Interstellar: Wormholes and Intergalactic Travel – A: Background

Interstellar: Wormholes and Intergalactic Travel – A: Background


Howard Adelman

WARNING: This blog may make you dizzy and may be a hazard o your sense of balance, especially if you are resting on a Sunday morning.

Interstellar began with the postulate that drought, alternating with severe windstorms and then a blight infection, had ended the possibility of life on Earth. When we were in Marin County, it was pouring after years of drought. This was the case in Israel. In many situations, we have been torn between the optimism of nature’s eternal return and the pessimism that the end is near. This was especially true of agricultural societies, like the various ethnic groups that had settled in pre-conquest Mexico and that we learned about when we visited the second floor of the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City on Friday. We are always condemned to fight our way past these two extreme possibilities or opt for flight as a third option. This very highly improbable conjunction of events provides the backstory for the movie.

If the relatively high altitude of Mexico City affects cardiovascular functions and the production of red blood cells in the body, think what long term space flight would induce – not only these results, but muscle and skeletal deterioration. After just flying from Oakland to Mexico City, my nails seemed to grow longer, but also more brittle; usually one nail fractures after a long flight, and one did. In space, a traveler is faced with not just reduced air pressure, but with no air pressure – a vacuum – not to count extreme cold (and sometimes extreme heat) and greatly increased radiation. The perils make Odysseus passing between the six-headed monster, Scylla, and the whirlpool of Charybdis seem like child’s play. Except, of course, if the whirlpool, like a wormhole, is seen as an opportunity rather than a terrible danger. I thought about this all week and the fact that I never finished my review of Interstellar by writing on the science in the film. Since our personal odyssey in Mexico City ended with a full day at the artisans market on Saturday, and we did not even make it to the Frida Kahlo Museum, I will finish my commentary on Interstellar, specifically on the science in that fictional odyssey, first by first providing some background and then, subsequently, commenting more directly on the science in the movie.

I have never seen a movie so packed with basic physics and biology as Interstellar. No wonder Kip Thorne wrote a whole book, The Science of Interstellar, discussing that science. (For a more professional perspective on that science, read Neil deGrasse Tyson’s commentary: I have relied on Thorne’s book a great deal in my comments, but since I am not a physicist I am bound to have made mistakes in my interpretation and welcome corrections.) As discussed in the last blog on the movie, given our present knowledge, the only possible way to reach another planet outside our solar system would take generations and require “generational” spacecraft. Alternatively, suspended animation could be employed. Frozen embryos could as well. Interstellar employs the last two techniques along with a third one. The major innovation utilized is not to travel to a planet in one of the nearby stars in our galaxy, but extend the human lifespan based on a warp in space-time by traveling to another galaxy through a wormhole.

Rather than traveling to another star in The Milky Way, it may be easier to travel to a planet in another galaxy millions or even billions of light years away taking advantage of space-time curvature. (Remember, a light year is the distance traveled in one year moving at the speed of light.) The latter is the proposition, and a valid, though almost impossible and unlikely, scientific premise of the movie, Interstellar. Further, understanding the science is important, otherwise you will be prone to make mistakes. Though as you shall see, I think the movie strays too often from science fiction into science fantasy, I disagree with David Denby’s review in The New Yorker. He wrote without elaboration: “the final third goes into pure science fantasy – and changing what we know about black holes.” It does not.

Interestingly, though the production of the movie induced Kip Thorne to make some scientific discoveries on how black holes work, which he will write up as technical papers for publication, the movie claims to stay within what is known, what is a possible expectation (an educated guess) and what is, at least, not impossible according to today’s scientific understanding. With respect to the latter, the film, in spite of its heavy science overload, does not, like the TV series Star Trek, introduce new scientific concepts that Star Trek did, such as a “warp drive” that would allow a space ship to move faster than light, a concept that previously was widely considered a scientific impossibility. In the development of cosmic theories, the imaginative leap of conceiving of a “warp drive”, however, influenced the development of Alcubierre’s theory.

The latter theory, and the concept of what became known as an Alcubierre drive, is named after the physicist, Miguel Alcubierre, who proposed a theoretical model of how a spaceship might be able to travel faster than light, in fact, considerably faster. It became the main competitor to the traversable wormhole as the mode by which intergalactic flight could proceed by taking advantage of the space-time warp. This movie roots its science in the concept of a wormhole. It helps to understand that choice if it is to be considered an alternative.

The choice might be seen analogous to an eighteenth century scientist wondering whether, in order to get to China from North America, it would be faster to fly into space and land on the other side of the earth in twelve hours or, alternatively, drill a hole through the centre of the earth to lessen the distance considerably. The first depends on increasing speed. The second depends on reducing distance. The traversable wormhole is analogous to reducing distance. Using a thruster that can propel an object much faster than the speed of light increases speed. Without a radical solution to either problem, space travel outside our solar system is, de facto, impossible. Look at how long it took Voyager I to travel from Earth to slip around Jupiter within just one solar system in just one galaxy. A laser-powered spaceship with sails traveling at one-tenth the speed of light would take almost half a century just to reach the nearest galaxy.

On the other hand, note that wormholes are theoretical only. None have been found. It is difficult to understand how one could be created naturally. Nor can one easily imagine creating one since we live in four dimensions and would have to enter into at least a fifth dimension first to create the wormhole. Finally, even in theory, a traversable wormhole is only a Planck length, that is 0.000000000000000000000000000000001 centimetres, a hundredth of a billionth of a billionth the size of the nucleus of an atom. So we would have to have a means of enlarging it to human dimensions, an enormous scale of enlargement akin to stretching a nylon stocking from New York to Jupiter AND back. Assuming it did not fracture or split or explode, once enlarged, there has to be a system of holding the mouth of the hole open. How could this be done? By threading the opening with exotic matter, if that could be found, and then only by getting outside our dimension in the first place to carry out the action, theoretically in an area where exotic matter was to be found. According to what we know now, this is impossible. Once again, we are in the realm of science fantasy rather than science fiction, especially since Professor Brand in the movie envisions that “They” hold the wormhole open.

Given the virtual impossibility of any one of these steps, let alone the combination, Interstellar opted out of the problems altogether and simply stated that a wormhole had been found within our solar system of suitable size and with its mouth wide open. Now this is fiction based on no known reality or even reasonable scientific possibility. But it is not absolutely scientifically impossible.

Since the astronomer, Edwin Hubble, just under a century ago, established that all stars were not part of the same galaxy, we have learned that there are about a trillion galaxies. Our sun resides in one of those trillion galaxies. Our sun is a relatively medium sized star among up to 400 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone. Our galaxy is 100,000-120,000 light years in diameter. That is, it takes over a hundred thousand years for light to travel across our galaxy from one side through the centre to the other side. Our solar system is located about half way between the circumference and the centre in the Milky Way galaxy. The universe is simply humungous. Just to travel outside our solar system requires either increasing speed enormously or reducing distance. Further, the little we know about the universe relates to matter that makes up only 5% of the universe. The rest is either dark matter – 27% – or dark energy – 68% – of which we know almost nothing. So science fiction relies on our tremendous ignorance about the universe much more than on what is known.

