Edward James’ Fantasy Life

June 6th I made a guest post on  fabiolaofmexico ‘s blog, My heart of Mexico. Thank you Fabiola I love your blog.

One interesting comment to Fabiola’s blog about my post was from another blogger, La Potosina, pointing out a video from her blog of the Fantasy Gardens. Check it out.

Her blog, Aculturame is very interesting with several posts catching my attention. One in particular was about Cahokia.

I recently read Native Roots, How Indians Enriched America by Jack Waterford. In the second chapter,  Pyramids on the Mississippi, Waterford discusses Cahokia. I suppose I have driven by it on the Interstate and never knew it was there. So, also check out that post.

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Here’s a repost of my post on Fabiola’s blog:

The Fantasy Gardens of Xilitla

Edward William Frank James in his fine red bathrobe

This goofy looking guy created one of Mexico’s more unusual tourist attractions.

Mexico has a long history of accepting immigrants, refugees and travelers from all across our world. Republicans fled here from Franco. Communists escaped purges in Russia and Jews hid out in Mexico after their expulsion from Spain. Italians and Germans came running from fascists. Americans drifted south in search of a more libertarian society. To all, Mexico opened its doors—proud and accepting.   

However, sometimes people come to Mexico with bizarre stories.

We encountered the legacy of a most unusual expat near the village of Xilitla in the state of San Luis Potosi. There, Alice and I visited Edward James’ Fantasy Gardens, Las Pozas, The Pools. Our tour of the gardens left us wondering what the hell?

Edward James was the grandson of an American merchant who amassed a huge fortune trading with the British. His father, William, inherited the fortune and married Evelyn Forbes, a Scotch socialite, reputed to have been fathered by the then Prince of Wales—later King Edward VII.

In a curious twist, William’s son, Edward William Frank James, our subject, became the godson of King Edward VII.

Edward grew up in an unusual environment. Around him were the King of England, his court and others suffering serious delusions of grandeur. He was lavished with more money than he could rid himself of in a lifetime of hard spending

As a young man, the “family” gifted Edward a cushy government job. He bungled it such a bad way they sent him away—essentially fired.

He recovered by devoting himself as a patron of the arts, zeroing in on Surrealists. A principal supporter and collector of Salvador Dali, he also housed Magritte in his London digs.

Edward married Tilly Losch, an Austrian dancer, choreographer, actor and painter in 1930. He poured money into several productions created for her.

In 1934 Edward divorced Losch, accusing her of adultery with Prince Serge Obolensky, an American hotel executive. In her countersuit, she accused Edward of being homosexual.

To put it all behind him, Edward travelled to the highlands of the Sierra Gorda Mountains of northeastern Mexico where in 1947 he purchased a coffee plantation near Xilitla.

For several years, Edward used this plantation as a home for orchids and exotic animals he collected. In 1962, he started building his surreal gardens accented with cement and rebar sculptures.

Inspired by the orchids he brought to the gardens, Edward spent more than five million US dollars paying local artisans to develop his concrete fantasies.

In the 1970s, he sold what was the world’s largest and most important collection of Surrealist art to fund further development his gardens.

In 1984, Edward died leaving Las Pozas to his Mexican foreman, Plutarcho Gastelum. However, he left no money for its maintenance. Plutarcho attempted to operate the gardens as a tourist attraction, but the jungle worked to slowly reclaim the sculptures.

Our guide told us that at night, snakes rule the gardens.

In the summer of 2007, the Fundación Pedro y Elena Hernández, the state of San Luis Potosi along with the company Cemex—a most appropriate additionpaid a reported $2.2 million US dollars for Las Pozas and created Fondo Xilitla to oversee the preservation and restoration of the site.

Hello Dali

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We drove to Xilitla from the city of Guanajuato breaking the trip into two days. We stayed in a Bed and Breakfast within walking distance of entrance to Las Pozas.

The highlight of the drive was the crossing of the continental divide in the Reserva de la Biósfera Sierra Gorda There the hot dry sparse landscape abruptly changed while crossing through a single mountain pass to the lush wet tropical jungle directly influenced by the Gulf of Mexico.

 

A Taste of Vanilla

Layer-cake Pyramid of the Niches at El Tajin

When visiting the archeological wonders at El Tajin in the state of Veracruz, we also explored the nearby city of Papantla. There we found many vendors selling vanilla on the streets in centro, downtown. The price of dried and cured vanilla beans was low—a pleasant surprise. Vanilla is very expensive in the US.

On many occasions we have found something we wanted in Mexico, deferred buying it and later when we returned to make the purchase, it was no longer available. So we try to be more opportunistic. We stocked up. Although it’s been several years since we were in Papantla, we still have a few vanilla beans from there in our larder.

