March 26, 2013
“Faces From Afar” is an ongoing series in which Off the Road profiles adventurous travelers exploring unique places or pursuing exotic passions. Know a globetrotter we should hear about? E-mail us at email@example.com.
The desert is simple, honest and frank. It is sparse and stoic, both patient and demanding, and something about this unforgiving environment continually draws people from comfortable, well-watered places into its dangerous heart. Compelled by this old attraction, two young Americans departed in early February on one of the most ambitious walks they will probably ever take, through some of the most barren, the most beautiful and—lately—the most misunderstood land south of the Mexico-U.S. border: Baja California.
Justin DeShields, 26, and Bryan Morales, 25, departed San Diego on February 2. They crossed the border and immediately entered Tijuana, where the two travelers, who had been thinking logistically about desert survival for months, found themselves in a landscape blistered by traffic, freeways and urban shantytowns. They walked parallel to the border westward to the beach, where they officially began their walk. Their plan: to journey unassisted by motor vehicles all the way to the peninsula’s southernmost tip before June. DeShields, a documentary filmmaker who has worked with National Geographic, brought along several cameras. With an arrangement to blog for National Geographic, he and Morales—who works as an outdoor educator with urban youth—would document the ecological wonders and crises, the cultural colors and the raw beauty of the Baja peninsula, top to bottom.
Tijuana was simply an obstacle. Not known as Baja California’s proudest asset, it made for a discouraging beginning. Wearing 50-pound backpacks, it took the adventurers several hours to escape the city’s grimy, gritty influence. Concrete scribbled with graffiti, homes built of cardboard and sheets, and the din of urban traffic all faded into the distance at last, replaced by the softness of the sand and the drone of the breaking waves. But they hadn’t exactly escaped civilization. On the shore, the suburbs continued for many miles—and still ahead was the equally imposing city of Ensenada, located about 80 miles south of the border. On the beach, the pair encountered the obstacles of urban development—sometimes nearly to the waterline.
“There were so many private properties that in order to follow the coast, we had to hop fences and walls, and duck through barbed wire,” says Morales, with whom I spoke by phone last week. “There were places where we couldn’t get around rocky points and had to go back up to the highway, but there was no access.” So the two hurried through yards, alleyways and vacant lots, not always sure if they were trespassing or not, but certain of at least one thing: that they needed to move southward if they hoped to ever escape the northern peninsula’s development and reach the unspoiled desert for which Baja is famous.
For Morales and DeShields, the privatization of the public coastline became one of the most disturbing and frustrating aspects of their journey.
“The thing that worries me is that the coastline is being bought up by Americans or other foreigners, and as a result Mexicans are losing their land,” Morales says. “If they don’t have land or access to the water, how can they come to cherish it and enjoy it as we have? They certainly won’t be able to afford to buy it back.”
Though void of cacti and shrubs and open hillsides, this urban region was something of a desert, for most of the residences in places were entirely abandoned, Morales says. They passed vacant hotels and condos and the shells of empty buildings. The beach town of Rosarito—a thriving and popular destination for tourists as recently as six or seven years ago—has died. “It’s literally a ghost town now,” Morales says. He attributes the emptiness of this once-peopled land to “fear of violence, rape, robbery and even the police.” Parts of Mexico have experienced high crime rates in recent years, covered widely by the media. Morales believes such violence, civilian deaths and tourist holdups have unfairly impacted Baja, which has remained, to a large extent, off the path of criminals.
But the hospitality of Baja’s people defied every stereotype about the dangers of traveling today in Mexico. The two encountered kindness and generosity at every bend in the beach, in each town and in each remote fishing camp where they stopped to ask for water. The commercial lobster season had just ended, on February 16, and so these camps were often all but uninhabited. Usually, one man—maybe two—would come out to greet the Americans, along with his barking dogs. Many strangers invited them into their homes for food, coffee and beds.
“Down here you find an experience that, in the States, is hard to come by,” Morales says. “There is a low standard of living, and people have almost nothing. They literally make houses out of our garbage—old garage doors, trailers, billboards—and yet these people are incredibly generous. They invite us into their homes, feed us, share what they have.”
