Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Merida, Maya, Mexico: A Journey in Language Immersion

 My focus and near canvassing of the entire country of Spain over the past five years and interest for varied cultural expressions make me yearn for more of the Spanish influenced world and especially our neighbor to the south, the vast and diverse beautiful country of Mexico. It also helps that I have increasingly been gaining a lot of Spanish speaking friends here in Madison, both at work and social situations.

To begin my foray into learning Spanish I thought a short formal introduction would be in order; where else to do so than nearby Mexico, where I could combine a short vacation with a studious immersion into a new cultural experience. Packing another layer into this planned experience, I settled for a place that also preserves a veritable indigenous culture that is living and breathing and not just a relic of the past, the Maya people and their culture.

This was why Merida, the capital city of the state of Yucatan, in southeast Mexico was the perfect choice. I paired
this off with a choice to attend the Spanish immersion course at the Spanish Center Merida, a school that is run very efficiently by professionally certified Spanish language teachers. To close the loop, I also chose to be accommodated in a Spanish speaking family home for informal day to day interaction in the language and culture of the people as they go about their regular life. Perfecto!

Arriving late Sunday evening at the Manuel Crescencio Rejon International Airport and clearing the
custom and immigration protocol in a matter of minutes, I was picked up by Siegmar,  director of the Spanish language school, Spanish Center Merida, who drove me across town to the home of my host family in Colonia Itzimna.

The next morning, my host family walked me the four blocks to the Spanish Center Merida, pointing out the land marks around, especially the Colonia Itzimna square that is very well kept with an old but well maintained church that seems to be the center of activities in all the Colonia (district) squares dotting the city. The Spanish Center Merida is tucked in a quiet mixed office and residential neighborhood on 13th Street.  Its an immaculate building, with broad paintings on its clear white walls, well ventilated and spotlessly clean. It features many classrooms upstairs and a big hall downstairs with a bank of computers for language lab activities set to one corner overlooking a small swimming pool set right next to the back porch door. There is a melding of homeliness as well as class room officialdom about the space, very ambient for study and occasional relaxation for needed breaks.

Being off-season, I had two professors to myself, working me through grammar, comprehension, phonetics, writing and the nuances that a beginner needs to have a good grasp to make the language learning an enjoyable experience. Profesoras Tatiana and Telma, who are professionally certified educators not only know the subject very well, but have a great deal of experience teaching foreigners whose culture and language background are markedly different from Spanish-nuanced Mexican culture.

Not sure what to expect initially I was surprised when they launched right into Spanish in their
classroom instructions with me. When the shock wore off, I realized that in a Spanish language immersion course, it was the best way to learn the language rather than the irony of being taught Spanish in English. With that mental adjustment it surprisingly became easier following and comprehending the instructions in Spanish. That truthfully surprised me. To ensure the knowledge they were imparting were sinking in, we ended everyday with home work, or Tarea as it is called that I was assigned to be turned in the next day.

The informal part of the immersion program continued at home as I chat with my host family over lunches and dinners and routine house banter. We also regularly drove around town visiting cultural sights, malls, plazas and neighborhood concert venues around the city. The exposure and hearing people speak and interact without affectation reinforced the formal lessons in language and culture earlier discussed in class.

It was an unforgettable even if eerie experience to think, talk and carry on daily tasks in a language you are not conversant. But it challenged me to communicate differently and forego that which I could not easily express. It also reinforced the age old truism that you long comprehend a language before you could actually speak it. Slowly people I encountered on the streets started reacting to me very positively on noticing my attempts to reach out and communicate in their language. Especially folks at the stores I frequented, bus and cab drivers as well as regular folks I ask directions on walking about town.

Not once did I get a negative reaction from anyone, not even the stare strangers occasionally got in foreign lands. To the credit of Merida, I find the people extremely friendly, polite and the city was particularly very safe and easy to navigate, day or night. Believe me, I tested the limit and came out very impressed.

