Roadtrip 2019: Big Bend National Park

As always we wish we had more time in big remote parks like this. Vehicle troubles cut our stay down to 2 days, but we lucked out with our first real cold weather of the trip here in Southwest Texas, freezing mornings and highs in the 60s at the river. Real mountains in Texas, desert that looks like the ocean floor with ocotillo towering bizarrely, and the Rio Grande splitting Mexico from the USA.

Ocotillo along Old Maverick Rd
Santa Elena Canyon appears cut into the mesa far away.
So we climbed 3000ft into the Chisos Mountains basin to stay for the night.

Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School

This past weekend we traveled a few hours south to see President Carter in his home town of Plains, GA where he regularly offers a Sunday lesson as part of the worship service at his hometown church, Maranatha Baptist Church. He’s 92, a warm and humble and welcoming human. You can visit him too, any weekend he’s in town (and that’s almost every Sunday this spring), we ecstatically recommend making the trip.


Advised to arrive early, we showed up in the dark at 7am for what turned out to be a lightly attended day due to below-freezing temperatures, and had an hour wait in the car followed by the requisite two hours of Secret Service and church community member orientation. The church is small, with 25 active members and seating for a few hundred including the overflow meeting room in the back. This is an intimate small town ministry, as with so much of Plains and the Carters it is largely unchanged from 1976: they still live in the ranch home they built in the 1960s, and go to church with high-school friends and relatives, plus us curious visitors.


President Carter spoke with the us for about 40 minutes, starting with current politics, reiterating his life-long commitment to furthering peace and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as embodiment of world religious ideals for living good lives in a global human society, and diving into the week’s readings from the Apostle Paul’s letters to Titus and Philippians. When he asks the congregation open-endedly “what do you know about Paul?”, you see a man confident in teaching, with no worries of being stumped on a favorite topic, and pursuing a life of Christ-like humility and disinterest in worldly measures of success.

If you stay on for the regular Sunday service of hymns and preaching by a guest minister, you can get your picture taken with the Carters, and attempt to match the glowing smiles of these two wonderful people.


Islamic Architecture in Andalucia

Specifically, the two mesmerizing beautifully old and intricate palaces of La Alhambra, Granada and Real Alcázar, Sevilla. The Nasrid palaces of the Alhambra were built by the last Muslim dynasty on the Iberian peninsula during the 14th century, while the Palacio de Pedro I of the Alcázar was built for the king of Castile in the same time period, with various additions and restorations over the hundreds of years since their construction. Both left us in awe of their detail and color and use of light and water to create powerfully peaceful spaces.

I have jumbled the photos here between the two sites, the (hover) titles indicate where each is taken.

Real Alcázar, Sevilla Sunset, Nasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, Granada Real Alcázar, Sevilla

Intricate domes and carved ceilings far above cap many of the spaces, often with further layers of three-dimensional arches, domes or stalactite shapes within. I could have stared at each of these for the entirety of our visits.

Nasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, Granada Real Alcázar, Sevilla Nasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, Granada

Light pours into these spaces from above and all around.

La Alhambra, Granada Real Alcázar, Sevilla

Several materials are used to produce related patterns and effects – whether tile, marble, or wood it may be decorating the walls or arches or ceiling and incorporate painted colors or carved openings for light and air. Somehow to me it has neither the gaudy ornateness or heavy massiveness of much of the surrounding centuries’ architecture.

Nasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, GranadaReal Alcázar, SevillaNasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, Granada

As a lover of geometric pattern (rather than, say, arabic poetry calligraphy), the tile work stands out throughout these rooms – so much variation over simple themes, so many alternate paths to the same intersections of star-filled points.

Nasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, Granada Nasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, Granada Nasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, Granada

Real Alcázar, Sevilla Real Alcázar, Sevilla Real Alcázar, Sevilla

Water, in fountains and pools and rivulets cut in the floors, connects the inside and outside spaces of these palaces. Incredibly worthwhile visits to both, inspiration for art and a life of balance.

Nasrid Palaces, La Alhambra, Granada Real Alcázar, Sevilla Real Alcázar, Sevilla

Semana Santa in Granada

Easter Sunday falls right in the middle of our trip to Spain, and Holy Week (Semana Santa) overlapped with our stay in Granada, in the region of Andalucia known for particularly elaborate processions and intricate massive hand-carried floats called pasos during this high-point of Christian penitence, lament, and celebration.

