Saturday, November 02, 2019

Greece, Malta and Italy

In this trip we visited the following cities: Rome, Santorini, Athens, Mykonos, Chania, Valetta, Messina, Taormina, Sorrento, Pompeii, Florence and Pisa.
As we approached Santorini island of Greece we were met with white buildings on top of the high hills as seen in the picture.
After spending the day in Perivolos beach we went to the capital of Santorini, Fira and from there we descended down to return to the ship using cable cars. The scene from the cable car was fantastic with the sun setting behind the islands by our "Jade" boat.
The next day we were in Athens, and of course the first place we visited was the famous Acropolis. The picture is by the Parthenon on top of the Acropolis.
The next day was at Mykonos island, Greece. The picture is by Kalifata beach which had crystal clear water and nice views with small isles surrounding it, but the floor of the sea was full of pebbles and vegetation that I scratched my toes coming out of the water.
The next stop was in Crete, Greece. It was made famous after the movie "Zorba the Greek" of 1964 starring Anthony Quinn. Remnants of many Ottoman buildings can be seen all over, with many mosques converted into churches. The picture shows the capital Chania's old harbor.
Next stop was at Valetta the capital of Malta. The picture shows the entrance to the historic Valetta harbor.
This picture shows the old capital Mdina which was originally built by the Arabs who left Malta around 1100 A.D. I could understand the Maltese language easily as it is 90% Arabic but written with English letters.
This is the Rotunda of Mosta of Malta that miraculously survived a bomb during WWII. They call it the Miracle Church.
Next we stopped at Messina in Sicily and we went to Taormina. You can see the Etna volcano by Taormina, Sicily near the ancient Greek/Roman theater.
This picture is inside the Greek/Roman theater in Taormina, Sicily. The Etna volcano is seen in the back.
Next stop was ion Naples, Italy. The picture is in Sorrento by the bay of Naples. The island of Capri is nearby where famous people own nice villas, such as Sofia Loren.
We visited Pompeii near Naples, Italy which was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius volcano in 79 A.D. The almost intact city is a sobering reminder of what happened 2000 years ago. The picture shows the volcanos of Vesuvius and Somma which used to be one mountain before the eruption.
From Naples we went next to the port of Liverno, Italy. From there we went to Florence (Firenze in Italian) and then to Pisa. This picture is of the magnificent Cathedral of Florence.
And of course, no trip to Pisa is complete without a picture of the tourist trying to straighten the leaning Pisa tower.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Land of Maya and Aztecs - part 2

In this second part I post the highlights of the trip, mainly personal pictures and their descriptions.
Above: Pyramid of Inscriptions in Palenque National Park.
Above: Standing in front of the Pyramid of the Sun in Mexico City Teotihuacan site.
Above: Standing on top of the Pyramid of the Sun with Pyramid of the Moon in sight at Teotihuacan site near Mexico City.
Above: Standing by the statue of the woman waiting for her pirate by the Gulf of Mexico in Campeche.
Above: Besides our hotel hut in Palenque National Park.
Above: Sun rise by Chichen Itza pyramid.
Above: Buying leather sandals in Merida market.
Above: Looking at the terraced Pyramid of Uxmal.
Above: Closer look at the terraced pyramid of Uxmal.
Above: Standing by a giant Olemc head in Parque-Museo La Venta in Villahermosa.
Above: Swimming in the hotel's pool at Palenque National Park.
Above: Aztec ruins in Teotihuacan, Mexico City.
Above: Poor people houses near Mexico City.
Above: Veracruz colonial buildings.
Above: Bones of the dead in Pomuch cemetery on the way to Campeche.
Above: View from the hotel in Veracruz.
Above: Pico de Orizaba volcano on the way from Veracruz to Mexico City.
Above: Cathedral in Mexico City.
Above: Organ inside Mexico City Cathedral.
Above: Sculpture of Torro near Barcelo hotel in Mexico City.
Above: One of the beautiful colonial buildings in Mexico City.
Above: Monument of Revolution near hotel in Mexico City.
Above: Original Aztec temple that was demolished and its stones reused to build the cathedral in Mexico City.
Above: Memorial of Benito Juarez in Mexico City.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

The land of Maya and Aztecs

We took a southeast and central Mexico tour to see the ruins of the ancient people's ruins there. The tour started from Cancun in the state of Quintana Roo.
