Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Wordless Wednesday: Back-Streets of Granada   2 comments

Two residents of Granada, Nicaragua slow down on one of the city's back streets as the day does the same.

Granada, Nicaragua

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Russia in America   2 comments

Fort Ross, the only evidence of Russian occupation of North America in the early 1800s, is located on the northern California Coast.

Fort Ross, the only evidence of Russian occupation in North America south of their territory in Alaska, is located on the northern California Coast.

An often-forgotten chapter of the American West’s history concerns the “Russian occupation”.  In the early 1800s, not long after Lewis and Clark completed their journey to the Pacific Coast (thus cementing America’s claim to western North America), the Russians made their way down the coast from Alaska.  At the time it was mostly about support for their Alaska territory, but it’s believed that the Tsar probably had ideas of imperial expansion.

They set up shop on the northern California coast.  On a broad terrace sitting well above the Pacific they built a very fine fort.  They established two villages, one for Russians, the other for Native Americans.  Native groups living and working there were Californians and Creoles (mixed Russian-Native).  Aleuts from Alaska were brought to help hunt sea mammals, among other chores.

This wooden chapel at Fort Ross State Historic Park in California is a rebuilt version of the original.

This wooden chapel at Fort Ross State Historic Park in California is a rebuilt version of the original.

The fort and settlement were constructed not by the Russian government but by a private fur-trading company, the Russian American Co.  The site is now protected within the Fort Ross State Historic Park.  The park is located along the Pacific Coastal Highway (Hwy. 1) a bit more than two hour’s drive north of San Francisco.

The roof of Fort Ross's chapel does not exactly soar like the onion domes back home, but the Russians who occupied the site took some care in construction of their place of worship.

The roof of Fort Ross’s chapel does not exactly soar like the onion domes back home, but the Russians who occupied the site took some care in construction of their place of worship.

The reason the Russians came here from Alaska?  Food.  Their settlements in Alaska were consistently running short of food, and the Spanish missions in California grew an overabundance.  They needed a market.  It was a win-win for everyone involved, and this explains more than anything else the good relations between the Russians and Californians (native and colonial alike).

This is actually a large park (3400 acres), and the coastline north of the Fort is worth exploring as well.  But the fort is the star of the show, and I recommend taking your time walking around.  Rangers there give informative talks regularly; these happen in the open grassy area inside.

One of the many cannon that were actually never fired in anger at Fort Ross, the old Russian settlement on the northern California Coast.

One of the many cannons that were actually never fired in anger at Fort Ross, the old Russian settlement on the northern California Coast.

Make sure to check out the blockhouse on the NE corner of the fort.  The above photo is from there, and the view of the fort from the cannon ports is fantastic.  The photo below is of the Rotchev House.  This is the only 100% original structure leftover from the Russian occupation, and the slice of life it offers makes a little walk around its interior a must-do here.  The Rotchev’s were apparently a very fine family.

This shaped-log house was built for the last manager of Fort Ross on the northern California Coast, Alexander Rotchev.  It is the only original structure remaining at the mostly restored Russian fort.  It is also the only surviving structure built by the Russians in North America south of Alaska.

This shaped-log house was built for the last manager of Fort Ross on the northern California Coast, Alexander Rotchev. It is the only original structure remaining at the mostly restored Russian fort. It is also the only surviving structure built by the Russians in North America south of Alaska.

The fort was never really used in the way it was intended.  It was never attacked, but perhaps this was the point.  It was built to repel all but a sustained heavy naval bombardment.  Nearly all the residents lived outside its walls, because the danger from attack was so low.  The local natives saw it (correctly) as a way to gain wealth.  It offered a place to trade and work, so the Russians were largely a welcome presence.

It was a busy place for the 30 years they were here, but they eventually retreated back to the north.  Why?  The marine life near shore, including sea otters and fur seals, had been hunted out.  The enterprise was in the red, so there was not much money to purchase the extra food they needed to send to Alaska.  They could only grow enough at the site to feed themselves.

One of the corner blockhouses at Fort Ross State Historic Park, California.  These were built as a position from which to make a last defense in the event that the attackers got in through the gates.

One of the corner blockhouses at Fort Ross State Historic Park, California. These were built as a place from which to make a last defense in the event that attackers got in through the gates.

John Sutter (of California goldfield fame) bought the remaining buildings and materials.  The Mexican government claimed the land, and what remained fell into disrepair.  The great earthquake of 1906 in San Francisco inflicted damage as well.

We should thank the many Californians (too many to list) for this slice of history; it’s been a park for over 100 years!  The settlement’s restoration and preservation, an ongoing process that aims to restore the atmosphere present during Russian occupation, including the villages outside the fort.  It’s definitely worth a visit anytime.

Cannery Row   Leave a comment

The row of fish canneries at Monterey, California was the subject of a famous novel by John Steinbeck.

The row of fish canneries at Monterey, California was the subject of a famous novel by John Steinbeck.

At a formative time in my life, I read John Steinbeck’s novella Cannery Row.  I really loved this book, but it might have made me a bit of a wino.  I should probably explain.  But first, let me note that this is really a travel post about Monterey and its wharf area.  Monterey surely is on the tourist map, but it’s not over the top.  It has its share of history, and is a superb place to eat fresh seafood.  In addition, the waterfront offers some pretty good photo opportunities.  Let’s face it, photography is always better near water.

An old fishing float on Monterey's commercial wharf tell's stories of the storms it has seen in the form of barnacles and rust.

An old fishing float on Monterey’s commercial wharf tell’s stories of the storms it has seen in the form of barnacles and rust.

In our early twenties, a couple of friends and I read Cannery Row.  W were caught up by the atmosphere masterfully created by Steinbeck.  The desperation, the hard days of manual labor followed by evenings which featured friends reflecting on the meaning of it all…all over jugs of cheap red wine.  It struck a chord with us, since this is the sort of life we were living as very young men in Alaska.  On one occasion we found ourselves at Seward’s harbor, where the atmosphere is similar enough to the Cannery Row of Steinbeck.  A jug of wine and hijinks on an icy evening were the result.  Another time the Homer Spit was the site of our debauchery (I mean fun!).

