To-Do List: Volcanoes

In 2011, I asked Alex where we should go for our 2012 vacation.  He had just been watching one of those conspiracy-type television shows where they were talking about the Mayan calendar ending in December of 2012, and so he wanted to go to Hawaii to see Kilauea, just in case.  I assured him that the world was not going to end, but we went to Hawaii anyhow.

Then, in 2013, Alex and I started to study Italian.  The plan was that we would study for a year and then go to Italy to get some real-world experience.  Then in 2014, we went to Italy and while we were there, we visited Vesuvius.

This was the start of a trend. Now every other year we visit a volcano.  In 2016, our planned volcano is going to be Yellowstone and in 2018, I’m thinking of Mount Rainier and/or Mount Hood. The initial plan, from three years out, is to go to Seattle and then to Mount Rainier.  Then we will go down into Oregon and visit the Evergreen Space and Aviation Museum. Along the way, we might be able to fit the Oregon State Capitol building in and catch the moon tree there.  And, since Seattle is on the water, we will have to fit a lighthouse in as well.

After 2018, who knows?  If we want to catch all of the volcanoes possible before Alex graduates from college, we only have seven (eight if he goes directly for his master’s degree) more years of travel left to us.

National Geographic January 2014, Part 2

Far from Home, by Cynthia Gorney, photographs by Jonas Bendiksen

Far from Home is a profile of the situation and economics of “guest workers” in foreign countries. This article refers to them primarily as “remittance workers,” because of the fact that the workers are sending as much money home to their families as they can afford to do. In economics, the term for sending money in this way is “remittances,” thus “remittance workers.”

There are millions of remittance workers in the world, both documented and undocumented, in scores of countries all over the world. The United States is temporary home to one of the largest populations of remittance workers in the world and, indeed, the existence of undocumented remittance workers in the United States is currently a heavily debated issue.

For the purposes of this article, however, Gorney focuses on one particular subset of one particular remittance worker population in a different country. This is the situation of Filipino guest workers in Dubai.

And the example Gorney uses to show this world to us is the Cruz family (which is a pseudonym to protect them). The Cruzes met in Dubai, though the husband, Luis, had a wife at home in the Philippines. After he and Teresa fell in love, however, Luis got an annulment from his wife at home and married Teresa. As they are a two-income family, they can live independently of some of the group homes that remittance workers occupy in Dubai. They also have room for two of their children. The problem is that they have four children. Since there is no room for them in the home, the Cruzes sent their eldest two children home to the Philippines, where they live with their maternal aunt.

Once Upon a Dragon, by Jennifer S. Holland, photographs by Stefano Unterthiner

Okay. Komodo dragons. They’re dragons. From Komodo.

This article is actually a very interesting read, but there’s not a whole lot to say about it. We talk about the legends that say that humans and dragons are sort of cousins — the first komodo dragon was the twin sister of an Indonesian prince. They’re a protected species, as are their prey, which means that people of the islands where the Komodo dragons live cannot offer deer meat as offerings to the dragons anymore. And, as we do in a lot of National Geographic articles, we follow scientists who are studying the dragons.

2015 Vacation Destinations: Alex and Olivia Took the Subway in New York City, and You Won’t Believe What Happened Next

We didn’t end up in Brooklyn or something.

We didn’t get mugged.

We didn’t even get our pockets picked.

On the whole, taking the subway in New York City was a pretty pleasant experience. Now, Alex and I weren’t subway newbies or anything. Our first subway was the London Underground in 2002 (though Alex was too little to remember it) and then the subway in Toronto in 2003 (he doesn’t remember that one, either).  Alex does remember taking the Metro in Washington, DC and the subway in Rome in 2014, though.  But this was the New York City subway, which movies and television make look forbidding and dangerous. It may have been just the stations we went to, but we did end up going through (or, well, under) Jamaica and Queens (and we saw more of the bottom of Queens than we expected) and it was not terrifying, like I half-feared it would be. I could even see myself doing this on a regular basis, if I ever could get a job that would support me in New York City.

