Art Stories from the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

Art Stories from the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

As a mystery writer, my Detective Emilia Cruz police procedural series usually explores the dark side of Mexico: cartel violence, police corruption, and missing persons.

But Mexico’s rich culture is as much of a character in the books as Emilia herself. Mexico’s art, food, landscapes, and history create a dramatic setting for a mystery series.

I’m not the only one inspired by Mexico’s cultural riches: 36 experts got together to write The Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico. Read this excerpt about Mexico’s art world then get the FREE Guide here.

The Otomí Embroidery of Hidalgo

The colorful embroidery work of Mexico’s Otomí women has become a popular textile around the world. The cheerful combination of animals (birds, rabbits, deer, dogs, insects) with swirling flowers is frequently seen in many American design magazines and can be used for bedspreads, tablecloths, headboard covers, wall hangings lampshades and other creative craft projects. These large textiles, known as “Tenangos” because of the region they come from in Hidalgo (Tenango de Doria), come in many different colors and a few standard sizes. The textile is not available as a bolt of fabric (as many people request) but in a few standard sizes.

Otomi cloth

Photo courtesy Anne Damon

Usually Otomi embroideries  are done on an off-white muslin background, occasionally on black or gray cotton. The lore is that they are a more recent development in the traditional arts of Mexico and some say they are based on some cave paintings in Hidalgo state. That’s been hard to verify. Many of the small towns within the Tenango region are home to women’s collectives who make and sell these beautiful works of art.

Each 6′ by 6′ piece is one-of-a-kind and takes a approximately three months to complete. The designs are drawn in water-soluble pencil or marker on off-white 100% cotton muslin and then hand-embroidered. Women often work together on a piece using their embroidery hoops and sitting and chatting.

The Otomí live in various regions of Mexico–Hidalgo, Puebla, Oaxaca, Mexico–and their textiles can be found throughout the country due to a very good distribution system. If you purchase an Otomí piece on a vacation to the coasts of Mexico be careful about the quality, for it can vary widely depending on the skill of the artisan. If you are interested in a high quality piece that has been personally selected, take a look at our current stock!

Anne Damon, Owner of Zinnia Folk Arts, www.ZinniaFolkArts.com

Mural Art in Ajijic

I first visited the small village of Ajijic on Lake Chapala in 1980, looking for art. Ajijic had gained the reputation of being the artistic center of the Chapala Riviera. Over the years the village had attracted many foreign artists, including such famous names as Sylvia Fein and Charles Pollock (brother of Jackson). More recently, art education programs, now managed by the Lake Chapala Society, have helped stimulate a formidable pool of local talent.

Mexican mural

Photo courtesy Tony Burton

Ajijic does have its studios and galleries, but much of the art on view today is public. Colorful murals and artwork provide interesting diversions on any stroll around the village. A large tree stump on the plaza has been given an extraordinary new lease of life by local sculptor Estela Hidalgo. The centerpiece of the Ajijic Cultural Center is a vivid mural by Jesús López Vega telling the story of the lake’s mythological fish-princess Teo-michicihualli. More than a dozen other murals grace this lively artistic village, where the art scene today is even more vibrant and creative than ever before.

Tony Burton, author of Western Mexico, A Traveler’s Treasury, and Lake Chapala Through The Ages: an anthology of travelers’ tales, http://sombrerobooks.com

Emilio Sosa Medina: Scary and Beautiful

Tucked into a small space near the corner of Hidalgo and López Mateos, sits an unassuming little store, Artesanías Glenssy.  The walls are hung with brilliantly colored, very scary creatures.

artisit profile

Photo courtesy Lynda Lock

The artist’s name is Emilio Sosa Medina, and he was born in Yobain Yucatan in 1955. A political activist since he was a teenager, Emilio left his home town in 1974 to move to Isla Mujeres.

In 1986 Emilio took lessons at the local Casa de la Cultura to learn paper maché techniques and he was intrigued by the possibilities. Using up to 40 kilos (87 pounds) of newsprint for some of his larger sculptures Emilio creates supernatural beings from Mayan mythology, plus his own fantastic monsters.

Crafting each intricate piece is a slow process. Layer upon layer of newsprint are carefully formed over a wire frame and left for several days to dry naturally in the warm Caribbean climate. Several coats of vivid acrylics, followed by a final glaze of clear polymer resin, give the paper maché vibrancy and character.