Galaxies are found in clusters. Our galaxy is part of the Virgo Supercluster that, in turn, is but a small part of a much larger Laniakea Supercluster. So how can one possibly travel from one galaxy to another? It is theoretically possible because of the relatively recently discovered space-time warp. (Cf. Stephen Hawking, Thorpe went further and relied on gravitational waves or ripples in the space-time continuum resulting from a collision of two black holes in outer space that tore a neutron star apart and, thereby, allowed Dr. Brand, when he was a young scientist using a Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory, to detect that a wormhole had been created within our galaxy near Saturn by a burst of very high energy gravitational waves that were detected when a small proportion of those waves were captured by the wormhole. Except that whole rationale was excised from the movie in the fear that too much science would deaden the impact. Hence the discovery of the wormhole was really left unexplained.

But black holes and their singularities, wormholes and gravitational anomalies were all envisioned as possible by Stephen Hawking’s concept of the space-time warp. To take one example of a gravitational anomaly within our solar system, the precession of Mercury, that is, its shift in orientation of its rotational axis, does not follow Newton’s Law of gravity precisely, even though the deviation is extremely miniscule, This year, actual gravitational waves related to gravitational anomalies were probably detected indirectly (still to be confirmed), though the imprint takes place on electromagnetic waves. However, the anomalies presumed in Interstellar are totally fictitious, such as the way the tractors and harvesters converge on Cooper’s farmhouse because of a distortion in the GPS system. (I wanted to say that it was just me doing the navigation.) Another takes place when the dust settles in Murph’s library to form a bar code. None of these are scientifically plausible. Unless, of course, Professor Brand’s theory of “They” in the fourth dimension of space produce a gravitational anomaly that reads like the effects of an electromagnetic field and establishes that Einstein’s theory of gravity as a constant (G) is incorrect.

(No, I have not yet seen The Theory of Everything, the recent non-science fiction movie about Hawking’s twenty-five year marriage. Hopefully, it is as good as Ron Howard’s Academy Award-winning 2001 movie, A Beautiful Mind, that starred Russell Crowe as the brilliant mathematician at Princeton, John Nash, who won the Nobel Prize for economics, of all things, for his contributions to game theory. I also expect A Theory of Everything will be more accurate in reflecting the main protagonist’s life and in expressing the science.)

Albert Einstein in his General Theory of Relativity discovered that space (and time) were curved. Einstein did not, nor, I believe, do the majority of theoretical and astro-physicists, believe that time travel to the past is possible, as Stephen Spielberg’s science fantasy comedy, Back to the Future, envisioned. There are many reasons, even though, according to the General Theory of Relativity, it is possible to envision a space-time bubble in which travel could take place even faster than the speed of light. There are at least three reasons why such a project would be impossible. First, the energy produced would burn up the spaceship. Secondly, the spaceship would be subject to the enormous forces of Hawking radiation. Third, it would be impossible to guide the spaceship as the signal ahead of the spaceship would have to travel faster than the spaceship itself and then it would be impossible for the astronaut to guide the ship. Relativity, though envisioning time as a fourth dimension, presumes that time only travels forward even though we look backward in time when we see light arrive from faraway stars.

(For a much more extensive examination of this question, see the special issue of Scientific American on A Question of Time: The Ultimate Paradox. See also Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin (2014) The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time: A Proposal in Natural Philosophy. These writers argue that there is only one universe at a time since Time is real. As Heraclitus argued, all is change. Mathematical theory is subordinate to this reality. Time travel to the past is theoretically possible in theoretical physics rooted in mathematics; it is impossible in nature, not just technically impossible, but conceptually impossible.)

The movie does not envision time travel, though time is slowed down for the astronauts. Time travel is science fantasy. The changing speed of time is another matter. This movie is supposedly science fiction. Traveling through a wormhole is the enormous conceit of the movie. For, until now, no one has ever seen a wormhole. However, if the theoretical postulate of a wormhole could be discovered, and discovered within our galaxy, for the travel envisioned in Interstellar, the energy requirement of a macroscopic spaceship would be reduced enormously, analogous to reducing the energy requirements from the mass-energy of Jupiter to the energy that was needed by Voyager I.

So should or could spaceships rely on spatial distortion to achieve the goal of intergalactic travel or on much more powerful thrusters, such as an envisioned quantum vacuum plasma thruster? The movie does not explore options, but elects a theoretically feasible route permitted by mathematical equations. Of course, if the alternative of enormously more powerful thrusters were feasible, such as the use of quantum vacuum fluctuations or through a pre-selected shaping of the electric field (a Serrano Field Effect Thruster) to develop enough thrust to propel the spacecraft, then the spacecraft would not be required to carry any propellant, almost a prerequisite to envisioning the kind of space travel envisioned in Interstellar.

So which direction do we take – search for a feasible faster-than-light (FTL) or superluminal thrust for both movement and communications, or a mode of travel that takes advantage of folds in the space-time continuum using the energy produced within the hole to get through it? That is, if an unusually distorted region of space-time of a wormhole could be located – the movie presumes one was found near Saturn – then a spacecraft, while traveling to the rim of the wormhole, would have to use normal subluminal rocket thrust to reach the edge of the wormhole, and could do so in far less time than light takes to travel to reach a very distant location. In other words, do not try to travel much faster than light; try to envision a way of making the distance very much shorter.

But why a wormhole? Why not a black hole? Why could this method not also be used in traveling into a dark hole? After all, wormholes are only theoretical. Black holes have been proven to exist. Theoretically, a black hole could be used, as the physicist Harold White showed a decade ago. For the spacecraft would develop energy akin to dark energy characteristic of black holes without requiring NASA or another space agency to harness exotic matter to produce the enormous amounts of energy required for a superthruster. Many black holes have been located, unlike any wormhole.

Ironically, I just read a report that, for the first time, astronomers are on the verge of getting their first image of the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way. Black holes are billions of times more massive than our sun with so much energy that they effect and distort the host galaxy within which they are found. With energy so powerful, a black hole occupies very little space. Since it does not emit light but sucks in light and even whole stars, no one has previously been able to actually observe a black hole.

However, using massive computer power and a world-wide cooperative effort and multiple telescopes coordinated by MIT’s Haystack Observatory using the Event Horizon Telescope, it seems like the first picture of a black hole, or, at least, the event horizon of a black hole, the one in the region of our galaxy known as Sagittarius A that emits a complex radio source, will soon be available for viewing. We will have another important proof of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.


Religion, Art and Human Rights

Religion, Art and Human Rights


Howard Adelman

Yesterday, we did not go back to the Museum of Anthropology as planned. Instead, we had an easier day with far less walking. Further, Nancy was getting very impatient to visit the restored Nidje Israel Synagogue in the very old part of Mexico City at 71 Justo Sierra two blocks to the north and several blocks to the east of the National Palace. Nancy had been in continual correspondence with the woman behind the restoration, Mónica Unikel. We understood she would not be available to conduct any public tours this week, but, by chance, just when we arrived at the synagogue, she was conducting a tour for Mexican museum specialists and a Mexican Ministry representative. (If you are interested in a tour, email sinagogajustosierra@gmail )

Preserving Nidje Israel is akin to preserving synagogues in the Kensington area of Toronto, such as the St. Andrew Synagogue (Anshei Minsk or Minsker Shul) that I attended as a young boy when we lived on Kensington and then on Baldwin. Like the St. Andrew St. Synagogue, as we ironically called our synagogue, Nidje Israel is best known by the street name on which it is located – the Justo Sierra Synagogue. As kids, we never caught onto the irony of calling a synagogue by the name of a Catholic saint. Calling the Nidje Israel Synagogue the Justus Sierra Synagogue had a different irony since the street on which it is located was probably named after the famous nineteenth century Mexican politician and writer, Justo Sierra Méndez, or his father, the novelist and historian, Justo Sierra O’Reilly, a Mexican historian and novelist. Trust Nancy to trace down a synagogue called after a transplanted Irishman.

