“This Hellish Desert Pit Has Been on Fire for More Than 40 Years”
There are places on Earth that are a little creepy, places that feel a little haunted and places that are downright hellish. The Darvaza gas crater, nicknamed by locals “The Door to Hell,” or “The Gates of Hell,” definitely falls into the latter category—and its sinister burning flames are just the half of it. Located in the Karakum Desert of central Turkmenistan (a little over 150 miles from the country’s capital) the pit attracts hundreds of tourists each year. It also attracts nearby desert wildlife—reportedly, from time to time local spiders are seen plunging into the pit by the thousands, lured to their deaths by the glowing flames.
So how did this fiery inferno end up in the middle of a desert in Turkmenistan? In 1971, when the republic was still part of the Soviet Union, a group of Soviet geologists went to the Karakum in search of oil fields. They found what they thought to be a substantial oil field and began drilling. Unfortunately for the scientists, they were drilling on top of a cavernous pocket of natural gas which couldn’t support the weight of their equipment.The site collapsed, taking their equipment along with it—and the event triggered the crumbly sedimentary rock of the desert to collapse in other places too, creating a domino-effect that resulted in several open craters by the time all was said and done.
The largest of these craters measures about 230-feet across and 65-feet deep. Reportedly, no one was injured in the collapse, but the scientists soon had another problem on their hands: the natural gas escaping from the crater. . . . So the scientists decided to light the crater on fire, hoping that all the dangerous natural gas would burn away in a few weeks’ time.
. . . .
But . . . the scientists in Turkmenistan weren’t dealing with a measured amount of natural gas—scientists still don’t know just how much natural gas is feeding the burning crater—so what was supposed to be a few-week burn has turned into almost a half-century-long desert bonfire.
I never knew Miriam Beard. I never had any conversations with her, nor do I have any personal anecdotes about her to tell. So last onth when I discussed her writing and her well-known travel quotation, I was limited to using what I could find in Google searches.
How happy I was then, when after I published my post, I received an email saying, “I really appreciate you bringing the work of my grandmother, Miriam Beard, to the attention of a broader audience.”
No, I never knew Miriam Beard, but now, thanks to Karen Vagts, I’m getting to know her better. And Karen has graciously allowed me to invite you into our conversation, so that you can get to know her grandmother better, too. Thank you, Karen, for sharing this with us:
“My grandmother was a person of immense talents but often under the shadow of her parents, the historians/activists Mary Ritter and Charles Beard, and her husband, the military historian Alfred Vagts; managing their literary output consumed more than her fair share of her time. But she was an immensely talented writer (one of the first women to attend the Columbia School of Journalism and wrote a wonderful series of stories for The New York Times, including an insightful article about the status of women in 1920s Japan) and published a two-volume History of Business. She was however very modest about her achievements, which is why her obit was sketchy.
“As an American born in England, Miriam perhaps was already predisposed to be a global traveler but her interest in travel was probably sparked by her travels to Asia in the 1920s, when her father was asked by the government of Tokyo to consult about the rebuilding of the city following a major earthquake. The Beards traveled throughout Asia during a very critical time—when the political tremors that would lead to WW2 were starting to vibrate—and that greatly impressed Miriam—I recall that she was particularly fascinated by Shanghai. After she married, she and her husband lived in Hamburg until the Nazis came along and then thereafter she travelled with friends and family wherever she could. She passed along her love to travel to her son and her granddaughters.
“My grandmother sent my father—in between high school and college—to the Experiment in International Living program in Germany. This was in the late 1940s and Dad had the task of sorting bricks from bombed out buildings in Munich for re-use; he then got to wander around Europe for a couple of weeks, a real eye-opener. Ironically, wherever he went in Europe, he was warned about thieves and pickpockets because the post-war situation in Europe was still so dire. But it was not until he landed back in New York Port Authority that his knapsack got stolen!”
“She also funded my sister and my first independent trip to Europe, took us on excursions, and gave us a subscription to National Geographic. She also assumed that being multi-lingual was an innate characteristic. The world might be rather different if everyone had such a cosmopolitan, well-travelled grandparent!
“Much appreciation and I look forward to the time—hopefully in the not-to-distant future when we can all feel comfortable traveling to view the world.”
