Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Chocolate Art and Crafts in Philadelphia

Chocolate Art and Crafts owner Eva Hernández (right) with her sister Perla (left) and Raíces Culturales Co-Founder Yolanda Alcorta


One of the gems of the increasingly diverse Latino community in Philadelphia is the crafts store in the Italian Market in South Philadelphia called "Chocolate Art and Crafts." Its owner, Eva Hernández, dedicates herself to using crafts to show positive images of her home country of Mexico. Raíces Culturales Co-Founder Yolanda Alcorta visited the store in 2019 and found in Eva a willing collaborator in Raíces programming. Fortunately, Eva's store survived the pandemic and along with her sister Perla, will also collaborate with Raíces in a program on Sunday, October 24 dedicated to chocolate and its origins, along with the local organization Penn's Village. Check the Raíces website www.raicesculturales.org for details as the date approaches!

Some of the many treasures available at Chocolate Art and Crafts

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Local travel in PA as we ease out of the pandemic

An Eastern Bluebird in Ridley Creek State Park

Hunting Hill Mansion, the central point in Ridley Creek State Park, PA
Hunting Hill Mansion, where the park offices and banquet facilities are located

Like so many, I'm looking forward to traveling again as we come out of the pandemic. In the meantime, I'm enjoying taking in the local sights, such as in Ridley Creek State Park, which is a wonderful retreat for suburbanites in southeastern Pennsylvania. The park is spacious, but the area that provides a good starting point is Hunting Hill Mansion, which houses the park offices and has a space that can be rented out for weddings via www.peachtreecatering.com. Close by are stables where horseback riding is available. Go to www.hiddenvalleyhorsefarm.com for more details. 

One of the residents at the Hidden Valley Horse Farm

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Anapoima, Colombia photo gallery

Latest links from my Facebook page (2020)

Taking a boat tour of the north coast of Anguilla, 2003

Below are some more recent links to posts on my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/mikeespositotravelblog

Luther Bryan, who took me out on his boat from Island Harbour to Scrub Island, Anguilla (2003) https://www.facebook.com/mikeespositotravelblog/posts/10157965739660129

Placemat with map of the island of Culebra, a small island off the east coast of the main island of Puerto Rico. I visited there in 2007 https://www.facebook.com/mikeespositotravelblog/posts/10157906931715129

View of the eastern savannah of Colombia from the eastern edge of the Andes (1981) https://www.facebook.com/mikeespositotravelblog/posts/10157886094160129

The Choo Choo Barn, a massive train layout in Strasburg, PA (2015) https://www.facebook.com/mikeespositotravelblog/posts/10157865757760129

Hotel Mockingbird Hill, Port Antonio, Jamaica (2013) https://www.facebook.com/mikeespositotravelblog/posts/10157861280005129

A splendid horse in El Quelite, Sinaloa, Mexico (2013) https://www.facebook.com/mikeespositotravelblog/posts/10157840170430129

A stairway with a steep descent in the town of Mesitas del Colegio, Cundinamarca, Colombia (1992) https://www.facebook.com/mikeespositotravelblog/posts/10157833519230129

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. 

Sunday, February 2, 2020

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."