Computations and Translations

Often people think that language is a major barrier when living in another culture.  I always think that it is the full range of computations and translations that need to take place that are stressful as you try to navigate life.  An assistant in my office is helping me on my Urdu.  He will give me my tea in the morning if I ask him in Urdu and now he has me asking “how are you” each morning.  It is going as well as can be expected.

Then I have to figure out what the temperature is outside before I leave the house.  I have developed a simple formula for the conversion when I’ve lived abroad before.  Take Celsius and double it and add 30 and that gives you a general idea of the temperature in Fahrenheit.  It isn’t exact and it would not work if I were in a place that goes below freezing.

And then there is money.  The exchange rate is about 150 Rupees to the US Dollar.  So when something is 5000 Rupees, exactly, how much is that??  I’ve worked out a formula that seems to help.  A Rupee is about .6 cents.  So 100 Rupees is 60 cents.  1000 R is about $6.  And then multiply the $6 times 5 and you get approximately $30.  It took me quite a few tries to figure out a formula that I could work with.  And of course, if the exchange rate changes, I will be in trouble.

Then there is the scale of air pollution.  I learned of this scale in Hong Kong but only paid attention the one time it got to over 400–which still did not bother me.  I went on line to look at the scale which is an international scale:

I continue to be confused by the color sequence.  Is it just me?  Is this cultural?  I want red to be at the top.  So we are in the red zone and I think we are in trouble and then I go back and look and see that there are two levels even higher.  So I have had to learn to just read the numbers and then go back to the scale to see where it is.  Here are the averages per day the past seven months.  Averages since I have come have been in the purple and maroon category and black (which is not on the scale).

What is more interesting is how it ranges over a day.  This last Thursday I went to bed when it was reasonable (relatively speaking) and opened the house up because it was cooler.  In the middle of the night it spiked up to 635, far above the hazardous category, and public schools were cancelled the next day because of it–a smog day.  But by the time I got up it was back in the “unhealthy” category.  So do you close up the house at night or do you open it up?  Language, money, temperature, pollution scales.  Translations constantly in daily life.  No wonder I’m tired sometimes.  If they would just change the color sequence for me, I would feel so much better.

Magical Himalayan Salt


I have friends who have Himalayan Salt Lamps.  I have been skeptical of their being from the Himalayas which is separate from my skepticism on their medicinal properties. But this week I, in fact, visited the mine where they come from.  The Khewra Salt Mine is in the Salt Mountains of Pakistan and this is where the pink salt originates.  Is it Himalayan?  Well, the Salt Mountains are the outer range of the Himalayan Mountains, but it is a distance from the “real” Himalayans.

The Khewra mine is about three hours from Lahore.  To get there you travel across the Indus valley, crossing two major rivers.  I was glad to be able to get outside the city and see farm land.  Wheat dominated the landscape immediately outside the city.  In-between the two major rivers that we crossed, orchards and sugar cane were more predominant.  We stopped at a major rest stop before heading away from the main highway.  I was faced with McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts, Hardies, and Pizza Hut.

When headed north toward the mine, the land become dry and parched.  Salt was evident on the land and little was under cultivation.  Across the landscape you could see rock walls that still delineated property lines, though.  And we started running into large trucks filled with chunks of the pink rock salt.

Soon the Salt Mountains appeared and goats and camels became more common.

The mine used to draw visitors from abroad but locals are the primary audience today with the mine being the destination of school field trips.  The actually history of the discovery of the salt deposits goes back to 320 BC when it was discovered by Alexander’s troops but trade started in the Mughal era.  Today there are still 1000 workers on the active site.  The salt deposit was formed when a sea was cut off from the ocean and then evaporated, leaving the salt deposits behind.  It is also part of a folded and faulted rock formation that is part of the forces creating the Himalayan Mountains.  Besides the salt that is used for the lamps, it is also used for bath salts and potash is used into other products such as laundry detergents and shampoo.

Mine Workers

Waiting for train to enter mine

We took a small train into the mine and then walked around.  They have built structures inside with the salt for bricks.  Even the emergency center is made out of the salt.  And famous buildings are also reconstructed from the material.