The cultural hub of the city centered around the downtown district formally known as Centro  The grid pattern, age of the building and general ambience of El Centro leaves no doubt that that was were the city originated and thrived before its further expansion in all directions. The core of this historic district is the Plaza Grande, which is the central plaza with all the primary institutions that stamp the officialdom of the city from the ancient times to the present day. On different sides of the big square plaza looking in are the Cathedral of San  Idelfonso,  that was built between 1561 and 1598 and reputed to be the the oldest cathedral on the American continent. It was like a phoenix that was built with stones from ruined Mayan temples and pyramids.
Historico (historic center) or simply as El Centro.

The 16th century Spanish conqueror and ‘founder’ of Merida has his family house, Casa de Montejo overlooking the square from the south flank. The original façade of the house is still intact but pats of the interior now contain a bank and an obvious museum preserving its history.

On the north and western flank of the square facing into the plaza is the Governor’s office and the city hall or the Palacio Municipal. Inside the interior walls of the Governor’s office building are elaborate murals depicting various historical scenes from the history of the city of Merida.

As expected, the Plaza Grande is ringed with shops and restaurants and other entertainment venues that draw scores of city folks and both domestic and international tourists to soak in its vibrancy and charm. The relaxed life and pace of the city is most noticeable at night as hundreds of people lounge around the plaza, shooting breeze or enjoying a love rendezvous, in unique chairs that are made of concrete and linked together for direct private conversation or stolen kisses right there in the open. On Sunday evenings, elaborate stages are set up at one flank of the plaza featuring live bands and public dancing that further confirms that the people know when to let their hair down and make merry until the start of the next week.

It is said that over 60% of the residents of the city are of the Maya indigenous heritage. The evidence
is so obvious by the distinct features that are noticeable. But of course not every one of those has total Mayan blood so you could also notice a blend of multi-ethnic features of others. There is no mistaking the fact that all of the people are proud of their city and generally have the same welcoming embrace towards guests in their midst.

Without prompting as I took in the gentle breeze caressing the Plaza Grande,  some Mayan folks sat near me and noticing that I am a foreigner took time to tell me about their culture, their struggle with non-Mayan Mexicans who some curiously referred to as Mexicans, as though they are distinct from them, and also proudly expressed the reach of the Mayan culture that extends southward beyond Mexico into Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and other neighboring Mexican states of Campeche, Quintana Roo and Chiapas. They recommended some of their meals that I must try, as I indeed had tried and enjoyed Pollo Pibil and Huevos Motulenos. They capped our conversation with a recommendation that I buy and take a Hammock home with me to to the USA.

To further appreciate the Mayan culture and life even without visiting their intricate pyramids and other structures are Parque Las Americas (The Americas Park) and the Maya Museum. This not even counting the intricate Maya sculptures at roundabouts and major road intersections in the city. I will definitely return to Merida.

Postscript: Forgot to properly set my camera date stamp, which stamped 2008 on the pictures. That is wrong. The pictures were all taken in April 2013.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Orient Express: Last Stop In Istanbul

You probably have heard of the world famous Orient Express either in movies, historical references, literature (Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express) or just in popular culture. Well, I was right inside one of the pioneering international train’s most popular stops, indeed, the final stop, Sirkeci Gari or Istanbul terminus (Istanbul Gar). 

I was giddy approaching the ornate building of the train station on sighting a sturdy locomotive engine parked invitingly by the outside walls of the majestice edifice and got more excited when I made it through the the main door with the inscription Istanbul Gar and wandered into the hall where passengers waited to catch their trains, studied the intricate patterns of the interior orientalist-architecture, played with various memorabilia that were once functional items  both in the stop and inside the trains and reviewed magical photographs of the epoch when luxury travel oozed opulence.. The bells, the plates, glasses, wine servicers, train manifest, menu lists telephones, clocks and various nick knacks that defined luxury travel at the turn of the century transmogrified me back to that era.

