Volcán Momotombo, amidst the waters of lake Xolotlán.  1280 meters.  Managua, Nicaragua.
El tren iba rodando sobre sus rieles.
Era en los días de mi dorada primavera
y era mi Nicaragua natal.
De pronto, entre las copas de los árboles, vi un cono gigantesco,
"calvo y desnudo", y lleno de antiguo orgullo triunfal.

¡Oh Momotombo ronco y sonoro!
Te amo porque a tu evocación vienen a mí otra vez,
obedeciendo a un íntimo reclamo,
perfumes de mi infancia, brisas de mi niñez.*

                                                  Rubén Darío
                                                  Nicaraguan poet.

*Poem Translation

Nicaragua is aptly known as "tierra de lagos y volcanes", a land of lakes and volcanoes.  Situated within the Pacific Ring of Fire, her landscape is populated by 25 volcanoes, many of which are in constant activity, and whose spectacular eruptions can both delight and frighten.

Maribios volcanic range.

The volcanoes have been at times a source of mystery, and fear:

Volcán Masaya, (635 meters) crater of Santiago.  The indigenous inhabitants of the region called it Popogatepe, or burning mountain.  In 1529 it was visited by the Spanish chronicler Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, who named it "the mouth of Hell", and friar Francisco de Bobadilla installed a cross (replica in the distance) to guard off the devil.  Masaya, Nicaragua.
Entrance to the bat caves.  Volcán Masaya.  The caves were formed during an eruption: a gust of cold wind passed through the lava and left a void.  Pre-Colombian pottery was found inside the caves, and it is believed that the priestess of Masaya conducted her rituals here.  Today it is home to a very shy bat colony.
Volcán Masaya.  Masaya, Nicaragua.  The air is rarefied and breathing becomes difficult because of the sulfuric gases.

Other volcanoes are the stuff of legend:

Volcán Concepción (left) and Volcán Maderas (right).  Isla de Ometepe.  The name Ometepe means "two mountains".  The ancient legend says that the Nahuas travelled from distant northern lands at the mandate of their gods, looking for a new land in which to settle.  Their sign would be an island in a lake, and in the island, two mountains.  The best examples of Pre-Colombian pottery and stone work have been found at Ometepe, and the nearby island of Zapatera.  They can be admired at the  Museum "Convento San Francisco", Granada.  Isla de Ometepe, Lake Cocibolca.  Nicaragua.

Volcán Concepción.  Isla de Ometepe, Lake Cocibolca, Nicaragua.

Ometepe's twin volcanoes are full of distinct wonders.  While Concepción is barren, hot, and full of volcanic activity; Maderas sleeps and is covered in forests and hidden treasures.  One has to climb to find them, of course...

Some Volcanoes hide their violent past hidden in the mist of the millennia:

Volcán Mombacho, (1344 meters) which blew up its cone in a magnificent strombolian eruption over 20,000 years ago; and formed an archipelago of 365 islets (Isletas de Granada).  Lake Cocibolca, Granada, Nicaragua.

Mombacho seen from the doorway of the Museum "Convento San Francisco".  Granada, Nicaragua.

The 365 Isletas de Granada and Lake Cocibolca, seen from atop Volcán Mombacho.
The crater of Volcán Mombacho.  There is a lagoon at the bottom, which fuels the widespread belief that Mombacho is extinct, but...

 In this field, just off to the side of the crater, one can find small "Fumarolas", which are a sign that Mombacho is really only sleeping...

Which brings me to the volcanoes you can touch, albeit dangerous if you do:

Fumarolas de San Jacinto.  A fumarole is literally a boiling mud pit.  They form in high-temperature geothermal areas where water is in short supply. The little water that is available rises to the surface at a spot where the soil is rich in volcanic ash, clay and other fine particles.  The Fumarolas are part of the volcanic complex of the active Volcán Telica (1061 meters) and the extinct Volcán Santa Clara. 

Fumaroles, with Volcán Santa Clara in the distance.  The strong smell of sulfur abounds.  The landscape of the fumaroles is ever changing.  One should always visit with a guide that can recognize the color and texture of the ground, and determine whether it is safe to walk on it or not.  San Jacinto, León, Nicaragua.

And there are also the new ones:

Volcán Cerro Negro. (728 meters)  Its name literally means "Black Hill".  It first appeared in 1850, and it has been in continuous activity since then, with frequent eruptions.  Its last eruption was in 1999.  Cerro Negro's strombolian eruptions are characterized by the columns of black ash that engulf the municipalities of León and Chinandega, and by the electric storms that light up its summit and can be seen at night from the lonely country lanes. 


