July 18, 2012
Everyone knows what to see at Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado: the cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people who occupied the Four Corners region from A.D. 600 to 1300. Soon, though, there will be good reason to stop at the entrance because the park is building a new Visitor and Research Center, scheduled to open late this year, that will give a state-of-the-art museum to its remarkable collection of archaeological artifacts, ethnographic material on the Native Americans of the Southwest and Santa Fe Indian School painting. Considered as a whole, it’s one of the oldest and biggest museums in the national park system.
Another one of its treasures is a collection of jewelry and ceramics given to Mesa Verde in the 1940s by architect Mary Jane Colter. Born in Pittsburgh in 1869, she attended the California School of Design in San Francisco, then went to create and decorate buildings for the Fred Harvey Company which ran shops, restaurants and hotels along the Sante Fe Railway. Among her masterworks are Hopi House, Lookout Studio, Hermit’s Rest and the Watchtower on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, all stunning examples of the American Arts and Crafts movement that take their inspiration from Hopi, Zuni and Navajo design, as well as Spanish-Mexican hacienda architecture. Between 1900 and 1940 Colter also worked on landmark train stations in Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City and Los Angeles.
At a time when women spent their time in the kitchen and parlor, Colter made her way in a man’s world, striding over construction sites and seeking artifacts all over the old Southwest, her hair in an untidy French roll, her radio tuned to a Mexican music station. On forays around the Four Corners region she collected baskets, jewelry and pots, while getting to know the Native American craftspeople who made them. She used most of the treasures she found to decorate Harvey Company buildings, but kept some for herself, eventually retiring to Santa Fe where she died in 1958.
Colter was a close friend of the archaeologist Jesse L. Nusbaum, who excavated Mesa Verde’s Balcony House and served as the park’s superintendent from 1921 to 1946. So the museum there seemed to Colter a suitable home for her art.
But she never wanted the 530 pieces of jewelry she bequeathed to Mesa Verde to be known as the Mary Colter Collection. “I think she didn’t want it to be about her. She wanted it to be about the artists,” said curator Tara Travis. Later some of Colter’s ceramics were added from the old Southwest Museum in Los Angeles.
When the new Visitor and Research Center opens at Mesa Verde, 30 Colter pieces will be on display, including a silver Navajo pin shaped like a biplane, heishi necklaces made of delicately strung shells, and tie slides carved from the vertebrae of cows and goats—all showing, as Travis explained, that “Colter had an interest in how artists used materials—shells, stones, turquoise and silver—and everyday objects to create works of art.”
The mastery of the Native Americans who made them should be overwhelmingly apparent. But I can’t think of it as anything other than the Mary Jane Colter Collection.
June 25, 2012
It isn’t the biggest, shiniest, most up-to-date and detailed globe in the world. But the American Geographical Society’s 18-inch Rand McNally Terrestrial Globe is doubtless the most precious because it was signed by 85 of the greatest explorers in modern times: from Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart to Neil Armstrong and John Glenn. Not only did they sign it when they got back from netherlands (and netherworlds), they charted their courses on it in wavering ink lines across oceans and continents.
The Fliers’ and Explorers’ Globe, as it’s called, sits beneath a dark cloth, like a covered bird cage, in the Brooklyn home of the AGS, the oldest national geographical organization in the U.S. Founded in 1851, the AGS devotes itself to geographical research and education, sponsoring expeditions, supporting studies and disseminating information to laypeople with a strong interest in geography. As such, it takes a somewhat more scholarly approach than the Washington, D.C.-based National Geographic Society, which tends to focus more on photography and popular geography.
The AGS may not publish glossy magazines and make television specials, but it has the prized globe, given to the society by John H. Finley, a former society president and editor in chief of the New York Times. Finley kept the globe in his office at the paper, inviting newsmakers back from the jungles and poles to sign it. In 1929 he gave the globe to the society, which continued the tradition up to the present day.
In April at the St. Petersburg home of the Russian Geographical Society, two more John Hancocks were added to the globe, those of Valentina Tereshkova (the first woman cosmonaut in 1963) and Alexei Leonov (a 1965 space walk pioneer). It was the first time the globe had been taken outside the U.S., making it far less well-traveled than its signers, for an occasion marking the 75th anniversary of Russian aviator Valery Chkalov’s pioneering transpolar flight from Moscow to Washington, D.C., in 1937. Chkalov died the following year, piloting a prototype fighter plane, but both his grandson and great-grandson were on hand for the ceremony.
The U.S. and Russia have a surprisingly long history of geographical cooperation. In 1912 Russian scholars joined the 13,000-mile AGS Transcontinental Excursion; others later took part in the society’s Latin America mapping effort; more recently Russian geographer and businessman Mikhail Slipenchuk offered to underwrite the creation of 12 replicas of the Fliers’ and Explorers’ Globe, one of which now stands next to the original at the AGS in Brooklyn.
