Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Trekking Mexico's Silver Route

"Receive your barbarous bearded guests from the coast, who brings a signal of God, which comes to us in mercy and pity. The time of our life is coming.”

“Heaven and Earth are in flames! People beseech forgiveness. Bread is lost, so the foods. Owls hoot and weep. Corpses piled at every crossing and flies swarm on.”

- Prophecies by Chilan Balam, Mayan Priest

La Via de la Plata (Silver Route) is the longest of the pilgrim routes in Spain starting from Seville in Andalucia to Santiago de Compostela. The name “Via de la Plata” derives from the Romans transporting silver and gold from the Iberian Peninsula. Via de la Plata in Mexico connects over 50 silver mines, including World Heritage sites along the northward route; beginning at Mexico City. The route was established by the Spanish Conquest to transport unearthed silver back to Spain. I have visited some of the sites along the path, such as Queretaro, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Taxco (see the next blog entry), etc. and posted details in my travelog some time ago, but silver was not the main topic then. I’m glad I took an extensive trip to Bahio, based in Guadarajara, which was on the original detour silver route, but later changed when a straighter and more direct route was established.

It took Mexico about 300 years to become independent since Hernan Cortez invaded and massacred the Aztecs. At the beginning of this post, I quoted two prophecies by a Mayan priest. Cortez was probably seen as the return of the Mayan Deity Quetzalcoatl, feathered-serpent, but the first quote cautioned that the “time of our life is coming”. The second quote referred to the Seven Gods of Owls, predicting an ill omen. It was a prophecy of doom.

Even Cortez wasn’t named Viceroy, the ultimate title he had sought in controlling Mexico, though he acted as one. His soldiers, with little conferment of honors and grants, had to satisfy themselves with the encomienda and/or repartimiento systems with which they would get paid either by tribute or labor of indigenous Indians assigned to them. Frequent conflicts and revolts followed wherever interactions of Spaniards and Indians took place. Religion as a means to ease conflict and support Spain was not in place until much later.

Discovery of silver fueled more conflicts – in 1546 at Zacatecas and in 1552 at Guanajuato. Traders and merchants were assailed by Chichimeca Indians, nomads turned ferocious insurgents living in the highlands. Spaniards sent troops to conquer Chichimecans at the battle of Mixton. Prisons flourished, filled with insurgents, and Indians from the south increased in the silver mines. Epidemics hit them as well.

I was interested in this type of gradual colonization and I found a travel book written by a Japanese photographer, Shuji Abe. He was born in l947 in Hanamaki City, Iwate Prefecture (the region affected by the Tohoku Earthquake / Tsunami). Shuji visited Tepotzotlan, near Mexico City, and was impressed with the numerous exquisite baroque churches. He wanted to return to re-photograph them and he most likely spent half a year or so traveling along the entire Silver Route. It is a very unique travelog, an accomplishment earned by his legs and camera. There is none like it anywhere because no one has spent the effort to go on the same adventure.

I have fond memories of Tepotztlan. I still regret that I did not finish climbing the mountain Cerro del Tepozteco. On the map I found two Tepotztolans, one north and another south of Mexico City. I went to the one in the south. Shuji went to the one in the north. They had the same name, same spelling and it was easy to confuse the two. Both have a number of great churches. I realized we did not go to the same Tepotztlan because I did not see a Jesuit church in southern Tepotztlan. Otherwise, I used the same travel style as his, changing buses at major cities, and using taxi as a last resort.

In tracing the silver route, I was happy to find Dona Maria, or Malinche, the name of a Mexican volcano as well as the one who served Cortez as a translator and mistress, married to Juan Jaramillo and settled in San Juan del Rio, between Tepotztlan and Queretaro. I did not have time to visit a typical Hacienda, so I enjoyed reading his book and wondered why the deported Jesuits had possessed so many Haciendas (over a hundred).

Zacatecas, 540 kilometers from Mexico City, boast the best silver mines, even today, and the land used to belong to Chichimecas. This was all new to me. Before then, all I knew about the area was that it was close to Agua Caliente, where I found a number of Imamura surnames recently and started corresponding with them.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Carlsbad, Kaoyuan (Taoyuan), Tijuana

I listed three locations that possess excellent miniatures of landmark buildings from around the world. These sites are my favorite destinations that take me both forward and backwards in my mental travelogs. Maybe it is similar to children rotating a globe of the world imagining their future lives (in my case, in retrospect to where I have been).

1) Carlsbad, California, USA

Carlsbad is about 25 miles north of San Diego, a culturally progressive city and the home of Legoland California. When I volunteered to look for a theater to stage a Japanese Hisashi Inoue play called “Kesho”(make-up), Carlsbad was one of the two cities that offered its municipal facility to the troupe (which included veteran actress Misako Watanabe). My son was living in Carlsbad about the time Carlsbad City Council was debating whether they should permit Legoland to be built. Whenever I traveled to Europe years ago, I used to bring back Lego toys for my son.

I have visited Legoland California three times before I left for Japan and among all their displays, my favorite was their “Miniland USA.” Models of New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Washington DC and parts of New England were shown. The displays were quite dynamic with working city streets, running trams, a live shipyard and a presidential motorcade! There was even a fire with a Lego Fire Boat putting it out!

