Sunday, 10 August 2014

Oaxaca - How I made Mole Negro

You can learn a lot about another culture by preparing one of their traditional dishes.  Latin American food has more or less caught on in other parts of the world and most of us will have tried fajitas or burritos at some point.  In fact, I've even made enchiladas before, when I was blogging about Honduras, last year in March.

For Oaxaca, I wanted to try something more ambitious so, after some research, I settled on one of Mexico's most complicated dishes, Mole Negro.  I'd only ever heard of mole (pronounced mo-ley) in US movies and TV series, usually mentioned by a homesick Mexican character!  My main challenge was to conceptualise 'mole' - I had no idea (and I'm still not 100% sure) what a mole should look like, or taste like . . what's its texture should be.

I'll mention at this point that I don't think I was entirely successful at conceptualising/making a mole so, if you're looking for a perfect guide to mole-making, you should probably look away now!  The difference between what I'm doing in this blog and what others do in more 'foodie' blogs is that I'm learning about the culture of the place I'm blogging about, rather than expecting perfect results.  The learning experience is the result, if that makes sense?

Mexican ingredients

Dried Mexican chillies
Mole has a lot of ingredients, usually around 25 different things go into a mole sauce.  It was important for me to put the right kind of chillies in my mole, so I travelled around London trying to source as many authentic Mexican ingredients as I could find.  

My first stop was the Casa Mexico in Bethnal Green but, unfortunately, this shop was closed, even though it should have been open, according to information I found online.  I can't really recommend this shop because of this, although others have given it good reviews.  

Not to worry - wasted journey to Bethnal Green, but I was able to hop down to Borough Market at London Bridge, which is a great place to pick up all kinds of speciality foods.  For my Mexican ingredients I went to the Cool Chile Company and I'd highly recommend this for London readers who are searching for Mexican ingredients.  

Profiting from the Columbian Exchange

Four kinds of chilli
In an earlier blog post, I mentioned the Columbian Exchange which saw new foods from the Americas spreading to Europe and beyond.  My experience making mole involved three traditional Mexican ingredients; chilli, chocolate and tomatillos.  

The chillies were dried and I managed to get my hands on four different types: Guajillo, Mulato, Chipotle and Pasilla.  Most of my experience with chillies to date has involved fresh chillies and it was quite an interesting experience to cook with these dried Mexican chillies, as I got a new sense of the texture of chillies - the fact that they can have nutty, smoky or fruity tastes, rather than simply being hot and spicy.  The texture of the dried chillies was a little bit like worn leather, but they also reminded me, bizarrely, of my youth, when my grandfather would give me dulse, a kind of dried seaweed which is popular with older people in Ireland. 

It's hard to believe there was ever a time when we didn't consume chocolate (believed to come from the Nahuatl (Aztec) word xocolatl - xococ = bitter and atl = water).  I'm a big fan of chocolate, although it's only as an adult that I've tasted 'real' chocolate, the bitter Latin American kind that is best served as a drink or sauce.  I love cooking with chocolate and I was happy to find delicious Mexican chocolate at the Cool Chile Company. I think my mole tasted more of chocolate than anything else - perhaps I went a bit overboard!

Real Mexican chocolate

This was also my first time to prepare tomatillos and I'm still fascinated by this fruit which, although it looks a bit like a tomato, it has a different taste and is surrounded by paper-thin leaves, which you need to remove before cooking.  I like cooking new things, so I was excited about my first experience of tomatillos and I look forward to preparing them again some time in the future.


The recipe

I looked at a lot of mole recipes when I was researching this dish - each one seemed to be more complicated than the last and I was surprised to learn that it would take at least five hours to prepare this dish!  I eventually settled on a recipe from La Cocina de Nathan, which seemed marginally less complicated than the others and I enjoyed Nathan's amusing approach to cooking.  I didn't blacken the tortillas, as he suggested and I also adapted this recipe to suit my own needs.  

Here are the ingredients that I used (I've included the Zapotec words, where I could find them):

For the stock:

Ingredients for Mole Negro
2 chicken breasts - pechuga de pollo/buyu
2 chicken legs - pierna de pollo/buyu
1 bell pepper - pimiento morron
2 onions - cebollas
garlic - ajo
4 tomatoes - tomates/bichooxhe
cumin - comino
3 bay leaves - hojas de laurel
chicken stock - caldo de pollo

Chillies - Chiles/Guiiña

Mulatto chillies - chiles mulatos 
Pasilla chillies - chiles pasillas - pasilla means 'little raisin' and this chilli has a fruity flavour
Guajillo chillies - chiles guajillos
Chipotle chillies - chiles chipotles - chipotle means 'smoked chilli' in Nahuatl language

Other ingredients

Best to prepare the ingredients before cooking
5 tomatillos - tomatillos
1 plantain - plátano/biduaa
2 slices of bread - pan
sesame seeds - semillas de sésamo
handful of peanuts - cacahuetes
handful of raisins - pasas de uva
1 cinnamon stick - rama de canela
black peppercorns - granos de pimienta negra
3 cloves - clavos de olor
chocolate - chocolate/dxuladi (the Zapotec word was also borrowed from Nahuatl language)
corn tortillas - tortillas de maiz/gueta

Making the mole

It wasn't that difficult to actually make the mole - just complicated and time-consuming, there is a lot to remember.

