Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Day 180. Finis

Day 180. Finis

All good things must come to an end, and so does this diary of a most remarkable trip. I will cherish forever the joy I experienced visiting with my European families. You have met them all through these pages, so I don’t need to repeat their names, and as I write these words they all stand vividly by my side. My only regret is that I didn’t have a chance to visit my dear friends the Cockiewicz in Poland, or to see the vast expanses of Russia. I guess I will just have to come back in a couple of years.

I also remember fondly the new friends I made in Africa, and the friendly welcome afforded to me by the peoples of Asia. Both continents have transported me to the dreams of my youth, and they were as exotic and intoxicating as I had dreamed reading the stories of Rider Haggard or Salgari, or the exploits of Cheng Ho and James Cook.

For six months I have lived in luxury in some of the richest countries of the world, have despaired at the ravages of tribal warfare, have wonder at the marvels of antiquity, have shared bread with the poorest of the poor, have seen landscapes of incredible beauty, and have sought beauty in the slums of the world. I have lost hope when faced with abject poverty and disease in some African countries, and have regained hope by witnessing the solid steps that are being taken by other African countries. I have admired Utopia in parts of Asia—and shuddered at its draconian control over people—and have reveled in the happy disorganization of other parts of Asia.

I have seen with regret the devastating inheritance that the British empire left in Africa and Asia, and the understandable loathing that the peoples of the world have for the new imperial ambitions of the United States. On the other hand, I am glad to report that everyone likes Mexicans, largely due to the stunning success of our telenovelas.

I have listened in rapture at the music of French and Tagalo, German and Swahili, or Hindi and Setswana, and have whetted my appetite for learning one more language (I think I will work on my rudimentary Portugese). From a selfish standpoint I will say that I am happy that English is the lingua franca of our age, but will encourage anyone who asks to learn other languages. They are the gate to wonderful literatures and cultures, not to say anything about the advantage they represent in the modern global economy.

So, what have I gained in this tour of the world?
1. I have put a face (or rather many faces) to the peoples of the world. I have spoken and laughed with them, so they can no longer be just “chinitos”, “güeritos”, or “negritos”. They are now my friends, and an integral part of my worldview.
2. I have strengthened my abhorrence of war and empire. I believe the people have the right to decide their own affairs, and should be able to do so without outside interference. I also believe on the old rule we teach children: Keep your hands to yourself!
3. I have strengthened my belief that the greatest plague of the world is poverty, and that other “evils”, such as environmental degradation or epidemic diseases, are but a consequence. I am energized to do my little bit to fight this plague, through education, water resources development, and fair-price trade.

Yes, it has been a thoroughly satisfying and worthwhile adventure, but now it is time to bring it to a close. May you, my readers, have a chance to do a similar voyage of discovery some time soon.


Saturday, August 16, 2008

Day 179. Getting everything ready

Today I arrived in Monclova, to help my sister in law, Mimi, and my brother in finalizing the arrangements for the retirement home of my parents. My Mom, la Ma, walks with help of a walker, so we needed to find a house without stairs, in a nice and safe neighborhood, and close enough to services such as supermarket, pharmacy, and small restaurants. Mimi was absolutely wonderful and prowled the streets of Monclova for just the right place until she found it!

Here is a photo of the front of the new house. Note the solid fence (for safety sake), the parking spot on the right, and the small shaded porch on the left. Sitting at the porch one overlooks, across the street, where the football little league (los Potros de Monclova) holds its afternoon training sessions. One enters the house through a small hall, where two comfortable arm chairs and a small table provide an excellent setting for afternoon card games, and from there into a spacious living-dining room. The kitchen is ample enough and modern, and a breakfast counter connects it with the living-dining room. In the back of the house there is a small bathroom and the two bedrooms. Finally, there is an outdoors corridor that connects the front yard with a back yard that is well appointed for barbecueing. Everything is flat and accessible to my Mom’s walker, the colonia is nice and with all the needed comforts, and it is just 10 minutes by car from the house of Mimi and Armando! The kennel is all of 20 minutes away by car, so it will be an easy commute for my Dad.