2) Kaoyuan, TAIWAN

I have made numerous trips to Taiwan upon my return to Japan, including the trip to Kaoyuan, 50 kilometers south of Taipei. And there, close to Shihmen Dam, away from the bustling industrial semiconductor centers of Xinxchu, there is a theme park that exhibit miniature landmark buildings of Taiwan, China, Japan, India, Greece, Italy, France, Russia, etc. Included were the Taiwan Presidential Office Building, the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Osaka Castle, Todaiji Temple, Taji Mahar, Parthenon and Pantheon, Nortre Dam and St. Basil’s Cathedrals and many others at an astonishingly accurate 1/25th scale. (I’ve been to the Great Wall but just one spot near Beijing where you can walk over from the east end to the west end, Liaonin Province to Gansu Province).

3) Tijuana, MEXICO

Tijuana is just 25 miles south from my home where I resided in San Diego. Crossing the Mexican border and walking along the Rio Tijuana, the Estrella Mexitlan building stands right in front of you. I used to accompany my Japanese guests to this building before taking them to tourist spots along Avenida de Revolucion. In the evening, the Mexitlan building becomes alive with live music. On the top floor of the building, there were miniature Mexican landmarks which included the Teothuacan Pyramids of Sun and Moon, Zocalo and Palacio de Bellas Artes, Basilica de Guadalupe, Coastline of Tihuatanejo Ixtapa, etc. It was the best educational exhibit to get my visitors’ feet wet on Mexican culture and history. I searched to find out the latest info on Mexitlan. There was no mention of Mexitlan except as a music venue. The exhibit seemed to have disappeared. What a shame! I finally found an announcement by management that they had to close the facilities, probably due to the economy.

I feel Tijuana has lost one of the more important educational and cultural asset that had attracted Americans as well as foreigners alike to preview inner Mexico at the gate town. They should consider relocating something similar, perhaps to Ciudad Juares, as the central border station.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Tree White

People often utter an odd voice “what’s this?” when they encounter something unusual or rare. “Nanja?”corresponds to“What’s this?” in Japanese. Nanja Monja perhaps goes a bit stronger than Nanja, similar to saying "What’s this, for Heaven's sake"?

A special tree, native to Fujian, China, was given the name Nanja Monja. In Japan the tree is designated as a natural treasure. Its distribution in Japan is sporadic. One bay in the upper Tshushima Island in Nagasaki Prefecture, Korea Strait, boasts more than 3,000 of these trees. When trees go in full bloom, the entire bay gets whitened. So Tsushima people gave the tree another name “Bay Illuminator”.

The month of May is the blooming season. I heard 120 trees are in full bloom right now at the mouth of the River Onga. I asked my sister, who knows the area, to drive me and my wife there. It is inside Oka Minato Shrine, Ashiya, an old day port that saw departures of the legendary Empress Jingu (AD 169-269) to Korea and the local Lord Kuroda Samurais to Shimabara, Nagasaki to suppress the Christian's Revolt (1637), headed by teenager Shiro Amakusa.

The Nanaja Monja in Ashiya was just marvelous. They are all young trees, branches hanging in showy clusters at eye level. I had read that the trees bloom at night and shed in the morning. We were there at 9:00AM, so the timing was very good. First, I thought the flower was similar to jasmine I had growing in my San Diego residence, but less fragrant than jasmine.

Coming home, I found it belongs to the osmanthus family. Google led me to a Samurai botanist, Toyofumi Mizutani, near Nagoya (1779-1833) who named the tree “One Leaf Tago”, differentiating from Toneriko or Tago, which features multiple leaves. The scientific name of Tago is Fraxinus Japonica Blune. The records show that Mizutani met Philip Franz von Siebold (1796-1866), a German physician and the one who introduced hydrangea to Europe, when Siebold traveled from Nagasaki to Edo.

In the U.S. the closest tree is the White Fringe Tree or Fringer. The official name is “Chionanthus retusus”, chion meaning snow and anthus flower. An American Japanese sent the photo of Fringer in Huntington Garden, Pasadena. But it looks different as he called it "Old Man’s Beard" and it belongs to the Olive Family. He says some describe Fringer as a Gossamer lace look.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Baja California Salt Beds

There is an island called Cedros meaning cedar trees, 22 kilometers west of Punta Eugenia halfway down the Baja California peninsula. That‘s where the fish hooked shape Baja Peninsula kicks westward and encompasses a 370,950 hectare marine and whale sanctuary. Known before as Scammons’s / San Iganacio Lagoons, it is now designated both by UNESCO and the Mexican Government as the Sansebastian Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve. The Pacific gray whales migrate 12,000 miles roundtrip here to find warm waters and blissful nursing beds there. However, I’m not telling “fish” stories. I wish I could surprise you and say that the solar evaporation salt beds coexist with these mammals of wonder. Whoever operates the plant, they must have had tough negotiations with environmental groups such as Greenpeace. Environmentalists would have opposed if the bay was utilized for commercial purposes. They may have evaded the possible opposition by moving the commercial base to Cedros Island.

