Monday, October 27, 2014

FESTIVALS OF MEXICO: Day of the Dead, Guest Post by Ann Stalcup

Skeleton Figures for Day of the Dead
My friend and fellow children's book author Ann Stalcup has been fascinated by Mexican customs and culture for many years. She has taken numerous photographs in the Mexican communities of Los Angeles where cultural events are celebrated frequently throughout the year. She has also visited areas of Mexico where she has observed many of the traditional festivals including The Blessing of the Animals, The Day of the Dead, and A Mexican Christmas. Here are a few of her photos and observations of The Day of the Dead.
Flower market for decorating family altars
THE DAY OF THE DEAD, EL DIA DE LOS MUERTOS, is celebrated on November 2nd. Families prepare for this special day when the spirits of their deceased loved ones return to visit them in candle lit cemeteries. In their homes, they create special altars that display items meaningful to the person who has died - clothes, books, favorite foods, along with water and oranges to refresh their spirits after their long journey.
Skeleton costume
The people of Mexico celebrate death as well as mourning it.  As October approaches its end, families work hard preparing for El dia de Los Muertos, a much-loved holiday.  For many centuries, the people of Mexico have believed that the souls of the dead return once a year to visit their families on Earth.  Preparations are made for the return of the children’s spirits on November 1st (All Saints’ Day), and for the adults on November 2nd (All Souls’ Day.)  Death is a natural part of life.  Having accepted this, people are able to joke about death, rather than fearing it.
Ofrenda, or Family Altar
Setting up an ofrenda or altar is an important part of the celebrations.  Many families follow the ancient Aztec traditions when they prepare their altar, a process that can take several days. The Aztecs believed that there were nine levels in the underworld.  The way a person died, not lived, determined his or her afterlife.  For example, those who drowned joined the Rain God; warriors killed in combat, sacrificial victims, and women who died in childbirth became companions of the Sun God.  Much like the ancient Egyptians, the dead were buried with food, clothing, personal items and sometimes sacrifices. The souls entered the underworld through the temples at Mitla.
Pan de Muertos
Before and during the Day of the Dead, bakery windows are filled with pan de muertos (bread of the dead), round loaves with a knob on the top for the skull and long twists for the bones.  Other loaves have flower designs, and heads and feet too.

Ann’s book for teachers on Day of the Dead celebrations was published a few years ago. It is filled with exquisite drawings by artist/author Pam Smallcomb.
For more information on Ann and her published work, visit her at her website:

Monday, October 20, 2014

POMPEII: THE EXHIBITION, A Vicarious Visit to Ancient Roman Times

Two thousand years ago, Pompeii was a bustling seaside Roman town, not far from the modern city of Naples, Italy.  It lay at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, an active volcano. Then on one fateful day in 79 A.D., the volcano erupted with a massive explosion, engulfing the town with toxic cases and deadly pyroclastic blasts. Within hours, Pompeii and nearly everything and everyone in it became buried in a twenty foot deep layer of ash.

Because of the lack of air and moisture, the objects that lay underneath the ash were so well preserved that when they are excavated they seem almost new. Rediscovered 250 years ago, the remains of Pompeii  provide an extraordinarily detailed insight into the life in the ancient Roman empire.
Imperial Portrait, Marble

I have never been to Pompeii to see it in person, but I recently went with my family to see Pompeii: the Exhibition at the California Science Center in Exposition Park in Los Angeles.  (The exhibit, which is traveling to various sites in the U.S., will be in Seattle, Washington at the Pacific Science Center beginning February 7, 2015.) Pompeii: The Exhibition features over 150 precious artifacts on loan from the Naples National Archaeological Museum. It is the next best thing to getting on a plane and flying to Italy.

As we entered the exhibit, we each received a wand so that we could move through at our own pace and listen to the narration at numbered stations. The exhibit is organized around objects that would have been part of daily and civic life in ancient Roman times.  Displays range from statues, coins and helmets to jewelry, household pots and furniture.
Walls were lined with beautiful frescoes and mosaics.  Statues that would have decorated the homes of wealthier citizens stood in niches and small courtyards. One of the most successful inhabitants of Pompeii was Aulus Umbricius Scaurus, a manufacturer of garum, a sauce made from fermented fish. Garum was an essential ingredient in ancient Roman cuisine.  Made by crushing the intestines of fresh tuna and moray eels in salt, it added a sharp, salty taste to otherwise bland dishes. 
Mosaic of a Garum Amphora from the house of Aulus Umbricius Scaurus
Apparently, Pompeii is well-known for its erotic art. The exhibit is designed so that families with children can bypass the room with those displays.  Since we had three children we took the bypass and went directly to the room with the plaster casts of people who had died at Pompeii.
Plaster cast of a child
During the excavation of Pompeii, plaster was used to fill in the spaces between the ash layers that once held human bodies. This allows one to see the exact position the person was in when he or she died.  The exhibit includes the body of a young child who was one of thirteen men, women, and children who died in a large garden or vineyard near the city wall. They all died in a single moment as they apparently tried to flee the pyroclastic surges of heat, hot gases, rock, and ash of Vesuvius, six miles away.
Bronze head
As we waited for the doors to open into the body room, the lights dimmed, the floor rumbled and we had a vicarious experience of the volcanic eruption.  It is hard to imagine the horror of that day for the people of Pompeii. Their buried remains, the buildings they lived in, and their personal effects provide us with a window onto the richness of the life they once led. For more on the history of Pompeii, click HERE.

