Thursday, May 28, 2020

Reflecting on Travel: semester in Mexico City in 1979



Mr. Charles Shreiner (1924-2019), Director of the Latin American Studies Program at St. Joseph's University, who was responsible for offering the junior year program in Mexico in 1979. I jumped at the opportunity.

Practically everyone on the planet is grounded because of the coronavirus, and travel plans have to be postponed for our own safety and the safety of others. While we're all waiting, the two things that I can do are the following: 1) look back on previous trips and cherish the memories, and 2) take local drives to look for places to walk and take in scenery (in some parts of the world, the restrictions in place won't allow you to do this). I have been exceedingly fortunate to have spent over 40 years traveling to wonderful locations, and have a storehouse of memories to draw upon. Much as I've enjoyed the exhilaration of traveling, I equally enjoy taking the time to remember these experiences and appreciate them even further.


Housemate Eliel Garay, originally from Acapulco, who celebrated his birthday with a drink of rompope liqueur 


The first real opportunity I had to travel afar in any meaningful way was during a semester in Mexico in 1979, when I was a junior at St. Joseph's University. Our university had a study abroad program with the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, and it was a fabulous way to get acquainted with another country and culture. We international students stayed at individual houses not far from the university, as there were no dormitories. The university's international department sponsored day field trips to places like Teotihuacán, site of impressive pyramids; nearby Cuernavaca; and the mining town of Taxco. The climate was ideal, and social opportunities with housemates and fellow students were abundant. There were also concerts at the university, and I recall seeing a gentleman named Carlos Maceiras play classical guitar and then break into jazz, which electrified the audience. 

In March, midway through the semester, we felt movement in our house at 5:15 am, and concluded that an earthquake was striking. We went to the doorway and rode it out, then tried to go back to sleep. Shortly afterwards, we saw a huge flash resembling a lightning bolt, which turned out to be the power plant, after which the electricity went out. Housemate Eliel Garay, with his quick wit, sang Carole King's "I Feel the Earth Move Under My Feet" after things settled down.

Later we learned that "something happened to the university" and went outside to find out more. As we walked to the university and met up with some of our classmates along the way, we realized that it had been toppled. The university had a long main building with five wings connected to it, labeled A to E. Part of the main building split off around wing C, bringing down the remainder of that building, then flattening wing E like a set of dominoes. No one was in the building when it happened; the last students in the building left at 2 am.

I was studying in Mexico City in 1979 when an earthquake destroyed Universidad Iberoamericana, the university I was attending

The International Department was completely under the rubble, as were the travelers' checks I had kept there for safekeeping. I had bought Citicorp Travelers' Checks at AAA before leaving for Mexico.  Wagons-Lits managed these in Mexico City, and I went to the office to put in a claim. I was told that I would have to have a police report, which I would have to get at a certain precinct. It turned out to be a waste of time. My Mexican friends told me instead to go to the "Delegación Política," and one of them accompanied me to the office to get the required documents. In the meantime, my parents had wired me money to tide me over. Ultimately, I was able to return to Wagons-Lits and get the money, but later learned that my friends who had brought American Express travelers' checks got their money on the spot at the Amex office. You can guess which company I used after that!

With the university in ruins, all the offices moved in cramped quarters to the library, a separate building that was still standing. All our classes moved to the residences of several of the housemothers who had been renting out rooms to us. I recall in one house, a beautiful Russian wolfhound would strut in and out while we were having classes. It was initially uncomfortable, but all of us made it work.

