Mexico City – Day 12

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An art installation in Puebla, Mexico

The bus from Puebla dropped me off at the airport. The taxi to my hostel would have been about two hundred and fifty pesos. The metro was five pesos. After a bit of negotiating I got my directions, paid my five pesos, and went on my way.

As to be expected anywhere in Mexico, if you wait long enough someone will start selling something. It was a long metro ride. The first entrepreneur was a lady that started selling chocolate bars.

“Chocolate bars! Five Pesos!”

 

She ran around the car shouting from the rafters, over and over again. I really wasn’t interested. Then a guy came through the train car selling one hundred percent authentic Samsung earbud head phones – only twenty pesos.

 

“Sorry man. I can’t use ’em.”

 

A musician came on the train with an accordion. He half-heartedly played a Mexican folk song while a little kid ran around handing out candy to people. As the next stop came close the kid went around and either collected money from them or recollected the candy.

 

“I really don’t want any candy. Here, thanks anyway.”

 

At the next stop the car was nearly empty, and a man came on that was clearly too thin to be healthy. He started shouting something in Spanish that I couldn’t understand, dropped a flannel shirt in the middle of the car, and then walked away. I specifically remember thinking that this was very strange.

At the other side of the car he set down his bag, and out of the corner of my eye I saw that he was taking his shirt off – all the while shouting in Spanish. At a certain point everyone in the train cringed in unison. I had no idea what was going on. He walked back towards the center of the car and you could see the man’s back was covered with scars. As he unfolded the flannel shirt it exposed a pile of broken glass.

 

He bent down and did somersaults through broken glass in a moving train car. I think he did it maybe two or three times. Then he swiftly cleaned up his things and started going around asking for money. I was so stupefied that by the time I reached into my pocket he was gone.

 

At the next stop another accordionist boarded. This time a girl handed out slips of paper with a message asking for money. When she recollected the paper I gave her five pesos. She looked about as shocked as I did a few minutes earlier. She thanked me and then got off the train.
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Retable of the Church of Santo Domingo in Puebla, Mexico

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Mexico – Day 11

 

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The cathedral of Puebla

Yesterday started normally. I was about to head out to see some more of the places on my list, until I realized that I was supposed to check out of my hostel and catch a bus to Puebla. Time is going by too quickly!
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A historic street in Puebla, Mexico

The bus left from the airport, and I had no idea how long it was going to take, but I didn’t care because I was riding in the lap of luxury. That damn thing was like a French train minus the velvet curtains. For 300 pesos who could complain?
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The Palafoxiana Library in Puebla Mexico

Puebla is a touristy little town but it has a lot of great architecture. Facades covered in decorative tiles, domed churches sprinkled in amidst the two and three story residential buildings, and a generous central square. The cathedral is the main attraction in Puebla, but after seeing the cathedral in Mexico City it’s hard to be impressed. It just appeared to take far too many cues from Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome which is really a shame. After being in Mexico for only a few days I have seen enough to know that the local variety of architecture has the capacity to be lot richer and more emotive than the European buildings they were modeled after.
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My accommodations in Puebla

The hostel I stayed in was a Rococo aristocratic dream. Open courtyards, elaborate decorative painting, plaster work, and parquet floors. Just two blocks from the city center, I couldn’t have asked for a better set up. I spent a bit of time looking at the curious cross-over of Spanish and Aztec carvings on the facade of Iglesia de San Cristobal. It was as if someone was painting a familiar design with an unfamiliar paintbrush – the nuances imparted in the facade by the local craftsmen that built the church made this into one of my favorite buildings in the city.
In any case, my day got cut short by an inexplicable splitting head ache. Was it some bad mole? I don’t know, but I felt like hell for the rest of the day, and even a little into this morning. Hopefully today will be smooth sailing.
I hope you all have a good Sunday,
Tom

Mexico – Day 10

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The main retable behind the alter of the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven, in Mexico City.