The two camped most nights on the beach, often tucked up against the cliffs in their tent to keep out of sight of passersby, and by day they walked, often on concrete and asphalt, other times along the beach, each carrying 50-pound backpacks loaded with camping equipment, cameras, a water desalinator and—for the odd hour of recreation—a surfboard. Finally, after 200 miles and three weeks of struggling through the development of northern Baja, Morales and DeShields found the solitude and silence of the desert. Here began the joys and hazards of classic wilderness exploration. Many times, the pair journeyed inland to avoid treacherous cliffs and waves. Once or twice they almost ran out of water. They showed up half starved and delirious in a fishing camp one hot day. In a land of sand, sun and solitude, they ate what they could. Peanut butter and jelly on tortillas were a staple—though strangers who greeted them in the road spiced up their diets with tortillas and bowls of beans. Often, the desert didn’t even look like one. The rains of December had had their lingering effect, turning what is known to be one of the most dry and bitter landscapes into scenery as green as Teletubby Land. Locals even told them that the desert flower blooms of the moment had not been seen in nearly a decade.
On March 19, they arrived in Guerrero Negro, a dusty desert city mostly unremarkable except as a chief destination for tourists hoping to watch gray whales, which enter the nearby Ojo de Liebre and San Ignacio lagoons to give birth. From here, the pair walks south. They will remain on foot as they pass San Ignacio Lagoon and walk inland around its shoreline. The plan is to then cut east, across the mountainous peninsula, and descend back to sea level at the date palm-studded oasis town of Mulege. Morales and DeShields intend to finish their journey on stand-up paddleboards, moving smoothly along the tranquil shoreline of the Sea of Cortez, all the way to San Jose del Cabo. Their journey can be followed via their blog “What is West?”
March 15, 2013
Few people anywhere begin the day without a hot drink. Chocolate and tea are popular morning jump-starters. Yerba maté, famously Argentinean, is gaining a reputation globally. Some people contrive creative blends of apple cider vinegar, herbs and honey. But coffee dominates the morning hour in every time zone. While the plant that produces the beans is native to tropical east Africa, two main species of coffee—Coffea arabica and C. canephora, or C. robusta—are now grown in nearly every tropical region. Brazil and Vietnam lead production, which amounts globally to more than 150 million 132-pound bags per year (PDF). Consumption is rising, and though coffee is far from being the world’s largest crop, it is now the second most demanded commodity after oil.
But for its simplicity in its raw state and its ubiquity in almost every culture, coffee takes a wide and unpredictable range of forms throughout the world. Here is a sampling, both bitter and sweet, of some of the regional renditions of the world’s favorite hot drink.
Italy. Perhaps nobody does coffee better than Italy. Though located many lines of latitude north of muggy coffee country, Italy has somehow attained the position of coffee lord and master. It’s here that the espresso machine had its birth, and it’s here that a coffee lover can enter nearly any establishment, whether a slick Neapolitan bar or a small nameless café in the remote Abruggio, and expect no less than the brown-black best. Never fear of instant coffee, for “cafe” in Italy is synonymous with “espresso.” Add milk, and the door to the frothy, creamy world of Italian coffee drinks opens wide. No doubt, we all owe our finest a.m. pleasures to Italy. Trivia: Espresso is big business and espresso machines serious investments—costing as much as $40,000.
Ethiopia. This is where it all began. Ethiopia is the heart of coffee country, native homeland to the Coffea genus, and people here have been drinking coffee for more then 1,000 years. Today, coffee—called buna—is still made and served in a traditional table-side ritual that transforms the beans from raw red cherries into toasty, steaming drink, often all before the guest’s eyes. The process can last more than an hour, as the host toasts, grinds and boils the coffee before serving.
Spain. The wayfarer in Spain, rising from his bedroll on a frosty September morning and eager for warmth and company, must look no farther than the nearest church steeple. For that cross indicates that a café dwells at ground level in the plaza. There, the old men are already gathering, whether Monday or Sunday, and the silvery, steel machine is already hissing away. Go! The establishment, almost always, is called “Cafe Bar” and by 6 a.m. is buzzing with caffeine and activity. Many take their their coffee standing at the bar with a hand in their pocket. If you want milk, please don’t order a latte. Cafe con leche is your ticket. Be warned: Long sit-ins at coffee bars may still be a foreign idea in parts of rural Spain. Several years ago, in the Picos de Europa, I ordered a second coffee while letting my camera battery charge in a small café. The place was nearly empty, yet the barkeeper decided she’d had enough of me after 40 minutes. She unplugged my device, slid it across the table and pointed to the door. She all but kicked me in the rear as I hobbled out. I didn’t even have time to leave a tip.