As you can well imagine, the main reason for the move is so my parents are close to my brother and his family. This includes Mimi and Armando 2; grandson Renan, his wife Sandra, and great-grandson Angelito, occasional visits from Monterrey by grandson Armando 3, his wife Moni, and great-grandson Armando 4; and the staff of my brother’s house, all of who are quite fond of my parents. A great improvement over living alone in the crazy hussle and bussle of Mexico City!

Reflecting on the big life change they are undertaking, I note that both my parents are in their 80’s, I am 55, and my daughter is 30. That means that in 25 years I will be 80 and my daughter will be 55. I think I will choose that moment to leave my bachelor’s life, and will have Faby move me into an apartment in Chico, so I can be close to her, DJ, and my granddaughters. That means that she will need to clean my house not only of the thousands of books I have accumulated (and will continue to accumulate), but also of all the junk she left behind in her younger packrat years. Fitting poetic justice, don’t you think?

Day 178. Getting ready to migrate

I may have mentioned that one of the main reasons I came to Mexico for was to help clean my parents’ house and pack their books (which will eventually find their way to my library). Indeed, after 45 years my parents are getting ready to move to Monclova, in northern Mexico, to live close to my brother and his family. My Dad, el Papo, retired in 1984 from a long and distinguished career as head of the accounting department of General Electric, but finding he still had much to offer in terms of energy and experience he worked since then as a consultant for Black and Decker de Mexico. Unfortunately he had a bad encounter with the shingles three years ago (en vejez viruelas!) and now, at the ripe age of 83, finds that going to work is no longer as fun as it used to be.

So, come October 9 el Papo will officially finish his work as a consultant, and on October 11 he and la Ma will take the plane to Monterrey, where my brother will pick them up to bring them to Monclova. And then will start yet a new life for them: It is well known that retirees who stop suddenly have the danger of becoming depressed. My parents enjoy playing cards and other parlor games, but my brother thought that would not be enough to keep my Dad engaged and sharp, so he has offered him the position of General Manager in the kennel my brother has built up over the last 5 years.

My brother breeds Rotweilers and German Shepherds, but so far the business has been barely breaking even for lack of constant attention (my brother is the Technical Director of a huge steel mill, so the kennel is really an expensive hobby). My Dad’s job will be to go to the kennel early every morning, to supervise the cleaning and feeding of the animals and to work for a couple of hours contacting clients and keeping the records. He can then go back home around 10 am for lunch, games, and a good siesta (Monclova is very hot during the noon hours). Finally, he can go back to the kennel from say 5 to 8 pm, to supervise training sessions and the evening maintenance tasks. My father has always loved dogs, so we are all excited at what we think will be an interesting and fun retirement project!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Day 177. La Ciudad de los Palacios

The Mexicas built their capital, Mexico Tenochtitlan, on and around the islet of Lake Texcoco using a combination of floating dirt rafts for cultivation (chinampas) and elevated causeways to communicate with the lake shore. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, remembering his first look of Tenochtitlan in 1519, described it as a city larger and more beautiful than the city of Sevilla. After the Spanish conquest was consolidated in 1521 the Spaniards destroyed Tenochtitlan and built over its ruins Mexico City. For the longest time it was believed that the Spanish cathedral stood over the main Mexica temple, but the excavations made for the Metro in the 1970’s (a fabulous piece of engineering and the best Metro in the world) found the remains of the main temple at one side of the Catedral, and since then several exploration campaigns have uncovered the core of the temple and collected many sculptures and artifacts now housed onsite in another of Mexico’s wonderful museums.

I spent the day looking at the site and the museums, and wandering through the streets of old Mexico. To start with Tenochtitlan, here are pictures of a model of the ceremonial center, and the layered structure of the main temple.

a couple of pictures of the site

and of some of the sculptures housed in the museum (the second one is one of the many representations of Tlaloc, the God of Rain and one of the most important gods of the Mesoamerican pantheon).

One of the most important pieces in the museum, here restored to its original colors, is the monolith that represents the dismembered body of Coyolxauhqui. According to Mexica mythology, this goddess conspired with her 100 brothers against their mother, when she found that she was pregnant. The newborn was Huitzilopochtli, the God of War, who came out of the womb fully grown as a warrior. He killed his 100 brothers, dismembered his treacherous sister, and became the main god of the Mexicas. (The third important god was Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent).

