Oct 29, 2007

Mexico’s La Catrina, Day Of The Dead

Meet La Catrina. She is a celebrity of sorts in Mexico.

She was created by Mexican engraver and illustrator José Guadalupe Posada. Posada (1852-1913) was also a political satirist renowned for his images of skeletons (calaveras in Spanish) which he used to mock the upper classes and social and political injustice.

La Catrina is now a symbol of Day of the Dead celebrations held in Mexico every November. Wearing her signature hat she depicts a turn of the century upper class lady.

The photo above was taken at an exhibit of Posada’s work in Mexico City at the Presidential Palace. The palace features the elaborate murals of Diego Rivera who was a big fan of Posada.

Today Mexican folk artists emulate Posada’s work, recreating La Catrina in wood carvings, ceramics, paintings and other mediums.

Here is an example of her in an altar set up by local artists for the Day of The Dead (Dia de los Muertos) in Oaxaca.

Oct 26, 2007

Mexico Bound

In a few hours I’ll be on a flight bound for Mexico City and for the next 10 days will explore and photograph cities, towns and villages north of the big DF (Distrito Federal).

The first destination will be San Miguel de Allende, a charming town about a four hour bus ride from Mexico City. Next it's northwest to Guanajuato, a UNESCO World heritage site, followed by San Luis Potosi and the more rural and off the beaten path Matehuala and Real de Catorce.

This trip will coincide with the Day of The Dead, which will be spent in Real de Catorce, a former mining and old ghost town undergoing a renaissance.

There will be plenty to write about and photograph. In the meantime I have posts lined up for while I’m on the road.

Photo: Poetic Barber Shop, Oaxaca City Mexico

Oct 24, 2007

City Icons - Beirut Lebanon

Continuously inhabited for millennia, it is not surprising that Beirut is a city with more than one icon. Jutting out of the Mediterranean Sea is one of the city’s most recognized landmarks, Pigeon Rocks. It is also the only natural landmark in Beirut, known for decades as the Paris of the Middle East.

You can view the rocks from the Corniche, Beirut’s seaside promenade or from one of the cafés overlooking them in the Raouche section of the city. Peak time to view the arched rocks is sunset.

A few miles away in downtown Beirut stands the shell of the bullet-ridden Holiday Inn Hotel. It was opened shortly before the 15-year civil war began in 1970s and was used by snipers.

There are no plans at present to restore the hotel. For now it stands as an unofficial monument to the war.

Previous City Icons: Jaipur, Rajasthan.

Oct 22, 2007

Day Of The Dead, Oaxaca Mexico

Death, spirits and overnight graveyard vigils. Sounds ghoulish doesn’t it? Not in Mexico where death is viewed as a transition rather than an end.

Día de los Muertos or Day of The Dead which takes place in November celebrates and honors the dead. The belief is that the spirits of the deceased return for a reunion with loved ones. On November 1, All Saints Day, it is thought that the souls of children visit and November 2, All Souls Day, adults. It is a happy, rather than mournful, time.

The tradition is a mix of pre-Hispanic customs merged with Christian rituals. Families set up altars dedicated to the deceased and decorate their graves. The elaborately decorated altars, which typically include a photo of the deceased, marigolds, candles, sugar candy skulls and paper cut outs resembling lace, are completed with offerings or ofrendas. The offerings are meant to welcome the spirits and include items such as food and drinks they liked. Graves are decorated in a similar manner.

Oaxaca City in southern Mexico is one of the prime places to experience Day of the Dead. In the days leading up to the festival Oaxaca is decked out with decorations, altars and in its main square, or zocalo, sand paintings.

Death is portrayed with humor. One restaurant’s entrance had a few dozen tables set up with offerings for dead celebrities.

Oaxaca is known for its high quality crafts and it goes all out for the Day of the Dead. You can see altars set up in public places by local artists mocking death, like the bride and groom in the photo above. Paper mache, ceramic and carved wood skulls and skeletons are among the items sold in galleries and craft stores.

In Oaxaca the festival culminates with all night graveyard vigils. From evening until dawn families sit around graves meticulously cleaned and decorated. The atmosphere in the graveyards is spiritual and celebratory and visitors are welcomed with smiles.

In one massive graveyard on the outskirts of the city, several hundred graves lit up by candles were surrounded by families telling stories of the departed, picnicking and playing music.

Oct 16, 2007


In just about any other part of the world you would become a social leper instantly if you discussed the size of your home or how much rent you pay with someone you had just met at a party. In New York City it’s considered small talk.

