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And finally…it’s Easter. Sunday morning, rise and shine.

My body was worn out, but functional. I roused every one about nine and had them clean themselves, dress and pack. We’d be heading to ten o’clock Mass at the Cathedral, then returning to the hotel for any last necessities, checking out, and leaving our bags at the desk for the afternoon.

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Easter morning view from the hotel room. 

Our flight back home was early Monday morning. I had a room reserved at the Mexico City Airport Marriott Courtyard for the night. Good buses run from Puebla directly to the airport all day, so I knew that there was no need to reserve any tickets. Shooting for a general time frame would work just fine, so that’s what we did, the time frame being 4-ish – which would get us to the hotel by seven at the latest, we hoped. And ten hours later, up and out and on the plane home.

The zocalo (town piazza or square) was not as busy as on former days (yet), but there were magazine vendors setting up who hadn’t been there before. As I mentioned, the Cathedral was celebrating Mass every hour most of the day – wander in and you’d hit something guaranteed.

We slipped in a side pew just as Mass was beginning, the final strains of Pescadores de Hombres fading as we did so. The celebrant was, I’m presuming, of the archdioceses’ auxiliary bishops. It was an Easter Sunday Mass, with organ and small choir and the same stellar cantor who had sung on Thursday and, even though I couldn’t see him, I’m sure, at the Vigil. The only disappointing and honestly puzzling point was that the cantor led the Responsorial Psalm and continued to stand at the side, which led me to believe he was prepping to sing the Easter Sequence…but no. It was simply recited by some old guy. Why???? It’s so haunting, beautiful and expressive – and this fellow with the wonderful voice was standing right there! Why??

After checking out and stashing our luggage, we…as we do…wandered. Food was consumed – churros (excellent and fresh – there was always a line at the place around the corner), street tacos, the famous local cemita sandwich and street quesadillas and probably some ice cream. We shopped, not only for souvenirs – including candy at Puebla’s famed Street of Sweets –  but for clothes and shoes (as I was told, everything was open) as well. As I’ve said, the cost of living here is so low, it’s crazy how inexpensive even good shoes are.

 

Behind the Cathedral is the “House of Culture” which houses, among other spaces and institutions, the oldest public library in North America, the Palafaxiona Library.

When, in 1646 the bishop of Puebla, Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, donated a rich and select personal library of 5,000 volumes to the Tridentine College, he thought of the formation of the clergy, but also of the society of the city of Puebla. He therefore established, also, that anyone who could read was to be allowed inside this magnificent library. As a seminary library, it was also a library with a broad range for reading, one not limited to knowledge about God and his church, but to the study of all that might occur to the pen of man, and in order that man might have strong arguments to defend the faith.

By 1773, then Bishop of Puebla, Francisco Fabián y Fuero, established the principal nave of the Palafoxiana Library at 43 meters in length such that the population would have access to the collection of Bishop Palafox. The bishop also had two floors of fine shelves built in fine ayacahuite, coloyote and cedar.

The collection increased with donations from the bishops Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz and Francisco Pablo Vázquez, and by the inclusion of the library of the Jesuit College. Today, some 45,059 volumes dating from the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th centuries coexist with a few from the 20th century.

Those darn obscurantist Catholics, up to their repressive tricks once more!

 I had determined it was open, so it seemed like a visit would be a quick, painless dip into culture – but wait – there’s more!

As we climbed the steps on our way to what we thought was the museum, we encountered an exhibit – an exhibit of devotional statues that had, at one time or another, been on display in the Cathedral. (Don’t worry – it hasn’t been wreckovated – there is plenty of art still there in every nook and cranny. It’s just that over five centuries, you collect a lot.) It was free admission, so we walked through and took some time with the emotionally expressive, finely wrought work. I was especially intrigued with the back of this Christ the King – that hair……

We were on our way to the library when we heard music, and discovered, down in the courtyard a floor below us, a dance performance happening in front of a large, appreciative crowd. Video is on this Instagram post.

On to the library, which involved a slow walk through – probably quite boring for some, but absorbing for me. Libraries are that way in general, but to be surrounded by centuries of exploring, meditation, research, creativity and pondering, hand-written, laboriously printed, carefully preserved – is humbling.

And so….quick version of the rest of the day:

Retrieved luggage. Got an Uber to the bus station. Arrived at bus station (different from our arrival station – this is the one for the airport buses) – tickets available on a bus in 45 minutes, purchased tickets, sat and waited.

Even though the station was busy, the experience was less confusing – there were fewer IMG_20180401_163516.jpgbuses leaving, so it was clearer which was ours. As we did before, we checked our luggage, went through security and then boarded – getting our promised first class snack – A WATER AND A MUFFIN – this time. Although this time, the movie screen wasn’t working – the bus driver even stopped the bus about fifteen minutes out, came back, took out a panel from the ceiling, fiddled around, squinted at the screen, shrugged, returned to the front and kept on driving – screen dark, but we did have wi-fi.

