NS Savannah

Decked out for the big day!

I know I say this a lot around here, but last weekend I was finally able to achieve a dream and visit the NS Savannah! Look, I know I in fact already made a big deal about seeing the Savannah just a few weeks ago, but this time I got to actually go on it. And it was everything I had hoped and dreamed it would be.

I have known for a few years now that they open up the NS Savannah for tours once a year near National Maritime Day. Since I have known that I have been consistently thwarted in taking advantage of this awesome knowledge by the fact that I have either been like in Zambia or else there has been a pandemic, and then I was nearly thwarted again by not being able to find any details about the open day. But now I am here to save you: go to the Baltimore & Chesapeake Steamship Company website at bayheritage.org. They will have all the info and they are also super responsive on email and extremely nice to boot!

This year’s open house/boat was on Sunday and I arrived right at 10am when everything was kicking off. I walked as quickly as I could to the end of the pier where the gangway for the Savannah was and I was one of the first people onboard after a quick safety brief. I was also quickly one of the first offboard because you had to go back down to the pier to start the guided tour of the reactor compartment and engineroom, which of course are the coolest parts of the ship! Holy crap I love steam power.

Anyways on our tour we were led around by one of the extremely friendly and knowledgeable reactor techs that normally work on the ship. The Savannah is actually well on its way to being a regular museum ship, and the largest chunk of that works seems to be sufficiently dismantling the reactor compartment so that the public can just wander around willy-nilly. In only the last couple of years they have cut a big hole in the side of the reactor compartment so they could more easily extract some of the components. The coolest effect of that is we got to see the cross-section of the secondary shielding, which was primarily composed of several feet of concrete and then several feet of wooden boards.

The primary shielding (where the reactor itself sat) is the red thing, with the refueling hatch above it. The rusty thing to the left is the steam dryer, above a horizontal U-shaped steam generator below the decking. Peaking in from the right of the frame is the pressurizer.

Inside the reactor compartment the primary shielding is half gone and the reactor vessel itself is long gone. I commented (lightheartedly!) that the place could use a paint job, and apparently it will get a paint job in the bright primary colors that turns out characterizes the engineering components of the ship. In addition to the remnants of the primary shielding, also easily visible was the pressurizer and the steam dryer, along with the hatch at the top of the ship that was used for refueling. If you peered down through the grating, you could also glimpse the U-shaped horizontal steam generator, which is pretty wild.

The control panel goes from rod control on the far left, to pumps and steam operations in the middle, to the electrical system far right.

From there we got to go to the control room. The control room was staffed by a man who was actually a reactor operator on the ship back when the reactor needed operating, so he had first-hand knowledge of all the workings of the place (detail I asked about is that it was normally manned by just two reactor operators, a primary and secondary). Reactor control panels are always very fun because they are designed to be the opposite of inscrutable (scrutable if you will), so everything is laid out in very logical orders and you can glean a lot of the reactor and steam plant operation from the layout of the control panel. I spent the whole time admiring rod control switches and coolant pump switches and scram buttons and the like.

Looking down into the engineroom; the control room is behind the woman in the yellow shirt. The red parts are mostly the turbines, and the yellow parts are the reduction gears. You can see the green emergency propulsion motor atop the yellow gears.

Just behind the control room is the engineroom itself, separated by just a window. On the submarine you could sense the engineroom around you from the control room, but you couldn’t actually see it, so this must have been pretty wild. The engineroom is museum-ready with a very colorful paint job. The Savannah only had one screw, so the engineroom only had a single high-pressure turbine and a single low-pressure turbine. We got to admire the emergency propulsion motor and off in a corner were the backup diesel generators. Another very knowledgeable docent pointed these all out to us.

The entry hall into the ship.
An absolute dream of a bar on the promenade deck.
The dining room; look at the atom symbols in the recessed lighting!!!
They need to sell reproduction sets asap!!!!!!

From there we were let loose for the unguided part of the tour. Let me tell ya, the Savannah is a mid-century dream. The ship was meant to distill every hopeful aspect of the atomic age and it absolutely nailed it. Totally perfect, no notes. For the first few years of its life it was a passenger ship in addition to being a cargo ship, so its entry lounge is dominated by a huge orange couch and a magnificent stairway leads you to the various decks. I’ll have to let the pictures speak for themselves, but when I showed her the pictures even my super amazing wife wanted that dining set. It also wasn’t until I was reviewing the photos that I noticed the recessed lights in the dining room were also atomic symbols. Perfect and gorgeous!!!!

I’m always surprised by how sparse merchant ship bridges are; I’m used to tight-packed radar and sonar screens everywhere but these guys really just need a compass, a helm, and a radar screen (and a comfy chair).
She shares a pier with the SS John W. Brown.

Much of the rest of the ship was pretty ship-like (shipshape?). The bridge looked pretty much like a standard bridge and fairly sparse, so much so that I forgot to look for the scram button the bridge crew had up there (not to be trusted with actual reactor operation, the bridge’s scram button only functioned to turn on a light in the reactor control room that said “bridge scram;” the operators could do with that what they thought best I suppose). Topside was, you know, topside. However I couldn’t leave the ship without visiting the other biggest celebrity onboard, the Radarange!