If you have problems with asthma you can stay in a special facility within the mine for ten days and you will be healed.  I remain skeptical.




Islamabad to Lahore

My time in Pakistan began with my arrival to Islamabad.  Islamabad is on the Pothwar Plateau in the northern part of state of Punjab.  It borders Kashmir to the east and is south of the Himalaya Mountains which form the northern section of Pakistan   The capital of Pakistan, it was constructed in the 1960s in the hill region near Rawalpindi so it is at a slightly higher elevation of around 1700 feet.  It is built on a grid with parts of the city labeled by this sections of the grid and was planned with each of these sections having its own housing and market areas.  So it is known for its spacious avenues and parks.  Because of its perceived higher quality of life, it is an expensive place to live by Pakistan standards and so draws middle to higher income people.  My driver lived in Rawalpindi, just a 20-minute ride from the US embassy in Islamabad, and he said that everyone wants to live in Islamabad but it is expensive.  It is also a much more traditional city than Lahore so I had been warned to dress conservatively.

Waiting to get a cell phone.

The Pothwar Plateau is being created by the same forces that continue to build the Himalaya Mountains.  Millions of years ago, the Indian tectonic plate moved north and collided with the Asian plate.  Between them was a caught another plate under a sea called Tethys.  This oceanic plate slide under the Asian plate, melting as it sank and generation a chain of volcanic islands.  This small plate with its offshore islands was flipped on its side and trapped between the Indian and Asian plates and of course, the sea disappeared.  So this region is one of thrust faults where horizontal planes of older material are thrust above younger material as the plates collide.  This has created the mountains where rocks have buckled and crumpled, rising because there is no place else to go.

As I flew south the less than 250 miles from Islamabad to Lahore, I could see the effects of these tectonic forces.  Sedimentary rocks, once horizontal, were now vertical, creating geologic features called hogbacks.  Other rock structures were folded sideways.

The transition from the plateau area of Pakistan to the Indus Plain was quite dramatic.  All of a sudden the land became a flat plain with river channels, straight canals, and square fields.  The Indus Plain is an alluvial plain with deposits laid down by the flooding of the Indus River and its four tributaries.  In fact, Punjab, the province of this area, means “five waters.”  Dams have been built to control flooding and provide irrigation water, making this a fertile agricultural region. Punjab is the most fertile province in Pakistan and is also the home of the majority of the population.

Flying over a city en route to Lahore.

A dam with straight irrigation canal.

Lahore sits on the east side of the Indus Valley, near the border with India.  It is a densely population city of eleven million people.  This part of Punjab Province felt the brunt of partition at the time when India and Pakistan were split in 1947.  The most famous book on this period of events is Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. The division resulted in thirteen million Punjabi’s moving one direction or another and much violence.  It also left Pakistan in a position of needing to define its identity apart from India.  I’ve wondered about the parallels between Canada and the United States in terms of identity-formation.  Both Canada and Pakistan have defined themselves over and against the United States and India, respectively.  I’m anxious to learn about what is uniquely Pakistani.

No Electricity Day

I remember snow days when I was growing up–or ice storm days.  In the early 1960s, when living near Chicago, we had the ice storm of the century where we were without electricity for four days.  It was a child’s dream world.  We could skate across the grass and we spent the evenings playing “tea kettle” or reading Winnie the Pooh by candle light.  If you are not familiar with the Tea Kettle game, it goes something like this:  You think up an action and then have others ask questions until they guess what you are doing.  The questions come in the form of the following.  “Do you “tea kettle” in the daytime?”  “Do you “tea kettle” by yourself?”  You get the gist of it.  It was one of the few times that I can visualize my father home and playing with us.

In New England we have what I call, “no-electricity days.”  We lose electricity regularly and for long periods of time.  I remember hearing about such a thing in the news before moving here and not really understanding it.  Here the schools can be closed due to no power.   Unlike snow days, everyone can get out and around and ends up in long lines in Starbucks or the local diner for breakfast.

“No electricity days” usually follow a nor’easter storm where strong winds take down trees, power lines and other infrastructure which has not been upgraded for many years.  I have collected photos over the past few years of the aftermath of such events, the most recent of which left me without power for two days.

