Thursday, December 03, 2009

Ho Ho Ho from the Holiday Market!

OK, I know I haven’t been blogging lately and the reason can be summed up in two words: Union Square. Actually four words: Union Square Holiday Market. The biggest holiday market in NYC and an event that Maruska (my business partner) and I have been gearing up for for the last year. So the past 6 weeks have been filled with papier mache, sewing, printing shirts, more sewing and general planning for this big event.
The Union Square Holiday Market is a month-long market in the style of a German Christmas market. Little booths with lots of interesting stuff to buy and eat. There are a lot of designers and artists who sell unique items perfect for any Xmas wish list. It may cost you a little more, but it’s definitely worth it since most of things you find here are a) one of a kind and b) handmade by local people (like myself). Resist the mind-numbness of mall shopping and get your ass to this market or one like it near you.
We opened a week ago and so far it’s been pretty good. A little slow but that’s to be expected (as the veterans have been telling us). They say the last two weeks will be really crazy so that’s what I am getting ready for. Maruska and I have one of the most welcoming and colorful booths in the market loaded with great stuff—t-shirts, pajamas, quilts and blankets for babies, Diva Kitties, original art, ornaments, and so on. My latest animal, the tiger is looking to be a hot seller for me. Next week, I’ll be debuting a giraffe design which should be fabulous.
What I love about the market is that it’s like a little village full of friendly people that you get to see every day. I know many of the vendors around us from other markets and those I don’t know, we are already buddies. Besides Belle, the jeweler and Jensen the textile designer, there’s Sister Kristina from Belarus selling Russian laquer boxes, ornaments and matroshki for the monastery where she works. Of course she and I blab in Russian all day. She’s not a real nun but works at the St. Elisabeth monastery in Minsk. They sent her because she personable and knows English. Actually I’ve been speaking a lot of Russian at the market. Besides Kristina, there’s Azamat and Hamid, two young students from Tajikistan selling Pillow Pets. Oh those Christmas jobs! All the Russian speaking opened up a door with Lisa who sells jewelry across from us. Turns out she and I lived in Russia at the same time. Small world huh? She and I ran in different crowds. I was more in with the Russian students who came over to find work and she was more corporate, working for Saachi and Saachi, a high-falootin’ ad agency. Still we have good reminiscing time when it’s slow. On the other side of us is the Viking cuisine and Dezign Mind booth. Run by Klaus and Tina, the Viking cuisine is basically hearty food like meatballs with potato salad, rice pudding and little hamburgers. Klaus is the showcase of that booth, where he and his girls cook up a storm all day in the Viking hats. Dezign Mind is Tina’s booth full of things from Bali: toys, ornaments boxes, masks, etc. The biggest draw is the wooden frog toy that you make rabbit by stroking its back with a stick. So besides the smell of meatballs all day, we hear croaking frogs too. We’ve already grown accustomed to it all.
Besides working at the market all day, I’ve still been teaching ESL two nights a week at Brooklyn College. Monday, I’m having my students come to the market to do a Scavenger Hunt, using their English skills to find out information and to have a chance to get out of Brooklyn. They belly ache about taking the subway and all, but I assured them that they’re going to have a good time—and they will, once they get here.
So here it is a Thursday morning, the beginning of the second week for us. Before I know it, we’ll be finished and resting at home on Christmas Day. The weather has gotten quite warm today, in the 60’s, so that should bring out the shoppers. Look out for more pictures and news from the market in the next weeks!