I had been under the impression the Radarange on the Savannah was the first commercial microwave oven ever put into service, but some quick Googling does not seem to back me up on that supposition. It was still an early model and meant to show the true wonders of the future. I mean not only were we splitting the atom here but we could also harness the rotational spectra of O-H bonds to heat up dinner. Truly the embodiment of a world where the promise of clean and abundant energy would solve all humanity’s problems. If only we had kept at it.

I managed to visit the gift shop where I resisted buying a whole lot of swag, but I soon had to  literally run off because it came over the ship’s speaker system that I had illegally (though accidentally) parked my DeLorean and if I didn’t hustle it would get towed (speaking of visions of the future). I am so glad I got to  finally visit the NS Savannah, especially its super cool reactor compartment, engineroom, and microwave oven, and I am very much looking forward to it being finished with its museum ship conversion so the whole world can see it more than once a year!

Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival II

For the second year in a row, my super amazing wife and I went to the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival! Last year the major characteristic of the festival was that it was rainy, with us slipping and sliding in mud as we traversed one yarn tent to the other. This year the weather was much worse, if you are a duck. The morning dawned sunny and springtime warm, excellent for a day of shopping for yarn and looking at sheep.

We tackled the festival a bit differently this year than last. Last year I feel like we were all about the sheep. Don’t worry, sheep were a big chunk of this year too. My super amazing wife’s parents’ sheep are in the midst of having lambs, so after all the photos from home she definitely wanted to pet some sheep. But since this year she actually wanted to buy some yarn, the strategy was to look at all the yarn first and then see some sheep as a breather before making any big decisions. So we started with the yarn.

Except we immediately got distracted by a cool-looking carding machine, above. The festival probably has a preponderance of women but there were plenty of dudes there as well. However, of all the things we looked at during the festival it was the above carding machine that had the most guy-heavy audience. Society trains dudes to enjoy spinny mechanical things, and that came out in full force at this little stall. My super amazing wife was also entranced by the carding machine, so again when I get that shop maybe instead of building a tiny little one I can pull out all the stops and learn to weld and assemble the above industrial-scale one. A boy can dream.

As I discussed last year, the festival is split into a few parts. There is the sheep portion, there is the yarn portion (and a big fair food section), but besides the scourge of capitalism they have other things like competitions for all sorts of fiber-adjacent products. We admired them last year too but the entries this year were really extremely gorgeous. Below I have pictures of the first-place winners in the K10 (Garment knit from more than one commercial colored yarn (colorwork)) and W10 (Miscellaneous woven from commercial yarn), though unfortunately I couldn’t figure out a way to link to their creators. Hopefully the festival will post the winners’ names:

Pretty things made of yarn was of course not the only other yarn-adjacent things to look at. The festival did a good job of intermingling all these different sights and sounds in and amongst the potential yarn purchases. My super amazing wife was interested in buying a few different types of yarns, including yarn gradient sets and single-breed yarns. She also wanted natural-dyed yarns. On the way to purchasing all those we also saw Vikings which had camped out in order to make lunch, and of course we could not miss the 1pm sheep dog demonstration:

Anyways I am having trouble coming up with lead-ins for all the pictures I want to show you, so please see below for some fluffy animals:

Since it was time for our yarn breather, this year more than last year I think we thought about actual sheep breeds a bit more. The bottom picture above of course aren’t sheep at all, but alpacas, which are secretly my super amazing wife’s favorites, don’t tell the sheep (but she won’t let me keep either on the porch, boo). The reason we thought more about sheep is we saw a whole (small) herd of Valais Blacknose sheep getting ready for their show. The Valais Blacknose society, in a brilliant bit of marketing, has declared them to be the “world’s cutest sheep,” which, alright. First I gotta say they have a pretty good claim to it, especially when they are little fluffy lambs. This is undeniable. However they are Swiss so I don’t know how we are supposed to feel about either their politics or their banking regulations. So we could for example favor the sheep in the middle photo above, which are Scottish Blackface. Which, I hear you: given the blackface, their politics are also questionable, but they are Scottish, which feels like a place sheep ought to be from. I think the sheep in the top photo are Merino, which are the breed of my super amazing wife’s parents’ sheep, so there is a family connection there, and I think the answer is that we should keep some alpaca on the patio. This is a perfect plan and I don’t see why I can’t.

But after the sheep breather it was back to shopping. We spent a surprisingly long time at the festival. Given the rain last year there wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm to just keep walking around so I feel like after one tour of the place the group was ready to go home. But this year we were worried about bumping up against closing time, so the last portion of our time at the festival was the fun activity of spending a surprising amount of money on fiber products. My super amazing wife wound up getting one of those color gradients I linked to along with some 50th Anniversary Sheep & Wool Festival-exclusive yarn (pinkish), some very cute cat loaf stitch markers, and a sweaters’ worth of natural-dyed yarn. Her yarn shelf is now full and her needles as busy as ever. We are very excited for the next time we get to go!

Mexico! Part VIII: Heading Home

It has taken me weeks and weeks to write up all these blog posts but I am glad we are finally approaching the end of the story of our Mexico vacation. On that day I arose with some stomach troubles which were very unpleasant. I figured this was karma for my atrocious behavior at Xochicalco. I never really recovered throughout the day but I kept it together well enough to attend the wedding.