If a nor’easter comes with high tide, high water or ice flows come with it.

They always come with downed trees that fall on power lines, windows, and back-up generators.


Thankfully, I put in a back-up generator when I bought my house and placed it away from trees.  I was warm.  I had internet.  I could cook.  But I could not wash clothes or use the dish washer and Starbucks was way too crowded.

Losing Myself in order to Find Myself

Looking south across the Mahoning Valley.

The last two years have been difficult.  I should correct that.  The last seven years have been difficult.  And so I pay attention to those times when I lose track of time because I am immersed in a task or experience in which I can lose myself completely.  These are times when am I totally “in the zone.”  I have tried to be intentional about creating these opportunities to lose myself as a way of finding the center of what gives me joy in the midst of stress.  For some people this may involve going to an orchestra concert or cooking.  For me it is always the puzzle of wondering about a place—searching, finding, and visiting it—and contemplating its place in a larger historical and geographical narrative.  I can’t say why this is the case for me but from an early age I would look at maps and try to imagine what a place would be like or pack a lunch and follow the railroad tracks that ran through my back yard as far as I could.

I have been wondering about a particular place for several years.  In an earlier blog (Water Gaps and Cultural Gaps) I wrote about my ancestors’ narrative about being captured by Native Americans in 1780.  I have continued to wonder whether I could find the place where they lived at the time.  And I have been feeling the impulse to search and find this place before I move away from the east coast.  The opportunity to try to find it came with a visit to friends within several hours of the place that I wanted to explore.

My starting clues included the narrative which said that the Gilbert family settled on the far side of the Blue Mountain, six miles from Fort Allen on Mahoning Creek.  They established a mill on the creek.  My brother sent me a google map with a six-mile scale from central Lehighton, PA outward along the Mahoning Creek.  Fort Allen was on the Lehigh River, or present-day Lehighton.  And my brother sent a google satellite image of one small spot along that scale that looked like a one-lane road and marker at the end asked, “I wonder what that is?”

Mahoning Valley extends southwest from Lehighton, PA.  The Lehigh River provided a route through the mountains to access the valley (USGS Map).

Before setting off to explore, I made sure I understood the possibilities in terms of directions from Lehighton.  It became clear that the creek emptied into the Lehigh River at Lehighton so the only possible direction was west, going upstream.  I then used the web to figure out the township and county of the area—presently Carbon County and Mahoning Township.  I considered six miles to be the outside possibility because that was a straight line and I was certain they did not follow a route as the crow flies.  Looking at present-day maps, I could see that branches of the creek converged at several places between 4 and 6 miles out from Lehighton.

An example of one of the sites where tributaries come together to form the main channel of Mahoning Creek

It seemed reasonable to assume that the stream flow for a mill would be better downstream from these sites.  At about six miles out I found Mill Road which was at one point of stream consolidation.  More stream branches came together to form the stream at four miles out at Seneca Road. Both were possibilities—but a place name like Mill Road could be a crucial clue.

Having identified several possible locations, I searched for the oldest township maps I could find in order to try to look for further clues.  The earliest plat maps I could find were from 1860 and 1875.  These maps were constructed long after the event that led me on the search.  And I was not surprised that I could not find anything earlier.  Yet echoes of the past still remained.  The 1860 Map of the Counties Monroe and Carbon (HF Walling) showed a grist mill and a saw mill along the creek at the four-mile point where Seneca Road is presently found.  The 1875 A Guide to the Property Owners had a SM (saw mill) noted at the same place and had a land owner nearby with the last name of Gilbert. I had identified a target location!  And it made sense—this was closet location to Ft. Allen where all the branches of the stream came together, forming good flow for a mill.  And Mill Road was just a bit far to be certain of its location as a possibility.

1860 Map of the Counties Monroe and Carbon

1875 A Guide to the Property Owners

Actually finding the place was quite easy.  From the highway that followed the creek I turned north on Seneca Road and immediately crossed Mahoning Creek.  A house sat on the north side of the creek. I parked and walked across the bridge to view the creek.

Afterward I started to drive up Seneca Road to get a better view of the Mahoning valley when I remembered my brother’s question: “I wonder what that is?”

