Walking the Mouth of Hell

Walking the Mouth of Hell

warning signI ended up with the yellow hard hat but what I really needed were safety goggles. My eyes watered from the cinders in the air. Heat rose from the black porous rocks that lined the uphill path and within minutes my jeans were damp with sweat. The smells of sulphur, rotten egg, brimstone, eddied in the strong wind.

We were climbing the marked paths around the multiple calderas of the still-active Masaya Volcano, 23 kilometers from Managua. The area is a well-preserved Nicaraguan national park–the country’s first–that includes Volcán Nindirí, which last erupted in 1670, and Volcán Masaya, which blew in 1772. The relatively new Santiago Crater was formed between the other two in 1852. Moon Guides has more about the volcano here.

park entrance Masaya

Masaya is a well laid out national park

Masaya crater

Steam billows from the Santiago crater, which experienced a partial eruption in April 2012

At the top of the first rise, we turned and tried to catch our breaths, heat wafting up from the path that wasn’t so much of a path as it was a long series of steps cut into the sides of the craters. The visitor’s center only a few kilometers from the park entrance had offered an informative series of rooms about geology, tectonic plates, Central America’s volcanoes and other scary things cloaked in science, where we’d learned that the Masaya volcano occasionally belched out the type of magma that hardened into lava bombs upon exit. The steps we climbed were bound by lumber and these big lava chunks.

rocks

Bubbly black lava rock was everywhere

We found the relatively small San Francisco crater at the top of the path. San Francisco was long dormant and the big bowl in the ground was now covered in grass and scrubby shrubs, with the occasional yellow flower poking through. As I looked over the stunning landscape with the crater at my back, the wind threatened to whip the camera out of my hand.

crater

The San Francisco crater looks like a green bowl

Nearly a mile away, we could see the smoking Santiago caldera. Above it was the cross placed there in 1529 by Father Francisco Bobadilla to exorcise the demons he believed lived within. The Spanish explorer Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo called the smoking volcano the “mouth of hell.” He had himself and another man, Friar Blas del Castillo, lowered into the caldera thinking to find gold there. He didn’t find gold but probably spent the next two days blowing ash out of his nose and wondering why his ear wax had turned black.

cross above volcano

The cross high above the volcano dates from 1529. The walkway to it is closed due to landslides.

Mother Earth has a sense of humor, I thought to myself as I watched steam billow out of the Santiago crater. It was a unique sight. Powerful and a little scary. We watched the steam drift, getting thicker and thicker, until it obscured the far side of the crater’s lip.

When we’d first driven up to the main viewing area, along a curving road that led up from the visitor center and the guard who handed out the hard hats, we’d been able to see maybe a third of the edge but now most was hidden behind a white cloud. All parking was facing out, in case an evacuation was in order. The wall built at a low point in the crater’s lip barely came to our knees but any rush of vertigo was lost in the stunning view.

sign

In case the lava bombs start falling and we have to know which way to run

We started back down, our shoes crunching on the black lava gravel. We were heated by the rocks but cooled by the wind. I started thinking about some of the other odd places I’d been and the risks I’d taken and the choices I’d made.

drop off edge

The Santiago crater is 1640 feet wide and 656 feet deep. I didn’t measure it.

volcano plain

Looking out over the plain at the craters left by the inactive volcanoes

signs

Older signs are scratched and damaged by eruptions

Masaya volcano

An incredible, majestic view

An active volcano is an unexpected thing, a sign that the solid earth is alive and moving to its own inner music. We can’t control it, which means there are risks along the lava path. But when you reach the top, inspiration and power are there for the sharing.

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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.

 

The Friday Fiesta: An Odyssey, An Artist, Manners, and the Radio

dog and globeAs 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.

His Odyssey Expedition

Daily Telegraph reporter Graham Hughes started 1 January 2009 on a trip that would take him around the world without any airplane travel. After 1,426 days on the road and more than 200 countries across six continents, Hughes wrote this fabulous wrap-up in which he said: “I undertook this challenge for many reasons: to set a Guinness World Record, to raise money for the charity WaterAid, to have great stories to tell the grandchildren. But the main reason was that I wanted to prove it was possible: to show that all the great travel adventures have not already been done; to show that the world isn’t the terrible scary place so often portrayed in the media; to show that, yes, with a British passport, a fistful of dollars and the right amount of tenacity, grit and patience you can – if you really want to – go anywhere.” Hughes’ determination, accomplishment and the resulting article are all terrific.