Even though Mexican mask folk art has been in existence for thousands of years, Emilio brings new life to the art form. His one-of-a-kind pieces enhance interior spaces in homes on Isla Mujeres, and around the world. His legacy of scary and beautiful sculptures will live on beyond his time.

Lynda Lock, author and blogger, www.amazon.com/author/lyndalock

Retablos

After a few bites of the cake Raul seemed to realize that she was waiting. “He read about the United States and wanted to go. He tried to cross the desert but the Virgin abandoned him because what he was doing was wrong. He got lost and died in the sun.”

“I’m so sorry, Raul,” Luz said.

“His mother had a retablo made for the Virgin to have pity on his soul.”

“I’m sure his soul rests in peace.”

“When his mother died I had the retablo buried with her.” Raul continued to eat.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, Luz’s heart twisting in sadness. Retablos were primitive paintings of a scene of something that happened in a person’s life for which they were giving thanks to the Virgin. But not this time. The son had died trying to get to El Norte and the mother had probably died of a broken heart. 

–Excerpt, The Hidden Light of Mexico City 

religious retablo inspires a mystey series

Photo courtesy of Carmen Amato

The Catholic Church is a strong cultural and artistic influence in Mexico, and my books reflect that. Retablos are part of Mexico’s tradition combining art and faith, made all the more interesting to me because they are rustic folk art meant to capture a moment in time for which someone is giving thanks to God.

I bought two retablos in a small shop in Mexico City’s Zona Rosa a couple of years ago. They are each about 5×7 inches, and painted on rusted steel. The edges are sharp. My guess they were cut from a barrel and done by the same person.

In one, thanks are given to the Virgin of Saint John of the Lakes for saving the school children from an ox (el buey) in Jalisco. The other depicts the Virgin appearing and saving Jacinto from the black dog which appeared in the cemetery in Oaxaca. I don’t know if this should be taken literally or is a reference to illness or the devil.

I wonder at the journey these retablos took from Perla and Jacinto, who were giving thanks to God some 50 years ago, all the way to that shop in Mexico City. Now they are part of my writing journey.

Just like you.

Carmen Amato, author of the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series, carmenamato.net

The Collective Muse

As an artist, I have found that I have become a much more enriched artist by travelling to Mexico. In fact, I can directly attribute my journey in expansion of form from writing to painting to photography to my annual trips to Mexico. When you develop a passion for a place and for its people, you develop a way of seeing that culture in a way that you can’t with that which has become familiar. You begin to appreciate differences, rather than sameness and you feel safe in this unfamiliarity. You are more willing to step outside of yourself and there is a natural sensation that is triggered that requires one to have an appetite for more than just the local cuisine. Language, skin color, mannerisms, landscape, design choices and leisure preferences all become intriguing and an inspiration for the development of new works of art. I have travelled the world and I have settled finally in a place with people and customs that I am so happy to collectively call my muse: Guayabitos, Mexico.

Kim Peto, painter and photographer, http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/kim-peto.html

The Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico was written by 36 experts who want to share their best Mexican stories with you. Download the free guide today.

You’ll also get the free monthly Mystery Ahead with featuring protips, reviews, book news, and interviews with my fellow mystery and thriller authors. The Emilia Cruz series has already been optioned for film and readers of Mystery Ahead will be the first to hear all the production details. 

 

 

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

Thrillers are Tastier on Talavera Pottery

Thrillers are Tastier on Talavera Pottery

If you read this blog with any regularity you know the following;

  • I am a mystery author
  • I drink too much coffee
  • I love Pinterest and Twitter
  • I find inspiration in unlikely places

Talavera Pottery

The latest thing to jog my imagination is talavera, the beautiful and colorful Mexican pottery. The only authentic talavera comes from Puebla and the surrounding villages “because of the quality of the natural clay found there and the tradition of production which goes back to the 16th century.

talavera

Traditional talavera pieces. The store owner eyed me suspiciously when I took the picture but was less suspicious when ringing up my purchases.

Talavera pottery pops against a yellow wall at Alter Eco

Talavera pottery pops against a yellow wall at Alter Eco

You can buy talavera online at La Fuente and Direct from Mexico.

