a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Temples smile on visitors

SIEM REAP, Cambodia – A Cambodian teenager guiding an elephant motions
for the animal to stop under a tree.

The boy straddling the elephant's neck plucks leaves from a branch and
places them between his lips, producing a reed instrument to entertain
the American tourists he is leading. The elephant ride is a majestic arrival to the ancient Angkor
temples worthy of the Hindu kings who ruled this mythical temple city
from the 9th to the 15th century.

"There are over 100 temples. Most are dedicated to Hinduists," said Sar
Kunthy, an English-speaking guide at the "Lost City" in Northwestern

After being ignored and neglected for decades, the ancient city is
gaining broad attention from across the globe now that Cambodia is
enjoying peaceful times.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

It had not been safe to visit this region of Southeast Asia since
before the Vietnam War because of land mines and civil strife.
Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime also looted the temples, and its guerilla
fighters used nearby jungles as hiding places until the early 1990s.
Cambodia's monarchy had returned to power by the time the regime's
leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998, bringing an end to one of the bloodiest
chapters in the country's history.

In 2004, the palaces and temples were removed from the United Nations
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's most endangered
ancient sites list because millions of dollars had been spent to restore
the former Khmer Empire capital city. It was a monumental task just
removing the land mines, as well as jungle roots and vines that covered the crumbling,
sandstone buildings.

Siem Reap temple

Archaeologists from several countries, including Australia and France,
have been putting the temples back together and studying the many
bas-reliefs and intricate irrigation system that served the more than
one million people who once lived here. The temples, some built to
honor Buddha, are situated across 248 square miles, making up one of
the largest archaeological sites in the world.

There are many mysteries to be solved and unknown sites for researchers
to discover and explore.

"They recently found a 2,000-year-old tomb," Kunthy said. "There are
still underground temples yet to be found. So far, we have not been
able to find the tool used to cut the stone."

The most famous temple, Angkor Wat, was constructed over three decades
in the 12th century during the reign of King Suryavarman II. It took
50,000 workers 37 years to build the world's largest religious
building. It stands nearly 190 feet tall and is reached by a walkway
crossing a nearly 600-foot moat.

The entrance to Angkor Wat is flanked by giant sandstone sculptures of
serpents representing fertility. Crocodiles, according to legend, once
lurked in the water to protect the city from invaders, Kunthy said.

Inside, visitors pass the world's largest bas-reliefs telling the
stories of Hindu mythology. Some of the intricate and beautiful
sculptures pay tribute to the Hindu god, Vishnu, whose four arms, mercy
and power preserved the universe and ensured cosmic order.

Organized tours also offer visitors a taste of deep-fried crickets sold
at roadside huts. Villagers string light bulbs over small plastic ponds
to catch the insects, that when fried, taste like cashew nuts, the tour
driver says.

Cambodian deep-fried crickets

Children by the hundreds pressure tourists to buy postcards, small
flutes made from bamboo or Tro Us, the traditional Khmer string
instrument made with a coconut shell covered with snakeskin. Their
sales pitch requires them to memorize and recite the capitals of each
of the 50 states to impress American travelers. A Cambodian police
officer, meanwhile, follows a crowd trying to sell his police badge
that looks like a cheap, plastic replica of the one he is wearing.

A band made of up musicians with missing limbs or eyes – land mine
victims – performs outside one temple where the jungle has not been
stripped away. The temple, Ta Prohm, can be seen as a backdrop in
Angelina Jolie's 2001 adventure movie, "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider."

Every family in Cambodia has at least one member who was either killed
or injured by land mines placed by Pol Pot's army or the Viet Cong,
Kunthy said.

"There are up to 200,000 people with land-mine injuries," he said.

Angkor is drawing more than a million visitor, Kunthy
said, creating the need for the rows of new luxury resorts in Siem

(One day is not enough to see or appreciate Angkor, an hourlong flight
from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.)

