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Friday, April 27, 2012

Southern Utah, Home of Spectacular National Parks

A bentonite hill, which is made up of ash layers from ancient volcanoes
 at Capitol Reef National Park

all photos by Olga Bonfiglio except those marked

Utah is no place for the faint of heart whether plant, animal, or human.  In this land of weathered rock amid sagebrush, yucca, cactus, juniper, cottonwoods and pinyon pine, travelers gain a new appreciation for wind and water’s role in shaping the landscape.
The majestic landforms of the Colorado Plateau will set your imagination on fire—along with the 100-degree dry heat—in Zion, Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks. 

These parks offer visitors an uncanny beauty and an experience of nature’s “sculptures” that result from tremendous geological changes dating back 2 billion years ago—and counting.  

Rivers, seas and desert winds have shaped this land and you can witness the different geological eras at the canyons’ and cliffs’ outcroppings. 

The Colorado Plateau is a 130,000 square-mile swath covering the intersection of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.  Sixty-five million years ago the region experienced uplift, tilting, and erosion of rock layers to form the Grand Staircase, a series of colorful cliffs stretching from the Grand Canyon to Bryce Canyon and including the Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef.

The landscape of the parks and surrounding areas, which are not crowded at all, will look familiar.  Of course, this was the land of the cowboys that you saw in the movies.  Walk on the land and you hear and feel the crunch of the scrubby plants underfoot, endless dust, the winding paths around the sweet-smelling sagebrush and haunting rock formations that used to be good hiding places for outlaws. 

The desolation and silence of the desert also allow you to witness its majesty and enchantment as well as to feel an eerie connection to the Western pioneers, Native Americans, and prehistoric peoples who once settled or traversed this land.  It’s really much the same as they saw it.

The national parks in southern Utah preserve this natural landscape for you and millions of visitors, as they have been doing for about 100 years.

Zion National Park
Observation Point -- photo by Zion National Park
The area that became Zion National Park was largely ignored until 1908 when Leo A. Snow, a U.S. deputy surveyor from St. George, Utah, did a general land survey and suggested that the land here be set aside and preserved as a sanctuary for wildlife and natural and cultural resources found nowhere else on earth.  In 1919 Zion became a national park with the Kolob section added in 1937. 

This place got its name, meaning “place of refuge,” from Mormon pioneers who sought sanctuary after being kicked out of Illinois, Ohio and Missouri because of their “strange” religious beliefs.  The Children of Israel are an “Old Testament people,” says author Wallace Stegner, “inheritors of the blessings of the tribe of Joseph.”  Inspired by their prophet, Joseph Smith, and led by Brigham Young in 1846, they moved and settled in this “land that nobody wanted.”
Zion National Park

The biblical names in the park reflect the Mormon influence:  Court of the Patriarchs, the grotto at Angels Landing, Watchman Trail, Mt. Carmel Highway.  But whatever your religion, you’ll marvel at the wondrously high cliffs and deep valleys which have been cut by the slow-moving Virgin River—and God’s hand in nature. 

A single road through Zion’s canyons takes you on numerous switchbacks and a long dark tunnel through a mountain.  You’ll see yellow, red, white and green striped mesas (flat-topped mountain tops), long fingered rock formations, summits, and cathedrals.

Slickrock, huge blocks of smooth-surfaced, flat sedimentary rock (sandstone, mudstone, and siltstone), comprises the high cliffs and deliciously cool overhangs that shield you from the hot sun.  This rock is so soft you can rub it off with your finger.  Large, weather-beaten boulders will tickle your imagination into seeing animal and human shapes. 
Zion National Park

Indeed, human habitation on the Colorado Plateau has been sparse.  The earliest records of human life go back 10,000 years when the Paleo-Archaic Indians roamed this land.  The Anasazi People, the first permanent settlers here 2,000 years ago, lived in small, scattered farmsteads but left around 1300.  The land was not occupied until the Paiute People came 800 years ago.  On July 24, 1847, Brigham Young and the Mormons arrived

To get an overview of the park, take the road leading through it or the free shuttle that takes visitors on a 90-minute scenic tour stopping at trailheads, the Museum of Human History, Zion Lodge.  The shuttle goes in some places where cars may not go.

Bryce Canyon National Park 
Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon
In mountainous areas you generally look up at the scenery.  At Bryce Canyon, you look down—at the hoodoos, those pillars of rock that look like whimsical earthen obelisks. 

Sculpted by wind and nightly freezing desert temperatures, the hoodoos got their name from Native American lore where the coyote turned the evil people to stone.  The “painted” pink, white and red (iron), purple (manganese), and white (limestone) “faces” serve as evidence of the myth.
Hoodoo of Queen Victoria on the Queen's Way
Geologists say that 10 million years ago forces within the earth created and then moved the Table Cliffs and Papunsaugunt Plateaus.  Ancient rivers carved the colorful Claron limestones, sandstones and mudstones into thousands of spires, fins, pinnacles and mazes, and exposed the edges of these blocks creating the Paria Valley. 

Walk the Queen’s Way and you instantly get an idea of how the eroding winds work as you cover you eyes and close your mouth to protect yourself against the swirling airborne sandstone. 

Get tickets for a horse or mule ride through the canyon at the park’s lodge or two-hour or half-day tours through the various levels of the canyon floor and among these giant sand castles. 

I only stopped at Bryce Canyon on the way from Zion to Torrey, but you will want to spend more time at this incredible showcase.

Grand Staircase/Escalante

If you haven’t already gotten a sense of gigantism in southern Utah, you will if you take the blue highways from Zion to Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef National Park.  Around the town of Escalante, this 200-mile trek winds through country that either looks like the Flintstone’s village or a huge rock garden. 

