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Good News From Afghanistan

By Sara Tucker

The National Museum in Kabul, which has lost 70 percent of its 100,000-piece collection through plundering, celebrated a historic turnaround this week when it unveiled stolen artifacts repatriated by British authorities. The returned artifacts were confiscated at Heathrow Airport during random searches over a period of six years.

The moment was huge for a country devastated by war and robbed of so much of its cultural heritage. "The 3.5 ton trove of [returned] artifacts was described as priceless by the museum director and includes stone tools dating back 10,000 years," reported the Telegraph. "Among the greatest treasures are a bronze peacock-shaped brazier dating from the 12th century and a 100-year-old carved, wooden pen box filled with Persian poems and curses. . . .At least half the returned collection is dated back to before Afghanistan's Islamic period which began in the seventh century."

Besides the value of the returned objects, there is the significance of the opening itself: "For more than a decade, the museum here in the Afghan capital has been a symbol of the country's grievous suffering," observed LA Times staff writer Henry Chu in 2007. "Once a repository of one of the world's most valuable collections of Central Asian artifacts, it turned into a building full of broken hopes and dreams, its shell shattered by civil war, its guts ripped out by the radically religious Taliban." At the time Chu's article was published, the museum had begun to welcome home cultural treasures held in safekeeping by other countries, but it was still "struggling to get back on its feet," and "virtually all of those objects remain squirreled away in boxes, awaiting proper treatment and someplace to put them on show."

Tuesday's opening didn't escape criticism ("premature and naïve," huffed a HuffPo reader), but the overriding sentiment was positive and easily summarized in two words: "It's time."

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Aspen and the Bears of Summer

by Sara Tucker

Resort areas have been inundated with bears this summer, and the death toll is mounting. Last week in Aspen it reached five: one human and four bears. So you can imagine the relief of the bear stuck in a Snowmass skate park on Tuesday when a posse arrived armed with a ladder.

It's been a trying season. In Glenwood Springs, Colorado, the drama began when a young female black bear walked into the lobby of the Hotel Colorado. That was in early July. Since then, officers with the Colorado Division of Wildlife have been working as much as 20 hours a day to keep up with all the bear calls. "It's insane what is going on with bears right now," a DOW spokesman told the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.

DenverChannel.com has run no fewer than 18 separate stories about bear burglaries since Memorial Day, with headlines such as "Bear Breaks Into Home for Biscotti" and "Pepsi-Craving Bear Breaks Into Beaver Creek Bar." Have you heard the one about the bear that walked into the fur shop? (It happened in Aspen.) How about the midnight raider that snuck into a home on Aspen's Sneaky Lane? He was nabbed stealing candy. Sounds kinda cute, right?

Continue reading "Aspen and the Bears of Summer" »

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Magic Moments in the Great American West

by Sara Tucker

It didn't hit the stride of, say, Teddy Roosevelt's "The Man With the Muck-Rake" speech, but "Cool! Look at that! That's a geyser there" has its own kind of poetry. Call it the rhetoric of spontaneous delight.

That, of course, was our president last weekend, speaking off-the-cuff at Yellowstone National Park as Old Faithful gushed into the air. It was a memorable moment in a three-day family tour of some prime American wilderness, a tour dogged by pesky problems. Questions such as whether it's really a good thing to allow guns in our national parks and what to do about the growing number of pot farms on park land. Not to mention whether the move to reduce wolf populations through hunting is a good idea, considering that wolves were on the endangered list a few short months ago. Then, of course, there was the inevitable hubbub about health care reform, since this was, after all, a working vacation.

The Obama family's western tour was modeled after a historic trip made by Teddy Roosevelt in 1903. Loosely modeled, you'd have to say. Vanity Fair's Power & Politics blog reminds us that TR "explored Yellowstone on horseback with naturalist John Burroughs, declared the Grand Canyon off-limits to mining interests, and slept under the stars in Yosemite with the inimitable John Muir." Obama, as the AP was quick to point out, is "no Marlboro Man" (oh, ouch), but reporters hoping for a western twist on the Pennsylvania bowling fiasco were disappointed. His western tour was very much the family vacation, with peach picking, zip lining (the president's sister tried it), s'mores, and white-water rafting ("Mrs. Obama is an incredible paddler," a guide told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle). The president tried out his new fly rod (the press was not invited) and fielded questions about insurance.