A Message from Malcolm, Central Park North subway station
Part of “Message from Malcolm” by Maren Hassinger, Central Park North subway station, New York City

I was often nervous when we got on a train, but that was mostly because of the existence of part-time train stations and express lines.  I was always afraid that we’d get on, say, a train that had a big B on the front at Cathedral Parkway (something that totally did happen) and it would turn out that this particular B train skips the Bryant Park station completely and we would have to get off at Herald Square or Washington Square and make our way back to our hotel from there somehow.  This, of course, never happened.  Nearly every time we got on the subway, we got off at the stop where we were supposed to get off.

The “nearly” was our last day in New York.  We were taking the subway back to JFK. While we were waiting on the platform for the E train, we heard “mumble mumble eee.”  It was an “e” sound, so it  could have been E, or B, or C, D, G, P, Z, or 3.  Soon enough, an E train comes along, and we get on.  After a few stops, though, the lighted map thing on the wall turns off and the train heads off the wrong direction.  Turns out all that mumbling was the announcement that the next E train was actually going to be an M train.  Fortunately, the E and M trains intersected another few stops down, so we got off the M train there, and caught the next E train, which stayed an E train this time, and we got back to the airport with something like three hours to spare. So that was our heart-stopping side trip into Queens.  So for next time, if I hear some kind of announcement that might have something to do with my train, I will ask.

Some New York City subway stations are wheelchair accessible. Many of the ones we used were not, but some, including the stations in Queens leading to and from JFK were.

National Geographic January 2014, Part 1

Kayapo Courage, by Chip Brown, photographs by Martin Schoeller

The Kayapo are a relatively large indigenous group of Brazil. They still lead a hunting-and-gathering lifestyle based on traditional (if not stereotypical) gender lines. The men hunt and fish, the women gather produce and take care of the home and children.

The Kayapo are also one of the populations that are trying to balance the benefits of the outside world with their own traditional way of life. The village that Brown visits has solar panels, satellite dishes and, in some buildings, generators and flush toilets.

The Kaypo are also active in the outside world. Their numbers were reduced in the early 1900s by outsiders encroaching upon their territory, bringing diseases such as measles and smallpox. The survivors have used their immunity to Western diseases to go out into the greater population of Brazil and advocating not just for the Kayapo, but for the indigenous peoples of Brazil as a whole. It is due, in part, to the advocacy of the Kayapo that indigenous peoples’ rights were written into the Brazilian constitution in 1988. The Kayapo were also instrumental in halting the building of a series of dams that would have flooded parts of the territory occupied by indigenous peoples. A version of one of those dams, named Belo Monte, is under construction at the moment. The projected opening date for the Belo Monte dam is 2019. It remains to be seen whether the other dams will be built or not.

And if you are old enough to remember 1989, there is a good chance that you have seen at least a picture of a Kayapo. In 1987, the chief of the Kayapo, Raoni Metuktire, approached the musician Sting about the plight of the indigenous peoples of South America, and together, Sting and Chief Raoni founded the Rainforest Foundation and made an international tour in 1989 to raise worldwide awareness of indigenous peoples. So, if you remember that tour, that native Brazilian in those photos with Sting? Was Chief Raoni.

The Things They Brought Back, by Jeremy Berlin, photographs by Rosamond Purcell

The Things They Brought Back is a brief overview of the things in the back rooms of museums. We see the back rooms at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

They don’t just store these things in the back rooms; they continue to study them. One scientist, Helen James of the Smithsonian, has identified nearly 40 extinct species of bird from samples brought back from Hawaii.

I haven’t seen the back rooms of either of these museums, but for a time during my adolescence, my parents were members of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago (let’s see if I remember to put the link to my overview of the museum there once the Field Museum becomes a Northern Illinois Destination topic), and during members’ nights, members of the museum are able to visit the back rooms and see the work being done there. I enjoyed members’ nights so much that, on two different occasions, I brought friends with me. I am budgeting a trip back to Chicago for 2016. If I could guarantee being able to take Alex back to Chicago during the weekend of members’ night, I would actually contemplate joining just for 2016 so that I can take him to the behind-the-scenes events at the Museum

My Travel Memories: The Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina

My mom always liked visiting historic houses.  I’ve been to bucketloads of them, from homes owned by former presidents, to homes owned by captains of industry, to homes owned by famous authors.  I remember some, and even liked them, but the only one that I ever really loved, and wanted to go back to again, is Biltmore.