Basically you start by boiling the chicken in water and adding all of the vegetables and other ingredients to make a chicken stock.  I boiled the chicken and vegetables for around 1.5 hours, after which I put the chicken aside and added some of the stock to my mole.  I think this is probably where I went a little bit wrong - as I was trying not to add too much stock, my mole ended up being more of a paste than a liquid.  If I was making this dish again, I would add all of the stock to the other mole ingredients.

Boil the chicken

And the vegetables

Put the cooked chicken to one side

For the other mole ingredients, it's just a matter of frying everything - plantain, tomatillos, half the tomatos, one of the onions, spices, nuts, seeds, raisins and chillies. Once all of the ingredients had been fried (and this took a bit of time), I put the fried chillies and raisins into a pot, covered them with stock and boiled them for about twenty minutes.


Peanuts, peppercorn and cinnamon

Fried chillies releasing their oils and flavours

Fried bread, of the French variety

Fried tomatillos, onion and tomatoes

Sesame seeds

Peanuts, raisins and cinnamon

After that, I blitzed all of the ingredients (except the chicken and chocolate) in my food processor, adding some stock (but not enough) to create a kind of mole paste.  I then put the paste in a saucepan and added the chocolate, bringing this to the boil before simmering for about half an hour.

Chillies and spices in chicken stock

Blitzing the ingredients in my food processor

Heat the mole paste in a frying pan
Add chocolate
Finally, I heated the corn tortillas, put the chicken on top and added my mole paste. This should really have been a proper sauce, but I didn't make it liquidy enough and should have put all of the stock and other ingredients into the food processor in batches.

Mole Negro with chicken and corn tortillas

Nevertheless, it was a fairly tasty meal and I ended up with lots of mole paste which I've been eating on toast ever since - yum yum!

Chicken with mole sauce
Image credits:

All images were taken by me on my trusty Canon EOS 1100D.  Feel free to re-use these images with the Creative commons license:

- Attribution
- Non-commercial
- Share alike

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Oaxaca - The Bridge in the Jungle

Oaxaca is more famous for its painters, than its writers and it was difficult to find a book in English by a Oaxacan writer.  However, I did stumble across the mysterious B Traven, someone who wrote quite a few novels about Mexico and whose identity and life is shrouded in mystery.

The mysterious B Traven

B Traven was a pen name and the theories about his identity range from the most accepted version, that he was a German actor and anarchist named Ret Marut to the idea that he was actually from the US or may even have been the writer Jack London, who could have faked his death and moved to Mexico to continue writing!

What we do know is that his novels were originally published in German and that his writing influenced anarchist and leftist movements across the world, notably the anti-Nazi White Rose movement of Bavaria, which is believed to have been named after B Traven's novel Die weisse Rose (1929).  Probably his most famous book is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927), which was made into a Hollywood movie in 1948, starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston.

Trailer for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre:

Traven's knowledge of indigenous life in Mexico

I chose to read The Bridge in the Jungle also published in German in 1929 and later published in English in 1940.  Like B Traven's other books, The Bridge in the Jungle champions the lives of the native people of southern Mexico, los Pueblos Indígenas.  Whoever B Traven was, he certainly had a great insight into what life was like for Mexico's native peoples, living in poverty, far from the Mexican authorities.

The narrator of the novel is a US citizen, who has travelled to a remote region of southern Mexico (could be Oaxaca, although it seemed more like Chiapas to me, from what little I've learned about Mexico!)  When the narrator is describing his own homesickness and nostalgia for the forests and lakes of Wisconsin, it sounds genuine and I can't help wondering if B Traven wasn't really an American citizen on the run from the US government?

Theme: Loss of Innocence

The Bridge in the Jungle revolves around the disappearance of a young boy, Carlos, during a festivity in a remote 'Indian' village.  Carlos' mother notices something is up and alerts the other adults in the village who begin searching for the young boy in the dark jungle surrounding the village.  The village is connected to the place where the party is happening (at the Pumpmaster's house) by a rudimentary bridge built by US oil prospectors to enable water to be supplied to a rail depot servicing their oil field.

The Bridge in the Jungle by waywuwei
The bridge itself becomes a symbol of the transition from life to death, as it is the main culprit in the boy's death.  He loses his footing on the bridge and falls into the river, where he bashes his head on a rock and drowns.