At the end of the 16th century Alexander Von Humboldt visited Mexico City, and enthusiastically dubbed it la Ciudad de los Palacios for its magnificent architecture.

My Mom was worried about my safety while visiting the city, which admittedly is not very safe, but all I found were families having a nice day out in the central park (la Alameda), visiting the Museum of Popular Arts, and overall having a great old time :)

Day 176 (Sunday August 3). Ancient Mexico

Mexico has the finest archaeological museum in the world, which easily transports you through 7,000 years of ancient civilization. Let me see if I can put a small summary in order:

5,000 to 1,500 BC we have the Formative period, when small cultural groups became sedentary to domesticate plants such as corn, squash, beans and chile. At some point they became quite sophisticated, and built dams and extensive canal systems to irrigate their crops. This is a photo of the El Purrón dam, in Tehuacan, Puebla, built and operated nearly 4,000 years ago.

1,500 to 500 BC we have the pre-Classic period, when the first integrated “culture” developed along the Gulf coast. We refer to them as the Olmecs. Their architecture was not quite as monumental as that of later times, but their social and religious organization influenced all later cultures. It is because of this that the Olmecs are sometimes referred as the Mother Culture of Mesoamerica.

500 BC to 750 AD we have the Classic period, defined by the rise and fall of the Teotihuacan empire. The Teotihuacans built an enormous commercial empire, and opened trade routes from northern Aridoamerica all the way to South America. The main route, however, went from western Mexico to the eastern edge of the Mexican altiplano (where they had a very strong outpost or trading partner until recently unidentified), down to the Gulf Coast, and from there down the coast to Central America, with an important branch to trade with the Zapotecs of Oaxaca. In Central America they traded with the Classic Mayas, who were divided in a number of small city states. The Theotihuacans exchanged pottery and obsidian, the volcanic glass that is so abundant in the central Mexican altiplano, with southern products such as fruits, feathers, and jade and gold ornaments. In my humble opinion, Teotihuacan was the greatest exponent of Mesoamerican civilization: they built the greatest city of ancient times near the shores of lake Texcoco, which at some point may have hosted a population of over 100,000 people and any number of traders, and they relied on the benefits of common trade to keep the empire together, rather than by military force. And then, quite suddenly in 750 AD, the Teotihuacans abandoned their city and disbanded to give way to the post-Classic period. Why was the city abandoned remains one of the unsolved mysteries of antiquity, and your guess is as good as mine. The monuments and streets of the ancient city lingered untouched for centuries, and when the Aztecs (or Mexicas to give them their proper name) arrived in central Mexico toward 1250 AD, they marvelled in awe at what they believed to be the place where the gods had been born (it is them that gave the city the name of Teotihuacan, which literally means “the place where the gods are born”). To give you a feeling for what they might have seen, here is how Velasco saw the city at the end of the 19th century, together with a modern view.

750 AD to 1250 AD we have the post-Classic period. Three things happened after the sudden abandonment of Teotihuacan: First, the Classic Mayas also abandoned their jungle cities and moved into the Yucatan Peninsula, to build more city states such as Chichen Itza and Uxmal (although exciting as a cultural group, the Mayas never got their act together as an integrated empire). Second, the wonderful artisans of Teotihuacan dispersed through Mesoamerica, further spreading their former culture through small city states such as Tula and Azcapotzalco. Third, the mysterious eastern partner of Teotihuacan took over the trade route that connected the Altiplano with the Gulf Coast and Central America. To talk further about this mysterious partner I must go back 25 years, when I was doing geologic fieldwork at the volcanic center of Los Humeros, at the very edge of the eastern Mexican Altiplano: I was doing geologic mapping of a huge area, as part of a geothermal exploration project, when I discovered a large rhyolitic dome with a thick obsidian carapace. The surrounding area was littered with hundreds of manufactured obsidian cores and blades, which showed that it had been mined for a long period of time. Chemical analysis of the geologic samples showed that it was the source of the so-called “Unknown Source D” archeological artifacts that are found in many Mesoamerican sites. About 5 kilometers away, in a “mal pais” formed by extensive andesitic lava flows from the same volcanic center I found the remains of walls and small pyramids. Curious, I started mapping the site and found the remains of an enormous urban complex with extensive causeways, courts, small pyramids, and ball game courts. A cursory analysis of the pottery suggested that the site had been continuously occupied since the pre-Classic, had reached its high point during the post-Classic, and had remained occupied until the arrival of the Spaniards in 1519 AD (I found a reference to it in one of the letters Cortés sent to the Spanish court). I believe that this site, named Caltonac or Cantonac, was the mysterious eastern trading partner of the Teotihuacan empire! I published the results of my work in 1984 in the Journal of Field Archaeology, and thus triggered an intense stage of work by Mexican archaeologists, who in the following 10 years excavated and consolidated 1% of the area of the city and confirmed many of my conclusions. It was one of my finest pieces of work!

