Mexico City: A Young, Modern, Colorful Metropolis

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Starre Vartan in Mexico City.

This story was originally featured on MNN.com

Over the years, I've heard my fair share about Mexico City, mostly negatives—crime, terrible air pollution and, well, crime topped the list. But upon a recent visit to the capital, I non only felt totally safe (a vibe which is backed up by plenty of news reports that have called the city a 'refuge' from crime in the country), but that I was wandering in the midst of a European city, not one south of the border. In addition to the city's much-reduced crime rate, it has been seriously (and successfully) fighting its pollution problem (like Los Angeles, its once-noticable smog wasn't in evidence when I visited), and even boasts some air-cleaning giant green walls

I spent four days enjoying this capital city; here are some of my favorite sights and experiences, as captured by my camera (there is plenty more to see, so I'm planning a return voyage sometime next year!)

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Street cafes and al fresco dining were ubuiquitous in some neighborhoods; the exterior of this restaurant was a gorgeous example, with potted plants shading the sidewalk (and pedestrians walking through the dining area, which would make for some ideal people-watching!) 

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Decorative ironwork is popular in most places with a warm climate; Mexico City's Roma neighborhood has plenty of examples that catch the sunshine and give beautiful attention to light and shadow. 

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I had such a blast in Mexico City: I can’t wait to go back! (more…)

Killington Ski Mountain’s Gondolas are Powered by What?

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I had been looking forward to a family ski trip over this past New Year’s for quite a while. I was ready to hit the slopes again. The last time I had skied was several years back when I made a frantic descendance down the mountain with tears streaming down, and freezing on my face. I thought I had frostbite on my hands and feet.

As it turned out, I did not have frostbite and I hadn’t gone insane. I learned I had developed a pesky condition called “Raynaud’s Phenomenon” which can make the cold very painful. For years, I’d get attacks of Raynaud’s where my fingers and toes turned white and went numb. It’s really not very attractive or comfortable, at all.

I limited my exposure to the cold during the winter, or as best as I could living in New York. Walking down the refrigerated isles in supermarkets was miserable, and skiing was most certainly off the table which really bummed me out. I grew up skiing, and with every winter that passed, I missed the thrill and the serenity of the sport more and more.

More recently my sensitivity to the cold hadn’t been bothering me as much and my Raynaud’s attacks were less frequent. So I figured ‘what the heck,’ why not give skiing one last shot.

My first day of skiing in years was this past New Year’s Eve at Killington Resort. Fittingly, I rode a gondola powered by cow manure up the mountain for my first run.

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Killington partnered with Green Mountain Power to cleverly use uses cow manure — a byproduct of dairy farming that already exists in abundance throughout the state — as an energy source.

Under GMP’s Cow Power program, manure is collected from Vermont’s dairy farms: 10,000 cows from 13 farms across the state produce roughly 300,000 gallons of manure per day. That is a lot of manure.

Under the process, farms collect cow manure throughout the day, mixing it with wash water from the milking equipment which is then pumped into an anaerobic digester. The slurry flows through a digester for about three weeks at 100 degrees Fahrenheit allowing bacteria to convert the manure into biogas, about 60% methane gas and 40% carbon dioxide. The biogas is then delivered to a modified natural gas engine, which drives an electric generator to create electricity. Finally, the energy generated is fed onto the GMP electrical system which ultimately powers the K-1 Express Gondola.

Geotourism: About More Than Just the Environment, Includes Culture, Aesthetics, Heritage

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A woman cooks traditional Mexican food in the mountain town of Cuetzalan. Photo by Starre Vartan.

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard of Eco-Tourism, but what on Earth is “Geo-Tourism?
– Sally Kardaman, Sumter, SC

“Geotourism” describes tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a given place, including its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage and the well-being of local residents. The idea is that tourism can be a positive force that benefits both travelers and local environments and economies.

National Geographic Senior Editor Jonathan Tourtellot coined the term in 1997 to distinguish it from “ecotourism” or “sustainable tourism,” both which more narrowly focus on travel’s ecological impacts. In addition to a “do-no-harm” ethic, geotourism seeks to enhance prospects for sustainable development based on the specific character of a given place rather than on standardized international branding, generic architecture and food, etc. In other words, a geotourism tour won’t involve sending you to an exotic locale only to put you up at a Hilton or Marriot and give you discount coupons to Taco Bell and McDonald’s.

“Today the world’s great destinations are under assault as visitor numbers rise exponentially every year,” reports the non-profit National Geographic Society, publisher of National Geographic. “The result is damage to the sites, overcrowding and erosion of the local culture and environment.” The Society hopes to reverse these trends with geotourism. Its Center for Sustainable Destinations (CSD) helps local communities, governments, tourism bureaus and private businesses enhance and sustain their distinct character while harnessing the power of tourism for positive impact: “Residents discover their own heritage by learning that things they take for granted may be interesting to outsiders,” reports CSD. “As local people develop pride and skill in showing off their locale, tourists get more out of their visit.”
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Brunch at the Breslin in NYC: Cozy Surrounds, Mindblowing Vittles

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I chowed. Oh yes I did.