The bridge was, in a way, responsible for his death.  It is a symbol of modern life and man-made construction, in an otherwise natural landscape.  When describing the water pump, the narrators says that it 'shrieked, howled, whistled, spat' - an unnatural monster which brings the outside world into the Garden of Eden.

The bridge is a symbol of Mexico itself.  When you look at a map of Central America, the regions from northern Mexico all the way to Panama form a kind of land bridge, uniting the bigger continents of North and South America. To the North Americans, Mexico is the bridge in the jungle and B Traven captures this potent symbol very well.

Theme: The Corruption of Wealth and US exploitation

The bridge isn't the only factor in the young boy's death, as his death is also caused by the fact that he lost his footing because of the new pair of shoes he was wearing.  The shoes were brought by his favourite older brother, Manuel, who has come down from Texas, where he is working as a immigrant labourer.  The shoes become a symbol of US imperialism in the sense that, if the boy had been in his bare feet, he would have felt the edge of the bridge and not fallen into the river.  The shoes are a symbol of vanity and the corruption of wealth - the boy wears them because he is proud and it is vanity and pride that lead to his death.

It's a complicated metaphor, but Traven makes his point subtly and with a good deal of sympathy for Carlos' family, who are one of the poorer families in the village and whose only wealth is the temporary capital of Manuel's labour.

Theme: A Light on the dark River

River snaking through the jungle in Oaxaca by waywuwei
The third element that caused the boy's death was the darkness of the jungle at night and the fact that he couldn't see where he was going.  Perhaps the darkness of the jungle symbolises the dark period of history that the native people have entered, where their traditional world has been turned upside down, their lives have lost meaning and their destinies are controlled by the Mexican government and the US oil prospectors.

In this darkness, the 'Indians' turn towards their faith, symbolised by the lighted candle floating on the river, which helps them recover the body of the dead boy.

Traven's views on religion are clearly expressed and the narrator of The Bridge in the Jungle finds it hard to believe that a candle floating on the water could find the boy's body, after hours of dragging the river had failed.  He is horrified by the superstitions that the Indians cling to and their fatalism when faced with the tragedy of the novel.

There is an interesting scene where the narrator is disgusted to learn he has been drinking coffee prepared from river water - not because of hygiene concerns (he's got used to this aspect of jungle life), but because the water in the coffee is the same water that the boy drowned in.  In a symbolic nod to the symbolism of Christian rituals, the villagers are literally consuming the body and blood of the dead child.

Other themes

Although it's a fairly short novel (just 176 pages in the edition I read), The Bridge in the Jungle is packed with symbolism and there were many other themes that Traven touched upon - I'd like to highlight a few more of these below:

Oaxacan jungle and the Pacific Ocean by waywuwei
Fear of Strangers
Solitude and the ghosts of the jungle
Going native
Fear of the night
The power of a mother's grief
Death as a quiet event that can go unnoticed
The guilt of an US citizen living in Mexico
The powers of white men to resurrect the dead
The value of water
The mysticism of foreign cultures/beliefs
The validity of miracles
Dissonance - the discordant music and the contradictory characters, e.g.the superstitious Communist and the drunken schoolteacher

I'll leave you with a quote from the novel, that I thought was particularly poignant:

The jungle was singing its eternal song of joy, love, sadness, pain, tragedy, hope, despair, victory, defeat.  What did the jungle or the bush care about the things that had happened here? To the jungle, men are of no account . . What is man to the jungle? He takes a few trees out, or a few shrubs, or he clears a patch to build a jacal and plant some corn and beans or a few coffee trees.  If man forgets that patch for but three months, it is no longer his; the jungle has taken it back.  Man comes, man goes, the jungle stays on.  If a man does not fight it daily, it devours him.

Image credits:

For this blog post I wanted to highlight the photography of Flickr member waywuwei a US-born photographer who lives in Mexico.  These images were taken on a trip waywuwei made to Oaxaca in February 2011.  Amazingly, he also managed to photograph a bridge in the Oaxacan jungle!  You can see more of waywuwei's photos on his blog.

Thanks for sharing these with us, using the Creative commons license!

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Oaxaca - The Columbian Exchange

Although I learned about the Conquistadors when I was at school, I wanted to get a general overview of the history of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, as I felt that I didn't know the subject well enough and it's important to understand the historical context of Mexico, when blogging about modern-day Oaxaca.

I was lucky enough to find an engaging account of the Spanish conquest called Conquistadors by Michael Wood, written in conjunction with the BBC series of the same name that was broadcast in 2000.  Wood has written several history books as part of the BBC series and I'd recommend this book, as I really enjoyed his easy style of writing and the fact that he quoted from different sources (Aztec and Peruvian), not just telling the story from the Spanish point of view.