The bus dropped us off at Terminal 1, the originating terminal for most international flights (Inter-Mexico flights as well as Delta fly from Terminal 2) and the location of our hotel. I am so glad we stayed at the airport. Our flight was at 7 am, and I can’t imagine how more miserable we’d have been if we’d stayed any distance away. We ate dinner at the hotel restaurant, which was unnecessary, as we discovered afterwards when we walked to see how far we’d have to go in the morning – we could have just turned a couple of corners and eaten our choice of fast food at a third of the price (this was most expensive meal we had in Mexico…)…ah, well!

Departure was painless. I was glad we flew Southwest – the departure lines in the morning were non-existent there while the other airline counters were crowded, even at 6 am. Hobby Airport in Houston has an almost completely automated immigration system – US citizens didn’t even have to fill out customs forms – and the re-entry experience was a breeze. Back on the ground in Alabama by 12:30, in the Chick-Fil-A drive through by 1.

Success!

Come back in the next couple of days for a summary post and Deep Thoughts. 

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The shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe is in the outskirts of Mexico City. I suppose it is a suburb? I don’t know. Rather than even attempt public transportation, we went the Uber route, getting up and out earlier than usual  – 9:30 – which meant we arrived at the Basilica a bit after 10.

I admit I was startled. We’re riding through this typical busy Mexican business area, the driver stops, I look to the left, and there’s the basilica right across the road!

I was startled a second time, when we actually went in. The basilica complex is, indeed, in the middle of the town, but large, with many different areas and buildings, including Tepayac hill where Our Lady appeared. All I knew about it ahead of time was: the new basilica has a negative reputation because it’s modern and secondly, you view the tilma via a moving walkway. I had envisioned that this moving walkway was in the midst of a vast space and that there was some buildup to the approach. Well, not the way we got in!

The driver dropped us off across from a bottom entrance to the basilica. We walked in, followed the crowd, and boom there we were on this maybe 30-foot moving walkway and, well, look up right now because there she is!

What I didn’t understand, but do now, is that the tilma is, of course, actually hanging in the church, so that you can see it while you are within that space, and also from underneath, where the moving walkway runs.

(If you want to see video, go to Instagram.)

You are also free to go back and forth on the moving walkway as much as you want. There’s no guard forcing crowd movement. It wasn’t super mobbed today, so we felt very comfortable going back on a the walkway a couple of times before we ascended to the church.

Where there was Mass going on. It was offertory – Mass with about 15 concelebrants a deacon, a slew of servers and a male choir (boys and men). The sign outside that I later read indicated this was the Chrism Mass – but is this a diocesan Cathedral, too? It isn’t, is it? Can non-Cathedrals do a Chrism Mass? Anyway, we got there too late to see any Chrism-related activity anyway. The core of the Mass congregation filled maybe half the church, with the rest of the space filled with people drifting in and out.

After Mass, we toured the site. Some notes:

The old basilica has been damaged in earthquakes, and you can really tell. The whole place is crooked – I tried to capture it in photos, but I am not sure if I was successful –  from the floor to the columns to the baldacchino. It’s a very strange feeling walking around. I can’t see how one more Big One isn’t going to do the place in.

I didn’t hate the new church. It’s not as bad as I thought it would be, and I’ll just go ahead and say that I didn’t think it was bad at all. I think what it is that the ceiling swoops so low (it’s supposed to evoke Mary’s mantle taking everyone into her care) that it obscures the lack of wall décor – you really don’t notice it, partly because of that low beamed ceiling and partly because most of your attention is on the tilma.

The place was fairly busy, but not crowded. The feeling was relaxed, grateful reverence. I saw one woman approaching the tilma on her knees. Priests were hearing confessions in the church after Mass, and there were long lines.

There are a lot of vendors on site – I was a little surprised that they sold refreshments on top of the hill around the chapels are out there, but, why not?

Third favorite personage after the Blessed Mother and St. Juan Diego? St. Pope John Paul, hands down. He was everywhere.

I’m very glad we went – one more layer added to This is Mexico.

Before we leave the shrine – take a look at these ex votos.  I have seen all different sorts of ex votos left in churches around the world: imitation body parts, crutches, plaques, blue and pink ribbons (in gratitude for babies), photographs – but never anything like this: small paintings relating the specific story of the answered prayer. They are fascinating and lovely. They help make it all very real.

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Our Uber driver back into the city spoke more English than any we’ve had before, so we had a chance to talk – an interesting story of a graduate student looking to emigrate to Canada in order to teach.

I had him drop him off at the Zocalo, where we ate a quick lunch at a Mexican fast food place, then wandered a bit back and forth until we ended up, first at the Cathedral – where we heard some choir and organ practice, but didn’t have a chance to see much more – it was closed off for Triduum preparations. A disappointment but one I probably should have expected. Back outside.

