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Pompeii unearthed

The city of Naples wraps around its namesake bay

The city of Naples wraps around its namesake bay

With only two days remaining after the cruise ship docks for the final time at Rome’s port of Civitavecchia, I opt to spend one of them visiting Pompeii, which 3 hours away via the autostrada just below Naples.

A travel oasis along the way looks far more like a page out of the Dean & Deluca catalog than an Interstate eatery.

Cured hams hang in the window and a bank of glistening espresso machines sits behind a long marble counter.  There seems to be no such thing as fast food in Italy, and taste confirms that it’s for delectably good reason.
About an hour outside of Naples the road passes a hilltop crowned by the monastery of Monte Cassino. 

Founded by Saint Benedict on the site of a former Roman temple to Apollo, it has been repeatedly sacked by invading armies and destroyed three times, the last during a bloody four month siege of an entrenched German army early in 1944.

Ubiquitous Vespas weave through street traffic

Ubiquitous Vespas weave through street traffic

Faded elegance still adorns the city

Faded elegance still adorns the city

Tenement streets climb hillsides

Tenement streets climb hillsides

About 15 miles short of Pompeii, the route passes through Naples. 

The old part of the city is the vintage Italy of ‘50’s cinema. 

Palm trees line the harbor and ferries carry day-trippers to the Isle of Capri clearly visible on the horizon 30 miles away.

Narrow streets climb hillsides through ancient tenements broken from time to time by the uninspired concrete architecture of post-war buildings that mark the scars of more than 200 Allied bombings.
Poverty is rampant in many of these neighborhoods, where over 100 clans of the Camorra – the local version of the Mafia – control not only criminal activity, but thousands of legitimate businesses.  Visitors are warned not to wander unfamiliar streets here alone. There’s no lingering here; Pompeii beckons!

Vesuvius smolders less than 5 miles behind Pompeii

Vesuvius smolders less than 5 miles behind Pompeii

Mount Vesuvius squats between Naples and Pompeii, towering nearly a mile high and squeezing the coast road against the sea.  It’s experienced more than 30 major eruptions since the one that buried Pompeii in 79 A.D., the last occurring shortly after the arrival of Allied armies in 1944.

Many buildins survive intact

Many buildings survive intact

The first sight of Pompeii’s streets is breathlessly arresting.  Unlike other often-vandalized ruins, it was protected for 17 centuries by a cocoon of volcanic ash.

Frescoes and mosaics survive in abundance

Frescoes and mosaics survive in abundance

The power of this place is not just the number of buildings left remarkably intact, but the distinctive window afforded into the daily lives not only of well-to-do Romans who vacationed there, but the service workers who supported their leisure.

Artifacts excavated over the last 300 years and now on display are personal and intimate.  Makeup cases and hair combs.  Pocket change.  Beautiful mosaics and frescos in still-vibrant colors adorn the floors and walls of spacious villas, many featuring portraits of their owners.

Fountains and pools are abundant

Fountains and pools are abundant

This city of 20,000 boasted an amphitheater, forum, gymnasium and hotel.  Fountains and public baths were once fed by an aqueduct.

A bakery stands idle

A bakery stands idle

At vacant curbside food stalls, brick ovens stand at the ready and empty stands await the arrival of wine amphoras.

A wine bar endlessly awaits the arrival of fresh amphoras

A wine bar endlessly awaits the arrival of fresh amphoras

Tracks are worn into stone streets by chariot and wagon wheels.  The cubicles of a bordello stand open in invitation and graffiti and pornography adorn street walls.

Wheel ruts are carved into paved streets

Wheel ruts are carved into paved streets

By far the most startling of artifacts, though, are plaster castings made of victims – residents and even household pets – entombed in volcanic ash by the tragedy, their flesh long ago wasted away to leave only vacant impressions. It’s otherwise hard to dismiss the illusion that the residents have just stepped out, to shortly return.

A plaster mummy cast from an ashen mold

A plaster mummy cast from an ashen mold

Vibrantly colored mosaics survive

Vibrantly colored mosaics survive

Before the long ride back to Rome there’s dinner – and an obligatory taste of the local limoncello liqueur – at a charming hotel restaurant in nearby Sorrento, which marks the beginning of the hairpin thread of highway that travels the scenic Amalfi coast. 

By the time I step again onto Rome’s Via Veneto and pass through the lobby of the Hotel Excelsior17 hours have passed, but it’s a delicious exhaustion! In the morning it’s on to Da Vinci Airport and the flight back to the States, the fresh memories of a week-long Mediterranean cruise still playing in my head.

