Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Lakes of Montebello: a treasure in Chiapas

In a very early morning mounted in the family van my brother , two little cousins , who can be a little young for our trip since they are 8 and 10 years old, and the leader of the group my very adventurous aunt. Our destination Chiapas a province state in Southeast Mexico just a 10 hour car ride from Mexico city.  

The goal of our first day was to get to San Cristobal de las Casas.  We drove for the whole day making some bathroom stops , and one obligated stop in Veracruz for a delicious plate of toasted shrimp. We arrive to San Cristobal near  8.00 pm although we were quiet tired we couldn't resist to go out and see a little of this beautiful colonial city, but soon enough we were back in our hotel in need of some rest, aware of what was waiting for us the next day.

The next day we were ready early, and hop on the car again ! Just one hour outside the city is the National Park of the Lakes of Montebello. The attraction of this park is a set of 59 lakes. These lakes are famous for their striking colors, which they vary due to their different mineral contents, going from emerald and turquoise to dark green, purple and even reddish dark. There are 15 accessible by car or foot. The other ones you can get in boat, and some are just much more complicate to go, so they may be out of reach for tourists.

We arrive there at 10 am, and a lot of tourist guides, natives of the zone were ready to offer their service. We took a tour in our car, the tourist guide drove with us to almost every lake accessible by car, and then he took us to a place where you can rent a “boat” to take you to some of the ones which are out of reach by car. Those lakes are in the frontier of Mexico and Guatemala, so if you decide to go down in the land you will be in Guatemala, and of course this was our plan.

We took a raft made of four logs of about 2 meters long and 20 cm of diameter, with three crossed logs doing the job of seats for us. Here we had a new guide with us, he was rowing, but we needed help. After 15 minutes of rowing in that not so steady raft our little group was in trouble a very strong storm took us by surprise. While we found refuge underneath some trees our not so surprised guide have the courtesy to  tell us "I hope is a little one, last week some Spanish tourist got lost in a storm like this, took three days to find them". My little cousins excited with the adventure started to plan how we were going to live in the jungle. Luckly for us the storm wasn't that long, so as soon it started to calm down we start rowing in our way back. Half-way there the storm began again, now we were in the middle of the lake without many options, so we decided to keep rowing towards our “port”, and we got there.

We ran to a pack of small huts made of straw and wood, they didn't make a great refuge, but it was definitely better than nothing. It was a little place with no floor and there were some women who offer to cook for tourist. We needed the shelter so we decided to eat some quesadillas and gorditas despising the fact the "kitchen" was a bonfire and a pan. Eventually after more than an hour the storm start to calm down again, so my aunt ran to the car and brought it to another hut,  that the people had lend to us so could change of clothes, fortunately we had brought our bags with us. Now that we were all warm and dry, the guide who stick with us the whole time insisted to take us by car to see the border of Mexico and Guatemala. We couldn't say no, so we drive a few minutes and crossed to Guatemala. It was the same road and forest just beside the road there was a sign which say "Welcome to Guatemala" and next to it souvenirs stand.

After taking pictures next to the sign we hop in our van, ready to go to our next stop, leaving behind the most similar place to Neverland. 

University of Virginia: a world heritage site

Entering Charlottesville, Virginia is like stepping back in time. Charlottesville a historic little town; home of the primary plantation of Thomas Jefferson and home of The University of Virginia founded by him. In the center a rotunda stands as the signature landmark of the University. A building built to resemble the pantheon of Rome.

In a brick floor esplanade a rotunda stands as a symbol of the academical village design by Jefferson. A building of bricks with its original color, including the 6 long white column entrance stands below a functioning clock. Along each side of the main entrance there is a terrace above a 9 windows room.

You can enjoy sitting in one of the wood benches underneath of one of the 5 meter trees. In spite the lawn is in a poor condition it invites you to sit in the breeze of the afternoon wind, that give you a woody tree smell that makes you enjoy a nice afternoon. To do this plan you need to go well prepared even when it is windy the temperature doesn’t go under 900 and the mosquitoes will eat you.