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Quick with scissors

With a few dozen rapid snips of scissors, Hou-Tien Cheng can transform a paper plate into a dragon hat or an ordinary sheet of white paper into SpongeBob SquarePants.
The New Jersey man is one of the best-known masters of ancient Chinese, freeform paper cutting, who demonstrates his skills at schools and conventions across the United States.
He boasts that he “will create any subject you can think of in paper cuts ... quicker than two bites of a cookie.” And, he can.
Historians believe paper cutting was born in North Chinese houses where people once felt a need to dress up their dull, paper windows coated with tung oil with red cutouts of flowers.
Cheng learned this artform from his grandfather as a child before immigrating from Taiwan to the United States.
He drew a steady stream of visitors to his booth at the Pittsburgh Folk Festival over the Memorial Day holiday weekend. He also has made a string of television appearances since 1970, including a role in a 2003 Citibank commercial.
Slovenian folk dancers spun in circles on the main stage, wearing colorful, traditional costumes, while Cheng worked his magic before a young couple who were amazed by his skills.
And, I broke out my wallet and gladly paid $4 for a matted black and white Cheng design of two panda bear. Without notice, he slipped a small, cool paper cut of a unicorn into my bag.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Touch for luck

OAKLAND – An unusual superstition believed to bring good luck has put Pittsburgh on a list of destinations with the most unusual tourist attractions.

A bronze statue of locally-born musician Stephen Foster with his slave outside of Carnegie Music Hall in city's Oakland section has caught the eye of Roadside Magazine because of the number of people who believe that rubbing the slave's big toe will put fortune on their side.

"It's listed among the bizarre places to go in America. It's like the world's biggest ball of mud. We're right up there with that," said Kathy Haines, associate director of the Center for American Music at the University of Pittsburgh, which houses Foster's archives and a nearby museum in his honor.

No one seems to know how the superstition began at the statue, which was moved from Schenley Park to its present site along Forbes Avenue to protect it from vandalism.

Many Pittsburghers are probably unaware of the giant ball of mud near the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. It's not lucky, either.

Someone with more of an interest in America's most famous folk song writer would not want to pass up the Stephen C. Foster Memorial at Pitt, directly across the street from the statue.

Housed in an alcove at the Gothic landmark Cathedral of Learning at Pitt, the museum is home to the only known likeness of Foster's wife, who was believed to be the
inspiration for his tune "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair."

While there, check out the cured horse's jawbone mentioned in Foster's song, "Angelina Baker," and used as a percussion instrument in his minstrel show.

Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday

Call: 412-624-4100 for group tours

(Portions were published with permision of the Observer-Reporter)

Monday, May 21, 2007

Going home

GUEST BLOGGER: Harry Funk, who made a weekend trip to his boyhood hometown of Paxtang, Pa., a suburb of Harrisburg

Throughout much of the 1970s, I spent a lot of time at the splendid example of architecture pictured above. In one half of the duplex lived my best friend, and in the other ... well, I haven't seen her since 1977, so I can admit to her being my first big-time crush.

At any rate, none of us youngsters really appreciated the fine old homes in the neighborhood around Paxtang Avenue, the main north-south street of Paxtang Borough. Come to think of it, they probably weren't as fine when I lived there. During visits of the past several years, I've noticed concerted efforts to restore many of the residences to the grandiosity and splendor of their early days.

Paxtang is getting ready to celebrate its centennial next year, meaning the borough is likely to see an influx of visitors. In turn, those visitors will see an array of interesting and appealing architectural elements.

Click here for more scenes of Paxtang, Pa.

Time travel

With an upside down green, penny stamp, bearing the likeness of George Washington, Mrs. Gup H. Williams used this postcard to send well wishes to Mrs. James Sphar of Charleroi, Pa., on May 31, 1923.
"I hope you are gaining in health fast now," Mrs. Williams wrote on the back of this view of Fallowfield Avenue in Charleroi, between Fourth and Fifth streets.
This kind of postage arrived, with love, from what I understand.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Hot dip can turn cold

Mary soaks her aching body as often as she can in the 118 degree, once abandoned hot spring pits at Montezuma Castle outside the other, lesser known Las Vegas in New Mexico.
“I could sit here all day,” she said, clad in her required bathing suit and soothing a sore sciatic nerve in her left leg. “It makes everything, your whole body feel pretty good,” she said, even though the well has green, slimy walls and dark floaties in the mineral water.
Her companion waddles through chocolate brown mud alongside the baths hugging the main road, taking another sort of soul cleansing. He then rinses his dirty shell in 40 degree, mountain fresh water running through a creek before returning to Mary’s side.

Las Vegas

Montezuma Resort and Hot Springs was built in 1882 for Santa Fe Railroad along the Santa Fe Trail that once brought expensive trade to the region by covered wagon.