[photos: “Family of Charles A. Beard,” The DePauw University Archives Documents and Photographs; Miriam Beard, courtesy of Karen Vagts]
I’ve often wondered how a single phrase finds its way from being buried in a memoir or novel to being plucked out as a stand-on-its-own “quotation.” Of course, the creator of the thought is important, but so is the one who finds it and decides it’s worthy of display on its own.
“Next to the originator of a good sentence is the first quoter of it,” writes Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Many will read the book before one thinks of quoting a passage. As soon as he has done this, that line will be quoted east and west.”
When Miriam Beard, the daughter of the American historians, Charles and Mary Beard, wrote Realism in Romantic Japan in 1930, I’m sure more than a few people read it. (In 1961, the Department of State’s Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs called it “the most popular book of the day on Japan.”) But I doubt that many stumble across it today. In fact, it didn’t warrant mention in her New York Timesobituary in 1983. That honor went to her History of the Business Man, which she published in 1937. But even that work isn’t what she’s best known for now. Google her name and what rises to the top is a single sentence from her work about Japan:
Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.
Who knows who originally brought this quotation to the attention of the masses? I’ll probably never find out, but I’d like to think that that person recognized Beard’s insight in the surrounding text. The passage comes in a chapter titled “First Timers,” in which Beard discusses how multiple experiences in a new culture bring about a growth in impressions, ultimately leading to the ability to “sympathize” (though not necessarily in the way you might think). Here is how she describes the three phrases of this progression:
If, at each repetition of a bowing, a chopstick meal, a song or a garden, my impressions were different—”how” I asked myself, “am I ever to know what I think of these things”? Should I live a hundred years before I have the right to speak my mind on any thing? If I shudder at a song the first time, and love it the last—at which stage have I the right to describe my sensations? What are impressions? Are they worth anything?
Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living. History is handled no longer as a mere chronicle of dates but as a progression from one stage to a succeeding. So travel is no mere heaping up of episodes but an evolution. It is of constant development and not of fixed judgment that I dare to write: of the steady submersion of the ego in a stream of life.
There are phases in this process. The earliest is a sense of bewilderment in the number and variety of scenes, gorgeous, comical, or amazing, that the East presents. It seems that two weeks in Tokyo are like a ten-minute trip through an overcrowded museum. You must rush, staring and crying out, through rooms and corridors, without a pause. The feet grow heavy as basalt rocks; the optic nerves, bruised by a thousand images, refuse to register; and the mind seeking in vain some balance in all the maze, turns round and round on itself like a kaleidoscope or a pin-wheel.
. . . . .
The sensation of living on a new planet—that is the second stage. “Home,” “America,” recede from the mind, seem farther and farther away. Nearer and nearer draw the problems and the drama of all Asia: Siam, Ceylon, Borneo, Turkestan, Afghanistan, Korea, China, and Russia the Colossus.
. . . . .
All at once a third period breaks. It becomes suddenly possible to be, not merely a spectator at a strange show, but a participant. Oriental life catches up the visitor in its swift current; and he finds that, after all, it is possible to feel at ease behind the closed gates.
. . . . .
People as well as buildings ceased to seem curiosities, as I learned to know their hobbies, families, careers, unhappiness and hope. No, I was not so perpetually startled now—far more absorbed. perhaps had ceased to observe, so clearly and directly; but then I had unexpectedly begun to sympathize.
I like this idea that the final goal of travel is to arrive at sympathy—not in the sense of pity, or even compassion. Rather it’s the true “feeling together” that the word means. This kind of sympathy is a destination not easily reached, but, as Beard writes, it’s an “evolution,” a “steady submersion of the ego in a stream of life” that is well worth the time and effort that it takes to get there.
(Ralph Waldo Emerson, Letters and Social Aims, Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Vol. 8, Houghton Mifflin, 1876; Walter Moonaughy, “American Image of Japan,” address given to the Japan-American Society of Washington at the National Press Club, October 2, 1961; Miriam Beard, Realism in Romantic Japan, MacMillan, 1930)
“It’s Snowtime in Dubai as Majid Al Futtaim Opens the Middle East’s First Cinema in the Snow”
Majid Al Futtaim, the leading shopping mall, communities, retail and leisure pioneer across the Middle East, Africa and Asia, has officially launched the region’s first cinema in the snow and the world’s only movie theatre in an indoor ski resort. Snow Cinema by VOX Cinemas, which is proudly supported by Dettol, allows guests to experience the magic of movies on the snow-laden slopes of Ski Dubai, which has been crowned the ‘World’s Best Indoor Ski Resort’ for five consecutive years.
