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Coming to you from this morning’s office:

Sorry, not a coffee drinker, and a helpful young man in the convenience store dug behind all the regular bottles to find me a couple of Sabor Ligero – Coca-Cola Light, which is what you find outside the US instead of Diet Coke. You can also find Coke Zero, but I prefer the non-sweetness of this – which is not as perversely satisfying as the metallic mouth feel of Diet Coke, but hey. #GratitudeNovember or whatever.

Today’s the second day of Spanish school. I stayed at the school all morning yesterday, but there’s no need – so here I am back at our B & B, watching French tourists come and go.

All right – let’s do Monday:

Refresher: Kid #5, about to turn 15 next week has a long-standing interest in MesoAmerican civilizations, especially the Maya. It inspired past trips to the Yucatan and Guatemala. He is homeschooled, studied Spanish in 8th grade in school, has been doing his best on his own at home (mostly via this Great Courses and other random videos and reading, at the moment, El Hobbit.) But of course he needs more, and it seemed to be a good idea to combine the two interests – see a set of ruins he’s long wanted to visit and take a week of intensive Spanish study.

I had originally looked into Antigua, Guatemala, simply because I wanted to go there, but after thinking about it and considering options, it seemed as if the setting of Copan would give us more opportunities for after-school activities in the afternoons. There is a IMG_20191111_084415.jpglot to do around Antigua (not so much archaeological sites, but natural and cultural), but most of them seem to call for more than an afternoon. So, I was thinking, “We can do a week in Antigua, and then go to Copan”…I thought…why not just go to Copan for the week? As it turns out, there are a couple of well-regarded and reviewed Spanish language schools here, and so far – on day 2 – it seems to be working out well.

Monday morning, we rose, ate the typically well-prepared breakfast here at the B & B, then walked the six blocks or so to the school, located off the central square. It’s on the rooftop of a building housing a restaurant, a dental practice and some other businesses. He was introduced to a teacher, took a placement test, and then spent the next few hours learning how much he had to learn!

Humbling…

We then dropped our stuff off at the B & B, and ate lunch at a place recommended to us by our Copan guide – Cafe San Rafael – a lovely space centered on locally-made cheeses, as well as coffees (of course). It was more expensive than the typical local fare (full meal, for example, the previous night, for  both of us for 135 Lempira – about $5.50 USD), but worth it.

Then we took a mototaxi – what you’d know, more generally, as a “tuk-tuk” – they don’t Screenshot 2019-11-12 at 10.36.09 AMcall them that here – the prevalent mode of transportation in these parts – up  about 2 km to Macaw Mountain, a nature reserve originally started for birds that had served their usefulness to their owners as pets. You can read about it here. It was a good break from the hustle and bustle of town – we’d seen the flock of Macaws that fly freely at the ruins (and will see them again today) – and these guys are mostly in cages because they are being bred and trained to fly (those hatched in captivity), but still, it was a pleasant afternoon.

Back to town in a mototaxi, a rest, then out to get tickets for a Saturday excursion (we were originally going to leave Saturday, but decided this day-long excursion would be worth it), then dinner here – it was good – I had chicken, son had beef, with typical accompaniments. Monday Night Football en espanol on television, a cat wandering about. I prefer the more street-food stuff – the dishes cooked under tents in nooks and crannies  throughout town – and we have and will have plenty of that – but it’s nice to have a break from that to eat an actual enclosed space, as well!

Then a stroll into the center where we saw the pernicious influence of the USA in…Christmas decorations! On November 11! Ah, well…then to this small archaeological museum to fill out our Copan knowledge. Across the way, the church doors were open, so we went over to peek in and saw a man speaking to a fairly large group of folks – some sort of educational or mission activity I suppose. Children were racing around outside and since we obviously do not look native to these parts, were shouting, “Hello!” to us – one little boy (and I mean little – he was probably no more than 6 or 7) – was especially determined, so we took a few minutes for him to practice his English  – of which he was very proud – with us –  he could count to twelve, he knew all the greetings, and could tell me, when I asked him – gato? CAT! perro? DOG!

