Monday, July 28, 2014

Dune Bashing





DUNE BASHING

            “Miss, you know there are mountains down there in the desert,” Ali said to me one morning when I finished reading his class a story of how St. Bernards saved people in the Swiss Alps.

            “Those are sand dunes,” I explained to him. Most of my Qatari students had traveled widely and knew the difference in a Swiss Alp and a sand dune. Apparently, Ali was one of the few who had never left the Middle East.

            “Oh, no, Miss. Those are mountains. I’ve seen them.”

            Well, so had I. The other students waited patiently, albeit rolling their eyes, while I continued to try to explain the difference in a sand dune and a real mountain, but Ali wasn’t buying.

            “The mountains are where we go dune bashing, Miss.  My driver takes us down there on weekends and we find the biggest ones, and we go . . . . ” He proceeded to illustrate with his hand the roller-coaster motions his SUV performed on the dunes.

            Ali wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know. In fact, dune bashing was one of the first new things I tried when I moved to Qatar after accepting a teaching job at Qatar Foundation. Afraid of heights, it didn’t sound like a lot of fun, but I was assured I hadn’t lived until I’d tried it. The area in the southern part of the small emirate borders Saudi Arabia, and it is there in the south that the dunes rise up to form small hills that lend themselves to roller-coaster like rides. On almost any weekend you can find numerous SUVs filled with Qatari teenagers driven there by their drivers, as well as tourists and newcomers to the country, all with the same goal: roller-coastering up and down the dunes.

            My two friends and I chose a pleasant day in October for our adventure. Before the wild ride began, our hired driver stopped at a gas station to reduce the air in their tires. Full tires lend themselves to accidents. I was fully aware that there are accidents even with lowered air pressure. The occasional broken back. Broken necks. Bashed skulls. Fractured arms and legs. Several times each season, an SUV rolls injuring the occupants.

Air pressure lowered and courage steeled, we approached the top of a dune, the vehicle fishtailing in the sand as we ascended. At the top, our driver stopped for us to view the desert panorama – miles and miles of sand, gently rising and falling. Saudi Arabia in the distance. Then, without warning, he shot over the edge of the dune, laughing devilishly at our screams. Convinced that the contents of my stomach would erupt at any moment, I squeezed my stomach with both hands as though I could control my insides. Up and down, we went. Endlessly. I closed my eyes and prayed to whatever deity was listening. Just let me come through this unharmed . . .  I pleaded, . . . and I will be forever good.

            Eventually it was over, and I lived to tell. I don’t know which is worse: a roller coaster or dune bashing. At least in the dunes, one has the advantage of interesting scenery.  

            I gave up my effort to enlighten Ali about the relative sizes of dunes and Alps.  I believe it was the same Ali (there are lots of Alis in Qatar) who asked me a few weeks later if Canada was as big as Qatar. When I explained that Canada was the second biggest country in the world, while Qatar was the size of one of the smallest states in the U.S., he didn’t believe me any more than he did when I told him the dunes weren’t mountains.    

           

           

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

KING SOLOMON IN KENTUCKY









King Solomon of Kentucky
 
     I have a passion for travel, especially to remote, exotic places like Tibet and Burma. But sometimes travel-worthy sites with an intriguing story can be found closer to home . The other day I visited Lexington National Cemetery. Located in the middle of downtown Lexington, the cemetery houses the graves of several generations of Lexingtonians, including Henry Clay, and is the final resting place of soldiers from several wars. King Solomon is also buried there.  

     Solomon was a white vagrant who supported his drinking with wages earned as a digger of cisterns, graves, and cellars. In the spring of 1833, as punishment for his vagrancy, Lexington officials put Solomon up for sale as a slave for one year. He was bought by Aunt Charlotte, a slave brought to Lexington, KY in the late 1700s. After her owners died, Aunt Charlotte was freed and inherited property. She supported herself by selling fruit and baked goods at the open market. She and Solomon had known each other in Virginia. Aunt Charlotte bought Solomon for $13, outbidding two medical students who wanted to invest in a future cadaver.

     Aunt Charlotte set Solomon free, but he managed to get liquor immediately. After drinking his fill, he made his way back to Aunt Charlotte's home where he passed out on a Thursday. He woke on a Saturday to find that many had died or were dying of cholera. Those who could were evacuating the city. Aunt Charlotte was preparing to leave, but when Solomon refused to go, she stayed also. People were dying quicker than they could be buried, since the grave diggers were among those evacuating. Solomon found his shovel and began digging holes to bury the dead. His dedication probably prevented further spread of the disease. Both Solomon and Charlotte survived the epidemic.