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Chilling on the Isla

Cold, grey, rainy New York looms outside my window. The beginning of May and we are a water logged city. Can I click my heels, snap my fingers, blink my eyes, anything to be back on Isla Mujeres?
SNAP! BLINK! CLICK! Aaah Isla Mujeres where the only worry seems to be whether you want to swim or snorkel. 20 minutes ferry ride from resort hell and there you are on this little island where the Mexicans go to relax and the foreigners who like the local pace come for some R&R from their hectic other lives.
Brooks and I got a room at the Posada Del Mar hotel right across the street from the beach for a few days of relaxation. The hotel is more quaint on the website but they’re making it bigger so there was construction going on all around us. Old pictures can be foolish. Still, the hotel was full of people from all over who make an annual pilgrimage to the Isla who were happy to be there despite the mess and banging of builders.
A lot can happen in 3 days in sleepy little place like Isla Mujeres. Lots to do: snorkeling, scuba diving, boating, driving around on a golf cart, paragliding, the list goes on. But I was happy just making my way across the street to the beach and laying under an umbrella all day reading a book. So that’s what I did. Now and then I’d jump in the water to cool off in the turquoise blue sea.
During the day, the Isla is crowded with obnoxious tourists coming over from their resort hells on big katamarans or party boats. They swim, do lunch, drink, shop and (fortunately) go back from whence they came by the end of the day. The rest of us take naps, sip drinks at sunset on the beach and then run into each other on Hidalgo, the long pedestrian street with all the restaurants, bars and shops. Despite the small size of the island, one could still remain anonymous if they wanted. Being inconspicuous and anonymous has always been hard for me so by day 2 we knew half the town. Daniel from Denver, Mindy from Minnesota, Rob and Jennifer from Buffalo, a hot black mama from Atlanta (I called her Boney M), Jill from Ft. Laud, a couple from San Francisco. We were all escaping our regular routines, getting off our merry-go-rounds and doing something totally different for a week or so.
A bright, colorful little place full of friendly people, Isla Mujeres has been able to stave off the resort hell-itis that plagues Cancun across the sea. Though some of that ugliness has popped up here and there around the island, it still remains a haven of peace and tranquility. One day an ugly family from Long Island caused quite a ruckus on the beach and were sent packing back to Cancun. Bad energy is not welcomed here!
My three days here helped suffice a long held dream of going away to Tahiti, laying on a beach reading a book under a palm tree and not having to know anyone or do anything. Tahiti is still a dream but seems so far away compared to a 4 hr flight to Cancun. Will Isla Mujeres be my new Tahiti? Could be.

Lazy Sunday in Merida

On Sundays in Merida, close off streets, open up the Zocalo to the pedestrians and have a ball. A market is set up on the square with lots of interesting things to buy: hats, wuipas, ceramics, paintings, jewelry, etc. All around the outside of the Zocalo are delicious food stands selling all sorts of great food. The locals and tourists linger at tables, eating, socializing and enjoying a quiet Sunday. In Santa Lucia park, a band sets up and people come to dance the afternoon away. Mostly older couples, these people can really cut a rug! All dressed up in their finery, they come to socialize, strut and court the ladies, flirt and coyishly refuse the invitations to dance (until finally saying yes), fan themselves and gossip, to see and be seen. Families ride bikes up and down the Prospect Mejor which is closed to traffic, artists sell their paintings all up and down the wide boulevard. What better way to spend a Sunday right? Brooks and I enjoyed this happy Sunday until we had to get on our bus to Cancun and then to Isla Mujeres.