Back to the room…homework time for one of us, and me, reading John Lloyd Stephens on Copan. I have at home, for some reason, just the second volume of his great work – I think I got it when we first started on this path, and it’s the second volume that deals with the Yucatan. What I hadn’t realized was that Copan was actually the first ruins he encountered, the first place that revealed to him that maybe everything we thought we knew about this part of the world is wrong….It’s absolutely fascinating reading. 

Off-topic – Older Son is working his way through Billy Wilder’s oeuvre. Check it out here. 

Later!

(Don’t forget Instagram!) 

 

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Post on Sunday Mass is here – short version – there was a wedding!

After a late breakfast at the B & B, we began a slow walk out to the Copan Ruins. We could have taken a mototaxi (tuk-tuk), but it was a bit more than a mile, we’d just eaten a substantial breakfast, so why not walk?

There’s a walking path by the road that leads out there, and it was pleasant. Weather report: It’s very mild here. 70’s, a little humid. It rained last night for a while. I get a sense that the mountains shield this valley from any intense level of rain – which is good and bad, I guess.

We arrived at the site, bought our tickets, and waited for our guide. You don’t have to have a guide, of course, and my son knows a lot  – but I had no doubt that a knowledgeable guide would add to the experience and my son’s understanding (the goal), so I asked our hotel proprietor for the name of a guide who could offer information a level above what your normal guide would, addressing those with out the deep  background my son has. And he delivered – our guide for the afternoon was archaeologist David Sedat.

If you want to read more about Copan and why it’s important, go here. 

Most North Americans have little understanding of the Maya, ancient or modern, and tend to assume that the ancient Mayan civilization disappeared because of European conquerers. But that’s not the case – all of those temples and pyramids had been overgrown for hundreds of years by the time the Spanish arrived. And why? What happened? There’s a mystery about that, and that question, as well as any continued memory of the ancient civilization among the Maya, is what interests me.

But my son is, of course, primarily interested in that civilization itself, so that’s why we’ve been to the sites in the Yucatan, as well as many in Guatemala.

Some shots from the tour, and then last night’s dinner – tacos pastor and something else – just a different arrangement of tortillas, meat and in this case, cheese.

The photo of the large colored temple is from the museum – it’s a reproduction of a temple found within another larger structure on the site – called Rosalila – you can read more about it here. 

This was a good introduction to the site, but we’ll be returning here, to the museum, as well as trying to get to some other smaller sites in the area.

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Well, hello from Honduras!
I would say, “Hola,” except this meme, pointedly and regularly shared with me before, during and after our trip to Spain earlier this year, stills weighs heavily:

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So, no Spanish will be attempted.

Expect to see extensive blogging this week. I have four hours every morning, while this is happening:

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I’m hanging out this morning, but if it’s okay with everyone, during the rest of the week, I might make my way back to the B & B or wander. There’s not much to see, though, and we have every afternoon to do more wandering, so I’m thinking my best use of time will be to work either here or there, including sharing with you in this space.

After a typically rocky beginning to the trip, things have smoothed out nicely. When I say “typically” rocky, I don’t mean typically for me, I mean typically for leaving from the Birmingham airport. With all due respect, I think I’ve had more absurd delays from that airport than not. Delays that have necessitated totally scrapping a scheduled departure and leaving the next morning instead. Delays that have led to missing a connecting flight to Japan by maybe ten minutes, necessitating an overnight stay in Dallas and a lost day in Japan.

Things like that.

Luckily, we didn’t have a connecting flight to catch and even more fortunately this time, the airline – in the person of the pilot, specifically, was very good about keeping us informed – in complete violation of what I have long been under the impression was was Airline Rule #1: Obfuscate, deflect, and when that fails, just lie. No, this fellow, clearly wanting to get to Houston as badly as the rest of us, kept us as informed as possible on this very bizarre problem: the geniuses on duty couldn’t move the jetbridge. There was a problem, and evidently, for a solid hour, there was no one associate with the BHM airport staff that could be reached to give advice. The updates we got were things like: “Well, they’re going to gather every spare employee in the airport and try to push it.” That didn’t work. “Now they’re going to try the airplane tug.” Finally the pilot said, basically, “Screw it. We’re going to back out verrrrry slowly and if we break something, well, we break something.”
Nothing broke! We got to Houston about an hour late, and traveling mercies in restrospect on those rushing to make connections, but our only task was grabbing a hotel shuttle and getting some sleep.
Saturday morning:
Up early, hotel breakfast, then shuttle back to the airport for the a bit-less-than three hour flight to San Pedro Sula. Passengers were probably about half Honduran, half..not. I’m assuming most of those who weren’t, were were either going to Roatan to fish and/or dive or on mission trips. You could kind of tell the difference between the groups – I’m assuming the bros with the sunglasses latched on the back of their head  and the t-shirts barely covering their guts were in the former category, but hey, these days, who knows! And who am I to judge?