Dried and Cured Vanilla Beans from Papantla

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To our great happiness we found vanilla orchids here in Puerto Vallarta growing at the Jardin Botanico Vallarta. In addition to their display of several varieties of vanilla orchids, they also sell cuttings and give workshops on their care. My son bought us a cutting there which we now have had for almost two years, and it has survived a move across town. We’re expecting a bloom this year so we attended a seminar at the Botanical Gardens and  we hope soon to exercise our new skill as a pollinators—King and Queen Bee.

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An interesting thing happened when we contemplated moving this plant to the other side of town. As epiphytes, air plants requiring little or no soil, our vanilla plants have strong tendril-like roots. These grab anything in their path and latch on. Where we used to live, our plant had grown to the top of our rooftop palapa and was hanging upside down gripping the bottom of the roof and rafters. We were unsure of what to do. How should we move it without breaking it apart?

Alice to the rescue! She found a YouTube video posted by Richard May about growing vanilla in Costa Rica—see it here. 

The narrator explains that vanilla should be moved or planted only on a waning moon, three days after the full moon. He demonstrates how easy it is to break the leaves and vines on the waxing moon and yet they are rubbery and flexible during the waning moon phase. We followed his directions and were successful in moving our plant to our new home.

Vanilla at our Old House had hit the Rafters

Our Vanilla Orchid in its New Home

I’ve always heard about farmers planting by the moon, and now we know.

The moon! Vanilla!

The Angels of Ek’ Balam

Mayan Angels

Angels in a Mayan pyramid? Surely not Christian angels as we think of angels in a church or pictured in an illustrated Bible with pseudo-Renaissance prints…

No. Although they do look a lot like the kind of angels we think of seeing in a Christian context, I prefer to understand these angels as naturalistic people dressed up like birds.

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The Mayan archaeological site of Ek’Balam, Black Jaguar, in north central Yucatán is not only home to angels, but also to a monster.

It has a huge mouth ringed by fierce white teeth and its throat opens into a tunnel leading to the underworld.

Teeth of the Monster Mouth

Returning from a road trip to Rio Lagartos, we noted a sign for the Ek’Balam archaeological site. We turned into the parking area, and a short walk from the car put us in the middle of it.

Motmots in the Ruins

The first thing we noticed were Motmots. These birds, Blue-crowned Motmots, seemed as plentiful here as at Uxmal.

 

Ascending the steep stairs of the main Pyramid

The view to the Gulf of Mexico from atop the main Pyramid

And there is more to see at this beautiful site, a ball court, tunnels, bats, iguanas and the incredible view from the main pyramid of the forest canopy stretching to the Gulf of Mexico.

Connecting portions of the site are sacbé roads,  elevated white, stone pathways. On these you can walk in the steps of the Mayas.

 

Motmots at Uxmal

In 1989 while working on a business venture in Belize, I took several days to look for wildlife around the Coxcomb Reserve.

I am interested in birds and was lucky to see Scarlet Macaws near the village of Red Bank. One dark night on a mountain trail I saw a small wild cat, a Margay, exposed by the headlights of our jeep. Also I saw some huge snakes, boa constrictors—locally called Wolas, and one aggressive venomous Fer de Lance—a serpent Belizeans call a Tommygoff.

One bird I was particularly interested in seeing was the Motmot. These birds have long ‘paddle tails’ and electric coloring. They are easy to identify. For me however, finding the Motmot in the wild proved elusive. After spending a good part of three days looking around the edges of the Coxcomb Reserve and adjacent banana plantations, I gave up and decided that Motmots were just not destined to make my list.

***

When Alice and I were driving around Mexico looking for a place to settle, we spent six weeks in Mérida—trying the city on for size.

After a couple of weeks, we discovered there was a bus that left from near our apartment and traveled daily to several archeological sites—including Uxmal. I have to admit Uxmal was not on my radar, but I can say now it is one of the “don’t miss” places in Mexico.

Because we were traveling with an old beloved dog, suffering from the summer heat, Alice and I decided to take the bus to Uxmal on different days while the other stayed in Mérida dog sitting.

Alice went first and came home bubbling with happiness about her day at what she thought was a most impressive site—and, she was effusive about the amazing birds.

“They are emerald and blue and have incredible long tails with just a bare quill in the middle.”

Couldn’t be Motmots, they are too elusive to hang around a tourist site. 

***

The following day, I had my turn. I decided to hire an English-speaking guide as Alice felt the history and significance of the site weren’t easily understood from the few informational placards in English scattered throughout the grounds.