The Vanderbilts were once the richest family in the world. The family fortune began with a ferry across New York Harbor, which Cornelius Vanderbilt purchased for $100.  By the end of his first year in business, he had earned $1,100, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of $18,000 in today’s money. He wasn’t fabulously wealthy.  Yet.  That would come with time. He used the profits from his first ferry to buy more boats and his wealth grew exponentially.  Eventually he moved into shipping in a bigger way, and then into railroads.  Vanderbilt owned the New York Central Railway, the hub of which was Grand Central Terminal, and which later had a spur which is now the High Line park. And his wealth didn’t all come from doing business in an aboveboard way.  Some came from corruption, such as building cartels with other companies that should have been competitors in order to control prices.  He also undercut the competition in price in such a way that his competitors would actually pay him off to keep him out of their territory.

Cornelius’s grandson, George Washington Vanderbilt II, understandably fell in love with the Smoky Mountains and decided to build a summer home in Asheville, North Carolina.  He named his summer home “Biltmore.”  Biltmore was more than a summer home, however.  It was also a working farm and also something of a laboratory in agriculture and forestry.

The centerpiece of the estate was a 250-room mansion which is still the largest private home in the United States.  This is the part that first captured my attention.  The two rooms that I remembered forever and always were the winter garden and the library.  This makes a lot of sense when you consider my personality.  Two of the things I love best are books and plants.

The first time we visited Biltmore, I was very young (I think I was seven) and I was convinced that it was a palace.  We didn’t see much of the house on our first visit (the owners are restoring the house one room at a time and opening them up to the public as they were restored), so I figured that the part of the house where we didn’t get to visit is where the royal family’s quarters.  The winter garden was, of course, the throne room.

The gardens of the house are lovely, as well, with arbors and ponds and a conservatory.  But the outside of the estate is not just gardens.  George built an entire village for his employees.  Many of the house employees lived in the house itself  (some of those rooms are now open to the public), but the employees of the farm and George’s scientific experiments lived in the village.

Unfortunately, George was not much of a businessman.  The story is that he spent most of his inheritance on the estate and failed to recoup his investment.  As a result, in 1930, 16 years after George’s death, George’s daughter Cornelia and her husband opened the estate to the public in order to raise the funds to hold onto the place.  And, except for the duration of World War II, the house has been a tourist attraction.

After Cornelia’s death, her two sons split the estate. Her elder son inherited the farm and village and her younger son inherited the house.  They have split the property into two entities accordingly, though both are accessible upon payment of the entrance fee.

National Geographic, July 2015, Part 3

Pluto at Last, by Nadia Drake, photographs by Dana Berry

Astronomers have known that there must have been something beyond Pluto since the 1840s, when they decided that the orbits of Uranus and Neptune were being affected by a large body beyond them. It took another 90 years for them to actually find Pluto, which turned out to be a lot smaller than they had expected it to be. At first, they assumed it had to be about the size of the Earth, but farther out than it looked, but over time, they realized that Pluto was just really, really tiny. It turns out that the irregular orbit of Uranus and Neptune is because the scientists miscalculated the mass of Uranus. Once that was corrected, the orbits of Uranus and Neptune make sense.

Not too long after this issue was published, New Horizons flew past Pluto, taking the first-ever photographs of the dwarf planet’s surface. It took so long for New Horizons to reach Pluto that Pluto was still a full planet when it left Earth in January 2006. Pluto was demoted to “dwarf planet” status in August of 2006.

As an aside, I do love Eris’s name. Eris is the dwarf planet that is twice as massive as Pluto that was discovered in 2005. Since Eris is larger than Pluto, if Pluto was still considered a planet, they should have considered Eris to be one, as well, but then they discovered other dwarf planets around the same size as, or larger than, Pluto. If this kept up, they would have to keep adding new planets as things in the range of Pluto’s size continued to be discovered. In the end, as we all know, Pluto was demoted to the newly created category of “dwarf planet.” Since this new planet sowed strife and discord among the scientific community (and also among the population in general), Eris seems to me to be the perfect name.

