February 14, 2013
First, there was sugarcane juice. Then came distilled cane liquor, dribbling out of a steel pipe.
And somewhere in between was the stuff I was interested in: fermented sugarcane juice touched by the ethanol-making labors of airborne yeasts and containing 8 to 9 percent alcohol by volume. But fully fermented cane drink with 8 or 9 percent alcohol by volume is not easy to find in Ecuador. I have been on the lookout for this stuff since Day 1 in Ecuador a month ago, when I began seeing extensive sugarcane fields, and I have yet to land a used plastic soda bottle filled with the beverage. The clear liquor—90-proof stuff, or thereabouts—whether commercially bottled or sold out of kitchens in Inca Kola bottles, is easy to find. Ditto for the raw, algae-green juice, which comes gurgling out of hand-cranked cane grinders on street corners in almost every town and is sold for 50 cents a cup.
The only way to go from raw, sweet juice to hard, throat-raking liquor is to ferment the juice’s sugar using yeast, then distill this sugarcane “wine” into the hard stuff. In Vilcabamba, at last, I knew I was getting close to this almost theoretical product when, in a grocery store, I found homemade vinagre de cana. Vinegar, like hard booze, is a product derived directly from fully fermented juice, or malt water like beer wort. So a local household, it seemed obvious, was engaged in the cane juice industry.
“Who made this?” I asked the clerk.
She directed me to a home several blocks away where, as she said, a man fermented cane juice and sold a variety of cane-based products. I cycled over, but the man’s wife answered and said they only had distilled liquor, which may be called punta or traga. I bought a half liter for $2 after making sure that it was safe to drink. I mentioned the tragic scandal in 2011, when dozens of people died from drinking tainted distilled alcohol. “We drink this ourselves,” the woman assured me.
Before I left she said that in the next village to the north, Malacatos, many people grew sugarcane and made traga and that I could find fermented juice there. But I had already done the Malacatos juice tour the day prior, while riding through on my way to Vilcabamba from Loja, without luck. At every juice shack I visited, the proprietor said they had none but that they would make some overnight and that I should return in the morning. They all spoke of a drink called guarapo—fermented cane juice.
This sounded almost right—but not quite. Because I know from experience making beer and wine that it takes a solid week or more for a bucket of fruit juice or sugar water to undergo primary fermentation, the vigorous bubbling stage that turns 90 percent of a liquid’s sugars into ethanol. Brewers and winemakers cannot make their products overnight.
I learned more about this matter in Vilcabamba’s eastern outskirts, just outside the entrance to the village zoo. Here I found a woman selling cane juice under the business name “Viejo Luis,” who, it seemed, was her husband. I bought a liter of juice, then was treated to a taste of guarapo fermented for one day—a sweet-and-sour rendition of fresh cane juice. At the risk of sounding crass, I got straight to business: “Does this guarapo have alcohol?” I asked. Yes. “How much?” A tiny little bit. “I want more.”
To better explain myself, I asked the lady to tell me if this was correct: “First, there is juice. Then, you ferment it to make alcohol. Then, you distill it to make liquor.” She nodded and smiled with a genuine sparkle, pleased, I think, that I recognized the labors of her business. “OK, I want the middle juice—the juice with alcohol. Not fresh juice, and not punta.” She nodded in understanding and said that if she were to leave this one-day fermented guarapo for another week, it would contain as much alcohol as a strong beer. She even said she would sell me a liter for $2—if I came back the next weekend.
This wasn’t possible—but she did have another fermented product ready to sell—chicha de hongos. That translates into, roughly, “fruit beer of fungus.” She poured the thick, viscous drink through a sieve and into my plastic bottle. I had a taste immediately and complimented the rich and buttery green drink, tart like vinegar, and teeming with an organism she said was tivicus but which most literature seems to present as tibicos. This fungus-bacteria complex turns sugary drinks sour, thick and soupy and allegedly provides a wide range of health benefits. She assured me it was an excellent aid for facilitating digestion.
Meanwhile, I hatched a plan. I took my liter of Viejo Luis’s cane juice to the village bakery. “Can I have just a tiny, tiny, tiny pinch of yeast?” I asked in Spanish. The young man came back with a sack the size of a tennis ball. “That enough?”