I turned back and looked for a short road with something at the end and didn’t see anything.  But then I saw a flat piece of granite, totally out of context, near a swing set in the middle of the yard of the house that sat along the creek.  When I parked and walked over to it, I read:  In memory of the Benjamin Gilbert Family and others who were taken captive by the Indians April 25, 1780…

As I drove back to my friends’ home, I retraced the route that my 6th great grandfather, Benjamin Gilbert, had taken to get to that place on Mahoning Creek through the Lehigh River water gap through the mountains.  I lost myself that day in the exploration of the historical and cultural layers of a landscape.  And I continue to contemplate its place in the historical and geographical narrative of my own life.

Cape Cod: Real or Imagined?

Almost all Americans hear about Cape Cod in history class when they are growing up.  And for my generation, it is also tied to the Kennedys.  Pilgrims.  Colonial history.  The Royalty of the Kennedy Clan.  Cape Cod holds a certain mystic in our imaginations.  Growing up in the corn fields of Illinois, I had a friend a bit older than me who talked about a week he spent at his college history professor’s cottage on Cape Cod.  It was as if nothing else would ever be able to compare to this experience.

I have lived in Massachusetts over seven years and never really gone to Cape Cod.  I live on the North Shore and Cape Ann.  Cape Cod is part of the South Shore.  Bumper to bumper traffic had separated me from this experience during the summer months and work during the off-season.

Now that I am going to move out of New England I decided that I needed to get to “the cape.”  And I always have a desire to get to the end of the road.  Provincetown, located 65 miles out into the Atlantic at the end hook of Cape Cod, is definitely the end of the road.

The landform of Cape Cod is the result of continental glacial processes.  The materials left by the continental glacier form a ridge of moraines that stretch from east to west, on the more northern side of Cape Cod.  The moraines are uneven hills formed when a glacier front stays in one place.  To the south of the moraines, the majority of the Cape is outwash plain, a depositional feature that slopes away from ice front which is made up of sand and gravel carried by meltwater.  The southern side of the Cape, the majority of the area, is outwash plain.  The landscape was further shaped by wave action that leaves sand deposits in low energy zones such as the very end of the of the Cape and spits that form across bays.

When I lived in Louisiana with the Houma tribe, I read about all the Native American tribes of the eastern United States.  Cape Cod was (and is) the home of the tribe with my favorite name—the Mashpee Wampanoag.   It is a name that just rolls of your tongue.  The Wampanoag taught the settlers to survive, whether farming or use of whales that were stranded on the beach.  The 19th century brought the beginning of tourism.  It is appropriate that the Mashpee Wampanoag’s have benefited from tribal gambling facilities for tourism.

In my travels to Provincetown, I took the main southern highway.  The high way was one long strip mall with many restaurants already closed for the season though it was only mid-September.  I began to see a pattern—shoe outlets, mini-golf, restaurants closed for the season, and a smattering of old houses that needed renovation for sale.  Only when I got to Chatham did I find much activity around its quaint downtown and upscale developments.

Miniature Golf on the Cape

The long final stretch in the route to Provincetown goes through the Cape Cod National Seashore with its dunes and beaches.  And then finally you reach Provincetown at the very end.

Pilgrims landed where Provincetown now is before going on to Plymouth in 1620.  Clearly this is a place that was meant to be reached via the sea rather than land.  In fact, when I was there two large cruise ships had deposited tourists into the downtown for a few hours.  Thankfully, I was there in September.  The year-round population is about 3000 but in the summer the town has up to 60,000 people.  Often called “P-town” it is known for its beaches, beautiful harbor, and tourism, especially as a destination for the LGBTQ+ community.  The town has more married gay couples per capita than any other town in the United States.  Thus rainbow flags reign over the main streets of P-Town.

One of the many old houses ripe for renovation.

A typical “cape cod” house with cedar shakes on the side but painted siding on the front. This home was on the market for $4 million but included a significant addition on the back.

When I get to the end of the road, to a place like Provincetown, I always imagine what it would be like to live there year-round.  Would it live up to the ideal such as my childhood friend expressed—oh to be able to live forever on Cape Cod?

