writhed with varied colored iguanas. I remarked that they were like squirrels in the wooded neighborhoods back home. We then climbed to the top of the pyramid. Later, during my trip to Merida I climbed other pyramids but none were as monumental as the one which towers over these more well known ruins. We were afforded from the summit an expansive view of both the ruins and the jungle that surrounds them. Alas, that view will have to remain a memory as two friends who visited the site after we did said the top of the pyramid was no longer accessible to tourists.

Once again, during my travels I have sometimes been extremely lucky.


Thoughts on a Quote

Kenko, a 14th century Japanese essaist wrote, "Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting, gives one the feeling that there is room for growth."

This is, in part, how I feel about my writing these posts. As I continue writing and exploring my written voice I am experiencing growth. On a larger scale it is how I feel about life. Our lives are never complete. Even after our deaths the influence we have on those around us during our lifetimes may inspire them to explore. There are those fortunate few that influence history and the world such as through literature, art or philosphy, inspiring self reflection and growth. This exploration and reflection is born of interest which therefore promotes personal, spritual and intellectual development and  growth.

Time and history themselves are, by their very nature never complete. They are ongoing, incomplete, and in being so interesting. I strive never to consider my life or relationships complete because they would then become uninteresting. As long as I live and have the ability to reason I will always strive to continue to grow. I will always work to make my life, if to noone other than myself, a journey that is always interesting and never complete.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Tale of the Laser Light and the Mirror Ball

6 years ago we moved into our condo. It is modest but adequate, 950 square feet with a 3 foot by 12 foot balcony. Many of our friends live nearby, one across the street. The day we closed on the unit we went to the condo with our real estate agent, a dear friend of not only ours but also the friend across the street. Realizing we could see his balcony from ours we called him. He came out on his balcony and we waved to one another.

Some time later, while discussing our close proximity to one another, and my partner's silly, often questionable behavior, not mention his, our friend asked me "So you know about the laser light and the mirror ball?" My partner over time has collected several mirror balls of various sizes. I replied that I did, indeed know about the laser light and the mirror ball.

Later still my partner, during a conversation queried "So you know abort the laser light and the mirror ball?" Once again I answered yes.

Full disclosure, I DO NOT NOW KNOW NOR HAVE I EVER KNOWN ABOUT THE LASER LIGHT AND THE MIRROR BALL. Furthermore, from the manner in which they have both asked me about it, I hope I never, ever find out exactly what happened with the laser light and the mirror ball.

Sometimes ignorance truly is bliss.