The salt beds there spread over 33,000 hectares of land, equal to the size of Metropolitan Tokyo. In 1954, the world's wealthiest entrepreneur, Daniel K. Ludwig (1892-1992), started the Baja salt operation as an adjunct to his line of freighters. I remember him as the lease negotiator, after World War II, of the Kure Shipyard that built the Battleship Yamato and produced many tankers for his National Bulk Carriers. He decided to sell the salt business and the Japanese Mitsubishi (three diamonds) Shoji Corp, already engaged in salt works in Australia, showed keen interest. In the early 1970’s, Mitsubishi purchased the operation with provisions that the Mexican Government’s option to share stocks. Mitsubishi sent their officers immediately to oversee Baja. They were based in San Diego, where I lived. They knew it was a temporary assignment but I envied their work schedule, commuting to the Lagoon by a private jet, back with their families on weekends. I heard their meals were taken care of by locals on site. The expatriates left when the Mexican government bought majority of shares. I almost forgot about them, but I recently saw a news item about a boat named “Cedros” being launched from Hakata Shipyard located in Imabari, my first hometown, to embark on a Japan-Mexico voyage.

Briefly, here’s how the Lagoon natural salt nursery operates: A network of 13 ponds for concentrating sea water works with 64 smaller ponds where salt crystallizes. The total operation covers 200,000 acres, with 120 miles of dikes, 24 miles of canals and 27 miles of roads. The lagoon itself acts as the first of many evaporating ponds. The salinity of the lagoon is a trifle higher than that of the ocean. The main pumping station is at the other end of the lagoon.. Ten diesel pumps draw water out of the lagoon at a rate of nearly 300,000 gallons a minute and feed it into the evaporating ponds. When the concentration of salt reaches 25%, the water turns a bright pink. Solar absorption is increased by the pink color and as the temperature of brine increases, the evaporation rate goes up. When the brine is just short of total saturation, it is pumped into crystallizing ponds where the salt precipitates, forming crystals that fall to the floor of the pond and lump together in clusters as big as a fist. When the layer of crystals is about 6 inches deep, the salt is ready for harvest. The harvested salt is barged at Cedros Island. There could not have been a more ideal setting for these purposes. Sun power is free and is naturally utilized to convert salt water into salt crystals, even though it takes 18 months. Sea water, the raw material of this process is also available without limit. You can find out more about the operations here.

In 2008, salt production was reported to be 8 million tons per year, equal to the total of one year’s worth of Japanese salt imports. All transportation departs from Puerto Morro Redondo, on la Isla Cedros. I am flabbergasted that this port is the third largest port in Mexico, volume-wise, after Veracruz and Tampico, on the Atlantic Ocean. Eighty percent of their salt export was for industrial use, and I’m assuming it includes salt pellets for water softener application in the U.S. The island has a population of 2500, but can easily go up to 5,000 on a seasonal basis. Flights are available to Ensenada from Cedros Airport.

More images of the salt beds:
1. Aerial Photo
2. Gallery

Monday, May 2, 2011

Que Viva Cinco de Mayo!

We're entering the Cinco de Mayo week, a big, colorful and traditional celebration by Hispanic Americans. I emailed a friend I came to know through the Japan Society of Tijuana & San Diego, to find out if she knows of any plans scheduled this year in Tijuana. She responded to me from Chicago, where she is presently studying, but she sounded unenthusiastic. She wrote to me that May 5 is not even a Mexican National Holiday and why do I bother. I wondered if I have held some misconceptions. I have seen and heard a lot about Cinco de Mayo celebrations in Los Angeles, San Antonio, San Diego, San Ysidoro and Tijuana so I felt somewhat bewildered with what she said. I checked my Tijuana paper clippings. Years ago, Tijuana had 2 hour parades on Calle Benito Juares.

I reread Mexican history. Father Miguel Hidalgo revolted against Spain in 1810 and this Independence War lasted until 1821. They gained Independence, but with heavy financial burden, particularly to France. Napoleon III, exasperated on debt collection, sent 6,500 soldiers to Mexico. Mexico countered the French with 4,500 militia lead by General Ignacio Zaragoza (born in Texas). The victor of the initial battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862 was Mexico, an unlikely one-time victory. France gained control of Mexico eventually and had a Hapsburg prince Maximilian govern Mexico until 1867. Thus, May 5 became a symbol of patriotism and anti-imperialism from the admiration of neighboring Americans, compared to the low-key Mexican modesty.

I read the first celebration of Cinco de Mayo was held in Southern California. It was a show of solidarity by Mexicans against French rule. It continued to be celebrated and by 1930, it was seen as an opportunity to celebrate Mexican identity and build community solidarity. Later, Mexican-American youths appropriated the holiday and it gained a bi-national flavor. Also, it was a way to build Mexican-American pride. Corporate sponsors have stepped in recently and the celebrations have taken on a more commercial flavor these days.

In Old Town, San Diego, my second hometown, Aztec warriors, charros playing quoits, whirling dancers, Jalisco hat dances all ran like insatiable kaleidoscopic sights. And, yes, last but not least, my favorite Mexican dishes and Margaritas!