If you’ve missed any of the earlier posts for this cruise – or want to revisit any –  you’ll find them here:

Gone full circle

Cajititlan Aztec ceremony 2012-02-02 04

The Jalisco villages of Cajititlan and San Juan Evangelista face each other across a couple of kilometers of lake, but on the day of my visit they’re also separated by 300 years of Mexican history.

I can’t take credit for planning this trip to Cajititlan on the Día de la Candelaria (Candlemas) but – as these photos show – the timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous.

Cajititlan Aztec ceremony 2012-02-02 01

Candlemas observes the Biblical presentation of the infant Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem 40 days after his birth, but here it’s also the last observance of the Christmas holiday season. Figures of the baby Jesus first displayed in Nativity scenes on Christmas Eve are given presents from the Magi on el Día de los Reyes (King’s Day,January 6), and on the Día de la Candelaria (February 2) are dressed in fine clothes and presented at the church for blessing. Family and friends also traditionally gather on this day to eat tamales.

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In Mexico, this holiday is a follow-on to Kings’ Day, when children receive gifts and families and friends break share generous loaves of Rosca de Reyes, a special sweet bread with a figurine hidden inside. Whoever finds the figurines in their portion must host a party on the Día de la Candelaria.

Cajititlan Aztec ceremony 2012-02-02 03
We arrive in Cajititlan to find streets jammed with cars that surround blocks of the city center cordoned off for a great street festival.
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On the approach to the central plaza and the local parish church, the sound of drumbeats grows ever louder. The narrow street opens suddenly onto the plaza, where at least 40 dancers in full Aztec ceremonial garb move about in intricately choreographed lines.

The costumes are elaborate and the pageantry is stunning. The dancers are men and women of all ages, and even a few children participate.

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As I draw closer I can hear faint strains of a violin, and in a moment see a fiddler walking among the dancers, an impresario guiding the procession toward the church.

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The church is packed as the procession makes its way up the central aisle toward the altar, the drums continuing their steady beat.
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Cajititlan Aztec ceremony 2012-02-02 10

Cajititlan Aztec ceremony 2012-02-02 11

Cajititlan Aztec ceremony 2012-02-02 12

It’s startling to see this spectacle of pagan-rooted pageantry occupy a place of Christian worship. As as the ceremony ends and the procession backs slowly down the aisle and back into the sun-washed plaza, though, its leader makes the sign of the cross and kisses his fingers.

As I study the dancers more closely I can see crosses hanging around the necks of many.

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Nearly 500 years after the Conquest, and 400 years after native artisans surreptitiously integrated icons of their native religion into the design of the church in nearby San Juan Evangelista, native tradition has re-emerged as such an integral part of mainstream Catholic ceremony in Mexico that it’s no longer possible to imagine one without the other.

Things have, indeed come full circle.

Read the 3 other posts about my trip around Lake Cajitlan:…

  • Mexico’s coded past
  • Maestro in clay
  • Fiesta: Día de la Candelaria

  • Made-from-scratch tortillas on a wood-fired, clay comal

    Made-from-scratch tortillas on a wood-fired, clay comal

    No less than for county fairs north of the border there’s both a sameness to Mexican village fiestas and yet always some feature that uniquely ties each to a single place. 
    Cajititlan’s fiesta del Día de la Candelaria proves itself no exception.
    As the ceremony on the plaza ends we plunge into a street fair which begins at its edge, lining the curbs of a dozen or more square blocks that slope gently down to the lake.
    Canopied booths line both sides of the cobblestone streets and the crowd threads its way through the narrow passages between.

    A young fathers cradles his infant son

    A young fathers cradles his infant son

    The crowd is a mix of villagers and day-trippers from nearby Guadalajara; I seem to be the only gringo within eyesight and the sense of total immersion is a refreshing break from gringi-fied Ajijic.

    An artisan prepares to apply color to plaster masks

    An artisan prepares to apply color to plaster masks

    Market stalls feature the predictable mix of street food, artisan crafts, household items, bootleg CD’s and DVD’s, and clothing.
    Diners sit family-style at long tables where women hand-form tortillas from masa ground on-the-spot using stone metates and grilled on clay comals over wood fires. 
    Tacos don’t get any fresher than this!

    Roscas de Reyes, King's Day bread

    Roscas de Reyes, King’s Day bread

    The very last of the Roscas de Reyes – the King’s Day sweet bread – sit forlorn on a baker’s rack in their final day-old sale of the year.
    A street vendor cooks unshelled garbanzo beans

    A street vendor cooks unshelled garbanzo beans

    A street vendor cooks bright, unshelled garbanzo beans over a gas-fired griddle.  I buy a small bag and pop the steaming beans free of their pods, eating them by handfuls.  Delicious!