"Volcano Boarding" on Cerro Negro's gravel side.  A much needed rest.  It is a hard ascend, made even more difficult by the rarefied sulfuric air.
 Volcano Boarding

Cerro Negro.  León Nicaragua.
As you can see, the volcanoes can provide entertainment (zip lines have been installed in the forest of Mombacho, they call it "Canopy"), they inspire poetry, they mystify, they are a source of pride.  It would seem that most cities in Nicaragua have their own Volcano.  Some of them have paid dearly for that honor:  León had to be built in a different location because Momotombo "ronco y sonoro" buried it with an eruption in the 1610; Cerro Negro's 1992 eruption caused a lot of damage to land and property as well as several deaths; and more recently, during the heavy rains of Hurricane Mitch, Volcán Casita created a mudslide that tragically took many lives and destroyed the villages in its surroundings.  But the volcanoes are also a source of renewable energy, such as the geothermal plant installed at the base of Volcán Momotombo to transform the heat of the volcano into electricity:

Volcán Momotombo.  Managua's pride.

I grew up in Chinandega, the northernmost city in the Pacific Coast, home of, among others, Volcán Cosigüina and Volcán San Cristóbal.  Cosigüina blew off one third of its cone during its most famous eruption in 1835; ash from this eruption has been found in Mexico, Costa Rica, and Jamaica.  A lagoon now occupies its crater.  I have not visited or climbed this volcano, therefore I cannot post a picture of it.  My oldest brother on the other hand, could be a tour guide of the park.

The mighty San Cristóbal, at 1785 meters, is the tallest volcano in the country.  It has a perfect conical shape, and it is ever present from the city streets and the countryside (even on a cloudy sunset)

Volcán San Cristóbal, seen from the docks at Marina Puesta del Sol.  Aserradores, Chinandega, Nicaragua.
Volcán San Cristóbal, seen from the countryside.  Its last eruption was a moderate one in April of 2006, and in September of 2009 it showered ash on the nearby towns.
The volcanoes are to me a  sort of compass: the Pacific Ocean on the West and the Maribios range on the East.  Every time I visit my childhood home I feel I have finally arrived when catch a glimpse of San Cristóbal's perfect cone; and when I leave I make sure to say good bye. 

All images by NPL


Talking to the Storm

The Eye of the Storm.  Gabriella "La Tempestad", captured by Bhavin Userofreality.

To quote "The Ten Books of Architecture" by the Roman architect Vitruvius (Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, ca. 90 BC - ca. 90 BC): "The architect should be equipped with knowledge of many branches of study and varied kinds of learning, for it is by his judgement that all work done by the other arts is put to test."

Vitruvius then goes on to list the many arts and skills in which an architect should be well versed (Drawing, Geometry, History, Philosophy, Music, Medicine, Law, Astronomy) because "It follows, therefore, that architects who have aimed at acquiring manual skill without scholarship have never been able to reach a position of authority to correspond to their pains, while those who relied only upon theories and scholarship were obviously hunting the shadow, not the substance. But those who have a thorough knowledge of both, like men armed at all points, have the sooner attained their object and carried authority with them."

I happen to take Vitruvius's advice on the education of the architect very seriously, and if at times the contents of this blog seem random and unrelated it is because my interests, as Polia suggests (a play on Greek words that one day I will explain) are many.  I believe that Architecture is informed by so many other subjects outside of Architecture herself, and sometimes I feel that one has to practice those subjects (perhaps not medicine) in order to understand them. 

Cuadro La Tempestad.  From Left: Joyce "La Joya" Wilkenfeld, Marisol Monasterio, "El Maestro" Guillermo Serpas, Nadia Palacios Lauterbach, "La Tempestad", Eya Tkachenko.  Photo by Alejandro Almanza taken at 14 Pews Theatre in Norhill, The Heights.  Houston, Texas.

One of the many other subjects I practice is music and dance.  I started on the piano when I was 8, and danced Nicaraguan folkloric dances until the end of high school.  These days you will find me singing and dancing Flamenco with Cuadro La Tempestad, the professional company from Del Espadín Flamenco and Spanish Dance Academy in Houston Texas.  Cuadro is led by acclaimed dancer Gabriella Aliberti, "La Tempestad", whose stage name (The Storm) was bestowed on her the old fashioned and proper way: by a gypsy who saw her dance and said "you are like a storm". 

Tempestad lives up to her name.  In her dancing she combines technical precision with artistic spontaneity.  She is delicate one moment, forceful the next; refined one beat or completely raw at another turn.  Sometimes she dances with such violent, brutal passion and at others, "the storm" stands still and it is the slightest of hand movements that have the most meaning.