View of Monterey, California's harbor from its famous Fisherman's Wharf.

View of Monterey, California’s harbor from its famous Fisherman’s Wharf.

 Monterey is located south of San Francisco on the California Coast.  It’s fishing harbor is sandwiched between two wharfs, or piers.  The western pier, called Fisherman’s Wharf, is for tourists, while the eastern one is the original “Cannery Row”.  This one’s appearance is definitely more rough and ready than the other, and fresh seafood can be purchased by the public.  You’ll find few people on the commercial wharf, while Fisherman’s Wharf is a tourist promenade lined with shops and restaurants.  The commercial wharf sits far out in the harbor and offers nice simple photos.  I find it refreshing that the actual cannery row is still intact and in no way prettied-up for tourists.

Crabs, oysters and lobster fresh from the sea are offered up on Monterey's Fisherman's Wharf.

Crabs, oysters and lobster fresh from the sea are offered up on Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf.

Fisherman’s Wharf is loaded with seafood restaurants, along with a few gift shops and a bar or two. It’s a fairly short walk to the end.  Most restaurants station someone outside to offer free samples.  When the light is good, it is an excellent place for a photo walk, followed by oyster shooters or fresh steamed crab.  You can walk between the two piers in short time, and there is a parking area between (or park in the nearby downtown).

A fishing boat lies in Monterey, California's harbor.

A fishing boat lies in Monterey, California’s harbor.

 Downtown Monterey is also a nice, walkable place.  All in all I liked this place much better than nearby Carmel by the Sea (which is more crowded and upscale).  True, Carmel has Clint Eastwood as a resident, but that’s one of its few advantages.

The famous Monterey Bay Aquarium is nearby, but I did not visit this time.  It’s just too popular a place to visit during the week before New Years, so I’ll have to see that some other time.

Barrels of salt water taffy tempt visitors to the candy shop on the wharf in Monterey, California.

Barrels of salt water taffy tempt visitors to the candy shop on the wharf in Monterey, California.

 That’s all for now.  If you are interested in any of the photos on my site, don’t hesitate to click on one and check out my website.  The photos will be there very soon, but contact me if you want immediate gratification. Please don’t try to download these copyrighted images . These versions are really too small in file size to be of much use anyway.  Thanks very much for your cooperation and interest.  And Happy New Year!!!

The harbor at Monterey, California is dominated these days by pleasure craft.

The harbor at Monterey, California is dominated these days by pleasure craft.

The fishing harbor at Monterey, California is illuminated with winter's late afternoon light.

The fishing harbor at Monterey, California is illuminated with winter’s late afternoon light.

 

Visiting the California Coast near Big Sur   3 comments

In my last post I ranted about the crowds along this stretch of the California Coast that includes the stunning Big Sur.  Well, if you insist on visiting this area instead of the slightly superior (in my opinion) Oregon Coast, please do so during a week other than this one – the week between Christmas and New Years.  I would think much of summer would also be too crowded.  First the bad news, then the good with some recommended stops.

The view north along the California Coast near Big Sur is a classic.

The view north along the California Coast near Big Sur is a classic.

CONS: ACCESS PROBLEMS

I’ve noticed many of my fellow travelers here are on a different wavelength than I am.  They’re dressed to the nines, with heels and nice clothes.  So for them a simple drive with stops to snap photos is what they’re after.  With some exceptions, this is what they get in California.  Coastal access is hampered in this state by lack of foresight.  In Oregon, during the 1960s, Governor Tom McCall passed a law that was brilliant.  In that state, nobody can own the beach; it’s all public.  You will never see a fence with no trespassing signs stretched across the sand in Oregon.

Anna's Hummingbird Feeding

Additionally, there are many many more state parks along the Oregon Coast than on the California Coast.  There are places to access the coastline here, mostly north or south of the Big Sur area.  But a combination of geography (the San Jacinto Mountains are a long and unbroken rank of mountains that keep Highway 1 well up above the ocean) along with the private property have blocked my attempts to experience this coast in the way I like.

I like to take long hikes along the coast, exploring coves and headlands.  This is harder to do here than in Oregon.  Shorter explorations can be done in California, but I’ve found that around Big Sur it’s very difficult.  The Redwood Coast is a little better in this regard.

A green home on the California Coast south of Big Sur basks in winter sunshine.

A green home on the California Coast south of Big Sur basks in winter sunshine.

PROS: 

Redwoods: On the California coast, even this far south, you’ll find the famous Redwood trees.  This is, by the way, something Oregon lacks except for one place in the far south.  Of course if you really want to see the big trees, go up to the Redwood Coast, just south of the border with Oregon.

Golfing: I am not a golfer, but you could do much worse than the Monterrey Peninsula for this sport.  Pebble Beach and a plethora of other courses carpet the land.  By the way, in Oregon, Bandon is a similarly great golfing center.

Elephant Seals and Sea Otters: The stretch of coastline south of Big Sur has many places from which to see these sea creatures.  I would add gray whales to this, but you can see these giants anywhere along the west coast.  Go to Baja in Mexico if you want to get up close and personal with them in their breeding grounds.

Wine & Dine: Although wine country is inland and north from here, there is no shortage of restaurants and wine bars featuring great wines.  In fact, the fine dining in this area is pretty special.  I don’t go in for this type of thing generally, preferring funky cafes and eateries.

Moderate Winter Weather: One winter while living in Alaska I was sent to a conference at Stanford University.  Talk about being thawed out!  The winters south of San Francisco are famous for being rather warm, though big storms are not uncommon.

An Anna's hummingbird rests in the sun before an incredibly energetic feeding session.