The silence in the raking morning light of the cathedral is a rich treat. I went again this morning, just as it opened. To my surprise (I guess it shouldn’t have been) they serve matins everyday. Today I didn’t have the fortitude.

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Templo de San Francisco

But Templo San Francisco was on my list, and so I went there instead. I was told it was one of the oldest churches in Mexico City. After meeting Carlos Dominguez Corona, I realized that I was told wrong. Knowing this really made me feel better because its a very strange place. Essentially it is two separate churches – a baby church and a momma church – cuddled up side by side, and connected together by a passage way through the southern transept of the smaller church. But then the alters are on opposite ends of each other (from one church to the next), and the entry doors to the building didn’t align with an altar (you just walked through the transept).
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My sketch of the floor plan for the two conjoined churches that make up Templo San Francisco.

Which was the old part? I spent a lot of time scratching my head. But then Carlos came into my life. The man was a full time civil engineer and a part time walking encyclopedia of Mexican history. A quick conversation turned into a 5 hour personal walking tour. He took me through churches, and random stores that just happened to be in amazing 18th century mansions, explaining everything as we went along. I bought the man lunch, but he clearly was doing it for the fun of it. At the end he kept prompting me for more questions. He answered everything down to a level of nauseating detail. In short, the church I was looking at was the third built on the site. The others sunk into the ground (Mexico City has some of the worst soil conditions in the world) and had to be demolished, or were destroyed by earthquakes. Good to know.
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I was able to get a picture taken with Carlos. The best part about travelling alone is when locals adopt you!

Later in the day I was lost looking for a museum and got startled as I turned the corner: A phalanx of bloated, intimidating Mexican women with plastic strips stuck all over their faces, sitting out on the side walk. As I ran the gauntlet I realized they were having their eyebrows and facial hair waxed! I couldn’t tell if one woman was angry at me or if someone did a bad job!
Yesterday I saw a pick up truck with a megaphone mounted to the top of the cab. The guy on the other end of the speaker was yelling about something. I looked back and realized it was fruit. He was selling fruit. Right next to a big fancy hotel.
There are 152 museums in Mexico City. One of them is dedicated to shoes, and has pairs ranging anywhere from the 16th century to the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Mexico…. I can´t get enough of this place.
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Day 9 Mexico City

I knew that I was going to love this place as soon as I left the airport. Mexico City has the best parts of traveling to any major European city and all of my favorite parts of going to places in the third world, without too many of the downsides of either (minus clean water and violent crime I guess…)
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A retable found in the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven, in Mexico City.

Tacos for breakfast and roaming organ grinders. World class architecture and museums. A rich culture and history. Vendors selling worthless junk and no one hassling you to buy it. A vibrant street life, but no burning piles of trash. Good, cheap food and accommodations. It’s perfect as long as I don’t get robbed at gun point or a bad case of the runs. Who could ask for more?
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I know that Baroque architecture was born in Rome, but it had to have been perfected in Mexico. The combination of classic proportioning and form, with the intermittent sensory overload caused by the Mexican retables and plateresque facades made one feel quite humble. As I sat and drew, the organ began to rumble. And then a boys choir. Before I knew it the old folks rolled in and I was in a matins service. Tourists were not allowed go past the pews, and they looked in on me as though I were part of the “exhibit”, but it was good to be reminded that the building was a part of a larger whole.
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I spent the majority of my day staring at those damn retables (the big elaborate guilded things behind the alter). I’m hoping to wrap my head around them enough to able to draw one but it’s slow going. There is just too much going on. Between that and all of the museums I’m going to be busy.
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A Slight Detour

I was grateful when my plane left the tarmac. My transition from Cuba to Mexico was a day lost to bureaucracy.  Rather than talking about waiting in lines and the black market currency exchange at the airport I figure that we can take a quick detour.

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This past weekend I drove around the midlands of South Carolina to see a few things that I’ve been itching to see. I wasn’t disappointed.