When you’re in this area, one of the things that is impossible to avoid is a constantly beating drum – it’s “Aztec” dancers right outside the Cathedral. I think they are there all the time, drumming, burning herbs and dancing. I didn’t hang around and watch because I think they’re annoying, and I don’t know the motivation for them being there – is it just because it’s a convenient place to snag a lot of tourist attention? Is it a protest against Christianity? Is it more than a protest? I don’t know. It may be nothing but opportunism, but it’s still aggravating. So we moved on to the very interesting site right next to the Cathedral – the Templo Mayor. You can read more about it here, but the short story is that it’s a fairly recently (1970’s – on) excavated site of a major Aztec (Mexica) temple. There’s a large outdoor section that shows the various stages of construction and a few artifacts and elements they have left in situ, and a museum – larger than I’d expected – that exhibited many more artifacts, including the huge stones depicting various gods that have been found.

Layers upon layers, both in the landscape and in the culture.

My next goal was to see the Diego Rivera murals in the National Palace, but alas, it was not to be. The place was closed up, tight as a drum, which I should have expected – late in the afternoon on the Wednesday of Holy Week. Closed, probably for the rest of the week. Oh well….next time.

A bit more wandering (one stop for a fresh pineapple drink), then caught an Uber back to the apartment. A few doors down from the apartment, a small crowd was gathered outside an office building and a mariachi band was playing. A man explained to us that a woman was retiring – it was her last day in the office – and this was her sendoff.

Time for some rest, and then dinner at a place I’d seen a day ago and pegged as a good spot for us – large busy, with roast chicken and other meats in evidence, as well as tortillas being made. It was good, although I’m still stumped by about 50% of the menu – my percentages are going down, so that’s progress. I had a fantastic Caldo de Gallina (basically…soup) with chicken. J had something that was not called flautas, but ended up being basically flautas, and M had a big plate of steak, cheese, peppers and onions all cooked together – sort of fajita-like, except, as I said, cooked together. There was a lot, so I helped. It was very tasty.

The atmosphere in the restaurant was fun to experience: all locals, every table, it seems, marked by large bottles of Victoria beer – nothing else was being consumed except liter after liter of Victoria beer. The jukebox was going and tables of women were singing along. A cat wandered through. Price? A little more than usual because I had a beer (not a liter of Victoria – a small bottle of Negra Modela. I think the tab was 268 pesos: about $15 for the three of us.

Tomorrow: a bit more Mexico City and then…the bus to Puebla.

As usual – head to Instagram for videos. I also have a real camera with me and am taking actual photographs with it, but I also left the doohicky that I need to transfer the photos from a SD card to the computer at home. 

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Greetings from…back in Birmingham.

It was an excellent weekend, although shorter than originally planned.

The last workshop of the symposium was scheduled to run from 3:30-5 on Sunday. That was also the only Sunday workshop my son was really very interested in – it was on LIDAR technology, which has revolutionized Maya studies.

(National Geographic ran a breathless, irritatingly hype-y special on this a few weeks ago.)

But after attending four talks on Saturday – three right in a row – and gotten the zoo visit done, I discerned that perhaps….this was enough. A day long workshop on Friday and IMG_20180310_144930.jpgfour academic presentations? For a thirteen-year old? I suggested that perhaps we could just…go home earlier on Sunday?

We talked it over. He was, indeed, interested in that workshop, but LIDAR had been discussed many times in the talks he’d attended, and considering how interested he is in the topic and how hot LIDAR is in the field…he’ll have a chance to engage with it again. The thought of getting home at 5 instead of 10 or later was certainly attractive to both of us.

Decision made…so that’s why I’m writing this from home Sunday night instead of..Monday morning.

But let’s backtrack.

First, our New Orleans hotel. Here’s Amy’s Travel Advice  Section:

I’ve stayed in New Orleans before, in various spots, and never paid what I consider an exorbitant amount. We’ve stayed in various chains in the city, and once at a Residence Inn near the airport. When I started looking for rooms this time, I got serious sticker shock. Nothing, nada even close to downtown for less than 350 a night. Even hotels in Metairie were more than I wanted to pay. Finally, I settled on a Holiday Inn and Suites across the river in Harvey, which was at least under $200.

(And why was this? I poked about and saw a couple of events – the Sun Belt Conference Championship tournament and a Bourbon Festival, but really? Would that be enough to drive prices up for the weekend? Spring breaks beginning? That certainly might be part of it. Well, then we were driving and walking around Sunday morning I saw, not one, but two big cruise ships in port – the Norwegian Pearl and Carnival Dream. That might just have been the tipping point – thousands of folks coming in early to get the party started before departing on Sunday. Maybe?)

Then about a week before the trip, I checked again – just to see. What I actually checked was the question, “Slidell as a base for New Orleans trip.”  Because hotels out there are of course much cheaper. The discussion I happened upon answered that initial question with a resounding NO DON’T DO IT, but buried in the various answers was the suggestion of a hotel – the Prytania Park Hotel – which, the person said, was reasonably priced and close in – just on the edge, between the Garden District and Downtown.

