Monthly Archives: May 2016

5 Compass Cahokia Mounds



President Thomas Jefferson signed legislation creating America’s first federal highway in 1802.  That road reached Illinois in 1828 and eventually took travelers through the remains of America’s oldest city. It had been abandoned for about 500 years, so few people stopped to look at what was left of it. Almost everyone failed to understand its significance.  In fact, when the Interstate Highway System was being built near the middle of the 20th century, the plan was to route I-55 through it.  Archaeologists were given some time before bulldozers and concrete arrived to find any artifacts.  Along with them, they found an important burial site.  The man interred there was dubbed birdman.  That’s him below.  Near Birdman were the remains of 53 young woman.  They had been strangled to serve him in the afterlife.  Five years later I-55 had been rerouted and the greatest killing field in the United States, 272 burial sites, had been discovered, Woodhenge, a North American version of Stonehenge, was being evaluated, and Mound 72’s value had finally been recognized. By 1982 the Cahokia Mounds had been officially named a World Heritage Site, one of only 21 in America.

Mound 72 eventually proved to be just one of more than 120 mounds created by the Mississippian people who lived here in one of the largest cities in the world until it was abandoned by the 13th century.  Because it was at the confluence of 3 important rivers, the Cahokia Mounds were built by people whose food needs were well met so they were free to develop crafts, like shell-bead creations, manufacture trade goods, become coppersmiths, etc.   Their culture thrived, probably until the trees nearby had all been used and crop growing or animal hunting became more difficult to feed a community that may have supported 20,000 humans.

Monks Mound, “the largest prehistoric earthen construction in the Americas” according to one brochure, was the largest.  Monks was constructed by people carrying baskets of dirt to the site.  Its base covered more than 14 acres and required dumping 22 million cubic feet of earth.  It rose 100 feet from the flood-prone plain and got its name from the French Trappist monks who lived on another mound for 4 years ending in 1813.  They farmed Monk’s terraces.

A visit to Cahokia Mounds 2,200-acre site today should include looking at the displays in its excellent visitor center, a viewing of Cahokia, City of the Sun, a fine film with a surprise at its end, and mounting Monks Mound’s 156 steps to appreciate the effort that climbing them takes to admire the view.

Someone on the staff told me that while amazing stuff was still being learned, many mysteries remain. Reportedly, an Italian archaeological team is currently working the area.  After I was told that, a volunteer took me over to show me a 6 to 700-year-old dugout canoe found on a sandbar in Arkansas in 2008.   This museum recently acquired it.

I just got back from Mexico.  When I told friends & family that Ruth & I were going there, many assumed that we would include the temples & pyramids of Teotihuacán in our itinerary. “No, I told them, “We went to Cahokia, the largest pre-Columbian city north of Mexico, instead.”



No Return to Tahiti


Today I’m thinking about Tahiti because I’m reading a travel book and the author is there.   Ruth & I spent some time in Papeete several years ago because someone who entered our family grew up there.   Stanley wanted us to see where he went to school, the beach he played on, the house he lived in, etc.  Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, is not a nice city. It is traffic-congested and anonymous.  No longer the main community of an island paradise and reflecting that enviable position, it was a characterless town that could be anywhere.  I remember walking along the industrial waterfront and seeing the ship that would soon leave for The Marquesas.  At the time, getting aboard a cargo ship in Papeete was the only way to visit the Marquesas.


In the book I’m reading, J. Maarten Troost, a funny travel writer of 3 book centered in the South Pacific, is on the same waterfront and booking passage to The Marquesas on the Arunui III, a 360 foot cargo ship leaving the next morning.  He’s in exactly the same spot I was.   The differences are that it’s 2013 and he’s actually boarding the Arunui that day for a 2 week trip to The Marquesas and back while I was just dreaming.  He mentioned that this is still the only place on the planet where you can board a boat to these remote islands.

Troost described Papeete as a town “…with chintzy office towers, traffic circles, oven-like churches, filthy sidewalks, and, near the port, cylindrical fuel storage depots that looked like unhatched eggs shading French naval vessels that exuded nothing but malice….”   This was exactly the way I remembered it and brought it all back.   There has been no reason for me and Ruth to return to Papeete even though Moorea, which Troost described as “a bewitching sight”, was the magical paradise that we expected Tahiti to be.   We loved it there and so did our stress levels.   We went from Tahiti to Australia and have returned there 9 times.