An Anna’s hummingbird rests in the sun before an energetic feeding session.

A flower in the gardens of Big Sur Coast Gallery, blooming here in December, is shaped especially for Hummingbirds.

A flower in the gardens of Big Sur Coast Gallery, blooming here in December, is shaped especially for Hummingbirds.

TRAVEL TIPS:

I will focus on photography and nature, since that is what I’m into.

  • Elephant Seals on the beach at San Simeon near the Hearst Castle: These big-nosed seals haul up on the beach and are fairly used to photographers, so you can get pretty close. Don’t get too close though. Males especially can be extremely dangerous.
  • McWay waterfall:  A gorgeous cove and waterfall are accessed by a short trail from Julia Pfeifer State Park, near Big Sur itself.  See image below.
  • The garden at the Big Sur Coast Gallery Cafe:  Up on the headland, you will pass a few lodges and restaurants.  Behind the gas station here (Big Sur’s only one), you’ll find a little cafe with good (but expensive) coffee.  There are cactus all around the place, and they dominate the garden.  But there are all sorts of plants, including those with flowers that draw hummingbirds.
  • Point Lobos:  Not far south of Carmel, you’ll find the Pt. Lobos Reserve.  Hiking trails wind through the trees, and the rocky coastline is chock full of great foregrounds for sunset shots.  This place is very popular, so if you want more solitude try…
  • The headland just south of Point Lobos:  If Pt Lobos is too crowded, go south to the very next headland, just past the public beach.  There is not much parking, but pull in on either side of the hill next to the highway.  A trail heads around on an ocean-side bench.  South of the hill, downhill toward the ocean, a bit of scrambling will take you down to a small beach. There are great tide pools. Back up on top of the bench, work your way around to the north to find all sorts of rocky foregrounds.
  • Lucia: The people at this little lodge south of Big Sur are very friendly and it is a world away from the hoity toity atmosphere of Carmel.  Their restaurant is perched well above the Pacific, with a view into a cove where sea otters play.  You’ll need a big telephoto to get photos of them though.
  • Carmel by the Sea: You’ll find plenty of eating and lodging options, all fairly spendy.  This is a fine town to stroll, but it’s crowded on holidays.  There is an oyster bar named Flaherty’s, so you know I had to visit (that’s my last name).  While it is necessarily more upscale than oyster bars should probably be (it’s Carmel after all), the food is good and the atmosphere not as stuffy as other places in this town.
  • Carmel Mission:  Especially nice if you are religious and want to attend one of the services, this old mission a few minutes west of Hwy. 1 towards Carmel by the Sea is worth a stop and a few photos.  It is well preserved.
  • Monterrey Bay Aquarium:  A can’t miss destination, this aquarium is regarded as one of the best in the country, if not the world.  It lies on the north side of the Monterrey Peninsula, facing the bay to the north.
  • Garland Ranch Regional Park:  This is a nice change from the coast, lying inland in the Carmel Valley about 10 miles from Hwy. 1.  Locals take their dogs for leash-free walks in this beautiful 4500-acre park.  It consists of valley bottom oaks and sycamores, but also ascends to 2000 feet (if you need real exercise).  There are historical remains, both American Indian and that of the Rancho Don Juan.  You can hike, bike or ride horseback on trails of varying lengths.  There is also a visitor center.
A couple walks the trails of Garland Ranch Regional Park in Monterrey County, California.

A couple walks the trails of Garland Ranch Regional Park in Monterrey County, California.

An old wagon sits on the grounds of the old Rancho Don Juan in the Garland Ranch Regional Park near Carmel, California.

An old wagon sits on the grounds of the old Rancho Don Juan in the Garland Ranch Regional Park near Carmel, California.

A simple but beautiful fly appears to be trying to figure out how to get the nectar from this cactus flower in the garden of Big Sur Coast Gallery.

A simple but beautiful fly appears to be trying to figure out how to get the nectar from this cactus flower in the garden of Big Sur Coast Gallery.

A waterfall on the California Coast near Big Sur drops directly into the Pacific.

A waterfall on the California Coast near Big Sur drops directly into the Pacific.

So that’s it for now.  It’s a pretty subjective report I know.  If you’re not really a photo or nature geek, I would recommend some further searching of more standard travel sites.  Just try to visit during an off week.

The rocky Monterrey County, California coastline includes some granite, which looks great with the low plants in December sunshine.

The rocky coast of Monterrey County, California includes granite, which looks great with the low plants in December sunshine.

Waves crash up onto the shore of the California Coast near Big Sur.

Waves crash up onto the shore of the California Coast near Big Sur.

Adios Mexico!   2 comments

 

A sailboat lies safely in Ensenada, Mexico's harbor.

A sailboat lies safely in Ensenada, Mexico’s harbor.

This is goodbye to Mexico, for now.  It’s a long drive to make it all the way home by Christmas.  I really like Mexico, and have to wonder about the reputation it has for not being safe.  While that might be true in Ciudad Juarez, and perhaps a few other places, it is most definitely not true in any general sense.  It is as safe as any country in the world, and the people are generous and friendly.  The food is good, the sun smiles nearly every day, and the girls are very pretty (I can’t speak for the guys, sorry ladies).  So if you haven’t been here yet, what are you waiting for?

An odd construction from whale bones stands on the waterfront in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico.

An odd construction from whale bones stands on the waterfront in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico.

I am leaving via Tecate, my preferred border crossing for Baja.  It is more direct to go through Tijuana, but that crossing is very crowded and this is a more scenic route.  The mountains just over the border in California are quite beautiful too.  I have decided I could be happy living in Ensenada.  I  met many nice people there, and I came close to tearing my heart a little bit in leaving one particular person.  A little longer, and…

Frequent any town square in Mexico and you will see clowns who often draw very large crowds.

Frequent any town square (zocalo) in Mexico and you’ll see clowns who often draw very large crowds.