A clip from "Great Day Houston, with Deborah Duncan".  NBC Houston.  Guillermo Serpas follows Tempestad with his "toque". 

I'd been wanting to write about Flamenco for a while, and Tempestad was very gracious to answer some of my questions:

DP: Tell me Tempestad, when did you start in Flamenco and what made you?

My mother (María del Espadín) is the first reason I got into flamenco.  She always adored dancing, almost any form actually, especially since she comes from a long line of dancers and musicians.  When I was 4 years old she enrolled me in ballet classes at Neubert Ballet Institute of Carnegie Hall.  While I was attending my ballet class, she would observe the flamenco classes going on in the studio down the hall.  She first enrolled my older sister in classes (youngest age International Studios accepted for flamenco was age 6) and then me 2 years later.  I was so excited to dance wearing a pretty red ruffly skirt, high heels and playing the "cha-chas" (the word my sister and I used for castanets).  After only a few classes, even as a young child, I was hooked.  The rest is pretty much history.

DP: Mundane question, because people like numbers.  How much time do you spend practicing? besides teaching and performances, on your own I mean?

Not nearly as much as I should to be called a professional dancer.  Balancing Law and dance...performances, teaching, coaching, managing dance companies, running the studio...getting in practice for myself can be quite a challenge.  If I get in 2-4 hours in a week, I'm good.

DP: Wow, busy life!  More numbers; how many pairs of shoes?  Dresses?

Wow,  at least a dozen pairs.  Several dresses.  Now, out of all that I have my few favorites that I will always wear.  Performance shows I typically go through in a year.  Practice shoes...the ones with the tougher heel start wearing down after a year and a half.  I can't use performance shoes for practice anymore...I tend to knock the heels off and they can't make it through both practice and performing.  I also try to rotate a few pairs to elongate the life.  Handmade flamenco shoes from Spain don't run cheap, you know...

Vestido de Lunares.  Tempestad captured by Henry Swasey.

DP:  I understand that one needs some endurance to participate in Flamenco, is it hard on the body, can it cause you pain?

Flamenco is definitely physically demanding.  The only other activity I've tried that rivals it is capoeira.  It isn't painful (well, some movement has become painful because of my car accident injuries...but that goes for any kind of movement, not just any associated with flamenco), but it can take a toll on you.  Most of the time, performance venues are not very conducive for the type of physical activity required by flamenco...i.e. stages built over concrete, venues wanting 3 hour long shows, etc.;  but flamenco itself keeps a person very strong.  I have had teachers well into their 60s and 70s that have been dancing and performing since they were children and they just keep on going. 

DP:  You and your mom call yourselves practitioners of "Flamenco Puro", would you tell me, what is Flamenco Puro?

Flamenco puro means "pure flamenco" or what the gypsies, the people who created flamenco, "practice".  The flamenco puro is an expression of life, or rather a way of life.  Today flamenco has been, in my opinion, commercialized, bastardized, mutilated....can you tell i'm a purist?....it has been fused with many other genres as far as the music is concerned.  The dance has become androgynous and more of an acrobatic feat rather than an expression of emotion or artistry.  I can appreciate the newer music but I don't think it should be called flamenco.  It may have elements of flamenco but it is not flamenco.  The essentials of flamenco puro are gone, it is no longer a culture, it has become an "art form", "music form", a "term".  In a way, I'm glad that it is regarded as an art, but not glad that it is at the expense of the culture that created it.  Its creators should be given that respect, don't take it away from them and "say thanks, now we're going to make this into something that really matters, now we're going to make this art".  That I have no respect for.  The gypsies, I do respect; and that is why I practice flamenco puro...or at least I do my best at keeping what I do.

 DP: What inspires you?  What moves you?

Ah...That's a hard one.  I think what inspires me the most is the lack of inhibition that flamenco provides.  It is completely based on everyday life and everyday emotions.  No one judges anyone, but at the same time there's nothing "touchy-feely" about it or "kumbaya" about it.  Everybody just gets to be real.  It is what it is...sin frontera (without limits) and no one is going to tell you yes or no about it.

Tempestad dances a Farruca.  Image by Bhavin Userofreality,

DP: Who are your idols?

MANUELA CARRASCO.  I repeat!  MANUELA CARRASCO.  Not only is she a phenomenon, but she sticks to the real thing!  She is the only performer out there that has never diverted from flamenco puro.  Not once.

DP:  I agree, she is AMAZING. "La diosa"; I could watch her all day!  And how does Flamenco make you feel?