    We pass a centuries-old building that once housed a convent.  It’s closed to the public on this holiday, but I make a mental note to see it on a future visit.

    Corn roasts over glowing embers curbside.

    Freshly roasted corn cool on a curbside grill

    Freshly roasted corn cool on a curbside grill

    Under expansive canopies pitched in the soft breeze along the malecon at the water’s edge, a guitarist strolls among families singing ranchera as his listeners share the season’s traditional tamales.

    Families share tamales under a canopy along the malecon

    Families share tamales under a canopy along the malecon

    Weekenders depart from the pier on Cajititlan's malecon

    Weekenders depart from the pier on Cajititlan’s malecon

    At the pier along the malecon families board small launches for leisurely cruises on the lake.

    A musician plays for the crowd on Cajititlan's malecon

    A musician plays for the crowd on Cajititlan’s malecon

    Nearby a musician absently fingers the keyboard of his accordion, squeezing out tunes so often played that his fingers move unthinkingly over the buttons and keys.

    Parish church on the plaza in Cajititlan

    Parish church on the plaza in Cajititlan

    I can’t help but smile in satisfaction as we retrace our steps to my parked car, passing the now deserted plaza.
    This fiesta has been a perfect ending to a perfect day spent driving the villages around Lake Cajititlan. 
    The bright lights of cosmopolitan Guadalajara are but 30 minutes’ drive away, but here in the country villages along the lake traditional Mexico is alive and well.

    Read other posts about my trip around Lake Cajititlan:…

  • Mexico’s coded past
  • Maestro in clay

  • Mexico’s coded past

    Cemetery and church in San Juan Evangelista

    Cemetery and church in San Juan Evangelista

    I’d have counted it a very rewarding day if it ended with my visit to the studio of barra (clay working) maestro Martín Ibarra Morales in Jalisco’s San Juan Evangelista.

    I turned out instead that the studio visit was but a taste of what would soon reveal itself along the shores of Lake Cajititlan.

    Spanish soldiers and Catholic missionaries arrived here on horseback within 50 years of Columbus’ first arrival in the New World and within 10 after Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) fell to Cortes, pressing toward the Pacific Ocean and ever in search of more gold.

    From its first expansion beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire, Catholicism has time and again promoted conversion of pagan peoples by incorporating aspects of their religions into its own imagery and rituals.

    In few places is its chameleon bent as widely evident as in Mexico, and nowhere in my experience as pervasively as in San Juan Evangelista.

    San Juan Evangelista 2013-02-15 02 stone arches

    Stone arches at the church of San Juan Evangelista

    Martín guides me and my Mexican artist and friend Jesús López Vega across the street to where a church dating from the 1600’s stands adjacent to a graveyard.

    San Juan Evangelista 2013-02-15 03 church facade

    Front facade, church of San Juan Evangelista

    Like many buildings of the period in this part of the world, this church was constructed by indigenous craftsman under the direction of priests.

    Martín explains the facade imagery to Jesús.

    Martín explains the facade imagery to Jesús.

    Church belltower in San Juan Evangelista

    Church belltower in San Juan Evangelista

    To the untrained eye it looks like many Spanish Catholic churches, but Martin knows better and he shares his insights as he points out features of the building’s architectural detail.  It becomes quickly apparent that things are not what they first might seem.

    If the priests believed that ministrations backed by Spanish arms would quickly and irrevocably convert native peoples to Christianity, they were indulging far more in wishful thinking than they were ever to know.

    Detail of church facade, San Juan Evangelista

    Detail of church facade, San Juan Evangelista

    Hidden within the elaborate stone façade are icons of the native religion, speaking in seditious code to a people conquered, but undefeated.

    In Christian tradition the serpent is a personification of the Devil, but in native religion the plumed serpent is a deity that archeologists say first appeared in Mexico about the time that Christ was born.

    Martín sketches in the dust

    Martín sketches in the dust

    Soon the artist in Martín can resist no longer and he stoops to reproduce the façade’s scrollwork in the dust, showing how its unusual double-scroll pattern is actually a serpent.

    Doorway in carved cantera stone

    Doorway in carved cantera stone

    Feline faces that adorn drain spouts just below the roof line high above are decidedly un-Christian images of jaguars.

    Worn and weathered church door, San Juan Evangelista

    Worn and weathered church door, San Juan Evangelista

    We enter the church through a side door that shows every sign of being part of the original construction, its edge worn smooth by worshipers’ hands over the course of more than 300 years.

    Church door lock and hasp

    Church door lock and hasp

    Inside, Martín points out more indigenous icons hidden within the three-story-high carved imagery behind the altar, and in designs of carved cantera stone above the doorways.