. . . .
Adding to the unique and immersive experience, moviegoers will have cinema snacks including VOX Cinema’s much-loved popcorn and a signature hot chocolate from Mirzam Chocolate Makers delivered directly to their seat. Guests can also order from a mouth-watering menu, which features savoury options, including roasted baby potatoes with Raclette, hotdogs and burgers; as well as decadent desserts such as festive mince pies and gingerbread Dutch pancakes as well as hot beverages including an exclusive Mirzam Peppermint Hot Chocolate.
. . . .
All guests at Snow Cinema will receive rental clothing (jacket and pants), fleece gloves, socks, boots, beanie hat, blanket, wireless headphones and a dedicated locker.
I was wandering around ebay the other day and found a piece of TWA fuselage for sale for the low-low price of $48,500 (including two seats!), and it reminded me of a post I’d written a while back about recreating the flying experience in the comfort of your own home. It’s titled Flying First Class minus That Pesky Flying Thing.
And that reminded me that a lot of people may be feeling earthbound, what with all the current flying restrictions. If that describes you, here’s a collection of some old posts that I hope can help you scratch your itch for flight. (And don’t worry, I’m not buying the chunk of plane I mentioned above. As of this writing it’s still there and it’s all yours.)
Here are two posts with clever safety videos I collected a few years ago. In the first post, you’ll see that the link to the clip featuring Deltalina is broken. To make up for that, I’ve included two more, more recent, Delta safety videos below. The first has an 80s theme, and the second is styled after video games. In both, if you watch closely, you’ll see Deltalina make an appearance. Watch for her signature finger wag.
You’ve heard of an elephants’ graveyard. Recently, CNN’s Francesca Street wrote about a cruise-ships’ graveyard in Aliaga, Turkey. That’s one of the places where, it seems, that ocean liners go to die. It’s an eloquently written article, with rather dramatic photos to boot.
I’ve picked out a few lines from “Cruise Ships Torn Apart after Coronavirus Sell Off” for some “found poetry”:
On the beach, once-gleaming vessels lie dilapidated, their innards exposed, barely recognizable from their seafaring glory days.
zombie cruise liners— half impressive vessel, and half skeleton and debris
“Armageddon or something out of a science fiction movie”
“fascinating and heartbreaking”
And here’s a news spot from Reuters showing the deconstruction. The voiceover is informative, but I think the video would be better accompanied by some dramatic, haunting orchestral music.
Back to Street, she writes,
Once a cruise ship arrives at Aliaga, the vessel is torn apart. Everything inside must be removed, from the furniture to the bathrooms. Interior items may end up sold locally to business owners or collectors.
That would be some yard sale to attend.
But if you’re not heading to Turkey and a memento from a floating hotel is, therefore, out of reach, maybe you’d like to purchase something from a stationary hotel—a luxury hotel—from none other than Park Avenue’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
The internationally known five-star Waldorf Astoria was purchased in 2014 by the China-based Anbang Insurance Group for $1.95 billion and then closed in 2017 to undertake a $1 billion renovation. The result is the auctioning off of over 15,000 pieces of furniture, fixtures, and room decorations, with proceeds going towards renovating the properties of St. Bartholomew’s Church and Community House, next door.
Yes, the Silver City Galleria mall in Taunton, Massachusetts, where the items are on display, may be closer to you than Aliaga, but it still may be too far to travel. If that’s the case, then head over virtually to Kaminski Auctions to bid on nearly 1,000 items online.
Over the years, the Waldorf Astoria has provided residence for movie stars, US presidents, and foreign royalty, with their names gracing the suites in which they lived. That means you have the opportunity to own a bookcase from the Marilyn Monroe Suite, an electric fireplace from the Emir of Kuwait Suite, trash cans from the Elizabeth Taylor Suite, the door from the President Herbert Hoover Suite, and drapes from the Cole Porter Suite. The item garnering the highest bid so far? That would be the Saudi Arabian Suite’s baby grand piano. The Steinway and Sons Model M is currently at $22,000.