After finishing our studies in May and saying our goodbyes, I accompanied one of my classmates who was driving from Mexico City to Austin. We drove to San Luis Potosí, saw a band in the plaza who was playing 70s disco music, and stayed the night at a decent hotel. On the second day, we stopped at an open-air market and I got a nice cowboy hat. Back on the road, we got to drier land and ultimately Saltillo. The town was pleasant, but my friend wanted a hotel with an enclosed garage to protect his car, and the hotel turned out to be a disaster. The bathroom floor flooded as soon as I flushed the toilet. During the night we were tormented by midges and tried sleeping in the car to get away from them. After our horrible night's sleep, we hit the road again, crossed the border at Piedras Negras/Eagle Pass to avoid the traffic at Laredo, and proceeded on to San Antonio. The contrast between Mexico and the US could not have been greater: brown all around on the Mexican side, green on the US side. San Antonio was marvelous with its River Walk, and we made up for our bad experience in Saltillo by staying at a nice La Quinta in San Antonio. The next morning we had a sumptuous Mexican breakfast at a restaurant named "Mi Tierra," paid a visit at an Army base as my classmate was an Army lawyer, having reached the rank of Captain, and proceeded to Austin. I spent some time in Austin with my classmate, then proceeded to fly to Dallas and then to Tampa. My ultimate destination was Lakeland to stay with my aunt and uncle, along with another student who had decided to go to Guadalajara first before meeting up with me in Tampa. We enjoyed Lakeland and visited the pre-Epcot Disney World. I recall that the temperature in late May was 85 degrees Fahrenheit - not as oppressive as it normally would have been. After our stay there, we flew to Atlanta and made our way to Chattanooga to stay with my friend's brother. From there we were able to go to Lake Winnepesaukah Amusement Park in Rosswell, Georgia, and later Rock City, Cloudland Canyon, and Lookout Mountain. After all that traveling, we flew to Atlanta and back home to Philadelphia. 



Monday, July 22, 2019

Returning to St. Martin after 16 years


Chairs set out in front of the Azure Hotel and Art Studio on Simpson Bay Beach
After two research trips to St. Martin in 2002 and 2003 as part of a project with Raíces Culturales, I had the chance to return to the island this year as a tourist with my wife. There are direct flights from Philadelphia, which didn't exist when I traveled there on my first two trips.

The island, as the smallest island shared by two sovereign states, is known by its two names: Sint Maarten for the Dutch side and Saint-Martin for the French side. Sint Maarten is an autonomous entity within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and Saint-Martin is part of the French overseas department of Guadeloupe. Islanders who hope for unifying the two sides as an independent state prefer to focus on its common English Caribbean roots and use the English spelling of St. Martin to refer to the entire island, regardless of the current state of sovereignty. Out of respect for them and their heritage, I use their spelling unless I have reason to differentiate the two sides of the island.
Tortoises are among the guests at the Azure Hotel and Art Studio
On my first trip, I stayed at the Seaview Beach Hotel, a small hotel on the beach in Philipsburg. On my second visit, I rented a room with a friend who lived on a hill, in a section called Mary's Fancy. For this third opportunity, we decided on the Azure Hotel and Art Studio, a small, hospitable location on Simpson Bay Beach, close to Princess Juliana Airport. Though you can hear the planes take off while on the beach, it is not where the planes fly incredibly low as they approach the runway. That "honor" goes to Maho Bay Beach.

The beautiful blue water in Simpson Bay can be seen from the Karakter restaurant
Accommodations on the Dutch side (Sint Maarten) have a notable advantage to their French-side counterparts: potable running water as opposed to the well water that isn't safe to drink. We learned very quickly the value of having that option, especially because our room had a kitchenette, enabling us to eat in when we wanted.

I wanted to see how St. Martin had recovered from the massive destruction wrought by Hurricane Irma in 2017. By and large, the island looked open for business. The indicators of the hurricane's impact could be seen in damaged cars, a few buildings in partial or complete disrepair, and the second floor of the airport not yet open, but the rebuilding effort after such a devastating storm was a tribute to the hard work of the islanders. Some attractions such as the Sint Maarten Museum in Philipsburg, or artist Roland Richardson's gallery in Marigot, had finished their repairs only shortly before our arrival.

We accidentally went into a new branch of a popular supermarket chain, Super U, on the day of its grand opening in Hope Estate. (No, we didn't win the car) 
There was still plenty that I hadn't seen on the island, so it was worthwhile to return, rent a car and do some sightseeing. For example, I had never visited Loterie Farm, a nature attraction along the road to Pic Paradis, the highest point in St. Martin. Likewise, I wanted to sample the views from the Little Bay Hotel and what remained of Fort Amsterdam, both on a peninsula separating Little Bay from Great Bay.

