Category Archives: viaje

Chupacabras in Maine!

During my webby absence I did some traveling around the US, including a nice jaunt to Maine. While there, I took in the International Cryptozoology Museum, which is located in downtown Portland. I came on a good day because I was lucky enough to get a personal tour with Mr. Loren Coleman himself, who is the founder of the museum and is perhaps the most famous cryptozoologist in the United States.

Cryptozoology, if you don’t know, is the study of animals whose existence hasn’t yet been proven or which are thought to be extinct: dinosaurs, Big Foot, Ogopogo, my imaginary dog from 5th grade, etc. Keeping that in mind, I suppose it wasn’t too big of a surprise to me that Coleman keeps a small collection of chupacabras-related items in the old house of mysteries. But I was certainly happy that he does.
You probably don’t need me to tell you that chupacabras (chupar  “to suck” + cabra “goat” = goat sucker) are mythical creatures that were first reported in Puerto Rico in the mid-90s and which pop culture in the US usually associates with Mexico and Texas. The nasty little fellows are known for sucking the blood out of livestock—particularly goats. But what I loved about the museum’s collection on the topic is that beer bottle in the top photo: Cucapá Chupacabras Pale Ale. I had never heard of it before.
Apparently it’s a Mexican craft beer marketed to Americans who want the rich flavor of goat’s blood in the form of a cold, refreshing ale. So…drink up!
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Mi chanchito : Art museum patron is sucker for adorable pig

So I was down in Forest Park yesterday to check out Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea at the St. Louis Art Museum, and it was great. The show includes dozens of pieces of Mayan art related to the sea, rain, animals, and the gods that have never been shown in the United States before.

There are crocodile sculptures, funerary statues, duck-head vases, a pelican head…frankly it was a bit overwhelming because almost every piece has a rich mythic backstory and is executed with fine and complicated detailing. The whole time I was mesmerized by geometric configurations, stories of gods emerging from sharks, the idea of a cosmic turtle, and just how lovely a bloodletting ritual could be. Honestly, I need to go back to take it all in more fully. But I’m running out of time because the show is only in St. Louis until May 8…and then the world ends in 2012.

But it wasn’t until I hit the show’s gift shop that I became a true sucker. Usually I fly right past all the goodies laid out to tempt museum goers, but not this time. Delicately placed on a pedestal at the front of the store was a basket of adorable three-legged ceramic pigs from Chile called chanchitos. The name comes from the diminutive of chancho, which is a word in parts of Latin America for “pig” (both the four-legged version and the guy who your mother always warned you about). Normally the word chanchito refers to a piggy bank, but the chanchitos at the art museum were ceramic art obejects made in Pomaire, Chile that are exchanged between family and friends as good luck symbols. I was smitten and had to have one. And personally, I don’t think there is a luckier or more attractive swine than the one my wife and I picked out of that sales basket. (Though this Facebook page would take issue with us.)

Chanchito con sus nuevos amigos

Bringing our chanchito home made me do a little more investigation into Pomaire. The village is about 60 km west of Santiago and is home to some really amazing potters and pottery studios. It is also famous for its almost two-pound empanadas. My goodness, it’s almost lunch time and I’m ready to book a flight to Chile right now! (Here’s a great blog about the cuisine of the village and how to cure any cooking vessels you might buy there on a future trip.)

(Five-minute video en español on pottery arts in Pomaire).

Back to the Future

A few years back a friend of mine and his wife spent their honeymoon in Cuba…and I’ve been insanely jealous ever since. My problem is that I’m too much of a good boy to get there the way they did—illegally through Canada. And while I know there are ways to get to the island nation legally (international conference, press pass, science research), none of them are particularly tempting or feasible for this dilettante at the moment. But there is one group who’s been increasingly hitting the Communist country for fun in the sun legally. Russians.

Though Cuban-Russian relations soured after the fall of the iron curtain, the last five years have seen significant mending between the two countries. Cuba, in particular, has been using that rediscovered goodwill to court Russian tourists, particularly ones who have a nostalgic feeling for the good old days of Communism…but who also want a little sun with their Marxism.

According to Agence France-Presse, there was a 22% increase in Russian tourists to Cuba last year, and Cuban tourism officials expect to see as many as 45,000 Russians travel to the country this year. While that might not seem like a lot of folks just yet, it’s still more people than live in my hometown! And here’s hoping Americans like me can join them soon. Come on, Obama!

Links:

*Cuba Libre? (NPR story about lifting the restrictions for Americans)

*In Cuba, Russian Tourists Peer Into Soviet Past (NPR)

*Why Russian tourists are returning to Cuba (BBC TV)

*RIA Novosti short piece on Russian tourism in the first quarter of 2010.

Red Hot Americas

I hope to goodness that you’re watching the World Cup this year because it’s mighty exciting. Especially for us folks in the Americas. With only two days left in the opening round of the tournament, teams from the American hemisphere collectively have 12 wins, 5 draws, and only 3 losses (2 of which came from the highly disappointing Honduran National Team—I expected so much more from los Catrachos!). Uruguay, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and the United States have already advanced to the next round. Paraguay and Chile should join them on Thursday and Friday. Only Honduras is likely to be left out of the Round of 16 party. Wait…you say you didn’t know the US had qualified for the next round of the tournament? Really? Watch this…

While I hope the Yanks go far, I’m not naive enough to think they’ll win the whole thing (actually, maybe I am at the moment, but I’ll come back to Earth in a few days after the euphoria of that Donovan goal wears off). Brazil is always the favorite at these things, but I think folks should keep a close eye on Argentina. They’ve been clicking as a team already, and they’ve got one of the most exciting playmakers in the world on their team…Lionel Messi. And if it’s not the US, we want a Spanish-speaking country to win, ¿no?