I checked the usual booking sites  – no vacancies listed for my dates. But then, just IMG_20180311_091502.jpgbecause I know that what is listed on the booking sites is their inventory that’s been released to them from a particular hotel – I went to the hotel’s website and checked. Vacancies! For a “junior suite” with two beds and on two levels.  For well under $200 a night. I emailed just to make sure, got a positive response, cancelled that Holiday Inn and booked this one directly with the hotel.

So there’s a lesson for you. Always check with the hotel (or airline, or whatever), even when it seems hopeless.

Isn’t it always the way, though. These innovative ways of doing life pop up – one place where you can check All The Prices! – but it never quite works out the way we think. In this particular case, the booking sites and hotels are vying for profits, with the hotels – especially independent hotels – in a real bind. They can’t survive if they’re not listed, but then those third party sites will take their cut. The hotels are helped by the review systems – to a point. They’re not helped if the third party sites don’t crack down on fraud and competitor sabotage and let unjustified poor reviews stand.

And so for us the consumer? How does it work out? There’s a certain level of convenience in these third party sites like Booking.com. It helps to get a broad survey of availability and an efficient way to look at room arrangements (particularly outside the US where there tends to be more variability), but be aware of two points:IMG_20180311_092001.jpg

First, what I’ve just described: the booking sites don’t have all of a hotel’s inventory available to them.

Secondly, if you end up having a problem after booking, resolution goes much more smoothly if you’ve booked with the hotel (or airline or car rental agency or tour agency) directly. Trying to get refunds and justice with the added layer of Orbitz or TripAdvisor or what have you is going to make things even more difficult than they already are.

Use them for research, sort of trust, and always verify.

Oh, and the Prytania Park Hotel? I liked it. It’s a bit shabby – it’s not a shiny chain hotel or a pristine boutique inn. But it was very clean and secure. Our room was, as advertised, a IMG_20180311_092047.jpg“junior suite” with two twin beds in a loft, and then a downstairs area with couch, chair, desk, desk chair, fridge, microwave, two sinks and bathroom area with tub and shower. And a balcony! The clientele seemed mixed, but mostly families and middle-aged to elderly folks. There was a breakfast, but it was clearly a step down from what you’d find in a Residence or Hampton Inn (i.e. frozen waffles instead of those you make yourself, no proteins, etc…).

There’s not a heap of street noise, although there was traffic outside – there must have a been a club nearby because Friday night, the bass was pretty consistent and loud until well after midnight – but strangely enough, it was much quieter on Saturday night.

Right across the street, there was an older fellow sitting outside on his front porch both mornings, reading. He resembled my father so strongly, it gave me a start: Same build, IMG_20180310_083457.jpgsitting exactly as my father would be reading in the morning if he were outside, legs crossed, with a hat like this on his head, holding and smoking his cigarette just so. I texted the photos to my older sons who both responded with many exclamation points and, in the case of one, the obvious conclusion that my father had faked his own death and escaped to live in seclusion in New Orleans….

And, here on a trip, with a longer one coming in a couple of weeks,  I thought of the conversation I had with him about this time nine years ago, when I told him, a little nervously, that I was going to take the crew to Sicily, of all places. Someplace completely different, somewhere just…away.  I couldn’t face the entire summer here. We had to leave town.  I braced myself, expecting an argument and an attempt to dissuade me. Sicily? But that’s not how it went, at all.

I think that’s great, he said without hesitating a second. It will do you all a lot of good. Go and have a wonderful time.

And so we went. And went. And went…and still go. We go, thanks, for a lot of different reasons – his encouragement, his financial legacy, his own regret at not traveling more earlier in life before it became physically challenging – to him.

 

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"amy welborn"

(As with all the graphics I create – although not with my personal photos! – feel free to copy, share and use as you wish.)

A few of St. Augustine’s sermons on Lent have come down to us. This is a translation published in 1959 – you want sermons 205-211, that start on p. 185.  I am not sure of the dating or specific context – they seem to have been preached in different years, since the themes carry over from sermon to sermon – such as the repeated reminder that if you abstain from some food or drink, it then makes no sense to replace what you have sacrifice with something that either is more costly or affords you as much or greater pleasure.

I appreciated this, from Sermon 207. Forgive the formatting – go the original for a better view, in the format of your choice!

By the help of the merciful Lord our God, the temptations of the world, the snares of the Devil, the suffering of the world, the enticement of the flesh, the surging waves of troubled times, and all corporal and spiritual adversities are to be overcome by almsgiving, fasting, and prayer.