 In the Tradition of Art Saving Wildlife

Following in the tradition of the Audobon Society and the World Wildlife Fund, both rooted in work by noted wildlife artists, California artist David Tomb has started a conservation effort called Jeepney Projects Worldwide to save endangered birds including the great Philippine eagle. A Huffpost article quoted him as saying: “Making artwork of the birds is a way to connect and personalize my experience of seeing the birds . . . The ultimate goal is to have people think: ‘That animal is incredible.'” Tomb’s artwork, included in the article, is also incredible and worth a look, if for no other reason that the Philippine eagle, weighing in around 18 lbs., is an arresting and unique creature.

 Asian Etiquette

Did you know that religious views play a role in good manners in Asia? The website backyardtravel.com, devoted to Asian travel, writes “The sole of the foot is considered such a dirty thing that it is even seen as an aggressive, rude gesture in Thailand to show someone the sole of the foot – similar to ‘flipping the bird’ in the USA, or ‘putting two fingers up’ in the UK. Continuing the theme on feet, shoes must also be removed when entering someone’s house in Asia, and in Thailand never, ever stand on anything with an image of the King on, like money or postage stamps for example.” This short and useful article gives other good tips for showing good manners when travelling in Asia. Related to this is my Rude in Any Culture post, with a similar foot warning.

Salaryless Radio Host in Peru Still Going Strong

Peruvian radio host Maruja Venegas has been on the air for 68 years, making her the longest-running radio host ever, according to Guinness World Records. Venegas is 97 and her fans are still listening to her show “Radio Club Infantil” which airs Sundays at 6-6:30 pm on Santa Rosa, a religion-oriented station. The show, which started in 1944 as a broadcast for sick children, has expanded and contracted over the years—impacted by Peru’s political and economic circumstances. Venegas, who has never been paid for the show, is her own producer and has got her formula down; the show now always includes a story, music, advice and commentary. The story is a salute to tenacity and for doing something you love and think is important enough to do, regardless of the reward.

The Friday Fiesta: Travel, Time and Not Enough Sparkly Wine

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.

Are You This Kind of Traveler?

The online Sydney Morning Herald reported on a Skyscanner survey of flight attendants that revealed the top 10 most annoying things that air travelers do. Snapping fingers at flight attendants is number 1, not a big surprise. Trying to get out of the plane before the light goes off and stuffing too much into the overhead bin are numbers 2 and 3.

I read the list with great smugness until I came to number 7: leaving trash in the seat pocket. Er, um, yes, the used tissues, empty sugar packets, and crumpled newspaper from seat 7B were gifts from me.

For more tips on how to be a bad traveler read my list of 25 Ways to Be the Worst Traveler in the World.

Not All Time is Equal

I’m often struck by cultural differences in time management. For example, in one country the gardener wanted to come every 15 days, rather than every other Wednesday (but mostly he never showed up at all) while in another place the cable TV bill was not always for the same duration, making each a surprise. The website yourlanguageplace.com had a thought-provoking article entitled “How Language Can Shape the Perception of Time” that is worth a read. It is an excellent discussion of how different cultures have different perceptions of time and how language feeds into that. This issue is a small but meaningful part of interacting with people from different cultures on a daily basis. Related to this is my post on cultural differences regarding money.

Changes in Latitude

The codesign website brings us a gallery of photos from 70 degrees north latitude. I clicked through the photos, riveted by the simple images that represent a photographic line through the United States. From N 40° 00’ 00” W 97° 00’ 00” Hollenberg, Kansas, 2007, to N 40° 00’ 00” W 109° 00’ 00” Rangely, Colorado, 2000 and so many other locations, this imagery collection is a significant achievement in terms of research, photography, and curation.  What I didn’t expect to find but did: a view into the culture of rural America. Added cool thing: website scrolling is horizontal, mimicking the concept of latitude. Check it out. Just lovely.