Immigration was bizarrely lengthy because of a strange situation. There were about thirty quite elderly people – who looked to be Honduran – all in wheelchairs, in the “special cases” line. Not long after we arrived, it seems as if an executive decision was made to prioritize these people – no argument from me there – and so the rest of us ended up waiting probably thirty minutes later than we would have otherwise. I really, really wondered what these group of wheel-chair bound elderly had been up to – they were all in Delta chairs (who knew they had so many) but I didn’t catch their flight origin. My main theories: They were native Hondurans living in the US who were being brought home for a visit in a group. They were Hondurans who were given the chance to go up to visit relations in the US in a group. Or three – they had been on a pilgrimage somewhere.
Anyway, we finally got through – without demands for papers from this child’s father allowing his travel – which happened to us in Belize and will explain to anyone who searches my purse and wonders why I am carrying a death certificate and a birth certificate with me on this trip…
…and met our driver, arranged by our hotel here in Copan.
Yes, there were other choices. We could have taken a bus. We could have rented a car. Let’s just say, I’m glad I did neither. We will probably end up on a bus for some parts of this trip, but for my initial entrance into the country, not knowing what the heck I’m doing and even being – I realized with a start on the flight over – totally clueless on the currency – I went for the driver and private car.
As I said – good choice. By car, it was a solid four-hour drive, which means, on a bus, it would have been longer, and, to boot, we would have had to leave the airport and go into the city to even catch the bus. We probably wouldn’t have arrived until 8 or so.
And driving? No thanks.

Let’s put it this way – if I were in the country for even just a week, being driven around, gaining understanding of the “rules” of the road, I could do it at that point. Avoid the (many) potholes, slow waaaay down for the (many) speed bumps, don’t freak out about the armed police stops (three, I think on the journey), and watch out for the people, dogs and chickens right on the edge of the road.
But again – right off a plane, new to the country? Probably jumping in a car and driving four hours would not be the best idea.
We arrived at our lovely B & B, freshened up, and headed out for food.
Copan Ruinas is a small town, central square, much poverty, but also set up for tourists who come mostly to visit the Mayan ruins. Lots of restaurants, a smattering of English spoken.

Our first food stop was in a courtyard where three women were set up – a food court, really. We just picked one and had a simple, lovely serving of pinchos.
That did not satisfy the young man who hadn’t eaten since the hotel breakfast, so we wandered out to find more. We settled for a touch more “formal” sit-down restaurant that’s centered on grilled meat. Not wanting a full meal, we just went for an appetizer of beans, cheese and chorizo kept warm over a cunning little charcoal brazier. At one point, seven heavily armed law/military guys came and sat at the table behind us – I mean, with their handguns on their hips and their rifles across their chests, even as they ate…I mean, yeah, you’re not going to hang your big gun (whatever they were) on the back of your chair, sure. I wasn’t going to stand up and get a photo (although they did gather and take a selfie at the table), but you can see one fellow behind my son in one of the photos.
Does a heavily armed culture make you feel more or less safe? Hard to say…
Anyway, we wandered, went into a few shops, and then back to sleep…

 

Blog post on Sunday Mass is already published here. 

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I was thinking about doing a digest for this, but then thought the better of it. Too confining. So  on this Sunday night as Son #5 watches The Hobbit in the next room, I’ll just chat about the weekend.

(He wasn’t a super-early Tolkein freak, but now, at the age of 14, he’s in the midst of reading the trilogy, has immersed himself in the watching of them all on film, and tonight decided he’d take a look at the film of The Hobbit (“even though I’ll probably get disgusted after half an hour.” We’ll see. Update: 90 minutes later – not disgusted.)