Nidje Israel, unlike the Minsker Shul, has been restored much as another synagogue in Toronto in the Kensington Market has been restored, the Kiever Synagogue on Denison Square. The Nidje Israel Synagogue was restored starting in 2008 and completed in April 2009 at a relatively modest cost of US$400,000 as Mónica told us, though, in Mexican terms, this was probably a much larger sum than when calculated in American (or Canadian) dollars. The synagogue was officially opened to the public in January of 2010. A poor quality video of that opening can be found at and very good photos of the restored Romanesque-styled synagogue can be found at: and

Nidje Israel is a much newer synagogue than the Kiever Shul since it was the first Ashkenazi synagogue in Mexico founded in 1941 by European Jews who had escaped the Shoah. As in Toronto, These Jewish immigrants to Mexico started tailor and other trade shops in the neighborhood. As in Toronto, as these Jews became more prosperous, they moved into better areas of Greater Mexico City in Polanco, Lomas de Chapultepec, Santa Fe and Huixquilucan and built new synagogues and centres of Jewish cultural life. As in Toronto, the old synagogues were often abandoned or torn down.

Nidje Israel is particularly interesting because it has a totally nondescript exterior. However, after you pass by the entrance and the offices of the synagogue, you enter a large interior courtyard in which a very attractive synagogue has been built as a totally separate building. Clearly, Jews in Mexico City wanted to be discrete – more because of their experiences in Europe than anything taking place then in Mexico City at the time. Though Judaism has had a notorious past before the 1860s when the first arrivals from Spain in the sixteenth century were Marranos or Crypto-Jews forcibly converted by, but in flight from, the Spanish Inquisition, and though the Inquisition was more feebly enforced in New Spain, by and large the Marranos were allowed to live and thrive. Eventually they more or less assimilated, but it is interesting, as I mentioned in a previous blog, that Diego Rivera’s mother was a descendent of conversos and he personally was very conscious of his Jewish past. In spite of a few incidents in the 1930s, the persistence of persecution is more part of non-conscious inherited stereotypes rather than any policies or practices in daily life. For example, when we attended the Mexican Folkloric Ballet on Wednesday evening, in one segment there was a cartoonish Shylock character (as well as a Black Sambo, much to the embarrassment of a West Indian fellow sitting next to Nancy).

In colonial Mexico, the laws of the Inquisition were followed and Jewish immigration was not permitted until the latter half of the nineteenth century. The equal status of Jews in Mexico was confirmed by laws passed under the Benito Juárez government. Ashkenazi Yiddish-speaking Jews began migrating from Europe and Sephardic Ladino-speaking Jews from the crumbling Ottoman Empire at the end of the nineteenth century and through the first half of the twentieth century. The community grew from a few hundred at the beginning of the twentieth century and 21,000 in 1930 to the 40,000-50,000 Jews in Mexico today, 90% in Mexico City. There are also a small number of descendants of conversos who deliberately returned to Judaism. Further, unlike the USA and Canada, the percentage of intermarriages in Mexico is very low.

After our visit to the synagogue, we went around the corner to eat at a very colourful table outside a very tiny restaurant facing a small park. The restaurant had been suggested to us by one of the museum curators we met at the synagogue who had just weeks before been in Toronto for a tour of Canadian museums. The full course meal at the restaurant cost 55 pesos, less than CAN$5. However, Nancy ordered enchiladas. She found hers to be delicious but, after a few bites, I abandoned the effort to eat as I remembered that I don’t like enchiladas and Nancy was too full to save us from embarrassment. I simply indicated to the proprietor that I was too full. Instead of finishing my meal, I sat there imaging the park, like the Denison Park in the Kensington area of Toronto in the very same period, crowded with Jews speaking Yiddish and either socializing, gossiping or conducting business as little boys like me were playing tag. There were Delancey streets in many other cities besides New York.

After lunch, we went to visit a number of art galleries adjacent to the National Palace. There were a number of contemporary Mexican artists showing their paintings, sculptures and installations. I am not a great fan of contemporary installation art, but we did see some interesting work by contemporary Mexican artists, including one artist who painted like my daughter, Shon, in blocks of pure colour in the pop tradition, only what this artist painted were two dogs (or wolves?) in a vicious fight. There was also an interesting piece with a photo cut-out of a woman’s head atop a massive, very massive, body. I do not know why it was so striking. Another painting that caught our eye was of a Mexican cowboy with a lasso in his hands and the other end tied around the wrist of a very tall young woman. In the immediate background, a child was squirming in his seat and in the far background a crane held aloft a roped cow. The rapid changes in life and society were well represented in the art, but, more often, Mexican art was oriented towards the surreal, the grotesque and the theme of death. One fascinating room displayed various shocking portraits of children that were either dead or portrayed as dead.

After tripping through these galleries in beautiful buildings on the interior with exquisite courtyards, we crossed the street to try to get into the National Palace to view a number of Diego Rivera’s murals. Unfortunately, the palace was surrounded by hundreds of police, most armed with bullet proof vests and even a cluster of riot police with helmets and shields on a side street at right angles to the palace. There were also two very large buses, one black the other white, parked on the street north of the palace where vehicles were not normally permitted. In spite of the overcast day and our first sense of pollution in the city, the motors of the buses were running. The black one seemed to be covered with armour plating. We were told that we could not have access to the building because the president was then in residence, but as we also learned, the real reason for the closure of the palace to the general public until January was the fear of riots that could develop from the protests distributed around the city. On the way to the synagogue visit two blocks away, we had passed one group of protesters and a very large police presence. I wanted to return to talk to the protesters, but we went to the art galleries by a different route.

We did not go back to talk to the protesters. I also did not get in contact with Sergio Aguayo, who had been my host on my previous visit in the late nineties. Sergio Aguayo had written a book with my co-author, Astri Suhrke, along with another expert on refugees, Aristide Zolberg, called, Escape from Violence. Sergio was then, and may still be, a researcher at the Colegio de México and a teacher at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) at the National University in Mexico and a very prominent public intellectual in Mexico. We had lost contact over the past decade. In any case, I wanted this to be a normal tourist holiday in Mexico City and not just another indulgence in my academic interests where I never get to see any of the normal tourist attractions. But Sergio or the protesters could have filled me in on the protests.

When we came home by taxi, the traffic was smooth sailing for rush hour, in radical contrast to the day before. It was indeed likely, as the driver had suggested yesterday, that the total blockage of traffic flow had been as a result of the protesters. I longed to learn more, but I am getting long in the tooth. I have sat in with protesters through the sixties, including in America and in Sweden in 1967, and had been a leader of many myself. Protests attract me like catnip for a cat. But perhaps, in addition to my age, I have become slightly disillusioned by the significant number of protesters who have become ideologically anti-Israel. Many if not most have forgotten, if they ever knew, Octavio Paz’s arguments that communitarianism as well as universalism must both be upheld and supported as complementarities rather than as contradictions.