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Pinewood, SC is home to Milford Plantation, a shining example of Greek Revival architecture that was completed in 1841. In 1992 it was purchased by Richard Jenrette. Mr. Jenrette has made a hobby of purchasing historically significant buildings, having them meticulously restored, and then filling them with period appropriate furnishings and decorative art. He has collected 6 in total. He is my kind of man. They wouldn’t let me draw or take pictures inside, and it is only open on the first Saturday of every month, but it’s worth the drive – she’s a real beauty.

Milford Plantation

Before I came back home I swung over to the Bonham house just outside of Saluda. Built in roughly 1780, this was my first experience with a dogtrot house – an early American style of house built with an open air hallway that ran between two main rooms. This example had the hall filled in at some point, but it was an experience worthy of all the one lane dirt roads I had to drive down to get there.

 

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Day 7 – Havana

Today is the day. I laced up my boots, threw on my bag, and said adios to Maria and her casa. I walked through the city to get to a hostel on the opposite end of town, taking in the hustle on my last day in Havana.

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On my way, I finally got internet access at a fancy hotel only to find that I couldn’t log into my email account without a code from my phone. I had lost my phone in the Dominican Republic. [Expletive deleted]. I tried to set up another email address so I could write home, but to do that you need a code sent to your phone… It felt like I was being defeated by a child safety lock.  After about an hour of playing chess with google’s security I was able to set up another account with the help of a state side accomplice.

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Switching up hotels is always a bit unnerving for me. My crimson backpack is great when I need to find it – not so great when I’m trying to slink along the streets of a foreign country unfound. I always feel like a target until I get checked in. By the time I stopped feeling like a target I didn’t have much time for anything else. I stopped by the National Museum of Cuban Art, got a bite to eat in a sea-side alleyway, stopped by Cuba’s version of the Victoria & Albert Museum (El Museo de Arte Colonial), and did a last sketch of the cathedral.

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Aside from the general dysfunction that I began to accept as the norm, I really did enjoy the National Museum of Cuban Art. The museum was organized chronologically and housed a great collection of paintings, prints, drawings, and sculpture – none of which I had ever seen before.

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The museum of colonial art was small, and undergoing renovation at the time, but it was full of all of my favorite things: Furniture, doors, hardware, decorative art, and bright blue ceilings… I had heard of historic papier mache furniture, but I had never seen any in person until then.

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Day 6 – Havana

 

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La Catedral de la Virgen Maria de la Conception Inmaculada de Habana

After drawing the cathedral I had about a forty-five minute conversation in Spanish with a street musician from Santiago. A bedraggled fellow of the sort that Picasso would have painted. He played the Cuban Tres: an oddly shaped guitar that had three double strings – like half of a twelve string guitar. He regaled me with exotic stories of travelling to LA and pulled out a limp newspaper clipping with his picture, carefully pointing out his name and face amidst his band mates. Earlier in the morning I had a crisis of morality and decided to fast, but my conversation brought me a much needed touch of humanity.

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In the morning I had a similar experience with an old man at Iglesia de Paula – the oldest church in Havana. As I drew outside an old man walked up and decided to talk to me. I did my best to talk back, and you could see relief wash over his face. He complained that most Americans won’t even say hello when he tries to talk with them. I found this slightly depressing. Especially when seemingly most American tourists come to Cuba under the “person to person” section of the general license, where you are expected to engage in cultural exchanges with local people.

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Iglesia de Paula – Havana Cuba.

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Last night, while I was trying to draw the Basilica San Francisco de Asisi these two little girls were playing in the street and took an interest in me. After cautiously peeking over my shoulder at what I was doing, they came right up and started talking to me in the fearless manner that only children can muster. After satisfactorily interrogating me in the typical manner they started to ask – and then demand – that I draw them pictures. One girl wanted a cat, then the other girl wanted a dog, then a duck, then a horse, and then a princess. I tried to explain to them that I’m not that type of artist, but I literally couldn’t say no. So I had no other choice but to be defeated by the request of a six-year-old girl. Princesses are hard to draw.

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