Of course, as I’m writing this, New Horizons’s flyby of Pluto is done. New Horizons just sent back new photographs of Charon, Pluto’s largest moon and soon the spacecraft will be heading into the Kuiper Belt, which is full of dwarf planets and other objects. They estimate that, unless it has some kind of mechanical failure, New Horizons will continue on its current path for another 20 years. You can see where New Horizons is now at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory website.

Mountain Men, by Jeremy Berlin, photographs by David Burnett

Mountain Men is an overview of the American Mountain Men association, who are a group of people (largely, but not exclusively, men) who reeenact the lifestyle of the fur trappers of the old west. And they do actually trap animals and tan their hides. The website, but not the printed issue, has a photograph of a freshly skinned beaver hide that one of the members is going to tan. This isn’t my sort of thing, but if we were all the same, how boring would that be?

2015 Vacation Destinations: The High Line, New York City

I have always loved trains.  My childhood home in the Chicago area was two blocks from a freight train line and many nights I was lulled to sleep by the sound of train horns.  I currently live not too far from a rail line and can occasionally hear the horns in the distance.  I also love to travel by train (more on that in my next, and likely final, 2015 Vacation Destinations post).

So when, in 2006 or so, I found out that an old section of freight train line on Manhattan was being repurposed as a public park, I knew that I would have to visit it.  And on our last day in New York City, Alex and I finally had a chance to go.

The High Line is on, as the name implies, an elevated section of railroad track.  Originally, the freight trains that ran on the line were on the street level.  After entirely too many accidents, the city decided to elevate the line.  Trains ran on those elevated tracks from 1934 until 1980 (the final train to travel the tracks consisted of an engine and three cars of frozen turkeys).  The tracks then sat unused for nearly 30 years.  Work began on the park in 2006, and the first section opened to the public in 2009.

The plants chosen for the High Line are largely the same types of plants that grew along the tracks during the years when the High Line lay abandoned.  There are lists of the plants used, but the list is kind of overwhelming.  For example, they used four different varieties of purple moor grass.  The Friends of the High Line website has a more easily digestible way to get to know the plant of the High Line through the “plant of the week” tag on their blog. I write these weeks ahead of time and schedule them for later, so the most recent plant of the week as I write this is goldenrod.  If you look at the website and go back to that post, be prepared for a picture of what you likely will immediately identify as ragweed.  Both plants flower at the same time, but they’re very different.  The big plumes of yellow flowers are goldenrod.  The ragweed that makes so many of us with hay fever miserable, is a much less exciting plant with little green flowers. In some places (see image below), the plants are placed alongside the original rails of the line.

Purple coneflower and wild grasses along the rails of the High Line.

In addition to the plants, the High Line is home to a number of pieces of public art.  It is, of course, all modern art; so far no one has bought a Renaissance sculpture and donated it to the park, nor has it been there long enough for the works to become “classical.”  I admit that I don’t really “get” much in the way of modern art, but I actually liked this.  I think the setting made it somehow more accessible than I usually find modern art in a museum setting.  If that makes any sense.

The neighborhood around the High Line was interesting, as well.  We watched them constructing a new high-rise apartment building near the entrance where we climbed up to the park, and at one point, we walked past the High Line Hotel, which is in the building that once housed the General Theological Seminary (which, in turn, was built on land donated by Clement Moore, the author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas”).

The park passes over and goes through the art gallery district in Chelsea.  At one point, we needed to go back down to street level and we happened to pass the Heller Gallery,  which had an exhibition of Luke Jerram’s glass microbes.  I had seen photos of Jerram’s work, but had never seen any in person.  The man behind the counter was very gracious to two tired, sweaty tourists who just wanted to look around.  Jerram’s work was just as beautiful as I expected it to be, but it is more than a little nerve-wracking to stand that close to a piece of glass worth more than six months’ pay at my job.

