All maps are biased

If you’re a traveller, physical or armchair, you’ve examined a map or two. Schools have to change their maps as countries and boundaries change. But we rarely think about how each country or territory is delineated – we just accept that what we’re looking at on a current map is gospel.

However, borders have not only been wrangled over throughout history, they continue to be to this day. A website called Metrocosm offers an interactive map that shows current disputed borders, Mapping Every Disputed Territory in the World. According to their accompanying article, “at least 124 countries (or “would-be” countries) are involved in a territorial dispute of some kind”.

Maps are inherently biased – they show what the map-maker chooses to show.

Have you ever drawn someone a map to get to your house for a party, for example? In doing so, you choose your reference points – things that will allow the reader to orient themselves – and leave out unimportant details. You’ll probably indicate several major streets that surround your home, perhaps indicate a couple of landmarks that will help drivers navigate, and offer some details about your abode to look for, such as a brown brick, 2-storey home with white shutters, or a 10-storey beige apartment building. You’ll list your house number, or the street address of your apartment/condo, but you won’t list every other building number, or the fact that there’s a bus stop or fire hydrant out front (typically).

So, ultimately, you’re giving them edited information. The same holds true for all map-makers. Every piece of information about a location can’t possibly be included, and choices are made regarding what should be listed.

When it comes to larger concerns like border divisions, the map-maker has even more choices ahead. The size of the map dictates how much information can realistically be included, and the larger the landscape, the harder it is to lay it out accurately if on a flat, i.e. two-dimensional map, because, of course, we live on a big roundish ball.

Cartographers have wrestled with this dilemma since the 3rd century BC, when Greek philosophers and astronomers determined that our planet is round and were actually able to calculate its circumference. The problem was solved by the creation of globes, a more accurate representation of the geography of the Earth.

The laying out of empires, countries, territories, provinces, states and other political divisions has fluctuated regularly over millennia. Massive empires have risen and fallen, like Alexander the Great’s, which now covers many smaller, independent countries.

Map of Alexander’s empire and his route — By Generic Mapping Tools – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=656066

WWI changed the world’s map considerably. The Russian Empire broke into Poland, the Baltics, Finland and Poland, while the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire created the countries of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. (Watch a descriptive video on the Business Insider website.) Since then, Yugoslavia itself has split into seven different countries.

So how do map-makers keep up? With a great deal of frustration, possibly. However, digital maps can be easily changed. Globes, however, are time capsules of the world situation when they were created.

According to a fascinating article on Afar, The Politics of Globes, there’s actually no governing body to oversee the legitimacy of maps, as inconceivable as that might seem. And so cartographers can draw anything they want, and maps have often been used as political propaganda.

For example, a map of the world create in 1910 by cartographer Arthur Mees used large flags to show how “Great Britain has built up a great empire, because, wherever her influence has gone, she has planted the seeds of freedom…”. In reality, the “freedom” part was hardly true. Indigenous cultures, in particular, are still fighting the effects of colonialism, including right here in Canada, and would hardly have agreed with Mees’ portrayal of the empire.

By Mees, Arthur, 1850-1923 – Mee, Arthur. 1910. The Childrens' Encyclopaedia. Vol. 2.Cornell University: Persuasive Cartography: The PJ Mode Collection, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46308345

When my hubby and I visited Zimbabwe and Zambia, we were well aware of Britain’s exploitation of the former country/region of Rhodesia, which was demarcated by the British South Africa Company.

Bisected by the Zambezi River, the region was split into Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and was overseen by the infamous Cecil Rhodes, the company’s founder and managing director. His activities were so reprehensible that there have been campaigns to change the name of the prestigious scholarship in his name at Oxford University. In October 2019 the head of the scholarship program, Elizabeth Kiss, stated that changing the name would be “running away” from the colonial legacy, while campaigners insist that there should be no celebration of the man who basically started apartheid. (You can read more about the Cecil Rhodes controversy on the BBC website.)

Today, you can walk across the bridge that Rhodes built to cross the Zambezi and link the two former regions, now separate countries. You’ll need a visa to cross the border, and there are interesting things to see on either side, including very different view of the spectacular Victoria Falls, which explorer David Livingstone named after his queen, but which is called something quite different in the local culture.