So Adios Mexico, volvere algun dia (I’ll return someday).  Feliz Navidad everyone!

The rocky coastline of the northern Baja Peninsula in Mexico is a peaceful place to be at dusk.

The rocky coastline of the northern Baja Peninsula in Mexico is a peaceful place to be at dusk.

Ensenada City Guide II   4 comments

The Ensenada harbor hosts cruise ships, and on this night when fire works are planned, a fire boat entertains spectators on shore by spraying water.

The Ensenada harbor hosts cruise ships, and on this night when fire works are planned, a fire boat entertains spectators on shore by spraying water.

This is the second of two parts.  Scroll down for the first post.   Ensenada is not a big city.  I don’t know about the statistics, but it feels like a modest city or very large town.  I have always loved places of this size. Having been here a week, I am starting to see the some of the same folks.  They show recognition and are starting to wave and say Buenos Dias.  They probably think I’ve moved here. The citizens are good people here.

The Ensenada fish market shows off some of its more interesting offerings.

The Ensenada fish market shows off some of its more interesting offerings.

 The city center (el centro) is basically divided into two sections.  One is the waterfront, which extends a few blocks away from there towards the east.  This is the “Zona Turistica”, an area with signs in English, high-end shops, and restaurants with food that suit the palettes of Americans and other Anglo Saxon types.

The sun is kissing this jar of honey fo sale in Ensenada, Mexico.

The sun is kissing this jar of honey fo sale in Ensenada, Mexico.

The city’s prostitutes operate out of this section too, though streetwalkers are very rare. Instead, they hang out in strip bars and massage parlors. If you’re a man walking through this area, be prepared for local guys to offer you the services of young girls. I wonder why so many people assume that middle-aged white men want to make it with girls who could be their daughters, or even granddaughters. It’s very true in Asia as well, Thailand being infamous for it. Very disturbing.  All of that said, I very much enjoy seeing and photographing the pretty women of Mexico, both young and old.

Clowning around on the waterfront of Ensenada, Mexico.

Clowning around on the waterfront of Ensenada, Mexico.

The great thing about the tourist section is that, being the waterfront, locals use it heavily. Even when cruise ships arrive and disgorge their passengers, locals outnumber tourists.  This means there are taco stands, great local restaurants, and even a local coffee shop or two.  I’ve been frequenting a delightfully cozy little cafe in the same mall where Sanborn’s Cafe is located (look for their sign).  Called Cafe Italia, it’s mere steps north of the town’s Starbucks.

A young senorita smiles for the camera on a pretty December day on Ensenada, Mexico's waterfront.

A young senorita smiles for the camera on a pretty December day on Ensenada, Mexico’s waterfront.

Sadly, the Starbucks gets much more business, perhaps because it is streetfront on Lazaro Cardenas, the road that runs right along the waterfront.  My little cafe is sort of hidden away, but it’s worth finding.  Sanborn’s Cafe is a nice restaurant as well, with traditionally dressed waitresses.

Reddish madrone and granite make a pleasant color combination on a climb in Baja Norte, Mexico.

Reddish madrone and granite make a pleasant color combination on a climb in Baja California, Mexico.

Cruise ship passengers seem not to wander beyond the Zona Turistica.  Granted there is plenty to keep you here.  The malecon passes the fish market, which is alongside a row of seafood restaurants (convenient!).  You will be offered boat rides here, from whale watching to fishing trips.  There are the requisite tours that go to various places that I am not familiar with, but I have not heard of anything that really piques my interest.

Ogla, the waitress, dressed in nice traditional clothes, wants to know if I want more coffee.

Ogla, the waitress, who is dressed in nice traditional clothes, wants to know if I want more coffee.

 If you simply walk a few blocks further from the sea, you come upon cheaper shopping and a much more traditional Mexican vibe.  There is a Sears and a couple other department stores, but there are also many small shops where you can pick up clothes and other stuff at good prices.  I bought myself a sombrero, my very first cowboy hat, for only $17.  It’s very nice, and the same shop has high quality leather cowboy boots for much cheaper than you’d find them in the U.S.  Further down south, a little ways from the city center, American big box stores have opened (Walmart, Home Depot, Costco).

On the streets of Ensenada, Mexico, a dune buggy is freshly painted for Christmas.

On the streets of Ensenada, Mexico, a dune buggy is freshly painted for Christmas.

 In amongst the shops in the city center are a plethora of streetside eateries.  This is a big part of Mexican culture.  Walk down the street around lunchtime and pick a popular taco stand.  You’ll get tasty fresh-fish tacos for about a dollar.  And you will likely be serenaded by guitarists singing traditional Mexican songs.  Most everybody eats standing up in the shade of the stand.  Very often it is grandmothers making the tacos, and their grand-kids will usually be there if school is not in session.  Catch a Mexican when they are eating and you will always get a friendly attitude.  Food is the glue that binds people, especially families, together here.

Two good friends greet with a hug in Ensenada, Mexico.

Two good friends greet with a hug in Ensenada, Mexico.

 As far as nightlife goes, there are local favorites, such as Hussong’s Cantina a few blocks inland from the harbor.  Then there are the touristy places like Papas & Beer.  Dance clubs are also in this same area.  At about 10 p.m. on a weekend night, look for the lines to get in, young (and gorgeous) girls along with guys trying to be cool about it all. Policia are all about the area, but truth be told, this is a perfectly safe area, even at night.  Ensenada is not Tijuana.

The desert of Baja California Norte in Mexico is a seeming hodgepodge of odd-looking plants.

The desert of Baja California Norte in Mexico is a seeming hodgepodge of odd-looking plants.

Plenty of people from California take vacations down here in the summer.  But I really think Ensenada is by and large overlooked in favor of La Paz and Cabo to the south.  Many visitors to the Baja Peninsula fly to the southern resorts, and I can’t say anything bad about a quick and easy winter escape down there.  But if you have the time to drive down, or if you’re going by bus down the peninsula, Ensenada and the deserts of northern Baja California are certainly worth some time.

