Out Of The Archives:
Uxmal – The Place of Plentiful Harvests


Leaving Merida a little later than I had expected that morning, after having forgotten to charge the battery for my digital camera the night before, the bus moved through town and out into the countryside. Charging time combined with the travel time of about an hour-and-a-half to get to Uxmal from Merida by public bus, it was no surprise that I landed in the middle of the Puuc just before the archaeological ruins witching hour, high noon. Temperatures had started to climb, but for some reason the temperatures were still tolerable and remained so throughout the afternoon.

Uxmal is the Maya word for the place of plentiful harvests. Ux meaning harvest and mal meaning a repeated number or action. This site is located in the center of the Puuc region where there are a few very fertile hills, the only hills in the landscape for hundreds of kilometers across the Yucatan peninsula. The locals here now grow corn and citrus, but in the day of the ancient Maya, this land was relied upon for growing everything the community needed to survive. The water on the peninsula was not plentiful, but the Maya contrived a way of creating cisterns to hold water that was pumped out of the underground limestone caverns, while also depending on the rainfall each year, to water their crops.

Village life in this area of the Puuc seemed to begin around 800 BC with a primarily agricultural focus until around 200 AD. Between the years of 200 and 1000 AD the population of the village grew to approximately 20,000 people, making it the Governor’s seat and the ceremonial center in the region. From 1000 until 1200 AD the city of Uxmal turned into a merchant city with the infiltration of the Xiu clan. But by 1200 the city was in decline and people were moving on to other cities and regions on the peninsula.

Walking down the path towards the Temple of the Magician, the landscape felt familiar. It felt like I was at home in California. The oak trees, the dirt under my feet, and the smell in the air all seemed like home. The temperature was just on the warm side of comfortable. As I walked I imagined a Temple of the Magician in San Francisco and chuckled to myself. I’m sure it would be considered a waste of valuable real estate. Better yet to imagine a Temple of the Phallus there, hidden amongst an oak grove in Golden Gate Park.

Uxmal happens to have both.

Uxmal also happens to be an ancient city that I could imagine living in. Even though the architecture is highly structured, the feel of the city is down to, and connected to, the earth. Elements of the earth were used to build the structures on the site, local limestone for the buildings, and wood and thatch for the roofs. Artisans of all kinds – painters, sculptors, stone cutters, woodworkers, potters – were all employed here. The people who lived here knew their place in the community, and no matter what that place was, it was important.

This is a city that is known for the beautiful sculptures and stone mosaics that adorn the walls of almost all of its buildings. Coming from Chichen, I couldn’t help but notice the stark contrast between the two sites. The stone of Chichen was colder, greyer, the signature building El Castillo was boxy, angular. Here at Uxmal, The Temple of the Magician was rounded, earthy, and took on the hue of the pale yellow-ish pink limestone, as did almost all of the other buildings in the city.

The Story of The Magician
The Magician that is referred to in the name of the temple is one of Maya legend.

In the neighboring village of Kabah there lived an old woman who was considered to be a witch. It has been said that she had birthed a baby boy out of an egg and as he grew older, he did not grow in stature and remained a dwarf. The child was full of curiosity and imagination. One day he noticed that the old woman was hiding something under the fireplace. The Dwarf found a gold tambourine and a wooden drum there and he began to play. The sound was heard throughout the neighboring villages and when the Lord of Uxmal heard the sound, he knew his days were numbered. It had been prophesied that whom ever found and played these instruments would take over his throne.

The Lord of Uxmal sent for The Dwarf in hopes of intervening and stopping the inevitable. He gave The Dwarf a number of tests to pass, which The Dwarf easily did. In one last desperate attempt to rid himself of The Dwarf and The Prophecy, he subjected The Dwarf to a test of strength and pain, hitting him over the head with cocoyols. The Dwarf agreed to this only if The Lord would endure the pain should The Dwarf himself survive. The Lord agreed, thinking The Dwarf was going to die before he would have to prove himself. But the witch had placed a strong piece of flint on The Dwarf’s head, hiding it in his hair and The Dwarf passed the test of pain with flying colors. The Lord of Uxmal did not fare so well, dying on the first hit.

The Dwarf came to rule Uxmal, favorably and wisely, building the Palace of The Governor, The House of the Old Woman, and The Temple of The Magician.

The Temple of the Magician dominates the current entrance into Uxmal, but it is by far not the most spectacular building. The Nunnery Quadrangle could compete for that title, with its beautiful Western Edifice that has sculptures of rattlesnakes and bleeding hearts, thrones backed by plumes of feathers, as well as masks of Chaac.

One of the more striking facades at Uxmal is The House of The Doves, called so only because the shape of the wall is reminiscent of a dovecote.

Walking down the path through the trees on my way to visit the last part of the site, The House of The Old Woman, I pass a palapa covering a group of rocks, placed neatly in rows on the ground. I stood looking at them for a moment before I realized what they were. They were all sculpted in the shape of a penis. All different – amazingly – large, small, thin, thick. A very nice and varied collection. The Temple of the Phallus, which is near The House of The Old Woman, is called such because of its rain gutters – each sculpted in the shape of a penis. Uxmal has more than one reference to sex, and because of that it is thought that fertility worship played a large role in this Maya city.