These practices ought to glow throughout the entire life of a Christian, but especially as the Paschal solemnity approaches which stirs up our minds by its yearly return, renewing in them the salutary memory that our Lord, the only-begotten Son of God, showed mercy to us and fasted and prayed for us. As a matter of fact, eleemosyna in Greek signifies mercy in Latin. Moreover, what mercy could be greater, so far as we poor wretches are concerned, than that which drew the Creator of the heavens down from heaven, clothed the Maker of the earth with earthly vesture, made Him, who in eternity remains equal to His Father, equal to us in mortality, and imposed on the Lord of the universe the form of a servant, so that He, our Bread, might hunger; that He, our Fulfillment, might thirst; that He, our Strength, might be weakened; that He, our Health, might be injured; that He, our Life, might die? And all this [He did] to satisfy our hunger, to moisten our dryness, to soothe our infirmity, to wipe out our iniquity, to enkindle our charity. What greater mercy could there be than that the Creator be created, the Ruler be served, the Redeemer be sold, the Exalted be humbled and the Reviver be killed?

In regard to almsgiving, we are commanded to give bread to the hungry,  but He first gave Himself over to cruel enemies for us so that He might give Himself as food to us when we were hungry. We are commanded to receive the stranger; for our sake He ‘came unto his own and his own received him not.’  In a word, let our soul bless Him who becomes a propitiation for all its iniquities, who heals all its diseases, who redeems its life from corruption, who crowns it in mercy and pity, who satisfies its desires in blessings.  Let us give alms the more generously and the more frequently in proportion as the day draws nearer on which the supreme almsgiving accomplished for us is celebrated. Fasting without mercy is worthless to him who fasts.

 Let us fast, humbling our souls as the day draws near on which the Teacher of humility humbled Himself becoming obedient even to death on a cross.  Let us imitate
His cross, fastening to it our passions subdued by the nails of abstinence. Let us chastise our body, subjecting it to obedience, and, lest we slip into illicit pleasures through
our undisciplined flesh, let us in taming it sometimes withdraw licit pleasures. Self-indulgence and drunkenness ought to be shunned on other days; throughout this season, however, even legitimate eating is to be checked. Adultery and fornication must always be abhorred and avoided, but on these days special restraint must be practised even by mar-
ried persons. The flesh, which has been accustomed to restraint in regard to its own satisfaction, will readily submit to you when there is question of clinging to another’s goods. 

Of course, care must be taken to avoid merely changing instead of lessening pleasures. For you may observe that certain persons seek out rare liquors in place of their ordinary wine; that they, with much greater relish, counterbalance by the juice of other fruits what they lose by denying themselves the juice of grapes; that, in place of meat, they procure food of manifold variety and appeal; that they store up,
as opportune for this season, delights which they would be ashamed to indulge in at other times. In this way, the observance of Lent becomes, not the curbing of old passions, but an opportunity for new pleasures. Take measures in advance, my brethren, with as much diligence as possible, to prevent these attitudes from creeping upon you. Let frugality be joined to fasting. As surfeiting the stomach is to be censured, so stimulants of the appetite must be eliminated. It is not that certain kinds of food are to be detested, but that bodily pleasure is to be checked. Esau was censured, not for having desired a fat calf or plump birds, but for having coveted a dish of pottage. 5 And holy King David repented of having excessively desired water. 6 Hence, not by delicacies obtained with much labor and at great expense, but by the cheaper food found within reach, is the body to be refreshed, or, rather, sustained in its fasting.

 

So, no, the parish Lenten All-You-Can-Eat Fish Fry would probably not fly with St. Augustine. Or any other the saints, I’m guessing.

For you see, traditionally, Catholic spirituality emphasizes frugality, simplicity and an appropriate level of asceticism, for all, not just religious. This was undoubtedly a more organically experienced reality in times in which most people lived in survival mode most of the time anyway. Our more generally prosperous times have undercut this sensibility, narrowed it and domesticated it, so that any call to bodily mortification and sacrifice is presented as a possibly helpful lifestyle choice rather than what all Christians should be striving for, since all Christians (as Augustine notes) live in imitation of Christ and his sacrifice and humility.

It is also a fundamental orientation that lived alongside the Catholic embrace of the Incarnation and God’s goodness as experienced through creation: that is the Feast, alongside the Fast. They coexist, sometimes uneasily and in tension, questioning and challenging each other in spiritual writings, traditions, liturgy, church law and the lives of ordinary Christians. They do so vividly this week, as Carnivale tumbles into Ash Wednesday.

Together we feast, together we fast, on our way, letting Jesus teach us what it is we are really hungry for.

 

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When you imagine traveling abroad, is food a part of the picture? Do you imagine yourself lingering over long dinners in Paris bistros or Italian trattorias, discovering humble geniuses creating marvels on hidden Tuscan roads?

Yeah, well. I like food – most food – and look forward to eating adventures when I travel, but really, most of the time, I end up hacking up a roast chicken and boiling some pasta for overtired kids in a kitchen where I’m never quite sure if I turned the gas off properly or not.

Obviously, children – and the constraints of time and money – impact the experience of food when you’re traveling.  Mine are not the pickiest eaters in the world, but nor are they the most adventurous, although there’s been a lot of growth over the past couple of years on that score. Palates are definitely maturing.