The heat, the tall dry grass, and the spider webs in every bush don’t seem to be a problem to all the people who come and hang out here. It’s a place very visited by tourists, you can see a lot of families walking by. As the marble steps of the rotunda is a popular point of reunion for the students and to the local families who come to play ball or Frisbee.

The building sit in a big esplanade with two flagless poles and in the middle a copper pedestal where stands a Thomas Jefferson statue.

In front of the main esplanade there is a smaller esplanade, it has a series of steps to get to the main patio in which steps there is a big white “z” painted. A path crosses this esplanade where there are a few benches. Sitting in one of these benches is nice,  even you are a couple feet away from the streets,  you can really feel the calm in this place surrounded by gardens and paths. One of this lead you to a much recent building also from the university, and the other leads you to a late 1880s gothic style chapel, now open to tourist and often witness of weddings.

If you sit in the rotunda staircase you can appreciate a 5 streets union in one traffic light which makes it kind of incredible the silence and the birds sounds you can hear just a few feet away. You can also see a similar building just in a smaller size and not in a rotunda form, but definitely the same style and time. The particular thing about this building is that also has a series of step to get to the main entrance, this one also has a painted “z” only this one in black.

The rotunda is a worth knowing landmark, there are tours around it every hour from 1 to 6 pm. And if you go between 5-7 pm you’ll presence a band practice. There are free trolleys of the university which they’ll take you from downtown to campus. 



Senegalese food: a big surprised

I went  to Teranga  I’ve to admit a little scare. Before of hearing about this place I had to say, I had never think of Senegalese food, which now I realize it was a big mistake. Teranga a beautiful little restaurant in the South End is the perfect place to eat.

What they first serve you is bread with a delicious and elaborate dip. The waitress could only revealed a few ingredients like olive oil, balsamic, garlic, onion, red and green pepper then she say the rest of the 25 ingredients were secret.

They serve the 3 Senegalese classic dishes:

Mafé,  if you are a lamb fan this is definitely your option, is a dish of lamb stew with  carrots, sweet potatoes, and other vegetables as white potatoes and cabbage it is accompany by a jasmine rice.

Mischou, a not so common dish that is marinated roasted lamb with bone served in and onion sauce with Moroccan couscous. Here they served the chicken and lamb with the bone because that’s the way it’s serve in Senegal. “Not having the bone in the chicken, it wouldn’t be authentic” says the chef.  However if the costumer ask it, they would take out the bone.

The third classic dish is the Thiébou Djeun, which is the National Dish, is a herb-stuffed white fish cooked served with jasmine rice and vegetables such as cassava, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, eggplant and, pumpkin.  This was my choice, and I have to say it was delicious the fish was perfectly cooked and the sauce make a great partner, so it wouldn’t feel dry, but I have to warn you will find some spines, so be careful. The rice was what they call “broken rice” which in my experience resembles a couscous. It was really tasty with a lot of flavor, was soft and firm, which I can imagine it can’t be easy to accomplish.  The vegetables were a nice company to our food, they were boiled and had some of the fish sauce so it was a fine combination.

To drink they offered a selection of 3 juices that they’ll make a good match with your meal. The Bissap is sorrel juice mix with pineapple and orange juice with vanilla sugar; this is a delicious fresh beverage perfect for refreshing in the sunny days.

The ginger juice is also a refreshing drink; only this one will let you a spicy flavor in your mouth. Is made of ginger root, pineapple juice, orange flower water, and vanilla sugar.

The bouye is more of a sweet drink. They drink it with the main dish, but it can also be taken with dessert.   It has the look of a milkshake but less thick. It has cream, orange flower water, and vanilla sugar but its main ingredient is the juice of the bouye, a fruit from the baobab tree. A tree you can only find in some parts of Africa and in Australia.

I was greatly surprised by the Senegalese food, definitely in a good way. I’m ready to try it again in the first opportunity I have.

Copley Square: a nice place to work

Walking in the streets of Boston in a nice sunny but windy afternoon, I find myself in Copley Square a beautiful place where you can find the Trinity Church, Boston Public Library, hotels and a series of nice cafes and stores. I will have to say I would never imagine that this would make a great place to work as Denise Karras think.  Denise a 18 year old girl from Melford, Massachusetts who comes to Boston for a summer job until she goes to California for college to become a nurse. You can find her in St. James Avenue and Dartmouth in a slush cart and for those of you, like me who doesn’t know what is a slush is a mixture of sugar syrup and water, the water is  very cold but not frozen.