The wedding was fantastic. It made me feel much better about not putting on a wedding for the marriage of my super amazing wife and myself, because boy howdy we could never have competed. It took place at an extremely professional wedding venue that was set up so you could proceed, over the course of the event, from the wedding itself to a garden cocktail hour to dinner and the dance floor with absolutely no friction. We had plenty of friends there besides the bride and groom so the conversation was lively and flowing. I am a sucker for any declaration of love so if I hadn’t had to excuse myself at an inopportune time I am sure I would have teared up at “I do” (they might have said it in Spanish, not sure, I missed it). Everything was set out so thoughtfully, including free flipflops if your feet started to hurt in your heels and a late-night snack so you could rally if you began to falter halfway through the six or seven hours of scheduled dancing.

And boy did people dance! I eventually got up to dance and kept going until I just couldn’t anymore because I knew once I stopped I would be over for the night. We left at a relatively reasonable hour, i.e. extremely early for a Mexican wedding. The dance floor broke after we left, as a testament to how vigorously people were dancing. The playlist was nothing but hits and it couldn’t have been better. It was great to see our friends married off and to do it in such a fun and beautiful setting was just icing on the cake.

The next day we were much better rested than most of our compatriots, several of whom we ran into on the bus station on the way back to Mexico City. We arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare before we had to take off and took the opportunity to do some airport souvenir shopping. From there it was an almost perfectly smooth flight back to the States, except our first leg was a bit late so we had to run to catch our connecting flight, but we caught it and it was fine. We arrived back at Dulles to cold and drizzling weather, a jarring change from gorgeous Mexico City, but we also arrived back to our extremely cute cat, so it all worked out in the end. I don’t think this will be our last time in Mexico City.

Mexico! Part VII: Xochicalco

Reading this week:

  • Joseph Thomson: African Explorer by Rev. J.B. Thomson

We were of course not the only people going to our friends’ wedding (it was a huge crowd), but we had arrived in Cuernavaca a day before everyone else because I wanted to go to Xochicalco. Honestly anytime there is ever a hint of a vast ancient city that is not super often visited I dearly want to go.

The problem with Xochicalco is that it is not quite as easy to get to as Teotihuacán. To get to Teotihuacán you simply follow the very easy instructions (including pictures!) that various internet travel bloggers have written out for you and dedicated busses to take you right there. This is not the case for Xochicalco. The travel guide said local busses could take you there, but other websites said it wasn’t so simple. I looked up how much it would be to Uber there, and it was very reasonable, but it wasn’t so clear that we would be able to Uber back. The solution we settled on was to hire a private driver, and I absolutely hated this. It got to me. I was thoroughly repulsed by the idea of taking a private driver there over using a bus or something. I tell myself this was because I felt like by rejecting the bus we were rejecting a sense of adventure, but it was probably also the price (~$100 USD, honestly reasonable) and more probably that I had just decided I didn’t want to do a private driver and was mentally digging in and rejecting all reasonable arguments to the contrary. We did wind up taking a private driver but the upswing of all these mental gymnastics is that I was just a little shit about it the entire time, an absolute man-baby of quiet simmering temper tantrum as we visited. This was extremely unfair to my super amazing wife, and I’m sorry.

The ride there was pleasant enough and interesting. At one point we diverted into this strange dirt road underpass thing that our driver paid an unofficial toll for. I was wondering where we were going but looking at the map he was probably taking a shortcut which must have been very worth it because a lot of other people were too. Along the road I saw fields of sugarcane and maize and several fields of grass that had been burnt off in a way that reminded me of Zambia. I spotted cows and was interested in all the different plant nurseries I saw, from big ones to small ones. As we drove through the town of Xochicalco there were piles of pots and pots stacked on eaves, drying and/or ready for sale. On the road up to the site there was an orchard of baby orange trees and a seemingly out of place boat on a trailer and a saddled horse and papaya trees and a monument or grave on a hill by the side of the road.

Eventually we arrived and since we only had our driver for three hours I was in a mad rush to see everything. I barreled my way through the crowd of students hiking up to the site from the museum and got tickets and darted through the museum and then zoomed up to the site itself, leaving my super amazing wife far back in my wake. She eventually and much more gently than was possibly justified corrected me on this and we hiked through the site together. It was hot and dusty and we probably didn’t bring enough water despite bringing a lot of water, and now that we are through my personal and interpersonal drama, I will tell you: Xochicalco is a fantastic site.

The history of Xochicalco sits neatly between Teotihuacán and Templo Mayor. It was evidently a powerhouse in its day and the city sits perched atop a very high hill overlooking the valleys below. My super amazing wife, who let me reiterate in reflection of how I acted that day is indeed super amazing, has heard me point out many times that whenever there is a dwelling on top of a hill I think it must be a man who put it there because they aren’t the ones who have the haul water to the top. There were reservoirs in the city which stored rainwater which is cool but still during the dry season there must have been a whole lot of women hauling a whole lot of water. The upswing of those women’s work many many years later is that we get to enjoy some really amazing views. The trip to Xochicalco is worth it for the views alone.

