Tag Archives: visit

Civilized Spelunking in Carlsbad Caverns

I’ve been in many caves before, but none quite as grand or civilized as Carlsbad Caverns.  There was no desperate clinging to dusty ledges above a river plunging into a dark abyss, no riding an inner tube with only a stick to protect me from the rapidly approaching walls that I couldn’t see despite the penlight held in my teeth, no being bitten by cave shrimp and I crawl on my belly through a subterranean river, and no bat guano squishing between my toes.  There were none of the gaudy coloured lights popular in the caves open for visitors in China, and very little of the damage that I’ve found in unprotected caves like in Vietnam.  Very civilized.

Patrick and Diane seated on a stone wall with the large, dark cave mouth behind us

At the entrance

We chose to hike into the caverns via the natural entrance rather than take the elevator.  It’s a walk of over a mile down a paved but continuously steep switch-backed trail that can be hard on the knees, but hiking down provides a much better appreciation of the caverns’ size and depth.

Diane and Beth standing on a paved path with many swtichbacked paths visible extending into the darkness below them

Diane and our friend Beth at the start of the many switchbacks

The first non-native person known to have explored the caverns is Jim White, a local cowboy.  In 1901 he saw a dark moving column in the sky, investigated, and found a giant stream of bats issuing from the cave mouth.  An estimated 800,000 bats of 17 species live in the caverns, the majority being Mexican Free-Tailed bats.  Evening programs are held at the cave entrance to watch the departure of the bats between Memorial Day (end of May) and mid-October.

Many bats against the sunset

Carlsbad Caverns, located in the Guadalupe Mountains in southeastern New Mexico, is protected as a National Park.  Despite its remote location, it receives 500,000 visitors annually.

The caves were formed when a large, underground limestone deposit, once the floor of an ancient sea bed, was dissolved when hydrogen sulfide (H2S, a colourless gas with the foul odour of rotten eggs) from deeper petroleum reserves mixed with oxygen (02, from water) to form sulfuric acid (H2SO4) The entrance to the caverns was caused by natural erosion from the surface afterwards, within the last million years.

The self-guided tour goes through several large chambers displaying lots of different and hard-to-photograph speleothems (the structures found in caves caused by the deposit of water-borne minerals) like stalactites, stalagmites, columns, soda straws, draperies, helectites, and popcorn.

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The biggest room in the caverns, uninspiringly called ‘The Big Room’ but also known as ‘The Hall of the Giants’, is almost 4,000 feet (1,220 m) long, 625 feet (191 m) wide, and 255 feet (78 m) high at the highest point. It has a floor area of 357,469 square feet (33,210 m2) and is the third largest cave chamber in North America and the seventh largest in the world.

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The caves are cool but comfortable.  The self-guided tour travels a paved path, most of which is wheelchair accessible.  If you’re seeking a civilized spelunking expedition, Carlsbad Caverns is a great place to visit.

Posing Underground

Posing Underground

Auschwitz III

This is the last of 3 related postings regarding Auschwitz.  The first post is available here and the second here.

The last selection took place on October 30, 1944. In September Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the SS, ordered the crematoria destroyed before the advancing Soviet Army reached the camp. The gas chambers of Birkenau were blown up by the SS in January 1945 in an attempt to hide their crimes.

Large rectangular concrete bunker in the ground with roof collapsed

Gas Chamber with Collapsed Roof

The SS command sent orders on January 17, 1945 calling for the execution of all prisoners remaining in the camp, but in the chaos of the Nazi retreat the order was never carried out. They did try to evacuate the camp though.  Nearly 60,000 prisoners were forced on a death march toward a camp in Wodzisław Śląski, over 60 kilometers away.  Many never made it.  On January 27, 1945, Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops.

Twisted concrete and metal amid a field of debris

Remains of a Crematorium blown up by the Nazis

On November 24, 1947, the Polish Supreme National Tribunal in Krakow began the trial of only 41 of the over 6,000 Nazis who worked at Auschwitz.  It took less than a month.  23 death sentences were issued, as well as 16 imprisonments.  Commandant Höss was found hiding among the German civilian population.  He was tried, found guilty of numerous war crimes, and then hung on a gallows specifically erected for this purpose, in a place just between the home he shared with his wife and children and the first gas chamber at Auschwitz I.