The one thing that the High Line lacked was shade. The heat index was 100 (or slightly above) when we were there, and by the time we headed back down to the street level to take the subway to our hotel, I was longing for some kind of shade — a tree or some kind of shelter.  There are trees in the High Line, but since the park is so young, the trees are still little more than saplings.  Hopefully they did their planning correctly and someday those trees will be tall enough to provide shade to their visitors.  That time has not yet come, however.

The High Line is wheelchair accessible.  Six entrances, Gansevoort and Washington, 14th Street, 16th Street, 23rd Street, 30th Street, and 34th Street and 12th Avenue, have either an elevator or a ramp.  We were unable to find the 34th Street entrance to the park, but they were doing some sort of construction, so I suspect that the entrance may have been blocked off temporarily the day we were there.

National Geographic July 2015, Part 2

How Orcas Work Together to Whip Up a Meal, by Virginia Morrell, photographs by Paul Nicklen

That’s an uncomfortably wordy title, but I guess it’s descriptive. How Orcas Work Together to Whip Up a Meal is the final installment of the three-part Understanding Dolphins series, because orcas are dolphins — the largest of the dolphins, in fact.

The meaning of the title is that orcas do what is called “carousel feeding.” They surround schools of herring and swim in ever-tighter circles around the herring. Then, once they have the herring trapped, they smack them with their tails. This stuns or kills the herring, making them easy to eat. They use other tactics, of course, but carousel feeding is one of the most fascinating.

While researching the story, Morrell saw whales hunting with the orcas. This was surprising because whales are also prey of orcas (the name “killer whale” is actually a mistranslation of the Spanish name, asesina de ballinas, or “whale killer.” Yet the whales were out there with the orcas, unmolested. The orca specialist that Morrell was talking to, Tiu Similä, decided later that the whales were freeloaders. However, there were enough fish for all, so the orcas allowed them to hang around.

In the Footsteps of Gandhi, by Tom O’Neill, photographs by Rena Effendi

In the Footsteps of Gandhi is about Gandhi’s literal footsteps. As part of India’s path to independence from the United Kingdom, Gandhi and thousands of other Indians walked from to the coast of the Arabian Sea. The British forbade the people of India to harvest their own salt from the sea, instead requiring them to buy the mineral from the British. In protest, Gandhi walked to the sea, intending to harvest salt from the salt flats, but the British had ground the salt into the beach. Gandhi was able to find one crystal of salt on the beach and picked it up, breaking the law. Gandhi and tens of thousands of his followers were arrested.

O’Neill decided to walk the same path, from Ahmedabad to the Arabian Sea. Through this article, we see the places he visits and talk to the people he meets, looking for traces of Gandhi.

My Travel Memories: Trips to North Carolina

Several times during my childhood, we went to visit my grandfather at his cabin in the mountains of North Carolina.  I found the Smoky Mountains to be breathtakingly beautiful, a feeling that comes over me every time I return (which my son and I did in 2013).  I also don’t know if this is cause and effect or just my own personality, but I also now gravitate towards temperate rain forests.  If I am ever able to retire, I may well end up in the Smoky Mountains for the Pacific Northwest or, if I am truly financially independent and can go anywhere I want, somewhere abroad such as Ireland or Cornwall.

Looking through our old photo albums (I’m now up to 3,511 pictures scanned in, which is about to become 3,512), I so far have only found two places that we stopped on our way from Chicago to North Carolina.

One of these was the Knoxville Zoo.  As fate would have it, my now-ex-husband (maybe I should give him a pseudonym) and I attempted to go to the Knoxville Zoo in 1992, but the zoo looked like it was closed when we were there.  There didn’t even look to be anyone in the ticket booth.  I don’t think I’d ever seen a zoo that was closed before or since.  The San Antonio Zoo is open 365 days a year.  They have to feed the animals anyway, so they might as well take in a few dollars from visitors.  And lots of people do go to the zoo that day.  Upon digging farther, I see that the Knoxville Zoo is not open on Christmas.  Perhaps this is because Knoxville is in the Bible Belt?