The latter part of our weeks are hamstrung – although that phrase gives too negative a light on it, since all that we have is good  – by Wednesday night church activity, Thursday morning high school biology classes, Thursday afternoon jazz classes, Saturday morning volunteer work and frequent Saturday evening/Sunday morning responsibilities (serving, music). A space came free this weekend, so we took advantage of it.

Friday afternoon was Ruffner mountain. About fifteen minutes from our house and a favorite hike/walk of his, a mountain yes, but also a former mining site (as are most mountains around here) Not a favorite of  mine – it’s fairly boring with no water or other features – but that’s not the point, is it? He asked to go, he wanted to walk, explore and talk,  so off we went.

 

 

The overlook is into the former quarry. In the photo on the right, the tiny lump on the horizon is the Birmingham skyline.

After that, to a local beer/wine store – Hop City – at which an English double decker/food truck called Little London Kitchen was parked. They’ve been around for some months, but this was the first time we’d had to sample their wares, and they were excellent! What is it about English fish and chips?

Saturday morning, he did his volunteer work (a religious education program for developmentally disabled children and young people), came home, practiced piano, and we were off to Montgomery. The final destination of the day would be the Alabama Shakespeare-sponsored production of Hamlet at 7, so that was our parameter.

First stop was the EJI National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Otherwise known around these parts as “the lynching museum.” Sorry, but it is. So, yes – go Alabama. But actually – yes. For all of the state’s faults, this is also the state in which you can find this space in which the dreadful past is acknowledged, gathered up, and contemplated.

The Equal Justice Institute is the organization associated with Bryan Stephenson, the author of Just Mercy and of course the force behind EJI.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to go to the museum on Saturday, so we simply went to the memorial. We have several other must-sees in the Montgomery area, and we’ll add the museum to that list. (We – including he – have actually been to many of those “must-sees” – but it was at the beginning of our homeschooling years, so he doesn’t remember them. We’ll return to the Rosa Parks museum, the Alabama state archives/museum and the Fitzgerald House – Zelda was from Montgomery and they lived there for about a year.)

The memorial calls to mind the thousands of African-Americans killed by lynching in the United States. It is a sobering and thought-provoking space, and done in exactly the right spirit – of honesty and reconciliation: this is what happened  – and we must admit it, and move forward. 

 

 

Most lynching victims were male, of course, but I am always interested in finding female victims – and I found one –  Elizabeth Lawrence, right in my own present home of Jefferson County, Alabama, killed in 1933:

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Then, since it was on the way to church and he’s a musician, a quick turn up to the cemetery where Hank Williams is buried:

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Again – he’d been there before, but had no memory of it.

More interesting to me than Hank’s grave is the grave – right next to it – of several dozen RAF and French Air Force personnel who died while training at the nearby Maxwell Air Base during World War II. 

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Between June 1941 and February 1943, when the RAF terminated what became known as the Arnold Plan, 4,300 of more than 7,800 RAF cadets sent to the United States completed the three-phase AAF flight training program. Within three months, some of the same schools, including the phase 2 school at Gunter Field, began training Free French Air Force flight cadets. By November 1945, when the US government terminated the French training program, 2,100 French flight cadets out of the 4,100 who came to the United States had received their wings. 

Then to Mass, here. 

An energetically-delivered, substantive homily on the Gospel, and a cantor with a lovely voice, unaccompanied, although there was an organ nearby (and a piano and a drum kit…)

Then….a quick stop at Chick Fil A, and off to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival for Hamlet. 

It was very enjoyable and, for the most part, the perfect first live performance of this play for a 14-year old.

First off – this was not a production of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Their season doesn’t begin for some weeks. This was a production of New York’s Bedlam Theatre – performing this and Saint Joan in repertoire for the next month. 

The conceit? The gimmick, if you will? There are four actors – period. Four actors performing all the roles.

The theater was small – it was the “Octagon” theater of the facility, which is downstairs and perhaps about a hundred seats. In addition, there is some creative staging with this production, so for the first act, for example, there are about two dozen chairs positioned more closely about the performing space – and we grabbed a couple of those for ourselves (since I’d purchased tickets only that morning, our seats weren’t together – but this way, it worked out). Then for the second section (after acts 1-3), seats were re-arranged, and so on.