I thank my son-in-law Humberto Gutierrez Rivas for his contribution of excellent photos for this post. 

Mosaic table with lion foot legs from Pompeii
Note:  If you are in Los Angeles and have a chance to visit the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, you will see how an ancient Roman house looked at the time.  The Getty Villa and its beautiful gardens are modeled after a first-century Roman country house, the Villa de Papiri, at Herculaneum.  Herculaneum was smaller town near Pompeii that was also destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The Getty Villa is home to the J. Paul Getty Antiquities collection.
The Getty Villa is modeled after a first-century Roman country house, the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, Italy.
The building was constructed in the early 1970s by architects who worked closely with J. Paul Getty to develop the interior and exterior details.
- See more at:
The Getty Villa is modeled after a first-century Roman country house, the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, Italy.
The building was constructed in the early 1970s by architects who worked closely with J. Paul Getty to develop the interior and exterior details.
- See more at:
The Getty Villa is modeled after a first-century Roman country house, the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, Italy.
The building was constructed in the early 1970s by architects who worked closely with J. Paul Getty to develop the interior and exterior details.
- See more at:

Monday, October 13, 2014

SPACE SHUTTLE ENDEAVOUR at the California Science Center, Los Angeles

Entrance to Space Shuttle Exhibit at the California Science Center
In the fall of 2012, I watched on television as the space shuttle Endeavour made its slow journey from LAX through the streets of Los Angeles on its way to its new home at the California Science Center in Exposition Park. Tree branches had been trimmed, power lines relocated, and other obstacles moved along the carefully chosen route. Thousands of people lined the streets to witness this historic journey. It was first stage of Mission 26, Endeavour’s final mission.

Space Shuttle Endeavour inside the Samuel Oschin Pavilion
Last July, I went with my family to spend a day at the California Science Center and finally had a chance to see the Endeavour close-up.  Only then did I really appreciate its enormous size and its important role, along with the other NASA space shuttles, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery and Atlantis, in the exploration and understanding of outer space.
Record of  Endeavour's First flight, 1992
The Endeavour is currently housed in a temporary, hanger-like building adjacent to the museum, the Samuel Oschin Pavilion. Walls of the building are lined with photographs of the many space shuttle crews, documenting the history of the program which began in 1981 and ended with the last space flight of the Endeavour June 1, 2011. 

Inside the museum, a companion exhibit, Endeavour: the California Story, shows various aspects of shuttle life in space ranging from what kind of food the astronauts ate to the waste collection system (“space potty”) to scientific experiments and walks in space.  It celebrates Endeavour’s many scientific achievements and its strong connection to California, where all the orbiters were built. The California Story includes images of Endeavour under construction locally in Palmdale and Downey, as well as artifacts that flew into space aboard Endeavour. A film of the Endeavour’s journey from the airport is part of the exhibit as well.
Film of Endeavour on the streets of Los Angeles is part of the exhibit
For a fee, one can also take a “ride” in space–enclosed in a vibrating capsule with a video display, it recreates what it feels like traveling inside the space shuttle.
Space capsule "ride"
I am old enough to remember when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin was the first person to fly in space more than fifty years ago.  It is amazing to contemplate how much more we now know about outer space than we did then–much due to the space shuttle program–and how much more there is to know.

Note: During the second phase of Mission 26, now through October 25 (dates subject to change), the Science Center will open the shuttle's payload bay doors to install its final cargo. Space shuttle experts will install a flown SPACEHAB and other equipment into the payload bay, in preparation for Endeavour's permanent display. Click HERE to learn more about the payload installation.

This will be the only opportunity to see the payload bay open for several years. After the payload is installed, the doors will be closed until stage three of Mission 26, when Endeavour is moved to its new home, and is lifted into vertical position—another step closer to the launch of the new Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center, projected to open in 2018.

Timed reservations to see Endeavour are required for weekends, holidays, special events and high attendance seasons.

I am grateful to my son-in-law Humberto Gutierrez Rivas for the use of his photos of the Endeavour exhibit.

Monday, October 6, 2014

BOHEMIAN SWITZERLAND NATIONAL PARK, Czech Republic, Guest Post by Tom Scheaffer

Pravcická brána, Europe’s largest sandstone rock arch, Bohemian Switzerland National Park
My brother Tom is a great traveler and last summer went to visit friends in the Czech Republic, staying at their summer house in the country north of Prague. One day they went on an excursion to Bohemian Switzerland National Park, home to incredible rock features, such as the Pravcická brána, Europe’s largest sandstone rock arch. The arch stands 52 feet (16 meters) high and 26 feet (8 meters) wide and serves as a symbol of the entire national park.
Bohemian Switzerland, also known as Czech Switzerland, is a picturesque region in the north-western Czech Republic. It lies on the Czech side of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains north of Decín on both sides of the Elbe River. It is part of a larger geological formation known as the Elbe Sandstones. The park borders Germany’s Saxon Switzerland National Park.
A winding trail leads through the gorge up to the top of the mountain
After the hike, Tom wrote me in an email:  "Today we visited these huge rock formations and the arch you see in the photos. We had to hike about two  miles up a trail where there was an old hotel/restaurant which was built in 1881.There were great views from the top."
Tom has graciously allowed me to share a few of his photos from that day. For more about the park, click HERE.
Tom and friend on the deck of the restaurant
Directly below the arch is the Falcon's Nest, a 19th-century chateau which now features a small museum about the park as well as an excellent restaurant
Inside the restaurant