Plenty. I took the gift and, on the curb by the plaza, sprinkled a dusting of yeast into the bottle. It came to life overnight. I reached out my tent flap in the morning and unscrewed the cap. It hissed as compressed CO2 exploded outward. It was alive! First, there had been juice—and in a week, there would be sugarcane “wine.” I tended the bottle through many rigorous days, of bus travel and shuttling luggage into hotel rooms and cycling over high passes with the bottle strapped to my pannier. Every few hours for days I gingerly loosened the cap to release the accumulating CO2, the telltale byproduct of sugar-to-ethanol fermentation (methanol, the dangerous form of alcohol that infamously makes people blind or kills them cannot be produced through fermentation). Finally, after five days, I lost my patience. The bottle had been falling off my bike every few hours for two days as I bumped along the dirt road between Cuenca and Santiago de Mendez, in the low Amazon basin. The juice was still fermenting, but I was ready to drink. I gave the bottle an hour in my hotel room so that the mucky sediments could settle to the bottom, then drank. The stuff was a grapefruit yellow now, with a bready, yeasty smell and a flavor reminiscent of raw, green cane juice but less sweet and with the obvious bite of alcohol. I had done it—connected the dots and found the missing link. Or, that is, I had made it myself.
Quick Cane Trivia
- Sugarcane is native to Southeast Asia.
- Consisting of several species, sugarcane is generally a tropical plant but is grown in Spain, some 37 degrees from the Equator.
- Sugarcane yields more calories per land surface area than any other crop.
- Sugarcane first arrived in the New World with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage across the Atlantic, when he sailed to the West Indies in 1493.
Other Local Wines to Taste in Ecuador
If you should visit Vilcabamba and have any interest in wine and fermentation, spend 20 minutes in a small store and tasting bar called Vinos y Licores Vilcabamba. The shop specializes in locally made fruit wines—including grape, blackberry and papaya. The shop also sells liquors made using cane alcohol and a variety of products, like peach and cacao. Most of the wines here are sweet or semi-sweet—and you can put up with that, go in, meet owner Alonzo Reyes and enjoy a tasting. He may even take you to the rear of the facility and show you the fermenting tanks, containing more than 5,000 liters of wines, as well as the cellar, where scores of three- and five-gallon glass jugs contain maturing wines.
The Name of a Dog
I must concede that I spoke a few days too soon in last week’s post about troublesome dogs in Ecuador and the owners that sometimes neglect them. I joked about the unlikelihood that a scruffy street mutt down here might be named Rex, Fido or Max. Well, 11 kilometers south of Sucua on the Amazonian Highway E-45, a dog came trotting out to meet me in the road. Its owners called it back. Its name? Max.
December 3, 2012
It took explorers centuries of great effort to make the first crude sketches of the world and centuries more to polish and perfect them.
But in just ten years, sales demand for paper maps appears to have dipped markedly, and it seems these formerly essential tools of travel could be going the way of the sextant and chronometer as travelers rely increasingly on electronic navigation devices to get them where they want to go. In Pennsylvania, printers who once produced three million road maps a year now make just 750,000. AAA, too, has observed a decline in customer use of maps. And even print-out directions that lead from point A to point B—which I always thought was cheating, anyway—seem now to be a figment more of memory than of practice as that robot voice from the dashboard becomes an increasingly ubiquitous component of driving anywhere.
If we are, in fact, ditching the map for flashier gear, will we be better off? Maybe not. A study conducted in Tokyo found that pedestrians exploring a city with the help of a GPS device took longer to get places, made more errors, stopped more frequently and walked farther than those relying on paper maps. And in England, map sales dropped by 25 percent for at least one major printer between 2005 and 2011. Correlation doesn’t prove causation—but it’s interesting to note that the number of wilderness rescues increased by more than 50 percent over the same time period. This could be partly because paper maps offer those who use them a grasp of geography and an understanding of their environment that most electronic devices don’t. In 2008, the president of the British Cartographic Society, Mary Spence, warned that travelers—especially drivers—reliant on electronic navigation gadgets were focusing mainly on reaching a destination without understanding quite how they got there. And Tom Harrison, a cartographer in California, told me recently in an interview that he feels digital technology usually does a clean job of directing travelers where they want to go—but without quite showing them where they are.