Flamenco makes me feel everything.  Sometimes I can feel like I'm floating that one could knock me over with a feather.  Other times I feel like the most powerful being.  It runs the gamut...ecstatic to spiraling depression...sometimes stuck in the middle...complete indifference and lost in thought somewhere, just going through the motions; sometimes not seeing clearly where all is a blur and movement and expression are my guides.  How I dance completely depends on where my mind and my heart are at the time.  Flamenco is completely personal to me and is mine.  Probably the only thing I do in my life that doesn't have to be done for anyone but me.
DP:  It is interesting you say that everything is a blur and sometimes just your emotions guide you; because I remember for Houston Artopia 2010, when your dad was so ill at the hospital, you danced like his life depended on it.  It was the best Alegrías I've seen you do, and I told you that, and you said to me "really? it was all a blur".  You just wanted to get back to your Papa. 

DP: So I'm coming to understand that there are a lot of things people don't suspect hidden under a performance.  What about a "pep-talk"?  Some dancers do that.  What do you think before you get up from that chair and we say "Ale Tempestad"?

Just about anything!!  Having been on the stage so long, sometimes I forget I'm up there and not on my living room couch.  There is no conscious effort of "OK I'm on stage.  I'm about to dance tango.  I have to get myself psyched and focused."  Nothing like that.  There is no distinction between being on stage and not.  Stage is just the means to complete freedom of expression.  I hear the compás and things just take over.  But that can be on stage or while I'm doing the laundry or talking to friends or walking.  The compás (rhythm) is always there to dance to.  It is also hard to control what you're feeling when you're up there.  Depending on what's going on in my life or my surroundings I might feel a lot deeper than usual.  I've been moved to extremes of a feeling, both happy and sad many times and that will come out on stage.  There really are no checks and balances as to emotion in flamenco.

DP: So when you are performing, you really are just living in Flamenco, and that just goes along with the idea that Flamenco is a way of life, something that you practice.  And you have been living in Flamenco all your life, so you must have had a few "moments", which here at Dear Polia we like to call "Surreal Moments".  Are there any you'd like to share?

Meeting Manuela Carrasco.  Learning from her after watching her incessantly since I was 12 was amazing!  It was surreal every time she would stop the class to ask me to demonstrate.  I could have been on cloud 9.  Someone could have told me my flamenco life would end right there and I would have been completely satisfied.  To gain approval from my idol capped it off for me.

DP:  Ahh..."La Diosa"; Manuela she is awesome, did I already mention that?  Flamenco Puro, Flamenco de verdad señores!  Ok, I'm digressing.  So you have your own perfoming company I hear, with an appropriately traditional Flamenco name:  Cuadro La Tempestad.

Yes, Cuadro is really an amazing group of young flamencos.  After my accident (Gabriella suffered multiple injuries and fractures to her leg, hand, and ribs in 2008) when I was left high and dry by my former company, I had to put together a company in a matter of months, while still healing myself.  I basically chose the "best and the brightest" from my mom's studio and coached them into being the top flamenco performing company in Houston.  No other company in Houston has received the accolades Cuadro has received, especially in such little time.  Cuadro is made up of truly dedicated individuals that believe in flamenco puro first.  They all respect it and love it.  This comes through in their effort and their performances.  I feel that I'm blessed to have such a wonderful and talented group.  Cuadro is like the phoenix to me.  After my car accident, I thought I had nothing, especially since people that called me family ran out on me to satisfy their own egos.  I was left wondering if I could ever be able to dance again myself, let alone have a performing company.  So just when everything seemed at its worst, Cuadro came into existence..."out of the ashes, the phoenix shall rise".

DP: I think Cuadro has a great motivation and inspiration in you;  You couldn't walk, move your torso, and had surgery on your arm after your accident (which still cramps when you dance, not that anyone can notice); but you came back with a vengeance, with the desire to not only be as good as you were before, but to be even better.

La Tempestad en reposo.  Photo by Bhavin Userofreality.

DP: Do you have any parting words of wisdom?

When talking about flamenco people need to keep things real.  It is real.  It's not about putting on a special dress and special shoes and to wow the crowd.  I would get up on the stage in jeans and flats and dance my heart out because it is the best high I could ever experience.  As a matter of fact, I wish I could get up on the stage in comfy jeans and dance barefoot!  That would be the best!  So I try to keep it as real as possible.  When people come to see me dance, it is what it is.  I don't strive to impress or be the best.  I just want to do flamenco.  I just want to dance, and if people are watching, great, I hope they like it.

Cuadro La Tempestad.  Image by Bhavin Userofreality.