But what that has meant is that dining has never been a focus of travel for us, as it is for some. We need to eat, we eat when we can (I always tell them  when we’re traveling: When there’s food in front of you…eat as much as you can. You never know when your next chance for a meal is going to come. )

We’ve had some good meals, but we’ve also eaten a lot of street food (which is almost my favorite) and plates of cured meats and cheese and bread in the apartment at night (which is my absolute favorite and why expensive plates of charcuterie offered in American restaurants irritate me – I can get the same and more of better quality from any Italian grocery store for a fraction of the price…). It’s a challenge (and expensive) to depend on restaurants as the focus of dining when you’re traveling, especially with children. Especially in southern European countries, where dinner is late – oh, my.

The first time we went to Spain, I knew they ate late, but I didn’t know how late until, starting about 8, I would descend from our Barcelona apartment and take a walk down the block, looking in restaurant windows – is anyone in there yet? Not at 8, not at 8:30. All still empty. Finally, at 9, I decided that this was ridiculous. I had a teenage daughter, an 8-year old and a 3-year old. The kids had to eat. Nine pm? Still no one in the restaurants. We finally settled on a Chinese place, where there were indeed a few occupied tables – perhaps we wouldn’t feel like complete idiots there. Except when I asked the server for napkins and she returned and tossed a stack of paper napkins on the table. Still in the plastic package. Um, gracias? 

So yes, when traveling, we eat lunch out, but dinners have been mostly takeaway eaten in the apartments we’ve rented, and that’s fine. Cheaper, too.

But this was different. Part of the reason was undoubtedly the guide. It’s not that he took us to every single meal, but with his help, we were guaranteed that at least half of our meals would be interesting and we would understand what we were eating, and do it right.

And it was also different because of the food. It was mostly just….good. Dependably good. It was fresh and freshly made, from the tortillas to the steamed or lightly boiled vegetables. The vegetables had not come out of a can, the meat had not been thawed from Cotsco bags. The meals were prepared, not warmed up, and the kitchens were in sight. It was farm-to-table, mostly open kitchen, but it was simple, not self-conscious, normal, not trendy, and offered with a sense of care and pride just because that’s the way you treat food and eating in this culture.

So, the week of eating. It started out fairly average then greatly improved as the week went on.

Sunday

On a Sunday evening in San Ignacio, there wasn’t a lot open. Actually, as I think about it, it was late Sunday afternoon, not evening – we hadn’t had lunch, so this was filling that gap as well. We ate at Tandoor Restaurant and Bar – Indian-owned, with a mixed menu. (There is a large population of Indians and Chinese in Belize. In fact, most small retail is owned by Chinese now, which is a whole other, interesting story) The place is on Burns Street, which has been closed to traffic, and as a pedestrian walkway is clearly party central. Buckets of beer on offer everywhere and so on, ready for the student/hipster/hikers back from their day of adventures.

I had escabeche – a traditional Belizean onion soup, that was..full of onions. Which it’s supposed to be! But they weren’t that strong, and the soup was very filling with good spice. My son had a chicken quesadilla, which he said was good.

Monday

Monday lunch was at El Sombrero, which is an ecolodge near the Yaxha ruins. We ordered lunch, and then took a boat ride out to the Toxopate ruins on a nearby island, then returned, where lunch was quickly presented to us. I honestly don’t have a vivid memory of the meal – it was late in the afternoon, we’d had a very bumpy ride in the morning in an unsuccessful bid to see one set of ruins (the roads ended up being impassible), then toured Yaxha, then the island ruins, with the drive to Tikal still to come. I’m pretty sure I had grilled chicken, served with the usual sides. It was tasty.

Dinner was at the Jungle Lodge, which, as I mentioned yesterday, has a very mundane menu. I had an antipasto plate which was well prepared – the eggplant clearly just grilled and so on – I don’t remember what my son had. I was mainly irritated at the menu. Onward!

Tuesday

Tuesday was Sunrise Tour day – meaning we rose at 4 am, met our guide at 4:30, walked through the jungle, and climbed up Temple IV for sunrise at 5:30 or so. So yes, by 11, it was time to eat.

Neart the hotel area at Tikal are several comedors or small, informal restaurants. We had a little bit of back-and-forth about the exchange rate, but that didn’t mar the experience of the food, which was very good. I had a chicken dish and my son had beef of some sort.

Here you can see the typical plating: the protein, rice, vegetables (carrots and a kind of squash), with tortillas and pickled carrots/onions/jalapenos.

 

The place, as they all are, is basically open air – there’s a roof, but no walls. One woman serving, the other in the kitchen. There’s a wait because they’re cooking the food, not warming it up. Very, very good.

The comedors aren’t open for dinner, so you’re stuck with the hotel restaurants. We ate this one at the next door Jaguar Inn, and the food was a little better than it had been at our hotel. I had a fruit plate – the best pineapple I’ve ever had and excellent other fruit.