Conquistadors (2000) by Michael Wood
16th-century Oaxaca was a little bit off the beaten track, just as it is today, therefore it doesn't feature highly in the story of the Spanish conquest of Mexico.  In those days, 'Mexico' was the Aztec empire, which stretched from the mountains north of the Mexico valley to the southern Pacific coast in modern-day Chiapas.  The Spanish first showed up in the Mayan lands of Yucatan, before moving up the coast to Veracruz and, eventually, making their way to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico city) high in the Sierra Madre.

The Columbian Exchange

Wood, quite rightly, depicts the meeting of Aztec leader, Motecuhozuma (aka Montezuma) with the conquistador Hernán Cortés as a 'meeting of two worlds'.  Karl Marx described it as 'the greatest event in the history of the world'.  As it turned out, the meeting was more of collision of completely different cultures and the outcomes, in terms of globalisation, were immense - after defeating the Aztecs, the Spanish went on to conquer all of central America, the southern United States and South America.

I found the term 'Columbian exchange' quite interesting - it has nothing to do with cocaine or the Bolsa de Bogota, but refers to the exchange of cultures, goods and materials that happened as a result of Colombus' 'discovery' of the Americas.  It was the cruellest exchange in history; where the Americans gave us new foods, plants, medicines and cultural wealth, Europeans brought disease, destruction and devastation to highly-sophisticated societies that had evolved over many centuries without outside influence.

Guns, Germs and Steel

I read a book a few years ago called, Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) by the US scientist, Jared Diamond. This book, more than any other, helped me understand the geography of the world and how this enabled Europeans to make the technological advancements that enabled them to conquer American societies which were unable to resist European guns, germs and steel.

It's estimated that 90-95% of the native population in the Americas died as a result of European diseases, the chief culprit being smallpox, which native Americans had no resistance to.  These deadly epidemics, more than anything, led to the successful conquest of the Americas by Europeans.

There is an interesting documentary on YouTube (by National Geographic) that outlines Diamond's theories - I'm embedding the video below, so you can watch this, if you're interested.

The Cruelty of the Conquistadors

The Europeans could not have predicted the impact their diseases would have on the native peoples of the Americas.  Even so, European/Spanish behaviour in the Americas was appalling.  The conquest of Mexico and Peru are stories of greed, lust, violence and cultural destruction.  The Spanish trampled on everything they saw and raped and murdered the local people in their pursuit of wealth, particularly gold.  It's pretty shocking to read about, from a 21st-century perspective but, in the context of 16th-century Europe, where violence and war was the order of the day, perhaps not all that surprising.

Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro
I was interested to learn that most of the leading conquistadors came from the Spanish region of Extremadura.  Very much a harsh frontier in 16th-century Spain, Extremadura had, for a long time, been part of an Islamic caliphate and by the early 1500's it was inhabited by Christians who'd moved in and taken over the land, pushing the Muslims and Jews out.  The conquistadors were, therefore, from tough 'frontier' stock and I can't help wondering if their harsh frontier mentality accounted for their greed, violence and hatred of the 'Other' when they set out to conquer the Americas?

Hernán Cortés was related to the Pizarro brothers, a kind of mafia family who murdered the Peruvian Inca and grabbed so much wealth in South America.  Whilst reading the history of the conquests, I sensed that the conquest of the Americas got completely out of control.  Although the conquerors claimed to be acting in the name of the King of Spain and the Catholic church, it's clear that they were in it for personal wealth and unrestrained by loyalty to the Spanish crown or the church.

An America that could have been?

Central American figurehead
It's sad to think of the cultural heritage the world lost because of the European conquest of the Americas. Spanish took over as the main language, Catholicism as the main religion and modern American culture is, essentially, another version of European culture.  I wonder what the world would be like today if geography and greed hadn't conspired to bring down the great civilisations of pre-Hispanic America.

What would the balance of power be like in a world with strong Aztec, Mayan and Inca leadership?  It would be the equivalent of having another world view, like that of the Chinese or Japanese or Indian cultures, that have maintained their independence from European domination.  I can't help thinking that we lost something important with the destruction of the great American cultures.

Luckily, indigenous American cultures aren't completely lost and Oaxaca is a good example of a corner of the Americas where native culture has survived the test of time.  The question is whether or not we value native American cultures enough to fight for their preservation, in an increasingly globalised world?

Image credits:

The image of the conquistadors is a composite that I put together from two copyright-free originals.

The image of the Central American figure is one that I took at the Casa de Colon in Las Palmas (Gran Canaria)

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Oaxaca - What the Heart doesn't feel

When I start blogging about a new place, I like to do a 'Google Instant test' to see what's out there on the Internet, in terms of the place I'm blogging about. It's an interesting thing to do, if you want to try it for yourself - basically, you start typing a sentence eg. Do Germans . . .? or Are Chinese people . . .? and Google fills in the rest of the question based on what other people have been searching for.  It's a great insight into the things people are interested in and can produce some surprising, and often disturbing, results.