Later that evening back in our apartment, we heard seven large explosions in quick succession. When I lived in Jerusalem I had learned to listen to sirens immediately after explosions were heard to tell whether they were just by-products of construction or of destructive protests. There was no wailing of sirens, so we had a pizza and went to bed.

The National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City

The National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Howard Adelman

Yesterday, we spent all day at the National Museum of Anthropology. Wow! Double Wow!! Triple Wow!!!

This is the best museum either of us has ever visited. It is also the most beautiful. I knew the latter because I had visited it once before, but only for a brief time. On this visit, we managed to go through almost all the galleries on the first floor. It was both exhausting – physically and mentally – but worth every minute.

We plan to return today to see the galleries dealing with ethnicity on the second floor. I will not describe what we saw in any detail. Suffice to say, in terms of aesthetics, its simplicity, the attention to detail in its finishing, the magnificence of the way artifacts are displayed, and, also, explained (we used the audio guide in English), the way the visitor paths are laid out, the organization of the galleries themselves, and the exquisiteness with which the wide variety of artifacts are presented, are all just extraordinary. When you first enter the huge courtyard at the centre, the immense free floating roof supported by only one bronze column that itself has figures inscribed on it is simply beautiful.

I will not describe anything in the museum. It would take a month of blogs. Mexico City is worth visiting for this museum alone. However, I will make clear what the museum is not. It is NOT a Museum of Anthropology. Only the first gallery is about traditional anthropology, more explicitly about the evolution of Homo sapiens. It will have to be updated now that Israeli archeologists have recently discovered a cache of bones that seems to provide a link between Homo erectus and both Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals. The second floor may justify that title since it is evidently about ethnicity, a sub-branch of anthropology. But the first floor is on archeology, more specifically, on the rich archeology of the various civilizations of Mexico. The museum in not a “national” museum because it was built and continues to be financed by the federal state. It is a national museum because it is about the archeological history and ethnicity of Mexico as a whole.

The museum is fifty years old this year. It is so well maintained and so wonderfully conceived and implemented that it could have been constructed just a few years ago. But do not wait fifty years to see if this remains the case.

Yesterday, we were also in the worst traffic jam ever – at least, for either of us. We took a taxi from the museum area to the Palace of Fine Arts. The trip should have been a 10-15 minute taxi ride. It took one hour and twenty-five minutes. We arrived just five minutes before the performance – and then only because of the skillful driving and ingenuity of the driver. If you want real thrills, try that drive with that driver.
About the Mexican folkloric ballet itself, the performance was very well received by the audience. We, however, were not impressed. When the performance began, we initially thought we might be viewing a Mexican version of Ireland’s Riverdance company – which might have been appropriate since Irish dance was so influenced by Spanish dance. The evening was definitely not that. It was a performance of dedicated Mexicans committed to preserving the variety of folk dances and costumes of Mexico.

Perhaps we should not have timed our going to the performance after seeing the museum. We had been in too high a state of exhilaration, exacerbated by the thrill of a lifetime in an extraordinary taxi ride.

Nevertheless, an extraordinary day!

The Historic Center of Mexico City

The Historic Center of Mexico City


Howard Adelman

Yesterday, we began by taking a taxi to the historic center of Mexico City (Centro Histórico de la Ciudad de México). We decided to reserve our energy, cut out the visits to the antique market and the designers collective, and also not walk the ten blocks to the subway stop. A man around the corner from our apartment standing in front of a local hotel asked if we needed a taxi. We said yes and asked how much it would be to go to Zócalo. He replied: 110 pesos. As a taxi driving by was stopped by the traffic, we asked him how much he would charge. 60 pesos was the answer. We went in his cab.

Though twice before I had been in Mexico City at conferences, I had never before visited the historic center. The plaza was huge. It could hold one hundred thousand protesters easily – if it were not filled with temporary stands and other items. We first went to visit the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary on the north end of the plaza. The largest cathedral in the Americas is indeed an imposing structure. However, we soon noticed the floor slanted towards the centre and speculated that the heavy weight of the columns and the enormous organ at the centre and/or perhaps earthquakes had resulted in the centre sinking relative to the rest of the structure. I had also once read that Mexico City was sinking because of the draining of the aquifers beneath the city.

I do not like cathedrals in general, but some have a powerful architectural appeal. This did not, or, at least, the central places of worship did not. The smaller Metropolitan Tabernacle immediately adjacent to the east was far more pristine with graceful columns and aesthetically pleasing proportions. There seemed to be many separate chapels in the main Cathedral though we only visited two. There were a number of altars and I wondered if services were conducted in several at the same time. The overall structure was a Gothic seventeenth century version of brutalist modernism with a great many baroque facades. The columns in the central core were heavy and graceless. Further, they seemed not to have the fine finished stonework of the equivalents in Europe. Perhaps this was a result of a more porous rock used for construction in Mexico City. The two naves were closed to tourists. The vaults, with two exceptions, were also closed off. I could not find the entry to the crypt, usually below the floor in most cathedrals.

The statues of saints and apostles, biblical scenes and servants of the church were just too much of too many. There were also murals that I did not study closely. One statue of Jesus – right at the front – caught our attention. Jesus on the cross was portrayed in black ebony. There seemed to be relatively few tourists there, and very many worshippers in the two chapels where we spent most of our time. Perhaps we should have hired a guide and we might have learned more. On the other hand, past experience has taught me that guides are often more interested in telling a good story than in sorting out history from myth. Further, they are usually not very helpful with respect to my idiosyncratic interests. Anyway, who wants to hear that this is a statue of an apostle, that of another named saint and the third of a church notable. Guides overwhelm you without any vocal reinforcement.

I had read that the church had been built on the sacred central site of the old Aztec empire and its capital, Tenochtitlan. There had evidently been a temple on the same site dedicated to the Aztec god of war. Unfortunately, I could find no entrance or guide to excavations exploring the pre-history of Catholicism in Mexico. They must be there somewhere, but, unlike Jerusalem, where excavations are used to prove contemporary Israel’s connection with its ancient past, the absence of access to excavations may indicate that Mexico is very ambivalent about its past, particularly its pre-Catholic past. The church itself was a monument to the superiority of Spanish power over the Aztec empire.

There was one odd feature that I could not understand. The upper windows of lead and glass panes looked like abstract works with the glass panes separated by lead at odd angles to one another. I speculated that perhaps these windows were once stained glass but the heat of the 1967 fire blew out the windows. They were then replaced by windows with a more contemporary design that would also allow much more light into the cathedral.
We then went from the supposedly spiritual, but really a monument to power, to the material everyday life on display by the vendors in the huge market east of the cathedral that ran for blocks and blocks. There had to be at least three and perhaps up to ten thousand vendors. And the streets were packed. I splurged. I had forgotten to pack socks for Mexico or, because when we left Toronto our Mexican trip only included the hot coast, I planned to wear only sandals. In the market I bought two pairs of socks for 20 pesos, about $1.80. Then I found another vendor later that sold me three more pairs of the same make for 25 pesos. I had enough socks now for the rest of my Mexico City stay.