Simple wooden gallows with 4 steps on grass with green trees in background

Gallows built to execute Commandant Rudolf Höss

Visiting the Memorial

In 1947, Poland founded a museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II.  It receives about 1.3 Million visitors annually.  Why do they come?  Why did I come?  I had already been to see 2 other concentration camps in Germany, Dachau and Buchenwald.

Visitors to Auschwitz I are required to go on a guided tour.  It includes the grounds, several of the barracks (including Block 11), and the first gas chamber and crematorium.  Particularly shocking are the exhibitions showing the confiscated belongings of inmates found by the Soviet liberators.  These include hundreds of eye glasses in a tangled pile, thousands of pairs of shoes, a room full of prosthetic limbs, a huge pile of suitcases (many with the names of their owners written on the sides), a 30 meter (98 ft.) long room filled with 2 tonnes of human hair, and nearby a display of the products made from this hair.

Pile of old leather suitcases (brown and black) with names written on the side in white paint

Suitcases of some of those who died

Some of the prosthetic limbs were from German Jews, veterans of World War I who fought for their country, only to be killed by the Nazis 25 years later. We also saw baby clothes and dolls of some children murdered here.  These items really brought home the humanity of the victims.  They were not just statistics, but real people just like us, who had children to be consoled, who wore shoes and who needed glasses.

While visiting we observed several other groups that were obviously Jewish.  We saw a group of Israeli military with the Star of David on their uniforms and a group of young men in black dress pants and white shirts wearing yamikas who were accompanied by a rabbi.  I wondered how many Jewish people are drawn to this place, to see what happened here.  How surreal must this be for them.  Notably, the signs at Birkenau II are in Polish, English, and in Hebrew.

There were many more visitors here than when we went to Dachau or Buchenwald, partly because it was a week with 2 national holidays, a week when many Poles take time off work.  When we arrived, there were touts trying to direct cars and buses to their private parking areas.  The staging area where people purchased tickets and waited for their guides was crowded and loud, too busy to encourage self-reflection at the start of the tour.  After this point, all visitors to Auschwitz I wear headsets to hear their guides’ voices transmitted wirelessly.  The barracks were similarly crowded with visitors, and the logistics of keeping our group together and on pace was distracting.  The whole thing had a feeling of mass-production.  For me, I could begin to reflect upon things only when we reached the quieter, open spaces of Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

Many visitors passing through gate with words 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (Work will make you free) above

Many visitors enter the gates of Auschwitz I.

The guide’s narrative was fast-paced and direct.  He did not pull any punches, rely on subtle differentiations, or utilize any euphemisms.  This surprised me because there were some young children in our group.  I wondered how many of them really understood what he was talking about.

Why did I visit another camp?  Perhaps because Auschwitz was different.  It was an extermination camp, the largest and the most infamous.  Why did I want to visit it?  Certainly not because my wife wanted to.  She went only at my request.  Perhaps it’s because I still can’t get my head around it.  I understand something of Nazi doctrine and how many Germans were seduced by it.  Hitler told them they were special, that he could fix their problems quickly, and he offered them someone else to blame.  I’ve studied the research that demonstrates that ordinary people can and will do terrible things to one another with the slightest institutional inducement.  The German people were not evil nor special in this regard.  Most of them didn’t know what was happening in the extermination camps.  The whole thing just seems so surreal to me.  The huge numbers of people killed make it hard to conceptualize.  The horrific acts almost impossible to imagine.

Today the confines of Auschwitz II-Birkenau are green and grassy.  It is surrounded by birch trees. When we visited, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and there was a warm breeze.  This made it difficult to visualize what happened here.  Of course, when the camp was operational, there was no grass, only mud, due to the large numbers of prisoners occupying the space.