The Coming Champagne Crisis

The Huffingpost Post reports that hail storms and fungus due to overly wet weather will reduce France’s champagne grape harvest by 40%. Champagne takes at least 15 months to ferment, meaning that champagne prices for the summer of 2014 could be higher despite a reserve built up by lowered demand in previous years due to recession in the US and Europe. But demand is on the rebound at least in the US. So what’s a discriminating consumer to think?  Spoiler alert for weddings, graduation parties and book launch events.

About the Time I was Absolutely and Terrifyingly Lost in Panama

About the Time I was Absolutely and Terrifyingly Lost in Panama

A year ago I was Lost.

No-cell-phone-service Lost. The-road-is-a-gravel-track-through-cane-fields Lost.

Set Sail One Day

Five girlfriends had set out from Panama City to go to El Valle, about two hours away. We’d go to the Sunday crafts market there and have lunch at a boutique hotel afterwards.

A quick stop for cheese empanadas and gas and we were on the road. The miles sped by as we talked and laughed and it was well over an hour before we started to look for the turnoff to El Valle. There wasn’t a sign, but the intersection was the one with the pink shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

More talk. More laughter. More miles. Eventually we turned on the GPS and it signaled a turn. Not the road with the shrine, but it was the right direction.

At Road’s End

About half a mile down the new road, tarmac gave way to gravel. With deep ruts. Then worse ruts. We passed a small village and asked if that was the right road to El Valle. Yes, we were assured. One person said El Valle was just 10 minutes. Another said 30 minutes. The GPS seemed to split the difference.

Bad ruts turned into a dry stream bed weaving through Panama’s low mountains. The doughty SUV slid downhill, the tires unable to grip the loose stones. We jolted in the car like peanuts in a tin can. A dashboard light turned on—overheated transmission. We stopped on a rocky plateau and scouted ahead only to find that the gravel track narrowed ahead. The five of us were quite alone in the hot rustling jungle.

The SUV cooled and we started off again, now having discovered that we were all Catholic and that two of us carried rosaries. The jungle gave way to cane fields. Hard green stalks as high as the car roof rattled against the windows.

Two Hours Later . . .

After two hours off-road we broke through the cane field and clambered onto tarmac again. We were on the eastern edge of El Valle. Never were five women more ready to buy souvenirs.

I learned a few things that day.

About being lost. And knowing when to turn at the shrine.

  1. Don’t be so distracted by peripherals—entertainment, Twitter, mooning over the wrong guy—that you forget to look for the shrine that points the way to where you really want to go.
  2. If you’re lost, keep going. Take a break to rethink the situation, take care of problems, or give yourself a pep talk, but don’t confuse “taking a break” with “breaking down.” Cheerlead as you go—you’re handling the uncertainty well, you’re learning about yourself and wherever this “lost” place is—even if it is inside you.
  3. The shrine doesn’t have to be the pink altar on the side of the road. A shrine can be any pointer that helps you travel where you want to go. A shrine can be the project you handled well—you can use it as inspiration for managing a bigger one. A shrine can be a passing grade in a tough subject—you know you can master the next class, too. A shrine can be a hard decision, a recovery from an illness, the day you stood up for yourself, the time when you were scared but did it anyway.
  4. Maybe today’s the day you build a shrine. The day you make a decision and carry it out. The day that you see new possibilities. Believe an inspirational quote and translate it into action. Once you build the shrine, it’s yours forever, ready to inspire if you get lost.

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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.

 

A 9/11 Story

A 9/11 Story

I was sitting in a small auditorium at the Colegio Americano in Mexico City waiting for the meeting to start. The room was full of women and the occasion was the annual meeting of Mexico’s Secretariat of Education with the school’s parents. I knew I wouldn’t understand most of it; my Spanish listening skills were still feeble although I’d temporarily mastered numbers. But the school administration had sent home shrill notes insisting that parents attend, claiming a correlation between continued accreditation/funding with the number of parents that showed up.

We were new at the school that year. I didn’t see anyone I knew from my vantage point near the rear exit. The murmurs around me were all in Spanish.