We then became very adventurous. Off to one side in one block, there were a series of food stands. We at first went for something we considered safe – freshly made fruit juices. I had a mixture of orange juice and pineapple. Nancy had a green concoction that, when I tasted it, was delicious. When we saw the vendor adding water from a tank, we decided to go for broke and asked him to add ice. We thought we were sure to get Montezuma’s revenge. We would be punished for the two large drinks cost only 24 pesos, $1 each. The vendor spent at least five minutes preparing each, cutting the fruit, mixing it, draining off pulp and pouring the concoction into large plastic glasses. How could he make a living?

Since we were surely destined for intestinal hell, we decided to up the ante. We ordered a deep fried pita with very elastic white cheese at the centre. The two were served on plastic plates with condiments available. They were delicious. They cost 25 pesos for two. But the most extraordinary Mexican made them. His hands literally moved at a mile a minute, pounding out the dough into a flat pancake, compounding various interior ingredients – chicken, meat, cheese, etc, – into a ball for insertion into the flat cakes, and then throwing each into a deep vat of boiling oil. I counted. He made a crescent shaped 4” delicacy every 2 seconds. I had never seen hands move so fast. Someone should make a video of this extraordinary performance.

In any case, I am pleased to report that we came through the night without any stomach problems.
We then walked up the avenue of 16 de Septiembre (Independence Day in Mexico as established by President Diaz, though it had previously been celebrated on 15 September). After walking west for eight blocks in the direction of the Palace of Fine Arts (Palacio de Bellas Artes), we turned north one block on Lázáro Cardenas to the Palace where we purchased tickets to the Wednesday evening performance of the Ballet Folklórico de México. We had been spoiled by the low cost of everything thus far, so we were taken aback by the relatively – to Mexico – high price of the tickets.

Funeral services for Frida Kahlo, Octavio Paz, Gabriel García Márquez as well as other cultural stars of Mexico, have been held there.

When we were in front of the Palace, there was a protest out front with about 30-40 protesters with canvases painted with slogans across the walkway. They recited the names of the 43 victims of the massacre, shouted slogans, sang songs interrupted with only a few intermittent speeches. Most people seemed to go about their business, offering only a passing glance at the protest, though there was one verbal altercation with an older man while we looked on.

We took advantage of our presence at the Palace of Fine Arts to see the exhibit of Octavio Paz, Mexico’s 1990 literature Nobel Prize winner in 1990. It was the centennial of his birth and vendors were even hustling lottery tickets with his picture on them on the street as we approached the Palace as their way of respecting both money and culture. Paz is, of course, a cultural god in a Mexico that worships many gods. We watched and listened to a grainy almost inaudible BBC interview with him in 1968.

Paz is, of course, as much of a cosmopolitan philosopher and intellectual as well as a writer of Mexican poetry. He seemed to be an early precursor of postmodernism – art is what you decide is art – yet one deeply immersed in the life and culture of Mexico. The protesters outside chose that location, I surmise, because they revered him for his liberal views and his contempt and criticism of corruption, cronyism and the authoritarian tendencies of Mexican politics, past and during his lifetime. (He died in 1998.) He was also a thorn in the side of America because of his criticisms of its treatment of poor Mexicans in that country, whether they were legal or illegal immigrants.

I confess I never read any of his poetry, but I did read some of his essays and a brilliant essay on him by Carlos Fuentes. When I was a research professor at Princeton University, I learned that the thousand or so letters the two men exchanged were archived there, but I would need my son Jeremy alongside to read them. In any case, I had another better excuse for not reading them. The files were still closed. The one book I remember a bit of is his collection of essays in The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico. I read it when I was writing about the Canadian psyche. Though the major thrust of many of the essays was the characterization of the Mexican psyche in terms of “solitude” rooted in both resentment and resignation, as a product of a sense of defeat, my take was different, perhaps because of the selection of essays I chose to read.

Though Octavio Paz had characterized the Mexican mentalité in terms of an Aztec authoritarianism and then defeat, a Spanish conquest subsequently in turn overthrown, only to be replaced by authoritarian rulers and oligarchs who were in turn subsumed in the Americanization of both North and South America, and then defeat, he insisted that you can combine a deep absorption in nationalism, without making it irredentist or chauvinistic, and combine that with an inclusive universalism. That message has stayed with me as an intellectual guide. We were both strongly influenced by Hegelian dialectics, in his case, an idea of solitude as the path of reconciliation on a higher level versus my focus on co-operation and care for the Other.
As for the Mexican character, how else do you explain the mask of passivity (see Paz’s essay, “Mexican Masks”) punctuated by episodes of outrageous periodic violence? How else can you explain how Mexicans can be such hard and efficient workers yet, when working together, often appear totally disorganized. They are a people for whom the term “alienation” was created – given my limited understanding of Paz. Like Canadians, they see themselves (or, at least, used to see themselves) as “born losers”, in part a reaction to a radically different but nevertheless similar inhospitable and harsh environment. Whereas Mexicans may oscillate between reticence and machismo, Canadians are reputably polite, except when on the battlefield or on an ice hockey rink.

Accompanying the acknowledgement of Octavio Paz was an art exhibit of some of the most famous abstract and surrealist painters of the twentieth century. Since that art is familiar to virtually all of my readers, I will spend the balance of the blog commenting on the mural by Diego Rivera at the other side of the Alameda Park which we spent a considerable time in front of after I fell asleep on a bench in the park for half an hour.

Diego Rivera painted a great many murals, as well as many other works of art, many on subjects of Mexican history but also on Detroit workers and other subjects. The Alameda Park 1947-48 Fresco in the Museo Mural Diego Rivera in Mexico City is perhaps his most famous. Rivera’s mother was a Converso who traced her heritage back to her ancestors forcibly converted from Judaism to Catholicism. Though Rivera was both an atheist and a communist (his “anti-Soviet” activities led him to being expelled from the party in 1929), he has said that his Jewishness, not his Mexican or political heritage, was the dominant element in his life.

In the fresco, “Sueňo de una Tarde Domincal en la Alameda Central” with its large simplified figures and crowd scenes that criss-cross both Mexican history and the personal and political, all painted in bold colours mixed with a post-expressionist sensibility with Aztec influences, on the upper left, there is a bent over half naked woman with her back to the viewer who is wearing a dunce cap. This was a representation of a Jew, doña Mariana de Carabajal, wrongfully convicted and executed. It is an odd note within the mural because it is the only figure that is partially naked and she is one of the few figures in the mural who does not face the viewer. One other is also a woman in a yellow dress with long black tresses down her back dominating the centre bottom of the mural. She has a confrontational pose as she seems to be directing her vitriol at some well-dressed figure of authority. She was evidently a very popular singer and entertainer who did challenge authority but I cannot recall her name.

The mural itself is dominated by the heroes and villains of Mexican history, at the centre of which we find the dictator José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz. Previously a liberal ally of Benito Juárez, he was a military hero for resisting the American invasion in the American-Mexico War. He seized power in an 1876 coup and ruled Mexico off and on for 32 years. To Díaz’ right is Benito Juárez. Of Amerindian origin, Juárez was the president of Mexico five times in the nineteenth century who resisted the French occupation, overthrew the second Mexican Empire and was the father of Mexican liberal constitutionalism. On Díaz’ left is Emiliano Zapata, a hero of Mexico’s 1910 revolution. The fourth figure to the viewer’s right is a composite of all the corrupt presidents who have ruled Mexico.