Gabriella "La Tempestad" will perform with her Company Cuadro La Tempestad this
Saturday May 21st in The Heights. 
14 Pews Theatre ~ 800 Aurora
Houston, TX 77009


Heights Living: Water Under the Bridge.

Bayland Ave.  Woodland Heights.
Most streets in the Heights look like the picture above, with a typical sidewalk and curb; but in other parts of the neighborhood there occurs a curious landscaping and infrastructure phenomenon: The Swale or Bioswale.

As restoration and new construction sweeps the community, sidewalks that were once abandoned and neglected are being revitalized in this ecological way.

A Bioswale is a a landscape feature designed to drain water while at the same time remove silt and pollution from surface runoff.  It consists of a channeled course with gently sloping sides and filled with vegetation, compost, or gravel.  The channel will conduct water to a sewage system.

Typical Bioswale and Culvert Bridge.  Houston Heights.
While most of the swales found in the Heights are very simple (a grassy channel with a small culvert bridge to access the house), some neighbors view their swales as an extension of the front yard and as an opportunity to ornament the neighborhood.  Here are some examples:

A Bridge to match the picket fence of this Victorian house.

These two culvert bridges were built and paved with Pennsylvania Stone.
These neighbors built themselves a mini "Grand Canyon" in their swale, to match their gravel drive and pathways.  The bottom of the swale was appropriately left unpaved.

And these neighbors have a whole garden growing in their swale, complete with several species of ground covers and flowers.


Here is a little bridge, and if you look carefully, you'll see that there are garden gnomes hidden among the grass clumps!
More Bridges:

And my favorite, it even has a weather vane:

All images by NPL.



A failed Endeavour

The Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center.

Saturn V Rocket.  It was rockets like these that propelled the Apollo Missions to the Moon.  Notice the people nearby for a sense of scale...
This is me bragging:

My husband, the NASA engineer, was recently honored for his achievements. The award was presented to him at a breakfast on what was to be Space Shuttle Endeavour's last voyage.

But by now I'm sure you've all heard that there was a problem with the thermostat of the auxiliary power unit, and the launch had to be postponed; a tentative launch date has been set for May 16th.

The night before the projected launch the weather at Cape Canaveral had been most unkind, with a storm system traveling over Cocoa Beach and spectacular lightning seen above Endeavour's launching pad:

Storm clouds move into Cocoa Beach, Fl on April 28th 2011.

Lightning strikes pad 39A.  Image by NASA/Bill Ingalls.

The morning of the 29th broke cloudy, wet, and windy; and though the rain and clouds cleared by midday, the winds remained a strong 20 mph, well above the safe 12 mph launch requirement and even the 17 mph waiver. So even before we knew of the technical difficulties, we were cautious in our optimism.

The crowds starting to form early in the morning along the beach.

But optimistic we were, and we cheered for the astronauts (Mark Kelly, Gregory Johnson, Michael Fincke, Greg Chamitoff, Andrew Feustel, and Roberto Vittori) as they drove by in their silver "Astrovan". It was at that particular moment that the launch postponement was announced and the Astrovan had to sadly retrace its steps.

The astronauts met with President Obama, who had come to watch the launch, and the rest of us went to drown our sorrows in the Atlantic Ocean.

Cocoa Beach, Florida.  April 29th, 2011.

Despite the disappointment of not seeing Endeavour fly, we still got to see some pretty amazing things during our stay at the Kennedy Space Center, things that are not included on the regular tour, like the Shuttle herself, fully dressed and loaded waiting patiently on her launching pad:

The Vehicle Assembly Building, where the Shuttles are serviced and prepared for the Missions.

Endeavour in the distance.  This is as close as a normal tour gets, and on a normal tour the Shuttles would be safely parked in their respective hangars.

"The Crawler".  This is the vehicle used to transport the Shuttle from the VAB to the launching pad.

Every shuttle gets its own building.  Notice the slot in the middle, that is to make room for the shuttle's tail as it drives in and out.

The Vehicle Assembly Building from another angle.  The big door is where the shuttle exits, rocket boosters and all.  The "VAB" is 525 feet tall and 210 feet wide.  Simple in design, it requires a complex ventilation system to avoid condensation and  rain clouds from forming inside the building.

Space Shuttle Endeavour on Pad 39A, ready to launch (or not...).  Sadly our obligations prevent us from returning to Cape Canaveral for the next launch attempt; but hereby I wish the crew of STS-134 safe travels to the International Space Station on May 16th at 8:56 am!  Go Endeavour!

All images by NPL unless noted otherwise.


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