Tasty Writing

Talavera was featured in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY. The main protagonist, Eddo Cortez Castillo, is from Puebla. His family runs one of the oldest and wealthiest talavera companies.

Talavera,” Tomás said. “The Cortez family owns Marca Cortez, half of Puebla, and the land the new Volkswagen factory is on. Eddo is still the family’s legal advisor and sits on the board of directors. Don’t know how he finds the time. It helps that he never sleeps.”

Eddo is rich. Richer than the Vegas, even richer than the Portillos. “Puebla,” Luz said. “The city or the state?”

“Both.”

Phenomenally rich.

Real talavera is relatively expensive, although when I lived in Mexico City it was popular to go to Puebla and order service for 8 of a particular pattern. I knew of one family in Mexico City that refused to let their domestic help eat off of their talavera plates, prompting this intense scene in HIDDEN LIGHT.

Luz blinked at her sister. Lupe’s bottom lip was trembling. “Okay,” Luz said, drawing it out. A tiny white lie could put this awkward conversation to rest and Maria could be told the truth later. Luz took a deep breath as if embarrassed. “I . . . uh . . . broke a dish.”

“Six hundred fifty pesos for a dish?” Tío shouted. Everyone jumped. Someone’s spoon clattered to the floor.

Luz shrugged. “It was talavera.

Tío’s hand hit Luz’s cheekbone with a stinging smack. Her head snapped back, her eyes watered, the room sparkled with vertigo and she tasted blood.

Through a curtain of dizziness, Luz watched Juan Pablo rise up and throw a wide looping punch across the table. He put his weight behind it, his chair spurting out behind him, his feet nearly coming off the floor. Fist connected with jaw and Tío spilled to the floor.

“Don’t you touch my sister!” Juan Pablo yelled furiously.

“She’s a stupid girl,” Tío roared, scrambling to his feet. “Breaking dishes when her family needs the money.”

“So you can drink it?” Juan Pablo was barely in control.

“Lupe is pregnant,” Tío shouted.

“If you’re so worried, why don’t you get a job?”

Tío threw a counterpunch across the table but Juan Pablo was younger and faster and sober. He jerked back to avoid the blow, then lunged forward, and suddenly they were snarling and grappling like two wild dogs, hands locked in each other’s shirts. The table between them rocked wildly as they wrestled over the dishes and the tortillas and the clay cazuela full of rice and seafood, ready to kill each other in the small cramped kitchen with everyone else sitting like shocked statues. Plastic glasses spun crazily and tipped over, flatware clattered to the floor, and Luz’s plate slid onto her lap.

I have a few pieces of talavera and this fishy pitcher is my favorite.

Carmen Amato bookshelf

My talavera pottery fish serves a noble purpose

 

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

Art Stories from the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

Mexican Retablos: Prayers on Steel

After a few bites of the cake Raul seemed to realize that she was waiting. “He read about the United States and wanted to go. He tried to cross the desert but the Virgin abandoned him because what he was doing was wrong. He got lost and died in the sun.”

“I’m so sorry, Raul,” Luz said.

“His mother had a retablo made for the Virgin to have pity on his soul.”

“I’m sure his soul rests in peace.”

“When his mother died I had the retablo buried with her.” Raul continued to eat.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, Luz’s heart twisting in sadness. Retablos were primitive paintings of a scene of something that happened in a person’s life for which they were giving thanks to the Virgin. But not this time. The son had died trying to get to El Norte and the mother had probably died of a broken heart. (THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY)

I’ve been giving alot of thought to visual inspiration as I tackle KING PESO, the 4th novel in the Acapulco Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series. The quote above isn’t from one of the Emilia Cruz books, but from romantic thriller THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, which drew on many visual cues such as  Mexico’s architecture and food, as well as Mexico’s fine art.

Related: Art Stories from the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

The Catholic Church is a strong cultural and artistic influence in Mexico, and my books reflect that. Retablos are part of Mexico’s tradition combining art and faith, made all the more interesting to me because they are rustic folk art meant to capure a moment in time for which someone is giving thanks to God.