Boulders mix sparingly with vegetation and the mesas resemble altars to the gods.  You’ll suddenly notice that there are few traces of humanity in these parts except for a single power line or the road you’re driving.  You’ll feel humbled by your own smallness amid these open and desolate spaces and realize that Western-style individualism has been greatly mythologized.  No one could have survived these lands unless they worked together, which is what the Mormons did. 
Grand Staircase -- Escalante

Construction engineers who built these winding roads over immense expanses of sedimentary rock, must have marveled at these mountainous scenes, too.  (Some roads climb 300 feet at 6- to 8-degree grades.)  They have left a few scenic turnouts for travelers to stop and gaze at the yellow rock that looks like a moonscape with trees and sagebrush.

Huge stone piled onto stone offers a vista of endless scenery, one view more beautiful and more magnificent than the other.  Halfway to Torrey, you’ll see what look like gray beehives.  No, these landforms are not the origin of the state’s nickname, the symbol of the industrious Mormons.  These landforms are part of the Grand Staircase/Escalante, named after Fray Silvestre Velez de Escalante, a Spanish priest who accompanied Fray Francisco Atanasia Dominguez.  They traversed southwestern Utah in 1776 searching for a passable trail to Monterey, California. 
Grand Staircase -- Escalante

Drive further north and you see one more surprise:  Dixie National Forest.  This area features unusual green vegetation nestled among the yellow rock mountains.  You’ll see ranches with wire fences for cows and horses as well as signs for uniquely Western-style names:  Hell’s Backbone, Salt Gulch, Circle Cliffs, and Burr Trail. 

Nearing the 9,400-foot summit, you pass pine, spruce, Douglas fir and aspen trees and get an overview of the “staircase.”  So much greenery after all that rocky wilderness even inspires a few bicyclists to brave the steep heights.

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef allows you to interact with millions of years of geologic history and thousands of years of human history at the same time.

The 100-mile long Waterpocket Fold formed when the Pacific Ocean plate bumped into the North American continent about 65 million years ago and created the Rocky Mountains.  About 200 million years ago, the ocean layed down red and later gray sediments. 

Other remnants of geologic activity are the black boulders scattered over the land 20 to 30 million years ago.  They came from the lava flows of the volcanic Boulder Mountain 50 miles away.  Glaciers later eroded them. 

Round holes of many sizes line the rock walls.  This “honeycomb weathering” formed by the circular motion of tidal flats, sometimes gouged out caves due to the uneven density of the rock. 

The park features layered multi-hued cliffs, soaring spires, twisting canyons, graceful arches and stark monoliths that inspired the Native Americans to call this area the “Land of the Sleeping Rainbow.”  The white sandstone domes (prehistoric sand dunes) resemble the dome of the Capitol Building in Washington.  Hence, the park’s name.
Temple of the Moon (L) and the Sun (R) in Cathedral Valley of Capitol Reef

The geologic history of Capitol Reef provides an unforgettable experience of the land.  However, to gather the unique spiritual quality of this place, take the unpaved road to Cathedral Valley where you’ll find the Temples of the Sun and Moon.  These stately, stone monoliths give you a feeling of permanence in much the same way cathedrals do in a city.  Their awesome power amid the dense quiet of the desert puts you in an altered state of mind as you gaze on the dry and dusty world around you.  The bumpy road to get there allows you to move only 20 miles an hour and requires a high-clearance or a four-wheel-drive vehicle.  Tours on the road are available in Torrey.
Dinosaurs once roamed this area and you can easily find traces of them in the gastropods scattered around the Morrison rock.  Gastroliths are smooth, round rocks the dinosaurs ingested and excreted much like the chickens do with their gizzard stones. 

You will find Devil’s toenails, too, which provide more evidence of the ocean that once covered the land.  The “toenails” are petrified seashells much like fossils only without the rock around them.  However, park rangers ask that souvenir hunters pick up these geological gems only outside the park.  And there’s plenty of them.
Pictographs at Capitol Reef National Park

One exciting link to the human history at Capitol Reef is through the petroglyphs (etched) and the pictographs (painted) on canyon walls.  They give you a glimpse of the Fremont People who lived here from 700 to 1250 A.D.  Their mainstay was bighorn sheep, which they proudly displayed with trapezoid-like images of themselves.  The park provides free interpretive tours of this ancient artwork but make friends with the locals who can take you to see other groups of them outside the park.

“Hobbit Land” is another place outside the park that the locals can show you.  In sight of Boulder Mountain, the largest flat-topped mountain in the United States, these globular red rocks are good for climbing for experts and novices alike.  Moving about them invites you to “commune” with the land by becoming a part of it—literally.  Wear your old clothes, though, when you climb these rocks.  The soft Entrada sandstone that rubs off on you is impossible to remove.

Capitol Reef also features a look into the Mormon culture that was established in 1879 along the Fremont River (also called the Dirty Devil).  First known as Junction and nicknamed “the Eden of Wayne County,” the Fruita settlement flourished through irrigation of sorghum (for syrup and molasses), vegetables and alfalfa.  The orchards which were famous a hundred years ago still stand today with a variety of apples, apricots, peaches, pears, plums, English and black walnuts and almonds.  Eight to 10 large families sustained this community until the late 1960s when the Park Service purchased Fruita property.   

Travelers can visit Fruita’s one-room schoolhouse, which also served as a town hall and church from 1884 until 1941.  In 1900 the public schools adopted the building until it closed in 1941 due to lack of students. 

If you go:
You can best get to Utah’s national parks by flying to Las Vegas or Salt Lake City and renting a car. 

