Gambia And UK Open Fort Bullen Museum, A Bastion Against The Slave Trade

Gambia, Fort BullenA fort in The Gambia that was instrumental in stopping the slave trade has been given a new museum, the Daily Observer reports.

Fort Bullen was one of two forts at the mouth of the River Gambia, placed there in 1826 to stop slave ships from sailing out into the Atlantic. It stands on the north bank of the river, and along with Fort James on the south bank constitutes a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Fort Bullen has been open to visitors for some time and tourism officials hope the new museum will add to its attractiveness as a historic site.

The museum was financed by the British High Commission in The Gambia. The country used to be a British colony. The British Empire abolished slavery in 1807 and soon took steps to eradicate it throughout its domains. Of course, before that time the empire made huge profits from the slave trade, with the River Gambia being one of its major trading centers for human flesh. One hopes this aspect of British history isn’t ignored in the new museum.

[Photo courtesy Leonora Enking]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: The Best Foreign Service Blogs

smoking huge joint womanThe World Wide Web is saturated with amateurish blogs created by people who’d be lucky to command the devoted readership of their immediate family members, let alone the wider public. There are scores of blogs managed by Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) and while many of them are worth reading, some are downright bizarre. This post will steer you toward some Foreign Service related blogs that are well worth your time.

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I started this series nine months ago to help people get a better understanding of what life in the U.S. Foreign Service is like. Many of the posts have been about my experiences but I’ve also introduced readers to an intrepid, single female diplomat fresh off of tours in Syria and Pakistan, a diplomatic courier, a USAID Foreign Service Officer currently serving in Afghanistan and others. But spend some time at the sites listed below to get a flavor of what it’s like to represent the U.S. Government in The Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, Bolivia, Pakistan and dozens of other exotic locales.toothless woman with stretched earlobes peasantOne major caveat here is that FSOs have to be careful what they write because free speech only takes you so far in the precarious, uber-cautious world of government service. Most FSOs have disclaimers on their sites warning that the views expressed are their own, but many still tend to steer clear of tackling political issues or anything controversial.

Peter Van Buren, a now retired diplomat who wrote “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People,” was effectively driven out of the Foreign Service partially because he posted a link to a cable on WikiLeaks and made some disparaging remarks, which he later apologized for, about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on his website.

There’s no doubt that his experience has had a chilling effect across the board, so visit the sites below to get the low-down on the Foreign Service lifestyle and the travel opportunities, not the dirty underbelly of how diplomacy plays out overseas.

Some of the blogs below contain little, if any biographical info, and I wasn’t able to read each one in its entirety, so my apologies in advance if my impressions of these blogs below miss the mark. That said, I would invite the authors of these fine sites to tell us more about themselves, if they dare, in the comments section.

Diplopundit

Domani Spero has no U.S. government connection and thus has the freedom to write about the world of diplomacy without having to worry about his career. Diplopundit is as close as you’ll find to one-stop shopping for a candid look at what’s going on in the Foreign Service community.

Adventures in Good Countries- Getting Along In The Foreign Service

I love this blog. The author, apparently a single female public diplomacy officer who, “doesn’t date outside the visa waiver program,” blogs with style and passion about life in Japan, Pakistan, Jordan and elsewhere, coping with Multiple Sclerosis and whatever else pops into her head. How can you not like a writer who offers advice to protesters on how to construct a good effigy? (“Don’t just throw something together with the rationale that you’re only going to burn it anyway – take some pride in your work.”)

We Meant Well

You might not agree with Peter Van Buren but you will want to read his blog, which is sometimes offensive but never boring.

Third Culture Children

This blog, which details the lives of a family of five living in Recife, Brazil, La Paz, Bolivia and elsewhere, is one of the very best Foreign Service related sites out there. It’s a particularly good resource for parents who are wondering what the overseas experience will be like for their children.

amy gottlieb usaidAmy Gottlieb’s Photography & Blog

Gottlieb is a doctor and a USAID FSO currently serving in South Africa. Her portraits from Jamaica, Nepal, Vietnam, South America, Africa and beyond are as good as any you’ll find anywhere.

Adventures Around the World- A Foreign Service Officer’s Tales of Life Abroad

The author of this refreshingly candid and well-written blog is currently in Kabul and has previously served in Iraq and Nepal. Here’s how she described the “honeymoon” period at a new post: “The honeymoon period is the time frame after moving to a foreign country where the excitement of being somewhere new overshadows certain harsh realities of living in a foreign country. People burning piles of trash in the street give the place ‘character’ and bargaining with a taxi driver is part of the ‘adventure.’”