    He recounts a story long told in his village that priests discovered – years after completion of the construction – that the native workers had hollowed out statues of saints which adorn the interior, and placed within their hollowed spaces images of their native gods.

    Church alter tableau in carved and gilded wookd

    Church alter tableau in carved and gilded wood

    Detail of church alter tableau, San Juan Evangelista

    Detail of church alter tableau, San Juan Evangelista

    It’s a remarkable demonstration of faith and passive resistance that can’t help but inspire. 

    If I concluded on the strength of this visit that such pagan imagery within Catholic churches was a thing of the distant past, though, my view was soon to be set on its ear by what I next saw as we rounded the western edge of the lake and doubled back on the other side toward the town of Cajititlan…

    More on this blog about Mexico’s native artisans…

  • Ajijic’s Feria Maestros del Arte
  • San Cristobal’s corn husk and palm leaf art
  • San Cristobal’s ostrich feather and ostrich egg art

  • Maestro in clay

    Martin Ibarra Morales 2012-02-02 01

    Jesús enters through door in an adobe wall

    I first met maestro Martín Ibarra Morales last November when – as one of the artisans invited to Ajijic’s annual Feria Maestros del Arte – he and his family were my houseguests.

    Egg-shaped globes, clay virgin, and clay whistles

    Egg-shaped globes, clay virgin, and clay whistles

    Martín is a clay sculptor whose work is collected worldwide.  His renowned artisan father taught him his craft, and he’s most well-known for his intricately formed and painted virgins and globes.

    Martin Ibarra Morales 2012-02-02 03

    He lives on the shore of Lake Chapala’s smaller cousin, Lake Cajititlan, in the village of San Juan Evangelista which is – as the crow flies – not 15 kilometers from Ajijic.  The driveable route around the mountain is about twice the distance.

    Martin Ibarra Morales 2012-02-02 04

    Clay mask with an unforgettable face

    Traveling with me is friend and Ajijic artist Jesús López Vega, who has an abiding interest in native artisans and is a welcome bridge over the gaps in my Spanish.

    Martin Ibarra Morales 2012-02-02 05

    Sol y luna motif

    Our directions fail us just a few blocks short of our destination, but we park along the principal plaza opposite the church and graveyard and strangers direct us to a home walled in adobe brick; Martín is clearly also a local celebrity.

    A small foyer opens into open air patio, its brick walls adorned with framed news clippings and certificates of recognition, and tables covered with some of the maestro’s work.

    Martin Ibarra Morales 2012-02-02 06

    Not an inch of unused studio space

    Clay virgin, nearly finished

    Clay virgin, nearly finished

    We turn the corner into the studio, a Spartan room in aged brick and stucco.

    On a table at its center sits one of Martín’s celebrated virgins, which looks to my untrained eye nearly finished.

    Work in progress covers every inch of the studio

    Work in progress covers every inch of the studio

    Martin and his articulate hands

    Martin and his articulate hands

    Works in almost every stage of completion seem to take up every square inch of the room, ranging in size from clay whistles that rest easily in the palm to Aztec statuary nearly as tall as Martín’s diminutive frame.

    Jesus and Martin compare notes

    Jesús and Martín compare notes

    Martín is soft-spoken, but not shy, and as he warms to the conversation he talks animatedly, punctuating remarks with his hands.  Often he’ll move the conversation to a quickly sketched explanation of his point.

    Martin Ibarra Morales 2012-02-02 12

    Joker or devil?

    He and my artist friend Jesús quickly plunge into rapid-fire Spanish, comparing notes from old texts of art history that trace the origins of their work back to pre-Hispanic traditions.

    Their Spanish soon races past me and I wander the studio as they talk.

    Timeless theme

    Timeless theme

    A statue looking for all the world like a recently excavated museum piece stares at me impassively.

    A devilish mask simultaneously smiles and leers at me from the wall behind it.

    Finished work sits above the kiln

    Finished work sits above the kiln

    In one corner finished work sits on a mantel above a brick kiln, its face smoked black by decades of use.

    Jesús and Martin

    Jesus and Martin

    Just as it seems that the visit is about to draw to a close, Martín points through the gate past the cemetery to the church beyond, and asks if we would like him to take us on a tour.