Las Vegas

This Las Vegas, founded in 1832, now has an economy that suffers dearly from the decline of the railroad era. The boom left behind more than 900 historic buildings representing nearly every construction style in America.
After falling into disrepair, the Victorian castle became the first property west of the Mississippi River to become a concern in 1997 of the Save America’s Treasures program. It was resurrected in a multimillion dollar renovation by the Armand Hammer United World College, which now operates an exclusive high school on the site for international students.
While the local tourism office promotes tours of the castle, the school’s cold-spritied security guards will tell visitors to immediately leave the property unless they want a peek inside an unusual small chapel that is lit inside by a bunch of large prisms.

Montezuma chapel

Public tours of the old brick hotel are offered for one hour on just a handful of dates each summer.
The springs, however, are open to the public at its own risk. The guards stop by here frequently, too, to make sure that no one is dipping in the nude.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Ice cream crooner

No. This is not a likeness of 1950s crooner Perry Como eating an ice cream cone. It’s a cherished sculpture of the singer holding a microphone outside the borough building in his hometown of Canonsburg, Pa.

Most days, a loud speaker attached to the building bleeds the sounds of Como singing his hit songs, including “Papa Loves Mambo” and “Hot Diggety Dog Ziggity Boom.”

And the statue honoring Como, who died in 2001 without ever having laid eyes on his stone self, attracts a steady stream of tourists from as far away as England.

“People are crazy about Perry Como,” said Carol Imperatore, the borough police clerk, whose office overlooks the town plaza at 68 East Pike St. “Oh yeah, they love it.”

“When we made that statue sing, I got calls from New York, BBC twice, Las Vegas and Seattle,” added Canonsburg Mayor Tony Colaizzo. He confessed to once breaking into the library side of the borough building to flick on the switch controlling the music after a bus load of people from Rhode Island arrived and were sad to find the air quiet.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Nuns' mysterious climb

The Sisters of Loretto got more than they prayed for when they sought divine intervention for a way to reach the choir loft at their church at the end of the Santa Fe Trail.
After praying for nine days for a solution, a mysterious carpenter showed up and built an incredible, yet scary, 23 1/12-foot spiral stairway without hand rails at the back of the sanctuary in Santa Fe, N.M.
“It’s frightening,” said a tour guide at The Loretto Chapel, which is no longer a Roman Catholic Church. “The nuns had to crawl up them and scoot down on the bums.”
Seven nuns with brave souls had come to the city in 1862, heeding a call from the local priest for sisters to establish a school in what was then known as the dangerous Wild West.
After surviving the arduous journey through Indian territory, the nuns set up a school and, in 1873, they built the Gothic-Revival, Colorado sandstone chapel, modeling it after San Chapel in Paris.

Because the chapel is so small, architects at the time suggested that the nuns access the loft via a ladder to preserve seating space in the pews. The nuns, instead, turned to St. Joseph the Carpenter to solve their dilemma.
Lo and behold, the carpenter knocked at their door with a tool box and the will to craft the stairs that were considered to be a marvel for their shape and lack of any obvious support beams. Making two 360 complete turns, the stairs were also believed to contain no nails, and held together by wooden pegs.
When the steps were finished, the carpenter vanished without taking any pay for his work. Several years later, the nuns found the money to hire another carpenter to add a hand railing to the stairs to make the climb a little less terrifying.
The church was deconsecrated in 1971 and sold to a private company that maintains it as a museum and place for weddings and other religious services.

Friday, May 4, 2007

He died ugly, trying

New Mexico's first governor, Charles Bent, above, who met a horrific death at his Taos home that is now a museum with freaky artifacts.

The U.S. government was not welcomed with open arms to New Mexico after it fell to American troops at the Battle of Santa Fe in August 1846.
Five months later, a group of Indians and their former Mexican occupiers revolted and brutally murdered Charles Bent, a successful merchant to the Southwest who had been appointed the territory’s first governor.
On a visit with his family in Taos in January 1847, the angry mob stormed his house, shot him with bullets and arrows and scalped him in front of his wife and children. To the natives, Bent represented everything bad the Anglo-Americans had done to them as the West was won.
“We want your head gringo,” Bent’s daughter, Teresina Bent Scheurich, wrote years later in a two-page, poorly spelled history of the murder. “Yes … you have to died now so that no American is going to govern us …,” she wrote, quoting the remarks of the attackers.
The surviving Bents, that frightful night, shoveled a hole through their adobe walls to escape to a neighboring house.
American troops were immediately summoned to Taos to quell the rebellion. They killed 250 people in Taos Pueblo, and hanged six Mexicans in the Indian village’s plaza. A short time later, 16 Indians were strung up in downtown Taos for the Bent murder, the governor’s daughter wrote.
Copies of her story can be purchased for 50 cents apiece in a dusty museum and gift store at the Bent House in the perfectly restored tourist destination 61 miles north of Santa Fe. Few people seem to wander into the adobe building tucked away from the trendy shops, restaurants and art galleries.
The museum contains a hodgepodge collection of old tools, photographs and antique furniture, much of which appears to have nothing to do with the Bent family.