I highly recommend J. Maarten Troost’s travel books.  The one described above is named Headhunters on My Doorstep.  Be warned.  In it, Troost is wrestling with less than a year of  sobriety, and traveling alone is challenging his resolve not to drink.  While a definite theme woven among travel experiences, alcohol avoidence is treated lightly and with his typical humor. It’s not heavy-going as Troost follows the path of another writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, who had 3 cruises in the South Seas and built a house on the island of Samoa.


Frida Kahlo Corp


In Mexico City, Frida Kahlo has grown from a one-time resident artist into a major industry.  Wherever we went, Ruth and I found Frida Kahlo notebooks, reproductions of her face, coffee mugs decorated with her art, etc.   To pay tribute to this unique self-taught artist whose surreal yet realistic paintings now sell for millions, we decided to visit her blue house at Londres 247 in the Coyoacan neighborhood.  We arrived about 10:30 am to find a large crowd already in line patiently waiting for the 11 am opening.  Street vendors were everywhere. The man in line in front of me bought a colorful bookmark.  I suspected Frida’s face was on it somewhere.

Frida finished painting the melons above, the work commonly called “Viva la Vida” or “Long Live Life”, just 8 days before she died.  Although she had many reasons to complain, she mostly remained a sunny optimist with a fiery temperament all her life.  In her Academy Award nominated performance in the film Frida, Salma Hayek perfectly captured her personality in a great performance 14 years ago.  Ruth and I didn’t see it until we returned home. The opening  shot was in the garden of the blue house, and it shows up elsewhere in the film. Shortly after I took the picture of the watermelons, a guard came over and told me that if I took photos I had to pay extra for the privilege.  I immediately put my camera away.

Frida Kahlo was born in this blue house and died there 47 years later.  She packed a lot of living into those years.  Married to equally famous artist Diego Rivera, she once said, “From 1929 to the present (1944), I can’t remember any time when the Riveras have not had at least one guest in the house.” Apparently she alternated hosting duties, drinking tequila, and filling hundreds of canvasses with her now instantly recognizable visions.

Loaded with folk art, especially pottery, the house’s rooms clearly reflected her lifestyle and personality.  I especially liked the dining room with its Judas figures and the traditional, very colorful Mexican kitchen.   The first several rooms concentrated on her art and biography.  There were lots of her paintings on display and many photographs of her taken by her epileptic father Guillermo, an official photographer during the regime of General Porfirio Diaz.  Frida often posed for dad and about 6,000 of the photos remain.

The house’s many visitors, including Ruth and me, lingered in the rooms, obviously not wanting to leave.  Many, including Ruth, looked at practically every object in the gift shop, sat and watched an excellent detailed documentary about Frida, and slow-motion-strolled in the delightful garden to prolong the experience.  Free to take photos outside, I now have many images of the sculpture filled Aztec temple near the exit.


Frida’s home is, beyond a doubt, one of Mexico City’s top attractions and a 5 compass experience.


Fine Photos at Foto Museo

DSC04179 (1)

A new photo museum in Mexico City is about a block south of the Cuatro Caminos metro stop at the west end of Line 2.  In fact, the museum’s official name is Foto Museo Cuatro Caminos.   I only knew about it because The New York Times mention it when it named Mexico City the #1 destination for 2016. Commerce in the form of hundreds of small booths selling street food, cheap jewelry, etc. has grown around the entrance to the metro stop making it hard to spot the museum across a street full of the monumental traffic that a city of 23 million produces.  Ruth & I were very lucky to spot FMCC after we instinctively started walking south.

This new museum devoted to photography, a Pedro Meyer project, is in a huge, old warehouse that was first a plastic factory and then Military Engineers no. 77.   It has been remodeled into 3 basic, uncluttered galleries to display temporary photo shows.  Two were in use.  Pedro Meyer has been a professional photographer for 50 years.