I talked to a couple of bored looking “old hand” guides at the entrance, and balked at hiring any of them. Then, a very small man, who I at first took to be a kid, approached me.

“Hola, my name is Puc.”

It turned out that this tiny Mayan man was twenty-nine and had three kids. He had attended a University in Mérida where he majored in Mayan Studies.

Pyramid of the Magician

Puc and I entered and came first to a most unusual pyramid. It is smooth-sided and elliptical at the base—the Pyramid of the Magician, El Adivino.

Puc told me a story of how a dwarf, el enano del Uxmal who hatched from an iguana egg, had built the structure in a single night.

Then he looked me in the eye and told me that the Mayas transmitted much of their wisdom through allegory and metaphor. He said Uxmal’s huge libraries of codices, the folding hieroglyphic books, attested to the Mayan quest for knowledge. Then he told me the site had been a university, a center of great learning.

“Where are all these books now?” I asked.

View of the courtyard of the Nunnery Quadrangle at Uxmal

“Many volumes were kept in what is today known as The Nunnery Quadrangle, el quádrangle de las monjas. There the Spanish threw most of them into the middle of the courtyard and burned them—somehow believing they were saving the indigenous people by this horrible act.”

***

We turned to walk toward the structure named by the Spanish as House of the Doves, In the first small grove of trees we walked through, I saw them—the Motmots. Seeing my attention shift, Puc smiled.

“Blue-crowned Motmots—they love the grounds here at Uxmal. The Mayan people revere them. They believe Motmots are the most beautiful birds in their world. But, they also believe these birds are self-aware and arrogant.

Mayan lore tells of time when a great hurricane headed to the Yucatán. All the animals could feel it. They knew it was coming and all sought shelter. Except the proud Motmots, who disregarded the signs.

Terrible winds buffeted the Motmots and they lost parts of their tail feathers, leaving a partially naked quill with its distinctive paddle shape at the tip. The Motmots were humiliated and to this day are secretive and hide from view.

But here on the grounds of Uxmal, they are proud and open for all to see.” 

Motmots in the Trees at Uxmal

Sunrise at the Piramide del Sol

A Morning Hike up the Pyramid of the Sun

pyramid-of-the-sun-teotihuacan-fs-2

The idea of watching a sunrise from the top of one of the world’s largest pyramids had grabbed me, and I wasn’t going to let it go.

I planned to climb the Piramide del Sol, Pyramid of the Sun, in the ancient city of Teotihuacán north of Mexico City. This site was established a hundred years before the birth of Jesus.

I had read the placement of the Pyramid of the Sun was over a lava tube thought to be sort of an umbilical cord connected to the gods of the underworld—perhaps the place of human origin.

Just who built the pyramids and surrounding city is a matter of continued debate. Yet, it is clear a cultural mix, Otomi, Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya and Nahua people inhabited this multi-ethnic city over an extended period—maybe seven hundred years. Perhaps what held this once vibrant city together for so long was its multi-ethnic nature.

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We arrived from Mexico City in the late afternoon, and I planned to be the first person on the site when it opened before dawn. I wanted to be at the top of the tallest pyramid as the sun rose. Perhaps in doing so—alone, with no distractions—I might feel the spirit of this monument of early civilization, the place where Gods were born.

***

In the darkness, scrambling up the pyramid’s narrow steps, not made for my size-thirteen shoes, I overtook a young woman ascending with a large backpack.

Guten Morgen,” she said between deep gasps for breath.

“Good morning to you, Buenos Dias,” I replied, surging past.

***

I had counted two hundred steps as I approached my goal. Just as I was feeling sure I would be the first to arrive, I spotted movement above me. I stopped and looked again. Over the edge of the summit—through first light—peered a friendly face.

dog-on-top-of-teotihuacon-fs-copy

A handsome, yellow-brown dog, wagging his tail, greeted me as I stepped onto the top of the pyramid. He rubbed against my legs and then nuzzled my hand, looking for a treat. I opened my shoulder bag, pulled out a Snickers Bar and watched it vanish.

Now he’s my buddy.

While waiting for the sun to rise above the mountains to the east, I walked across the one-hundred foot wide flat top. Then in a flash, the dull, yellow-gray light disappeared, replaced by blinding gold—the sun, full glare.

I looked back toward the steps. The German girl arrived and plopped down on the stone surface. She opened her huge backpack, searched a bit, and began feeding the dog.

Later, as I descended, passing groups of visitors on their way up, I stopped and looked up as the first large group arrived. They all paused, started going through their bags, and fed the dog.

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My spiritual takeaway?

It seems dogs, like people, may or may not have a fortunate birth. Yet, they too may adapt and discover how to position themselves for a rewarding life.