Worldwide Availability

This is a stunning photo blog from an American diplomat who was born on a farm in China and is currently serving in South Korea. Visiting this site is the next best thing to booking a ticket to Seoul. Also, for those who are curious to know how long it takes to join the Foreign Service, take a look at his instructive personal timeline for some clues.

Wanderings of a Cheerful Stoic

Anyone who features a photo of themselves (I presume) with a Gambian poached rat on their homepage is all right by me. This is a blog from a FSO posted in Conakry, Guinea, a place where “you tend to find yourself without a really specific reason.”

The Slow Move East- Thoughts on Being an Expatriate

Hannah Draper, a FSO currently serving in Libya, might be a “Type-A bureaucrat who professionally pushes papers in the Middle East,” but her writing is compulsively readable.

Where in the World am I? Notes from the Streets of Hyderabad, India

A FSO in Hyderabad who previously served in Burundi blogs about food and life overseas with gusto.

Cross Words- A Blog About Writing and Anything Else That Comes to Mind

Ted Cross, a FSO currently living in Budapest who apparently just signed up for Facebook last week (Friend him!), tells us on his homepage that his “dream is to be a published author.” I like someone who isn’t afraid to tell the world what he wants. He’s into fantasy and science fiction, neither of which interests me, but his blog is unique and his writing is lucid.

Four Globetrotters- The (Most Likely) Incoherent Ramblings of a Sleep-Deprived Single Mother Living Overseas with her Trio of Kiddos

Anyone who can pull off being a single mom in the Foreign Service is someone I want to meet. This blog, written by a former Foreign Service brat, isn’t nearly as incoherent as advertised.

Beau Geste, Mon Ami- The Chronicle of my Journey to and through The Foreign Service

Even a quick breeze through this visually appealing blog will give you an idea of how varied and interesting life in the Foreign Service can be. If nothing else, do not miss the photos of the tribal warriors in Papua New Guinea.

Zvirdins at Large- Jamie and Andrew’s Excellent Adventures

If you want a slice of life from the Marshall Islands, this is the place to go. I love this blog but I couldn’t bring myself to click into the video entitled “Pig Shooting” in a post on “Pig Butchering.” Yikes.

Talesmag

This isn’t a FSO blog per se, but the site’s stories and “real post reports” on hundreds of cities around the globe are an invaluable resource for those seeking insights into the Foreign Service lifestyle.

Let me know in the comments section if you think I’ve missed any great FSO-related blogs and if you’re the author of ones of the sites mentioned above, tell us a bit about yourself.

Read more from “A Traveler in the Foreign Service” here.

(Photos courtesy of Amy Gottlieb)

Five stunning stone circles (besides Stonehenge)


Every year thousands of tourists flock to Stonehenge, the iconic stone circle on Salisbury Plain, England. While so much attention is focused on this site, especially with the recent discovery of another monument near Stonehenge, people often forget there’s more than a thousand stone circles in the British Isles and Continental Europe. Built during the Neolithic starting about 5,000 years ago, these sites are beautiful and have gathered a lot of strange folklore over the centuries, like the mistaken belief that they were built by Druids or giants. Here are five of the best.

The Ring of Brodgar, Orkney Isles, Scotland
The windswept Orkney Isles north of Scotland are covered in prehistoric remains. The Ring of Brodgar, seen above in this photo courtesy of Beth Loft, is built of thin, tall stones on a narrow isthmus between two lochs. Its architects obviously had an eye for dramatic setting. It dates to between 2500 and 2000 BC, a boom time for monumental building in the Orkneys. It’s the northernmost stone circle in the British Isles and also the third largest at 104 meters (341 ft) in diameter. Like many major circles it’s part of a network of sites, with tombs and single standing stones scattered in the area around it. Legend has it that the Vikings were so impressed with the Ring of Brodgar when they arrived in the ninth century AD that they worshiped their gods here. Some Viking Runes carved into the stones may support this theory.