The perhaps crown jewel of the Xochicalco site is the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, which is just covered with stone decorations which is near the very top of an already high-up site. The city has several other courtyards and pyramids of various sizes and you can wander around what used to be the residences for the ruling elites. They had some nice digs. There is also an observatory at the site which we didn’t get to see because it wasn’t the right time of year, so maybe that is the actual crown jewel, but what we saw was pretty impressive anyways. Like I said I was in a massive hurry to see the site and insisted that we more or less zoomed through, but after we got about halfway it was clear it wasn’t going to take us the full three hours anyways to see the site and I slowed down and even backtracked some. There is also a really good museum on site housing a variety of artifacts from the very life of the city, including some interesting displays on construction techniques and the different crenellations and other features you’d find in different cities and civilizations. Apparently these guys were super into starfish, which is interesting.

Temple of the Feathered Serpent, and me.

After 2.5 hours I had absolutely run out of things we could do at the site, so we drove on back to the hotel. We had some much-needed lunch and lounged the rest of the day by the side of the pool, where in an attempt to order pina coladas I got us instead some wine that tasted like apple juice. Relaxing in the air conditioning we eventually drifted off to sleep.

Mexico! Part VI: Cuernavaca

Reading this week:

  • Who Killed Hammarskjöld? by Susan Williams

So far on our adventure in Mexico everything had gone perfectly smoothly. Astonishingly smooth. We swung big and hit it out of the park on every attempt. However on this day when we were off to Cuernavaca things got a little shaky. We were off to Cuernavaca because that is where our friends’ wedding was going to be and the wedding was the whole reason we were in Mexico. So we woke up early and had breakfast and packed and called a ride and head off to the World Trade Center very early. Good thing we head out early too because we did not accurately predict how long the traffic would take. But with our buffer, we were fine. Or so we thought.

I had thought the World Trade Center was going to have a bus-stop looking thing but it did not. We talked to our driver about this and he said the busses were in the back, which confirmed my impression from looking at the map and stuff. So there we waited and no bus ever arrived and we were very confused. I tried to find the bus office and failed and we missed our bus. This was very frustrating but eventually we went around the front of the building and with me watching our stuff my super amazing wife finally found the bus office and got us new tickets and figured out where to go. Meanwhile I stewed at my own incompetence. We had Starbucks sandwiches for lunch (surprisingly good) and caught the noon bus and had a perfectly pleasant and scenic ride to Cuernavaca, where we arrived at around 2:30 in the afternoon. From the bus stop we took another ride to the Holiday Inn Cuernavaca, which frankly I can’t recommend enough. Beautiful pool, colorful greenery all around the grounds, and slightly confounding windows lodged in spacious and comfy rooms.

Severely behind my mental schedule, I convinced my super amazing wife that we should try to accomplish in the remaining two hours or so of the day everything I had wanted to do with a full day in Cuernavaca. This we largely pulled off! The first place we were off to was Museo Morelense de Arte Popular, or MMAPO. I had seen MMAPO in the travel guide and thought it was going to be a little rinky-dink place, but it was in fact fantastic. It was pretty small but had a great selection of local art. We of course loved the textiles and I was also drawn to several different versions of a granary which was apparently a local style. When we visited they had a photo series of traditional crafts which included some ceramics. This was nice because my super amazing wife is into ceramics, which is the reason we were at MMAPO. One of the big draws of the place is its gift shop, which features actual local handicrafts. By this point we had been to a couple different markets in Mexico City, and frankly a lot of the stuff was same-same and clearly meant for the tourist trade (we were of course tourists looking to buy tourist things, so this isn’t a criticism). But MMAPO had much more unique stuff and while she got a cool little pot I got a nifty little clay jug. Fun!

From there we went to the Robert Brady house which, wow, talk about gorgeous. Oh to be rich and have artist friends. I think his house is about how I would decorate if I had unlimited funds and also if I could get it all done while my super amazing wife was gone for a week or two. Just jam-packed with different art pieces from around the globe arranged into different thematic rooms with different colors where he housed various visiting friends. Sunken bars overlooking pools and airy bedrooms that were cool and inviting on a hot day. Works by Frida Khalo crammed into corners and recesses filled with statues and tile bathtubs to die for, all surrounding a garden courtyard thing. Ugh fantastic. Well worth the price of admission and if only I could live there. But I could not so next we went around the block to Jardin Borda. More just fantastical and fantastically laid out gardens in picturesque pathways and the tree nurseries of my dreams. If you climbed the back wall you got a fantastic view over the town and across to the mountains that lined the valley, providing a backdrop to the jacaranda trees blooming while we were there. I also almost got attacked like a duck and had to dance like in an old western movie to avoid being nipped until I could run away. We sought refuge in the art display they also had in the grounds and then head out.

Robert Brady’s poolside lounge.

We were off to take a glance at the Palacio Cortes but then noticed the Cathedral was actually open so I dragged us in there. There were some murals I had wanted to look at but as we were wandering around we were accosted by a tour guide. I did actually want someone to show me around so I took him up on the offer, thinking he would ask like 20 pesos afterwards and I would kindly give him 50. The actual price was 300 pesos, but I have spent more money on dumber stuff. It was an alright tour. I think he was a little drunk but he was enthusiastic about the place and it was very cool to see the indigenous influences on the Cathedral (and other associated churches? Very confused about how they are all related, seems like a colleges/university thing, but I dunno, religion is weird, and hoo boy did the Spanish like putting up churches) and also they had some sheep there mostly as a display but we always like sheep. So that was a nice time.