Warning:  Drink a lot of water, bring sun block and wear a hat.  There is little cloud cover in Utah, which provides protection from the hot sun.  The mornings and evenings are cool enough for a light jacket.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Titanic Exhibit at Henry Ford Museum

Courtesy of Henry Ford Museum
The Titanic has long held a prominent place in the human imagination and commemorations abound during this year’s 100th anniversary of its sinking.
Among them is Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition hosted by the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.  Similar exhibitions are also appearing in Atlanta, Houston, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Orlando and San Diego with upcoming shows scheduled in Columbia, SC, St. Petersburg, FL and Philadelphia.
The 10,000 square foot exhibition reflects the size and grandeur of the world’s largest and most luxurious ship of its time.  Room re-creations of a first class hallway and cabin as well as a full-scale replica of the Grand Staircase reveal the ship’s splendor while the passengers’ accommodations, menus, china, even the recovered tile floors of the bathrooms illustrate the attention given to social class distinctions in Edwardian England.
First Class Cabin -- Courtesy of Henry Ford Museum
“The ship is like a palace,” says Hugh Woolner, first class passenger in one of many quotes highlighted on the walls of the exhibit.  “My cabin is ripping.  Hot and cold water, very comfy-looking bed—and lots of room.”

The exhibit captures the human tragedy of the event by featuring small fragments of people’s lives with many of the objects probably handled shortly before the ship met its fate on Monday, April 15 at 2:20 a.m.
Third Class Cabin -- Courtesy of Henry Ford Museum
This includes chinaware (a cobalt blue border with interlocking gold trim for first class and plain, white with only the White Star Line insignia in the center for third class), sherry glasses (congratulating the Captain at a party), cut-glass butter dish (indicating second class rather than first class crystal), cooking pots tarnished from the sea one with food burned on it and the other with a hole burned through it.
Many personal items were found in leather suitcases including a brooch, star pendant, gold lapel pin, cuff link, gold filigree barrette, hair dye bottle, shoe brush, toothpaste jar, trousers and vest, shoes, postcards, letters, an arithmetic book, playing cards, silver mesh handbag, gold wristwatch, French francs, American greenbacks and coins, wire-rimmed glasses, Gillette razor, shaving brush, sock garters, mechanical pencil with eraser, pipe and tobacco pouch. 
Some objects were recovered from the ocean’s bottom:  bowler hat, mirror with faux ivory handle (plastic imitating luxury), perfectly stacked au gratin dishes (the wooden cabinet had rotted away), champagne bottles with some still corked with liquid inside.
Some artifacts come with stories.  First class passenger Adolphe Saalfeld, 47, a perfume maker from Manchester, England, lost 65 vials of perfume.  He was headed to America to market some new fragrances to department stores in New York and other major cities.  He survived but it would be decades before 62 of the vials were recovered from his Swiss-made leather suitcase—some with perfume and scents still in them. 
The exhibit does a good job of placing visitors in the mood and setting of Titanic through various techniques.  Its bright and colorful First Class area is accompanied by classical violin music until visitors move through to the crew’s quarters on E Deck (with bunk beds accommodating 50 men to a room) where they begin to feel the foreshadowing of the ship’s fate.  The space becomes dark with red safety lights as visitors pass through the mammoth watertight doors that separated Titanic’s 15 compartments.  The sound of pulsing engines gives way to the moans of the sea as the ship hits the iceberg and becomes engulfed in the ocean’s calm, icy waters. 
The doors were designed to close should any of the compartments fill with water thus giving the ship the reputation of being “practically unsinkable.”  The ship could have survived with two flooded compartments, but the iceberg cut six slits over 300 feet into the hull and filled five compartments, according to ship’s designer Thomas Andrews.
Young visitors instantly get the message.
“This is so creepy,” said one.  “You have to think about what happened to the ship.”
In the final section of the exhibit, visitors are treated to a simulation that explains how Titanic hit the iceberg, broke apart and sank to the bottom of the sea with debris strewn over an area of 15 square miles.  Another film illustrates how conservators decades later used the ROV to extract the artifacts. 
Many parts of the ship are on display including an angle iron (which visitors could touch), lifeboat davit cleat, ship’s whistle, telegraph and the stern’s docking bridge telephone stand.
A chunk of ice in the shape of an iceberg is also available for visitors to touch.
Passengers’ eyewitness descriptions of the ship hitting the iceberg and its aftermath make the event more real:
“CRASH!  Then a low rending crunching, ripping sound, as Titanic shivered a trifle and her engines gently ceased.”  (Violet Jessop, stewardess)
“Just a dull thump.” (George A. Harder, First Class passenger)
“Through the ship’s portholes we saw ice rubbing against the ship’s sides.” (Lawrence Beesley, Second Class passenger)
Memorial Wall -- Courtesy of Henry Ford Museum
At the end of the exhibit is a memorial wall with the names of individual passengers and crew on board Titanic’s maiden voyage.  This, too, elicits a more empathetic response to the tragedy as visitors check to see if the person whose passenger ticket they have been carrying since the onset of their tour survived or not. 
In first class, 201 passengers were saved and 123 lost.  In second class, 118 were saved and 166 lost.  In third class 183 were saved and 527 were lost.  Among the crew, 212 were saved and 698 were lost, including Captain Edward J. Smith.
Several recovered artifacts recall several ironic missteps that would later prove fatal:  the fractured compass bowl that set the ship on a new course of North 71 West (outside established traffic lanes) at 5:45 p.m. in an attempt to avoid ice by steering the ship further south. 
A barometer indicated perfect weather.
The forward masthead light sat in the crow’s nest to warn other passing ships of Titanic’s approach. 
A 60-pound lump of coal from the 6,000-ton load that was diverted from coal supplies of other ships due to a coal strike in England.  Titanic needed enough coal to feed its 157 furnaces that heated 29 boilers.  This single lump could move the ship 60 feet at full speed in 1.5 seconds.  Titanic was going at 21 knots, nearly top speed, when it hit the iceberg.  Many passengers originally scheduled for passage on other vessels were rebooked to cross the Atlantic Ocean on Titanic due to the coal strike.
Crow’s nest lookouts Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee did not see the iceberg until it was too late and they did not have access to the ship’s only pair of binoculars.  Testimony at the British inquiry following the disaster revealed that it was common practice for only the chief officer, first officer or second officer to have binoculars while on duty and not for lookouts who would otherwise be distracted.  The binoculars were recovered and ominously on display.
The original plan of the ship ordered 32 lifeboats, enough for 1,900 people.  However, only 20 lifeboats, capable of accommodating 1,178 people, were on the ship.  This was done in order to cut costs and clutter. 
Only 714 people survived out of the 2,228 passengers and crew on board while 1,514 perished from hypothermia in the 28 degree waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.  Only two lifeboats were filled to capacity mostly due to the passengers’ reluctance to leave the ship because they believed it to be “practically unsinkable.”
Titanic’s resting place is located 400 nautical miles southeast of Newfoundland.  It lay quietly on a sandy seabed until it was discovered on Sunday, September 1, 1985 by Dr. RobertBallard, a former United States Navy officer and a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island.  
Ballard originally planned to keep the location a secret to prevent treasure hunters from claiming prizes from the wreck. He considered the site a cemetery, and refused to desecrate it by removing artifacts.  Ballard is currently on a campaign to keep people from taking artifacts from the Titanic.  
However, RMS Titanic, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of PremierExhibitions, Inc. (Atlanta, GA), was granted Salvor-in-Possession rights to the Titanic wreck site by a United States federal court in 1994, which allows it to be the only company permitted to recover objects.  It has conducted seven research and recovery expeditions (1987, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2010) and recovered and conserved more than 5,500 artifacts.  
A dive to the wreck with remote operated vehicles (ROV) takes between 12 to 15 hours, including two-and-a-half hours to reach the ship and two-and-a-half hours to resurface. 
The bow as it looks today
Nearly all of the artifacts are tagged and stored in climate control environments.  That they have survived the passage of time as well as the trauma of settling below 12,500 feet of water at a pressure of 6,000 pounds per square inch is almost miraculous. 
Upon retrieval, each object is stabilized to prevent further degradation due to the sudden change in environment. 
The objects are being consumed by bacteria, abraded by sediments, and corroded by salt and acids.  “Rusticles” of bacteria and fungi cling to the ghost ship, which is also being consumed by iron-eating microbes that will collapse it onto itself in 40 to 90 years. 
The exhibit is dedicated to Millvina Dean, the last survivor of the Titanic who died at on May 31, 2009 at the age of 97.  She was a two-month-old baby when the ship went down and was saved in Lifeboat 10 with her mother and brother while her father was lost at sea.  Her brother, Bertram, died at age 82 on April 14, 1992, on the 80th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.
Tickets are $10 extra with admission to the Henry Ford Museum and the exhibit runs until September 30.  Adult admission is $17, seniors 62 or older is $15 and youth 5-12 years old is $12.50.  For further information, see the museum website.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