    Church yard cemetery just across the street

    Church yard cemetery just across the street

    It’s a hospitality not to be refused, and we walk into the bright sunlight and across the street.  What he shows us there turns out to be as memorable an experience as the opportunity to see his workspace, and it’s the topic of my next post, so stay tuned…

    More about Martin Ibarra Morales…

  • Here at Feria Maestros del Arte
  • Here on MexConnect

    More on this blog about Mexico’s native artisans…

  • Ajijic’s Feria Maestros del Arte
  • San Cristobal’s corn husk and palm leaf art
  • San Cristobal’s ostrich feather and ostrich egg art

  • Glorieta Chapalita 02

    Some of Guadalajara’s most memorable public art, like its monumental Minerva Fountain and the Niños Héroes statuary, are centerpieces for its traffic circles (glorietas).
    Glorieta Chapalita 06

    In the Colonia Chapalita, the glorieta appears as far more intimate public space at Chapalita Circle, a delightful pocket park that covers the space of a small city block.

    Glorieta Chapalita 04
    Glorieta Chapalita 05

    Here seven streets intersect at the edge of a quiet and well-established residential neighborhood.
    This glorieta is a verdant urban oasis of wrought iron benches painted immaculate white and nestled among fountains, beds of roses, and human scale statues.
    At its center stands a classic gazebo.

    Glorieta Chapalita 01

    Palm trees tower above, and rows of Italian cypress screen much of it from the sights and sounds of circling traffic.

    Glorieta Chapalita 03

    In some spots only the top of the 42-story Hotel Riu, a kilometer distant, reminds that this place is not far from the heart of the city.

    Glorieta Chapalita 08

    On a typical Saturday visitors here might include pets and their owners, couples, and parents with young children.
    On Sundays, though, it’s transformed into an open-air art gallery where artists display their canvases on easels and park benches.

    Glorieta Chapalita 09
    Glorieta Chapalita 10

    Theme, genre, and scale varies, although on the day of my visit there were lots of contemporary pieces.

    Glorieta Chapalita 07

    Glorieta Chapalita 11
    It’s not uncommon to see some paint as they pass the time, and most are more than glad to chat with browsers about their work and their artistic journey.
    Glorieta Chapalita 11-001

    Glorieta Chapalita 13
    This art show pairs very well with a brunch before strolling through the art, or lunch or dinner after. 
    The restaurants facing the glorieta are but a few of the dozens within blocks, so you can park once and take in the entire day’s experience on foot.

    Glorieta Chapalita 14
    These eateries range from upscale to fast casual.

    You can top off your meal with a cappuccino from a nearby café or pastry dessert from a neighborhood repostería.
    Find out more on the Glorieta Chapalita’s web site.

    For the more ambitious visitor, a Sunday at Chapalita Circle fits well into a day including a promenade on the Avenida Vallarta,or a visit to Guadalajara’s open-air antique market.
    You may also want to check out also these posts for more things to see and do in Guadalajara:

    Barbados’ Andromeda Gardens

    Andromeda Gardens Barbados 01What happens when a traditional English garden is infused with a big dose of the tropics?

    Andromeda Gardens Barbados 02
    The answer is Barbados’ Andromeda Botanic Gardens, and you don’t have to be a horticulturist to appreciate the beauty of this six acre tropical garden in St. Joseph Parish overlooking the island’s ruggedly scenic east coast.

    Andromeda Gardens Barbados 03

    The garden was started as a private plant collection around the home of local horticulturist Iris Bannochie in 1954.

    Andromeda Gardens Barbados 04First opened to the public during a ‘70’s fund raising event, the garden has ever since remained open to the public, and Mrs. Bannochie later willed it to the Barbados National Trust, which now manages it.

    Andromeda Gardens Barbados 05Here there are over 600 different species of plants including native banyan, more than 60 different species of palm, cacti, and ferns set among pools and waterfalls fed by a stream that flows through the property.

    Andromeda Gardens Barbados 06At the heart of this botanical wonderland, though, are its startlingly brilliant and inventively shaped flowers.

    Andromeda Gardens Barbados 07

    Gardening enthusiasts will doubtless recognize many of them, an amazing number of which are varieties of orchids so unlike each other that it’s hard to believe that they’re all of the same species.

    Andromeda Gardens Barbados 08
    For garden-challenged people like me, it’s enough to wander the garden and take in its beauty without benefit of much introduction, and each of the pictures here is certainly worth a thousand words!

    Andromeda Gardens Barbados 09

    Andromeda Gardens Barbados 10
    Andromeda Gardens Barbados 11

    Andromeda Gardens Barbados 13

    Andromeda Gardens Barbados 14
    There’s more on my visit to Barbados here:

    Redeeming works

    Santa Cruz de la Soledad is less than 4 kilometers east of Chapala, but by many measures it’s separated from Chapala by light years.  It sits back from the coastline, connected to a string of even more remote villages by a road that seems to shrink as it unravels, seemingly a road to nowhere.