Jardin Borda

After exiting the Cathedral we finally glanced at the Palacio Cortes and after much effort got a ride back to the hotel where we recovered from a very interesting day. There was great food at the hotel and we collapsed asleep. The next day would bring more wonderful if trying adventures.

Mexico! Part V: Communists

Reading this week:

  • The Great Reclamation by Rachel Heng

And on the fifth day, we went to go see some commies. After a lovely and quiet early morning, my super amazing wife and I called up a ride and went down to see the beautiful neighborhood of Coyoacán. The main draw was being loyal liberals, i.e. doing what the New York Times told us to do. We were dropped off at our first destination, the Trotsky Museum, but we got there before it opened so we walked around the block of leafy trees and colorful houses.

The Trotsky Museum is an interesting little place. It is definitely a pro-Trotsky institution. Going there felt like closing a particular loop because we had been to the Spy Museum which houses the ice pick that Ramón Mercader used to kill him. When you enter there is a little museum and then it spits you out into Trotsky’s yard from whence you can tour the rather fortified house. There is also a cafeteria but we were there too early for it to be open so I didn’t get to check out the menu. Whatever the cafeteria serves, Trotsky had excellent metaphorical taste at least in his choice of location because the yard is beautiful. It is tropical and manicured and well-kept. This is fitting because the Trotsky presented by the museum was a lovely old man who wore sweater-vests and liked to tend to his chickens in and amongst some political writing. Although the museum has a few pictures of Trotsky leading the Red Army they mostly come across as aghast that anyone would have it out for the kind of dude who liked to go fishing with some Greek guys he met. I don’t actually know a lot about Trotsky, but I was a little incredulous they couldn’t you know get it even if they didn’t condone it. But what do I know? On the way out we stopped by the gift shop where I only got a pin and turned down the chance to get a Trotsky t-shirt or Trotsky box of matches for my communist friends.

Our next stop was Casa Azul, which was the opposite of Trotsky’s journey. As the New York Times laments however Casa Azul is very popular and our timed tickets weren’t for a bit, so we talked the fairly short distance to downtown Coyoacán to enjoy the neighborhood. It is easy to enjoy! There is a beautiful park and a fountain with some coyotes and a market we wandered through and we couldn’t have spent a nicer hour or so until it was ticket time. While wandering down there we also saw an industrial tortilla machine in action and I want one now. But off we were to Casa Azul.

I know I keep describing things as “lovely” but they all deserve it, including Casa Azul. The museum is really well done and you walk through the house and see all of Frida Khalo’s things and her paintings and her garden, but the whole time I was wondering if Khalo would have liked the way she was presented. In the Trotsky Museum he is a pottering if respected old man and in the Khalo Museum she is an artist and a woman and a bisexual and several other things all helpfully outlined on a sign but what isn’t emphasized is that she was a COMMUNIST! This was an important part of her identity! She had an affair with Trotsky! Her art wasn’t about painting pretty pictures or just about expressing her physical pain but she infused her art with her politics and supported these causes and this whole intellectual, political side of her is, from my viewing, just kinda swept aside in the presentation of her in the museum. They don’t hide her politics; they have up the roster of communist leaders she hung at the foot of her bed and they have a picture of her in one of her plaster corsets upon which she has painted proudly the hammer and sickle, but they just kind of elide over it. My best guest is that when you become a tourist attraction you don’t really want to say anything controversial (though maybe I should give them credit for “bisexual”). But would Khalo approve of having her edges sanded off? Great gift shop though.

But that brings us to our final destination for the day, Museo Anahuacalli. There are no edges sanded off of that place. It is a taxi ride away from Casa Azul and out of the leafy center of Coyoacán. Anahuacalli is Diego Rivera’s monument to himself and it is monumental. You enter the gate and it spits you out onto a black stone courtyard in the blazing sun devoid of green and loomed over by the pyramid of volcanic rock that is Anahuacalli. Rivera built it with a very particular vision and as you enter you are thrust into darkness, with the light filtered through translucent stone. The pyramid is filled with Rivera’s collection of Mesoamerican art and artifacts. The collection is huge and impressive but sad for being ripped from its context. There is little in the way of explanation for any of the objects. You can descend a level into Rivera’s temple underworld but then as you start to climb up the pyramid things get brighter. There is a huge room (with gigantic pictures of communists, and throughout the pyramid mosaics of communist symbols; these people we visited today really liked communism) and at the top you can go outside to beautiful vistas of the Mexico City landscape. Well worth the visit for that alone.

Mexico! Part IV: City Center

Reading this week:

  • Cobalt Red by Siddharth Kara
  • The Making of the African Queen by Katharine Hepburn

Our big day in the city center began with some pastries. For these we walked down to a shop near the place where we were staying and indecisive about which to pick we just got a bunch and somehow ate all of them. Mexico City has excellent pastries, can recommend. Fortified, we got ready, called a Didi, and head in.