Like most New Yorkers I am obsessed with real estate. For the non New Yorkers reading, please indulge me while I justify this neurosis.

Despite the real estate boom and construction of new high rises in almost every neighborhood supply continues to dramatically outstrip demand with no signs of abating. It’s always been tough to find and afford a decent place to live in NYC but this point in time has to be the worst. If you aren’t one of the lucky few to find an apartment through word of mouth expect to pay extortion-like fees to a real estate broker for a rental in even a not so prime building and/or location--15% of the annual rent is the norm. You’ll also be competing for that hovel with many others who choose to live here and suck it up.

And if you are in a position to buy you’ll have to jump through arcane hoops to get the approval of a co-op board no matter how deep your pockets. Cooperative apartments make up the majority of the city’s residential housing stock for sale and the boards that rule them pretty much demand what they want and get it. A board, for example, may require that you be employed at the same job for three years. Never mind that you may have spent 10 years at a lucrative job only to leave for a better one in the last year. No dice.

It’s also typical for a co-op to require two years minimum in liquid assets equal to the annual maintenance and mortgage payments after you’ve shelled out the down payment and closing costs. Many require more. With maintenance on the low end averaging $1 per square foot and the price of the average co-op at about $1,000 per square foot, you do the math.

For a good read on the real estate scene and other idiosyncrasies of New York City and its natives check out Curbed where you can learn how crime pays in Williamsburg, where the above photo was taken, or Upper East Side neighborhood blog 78thand2nd where the travails of a racey dry cleaner are revealed. Meanwhile, The Gowanus Lounge chronicles the “Musings and Photos about Life and Real Estate Development in Post-Industrial Brooklyn and New York City.”

Tomorrow morning Escape From New York brings you bullet proof Cadillacs in Taipei.

Oct 15, 2007

Local New York City Personality

Believe it or not even Gotham is a village at times. Oswaldo Gomez is a local NYC personality. He participates along with his parrot and poodle in many of the City’s major parades and cultural events.

I bumped into him while he was on his way to the Annual Easter Hat Parade on 5th Avenue earlier this year where he was kind enough to pose for this photograph on the right.

Oswaldo also goes by the name Ms. Colombia, where he is from. According to the Queens Tribune he performs drag shows at various venues in the city.

Here he is at the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade held every summer.

I’ve added a link at the end of each post to enable easy subscription to Escape From New York via a feed reader. It’s straightforward and feeds are good way to stay on top of all the blogs you may read.

Oct 10, 2007

Temple of Heaven (Tiantan) Park Beijing

It is worth it to get up early and watch what Beijingers do before breakfast in one of the city’s parks. Beijing’s largest is Tiantan, or Temple of Heaven Park, named after the Temple of Heaven complex one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations. Many tourists skip exploring the park, which surrounds the temple, but neither should be missed.

Before visiting the temple complex watch people start the day practicing various forms of exercise and meditation including tai chi, water calligraphy and the more recent, less traditional ballroom dancing.

Near the temple entrance is a pavilion where enthusiastic crowds gather around singers performing traditional Chinese opera. In a wooded area near the pavilion I found musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments where passers by joined in and belted out a song or two before getting on with their day.

The park is also a popular meeting place for Beijing’s older generations. Men play dominos and other games. Bird lovers flock together holding cages containing their beloved pets. A national pastime, you’ll also see plenty of kite flyers.

Larger than the Forbidden City, it’s easy to get lost in the park, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Still it’s a good idea to bring a map or a guidebook containing one.

The park is located in the southern part of the city in the Chongwen district and has several entrances. The easiest way to get there is by taxi which shouldn’t cost more than $4-5 from the city center.

The best time to see daily activities in full swing is 6:30-7 a.m. well before 8 a.m. when the temple complex opens. The park is open daily from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. There is an entrance fee or you can by an all inclusive ticket for the temple and park, which costs at most $4-5 during the high season. The temple complex closes at 6 p.m.

Oct 8, 2007

Hollywood Road Hong Kong China

Hollywood Road is Hong Kong’s antique row and more. This twisting street snakes from Central at the mid-levels escalator through Sheung Wan, a more traditional Chinese neighborhood.

In the stores that line it you’ll find museum quality antiques with price tags to match. But if your wallet doesn’t allow there are plenty of shops with more affordable items such as Chinese crafts, jade, Buddha statues, embroidered silk slippers, assorted curios and of course the ubiquitous Chairman Mao memorabilia.

For antiques I recommend Arch Angel Antiques at 53 Hollywood Road. Its three well organized floors are stocked with everything from high end antique Chinese furniture, to pottery and ancient tomb figures from mainland China.

