How different and goodbye to a Montreal institution

Since moving to Montreal in 2006 we’ve done a steady rotation of food shopping which consists of visits to an Arab-derived supermarket (Marché Adonis, now a province super-star), Kim Phat (an “oriental” supermarket), Costco, the farmer’s produce market just north of us (Jean-Talon), and a kind of mongrel restaurant supply warehouse full of food called Mayrand. I say “mongrel” because I’ve never been able to identify its ethnic group. It’s housed in an old industrial building with loading docks shoved right into the aisles, and its employees speak various languages. Unlike other places here, Mayrand seems to have no particular ethnic focus. It’s also seemed an odd place because it’s never appeared to have any particular ambition to be anything other than what it is. Which is a noisy warehouse with hand-lettered signs catering to the restaurant trade but accepting anyone as customer. Unlike modern box stores, there are no flashing-light barricades put up when a forklift is working, and it’s up to you to dodge the wheeled traffic and figure out the signage, which is often creative.

All that is about to change. Next week, after probably decades in its current form, Mayrand is about to move to a new location which promises to be more – what ever that means. In honesty it may be a good move for them. From personal experience I can say that we’ve converted some of our friends to shopping in places like Adonis (the Arab market), but I don’t believe a single soul has visited Mayrand. I don’t know why. Perhaps there’s a dark secret I am not privy to, or that it’s just too free-form and gritty.

We’ll see – I have a feeling the new space will be a lot different plus they are positioning it close to a Costco.

I’ll actually be sad to see the old store go. I like the bustle and the amorphous nature of it … that it’s all by itself in how it sees retailing and it makes no pretensions. If you like it you are welcome to shop there, and if you don’t there are a lot of other places just up the road.

This shows restocking by forklift. Normally there would be more people in the aisles, but this was late Sunday afternoon during a snow an ice storm, so there were fewer customers than usual.

Now the different part

Part of why I enjoy travelling so much are the contrasts. We have market shopping in Montreal too but in our reality it’s seasonal. Jean-Talon, our “outdoor” market, retreats into a heated space (much smaller) during the winter so it’s still possible to shop there. But there’s a big difference between biking to the market for a few vegetables, and hassling with the car for the same. So during the winter we tend towards the warehouses, and in the summer we eat market food.

But last week shopping in Mexico looked like this for us:

Unfortunately, it wasn’t just a contrast in style but a contrast in content as well.

I look on the boxes in Montreal and most of the fruit and vegetables are either from the US or Mexico, but none of it is as fresh and abundant as is easily available in this local market.


I lamented earlier in these posts about how there hadn’t been a red plum tomato sighted in Montreal since the end of October. I can report currently that the situation has eased somewhat but still what’s available looks nothing like these unwaxed and fresh tomatoes.

Or the vegetables this woman is bagging.

But Mexico wasn’t ahead everywhere! Quebec really shines in cheeses, which I am grateful have no season. We bought one farmer’s type cheese in Mexico that was mixed with jalapeño peppers (that was okay), but there was none of the variety (and quality) that we have up here.

But I’d be lying to say that I don’t like the idea of being able to shop year-round in a market, and a market close to home. But we do the best we can. Like I said, it’s a snow and ice storm today, which really does not mix with this lifestyle.

Posted in Mexico, Montreal

Flaps down and coming in

It’s a long night-time flight back to Montreal from Mexico City. When I landed part of me felt like I had just arrived on a distant planet and part of me felt at home. It’s cold, it’s monochrome, it’s winter, and it’s familiar.

Travelling to a place like Mexico City heaps perspective on your home environment. Its safety, its affluence, its respect and personal freedom. The familiarity of it all is a double edged sword – enjoyable, but lulling too.

Before leaving Mexico I took a few photographs that showed things I’d like to remember. This is the woman we bought avocados, tomatoes, oranges, and carrots from.

I went shopping yesterday in Montreal, and I can tell you that the plum tomatoes looked nothing like these, which were 20 pesos a kilo (a little over a US dollar).

One of the days we were shopping in this market two eager people with clipboards surveyed us about why we were there. I kept on thinking “why shouldn’t we be here, it’s the same way we like to shop in Montreal.” I think I communicated this in Spanish. For our efforts we were given shopping bags.

The market houses approximately 75 vendors, each in stalls with pull-down doors. The city district owns the markets.

This is what the market looks like inside – there are three aisles this long. Pretty much everything you need is available.

And the market from the outside…

During the day all the doors to the market are up and the building is wide open. As night-time approaches, more and more doors are closed until only one is open. At that point most of the vendors are closed too, but a few stay open late. And then around eight the final door goes down and the market is closed. There are still stores on the street that stay open a lot later.

I didn’t want to be mean to myself – or to you – but we ate quite a few of these and they were fresh, recently picked.