United States. America has gained an irrepressible taste for the inky black juice of the espresso machine. But “gas station coffee,” the type that one may spot in the roadside diner by the register, ominously tea-colored and brewed hours before, is still a symbol of Americana and proudly drips from Mr. Coffee lookalikes everywhere. At the other end of the spectrum are the massive high-calorie coffee drinks innovated by Starbucks, containing varying mixes of espresso, caramel, whipped cream, chocolate, eggnog and other ingredients. The presence of such milkshake-like drinks seems to have even spurred a reaction in places. So we see, in the occasional bakery café, a note on the menu reading, “Just good, old-fashioned drip coffee,” as though we ought to be relieved.
Turkey. Turkey’s favorite drink is tea, called “chai,” yet coffee is available here. In Istanbul, espresso and the associated lattes and cappuccinos are commonplace, while in the countryside, Nescafé rules—usually poured from 3 in 1 packets of instant coffee, sugar and artificial dried milk. True Turkish coffee, served in espresso-like cups, can be surprisingly hard to find. Note that what the Turks call “Turkish coffee,” the Greeks call “Greek coffee” and the Georgians “Georgian coffee.” But it’s all the same stuff—thick, gritty, tar-black juice like the emissions of a malfunctioning espresso machine. It is almost always served sweet.
Greece. The favorite coffee drink in Greece is the frappe. Made using Nescafé, a frappe is a frothed-up blend of milk, sugar and Nescafé, served over ice. The drink can be had with or without sugar, but on a warm summer day in the islands, the ice is the essence of a frappe. This is at least one instant coffee rendition that’s easy to love.
Baja California. In Baja, “coffee” seems almost to mean “hello.” Nearly every other day, during my years of Baja wandering with spear and backpack a decade ago, some strange man or woman would appear out of a shack on the dirt road ahead, wave to me and call out, “Cafe?!” Thus, I often found myself seated on a broken plastic chair or an upturned fishing bucket under a tree while my host boiled water on a mesquite fire and spooned out the Nescafé. That’s right: The drink is almost always instant coffee granules, and while the coffee itself is nothing to write home about, it’s the gesture that counts in the sparsely peopled cowboy country of Baja.
Ireland. It’s little surprise that Ireland, land of cheery pubs and frosty nights, is where coffee first got really fun. The Irish coffee was invented in the 1940s and is now a cocktail served in bars worldwide. It contains hot coffee, whiskey, sugar and whipped cream, and, while traditionally an after-dinner drink, Irish coffee may be hard to argue with on a chilly morning. But Irish coffee may not suit all tastes. Years ago, a friend of the San Francisco Chronicle‘s former travel writer Stanton Delaplane reportedly said that Irish coffee ruins three good drinks—whiskey, coffee and cream.
Vietnam. Many of us aren’t fans of sweet coffee, but Vietnamese iced coffee is delicious. Coffee drinking arrived in Vietnam with the French in the 1800s, and the local palates quickly shaped their own interpretation of the drink. Fresh milk in Vietnam was not as available as it is in the pasture lands of France, and so the cafe au lait took a sharp evolutionary turn: The Vietnamese poured their coffee over sweetened condensed milk—from a can—and served the drink over ice.
Ecuador. All bets are off when ordering coffee in Ecuador. Unless you request otherwise, they may pre-sweeten the drink for you. And if you ask for a cafe con leche, what you’ll get is a mug filled entirely with steaming hot milk, served beside a jar of instant coffee granules. And if you ask your host whether they’re serving Nescafé, they may say no—but not because they’re making coffee in a French press but simply because they are serving some other brand of instant coffee, like Buendia or PresCafe. And even in a swanky countryside bed and breakfast fitted with a dazzling espresso machine, if you order a cappuccino, they might reach for the sweetened mocha packets in the cupboard. Stay vigilant. Still other times, real coffee is available in Ecuador (they grow the stuff; why shouldn’t they serve it?) offered as cafe filtrado. Pounce on it while you can!