Uxmal is a place where hours or days could be spent looking at all the details of the city. The mosaics are like eye-candy – for those of us who like that kind of thing. When I felt like my eyes were filled for the day I walked back out to the main road to catch the bus, which happened to be waiting when I got there. That happens sometimes. When I got back to the hostel I shared my day’s photographs with anyone who look.

Uxmal is a World Heritage Site

Global Travel Alert – Real or Ruse?

August is high travel time – especially for the Western world. Americans who have been putting off vacations because of this or that all summer try to squeeze in a visit here or there before the marked end of the season, before Labor Day. The French usually take off the whole month and if they can’t afford to travel outside their own borders, they all hop on a train and head to the South of France.

I’m not one to care much if a travel alert has been issued by the government, and ever since September 11, 2001, I have become suspicious of them. The global travel alert that was issued yesterday and updated today is very broad in scope. It’s not just about our government not wanting us to travel abroad, they don’t want us to travel locally either.

The State Department’s warning urged U.S. travelers to take extra precautions overseas. It cited potential dangers involved with public transportation systems and other prime sites for tourists, and noted that previous attacks have centered on subway and rail networks as well as airplanes and boats.

Travelers were advised to sign up for State Department alerts and register with U.S. consulates in the countries they visit.

… The alert expires on Aug. 31. — Huffington Post

I want to think that our government has our best interests at the heart of this. But I have trust issues. I can’t help but get the feeling that there is something else going on. Yeah, Interpol is concerned that hundreds of Taliban broke out of jails in the last week or so, but could they be fanning out across the world in preparation for some big event? Maybe it’s just a test to see how fast Americans will scurry home, or to find out if they will still become overly cautious out of fear. There are a lot of conspiracy theories out there about the month of August as well – or could it all just be a deflection from the NSA scandal?

I’m not going to advise any one to travel or not travel during this time period. Every one has to think for themselves, trust their intuition, and do what they feel is right. No fear.

But, since the issue came up, any thoughts on what it’s all about?

Out Of The Archives:

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You will see clearly that to come to an understanding of a country and its way of life, to see other countries, is all to the good. — Vincent Van Gogh – May 1890, upon his arrival in Auvers-sur-Oise

Visiting with a dead man. I seem to be visiting as many dead people on this journey as live ones. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Victor Hugo and Emile Zola. Voltaire. Jim Morrison … Vincent sleeps next to his brother Theo in the tiny cemetery of Auvers. Their graves covered in ivy and marked by flowers that dedicated souls have brought to him as gifts. Symbols of life in a really dead place. It’s hard to imagine Vincent lying dead in there, that he is something more than just this stone marking the spot. His vibrant work is alive in the fields and people and homes of this little town next to the river Oise. His work lives in museums and collections around the world. He is known in this town by only one name — Vincent.

Auvers is very beautiful. There is among other things a lot of old thatch, which is getting rare. One is far enough from Paris for it to be real country, but nevertheless how changed since Daubigny; but not changed in an unpleasant way – there are many villas and various bourgeois dwelling-houses very radiant and sunny and covered with flowers. — Vincent Van Gogh, May 1890

The town and the cemetery are surrounded by the fields of his paintings. La Plaine d’Auvers, La Plaine pres d’Auvers (avec ciel nuageux), Champ de ble aux corbeaux, and all of the others in my little book of Van Gogh paintings. Leaving the cemetery and walking down the road towards town, the first thing visible is the steeple of L’eglise de Notre Dame d’Auvers-sur-Oise.

Arriving at the church itself I find the exact replica of Van Gogh’s painting that is hanging in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. Although, this replica is in stone and glass and has lived in the elements and has been touched and used by the townsfolk long since the painting was put away in a sterile room next to other canvases of equal caliber. As we enter the church there is a music rehearsal underway – voice and piano and a spotlight.

After listening for a moment, we walk outside, my friends K., A. and I, to wander around the church and to regard its stone and angles and structure. It is no wonder that Van Gogh painted this place. Vincent had a way of seeing the life in what the most people thought of as just an inanimate object. After viewing the painting he did of this church, I can now see the energy in the walls of the building flowing through the veins underneath its skin of stone. We stop for a photo before we continue down the stairs and down the street in the direction of l’Office de Tourisme.

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Auvers is a very small town. We walk down its well marked streets. Everything relating to Vincent is marked by a sign, an arrow, a pointing in this direction or that. After passing l’Office de Tourisme and moving on to the La Maison Van Gogh, we turn to look up the street in which we just came down. In front of us is the view of the painting L’escalier d’Auvers (avec cinque figures), except there now are not five figures, but the three figures of us. Everywhere we look we could put ourselves into one of his paintings.