I don’t remember the Knoxville Zoo.  We have photos of it and one has a note saying that I was particularly fond of the bears there, so I know that I must have been there, but other than that, I’ve got nothing.  Perhaps if they had looked to be open on our 1992 visit and we’d gone in, I would have been hit by some kind of sense memories.  While researching this part of the post, it looks like they’ve since remodeled, so even if I returned today, I doubt that I’d see anything that I recognize.  As it is, as with the next two items, I hardly have enough to base an entire blog post on.  One can rent wheelchairs at the zoo, and one TripAdvisor review from 2012 says that the zoo is wheelchair accessible, but nowhere that I can find on the official site does it say whether the zoo is wheelchair accessible.

We also stopped in Gatlinburg on our way in or out on every visit.  This is the only way I know for certain the years we went to North Carolina.  My dad and I would always take the ski lift and then purchase the automatic photo of us that is taken on the way up.  I know that at least one time we stayed in a local hotel while we were there.  all I remembered was the name of the motel — the Dogwood Motel — but until I started my photo-scanning project I didn’t know that it had been in Gatlinburg.  And I do mean “had been,” Google Street View doesn’t show anything in that location anymore, not even a newer motel.

As to things we did while we were in North Carolina, we at some point, went to an amusement park called Frontier Land, which was organized around, just as the name implied, a western theme.  The park was in Cherokee, on or near the tribal lands.  From what I can tell, the park was on the site where the Harrah’s Casino is today.  All I remember of Frontier Land was a train ride and a roller coaster called, I believe, the Mad Mouse.

We also spent time in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on every visit and we went to the Biltmore Estate at least once in my childhood (Alex and I also went to the Biltmore Estate in 2013).  I remember enough of those, though, to base an entire blog post on my memories, which will follow in (if things go as scheduled) another six and twelve days.

National Geographic July 2015, Part 1

Seeking the Source of Ebola, by David Quammen, photographs by Pete Muller

Despite the title, the scientists that study ebola aren’t really looking for the source of ebola so much as they are looking for a reservoir species, where the disease hides in between outbreaks. They are as certain as it is possible to be (which means that really persuasive evidence could change their minds) that ebola is not always present in the human population. This means that it must hide in another species.

For most of this article, Quammen focuses on bats. This seems to be a pretty good candidate, since Patient Zero in the most recent outbreak, two-year-old Emile Ouamouno of Guinea, likely caught the illness from a bat. Ouamouno was seen playing in a tree that had a colony of bats days before he became symptomatic. Children also try to catch the bats and then they roast them on a stick and eat them, and that may be what happened to Ouamouno.

And then there’s more about bats as a disease vector for other viruses, including Nipah virus, Hendra virus, and Marburg virus. However, when it all comes down to it, there is no definite evidence that bats are the reservoir species. The reservoir species may be something else, such as an insect or bird.

Food Truck Revolution, by David Brindey, photographs by Gerd Ludwig

A few years ago, they legalized food trucks in San Antonio. A food truck is just like it sounds, a truck that serves food. Generally, the food is cooked on the truck, but there are also trucks that serve premade food such as sandwiches and beverages. And I realized then that there isn’t a lot of street food in San Antonio. This is odd, since street food was a big part of San Antonio history. If you are in the United States, it is likely that you have eaten chili at some point in your life. Chili began as a San Antonio street food. For over a century, from the 1800s until World War II, the “chili queens” would serve chili from tables in the public parks and squares (most notably Alamo Plaza).

Yet that culture died out at some point, perhaps when the focus of business shifted from downtown to the area around North Loop 410. And even today, if you look where the food trucks are, you will see more out by Interstate 10, Loop 1604, and Loop 410 than you will find downtown.

Food Truck Revolution focuses on the origin of the current crop of food trucks — the Kogi BBQ truck of Los Angeles. In 2008 Korean-born Roy Choi opened a food truck serving Korean-flavored Mexican food. From there, Brindey shows us some of the other food trucks of the Los Angeles area.

Despite the proliferation of food trucks in San Antonio, I have really only ever eaten street food while on vacation. Maybe I will have to track down a food truck or two here in San Antonio someday and see what they have to offer.