Procession, Alhambra, Granada

On the train from Barcelona to Málaga that Thursday morning we happened to be seated across from a Swiss-Spanish photographer who has returned year after year to Málaga to document the processions there. Salva Magaz introduced himself and gave us a personal preview on his laptop of the solemn exertion involved in carrying these floats, dozens of men carrying often well over a ton of wood and silver and decoration for hours into the night. Beautiful photography, engaging conversation about religion and world travel, the Andalucian countryside and coast; we talked off and on for the next several hours, a warm connection made with a good human on this cross-country train ride.

Arriving in Granada after dark that night, our taxi driver initially told us it would simply not be possible to get to our apartment – a procession was moving step by step along our street all evening. Winding his car’s way through the narrow hillside cobble roads of the Albaicín neighborhood crowded with pedestrians, he got us close and we walked behind the tail of the clamor to reach our lodgings, nestled below the Alhambra.

Stephanie knows how to pick apartments for our trips. La Alhambra por la Semana Santa con la luna llena.

Four other processions were making their way through town at the same time on Thursday, and onlookers lined the streets waiting for the procession’s return after 2am. Every day of the week has processions by different brotherhoods (lay Catholic organizations), and on Friday we encountered more beginning in the afternoon, some heralded by drums, others marked by lingering clouds of incense.

Procession, Alhambra, Granada

Our tickets for the historical highlight of this visit, the Alhambra, were scheduled for Saturday afternoon, which by luck happens to be the starting point of the only procession that day: Santa Maria de la Alhambra. Led by a marching band, then hundreds of costumed penitents in blue capes and capirotes, women in black veils, children in vestments ready to light the meter-long candles of the procession later in evening, the slowly moving march paused regularly in silence to file its way through the winding road out of the Alhambra. Nearly an hour after it began, the paso depicting Mary at the foot of the cross inched past us with a second band, with sweating men in rough cotton headbands and kneepads already trading places for a rest and water, ready to continue to march down to the Cathedral and return to the Alhambra after midnight.

Procession, Alhambra, Granada Procession, Alhambra, Granada Procession, Alhambra, Granada

A solemn walking vigil into Easter morning, a particularly spiritual time to visit this historic town.

Spain by Rail (Renfe) Pass

Some quick notes on pre-purchasing and reserving tickets for the Renfe Spain Pass as of March 2016, as the info we were able to find in answer to several questions was out of date or confusing:

  • The Renfe Spain Pass website is less than friendly, but it is possible to arrange everything online by yourself now. You not only need to purchase the pass here, but also all reservations (rather than through the main route/search site), and the only way I could reliably get it to be in English is by creating a Renfe account and logging in before starting through any of these forms.
  • But the site is very forgiving in that you may purchase and cancel a pass within 24hrs for a full refund, and may cancel and rebook reservations at any time (up to the day before at least).
  • The one exception to this is that the reservation form will not let you book earlier than your first reservation date!
    • You can cancel all your reservations and start over, and you can book alternate travel times and then cancel your first reservation, but both are a hassle. Make your first reservation the first date you think you might travel!
  • The 4-ride pass is currently €163, about $185. Therefore, it’s worth considering for any combination of trips that cost more than €40 each.
  • Each ride covers one segment, not one booking from the main Renfe site – if you are traveling a non-direct route (e.g. for us, Barcelona -> Granada, requiring a change in Cordoba), it’s probably worth buying the  smaller leg separately.
    • So spend some time pricing out the individual segments of your trip on the main site before deciding how many rides you’ll use on the Spain Pass in the one month from first travel.
  • The pass definitely paid for itself when we needed to change our itinerary a few days before traveling and were able to get now-€110 tickets for one segment. So it would presumably be even more useful if you’re flexibly uncertain of your travel dates or plans.
  • You DO need to make reservations (= buy tickets for a particular train) before traveling.

Here are the steps to buy a pass and make reservations:

  • See that green menu on the right? Each step you’ll need to return here and re-search for your pass for each action. Tedious, especially for multiple passes / passengers (each will need to separately search, select, buy, print for each reservation).
  • Compra – buy a pass. You’ll need your passport number, and it’s easiest to pay with PayPal. You should save the PDF version of the pass with the Pass Number, but this should also email a “locator” confirmation number that you can lookup your pass with your passport for the next steps alternatively.
  • Formalización de Viajes – reserve/book a train ticket. You’ll need to pick the departure and destination cities, and then can pick the train. If you check the box on the confirmation page, after you “purchase” (for $0.00 unless you are upgrading to a higher class) you may select specific seats.
  • Consulta – Search for and review all / reprint reservations.
  • Anulación Viajes – Cancel a reservation.