Wednesday

We slept late on this day – rising at 6 am, not 4, so that was exciting. After a morning at Tikal and a bumpy ride around the edge of the park, we arrived in the village of Uaxactun, which features ancient ruins on both sides of the modern-day village which in turn is centered on a now-unused airstrip, built for the time when the surrounding jungle was harvested for chicle (the natural gum that was the original chewing gum – hence, Chicklets). Now, the forest is managed to harvest two resources: a type of fern that is exported to Holland for use in flower arrangements, and hardwood. We went into the small, quiet restaurant with chickens and pigs roaming around outside the door – quiet but for the moaning and chanting of prayers from the evangelical prayer meeting next door – placed our order for lunch, then toured the first set of ruins.

We had two choices: chicken or deer (hunted from the jungle). Of course we chose deer!

 

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Avocado and refried black beans also on the plate, in addition to the usual rice and vegetables. 

Dinner was in Flores that night. We wandered around a bit, saw a few possibilities, and then studied the menu outside of this one tiny place. My son was hankering for a hamburger, and this menu featured it. I have no idea what the restaurant was called. There were maybe five tables inside, and no customers. The cook/server/owner was an older woman sitting at a table with a newspaper, watching a telenova. She was very friendly to us, and didn’t seem to mind being interrupted – after she took our order, she changed the channel, presumably for Michael’s benefit, to some weird game-show type show featuring Vin Diesel in which cars were driven from second story windows and smashed up.

Anyway, Michael got his hamburger, and I got a very fine chicken soup. I’m pretty sure the vegetables had been prepared just for the soup – after our order, I heard the chef chopping away up there in the kitchen.

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In the corner of the tiny restaurant was this:

(Forgive the size – you can’t resize videos on WordPress, unfortunately.)

Thursday

Thursday was another adventurous day involving much boat riding. After seeing the Aguateca ruins, we returned down the creek to the town of Sayaxche to the Cafe Maya. No written menu, but five or six choices presented to us. I chose the local whitefish – Michael had shrimp.

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The cafe was filled with workers on their lunch break, most of them either medical people or telecommunications employees, judging from their uniform polo shirts. No McDonald’s for these folks, lucky them.

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On our way across the river to Sayaxche. It was a small boat. Two women with a motorcycle crossed with us. 

This was a long, tiring day, and lunch had been late, so when we returned to Flores at 7:30, neither of us were interested in a lengthy dinner, so we settle for tacos at a bar/cafe – no photos, but the chicken and pork tacos were very good.

Friday

Friday was our last day with our guide  – he’s been taking us to the Ixpanpajul nature preserve outside of Flores, then onto the Belize border. On the way, after the park, we stopped at El Porta del Yaxha – a restaurant built originally to serve the crew of Survivor Guatemala when it filmed at Yaxha for three months in 2005. It was a lovely, open-air restaurant right on the highway, complete with hammocks if you needed a power nap.

The food was great. We started with a simple soup served in these cups. Then I had pepian stew – a chicken stew with a spice and ground pumpkin seed base that was rich and fabulous. Accompanying the meal were the usual pickled vegetables, black beans, tortillas and fresh cheese. Our guide said I should be able to find the base for pepian in a good Hispanic grocery store, and since we have one of those, I’m hopeful.

Dinner – well, I had wanted to go here for dinner, but the kid was again hankering for a hamburger. It wasn’t just being an American kid – he was hoping that he’d have a hamburger made with Guatemalan beef and it would be amazing. So we stopped at this place – Ko-Ox Han-Nah (which means “Let’s go eat” in a Mayan dialect, I think.) I don’t know if what he got turned out to be exactly amazing, but he liked it. And he saw chili cheese fries on the menu, and wanted those. I had thought I’d go to the other place after he finished, but by then, I was tired and full from a cucumber/yogurt appetizer I’d had, so I decided against it.

Oh- one more thing from San Ignacio – the first night were there (Sunday) we’d had a bit of street food – a bit of meat and cheese freshly fried between tortillas. It was great. I could have eaten a lot more of those…

Saturday:

Time to go home! I wasn’t going to eat anything really, but when we got to the Belize Airport there was a sort-of cafe setup  – you ordered it from a woman standing at a booth, they cooked it somewhere, and then brought it back in take-out containers. They had some Belizean dishes on the menu, so even though it wasn’t in my plan, I thought it was my duty to try something – grilled chicken (I had wanted shrimp, but the woman said, “The shrimp is finished.” Poor shrimp.)

Look at this!

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A lot of chicken filets, rice and beans under there, good fresh vegetables, a grilled/baked plantain….excellent and a ton of food.

So there you go. I’m sorry I didn’t get to that restaurant in Flores, and our food explorations were limited by the fact that were in Tikal for two days, and food is not the focus of the Tikal experience. But I was struck by the food I was served in Guatemala and Belize. It was carefully and thoughtfully prepared. It was fresh. It was pretty balanced and healthy. In just those few days, what I think I experienced was a confident, authentic culture that is centered on the idea that if I’m going to serve you something to eat, it’s inhospitable to give you anything less than the best I can offer at that moment.