Friday, May 01, 2009

I'm Ruined Part 2-The Road Trip To Uxmal

My $19 a day rent a car suddenly tripled due to insurance (hey better than getting in an accident and sitting in jail) so I figured I might as well use it to its full capacity while I had it. Saturday morning, Brooks and I were up early and on the road to Uxmal (pronounced OOshmal for all you rubes) another one of the many Mayan ruins that dot the Yucatan peninsula. About an hour from Merida, Uxmal is in the hilly part of the Yucatan and a hidden gem of a place. Definitely my favorite of the ruins I saw. Not only for its lack of tourists but for its layout and preserved state. Plus the legend that it was created over night by a dwarf scorcerer adds to the charm. Once again I walked around agog and thinking, boy did the Spanish fuck things up. For a civilization to plan and execute building on such a massive scale, and that most of the buildings still remain intact is just a wonder. Many of the buildings at Uxmal have intricate designs on the facades and amazing bas reliefs. How they pieced this all together to make it last so long is amazing. Brooks and I wandered the ruins in awe, stopping now and then in the shade to rest and drink some water on this very hot day. The grand pyramid loomed before us as we entered. Behind that were three courtyards of rather large scale which were quite impressive. Unlike Chichen Itza, Uxmal doesn’t have any echo tricks so no one was clapping (Thank God). We meandered through the courtyards, down to the ball court (smaller than the one at C.I.) and up a massive staircase to the Governor’s Palace. Perched on a hill, the governor could keep an eye on all his people as they went about their business. I wondered what the inside must have been like in its heyday for now the interior was a cold, damp, stinky, dark place with bats. You could hear them squeaking as you glanced inside. The smell of guano and mildew kept you out though. After climbing the steep stairs of the grand pyramid, the mid-day heat was beginning to get to us so we made our way back to the entrance for some cold water and our AC-ed rental. Being the Yucatecan food connoisseur, Brooks knew of a restaurant known for its Poc Chuc--pork marinated in sour oranges and achiote and cooked to deliciousness. El Principe Tutul-Xiu in Mani was THE place to go for Poc Chuc so off we went down the road to Mani. Driving through small towns, we got a glimpse of everyday village life: big churches on main squares, houses in vivid colours of pink, turquoise, yellow and sky blue, men on 3-wheeled bicycles carrying goods or people, children playing in the streets staring and waving as we drove by, dogs lazily asleep in the shade of a tree. When we got to Mani, the place was dead. Lunch time siesta was in full swing, everyone inside hiding from the blazing sun. All the action was at El Principe Tutul-Xiu as far as we could see. We got a table in the shade of a giant palapa and ordered up some Poc Chuc, Relleno Negro (turkey cooked in a black chili sauce which looks like motor oil) and beers. The Poc Chuc was amazing, the Relleno Negro good too but not fantastic. Tutul-Xiu has a branch in Merida but this is the original restaurant and definitely worth the drive down to take in the local flavor and savor this amazing pork dish. Besides Mayan ruins, the other thing to do here is go swimming in a cenote (that’s se-NO-tay for the same rubes). After our lunch we drove off down a country road, through more villages to a cenote that was recommended to us. Instead of taking the main road, we decided to take a little two laned road in the middle of nowhere, twisting and turning through the countryside. I didn’t know if we were on the right road but I knew we were going in the right direction. Now and then we’d meet another car coming from the opposite way so we knew we must