“Trying to see and understand the big picture on your phone or laptop usually isn’t possible,” said Harrison (who also noted that he has not observed a decline in sales of waterproof topographic maps via his website). “There’s too much zooming in, scrolling down, losing your bearings.” At best, hand-size GPS screens show one “the here and the now,” he said, while only paper maps can reliably “show us where we are and also what’s around us.”
Using real printed maps also demands—and can help users develop—critical thinking skills.
“You look at the map for a minute,” Harrison said. “Then you say, ‘I’m here, and I’m going there. What’s the easiest way?’ But with GPS in the car you don’t even have to think about it anymore.”
The shift to full reliance on navigational technology is happening at sea, too. Grant Headifen, the founder of the online sailing academy NauticEd, says sailors are increasingly relying on GPS systems while neglecting to learn what he calls “the fundamentals”—the basic skills of navigating only by charts, compass, sky and the mighty strengths of the human brain.
“You need to be able to say, ‘If north is straight ahead of me, then east is to my right,’ and ‘If point A is 50 miles ahead and we’re moving this fast, then this will be our estimated time of arrival,’” said Headifen.
Reliance on electronics, which operate under the guise of flawlessness, is “very dangerous,” Headifen says—mainly because navigation charts may themselves be drawn incorrectly. For instance, a GPS system may guide you with perfect accuracy past a treacherous seamount—but if that reef was originally mapped incorrectly, the GPS system could actually be guiding you into a million-dollar accident. Headifen cites a time that he was sailing off the coast of Croatia. Because of incorrectly drawn charts, his GPS system placed his location at roughly 300 meters inland among the coastal olive orchards. Another time, a sailing companion with his eyes glued to his iPhone muttered directions to Headifen. “In 50 meters we want to veer left,” the man said. Headifen replied, “Um, look away from your phone for a minute, and look ahead of us.” A rock stood precisely in the course the iPhone recommended.
Harrison, too, has noted previously to reporters an important difference between being “precise” and being “accurate,” both of which a GPS device can be at once by pointing a tech-tuned traveler straight to the wrong place.
In spite of the growing prevalence today of navigation technology, enough people remain interested in traditional navigation that Headifen offers a course on celestial navigation. This brilliant science has its roots in ancient Arabian cultures of the desert, where travelers long ago determined their location on Earth by watching the heavenly bodies above. For travelers in the Northern Hemisphere, the North Star, or Polaris, made determining latitude a piece of cake: The star’s distance above the horizon in degrees equals the viewer’s degree distance north of the Equator. Thus, when sailors left port in the old days, they often remained at a given latitude by watching Polaris and appropriately adjusting their course. They knew that by following that line, they would reach home again. (Determining longitude was a much more difficult endeavor, and would only become relatively easy with the invention of the chronometer in the late 1700s.)
Still, navigation remained challenging. Sailing expeditions often had a crew member whose specific job was to navigate—and these were among the most skilled people on the seas. They were familiar with the stars, the ecliptic of the Sun and also the orbital path of the Moon. They carried a variety of beautiful and ingenious tools over the years, like the astrolabe, octant and quadrant. But the sextant has remained the most used. It’s actually based on rather simple geometry, allowing one to sight a point in the sky—usually the Sun or a star—and measure its distance from the horizon. Combined with the chronometer and basic star charts, a good navigator could track a vessel’s location exactly—though this was a very difficult task. In fact, if executed correctly and accurately, celestial navigation is flawless—for our place on Earth is written in the stars; one must simply have the tools and skills to read the sky.