Avebury, England
Bigger than Stonehenge, the site of Avebury just 17 miles north of Stonehenge consists of a massive stone circle 331.6 meters (1,088 ft) in diameter with two avenues of stones leading to a pair of smaller stone circles. Construction began around 2900 BC, roughly the same time as its neighbor. Other monuments, such as the mysterious artificial mound of Silbury Hill and the West Kennet Long barrow, an ancient tomb, are an easy walk away. During the Middle Ages the locals got religion and decided this pagan monument needed to go. They knocked over several stones until one fell over and crushed one of the vandals. Everyone thought this was just a legend until modern archaeologists dug up a fallen stone and found the skeleton of a man underneath with some 14th century coins in his pocket!

%Gallery-98480%Rollright Stones, England
This stone circle makes a fun day hike from Oxford. Most stone circles are pretty small. This one is only 33 meters (108 feet) in diameter but has some interesting details. One stone has a hole through which you can see a tall monolith called the King Stone in a nearby field. A nearby dolmen (a small roofed tomb of stone) is called the Whispering Knights. Legend says the circle and these two outlying monuments are a king and his knights who were turned to stone by a witch. Actually the circle and monolith were built by prehistoric people between 2500 to 2000 BC. The Whispering Knights date to about 3500 BC. In prehistoric times, the presence of one monument encouraged people to build more.

Drombeg Stone Circle, Ireland
Drombeg Stone Circle in County Cork is a tight little collection of stones 9 meters (30 feet) in diameter. It’s of a type known as a recumbent stone circle because the largest stone lies on its side flanked by two smaller ones. This was deliberate; the stone didn’t fall down. What this means is anyone’s guess, although the local claim that it’s a “Druid’s Altar” is fanciful because the circle dates to the Bronze Age, about 2000 BC, and the druids were priests of the Celts, who didn’t appear on the scene until around 300 BC. Radiocarbon dating on a burial found in the center of the circle yielded a date between 150 BC and 130 AD. Just like at the Ring of Brodgar, later people were attracted to the site. While Drombeg didn’t start out as a Druid’s altar, maybe it ended up as one!

The Stone Circles of Senegambia, Senegal and The Gambia
Stone circles in Africa? Yep, these monuments aren’t as grandiose as the ones in Europe but they’re equally mysterious. There are about a thousand of them in a region of central Senegal and Gambia, meaning there’s about as many stone circles here as in all of Europe. The stones are as tall as 2.5 meters (8 ft.), although some are only a foot or so high. They mark burials dating from the 3rd century BC to the 16th century AD. There’s a large concentration of them at Wassu, Gambia. Locals put small stones on top of them as a sign of respect. Not much is known about these stone circles but they are beginning to attract attention from the archaeological community. A certain Gadling blogger may be visiting them next year, so stay tuned.

Trade Mocked

You were a cheerleader, you dated a cheerleader, or you hated the cheerleaders. As I recall, that’s how high school worked.

Thanks to travel PR, that same primeval paradigm lives on long after graduation. That miniskirts-shouting-slogans thing still works, whether you’re a used car salesman, Miley Cyrus on VH1 or the tourist board of a small Balkan nation. When it comes to selling your destination in today’s busy world of busy people, a country’s name just isn’t enough–just like school spirit, you need colors, a pep band, a mascot, a brand and most important–a cheer.

It’s tragic but true: tourist boards don’t trust their country’s name to inspire appropriate thoughts in your brain. Toponyms are too open-ended and too untrustworthy–also, way too obvious. For example, what’s the first thing that pops into your head when I say . . . Monte Carlo? How about Australia? The Bahamas? Kuwait? The Gambia?

Whatever you’re thinking, it’s not enough. Tourist boards want you to choose their destination over all others, then allocate all of your vacation days to them and then come spend your money on very specific things–like miniature golf by the sea or hot air balloon rides across the prairie. In short, they want your school spirit so much they’re churning out cheers to fill up all the Swiss cheese holes in your mental map of the world.

Like a good cheer, a good destination slogan is simple and so memorable it sticks in your head like two-sided tape. Sex sells, but then so does love: “Virginia is for Lovers”, Hungary offers visitors “A Love for Life”, Albania promises “A New Mediterranean Love”, while the highlighted “I feel Slovenia” spells out sweetly “I Feel Love”. Meanwhile, Bosnia & Herzegovina call themselves “the Heart Shaped Land” and Denmark’s logo is a red heart with a white cross. Colombia and Dubai have red hearts in their logo. Everybody else uses sunshine.
There is a direct correlation between sunshine deprivation and travelers with disposable income–sunny places sell, which is why Maldives is “the Sunny Side of Life”, Sicily says “Everything else is in the shade”, Ethiopia quizzically boasts “13 Months of Sunshine”, Portugal is “Europe’s West Coast”, and Spain used to be “Everything Under the Sun”. Spain was also the first country ever to have a logo-the splashy red sun painted by Joan Miró in 1983. Some destination logos work–like the black and red “I LOVE NY” design of Milton Glaser that’s been around ever since the 70s. Others fail to grasp the spirit of a place (cough, Italia). Reducing one’s country to a crazy font and some cheesy clip art often detracts from that country’s best assets. Like nature.

