Monday, August 6, 2012

Las Posas, Edward James' Surrealist Garden

While thrashing about in the  the jungle recently, the following tune interrupted my revelry. The mind is a funny thing. There's no telling what event will trigger a song that drifts into one's consciousness.

A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh.
In the jungle, the mighty jungle , the lion sleeps tonight . In the jungle the quiet jungle, the lion sleeps tonight......(lyrics by Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds, made popular by the musical group the Tokens)


Last weekend, I had the very fortunate pleasure of visiting Las Posas while on an excursion with our local Lion's Club.

This lovely garden is located deep in the Mexican rainforest in the area known as Xilitla. Las Posas, a brilliant and uniquely eccentric garden, was the brainchild of Englishman, Edward James.

James was a millionaire as well as a talented poet, artist, and favored collector of the Surrealist Art Movement. His acquaintances  and collaborators included luminaries such as Dali, Picasso, De Chirico, and Magritte.
As a child, James possessed a lively imagination. He often drifted into a fantasy world as a means of escaping the hard reality of an inattentive and self-centered mother. This proclivity  would come in handy later in life.

The exotic garden, Las Posas, dates back to 1947 when Edward James visited Xilitla, San Luis Potosi, hoping to purchase  a coffee plantation  with the express intention of finding a home for his vast collection of prized orchids. While visiting the area, James discovered a series of welcoming pools of water known as Las Posas, located in the Sierra Gorda Mountains. After taking a dip in the river, he was sunning himself when a swarm of monarch butterflies landed on him and covered his body. He welcomed the phenomenon, seeing it as a good omen.

James bought the property and used the land to plant exotic  flowers and to house his vast collection of wild animals.

 He was driven to build the sculptural structures that now stand after a disaster in 1962, when the orchids he had planted were destroyed by an unusual snow storm that lasted three days.

At this point, James came up with a unique plan for a new, more resilient and fanciful garden that would serve as an homage to the Surrealists. He employed hundreds of native craftsmen, artisans, and stone masons. James designed and constructed a fantasy garden using unique materials with grandiose proportions, spending over 5 million dollars on the project. Many of his contemporaries suggested that James had simply "gone mad." By 1984, thirty-six sculptures made of reinforced concrete had been built.

These magical and extraordinary structures are scattered over 20 acres of  incredibly lush tropical forest. The sculptural forms kindle visions of Alice in Wonderland. The wide-eyed visitor to this unexpected paradise experiences a surprise at every turn.

The designs for these striking edifices are derived from nature.  Organic forms, including flower and leaf shapes, are incorporated into many structures. James experimented with volume, structure, and mass, building obelisks, bridges, spiral staircases, and pavilions. The stairways hover above the forest floor, seemingly  defying  gravity.

As I entered the property along with  intrepid explorer, Marsha V., we caught a glimpse of  the visually striking Gateway of Snakes,

a walkway flanked by giant concrete serpents representing the seven deadly sins. Clearly, this is a fitting reference to James' love of animals, as he traveled the world with a snake in his baggage. Continuing along the path, we encountered huge concrete towers with soaring stairways that seem to touch the sky, blocking out the sun's rays.

Children gleefully ran and played hide and seek as they explored the passages, stairwells, and hidden rooms that comprise the buildings, as if the place were there soley for their amusement.

Endless moss covered paths whispered our names, drawing us  deeper and deeper into the forest where hidden gems awaited around every bend.

 Before long, the enticing sound of falling water and children's laughter could be heard in the distance. Shimmering waterfalls and babbling brooks beckoned, encouraging even someone with aguaphobia to dip their toes into the cool, clear, aquamarine colored water.

Young, carefree boys couldn't resist the lure of the cataract, as they leaped from platforms, head first, into the shallow pools below.

                             Visitors had discarded their shoes all along the trail.

A giant aviary and ocelot cage, inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci's designs, loomed on the horizon. Soon, a grime covered workman stood at the side of the trail, awaiting our passage, while huge drops of perspiration fell like raindrops from his sweaty brow.