Personally, I’ve been watching soccer ever since I took my first trip to Europe fifteen years ago. But if the sport doesn’t float your boat normally, I would still suggest checking out a few games or keeping on top of the latest action in the World Cup. Talking fútbol with folks is almost always a great way to break the ice with locals when you’re traveling anywhere outside of the US or Canada. Unless you support the wrong club team…then it might actually get your legs broken.

Edimburgo Part IV : ¿maíz escocés?

One of the more interesting day trips you can take from Edinburgh is to the quaint little village of Roslin. All you need is £1.20 to catch the #15 bus from the city center, and then just sit back and enjoy the 35-minute ride.

If you squint and make that 2 look more like a 1, this could be the number 15 bus!

But you won’t be the only tourist in Roslin. The village has seen an astounding increase in visitor traffic since 2003 when a little old book you’ve probably never heard of came out … The Da Vinci Code. I think they may have even made a film version of it starring some no-name actor and with some washed-up former child star as the director. But apparently a couple of people have heard of it, because they’re coming by the thousands to see Rosslyn Chapel, which plays a crucial role in Dan Brown’s thriller and which happens to be located in a green space next to the village of Roslin’s graveyard.

Now whether you believe all the hype about the Templars and buried esoteric treasures or not, Rosslyn Chapel is a beautiful 15th-century structure with amazing stone carvings and is really worth a visit. Vices and virtues are on display, vines grow out of the mouths of little men, dragons surround pillars, and the devil even makes an appearance as a fallen angel. There also just might be some carvings along an arch of … corn?

Some folks posit that those chunky things with crowns and little beady things running up and down them are supposed to represent the stuff. But if that’s the case, then there is a mystery going on with this chapel that has nothing to do with any grail.

El maíz, as we all know, is a wonderful domestic grass that was cultivated by the Mayans and Aztecs throughout large parts of what is now Mexico well before any Europeans arrived in the area and shook up the place. It now stands as one of the most important grains in practically every culture in the Americas and is used in cuisines throughout the world. Heck, thanks to high fructose syrup and big agra, it now forms the bulk of the American diet. Oh, and I love the stuff! Not just because I’m a native Hoosier, but because it just plain tastes good.

The problem is that Europeans had—in theory—never seen, tasted, or heard of the stuff when the carvings at Rosslyn Chapel were made. So if those really are images of corn at the chapel … WTF??? (As the kids would say.)

Edimburgo Part III : Museum of Childhood

One of the best things about Edinburgh is that it has a slew of quirky museums, almost all of which are free to the public. One of my favorites is the Museum of Childhood. Not surprisingly, it has a huge collection of material goods associated with children—everything from prams and bottles to toys and games. One large room in the museum is devoted to dolls. And while most of the pieces in it are from the UK—as are the bulk of items from the museum as a whole—there is a little section tucked away in a corner with dolls and figures from outside Britain and Europe. Of interest to me, of course, were a couple of figures from Latin America. (Sorry for the reflection of this old boy’s hand in the photo!)

The one on the left is described as a “Mexican grotesque figure” from the 1960s. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to find out that it is from the Day of the Dead festival. I found it to be an interesting juxtaposition to all the lovely dolls in dresses and nice hats that otherwise fill the museum’s doll room!

The one on the right is a stone figure found at a child’s grave in Peru. No other information is given, which leaves my mind reeling.

Edimburgo Part II : Monkey Puzzle Tree

Part of the reason I was in Scotland was to catch up with my wife who was taking part in a botanical conference there. As part of her work in the UK, we were given a short tour of Benmore Botanic Garden, which is near the Firth of Clyde and is part of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh‘s system of gardens. One of the prized features of Benmore is their Chilean Rainforest Glade, which the Garden undertook as a project in 1995. The following is my poor photograph of part of this area at Benmore.

This collection of Chilean flora includes all nine of the Chilean conifers, but the coolest one is that guy in the lower right hand corner, la araucaria or in English … the monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana).

Monkey puzzles naturally occur in the south-central regions of the Andes in Argentina and Chile, but they became very popular garden trees in Great Britain beginning in the 19th century. Apparently there are also some in the coastal areas of the US as well, but I had never even heard of the tree before going to Benmore.

Monkey puzzles are considered sacred by some Mapuche tribes in Chile. They are also sometimes used for wood, but are more important as a food resource. Their seeds are edible and similar to pine nuts. Amazingly, however, trees don’t yield seeds until they are around 30 or 40 years old! But that’s still adolescence for a monkey puzzle tree; they can survive for upwards of 1,000 years. But the best thing about a monkey puzzle tree, of course, is its name. It seems to come from 19th-century England when a young owner remarked that the tree’s odd shape and reptilian design would make a monkey puzzle how to climb it. It also leads to many British school children mimicking monkey sounds when touring the garden (an event I’ve witnessed first hand!).