Celestial navigation made easy: Even if we’re too lazy to read maps anymore, reading the stars can be fun. Measuring latitude is a basic calculation and an engaging way to track your progress should you decide to tackle a long-distance north-to-south hiking or cycling route. Before your next trip, try this: Fix a sturdy plastic straw to the straight edge of a protractor. This device, familiar, I hope, from high-school geometry classes, should have a pinhole at the center of the baseline. To this point, tie off 12 inches of string and fix a heavy nut or bolt to the other end. Pack the contraption along. On your first night out, hold the device with the protractor facing down, look through the straw and aim it at Polaris. When you are able to see this conveniently located star, pinch the string to the side of the protractor. If the string is crossing, say, the 53-degree mark, subtract that number from 90. The answer, 37, is your latitude. If the next night you get a reading of 54, meaning 36 degrees latitude, that means you have traveled 69 miles (the distance between latitude lines) toward the Equator. In the Southern Hemisphere, there is no equivalent of Polaris, and celestial navigators may need to rely on a measurement of the Sun at its zenith to determine latitude. This website describes how.
Navigation of tomorrow: While no-brainer navigation systems currently dictate directions to drivers, tech companies are busy designing the next step in the road to laziness: automated vehicles. Nevada, Florida and California have already legalized driverless cars. While these marvels of technology aren’t yet publicly available, they do exist. Google has been testing one that reportedly had gone 300,000 miles, and counting, without an accident. What’s astonishing is that the machines seem to work perfectly well. What’s scary is the thought of them failing—of missing an offramp by ten feet, of not recognizing a pedestrian, of misinterpreting an obstacle in the road, or otherwise failing where a human mind might not.
November 8, 2012
Ever since Sean Connery first strode onto the screen in 1962 as a dapper secret agent with the code name 007, the world has been riveted by the character called James Bond. He has grace, confidence, delivery and deadly power—and he also travels. Dr. No, the inaugural film in the series, featured the gleaming waters and blazing beaches of Jamaica. The next year, From Russia with Love took audiences farther afield to Turkey, the Balkans and Venice. Through the ’60s, Bond’s creators drilled audiences with film after film, almost every year, as James Bond appeared in such places as Egypt, the Bahamas, Amsterdam, Japan, the Alps and Portugal. All the while he wooed sizzling exotic women and outsmarted absurdly wicked villains. Though Bond’s was a dangerous world of spies, gold, weapons, ninjas and nuclear war, he swaggered fearlessly through it, from one fantastic landscape to another.
In 1960, fewer than 2 percent of Americans had traveled abroad by air—and many who watched Bond do business in one thrilling place after another were enthralled.
Perhaps, millions pondered, America was not enough.
Through the 1970s air travel become mainstream, replacing trans-Atlantic ocean liners. Europe was suddenly just hours away, and Americans began turning up in numbers throughout the world. By the 1980s, the airline age was in full swing, and with the rise in global travel, James Bond tourism attractions would begin to appear. Consider Khao Phing Kan: After it was featured in 1974′s The Man with the Golden Gun, this beautiful Thai island became a hot tourist attraction and even gained the popular nickname “James Bond Island.” And in the 1980s the very abode in Jamaica where author Ian Fleming dreamed up the Bond world opened as the luxurious GoldenEye Hotel.
Bond’s association with travel and place would solidify through the years. Most recently, with the British release last month of the 23rd Bond film Skyfall, travel agencies and publications have pushed a flurry of James Bond tourism campaigns. Forbes Magazine recently listed the best luxury hotels at which James Bond ever spent a night; on November 2, DesMoinesRegister.com named the best places for following in Bond’s footsteps; a Caribbean “adventure tours” company called Island Routes features a “007 Thunderball Luxury Tour“; a Japanese tour agency is promoting a 13-night Bond-based itinerary inspired by 1967′s You Only Live Twice”; and VisitBritain, the tourism agency of James Bond’s home country, is hinging a fresh tourism push on the hype surrounding Skyfall.
With the American release of the new film this weekend, starring Daniel Craig in his third venture as 007, the James Bond film franchise turns 50 years old. The immortal spy has now traveled in 50 countries and logged 180,000 miles of air travel, by the Huffington Post‘s estimate. Surely, Bond has out-traveled virtually all of us in a world often depicted as absurd and cartoonishly implausible. Yet Bond’s world is the real world, and where he has gone, his fans are sure to follow.
These are just five of the most beautiful sites where the world’s favorite spy has done business.