Why do Mexicans . . .

I tried this with Why do Mexican . . . and the top results included things like Why do Mexican immigrants move to the United States? Why do Mexicans look Asian? and Why do Mexican cartels behead?  Looking back on my first blog post on Oaxaca and the stereotypes I mentioned (immigration, drugs, violence), it's sad to think that this is all Mexico means to most people!  The purpose of this blog is to help me get beyond the stereotypes and learn something else about the places I'm blogging about.

The Google Instant question that intrigued me most however was:

Why do Mexicans stare?

I had no preconception about Mexicans staring and I was a bit shocked by this question, although it's obviously a hot topic for many people (mostly in the USA?)  There is an implicit prejudice/racism in the question and a fascinating psychology behind the fear that this question touches on; fear of attack, sexual assault, fear of being observed, fear of envy or intimacy.

Why do people stare?

Staring man in Sri Lanka by Brett Davies
Eye contact is a very intense thing for any species and we humans are no exceptions.  When dealing with wild animals or even domestic pets, such as dogs, making eye contact can trigger a violent attack and whilst human 'civilisation' has evolved in a way that removes aggression and violence from everyday life, direct eye contact with a stranger is still a potentially risky thing to do!

Ever notice how people don't make eye contact in elevators?  The intensity of being in an enclosed space means we tend to keep our eyes fixed on the floor or the changing lights of the elevator buttons!

Even during conversation, with someone we know, we tend not to make eye contact, except at the end of each sentence, to ensure the other person has been listening and has understood.  In some cultures, keeping your eyes lowered is extremely important - I'm thinking of places like Japan, China and Thailand.  In India, eye contact has class barriers, in some countries, like Saudi Arabia, eye contact is restricted by gender.

In most parts of the world, we get around eye contact issues by wearing sunglasses, a safe retreat from the threat of eye contact, but also a potentially menacing approach that says: Keep your distance.

The etiquette of eye contact

The Juju death stare by Viewminder
I think cultural differences are at the heart of this question.  Perhaps it's not that Mexicans stare, but that they hold eye contact for a split-second longer than people in the US are used to?  We northern Europeans are famous for our love of personal space and I think our slightly more modest approach to eye contact, touching and physical space has been carried over to the United States, even if they do engage in a bit more back-slapping that we would consider to be appropriate!

I'd imagine that Mexicans, on the other hand, are much more open and relaxed in terms of eye contact and physical space, presumably a cultural import from Spain and the norms of southern European culture. The question Why do Mexicans stare? opens up a cultural Pandora's box that is essentially European in origin.

Aztec and Mayan cultures had strict protocols around eye contact and, like in India and East Asia, ordinary people weren't expected to make any eye contact with their superiors.  The Spanish conquistadors violated all taboos in relation to looking the Aztec leaders/priests directly in the face and they had no respect for the personal space the Aztec leaders/priests were accustomed to.

The Eye of the Beholder

Staring child by Erin/ephotography
Have you ever noticed that young children stare a lot?  This is because they haven't yet learned the social conventions around eye contact.  They stare out of curiosity and their stares are non-threatening, although they can make adults uncomfortable, as we're not used to high-levels of eye contact.

There are two times in our lives when we spend a lot of time staring into someone else's eyes.  When we're infants, we spend months staring into the eyes of our mothers, in fact, that's all we see, or want to see in the early part of our lives. And, of course, when we fall in love, we spend a lot of time staring into the eyes of our lover, as though loss of eye contact, will mean the loss of love!

There's a link between aggression and passion and eye contact is both the language of those who love and those who hate.  If you've ever watched a boxing match, you'll be familiar with the 'stare down' and non-physical precursor to the fight when the boxers try to intimidate each other.  Have a look at this YouTube video showing some of the most famous 'staredowns' in boxing history to see what I mean.

In a more innocent way, we play with this difficult social skill when we have competitions to see who can win at 'outstaring' other people.

Windows to the Soul

Such is the importance of eye contact to our psychology that our languages are full of idioms and expressions which I could fill a whole other blog post with.  One of my favourites is:

The eyes are the windows to the soul

This is a traditional English proverb that has been recycled many times by writers, poets and lovers.  To me it encapsulates everything I've mentioned above; fragility, weakness, submission, vulnerability.

I also love the traditional Irish expression:

Is maith an scáthán súil charad (A friend's eye is a good mirror)

Friends are definitely people we can make eye contact with, we bare our souls to friends and let them experience our weaknesses and vulnerabilities.  It's a social bond which is amazing, if only because it exists outside the usual protective circles of family/spouses.
The Rokeby Venus by Diego Velázquez

It's interesting to have a look at the Spanish expression:

Ojos que no ven, corazón que no siente

We usually translate this with an equivalent English-idiom 'Out of sight, out of mind' but I'm much more interested in the literal translation of this expression:

What the eyes don't see, the heart doesn't feel

Perhaps the reverse scenario of US citizens who are intimidated by 'staring Mexicans' is the perception of Mexicans that people in the US are unfeeling and not very welcoming.  Something worth thinking about?