When chasing the crunchy yuppie granola suburbanite dollar on vacation, you’ve gotta roll out Nature and promise them the kind of purity that lacks from their daily life. British Virgin Islands claims “Nature’s Little Secrets” while Belize counterclaims with “Mother Nature’s Best Kept Secret”. Switzerland urges us to “Get Natural”, Poland is “The Natural Choice”, Iceland is “Pure, Natural, Unspoiled”, Ecuador is Life in a Pure State, “Pure Michigan” is just as pure, Costa Rica is “No Artificial Ingredients”, and like a clothing tag that makes you feel good, New Zealand is simply “100% Pure”. New Zealand also wants us to believe that they’re the “youngest country on earth” but that’s pushing it. The youngest country on earth is actually Kosovo (Born February 2008)–so young they’re still working on their slogan.

And there’s a tough one–how do you sell a country that’s just poking its head out from under the covers of war and bloodshed? Kosovo’s big bad next-door neighbor Serbia asks us frankly to “Take a New Look at Your Old Neighbor”; “It’s Beautiful–It’s Pakistan” steers clear of the conflict, Colombia owns up to its knack for kidnapping by insisting, “The Only Risk is Wanting to Stay”, and Vietnam nudges our memories away from the past and towards “The Hidden Charm” of today.

Our nostalgia for simpler, better, pre-tourist times invokes our most romantic notions about travel: Croatia is “The Mediterranean as it Once Was”, Tahiti consists of “Islands the Way they Used to Be”, and Bangladesh employs a kind of reverse psychology to insist we “Come to Bangladesh, Before the Tourists.” Such slogans of unaffectedness mirror the push for national validation by tourism, where actual authenticity is second to perceived authenticity, hence Malaysia is “Truly Asia”, Zambia is “The Real Africa”, and the Rocky Mountain States make up “The Real America”. Greece is “The True Experience” and Morocco is “Travel For Real”. Everybody wants to be legit.
country logos
Countries without the certified organic label try merely to stupefy us: Israel “Wonders”, Germany is “Simply Inspiring”, Chile is “Always Surprising”, Estonia is “Positively Surprising”, “Amazing Thailand” amazes, and Dominica claims to “Defy the Everyday”. To that same surprising end, Latin America loves trademarking their exclamation points (see ¡Viva Cuba!, Brazil’s one-word essay “Sensational!” and El Salvador’s “Impressive!”)

Where punctuated enthusiasm falls short, countries might confront the traveler with a challenge or a dare. Jamaica projects the burden of proof on its tourists by claiming “Once You Go You Know”, Peru asks that we “Live the Legend”, Canada insists we “Keep Exploring”, South Africa answers your every question with a smiley “It’s Possible”. Meanwhile, Greenland sets an impossibly high bar with “The Greatest Experience”.

Working the totality of a country’s experience into a good slogan is a challenge that often leads to open-ended grandstanding: “It’s Got to be Austria” might be the answer to any question (and sounds better when spoken with an Austrian accent). Next-door Slovakia is the “Little Big Country”, insisting that size is second to experience. Philippines offers “More than the Usual” and small, self-deprecating Andorra confesses, “There’s Just So Much More” (I think what they meant to say is, “come back please”). Really big numbers carries the thought even further: Papua New Guinea is made up of “A Million Different Journeys”; Ireland brightens with “100,000 Welcomes”.

When all else fails, aim for easy alliteration, as in “Enjoy England“, “Incredible India“, “Mystical Myanmar”, and the “Breathtaking Beauty” of Montenegro. (For more on the correlation between simplistic phrases and high mental retention, See Black Eyed Peas-Lyrics).