James Bond Island, Thailand. Classic James Bond met classic Thailand in the 1974 film The Man with the Golden Gun. Actor Roger Moore, who had by then replaced Connery as the dashing spy, pursued Bond’s nemesis Francisco Scaramanga to Khao Phing Kan, a pair of craggy islands draped in greenery that jut like monoliths from a placid turquoise sea. It is the Thailand of a million tourists’ dreams—of a coastline so stunning it looks at times more like a computer-generated dreamscape than a real product of time, water, jungle and geology. Bond was there in its virgin days, before the crowds, and before it became known as James Bond Island.
Contra Dam, Ticino, Switzerland. The opening scene of GoldenEye featured Bond, played by Pierce Brosnan, taking a dizzying leap from an enormous dam in what would later be voted the greatest film stunt of all time. The Contra Dam, also called the Verzasca Dam or Locarno Dam, is located in the Swiss Alps on the Verzasca River. Tourists may visit the dam—and those with a heart for first-class spy-style adventure may even bungee jump off the face. The top of the dam is 720 feet above the stream below, making it one of the world’s highest bungee jumps.
Gibraltar. In 1987, the famed rock set the stage for the opening scene of The Living Daylights, in which Timothy Dalton as Bond leaps off a cliff and onto the roof of a runaway Land Rover in one of the finer Bond action sequences. The scene, actually filmed through repeated runs on the same short stretch of road, ends with a turn off a cliff, a parachute leap, a fiery explosion and a suave Bond-style landing on a yacht.
Meteora Agia Triada monasteries, northern Greece. In the 11th century, Byzantine hermits perched upon the spectacular pinnacles; in the 1300s and 1400s, the monasteries were built; and, in 1981, popular fame finally arrived for the monasteries of Meteora with the Bond film For Your Eyes Only. James Bond was still in his Moore days when he scaled the limestone cliffs to reach the lair of villain Kristalos. Today, rock climbing is one of the attractions of Meteora.
Green Grotto Caves, Jamaica. The 1973 Bond installment Live and Let Die leads our spy into the voodoo world of New Orleans and the thug lairs of New York. Finally, Bond enters the Green Grotto Caves of Discovery Bay, Jamaica, where he deals appropriately with the villainous drug lord Kananga. The caves, which lead for a mile underground and are inhabited by several of Jamaica’s 21 bat species, have been used as a hideout for escaping slaves, as a stash for weapons smugglers and as a storage depot for rum handlers. Stalagmites, stalactites, sun holes in the ceiling, a subterranean tidal pond and green algae coating the walls create the incredible beauty of the caves. Also featured in Live and Let Die was Jamaica’s Falmouth Crocodile Farm, where Bond ran across the backs of a line of lounging crocodiles to reach safety. The farm, also known as the Falmouth Swamp Safari, is now a tourist attraction that, like so many others on earth, flaunts the fact that, once long ago, James Bond was here.
October 23, 2012
India and Turkey are currently two of the hottest tickets for traveling Americans—but the arid Muslim nations in between are not. Once an exotic region hospitable to travelers, the Middle East has changed—especially in recent tumultuous years, and today the area is often perceived as a murky and dangerous blur on the map, and many otherwise adventurous travelers have placed all nations from the Nile to the western Himalayas essentially off-limits. A popular assumption is that Americans are not wanted there—understandable considering the events surrounding 9/11, America’s invasion of Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the imprisonment of three U.C. Berkeley graduates in 2009, the recent Islamic outrage over the YouTube video mocking the prophet Muhammad, and, most recently, the murder of four Americans in Libya, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. But rather than red-list every nation of this diverse and misunderstood corner of the planet, let us consider which remain hospitable to travelers—and also feature must-see-before-we-die sites.