This is mean – but it’s mean to me. Taken a few minutes ago, a store-front window near our studio…

And then a couple of days ago, on the street in Mexico…

(It doesn’t seem fair)


Posted in Mexico

The National Anthropology Museum

I already wrote about the African show at the National Anthropology Museum, saying it was the best single art show we’ve seen in Mexico City. That show is a temporary exhibit, and is completely dwarfed (to the point of being invisible) by the permanent displays. I have spent a total of five or six days at this museum and I now know perhaps a third of the collection, though I question that because I keep on discovering new floors and gardens in unanticipated places. So, in other words, it’s vast. The only way I’ve been able to deal with it is to concentrate on a single pavilion, and not feel that I have an assignment to get through it. If I don’t finish, I come back.

This is about half of the inside courtyard of the National Anthropology Museum, which to me is the crown jewel of Mexico City. To get a sense of the scale of this museum here is a link to a Google map. Relative to the map you are only seeing the left hand part of the museum in this photo.

The museum itself deals with its huge scale and makes itself more accessible by joining all its buildings into a central courtyard. Over the top of the museum buildings peers the modern city, which makes it feel like part of the alive city.  One view of that courtyard is above, and then turning around and looking the other way this is what you see …

The canopy ceiling is supported by a sculpted metal column surrounded by a curtain of falling water. On the column is a pictographic history of the culture, and behind is the entrance building. Each one of the buildings facing into the square has a different function, and are accessed through entry doors facing into the center.


The Figurine Zohapilco This is the most ancient human artifact with religious intent in the museum. The tiny shard, only about 4cm high, is a female fertility figure from 2300 B.C. She has a large belly, two eyes and a nose. It was found in near some excavated dwellings in Zohapilco, a short distance south-east of Mexico City.


Mujer (Woman) This wonderfully expressive fertility figure, is dated between 200 BC and 600 AD. Exhibits are broken down according to region and time, as well as style and content.


Most of the people viewing the exhibits don’t have a guide but unlike the African exhibit the pavilions are teaming with visitors, of all ages and backgrounds. School groups are roving around too.

Instead of writing a lot I’m going to show some of my favorite things.

Beth with Lucy was something I couldn’t resist. The pre-written history part of the Museum has displays that deal with death and social issues openly.


For instance, this burial scene.


I liked the delicate detailing and the careful coloring on this clay woman from Las Cebollas dated between 200 BC and 600 AD.

In another pavilion is the giant Stone of the Sun. It’s often identified as a depiction of the Aztec Calendar, but in fact was a gladiatorial sacrificial altar which was never finished because it developed a deep crack.

You can judge the scale from the person in the photo above. This huge stone (3.6m wide x 1m thick) was found buried near the Zócalo (the main down-town square in Mexico City) in 1790.


I’m a little heavy on these fertility figurines, but I loved them.


This giant Olmec head is in one of the gardens reached by walking through the pavilions – they actually partially ring the outside (though each one is different).

Other countries must have similar attempts to explain and display their national heritage, but I’ve never been in one like this one. Have you? And where?

Posted in Mexico

A (good) surprise from Africa

As the sun went down yesterday, this was the view looking down from a high perch at the entrance to the Belles Artes building.

In the same building, but earlier in the week, we had seen the Belles Artes Opera Company perform an original opera by the Mexican composer Federico Ibarra.

Last year the same building housed my absolute #1 favorite photography show ever – a huge retrospective of the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.

I was totally surprised by this show. In Mexico City? Why? But it was mobbed and I had to choose carefully the two times I went back to see it, so I’d have some shoulder room. There was a beautiful catalogue and the show itself included drawings, films, and over 360 photographs. On Sundays admission is free and there are long lines.

In case music and gallery shows aren’t enough, there is also a huge four-floor atrium, with each wall covered with murals. Here a woman is talking about the Diego Rivera mural that was banned from Rockefeller Center (and re-painted here by the artist).

Now moving to a different museum. Each year we have some total arts-related surprise. Last year it was the Cartier-Bresson show. This year the surprise was a show whose entrance is hidden in the darkness just to the left of this mural by Rufino Tamayo (I didn’t even know it was there when I was taking this photo). In this dark space, barely marked, was a closed door with a guard standing outside.  Beth noticed it and curiously stuck her head inside.

The mural above and the show are housed in the National Museum of Anthropology – a world-class complex of buildings housing collections taken from different periods of Central American history.

This museum is the (justified) source of much national pride, and though we’ve now been there four times we’ve barely scratched the surface. Yesterday there were a lot of school groups there, learning about their shared history. If you can please look at this photo large enough that you can see the faces.

The show that we liked so much was a collection of central African masks, tools, musical instruments, fabrics, sculptures, boats, films – in other words, it was a wide-ranging show which exhibited an energy and a sense of life that caught me by surprise. Link – sorry, not much in English.

Not surprisingly (given the dark entrance), there was hardly anyone in the gallery and we pretty much had the show to ourselves. We appreciated it a lot, but it’s too bad others weren’t there to share the same experience. It is a temporary exhibit at the museum – the other exhibits are mobbed by people and are permanent (though the texts and objects are updated on a continuous basis to reflect the current research being done in Central American anthropology).

I’m showing you mostly masks – but there was so much to this show. I loved this one, with the spiky feathers as a crown.