The mural includes about 80 figures, including two of Rivera himself, one when he was a boy, next to the dream of his life, Frida Kahlo, who became both his third and fourth wife, and another of himself as an adult with his second wife. His daughter with her child is in the painting, as are a plethora of other historical figures as well as ordinary vendors, such as the young fruit seller in the lower right of the mural. The iconography of a police band in a bandstand at the top and back centre of the mural while in the centre foreground there is a policeman throwing an Indian peasant out of the Alameda lest he disturb the place then reserved for the refined people of Mexico, offers Rivera’s clear message.

Rivera was a political painter who could not separate the personal and the political, the aesthetic and the historical. He was a message painter and made agitprop into great art.

In the taxi on the way back to our apartment, we passed many protesters holding signs, but we were traveling too fast for even Nancy to read and translate them.

After another long nap, last night we had excellent steak at an Argentinian restaurant around the corner.

In Mexico, it may appear that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

From Ross, Marin County California, to Mexico City

From Ross, Marin County California, to Mexico City


Howard Adelman

We arrived in Mexico City Sunday evening after flying from Oakland International Airport via LA on Delta and Aeromexico. The flight was uneventful, and that perhaps is the problem with flying these days – it is an ordeal to get through. However, the flight did not begin that way. We had three months of clothes for Mexico. Both Nancy’s and my bag were overweight. We had left our spring/fall wardrobe either in Victoria or our one week traveling bag with my nephew in Marin County. We had packed our summer bags separately, but obviously not very carefully. The result – we both brought too much stuff. If we were not to be charged US$480 for each of our overweight bags, we would have to buy two small carry-on bags to reduce the weight – which we did from an airport store around the corner. Luckily, both small bags were on sale. We repacked our luggage in front of the check-in counter. I find more ways to humiliate Nancy than you can imagine.

The trip from San Marin County to Oakland International Airport was exactly one hour as my nephew had advised. However, in spite of his excellent directions, once we got on the spaghetti highway system north of and around Oakland, we would have become lost a number of times if it were not for GPS, the new navigator that has reduced me to an unemployed extra when we drive. THAT is truly humiliating. You can see why I have to find other ways to exact revenge.

We arrived after 8:00 p.m. in Mexico City and it took us about an hour to clear customs and retrieve our luggage. We thought one large bag had been lost, but someone had presumably simply taken it off the belt at the other side, perhaps thinking it belonged to him or her, but, since it still weighed a lot, did not bother putting it back on the belt. We were taken to the apartment by a wonderful driver, Antonio, who met us at the airport. The cost of a trip was only 300 pesos or about CAN$25 for a trip that he said would take 20-25 minutes on late Sunday evening, but took about 45 minutes and seemed endless as we traveled through city block after city block. Mexico City is like Tokyo or Bangkok, an agglomeration of cities. For those who know Mexico City, the apartment is located in Zona Rosa just adjacent to the very busy Reforma district.

Nancy found the apartment on VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner). In the pictures, it looked lovely. It was extremely well located in a district positioned between the historic centre of Mexico City on one side and the Museum of Anthropology and the Museum of Fine Arts on the other side. This two bedroom two bathroom furnished apartment cost only $700 for the week. Two couples would be very comfortable and the apartment would cost each couple only $50 per night in an excellent location.

When we arrived, I was expecting the worst – an apartment advertised with pictures intended to deceive. But Nancy was still batting one hundred percent. The apartment was even better than its pictures. We have since discovered some minor flaws. Day time temperatures in Mexico City may rise to 19 degrees, but at night on this high plateau they drop to 6 degrees and the apartment is not heated. We offset that by turning the burners of the stove on for an hour in the evening. Second, the apartment is not outfitted with toiletries or the best large bath towels. Totally minor inconveniences in a wonderful place to stay. There is one other characteristic. The windows are frosted. The apartment is on the fifth floor. When we opened the windows, the views were atrocious – back alleys and the rear of other concrete buildings. No wonder the windows are frosted. What a shocking contrast with the views from my nephew’s house in Ross in Marin County.

The next morning (yesterday morning) I found an excellent bakery around the corner. I had to learn to traverse the Mexican City sidewalks. For though the streets were clean and the roads well paved, the sidewalks were often broken, with sudden changes in height and with foot-holes rather than potholes. I quickly learned to be very dexterous in walking and to keep my head down rather than forward. Uninjured and without a sprained ankle, I brought back a coffee (Americano) and croissant for Nancy.

We intended to visit the city centre on the first day. En route, we inquired about sight-seeing with concierges at two classy hotels near us, a Sheraton and a Marriott. Both told us that all government offices and museums were closed on Mondays. I clearly had not done my homework for this trip and was humiliated once again.

We were advised that Mondays could be spent shopping. We took their advice and decided to explore the Reforma District. We also wanted to visit a centre for designers and a set of shops selling antiques – not that we had any intentions of purchasing anything. The problem was that we only managed to find them near the end of our walking the streets. By then, I was exhausted. We decided we would return this morning en route to catching the subway to Zocato and the historic centre of the city.

Almost always, because of her hip, Nancy wears out first. This time I could not go on. We took a taxi back to the apartment. That just showed how tired I was – and the taxi only cost 30 pesos or about CAN$2.50. It was not even 4:00 p.m. when we got back. Immediately, I stripped, got under the covers and fell asleep instantly. That is, of course, not so unusual for me. But stripping and, even more importantly, sleeping for an hour and a half instead of 5-10 minutes was.

If that had been the only problem, I would have just presumed that I was more tired than normal and missed my short daily nap. But twice – when I went to bed on Sunday evening and when I returned from going to the bakery yesterday morning – my heart was beating rapidly and almost explosively. I actually became very worried, but intentionally and consciously relaxed. I soon fell asleep on Sunday evening. The arrhythmia also went away again fairly quickly Monday morning. I was worried that something had gone wrong and I would have to fly back to Toronto for medical treatment. I gave no indication of what was going on in my body to Nancy. This is a test of whether she reads my blog. If she does, I will be berated strongly for not reporting on the state of my health.

I then developed one of my very profound philosophical theories for this sudden seeming switch in my health, for I have not had an incident in eight months with my heart. The pacemaker and the pills manage the pump excellently. What had happened? As anyone knows who reads my philosophical writings, they are always strongly grounded in reality and experience. This was even truer of my initial theory explaining my sudden extreme fatigue, a theory which was even more grounded than usual.

I thought it must be my sneakers. I hardly ever wear sneakers, but had taken them this time because I anticipated a lot of walking. They were heavier than shoes I normally wear. Though they might have been responsible for my excessive tiredness, they were not responsible for the extra weight in my luggage since I had worn them on the plane and not packed them. I convinced myself it was the running shoes and would test that theory out today.

However, my philosophical speculation seemed peculiar even to me. I decided to do some research on line this morning. Lo and behold, there was an answer, which most of you, I am sure, already know. Tiredness is often experienced by tourists after they first arrive in Mexico City. The explanation is very simple. Mexico City is on a plateau over 7,300 feet (almost a mile and a half) above sea level. The altitude often makes visitors from much lower altitudes very tired. Some even develop altitude sickness. I had just become very tired. I had no dizziness and no nausea and, certainly, no loss of appetite. Breathless to some degree, and certainly exhausted, but not from heat. And some swelling of my feet – it was hard to get on my better shoes when Nancy insisted that I not wear my sneakers when we went out to dinner last night. However, for the next two days, Nancy cannot insist that I control my carbohydrate intake as that is advised when first acclimatizing to Mexico City.