May 16, 2012
I don’t like packing and getting shots, but when it comes to getting ready to travel, I love reading books and watching movies. I’m currently planning a trip to India, which I haven’t visited for almost 15 years. I want to find out how it’s changed, spend a week doing yoga at an ashram, see the burning ghats at Varanasi and taste the spicy food of the subcontinental south.
To prepare for my first trip I took in such standards as director Richard Attenborough’s 1982 epic Gandhi and David Lean’s 1984 film take on E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India; “The Jewel in the Crown” miniseries based on novelist Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet; Paul Brunton’s esoteric A Search in Secret India; A House for Mr. Biswas, V. S. Naipaul’s heartbreakingly funny look at family life in the Indian diaspora community; Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie’s evocation of India at independence; and everything by Louise Nicholson, the queen of India guidebook writers.
This time I’m finding much more to read and watch—India updated.
English, August (1988), by Upamanyu Chatterjee, follows a confused, morose, insidiously funny young man to an Indian Civil Service posting in the provincial backwater of Madna where, almost in spite of himself, he sees deeper into the nature of India with both its glories and absurdities.
A Fine Balance (1995), a richly textured, bighearted novel by Rohinton Mistry that follows two village tailors who search for work in the city during the “Emergency“ from 1975 to 1977 when the government of Indira Gandhi suspended individual rights and democratic elections, resulting in widespread abuses. “You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair,” a fellow train passenger tells them—sound advice, it turns out, as the tailors are beset by more woes than Job. Together with his more recent novel Family Matters (2002), A Fine Balance establishes Mistry as one of the best, most vivid and moving chroniclers of contemporary India, especially Mumbai.
India (2011), by Patrick French, a contemporary study of the Indian nation assessing the singular nature of its democracy, the flush economy and enduring poverty, religious fractures, intransigent caste system and high-tech genius—all backed up by moving portraits of Indian people, be they quarry workers, Bollywood stars or dirty politicians.
The Last Mughal (2006) is historian William Dalrymple’s detailed look at the 1857 Indian Mutiny, the chaos it wrecked on New Delhi, the brutality of British retribution and the pathetic end of the great Mughul dynasty under its last unfortunate emperor, Zafar.
Sacred Games (2006), by Vikram Chandra, is part-thriller, part-police procedural, all extraordinary literary investigation into the beating, red heart of the Indian city of Mumbai. It features a valiant, long-suffering Sikh policeman and bizarrely tortured crime overlord, along with the fully Dickensian world of characters who bind them together. A terrific read.
Salaam Bombay! (1988), artfully directed by Mira Nair, tells the story of a boy on the mean streets of Mumbai, the drug addicts, pimps, prostitutes and thugs he befriends and his hopeless struggle to make enough money to return home to the mother who all but sold him to the circus. If Slumdog Millionaire is glass half full, Salaam Bombay! is a more realistic glass half empty.
Sea of Poppies (2008) is the first book in a projected trilogy by Amitav Ghosh, set in the early 1800s when the British-run opium trade was pillaging Hindustan on one hand and enslaving China on the other. To evade it a group of travelers set out in a great sailing ship to the island of Mauritius, mixing customs and languages from all around the Indian Ocean, the rich backdrop for this epic of the Indian diaspora.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008), director Danny Boyle’s first hit film, uses flashbacks during a young man’s appearance as a contestant on the Indian TV version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” to tell the story of three orphaned children growing up in the shantytowns of Mumbai. It’s pure wish fulfillment with a full-throttle happy ending, but segments were filmed in desperately poor neighborhoods of the city most visitors never see, like the unforgettably funny scene set in a slum toilet.
A Suitable Boy (1993) is a novel by Vikram Seth that depicts the lives and preoccupations of middle-class India as a young woman chooses a husband from three very different suitors. Set against the political maneuvering of the post-independence era, it unfolds like a soap opera—but with finer sensibilities—and creates a world of involving characters. At almost 1,500 pages long, in for a penny, in for a pound.
The White Tiger (2008), by Aravind Adiga, another novel—contemporary Indian writers excel in fiction—channels the hilarious voice of a devious Delhi chauffeur to serve up a scathing picture of democracy in India—vote-buying, bribes, kickbacks and all.
Still, one book stands above all as required reading for the traveler in India: Kim, by Rudyard Kipling. First published in 1901, it is considered a relic of British imperialism by some critics (like Edward Said) and many Indians. But to my mind Kipling’s classic remains a window on the Indian soul and a spiritual lesson. Starting from the steps of the Lahore Museum, it travels across India in the company of an orphan boy learning to spy for the British and a Tibetan Buddhist holy man who meets adversity by remembering that “just is the wheel.” For historical background dip into The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (1990), by Peter Hopkirk.
May 9, 2012
Heads up: On May 28, HBO will air a made-for-television movie that should fascinate travelers: “Hemingway & Gellhorn.”