    Alberto in the carpentry shop:  Contagious enthusiasm

    Alberto in the carpentry shop: Contagious enthusiasm

    The villagers here have fished or farmed for generations, but these days more of Santa Cruz’s 1,700 souls farm maiz, calabasas, and frijoles than fish the lake.

    It’s not a lucrative occupation, and it only takes a quick walk through the village streets to confirm that prosperity has largely passed this place over.

    I’m here with my Cuban-American friend Alberto to see in action a program that teaches carpentry skills to at-risk youth, and which he has helped to jump-start.

    A modest home for the carpentry shop

    A modest home for the carpentry shop

    Upon arrival we pass through a modest house and small courtyard to reach the carpentry shop.
    Carpentry instructor Joel with students

    Carpentry instructor Joel Morando with students

    Here Joel Morando, carpenter and volunteer instructor, patiently watches and coaches a dozen children doing everything from operating a jigsaw to painting items that they’ve fabricated.
    Their finished work is sold to the public, both to help make the program self-supporting and to teach the children not only how to make their products, but also to market them.
    The kids are singularly focused

    The kids are singularly focused

    These children are 9 or 10 years old, but there are no childish hijinks going on here.
    All are intently focused on the work at hand, watching earnestly as each takes a turn at working the power tools.

    About one-third of the students are girls

    About one-third of the students are girls

    About a third of the students are girls.  Alberto tells me that there’s a waiting list of students hoping to enroll in future classes.

    The kids are at first a bit shy.

    The kids are at first a bit shy.

    The children seem at first shy as I begin to snap photos, but then one asks to see the digital image on the camera screen and suddenly I’m surrounded by others asking me to take their photos.

    Santa Cruz de la Soledad 2013-01-12 07

    After each shot I’m obliged to turn the camera around so that all can see each image, and there’s lots of laughter and chatter as each portrait is revealed.

    Santa Cruz de la Soledad 2013-01-12 08

    As a parting gift Joel is presented with the donation of a first aid kit that’s been on his wish list.  

    Older kids are just beginning to arrive for their advanced apprenticeship as we depart.

    Santa Cruz de la Soledad 2013-01-12 09

    Antonio Morales.

    Alberto next takes me a few doors down and introduces me to community advocate Antonio Morales, where in short order I come to understand that the children’s carpentry program is only the tip of Santa Cruz’s self-help iceberg.
    Antonio is quick to laugh and his compassion for his neighbors shines through when he talks about projects – some already launched and others not yet hatched – for their betterment.
    There’s also a steadfastness about him that leaves no doubt about his willingness and ability to drive hard bargains where the welfare of his neighbors is concerned.
    On this day it’s less than a week after the Dia de los Reyes Magos – Three King’s Day – and as we pass through the plaza a life-sized nacimiento is still arranged there. These figures were annually borrowed for many years until Antonio talked the owners into donating them to Santa Cruz.

    Santa Cruz de la Soledad 2013-01-12 10

    Santa Cruz de la Soledad 2013-01-12 11

    The features of thes statuary are predictably, if incongruously, European. The village, though, has placed its own subtle stamp on the tableau: At the edge of the scene beneath a Mexican clay pottery basin hangs a hand-woven blanket that Antonio tells me is nearly as old as the village itself.

    Santa Cruz de la Soledad 2013-01-12 12

    In Antonio’s nearby house it becomes obvious that the nacimiento gift pales in comparison to donated goods of every kind that he’s collected.  Clothing.  Walkers for the disabled.  Books.  Children’s toys.

    It resembles a flea market except that nothing’s sold here, but rather freely distributed within the community on the basis of need.
    On a table in the jardin out back sits a bottle of Antonio’s favorite tequila, and as our visit draws to a close we’re obliged to accept his profered hospitality.  Purists may drink it straight up, but for everyone else he has set out mixers:  There’s the perennial Squirt, which makes a sort of lazy man’s margarita, or (the first time I’ve seen this) Coca Cola!

    Santa Cruz de la Soledad 2013-01-12 13

    As we sip the elixir, the air is suddenly split by an announcement in blaring over a loudspeaker, and it recalls for a moment the recurring P.A. announcements in countless episodes of M.A.S.H.

    In a town without its own newspaper, loudspeakers perched on poles strategically situated throughout the village are the way that folks get their local news. It’s a low-tech solution perfectly suited to the need.

    It’s almost time for us to leave as Antonio begins talking enthusiastically about another unfolding project that will teach local farmers how to raise moringa trees, the leaves of which are so rich in vitamins, minerals, and proteins that they’re often called “the super food”.