The Ace Hotel in south-midtown Manhattan may be a hipster paradise (let’s just admit that right off the bat), but its dining room, The Breslin, will appeal to a wide variety of tastes. Be forewarned, there is usually a wait (we relaxed at the bar with the newspaper and enjoyed glasses of a delicious dry cider), but the upshot is that they don’t take reservations (unless you have a party of 6 or more), so I’ve never had to wait more than a half an hour.

The food here takes time, but the cozy, relaxed atmosphere more than makes up for the time it takes for your meal to arrive (and everything ends up being cooked to perfection). My boyfriend and I headed up there for brunch last weekend (we also had dinner there last spring) and what a menu it was:

BRUNCH

freshly baked pastries
cranberry orange muffin
apple walnut coffee cake
croissant
pumpkin bread
mixed berry scone
hot cross bun
savouries
selection of pastries

mixed fruit smoothie
greek yogurt with macerated fruit, pistachio praline & local honey
ej’s granola with cold organic milk
chilled grapefruit with ginger sugar & mint
steel cut oatmeal with maple sugar & organic milk
seafood sausage with beurre blanc & chives
fried peanut & banana sandwich with bourbon & vanilla
herbed caesar salad with anchovy croutons
goat cheese & leek tart
welsh rarebit

full english breakfast
fried eggs, pork sausage, blood pudding, bacon, tomato & mushrooms

whole wheat pancakes with apple butter, candied walnuts & maple syrup
poached eggs with curried lentils, yogurt & cilantro
baked eggs with spiced tomato & chorizo
chargrilled skirt steak with fried eggs & tomatillo salsa
grilled 3 cheese sandwich with house cured ham or egg

chargrilled lamb burger with feta, cumin mayo & thrice cooked chips
hangtown fry

sides
2 eggs | house cured bacon | house made sausage | roasted tomatoes
home fries | blood pudding

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I tried the seafood sausage (I am 99% vegetarian, but every once in a while, I eat some crustaceans) and it was absolutely divine; superfresh, flavored with a lemon-butter sauce and so rich and flavorful.

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My boyfriend ordered the whole wheat pancakes with apple butter, candied walnuts & maple syrup. The dollar-size pancakes were more fun (and less ridiculously belly-stuffing) than a traditional giant American plate of hotcakes, the walnuts were sweet and crunchy, and the maple syrup the real deal.

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I accompanied my seafood sausage with a carrot-zucchini muffin and a perfectly-made Stumptown coffee.

Photos by Starre Vartan.

The Women of Cuetzalan, Mexico: Photos from Market Day

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In most of the world, the everyday women who make life happen—who cook the food, sell the wares, care for the children, run businesses, harvest crops—are ignored, especially once they are no longer young. While men are achieving power and renown, building legacies and businesses (however local they may be), and even taking younger lovers or wives, women tend to be overlooked as they age. This happens in developed and developing countries, in cities and on the farm, but it is more obvious in places where both women and men have less opportunity (this includes both the urban poor in the United States and rural folk the world over).

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The irony is, of course, that as we age, we learn how to live; how to fight for ourselves and what we believe in, how to compromise, when to lay down arms in surrender and when to dig in. Older women are a vast and untapped resource, a wasted well of knowledge and knowingness. When I took these images in the waning days of October, 2012 in the tiny mountain town of Cuetzalan, Mexico (about 4 1/2 hours northeast of Mexico City in the state of Puebla), it was an unplanned excursion into portraiture.

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It was market day in the town’s square, the sun was high and bright in an almost-cloudless blue sky, and after procuring a beautifully-embroidered traditional Mexican blouse (the woman who sewed it is wearing the glasses, below), two herb-stuffed sopas with green and red salsa, a large glass of fresh orange juice, and some treats, I relaxed in the cafe that fronted the square. After wandering through the market, using my ok-but-not-great Spanish to make exchanges with the locals, it was with appreciation for a mental respite that I sat sipping a cappuccino and watching the market.

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A group of older women sat directly in front of my table, and indeed one fairly cantankerous lady used one of the chairs in the al fresco spot to rest her bags. They ignored me, and I just watched their body language with eachother; as I observed them, I realized that in their way, they were sort of flying under the radar of the rest of the people in the market. About half of the sellers were these older women, but in a way, they were part of the landscape, not paid much mind by anyone walking near them.

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But their faces! How could I keep myself from attempting to catch their beautiful, totally natural faces? I have made it my goal to achieve at least enough fluency in Spanish to enable me to also get their stories down next time. What is behind those visages? I’m sure they have so much to tell. And nobody asking them about how they got there. Next time, I will.

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