Vintage Maya

Text & Photo:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**

I’ve just wrapped up a writing project about the Mexican city of Mérida for AFAR.com, and I’ve spent hours happily immersed in research, which, as always, draws from a variety of textual and visual sources.

Chichén Itzá, UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the new seven wonders of the world.

Chichén Itzá, UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the new seven wonders of the world.

If you’re not familiar with Mérida, it’s the capital of the state of Yucatán, Mexico, and is located on the Yucatán Peninsula, once the stronghold of Mayan civilization. There are numerous Mayan sites in the region; the most famous one is Chichén Itzá, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the so-called “new” seven wonders of the world, but there are many others. Mayan cultural traditions remain strong in the area, and were definitely one of the more interesting aspects of my most recent visit to Mérida in December 2012.

It so happened that while I was working on this project, I was already in the midst of reading the excellent book The Reader’s Companion to Mexico edited by Alan Ryan, which contains several travelers’ accounts of their excursions to Mayan sites. We’re talking late 19th-century, early-mid-20th century travelers, some of whom were intrigued and thrilled by the adventure of journeying to these (at the time) hard-to-access sites, and some of whom, like Graham Greene, were repulsed by the whole affair and regretted ever having harbored a single moment’s interest in seeing the remnants of the ancient civilization.

Their accounts offer interesting counterpoints to, say, reviews of the Maya sites that one finds today on TripAdvisor. Considered alongside one another, travelers’ accounts of their explorations in and around Mérida provide a fascinating time-lapse of how the sites have evolved, becoming increasingly accessible to the public.

I also happened upon this archive of photos from National Geographic: can you imagine finding that massive Olmec head? Epic discovery.

My last trip to Mérida was not the best one, but after working on this project, I’m ready to go back.

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Letting the Travel Magic Happen

“Get out the map, get out the map
and lay your finger anywhere down.
We’ll leave the figuring to those we pass
on the way out of town….”
-Indigo Girls, “Get Out the Map”

It may come as a surprise to you that a writer whose work is primarily about travel, often travels without a plan, but such is the case. I was not always this way–-and am not always this way now; when I’m on assignment, for example, preparation and planning are key to maximizing limited time and what is typically a shoestring budget. But more and more frequently, I’m noticing that the Type A personality who has accompanied me (ok, let’s be honest, defined me) for more than 30 years of my life is finally loosening her grip a little. She’s able to get in the car with a map and a destination in mind, but she often hasn’t gotten far beyond that.

Maybe this comes with travel experience (I have lots of it now). Maybe it comes with age (I’m inching ever-closer to 40). Maybe it’s part and parcel of being married and having kids, though I think most people who fall into that category tend to swing in the other direction: those who were never planners suddenly become extremely detail-oriented, thinking (mostly erroneously, I’ll be presumptuous enough to say) that if they just plan well enough, their trips will go off without a hitch. (Heh.)

Me, I’m mostly content to get out the map and go these days. Travel-wise, there’s nothing worse, in my mind, than having a well-researched plan and not being able to execute it to expectation, so I’ve been trying to embrace ambiguity instead, letting what comes, come.

In other words… letting the travel magic happen.

**
Yesterday, we left the city around 11, headed north for Olana. Once the home of Hudson River School artist Frederic Church, the massive house, whose design was inspired by Church’s travels in the Middle East, is now a state historic site. I’d read about it and fact-checked it while working on the New York State guidebook, but our travels through that area had not coincided with Olana’s schedule, so we had never seen the storied mansion (or, as Mariel prefers to call it, “the castle on the hill”). Still, it remained on our list of good day-trip destinations.

Olana (or, as Mariel says, "the castle on the hill.")

Olana (or, as Mariel says, “the castle on the hill.”)