What a World Citizen Looks Like

Nalini with an Indonesian "Garuda," a mythical bird in Hindu and Buddhist mythology.

On Thanksgiving Day 2001 Nalini Quraeshi was preparing dinner for 30 friends and family members when she received word that her father had died in Nepal.  Her two-day trip found the country suddenly beset with tragedy—and world headlines. 

A Maoist rebel insurgency had launched simultaneous attacks on several police, army and government outposts in several districts.  The government declared the country in a state of emergency, suspended all civil rights and imposed a curfew restricting all movement after dark. 

“It was a horrible time to go back,” said Quraeshi, whose mission it was to get her mother safely out of the country.  The shocking, untimely death of her father was made more traumatic by the political events in Nepal, and her concern for her mother’s emotional well-being and physical safety.

Another traumatic homecoming occurred in 1965 when Quraeshi’s family was returning home after being in the United States for six years.  The journey to Nepal included a transit stop in India, which was in the midst of a war with Pakistan over the Kashmir issue, a dispute that had been brewing since partition in 1947.

“There were sirens and bombs.  My sisters and I had to put cotton in our teeth and ears for protection.  We sat in the darkness during these air raids because we had to turn off all the lights.  This was my homecoming to Nepal [at age nine].”

Quraeshi was born in Kathmandu, Nepal, but because of her father’s work as a government diplomat for Nepal and later the United Nations, she lived in New York, Washington, D.C., Bangkok and Rome.  Her studies took her to Darjeeling, Delhi and the United States.

“Before I could lay down roots and establish an identity, my family moved to a different place,” said Quraeshi.  As a result, her parents taught her and her siblings that people are united more by their similarities and shared values than by their differences.  All beliefs are sacred and everyone deserves respect. 

For example, as a graduate student in sociology at Michigan State University (MSU), Quraeshi met her future husband, Zahir Quraeshi, a Pakistani Muslim and now a marketing professor at Western Michigan University (WMU).  Meanwhile, her three sisters are married to an Indian Hindu, a German Protestant, and an Italian Catholic.  Her husband’s sister married a Frenchman and their daughter is married to someone who is Filipino by birth but English by nationality.  Her brother is single and lives in Boston. 

“My family is a mini-United Nations,” said Quraeshi,  “but we all come together from all over the world to my house at Thanksgiving to give thanks for our many blessings.  And although we observe all holidays, we especially come together to celebrate Thanksgiving because of its secular tradition.”

Although Quraeshi spent the first part of her life all over the world, her life after marriage has been dramatically different.  She now resides in Kalamazoo where she reared two sons, taught Non-Western World Studies at WMU and to pursued her doctorate and taught international development and sociology at MSU.

“My sons’ experience is so different from my own,” she said.   Even so, she has made certain that they grow up as global citizens.  That hasn’t been difficult.

Quraeshi’s spouse, Zahir, has been a steady voice for globalism at WMU for the past three decades.  During his sabbatical year the family lived in Malaysia.  They also have many occasions to visit family members spread over three continents.