Ironically, this train station, popularly referred to as Istanbul Gar is not a relic of the past but a still active train hub in Istanbul from which trains depart and arrive on a daily basis till this day. The terminal building which rises on an area of 13,000 sq ft is considered a famous example of European Orientalism and has influenced similar designs across the world.

Orient Express evokes the glamorous era of long distance travel in Europe that exuded class, luxury, adventure and international ambience. Stepping into the still elegant yard of the Istanbul Orient Express final stop  brought conjectures of passengers alighting from several days train ride from Paris traversing  major several major European cities as it bridged Western and Eastern Europe and indeed stopping less than half a mile away from crossing into the Asian continent. Just the narrow band of the Bosphorus strait keeps the train on the European side with Asia clearly visible from the station.

The first voyage of the Orient Express took off in Gar de l’Est in Paris France on October 4, 1883 and arrived Istanbul covering a distance of 3,094 kilometers after truncated moves which included long stops and ferry rides to complete the passengers’ journey. It was not until June 1, 1889, that the first non-stop train to Istanbul left Paris. Istanbul remained its easternmost stop until May 19, 1977.. The route usually traversed the well known cities of Strasbourg, Stuttgart, Munich, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest among other smaller cities and ending in the Sirkeci neighborhood in Istanbul.

For a train that originated from the western edge of Europe traversing central Europe towards the eastern edge of Europe, its services were expectedly suspended  by the two world wars that were centered in Europe. The orient Express services were suspended in 1914 at the beginning of World War 1 and resumed right after in 1918. Again the Second World War ushered in another suspension in 1939 but services resumed in 1945

The end of this epic saga of the Orient Express coursing through Western and Eastern Europe and terminating in Istanbul had its last hurrah in 1977. After that what continued as the Orient Express ran shorter routes, none venturing as far as Istanbul and did change hands quite a few times. Even at that on 14 December 2009, the last surviving train service with the moniker Orient Express ceased to operate and the route disappeared from European railway timetables. Obviously it could not stand to compete with other faster means of transportation especially the high-speed trains.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Galata Bridge: Merging the old and the new with an ambient entertainment complex

The Bridge and Restaurant Plaza (Wikimedia picture)
A bridge is not what you look to for fun, entertainment gourmet food and break taking view, but Galata Bridge is all that and more.

It is the famous bridge that spans the Golden horn, which is an inlet of the Bosphorus river that spans the older traditional portion of Istanbul south of the river at Eminonu to its more modern portion Karakoy, which Galata is a subsection of, north of the river.

Over the centuries there have been several bridges built and rebuilt across the Golden Horn but not until the current bridge, others have had interesting histories from their inception to their demise.

Fishing from the bridge
What was considered the first Galata Bridge was built in 1845 and lasted for 18 years. At the time it was considered a new bridge as an older bridge existed further up the river. The first recorded bridge was during the reign of Justiniian back in the 6th century. A  second bridge was later built prior to Napoleon III’s visit to Istanbul in 1863 as an overall infrastructural overhaul but by 1875 yet another bridge, the first by a foreign firm was built.

It was not until 1912 that a German firm was hired to build yet another bridge that was expected to last for much longer term until it got damaged in a fire in 1992, which was eventually replaced by the current bascule type bridge that is both a utilitarian work of art and a functional passage way for vehicle, tram and ship traffic. It was completed in 1994 and the lower plaza portion was opened to the public in 2003.

Galata Bridge Fish Market
It is iconic that while crossing the bridge, a look to the west gives you vistas of Europe while looking east you behold Asia across from the Bosphorus straits. A swimmer with a good pair of lungs could swim across from Europe to Asia in about 30 minutes or less.

The top surface of the bridge apart from the busy vehicles and tram constantly passing by is a behive of activities both as a lookout spot and sunset watching but also a fly fishing post for so many of Istanbul residents. The lower deck of the entire length of the bridge is a plaza of sorts, lined with several restaurants, bars and shopping stalls. The only break in the length is the middle portion where ships and boat pass through to navigate out to the Bosphorous straits and head north to the Black Sea or south to the Sea of Marmara and unto the Mediterranean Sea.