Grassy area surrounded by a fence with a guard tower and trees beyond.

Today the fence and guard tower overlook grass and trees at Birkenau.

For all these reasons, I found my trip to Auschwitz to be less emotional than my previous visits to other concentration camp sites in Germany.   Perhaps it’s a coping mechanism to allow the contemplation of such atrocities?

Auschwitz is a place where murder took place on an industrial scale with the goal of eliminating an entire race of people.  The scariest and saddest thing is that, albeit with cruder methods, similar things have happened since in other places (e.g. Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Sudan).  Will we ever evolve to the point where such atrocities don’t happen?

This is the last of 3 related postings about Auschwitz. The first post is available here and the second here.

Zim Baby

The largest part of Victoria Falls is located on the other side of the river from Livingstone, in the country of Zimbabwe. Few tourists go to Zimbabwe, because it is run by a dictator named Robert Mugabe, who is desperately holding on to power. Many people expect a coup d’état soon, as the country has been devastated over the last ten years. Zimbabwe is on a list of the top ten failed nations on the planet.

Zimbabwe once had one of the most successful economies in Africa. Due to its good climate, it was self-sufficient in food production, and exported crops including tobacco. It also has mineral resources including diamond mines. In 1990, after 10 very successful years of independence from Britain, the Zimbabwe dollar was still very strong against the world’s currencies.

Between the years 1997 and 2008, Zimbabwe suffered a complete economic collapse due to political instability and corruption, and policies that discouraged or inhibited economic activity. For example, in an effort to gain more support from blacks, Mugabe instituted a program of land reform in 2000, where he forcibly confiscated and transferred the best farm lands, which were previously in the hands of a small white minority, to black political and military friends of his. Many black farm workers and white farmers were killed. Of course, none of the new owners were famers, so agricultural production dropped drastically. Tobacco production is today less than one fifth of its previous level.

Mugabe stole millions from the Zimbabwe War Victim’s Compensation Fund, and when this was discovered, was forced to print more money to pay out the benefits. The Zimbabwe dollar quickly dropped by half. This started a cycle of hyper-inflation, with prices increasing out of control. The government responded by banning the use of foreign currencies, to try to force the people to use a currency that was rapidly losing value, and by printing yet more money. Prices were doubling every day, requiring stores to change their prices every few hours, and employees to renegotiate their salaries daily. The Zimbabwe dollar quickly descended into worthlessness and in January 2009, had to be abandoned. Today, Zimbabwe dollars are sold on the streets as souvenirs. I was given a 100 Trillion Zimbabwe dollar note as a gift. At one point, 100 Trillion Zim dollars would only buy a loaf of bread, but it’s worthless now.

Of course, during this period, foreign investment withdrew from Zimbabwe. Without a source of funds or foreign currency, the Zimbabwe government could not pay its debts, and no one could purchase foreign goods. Food shortages were widespread. The grocery stores that remained open had little to sell. Gasoline was rationed and unavailable in most parts of the country. Social institutions like education started to fail, because teachers and other civil servants were not being paid. People survived by converting all their money to hard assets, like equipment or non-perishable foodstuffs, that would hopefully retain some value, and by operating on a barter system. Barter, in addition to being tremendously inefficient (i.e. time consuming), even further reduced government tax revenues

Mugabe has remained in control through the use of intimidation and force. He rigged the last two elections, to remain in power. In the most recent election, in 2008, the election results were delayed by six weeks while Mugabe’s people tried to find a way to concoct a Mugabe win. Since his defeat was so complete, this wasn’t possible, yet he somehow negotiated a coalition with his opposition, with Mugabe remaining as President and the real winner becoming Prime Minister.

Due to the lack of foreign exchange, many of Zimbabwe’s infrastructure and other critical systems have broken down. A few months ago, about 3000 people died of cholera near the capital city of Harare, as the equipment to treat the water could no longer be maintained.