I bought these two retablos in a small shop in Mexico City’s  Zona Rosa a couple of years ago. They are each about 5×7 inches, and painted on rusted steel. The edges are sharp. My guess they were cut from a barrel and done by the same person.Retablo as visual inspiration

In this retablo, thanks are given to the Virgin of Saint John of the Lakes for saving the school children from the ox (el buey) in Jalisco.religious retablo inspires a mystey series

This retablo depicts the Virgin appearing and saving Jacinto from the black dog which appeared in the cemetary in Oaxaca. I don’t know if this should be taken literally or is a reference to illness or the devil.

I wonder at the journey these retablos took from Perla and Jacinto, who were giving thanks to God some 50 years ago, all the way to that shop in Mexico City. Now they are part of my writing journey. Just like you.

THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY

“A multilayered novel of love and drama” — Literary Fiction Review

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

Little Silver Miracles

Little Silver Miracles

I’ve been thinking about visual inspiration lately, as I tackle KING PESO, the 4th Emilia Cruz mystery. Thankfully, Mexico is replete with visual cues to creativity, from large (the Basilica of Guadalupe, Mexico City’s Zocalo, assorted volcanoes) to small (shots of tequila, Chupa Pops, silver milagros).

The word milagro means “miracle.” Milagros are small charms, typically silver or tin, that represent an intention. The Zanzibar art website, which carries folk art from around the world, talks about milagros on its page devoted to Mexico.

The bearer typically is asking a saint to intercede on their behalf. They may be asking for health after an injury or illness, a successful romance, or the survival of their livestock. The charms are in the shape of an item related to the request, such as arms, legs, hearts, animals, etc.

The requestor leaves the milagro at the shrine of the saint that they are asking to intercede on their behalf. Mexico is full of statues and crosses covered with the silver charms, including those pinned to ribbons or threads adorning a statue. In many cases, the milagros are pinned to clothing worn by a statue. A milagro can also be carried for protection and good luck, in the way Detective Emilia Cruz carried her rosary with her in DIABLO NIGHTS, the 3rd Emilia Cruz mystery.

I used a milagro as visual inspiration in The Angler, a stand-alone short story that takes place before the books in the Emilia Cruz mystery series.

When I left Mexico, I took some milagros with me, in the form of this crucifix and a shape known as a Sacred Heart.silver charms adorn a purple cross

Mexican milagros charms

I’m writing in the room where they hang. KING PESO is coming together, albeit slowly.

Not that I’m praying for an intercession, mind you.

But visual inspiration that turns into faster typing wouldn’t hurt.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

A Box, a Mystery Series, and Some Lacquer

A Box, a Mystery Series, and Some Lacquer

She came back a moment later with a box decorated in the traditional rayada carved lacquer technique. It was the size of a loaf of bread and the bottom was fitted with a small drawer with a tiny gold knob.

This is a most special and precious item,” Tifani said as she moved the other items aside and spread a velvet cloth over the glass-topped counter. Lupita placed the box reverently on the fabric. “A relic of the most holy martyr Padre Pro.”

Emilia’s breath caught in her throat. “Really? Padre Pro?”

“Who’s that?” Kurt asked.

“Padre Pro,” Emilia said, as her heart thumped. She was glad she was already sitting down. The rayada box was lacquered in blue and black with an etched design of crosses rather than the usual animal motifs. “He was a priest. A martyr of the Cristero War.”  (DIABLO NIGHTS)

As I start work on the 4th Emilia Cruz mystery, KING PESO,  I’ve been collecting (at least mentally) the unique Mexican influences that will underpin the story. Visual inspiration is important to me, as readers of this blog might have guessed by now, and I’ve done the same for all of the books in the Emilia Cruz mystery series.

Related post: Acapulco: Locating the Emilia Cruz Series

The quote above from the first chapter of DIABLO NIGHTS, the 3rd book in the mystery series, narrowed the country’s turbulent religious history down to a riveting moment in a Catholic shop. But my favorite detail was about the box containing a purported relic from Padre Pro, the real-life Catholic martyr.

In DIABLO NIGHTS, the relic is housed in a rayada box. Rayada is the Mexican technique of carving lacquer. Markets in Mexico are never without trays, boxes, and even gourds decorated with this painstaking technique. When we lived in Mexico City, I was picky, always looking for the right shade of red or bypassing pieces that weren’t as finely made.