My restaurant waiter on the bridge plaza
The restaurants all have outdoor patios where most guests are seated eating and watching the ebb and flow of the water that is barely inches below them. Gazing at the big round yellow orange tinged setting sun that looks so close while dining on fine Turkish cuisine and a beverage of assorted beer was always both romantic and eerie. Just think of the feeling of being sandwiched between a train above and a ship below and totally surrounded by water as you chow down on some kind of lamb stew.

Dusk by the bridge behind me
For some reason most of my interaction with local people was on that bridge. Folks invited me to practice reeling in fish from their fishing rod while others just wanted to take pictures with me. As a tourist magnet, the waiters in the gazillion restaurants aggressively yet politely lured customers to taste their special food and different international or local beers, while some later at night wanted to the best spinning Disc jockeys in Turkey who happen to be in their clubs. Street and food vendors constantly ply their wares on the bridge that you could have a full day shopping for a variety of stuff just handing around the bridge.

The atmosphere was so positive and the place being so pedestrian friendly, I must have crossed that bridge more than ten times. At the foot of the Galata end of the bridge was a sprawling fish market where fresh harvests come in virtually hourly. Aside from the fish mongers or merchants, many roadside fish restaurants and working class cafes dot the crowded area to enjoy fresh fish meals and beer, before you ascend towards the Galata Towers.

Galata Tower: A Panoramic Vista of the Bosphorus and the Ancient City of Istanbul

Towering in the skyline in this wikimedia picture

Strolling around the old part of Istanbul, a landmark that is hard to miss was an ancient tower that solidly carves out a space in the skyline among crowded buildings. The cylindrical towering structure is the famed Galata Tower.

Standing at the base
Prior to Istanbul being one definable monolithic city, it was composed of various districts including some that basically autonomous all occupying the same general space. A city wall surrounded the Genoese Colony of Galata with the tower erected at the highest strategic point overlooking the old city of Constantinople. The tower was also used for surveillance purposes over the harbor as the Genoese colony was engaged in commercial activities that span beyond their immediate vicinity. While the city walls are gone the tower, which was originally named Christea Turris in Latin (Tower of Christ) and Galata Kulesi (in Turkish), remains sturdy and in use today for panoramic view of the city as well as a venue for restaurant and night club in its upper floors.

The marker on the base wall
It is believed that the tower was first built by a Byzantine emperor in 507 AD and then rebuilt in its present stone form in 1348 by the Genoese colony for strategic defensive reasons as homage to the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus, who granted the Genoese permission to settle there. Over centuries and over the years the tower had been scarred by fires but always eventually repaired. The last repair/restoration work was in 1967 after which it was opened to the public.

Blends into the modern street
The tower stands 9 stories high at 219 feet with 12 feet thick walls. The tower had served over the years as surveillance fort, dormitory, dungeon, jail, and jump off platform for amateur aviators and then a fire monitoring post for the city of Istanbul. Now it is more a tourist fixture with restaurant and nightclub and the obligatory gift shop.  The base is transformed into a plaza that attracts the artsy folks, along with tourists enjoying nice café atmosphere in the surrounding shops and restaurants while magicians, musicians and other entertainment types work their art.

Up close
Standing at the base and leaning or hugging portions of the tower gives an awesome sense of connection to folks that lived around the area in the 13th and 14th century yet reminding yourself of how transient we all are knowing that soon after the current generation all pass away, a new generation will be standing at the same base and wondering about those who lived before and spent time there before their time.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Hippodrome: Racetracks and Entertainment Square of the Greco-Roman Istanbul

Hippodrome Serpent Column

No, I am not referencing the NASCAR, which is part of the fast car racing culture that is popular all around the present day US and other international venues. But horse and horse-drawn chariot racing, princes circumcision ceremonies and all kinds of entertainment including circus acts were a regular feature of Constantinople the capital of the Byzantine Empire before the ascendancy of the Ottoman Empire, which Sultans never paid as much attention to the activities compared to their predecessors.