Cancun itself does not have much to see except its beaches and festive atmosphere which makes it a popular destination for many young Americans who like to come here and party by the beaches and pools. Its weather is quite hot and humid even in December. The picture to the right shows the scene from the hotel in Cancun. We stayed only one night at Cancun. The next morning we were on our way to the state of Yucatan to the Mayan city of Ek Balam (which means the Star Jaguar).
Note that to get to Ek Balam we had to go to the jungle area where it was quite humid and the mosquitos were brutal. The picture below to the left shows our beds in the hotel with mosquito nets. The hotel itself consisted of many huts littered in the jungle. It was a nice hotel but don't forget to seal your mosquito net or else you will find your body full of mosquito bites in the morning.
The picture above to the right shows the ruins of the Acropolis built between 600 to 900 A.D. and houses wall paintings that line the interior wall. Ek Balam's most striking temple is the one with a huge monster mouth which represents a portal to the other world. The rain poured down on us while we were climbing the ruins in Ek Balam and we got soaked wet. We had lunch at a local restaurant by a Cenote (sinkhole) called Saamal, one of the many Cenotes found throughout the jungle landscape of the Yucatan peninsula.
The picture to the right shows the Samaal Cenote which is one of the many water-filled sinkholes used as water supplies for many centuries to the Mayan people and are still used today for the same purpose. Next we continued on to the magical village of Valladolid. The city was founded in 1545 and named after the capital of Spain at the time. It was built atop a Mayan town called Zaci-Val, whose buildings were dismantled to reuse the stones to build the Spanish colonial town.
The following year the Mayan people revolted but were put down by additional Spanish troops from Merida. The picture to the right is Cathedral of San Gervacio built in the city in 1706 using the remains of the Mayan buildings. Some of the most significant events in Mexico's history took place in Valladolid. Fransisco De Montejo whose father first attempted to conquer Yucatan peninsula in 1527 finally succeeded in 1540 and made Valladolid one of his first three Spanish strongholds. Three centuries later the War of the Castes, the longest and most devastating war in Mexico's history ignited in Valladolid in 1847 and spread throughout Yucatan ending in early 1900's.
This was a revolt of native Mayan people against the European descended population, called Yucatecos, who had held political and economic control of the region by taking away land from the natives to cultivate sugar cane and sisal plants in Haciendas (plantations) encroaching on Mayan communal land and abusing the workers by treating them poorly. The picture to the right shows some colonial buildings surrounding the main plaza. A famous product they have here is the Sisal (green gold) which they used to make strong ropes and was exported for centuries until it was replaced by Nylon later on. I bought leather sandals here that are of great quality for 300 pesos ($15). We spent the night in a hotel by Chichen Itza.
The hotel had direct access to the Chichen Itza site so we walked over to the site at 4:45 am to see the sunrise from there. Chichen Itza is one of the modern seven wonders of the world. It has amazing acoustics. If you stand in a certain area facing the 45 degree stairway and clap your hands you hear an echo imitating the sound of a certain bird that they considered sacred there. The pyramid itself is called Kukulcan. The site also contains the Sacred Wall, the Caracol observatory and the Court of Columns. They were constructed around 6th and 10th centuries A.D. and was invaded by Toltec warriors between 967 and 987 A.D. which caused a blending of Mayan and Toltec cultures evident in the site.
The picture to the right shows the sacred wall where they held their meetings and had religious ceremonies. The acoustics there are amazing, if you whisper or whistle you hear reverberant sound that lasts for seconds. We returned to the hotel after sunrise around 9 am to have breakfast, then left around 11:30 am to Izamal or the yellow city. We had lunch at a local restaurant (we did not like the food). Then we visited a Sisal shop then a church with the second largest atrium (after St. Peters of Rome). Then we continued on at 1:20 pm to Merida (the White City) and arrived to our hotel called Las Casa Del Balam (the House of the Jaguar) and had dinner there. They say Merida is the safest city in all of Mexico so we could walk after dinner to the main square where they had a public show with music and colored lights. It was about the history of the area and how people there did not forget they were Mayas but appreciate the Spaniards introducing to them the true "One God".
Merida has a population of 10,000 and is an abandoned Mayan city. The main avenue there is the exclusive Montejo avenue where the rich plantation owners used to live. The main square cathedral is seen on the picture to the left and is called the St. Ildephonus Cathedral of Merida. The slave market continued to exist there until 1910 when the revolution erupted. Below to the right you see the picture of the Monument of the Motherland which tells the history of Mexico.