Victoria Falls Bridge straddles the Zambezi River, joining Zambia and Zimbabwe – photo by E. Jurus and all rights reserved

As people returns to travelling around our globe, whenever you consult a map or cross a border, remember that you’re dealing with many layers of history and shifting politics, and that the situation you see today may not be the same in twenty, a hundred or a thousand years.

The golden days of late summer

I’ve never been a fan of Summer — too hot and humid for me (at least in my neck of the woods), and the contrast of light and shadow is harsh. Late Summer is alright. The daytimes are mellower, the nights are cool enough to open the windows at night for a fresh breeze, and the odd day holds a promise of fall weather.

Just as we start to change our clothing over, so do gardens. The sunflowers have shed their golden collars and are going to seed.

Chestnut trees are bursting with ripening nuts.

The vegetable section of our local teaching botanical garden is lush with fall produce.

The garden is displaying a little trickery — the eggplants have turned white…

…while the peppers are deep purple.

A rainbow of onions are free of their soil beds.

Apparently, once artichokes bloom, the artichoke itself becomes inedible, but the flowers attract bees and can be dried for arrangements.

Monarch butterflies are enjoying the gardens as well.

The afternoon sunlight has a gentler tone at this time of year.

In the rose garden, some of the blossoms are beginning to fade a little.

A few of the lotus flowers have begun dropping their leaves, leaving just a seed pod and a lacy frill of stamens behind.

But soon the autumn coats will come out, flaunting their gorgeous colours to make the evergreens look even richer.

Now’s the time to get out and enjoy Nature’s last glorious party before the winter sleep!

All photos are by me, and all rights are reserved. E. Jurus

Best laid plans go awry with Amtrak

Clear-cutting in the Amazon jungle visible as our plane was landing in Puerto Maldonado

The pandemic and resulting lock-downs briefly halted the bombardment of fly-less-for-the-good-of-the-planet messages that was taking place in the fall of 2019. Hubby and I were in Ireland during the peak, enjoying a hard-earned vacation, while at the same time environmental activists were boarding airplanes to protest flights.

I’m an environmentalist myself, so have no quarrel with Greta Thunberg’s intent, but I feel she was choosing easy targets, not the planet’s biggest perpetrators — toxic chemical and plastics manufacturers like Monsanto and DuPont, the cruise ships that dump so much garbage in the ocean, the palm oil manufacturers mowing down acres and acres of rainforest…the list is long. Nevertheless, her growing movement did spur airlines to look at more environmentally-friendly ways to operate, and that was a good start.

I feel that travel is a force for good on our planet, when it’s performed with the goal of exploring another culture with thoughtfulness and authenticity. Putting an end to travel isn’t the solution.

Methods of travel that have less environmental impact are good choices when possible. To that end, my hubby and I decided to take a train to get to New Mexico this fall instead of flying. We’d actually planned to take this trip two years ago, but of course were unable to. The allure of taking a train all the way from Chicago to Albuquerque while doing nothing but watch the landscapes of the American Midwest roll by the big window in our onboard bedroom and enjoying three chef-cooked meals was irresistible, and we’d be taking a journey that left a smaller imprint on the environment.

We booked the trip on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief train last spring with great anticipation, and have been eagerly telling all of our family and friends about it ever since. The rest of the vacation in New Mexico has all been booked; everything is in place for a truly wonderful adventure within a few weeks.

However, in mid-August we received the following message from Amtrak:

“We wanted to let you know that the Sleeper Car has been removed from train #0003, the Southwest Chief, from Chicago, Illinois on xxx (date). We’ve changed your reservation to standard Coach seating and will refund you for the price difference.

We’re sorry for the inconvenience. Thanks for being a valued Amtrak customer – we’ll see you onboard.”

Hubby and I were stunned. They just arbitrarily removed the sleeper car? Twenty-five hours in coach seating was not what we’d booked. If it wasn’t an overnight journey, that might have been okay, but we’d wanted the full sleeper experience, with dining-room meals, not snacks from the Cafe for more than a day.