But if you’re interested, you’d better jump in. Live bidding starts October 17.
A new design of ship in the Philippines is hoping to pose a low-carbon alternative to the country’s usual bangka [a trimaran with bamboo outriggers either side of its main hull], by working with the power of waves rather than against them. The ship is a hybrid model, using multiple internal combustion engines for initial propulsion but switching to wave energy while cruising in open waters.
. . . . .
The hybrid trimaran has this machinery – a wave energy converter – in the form of hydraulic pumps integrated into its outriggers. As the pumps move through the waves, they harvest the momentum of these waves, converting their kinetic energy into electrical energy, which will then be fed into a generator that will supply electricity to the ship. The electricity then provides propulsion via a motor. The more waves the trimaran encounters, the more power it can produce from those waves.
. . . . .
[T]he team is aiming to finish building the ship by the end of 2020, with a three-month sea trial scheduled for the first quarter of 2021. The vessel is expected to be capable of carrying 100 passengers, four vans and 15 motorcycles.
Every day on my way to work, I drive through the East Town neighborhood of Joplin, Missouri, down a street with the dual name Langston Hughes Avenue and Broadway Street. Part of the old Route 66, it used to be called simply Broadway, but in 1976, the city renamed a portion of it as a tribute to the African-American writer and activist born James Mercer Langston Hughes.
Langston Hughes, the son of Carrie Mercer Langston Hughes and James Hughes, was born in East Town Joplin, in 1901. Not long after his birth, his father left the US, moving to Mexico, and his mother took him to live in Kansas, with him growing up in Lawrence, Topeka, and Kansas City.
If they had not left earlier, Hughes and his mother may well have decided to quit Joplin in 1903, following the lynching of Thomas Gilyard, a black man accused of killing a Joplin police officer in the rail yards just north of Broadway. Not satisfied with the death of Gilyard, a mob of white Joplinites surged through town burning the homes of black residents, causing many African Americans to flee the city. According to Kimberly Harper, in White Man’s Heaven, of the 700 blacks living in Joplin at the time, at least 200 planned to move elsewhere and not come back. Lynching would later become a theme in Hughes’s poetry.
Hughes lived a mobile life and was an international traveler. As a young adult, he relocated to Mexico to be with his father, and then worked aboard a ship that took him to West Africa and Europe, ending up in Paris for a time. His travels also led him to Cuba and Haiti, and to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War as a reporter. Then, in the 1930s, after he had established himself as a writer, he went to the Soviet Union to make a movie about the black experience in the American south. But the movie never developed and he moved on to China, Korea, and Japan. His travels, as well as some of this writings, earned him a call in 1953 to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Some twenty years later, accusations of him being a Communist resurfaced in Joplin during the debate to rename Broadway.
While Hughes’s cinematic plans didn’t come to fruition, he found global success through his writing in a number of genres, including short stories, novels, news articles, non-fiction, and plays. It was through poetry, though, that he is most well known. And while he was born in Joplin, his most famous residence was Harlem, where he laid the groundwork for his inclusion in the literary and cultural movement that came to be called the Harlem Renaissance.
Hughes influenced the civil rights movement, as well. According to W. Jason Miller, professor at North Carolina State University and author of Origins of the Dream, Hughes’s poetry was the inspiration behind Martin Luther King, Jr.’s usage of a dream motif, most famously apparent in his “I Have a Dream” speech.
One example comes from his 1951 poem “Harlem” (or “Dream Deferred”), where Hughes asks,
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
In 1959, Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun, which took its name from Hughes’s poem, opened on Broadway (the area in Manhattan, not the Joplin street). “Harlem” was included in an insert in the show’s playbill, and following A Raisin in the Sun‘s premier, King wrote to Hughes, “I can no longer count the number of times and places . . . in which I have read your poems.”
On my twice-daily workday trip in Joplin, I drive past banners on the light poles that read “Dreams—East Town,” with the added tags “heritage,” “tradition,” “connection,” and “community.” And on what used to be Earl Smith’s grocery store at the corner of Langston Hughes-Broadway and Mineral Street, there’s a mural that was painted in 2016. The mural was a community project, with hundreds, including my son and daughter-in-law, participating in its design and painting.