Among the famous personas of the Mexican history is Zapata the revolutionary who was assassinated later during the civil war which lasted between 1910 and 1917. There was a movie about him called "Viva Zapata" which featured Marlon Brando. They consider Benito Juarez the best president that Mexico ever had in 1857. Then we drove to the Centro Historico and walked through the commercial area of Merida. The picture below to the right gives an idea of the market where you can buy anything from fruits to leather products to hardware and from fish to clothes.
We bought fruits that we can't even name that tasted quite sweet, and I bought comfortable leather sandals for 200 pesos ($10). From there we visited the Palacio de Gobierno which is the main government building. It had murals by Fernandi Castro Pacheco. The picture to the left below shows part of that building. They were preparing the lights for Xmas which is a big thing for the Catholic people in Mexico in general.
After lunch we had free time so we walked some more in the city. To the right below you see a typical street in the downtown area. We ate lunch at a middle eastern restaurant called Patio 57 because we were tired of trying to find food that did not contain pork or lard. The restaurant was nice and I liked the food which was beef kebob and babaghanoush and humus with freshly baked pita bread. After lunch we met someone in the street who wanted to chat and told us he was a teacher in the Merida University teaching Mayan language.
He told us about Mayan ceramics and where to buy them. We had to stop by an ATM machine which happened to be in the old Casa de Montejo and withdrew 5000 pesos (about $250). We went back to the market and bought some papayas, apples, ginger. We stopped at a pharmacy to buy some Q-tips. When we came back near the hotel we had coffee in a coffee shop which also had ice cream Italian style. The picture below to the left is inside the hotel.
I bought a magnet with pyramid shape on it from the souvenir store near the hotel for 25 pesos. In the evening we had a special dinner at a local house hosted by three women: Carmen, Rosa Blanca and Orelya the babysitter. The food was quite good and I especially liked the Chaya drink which I had a few times throughout the trip. The lady of the house then showed us her house and her hammock which I tried and liked. She had visited Egypt and had a papyrus picture on her wall. After we returned to the hotel we went down again to the near the main square to watch a public show but it was drizzling and the show was late so we just went back to the hotel to sleep and get ready for the morrow's journey.
After breakfast we left at 8 am to the ancient Mayan city of Uxmal which was founded about 500 A.D. Its name means "Three Times Built". Its massive terraced Governor's Palace is shown in the picture to the right. It also has a 100 foot tall Temple of the Magician which is dedicated to the Mayan god Chac, depicted with a long curled elephant-like snout. The entrance to the temple is actually Chac's mouth. Rain is very important here because there are no rivers or Cenotes in this area.
The picture to the left shows the temple which is next to the terraced palace. Uxmal was allied with Chichen Itza for some time but it did not last long as the population dispersed around 1000 A.D. after the fall of Chichen Itza. We had our lunch in a restored Hacienda turned into a restaurant, and the food was very good here. Then we moved on to the town of Becal which is famous for
its weavers, and there I bought a panama hat made of palm fibers of the highest quality and finest thread for 1700 pesos. This hat can be folded and transported like that then unfolded to return to its original shape. They showed us how they make them, see the picture to the right. I really like it so much as it is quite comfortable and stylish. Then we went on our way to Campeche, but along the way we stopped at a cemetery in Pomuch to see a strange ritual they do there in the Day of the Dead, which is rather a whole
month, as they take the bones of their loved ones out of the graves and keep them out during the whole Month of the Dead to remember them and enjoy their company. The picture to the left shows some bones put in a box with some flowers - creepy! After the month is over, they return the bones back to the graves. The residents need a special permit to take the bones out of the graves, but the government gives it without much fuss. Anyway, we proceeded on to Campeche by the Gulf of Mexico. It is rich in oil and is surrounded by a wall. We arrived at the hotel around 5 pm. At 6:30 pm we walked to the main square, and it was too humid and warm.