Just bring your printed pass and reservation (and passport, though that’s often not checked) to board. Train stations can still be confusing here, with separate departures boards and platform areas for local, medium, and AVE trains but not clearly marked, but we’ve been fine arriving 30 minutes before departure so far.

Sagrada Familía, Barcelona

We arrived in Barcelona directly by AVE fast train from Madrid our first day in Spain, a long day and short restless night since departing Atlanta, overtired and excited to immediately jump into our short visit to this Catalan city. The Sagrada Familía awaited us two blocks around the corner from our apartment.

My expectations for this still-in-construction-after-100-years cathedral were set by the ostentatious exterior, dripping sand castle, weathered and modern and too busy pile of towers upon towers. But in person, and especially inside, this is an awe-inspiring spiritual and sacred monument.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Part of my visual/architectural confusion before entering was that the two sets of finished towers and entrances are on either transept (arms of the typical cross-shaped floorplan), while the “front” and “rear” of the church are still mostly in-progress. Somehow rotating the building 90° and realizing that the overall shape is that of a typical cathedral and most views as above are from the side makes this basilica less absurd in my mind. The left side of the exterior photo shows the nave’s stained glass which quickly became the focal point inside for us. The quality of the afternoon light through these masses of windows, transitioning from blue and green to red and fire along the length of the nave is incredible in this light, open, and brightly welcoming space.

Sagrada Familia, BarcelonaSagrada Familia, BarcelonaSagrada Familia, Barcelona

The shapes of everything from ornament to structure within emphasize an incredible precision of geometry and math as it manifests in the organic world – from cubic grids and spiraling staircases to the branching hyperbolic columns and arched swooping domes, this is fluidly super-imposed modern technology on the memory and material of nature. Gothic stone echoes seamlessly into this (the?) masterpiece 20th century church.

As part of our ticket on this not-very-crowded (though still pulsing with masses of tourists until just before the end of our visit at closing time), we reserved time near sunset to ascend the Passion Tower via elevator. The views of Barcelona are somewhat constrained by protective fencing and the ongoing scaffolding, as well as the immense stone towers you descend within, spiraling around and bridging between as you return to the main body of the church. Not for the faint of knee or heights, the final half of the descent is through an interior spiral staircase apparently endless through the  rail-less center opening. While I am not afraid of heights, often these edge-less spirals evoke some vertigo for me, but once again the precision and balance of the design of this place surprises me and there is nothing but joy and awe in the downward experience.

Passion Tower100 ft of spiral stairs to get downFrom the Passion Tower

That said, we’re both glad Stephanie joined me at the top to look out on the city, and then returned via elevator. We met at the bottom of the stairs back in the southern transept, and took some time seated in the center of this loudly glorious worship space for silence and reflection as the stained-glass light dimmed and our first day transitioned into night.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Handmade Roadwork in Oaxaca

A parade of laborers rebuilt the road from our apartment in Oaxaca to the central zocalo this month – or at least two blocks of it. Like many of the roads here it is paved with stone blocks, and almost entirely by hand they removed the old worn rocks, dug and shaped the new utility accesses and roadway alterations, and laid new mammoth volcanic tiles and bricks.

Reconstruction of Av Alcala, Oaxaca

So many chisels and hammers. Men standing swinging sledgehammers at arm-length chisels; sitting holding onto plastic pipe fashioned into a chisel handle, offset to save their hands from the ringing clanging rhythms returning from the earth on each swing. Men kneeling with smaller tools to plane the rough edges. The sidewalk lines are moving, new bikepath lights and streetlamps and pedestrian benches are set to rise up from the cobble pavement, so although not all the stones are being replaced several neatly shaped swathes are being carted off a stone and fragment at a time. In the parkside nearby where new stones wait for their place, another team of men is shaping and smoothing the characteristically gray-green slabs with neatly criss-crossed chisel strikes until no mark remains.

Reconstruction of Av Alcala, Oaxaca Sidewalk stones Reconstruction of Av Alcala, Oaxaca

So much shoveling, sorting and sifting and lifting. The old stones are carted to the street corners, piled eight feet high wheelbarrow upon wheelbarrow. Later they will pitch these above their heads into waiting dump trucks. The dirt and stone fragments form other mounds, sifted through screens shovelful by shovelful into waste and fill and mortar-bound piles.