I’d managed to print out bad driving directions from Mapquest and I’d confirmed that the house was open for guided tours Friday-Sunday only, but that’s about as much planning as I’d done. By the time we reached Olana, there was an hour left before tours ended for the day, except, as one couple informed us, somewhat apologetically, as we hauled a baby stroller, our backpacks, and a lunch bag out of the car, the house was closed for the Easter holiday.

When you’ve traveled a couple hours with kids, even kids who are really, really good travelers, the thought of clambering back into the car and spending two more hours behind the wheel is terribly unappealing, so Francisco set up his tripod to take house and landscape photos while Mariel busied herself making introductions to anyone else in eyesight and earshot who might be interested in playing with her. I plopped Orion down on a patch of grass flooded with sun and let him get to the important eight-month-old business of crawling.

Orion inspecting the grass. and finding it good.

Orion inspecting the grass. and finding it good.

Other visitors arrived, surprised and maybe a little disappointed to learn that no tours were being given. No one, though, was in a huff; the day was just far too beautiful to be annoyed. We met a couple from Long Island–-a photographer and a preservationist–-and enjoyed a long conversation with them. Mariel met a family with four kids and spent nearly three hours blowing bubbles, flying kites, and playing princesses and puppies. Orion made a close inspection of the grass and deemed it good enough for napping.

Here’s the thing: none of this would have happened had the house been open. We’d have hurried in to join the last tour group of the day, and likely would have made tracks back to the car after the tour. Maybe we’d have exchanged pleasantries with the same people we met, but we probably wouldn’t have had quality conversations or hours of unplanned, unhurried play time. As I lay in the grass and watched Francisco chatting with a couple of fellow photographers and enjoyed seeing Mariel run on the hill overlooking the Hudson with her newfound friends, I thought to myself that there couldn’t be a more perfect day (When I said to this to Francisco, he was quiet for a second and then said, “Well, we could win the lottery, too. THAT would make it really perfect.”).

Sure, Francisco and I would have liked seeing the inside of Olana and learning more about it. But I think we ended up enjoying the day we had–the one that was entirely unplanned–even more. It was a valuable lesson to me: sometimes it’s ok to let go and just let the magic happen.

Categories: New York, Travel & Travel Tips | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

Coming Soon: Puerto Rico Restaurant Week

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo
**

The dates for the third annual Puerto Rico Restaurant Week have just been announced, and this year’s line up of participating restaurants promises to be the best yet. The event will take place May 14-20, and will feature prix fixe lunches ($14 or $19) and dinners ($28 or $38) at some of San Juan’s top restaurants.

Organizers have also partnered with some new, big-time sponsors, including JetBlue and several local hotels, so keep an eye on the event’s website for announcements of special accommodation deals.

Santaella, one of the restaurants participating in the third annual Puerto Rico Restaurant Week, May 14-20.

Santaella, one of the restaurants participating in the third annual Puerto Rico Restaurant Week, May 14-20.

Francisco and I have been writing about and photographing food and culinary culture in Puerto Rico since 2005. If you want to know more about what’s in store for you as you eat your way around San Juan, the island’s capital, check out some of our recent articles about Puerto Rico’s current food scene:

Puerto Rico in 10 Plates: Bespoke Magazine

Puerto Rico Farm to Table: Bespoke Magazine

Puerto Rico’s New Culinary Superstars: The Latin Kitchen

Puerto Rico’s New Cheese Movement: The Latin Kitchen

And while you’re there, check out the recently protected Northeastern Corridor, which I wrote about for National Geographic Traveler.

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An Evening with Diana Kennedy

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
For the record, I almost skipped the evening with Diana Kennedy. The weather was bad, the Williamsburg location of her presentation was annoyingly inconvenient, I was tired, and my day’s to-do list was still long. Plus, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve made an effort to go see someone renowned in their field, only to feel afterward that the balloon of enthusiasm I’d carried for them so long had popped unceremoniously, never to be refilled (I will never, for example, forget dragging Francisco to see the anthropologist Clifford Geertz– “He’s AMAZING,” I promised, “What a mind!”–only to be chagrined. Geertz was utterly incoherent and probably should have retired from public life by that point.)