 

The actors wore ordinary clothes – pants, vests, shirts – for costumes, as well as a hat or two and some glasses. There were three men and one woman. The actor played Hamlet played only Hamlet – everyone else switched around and traded up. There were no other scenes or props other than flashlights and some drapes and chairs.

I’d say that 3/4 of it was absolutely mesmerizing and marvelous. The actors were fantastic, with smooth and impressive transitions between characters. It was the perfect introduction to a live production of Hamlet for a 14-year old boy, what with actors right in his face, even speaking right to him – the actor who played Polonius also played Laertes, which worked fine for most of it, but for the neither a borrower nor lender be speech – he went full Polonius –  and designated Michael as Laertes, directing the entire speech right to him. I’m really hoping that the words –  To thine own self be true will resonate in a particularly personal way for a very long time as a result…

But then?

Ah, that last act. It just didn’t work. I think their mistake was incorporating a bit of comedy in the wrong way. I watched the Mel Gibson version this evening (as I’ll talk about in a moment), and there is some comedy – but very slight and almost bitter – in the combat. What happened here, though,  was some business having an audience member “be” the table on which the poisoned cup sat – and it just broke the entire drama of the moment. Which, I have to say, had been sustained very well up that point, with some moving aspects and powerful speeches. But this, as I said – broke it, and it was unfortunate, as was the production’s ultimate way of interpreting the final set of deaths. It just didn’t work – everyone writhing on the floor, shouting their lines at the same time – but then, oh, the production fell back into an excellent place with the very final lines, uttered in near-darkness by the actors prone on the floor as Fortinbras and Horatio.

They just need to work, I think, on the actual Final Combat. Smooth that out, dispense with the comic business, and you’ve done it.

What was lost, I think, was the central drama of the piece, which was about Hamlet himself, of course. What was he about? And what is thread that takes us from the young man’s first hints that something is wrong and perhaps should be righted to the final irony of the one who had, for whatever reason, decided not to take revenge – almost accidentally wreaking havoc.

We hadn’t finished reading Hamlet by the time we saw it Saturday night, and I found the whole presentation of the final scenes so confusing, I thought he could use another version – and the only free version on any of the streaming services was the Gibson version.

As I said before, this is not *ideal* because Zeffirelli condenses and summarizes, and th age difference between Gibson and Glenn Close is…awkward. But that final scene? Oh, so well done, and so, so moving. 

So yes, we watched that this evening. 

(He was gone all day with a friend, to a swimming hole about 90 minutes away called Martha’s Falls.)

And then I remembered – well, thanks Netflix for reminding me – that Bill Murray had been Polonius in the Ethan Hawke version, and his “to thine own self be true” speech was very good – natural and unaffected, but somehow …effective.


 

I tried to think – what is it that binds all of this together? In fact, I had decided I would ask him to consider this for a writing project this week. Twenty-four hours spent:

  • Walking paths that hard-working miners had trod decades ago
  • Accompanying a differently-abled child, trying to help  him  understand Jesus’ love for him
  • Going to a memorial to the victims of racial injustice  – women and men who’d suffered and been terrorized, among other places, just scant miles from our house
  • Visiting the grave of a genius who’d self-destructed
  • Seeing the graves of men who’d died during a war, far from their homes, but not even in combat
  • Being witness to actors pouring out their hearts, in service to words written hundreds of years ago, meditations on the purpose of life, the specter of death, the response to injustice and the impact of the past on the present
  • Hearing a Gospel of mercy, bound in prayer, sharing the Body of Christ with other disciples all over the world

 

What is it we do when we teach, when we bear the gift of forming a child? To teach “values?” Skills? Prepare for a profession, for life?

All of that, but it seems to me that the most important thing I can do in teaching, raising and forming is sharing bad and good news with that young person. Or just news. It’s just the news, and the news is this: Human beings are beautiful and broken. Created in the image of God, shattered. Some of the brokenness is so deep within it seems as if it is just you, bound up, born that way. Some of the brokenness is manifest in your body, some of it in your spirit. Some of the brokenness comes through things that happened to your family yesterday or your people long ago. Some of your brokenness comes from the way you were raised, and then from your own choices.