The city ‘stadium’ where all these activities were held was the Hippodrome, which outlines and some of the tracts and other buildings and monuments of that era still survive till date and another exciting place to visit within the vicinity of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

The Hippodrome which was initially a small town square for entertainment and horse racing got subsequently expanded as the city of Byzantium (ancient Istanbul) was expanded by various Emperors starting from Emperor Septimus Severus in AD 203. At its largest size, the spectator stands was said to hold up to 100,000 people.

The Emperor and his court
It is evident that at its glory the Hippodrome was filled with various statues of both animals and famous horse riders and prominent rulers. One end of it has a special pathway that leads up to the palace where the Emperor and his family and close officials make their way into the arena leading up to his ‘box’ area from where they watched the entertainment. There is a depiction of the Emperor and his court watching the activities carved at the base of the Obelisk in the picture on this page. And at the far end, to the corner where row houses that are exactly they way they existed, which by today’s standard would appear to be teeny tiny row of apartments.

The Serpent and the Obelisk
Still visible today are some chariot tracks along the sides of the oblong flank of the arena and gigantic obelisk and other monuments that were brought over from other civilizations in the ancient world, including a Serpent Column, which has lost the heads of the three intertwined Serpents.

The obelisk known as the Obelisk of Tuthmosis III was said to have been installed in AD 390 when Emperor Theodosius the Great brought it from the Temple of Karnak in Luxur Egypt during the reign of Tuthmosis III around 1490 BC and installed it within the hippodrome.

Hippodrome Row Apartments
It was awesome to stand in the shadow of an Obelisk that has survived for almost 3, 500 years and looking very well preserved in the open elements. The remarkable paradox was that in its glory and for the purpose the Hippodrome was established was a place of gathering of multitudes of people and entertainment, and several centuries later, even in its faded glory and ruination, it is still a place that draws perhaps even more crowd now and still full of entertainment.

It is often common to be approached on a free guided tour of the hippodrome by natives who speak your language, but the catch is that they often want you to lure you to the nearby Turkish rug stores nearby for tea and hopeful purchase from the stores, which pays them commission.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Istanbul City Orientation by Foot

Byzantine marker near Basilica Cistern

Emerging from the Basilica Cistern several blocks away from the entrance, I thought it would make sense to tour around the city on foot as far as I could before making specific plans for longer visits to some of the more interesting historical places. By design and by age, old Istanbul, the Sultanahmet, is so pedestrian friendly and chockfull of prominent sites to see that you would miss a lot of historic sites and the vibe of the city if you just hopped around on buses and taxis. It was also comforting that there is an efficient Tram system that traverses the city and at 2 TL (Turkish Lira) token, you can hop on a Tram back to your hotel or anywhere else if you  get tired of walking.

Breakfast before the stroll
In the immediate vicinity of my hotel and the Basilica Cistern was the Ayo (Hagia) Sophia, which is now a museum and across from it was the Sultanahmet mosque, famously known as the Blue mosque. Then up behind Ayo Sophia was the Topkapi Palace, the home of the Sultans that ruled the famed Ottoman Empire, and nearby were magnificently and intricately colored marbled burial crypts of various deceased Sultans and their families under ornate and tastefully furnished domed edifices.

On the other side of the Blue mosque was the Hippodrome depicting the ancient Greek sports arena decorated with various monuments from the ancient Romans and ancient Egyptians.

On my stroll route
As I gazed around in wonderment, I came by the massive and extensive Topkapi Palace walls, which stretched along the shores of the southern end of the Bosphorous and the Sea of Marmara, so I crossed the street and followed the seashore for a leisurely walk, as ships sailed past me and buildings on the continental Asian side of the city of Istanbul gleamed in the morning sun. By the time I rounded the circumference of the Topkapi palace wall, I had passed the Istanbul Gar at the Sirkeci Railway Station (a once famous stop for the Orient Express) I had reached Eminonu, the miniport at the base of the exciting Galata Bridge, from where charter and passenger boats and vessels cruise the Bosphorous towards the Black sea 19 miles north or a few miles south through the sea of Marmara into the Mediterranean sea.