    The fast-growing crop fetches a healthy price on the world market, and promises to help even more of Antonio’s neighbors pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. A few local farmers have already sprouted the first moringa seedlings, learning how best to cultivate and care for them so that their experience can be shared with others.  Hopes are for a first crop before this year’s end, and I’m eager to return and see the result!

    Afterwards as we head back through Chapala, I reflect on the amazing enterprise demonstrated by people who so ably apply what little they have to better themselves and their community. There’s little here by way of a social safety net except the support that these villagers readily give to one another… but which is clearly priceless.

    Roaming thru Rome

    Ancient images evoke Fellini's Satyricon

    Ancient images evoke Fellini’s Satyricon

    What can be left to write about a place that’s been called “The Eternal City” for most of its nearly 3,000 year history? 

    The city’s been so widely photographed and the world has come to know it so intimately through films ranging from Biblical epics to Fellini that no stone seems to have been left unturned.

    What came alive for me as I walked its streets was not only a sense of Rome as the thread upon which so much of Western history is strung, and its unending paradoxes.

    There are few places in which the past co-exists with the present so seamlessly as in Rome. 

    St. Peter's Basilica, The Vatican

    St. Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican

    Here it’s common to see trendy new boutiques and restaurants installed in centuries-old buildings.  Legions of Vespas circle Baroque fountains and Classical ruins. 

    Romans seem at once an unconscious extension of the rich past which surrounds them and at the same time casually indifferent to it.
    The cruise line has booked everyone into the Excelsior Hotel as the trip winds to a close. The Excelsior is famous as the travel residence of choice for celebrities from Mark Twain to the Rolling Stones. 
    As I walk through its lobby and out onto the Via Veneto I can’t help but recall scenes shot here for Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

    Ruins of the Roman Forum

    Ruins of the Roman Forum

    Many of ancient Rome’s surviving structures – worn, weathered, and vandalized for nearly two millennia -  stand in stark contrast to  the architectural grandeur of Renaissance Rome, some of which is built of marble stripped from their facings.

    Roman Coliseum

    Roman Coliseum

    The Roman Forum survives only as a disappointingly bare skeleton.

    Even stripped of its façade, though, the Coliseum engulfs visitors walking the arena floor with its sheer size. 
    I can’t help but reflect on the fact that it was not until the latter part of the twentieth century that man first built stadiums to eclipse it in scope.

    The Pantheon, Rome

    The Pantheon, Rome

    A notable exception to ruined Classical Rome is the Pantheon.

    The Pantheon, Rome

    The Pantheon, Rome

    Its simple, geometric perfection seems to leave nothing left unsaid, and to stand beneath its dome looking up through the circular eye open to the sky was for me a far more spiritual experience than walking among the gilded angels of St. Peter’s. 
    Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.

    St. Peter's Square, The Vatican

    St. Peter’s Square, The Vatican

    The Vatican is an embarrassment of riches.
    Swiss guards, The Vatican

    Swiss guards, The Vatican

    It’s impossible not to be awed by the endless tableau of master works in St. Peter’s basilica.

    St. Peter's basilica

    St. Peter’s basilica

    St. Peter's basilica, The Vatican

    St. Peter’s basilica, The Vatican

    It’s also hard not to be left with a the sense that the intent of this place is to dwarf its awestruck human visitors and to glorify not so much the deity as the institution of the Church.

    Vatican Museum

    Vatican Museum

    Only the Louvre can compare with the Vatican Museum for the number and quality of its works, and the building itself is a work of art, solid and imposing and classical in its detail.
    Here the works of old masters seen before only in art books leap out of the frame, larger than life and richly colored.

    The Vatican Museum

    The Vatican Museum

    The Vatican Museum

    The Vatican Museum

    It seems that every inch of every ceiling is covered in art, ornately framed in gold leaf.
    The Trevi Fountain, popularized in the U.S. by the movies Three Coins In A Fountain and Roman Holiday, seems ever so familiar.  I’m startled, though, to see this monumental structure rising out of a residential neighborhood rather than as the anchor of a grand piazza, which was planned but never built. 

    The fountain also famously appears in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and when he died in 1996 the fountain was turned off and draped in black… a testimony to the way in which Rome’s old and new not only coexist, but constantly intermingle.

    Trevi Fountain, Rome

    Trevi Fountain, Rome

    Trajan's Column, Rome, Italy

    Trajan’s Column, Rome, Italy

    The spire of Trajan’s column, adorned with carvings depicting Rome’s Dacian Wars victory, instantly evokes an image of the similar column erected by Napoleon in the Place Vendôme.