Gracias!

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Lunch for the tapirs and friends at the Belize Zoo.

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We are back in Birmingham. It was sketchy there for a bit last night. Our flight from Belize City took off a little early and went smoothly, but about 30 minutes from Houston, a flight attendant standing in the aisle next to me mouthed to another approaching her, The airport’s closed. 

Oh.

I started working out in my head where an international flight could be diverted – probably Dallas or New Orleans. Dallas would give us a better chance for getting home reasonably on schedule. If it was New Orleans, I could rent a car and drive and be home in five hours. This might work.

But no need. After a few announcements – airport’s closed…airport’s open now…we landed.

Then we got the delightful news that because of lightning, the ground crews were not allowed on the field to guide the planes in, and until lightning moved beyond that 5 mile radius, we were stuck where we were, rain beating down around us.

Welp. My only hope was that this delay would impact all flights – how could it not? – but the United app kept showing my BHM flight on time, which made no sense to me. Finally, it showed a 15 minute delay, which still made no sense, but just in case, I started researching options – there were none. No fights from any airline out of Houston in Birmingham after 7:45 (not that that were many anyway).

Oh well. The only glitch for me was that my older son, who has been at an academic kind of activity week in Chicago with a friend was being driven back by the friend’s dad – and the original plan was for a Sunday travel day. But…then J texted me with the news that they were going to hit it hard and leave Chicago then and go the whole way – he’d spend the night at their house, since they wouldn’t get back until 3 am or so. That was all still fine, but if we were delayed and couldn’t get back until noonish on Sunday….

You don’t have a house key with you.

Because you told me not to take it so I wouldn’t risk losing it. 

Right. 

No, not a huge problem, but still another annoying factor to factor in.

Well, the lightning finally cleared, we taxied and were allowed off the plane. We raced to immigration which was, amazingly, a cavernous empty space. Obviously because the airport had ceased operations for a while, but still startling to see. Through US customs and immigration in 5 minutes? I’ll take it.

Maybe there’s hope!

Or not. If you are not familiar with how to deal with connecting flights after international travel it’s this:

You have to clear US immigration, then get your bag from baggage claim, then recheck it, then go through airport security to get to the domestic part of the airport.  My app was still showing a 7:45 departure, so I was fairly hopeless at this point – because it was 7:35.

(And why did we check a bag? Because you probably know that I usually don’t. Because a couple of the souvenirs we bought wouldn’t have passed through security – a sharp thing and some liquids over 4 ounces. I was really questioning the wisdom of those purchases at this point.)

The baggage handler who would take our bag for recheck scanned things here and there and determined that we still had 19 minutes to make our flight and we might as well try. I was optimistic, based on his word, for about 23 seconds – the time it took to leave him, go up the escalator and see the security line. Pretty long. Ridiculous.

We got through, and while I didn’t think there was hope, we forged on. On the skytrain to the terminal I saw the airport Marriott and figured that would be the night I’d use the one free room I have left in that account. We departed the train, raced to the gate, and the first word I saw was DEPARTED.  I stopped dead in my tracks, disappointed but not surprised, when a guy in a beautiful crimson Roll Tide t-shirt said, “Oh, it hasn’t left yet. We haven’t even started boarding . I don’t know why it says that.”

Thank. You.

…and the flight attendant was in a very good mood, and was generous with food and drink with those of us in the back of the plane – some of them were finally getting home after some 24-hour delays out of Denver, I guess. My car started when I got to it, and the conversation between the two passengers behind me was weirdly related to my life in quite specific ways and while at first I thought, Huh, that’s weird, as time went on, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was more than weird and that maybe I’m really supposed to do the things I’ve been intuiting I’m supposed to be doing.  I mean, I could have been seated in front of two people talking about real estate or health care or their grandkids or sports, but no, they were talking about this particular thing with these particuar references. Huh.

So anyway, we got home, we’ll be reunited in a few hours, and we’ll have a week of finishing up summer work, piano, perhaps another person in the family having braces put on his teeth and then the boys go off to Florida for one more jaunt before school starts, both in another building and at home….

(I said I wasn’t going to write in detail about the trip here on the blog, and I’m not – except for two posts. I want to do a wrap-up post about the food, which was consistently the best of any trip that I’ve taken abroad – and a post with practical suggestions for those who might be considering such a trip themselves.)

 

 

Scenes from Saturday, our last day. We stopped at the Belize Zoo on our way to the airport from San Ignacio. Even the airport food in Central America is very good – at least in Belize it was. 

 

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Post title because I’m celebrating survival tonight, and because the restaurant in the photos above was built for the crew of Survivor: Guatemala back in 2005 when the season was filmed at Yaxha. Another excellent meal.

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