Image credits:

I personally find it very difficult to take photographs of people, when I'm travelling around the world.  It's a skill I haven't yet mastered, which is a shame, as people are so interesting!  The image of the man in Sri Lanka was taken by Flickr member, photosightfaces aka Brett Davies, who is originally from Sydney. Brett has a whole series of photos of people in Sri Lanka, it's a really interesting collection to browse through.

The photo of the Juju death stare is by Flickr member, Viewfinder - originally from Chicago, you can see more of Viewfinder's photos on his photo stream.  There's an interesting story behind this photo, which you can read on the photo's own information page on Flickr.

The picture of the staring child is by Flickr member, ephotography, aka Erin, who is from Vancouver in Canada.  You can see more of Erin's photos on her photo stream.

Thanks to Brett, Viewfinder and Erin for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons license.

Nowadays, we feel safe with images that stare at us from a painting or a photograph, but I've included an image of The Rokeby Venus by Diego Velázquez (1647-51) to remind us how this painting was considered to incredibly controversial at the time.  The woman, who was probably a courtesan, was shown to be staring at the observer, something that was unheard of in 17th century European painting, even though she is depicted as staring at us indirectly through a mirror!  

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Oaxaca - The United States of Mexico

I am very excited to start blogging about Oaxaca and Mexico, a country I know very little about, despite its important place on the world stage. Like most people, my 'knowledge' of Mexico mostly consists of news reports about drug cartels, illegal immigrants or violent gangs.

During the next few weeks, I'm looking forward to learning more about this country, through the lens of Oaxaca, I want to discover Mexican music and literature, I want to learn about Mexico's great linguistic diversity, about the cultures that survived the European conquest, the modern-day Aztecs and Mayans.  I want to find out about Mexican telenovelas and read some Mexican literature.  I want to prepare a traditional Oaxacan dish (if you have any suggestions, please leave a comment below!)

Which United States?

When we hear the words 'United States', I'm sure most of us think 'USA', so it was interesting to discover that the official name of Mexico is Etados Unidos Mexicanos or the United States of Mexico/Mexican United States.  In the 21st century, the USA and USM are two different sides on the see-saw, with the USA very much in the ascendant and Mexico considered to be somehow less developed and less important, despite the fact that Mexico has the world's 14th largest economy, just behind Spain and just ahead of South Korea.  They're also not doing too badly in the FIFA World Cup!

Say Oaxaca?

Oaxaca by Alex Torres
Oaxaca is a part of Mexico that isn't that well-known to the rest of the world.  I really only found out about Oaxaca when I was blogging about Enrique's Journey and Honduras.  Many illegal immigrants riding the trains to the border of the USA pass through Oaxaca and this got me interested in finding out more about this less familiar Mexican state.

I started by pronouncing Oaxaca as o-aksaka but, I now realise that it's pronounced more like wahaka. The pronunciation of Oaxaca got me thinking about the links between Mexico and the United States. Wahaka sounds a lot like a Native American Indian word and it made me understand that our modern perception of Mexico/USA means we separate Aztec culture from US Native American Indian culture when, actually, they're very much related to each other.

Native Americans and the arrival of Europeans

Oaxaca by Alex Torres
Funnily enough the last place I blogged about beginning with the letter O was Oklahoma.  I learned a lot about Native American culture, when I was blogging about Oklahoma and I feel there is a real 'trail of tears' in the Native American story that stretches from Oklahoma to Oaxaca and beyond.

I'm reading a really interesting account of  the Spanish conquests of Mexico and Peru by BBC books called Conquistadors by Michael Wood (2000). It's an informative and clearly-written account of the 16th-century conquistadors, Cortes and Pizarro.  It's a pretty horrific tale and, from a 21st century point of view, a real tragedy that the great cultures of Mexico and Peru were destroyed by Europeans without a second thought.

The Mexican Jigsaw

Oaxaca by Alex Torres
The chapters on Cortes and the Aztec Empire have given me a real sense of Mexico, as it existed in the 16th century, long before modern borders and states.

In fact, the big division, culturally, in Mesoamerica seems to have been between the Aztecs and the Mayans.  Even in modern times, Yucatan probably has more in common with its neighbours Belize, Guatemala and Honduras than it does with the rest of Mexico.  I'm speaking in cultural terms, of course, economically, with its thriving tourist industry Yucatan is a world apart.