Visitors to Mexico City are also advised to limit their activities on the first day. That was forced upon me. They are also advised to drink a lot of water. I consumed more than usual – a whole pint at dinner – but not nearly enough. I will do better today. I do not have to watch my alcohol intake. There is, perhaps, another source of tiredness – breathing in air full of exhaust from cars with diminished oxygen. That may have been the case but, in fact, I did not smell or sense the air in Mexico City as very polluted in spite of the enormous amount of traffic.

The good news is that the acclimatization takes, at most, a few days. Evidently, your rate of breathing and pulse increases to meet the demands of an atmosphere with lower pressure and less oxygen in the air. Soon, your body is engaged in producing more red blood cells. However, my pacemaker and my pills control my heart rate. Would they not prevent the normal adjustment process? I will see.

I would have thought I would have been slightly acclimatized. My nephew lives almost near the top of what
appears to be a small mountain, but is probably just a very high hill. Though it may not reach the 2,500 feet height of Mount Tamalpais just north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, I bet it was over 1,500 feet high. In Mexico City, I was only a mile higher. It was not like traveling from Boston to Tibet. But, as indicated above, I was not acclimatized.

Acclimatizing to altitude is one thing. Acclimatizing to another culture is a different order of business altogether. The tiny municipality of Ross where my nephew lives is just an old and independently incorporated very small municipality within San Rafael (first established as a Catholic mission at the beginning of the nineteenth century). Both municipalities are part of Marin County just across from the Golden Gate Bridge north of San Francisco. Ross has a population that, at most, is 2,500; it is as if Rosedale in Toronto was a separate municipality.

What a contrast with Mexico City itself with a population of over 20 million and with a much larger population in Greater Mexico City! With the population of two-thirds the whole of Canada, Mexico City itself has a population over 10,000 times greater than Ross. That is not the only contrast. Marin County is very rich. It is a very small county, but has a tax base of almost forty billion dollars, three quarters of that from private homes. Some of the homes on the hills are just spectacular. We arrived in Marin County from the north by traveling down highway 101, the Redwood Highway, and through a forest of giant redwoods just before you enter wine country. There is nothing in Mexico, or perhaps anywhere, that I know of, comparable to the giant redwoods in northern California.

Marin County lacks population diversity. I do not think I saw a single Black, though I did see a few Asians and many Hispanics. The population is overwhelmingly white. I also have not yet seen a single Black yet in Mexico City, but perhaps when we go to the old city centre today, we may see a number of Black American tourists. I also have not seen many Mexicans who I would describe as looking white. The overwhelming vast majority of Hispanics in Mexico City look like Spanish Amerindians or predominantly Amerindians. There also seemed to be an unusually large number of Asians, mostly Japanese, that we saw, but they may include many tourists and Japanese in Mexico on business. Or there may be many Mexican citizens of Japanese origin living and/or working in the Reforma district.

We have yet to see any sign of last month’s political protests and the violence that erupted after 43 students were abducted. This is in spite of the fact that yesterday the world learned that the tests from the pile of ashes from a pyre proved to match the DNA of one of the missing students. In day-to-day life, for tourists, there seems to be no sign of the widespread corruption that supposedly infuses politics, the state police and possibly even the federales, the Mexican Federal Police. The latter are everywhere. They are dressed in their black uniforms, bullet proof vests, machine guns and electric stun sticks at the ready. I think I only saw one police car while we were in Marin County. Mind you, we were not walking as we are here, another difference between an exclusively car culture and a combined foot and car culture.

However, though late September’s Iguala massacre of the forty-three students – the massacre confirmed by more DNA tests – the calm exterior barely hides the turmoil underneath. That turmoil broke into the open when raging students set fire to the governor’s palace in the city of Chilpancingo, capital of the state of Guerrero in September. Yesterday, at the Ibero-American Summit in Veracruz, Mexico, the leaders of Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua, and, most importantly, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Argentinean President Cristina Kirchner, were no-shows in protest. President Enrique Peňa Nieto belatedly acknowledged the crisis resulting from the students’ deaths. However, he has yet to call for a day of national mourning let alone initiate a realistic concerted effort to do something about the problems of Mexico. The issue is not just of students in rebellion and political administrations and police evidently rife with corruption and in bed with violent drug cartels. In the three months between April 1 and 30 June of this year, 87 journalists were attacked. In spite of its evident growth and increasing prosperity, Mexico may only be a democracy on the surface.

This is in stark contrast with Marin County. Of course, comparing Marin County and Mexico City is not even like comparing apples to oranges. It is more akin to comparing a grape to a watermelon. Marin County is the watermelon. It is a fabulously rich place where the median household income exceeds US$110,000 per annum. There has been hardly any unemployment in recent years. My nephew Zach has plans to renovate his house and told me his overall budget. Only when he explained the economics of Marin County and the hourly wages of carpenters, electricians and plumbers did I comprehend what I at first believed to be a huge discrepancy between the renovations he was planning and what I initially perceived to be a very inflated budget.
Another thing I learned about Marin County is not only its unrepresentative demographic make-up and its unrepresentative economic status, but that a great many of Zach’s friends were Jewish even though Jews did not even constitute 2% of the Marin County population. However, the bagels we went to buy on Saturday morning were as good – or, almost as good – as any to be bought in Toronto. Yet, though the population of Jews in Marin County was very small, the citizens of Marin County voted like Jews, or, at least, as Jews traditionally voted and still tend to, if not nearly as strongly. The population was well above average in income, but were liberal. A majority supported the Democratic Party – though small municipalities like Belvedere were still evidently strongly Republican. Marin County has shifted from what was once a staunchly Republican stronghold to a staunchly Democratic one.

In part, this was due to re-districting. But in good part it is due to the fact that the young entrepreneurs and specialists here are overwhelmingly liberal with a major concern with the environment. Zach, my nephew, is on the verge of trading in his Audi for an electric car. Megan, his wife, is a vegetarian. This is tree hugging country. George Bush received almost 60% of the Marin County vote in 2000, and even McCain received 55% of the vote in 2008. However, in 2012 Obama won the presidential election with over 68% of the vote, an even larger majority than he received from his home district in Chicago. Diane Feinstein received 72.6% of the vote.

I also learned that the tiny municipality of Ross attracted these young well-off liberal high earners because it had an excellent public and high school. The only thing I knew previously about Ross was that Julia Child went to a boarding school here, The Branson School. I learned this when I was doing research on the bio-movie on her life for which Meryl Streep, who is not particularly tall, won an Academy Award playing the 6’2” Julia Child. Meryl Streep did so with an excellent imitation of Julia Child’s high warbly voice, infectious laugh and her extraordinary optimism.

Of course, in the movie, we never learn that she was a very good athlete, an excellent student and very ambitious and disciplined. After all, during WWII she quickly rose in America’s predecessor to the CIA, the OSS (the Office of Strategic Services), to become General William J. Donovan’s top secret researcher. However, Meryl Streep captured her unstoppable cheerfulness and her unaffected manner even if her voice did not exactly come across that way. Luckily, this food revolutionary was wrong in her fear that America’s new obsession with health would be the death of culinary art in America. North Americans continue to take great joy in great cooking that has become far more cosmopolitan, well beyond the love affair she taught Americans for French cooking.