Despite this tale of woe, tourists to Zimbabwe haven’t been directly affected. In other words, no violence has been perpetrated against tourists by the government, and overall crime levels have remained about the same. However, as you can imagine, tourism rapidly declined to a trickle, and another key economic sector, and source of foreign currency, was devastated.

Media reports about Zimbabwe have been very negative. When we told people that we were going to Africa, they said, “You’re not going to Zimbabwe are you”? Some asked us, and some told us, not to go to Zimbabwe. We’ve met very few people in Africa who have been there recently. Those who had told us that the biggest problem is that the Zimbabwean banking system is not functioning, so it is impossible to get money in Zimbabwe. There are no bank machines, because they have no currency. Neither travelers’ cheques nor credit cards are accepted. Everything must be paid for with cash, using foreign currency brought into the country.

Knowing the history, and in careful consideration of all these factors, we decided to go to Zimbabwe anyhow…

Head of the Class

Diane’s aunt arranged for us to visit a school yesterday in the nearby slum. The director of the school is a friend of hers, and the slum is called Soweto (no relation to the slum by the same name in South Africa). Soweto is home to about 25,000 people. The school is a ‘private school’ only in the sense that the government did not build the school, nor does it provide any funding for its operation. There are 160 students from ages 3 to 14, and six teachers.

The school is housed in the facilities of a church, which are indistinguishable from the surrounding homes. I would not have known that it was a church or a school if I had not been told. The classrooms for the senior grades are about 10 feet by 12 feet, each of which accommodates the teacher and more than 20 students crammed together on shared benches and plastic chairs. There are no desks.

We did not want to arrive empty handed, so we purchased a 20 kg bag of rice, to supplement the school lunch program, and we delivered 160 bananas on behalf of Diane’s aunt. By the time we’d walked the 15 minutes to the school with the director, carrying about 80 pounds of food, we’d already had a good workout. Each day, the school tries to provide a basic lunch for the students. In many cases, it is the only food they will receive that day. Lunch is usually ‘ugali’, a paste made from only corn flour and water, with some boiled vegetables. If they are lucky, they get rice instead of ugali, but there hasn’t been money for rice recently.

The headmaster, who has been in the role for five years, is a young man. Both he and the teachers attended two years of teacher college. Neither the headmaster nor the teachers have been paid in months, as the only school funds are used to provide food for the children.

The headmaster took us on a walking tour of Soweto, including his home, and the home of one of the school’s parents. The homes are made of rough bricks, covered with tin sheets. Each home is a single room of about 10 feet by 10 feet, with a curtain dividing the sleeping area from the remainder. The homes are clustered together in groups off shared narrow corridors, which are choked with hanging laundry. Each has a heavy steel door with a padlock, although there isn’t much of value inside. The people on the uneven dirt streets of Soweto seemed a bit surprised to see us, but they were friendly.


After our walk, we joined some of the senior students for physical education. About 25 kids stood in a circle on a small piece of vacant land, dancing and playing games. Everything they did was accompanied by a song. Yes, Diane and I both danced solos, but our singing was limited due to the fact it was mostly in Swahili.


We headed back to the school’s ‘dining hall’, which was an open-air lean-to off the side of one of the buildings. All 160 students plus teachers crammed into the small space with us. The headmaster called all the teachers to the front and introduced them. Patrick repeated their names as each one was introduced, but not one of them looked us in the eye. We learned later that doing so may not be considered polite.


The headmaster introduced the students, who then performed for us in the almost non-existent space left in the dining hall. Two groups of students presented poems to us that they had memorized. Three individual students presented a memorized verse from the Bible, with the length of each of their memorized introductions exceeding the length of their verses. A senior class sang us a song in English.

The Director introduced us. She spoke about how fortunate they were to have us as guests, and how we had brought rice and bananas. She spoke about how other businesses and guests had made donations, and pointed out the things they had donated. The cover we were standing under had been donated by a cell phone company, and one of the bathrooms by a Canadian woman. The whole slum of Soweto receives water only intermittently, and the water tank which stores water when it does come, was also donated.