The one and only Diana Kennedy.

The one and only Diana Kennedy.

But I’d paid $35 for a ticket to see her. I needed a break from the computer. And, of course, it was DIANA KENNEDY, widely regarded as the foremost authority on Mexican cooking, a woman who rarely makes appearances in the U.S. and who is advanced in age. This opportunity would likely not come again, so I bundled up, grabbed an umbrella, and headed to the G train.

The James Beard Foundation Award-winning book, Oaxaca al Gusto, one of many books Kennedy has written.

The James Beard Foundation Award-winning book, Oaxaca al Gusto, one of many books Kennedy has written.

For once, I was not disappointed. Kennedy, who is 91 years old, is in fine form, vital and entirely coherent and unapologetically outspoken. She is visiting the US (NYC this week, Austin this weekend) to publicize the launch of a foundation that she has established, a fitting continuation of her life’s work, which has involved more than a half century documenting in painstaking detail the culinary techniques and traditions of Mexico’s varied regions, including Michoácan, where she lives, and Oaxaca, to name only two.

The foundation will, among its many pursuits, digitize Kennedy’s extensive trove of documents, field notes, and photographs (and as someone who is wildly enthusiastic about digital archives and digital libraries, I couldn’t be more excited about this), making them available to anyone who has Internet access. At a time when the effects of the genetic modification of seeds, flight to urban areas, and ongoing geopolitical conflicts threaten both traditional foods and recipes in Mexico (and really, almost everywhere else), Kennedy’s longitudinal study of Mexican cuisine is nothing short of a public service.

As a Kennedy admirer, a Mexiphile, and a book collector, this was an amazing gift.

As a Kennedy admirer, a Mexiphile, and a book collector, this was an amazing gift.

Kennedy spoke at The Brooklyn Kitchen, a gourmet goods and kitchen shop and event space, in a free-flowing conversation with guests (a number of food journalists among us) about topics ranging from lard (“I want all of you to know I eat fat. There is nothing better than lard.”) to her travels around Mexico (“I wish my truck could talk, too; it has a lot of stories it could tell.”) to her thoughts about sustainability (“You better not invite me to your kitchen if you don’t want me to look at your garbage. It’s the first thing I’ll look at. I can tell everything I need to know about you based on your garbage.”), answering questions passionately until the moderator–not Kennedy herself–called it quits. She was equally effusive in her criticism and praise of every subject raised, and modeled what I think many more of us should be: outspoken, confident without being arrogant, committed to a cause, and as alive as a roaring fire. She also stayed on to sign every single attendee’s book– we each got to pick one of three books as a gift (which, truth be told, was another motivating factor for me to go to the event).

At the end of the evening, I felt new.

If you’re not familiar with Kennedy and have even a casual interest in Mexican culture and food, I recommend her cookbook-memoir, Nothing fancy: Recipes and recollections of soul-satisfying food. She has written several other books, each one a gift, full of knowledge and the passionate curiosity that has driven her for her entire life.

Categories: Food, Mexico | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

New York City from East to West: 47th Street

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo and Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
It’s spring (finally!), which means I can resuscitate “New York City from East to West,” a series of posts I started a couple years ago; each one takes you on a quick but appreciative cross-town journey that’s faster and, I’d like to think, more enjoyable than a ride on the bus. No matter how many times I’ve walked a certain street featured in the series, I inevitably see something I’ve never noticed before.

Today, I walked across 47th Street, starting on First Avenue, right outside the gates of the United Nations.

Outside the United Nations. (Photo: Francisco Collazo)

Outside the United Nations. (Photo: Francisco Collazo)

It’s one of those places that most New Yorkers have probably never visited (we have); if they have they’ve probably visited only once, which is too bad. Apart from the general building tour, which is interesting if you’re intrigued by politics and diplomacy, the UN hosts art and educational exhibits and its grounds are studded with sculptures, gifts from member nations. I’d wait to visit though, if I were you; an ongoing renovation project, which was scheduled for completion in 2013, has not yet finished.