Yesterday noon I wanted to order French onion soup, one of Julia Child’s favourites; it made up her last meal before she died at the age of ninety-two. However, I was told the preparation would take 20-25 minutes and I opted for another choice Yesterday evening, our meal at an Italian restaurant was an excellent testimony to the spread of the culinary arts from all cultures across the world. My minestrone soup was the best I ever had and the pepperoni pizza I chose was excellent, except I prefer a thin crust. Nancy’s shrimp pasta was superb. Mexico has a wide variety of excellent restaurants.

We look forward to another great day. However, we will not be attending the huge MEXSEC Convention on the construction industry that is opening at the Cancun Center. Hopefully, I have become sufficiently acclimatized to leisure and can avoid one of my favourite hobbies.


Seattle, Washington


Howard Adelman

We traveled from Victoria via the Victorian Clipper to Seattle on Sunday. Unfortunately, the windows were so salt encrusted that it was hard to discern what we were passing or to see the pod of Orcas that we passed en route – unless you went outside and braced yourself against the cold. I did for a short time, but my timing was not right for, at best, all I saw was the flip of a tail. Nevertheless, the sail was very smooth. There was what was regarded as a spectacular sunset by our fellow passengers, but given our experience with Georgian Bay sunsets, we were not equally overwhelmed.

Monday morning we spent in Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market and Nancy resisted buying any more spices. Pike Place Chowder lived up to its famous reputation; the clam chowder we had for lunch was the best I have had ever tasted, including my fondest memories of eating chowder in Halifax. We spent the afternoon in the Seattle aquarium which is superb and should not be missed by any visitor who loves fish, colourful coral or watching otters being fed very expensive shrimp – they eat 25% of their weight. We just love a top notch aquarium, and the Seattle aquarium ranks among the best. We topped the day with a great Italian dinner at the Assaggio right next to the hotel where we were staying. My veal chop was tender and cooked to perfection. The vegetables were steamed just enough to retain their texture and flavour. Though I usually do not like gravy, the mashed potatoes with gravy from the veal were great. I am a confirmed meat and potatoes man.

Tuesday was a day for architecture and artisans. We began with a visit to a glass-blowing gallery. The most fortunate part of the visit is that the beautiful vases, bowls and other glass objects – including many gorgeous Christmas tree decorations that I usually dislike – were all made of glass. That meant that we could not purchase any glass artifacts because we could not take them with us given their fragility and the various changes of venue on our trip. But the visit was terrific and a great start to a day that would end with a visit to the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibition.

Our next stop was the Rem Koolhaas-designed Seattle public reference library that was opened just over ten years ago. From both the outside and the inside, the shell is a futurist placing of geometrical diamond-shaped glass panes in a steel mesh in blocks each at odd angles that makes brutalism suddenly suave. Strength and playfulness are successfully combined. The structure reminded me of how a two-year-old plays with building blocks. The interior is really cool in the modernist sense of the term, but also very functional as you circle the central elevator shaft and watch readers, people working on their computers and even sleepers. Brutalist modern plywood impressed concrete is more or less restricted to the core.

What use is a library in a computer age? This structure shows how modern technology and our age-old reverence for hard copy books can be integrated as well as private study, meeting rooms and an auditorium with an excellent series of talks. The details speak for themselves. On the first floor, I could not figure out how they made the floor of slightly raised wooden letters from a multiplicity of alphabets – I assumed they were carved out of the wood, but, if so, that was very labour intensive. I loved the aluminum walkways, the polished concrete floors and the sense of space viewed from almost any angle. I also appreciated the way sound was kept from boomeranging, from the use of what looked like large silver-coloured puffy cushions on the ceiling to another ceiling with a surface that looked like an array of egg cartons.

We went from the library to the Northwest Woodworker’s Gallery in Belltown in Seattle, an area well on the way to complete gentrification. That was a great visit but I wished we were there with my son Daniel who has such an intimate knowledge of various woods and artisan techniques. The show was called the Box and Vessel s Since the featured artifact was a very playful and complex carving of a fantasy Noah’s ark, I assumed the show would be about carved boxes and ships. But the vessels referred to liquid containers of various sorts. There were very few of the beautifully made pieces that I would not have loved to have in our home.

The most exciting part of the day was the one I least expected. After a lunch at a restaurant, the Tilicum Place Café two blocks from the Space Needle, celebrated for its use of local produce and healthy food, that I had to admit was excellent – the spicy butternut squash soup was as good as Nancy’s – we went to the EMP Museum. This is a Frank Gehry designed structure. The Experience Music Project (EMP) design was evidently inspired by Gehry cutting up a guitar and the various parts influenced the shapes he used in creating the forms and shapes of the museum. I would not have recognized that had I not read the brochure and then saw a sky-view picture of the building revealing what was unmistakably akin to one of those broken guitars that rockers like to smash up in their performances.

Funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen as a modern cathedral to his personal love of both rock and roll and science fiction movies, the EMP building is clad in coloured sheets of either aluminum or stainless steel. It certainly conveys fluidity, but not the beat of music. And certainly not the fear that is so celebrated in the section of the museum on horror film – concentrating almost exclusively on horror film of the gore variety. The building is a sculptured shell that reminded me, viewing from the ground, of the broken shell of a mollusk rather than of pieces of a broken guitar.

I thought the museum would be a nostalgic visit for Nancy to relive her experience of music as she grew up. However, the experience was surprisingly different. The monumental mountain of guitars as the sculpture at the centre of the building, with the guitars actually programmed to play various types of music – folk, country, bluegrass, blues as well as various varieties of rock – I did not listen to the latter – was really impressive. As it turned out, we did not spend much time in the galleries dedicated to Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix, but instead explored in detail the gallery on horror films even though the exhbits overwhelmingly featured gore rather than psychological horror film makers. Even if I abhor such films, the history of the genre was interesting to follow, though the rationales the film makers gave for their love for that type of film was superficial and simplistic. But what can you expect from a genre that celebrates superficiality and simplicity in complex masquerades.

The science fiction section was far more into science fantasy films, with the greatest stress on fantasy and virtually none on science. Monsters, aliens, superhuman powers – all came to the fore. Nevertheless, it was a fascinating, informative and well-presented exploration. But the key reward was the section on music videos. I learned so much. I was surprised to find out that music videos went back to the origins of film, even earlier than The Jazz Singer. And some of the music videos we saw blew our minds (using pop cultural lingo). They were fascinating creations. Even though we sidestepped the galleries dedicated to video games, the three hours or so we spent in the museum were terrific, perhaps more so because I had been expecting only to endure the visit.

The Chihuly Garden and Glass building was far more exciting even than our visit to his installation at the King David Citadel and Tower in the Old City of Jerusalem that we saw in 2000. What a show! What a display of artistry using glass, though I must admit that after a few hours when I walked through the garden I had become overloaded and bored by the repetition that, in spite of claims to resemble nature, was different. Nature is never boring. My favourites were not the magnificent chandeliers and the glass forest and gardens, or even the magnificent Persian ceiling, but Macchia Forest and the exquisite bowls. It is so impressive how one artist can have such a profound and widespread effect on one artistic form. I never knew Chihuly came from Washington State.

We never took a ride on the Flash Gordon monorail since the hotel was halfway between the Space Needle and the next station. We also only walked around the Space Needle.

This morning we head further south along the Pacific Coast by car.