I’m glad I made the trip, but I will probably never go back.  The first day was beautiful and sunny.  The second day was rainy, cloudy, and cold.  After all, we were 65 miles out into the Atlantic.  As I drove back on the main northern two lane road, I tried to imagine the summer traffic jams and wondered about the amount of time spent in traffic versus living this “ideal.”  And furthermore, I really detest miniature golf.

Persona Non Grata

Image result for passport

I have tried to teach my daughters that when you travel internationally, you have to be patient and ready for almost anything.  In other words, screaming, pouting, and stomping your foot will do no good.  You are at the mercy of circumstances, so go with the flow of the adventure.

I had to remind myself of this lesson this past March when I helped organize a group of biology students and scientists to go to New Zealand on a trip to learn about birds, conservation, and culture. Flights to New Zealand often go through Los Angeles.  This trip was no different.  The majority of the group was booked on a late night flight from L.A. to Auckland.  Most everyone went on the flight before me because I wanted to make sure everyone was accounted for.  As I went up and had my passport scanned, I was pulled aside.  There was a problem on the New Zealand end with me entering the country.  Granted, I had had a work visa there in 2002 and had last gone their when I was living in Hong Kong, but that was seven years prior.  While the plane continued to load, several agents tried to get the right New Zealand number to get my entry cleared—which had happened in the past.  They just needed the code for clearance.  I kept saying, “This is my group I’m leading on this plane.  I need to be on it with them.”  I admit, I did not say this calmly.  I might have been described as screaming, pouting, and stomping my foot.  I was allowed one call to someone on the plane in our group.

Two hours later, with the plane on its way to New Zealand and me still at the gate while up to five agents with three cell phones tried to get the computer code to work, I suggested that I get a hotel and get to bed.  It was three a.m. according to my clock.

The next day was ground hog day—same gate, same time, same agents.  I was cleared and arrived in New Zealand a day late.  How was I to find my group that was off on an island looking at endangered species?  My friend who was the tour guide on the ground gave me some directions via email:  Go outside the door of the airport near the McDonalds.  Look for a van from this particular hotel.  Go to the hotel and sleep and relax.  At 4 p.m. get a tax and ask the tax to take you to the Gull gas station in the little town of Kumeu, which will be about thirty minutes away.  Wait at the gas station and we will pass by.  By this point I was really sorry that I had not activated my phone for use in New Zealand, but I could look at a map via internet at the hotel to see where Kumeu and the gas station was.

I followed the directions.  The taxi cab driver was very skeptical and didn’t want to abandon me at a gas station.  He kept asking people to make sure it was the right gas station and went next door and got a chair for me to sit on while I waited.  I suggestion he come back the next day to make sure I wasn’t still there.  I sat on my chair with my big zebra striped suitcase as people came and went, looking at me with some curiosity, including the local police.  It was a beautiful sunny day.  An hour later the bus pulled in and I was welcomed back into the flock.


The rest of the trip was pure pleasure.  No pouting, screaming, or stomping of my feet.  I was just happy to be back in New Zealand with its Norfolk pines, the Cabbage trees, the Kaka parrots, the seafoam candy, the Stitch bird, and the Silver Fern.  It felt like being home.



Kurdish Iraq: Universals or Cultural Diffusion

I can’t say that I ever told anyone that I wanted to visit the Kurdish region of Iraq.  But then, I never said that I didn’t want to visit the Kurdish region of Iraq.  And thus began an adventure to Sulaymaniyah, near the Iranian border.

The first step was to read the Department of State website on going to Iraq which I will paraphrase:  Don’t go.  If you insist on doing so, update your will and make sure your daughters know all your passwords.  This did not seem to deter me and I didn’t even need to get a visa beforehand to go to Sulaymaniyah.

The next step was to figure out the logistics of travel.  How do you get there?  My hosts arranged for a direct flight from Boston to Qatar and from Qatar it was just a flight of several hours up the Persian Gulf and then over the Mesopotamian region of Iraq into the mountains of Kurdistan.  What a great adventure indeed to be able to see this region en route from above!



As we approached the city we flew over snow-capped mountains and I saw greenhouses in the green valleys of the rural areas.