1250 to 1521 AD we have the Mexica or Aztec period, which encompasses the rags-to-riches history of a band of ragamuffins from western Mexico. The codices tell us that the Mexicas left western Mexico around 1100 AD, and that for three cycles of 52 years wandered through central Mexico, offering their services as mercenary soldiers to the different city states. Finally, at the end of the third cycle, they got tired of being pushed from one place to another, established themselves in a small islet in the Lake of Texcoco, and from there conquered the surrounding city states and eventually all of Mesoamerica. But this is a story for a different day.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Day 175. La Familia Ferriz

Old photographs, visits with the family, and the arrival of my sister give me a good reason to introduce to you the Familia Ferriz. To start by the one dearly remembered of whom I have no photograph handy, I will tell you that my maternal grandmother, Guillermina, was a plump and no-nonsense lady with whom I crossed swords more than once (or rather, she was wielding a broom while I tried to defend myself with a cooking spoon—I was a rather trying child). Mi Abuelita Mina had three children, Guillermina 2, Norma, and Othon.

My parental grandparents were Alfonso and Catalina, in this photo with their three oldest children Alfonso 2, Armando, and Carlos. My grandma died when I was 10 years old, but my grandfather lived to the ripe age of 92 years, and everyone says that I inherited his love for mountaineering, adventure, and misleading others into accompanying him in death marches. He taught me a very valuable lesson: No matter how tired you are, as soon as a camera comes out stand erect and smile; all others will look like whimps to posterity.

In the following photo you can see my Dad when he was a little kid!

Norma and Armando met while working for Palmolive, which was well known for two products: Hand soap and marriages. Indeed, my Dad fell in love with his pretty secretary, and married her in 1950. They had three children, Armando 2, Horacio (yours truly), and Norma 2.

Armando 2 married Noemí, and they in turn had two boys, Renan and Armando 3. Renan married Sandra and they have one son, Angelito. As you can see in the photograph he is a lively little devil who adores his grandparents.

Armando 3 married Monica and they also have one son, Armando 4, who you saw yesterday. In this trip I was able to squeeze a visit to them, in Monclova and Monterrey, to enjoy their warm hospitality. Here is a photo of Armandito 4 together with his grandparents, Noemí and Armando 2.
Norma 2 met Evan in a rafting trip down the Colorado, and after their marriage they have made their home in Napa Valley, California. Both of them are health nuts, bio, and crazy about extreme sports. My little sis is very lively and adventurous, and it is rare to see her without a huge smile.

In addition there were a lot of uncles, aunts, and cousins, here seen around my grandparents 50 years ago. I am the second from the right, in the front, and was grumpy because I had to be still for the photo (in modern terms I would have been described as a super-hyperactive kid). My brother is to my left. My Mom is the second from the right in the middle row, and my Dad is the second from the right in the back row.

Over the last three days I have been lucky enough to visit with some of my favorite relatives. Let’s start with my Tía Reina, the cousin of my Dad, who is the happiest person on Earth. She lives near my parents, and when we were kids we used to visit with her and her family almost every week, to sing along, tell jokes (she told the jokes), and laugh like crazy (we did the laughing). My Tía Reina is the baptism Godmother of my daughter Fabiola, who always referred to her as “my Fairy Godmother”. In the photo, from left to right, are my Dad, my Tía, and my Mom.