At that point I crossed a pedestrian bridge to head back to the hotel through a slightly different route but was surprised to come upon Kennedy Cadessi (Kennedy Street) at the bottom of the foot bridge. Obviously the street was named for the former US President John Kennedy. Weaving my way back in the general direction of my hotel, I came upon the Grand Bazaar, and the Egyptian spice market. Virtually every block has a story to tell going by prominent and  unique features of various architectural marvels, mosques, minarets, ancient churches (like Church of St. Irene), Turkish baths mixed with recognizable western institutions, Istanbul Chamber of Commerce and a friendly crowd of people going about their business, beaming with smiles and beseeching you to step into their stores for some tea and bargains or into their restaurants for some delicious Turkish cuisine.

By the time I got back to the hotel, I had a longer list of more places to visit for extended tour.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Playing Sultan in the Basilica Cistern

View of the Cistern as I descended the stairs into the chamber

As the Basilica Cistern or Yerebatan Sarnici (Sunken Cistern) is just two houses away from my hotel, it was the first place to see the next morning after breakfast. The entrance to the Cistern or Sarnici as the locals call it is a non-descript building no more than a large store front with a small wall plaque showing the name and the period the cistern was established. As I had no prior knowledge of this wonder, I could not believe my eyes as I descended a flight of steps to the cavernous bowels of the cistern. It was completely a different subterranean world.

It is reputed to be the largest of many ancient cisterns that lie underneath the city of Istanbul. In fact it measures 453 feet by 212 feet with an area of 105,000 square miles and has the capacity for holding 2,800,000 cubic feet of water. Indeed it was the source of water for the palace of then Constantinople and the surrounding area within the historical old city, as it was just a few feet away from Hagia Sophia and other historical centers of power.

One of the upside down Medusa heads
This cavernous chamber is held in place by lots of sturdy marble and granite columns, 336 all together that are strategically arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns that stand 30 feet high. The top end of each column has almost a different stylistic design and engraved decoration in the Corinthian or Ionic styles with some depicting other expressions. Two unique columns at the far end of the cistern unlike the rest of the columns had the heads of Medusa engraved at the base, basically at a human knee level. I had to squat down by Medusa to have my picture taken at the same level as she was with both our heads in opposite directions.

The engraved images were mesmerizing especially given the context of the eerie chamber that was somewhat dark well of pillars jutting from a vast pool of water and towering 30 feet high with occasional water droplets baptizing you as you wander around on raised platform above the water so you don’t have to swim through the huge space. 

Cave-like chamber
It was noted that the Cistern has had several restorations to maintain its stability, repair cracked columns and evacuate mud build-up especially as houses are now built on top of it with intense daily human activity putting its pressure on the edifice. In fact, if not observant, you would not realize there is such a gigantic space below your feet as you walk the pavement or dine in restaurants or sleep in hotels that are all at normal street level on Yerebatan and other adjourning streets including the tram rail line. By the time you end the tour and emerge at the exit, you suddenly realize you had traveled almost ten blocks away from where you went in.

The Sultan issuing Edicts
But before I made that exit, I stopped over by the north east end of it where some creative Turkish business savvy young folk offer costumed photo shoots for a fee. They have an assemblage of different Sultanate court attires, from the robes of the Sultan to those of the Queens and other palace officials. They come in several colors with palatial grandeur, and head wears, prayer beads and other accoutrement to match. I made a selection of some gold robes with black trims and golden head gear with burgundy band with all the other paraphernalia of the office of the Sultan and sat on a saffron throne to take some commanding pictures decreeing edicts to my subjects. I may not have lived in that era but at that moment, I was catapulted back several centuries in every way possible. Some British ladies watching me pose openly expressed their admiration.

For the movie buff, the Cistern was the location for the 1963 James Bond movie, ‘From Russia with Love’.