Iran. Friendly, generous, inviting, gracious. Such is the general description bestowed by traveling Americans upon the Iranian citizens who have welcomed them. Though the Iranian government requires that American visitors arrange a group tour or travel with a private guide, tourists report having plenty of opportunities to visit sites unchaperoned and interact independently with locals. If you go, you may wish to see the ancient city of Persepolis and the Friday Mosque. The mountains near Iran’s northern borders are also gorgeous—and the wild abode of the Syrian brown bear—but keep in mind that this is where the three U.S. hikers seem to have been arrested in 2009. Also note that there is no U.S. Embassy or consulate in Iran, that your ATM and credit cards will probably not work, and that Iranians may be very fussy about what you wear in public. Moreover, the U.S. government issued a warning to traveling U.S. citizens on April 27, encouraging them “to carefully consider the risks of travel to Iran.” Hostile “elements” are a considerable concern, the warning states, and the American government’s ability to assist its citizens in times of trouble is “extremely limited.”
Saudi Arabia. Traveling is difficult in Saudi Arabia for Americans, if not dangerous. According to the travel warning issued by the U.S. government on May 18, “There is an ongoing security threat [in Saudi Arabia] due to the continued presence of terrorist groups, some affiliated with al-Qa’ida, who may target Western interests…and facilities where Westerners congregate.” It makes visiting this land of crude oil and enthusiastic religion sound less than lovely. But if you insist on going, you’d better make it for business, as Saudi Arabia does not currently grant tourist visas. Instructions are available online for obtaining a work visa, a business visa or several other forms of entry permit. Travelers should note that their visit duration may be given in lunar, not Western, months—a detail that can fool visitors into overstaying by several days. This can mean a fine of almost $3,000 and incarceration. Also remember that during your business travels in Saudi Arabia, you may have to stop short at the gates of Mecca, inside of which non-Muslims are forbidden.
Israel. Make this the last country you visit on your Middle East tour, as port officials in Muslim nations may bar entry to anyone bearing evidence of having associated with Israel—like entry and exit stamps on your passport. A country of holy sites and biblical geography, high mountains, vineyards and beaches, it is also a land of sweltering political tensions. Ongoing hostilities with its neighbors make Israel an enemy to much of the Muslim world. (Even in Turkey, this animosity is thick—and I was almost arrested while cycling along the Black Sea in August 2010 when Turkish police mistook me for an Israeli. The encounter turned into handshakes, smiles and sightseeing suggestions when I produced my American passport.) USA Today Travel suggests staying out of crowds and abstaining from participation in political protests in Israel. Though a political friend of the United States, Israel can offer dangers to American tourists. The U.S. government advises staying “mindful of security factors” while planning a trip to Israel—and avoiding the Gaza Strip altogether.
Egypt. The land of the great pyramids, the sphinx and the desert shores of the Red Sea has been in the news lately through coverage of heated protests at the U.S. Embassy—but such unrest and anti-American sentiments may be entirely unrepresentative of Egyptian people’s general feelings toward Westerners. In fact, the American government has issued no formal warning against visiting Egypt, as it has with nearly every other Middle East country. According to this travel article in the Huffington Post, “Americans sailing down the Nile in Luxor at this very moment are having a great time. Those visiting Aswan report no incidents. And those vacationing in Alexandria are there, making new friends.” The same article points out that the rioters skirmishing with police amount to less than 300 dissidents. Yet tourism is down in Egypt, leaving some of the most famous sites of the ancient world to be enjoyed in the absence of the teeming masses of visitors that generally congregate before the pyramids and other such attractions. Consider going now, before the crowds surge back.
Dubai. Travel in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is generally considered safe, and that has helped make Dubai, the UAE’s most famous city, one of the hottest tourist destinations in the Middle East. It is a center of skyscrapers, malls, resorts and glittering urban extravagance—most of it generated by the region’s oil reserves. The world’s tallest building stands in Dubai—more than half a mile in height—and the world’s most expensive cocktail was sold here for just shy of $8,000 (plus a buck, we may suppose, for the tip). If you were hoping to see austere holy sites and crumbling ruins, then Dubai is not for you.