I called customer service at Amtrak to tell them their alternative was unacceptable. The best they could offer us was a Roomette a day earlier, also unacceptable because the Roomette is much smaller than the Bedrooms and not the comfortable experience we wanted, or a Bedroom THREE WEEKS LATER. I explained patiently that all of our other travel arrangements have been made, that changing the entire thing to a later date isn’t possible. The fellow at the other end of the phone said he was sorry.

I told him that “sorry” wasn’t good enough, that we’d been looking forward to this train journey for three years. I told him that we’d now have to tell all of our friends and family why we were no longer able to take an amazing train ride to New Mexico. I told him that Amtrak has lost us as a customer forever, because our very first experience with them had been aborted before we even got on the train; why would we ever book another journey when Amtrak clearly couldn’t be relied on to provide it? He keep saying “sorry”.

When I said we were cancelling completely, he processed a full refund on the spot, so no complaints about that aspect. But he finished by reiterating “Thank you for choosing Amtrak.” Seriously? The best I could say was, “I’m sorry we did.”

Well, so much for our attempt to travel with a smaller footprint. Our vacation isn’t a bust — we’ve booked a flight instead, and are still very much looking forward to the trip. We’re sad that we won’t be able to take what looked to be a really enchanting train ride. When the message from Amtrak thanked us for ‘being a valued Amtrak customer’, obviously they didn’t mean it — the company made no attempt to try and keep our business.

It’s all well and good to try making less of an impact through travel, but it’s also incumbent on transportation providers to keep up their end of the bargain. Good work is taking place in the travel industry, there’s no question. But until all the parties are committed, options for concerned travellers are limited.

All photos are by me unless otherwise specified, and all rights are reserved. E. Jurus

Exploring Niagara Falls from different viewpoints

A full rainbow forms in the mists churned up by Niagara Falls

What happens when you explore in (more or less) your ‘own backyard’?

You find amazing things that have been around much longer than you thought, and new attractions that celebrate history.

Niagara Falls, the longtime honeymoon cliche that was made even more famous by two movies, Niagara (1953), starring Marilyn Monroe, and Superman II (1980), is a natural wonder that has been reinventing itself for almost 11,000 years. At that time, the Horseshoe Falls, the largest of the three falls in the cluster, and which forms the border between Canada and the U.S., was about six miles downstream, stretching between the towns of Queenston on the Canadian side and Lewiston on the U.S. side. and started as a small arch.

Today those falls are a large curve 2,590 feet wide, tossing 85,000 cubic feet of water over the edge every second (on average). The cities that overlook the spectacle, both named after the falls, are thriving tourist meccas, and most people who live in easy driving distance, at least on the Canadian side, tend to avoid the area in peak tourist season because the traffic slows to a crawl. On our side, the city is a mix of party town, attractions ranging from cool to cheesy, decent restaurants, and some beautiful old homes (many of which have been turned into B&Bs). The falls themselves are surrounded by hotels, eateries and casinos, so it’s hard to get a sense of what they must have looked like when their full natural beauty could be appreciated.

But, like most tourist destinations, there are ways to see the sights that are more authentic. It’s fun to walk beside the falls, watching the water churn over like gallons upon gallons of green gelatin and getting damp from the far-reaching spray, but to truly appreciate the falls you need to see them from other points of view.

One of those is the White Water Walk, a boardwalk with viewing platforms right along the edge of the Niagara River below the falls, crashing and rushing through Class 6 rapids.

From 1876 to 1934 these views were accessible by a steam-powered incline railway. In 1934 the railway was destroyed by a fire. The Niagara Parks Commission leased the land to a private company, Niagara Concessions, and this enterprise built a 230-foot elevator shaft down to the floor of the valley the river cuts through, along with a 240-foot tunnel to get closer to the river through the rainforest-like profusion of trees and ferns that line the river banks. A boardwalk was built, but was frequently damaged by the raging waters and winter ice floes. However, in the mid 1900s a weir was built above the falls to control the flow for the power plants on either side of the border, and the lowered water flow allowed for a new boardwalk to be built.

I can only say that, if the pounding water that we saw when we did the White Water Walk recently is the reduced version of the river’s flow, the original flow must have been truly ferocious.

The boardwalk runs for 1/4 of a mile and is an easy walk. Good walking shoes or sandals are all that’s needed; there’s no spray from the water to worry about.

Take time to notice the lush vegetation on the other side of the boardwalk, like a scene out of 10,000 Years B.C.