The entrance to Loterie Farm in the center of the island

In terms of eating, St. Martin is an island that doesn't lend itself to all-inclusive resorts. Even after Irma, enough restaurants have come back to make the dining options considerable, from fast food to high end. We sampled quite a few without breaking the bank, such as a Latin roast chicken eatery called Pollos Hermanos, had coffee and baguettes for breakfast at a wonderful French bakery called Café Atlántico, and caught a soccer game at a small restaurant in the Simpson Bay area that made delicious Colombian empanadas. The town most associated with fine eating is Grand Case, which, while in the process of reopening some of its famed restaurants, still has its renowned "lolos" or seafood restaurants along the beach. Great food, generous portions.

My choice from the ample seafood menu of one of the "lolos" in Grand Case
Returning to St. Martin was wonderful. Not only did we relax and enjoy ourselves, but we were also able to meet with friends that I had made during my first two research trips. For me, St. Martin more than earns its name "The Friendly Island."

Monday, May 6, 2019

Remembering my visit to the Feria de Abril in Seville, Spain (II)




La Giralda, the tower of Seville's cathedral

The rest of the week in Seville was spent finding activities to fill our time. It wasn't necessary to spend every day at the Feria per se, as there were other activities that were just as worthy of our attention. Julia had plenty of friends of Seville and was indispensable in introducing us to Juan Iglesias, who was our contact for a caseta dedicated to flamenco called "Peña Flamenca Torres Macarena." He and I had an interesting conversation discussing whether or not flamenco could be considered "folklore." Juan didn't consider flamenco in the same category as folklore, and preferred to classify it as more of an art form, which meant that it could be subject to more innovation and individual shaping than folklore would. Of course, this is a topic that could be debated endlessly, depending on one's definition of folklore and what fits within its realm.

I learned that although flamenco dancers do perform sevillanas, flamenco and sevillanas are not one and the same. In fact, the Feria is usually not the best time to find the best selection of authentic flamenco, with a few notable exceptions: the previously mentioned caseta, and a wonderful place called "Casa de la Memoria de Al-Andalus," a small venue in the heart of Seville that presents flamenco in an intimate setting: a courtyard with a canopy high above to protect from any rain. Nancy and I attended one such performance and were blown away. If you go to Seville, do not miss this. Reserving tickets at the Casa de Memoria is an absolute must, as the place is small and tickets sell out quickly. The website is https://www.casadelamemoria.es/ . The Casa is used to accommodating English-speaking guests, so you will have no difficulty there.

Tom would take flamenco lessons during the day with friends in the city. Nancy and I would tour the city either together or separately. We decided that we would reserve a trip to Granada on one of those days to see the Alhambra, that marvelous palace from the medieval era when the Moors dominated Spain. We learned that only guided tour groups are allowed into the Alhambra, and they are moved through quickly due to the demand. Our tour group was divided into Spanish speakers and English speakers, so while Nancy and I were together on the bus, she went off to the English group and I went with the Spanish group. We convened again for lunch and met a delightful Irish couple, discussing the politics of the day. US foreign policy is always a hot topic for discussion, and while we didn't disagree, we still tried to tread lightly in that area.

There were two comforting routines that we fell into during evenings that we didn't go to the Feria grounds: a cafe that was convenient to our apartment, and a restaurant not far from there, where we could sit outdoors and take our time. Dinner was served very late. It would get dark at 9:30 pm, and our dinner would continue leisurely until midnight. I was hooked on paella and had it almost every time, along with a delicious dessert consisting of a large ball of vanilla ice cream with a crispy chocolate coating.

We absolutely had to go back to the Feria on Sunday night for the big sendoff before we returned to the States. The Feria grounds are absolutely packed as people waited for the finale at midnight, when the lights of the Feria gate are turned off in stages, followed immediately by a fireworks show. It was the perfect way to cap off a wonderful week in Spain.

You can learn more about the 2019 Feria de Sevilla, which is taking place now, having started on May 4 and continuing through May 11, at the website http://www.andalucia.com/festival/seville-feria.htm .

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Remembering my visit to the Feria de Abril in Seville, Spain (I)

The 2006 portal to the Feria de Abril (April Fair) in Seville, Spain at night

I recall reading somewhere that it is incredible that the city of Seville, Spain celebrates two large festivals within two weeks of each other: first, the solemn Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions; and then the joyous Feria de Sevilla or Feria de Abril (April Fair), with all the planning that goes into each. Four of us, Julia López (then the director of a flamenco troupe in Philadelphia called Flamenco Olé), two of her flamenco students, Tomas (Tom) Dura and Nancy Hill, and myself, took this trip in April 2006 to do research on the Feria, which our local arts organization Raíces Culturales Latinoamericanas (Latin American Cultural Roots) was going to present the following year at the International House of Philadelphia, with support from the dance program of the Pew Foundation on the Arts. Of course, our festival would not approach the size of Spain's Feria, which attracts over a million people each year, but our goal was to absorb as much as possible from Feria to be as faithful as possible to detail in our much smaller event.