Reconstruction of Av Alcala, Oaxaca

The work continues into the nights to avoid the worst heat of the afternoons. Each evening we walk through shifting cordons on makeshift bridges over trenches as the construction progresses, looking up the road every job is taking place, sitting and standing and swinging and sweating. Now the chiseling stops and mortar is mixed, stones are stacked near the leading edge of each effort – the curved curb segments, the smooth sidewalk panes, the rough cubes laid into the street surface in a diagonal grid across the future flow of traffic.

This road seems likely to last another 100 years.

Enjoying Good Beer in Oaxaca

For years ordering a beer in Mexico has for us meant a refreshing light lager, almost always served as a michelada in a cold mug with lime juice or spicy clamato juice as accent in the heat of the afternoon. The narrow variety of brands to accompany the house michelada mix, from pale pilsners to dark vienna lagers, all come reliably from one of two giant conglomerates. (For the record, our favorites are Indio, Pacifico, and Bohemia Oscura.)

But I like small breweries – and especially since starting to brew my own beer a year and a half ago, my appreciation for the details of a brewery and of the breadth of beer styles has grown even deeper. Until this trip, seeking out beer in Mexico was never a focus – a real rarity a few years ago, here craft beer (“cerveza artesanal”) came later than craft liquors and we put our energies into trying good tequila and mezcal. This trip in Oaxaca that all changed as we enjoyed some truly good beer by three local cervecerias (and a few more).

The highlight of these is only a year old, La Santisima Flor de Lupulo (“The Holy Hop”), at the corner of Allende and Porfirio Díaz near Santo Domingo. Run by brewer Jorge and bartender Miguel, this is a tiny brewery that keeps three rotating taps run from 15 gallon batches in corny kegs upstairs.

La Santisima Flor de Lupulo

On two visits we tried five different beers, all excellent examples of their style: a mid-malty APA with piney Simcoe hops, a Mango-Wit (a better combination on my tongue than most orange wheat ales), a fantastically nutty Brown Ale, a bright Cream Ale, and a smoky Porter. Jorge was kind enough to show off the backroom as they were brewing a new batch of the Mango-Wit in their homebrew-esque pumped cooler-and-chest-fridge setup. I wish it were feasible to have a similar business at home in Georgia – La Santisima shares space with a neat bakery/deli next door, and Jorge and Miguel are clearly enjoying themselves.

Jorge & crew brewing at La Santisima Flor de Lupulo

Two other breweries in Oaxaca are staying relatively small as well but doing a great job of distributing bottles to many local bars and restaurants: Tierra Blanca (since 2012) and Teufel Cerveceria (since 2011). Tierra’s Ahumada is a distinctly Mexican take on stout, with chile pepper and coffee evenly balanced with the dark base, while their Dorada golden ale is nicely light and hoppy. Teufel’s Chica Mala is probably best described as an imperial red ale, but with plenty of coffee and complexity – I look forward to trying Tierra’s Grana red ale to compare approaches.

Cervezas at La Santisima: Porter, Cream Ale, and Cucapa Chupacabras (Pale Ale), Insurgente Nocturna (Black IPA)Cervezas Tierra Ahumada y Insurgentes La LupulosaCerveza Jabalí Cerveza: Teufel Chica Mala (Red Stout-ish)

As a closing honorable mention, our favorite outside-of-Oaxaca craft beer so far is Insurgentes (from Baja) Nocturna, a Black IPA that is a great blend of bitter porter with a strong hop finish. A happy surprise to find craft beer on such a strong trajectory in Mexico this year!

Diego’s Pyramid of Art: Anahuacalli

The sun is closer here, walking across this dark volcanic square. Rhythmic footsteps set to laughter spill from a dance class in a low building at one corner. We catch our breath and a glug of water on two incongruous wooden deck chairs, a respite under this shade umbrella we swung our way. In front of us rises the modern black towering pyramid that houses Diego Rivera’s pre-Hispanic collection, Anahuacalli.


The climb inside begins in the cool dark; shadowy stone god-animal figures rest on outcroppings from the walls and floor between abstract obsidian objects, mosaics in the ceiling form swirling images in shades of dusk. Even the windows down here appear to be stone, a murky ochre stained glass against the shadows. Following the roughly hewn galleries through low temple doors, passing from one god’s domain to the next, the brightly lit cases multiply, walls filled with organized yet unlabeled stone and pottery artifacts found nameless.