Remnants of the old boardwalks are still visible, rusted monuments to our fascination with this magical piece of nature.

But the water is the biggest attraction, as it rides roughshod over everything in its path, like a green monster on a rampage. The colour of the water is a result of the dissolved salts and powdered rock dust that fills it.

The water is mesmerizing. Allow yourself some time to just watch it leap, curl, dive and crash its way through the chasm. There are viewing platforms that jut out from the boardwalk in a couple of places, allowing you to get even closer to the river (they’re not wheelchair accessible).

It didn’t take people long to realize what a fabulous source of power the falls presented. In 1892 the Niagara Falls Power Company began construction of the Edward Dean Adams Power Plant.

It was the first large-scale alternating current generating plant in the world, Westinghouse Electric built the 5,000 horsepower generators, which were based on designs by Nikola Tesla and Benjamin Lamme, an American electrical engineer.

What a fantastic and exciting enterprise that must have been. Touring the historic power plant today gives a small idea of the mammoth amount of construction, particularly walking through the 2,200-foot long, brick-lined tunnel that discharged the used water back into the Niagara River. It was excavated by lantern-light, using only shovels, pickaxes and dynamite. The new Tunnel attraction takes you from the floor of the plant, down and down in a glass-walled elevator, past the huge pipes and turbines, to the floor of the tunnel, where you can follow a self-guided excursion all the way to the river and the edge of the Horseshoe Falls.

The tunnel is huge, at least 12 to 15 feet wide, and maybe thirty feet high (just my own estimates, I haven’t been able to find actual stats), and runs for half a mile. Imagine the massive amount of water rushing through there in the plant’s heyday. The new floor is damp from water seepage, but textured enough that it’s not slippery. Thick walls and a depth of 180 feet below ground keep the air inside quite chilly, and the walk, if you want to read all the fascinating information kiosks, is long, so don’t go in shorts and a tank top.

If you don’t rush through to get to the prize at the end, where the tunnel opens up to the roar of the falls (as we saw some people do), you’ll notice interesting things like the funky trumpet-shaped fungi growing right out of the walls.

An arch of glowing daylight marks the end of the tunnel…

…and a unique view of all three falls (Horseshoe below), as well as the intrepid boats that take poncho-shrouded, awe-struck visitors as close to the base of the thundering waters as it’s safe to go. We did the boat ride several years ago, and the power of the falls has to be seen to be believed; if you’re visiting, the ride is one thing you absolutely shouldn’t miss.

Across the river, you can watch visitors on the American side get their own close-up views from the top of the Horseshoe Falls, while rainbows form in the mists at the bottom…

…and along platforms near the base of Bridal Veil Falls and the American Falls.

One could easily, if it were available, spend an entire afternoon on the viewing platform, sipping drinks at a riverside table. Unfortunately, the platform would fill up quickly that way, but you can linger as long as you want. There’s much to be seen back up in the power plant, however, if, as I am, you’re fascinated by vintage machinery and architecture. You can walk around by yourself, poking around at your leisure, or take a guided tour.

There is an excellent gift shop as well, filled with well-thought out electricity-themed goods, not kitschy tourist junk.

I also recommend that you come back at night for the new sound-and-light show, Currents, which with wonderful light effects, music and narration tells the story of water and the power it has generated at Niagara Falls for over 100 years.

The interior space of the power plant is turned into an immersive, interactive journey. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

When patterns are projected onto the floor, you can even walk and jump around to make them follow your movement (kids in the audience, and quite a few adults, really got into that). There are a handful of benches that you can sit on if you need to be more sedentary.

The falls in Niagara aren’t the only wonder to behold — people’s ingenuity at creating an enduring source of power that feeds much of Ontario and New York State, as well as innovative ways to appreciate Nature’s artistry, have highlighted the core of what makes Niagara Falls special.

All photos are by me, and all rights are reserved. These photos may not be reproduced without my express permission. E. Jurus

On hiatus – finishing my novel

Just a quick post to mention that I’m on hiatus for a couple of weeks while I complete the second book in my urban fantasy trilogy. Very exciting, building to the big climax, so very intense writing. I should have finished it last week but was suffering from a dreadful cold. I should be cracking open the bottle of champagne in a few days! Stay tuned for updates 😀

Giving our brains a much needed rest

How often do you take a break from daily life? If you’re like most North Americans, probably not very often. And yet studies were showing, long before the pandemic, that not only our bodies, but especially our brains, need some down time. How much more do we need it now, bombarded by successive waves of the pandemic and political instability around the world?