The tour was a whirlwind, but there were moments, and Old Faithful was one, when this presidential walk on the wild side reminded us why we care about our national parks. As a fountain of steam and spray exploded into the blue sky of a perfect day, everything else fell away--guns, wolves, health care--leaving behind only a welcome sense of childish wonder. "Cool. Look at that. That's a geyser there."

Further reading:
* "National Parks Welcome the Obamas" (The Daily Traveler on CNT)
* The 10 greatest parks and how to visit them (CNT, September 2009)
* "How the West Was Saved" (Vanity Fair)
* The Aggregator: News of the week in links

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Remembering Les Paul (and Woodstock)

by Sara Tucker

Music icon Les Paul picked up his electric guitar this week and headed for the Great Music Festival in the Sky, just as thousands were making the pilgrimage to Sullivan County, New York, for a Woodstock 40th anniversary bash.

Nobody was more responsible for what happened on Max Yasgur's farm in the summer of '69 than the Father of the Electric Guitar. Without Paul, Keith Richards once said, "generations of flash little punks like us would be in jail or cleaning toilets."

Speaking at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute nine months before his death, Paul told the story of how he built his own pickup from radio and telephone parts in the '30s and turned a fencepost into a prototypical solid-body guitar known as "the Log." "What we did was take an acoustical instrument--which was a very apologetic, wonderful, meek instrument--and turned it into a pit bull," he told Spinner in a mesmerizing interview.

"Shortly after news of his death hit the Web on Thursday, Facebook and Twitter feeds lit up with tributes," noted Rolling Stone in its obit, "Slash, whom Paul referred to last year as a 'dear friend,' tweeted that the guitar innovator 'was one of the most stellar human beings I've ever known.'"

Continue reading "Remembering Les Paul (and Woodstock) " »

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Ikea Airways, Animals with Guns, and a Dream of Happiness

Os-Gemeos-Brazilian-artists-New-York-mural
A mural by Os Gêmeos on view until March at the corner of Houston Street and the Bowery in Manhattan.
Photo: Daydreampilot on Flickr using Creative Commons

by Sara Tucker

It's not exactly news that air travel sucks, so hats off to The New York Times readers who've come up with some ways to improve it. A sample: (1) Let Ikea run the airlines ("You'd have to assemble your seat yourself"), and (2) "charge a reasonable fare" for a coast-to-coast round-trip of "at least $2,600." For more suggestions, click here.

Here's a fresh idea to bear in mind as you walk the trails of Yosemite this summer; we stumbled upon it at Babelgum: guns for animals. Why we like it: A long, hard effort by the gun lobby ended in victory last May with an amendment quietly tacked onto the credit card reform bill. In case you missed it, the new law will allow pistol-packing tourists in the national parks, but it doesn't go into effect until next year. Meanwhile, folks who care about such things as personal safety and wildlife poaching have exchanged some harsh words. "Guns tend to bring out a black-or-white, yes-or-no stridency in American policy debate," observed an article (the Times, again) soon after the legislation passed, while the national parks "evoke equally deep emotional feelings." Cool heads are always welcome when tempers flare, and the Sklar Brothers' proposal to furnish animals with firearms strikes us as a fair-minded attempt to even the playing field. Check out their video.

Finally this week, 'tis the season when street art comes into full flower. The mural by Os Gêmeos, twin brothers from Brazil, on view until March at the corner of Houston Street and the Bowery in Manhattan, has been described by one critic as a dream of happiness with an underlying current of melancholy (review and slide show here). For a world tour of ephemeral art, check out the Wooster Collective and World Graffiti Urban Art (here are some gems from Mali). And if your summer travels land you in Berlin, "graffiti mecca of the urban art world," EuroCheapo has some advice for you.

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The Everglades Python Hunt

Big-snake-hunt-Florida-Everglades
Photo: heartajack on Flickr using Creative Commons

by Sara Tucker

Not to be pushy, but you've simply got to read this update from Naples Daily News intern Whitney Bryen on the big snake hunt going on in the Florida Everglades. Hilarious, scary, sad, and somehow important all at the same time, her article begins: "Seven men with snake hooks and pocket knives will not cure the problem of pythons in the Everglades, but that doesn't stop Shawn Heflick from trying."