Another big favorite is my Tío Poncho, the older brother of my Dad, who at 85 years of age is as strong and dynamic as a young man. He was my idol as an engineer, and always seemed to be thinking on something new to research or invent. Even now, he has interested himself with the process of aging, and is conducting experiments with mice (much to the distress of my girl cousins) about the effects of different compounds on longevity (he is a Chemical Engineer). My Tío Poncho is also a gifted chess player and teacher, who in many occasions has been National Chess Champion (you know, the kind of guy who can play with 30 other players simultaneously by walking around the room, beating most of them). In the photos you see him with my Dad (the original hermanitos Ferriz) inside of his Chess School.

We also gathered for a festive dinner at the house of my Tía Marisa, together with my Tía Nevia three of my cousins, and a dozen of nephews and nieces. It was a typical Mexican gathering, with everyone talking at the same time and laughing a lot. I am glad to be able to say that we are the type of family that enjoys being together!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Day 174. México, creo en ti

México, creo en ti, porque nací de tí,
como la flama es compendio del fuego y de la brasa,
porque me puse a meditar que existes,
en el sueño y materia que me forman,
y en el delirio de escalar montañas.

I spent a good time of the day cleaning my parents’ house of the junk that we three children had left behind in the course of our travels. Mercifully I found a stack of old photos and that gave me a perfect excuse to avoid cleaning duty. Among them were assorted photos that I took when I traveled throughout Mexico as a backpacker in my misguided youth.

I remember, for example, the stark beauty of northern Mexico, with its vast deserts, alpine mountain ranges, and eerie coasts. The Baja California Peninsula is one of the most desolate places I have ever been, but there are few views more exhilarating than that first look of the Mar de Cortes, with its incredibly blue waters lapping unto the harsh peninsular desert. I understand that Mexico is now investing a lot of money in enhancing or creating 18 “stops” along both coasts of the Gulf, to promote tourism, marinas for sailboats, and ports of call for big cruise ships. I think it is a good idea, both to share with others its beauty and to inject a shot of prosperity to the region.

Another unique area of northern Mexico is the Sierra Madre Occidental, an almost impenetrable volcanic mountain range that separates the western coastal region from the central altiplano. You may have heard of the famous train ride from Chihuahua to the Pacific, through El Cañon del Cobre. Alas, I have never taken this train ride, but once I took a rural bus from Parral to the heart of the Tarahumara region, in the heart of the Sierra, to visit the even more remote and impressive Cañon de la Sinforosa, which in extent and beauty sees eye to eye with the Grand Canyon. It was a beautiful but hellish trip, and I still wonder how that rickety bus managed the almost inexistent trail. Many years later I worked as a geologist in the Sierra Madre Occidental, prospecting for uranium for CFE (Mexico’s Power Company), and had the opportunity of discovering many other fabulous (and scary) scenic spots in this province, which is a treasure trove of natural resources for modern Mexico.

Moving farther east, but still in northern Mexico, I must make a stop in the Sierra Madre Oriental, Mexico’s eastern cordillera, and its power hub, the city of Monterrey. To start with the geology, the Sierra Madre Oriental is a folded mountain belt, dominated by Mesozoic carbonate sequences. When I was a geology student in UNAM, Mexico’s National University, we had the contract of doing quadrangle mapping for PEMEX, Mexico’s Petroleum Company. Nobody in PEMEX had much confidence on the work of a bunch of whippersnappers, but we proved that many eyes could find things that their own exploration teams could not. I remember, painfully, the many injuries inflicted by the sharp thorns of the desert plants in the calves of innocent geology students. Monterrey, la Ciudad de las Montañas, holds many dear memories for me and my family. We lived there when I was a little kid (3 to 7 years old), so I have very fuzzy early memories of running amok in the very arid hills that seemed to start at our backyard (more than once me and my brother were at the brink of dehydration!). I came back to Monterrey many years later, again as a student of geology, to stare in awe at the magnificent folds that form the Cañon de la Huasteca. Another memory belongs to my daughter Faby and her husband DJ, who spent together five happy years in Monterrey, where she completed her doctorate in Veterinary Medicine. Finally, I will mention that my brother and his family have made their life in the nearby city of Monclova, and that my nephew Armando, his wife Monica, and their 9-month old son Armandito call Monterrey home. Isn’t he a darn cute baby?