Patrick spoke briefly. He started with few lines of carefully memorized Swahili, which drew blank stares. Perhaps he didn’t have the accent right. He then talked briefly about where we were from, and some of the differences between Kenya and Canada. The headmaster translated everything into Swahili, as many of the young ones don’t have sufficient English yet. Then Diane led everyone in a kids song with some actions, which seemed to go over well.


In preparation for lunch, the young children washed their hands in a large shared basin of water, without soap. Each student received their ugali, vegetables, and either one-half, one, or one and a half bananas based on their age. Diane assisted with serving the food, in a small dark kitchen where the food had been cooked over a charcoal fire. The school has no electricity or gas. Many of the children had not eaten since the previous day, yet every one of them waited until a simple grace was said before they touched their food.

We said our farewells to the students, and were accompanied by the headmaster and Director to the edge of the slum, where a broken bridge crosses a polluted stream.

Recurring visions of the students keep coming back into our heads…

Jolly Old England

We’ll enough about our preparations…

We spent our first day in London with Natasha Koroluk, Patrick’s cousin’s daughter (first cousin once removed). She was a terrific host, who met us at the airport, got us to our hotel, and led us around for the first day. This helped to familiarize us with ‘the tube’ (London’s subway), british money, etc.

We’ve been in London for 3 ½ days, and things are going really well. Patrick read somewhere that a travel blog should not be an exhaustive description of all the things you’ve done, so here’s a short list, followed by some totally disconnected observations.
· Trafalgar Square
· British Museum
· Tate Modern
· National Galllery
· The Tower Bridge
· St. Paul’s Cathedral
· The Tower of London
· Westminster Abbey
· London Theatre – the musical “We will rock you”.

It reads like a Top 10 (well a top 9 so far) of London’s tourist attractions, and we’ve enjoyed every minute of it. In particular, St. Paul’s, The Tower of London, and Westminster Abbey are truly amazing. The history is so tangible, we can feel it. It seems more alive, more within our grasp. For example, today at Westminster Abbey, we saw the grave of Charles Dickens. On it were flesh flowers, with a card that read “On your 197th birthday, from the more than 100 living descendants of Charles Dickens”. How cool is that! Unfortunately we were not able to take pictures inside the church to share with you. Although Westminster was truly amazing it was also a bit creepy with all the people buried in the cathedral. Diane isn’t fond of walking of graves, but they’re everywhere, so you can’t help it.

When we were walking to the National Gallery, we saw a red helicopter circling low. As we approached, we saw people running. Diane, of course, wanted to head the other way, whereas Patrick wanted to get closer and see what it was about. Patrick was thinking “Oh, isn’t this exciting”, and Diane was thinking “Oh my god, is this a terrorist attack?”. It turned out that it was a medical emergency, and that Trafalgar square is actually an alternate landing place for medical transports.

At the British Museum, we spent time in the Egyptian wing, which has impressive examples of Egyptian artifacts, which were ‘obtained’ by England during the days of the British Empire. We hoped to learn a bit about what we’ll be seeing next week in Egypt.

There is a legend at the Tower of London, that if the “Blacka Chickens’ (aka Ravens) ever leave the tower, that the monarchy will break down (http://www.historic-uk.com/DestinationsUK/TowerRavens.htm).

Here is Patrick working on his jet lag at the Tate Modern.


The weather has been very cool, averaging a few degrees above zero (Celcius) during the day time, with a mix of rain, cloud, and a few bits of sun. With a wind chill of a few degrees, our safari clothes (when worn all at once) are just cutting it. Unfortuntely, the cathedrals are only a few degrees warmer than outside. After a day of viewing today, we just needed to sit in front of a big fire at the pub, have a couple of pints to warm up, and post this note. Diane must have been really cold, as she needed 2 ½ pints!

The English national team is playing Spain tonight, and the game is just getting underway. The pub is filling up with ‘football’ fans, and we’re looking forward to a great game. David Beckham may be playing. If so, he will have tied for the greatest number of games played for England!

And for you Anglophiles, here’s one more picture (Diane in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral)

Patrick and Diane