Breaks throughout the day refresh our brains. When I was working in the counselling department of a college, lunch times were sacrosanct for all the staff, and knocking on an office door when it was closed had to be backed up with a damned good reason.

In the mid 1990s, studies demonstrated that our brains demand a lot of energy – 20 percent to make our bodies run, and even more when we’re doing mental work. Is it any wonder that we so often ‘hit a wall’ before the end of the work day?

The interesting thing, though, was that even when we’re at rest, perhaps just daydreaming, there was still considerable communication going on between certain regions of the brain, which the researchers called the default mode network. That’s an interesting name, including the word ‘default’. It turns out that letting our minds to drift into this basic state allows our brain to process all kinds of information that’s been accumulated but not dealt with. When our brains aren’t occupied with external pressures, they have time to make sense of everything, order it, imagine solutions and connect all the dots.

Some of our most creative moments occur when we’re not trying to find them. As a writer, I’ve found many times over that if I’ve reached a place in my novel’s plot where I’m not sure how to address a problem or move the story from one point to the next, the answer occurs to me when I’m lying in bed, essentially day-dreaming before I fall asleep, or first thing in the morning as I’m awakening but haven’t felt like getting out of bed yet. First thing in the morning is better; last thing at night requires me to tap a quick note into my phone lest I forget, unless it’s something so brilliant that the idea carries through to the next day.

And indeed studies have shown that the default mode network is more active in more creative people, not necessarily because those people have different brains but perhaps devote more time to getting out of the way of their own minds.

Try it out the next time you feel overwhelmed, like your brain is ‘fried’. Take a break and go for a walk, without your phone. It should preferably be in nature, whether it’s a park or even a path through a garden, and un-occupy your mind. Be alone with your own thoughts, and let them flow like the breezes around you. Notice the things going on all around you, from the butterflies flitting from flower to flower to the texture of the path beneath your feet and the colour of the sky. You’ll be amazed both by how refreshed you feel afterward, and by what interesting things your mind will come up with.

When I need to decompress, I love to take walks around our extensive local botanical garden. There’s always something interesting to see in every season, and the peace and quiet are soothing within the first few minutes.

For even better breaks, go on as long a vacation as you can, and make it a complete getaway. The modern penchant for managing your entire trip through a series of apps totally defeats the purpose of getting away from it all. You can check the day’s weather, or find a restaurant, but apart from that it’s important that you put away your electronic devices and just be in the moment. Take some photos if you like to do that, but only a few of yourself. What you should be noticing is the place you’re in and all its wonders, not worrying about how good you look for a series of selfies.

One of the best vacations my hubby and I ever had was our first safari in Africa. Deep in the wilds of Botswana, we spent days bouncing along sandy roads, feeling the wind ruffle our hair and keeping our eyes peeled for the next herd of zebras or elephants, gazing into the golden eyes of a lioness lying under a bush near the road, having morning tea while we watched antelopes graze by the river while hippos snorted in the water. We’d left all our problems at home and immersed ourselves in the hot African sun and the stillness of a place without the noise of other humans. At night we fell asleep to the chirping of tree frogs, woke up to the chatter of francolin birds. It rejuvenated us after a very challenging year, made us feel alive and whole again.

When you’re standing in the magnificent ruins of ancient Machu Picchu in Peru, dazzled by the remarkable stonework somehow built on the top of a mountain surrounded by other blue-green peaks as far as the eye can see, your mind imagines what life must have been like all those hundreds of years ago, waking up with the dawn, walking along paths that overlooked the silvery Urubamba River far below, gathering food from the steep terraces just below the city and feeling the spirituality of the many sacred huaca stones all around you. You’re far, far away from the daily grind, breathing in the crisp, fresh mountain air, watching a lizard skitter across the intricately laid stones right next to you.

Taking down time is essential to our well-being. Make sure you use it well.

All photos are by me, and all rights are reserved.