The picture to the right is that of the main square cathedral. Being on the Gulf the city attracted pirates and that is why they erected the wall around the city after the most notorious attack in 1685. In downtown the most famous street is "Calle 59" which is one of the most beautiful in the city. The picture down to the left is of the main square area the night we arrived. We were tires so we did not eat dinner that night and just went to bed early to rest for the morrow. We left the next day at 8 am and took a tour of the
city by day. We visited the Black Jesus Church called San Fransisquito, and then drove by the Gulf and saw a statue of a woman who was waiting for her pirate to return as you see in the picture below to the right. Today Mexico had a new president whose name is AMLO. People here are hoping he is better than his predecessor. Today also ex-president Bush the father died at the age of 94.
We continued our ride along the Gulf of Mexico to Palenque which is a 6 hour trip from Campeche. We stopped for a rest in the city of Champoton, once a city of the Mayan civilization dating back to the tenth century. Here the famous battle "Mala Pelea" (the Bad Battle) took placed where the Mayas defeated the Spanish exploration in 1517, only to be defeated by the Spanish a year later. We stopped at La Higuera for steak lunch. We bought some honey made by African bees in the local area, then we left to Palenque for another 3 hours, and on the way we saw hawling monkeys, and we stopped at a check point that is checking for illegal immigrants coming from Guatemala and Belize. At this point we left the Yucatan peninsula heading to the rain forest of the state of Chiapas. Palenque became an important city and grew considerably after recent excavations made in 1992 where archeological sites were discovered in the jungle. We arrived at the hotel called Villa Mercedes which consists of impressive huts. The hotel was visited by many celebrities in the past such as Jennifer Lopez and many others.
The next morning we went to the jungle to visit the Mayan ruins there. We saw the Pyramid of Inscriptions, built around 600 A.D., and is shown in the picture to the right. The jungle was quite hot and humid and full of mosquitos. We saw Mahogany and Balsa trees. The palaces near the pyramid were built around 200 B.C. Only 10% of the acropolis was excavated, leaving more than a thousand structures still covered by the jungle. One of the jewels in this site is the burial monument of Pakal, the great Mayan king. We also saw the sarcophagus of the Red Queen who was found buried with her Jade jewels.
There were also drawings showing alien-like creatures sitting in a space ship of a sort. These are not aliens, only flat headed royal Mayans whose parents flattened their heads when they were young as a sign of royalty.The Mayans showed their handicap distorted figures as signs of royalty, such as six fingers and toes, and cross eyes, and albinos were considered sacred.
So their sense of beauty was strange. The population in the area burnt wood to build their structures and that killed the bees in the area which killed all life. Before long they had shortage of food and they had to kill humans for sacrifice and for food. Then the common people killed their leaders because they failed to communicate with the gods and provide food. They say that the Mayas originally came from China, and some of them stayed in Alaska (the Eskimos). Their calendar consisted of 19 months like the Jews. We visited the museum in the site which showed important artifacts, such as the jade jewelry of the Red Queen seen in the picture to the right. Notice that Mayas had no gold. It was the Aztecs who had the gold. I think the site in Palenque is one of the major archeological sites uncovered in Mexico. It is difficult to carry out excavations in the jungle but work continues in this site and expect more to be uncovered. In the evening we had a Mayan dinner at a local restaurant and it was very nice. The dinner consisted of four protein courses and a dessert. The four proteins were: white tail deer with avocado sauce, rabbit with sweet potato and fried ants, wild turkey with corn and fish with tree leaf flour. The dessert was Chaya cheese cake with cacao sauce and guava.
The next morning we were in the bus by 5:45 am leaving Palenque for the long trip to Veracruz. We stopped in Villahermosa for breakfast and finished by 9:15 am. In about 30 minutes after that we were at the open museum Parque Musea La Venta which has Olmec artifacts from 2000 B.C. The Olmecs were conquered by the Mayas around 600 B.C. They were the precursor civilization to both the Maya and Aztec civilization and had knowledge of math and astronomy. They are famous for their huge stone heads such as the one seen in this picture to the left. The park was humid and filled with mosquitos as it was part of a jungle.
There were animals in cages inside the park such as jaguars, both black and dotted, monkeys, crocodiles, coyotes, and badgers. I bought some roasted cacao beans, shown in the picture to the right, that tasted so good. They are excellent source of antioxidants in this form without any sugar or milk. We left at 11 am to Veracruz which was still some 7 hours away, so we watched a movie in the bus along the way. The movie was Disney's "Coco" about the Day of the Dead, which was quite relevant. At around 12:30 pm we had lunch boxes for lunch and I had hibiscus drink. At 1:45 pm we had a bathroom stop. We arrived Veracruz at 5 pm. Soon after checking into the hotel we took a bus tour in the center of the city which was not worth it especially after our long trip by bus.