A young Mexican couple in love.

A young Mexican couple in love.

Moving on from Ensenada, you can head south via San Felipe over on the eastern side of the peninsula.  This involves some gravel road south of San Felipe, but it is very scenic and unpeopled.  And you get to see a lot of the Sea of Cortez, a more beautiful coastline I think than this part of the Pacific Coast.  You can always return north via the main paved highway, so as to visit Parque Nacional Sierra San Pedro Martir (see previous posts).  That’s all for Baja (I think). Hope you enjoyed it!

A fire boat sprays water into a colorful dusk sky in Ensenada, Mexico.

A fire boat sprays water into a colorful dusk sky in Ensenada, Mexico.

A Carnival cruise ship lies in Ensenada, Mexico's harbor.

A Carnival cruise ship lies in Ensenada, Mexico’s harbor.

Ensenada City Guide I   Leave a comment

Fishing boats and pleasure craft share the harbor at Ensenada, Mexico.

Fishing boats and pleasure craft share the harbor at Ensenada, Mexico.

I feel after being here a week (my second visit) that I can safely recommend some things for anyone planning a short visit to Ensenada, which is on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico a couple hour’s drive south of San Diego.  For someone planning to come for longer than a few days, perhaps I would need to stay longer, maybe a month.  That’s the way it works, at least for me.  I need to be in a place for awhile in order to speak intelligently about it, and then my thoughts are only good for a shorter visit than I had.  It’s something I recently discovered about travel.  Note that I don’t cover many of the standard attractions; do a quick internet search (e.g. Trip Adviser) for the standard sort of advice.

Everyone needs a hat: Ensenada, Mexico.

Everyone needs a hat: Ensenada, Mexico.

I’m finally posting some people pictures, though my last post actually talked about the people more.  Sort of a mismatch I realize, but it probably only bothers me, and not all that much at that.

A pretty girl on the streets of Ensenada, Mexico.

A pretty girl on the streets of Ensenada, Mexico.  Note the pay phone, a disappearing sight.

Ensenada, like so many places, grows on you.  Many people from San Diego or elsewhere in SoCal maintain a house down here.  And many of those end up retiring down here.  So it is slowly becoming more popular.  Sure, Loreto to the south on the Peninsula, along with other places in Mexico, are more popular retirement destinations.  Ensenada, after all, has a seedy side.  And there are not really any good beaches nearby.  But it is a superb place to have a boat, and the fishing is excellent.  It is also a very safe place to be in Mexico, which is pretty important these days.  And for an American, being so close to U.S. soil is downright convenient.

A man selling honey on the streets of Ensenada, Mexico laughs at a friend ribbing him.

A man selling honey on the streets of Ensenada, Mexico laughs at a friend ribbing him.

There is one little piece of Ensenada that I was missing, that is until I found one last night; that is, a brewpub.  On a recent walk near sunset (my favorite time to take a walk), I ran into a great microcerveceria, or microbrewery.  It’s called the Old Mission.  I was skeptical about the quality of their brew, but they proved me dead wrong on that score.  It is the first in Ensenada.  La Paz, Tijuana, Mexicali, they all have several brewpubs.

A plain wall and window are given a bit of color in Ensenada, Mexico.

A plain wall and window are given a bit of color in Ensenada, Mexico.

A good brewpub is something we take for granted now in the Pacific Northwest.  But in Mexico you cannot buy microbrews in the stores.  Tecate is like Budweiser, and that company even manages to keep out competitors like Pacifico (which is my favorite mass-produced beer in Mexico).  You can find Pacifico in cans, but the best kind, that is, in thick-glass returnable bottles, is rare indeed.

A glass lamp and the setting sun combine to make a miniature lighthouse in Ensenada, Mexico's fishing harbor.

A glass lamp and the setting sun combine to make a miniature lighthouse in Ensenada, Mexico’s fishing harbor.

The microcerveceria, which has only been open about a year, is a very well built place, with soaring ceilings made of good ol’ Oregon Doug fir beams.  It cost the owners a bundle to import them.  They serve good pizza, and a variety of very good Mexican dishes and pasta.  They serve a couple great IPAs, plus a few ales, including a brown and a red.  And unlike in the U.S. (at least the ones I’ve been to) this brewpub sells mixed drinks.  Prices are quite reasonable, what with the good exchange rate between American dollars and pesos.  A margarita goes for about $2.50, while pints are in the $3.00+ neighborhood.  Sadly, $1 beers are pretty much gone in most of Mexico.

Men selling honey (miel) in Ensenada, Mexico pass the time in a card game.

Men selling honey (miel) in Ensenada, Mexico pass the time in a card game.

This post has two parts.  Tune into the second of these tomorrow!

A walk up a desert wash on Mexico's Baja Peninsula reveals some nice surprises, including palm trees.

A walk up a desert wash on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula reveals some nice surprises, including palm trees.

Baja California III   2 comments

Along Ensenada, Mexico's waterfront are a number of places to eat fresh and cheap seafood (mariscos).

Along Ensenada, Mexico’s waterfront are a number of places to eat fresh and cheap seafood (mariscos).

This post is about some of my experiences with people here in Mexico.  I love the focus on family, and the mellow attitude most Mexicans have toward rules and regulations.  There seems to be too many Americans these days who are in love with rules and regs., official and otherwise, if it allows them to act with disdain towards people they come across during the day.  This is not very true in Mexico.  And on the Baja Peninsula, which is this country’s wild west, things are pretty relaxed.

Elephant Tree in Black and White

An elephant tree grows large in the desert of interior Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

 There is a general lack of people photographs here, and I apologize for that.  If you’ve read some of my posts from other countries you know I do not have an aversion to taking photos of people.  But for me it has to be the right atmosphere.

The enormous granite boulders of the northern Baja Peninsula desert catch the day's last light.