February 12, 2013
A crisp, clear stream flows out of Cajas National Park on a 20-mile circuitous route down to the town of Cuenca—but few fish live in these wild waters. Yet the Quinuas River Valley it forms is a hot destination for sport fishermen. They come by the hundreds each weekend, mostly from Cuenca, seeking the most popular game fish in the world: the rainbow trout.
“What kind of trout live in here?” I ask a young man who serves me coffee at Cabana del Pescador, the campground where I have stayed the night. I am only curious how locals refer to the species Oncorhynchus mykiss, which is native to North American and Siberian streams that enter the Pacific but has been introduced to virtually all suitable habitat on earth. In Ecuador, the species first arrived in the 1960s.
“Normal trout,” he says.
I aim to catch a few fish today and have them for dinner, but I move on, up the road, looking for a happier place to fish. The pond here is muddy, surrounded by concrete and a chain-link fence. Trouble is, I won’t find much better. This valley, though populated by a few wild trout in the streams and lakes of Cajas National Park, is a busy center of aquaculture. Trout farming is generally considered a clean and sustainable industry, though it isn’t always pretty. For a stretch of seven or eight miles downstream of the park, nearly every roadside farm has a handful of concrete-banked pools on the premises, fed by stream water and swarming with trout about 12 inches long.
Up the road, after passing a half dozen possible fishing sites, I pull in to one called Reina del Cisne, at kilometer 21. It is a restaurant and sport fishing “club,” as the sign tells visitors. I have coffee—Nescafé, as always—inside. When I am finished, I ask if there is an opportunity to fish here, and the teenage waiter beckons me to follow. “It’s 50 cents to rent a pole,” he says. “Then, we weigh the trout, and you pay $2.25 per pound.” The biggest fish in the ponds out back are more than ten pounds, he tells me.
He pulls one rod from a heap of several dozen—a broomstick-like pole with a stout line tied to the end and a silver barbed hook at the tip. He quickly mixes up a bucket of bread dough to use as bait, drops a hunk into a shopping-style woven basket and hands me my tackle.
“What kind of trout are these?” I ask, still fishing for local lingo.
“Salmon trout. They have red meat,” he says. He adds, “Good luck,” and returns to the restaurant.
For an angler who has fished in the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada and Alaska and New Zealand, this is a sad comparison, and I feel a strange desire to either cry or laugh hysterically. This would make a perfect opportunity for kids, but I know what real fishing, in real waters, is. Here, I have three ponds to choose from—two of them rectangular, concrete basins, the other a muddy, oval-shaped pool 30 feet across with grassy banks. I flick a piece of dough into this most natural-appearing of the options. Several trout dart from the murk as the white ball vanishes in an instant. I bait my hook and fling it into the middle of the pond, slightly embarrassed that I am participating in what locals advertise as pesca deportiva—or “sport fishing.” A similar flurry of fish attack and strip the hook. I re-bait and try again and this time hook instantly into a feisty rainbow. I drag it in and onto the bank, whack it cold with a stick and drop it in my basket. One down, and in another five minutes I have a second fish. I could take more but, frankly, this isn’t fun or engaging. A year ago exactly I was cycling around New Zealand, casting flies at wild trout six times this size and immeasurably more thrilling to catch—wary, elusive, picky and beautiful. The challenge of enticing one to strike made success an accomplishment. Best of all was the experience of being there, fish or none, standing in crystal clear waters surrounded by green meadows and the tall peaks of the Southern Alps. Indeed, fishing is largely about interacting with the environment, and if one catches no trout on an expedition into the mountains, something else is still gained.
But no matter how big a fish one may pull from a concrete-lined pond, using dough balls for bait, the experience feels as hollow as shopping in a supermarket. While I’m here, I hope I might tangle with an eight-pounder, but no such beast shows itself. I wonder if perhaps they tell all guests that giant trout live in these ponds to encourage business. But back inside the restaurant, my hosts show me the de-boned meat of a 14-pounder caught the day before. The meat is thick and heavy and a delicious-looking salmon red. I ask what the trout eat. “Natural food,” owner Maria Herrera tells me.