And your task, your mission, your purpose as a human creature is to listen, watch and learn. It’s to walk as a broken creature – not deceiving yourself into thinking you are anything but –  in this broken world, listening and trusting. Trusting that despite the brokenness, despite evidence to the contrary, you and every other creature were made by a loving God in his image, who calls you even now. What does that voice sound like? How can you recognize it and not be deceived by imitators?

The walls are high and thick, the few windows in that wall are cracked and dim, the light on the other side seems far away, the music muffled and every other person you see on this side seems like a stranger and even, sometimes, like an enemy, but there is truth about this world, about all of us, about each of us that can heal these wounds, truth to be found, explored, listened to and lived – but we must learn how to recognize it, how to see and how to listen.

What a hard life this is on earth, what suffering we endure and inflict on others. To educate, it seems to me, means to be honest and real about all of this, not hiding a bit of it, to teach a young person to accept all of the brokenness within and without, past and present – but refuse to be defined or controlled by it –  and then, every day, point to the thin places in the wall, polish the glass so the light can shine brighter and crack the door a little wider so when the voice calls and invites us to that healing, nourishing feast – we’ll recognize it.

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s what they call them over EWTN way down the road.  Here’s one for you.

 

 

(Yes, posted before – from the Museo de Bellas Artes in Seville –  but today’s the remembrance – the Beheading of St. John the Baptist.)

 

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Coming to you from Omaha…

We’re circling back. Going to make a couple more stops, then God willing, back home on Friday. Today I drove across South Dakota once again – but through the northern part of the state, west to east this time. I’d thought about a few different stops along the way, but finally just decided to forge on and do the Big Thing we’d been thinking about the whole time, which was the Omaha Zoo.

*Cue elderly mother doing one more speech on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and the old days of four channels and one nature show*

It’s said to be one of the top zoos in the country – second after San Diego, for some who rate such things. We got there mid-afternoon, and since most of the zoo closes at five, with the enclosed buildings remaining open until 6, we hit the outdoor exhibits first and saved the buildings for last.

What did we know? It made sense at the time. But honestly? We probably could have skipped most of the outdoor exhibits and headed straight to the buildings. It being late afternoon, most of the outdoor animals were sleeping, mostly hidden, and there really wasn’t much we hadn’t seen before. At this point I was thinking, Not so sure about these high ratings…

But then we got the desert building. And then the rainforest. Both were fabulous and well worth the price of admission. Well-designed, interesting, and with several animals we’d never seen before. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to the aquarium, which I’m thinking is probably just as good.

(The gorilla exhibit was fine – but the best of those I’ve seen was at the Atlanta Zoo, by far. Best chimps? Knoxville. They had orangutans in Omaha with a decent habitat, but orangutans in captivity always seem so depressed to me – it depresses me.)

Anyway, we spent as much time as we could in these buildings, but the story really is the bats.

We rushed to the rainforest building, noted a sign telling us there would be a “high level of bat activity,” thought it meant that the bats would be flying around a lot in their enclosure, so sure, fine, when whoosh! right by our heads. A bat. Followed by another and another – and we looked up – and there they were – everywhere. Clinging to the walls right beside us, swirling about, sweeping through the passageways – astonishing. I suppose they are “out” all the time, but of course, sleep all day – and we arrived at 5:30, just as they were awakening and starting to feast. It was fascinating – a bit daunting, but I trust the zoo to not be unleashing any danger on my head, so I was fine – I can imagine, though, someone being really terrified by this, and maybe even in these lawsuit-happy-days – moved to action. Which is why we were…surprised at the vagueness of the “warning” contrasted with the quite intense activity of the bats all around us. At one point we went to the lower level to walk on the “trail” on the “rainforest” floor. There was a woman sitting on a bench outside. She swept her hand over her hair, scowled and said, “I hope you like bats.”

I’m guessing she…didn’t.

If you’d like to see video of the spectacle, go visit my Instagram page. Phew!