Her mother, 77, is Hindu, and her mother-in-law, 96, is Muslim.  They both live with the family, so Quraeshi tries to honor their religious beliefs through cooking, artifacts and design of the family’s home space. 

Although she grew up a Hindu, Quraeshi practices its intellectual and progressive qualities rather than its ceremonial rituals.  However, she feels comfortable among people from any religion.

Global citizenship has to do with one’s identity or one’s very persona that is ingrained and rooted, she said.  Accepting--and indeed embracing--diversity rather than fearing it provides people with a “richness” that gives them more options for study, travel, business and meeting others who have different ways of life. 

“Actually, I have tolerance for all religions and think of myself as a global citizen.”

However, Quraeshi admits that such a lifestyle has its downsides.

Being a global citizen means you don’t fit into neat, standardized boxes.  One of the most challenging questions for Quraeshi is to be asked where her home is. 

“Does that mean where I’m living now, where I was born, where I have spent most of my life, the country of my nationality or where my family currently resides?” she asked. 

Quraeshi said she feels at home in any place because she identifies with and adapts to whatever culture she happens to be in.

“I could retire just as easily in Thailand or Nepal or Italy or the U.S., as long as I have some friends and family with me,” she said.  “The hard part is not having the stability of childhood friends to grow up with all my life.” 

Recently, she has discovered a way to fill this void:  by returning to Nepal to try to fulfill her father’s vision and wish to give back to the country in terms of economic development and humanity equity. 

Since the Maoists’ insurgency in the country in 1996, rural Nepalis have fled to the cities and become “urban squatters.”  Village people from Bhutan and Tibet have left their homes as political and economic refugees.  Consequently, Kathmandu has degenerated into an impoverished, overcrowded and polluted place, without the infrastructure to support this rapid influx of people.

“There is so much that one can do,” said Quraeshi.  “And a whole generation of young adults is missing.  In every family someone has fled the country because of the violence.  Parents try to send their children overseas for an education, and to escape the political and economic uncertainties.”

Recently, Quraeshi began to find ways of implementing several rural development programs and experiments her father had envisioned years ago.  Over the last few years she returned several times to continue this work, but she has had to overcome bottlenecks of bureaucracy, logistics, security concerns and even corrupt locals usurping her parental property and resources.

Quraeshi has also discovered that like her, many of her high school friends have returned to Nepal, too.  One of them runs a conservation program, another has started schools for the homeless, another works with children who were born and have grown up in prisons, while yet another supports a non-governmental organization (NGO) that rescues young girls from the rampant Asian sex trade. 

Over the years many members of Quraeshi’s family have been helping Nepal from afar by raising money for scholarships and supporting schools, impoverished working families and religious institutions.  However, some are looking for projects that allow them more hands-on involvement like her brother-in-law, a cancer surgeon, who is seeking to donate his services. 

Nalini Quraeshi embodies what it means to be a global citizen.  She has lived among numerous nationalities, cultures and religions all over the world and speaks multiple languages.  Now, she is doing something to help her native land.

Gourmet Cook

Nalini Quraeshi plans her family’s meals with an international flair and pragmatic determination.  A sampling of her repertoire of dishes includes Mexican eight-layered fiesta with guacamole, frijoles, tortillas and corn salsa; Pad Thai with vegetables and chicken; Nepali-Indian lentils with rice and vegetables; homemade Italian focaccia with roasted vegetables and pesto; Mediterranean couscous salad and 15-bean soup with vegetables; Italian scallops and fettuccine in tomato wine sauce; Nepali Momos (steamed potstickers) with roast tomato cilantro chutney.

She only learned to cook after she came to this country, got married and had to learn how to live in an extended family.

She likes to entertain, however, and often has family or friends over for a meal.

On Nepal
Nepal is generally regarded as an obscure but beautiful, peaceful, exotic Shangri-la kingdom on the “roof-top of the world.”  It is the home of Mt. Everest and eight of the world’s ten highest peaks, and is a great tourist destination for hiking and mountain climbing.  There are also 10 UNESCO-designated world heritage sites, seven of them in Kathmandu. 

Nepal started out as a Hindu kingdom, but it is now a secular federal republic with nine different religions including Hindu, Buddhism, Islam and Kirant.  Its much-loved monarchy was seen as a reincarnation of God until 2001 when the prince designated to ascend to the throne massacred his family. 

The 29.5 million population is comprised of several different ethnic groups who speak at least eight different languages.  This 147,181 square kilometer landlocked country is slightly larger than Arkansas.

Since 1996 Nepal has been marked by violence during a ten-year Maoist insurgency.  Elections in May 2008 led to a stunning victory of Maoist party, the overthrow of a 240-year-old monarchy and the creation of a new federal democratic republic with the pressing task of framing a new constitution by 2012.  The government platform is to give voice to indigenous, disenfranchised groups in the hill regions and the far west.  It remains to be seen how things will work out.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

So What Do College Students Do on Alternative Spring Break?

I found that out when I accompanied five students from Western Michigan University during their spring break last week.

This trip was so different from spring break depicted in the 1960 film, “Where the Boys Are”, where bands of youth took over Fort Lauderdale to indulge themselves in sun, fun, sex and alcohol.

To counter this image, college students in the early 1980s initiated the “Alternative Spring Break” where they formed a temporary community to learn about and reflect on social issues through practical experience. College service learning programs and campus ministries eventually picked up on this idea and then popularized them in the mid-2000s when students wanted to help people along the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

St. Thomas More Catholic Student Parish sponsored our trip to New Orleans as part of its campus ministry program. We worked through Beacon of Hope, a nonprofit organization that focuses on rebuilding the Gentilly neighborhood. We painted the exteriors of three houses and planted flowerbeds at one. Beacon of Hope provided us with tools while the homeowners provided paint and plants.

We met students from other religious-oriented groups, namely Hillel (Foundation for Jewish Campus Life) and the Church of the Brethren.