Earlier this month, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar ("prodded by alarmed Floridians") held a no-nonsense, tough-on-snakes press conference to get things rolling. "Burmese pythons are an invasive species that have no place in the Everglades and threaten its delicate ecosystem," Salazar said. "We are committed to aggressively combating this threat, including having trained and well-supervised volunteers hunt down and remove snakes." The Sun Sentinel has more, including this info: "A python hotline has been established for public reporting of pythons. The number is 305-815-2080."

Finally, no serious news story would be complete without punditry. The Great Florida Snake Hunt makes sense at least from a political standpoint, writes Mark Lane, a columnist for the Daytona Beach News-Journal. What does it really mean when a U.S. senator announces to the press that "we need to get a grip on pythons" and "there's one way to do this: Kill the snakes"? Find out here.

Also worth a peek this week:
* Smartphones tackle invasive species (National Geographic)
* How swimmers "could play a profound role" in climate change (Wired)

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Revenge of the Sea Creatures

JoeJr
Mmmm... We think ice cream
when we see this, too

Photo: mrpattersonsir on Flickr
using Creative Commons

by Sara Tucker

This week's news is studded with giants, from a 55-pound MoonPie that was sliced up and served in Wapakoneta, Ohio, to an invasion of giant squid off the coast of San Diego. Let's start with the MoonPie. Wapakoneta is, of course, the birthplace of Neil Armstrong, who executed his "giant leap for mankind" forty years ago. Because Armstrong himself was unable to attend the anniversary celebration in Wapakoneta on Monday, visitors to the Neil Armstrong Air & Space Museum had been promised instead a life-size replica of the astronaut carved out of cheese. The sculpture was delivered on time and without incident (the maneuvers required a forklift, explains TimesOnline), but on Monday it was nowhere in sight. That's because on Sunday, according to a local news source, "the air conditioning in the museum automatically turned off overnight, causing the cheese to start melting. Part of the sculpture slid off the base. As of early afternoon, only the base remained on display inside the museum. Guests who were lined up, slowly making their way through the exhibits, were audibly and visibly disappointed when they saw what was left."

Meanwhile, weather systems in Asia were preparing their own version of the cheese debacle:

"Eager solar eclipse gazers beware," warned China Daily as millions gathered on roof- and mountaintops to view what had promised to be a spectacular event: "Dense clouds may spoil your pent-up excitement by obscuring the view."

"Tourists who've traveled from around the world to see this are scrambling to change their plans," reported another news agency, "consulting satellite maps, cloud counts, and good old-fashioned instinct in hopes of finding a hole in the clouds anywhere. (Some are re-booking plane tickets last minute, others are staying put. It's a tough call."

Continue reading "Revenge of the Sea Creatures" »

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Naked Flight Attendants Grab Attention As Aliens Invade

by Sara Tucker

Sometimes the week is so jam-packed with news one hardly knows where to begin. There's the latest YouTube sensation, for example, an in-flight safety video featuring airline personnel wearing not a single stitch of clothing, which racked up views this week faster than the footage of Michael Jackson's final rehearsal. "We have been absolutely stunned by the massive international interest in our in-flight safety briefing," said an Air New Zealand exec. (More at latimes.com.)

Or how about the heart-warming story behind "United Breaks Guitars"--a "catchy song," says the Consumerist, "about how much United sucks." The country-music video made its debut on YouTube on Monday, and by Tuesday the airline had offered to square things with the composer, who had been seeking compensation for his broken guitar for over a year.

Equally juicy is Carbonfootprint.com's blasting of U2 and Bono for generating enough gassy emissions with their current world tour to fly the band to Mars and back." (The Belfast Telegraph has the shameful details.)

It gets better.

Continue reading "Naked Flight Attendants Grab Attention As Aliens Invade" »

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Kitty Goes to Memphis, and Other Tales of Flying Fur

Pet-Area

Photo: Sillydog on Flickr using Creative Commons

by Sara Tucker

An online dispenser of travel paraphernalia asks us to imagine this version of flying hell: Your pint-sized companion has a full bladder and there is no place to pee, neither on the plane, nor in the terminal. Unbelievable, right? And yet that's what happens when, halfway to Memphis (or Chicago, or San Francisco) "your cat needs to go to the bathroom."

Don't laugh. Toilet facilities are a real problem for flying cats and dogs--and there are many of those. (The solution to the above-mentioned dilemma: a portable litter box, available here.) Forty-two percent of the American pet owners who responded to an AP poll released Tuesday say they've taken a pet with them on vacation.