Related post: How to Find Love at Mexico City’s Markets

I now wish I’d bought more besides the two below. The red box, with its exceptionally detailed lacquer carving, has long contained my desk supplies and directly inspired Padre Pro’s relic box. The small tray functions as a coaster for my coffee mug.red rayada laquer box from mystery serieslacquer box from Emilia Cruz mystery seriesrayada technique tray from mystery series author Carmen Amato

I never knew just how much effort went into these little artistic gems, until I read ta description from worldexperience.com. Possibly as much time as it took me to write DIABLO NIGHTS, if you don’t count the time I spent rearranging sticky notes on the master outline, pretending to be both characters during Emilia-Silvio argument scenes, and drinking coffee.

Diablo Nights by Carmen AmatoSo what happens in DIABLO NIGHTS after the infamous rayada box is opened?

Tifani slid the drawer closed and opened the lid of the box. She took out two pieces of styrofoam and set them aside. She reached back inside the box and drew out a small rectangular display case. Lupita whisked aside the now-empty enamel box and Tifani set the glass case on the velvet pad and turned it so that the front faced Emilia and Kurt.

The sides and top of the display case were made of clear glass. The wooden base was stained a dark mahogany and bore a small brass plaque with an inscription that read A Relic of the Most Holy Martyr Blessed Padre Miguel Pro Juarez, S.J. 1891-1927.

The back was decorated with a color picture of a priest in a bloody cassock lying with arms outstretched at the feet of an officer holding a sword and wearing a garish Napoleon-style uniform.

But it was the object inside the display case that took Emilia’s breath away. A long-lost relic of Padre Pro. Her life had come full circle.

 

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

The Art of Travel Without a Camera

The Art of Travel Without a Camera

The art of travel is being able to create memories. But how can we relive the experiences and relationships of an exciting or romantic or never-again adventure? Think outside the camera–the right postcard can be more of a memory-maker than all those digital photos that never leave the device.

Travel + Postcards

When I was younger and couldn’t afford to take alot of pictures I found myself traveling through Europe on a student budget. It was the era of 35mm cameras  and the cost to develop pictures was out of my reach. I began buying postcards instead, not to mail, but to keep as souvenirs.

The postcards were easy to share and display. The collection grew. I often rifle through the cards and they never fail to do what a good souvenir does–bring back memories.

Related post: The Kitchen UN

Buying Tips

People have asked about my postcard purchases and so without further ado, the three most important tips for collecting the art of travel:

  1. Only buy a postcard from a place you’ve actually been. It’s tempting to buy a beautiful scene or a painting and heck, it’s only a dollar, right? But when you get home you won’t have any association with it. So don’t bother. Stay authentic to your experience.
  2. Go beyond the ordinary color photo postcard and go with a theme. Collect map postcards. Drawings. Vintage scenes. Hunting a postcard that corresponds to the theme of your collection can liven up a trip.
  3. Look for postcards in quirky places. Museums and souvenir shops are the expected places but churches, antique malls, university bookstores, and art galleries are also good places to check, especially if you collect a theme.

The Gallery

To get your imagination going, here are some of mine and the stories they tell:

manuscript page

A British Library postcard of a page of Lewis Carroll’s handwritten and illustrated manuscript of Alice in Wonderland.  This was my first trip to London as an adult, when I went to the British Library and Sir John Soanes’ Museum and was a hopeless Anglophile for a week.

Irises

This postcard of Vincent Van Gogh’s Irises was purchased during a student trip to Amsterdam. My roommate and I rode the train from Paris and met up with a motley group of foreign students with whom we went to the Van Gogh Museum. This painting, with its thickly daubed paint and eye-popping colors fascinated me. I could have stared at it all day.

Related post: Girl Meets Paris

Amsterdam postcardThis postcard is a double art bonus: it shows both sides of the Prinsengracht canal in Amsterdam but also reflects the colors and layout of the flag of the Netherlands.

German village

This postcard of the medieval walled village of Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Germany will always bring forth the memory of a trip through Germany and Austria with my mother. Rothenburg was the scene of a particularly funny beer drinking event during which my mother did herself proud at 11:00 am.

1940s postcard

The Ritz Hotel has been mentioned in many books and always seemed the epitome of high society. I crossed it off my bucket list several years ago when I had brunch there (coffee and toast that cost as much as my first car) and picked up this postcard from the lounge on my way out.

postcard of WWII

Australian artist Colin Colahan painted “Ballet of Wind and Rain” in 1945 as an official artist with Australian forces in the UK during WWII. I purchased the postcard at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, one of the most moving tributes to fallen soldiers I’ve ever seen.