 

 

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I got a little hung up on the trip blogging because at some point I decided I should just go through the entire trip in order – and that quickly became a discouraging, daunting task. Mostly because I thought I might do a single post on Seville, but we were there for two weeks, and..what should I do?

So last night, I said, forget it. I’ll just blog topically and randomly, as is my wont. It will all be eventually organized in the proper order on the Travel page anyway.

When we went to Madrid several years ago (my daughter was working in Germany, and this was our way of meeting her for spring break – we’d been to Germany at Thanksgiving and she was ready for a change of scenery by that point), Toledo emerged as a possible day trip, but it lost out to Segovia, and I’m glad. Toledo is filled with daytrippers, and I think we got more out of our time there from not being a part of those hordes.

You might know the aspect of Toledo from El Greco, who settled here and painted it, memorably.

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That’s all I knew about it, really. Striking setting, old, former capitol. I’d considered staying for longer, and I’m glad we didn’t. Two days was enough. Not that we saw every corner, but there was something about the place that made me ready to leave.

There’s really no mystery about it – and it wasn’t the fact that it was blisteringly hot (high 90’s) during our time there. As I walked around, the best comparison I could come up with was Venice. Toledo certainly has more actual residents than Venice does, even in that historic center – I saw them shopping and sitting in government services waiting rooms (I wasn’t in those waiting rooms – the doors were wide open to the street), and you can see that the city spreads far out beyond the iconic rise on the river bend. But that historic center does seem predominantly tourist-centered in a way that, say, Seville, wasn’t. When I travel, what I enjoy experiencing is that mix of deep history and culture in the midst of vibrant contemporary life. Toledo struck me as more of a museum. Interesting with lots to see in a stunning setting – but still, a museum.

So – I’m definitely glad we went. The Cathedral was spectacular, with one of the most helpful and engaging audio guides I’ve heard, the setting was beautiful and thought-provoking and seeing the El Grecos – memorable. But I didn’t regret leaving – I didn’t think, “I could come back here” as I’ve felt in some other places, large (Seville), medium (Padova, Italy) and small (Uzes, France).

As I mentioned, we didn’t stay in the center. In retrospect, having walked around and seen some of the parking areas, I think we definitely could have managed a different arrangement with a hotel closer in – but not knowing the layout, I was hesitant to commit. So the Marriott it was! 

It’s about a kilometer from the center, and walkable, but…not in near 100 degree heat. I mean – you could do it, I suppose, but starting your day out with a kilometer walk, partly uphill, in that kind of weather, doesn’t make for a great rest of the day. So we took the bus which stopped on the hour right outside the hotel.

Highlights:

Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes, founded by Ferdinand and Isabella, who intended to be buried here, but ended up in Grenada. I highlight for you the weird monkey on a chamber pot and the prayer on display before the high altar, also pictured. It was nice to see what was on display presented in a way consistent with its original (and continuing) purpose.

 

 

El Greco Museum. There are, of course, several El Greco pieces on display in situ around Toledo, but photographs are not allowed in most of those places. Here at the El Greco Museum, they were – it’s basically a replica of his house, built by some wealthy fellow to highlight a collection. It’s not expensive to get in (maybe 4 Euros? And that was just for me), and it’s not huge, but it’s worth seeing, especially for these portraits of the apostles.

We arrived just as a huge, boisterous group of senior citizens did – so boisterous they had to be shushed by the attendants – glad they were having a good time! But we were able to outrun them and reach the important rooms before they got there.

 

 

We did walk back to our hotel that night – it cooled down a bit, and I wanted to see the area down by the river. You can’t see it from the photos, but fish of some sort were attempting to swim upstream over the little “falls.”

 

 

IMG_20190625_213337It’s one of my favorite parts of traveling – those early evening hours when you’re wandering back “home” and people are horsing around. They drive me a little nuts, but thinking about traveling on my own without them? Doesn’t actually hold much appeal to me.

Next morning – view from the hotel and breakfast.

 

 

Then, on the bus, up to the city. First stop: the Jesuit church of San Ildenfonso – wonderful art inside, and a tower with a great view:

 

 

My favorite detail on the Mary statue is that she’s holding the sword aimed at the dragon’s head. Awesome.