I am now quite absorbed by the immeasurable plain with cornfields against the hills, immense as a sea, delicate yellow, delicate green, regularly chequered by the green of the flowing potato plants, everything under the a sky with delicate blue, white, pink, violet tones. I am in a mood of nearly too great calmness, in the mood to paint this. — Vincent Van Gogh, July 27, 1890

We stop in the cafe across the street from the Auberge Ravoux for a little coffee. K. orders an espresso. I order a Cafe Creme. A. orders a Noisette. I find that the names of the coffee drinks are according to the color they produce. Espresso is black. Cafe Creme has a creamy color and a Noisette, which means ‘nut’ is not a nutty coffee, but the color of a small toasted nut. We stare out the window at the Auberge Ravoux. We watch as other pilgrims walk down the street. After we finish our coffees, we stop into the patisserie for pastries, and go across the street to the Jardin Van Gogh. We sit on the park bench and take pictures while we eat our croissants.

Auvers is not only the town of Vincent. It is also the town of Daubigny and through him Corot and Daumier. And by the way of Dr. Gachet, it was also a town of Cezanne, who painted many paintings here, sometimes with his artist friend Pissaro. And many artists currently call it home, some of them living in the same obscurity, boredom and loneliness that Vincent himself experienced in this little place. But it seems as if it is Vincent that the town pays homage to.

The leaves have turned and have begun to fall on the ground. Brilliant yellows and oranges and reds have started to turn to brown. The air smells crisp of autumn. Vincent lived in this town a mere 70 days – the last 70 days of his life. 70 days in which he painted some of the most intriguing canvases of his career. 70 canvases in all from this period. This is the town where he met and befriended Dr. Gachet. Where he painted the energy of the thatched roofs, the fields, the buildings, the corn, the people and the spaces in between. Where he experienced the loneliness that comes from awareness. What he saw, he painted. What he felt, he painted. What he understood, he painted. And because he couldn’t live with what he understood, what he knew, what he felt, he understandably, left.

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…but we are still far from the time when people will understand the curious relations which exist between one fragment of nature and another, which nevertheless explain each other and set each other off. Some, however, feel this silently, and that is something. …
— Vincent Van Gogh, July 27, 1890

Out Of The Archives:
Salade Niçoise


Salade Niçoise is still somewhat of a mystery to folks who don’t live in the South of France. But it’s an easy salad to make if you have access to all of the ingredients, and of course, the recipe can be fumbled for those who can’t find all of the ingredients, or would rather skip a few.

The word Niçoise means of Nice, or as prepared in Nice and typically describes any cuisine found specifically in or around Nice. Dishes from this region usually include the basic ingredients of tomatoes, niçoise olives, garlic and anchovies.

Salade Niçoise usually includes these ingredients plus haricots verts (French Green Beans), hardboiled eggs, tuna (from a can), onions, and herbs from the South of France. The idea of using a tuna steak, or fresh seared tuna, rather than canned is considered to be a major faux-pas in making a Salade Niçoise. This salad is considered to be a full main course, rather than a small side salad. I also tend to serve this salad at about room temperature, meaning I don’t make a point of chilling it or the ingredients before serving.

Note: French Green Beans can be found in The States in the frozen section of Trader Joe’s, or look in your produce section at the grocery store.

My Take On A Niçoise Salad

Chopped Romaine lettuce – Julia Child’s recipe calls for Butter lettuce.
Hard boil an egg or two sliced in quarters, or eighths.
Steam some French green beans (Haricots Verts).
Canned tuna.
A number of Niçoise olives.
Quarter or eighth one or two Roma tomatoes.
A few boiled new potatoes – Red or Yukon small creamers, or finger potatoes, whichever is available – cut in half or quartered (depending on size). If you don’t have creamer potatoes, then skip because this is definitely not a place for a potato like a Russet.

I tend to use approximately equal portions of each ingredient.

Plus a spoonful or two of Capers.
Hefty helping of freshly grated Parmesan Cheese

Dressing: proportion or use ingredients to taste:
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)
Red Wine Vinegar
Dijon Mustard
Fresh Garlic, crushed and chopped.
A squirt of fresh Lemon
A little of the freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Boil potatoes so they are just done.
Hard boil the egg/s
Steam the green beans, leaving them just slightly crunchy.
Chop the tomatoes.
Whisk the Vinaigrette.
In a bowl toss the tomatoes and the slightly warm potatoes into the Vinaigrette. Let this sit while preparing the rest of the salad.

Lay out a bed of Romaine lettuce (or Butter lettuce).
Spread out the olives, capers, and green beans.
Place the eggs around the edge of the salad.
Spread out the vinaigrette, tomatoes and potatoes over the other ingredients.

Open and drain the can of tuna. I like to rinse the tuna as well. Break it up into flakes and small chunks and then sprinkle over the top of the salad.

This is not a tossed salad. You can make this as one big salad for the dinner or buffet table or as small individual salads for each person at the meal. The salad will get tossed on the individual plate.

Chopped scallions (green or spring onions) can also be added.

You may have noticed that there is no mention of anchovies. I don’t use them in this recipe although they are part of a traditional Niçoise Salad. If you like, they can be chopped and added to the salad.

That should be it!