Kurdistan rural area


I had a wonderful and interesting time during my day and a half in Sulaymaniyah.  I was treated well.  I had wonderful Turkish coffee.  Security was present but no more onerous that going through metal detectors when you enter the Smithsonian Institute, or approaching an airport after 911.


I left with one impressions and one question.  First, my strong impression was that the fathers and grandfathers loved and cared for their children and grandchildren.  I saw this everywhere.  But the question that remains for me is about how the “Michigan Left” ended up being used in Sulaymaniyah or how a Sulaymaniyah left came to be used in Michigan.  If you are unfamiliar with this traffic pattern, Wikipedia describes it as:  A Michigan left is an at-grade intersection design that replaces each left turn at an intersection between a divided roadway and a secondary roadway with the combination of a right turn followed by a U-turn, or a U-turn followed by a right turn, depending on the situation.

I remain awake at night pondering this puzzle and the different possibilities.  Is this an instance off cultural diffusion and if so, in which direction?  Did a Kurdish traffic engineer come to Michigan and introduce this or did a Michigan traffic engineer contribute to planning in Sulaymaniyah?  Or did traffic engineers in both places come up with this solution to a problem independent of each other but with the same outcome?  Is it a universal truth that traffic engineers everywhere come up with crazy solutions to simple problems?

Ghosts of the Past

I once had a colleague who talked about flying into a particular city and just having a sense of evil in the place.  It was a city that was the center of powerful for ethnic and religious elites who were using their force against a minority community in an adjoining region.  My colleague could not wait to get through the city on to his final destination.  Do places take on the spirits of their past and present?  As you walk through Rwanda, can you sense the heavy spirit in places where the Rwandan genocide was concentrated?  Do these spirits live on, long past human remembrance?  If you have ever read a book by James Michener, you have a sense of how a geographer sees the depth of cultural landscapes.  Landscapes embody the past where generations of people lived, worked, suffered, and loved.

In visiting a coastal marshland landscape near Hilton Head, SC and Savannah, Georgia, I explored and read about the evolution of this cultural landscape to its present recreational use.  Population early on in this area was tied to rivers and rice production dominated during the eighteenth century.  The reclamation of swampland required large amounts of labor which led to the extensive association of the area with slavery.  For example, Ralph Brown, in his Historical Geography of the United States, states that in 1765, the region had 40,000 whites and from 80,000 to 90,000 African-Americans (pg. 63).  Rice plantation homes were more like hunting lodges, as they often became later in their history.  Planters and their families would only be in residence several months out of the year with the rest of their time spent in places like Savannah or Charleston.  The traditional townhouses in these coastal cities had large porches to allow air circulation and according to John Hudson, the porches were built on the long dimension of the house in order to maximize the use of space.

Traditional architecture in Bluffton, SC

House under historic renovation in Bluffton

Other than these major coastal cities, where rice and other products were traded for imports coming from the British Empire, towns did not flourish.  The plantations were the center of economic activity with their buildings found in clearings of higher ground, almost appearing like they sat on islands. Post plantation era saw many of these lands become sites for hunting estates and eventually for second homes and resorts.

I spent several days at Palmetto Bluffs, one such resort that has evolved from rice plantation to hunting lodge to resort.  Palmetto Bluff was comprised of 21 plantations during the antebellum era.   After 1902 it was used as a hunting estate and for entertainment for those who would come by steamship or railroad and stay for weeks at a time, enjoying R.T. Wilson’s retreat home.  On March 26, 1926, the great mansion caught fire, and R.T. Wilson’s idyllic retreat was reduced to ashes.   It past into the ownership of timber interests and continued to be used as a hunting camp.  Eventually it was realized that its 32 miles of riverfront and forest had great conservation and recreational value.  As I walked around the resort, whose architecture is modeled after traditional southern plantation house and building types, I pondered the re-creation of an architectural look that reflected a dark aspect of our history.  Should I be sensing ghosts of the past here?  As I was reflecting on this thought, an African-American colleague walked by, and we chatted about the history of the place.  He simply said that “yes, all places have histories,” and continued on his way, enjoying the scenery, the warmth of the sun, and the beautiful surroundings.  I decided to do the same.

Hunting Lodge Ruins