     When Solomon returned to court at the end of his year of slavery, the judge shook his hand, and others thanked him for his heroic deed. He died in the poorhouse in 1854. In 1908, a large tombstone was placed at his grave. No one knows what happened to Aunt Charlotte.

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For more see "King Solomon of Kentucky" in Flute and Violin and other Kentucky Tales, by J.L. Allen; and "King Solomon, Heroic Gravedigger" in Offbeat Kentuckians, by K. McQueen.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Elephant Walk




ELEPHANT WALK

Dame Daphne Sheldrick tells this story in her book, Life, Love, and Elephants: Her husband, the late David Sheldrick, chief warden of Tsavo National Park in Kenya for many years, once encountered a herd of twenty-five or so elephants as he returned from a trip to Mudanda. As the vehicle approached, the herd moved off, but three elephants remained behind, puzzled by the nervousness of their wild friends. David recognized the three as orphans who had been raised in the compound and then returned to the wild. He got out of the car and called to one they had named “Fatuma.” She came hurrying over to him, with the two smaller elephants following. Fatuma seemed to want David to join her in following the herd. Fatuma would start off but after a few paces turn around to see if he was coming. When he didn’t, she would return to him, rumble softly and wrap her trunk around him. When the three elephants still remained after the rest of the herd moved off, he decided to let the other passengers in the car drive back while he walked the three elephants home.

In the pitch black night, he could see only a few feet in front of him. However, the elephants knew the way. They seemed to understand that he needed guidance. They pressed close to him, so that he found himself sandwiched between Fatuma and Kanderi. As they headed back to the compound, he walked with a hand resting lightly against a foreleg of each elephant. They slowed their pace to match his. He heard and smelled other groups of elephants as they continued their journey, and it surprised him that the orphans avoided contact, presumably because they instinctively knew that David’s presence would he unwelcome. “It was such a humbling and stilling experience,” he said later. “I felt at one with them in their world, entirely dependent on them for my safety, sheltered and protected as I were one of their own.” It took about four hours to get back .

These marvelous creatures have been killed for many years for their tusks. In the beginning, they were killed one by one with poison. Poison-making was a highly specialized profession, and a closely guarded secret in the tribes who brewed and sold it. Ingredients included bark and leaves taken from acodanthera trees. The leaves were boiled in water for about seven hours with a few other ingredients until it was rendered down to a sticky tar-like substance. The poison was deadly, active as soon as it entered the bloodstream, and could kill an elephant within a couple of hours and a human within minutes. Before selling the poison, its potency and effectiveness was tested on a frog or lizard jabbed by a thorn dipped in poison or injected into an egg that apparently exploded. Poison-making was a lucrative trade,poaching elephants an even more lucrative trade.

Today, instead of poison arrows, poachers use assault rifles which enable them to mow down these lordly beasts with great proficiency and in massive numbers. China’s growing wealth and insatiable hunger for ivory has triggered a growing danger of extinction. Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, and the Philippines have also become major purchasers of elephant tusks. In Hong Kong, one of the ivory trade’s main transit points, seized ivory rose form 3.2 tons in 2010 to 7.9 tons in the first ten months of 2013. This is the equivalent of 1,675 dead elephants. In December, 2012, Malaysian authorities seized 1,000 elephant tusks smuggled into the country hidden in shipments of mahogany. This seizure was worth millions of dollars.

Of the 50,000 elephants that roamed Chad 50 years ago, barely 2 percent are left. In the neighboring countries of Central African Republic and Cameroon, the population may be even lower. The killing of elephants in these countries, when added to all the other countries where elephants are being slaughtered, adds up to a bleak future for these highly intelligent, sensitive, and socially aware animals.

According to Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, a Stanford ecologist who has written four books based on her Namibian field research on elephants, these animals are much like us. “If you watch a family group reuniting, their behavior is exactly like ours – the little cousins darting off together, the elaborate greetings of adults. Elephants offer a way of looking into the mirror, for better or worse,” she writes. “If we value human right, we should also value animals that have the same level of sophistication that we do. We should keep those beings with us here on earth.”

Check out O’Connell-Rodwell’s books on elephants: http://www.caitlineoconnell.com/books.php