As we made our way through the thick foliage, tropical flowers and bromeliads shimmered in the distance.
A  young song bird vocalized in a nearby tree. Marsha asked me to snap a photo of the baby that was now calling plaintively for its mother. Next, an enormous  centipede lumbered across my path, scaring me at first, then sparking my curiosity,  it's many legs rythmically drumming across the well worn stone pavers.

Tarzan vines swayed with the breezes making me pine for my childhood hero, Johnny Weissmuller.

 I've always been a sucker for muscle-bound "he men." In this jungle oasis, I was also painfully aware of my own sweat beading up on my forehead as it trickled down my neck, the result of the ever-present and oppressive humidity, a small price to pay for a once-in-a-life-time experience. And I'm not a girl who sweats easily.
Sadly, after William James' death, Las Posas fell into disrepair as he had exhausted his fortune and made no arrangements for its upkeep.

Las Posas is currently owned by the Pedro and Elena Hernandez Foundation, one of Mexico's charitable organizations with the support of the San Luis Potosi government and the Cemex Corporation. Workers continue to restore and conserve the structures. They require constant attention due to the ravages of time and the high humidity. I highly recommend a visit if you plan a trip to Central Mexico.

Hours of Operation : 9:00am to 6:00pm — Open All Year
No Beverages or Food Allowed (except Water in Plastic Bottles)

No Pets Of Any Kind Are Allowed Inside Las Pozas
"Las Manos" craft and souvenir shop open 9:00am to 6:00pm — Closed Wednesdays
Guided Tours lasting 1hour and 15 minutes are available for $200 pesos (in Spanish)

$250 pesos (in English or French)


Monday, June 25, 2012

American Food Frenzy

In the recent past, several people have asked me what I miss the most about growing up in Western New York, now that I am a permanent resident in Mexico. I have always responded with predictable answers such as..."my friends" or "my family." But, If I were to be completely honest, I would have to confess that I miss the food from my childhood almost as much.

My hometown, Buffalo, New York has a long history of attracting European immigrants of almost every ethnic persuasion.
 As a result of their presence, Buffalo posesses a  rich and colorful culinary tradition. People from Italy, Poland, Ireland, Greece, Germany, Puerto Rico and the Ukraine have made a significant impact on the cuisine available to Buffalonians. In the more recent past, restaurants offering Chinese, Thai, Indian, and Jamaican have become almost ubiquitous.

Living  in Mexico, I often find myself in a trance-like state, wistfully daydreaming the day away,  visualizing the foods that I miss the most. I can't help thinking about about my good friend, Anna's family tradition of making pierogis filled with farmer's cheese or sauerkraut at Christmas time,

 the cucidatis (Italian fig cookies) that were a common sight in the Italian bakeries during the holiday,

Lombardo's pasta bolognese topped with freshly grated Parmiagiano Reggiano, my mom's corned beef and cabbage, Vargas' slow-roasted pork with a side of plantains and rice,  and the annual trips to the Broadway Market to purchase fresh Polish sausage with marjoram.

 I fantasize about Italian sausage seasoned with fennel from Scime's, Sinatra's mile-high lasagna, Casata cake (a Sicilian tradition, "cassata cake" refers to a sponge cake soaked in syrup or rum, filled with strawberries and custard, and covered with sweetened whipped cream) , Wegman's submarine sandwiches, Nick's Texas Red Hots (The Texas hot is a regional specialty in Western New York and parts of Pennsylvania. This Buffalo regional favorite consists of hot dogs smothered in a spicy meat sauce with mustard and chopped onion),

 the Towne Restaurant's souvlaki, hot roast beef sandwiches on kimmelwech rolls (the beef on weck sandwich is a variety of roast beef sandwich found primarily in Western New York. The meat is traditionally served very rare, sliced paper thin and piled high atop a kimmelweck roll, a special bun topped with rock salt and caraway seeds. The roll gets  dipped into au jus. The usual accompaniments include super hot horseradish, a dill pickle spear, and french fries. A local bar owner is said to have used the roll to create the beef on weck, with the hope that the salty top of the roll would make his patrons purchase more drinks.), and

 Lagniappe's  Cajun gumbo. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about Ted's hot dogs and deep-fried onion rings, my mother's faschnaut kiekels (a Pennsylvania Dutch donut),

 meatloaf sandwiches at the Allen Street Hardware Cafe,the Catholic tradition of Friday night beer-battered fish fries, as well as the obvious and world renowned Buffalo chicken wings.