Per our request, our Didi dropped us off at the Templo Mayor, except (per our unfortunate instructions) we were at I think the back of the complex, right on a very very busy street full of shops. I know I wax and wane about the everyday commerce of ancient cities, but Mexico City is an ancient city and people must have been doing their shopping on this very spot for centuries and centuries. This is a thought I shared with my super amazing wife, and she appreciated it for what it was, but did not appreciate it for what it wasn’t, in that it wasn’t me trying to figure out how to get us off this busy city street and to our intended destination. So we walked and saw the backs of more impressive buildings, such as the Palacio Nacional. Our attempts to see the fronts of these buildings were thwarted for quite some time due to all the streets that were closed on account of recent and pending protests, but finally we stumbled out onto the Plaza de la Constitución.

This let us get our bearings and at long last we wound our way to the Templo Mayor. The neat thing, or at least one of the many neat things, and also tragic things while I am thinking about it, about the Templo Mayor is that it has been more or less razed, with its building materials recycled into the various buildings that surround it. But because it has been razed as you walk along the pathways over it you go deeper and deeper into the temple and can see the iterations of the temples that came before and were built over to construct a larger and larger pyramid. There are also scattered around the temple signs of the colonial structures that were built on the spot, including even the wooden foundations of houses and a sewer. There are a few displays right when you enter the temple complex but after you walk around the temple there is a big museum full of artifacts and history that is really well done. They had a lot of types of artifacts I hadn’t seen before in relation to Aztec and pre-Aztec art, such as these cute little sacrificial knife dudes:


After we emerged blinking into the sun from the temple complex, it was time for lunch. That didn’t stop us from perusing the Catedral Metropolitana but it did prevent me from enjoying it much because I was getting hangry. So we stumbled through a Chinatown we hadn’t known existed and got ourselves some fish tacos. Fortified, we took a look at some other sites, such as the House of Tiles and a beleaguered Alexander Von Humboldt, and then explored a street we had spotted on our Didi ride that was just chock-a-block with used bookstores. Our dream! Of course neither of us read Spanish but it was cool to see a whole street of used bookstores, something that the less-literary (apparently) society of the United States just does not support anymore. One of the stores had three gigantic cats napping on a couch, which drew us right in. This is the power of marketing.

Bookstore and bookstore street.

From there we tried to figure out what to do next and while wandering around stumbled into the Museo Nacional de Arte, which we hadn’t realized was there. So of course we had to check it out. It is in a gigantic gorgeous building with the sort of inside-outside architecture that I really like, not to mention a bunch of beautiful art. The only downside is that a lot of the galleries had an entrance and an exit which you had to use in accordance with their designated purpose, and while we were adept at finding exits the instructions to the entrances were always confusing (that lack of Spanish again) but we managed to make it eventually via trial and (much) error. I liked best the 19th century landscapes of Mexico, which were large and intricate and detailed. José María Velasco was well represented. In other art items, there was a statue by Rómulo Rozo that I found alluring along with some magnificent skateboards by Dario Escobar:

It’s called “Sin Título,” whatever that means.

We wrapped the day up by visiting some markets on the hunt for souvenirs, and my super amazing wife walked away with a mug and I walked away with two dearly priced mangos. After our now customary shower we went out for traditional Mexican food, found the place closed, and got sushi and tempura instead. We returned and drifted off asleep, dreaming of a mango breakfast.

Mexico! Part III: Teotihuacán

Temple of the Sun

Reading this week:

  • The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
  • Used and Rare by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone (antiheroes)

Having filled up our cultural bucket the day before with the history presented in museums, on our third day in Mexico we decided to go see the real thing: Teotihuacán. The day went astonishingly smoothly. Thankfully for our limited Spanish there are many travel blogs on the internet that described in detail exactly how to get to the pyramids, and we simply followed those instructions and got there no problem. The bus that goes to the pyramids first goes through the town of San Juan Teotihuacán before it finally winds itself to the archeological site, and as we bumped over the last few potholes I was getting very impatient but it was well worth the trip. Plus as the bus rode along it was interesting to watch the landscape go from Mexico City to Mexico Rural with farm fields and a glimpse of a shepherd tending his flock.

Pyramid of the Moon framed by the mountain. My sun and moon is in the foreground.

We were dropped off at Gate 2 for the site and as soon as you step off the bus you are greeted with the sight of the absolutely massive Pyramid of the Sun simply dominating the skyline. It is huge. Gigantic. Stupendous. An impressive feat for any civilization at any time. Overawed, we bought our tickets and entered the archeological zone. One of the things I liked best about our visit were all the people. I like my ancient cities to feel like cities and this one did. The crowds were light when we first arrived but more and more people came, but what set Teotihuacán apart from my last visit to an ancient city, Tikal, was that there were people everywhere selling souvenirs. That’s what made it feel more like a city to me. Tons of buskers were around peddling whistles and masks and statuettes. Teotihuacán was built by a pre-Aztec civilization, and even the Aztecs would make pilgrimages to the city to be in awe of what they did. I assume they too wanted something to remember their trip by and I liked to think how by visiting we were part of that very same tradition in our own way. And from one of the stands at the end of the day I bought a very cute little clay chihuahua with a piece of maize in its mouth.

Caldaza de los Muertos filled with los Vivos.

The part of the city on display is arranged along a long rode that the Aztecs decided was a road of the dead, Caldaza de los Muertos, having assumed the smaller temples were all tombs. Gate 2 spits you out towards the end that terminates at a plaza at the foot of the Temple of the Moon. The plaza was magnificent and there you could see how the city was arranged. From various points around the plaza, as you look up at the Pyramids of the Moon and Sun are framed and mirror the mountains that surround the site, I think communicating how the city builders were connected to the world around them. At Tikal, you are immersed in jungle and so the city comes to you in pieces, but Teotihuacán was surrounded by scrub which put the city in the context of its valley.