The staff is knowledgeable, helpful and not pushy. Browsing is welcome. Every antique purchased comes with a certificate of authenticity detailing age and origin.

I discovered Arch Angel on my first trip to Hong Kong in the late 1990s and stop in every time I’m in town. Asia was in the midst of an economic meltdown at the time of my first visit and I picked up these Han dynasty tomb figure heads, pictured above, for a relative song.

In the last decade a crop of mod Chinese design stores have sprung up on Hollywood Road. For affordable new designs a personal favorite is G.O.D, or Goods of Desire, which has urban chic Hong Kong centric home décor items, clothing and accessories.

The designers have transferred what is intrinsically Hong Kong to every day items. Shoulder bags, mouse pads and wastepaper baskets feature a photographic collage of letterboxes or tenement housing with hanging laundry, as seen in the photographs.

Goods of Desire is located at 48 Hollywood Road, skipping distance from Arch Angle, and also has locations in Causeway Bay and Tsimshatsui.

Oct 4, 2007

Decorated Elephant Jaipur Rajasthan India

The proud mahouts (elephant drivers) of India can go to great lengths to paint their charges with elaborate, colorful designs. This gentle giantess took time out her busy work day to pose for a photograph. She was blessed with naturally long eye lashes. Her manners were impeccable.

This close up was taken at the foot of the hill on top of which the majestic Amber Fort Palace in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, sits. To reach the top you can ride on the back of an elephant traversing the steep incline.

I walked.

Oct 3, 2007

Abhaneri Step-Well Rajasthan India

Here’s an archaeological wonder in Rajasthan, India you won’t find in any guidebooks. In the small ancient village of Abhaneri is one of India’s oldest and deepest step-wells, Chanda Baodi and the eighth century Harshat Mata Hindu temple.

Step-wells, unique to India, were used as a royal baths, reservoirs and provided respite from the summer heat. A Rajput king is believed to have built Chanda Baodi, which has separate his and hers royal bathrooms. Sun shaded verandahs, which you can enter, overlook what must be thousands of criss-crossing steep steps patterned like upside down Vs which descend deep into the abyss of the well.

The temple, adjacent to the step-well which was also used for ritual bathing before worshipping, is still active and devoted to the goddess Durga. Remains of intricate stone carvings of Hindu deities are found throughout the well area and as part of the temple structure. The village has contributed many other sculptures to museums in nearby Jaipur.

Excavation of the site began in 1955 and the step-well and temple were open to the public in 1960 under the supervision of the Archaeological Survey of India. But Abhaneri is only just slowly finding its way on travelers’ radar screens in recent years. It still offers the rare opportunity to sample a stunning architectural antiquity without the crowds. There were no souvenir stands or vendors of any sort when I was there earlier this year.

The village is located 90 kilometers from Jaipur off the Jaipur-Agra highway near Bandikui, a convenient detour off the classic Golden Triangle route--Delhi, Jaipur and Agra, home of the Taj Mahal.

The site is open sunrise to sunset seven days a week except major holidays. There is no entry fee.

Oct 1, 2007

Essaouira Morocco

It is easy to be charmed by the eclectic aesthetics of Essaouira, an ancient port city located on the Atlantic coast of Morocco.

It has not yet been over run by giant chain hotels and lines of tour buses parked on its shores despite its increasing popularity with tourists. A laid back atmosphere remains in tact.

Seagulls shriek on the ramparts of the fortified city near the busy port where beautiful Moroccan blue fishing boats are moored.

Nearby an expansive sandy beach is populated by wind, kite and board surfers who benefit from mighty year round winds.

This boho chic city has always attracted an artsy crowd, from movie moguls to rock stars. Orson Wells shot scenes for the movie Othello in the 1950s.

Jimi Hendrix is said to have jump started Essaouira as a hippie mecca when he visited in the 1960s. You will see some of the hippest hippies there particularly during the Gnaoua World Music Festival held every summer

The alleys and lanes of the medina, or old city, with white washed buildings and blue shutters are an exceptional place to seek out Moroccan treasure. The quality of textiles, carpets, pottery and leather goods is excellent and bargaining is more relaxed than in the souks (markets) of the imperial cities.

I wonder how many travelers have returned from Morocco inspired by Moroccan design and successfully incorporated it into their décor.

There is someone who knows for sure how to accomplish this-Maryam an American woman and citizen of the world who lives with her family in Marrakesh. If you haven’t been to Morocco you certainly will want to pack your bags and go after reading her beautifully written and illustrated blog My Marrakesh.