With Clive Owen as Papa and Nicole Kidman as the daring and beautiful war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, it is being billed as one of the greatest romances of the 20th century. OK. The star-crossed couple met and made love in steamy Key West in 1936, traveled to exotic places together and married four years later. But the network is going to have to sprinkle plenty of love dust on the true story of their relationship to make viewers’ hearts palpitate.
That’s because they divorced acrimoniously after a brief five years of wedded bliss, during which time both had affairs and cohabitated only intermittently. Eventually Hemingway gave her an ultimatum and she read the tea lives about her future as a “footnote in someone else’s life.” After they divorced in 1945, Gellhorn granted interviews on the proviso that Hemingway’s name would not be mentioned.
We all know what happened to him, but Gellhorn’s story is seldom remembered even though she wrote a dozen books based on her adventures before taking her own life in 1998 while suffering from cancer. My favorite is “Travels with Myself and Another,” published in 1978, a book about colossally bad trips in which she wrote, “The only aspect of our travels that is guaranteed to hold an audience is disaster.”
One of the essays therein, “Mr. Ma’s Tigers,” is a travel classic that recounts the agonies of a 1941 trip to China to cover the Sino-Japanese War with Hemingway, coyly identified only as U.C., which stands for unwilling companion. Along the way she got to meet the unsavory head of the Republic of China Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, fly over the Himalayan “hump” in a shuddering DC-3 operated by China National Aviation Company, the strappy outfit that kept lines of communication open to the free Chinese capital of Chungking, and witness at firsthand hapless, ill-equipped Chinese soldiers attempting to fend off the Japanese, soon to join forces with Hitler as an Axis power.
Gellhorn was a sharp observer and terse, evocative writer as able to describe a dress dinner with the king and queen of Hawaii as Hong Kong brothels and opium dens. And honest. Throughout “Mr. Ma’s Tigers” she never tries to hide her private schoolgirl horror of filthy customs like spitting and squalid conditions she encountered in the Orient causing her to shriek, whine and occasionally vomit. Her reactions are set in stark, self-aware contrast to those of Hemingway, who only had to take a drink to live and let live. At one point she reports him telling her, “The trouble with you is that you think everybody is exactly like you. What you can’t stand, they can’t stand. What’s hell for you has to be hell for them. How do you know what they feel about their lives? If it was as bad as you think they’d kill themselves instead of having more kids and setting off firecrackers.“
Both responses inevitably coexist in the hearts of travelers, engendering the internal edginess we feel on extreme trips to places like India and Africa. That’s what I’d like to see in the HBO movie because—never mind Hemingway—few writers have depicted it better than Gellhorn.
April 19, 2012
In the run-up to the April 22 French presidential election Nicolas Sarkozy has been promising a referendum to loosen labor policies he blames for the high unemployment rate in France. The goal is to emulate Germany, an idea that once would have seemed incroyable in a country where worker protections are as sacred as wine with dinner.
But people who love all things French—including the millions of travelers who continue to make France the number one tourist destination in the world—might be interested to note this trio of developments suggesting that change is on the horizon:
A few months ago, on February 7 to be exact, the franc officially went out of circulation. Introduced by French monarch Jean le Bon (1319-1364), it remained the coin of the realm—with occasional modifications, like the addition of the Vichy seal during the World War II German occupation—until 2002 when France adopted the (now distressed) euro. At that time a ten-year grace period went into effect so that people who stashed old bills under the mattress could exchange them for euros at a locked-in value of 6.56 francs for 1 euro, the going rate when France joined the European Union in 1999. But now hoarders and travelers who accumulated francs left over from past trips are stuck with them. Remember Antoine de Saint Exupéry and “The Little Prince” on the old 50-franc bill? Think of it as a souvenir.
The French honorific mademoiselle went the way of the franc last month when government offices were instructed to remove it from official documents because of sexist overtones inherent in a form of address based on marital status. With the single female distinction excised, only two choices remain: monsieur and madame. Whether common parlance comes to reflect mademoiselle’s demise is another question, not least because it’s sometimes used as a form of flattery for older women.
Yves Jégo, the mayor of Montereau-Fault-Yonne, a small town about 50 miles southeast of Paris, is attempting to raise $255 million to construct a theme park based on the life and times of Napoleon. If his dream becomes a reality, Napoleonland will break ground in 2014 and go head-to-head with nearby Disneyland Paris, which opened in 1992 to cries of sacré bleu from cultural purists but has since become Europe‘s top tourist site, visited by 15.6 million people last year. Given “Boney’s” stature and the pressing need for jobs in France, Napoleonland may get a warmer welcome, though it’s hard to imagine the attractions. The 100 Days in miniature? A Battle of the Nile son et lumière? The Bonaparte family on parade?
Honestly, the more things change in France, the more they really change.