As I leafed through my Filofax, a soft exclamation in English sounded from the front row. A blonde women turned to someone behind her as she waved a cell phone. “A plane hit the Twin Towers in New York,” she whispered loud enough for me to hear.

A small plane. A Cessna, I thought. A private pilot must have had a heart attack and veered off course. The plane would have splintered into pieces against the skyscraper. How sad.

With great ceremony, some school officials and a large man in a glen plaid suit mounted the stage and crossed to the podium. There were introductory remarks. The glen plaid suit started speaking on behalf of the Secretariat.

The warm air in the auditorium thickened with a mixture of boredom and expensive perfume. The speaker’s face was moist above the microphone. I had no idea what he was saying.

Whispers again rippled out from the front row in a language I could understand. A second plane had struck the Twin Towers.

No one left. The sweaty Secretariat man droned on for another 30 minutes until finally the school officials thanked him and dismissed the meeting. Maybe he took questions. I don’t remember.

I drove home and turned on the television. It was 11:30 am. At 11:32 I realized the world had fundamentally changed.

And that’s my 9/11 story.

Click here for the 9/11 digital archive. The Archive contains more than 150,000 digital items, a tally that includes more than 40,000 emails and other electronic communications, more than 40,000 first-hand stories, and more than 15,000 digital images.

Click here for the 9/11 memorial website.

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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.

 

How to Find Love at Mexico City’s Markets

How to Find Love at Mexico City’s Markets

Love to find that perfect travel memory? Love authentic handcrafts? Head for Mexico City’s markets.

Markets inspired much of the atmostphere I wrote into THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, the romantic thriller and modern Cinderella story. The sights, sounds, and temptations of Mexico City’s markets helped drive the novel’s authenticity.

Get it today on Amazon

Find more than souvenirs

Mexico City’s markets are where you can fall in love with the country’s culture, people-watch both buyers and sellers, and find some of the best street food, too. Just watch your purse/backpack/wallet. Like every big city, Mexico City has its share of clever pickpockets, even in the best markets.

Related: The Lost Chapter of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY

Each market has its own flavor and specialty items and everyone I know has their favorites. These are mine.

Bazaar Sabado

Bazaar Sabado art

Samples of handicrafts available at Bazaar Sabado. Courtesy http://elbazaarsabado.com/mx/#expositores

A straight shot down the big Periferico highway from the upscale Lomas de Chapultepec area, San Angel is the most colonial of all the Mexico City neighborhoods, with old Spanish architecture and a charm that makes you want to stay and explore. The market—Saturdays only–is located on the edge of the Plaza San Jacinto and spills outside the building, making it an interesting but fairly well contained exploration. This is the place for very high quality (prices reflect that, too) glassware, metalcrafts, mosaics, artwork, etc. There are several restaurants nearby with great food, too. The market’s website gives more information.

The main building is organized like a US antiques mall, with vendors in stalls surrounding the building’s courtyard. My favorite purchases there have been beautiful laquerware and cedar carvings of a village, including different churches. Alas, the dog ate the carvings (no kidding) and when I went back the vendor wasn’t there. The rule here, as with all Mexican markets: if you see it and like it, buy it NOW. You probably won’t see it again. These are pieces of art, not mass market products.

I’m also kicking myself for never having bought any of the glass mosaic pieces—candle hurricane lamps, bowls, etc– that are a feature of this market, so if you go, let me know.

Jardin del Arte

Jardin del Arte Mexico City

Photo by Agustin Valero – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9070692

“They waded into the sea of paintings that was Jardin del Arte.”

This quote from THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY says it all. This Sunday market is devoted to paintings of all sizes and shapes and is one of my favorite weekend places. It is held in a park at the northeast end of Rio Lerma (on Saturdays there are ballroom dancing events where older couples come out and dance to big band sounds.) Artists whose paintings are sold for thousands in galleries come with the lesser pieces which you can buy for a fraction of their worth.

Then there are the unknown artists with one or two unique items, the artists who make a living selling the predictable Mexican village scene of a house, a girl, and a donkey, and the rest who make this a feast for the art lover.