Face of Virgin of Guadalupe

This is a photo of image of the Madonna imprinted on a cloth garment (the famous tilma of San Juan Diego) which now hangs in the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City.  I got it at the  Basilica gift shop. The postcard is simply a photo with “Expression de los ojos de la Virgen” stamped on the back and space for postage and the recipient’s address.

Scrapbook Diaries-postcards 001

This is an oversized postcard for an oversized item, namely the Viking ship or “Oseberg-stavnen” in the Viking ship museum in Oslo, Norway. On the same trip I went to the Fram Museum, the final home of the ship that took Roald Amundsen to Antarctica. I doubt the Viking tradition will ever die out in Norway.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

Friday Fiesta: An Artist, An Astronaut and the Unexpected in Nepal and on Kilimanjaro

globe on a plateAs the author of a mystery series I love to weave unique cultural gems into the plot. Most of the time I draw on my own world travels and experiences living in Mexico and Central America.

In these Friday Fiesta posts I highlight cultural stories worth celebrating. The unique, the odd, the thought-provoking. Join the movement and share your own good news stories on Twitter with hashtag #FridayFiesta.

Meet Mr. Fabulous

In a guest post for abduzeedo.com, the avant-garde art site, Brazilian artist Marco Torres interviews a fellow artist known as Mr. Fabulous. The Q&A about his evolution as an artist and sources of inspiration is quirky and fun, as well as surprisingly thoughtful. Mr. Fabulous makes art with simple markers and pencils. The rest of the abduzeedo site is equally fun; it’s a prescription to end the winter blahs and boost creative inspiration.

Art from an astronaut

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield photographed Earth from the International Space Station and posted them on Twitter. UK’s The Telegraph pulled a selection of Hadfield’s photos of Earth to create a gallery of Hadfield’s best on the publication’s website. Breathtaking and crisp, these photos of Earth truly give us a new perspective on this place we call home as well as Hadfield’s own experience as an astronaut.

Zipping in Nepal

Backpacker Becki is a self-described “a British solo female traveler and adventure seeker” and her website lives up to the description. She is currently on a two year tour of parts unknown and documents the highlights such as her zipline adventure in Nepal. She writes that the zipline near Pokhara is the world’s longest, fastest and steepest. It is over 1.8km long, with a 600 metre vertical drop that gets riders going at speeds up to 100 miles per hour. Unlike most other ziplines the rider sits in a harness foor the ride which swings over the Seti River. The pictures are great and while Becki admitted to being nervous, she clearly adored the adventure! While I envy Becki the experience, I’m glad it was on her bucket list, not mine!

The Kilimanjaro Restaurant Experience

It you have a bit of time mid-month, join a tour to Tanzania that includes an expedition to Mt. Kilimanjaro, a stop at a gourmet restaurant on the way down the iconic peak, and two days volunteering at a local school. According to website weblogtheworld.com, “Departing February 18, 2013, from Washington, D.C., this one-of-a-kind trek up Africa’s highest mountain boasts an amenity that no other tour provider offers: a gourmet feast prepared by African Chef Pierre Thiam, who will open a temporary restaurant at a base camp at 12,500 feet above sea level exclusively to celebrate the fund-raising climb. After summiting Mount Kilimanjaro via the scenic Machame route, climbers will descend to the base camp restaurant to dine on Chef Thiam’s African regional cuisine.” The core purpose of the expedition is to benefit St. Timothy’s School, a school and children’s home, and the climb and gourmet experience are great ways to generate interest. So if Kilimanjaro is on your bucket list, here’s the best way to do it!

The Friday Fiesta: An Outdoor Seat, Music, Chocolate, and a Story

As a fiction author I love to weave  unique cultural gems into the plot. Most of the time I draw on my own world travels and experiences living in Mexico and Central America.

In these Friday Fiesta posts I highlight cultural stories worth celebrating. The unique, the odd, the thought-provoking. Enjoy and share to make the world a little smaller today.