Then, the Cathedral. It is…huge. You don’t just wander in – I think it was ten Euros to enter and tour, and that is a price I can’t argue with. You can mutter, “It’s a church, you shouldn’t charge to enter it,” but with a structure like this, of great historic importance and such an attraction – sure. There’s no way you could maintain the structure and offer the experience without charging something, and ten Euros struck me as very reasonable. I don’t often get audio guides, but I’m certainly glad we got this one – it was very well done, with the explanations just the right length, and engaging as well. You can, of course, read about the Toledo Cathedral in all sorts of places and see wonderful, better images, so here are just a few:

 

 

Some notes:

The St. Christopher is huge – the length of a wall. The audio guide explained that it was a popular belief that if you saw an image of St. Christopher, you’d be protected from death on that day – so they painted this image of the saint so, well…no one could miss seeing it when they entered! Burgos had a similarly huge St. Christopher painted in their cathedral.

In the photo on the third row to the right, you see an oculus – it’s part of a fascinating structure, including a highly ornamented piece opposite – called El Transparente. More:

El Transparente is a Baroque altarpiece in the ambulatory of the Cathedral of Toledo. Its name refers to the unique illumination provided by a large skylight cut very high up into the thick wall across the ambulatory, and another hole cut into the back of the altarpiece itself to allow shafts of sunlight to strike the tabernacle. This lower hole also allows persons in the ambulatory to see through the altarpiece to the tabernacle, as if were transparent, so to speak. It was created in 1729-1732 by Narciso Tomé and his four sons (two architects, one painter and one sculptor). The use of light and of mixed materials (marble, bronze, paint, stucco) may reflect the influence of Bernini’s Cathedra Petri in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome.

….

Not only was a skylight cut into the top of the thick back wall of the cathedral across the ambulatory behind the high altar, but another hole was cut into the high altar itself to allow the shafts of sunlight to illuminate the tabernacle like a spotlight.

After the two holes were cut, Tomé and his sons designed a way to visually connect the two by sculpting a fantastic company of angels, saints, prophets and cardinals. Abstract designs suggesting flowing robes and foliage hang over corners to mask the details of the architectural piercings. Along the edges of the skylight they arranged an array of Biblical figures who seem to tumble into the cathedral. At the outer edge of the opening sits Christ on a bank of clouds and surrounded by angels. The back side of the altarpiece was converted to a tower of marble which reaches from the floor to the ceiling. Intricate groups of figures were assembled so that the opening to the tabernacle could be hidden yet permit light to pass through.

The photo to the far right on the last row? Paschal Candle holder.

I was struck, as I always am, every time, in places like this, by sights such as you see in the photo on the right in the second row. Dozens – even, given the course of traffic in a single day – hundreds or thousands – of people standing, studying these images, which are not just images, but images that tell a story – the story of Jesus, the story that meets the deepest yearnings of the heart of every person standing there.

We wonder, we worry, constantly – how do we get people into churches? 

Guess what – in places like this – here they are. Here they are. 

 

We stopped in many other churches, ate some very good middle-eastern food, bought IMG_20190626_134620 (2)sweets from more cloistered nuns (left hand photos, top down), saw the remnants of what must have been a spectacular Corpus Christi procession, saw a couple more unphotographical El Grecos, then went back to the hotel to cool off, then – since it doesn’t get dark until about ten o’clock – headed out in the car, first to a castle south of the city. I’d read about it on TripAdvisor – it’s abandoned, high up on a hill – just what we needed to balance out the tourist hordes. The drive in the rental car was a little dicey – a rocky road with lots of switchbacks – but we did it, and my final bill from the rental car company arrived with no extra charges, so I guess I did fine. It was amazing and cooler up there than down below.

 

We then found a mall – this one – again, one of my favorite things to do when traveling. You can’t pay me to go into a mall in the United States, but I do love experiencing non-tourist shopping in other countries. It’s just so interesting to see what’s different – and what’s exactly the same. We ate at the food court, having found, of course a 100 Montaditos. The most popular restaurant, though? McDonald’s of course, and it wasn’t even close. The lines were five deep there – with Burger King right across the way, employees standing around, looking bored…

And the next morning….adios, Toledo! 

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