I miss the food festivals that are a yearly summer distraction. The Taste of Buffalo, my favorite, is the largest two-day food festival in the United States. This food extravaganza, which started in 1984, attracts thousands of people from far and wide who come to sample the delicacies offered by Buffalo's many restaurateurs. The Sorrento Cheese Italian Heritage Festival was always another excuse to stuff my face. For four glorious days every July, Buffalo's streets are transformed into "Little Italy." With over a half a million visitors attending each year, this event offers visitors every conceivable Italian goodie, as well as fun activities such as... cooking demonstrations, live musical entertainment with Italian crooners like Frank Sinatra Jr., Sicilian puppet shows, Tarantella street dancers, grape stomping contests, and daily processions. My husband, Tony, used to be there every day.

Having a past filled with all these sumptuous food experiences is a  down-right curse. Now, I've said it. Unfortunately, Mexico's restaurant offerings, at least in the eyes of this newcomer, are a bit repetitive and often poorly prepared . The food that I have encountered, thus far, leaves me feeling unfulfilled, a bit homesick, and maybe just a tad weepy. I can only get so excited about a taco.

This point was driven home for me last week on a recent road trip to Queretaro with my dear friend Marsha. We were cruising along the carretara when out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the blue and white IHOP sign.

 This restaurant is a very recent addition to the area. Before I even knew what hit me, the words "take the next right turn" tumbled from my mouth. Without any discussion, Marsha gleefully complied. Within a minute or two, we were sitting in IHOP's parking lot, both of us grinning from ear to ear. Our excitement was palpable. Visions of waffles and strawberry pancakes with bacon danced in our heads.

How could anyone get that excited about American fast food, you ask? Deprivation does strange things to a  body. I've never considered myself a fast food enthusiast. Actually, one might be justified in calling me a food snob. We have a McDonald's here in San Miguel de Allende and I pride myself in being able to walk by without so much as a second glance.

Something hit the both of us, that day, like a ton of bricks..... something I will call "American food envy or possibly frenzy" and we had it bad. We practically ran into the restaurant. As we approached the receptionist, we were politely told that there was a ten minute wait. I would have waited twenty. I can't speak for Marsha.  The line of people snaked out the door.  We weren't the only fools excited about eating at IHOP.


                  By the time we got to our seats, my mouth was watering   like a dog with a bone.

 We stared at the menu, as if transfixed, as the smiling waiter delivered the insulated "pitcher" of piping hot coffee.

Decisions, decisons..... This was tough. There were so many options. The menu was pages long with gorgeous color photographs. All we could do was giggle like school girls.

I almost selected this cheery item, until I found out that I was looking at the kiddie menu.

Marsha had the breakfast sampler platter which included farm fresh eggs, breakfast sausage, hash browns, and a side of, light as a feather, buttermilk pancakes.

Yes, the photo is blurry. Marsha's right arm kept moving!

 I chose the crispy waffles (that brought back childhood memories of the powdered sugar  waffles  at  Crystal Beach Amusement Park in its hayday) topped with strawberries and bananas along with home fries, breakfast sausage links, and two perfectly cooked sunny side up eggs.
If anyone at IHOP see this and wants me to star in their next commercial...I am available.

The selection of syrups...butter pecan is my favorite

 Oh, and of course, we didn't forget the freshly squeezed orange juice. I sound like a commercial, for Christ's sake. While the food took a while to arrive (I considered pounding on the table for a second or two but, thankfully, came to my senses), it was certainly worth the wait. To say we were both in heaven would be a gross understatement. I took many photographs to record the moment and the sense of excitement that we both shared. It was crazy but, very real.

Sated, we asked for the check. My head was spinning in disbelief. Who knew that I missed American food to this degree? I guess I am not a food snob, after all. Good old American chow will always have a special place in my heart, if not in my tummy.