Veracruz (the True Cross) was an important port in Mexico because it was the means for the ships to transport their goods from the Atlantic ocean to the Pacific ocean. Mexico prospered during that time because of this route from Veracruz to Puebla to Mexico City. The peso used to equal two American dollars, but now one dollar is equal to 20 pesos. That happened after the opening of the Panama canal. There wasn't much to see in Veracruz so the next morning we rode the bus to Puebla which is an important colonial city.
Puebla was the site of the battle of Cinco de Mayo when Ignacio Zaragoza defeated the powerful French army under Count de Lorencez. Puebla's economy today is based on industry. There are Volkswagen and Audi plants and many prestigious colleges in the city. As seen in the two pictures above and to the right, Puebla has traditional colorful tiled roofs and was founded in the 16th century. We had lunch in the city around 1:40 pm. The weather was nice and cool. We saw a couple of churches and 5 Mayo Calle street. We had a buffet lunch with pollo and Mole which was quite good.
We had some free time after lunch so we walked around in the city and sat a cafe in downtown to have cappuccino which was very light and tasteless. The view from the cafe is shown in the picture below to the right. The meaning of Puebla is "Foundation of a Place" and was founded in 1531. As in Peru, the Spaniards used Santiago (originally killer of the Moors) to fight the Indians and he became (killer of the Indians).
We continued on towards Mexico City riding along highways with mountain views. We saw the Pico de Orizaba volcano which is 18,500 ft high above sea level. First thing we saw as we entered Mexico City (CDMX) was the laundry basket stadium in white and blue. There was some rain around 4 pm and there was heavy traffic. We entered into Zaragoza ave. into CDMX and finally arrived the hotel of Barcelo at 5:30 pm. Mexico City was built by the Aztecs in 1325 A.D. on an island of a lake, and some of its buildings keep sinking in the ground with time because of that. We were tired to we went to bed early after the long journey and resting before the visits planned for the morrow.
The next morning we went to Teotihuacan (City of the Gods) which has the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon as seen in the picture to the left. Now these are Aztec sites although the structures were built before them by unknown people around 200 B.C. to 700 A.D. The Aztecs came around 1400 A.D. One of the symbols we saw inside was the flower of the elements which had four petals.
After lunch we went back to CDMX (Ciudad de Mexico). The city has the most colonial buildings in all of Mexico. It is very crowded (9 million) and is not safe, so one has to be very careful not to go to the dangerous areas there. We were in a very good area in downtown near a weird statue of a horse (or ox). We passed by the park Alameda Central and the Plaza de la Constitucion. We went inside the National Palace, the seat of the Federal government which had murals to commemorate the starting of Mexican Independence.
We went inside the Cathedral Metropolitana which is the largest in the Americas. You can see the Aztec gold inside the church in the picture. The cathedral is situated atop the former Aztec sacred area near the Templo Mayor. It was constructed over three centuries from 1573 to 1813. The labor of course was done by the native Indians.
Then we went inside the National Museum of Anthropology which is the largest and most visited museum in Mexico. Among the significant artifacts are the Stone of the Sun (Aztec calendar stone) seen below in the picture, the giant heads of the Olmec civilization found in the jungles of Tabasco and Veracruz, as well as treasures and replicas from the Mayan civilization at Palenque, and Chichen Itza. Also on display is a model of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, whose ruins can be seen in the area of Zocala. On returning to the hotelwe went out again to take some pictures like the Monument of the Revolution near the hotel and nearby streets. We had farewell dinner that night and said goodbye to our group, then went to bed to prepare for the trip back home in the morrow. I can say that everything went quite well in this trip which was very well organized by Gate 1. It was indeed enlightening and shed light on the history of the Maya and Aztec civilizations of the region and the history of the Spanish invasion as well as other conflicts such as the American and French interventions.
The people of Mexico are Catholics but they mixed catholicism with their Mayan beliefs and created a new religion that is a hybrid of Christianity and Idolatry. As in Peru people are starting to resent the Spanish bloody history with their ancestors and are beginning to refute Catholicism altogether. However, the majority are still devout Catholics and love the Pope of the Vatican who is considered a sacred persona that is almost worshipped together with the Virgin of Guadalupe.