Then, there were other students not affiliated with any group. As one purple-haired, body-pierced organizer said regarding their motivation: “It’s just something you should do.”

Nearly seven years after Hurricane Katrina, most Americans have forgotten about its destruction and few understand the city's lingering recovery effort after 80 percent of it flooded due to 53 breaks in levees designed and managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. During the storm a 200-foot barge improperly moored broke loose and crashed into floodwalls and added to the damage—without impunity.

New Orleans has done a lot of reconstruction and in many places visitors wouldn't see any signs of Katrina damage.  However, about 100,000 Orleaneans out of nearly a half million have not returned home, most of them people of color. City officials bolted the doors of their houses so they couldn’t return or retrieve any of their belongings. Other people couldn’t get a fair price for their property and abandoned it. Rents in low-income areas doubled and those who lived in public housing were shut out when renovations reduced the number of available units. Grocery stores (23 of them), banks and shopping malls closed and didn’t re-open.  Public transportation networks imploded.  Charity Hospital, which served the low-income population and didn't flood, was closed with equipment still inside. Historic homes were torn down to make way for modern housing. Although unemployment was only 8 percent (2010) due to all the rebuilding, the homeless population doubled after the storm. 
Our second debriefing with Quo Vadis, director of CELSJR

Students learned these things during a four-hour orientation program at the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal (CELSJR). However, they were advised not to pity the people but to be in solidarity with them, as summed up in a quote from the Aboriginal Activists Group of Queensland (1970s):

“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

At CELSJR the students also learned something about “simple living.” For six nights we lived with 47 other people in three dormitory rooms with bunk beds and only five showers and three bathrooms. You wouldn’t think it could work, especially since most of the students were women, but it did. Students were very patient, flexible and cunning to get their needs met. Groups also split up the cleaning tasks over the week.

In the morning we made our own breakfast of eggs, cereal, bagels or fruit and were given sack lunches to take with us to the work site. We had dinner at 6 p.m.

However, the real story of Alternative Spring Break was about meeting people who had suffered the tragedy of losing just about everything they owned.

On the first work day, we painted Charles and Emily’s (not their real names) back porch and wooden fence. The floodwaters covered their one-story house up to the roofline. They were about to retire, their house was paid for and they had just remodeled the bathroom when Katrina hit. They returned home in 2009 after three years of rebuilding--and enduring much contractor fraud..

They acquired a lot of second hand furnishings “out of love,” said Emily, “and that’s why we’re keeping all of it.”

Charles, who has Parkinson’s Disease and has survived seven surgeries, helped us paint. He also showed us some of his family’s documents like their insurance policies, marriage license, birth certificates, which were partially damaged by water and mold. Many people didn’t have any documents proving their identity, which became a huge problem when they tried to make insurance claims.   

Emily made us a lunch of sandwiches, fruit and chips out of gratitude for our help.

On the second day, we went to Jack and Sandra’s house to plant flower boxes, move plants, and plant small bushes on the side of the house. This family was among the luckier ones we met even though they lost everything, too. They evacuated to Houston, Texas, where elder son, Sam, started high school and graduated four years later. He is now going to Delgado Community College in New Orleans to study business. 

Jack was able to find another job with the same company. Sandra, a teacher, sorely missed home. Then, when the family returned, she learned that she no longer had a job because all the city’s public school teachers were let go to make way for a new charter school system. She now cares for her aunt, who the students came to love for her jokes, songs and concern over their cuts and bruises. 

On the third day, we worked at Maybelline’s house where we had to scrape the eaves and overhangs before we applied the beige-colored paint.  When we arrived, she invited us to a breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausages, grits and biscuits. Before we left, she served us stewed chicken with pasta and red sauce. During these meals she told us her story.

Maybelline was a special education teacher all her life but then went into retirement after officials dissolved the public schools. She had successfully evacuated the city but moved 15 times before she moved back into her house. While away, she still received utility bills even though the electricity and plumbing were not working. After she returned, she lived alone without utilities for nine months. Those few living in the neighborhood went to bed around 6 p.m. and called each other on cell phones to make sure they were all right.

Maybelline did receive some FEMA support but had to make sure she kept all her receipts to prove that she purchased things allowable under the program. She still has the receipts in brown paper bags. She also told us how the insurance companies cheated people out of money.

Students take a much-needed lunch break and rest

On the last day, we painted Christina’s house—with 27 students from other campus ministry programs. They had been working all week on the two-story, wooden house that required scraping and caulking prior to painting.

Oh, yes, we did do some tourist activities. You cannot travel to a place like New Orleans without studying some of its historical and cultural aspects!

Upon our arrival after an 18-hour drive from Michigan, we headed to the Mississippi River for a boat ride on the steam-powered Natchez with a paddle wheel, calliope and all, to learn about the river and the city’s importance as a port.

On Sunday, we attended a Jazz Mass at St. Augustine Parish in Treme, a neighborhood adjacent to the French Quarter that was founded by slaves and free people of color in 1793. A musical combo and choir let you know you were in New Orleans as it led people in song.

After Mass, we walked to Congo Square in Louis Armstrong Park, where Black slaves used to hold picnics on Sundays. Baba Luther honors that tradition by teaching people how to play African drums. Every Sunday, he sits near a 300-year old “Grandmother Tree” as Mama Sula incenses the area. During the week she also incenses different parts of the city for healing.

Of course, we visited CafĂ© du Monde on the French Quarter that is famous for its beignets, a French donut with powered sugar on top. We visited Bourbon Street where the tourists go, but also roamed Frenchmen Street where the locals go. It’s has a Southern-style Greenwich Village feel to it and we danced to reggae music and listened to a street band.