Have a Seat

The website theverybestop10.com brings us a montage of park benches around the world that is surprisingly startling and thought-provoking and nearly had me running for my passport. From a bench that looks as if it is part of a giant slingshot by German artist Cornelia Konrads to book-shaped benches in Istanbul and a shark attack bench in Bangkok, these photos and the imagination behind them are a guaranteed smile. Check it out—there might be a bench near you.

The Landfillharmonic

There are a few YouTube videos on the small orchestra created in Cateura, Paraguay, using instruments made from trash from a local landfill. I recommend a quick view of this 3 minute short. The stringed instruments sport odd shapes and labels from the boxes, cans, and other containers cannibalized to make them but the music—and obvious dedication of the music teacher–is worth celebrating. You can check out this Facebook page for more about the orchestra and the documentary about it from an often overlooked part of the world.

Saving Chocolate

The cultureist.com online magazine—one of my favorite feel-good online locations—carried this interesting story about cocoa farmers in the impoverished Democratic Republic of the Congo. Candy maker Theo is producing two new organic, fair trade certified chocolate bars: Pili Pili Chili, “an intensely warming blend of cocoa, vanilla, and spicy peppers; and Vanilla Nib, a scrumptious mix of cocoa, creamy vanilla, and crunchy cocoa nibs.” The website reports that Theo says the “fast-growing, high-yield crop requires minimal re-planting, prevents deforestation, commands solid global prices, and is a major source of income.” Theo chocolate is sold online and at Whole Foods Market stores.

Story Sees the Light of Day

“The Tallow Candle,” a handwritten early story by Danish storyteller Hans Christian Anderson—author of “The Little Mermaid” and other famous tales–was recently unearthed in a box of miscellany by local historian Esben Brage in the National Archive in Odense, Andersen’s home town. Published in English by Danish media outlet politiken.dk after validation by experts including Ejnar Stig Askgaard of the Odense City Museum, Bruno Svindborg of the Royal Library and Professor Johan de Myliu, you can read it here. As the UK’s guardian.co.uk reported, “The story tells of a little candle, dirtied by life and misunderstood, which eventually finds happiness after a tinder box sees the good at its heart and lights it.” Given the news lately, this discovery is pretty timely. We all need a little more light in our lives.

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A Nicaragua Christmas: The Treasures of Alter Eco

A Nicaragua Christmas: The Treasures of Alter Eco

Advertising in Managua, Nicaragua, can be hit-or-miss so I wasn’t quite sure what I’d find when I walked into Alter Eco, which bills itself as an alianza hecho a mano. This “alliance” is actually a cluster of artist shops and studios near the big art and antiques store Mama Delfina.

The displays and inventory would be at home in New York or London or Mexico City. Here are some of the treasures I discovered.

cotton clothing

This charming clothing and accessories boutique has a Laura-Ashley-meets-Chanel vibe. Simple cotton and linen pieces kept to a pink, rust, and gray palette.


boutique

Visitors to the boutique are immediately drawn in by the charming wall decor featuring trees, birds and 3-D blossoms


boutique ceiling

Silver “raindrops” fall from the tree branches and blossoms on the ceiling


jewelry

Accessories included locally-sourced jewelry and lizard clutches and belts


talavera

The ceramics studio had a beautiful selection of Mexican talavera


Talavera pottery pops against a yellow wall at Alter Eco


The place to go for customized tequila shot glasses!


Talavera plaque reading “God Bless This Home.” My wish for you this holiday season.

A Nicaragua Christmas: Shopping at Mama Delfina’s

Managua, Nicaragua, is full of surprises including the beautiful art and antique store, Mama Delfina’s.  Housed in a large white Spanish colonial building with an open courtyard and beautiful old brickwork, the place is a treasure trove of handmade holiday gifts and decorations, carefully curated to offer a collection of best locally-produced items.

While the original Delfina, whose picture is above the cash register, looked on with stiff-necked amusement, the staff graciously let me roam around and take pictures. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I did!