Continue reading "Kitty Goes to Memphis, and Other Tales of Flying Fur" »

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The Most Awesome Place in the Universe

Meadow
"In this little meadow," wrote eco-theologian Thomas Berry, "the magnificence of life as celebration is manifested."
Photo: Artcatcher on Flickr using Creative Commons

by Sara Tucker

"It was an early afternoon in May when I first looked down over the scene and saw the meadow," wrote Thomas Berry in The Great Work. "The field was covered with lilies rising above the thick grass. A magic moment, this experience gave to my life something, I know not what, that seems to explain my life at a more profound level than almost any other experience I can remember.

"It was not only the lilies. It was the singing of the crickets and the woodlands in the distance and the clouds in an otherwise clear sky. . . . Whenever I think about my basic life attitude and the whole trend of my mind and the causes that I have given my efforts to, I seem to come back to this moment and the impact it has had on my feeling for what is real and worthwhile in life."

Berry, who died June 1 at the age of 94, is being remembered this month for the impact he made as an "Earth scholar" who wrote about the place where ecology and theology connect.

"To spend time with him was like getting a soul transfusion," wrote Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, in an e-mail to Dot Earth blogger Andrew Revkin.

Continue reading "The Most Awesome Place in the Universe" »

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Table for Two at the County Jail


Thomas County, Georgia's part of the prison-garden movement.

by Sara Tucker

You know the prison-garden movement, the one proposed in this column several weeks ago ("The Angola Prison Rodeo and Locavore Grub Fest"), the idea being to use our vast prison system to grow healthy organic food, thus promoting agricultural sustainability and food security in our present time of crisis? Turns out there already is a prison-garden movement. Why, just last month, prison inmates in Sandusky County, Ohio, planted their first crop of vegetables as a cost-cutting measure after Sheriff Kyle Overmyer banned pancakes from the prison menu in response to a $75,000 budget cut ("Kale at the Jail," KansasCity.com). Similar gardens have sprung up this year in corrections facilities around the country, including Adams County, Pennsylvania (Corrections Reporter), and San Quentin, California (San Francisco Magazine). Some are donating extra produce to food banks. Sadly, however, many are hiding their light under a bushel basket. So here's a new proposal: prison restaurants. Prisoners grow, prepare, and serve the food to paying guests--obvious, right? So obvious, in fact, that it's already been tested in other parts of the world.

Continue reading "Table for Two at the County Jail" »

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How to Talk to Cows: The Etiquette of Agritourism

Heifer
Photo: publicenergy on Flickr using Creative Commons

by Sara Tucker

A Vermont farmer we know celebrates Cow Appreciation Day in May. That's when her cows are turned out to pasture after months of winter confinement. Friends and neighbors bring covered dishes and watch the cows frolic. A potluck breakfast follows.

Brattleboro honors cows in June with a three-day bovine beauty pageant kicked off by a parade down Main Street; they call it the Strolling of the Heifers (head nod to Pamplona's running of the bulls). The Billings Farm in Woodstock asks us to appreciate cows (and eat ice cream) in July.

For the uninitiated: Certain topics are never, ever discussed at cow fests, particularly around the cows. Read after the jump to learn more.

Continue reading "How to Talk to Cows: The Etiquette of Agritourism" »

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Why We Need Vacations Now More Than Ever

Cellphone_beach
Photo: SMN on Flickr
using Creative Commons


by Sara Tucker

An article about "the science of paying attention" by columnist John Tierney was one of the New York Times' most e-mailed stories this week. What does this tell us? That the subject struck a chord with so many readers suggests what a frazzled nation we are (duh), raising the question: How many e-mailers do you suppose read the entire piece before sending it to a friend (and how many of the recipients cursed the senders for adding to their in-box bulge)? Those readers who managed to stay on task for more than a few paragraphs would have learned that it can take the brain 20 minutes to "reboot" after an interruption and that multitasking is a myth. Another tidbit: The typical human brain "can process 173 billion bits of information over the course of a lifetime."

Not that this is news. "The brain can toggle back and forth pretty well, but it simply cannot concentrate on two things at one time," wrote Data Smog author David Shenk in Slate almost two years ago (in the months since the article posted, the typical brain has processed 5 billion additional bits of information). "So, the more quantity we try to manage, at increasing speeds, the more quality we find ourselves trading away."

What's more, "finding places where one can be properly disconnected is becoming increasingly difficult" in our wired world, reports the Telegraph. "Earlier this year a British man, Rod Baber, became the first to make a call on his mobile from the top of Everest."