The staircase to the next level reaches up, narrowing sharply at a halfway landing at ceiling height and marching up single-file to more rooms of pottery, figures, characters large and small engaged in every human activity. The narrow windows are brighter, even moreso on the next level as the ceiling murals too grow in colorful enthusiasm. Animals, less god-like, and faces of the old, of caring and of fear. Long galleries down either side open up to the outside greenery originally hidden downslope from the edifice.

Head massage Seated figures Birds and mugs Fear

In the great middle of this pyramid we remove our shoes to join other stockingfooted visitors on a vast satellite image of the city laminated across the floor of this open ballroom and its vestibules, overlaid almost entirely with the black lake of prehistory, and the temples of antiquity outlined as sparse tiny wooden walls we step over gingerly as giants. Vertical windows stretching three stories above us illuminate the room brightly, and above our heads stretch Diego’s sketches for murals to be. Our socks slide noiselessly across the smooth floor to see the immense humanscapes from new perspectives. The unfinished work of this world reflects in the featureless ceiling.

Diego Rivera's sketches

The final course of narrow steps opens to a large stone terrace open to the sky: the mosaic murals are now beneath our feet, and the city is visible in all directions beyond the hilltop’s green preserve. We soak in the sun until we must wind our way back into the rock and seek that shade and water.

Emerging from Anahuacalli pyramid

Xochimilco and Museo Dolores Olmedo

A week ago our morning began with a walk to the nearby light rail trolley stop, on a line that starts from our corner of Coyoacán and terminates further to the southeast at the center of Xochimilco, a bustling market square, colonial churches, and the last remaining section of city canals and island cropland (chinampas). The canals are well known for the brightly colored flat-bottomed boats that launch from near Xochilmilco’s town center, and on weekends they are a jumble of punters with groups of frolickers seated along the covered central tables of the boats plied with food and drink by passing boats.

Canal boats Tying up

We disembarked the crowded two-car trolley (rides are half the price of the Metro system, and extend beyond its reach) a few stops before this hubbub and climbed the stairs across the tracks and up a short hill to briefly stop outside the former home of anthropologist Isabel Kelly, an engrossing personality from Stephanie’s research. Her private home’s facade is well-maintained and recognizable from the archival photos. The neighborhood becomes even more hilly here, and we followed the curves and dips of the side streets towards the former home of the much more widely known Dolores Olmedo, patron and friend of Diego Rivera.

Isabel Kelly's former home

Now a sprawling grounds and museum of the extensive collection of Rivera and Kahlo works which once filled her personal rooms, the initial impression is of a lush walled hacienda with strutting peacocks everywhere. Once the most flamboyant birds blocking your path are circumnavigated (rotating their arcs of feathers to follow your progress), you see them down each grassy corner, atop the hedges, atop the roofs and steeples. Finally as you approach the extravagant central dwellings and courtyards, you encounter Diego’s favorite breed of hairless dogs playing next to a bronze statue of their own kind (yes, all but one of these dogs is alive).

Peacocks on everything Roof peacock One hairless dog statue

Such a large collection of Rivera’s work forces you to confront the wide range of styles and experiences in his art. From early adult years in France and impressionistic to cubist still life and portraits, realistic to swoopingly abstract nudes, brightly colored bundled sledding children from a later visit to Russia, and the flowing strength in the human shapes of his industrial and historical memorializing murals, here represented by wall-sized paper-and-branch outlines and sketches. Olmedos house crows with an earlier era of wealth, even as Rivera’s art draws you into a folkart, indigenous, and communistic future.

A house full of Rivera So much ivory Oaxacan Tree of Life Celebratory Skeletons

Manifestación, José Clemente Orozco

The remaining walk to Xochimilco Centro is alive with today’s pseudonymous spray-painted murals. On a slow day like this there are taxis waiting two train stops away with placards for the canal boats, hoping to find misplaced tourists. As expected, the market and street stalls boomed and spilled into the hot street, bringing traffic to a snail’s pace as we wove alongside buses and between perfect stacks of oranges and mangoes. The boatdocks hidden down alleyways towards the canals were full of empty boats and quiet, waiting for the weekend.

Skate park art Street art Gecko street art
Street art Revolution or death
Canal boats at rest