Central Mexico is a land blessed by the good God, from its beautiful western coast (I will put my money on Puerto Vallarta over any other coastal resort in the world), through its beautiful central altiplano, to the spicy and lively eastern coast (Veracruz is still the most popular destination for national tourists). The altiplano is host to some of Mexico’s most beautiful cities including, from west to east, Guadalajara, Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, Queretaro, and Puebla, to say nothing of la Ciudad de los Palacios—our crazy but always interesting Mexico City. Central Mexico is a volcanic heartland, and it was here that I cut my teeth as a mountaineer and geologist climbing the beautiful volcanoes of Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl, to name but the two most famous. The photo is from a 19th century painting by Mexico’s foremost landscape artist, José María Velasco, who found much inspiration in these volcanoes.

I could go on for pages dreaming about my early travels through Mexico, but I will close this entry with two final thoughts. First, southern Mexico is a world of its own, with impenetrable and misty jungles, ancient temples, rugged mountains, dreamy coasts, and fabulous people. Second, don’t take my word for it; come and see this wonderland by yourself!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Day 173. Home, Sweet Home

It has taken me forever to finish the last few entries in this diary. On one hand it is the effect of being in my childhood home, which is full of clutter and memories. On the other hand, everything is so familiar that it is hard to find the little quirks that make travel so interesting. For once life is easy, so I don’t have to struggle when I go to the store or the bank.

My parents, Ma y Papo as we have called them since childhood, live in a futuristic urbanization north of Mexico City called Ciudad Satélite. We moved here 48 years ago, when a new concept on planned communities was being promoted by a visionary land developer.

We started by renting one of the very few houses that had been built. Three years later they had the current house built, again one of the very few in our block, and for the last 45 years have seen the city go from the enclave of a few hardy pioneers who were willing to live in the sticks, to a booming fashionable neighborhood of young professional couples, the playground of juniors with fancy cars, and now almost a senior citizen community (property values have increased considerably, so no young couples can afford to buy a house in what is now one of the most desirable communities).

Living in Ciudad Satélite was quite an adventure, because there were very few bus lines, so the pioneer families were very isolated. I remember crossing through empty fields to go the park or the supermarket (but we had lots of beautiful parks and the first true supermarket in Mexico), and my mother had to make a long bus excursion to pick us up from school (my Dad drove us to school in Mexico City early in the morning all the way through Junior High School). We children adored our bicycles, and had hundreds of miles of track in the built—but almost empty—streets of the early city. Later, when I attended High School and University, I left home around 5:30 in the morning, to hitch a ride at the main highway and try to make it to my first class at 7:00 am. It is from this time that I developed the habit of waking early in the morning.

Alas, all has changed now. The city is fully built, and is a hub of commerce for the whole region. Traffic flow is excellent, due to the fabulous planning of the original developers, but the parking lots of the mega malls are packed with cars. Shopping is a beloved activity by residents and visitors, who in very Mexican fashion dress up to enjoy the window shopping experience. My mother cynically tells me that the biggest money makers are the pharmacies, who cater to the many requirements of an aging population (every Mexican is a born doctor, and generously dispenses advice about this or that wonder medicine for whatever ails you, and since Tia Rosita is much more trustworthy than that young whippersnapper of a doctor in the clinic, the consumption of medicines reaches stratospheric proportions).

And how to resist the food? We Mexicans have an inbred fear that we will starve to death, so we live with the constant preoccupation about what we will have to eat at the next meal. That means that my parents stocked up with my favorite foods and munchies (cactus, mushrooms, anchovies, oysters, lamb, pork, fruit, etc.), and that as soon as we finished breakfast we had to tackle the serious issue of what would there be for lunch, and immediately after lunch we had to start thinking about dinner. The highlight of this eating extravaganza was the rare finding of “huauzontles” in the supermarket. This is an edible weed, which looks like any old weed but ends in a thick cluster of small buds. I think it is harvested before the buds bloom. To prepare them you strip off the leaves, steam the stems and clusters for a few minutes with onion and spices, bundle several of the clusters around some cheese, and tie the bundle together with a length of very thin string. The bundles are rolled in flower, submerged in egg batter, and fried lightly. Finally, the bundles are cooked in a spiced tomato sauce for a few minutes, and voila! To eat them you cut the string with sharp scissors, peel off one of the sticks, and with your teeth strip off the buds in an elegant and flowing motion. De-le-cious!