Tierney (scribe of the above-mentioned most e-mailed column) speaks for a whelmed populace when he asks, "Is there any realistic refuge anymore from the Age of Distraction?"

Continue reading "Why We Need Vacations Now More Than Ever" »

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The Hostel Comes of Age, Along with Its Clientele

LisbonLounge
Lisbon's Lounge Hostel
makes the greypacker grade

by Sara Tucker

Pink-slipped baby boomers and retirees are hoisting backpacks and heading to Europe and beyond this summer, lured by cheap airfares and beds that range from low-cost to no-cost. Among those ready to receive them: upscale hostels that offer far more comfort than their rustic predecessors while providing "a built-in social life for travelers" (New York Times).

"Greypackers" is the term coined by blogger Ben Groundwater to describe this new breed of traveler. "It's not a bad thing," he asserts. "That's what I want to be when I grow up."

With no job to curb their freedom, some of these old-timers are hitting the road for months at a stretch.

"The number of people taking a gap year has increased massively over the past 12 months as unemployment soars," reports the Daily Mail. "American Express Insurance has almost doubled its sales of gap year travel insurance to those aged between 30 and 50 since August."

For advice on travel insurance and other grown-up concerns (e.g., what to do with one's mortgage and car payments while on the road), mature travelers are turning to Web sites like Backpacking for Grownups, which advertises itself as "a useful resource for any grown-up in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, or even 80s or 90s looking to take a career break, gap year, or go traveling with a backpack."

Further reading:
* The official hot hostel list (the Guardian)
* Europe's top 10 boutique hostels (MailOnline)

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Chasing Rainbows: What Do Gay Travelers Want?

Marriott_comeout_dt
The Marriott's "OUT in New York" package includes breakfast for two and a charitable donation.
Courtesy of Marriott.com

by Sara Tucker

Now that pink is the new green, gay and lesbian travelers, whose vacation spending boosts the U.S. economy by an estimated $70 billion a year, are being courted as never before. Even New York City, "birthplace of the gay rights movement" and the niche's undisputed grande dame, is out on the street, shakin' her booty with the competition.

Not everyone is amused. When state legislators got wind last summer that South Carolina was being touted abroad as a gay-friendly destination, an international flap ensued and the offending ads were pulled. "Nothing like Southern hospitality," commented Gay Agenda. More recently, Congressman Steve King warned Iowans their state could become a "gay marriage Mecca" if they don't watch out. (Best comeback, from a Political Ticker reader: "Oh my! We can't have gays come to Iowa. That might lead to . . . dancing!!")

Possibly more disturbing, from a marketing perspective, is the growing suspicion that non-heterosexual travelers are an awful lot like heterosexual ones.

Continue reading "Chasing Rainbows: What Do Gay Travelers Want?" »

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Antarctica Rips As Delegates Convene


Prelude to a fall: In March 2008, a chunk seven times the size of Manhattan broke off Antarctica, putting the rest of the Wilkins Ice Shelf in jeopardy of a collapse.

by Sara Tucker

When a large chunk of ice makes news, it's almost never a good thing. There was the 18-inch blob that fell from the sky above Tampa, Florida, on a Sunday morning and landed on a Ford Mustang, the 50-pound boulder that hurtled out of the blue two summers ago and smashed through an Iowa roof, and the airborne lump that crashed through a Pennsylvania house last October and bounced off a sleeping occupant's forehead. Not to mention the 200-pound Goliath that landed in a vacant lot in Oakland.

The latest chunk of ice to make headlines is the size of Connecticut. The Wilkins Ice Shelf, which scientists, navigators, and bloggers have been watching closely for the past year, collapsed over the weekend, detaching itself from the Antarctic Peninsula just as diplomats from 47 countries convened in Baltimore to discuss issues affecting the polar region. Topping the list is tourism.

Continue reading "Antarctica Rips As Delegates Convene" »

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Google Street View: The Brits Versus Big Brother

Googlecar
A Google Street View cam car in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood.
Photo: MarkWallace on Flickr using Creative Commons

by Sara Tucker

British citizens are in high dudgeon over Google Street View, whose cam cars have been prowling their streets for the past year. Since the mapping system's U.K. launch on March 19, tempers have reached the boiling point. Last week, a Google mapper turned tail and bolted after confronting angry vigilantes in the ordinarily peaceful town of Broughton. Privacy watchdogs think the mapping system is creepy, while home owners charge it's a burglar's dream. Today, critics of the prying digital eye, used to promote tourism in a growing list of countries, had something new to gripe about: the danger that they themselves might get caught breaking the law.