Jordan. The problem with American perceptions of the Middle East is exactly that: They are perceptions of a large and unofficially demarcated area containing different cultures and a variety of landscapes and languages. All that millions of outsiders really know for sure about the area is that missiles seem to fly readily across international boundaries and turn outdoor markets and shopping centers into rubble. In Jordan, the recently foiled terrorist attack produced a scare, though authorities say the perpetrators were under watch every step of their way. In fact, Jordan has remained relatively peaceful through years of violence in its neighboring countries—yet the country may suffer from associations with violence, as Jordan shares borders with five nations, including Iraq, Syria, Israel and Saudi Arabia. But travelers who have gone there to see for themselves often return with glowing reports of Jordanians’ hospitality and genuine kindness. The nation is largely of red-hued desert and rough and rocky hills, and amid this landscape are such spectacular historical sites as Jerash, the Ajloun Castle and Petra, the ancient city included in Smithsonian Magazine‘s list of 28 places to see before you die.
Libya. Put your family vacation plans to Libya on hold for a while. Perhaps a few miles too far west to be categorized as a “Middle East” nation, Libya’s Muslim populace and hostility toward American earns this Saharan nation a place in this discussion. U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three American colleagues were killed here during a siege of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on September 11. (Note: Libyans were killed, too, as they tried to protect the Americans.) The next day the U.S. government issued a stern and formal warning against any travel at all in Libya. Take the advice–unless the rest of the world is really not enough.
For the following nations of the Middle East (or adjacent to it), the U.S. government has issued travel warnings this year: Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen. Like so many nations, though, each of these likely has its highly publicized dark side, and its lesser-known archaeological attractions, hospitality and scenery.
What about Turkey? Escalating conflict between Syria and Turkey have raised concerns that travel in the latter will become unsafe. However, those who have recently been in Turkey deny that tensions or danger is increasing there. Rather, life has continued as usual, especially in the western realms of the nation. In related gossip, a number of nightmare scams reportedly pulled recently on women travelers in Istanbul may shock readers and open the eyes of travelers—but the stories, described here, probably illustrate nothing more hostile than snake-eyed thieves preying on unsuspecting outsiders.
October 9, 2012
People have traveled for many, many reasons. They have traveled to explore, to discover and to rediscover. They have traveled to eat and to drink, to attend college and to skip college; to protest war, to wage war and to dodge war; to make music and to hear music; to pray and to do yoga; to climb mountains, go fishing, go shopping, find love, find work, go to school, party, gamble and, sometimes, just to get away from it all. Some travel for the thrill of coming home again. Some people have traveled to die.
There is also a strange yet commanding allure in traveling abroad to visit the grim preserved sites of disasters and atrocities. In 2010, for instance, almost one-and-a-half million people visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, where there is often hardly a dry eye in the house. The scene of at least 1.1 million murders is funded and maintained to preserve some of the hardest evidence that remains of the Holocaust, and to offer visitors a vague understanding of what it might have felt like to be a prisoner here in 1944. We may all have read about the Holocaust, Auschwitz and the gas chambers in schoolbooks, but nothing makes it all become so real like approaching Auschwitz’s iron gates, where one may shiver at the sight of an overhead sign reading, “Arbeit macht frei.” So plainly a lie from our illuminated vantage point of the future, the words translate into, “Labor makes you free.” Inside, tour guides lead groups past waist-deep piles of eyeglasses, shoes and artificial limbs and crutches, all worn and dirty as the day they were stripped from their owners. There even remain tangled heaps of human hair, which the Germans had planned to use for making clothing. Farther through the camp, tourists see the ominous train tracks that terminate at Auschwitz, the captives’ living quarters, and the gas chambers and ovens where they met their ends. Just how many died at Auschwitz may be uncertain. Figures cited in online discussions range from just over a million people to more than four million. No, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum is not a fun place to go. And tourists flock here. As of 2010, 29 million people had visited.
Where else do people go to pay tribute to tragedies?
Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Perhaps never have so many people died in one place, in one instant, as in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. That day, at 8:15 in the morning, 70,000 human lives ended. By 1950, 200,000 people may have died as a result of the bombing and its radioactive legacy. Today, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum preserves a vivid image of that day’s horror. The numbers above do not account for the city of Nagasaki, where the bombing on August 9 caused the deaths of between 60,000 and 80,000 people. The bomb dropped on this city (it was nicknamed “Fat Man”) was said to be stronger than the Hiroshima bomb (nicknamed “Little Boy”), but the hilly terrain of Nagasaki prevented the complete destruction of the city and surely saved many lives. For those lost, a memorial museum in Nagasaki preserves the tragedy–and neither of the two terrible bombings of Japan is an event that posterity is willing to forget.