One night we went on a ghost tour and heard not only some gruesome tales about the city’s past residents. Death has come in various ways and Orleaneans are matter of fact about it. After all, New Orleans is home of the jazz funeral where people honor the passing of a loved one with a street parade and then celebrate that the Angel of Death missed them—this time. It’s not that the people are morbid but rather that they prefer to invest their energies in a joie de vivre (French for the “joy of life”), which in New Orleans comes in the form of good food and good music. It was in this same spirit that people were able to start all over again after the heartbreak and hardship they endured with Katrina.

On our last night we had an elegant seafood dinner on the balcony at the French Market Restaurant. As we ate, a golden full moon rose over the Mississipppi River.

The students listened intently and with compassion to the stories of all the people we met and interacted with them with ease. They tried foods that were strange to them like alligator, crawfish, oysters, gumbo, muffalettas and the sloppy but delicious po’ boys.

They were good-spirited throughout the trip, including during the long drives in our cramped parish van. They did their work in a caring and professional way and remained enthusiastic even as they became sunburned, paint-splattered and tired of climbing up and down ladders.

If anyone doubts the strength and capacity of the next generation, don’t. The host of young people I met during Alternative Spring Break is evidence enough to believe that this upcoming generation will make our world a better place. 

This is the St. Tom's group with crew chief Allie (second from left in back) from Beacon of Hope

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Looking for Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois

The stories surrounding Abraham Lincoln makes him one of America’s great heroes.  However, a trip to Springfield, Illinois, where he spent 25 years as a citizen, lawyer and state representative prior to his presidency (1861-65), gives visitors a look at his humanity. 

The first clues about the character of any man are in the way he lives so you’ll probably want to head straight to the historic district at Eighth and Jackson Street and check out his house.  Painted in Quaker yellow with brown trim and green shutters, the stunning Greek Revival contains many pieces of the Lincolns’ mahogany furniture.  Their placement has been carefully studied with the help of historic photos, 1865 stereocards and 1860 drawings from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

Lincoln living room
Mary Lincoln chose the family furnishings for their sturdiness given that her husband and sons often wrestled each other on the living room floor and undoubtedly knocked things over.  The carpets, wallpaper and drapes may seem a little gaudy in color and pattern compared to today’s styles, but they reflect the elegant and refined tastes of a prosperous mid-19th century Midwestern American family. 

As a circuit rider for the Eight Judicial Court (1847-57), Lincoln gained reputation and wealth.  Because he was away from home a lot, sometimes three months at a time, he’d buy gifts for his sons, Willie and Tad, among them a stereoscope (worth about $8,000 to $10,000 today) that displayed three-dimensional photographic images like a Viewmaster.  The boys’ favorites were Niagara Falls and the Taj Mahal. 

Lincoln was a great orator and storyteller and he probably learned this by reading books out loud to his sons in the family’s living room.  He loved Shakespeare, Robert Burns and Charles Dickens and his bookcase held both their books and small busts of each author. 

His shaving stand and mirror are located in his bedroom (couples at that time had separate bedrooms).  He undoubtedly used them to groom himself, including the time he grew a new beard to make himself look presidential, as 11-year-old Grace Bedell suggested he do.  His desk is also there. 

Lincoln kept paintings and busts of his two heroes, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, in both his home and law office.  These “geniuses,” as he called them, sought to preserve the Union from sectionalism and war through compromise. 

Lincoln’s house was built in 1839 as a one-and-a-half story cottage and later expanded to a full two stories.  The family had an African American maid whom they offered free room and board as well as $1 a day wage (equivalent to $20-27 today).  However, Mary Lincoln insisted on cooking meals, a habit she had to break once they moved into the White House.  In the backyard, the family had a three-seater outhouse and a garden.

Operated by the National Park Service, the Lincoln Home Center and Neighborhood highlights Lincoln’s legal career, his time on the Eighth Judicial Circuit as well as his early political career.  Tour guides eagerly share narratives about his family, the history of the area, the ways of the times. 

The Visitors Center provides a short film on Lincoln’s life in Springfield.  Free tickets are available at the Information Desk.  Parking is $2.  The building is fully accessible to persons with disabilities.

Lincoln-Herndon Law Office

A few walkable blocks from Lincoln’s house is Lincoln-Herndon Law Office, which is a lot more interesting than it sounds.  A Lincolnophile guide not only explains the history of the office and its many artifacts, but Lincoln’s partnership with William Herndon.  The building also contains a replica of a mid-19th century courtroom and post office.  The Tinsley Dry Goods Store, located at the back of the building, offers gifts and Lincoln memorabilia.

Lincoln wrote his first inaugural address in this building on the third floor behind the wall of the present building.  He hid there because his office was too noisy with many, many well-wishers. 

What will also prove fascinating to any history buff is that you walk on the same dark, wide-strip wooden floor that Lincoln did.  And like his house, there is authentic period furniture, including one original chandelier and two stunning replicas made by a local tinsmith.

Lincoln’s law office grew in size when he became a senior partner.  Visitors will soon realize that Lincoln wasn’t just some hick from a Kentucky log cabin.  He was an astute, savvy and wealthy man who knew his way around politics, first as a Whig and later as a leader of the new Republican Party. 

The Lincoln-HerndonLaw Offices State Historic Site is open on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  Make reservations by calling the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1-800-545-7300 or check out its website.

A visit to Springfield allows visitors to get an idea of what it was like to live in a small, Midwestern town.  Lincoln lived in what is now known as the historic district and visitors can walk the same streets he walked and catch the obvious spirit of a place that reflects much of Lincoln himself.  In fact, Springfield became the seat of state government in 1839 thanks to the efforts of Lincoln and his associates, nicknamed the “Long Nine” for their combined height of 54 feet.

“Looking for Lincoln” signs dot the historic district with mini-histories of Lincoln and his times.  You can see how Lincoln pursued the American dream, a path people can more readily identify with here than in Washington where the president is immortalized in stone.

