Thursday, January 16, 2014

Packing for Minus Zero

I'm off to Kansas City where two weeks ago the thermometer dipped to ten below zero.

"Are you nuts?" Mimi asked as I dug out my warm vintage coat and cashmere sweaters from a trunk in the attic.  "Have you completely and utterly lost your mind?  Why can't you wait until April to visit your mom?"

I ignored her and continued packing.  Wool socks.  Check.  Flannel pajamas.  Check.  Alpaca scarf and gloves.  Check.  Check.

Am I nuts?  Well, probably.  "But just you wait, Mimi, I bet you the mercury will rise to seventy and I'll have nothing to wear!"

See you in February.


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Mexican Cemeteries

"This is way cooler than mission ruins," my son said as he whipped out his cell phone and started snapping pictures of the colorful gravestones and masses of artificial flowers.

Although I've been to hundreds of cemeteries during my travels to Mexico, my son's comment made me see these Baja cemeteries with fresh eyes.  To me, they are prime examples of Latin American folk art.  Families devote time and money in adorning the graves of departed loved ones.  The dead are still very much a part of the living down here.  If a favorite bottle of tequila is placed on Uncle Juan's grave, his soul is likely to hang around for awhile!

It's a religion seeped in superstition, but one I find utterly charming.  In my world our dead are cremated and their ashes are tossed in the ocean or buried in the garden.  We celebrate the lives of our departed family and friends with barbecues at the beach and then we move on with our own.  That is that.

But not in Mexico.  Oh, no!  The first two days in November are holidays down here.  Los Dias de los Muertos.  Banks and schools are closed.  Entire cemeteries come alive with song and dance.  Delicious treats are sold like sugared skulls and pan de muerto.  Pictures of the deceased are brought out once again.  Offerings are made.  Prayers said.  Tears flow as well as a steady supply of booze.

So which is healthier?  To grieve silently or to grieve with a boisterous, intoxicated crowd?  Hmmm.  Who knows?  But I have to admit, I think I agree with my son.    Mexican cemeteries are way cool!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Mission Nuestra Senora del Rosario de Vinadaco

Along the Mission Trail

I wanted to see this mission, located in the hills above El Rosario in Baja because it was the first of the Dominican missions and the only California mission to have a Gothic arched entry.  That any of its remaining foundations still stand is truly a miracle but thanks to the efforts of  the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), the ruins (including the amazing arch) can be viewed and appreciated by history nerds like me for years to come.

However, once again, finding the site is nearly impossible because there are no signs.  INAH, please remedy this!!  Our guidebook gave us very sketchy directions and I'll do my best to explain how we found it.  For anyone driving the length of Baja, El Rosario is a good place to stop, have a bite to eat, gas up and even spend the night.  We've eaten at Mama Espinosa's many times and the Baja Cactus Motel next door has been recommended to me.  Anyway, after passing Mama', there is a sharp curve in the road.  Instead of staying left on Highway 1, take the road off to the right.  Then immediately turn left at the next road.  This dirt road will take you across a creek.  You will see a large blue painted factory ahead.  Take the road to the right just below the factory and follow it about two kilometers.  The mission will be on your right and is across from a cemetery.  We had to stop and ask directions many times and the locals all obligingly pointed, waved and gestured until we finally found it.
A gravel walkway circumnavigates the ruins.  There are signs in Spanish (but not English) documenting the mission's history so bring a dictionary.  The Dominican Father-President Vicente Mora founded this mission in 1774.  It is a beautiful site, located on a hill with a sloping valley.  A river lies below it and the Pacific Ocean is only ten miles away.  This mission was actually one of the more successful ones in Baja.  Crops such as corn, barley and beans were all grown in abundance.  In addition there were ample grazing lands for cattle, sheep and goats.  Nearly 600 neophytes lived here, but sadly, once diseases hit, an epidemic wiped most of the Indians out.  It is a story I read over and over again.

Although the mission was abandoned in 1832, a few Indians still remained and an occasional visiting priest would stop here and say Mass.  An interesting historical note is that El Rosario is where stragglers from William Walker's private army were captured and executed.  In 1853 Mexico sold Arizona and southern New Mexico to the U.S.  Walker, an American lawyer from Tennessee, invaded the Baja Peninsula and declared himself the new President of the Republic of Lower California.  Walker was sent back to the U.S. where he was tried and acquitted.  He didn't learn his lesson, however.  He went down to Nicaragua two years later, attempted the same thing and actually succeeded in ruling the country for one year before a coalition of Central American armies defeated him.  He was executed in 1860.