Mama Delfina entrance

An old picture of Delfina and a painting of the store hang above the antique blue counter


artwork at Mama Delfina

The store features beautiful displays of painted boxes, frames, wooden angels and handmade paper goods


Silver frames

Some of the frames are of intricately punched metal, a technique that in Mexico is called repujado


Christmas ornaments

All the Christmas ornaments at Mama Delfina’s are one-of-a-kind


Boxes

Each painted box was a mini-masterpiece of abstract art. Loved the wonderful tablescapes throughout the store.


desk

The store is arranged as a series of vignettes showcasing art and antiques.


textile bags on display

The store carries a line of bags made from a loomed woven fabric that was prohibited during the Samoza regime but is now being reproduced in Nicaragua


archways of art

A beautiful vignette of art, holiday items, and antiques


art on wall

The store chooses and displays art with a practiced eye

The Friday Fiesta: Safari, Snow, Scotland and Surprising Films

world holiday ornamentAs a fiction author I love to weave  unique cultural gems into the plot. Most of the time I draw on my own world travels and experiences living in Mexico and Central America.

In these Friday Fiesta posts I highlight cultural stories worth celebrating. The unique, the odd, the thought-provoking. Enjoy and share to make the world a little smaller today.

Join the Virtual Safari

National Geographic’s Andrew Evans is on the move again, this time on safari in Tanzania. He is documenting his trip with a series of blog posts, photographs and short videos, as well as tweeting his way through some tense moments with skittish wildlife. Evans is a great communicator, managing to keep us on the edge as he tweets his adventures. His longer blog posts provide more thought-provoking reports on conservation and the beauties of Africa. Follow him @WheresAndrew.

Let it snow

Images of the winter wonderland that is Zurich, Switzerland were featured on Anisha Shah’s website this week. The photos are beautiful, showing gentle blankets of snow tucked around iconic European motifs. The result is a Christmas feast for the eyes, a gentle, dreamy fairytale digital experience. Everybody who is looking forward to a snow-less holiday season, like me here in the tropics, should spend a moment savoring these images. I especially loved the swan amid the snowflakes.

Glasgow transformed

My perceptions of Glasgow, Scotland, have been shaped a little too firmly by Ian Rankin’s novels, which are set in the seemingly much-preferred Edinburgh, so I was intrigued by artist Claire Biddles’ article in the online edition of UK’s Guardian talking about the transformation of the city into a “culture city.” According to Biddles, “The role that artist-run spaces have had in Glasgow’s reinvention as a creative city cannot be underestimated, and as long as the artistic community continues to develop, this image will be sustained – attracting artists and art lovers alike to the city.” The article describes several of the art spaces in Glasgow, painting a picture (pun intended) of a vibrant and effective effort to enrich the city “culturally and economically.” Tourists and travelers take note; there’s more to Glasgow than ever before.

Films to Inspire

Roman Coppola, son of legendary director Francis Ford Coppola, teamed with W Hotels to offer a film competition: screenwriters had to submit screenplays with two ingredients: location is a W Hotel and there’s an Intel Ultrabook somewhere in it. The winners produced four short films which were recently featured on the Gadling website. The films take place at W Hotels in Doha, Qatar; Mexico City, Mexico; Washington, DC; and the Maldives. The website said, “The results are quirky, touching, and sometimes eerie, but most of all great ways to inspire travel and help emerging talent get their feet off the ground.” I agree. With the help of sponsors like W Hotels and Intel, this is a great way to showcase locations, open doors to a new culture, and give wanna-be filmmakers a chance to do what they love!

Crafting a Christmas at the Mercado

This is the year my Christmas won’t be Made in China. Instead of the usual commercial shiny things we all know and love, I’m aiming for a simpler reminder of what the holiday is all about. Decorations, cards, and gifts will reflect skill, art, and natural materials instead of glossy plastic and machined perfection.  My sources will be local craftsman, a few boutique stores, and several charities.

A stroll through the mercado de artesanias in Masaya, Nicaragua last weekend was the starting point.

typical market scene

Just a typical aisle in the market which is located in an old colonial building with plenty of light and a restaurant on one side.


woven textiles

Most of the textiles in the mercado are from Guatemala. We saw scarves, table runners, and placemats but only a few larger pieces.


The terracotta pots on top look like smiling faces. Or maybe the Kool-Aid jug guy.
I had a sizzling pollo a la plancha after a day of hard shopping and it was delicious. Washed it down with a local beer and was ready to spend a little more!
Pottery plate

This beautiful plate is typical of the colors and motifs found in Nicaraguan pottery.

If you are having Christmas in Mexico this year, check out my post on favorite markets in Mexico City and have a wonderful time!

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