After taking in our fill of the Pyramid of the Moon’s plaza, we then hiked all the way down the Caldaza de los Muertos to arrive at the other end of the city, passing many many smaller temples and apparently residential districts along the way. You also pass over the San Juan river, which a criminally under-highlighted sign explains that one of the things the Teotihuacán builders did was divert the river in order to make it cross the city perpendicularly. That’s really cool! Geoengineering to make your city better reflect the cosmos! Think of all the digging. Just thinking about all that hard work, not to mention our relatively lengthy hike on an increasingly warm and dry day had us very tired and thirsty. Luckily at the far end of the Caldaza the archeological site has a very uncrowded restaurant that serves surprisingly delicious food alongside a necessarily refreshing beer. If you get a window table you overlook the Quetzalcoatl temple complex. As we ate a dust devil picked up in its own small homage to the storm god.

After lunch we checked out the Quetzalcoatl temple for ourselves. It has some of the most impressive decorations on the site, because the pyramid has been deconstructed. The Mesoamerican civilizations would build pyramid on top of pyramid, burying the last one to create something bigger. Since the Quetzalcoatl pyramid was no longer intact, decorations from its younger days are now on display and visible and cool to see. Also on the day we visited the Quetzalcoatl pyramid was the only one you could climb up, with the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon closed for repairs. This is probably a good thing though because we were tuckered out just climbing that one, so who knows if we would have survived the Pyramid of the Sun.

The final part of our visit was the museum on site, where they had lots of cool stuff. The most stunning part of the museum was a room where they had a scale model of the whole city with the Pyramid of the Sun itself serving as a backdrop thanks to a gigantic window. Whoever designed this setup deserves an award, it was awesome. Hot and tired, from there we decided to head back into town where we were finally revived with showers and some time to chill. We eventually head out for dinner. On the way I was impressed to see a man playing the accordion for tips, one of many talented musicians we saw earning their keep by entertaining sidewalk diners. The working musician is alive and well in Mexico City. For dinner we went to Pato Manila, a place that serves verifiably delicious duck tacos, and for dessert went to the Churreria El Moro where there was quite a crowd. We finally went back to our place to gird ourselves for going for the next day’s adventure into the beating heart of a modern city.

A temple still covered in scrub.

Mexico! Part II: Museos Nacionales

Reading this week:

  • Tippu Tip and the East African Slave Trade by Leda Farrant

What with the red-eye flight we took to get to Mexico we had collapsed asleep in the beautiful apartment we were staying at and therefore arose on our first full day peppy and ready to absorb some culture. The plan for the day was to explore the environs of Chapultepec Park. We had a leisurely morning, ate pastries for breakfast, and set out walking to see the sights of the day.

We entered the park via the Estela de Luz. It was Sunday, and despite the relatively early hour the park was already filling with people. One thing we had noticed right away is that Mexico City, at least in the neighborhood we were staying, is very much a dog town. There were tons of people walking their well-behaved off-leash dogs in the gorgeous early morning air and people already strolling the paths of the park. Our first destination was the Museo Nacional de Antropología, and as we made our way there we watched the many, many vendors that line the paths set up their many, many booths. I regret not buying for my brother a t-shirt that featured Darth Vader in as a stylized Aztec god.

We got to the anthropology museum fairly early but it was quickly brimming with people. After the entryway it opens up into a massive sunny courtyard anchored by a gigantic fountain, though with the water spilling from above the effect was (for the better) more mountain waterfall or perpetual rain. The place was fairly overwhelming, a sense which was ameliorated by the fact we couldn’t read most of the signs. It separates itself into different sections based around separate cultures, and we were glad to see a whole section on Teotihuacán, which we had planned to visit the next day. The museum is really well put together, and you can weave inside and outside the building to see artifacts and recreations of temples and sights. That made these cultures feel more alive than if it was just pots in display cases. The museum is also where you will find some of the more famous icons of Mexican culture, as experienced from the United States anyway.

I like museums best when they can really give you a sense of what life was actually like for the people they are telling you about. The monumental is cool but I try to focus on the objects that feel touched by people. Throughout our trip to Mexico City we saw a great number of ancient pottery stamps (below), which I hadn’t seen before in any anthropology museum. That speaks to people making sure the everyday was still beautiful. And although I just poo-poo’d the monumental, some of the most stunning displays were full-sized recreations of what some of the temples would have looked like in their heyday (as you can see above), with their decorations intact and new-looking. Extremely cool to see!

We had lunch in the museum’s excellent and airy café and then exited via the gift shop. An observation on the gift shop culture we witnessed in Mexico City: I collect lapel pins and my super amazing wife collects bookmarks. In the places we’ve been to in the United States, we are far more likely to find a lapel pin than a bookmark. However in Mexico she was deluged with bookmarks while the lapel pins available left me very much wanting. We also saw throughout our trip a veritable riot of bookstores, which leads me to conclude the Chilangos are a much more bookish culture than anywhere I’ve seen back home. If only I read Spanish.

A sunny Sunday in Chapultepec park.