be going toward some sort of civilization. Mexican maps aren’t always clear, nor are the signs so you have to ask people to make sure you’re going the right way. Lo and behold, we ran into our cenote place almost by accident. In a small town that used to be a booming henequen plantation, it’s main allure now is the cenote tour. The small town is dominated by a crumbling hacienda and factory where they processed the henequen (an agave-like plant used for making rope—big business here back in the shipping days). There are a set of mini train tracks that lead out into the fields where henequen was grown. Back in the day, they would load up the henequen on horse-pulled carts and transport it to the end of the line at the processing factory. Nowadays, this rail is used to take avid swimmers to the three cenotes on this vast swath of land once owned by some mighty rich person. Brooks and I piled onto our little cart driven by a man and his son, pulled by a skinny little horse who seemed unenthused about making another trek to the cenotes. It’s a single track so when you meet someone coming the other way, the drivers figure out who is going to take their cart off the track. Once it is figured out, you get out of the cart, the driver pulls the cart off the track, lets the other one pass, then plops your cart back on the track and away you go. The carts are really big sleds on rail wheels, not heavy at all. I forgot to tell you what a cenote is—an underground pool. The Yucatan has many a cenote to visit and they make a nice swimming reprieve to a hot day of touring. This tour was special because you got to go to three cenotes to swim. Turquoise pools of water underground in caverns dotted by stalagtites and beams of sunlight shining through, the cenotes are a little scary but overall a great place to swim. The first one was rather deep (about 70 feet) and dark in the corners so Brooks and I didn’t enjoy it as much as the second or third. Descending down wooden stairs or ladders in some cases deep into the earth we took cooled down from a long hot day of touring in the cool waters of the cenotes. The second one was my favorite, the third was the most treacherous, climbing down a ladder into the dark unknown, trying to keep your grip on the ladder and towel and not slip off. Along the way we would meet other swimmers, families of all sizes having a ball swimming underground. I imagined ladies of the hacienda taking rides out here back in the day to be
lowered down into the pools, swimming in Victorian era bathing suits, making an entire day of it. In our case we only had about 1.5 hour to see all three as the sun gently began its descent into evening. The ride back was magical, the clopping of the hooves, the golden sunset behind us, the gentle rumble of the rails and swaying of the cart. I can’t tell you where this place is, but I can show you on a map. Brooks knows the name of the place—we’ll ask him. Never a dull moment in Merida, we headed back into town just in time to get dressed and head down to the square for the Saturday night concert. More dancers, singers and musicians, food stalls serving up fantastic food: elotes, tacos, tamales, esquites, marquesitas, sopas, and much more. A fun night for the whole town. Women sang along with the singers, children ran around or sat obediently with their parents watching the show, families ate and listened to the music. We Americans have such a skewed vision of Mexico which is a real shame, because here is the real Mexico and it’s so much like us. Too bad more people can’t get passed the stereotype. Or maybe it’s a good thing, why bring narrow-minded people here to this fabulous party and ruin it. My final night in Merida was coming to a close. Tomorrow, Brooks and I were heading to the beach at Isla Mujeres—a gem of an island off the coast of resort hell (Cancun).