The enormous granite boulders of the northern Baja Peninsula desert catch the day’s last light.

I almost never do casual people photography in the U.S., or most other developed countries.  Most people do not like it, and they are harder to approach anyway.  When it seems right, I always ask, and almost always engage the person in conversation, with some laughs thrown in.  My goal is to loosen them up.

The northern Baja Peninsula in Mexico shows off some color after rains.

The northern Baja Peninsula in Mexico shows off some color after rains.

But sadly, Mexico is getting to be more and more similar to the U.S.  There is a sort of standoffish vibe here now, and it seems to get more and more prevalent with time.  Perhaps not coincidentally, I have noticed a real increase in the desire to shop and accumulate stuff in Mexico.  I think the same is happening in China, but I don’t have enough visits to that country, so as to make that observation.

This statue of a native warrior in Ensenada, Mexico has one heck of a headdress.

This statue of a native warrior in Ensenada, Mexico has one heck of a headdress.

But go into the rural areas of Baja, and you will meet friendly farmers, ranchers and woodcutters.  They survive on the edge, working a dry piece of land, or even living off broad stretches of land.  I’ve met a few of these folks – always men it seems.  Things are still very much traditional in rural Mexico (not just Baja).  There is a traditional division of labor between men and women, and the woman runs the house with real power.

The Riviera, an architectural landmark in Ensenada, Mexico, basks in golden late afternoon light.

The Riviera, an architectural landmark in Ensenada, Mexico, basks in golden late afternoon light.

Actually, I’m fascinated with the traditional, matriarchal senora of rural Mexico.  I’d love to do a photo essay one day.  Another great thing to do would be to take a horse or burro and travel down the length of Baja, staying well away from bigger towns and cities.  I wonder if my horse could do it?  A burro and walking would definitely work better, what with the lack of grazing.

The cactus in Baja California's desert take on vibrant reddish hues after a winter rainstorm.

The cactus in Baja California’s desert take on vibrant reddish hues after a winter rainstorm.

I have stayed in Ensenada for a few days now, getting something done.  I’ve started to discover the out-of-the-way places: the little corner deli with great sandwiches, the best streetside stand for shrimp tacos, the sections where families walk, as opposed to those where streetwalkers walk.  It is pretty cool for a traveler who is normally on the move to be somewhere for awhile, to begin to get to know the place.

There is green space along Ensenada's waterfront.

There is green space along Ensenada’s waterfront.

In Mexico, it is usual for the town or city to at first appear very ugly.  Trash on the streets, a sad, polluted and concrete-lined ditch that used to be a stream flowing down to the sea, houses made of sheet metal and plywood.  But if you hang around, you start to notice how people use the place, how they make the best of things.  Eventually you start to ignore the negatives and focus on the positives.  I wish I were better at this, but I’ve always been a neither glass half-full or half-empty sort of person.  I’m really in the middle, though the really bad stuff I have a habit of completely ignoring.

A type of gall growing on a desert plant in Mexico's Baja Peninsula resembles a Chrismtas ornament.

A type of gall growing on a desert plant in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula resembles a Christmas ornament.

Ensenada draws tourists.  There are a few big hotels here, and quasi-resorts line the rocky coast to the north.  Cruise ships actually call here, disgorging passengers to roam the streets where tequila and trouble await.  I’m always one to be drawn to the seedy side of town, at least for one late-night foray.  What can I say, I like living dangerously.  Last night I went out, and visited a very popular bar.  On a Tuesday night it was elbow to elbow with locals, all having a drink and listening to a mariachi band, who played with real spirit while being jostled by people weaving their way through the crowd.

The Riviera is an architectural landmark in Ensenada, Mexico.

The Riviera is an architectural landmark in Ensenada, Mexico.

Then I went to a not so popular club, with maybe a dozen men sitting and watching girls dance.  I had a couple lap-sitters come my way, angling for that expensive drink, or possibly more?  After pleasantries (I want to help them learn their English after all!), I sent them gently away.  In Mexico the girls generally do not take everything off, and some even strip down to nothing less than you see on many American streets, in broad daylight.  So it seems somehow a bit classier than the typical place in the U.S. (which I haven’t visited in many years).

There are numerous sculpted caves in the granite of Baja California's desert.

There are numerous sculpted caves in the granite of Baja California’s desert.

It’s funny to see Mexicans all dressed up in their winter clothes, as the temperature dips to 60.  Many are women who are taking the opportunity to wear fashionable stuff, the kind that only comes in cold-weather style.   They are quite image-conscious here, slightly more so than in the U.S. I would say.  Of course this goes for the single senoritas much more so than the settled senoras.  I think men are too, but in a totally different, more subtle way.  Or maybe I pay more attention to the women.  This isn’t to criticize, just an observation.

The town of Ensenada on Mexico's Baja Peninsula shows a nice face when the light is right.

The town of Ensenada on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula shows a nice face when the light is right.

The sun is out again, with clear blue skies after a stormy day yesterday.  So I will head out and try to get a few people pictures before posting this.  Thanks for reading!

The Baja California Desert in Mexico quietly bids goodbye to another day.

The Baja California Desert in Mexico quietly bids goodbye to another day.

I didn’t get any photos of people, though I met plenty today.  But I did get this photo of the Carnival ship that is docked in the harbor right now.

A Carnival cruise ship is docked in Ensenada, Mexico's harbor.

A Carnival cruise ship is docked in Ensenada, Mexico’s harbor.

 

The Ancient Ones V: Hopi Mesas   Leave a comment

While at Monument Valley (see previous two posts), I heard from a fellow traveler of the Hopi Mesas in northeast Arizona.  I was immediately intrigued.  I thought I had never heard of them, but later that evening I realized that the name rang a distant bell in my mind.  The reason for my interest at this moment was obvious to me.  This trip has had a theme that I never intended when I started out.  What had started out as a quest to photograph fall colors and wildlife has recently become a trip back in time, to those lonely mesas and canyons once inhabited by the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi).  I found only their ghosts in the stone pueblos and cliff dwellings.  While those experiences were certainly magical, they were somehow incomplete.