Definitely worth a pit stop!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Welcome to La Gringa

La Gringa is a campground located at the northern end of Bahia de los Angeles in Baja.  When we were there last week there was only one lone camper, but in the spring, this place is FULL with you guessed it:  Gringoes!  It's a cheap place to come for a week, especially for all those college students on Spring Break.  We camped here ourselves in the 80's and it hasn't changed a bit.  It's as beautiful as ever.  I put on my wetsuit and went snorkeling and am happy to report that there hundreds of fish still to be seen.  I keep thinking one of these days this place is going to get fished out, but it hasn't happened yet.  So pack that tent, throw in an ice chest and come on down!  La Gringa awaits.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Mission El Descanso

Along the Mission Trail

The ruins of this Dominican Mission can be found just south of Tijuana on the Highway 1 Toll Road.  A very pretty modern church stands on top of the old foundation, but there are ruins behind it.  I never would have found it if I hadn't noticed the church standing on a hill to the left of the road as we passed through the town of Puerto Nuevo.  My guide book states this is one of the least-visited mission sites on the peninsula.  Well, no wonder; there are no signs!  We took the first exit off the toll road and managed to find the church after a few wrong turns.  I was determined!  Why?  Because this is one of the few missions founded by the Dominican Order.  After the Jesuits were expelled from Baja, Father Junipero Serra and his fellow Fransicans were recruited to take over.  Well, Serra decided to go north with Captain Gaspar de Portola to build missions in the northern frontier.  He left the task of building more missions in Baja California to the Dominicans.
The National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) has done a wonderful job in documenting and preserving what little is left of these missions in Baja.  At Mission El Descano they built this metal covering over the original foundation for protection.  There were signs posted in both Spanish and English explaining the history and the construction of the church.

This mission was founded in 1817 by Father Tomas Ahumada to replace a mission further south that had been flooded.  Although it had a short life and only a population of 254, it served as a vital link to the San Diego mission, providing much needed supplies such as fish, vegetables and grain.  Orchards and vineyards also thrived here.  A successful reservoir with gravity pushed water provided adequate irrigation.

The buildings were made of adobe and stone, but unlike the other missions, the bricks contained crushed shells and pebbles from the nearby Pacific beaches.   The roof was made of branches placed over oak beams.  The floors were made with adobe tiles.

The mission was abandoned in 1834.  By then, most of the Kumiai Indians had died from disease and the Dominicans no longer had the personnel to keep it going.  The mission era was coming to a close.

Fr. Serra handed the Dominicans an almost impossible task, and indeed, the missions in Baja declined rapidly under their control.   Not only was Baja California a dry terrain, but the natives were hostile and extremely independent.  For one thing, the order was known for being stern and domineering.  Punishment for disobedience was brutal and swift.  Sexes were segregated and all recreation like dancing and singing were banned.   History, however,  has given the Franciscans all the fame but they couldn't have succeeded without the Dominican contribution.   That's precisely why the Mission Trail should include the missions in Baja California.  The story is not complete without them.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Sea of Cortez

The Most Beautiful Places on Earth

Time stops in Baja.  Days are not organized by a clock, but by the rhythms of nature.  I wake at the crack of dawn.  The seas and the wind are calm. This is my time.  I walk for miles and do not see another human being--only gulls and pelicans and oyster catchers.  I am seeking my lone blue heron, which my travel buddy has dubbed my spirit animal.  I do not see him every day, but I can feel his presence.   If I'm lucky I will come upon a feeding frenzy where dozens of dolphins and hundreds of diving birds are fighting over a smorgasbord of fish.

Around noon the winds arrive and I retreat inside the villa to escape being sand blasted.  The afternoons, however, belong to my husband and son.  They sail the sea on their windsurfers until exhaustion overtakes them.  We meet at dusk when the world once again quiets down.  The islands turn from pale orange to pink.  We sit with a glass of wine or a bottle of beer and watch the day come to an end.

Jacques Cousteau called the Sea of Cortez the "World's Aquarium" and "The Galapagos of North America."  This gulf was added to the World Heritage Site list in 2005 for both its marine diversity and its extraordinary beauty.  The comment I hear most frequently by fellow travelers down here is "I'm inside a Monet painting."  I know exactly what they mean.   I have been coming down here since 1981, and  its beauty continues to take my breath away.  As we turn east on the second day of the drive down, that first glimpse of lavender islands surrounded by turquoise water makes me gasp.   Every single time.

The Sea of Cortez or the Gulf of California is the body of water between the Baja Peninsula and mainland Mexico.  The Baja Peninsula is one of the longest peninsulas in the world, second only to the Malay Peninsula in Asia.  It is about 800 miles long.  This part of the world separated from the North American continent about five million years ago during a time of violent earthquakes and volcanic action.  Indeed, most of the islands were formed as a result of volcanic explosions.  They are uninhabited and this is precisely why we keep coming down here year after year.  These photographs were taken last week at Bahia de Los Angeles.  Although we have driven the entire peninsula, this is the area we keep coming back to.  Its quiet beauty fills us with a peace unlike any other place we have ever been.