Click here for a primer on Google Earth and Google Maps from Condé Nast Traveler's April issue.

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The Angola Prison Rodeo and Locavore Grub Fest

by Sara Tucker

Now that Alice Waters, Kitchen Gardeners International, Michael Pollen, and other champions of Slow Food finally have a White House vegetable plot, hope is a-springin' up across the land for a full-out victory garden movement. The promoters might want to talk to Burl Cain. The warden of Louisiana State Penitentiary knows quite a lot about vegetables. The 18,000-acre prison has grown most of its own food for decades now, although its reputation is based more on bronco busting and bull riding. "Angola's rodeo has been around for 39 years," reported Newsday in 2004, "but it has grown exponentially since Cain arrived in 1995 and realized it could be a cash cow." The event, held each spring and fall and featuring cowboy convicts, many with more guts than training, draws some 70,000 tourists each year and takes in over $1.5 million. Cain himself invented the two most popular, and bloodiest, events, which go by the catchy names of Convict Poker and Guts and Glory. You can read about them here and here.

Angola is unique among penitentiaries, a huge, maximum-security prison that thrives on (a) publicity and (b) tourists, two commodities that prisons typically shun and vegetable plots could use more of. So far this year, Angola has been covered by the Indypendent, Mother Jones  (twice), and the LA Times' Offbeat Traveler. You'll find write-ups at BootsnAll, Counterpunch, and the Sydney Morning Herald.

When NPR's Kitchen Sisters visited the rodeo last year, what interested them was the grub:

Continue reading "The Angola Prison Rodeo and Locavore Grub Fest" »

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Poop Bags, Pot Farms, and Sacred Sites

Cleanupamerica
Last year, 800 volunteers helped remove 526 tons of trash from a section of the Colorado River in southern Arizona, including 2,253 tires, 46 abandoned cars, and 6 tons of scrap metal.
Photo: Take Pride in America

by Sara Tucker

There are those who trash the planet, and those who pick up after them. The litterbugs have left so much waste on Mount Everest that the Nepalese government has begun sticking climbers with a $4,000 penalty if they can't prove they're exiting the mountain with the same amount of metal and plastic they had on their ascents.

We're willing to bet there are people who would rather pay the fee than pick up after themselves.

The Everest trash heap was brought to our attention by World Hum, which cited Outside and Rock and Ice in its report. Clicking over to Rock and Ice tells us that "Everest is notoriously cluttered from climbers jettisoning oxygen canisters and gear they didn't feel like schlepping down, abandoning tents, ropes and food packaging, and leaving human waste. . . . According to some studies, more than 50 tons of non-biodegradable garbage was left on the mountain from the 1950s to the 1990s."

The sacred-site-as-human-toilet phenomenon made us wonder how much crap is cluttering up our own "pristine" wilderness areas. Curious, we started looking around our national parks and discovered an astonishing amount of junk--much of it dumped by Mexican drug cartels.

Continue reading "Poop Bags, Pot Farms, and Sacred Sites" »

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Slumdog America: A Virtual Tour

Campquixote
Camp Quixote, a homeless encampment in Olympia, California, February 2007.
Photo: televiseus on Flickr using Creative Commons

by Sara Tucker

The Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire has spiked interest and debate in so-called "slum tourism" in places like Mumbai and Rio: Is it exploitative?, asks National Geographic Traveler this month (the consensus: It depends). Meanwhile, a March 6 photo essay about Sacramento's tent city has generated some 80 comments at the U.K's MailOnline. We decided to take a cue from the foreign media and look at our own backyard. For a virtual tour of Americans struggling to keep a roof over their heads, click on the links below. Their stories are courageous and eye-opening.

"A Home in the Colonias": Inside a jumble of poverty, Texans build a future. While the jerry-built shacks may look crude, they are often the works in progress of determined parents willing to spend decades to create a heart for their extended families. New York Times audio slideshow by Erik Eckholm and Michael Stravato. (For complete article, click here.)

Two videos on Seattle's Nickelsville: "Pink Tents in Seattle" by "Nathan" for CNN and "Robert Brenot Show Us His Home" by Moises Mendoza. "It's one big family," says Brenot, "and we're all here to stop homelessness."