My plane arrived in Madrid early in the morning, and from there I had to take a taxi to the Atocha railroad station. After the all-night flight and the change in time zones I was really sleepy, but managed to see at least some of the countryside on the way south to Seville. I recall seeing wide open plains in between snoozes.

When I arrived in Seville, I was really fortunate because Julia, Tom and Nancy had arrived ahead of me and had already settled in the apartment we were renting. Tom was available to help me get acclimated, but Julia and Nancy had gone to a flamenco show. Nancy begged Julia to show her what fake flamenco looked like, and so they went to a place where glassy-eyed, emotionless dancers went into their routines. Unfortunately for them, they got caught in a thunderstorm walking back to the apartment at night and were thoroughly drenched.

The apartment was modern and slightly north of the center of Seville, so for the most part it was convenient for us to walk into town and ultimately cross over the Guadalquivir River to Barrio Triana, the site of the Feria grounds and the subject of many sevillanas (traditional songs representing Seville). Feria has existed since the 1840s and over the course of the years has outgrown its locations, but this Feria site was more than capable of handling the million or so tourists who visit it every year.

Julia López (left) and Nancy Hill presenting a gift from Philadelphia to Antonio Silva, director of the Feria de Sevilla

One of our first activities was meeting the then-director of the Feria, Antonio Silva, and learning about the history of the Feria, which is fascinating. One of the interesting aspects of Feria is that there is an annual competition among the city's architects for the portal design. The goal of the design is to incorporate some aspect of Seville into the portal. The top photo shows the design that won the competition for 2006.


The official start time of the Feria is midnight Monday going into Tuesday, so when I went to the Feria grounds on Monday afternoon, the people who were there were busy setting up their casetas or tents for the six-day celebration. It was fun watching the preparations and some friendly people who were just walking around.

Young people at the Feria grounds prior to the start of the celebration

As the bulk of Feria activity would take place at night, we had the daytime to do a variety of activities. From our apartment it was easy to walk through Seville and take in some of the sights. We had to be mindful that the hours of stores were reduced due to the Feria, and that it was best to shop in the morning. The department store El Corte Inglés was an exception, as it had afternoon hours and was a great place to find books and CDs.

On Monday night, as Tom and I approached the Feria grounds, there was a huge crowd waiting for the alumbrao, or lighting of the Feria portal, which would take place at midnight. As the entrance to the Feria was closed until this occurrence, the crowds were pressing on us. When midnight did arrive, there was a huge cheer with the crowds flooding the entrance and grounds to take in all the sights.

We learned that most of the casetas or tents at the Feria were private affairs with particular clubs or groups of people who had reserved their space and took care of their decoration and food sales. There were also public casetas in specific locations, which were much noisier. Tom and I presented ourselves at Seville's municipal caseta. My goal was just to say hello to Antonio Silva, whom I had met earlier in the day, but much to our surprise, we were invited in and were able to take in all the activity, including the delicious fish that was served along with plenty of manzanilla (a variety of sherry) to wash it down. Tom felt somewhat like a fish out of water because he didn't speak Spanish, but he came alive when some women approached us to invite us to dance sevillanas, and he went off to dance with them while I continued my Spanish conversations, not being much of a dancer myself.

The Feria celebration continues well into the night. Tom and I finished up at around 4 am and went to the bus stop to pick up one of the well-organized free buses that ran continuously and took people from the Feria grounds to the center of Seville across the Guadalquivir River. From there we walked back to our apartment.

Interior of a caseta with its lanterns or farolillos

You can learn about the 2019 Feria de Sevilla, which actually takes place between May 4 and 11 because Easter Sunday was later this year than in most years (April 21), at the website http://www.andalucia.com/festival/seville-feria.htm .


Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Relationship Between My Travel and Our Nonprofit Arts Organization "Raíces Culturales Latinoamericanas" (Latin American Cultural Roots)


One of countless performances by our organization Raíces Culturales Latinoamericanas (Latin American Cultural Roots)

In an earlier post, I gave some thought as to why I have never had the desire to become a "travel nomad" as many have done, in order to sample the world and experience the freedom that being tied down to a specific place does not provide. While there are plenty of practical reasons related to family obligations and other considerations, one that is especially relevant is that, from the time I started traveling, I always had the desire to bring back what I had seen and learned in my travels to the people back home in the States. This especially took root after I returned from a year of graduate study at the Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia in 1981, under the auspices of the Fulbright program. After a decade of interacting with the Latino community of Philadelphia, I decided to start a nonprofit arts organization in 1991 showcasing the culture of Spain, Latin America and the Caribbean, which we named Raíces Culturales Latinoamericanas (Latin American Cultural Roots). Fortunately, I had met a short time before a woman named Yolanda Alcorta who happened to be a co-worker of mine at Wyeth Laboratories and who shared the same passion, so together we started Raíces and worked together nonstop for 15 years until she moved to Washington, DC.

Yolanda Alcorta and I in front of the Raíces banner

The Raíces concept was to showcase several Latin cultures together in a single performance so that the audience could see the diversity. To achieve this end, we reached out to many performing groups and individuals in the Philadelphia area to invite them to collaborate with us, which they did. Ultimately, we presented at least some manifestation of the culture of every Latin American nation, as well as Spain. Groups came and went, but we always had the assistance of several of them when it came time to perform, or deliver a workshop to a school. Such was Yolanda's devotion that she quit her job at Wyeth to become our first full-time Executive Director, while her husband Chris supported their family financially.

Yolanda's mother Elvira Gaitán was born in Guatemala, and as such Yolanda gravitated toward her family in Guatemala and the richness of that country's culture in her travels. She brought back much research material from Guatemala, while I did the same in Colombia while visiting my wife Adriana's family there. We both tried to take in as much traditional culture as we could during our visits. Later, with the assistance of organizations such as Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the Pew Foundation, we traveled to other regions, among them Puerto Rico, Spain, and Trinidad to do research to assist us in organizing performances in Philadelphia.

Visiting Seville, Spain in 2006 with Julia López (seated, right), flamenco instructor and then director of the  Philadelphia flamenco troupe Flamenco Olé, to do research on the Feria de Abril (April Fair) and learn more about flamenco. I'm standing with Juan Iglesias and Nancy Hill, one of Julia's students. Juan Iglesias' wife is seated at left.

It goes without saying that traveling to these locations helped us enormously in our mission to render faithfully the cultures we witnessed, as well as create a storehouse of memories and "between the lines" anecdotal experiences that found their way into our events. Attendees would notice these subtleties and sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, felt an air of authenticity that would have been impossible without our travels. For Yolanda and myself, the events and the audience's reaction provided us with great satisfaction.

A footnote is that our direct involvement in Raíces initially ended in 2006 for Yolanda, and for me in 2009. Verónica Castillo-Pérez succeeded Yolanda as Executive Director from 2006 to 2012, and Mary Rivera from 2012 to 2015. To provide the Raíces Board an alternative to closing the organization in 2015 due to funding issues, I offered to take back the organization's management, which was accomplished in 2016. Yolanda enthusiastically joined me, and since then, we have created events both in Philadelphia and Washington, DC, helped by Yolanda's freelance cultural work in DC since moving there. You can read the story in my article Michael and Yolanda, Raíces Co-Founders, Retake the Reins.

You can follow Raíces more closely via our website , our Facebook pages Raices Culturales Latinoamericanas (in English) and Folklorelatino (in Spanish), and our Twitter account @RaicesCultural .



Friday, March 22, 2019

Links to two Google Maps I created: Places visited; and World dance, music and culture

Over the past few months, I've been busy updating two Google Maps I've created, which represent my interests in travel and culture.

The first map pinpoints all the places I've visited. You can find it at https://drive.google.com/open?id=1J3OA20JGNDea1vMZTx1YMDqFJAI&usp=sharing .

The second map highlights, and contains many links to, audio and video that I've been able to find showing the cultures of the world. This map is located at https://drive.google.com/open?id=186yxS_EKfmTb6Dn7WguKLVvc_F4&usp=sharing .

Hope you enjoy these!