Gettysburg. One of the very bloodiest battles of the Civil War, the three days of combat at Gettysburg cost about 7,000 American soldiers their lives. Total casualties–including soldiers taken prisoner and those reported missing–amounted to 51,000. After General Lee retreated, his victorious momentum of months prior fizzled, and historians consider the Battle of Gettysburg the event that drove the outcome of the Civil War, and shaped the future of America. The battlefield has been preserved much as the soldiers in blue and gray saw it on July 1, 2 and 3 of 1863, though today it goes by the institutional moniker Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitors Center. Cannons remain poised for battle, their barrels still aimed over the fields where swarms of men once moved. Statues depict soldiers in action. And row after row of headstones represent the lives lost. Other preserved Civil War battlefields include Fort Sanders, Fort Davidson, Helena, Manassas, Fredericksburg and Antietam, where more than 3,600 soldiers died on a single day.
Ground Zero at the former New York World Trade Center. For many people living who are old enough to remember 9/11, the chronology of our world can be divided into two eras–the time before the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, and the years that have followed. Exactly a decade after the attack, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum opened to commemorate the time and place that more than 3,000 people abruptly died in the downtown heart of one of America’s greatest cities. The site commemorating the tragedy features two depressions in the city floor where each of the Twin Towers previously stood, and visitors who have seen the buildings fall on TV scores of times may nonetheless marvel that it’s true: The two skyscrapers really are gone. Each memorial is walled with polished stone and rimmed by an unbroken waterfall that sprinkles into a pool below. The names of every victim who died in the attack are engraved in bronze plating along each pool’s perimeter. Visiting the memorial is free but requires reservations.
Wounded Knee Creek. On December 29, 1890, American soldiers marched onto the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in South Dakota, and strategically surrounded a camp of 350 Lakota Sioux people–most of whom were women and children. After setting up four wheel-mounted Hotchkiss guns to provide cover, a group of the soldiers advanced. Suspecting the presence of armed warriors under the leadership of Big Foot, whom the Army had been pursuing in the weeks prior, the soldiers intended to strip the Lakota of their weapons. A scuffle ensued between one soldier and a Lakota man. A shot was reportedly fired, and then panic ensued. Lakota Sioux and Americans alike began firing from all directions indiscriminately. Warriors, women and children fell dead–including the leaders Spotted Elk and Big Foot–along with 25 American soldiers (many possibly hit by “friendly” fire). Among the Lakota Sioux, 150 were dead, and the massacre–two weeks to the day after Sitting Bull was attacked and killed–marked the last major conflict between white Americans and the Sioux. An entire continent of indigenous cultures had been mostly eradicated. Today, the site of the Wounded Knee massacre is a national historic landmark.
Gallipoli Peninsula. Between April 25, 1915, and January 9, 1916, more than 100,000 soldiers died along the beaches of the Gallipoli Peninsula, in northwest Turkey. Turkish, French, English, New Zealand, Australian, German and Canadian troops all died here. Many casualties occurred during poorly arranged landings in which Turkish gunmen situated on cliffs dispatched entire boatloads of Allied soldiers before their boots had even touched the sand. Today, cemetery after cemetery line the waters of the Aegean Sea, with almost countless tombstones honoring one young soldier after another who was commanded to his death. Signs remind visitors that these public grounds are not to serve as picnic sites, which may be tempting. Sloped lawns of green-trimmed grass spread among the stones and run down to the water’s edge, where these soldiers came trampling ashore, while a plaque at Anzac Cove bears the words of the former Turkish ruler Mustafa Kemal: “Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours… you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land. They have become our sons as well.” The Turks suffered the greatest losses during the siege–perhaps 80,000 or more soldiers killed–while the official New Zealand soldier death rate of nearly 32 percent may be an inflated statistic, according to some historians. Now, ANZAC Day (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps Day) occurs every 25th day of April, an event that draws thousands to participate in services in the nearest cities, like Eceabat, Gelibolu and Çanakkale. The 100th anniversary of the first day of the siege will take place April 25, 2015.