"Former addict gives homeless veterans a second chance": Story behind Stand Down House, reported by CNN. One in three homeless adults has served in the military, and more than 150,000 veterans nationwide are homeless on any given night, according to the Veterans Administration (video link is at top of page).

"No one chooses to be homeless": A young woman's story of how she became homeless at the age of 12, filmed by HomelessYouthAmongUs.

"Homeless in Miami": Story of Umoja, from Blog Like You Give a Damn: The official blog of Architecture for Humanity Minnesota. Scroll down for the video by Laura Rivera and Matt Mireles. The Miami-Dade County planning department estimates Miami will need 294,200 new housing units by 2025, 42 percent of them for "very low- or low-income households."

Homeless America: Photo montage from Newportliving99.

Reading list:
*Shantytown USA: Liberty City's embattled Umoja Village gives hope and shelter to the homeless (South Florida Sun-Sentinel)
* Web sites of Dignity Village, River Haven, Camp Quixote, Take Back the Land and Dome Village.

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Invitation to a Gorilla Lovefest

Gorillamombaby
Mother and baby gorilla at Burgers' Zoo, in the Netherlands
Photo: mape_s on Flickr using Creative Commons

by Sara Tucker

The Aggregator is a shameless devotee of animal stories, and this week two gorilla babies have us in thrall. One is Frank, a six-month-old western lowland gorilla who made his public debut at the San Diego Zoo last Friday. The other is Hasani, whose name means "Handsome" in Swahili: It was chosen by the baby's father at the San Francisco Zoo on Wednesday, following a naming contest that generated some 5,300 entries from 40 countries.

The back-to-back news items reminded us that 2009 is the Year of the Gorilla, so designated by the United Nations and a coalition of the world's zoos. A good time, in other words, to look at how humans are getting along with their closest living relatives.

Not too well, in general. Gorillas are critically endangered, thanks to such human activities as logging, war, and the bushmeat trade. The Year of the Gorilla aims to help wild gorillas by alleviating human poverty in their range, an innovative conservation approach that has produced "heartening" results in Zambia's Luangwa Valley, according to Time "Going Green" columnist Bryan Walsh. The key: sustainable industries, such as beekeeping and tourism, that give local people an economic incentive to preserve wild habitat.

The Year of the Gorilla's Web site states that "zoos are crucial to educating and raising awareness of the deteriorating situation of gorillas and their habitat, as they are in a good position to reach the general public directly." One of the ways they do this, of course, is through mascots like Frank and Hasani.

Continue reading "Invitation to a Gorilla Lovefest" »

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Bicycle Evangelists Descend on D.C.

Bicycle_dt
Photo: Tony the Misfit on Flickr using Creative Commons

by Sara Tucker

Pedal pushers are on a roll: From 2007 to 2008, "bicyclists reduced the amount Americans drive by 100 million miles," says Earl Blumenauer, head of the Congressional Bike Caucus, writing in the Huffington Post. More than 490,000 Americans now bicycle to work.

With all that pumping, we're still way behind Europe, where "rates of cycling in the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany range from 10 to 27 percent of all trips," according to the  Worldwatch Institute. (Our own rate is a measley 1 to 2 percent.)

Cities making a laudable effort to close the gap include Chicago, Minneapolis, Sacramento, Austin, which Mayor Will Wynn wants to make "The Fittest City in America"; Davis, California, a bike-happy city of 65,000 that "has spent well over 14 million dollars just on bicycle projects" in the past ten years, according to its official Web site; and Portland, Oregon, which has seen a 144 percent increase in bicycle use since it began investing less than 1 percent of its transportation budget in bicycle facilities.

In an effort to bring our nation's capital securely into the fold, the League of American Bicyclists has extended a special invitation to "all D.C. area cyclists" to attend Tuesday's National Bike Summit, where they can "learn what's needed to make the D.C. area a cyclists' haven like Copenhagen."

Continue reading "Bicycle Evangelists Descend on D.C. " »

THE AGGREGATOR

The Sonic Traveler: Listening With the Naked Ear

Soundscape Google Map
Click on the image to access a
Google Earth sound map

by Sara Tucker

"Would you, perhaps, consider recording and selling some of your effective 'shut up' comments?" asked a rail commuter of Christopher Buckley at the Daily Beast. "I've tried without success on MetroNorth and usually get no response other than a f--- you or a glare."