When Europeans first started arriving in Veracruz and other parts of eastern Mexico, the Aztec culture was slightly beyond reach, hidden away in the Mexican valley.  The modern name Mexico, comes from this specific geographical area, once sheltering the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, now occupied by the conurbations of Mexico City.

Between the valley of Mexico and Oklahoma were much smaller cultures, eking out an existence in the harsh deserts of Chihuahua, Colorado and Mojave.  Aztec rule had barely reached these northern deserts, when the Spanish turned up on the scene.

Oaxaca's place in the jigsaw

Oaxaca en México.svg
"Oaxaca en México" by Yavidaxiu - Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
What is now Oaxaca was only part of the Aztec empire for 30 years before the Spanish arrived and changed the political landscape forever.  Oaxaca is a very mountainous place, most of the state is 2,000 metres above sea-level, which made it inaccessible in past centuries and, to an extent, protected from the radical Europeanisation that happened in other parts of Mexico.

You can still see this today, in the fact that Oaxaca is Mexico's most ethnically complex state with sixteen officially recognised indigenous cultures.  More than half of Mexico's speakers of Native American languages live in Oaxaca and the Spanish language isn't as ubiquitous in Oaxaca, as it is in other parts of the Mexico.  I guess Oaxaca is the Mexican equivalent of Oklahoma, but much more so!

Missing pieces of the jigsaw

It wasn't until the 19th century that Native Americans felt the pressure from the growing power of the United States of America and that nation's manifest destiny and expansion westwards.  Mexico lost around half of its land area during the 19th century, the missing pieces of the Mexican jigsaw being modern states like California, Arizona, Texas and New Mexico.

I'm embedding a useful YouTube video below, from the Open University, which explains the changes that took place in Mexico and the United States in the 19th century.  I thought it was quite poignant to note that, whilst the 19th century was all about borders crossing people, the late 20th and early 21st centuries are all about people crossing borders.

I guess the fate of these two countries will be forever intertwined and I hope the future of US-Mexican relations will be one of mutual respect, cooperation, promotion of Native American cultures and a sense of shared history.

Image credits:

Oaxaca doesn't really have an official flag, so I made my own image which combines the Mexican national flag, but replaces the national seal with the Oaxacan state seal.

For this blog post, I wanted to highlight the work of Flickr member psicoloco aka Alex Torres, who is originally from Mexico City.  You can see more of Alex's beautiful photos on his photostream.

Thanks Alex for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons license.  

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Nordrhein-Westfalen - The Final Word on German Tourism

Until I started researching for this blog, I'd never heard of Engelbert Kaempfer, the 17th century naturalist from Lippe in Westphalia, who travelled through Russia and Persia, all the way to Japan, arriving in Nagasaki in 1690.  He wrote The History of Japan, one of the most famous accounts of a European journey to that most secretive of nations.

The ubiquitous German Tourist

You know that you've managed to get off the beaten track, when the only other Europeans you encounter are Germans.  When I was blogging about Eritrea, back in September 2012, I came across the work of the UNWTO (the World Tourism organisation).  Every year the UNWTO publishes a report on world tourism and it's fascinating to look at the summaries of their findings.  For the purposes of this blog, I have decided to look at the summaries from 2014 and 2004, to find out how many Germans are travelling and how popular Germany is as a tourist destination.

World Tourism in 2003

Bavarian Alps, a popular tourist destination in Germany
Germany has often topped the UNWTO list as the country which provides the biggest revenues in terms of 'outbound' tourism (ie. Germans travelling as tourists to other countries).  Looking at the report from 2004 (which analyses data from international tourism in 2003), Germany was top of the list with a 12% share of the world's outbound tourism.  US citizens were the second-biggest travellers in 2003, followed by the British and the Japanese.

The top tourist destination in 2003 was - perhaps not surprisingly - France, which frequently tops this list as the most visited country in the world. Germany took 9th place as a tourist destination, just behind Mexico and ahead of Canada.

World Tourism in 2013

The picture has changed quite a bit over the past ten years, with the rise of China and the strength of the Chinese economy.  There were more Chinese tourists travelling the world in 2013, than tourists from any other country (11% of the 'outbound' tourism market). German tourists are now in third place (7.4%) and a little bit behind tourists from the United States.

Interestingly, Japanese tourist numbers have dropped dramatically and Japan doesn't even appear in the top ten list any more, despite the fact that Japanese tourists were the fourth biggest group in 2003.  There has also been a sizeable growth in the number of Russian tourists, who were the tenth largest group in 2003, but are now the world's fourth largest group.

France is the world's most popular tourist destination
France remains the most popular tourist destination in the world, however, Germany has become increasingly popular, going from 9th to 7th place.  Germany now receives more tourists than the UK, but slightly less than Turkey, which has seen an explosion in tourist numbers during that 10 year period.