Freaky lamb

The strangest thing on exhibit is a stuffed, “freak” lamb that supposedly was born on a nearby ranch in 1929 with two hind ends and eight legs, two of which extend from the creature’s back. It lived for five days before being sent to a taxidermist and later acquired by this museum, which leaves its lights off until someone steps inside.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The shame of Santa Fe

There isn’t anything more unsightly in perfectly-maintained downtown Santa Fe than the sandstone Civil War monument in its central plaza.
Many people in the oldest capitol in the United States hate it so much that they have called for it to be dismantled and reassembled in a much less visible location.
For historical purposes, though, “it should stay” in the heart of New Mexico’s government seat, Donna Padilla, a local historian, said while leading a group of tourists on a walking tour of the beautiful downtown district.
City officials are rather anal about what can be built in the city settled by Spain in 1598, when New Mexico’s first governor, Juan DeOnate, was sent here with 200 pioneers and 7,000 head of livestock.
New buildings can only be constructed in either the pueblo or territorial styles, no taller than three stories, and painted in any of the 40 approved earth tones. Pueblo buildings are low to the ground and often covered in mud-colored adobe or plaster, and the other approved buildings look similar, but have Greek Revival elements that were favored by U.S. residents who invaded the area in 1848 under President James Polk.

Govenor's palace
(Native Americans sell their wares, above, at the former governor's palace, one of the oldest remaining adobe buildings in downtown Santa Fe)

Judging by the number of misspelled words in the white marble tablets embellishing four sides of the war monument, it’s no wonder it embarrasses some of those who take such great pride in the city’s appearance.
February is spelled wrong in the side that pays tribute to Union soldiers who lost their lives in the 1862 Battle of Valverde, when Confederate troops conquered Santa Fe.
April was originally spelled in Abril – the Spanish word for the month - in another side honoring Union soldiers who were killed a month later when the rebels were forced out of town. The word was carved out, leaving a deeper impression in the marble, allowing the month to be respelled in English.
The first few words in a third tablet about the territorial war with Native Americans must have been disliked because they, too, were filed off and replaced with “TO THE HEROES.” Then, in 1974, a mysterious man walked up to that side and chiseled off the adjective, “savage,” that had been used to describe the Indians.
No one asked any questions because the man wore a hardhat, as if the city had hired him to work on the memorial, said Padilla, who is shown with the monument’s panel in the photograph above.
“To this day, we have no idea who took out the word savage,” she said. “You can look all over Santa Fe and you won’t find anything uglier than this monument.”

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Walking with the ghosts

Artist Georgia O’Keeffe often joked that God told her she could own the flat-topped mesa at the Jemez Mountains called Pedernal if she painted it enough times.

“It’s my private mountain,” O’Keeffe has been quoted as saying about the place in Northern New Mexico that she would call home for 50 years.

O’Keeffe became known as one of the most renowned artists of America’s Modernism Movement for the scenes the mountains inspired her to paint. Following her death at age 98 in 1986, her ashes were scattered in the wind from the Pedernal.

O’Keefe also put the nearby Native American reservation of Abiquiu on the map by making her winter home there in a centuries-old adobe building that draws 6,000 tourists a year to see how she lived. She was a minimalist who didn't like clutter and preferred white couches accented with one black and red pillow.

Some visitors continue north along Route 84 for another 13 miles to Ghost Ranch to follow the same trails that O’Keeffe climbed while looking for flowers and rock outcroppings to paint. She lived there during the summer in another adobe house that is off limits to the public.

The 21,000-acre National Landmark ranch is owned by the Presbyterian Church, which charges no entrance fees to hike its grounds. The most popular trail rises 7,100 feet above the Piedra Lumbre basin to the artist’s beloved mesa.

One ledge offers a dizzying, yet incredible view of Chimney Rock, shown in the top photograph. The people who make the 1 1/2-mile climb tend to whisper among themselves, respectful of the reverence these cliffs seem to possess. Maybe some don’t want to awaken the ghosts of the many men who were once hung there under the laws of the Wild West.