On the fringes of the park there are vendors who sell art supplies—every size and shape of canvas and type of paint and pastel. I knew one American woman who bought several paintings every weekend for a year and opened a gallery in the US with them. No doubt she jump-started many a Mexican artist’s career.

Related: Read Chapters 1 & 2 of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY

Mercado de Jamaica

Photo courtesy Leigh Thelmadatter, https://creativehandsofmexicodotorg.wordpress.com/

This is where people buy their voodoo stuff, I was told. Be careful if you go.

And yes, I saw the voodoo candles and statues of Santa Muerto, the saint of death idolized by drug cartels. Bottles of herbs and pamphlets with incantations. I bought a candle with special coins guaranteed to enhance the wealth of my family . . . still waiting to see the results.

Bu this sprawling market is also where the best Halloween/Day of the Dead costumes are sold, as well as flowers, food, pets, fabrics, household pots and pans, and just about anything else you can expect a Mexico City householder to use. Here’s a wonderful description of the market by Mexico City-based artist Jim Johnston.

Don’t miss out! Get your free copy of the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico. Free download here.

Cuidadela

The market at Balderas

Photo courtesy Leigh Thelmadatter, https://creativehandsofmexicodotorg.wordpress.com/

This downtown city market is a warren of vendor stalls with a big selection of handicrafts and household goods. It is big but the quality is a notch below Bazaar Sabado and the pickpockets are more in evidence. Expect more aggressive vendors, too.

My best purchase there was a ¾ size guitar for $40 that was well-crafted with a nice solid sound, perfect for a son learning a new instrument. We still have it, many years later.

I also got a Bruce the shark piñata for my daughter’s Nemo-themed birthday party that was nearly impossible to break (Daddy had to cut it open with a penknife before the kids could get the candy inside!)

This is a great place for embroidered tablecloths and talavera, the heavy painted pottery from Puebla. Many vendors will take custom orders and deliver the finished tableware to your house. If you aren’t ready to buy, ask for the vendor’s card (tarjeta) so you’ll know how to find them when you are.

Insurgentes

Otomi embroidered cloth

Photo courtesy Anne Damon, Zinnia Folk Arts, www.ZinniaFolkArts.com

This upscale market on the Reforma side of the Zona Rosa is the best place for jewelry and the beautiful embroidered cloth by the Otomi Indians. It is near the Plaza des Angeles, a wonderful (and pricey) antiques mall with Spanish Colonial china, furniture, and artwork. (I have a soft spot in my heart for this place because I once left my car unlocked all day in front of it and the car was wholly untouched when I returned. A small urban miracle.)

The Insurgentes market can be a tight crawl; the vendors are squeezed together and the aisles between the rows of stalls are narrow. Most sell sterling silver jewelry and weigh an item before giving you a price. Stall owners can usually be found with a cloth polishing their silver inventory and will want to show you more items than what is on display. Lots of good copies of Tiffany, Louis Vuitton and TOUS jewelry but the Mexican-designed necklaces, rings, and bracelets can be breath-taking, especially those with semi-precious stones.

The Otomi cloth is unique, embroidered with big animals, many of which are imaginary. The thread is often one color, making a big statement that looks very modern, although some are multicolored. Vendors at the market generally sell pieces big enough to be a bedspread—for $300 and up—as well as pillow covers, table runners, and place mat-sized pieces. Ask to see more than what is displayed; almost all fabric vendors will have more folded up and stacked somewhere. So You Think You Can Dance TV host Cat Deeley had a pile of Otomi pillows on her patio in InStyle magazine. If you can’t get to the market, find these beautiful textiles at Zinnia Folk Art, which always has a wonderful selection.

Coyoacan

Photo courtesy Alex Fisher

Photo courtesy Alex Fisher

Photo courtesy Alex Fisher

Photo courtesy Alex Fisher

The market in Coyoacan, near the bright blue Frida Khalo museum, is worth a stop if you are in the area. Coyoacan was among the first of the Mexico City’s neighborhoods to rbe named as one of Mexico’s Barrios Magicos (Magic Neighborhoods) due to its  tree-lined cobblestone streets, colonial-era homes, and rich cultural history. It’s got great local produce, as well as as a carnival of street food, including chapulines (fried grasshoppers.)

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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.

 

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