The next ten years in Tourism

It'll be interesting to see how things change over the next ten years - will France still be the world's most popular tourist destination?  Will the number of Chinese and Russian tourists be even higher, or will they be lower?  I think it's a difficult industry to make predictions about and that only time will tell!

Image credits:

Both images were taken by me - please feel free to use them with the Creative commons license:

- Attribution
- Non-commercial
- Share alike

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Nordrhein-Westfalen - Books and Movies

The Books

I've read five books, as part of my research for Nordrhein-Westfalen.  Here's the list with links to blog posts, where relevant:

Germany: Insight Guides (2005) ed. Tony Halliday and others.  This book provided me with a good overview of German history and culture.  It's got me really interested in visiting the Rhine valley again, perhaps a cycling or walking trip will be on the cards in the near future!

Reading list for Nordrhein-Westfalen
All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) by Erich Maria Remarque.  I wrote a blog post about this fantastic novel back in April.  I read the 1996 Vintage edition with an afterword by Brian Murdoch, who is Emeritus Professor of German at the University of Sterling and an expert on Remarque.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1974) by Heinrich Böll. I also wrote a blog post about Böll's novel.  I read the Minerva edition of 1993.

Protestantism: A Very Short Introduction (2011) by Mark A Noll part of the Oxford University Press Very Short Introduction series.  Regular readers will know how much I love these books and I found Noll's Protestantism invaluable when I was researching my blog post on Protestantism in Germany.

Beethoven: The Music and the Life (2003) by Lewis Lockwood.  I must admit, I didn't read the entire book - it was very much a last minute addition to my reading list and I just didn't have time to read the whole thing, although I found the bits I read enjoyable.  Lewis is a musicologist from New York city, who is an expert on Beethoven.  This book was a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer prize for Biography.  He alternates each chapter, to combine biography and musicology and I found this approach really engaging, although I can't tell my arpeggio from my adagio!  I used the early chapters of this book to inform my blog post on Beethoven.

The Movies

Nastassja Kinski in Paris, Texas (1984)
I didn't really know anything about Wim Wenders before I started blogging about Nordrhein-Westfalen and I'd never seen any of his movies, although some of the names (e.g. Paris, Texas) would have been familiar to me.

He's quite an iconic film director, originally from Düsseldorf, his movies portray an emptiness and silence that, in many ways, symbolise the broken soul of post-war Germany.  Wenders also has a lot to say about American culture and some of his most famous movies are set in the United States.

I couldn't get my hands on all of the Wim Wenders' movies I wanted to see, but I managed to watch the following:

Alice in the Cities (1974)
Paris, Texas (1984)
Wings of Desire (1987)
Don't come knocking (2005)

Opening sequence from Paris, Texas (1984)
His movies are quite slow-moving and should definitely be appreciated for their artistic qualities rather than story-telling.  I particularly loved Alice in the Cities, one of his earliest movies - shot in black and white, it's mostly set in the Rhine valley and the industrial cities of the Ruhr.

In Paris, Texas I can see the influence of Wenders on a whole generation of US movies - those bleak landscapes and slightly surreal shots.  I've just recently finished watching the popular US series Breaking Bad and I can see hints of Wenders in the deserts of New Mexico.  The boundaries between TV and cinema are increasingly blurred these days and I like the fact that TV programmes are embracing style as well as substance.

Here are some of the themes that Wenders' movies tend to deal with:

Typically stark Wenders shot from Wings of Desire
- Individuals who are outside the norms of society (the character of Stanton in Paris, Texas or the angels in Wings of Desire)
- Road trips
- Alienation from a world which is incredibly materialistic
- Timelessness
- Children being abandoned by their mothers
- Adults who disappear
- Shots of faces within faces
- the trauma of progress (ubiquitous television in United States, changing landscape of the Ruhr valley)
- melancholic and repetitive music

As well as learning about Wim Wenders, I also watched both movie versions of All Quiet on the Western Front, the fantastic 1930 film and the less engaging version from 1979.

I had a really nice Easter weekend with my sister in Leeds, when we devoted several hours to my research and watched Amadeus (1984, dir. Miloš Forman), the slightly crazy movie about Mozart and Immortal Beloved (1994, dir. Bernard Rose) starring Gary Oldman.  I loved both movies and they helped me contextualise the development of music in the Classical period and the influence that Mozart may have had on the work of Beethoven.  I'd recommend either of these movies to anyone who wants to learn more about these composers.

I'm going to leave you with a trailer from Immortal Beloved so you can get a sense of what the movie is about:

Image credits:

The image of the books was taken by me.

The images of the stills from Wim Wenders' movies are from photos taken by me. These images are being used to illustrate this blog post and promote these movies. By publishing these images, I'm not condoning or encouraging reproduction of these images on the Internet or anywhere else. These images are not meant to bring the actors into disrepute or suggest their endorsement of this blog post, but are meant to highlight the performances of these actors in these movies.