View from Third Mesa on the Hopi Reservation in NE Arizona.

The Ancient Ones did not disappear of course, but migrated to the west and south.  The modern Hopi, along with other tribes, are their descendants.  I realized on that last night in Monument Valley that I very much wanted to meet living and breathing Puebloans.  And so the thought of visiting the three mesas deep within the Hopi reservation had enormous appeal.  Add to this the fact that many Hopi continue to live traditionally, and the draw for me was great enough to take the long detour south. If you follow Arizona Highway 264, you will pass, from east to west, the First, Second and Third Mesas.  There are a total of 12 villages on the Hopi reservation, all centered in this region.  Further west, you’ll find Moenkopi, a village adjacent to the much more modern Tuba City.

The village of Oraibi has been continuously inhabited for nearly 800 years.

I approached the Hopi Mesas from the west, camping just before reaching Third Mesa.  In the morning, I drove into the village of Old Oraibi (pronounced “Oraivi”).  Oraibi (image above) is a unique village.  Native Americans have lived there since the 1100s.  That makes it one of this continent’s oldest continuously inhabited communities.  It was certainly one of the first places that the Ancestral Puebloans settled on their migration out from the Four Corners region. Oraibi lacks electrical power, though the lines pass a mere few hundred yards from its stone houses.  Some of the houses definitely remain as they were originally built nearly a thousand years ago.  Newer roofs, windows, and the like have been added of course, a few have solar panels on them, and there are generators.   But the walls, floors, interiors, and most of the woodwork is original.  The residents keep the interiors in a tidy original form as well.  They live in close accord with the rhythms of the sun and seasons, in peace and quiet away from modern intrusions.  I don’t want to exaggerate.  They also drive trucks, have occasional domestic and community disputes, and leave for school and jobs on the outside.

The First Mesa and the village of Walpi is visible from Second Mesa.

A Hopi man from Old Oraibi shows me one of his childhood swimming holes, a deep water pocket atop Third Mesa in Arizona.

As the lone tourist I attracted some attention as I drove in.  I quickly met a young man who directed me to a table of crafts for sale.  A few men sat carving kachina dolls and working on other artwork.  After a bit of talk, I wandered off.  I felt the eyes of the inhabitants keeping watch from their small windows.  I took a picture of an old uninhabited stone building, and was immediately approached by a woman in a Suburban.  She told me in a very stern manner that taking pictures was not allowed, nor was wandering alone.  So I apologized and put my camera away. I hitched on to a young man standing in a nearby doorway.  We spoke for awhile and I got the full story.  Some tourists have in the past abused the privilege of their visit.  They had snapped pictures of dances and ceremonies without permission, traipsed across sacred ground, and even collected shrine articles.  I was told that if I was caught taking pictures, my camera would be confiscated and held for 30 days.  30 days!  Needless to say I didn’t take any more photos.

Back at the crafts table, I was invited by one of the men for a walk to view some rock art.  Some of the petroglyphs were obviously very recent, but others looked old and were similar to those I had seen in the ancient sites.  We scrambled along the edge of the mesa, and he showed me the places where they played as children.  There are waterpockets on the top of the mesa.  These are natural depressions in the sandstone where water collects during summer thunderstorms.  Some were pretty big, and he told me they had played and swam in these natural swimming pools as children.  They hold water for quite some time after storms, and form a very important source of fresh water.

It was a beautiful morning, and it was a delightful walk.  I saw subtle features that would have escaped my notice if I was alone.  He allowed me to take some pictures, since we were away from the village.  I really enjoyed the personal and casual nature of the tour.   He showed me the old church, built by Mennonite missionaries during the Spanish expansion in this area.  Lightning had struck the church twice.  On the second occasion, it was mostly destroyed and all the worshippers inside killed.  I don’t need to tell you what this signified to the villagers who were resisting conversion.  He asked only a modest amount of money for his time, which I appreciated.

After bidding the guys goodbye, I drove down and back up to Second Mesa.  At the community center/museum, I ran into some trick or treaters (it was Halloween).  I just love native American children, the smaller the cuter.  The brother and sister posed for my camera, and the photo was not the best.  I did not re-position them in the shade, nor try for a better photo.  They were on a very important mission after all, and far be it from me to interrupt it.  I picked up a hitch-hiking older Hopi gentleman on the way back west to Tuba City.  I learned some things from him about their ways.

Two Hopi children from Second Mesa in Arizona are somewhat annoyed at having their trick or treating interrupted.

A young American Indian boy in Tuba City enjoys a Halloween hot dog and Charl knows just how often kids drop their food.

For instance, the coming of age rituals do not necessarily take place at a specific age.  The boys are initiated when they are ready; they’re not forced into it.  As in the old times, they are dry land farmers who do not irrigate their crops.  Instead they depend on natural rainfall and snow melt.  Thus their springtime rain dances and rituals still hold immense importance.  The god called Maasau (sp?), the guardian of the world, is responsible for the care of all animals, things and people, including outsiders like me.  In fact, elders will often give eagle feathers to outsiders who become close friends.  Eagle feathers are worn as protection, and one will last one year before it is replaced.   A very peaceful and gentle people the Hopi are.

When I got to Tuba City, I was approached by a slightly drunken man.  At first he cursed me, but I thought nothing of it.  I have seen enough drunk native Americans to know it is definitely the liquor with them, not their nature.  He needed a ride home, which was all the way back at the Mesas (an hour’s drive).  I didn’t want to backtrack, but was thinking of relenting when he admitted he had been coughing up blood.  So I took him to the emergency room instead.