It’s becoming clear to me that I have too much to show and so I’ll keep posting after we get back to Montreal. Please tell me if you are having trouble with this image-heavy style. I’m trying to make the photos small in size so they will load quickly, but it’s still a lot of photos. I hope your are getting an idea of different aspects of Mexico City and enjoying it.








Posted in Mexico

People power, yes and then no

The Pope has left Mexico City now and is travelling to different states in Mexico – yesterday Chiapas, today Michoacán, and then tomorrow in the lawless border city of Juárez in Chihuahua. What I photographed on Saturday and Sunday was a tiny grain in an enormous event, where a person who represents some hope for change (for many people) is speaking out and acting against  the injustice and violence of this society. A friend from Montreal wrote this morning what’s a pretty big endorsement from him: “I kind of like this Pope – he’s daring.” I think that’s a good way to put it. The situation here doesn’t seem all that dissimilar to me to what Syria was pre-civil war. In some ways, actually, it’s worse. The main differences are that the issues are more out on the table and there are people and institutions that are in active opposition to oppression.

There has been lots of TV coverage of the visit, and in watching the man who is the center of this event I notice what registers is not only what he says, but his personal manner and the small characteristics which you notice in coming to an opinion of that person. Those things can’t be faked, and he reads to me as a sincere person who is working within a complex system where progress is slower than one would like. Just standing on the podium with the Mexican President and his wife, I’m sure, represents a distasteful experience for him. But while the Pope may have power at the Vatican, here he has to acknowledge the real power of the state.

There is something else too, which is that this trip represents personal danger and that for even a much younger person the itinerary would be hard. It gives him more authority.

Sunday Morning

We had gotten to the steel barricade along the avenue at 8am on Sunday, knowing that the Pope was scheduled to pass at 8:45. The barricades were the same type that are used in Montreal – long linking sections with supporting feet. It seemed like a conservative assumption that early in the morning on Sunday would cut down on the size of the crowd. I was wearing a coat that I normally wear to freezing temperatures, but I had put it over a t-shirt. The temperature wasn’t more than 4C, and after a while I started to feel it.

Unlike the day before, I wasn’t wedged into a crowd. I could move around a bit and observe, which felt a good deal better. I think these photographs reflect that freedom. I like them much more than the ones I took on Saturday, which I think are okay but I miss portraits and a closer feel for the event itself – instead of just trying to get enough space to raise my camera. Here I could see what was going on and do what I like best, which is photographing people.

At first it seemed like I was right, and that there would be few people. But by 8:45 it was starting to feel like a crowd and there was no sign of any motorcade. In fact all the traffic were Mexico City police cars, and many of those were headed the wrong way down the wide avenue.

People were showing up slowly. Perhaps everyone was watching TV and had a better idea of timing than I did, because it was cold and there wasn’t much point to standing around.

There was a lot else going on too. Suddenly out of nowhere these bike riders burst, sprinting down the open pavement. It must have been fun to have open road ahead.

But that was really just a start. I heard what sounded like a loud whoosh and turned around just in time to see this pack racing by. This avenue is normally partially closed to vehicular traffic on Sunday mornings so perhaps the Pope had to make a deal with the bike club in order to get use!

Up until about 8:45 everything had been quite linear, but then events took a twist.

I don’t know how I missed the signal but suddenly the crowd picked up the heavy steel barricades, blocks long at a time, and pushed them (our side) into the street, effectively cutting the width of the Papal passage from six lanes to less than half that. Some people, like me, may have been shocked but the general reaction of everyone was laughing. Like, “now we will be able to see El Papa!” The police seemed shocked but there was really nothing they could do about it.

There ensued after this a long period of consultative behavior. Different forms of police would show up on different forms of transportation and would order the barrier back a few feet, or for it to be lined up more crisply. But still, the passageway had not been expanded to more than just over three lanes, about half of what it had been originally.

Then a helicopter appeared above flying fast and angry. I don’t know what it was – the type or the pilot – but it had the feeling of power and speed. It was definitely displeased with the situation below and crossed us low several times, really just clearing the buildings.

Not long afterward the heavy artillery began to show up.

But they weren’t anything like what followed.

Here you can see the police ordering the barricades back and the road widened.

I have to include a few more portraits before the picture of the Pope.



And then the Pope passes by in a flash. I barely saw him, it was so fast. Beth gasped when she saw this photo and pointed out the crucifix in the foreground, but it’s actually a steadicam.

Below, the inevitable review of the phones. Even the police were doing it.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these photos. I enjoyed them even though I ended up with hypothermia! The Pope had been scheduled to pass at 8:45am at 20.4 km/h. He didn’t pass until 10am, and he was hauling.


Posted in Mexico

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How Many Roads? is a book of photographs by Jonathan Sa'adah, available for order, offering an unglossy but deeply human view of the period from 1968 to 1975 in richly detailed, observant images that have poignant resonance with the present. Ninety-one sepia photographs reproduced with an introduction by Teju Cole, essays by Beth Adams, Hoyt Alverson, and Steven Tozer, and a preface by the photographer.
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