Down the road, at kilometer 18, I visit a government-run fish hatchery. I roll down the dirt drive, across the stream on a wooden bridge and up a short rise to the facility. I introduce myself to two men in yellow slickers, ankle deep in a muddy concrete basin full of thrashing foot-long trout. The station director, Lenin Moreno, tells me that more than 8,000 adult fish live here. He and his colleague, Ricardo Mercado, are currently trying to get an exact head count in a tank swarming with, they guess, about 300 fish. They take a break and show me to the laboratoria—the hatchery. In the trays and tanks of this covered, concrete-walled facility, 1.3 million juveniles are produced each year and sold to aquaculture operations in four provinces, Moreno tells me.
Outside, they show me a rectangular basin teeming with huge rainbows, green-backed, red-sided beauties that remind me of the two-foot-long giants of New Zealand. Visitors may come here to buy these trout, Moreno tells me. The fish go for $1.50 per pound.
I ask if the meat is red like salmon. “No—it’s white,” Moreno tells me. “But at the fish farms they feed the trout pigment.”
This doesn’t surprise me. The rainbow trout I grew up on were generally white-fleshed fish. Only occasionally on family camping trips as we cleaned our catch would we discover with excitement that the trout had natural pink meat, which tends to be richer and fattier than paler flesh. But in Ecuador’s many fish markets, I have not yet seen a trout fillet that wasn’t colored like salmon, and I’ve suspected all along that this attractive color (which I’ll admit has drawn my wallet from my pocket more than once) was artificially induced. I recall seeing the fillet of a trout caught in New Zealand just outside the outflow of a Chinook salmon farm that was clearly affected by such pigment—probably either synthetic astaxanthin or canthaxanthin, both used in most commercial salmon farming operations (and the latter of which may cause retinal damage). The trout had presumably been eating pellet feed that escaped from the salmon pens, and the meat was partially colored, patchy red and white like a tie-dyed shirt. Yuck.
I poached my farm-caught trout in cheap Chilean Sauvignon Blanc at my hostel in Cuenca, just off the main street of Calle Larga. The meal was fine and exactly what I had been aiming for when I plunked that ball of dough into the pond at Reina del Cisne. But the fish didn’t quite taste up to par. Because although pink-fleshed trout are a sure catch in the mountain fishing ponds of Ecuador, something else, less easy to describe, native to places like Montana and British Columbia, may evade you with every fish landed.
February 1, 2013
“Faces From Afar” is an ongoing series in which Off the Road profiles adventurous travelers exploring unique places or pursuing exotic passions. Know a globetrotter we should hear about? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Give a man a glass of water, and you may quench his thirst. But teach him to build a biosand water filter using local materials and the simplest technology, and he’ll have clean water for life at a cost of just $30.
Even better, Rod and Ingrid McCarroll, two retired Canadians, will pay half the cost or more if the 30 bucks is too steep. Sometimes it is. The McCarrolls, of Calgary, Alberta, have been traveling the world for 12 years in some of the most impoverished communities with the goal of bringing clean water to millions. They have worked through their own nonprofit organization, Friends Who Care International, in rural India, Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. Last year, they spent six months in Nicaragua alone. Just two weeks ago, they arrived in Ecuador.
“We hope to provide clean water for 20 million people,” Rod told me at the Hostal El Taxo in Quito, where we met by chance in the dining room. “It’s estimated that 1.2 billion people now don’t have clean water for drinking or cooking. The problem is, the world is growing faster than we’re able to help.”
The biosand water filter that is the main feature of the McCarrolls’ work is a relatively simple thing. Invented in the 1990s by David Manz, an environmental engineering professor at the University of Calgary, the contraption is composed of carefully selected and treated sand and gravel, as well as a layer of iron nails, strategically layered in a four-foot-tall concrete casing. The setup weighs more than 200 pounds, making it too heavy to steal. Maintenance is easy, requiring simply scooping the mucky top water from the gravel layer every few months. Being too simple to experience serious mechanical breakdowns, the water filter all but guarantees a family clean water for life. Tap, pond or river water is poured into the gravel, and at a rate of one liter per 80 seconds, pure water emerges from the spout. The filter removes 99.5 percent of bacteria, viruses and protozoa, according to Rod, as well as 100 percent of parasites and 100 percent of arsenic—which bonds to the iron oxide molecules of the rusting nails and becomes unable to travel through the filter. Currently, the McCarrolls are in the rural mountainous regions surrounding Cuenca—Ecuador’s third-largest city—working with local contacts and community leaders to teach them how to build the filters. Arsenic, Rod says, contaminates much of the region’s water—a serious problem that could be solved as easily as the filter is simple.