“It’s great in the summer a lot of heat, but that is just what makes this a great business. Plus I can eat all the slush I want” said Denise. Her principal clients are the tourist so like them she won’t be here in September.  One of the appeal s of her work is that she gets to meet a lot of people, although she doesn’t get many rest because is very busy except when the wind like today, scares the costumers.

Copley Square is a strategic point because in spite that is less crowded than other places like the Common , the people there are more generous with the tip. Denise thinks is because of the nice hotels and pricey cafes. 

In the long hours she worked there she’s been witness of a lot of different things from flash mobs and parades to people giving away funny hats and the fireworks of the 4th of July.  “We can choose our location but I pick here because, it’s beautiful I have the park, the library in another place maybe I would be in the subway” she said to me. I can understand her, working in such a beautiful place like she says, is a privilege.

In Copley square you will find a lovely plaza in the heart of a busy area a mixture of the historic and the modern. There is a good variety of stores, restaurants, and is just 2 blocks away from the Prudential Center and the Public Garden.  

This why Denise doesn’t mind to ride the subway for more than 50 minutes and work from 10.30 to 7.30 , this is a very different job of what she has back at home. In the rest of the year she works in a preschool helping the teachers take care of the children. She has to pay $1100 dlls. to the city to be there, so the pay can’t be very bad.

This is a place you can’t miss if you are in Boston. It can get crowded but it’s a place worth watching. In the winter you won’t find Denise but you will find winter festivities and some ice sculptures.  So any time you are in Boston give it an opportunity you won’t regret it. And of course if you go in the summer time, go and say hi to Denise. 

A Venetian Palace Inside Boston

I arrive to the Isabella Stewart  Gardner Museum without many expectation, not ready to be surprised in the way I was. Accompanied by some friends walking around by the beautiful parks that surround it and by the suggestion of one of them we decided to went in. As we enter a very nice lady was ready to welcome us.  While walking through an enclosed, transparent corridor guarded by a grove of trees you get from the new wing to the palace where you enter to an entire museum, that is a work of art itself.

Isabella Stewart disliked the cold, mausoleum-like spaces of most museums. As a result, she designed this museum where the paintings, murals, tapestry in the wall, even the door frame you just walked through, is art. Each piece was meticulously selected and placed within the structure of this building. The building itself was designed around her collection, as opposed to many museums which simply place a painting on an available wall.

With an intimate collection of decorative and fine art housed in a 15th century Venetian style palace reflect the lush style of Isabella,  accompanied with the new extract design by Renzo Piano which preserves the 108 year old palace built by Isabella Stewart.  The museum also provides personal glimpses into the sensibilities and personality of Isabella Stewart testaments to her personal life such as tragedies and triumphs.

The museum hold its paintings like it would hold them in a house with no particular or obvious arrangement where unknown artist can coexist with the most recognized ones , while their paintings are hung side by side.

All the paintings where acquired in a remarkable short space of time. Isabella after losing his son and husband dedicated her time to make this museum, she attended the driving of the first pile and visited the construction site regularly, supervising every detail of the building. She climbed ladders to show painters how she wanted the interior courtyard and determined the placement of each architectural element. The building was completed in November 1901 and she spent the next year carefully installing her collection, the personal character of the arrangements and the artistic display of the enchanting courtyard was what created the atmosphere that distinguishes the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Here you can feel like a witness of her late life and her trips for Europe. The mixed of and amazing collection fill with works of the most recognized artist in the world such as Titian, Rembrandt, Botticelli, Tintoretto,  Manet, Degas, are sitting with the rest of unique pieces in the collection.  

On your way out you can find a fine modern terrace, a perfect place to eat and sit with a book. Art lovers should definitely visit the museum that instead of fencing you find trees, open lawn and a working greenhouse. This museum in some points can hit the unrealistic and absurd ruled by the anachronistic follies but its cultural wealth, makes it a treasure hidden in Boston.