I was going to leave Tuba City but the sight of so many cute trick or treaters made me stay awhile.  Towards sunset I visited a roadside stand that some families had set up.  They were serving free hamburgers and hot dogs to all trick or treaters, plus their parents.  I tried to pay them, having no costume after all, but they refused.  A woman even cooked me up some fry bread.  So I hung about for awhile, talking with various friendly folks.  I’m not certain but I believe both Navajos and Hopis live around Tuba City.  No matter, they are equally as friendly (though they apparently do not like each other, because of land disputes primarily).

I really hope I get the opportunity to come back and spend enough time to make real friends with some of these fine people.  They are poor but very giving, and very easy to talk to.  They are quite guarded about their religious beliefs and much of their people’s history.  But I think I could eventually be invited into their (very traditional) homes, eat with them, go horseback riding.  I might even one day be lucky enough to receive an eagle feather from an elder.  I could use all the protection (from myself?) that I can get!  Headed over toward the Grand Canyon!

Free hot dogs and burgers draw a crowd on Halloween evening in Tuba City, on Reservation land in northern Arizona.

The Ancient Ones IV: Hovenweep   2 comments

In Little Ruin Canyon the moon illuminates Square Tower, with Hovenweep Castle visible on the rim beyond.

A clan symbol etched into a wall at Painted Hand Pueblo in SW Colorado is of a figure bearing a torch.

This is getting to be quite the series of posts, and it’s because the ancients and their remnants in the Four Corners is just so darn cool!  There is a large swath of empty country along the SW Colorado/SE Utah border called Canyons of the Ancients.  It is a high plateau incised by shallow sandstone canyons, and is mostly preserved as Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, along with Hovenweep N.M.  Definitely you should visit the Anasazi Heritage Center near Cortez, CO to plan your visit.  They were very helpful.

One of my pioneer heroes, the famous western photographer William Henry Jackson, came here in 1874.  It was he who first used the name Hovenweep, which is a Ute word meaning deserted valley.  And that is what the main site at Hovenweep is, though it is more a canyon than a valley.  Little Ruin Canyon, as it’s called, is compact and scenic.  It is crowded with the stone towers for which the place is famous.  There is a strong atmosphere of desertion, a ghost-like feel.  All of the structures date from the 13th century, and all are well preserved in the desert air.  There is a 2-mile loop trail encircling the canyon, and it starts just in back of the visitor center.

I drove from the east down the beautiful McElmo Canyon, arriving at Hovenweep just after dark.  Since there was a moon and since I had slept until 10 a.m. next to Ship Rock (late night photography there), I was wide awake after dinner.  So I decided on a whim to hike the loop trail in the moonlight.  It was a magical time, and since nobody else was around I was able to get some interesting angles on the structures.  Way cool.  I almost expected to see the faint glow of a torch in the top of a tower, as a lone brave kept watch throughout the night.

This area has been inhabited by people since the ice age, but as with other evidence of the Ancestral Puebloans throughout the Four Corners Region, the 1100s and 1200s saw the population increase greatly.  At the same time, they built their elaborate stone pueblos.  At Hovenweep and in the adjacent Canyons of the Ancients, the people built a variety of towers as part of their pueblos.

The towers that make this place unique are mostly circular.  But there are also square, oval and D-shaped examples.  They are mostly built near springs, and many have a commanding view of the canyon approaches.  They also have line of sight communication with each other, at least when you consider smoke signals rising from them.  Whether they were used as lookouts (for enemies and/or prey animals), for communication, were ceremonial, or all of the above, we just don’t know for sure.  It’s hard not to be reminded of castles, however, when one sees them for the first time.  In fact, a few are named as such.  Hovenweep Castle, Cutthroat Castle, and a few others really did make me think of the tower-house castles of Europe, though on a much smaller scale of course.

Although there is not much evidence of warfare between clans in this area, it’s known that the area was, in the late 13th century, growing dry and getting crowded both.  Water, in the form of canyon-bottom springs, was a very precious resource, and worth protecting.  Although I have no doubt the towers were used for more than one thing, I think their spectacular locations (on canyon rims, on top of huge boulders, etc.) was certainly in part defensive.

The iconic towers of Hovenweep Castle, an Ancestral Puebloan site in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest.

Another interesting nugget I picked up, from a Hopi source no less, was that hawks and falcons were kept in the tops of the towers.  Now I had no idea that American Indians practiced falconry, currently or in ancient times.  So this is definitely an interesting avenue to explore.

After an awesome moonlight photo walk at Little Ruin Canyon, I left the visitor center area for an area that promised to be more peaceful come morning.  Though it was past midnight, I drove up County Road 10 and camped on the rim of a canyon near the Painted Hand Pueblo.  I was in the larger Canyons of the Ancients N.M. now.  At sunrise I hiked down the jeep track to the Cutthroat Site, which is at the head of a small canyon near a spring.

Along the San Juan River in southeastern Utah, a petroglyph panel over 100 feet long contains many drawings from a thousand years ago or more.

Being there alone, as the morning light rapidly grew in intensity, with only a curious rock wren for company, gave rise to some interesting feelings.  It was a bit sad, reflecting that these people had taken such care to build their secure homes, only to have to abandon them after only 2-3 generations.  I thought about the turkeys running around the place, the sound of kids playing, elders sitting in the shade, unable to travel much beyond home in this rugged country.

After coffee, I strolled down to Painted Hand.  Here there are several pictographs (painted) and petroglyphs (chiseled).  One symbol, the figure of a person with upraised arms, struck me as the emblem of a clan.  Later I learned this was so.  It really reminded me of  medieval coats of arms.  Again back to the castle analogy.  This is fascinating stuff!  As I traveled westward, away from Hovenweep, I followed the beautiful San Juan River into country in which it is much harder to find evidence of the Ancient Ones.  But even as I enter Navajo country, where it is modern American Indian culture you encounter, I will continue to search for their ancient art and their dwellings.

Hovenweep Castle in the Four Corners region of the U.S. stands silent under the stars. Jupiter is at lower right.

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