Banners of Lincoln line the downtown streets signifying a profound pride in Springfield’s favorite son without overdoing it. 

Lincoln Museum

The Abraham Lincoln Museum, now in its seventh year, is a stunning and engaging place that focuses on the life of Lincoln with an emphasis on his presidency.  You can study the man through diaries, documents and artifacts while films provide the social and historical context. 

Dioramas create a light and sound experience with the following memorable exhibits:

  • Lincoln at the War Department reading the casualties of war. 
    Diorama of Lincoln and advisers discussing Emancipation Proclamation
  • Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, amid the highly political nature of this law that became the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in December 1865.
  • Young Tad sick in bed with his parents at his side as they take time out from a party in the White House ballroom. 
  • Lincoln’s last moments at Ford’s Theatre where John Wilkes Booth is just about to enter the door leading to the president’s box. 
The most dramatic diorama is Lincoln’s funeral display with his casket.  It is modeled after the only remaining photo of the event that was discovered in 1951 by a 14-year-old Ron Rietveld (pronounced “REET-veld”), who later became a famous Lincoln scholar at California State University-Fullerton.

In the Gallery of Treasures, you can see Lincoln’s blood stains left on his white gloves and Mrs. Lincoln’s fan that they used on that fatal night.  There is also an 1850s silk stovepipe hat from his circuit rider days.  Its brim is worn out by the young lawyer’s thumb and two fingers due to his habit of tipping his hat to passersby. 

Most interesting are the displays showing the vicious attacks Lincoln endured from politicians, journalists and ordinary citizens who hated him because he was perceived as too supportive of Black slaves.  The collection includes negative headlines and stories, cartoons, editorials, and even Lincoln effigy dolls. 

Lincoln was one of four candidates running for president in 1860 and he captured only 40 percent of the vote entirely on support in the Northern states.  He won two of 996 counties in the South and was not even on the ballot in nine Southern states.  His victory in the Electoral College was more decisive, however, with 180 votes while his three opponents garnered only 123 votes. 

The War Gallery also hosts letters and photos of Civil War soldiers.

Of particular interest is the “Civil War in Four Minutes,” a film which follows the course of the war.  You can see the changing battle lines across a map the eastern United States as explosions denote battles and an “odometer of death” keeps a running total of Union and Confederate casualties. 

The museum has done an admirable job of depicting Lincoln’s life in an engaging and digestible way.  School children can learn as much as any adult.

Lincoln’s tomb 

Another experience of the man necessitates a visit to his tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery.  I fortunately happened upon it for the Flag-Lowering Ceremony (held on Tuesdays June through August at 7 p.m.) conducted by the 114th Infantry Regiment Illinois Volunteers Reactivated

A trumpeter and drummer begin the ceremony with songs of the era:  “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again.”  Union “soldiers” pay their respects to the fallen president with weapons inspection, the lowering of the state and U.S. flags, three rifle rounds and a cannon salute.

You can still feel the heavy sadness of the place nearly 150 years after his death in the quiet and respectful crowds that gather there.  And, you can imagine Mary Todd Lincoln, and her surviving sons, Robert and Thomas “Tad,” grieving, as a handful of women and children dress in period costumes. 

After the ceremony, visitors are invited into the tomb.

The tomb, designed by sculptor Larkin Mead, is constructed of brick sheathed with Quincy granite. The base is a 72-foot square with large semi-circular projections on the north and south sides.  Double sets of north and south stairs lead to a terrace and a 117-foot obelisk rises high above.

Inside, the labyrinthine marble hallways with bronze trim reflect the solemnity of the tomb and the greatness of the man.  Small bronze sculptures featuring different times in his life are also on display:  circuit rider, new president, agonizing president.  Finally, you reach his tomb, where his body lies 10 feet below the surface.  It is a truly moving and unforgettable experience.

Cemetery hours are 9 to 5 and guides are available to answer questions.

Union Station and Union Square Park
The recently-opened Union Station Visitor Center marks another important place in Lincoln’s life:  he left for Washington from here and gave a spontaneous farewell speech to his Springfield neighbors on February 11, 1861.

Union Station Visitor Center, located across from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, offers on-site booking of hotel accommodations and special event packages that are scheduled across the state of Illinois (217)557-4588.

Union Square Park has been the scene of many free events and performances, including the 33rd Illinois Vol. Regiment Band and the 10th Illinois Vol. Cavalry Regiment Band (both Civil War re-enactment groups); Mary Lincoln's Strawberry Party (a summertime family event); July 4th celebration, New Century Orchestra, Springfield International Folk Dancers, and many more musical performances throughout the year. 



 Springfield was a multicultural town when Lincoln lived in it.  There were African Americans, Poles, Irish, Germans, Swedes, and recently, historians discovered a site of an Underground Railroad stop.  The first white settlement of Sangamon County was founded in 1817 when Robert Pullman built a log cabin 10 miles south of what would become Springfield.  

The Old State Capitol Square (next to Lincoln’s law office) commemorates other important moments in Springfield’s history with bronze plaques.

  • The ill-fated Donner Party left from here in April 15, 1846. 
  • Eight hundred Potawatomie walked through town on September 29, 1838, during a forced march out of Indiana toward re-settlement in Kansas.  They did it with great dignity by dressing up in their best clothes, reported Jared P. Irwin, a stone mason working on the State Capitol building.
  • Stephen Douglas gave his famous “Protect the Flag” speech here on April 25, 1861, in an attempt to save the country. 
  • Nearby, the August 1908 race riots on Adams between Fifth and Sixth Streets eventually led to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. 
  • In February 2007 then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama officially announced his candidacy for President of the United States, and in August 2008 he formally introduced his vice-presidential candidate, Joe Biden.
The Old State Capitol Square has become a gathering place, especially at lunchtime.  During the summer there’s a small farmers market and an open-air barbecue.