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

I'm Ruined Part 1-Road trip to Chichen Itza

When one is on the Yucatan Peninsula, there’s two things they must do—go to the beach and the ruins. Chichen Itza is the granddaddy of all the Mayan ruins and about an hour down the road from Merida. There are various ways of getting there and I decided to rent a car. After the 4 hr journey from Cancun, I wasn’t in the mood to hop on another bus. Plus I like the freedom a car brings. Online I found a really cheap rate but after the insurance and taxes, it wasn’t that cheap. Oh the price of freedom huh? Better pay more than sit in a Mexican jail.
I wanted to get the car early so I could get to Chichen Itza before the heat of the day. Of course being Mexico that wasn’t going to happen. Instead of an 8:00 start, it was more like 9:00. The Hertz girl was late, so I went to eat breakfast, we had to wait for the car to arrive from another location, and so on. I kept my inner Brooklyn at bay and repeated the “This is Mexico, go with it” mantra and was just fine. Worse comes to worse I just add more sunscreen and drink more water. So by 9:00 I was on my way to the famed ruins of Chichen Itza.
Speeding down the highway to the C.I. turnoff, there’s not much really to see. The drive is through flat, drab scrub land. Occasionally there’d be a fire for the locals like to burn plots of land for some reason. Maybe for farming or to promote new growth. Besides being nothing interesting to see, there’s no roadside stops or gas stations either. As the gas tank edged closer to empty, I hoped there was a gas station near Chichen Itza or I’d be walking home. Fortunately in the town of Pisto near the ruins I was able to fill er up.
I had a bit of trepidation going to ancient ruins after my four-day trip to Angkor Wat so fresh in my mind. Would they all blend together like an ancient civilization milkshake in my mind? Would I be underwhelmed by Chichen Itza? There was only one way to find out. I pulled into the parking lot and made my way through the tour buses and crowds to the ticket booth. The entrance to Chcihen Itza is like a circus; groups of tourists waiting, Mayans protesting the exploitation of their ancestral home, a big souvenir market. I ignored it all and just walked up to the ticket booth, got my ticket and went inside. No need to be with a tour guide, I have an aversion to them since my Russia days. If I needed information, I’d buy a guide book inside (which I did).
Part of getting in to the place is wearing a day-glo wrist band that says “Chichen Itza” on it. Branded like a calf with my temporary accessory, in I went to view the ruins. There it was smack in my face upon entry, the famed pyramid that is familiar the world over. I expected it to be bigger but still was impressed by its construction and the fact that it’s still standing strong after all these centuries. Bummer that you can no longer climb to the top of it. A rather daunting task, given the tiny steps and the steep grade. I’m sure many a tourist has fallen from those stairs. Groups of tourists from Cancun were all there for the day, each nationality easily spotted—the Brits, the Germans, the French, the Italians, the Americans (always the fattest). Moving about in clumps with their guides, I would sometimes sidle up to listen for a bit before moving on. Chichen Itza is very impressive. As I walked through all the ruins, one thought kept going through my head: “The Spanish really fucked things up”. Well they did. If there weren’t so narrow minded and embraced this pretty advanced culture, things would have turned out so much better for the Mayans and their culture would probably have still been around prominently today. Instead they had to destroy their buildings, books and force the locals to convert to Catholocism. Well, there’s no way to turn back time now. I was impressed with how advanced the Mayans were. The had an observatory to study the stars, a school of philosophy, written books, a code of hieroglyphics and an interesting outlook on life. If they could’ve just given up the more barbaric things like human sacrifices and beheadings, I’m sure they get along just fine with the Spanish.
At the pyramid and the ball court (my favorite spot) the guides tell people that if they clap, it will echo 7 times. So as you walk around the ruins, you a trailed by a cacophony of clapping, so much of it that you never do hear an echo. Rather funny. Chichen Itza is more than just that big pyramid—a sprawling complex of interesting buildings and temples. I toured all of them until the mid-day sun zapped me of all energy and interest in Mayan ruins. So after a cool drink in the shade and a walk through of the souvenir market, I hopped back in my car and headed back to Merida via Izamal, a small colonial era town known for its convent and yellow colour.
I always believe in taking a different road home so instead of getting back on the toll highway, I took the backroads which proved to be more interesting. Sleepy little towns with brightly coloured houses, gardens, palapas (Mayan houses of wood and thatched roofs), people lazing about in hammocks, children riding bicycles waving at me as I passed. For the most part, there wasn’t much life going on in many of the villages. Being mid-day, everyone was inside out of the heavy rays of an unforgiving sun. I’m sure closer to evening the little villages come alive again but I was not going to see that today.
Izamal didn’t underwhlem me in the least. A gorgeous little town of yellow ocher buildings surrounding a big convent/cathedral on a hill in the center of town. I don’t know whose idea it was to paint the town yellow but it works. It’s especially impressive with a blue sky as a backdrop. Izamal too was rather quiet, with a few clumps of tourists to be seen walking around the convent. To my dismay, my camera batteries died in Izamal so I wasn’t able to snap away as I would have liked. Still I got osome pictures of the church and yellow buildings around it. After my little tour, I sat down to lunch in the marketplace across the street from the convent in a little cafĂ© Los Portales for a carne asada lunch and a grand view of the square. The lunch was very good, I loved the homemade hot sauce of habaneros and sour oranges—two local staples in a lot of the cooking here. As the sun began its descent toward the west, I followed it through more quiet towns on country roads back to Merida.
After leaving Brooks all day to work inside, we decided to take advantage of the car and drive to Progreso, a town on the coast 30 mins away from Merida for a swim and dinner. When in the Yucatan, apparently, one must go to Progreso for fried fish. So after a swim in the warm Gulf of Mexico, we dined on whole fried fish, washed back with cold Victoria beer at Flamingos (one of Brooks’ Progreso eateries). We strolled along the promenade post dinner among all the locals who were hanging out as we were doing, past the marquesita and elote sellers, past the carnival with the Ferris Wheel all aglow, past the excited children with their parents. We drove home around 10, back to a Merida just coming alive with activity. A long day indeed for me but oh so enjoyable.