Before looking at any photographs, Ruth & I went upstairs to see the workshop/meeting area where I quickly became engrossed in a huge timeline. At its top was the history of Mexico since 1900, in the middle was world history, and the bottom was Mexico City history.  Times lines had been covered with clever graffiti, which I suspect was encouraged.  I walked toward 2016 passing “Alexander Fleming discovers penicillin 1928” and other significant events.  At the end I met Alex Fernandez, a young photographer who was attending a digital photo conference.   We laughed together at the graffiti.  I pointed out the chalked-in “Obama visits Cuba”, and he translated one for me so that I now know how to say “I lost my virginity” in Spanish.

We went downstairs and I was soon engrossed in the work of Mexican photographer Enrique Metinides.  Now 83, Enrique spent his career photographing and collecting pictures of accidents and car wrecks.  He was possessed by this subject and mastered the use of a wide-angle lens to capture an entire event graphically in a single frame.  His pictures often included spectators. The most horrifying photo of all showed 4 children who had just watched their father shoot and kill their mother and then himself. For more than 50 years Mexican newspapers and magazines bought these photos, but not many of them were seen internationally.   Not a creepy tabloid voyeur, Enrique was just a man driven by his subject.  He often assisted the injured.   A code system he developed is still used by emergency workers.


The other huge show was about the Witkin Brothers.  Identical twins, Jerome became a painter and Joel-Peter a photographer.   Both were good at visual narrative, but I far preferred the Metinides stuff.   This was a matter of personal preference, not artistic judgement.  Since both shows will close on June 12th, I talked with Alexa, who seemed to be the only one on the staff who was fluent in English.   She told me that the museum had only been opened for a few months so they were still learning.  She told me that the next show would combine photography and advertising.  This sounds like a terrific idea for an exhibit at a very fine new addition to the museum scene in Mexico City, the Foto Museo at the end of the dark blue, #2 metro line near Quatro Caminos station.





Mexico City’s Museo Soumaya



Five years ago when he opened Museo Soumaya, Carlos Slim Helú was the world’s richest man.  According to Forbes, he slipped to #4 in 2016.  Museo Soumaya is in Mexico City. DSC03962 (3)Ruth & I were told it was hard to get to.  People on the street gave us incredibly wrong directions, but on our one Monday afternoon there, it was virtually the only museum in Mexico City that was opened.  It’s free since Slim, who made his fortune in telecommunications, has become a major philanthropist.  Slim’s private collection is listed under culture among his Foundation’s many projects.  His museo, which was swarming with awed, silent Mexicans who seemed to appreciate this gift, is not one of the world’s great museums.  But is it worth seeing?  Definitely.

The building itself is interesting.  Six stories tall, visitors circle from level to level inside like they do in New York’s Guggenheim.  With some justification, the exterior is being compared to the Guggenheim designed by Frank Gehry in Spain.  Outside, Soumaya’s soaring 16 million aluminum hexagons reminded me of a tsunami.  Inside, the art ranged from dreadful, a copy of Michelangelo’s Pieta prominently displayed on some steps near the entrance, to sublime, two paintings by one of my favorite artists Joaquín Sorolla.



Ruth floated from floor to floor.  I began at the top where there was a routine collection of Venice paintings. “Bad art, no names except for Canaletto, not my favorite artist,” I wrote in my notebook.  I did, however, find it clever that quotes about Venice from famous writers were scattered about.  Scenes from films made there, like The Talented Mr. Ripley, were attracting a small audience. And then I came upon a surprising, uncharacteristic Dali painting of Venice.

Admiring the building far more than the art, I circled down to the next level. On the wall was a timeline, all in Spanish, ending in 2011 and explaining the revitalization of the Centro Historico where the Museo Soumaya is located.

The next level contained many truly great works by major artists, like Sorolla, and my general criticism began to give way to cautious respect.  The next level down was a lot of typical religious art, but then I came upon some fine El Grecos and a DaVinci that made me wonder what the man worth 50 billion dollars paid for Madonna of the Yarnwinder.   And so on.


Opening daily at 10:30, the Museo Soumaya is not on many maps.  In fact, I was surprised to find it on the mapa I bought at our hotel. No public transportation is near this museum. Taking a taxi in Mexico City is said to be risky, but it’s the best way to get to Soumaya.  Taxis outside hotels have a reputation for charging non-Spanish-speaking-tourists a lot more than locals. Ruth and I actually jumped out of one taxi when the fare announced by the driver, 140 pesos, was clearly ridiculous.  Uber, not a surprise, is increasingly popular in Mexico City.