Rod stresses that he and Ingrid are not just delivering clean water to one family at a time. Rather, they are teaching others—especially community leaders—to build biosand water filters and to teach the trick to others. By this means, the snowball effect seems already to have kicked in. While the McCarrolls have worked in just half a dozen countries, Rod says that clean water now trickles from half a million biosand water filters in 75 countries.
Apart from clean water, the McCarrolls have also worked to bring sustainable, off-the-grid electricity to the needy through another Canadian nonprofit called Light Up the World. Living in literal darkness, Rod says, means living in intellectual and spiritual darkness, too—as people cannot educate themselves if they return from work to a home too dim to read in.
But the McCarrolls have another objective, too, which leads them through more figurative realms of light and darkness: They are Christian missionaries. This is a more latent, secondary element of their work. Clean water and electricity come first, and religion follows. It may take 30 minutes of chatting with the pair even to discover their spiritual concerns, yet along with biosand water filters, they are indeed missionaries, encouraging those who accept their help to also adopt Christianity.
“If you go around the world and tell starving people that God loves them, it’s hogwash,” Ingrid said. “It means nothing. But if you give them something, then they see that they really do have friends.”
Rod says the interest in dispensing Christian ideals goes hand in hand with having clean water, electricity and basic sanitary conditions. He says, too, that religious conversion is not a main objective—but that it doesn’t hurt to make Hindus into Christians. The caste system, outlawed in India yet persisting through tradition, plagues much of the Hindu world—especially India. It relegates people born as untouchables to a life of poverty and filth—and with contaminated drinking water to boot, Rod points out.
“We’re just trying to help remove them from this darkness,” he explains. “But there are 600,000 villages in India, and many of them don’t want anything to do with missionaries. So how do we get in?”
The biosand water filter. Given to the needy and bearing with it the heavy scent of Christianity (the McCarrolls may prompt prayer circles with families before they depart), “the water filter,” Rod says, “serves as a 24/7 missionary.”
Rod is 71 years old. Ingrid is 70. When she was a child, she barely escaped from East Germany before the Berlin Wall went up. Her family had been torn apart during the turmoil of war, but they managed to reconvene with the help of the Red Cross in Austria in 1945. Ingrid and Rod met and married 46 years ago. Upon retiring, they determined not to kick up their feet between rounds of golf and luxury vacation cruises.
“We decided that we’d done well, and we wanted to give back,” Ingrid said.
After learning about Manz’s biosand water filter in the late 1990s and growing efforts to dispense the invention around the world, the McCarrolls saw their opportunity to help the world’s unfortunate. They worked at first with the organization CAWST (Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology), which was led by Camille Dow Baker, a former oil development executive striving to reform her career. Once the McCarrolls had learned the ropes, they established Friends Who Care International in 2001, and they have divided their time between Calgary and the wider world ever since.
December 20, 2012
Tomorrow, a person standing anywhere along the Tropic of Capricorn can look up when the clock strikes noon and observe that the Sun is hovering directly overhead. That means easy sunburns and the start of summer to our friends in Sydney, Santiago, Cape Town and Auckland, for December 21 is the southern summer solstice.
But north of the Equator, we’re about to face-off with the shortest and darkest day of the year—our winter solstice. Where I live, in San Francisco, at about 37 degrees north latitude, the Sun will hit its meager noontime zenith at just 30 degrees above the southern horizon. And farther north, in Glasgow, at 56 degrees latitude, the situation is grimmer; the Sun will scrape out seven hours of daylight while peaking at noon only 11 degrees above the horizon. And in Fairbanks, at 65 degrees north latitude, the outlook for the solstice is truly bleak—for the Sun will barely make an appearance at all, rising to no higher than two degrees above the southern horizon and providing less than four hours of dusky daylight before dipping again behind the Earth.