Just across the street, on the west side of First Avenue, is Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, a strip of park that runs the length of the entire block from First to Second Avenues. At the eastern end is Dag, a café with both indoor and outdoor seating.

Dag Café. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

Dag Café. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

At the western end, you’ll find a farmers’ market each Wednesday. On the northern side of this block is the Church of the Holy Family, built in 1965 on the site of a former stable.

Interior of the Church of the Holy Family. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

Interior of the Church of the Holy Family. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

It’s a small church, but a lovely one, especially this time of year, as it has a small pocket garden attached to its side. The garden is far less busy than the plaza across the street, and is a peaceful spot if you want to sit and read or, as I did, feed your kid.

If you’re the hungry one, press on to 47th and Park, where you’ll find a diverse line-up of food trucks plating up everything from Korean and tacos to Korean tacos.

Food trucks. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

Food trucks. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

If you want to eat al fresco, there are plenty of places to join the Park Avenue office workers who have also picked up their lunches from the trucks.

As you keep making your way west, you’ll find two entrances to Grand Central Terminal, which may surprise you, since everyone associates 42nd Street with Grand Central.

One of Grand Central's many far-flung entrances. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

One of Grand Central’s many far-flung entrances. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

“No one is quite sure exactly how many entrances there are….” wrote journalist Rick Lyman on the occasion of the transit hub’s 75th birthday (it just celebrated its 100th last year), and that seems to be true– I can’t find any definitive, official count either. Here, though, at the corner of 47th and Madison, are two: one with escalators and, a few paces behind it, an elevator entrance; they both opened in 1998.

Just across Madison, on the northwest side of the street, you’ll find The Center for Fiction, a spot for book lovers I stumbled upon for the first time about a year ago.

Center for Fiction. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

Center for Fiction. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

Both a literary events center and bookstore, their stock is strongest, as the name suggests, in fiction, but browse their shelves of used books in the back room and on the carts sitting on the sidewalk, and you’ll find non-fiction titles as well.

If you’re working on your own novel, you might want to step into Phil’s Stationery at 9 East 47th Street. It’s just the kind of store we’re in danger of losing here.

Phil's Stationery. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

Phil’s Stationery. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

Staples and Office Depot, it is not, which is precisely why it’s so fabulous. It’s a cluttered mess, especially toward the back, where piles of dust-covered boxes with old, corded phones and other relics of technology sit haphazardly, blocking the aisles and serving no apparent purpose. But you’ll also find some unexpected treasures: a box of calligraphed ink stamps, an odd little music box, that sort of thing. You probably won’t find what you’re looking for (I didn’t); it’s definitely the kind of place where you go without any object in mind.

Once you cross Fifth Avenue, 47th Street becomes a gauntlet of wheeler dealers; you’ve entered New York’s Diamond District. Scheisters from Brazil, Africa, and Brooklyn stand outside businesses, ready to whisk you inside for a nice engagement ring or “statement piece” (What this one says is entirely up to your interpretation):

A "statement piece" for sale in the Diamond District. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

A “statement piece” for sale in the Diamond District. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

Keeping west, you’ll find other places like Phil’s and the Diamond District, spots we’d be worse off for losing. Who knows about these two theaters, for example, which lie just beyond the better-known Ethel Barrymore Theater (currently showing “A Raisin in the Sun,” featuring Denzel Washington, who plays his part on the same stage where “Raisin” debuted):

The Puerto Rican Traveling Theater. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

The Puerto Rican Traveling Theater. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

and

The Actors Temple. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

The Actors Temple. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

This is why it’s good to get out and walk the streets, even without a destination or plan to guide you: to learn these places exist and to get to know more about them.

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