The point of all this is that today, the internet is our atlas and Google is our guidebook. It’s how we travel, how we think about travel and how we plan our travel. Punch in a country like Tunisia and you’re greeted with a dreamy curly-cue phrase like “Jewel of the Mediterranean”–Type in next-door neighbor Algeria and you get a glaring State Department warning saying “Keep Away.” In a scramble for those top ten search results, destinations compete with a sea of digital ideas that pre-define their tourist appeal. It’s why we’ll never find that page proclaiming Iran “The Land of Civilized and Friendly People” but why a simple “Dubai” turns up Dubai Tourism in first place, along with their moniker “Nowhere Like Dubai” (which should win some kind of truth in advertising prize.)

That aggressive, American-style marketing has taken over the billion-dollar travel industry is obvious. Nobody’s crying over the fact that we sell destinations like breakfast cereal–that countries need a bigger and brighter box with a promised prize inside in order to lull unassuming tourist shoppers into stopping, pulling it off the shelf, reading the back and eventually sticking it in their cart. I guess the sad part is how the whole gregarious exercise limits travel and the very meaning of travel. By boiling down a country into some bland reduction sauce of a slogan, we cancel out the diversity of experience and place, trade wanderlust for jingoism, and turn our hopeful worldview into a kind of commercial ADHD in which we suddenly crave the Jersey Shore like a kid craves a Happy Meal.

Nobody’s ever asked me to join their tourist board focus group, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own opinions and tastes. For instance, my daily reality is a stereo cityscape of car alarms and jackhammers. Any country that simply placed the word “Quiet” or “Peaceful” in lower-case Times New Roman, 24-point font white type in the upper right hand corner of a double-truncated landscape spread–well, I’d be there in a heartbeat. Better yet–how about a one-minute TV commercial of total silence. (“Oh, wow honey, look!–that’s where I wanna go.”)

This is probably why I’ve never been in a focus group. For all the focus on authenticity and reality, I find most tourism slogans lacking in both. For the most part, they are limiting and unoriginal, easily dropped into any of the above categories. Even worse, today’s slogans challenge actual truths gained through travel experience. One day spent in any place offers a lifetime of material for long-lasting personal travel slogans. My own favorites include Russia (“Still Cold”), Turkey (“Not Really Europe At All”), England (“Drizzles Often”), Orlando (“Cheesy as Hell”), and Ireland (“Freakin’ Expensive”).

As a writer, I must argue against the cheerleaders and in favor of words–the more words we attach to a destination the better the sell. I think it’s safe to assume that Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia has done more for Argentina tourism than any of their own slogans. Similarly, Jack London gives props to Alaska, Mark Twain mystifies us with the Mississippi, and Rudyard Kipling keeps sending people to India. All four authors wrote about love, nature, and sunshine. They wrote long books filled with enthusiasm and punctuated with exclamation marks. They made us fall in love and yearn for places we never saw or knew.

No matter how many millions get spent on tourist slogans, today’s trademarked PR phraseology has generally failed to hit the mark. Perhaps they’ll make us rethink a place–reconsider a country we’d somehow looked over, but can a two or three word slogan ever touch us in that tender way, make us save up all our money, pack our bags and run away?

I don’t think so.

“Obama Effect” helps African tourism

Last year was a bad year for travel in most places, but a continent that has generally been overlooked by the majority of travelers is seeing boom times–Africa.

Africa is the only continent to see a rise in tourism last year, up 5 percent when most other places felt the pinch. The UN World Tourism Organization revealed the figures this week and said Africa had “bucked the trend” of the worldwide travel recession. Part of the boom is attributed to the “Obama Effect”, a new curiosity about Africa thanks to the U.S. having its first African-American president. Obama, seen here playing basketball in the African nation of Djibouti, has family in Kenya. The tourist board there says visitors are flocking in to learn more about where the president is from.

The other big factor is the World Cup, due to take place in South Africa this year. Not only will that bring a huge number of visitors to South Africa, but it helps put the entire continent on the map.

Not all countries are doing well. The Gambia has been hit hard, with the usual crowd of beach-loving Europeans tanning closer to home. Meanwhile, Chad and Niger are struggling to expand their tiny tourism industries by protecting and promoting their wildlife. The overall picture, however, looks rosy.

Will this be the decade Africa comes into its own as a tourist destination? There’s no shortage of natural wonders, ancient civilizations, and interesting cultures to explore. Our very own Stephen Greenwood is having an incredible time in Madagascar right now, a friend of mine is crossing the entire continent on a motorcycle, and later next month I’ll be sending dispatches from Ethiopia.

Have you been in Africa? Tell us about it in the comments section!

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