For ancient people, this dark time of year, of shortening days and a sinking sun, was a gloomy one, posing the greatest threat of freezing or famine—especially in high-latitude locations. But the solstice, though the shortest, darkest day of all, also marked the turnaround toward spring and summer. Thus, December 21 and December 22 (the exact solstice date varies year by year) were days to rejoice. Many people around the world—especially, it seems, in Egypt and Europe—built temples and monuments in recognition of the winter solstice. They aligned these structures to face, frame or otherwise “welcome” the rising Sun as it emerged from the horizon, and today viewers may still see the beautiful visual effects these ancient architects created using Sun and stone. Following are several places to see the solstice in action.
England, Glastonbury Tor: At 51 degrees north latitude, Glastonbury Tor is a man-made mound in southern England that historians believe was built to celebrate the Sun and the path it takes through the sky. On the winter solstice, a person standing on the nearby Windmill Hill can watch as the rising Sun appears to roll along the slope of the mound from base to top, where the ruins of St. Michael’s Church still stand.
Mexico, Chichen Itza: Three months ago, I discussed the importance of this ancient Mayan site as it relates to the equinoxes—on which two days a shadow, cast down the stairway of the Kukulcán pyramid in the late afternoon, creates the spectacular image of an undulating serpent. On the winter solstice, the Sun itself is the star of the occasion, rising at dawn (it always does, doesn’t it?) and lifting upward along the edge of the pyramid. To a person facing the western side of the monument, the rising Sun appears to roll up the pyramid’s edge before lifting off into the tropical deep-winter sky.
Egypt, Karnak Temple: On December 21, viewers inside the Karnak Temple can see the Sun rise dramatically in the entryway, between the high walls of the ancient monument. For a few moments, the Sun’s rays gleam through the pillars and chambers—including the Sanctuary of Amun—before the event passes, and morning commences on this shortest day of the year. Arnak is just one of many sites like it in Egypt. A survey of 650 Egyptian temples, conducted by scientist Juan Belmonte of the Canaries Astrophysical Institute, has led to the conclusion that most of the sites were built in recognition of celestial events—especially sunrise on the equinoxes and solstices.
England, Stonehenge: The makers of England’s most famous rockpile certainly had something special in mind when they arranged the giant slabs as they did, but the site remains a mystery. Some people today believe the winter solstice sunset inspired the arrangement of the stones, but overall, evidence is spotty that the huge slabs of Stonehenge are aligned to celestial events. Nonetheless, Stonehenge fanatics want in on the party. Last winter, 5,000 people visited Stonehenge on the solstice, and many are expected tomorrow—though officials have voiced concern over the impending crowds. And as if crashing the winter solstice party wasn’t enough, pagans and partiers from miles around convene at Stonehenge for the summer solstice, too. In 2011, 18,000 of them hooted and hollered as the Sun rose just before 5 a.m., and 14,000 returned for the same occasion in 2012. This website concedes that the builders of Stonehenge did not likely have any summer solstice symbolism in mind.
New Zealand, Aotearoa Stonehenge: New Zealand is a modern austral society with ancient roots in the boreal world, and so what the Kiwis may lack in paleoarchitecture they may simply build anew out of wood, wire and concrete. So was born Aotearoa Stonehenge near Wellington, a modern interpretation of the original Stonehenge. Designed specifically to accommodate the site’s latitude and longitude, the circular arrangement includes 24 pillars that create windows through which visitors may watch the appearance of important stars and constellations of the southern sky as they rise from the horizon. Additionally, a 16-foot-tall obelisk points toward the celestial south pole. The structure was built by volunteers with the Phoenix Astronomical Society, who toiled for 11,000 hours over 18 months to complete the job. The henge was finished in 2005 and already has become a noted site for seeing the sunrise on the austral summer solstice.
The end of the world? The solstice of 2012 will be a particularly exciting one since the day also happens to be the scheduled end of the world, according to many spiritualists—especially those fixated on interpretations of the Mayan calendar. But scientists with NASA have publicly countered, announcing that there is no evidence of impending doom. The United States Geological Survey also concluded in a recent blog article that the world will go on after tomorrow’s solstice. Phew!