    Trajan's Column, Rome, Italy

    Trajan’s Column, Rome, Italy

    The walk back to the hotel leads up the Spanish Steps, which on this day look more like the Spanish Bleachers, buried as they are in a sea of seated tourists.

    Spanish Steps, Rome, Italy

    Spanish Steps, Rome, Italy

    With the date of a return visit in some vague future and my time in Europe drawing to a close, I make the decision to skip Rome’s catacombs in order to carve out time for a day trip to Naples and Pompeii before flying back to the States.

    If you’ve just joined this account my Mediterranean cruise, you can still begin at the beginning:

    Days 1-2:  Barcelona

    Day 3:  Montserrat Monastery

    Day 4: France’s Languedoc

    Day 5: Monaco & the French Riviera

    Day 6: Italy’s Cinque Terre gateway

    Los ancianos

    Few contrasts between American and Mexican cultures are more striking than the way in which each views and treats its senior citizens.

    Two old acquaintances share a bench on Ajijic's plaza.

    Old friends share a bench on Ajijic’s plaza.

    America’s seniors are often cloistered in assisted living facilities or nursing homes far from family and friends. 
    Mexico’s oldest – los ancianos – seem more often vibrant alive and interactive, and are notably present in its public life nowhere more than in its villages.
    It’s hard not to see the paradox in these contrasts.
    A ritual gathering of viejos on Chapala's plaza.

    A ritual gathering of los viejos on Chapala’s plaza.

    The nation with a far superior capacity to maintain its seniors’ quality of life, and which has taken great pains to make transportation and public use facilities accessible to its disabled, has also segregated its seniors from the social mainstream on a wide scale.
    The paradox is a reflection of the two nations’ cultural perspectives.
    Two old friends await the start of Good Friday's Passion play in Ajijic

    Two old friends await the start of Good Friday’s Passion play in Ajijic

    In Mexico, ‘family’ trumps ‘generation gap’.  Mexicans are far more likely to respect and cherish their oldest generation and revere it for its wisdom and life experience.

    Three generations walk arm in arm along Jocotopec's malecon

    Three generations walk arm in arm along Jocotopec’s malecon

    Many among the current crop of los ancianos are the children of those who participated in the century-old Mexican Revolution. 
    They’ve witnessed and lived history as it’s unfolded through the greatest social transformation in the nation’s history.
    Two generations sit in Chapala's plaza

    Two generations sit in Chapala’s plaza

    American media’s fixation on youth marginalizes its oldest save for the rich, powerful, or otherwise famous. 

    The result is that America’s aged seem more often perceived by their offspring as an unpleasant reminders that they, too, will in due time grow unfashionably old and less socially relevant.

    A vieja labors over her craftwork in San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

    An abuelita labors over her craftwork in San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

    Particularly in Mexican village life, los ancianos remain connected to lifetime friends and many live within their extended families.
    There’s a lot to suggest that this lifelong connectedness affords them greater comfort in their advanced age.

    The artisan looks up from her work in satisfaction.

    The artisan maestra looks up from her work in satisfaction.

    Americans move further and more often from their place of birth than do those living in any other First World nation, with the result that they more often live far from the oldest among their living relatives.
    A sister with walker on a sidewalk in San Juan Cosalá

    A sister with walker on a sidewalk in San Juan Cosalá

    Affordable senior care facilities make it far easier for American families to live separately from their aged relatives.

    A vieja waits patiently for a ceremony to begin in Ajijic

    A vieja waits patiently for a ceremony to begin in Ajijic

    Maybe there’s also something also to be said for lifestyle when it comes to keeping Mexico’s ancianos animated and mobile.

    A viejo walks a cobblestone street in Chapala

    A viejo walks a cobblestone street in Chapala

    Economic necessity and a thinly stretched social safety net keep many Mexicans working into advanced age, but the work seems to leave many no worse for wear and sometimes even to hold disability at bay.

    A viejo walks his bicycle along the street in Chapala

    A viejo walks his bicycle along the street in Chapala

    A lifetime of meals simply and sparingly prepared has left many lean wiry.

    A vieja shrouded in shawl crosses the plaza in San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

    A vieja shrouded in shawl crosses the plaza in San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

    It’s not unusual to see these ancianos navigate dauntingly high curbs and cobblestone streets to remain a daily village presence on its sidewalks, in its public spaces, and at its public events.
    An abuela eyes a pinata at her grandaughter's quinceañera

    An abuela eyes a pinata at her grandaughter’s quinceañera

    In the end, though, nothing can better capture the special place that Mexico’s ancianos occupy in its social fabric than their images.

    She lights up when her granddaughter enters the room

    The abuela lights up when her granddaughter enters the room


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