After the anthropology museum we were off to Chapultepec Castle, home of the Museo Nacional de Historia. It is perched on the top of the tallest hill in the park, which caused me to comment to my super amazing wife about how it is always men that want to live on top of hills because they don’t do all the work of hauling water and food up there every day. She has heard me say this many times before and is slightly tired of it. But what the site lacks in practically it rewards with views in spades. It was mid-afternoon by this point, so we were a bit hot and flustered as we trudged up to the castle, but it was awfully pretty. It was also very crowded, as admission is free for residents on Sundays, but I like it when public spaces are full of the public. The park itself was full to the brim as we made our way to the castle and I wasn’t quite sure how the place fit all the people we saw walking up the hill. The castle itself has been home to various Mexican presidents and emperors, and much of the museum is sumptuous rooms where these autocrats/democrats slept and/or held meetings. On the roof was a very tidy garden. It’s good to be king I suppose (until the firing squad gets to you).

Finally the day was wrapping up and to refresh ourselves we went to a Cafebrería. There I had a flotado which consisted of lime ice cream in coke and has a fair shot of being the original recipe for ambrosia. That night, fortified with a shower, we went to Taquería Orinoco for dinner and tried to eat everything. We got most of the way to everything and had to burn it off with a rousing game of Scrabble when we returned to the apartment. Exhausted, we once again collapsed asleep dreaming of even greater adventure the next day.

Mexico! Part I

Reading this week:

  • Dr. No by Percival Everett

Earlier this month my and my absolutely unparalleled, intelligent, funny, charming, stunning, super amazing wife!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (we weren’t married at the time, I feel obligated to clarify, but we are now, and it is a strange new world; in falling into a relationship the transitions are gradual, the obligations fluid and sometimes ill-defined, but now due to a little bit of paperwork that as a proud government bureaucrat I find maximally romantic despite the fact that I didn’t even need to have anything to do with it because we self-officiated but the only self that needed to do any of the paperwork was my Schrödinger’s superposition of fiancée/wife I now suddenly find myself with a mother-in-law and father-in-law and sister-in-law and bolstered argument for sharing a dental plan which, I dunno, interesting little construct we have put together for ourselves as a society but it’s great I have to say) and I went to Mexico, specifically Mexico City but also Cuernavaca, which is a bit outside Mexico City. We went because our friend, who is Mexican, and works in Mexico City, was getting married, but that was only one day of a week-long adventure we put together for ourselves. This was my first international travel since Guatemala, and for my super amazing wife (!!!!!! again) it was her first fix for her passport stamp craving since even before grad school, which she attended nearly directly off the plane from a two-year stint in China as a Peace Corps volunteer. So we were excited to go!

Since in the grand tradition of this blog I want to pad this out a bit, and also start in on our adventures at the Museo Nacional de Antropología with a nice clean post, I’ll bore you with the nitty-gritty of how we got to Mexico City. First off we flew, because it was much too far to walk. Because we were both cheap and also didn’t want to land in Mexico City in the middle of the night, we flew out in the middle of the night, hopping on the metro at 11pm on a Friday. The metro took us to Dulles Airport, a journey which in a previous phase of my life represented what was then perhaps the worst day I ever had, but with the miracle of the Silver Line was rendered quiet, easy, and blissful. I am a Silver Line Extension Stan. Touring the only open airport store, I got us some snacks and we settled in for a 3:30am departure to San Salvador. San Salvador is notably not Mexico City nor even in Mexico, but flying through there did allow us to have breakfast at the tiny local traditional Salvadorian chain restaurant Papa John’s before finally landing in Mexico City at a reasonable and lovely 10am. We didn’t actually get that passport stamp we were craving, having passed through the automated immigration robot thingy, but I suppose that is progress for you.

For our time in Mexico City we stayed in a small but relentlessly chic (in a good way! it was gorgeous) apartment near the Parque México. Our Mexican friend and his now-wife described the neighborhood as hip, and yeah I think they were right. Usually when I fantasize about living outside the country it is somewhere in Africa, and for my super amazing wife it is in Asia, but after dropping off our bags and heading out to find some lunch we were quickly contemplating life in Mexico City. The neighborhood is leafy and green and everyone we interacted with was very very nice. The first of these people was the wonderful lady at the café we went to get that lunch I mentioned. My super amazing wife used to speak conversational Spanish, and in grad school for two years teachers were unfairly burdened with trying to teach me the same (Spanish being at least the third language I have been taught but have not learned). So we gamely tried to order some sandwiches and got halfway through it before the server assured us that English would be okay. The sandwich was delicious, and represented the first of at least three experiences rendered sublime by acute need, the later two being a nap and a shower, but those didn’t come until later in the afternoon. We also later got some tea at a lovely little tea shop by the park, a good omen for a good trip.

Once evening came upon us, we head out to try to cap our first half day in Mexico with tacos, only to fail at that endeavor and wind up at the Chinese food place across the street. It was however a Mexicali Chinese place, which both represented a unique and rich cultural milieu we had been heretofore been regretfully unaware, and in retrospect represented a neat connection to my super amazing wife’s most recent international travel. Also the food was really good. So fortified we head back to the apartment to settle in for the night and collapse asleep so we would be fully prepared to take in the many, many wonderous sites we were destined to behold.