Another admirer of Mr. Buckley's "Nazi of the Quiet Car" post suggested this tactic for silencing cell-phone users: "Amtrak should hire beefy guys to hurl them off the train."

"Honestly," commented a third, "that there are people who do not understand the concept of quiet makes me despair for the future of the human race."

Despair--not to mention crankiness--is tempting when you're trying to stifle a rising tide. "I've circled the globe three times mostly in search of quiet places, places that are free from noise pollution," says self-described "sound tracker" Gordon Hempton. His mission's lack of success has a lot to do with flight corridors, especially those that crisscross national parks. (Don't get him started on the FAA.) In March 2007, Hempton loaded a bunch of sound equipment into a 1964 VW bus and set out across the country, pausing to record the "varied natural voices of the American landscape--bugling elk, trilling thrushes, and drumming, endangered prairie chickens." The account of his road trip is told in One Square Inch of Silence, due out in March. Despite the book's title, his goal wasn't exactly silence but purity. And like all purists, he is a passionate defender of the realm.

Hempton's quest unites him with a growing community of acoustic ecologists and biophilia theorists who fear we're suffering from a national epidemic of manmade noise on the one hand and "nature-deficit disorder" on the other. A burgeoning sector of the blogosphere addresses the problem acoustically, by enhancing our soundscape awareness. The sounds of "light in trees,"  Madagascar frogs, even Saturn's radio emissions are just a click away.

Continue reading "The Sonic Traveler: Listening With the Naked Ear" »

THE AGGREGATOR

Appalachia in the Spotlight

Mountain
Keep the mountains beautiful.
Photo: Appalachian Voices

by Sara Tucker

People who saw "Children of the Mountains," Diane Sawyer's exposé of Appalachian poverty, on ABC's 20/20 last week have been peppering the blogosphere with questions about how to help. (ABC's own post about the show had gathered exactly 1,776 comments at last check.) Offers range from the wide-open ("My family is willing to extend any sort of help to the children of this area. If any next steps can be taken, we would love to know") to the specific ("I am a semi-retired veterinarian and I am very interested in moving my mobile clinic into the region Ms. Sawyer covered in her report").

Countless bloggers wrote about the show. "Jesus," posted a follower of Cajun Boy in the City (where the entire program can be fuzzily viewed). "This is heartbreaking. I'm going to quit bitching about my job and go hug my kids."

Plenty of viewers criticized the program, and some, like "Crystal" at Right Pundits, were offended by it ("well this is stupid, i live in the montain && these pictures must of been took years ago because where i live little babys are clean && have all the toys && food they need. and i hate to tell all of the people that read this but the montains aint tht olny place tht has drug problems && povety levels"). But while the stories of American children living in poverty made thousands of viewers want to reach out, most had no clue what to do. "Does anyone know of a donation or address where I could send canned goods for these people," an LA Times reader queried at Show Tracker, "or clothing that I don't wear anymore?"

One sympathizer spoke for the masses: "My heart was broken completely, but I mean, what can we do though? Where do we go from here?"

On Tuesday, a bunch of ready-to-rock Kentuckians shot back an answer.

Continue reading "Appalachia in the Spotlight" »

THE AGGREGATOR

Voluntourism and Your Health

by Sara Tucker

Voluntourism

From the Aggregator's "good news" file: "New research from the Mayo Clinic shows that people who volunteer have lower rates of heart disease and live longer," celebrity doc Sanjay Gupta reported last month, right around the time our new prez was urging us all to lend a helping hand in honor of MLK. "People who volunteer are overall more physically and mentally fit than those who don't," the doctor added, citing "previous studies."

Studies like the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey of 30,000 American households, which found that volunteers were 42 percent more likely to say they were "very happy" about their lives than nonvolunteers. The results were reported in this New York Sun editorial.

And studies like this one, which found that "money can buy happiness as long as it is spent on other people or on pro-social causes."

Dr. Gupta's prescription for physical and mental fitness includes "40 to 100 hours a year" of volunteer work, an amount that "breaks down to just a few hours a week."

Or a few days' worth of vacation time per year? Travelers, take note.

Further reading:
* Travelers for a Healthy World
* Volunteering in America (Web site of the Corporation for National and Community Service)
* What the travel industry should do about giving back
* Make a Difference: Travel right, do good
* The Aggregator: News of the week in links

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