17 July 2017

Friends Send Me ... camel things (6)

My friend Jane sent me this. A very astute researcher herself, she was clearly leaving it up to me to break the story behind this curious item: "Camel Skeleton and Skin to be Saved."[1]

Camel bones. Taxidermist. Rendering Works. How could I not meet the challenge? How did a camel skeleton come to be in Toronto over a hundred years ago? Thanks to The Toronto Star's searchable online historical newspapers, no problem (although the OCR technology often presents a wild variety of words that might resemble camel and the occasional word is indecipherable). Because of that, I am transcribing the notice.

The story unfolded two days earlier. [2]
A Train Killed the Zoo Camel
Animal Ran Along the Track and Engineer Failed to Slacken Up
Lack of Assistance at the Park to Properly Care for the Place
The Siberian camel at the Riverdale Zoo was killed on the C.P.R. tracks between Gerrard Street and the Riverdale bridge about [____] this morning by the north-bound express.As was its habit, the animal was browsing on wild cucumber vines, weeds, and other dainties. It had done the same thing every morning during the summer and fall since it was given to the city by Mr. Frederic Nicholls five years ago. Previously, however, it had always hurried from the tracks at the first hoot of the whistle. It made an attempt this morning to escape, but, becoming confused, ran up instead of across. Eye-witnesses say that it ran fully sixty or seventy paces, but that, instead of slowing up, the engineer opened the throttle, and struck the fugitive at full speed.The shock must have been great, as the huge body was thrown from the C.P.R. track on to the old Belt Line and its back was broken.At the first sign of verdure in the spring the camel always went on strike against a hay diet. Nor would the fastidious beast accept grass. Its palate required something more titillating, thistles or cucumber or [____] leaf.Superintendent Carter has never had more than two men on his staff, though Park Commissioner Chambers has asked time and again that an extra man be hired to take care of the elephant and the camel. The elephant is chained to the tree, and the camel is dead. When the two men are paid the year around [$20?] is left for carpentry and other repairs.Ex-Ald Lamb, who has taken more interest in the Zoo than most men, aldermen or others, [____] the city for today's fatality. Had the council been less close-fisted, he argues, the camel would have had some one to look after it. As it was, the camel had to have the diet it craved, and its safety depended on its own sagacity."The city should buy another camel at once," he says, with emphasis.

There we have it. A star of the zoo makes a dramatic exit. References to a patron and labour issues and politics seem to indicate a lot of public interest. Enough interest that the day following the accident, the editor of the Star waxed on rather unforgivably about the camelamity, from which I extract the salient barbs:

"A Stern Lesson"[3]
the camel's name was Moses;
Moses trespassed onto the railway track, evoking some kind of moral lesson;
described as "proud-stomached" ... an animal with two stomachs needs fresh grass;
▪ the scribe almost implies suicide with the phrase: [Moses]"rushed on death";
▪ and "Perhaps he deserved what he got. He did not Keep Off The Grass."

I did not appreciate the editor's disparaging humour. To be fair, ex-Alderman Lamb was again mentioned as a champion of Moses and the zoo, but he too suffered a sophomoric editorial jibe as one "who has consorted with lions of one kind and another all his life." Lamb declared the camel's care should not have been shared with the zoo elephant; both had been treated badly in contrast to their native environments. Comparing the camel to a ship, he was quoted, "A city that is honoured with a $1,200 camel should be able to support a $100 man to caddy for him."

The day after that came the piece Jane found, with a tiny second item in the same edition: "Camel was Insured."[4] The camel was insured for $500 but "only for fire." So the zoo was out of luck for compensation. The story lost its legs sorry, the dreadful humour is contagious — until about a month later and "specialists are busy on the carcass of the camel killed by a railway engine at the Riverdale Zoo, and the skeleton will probably be mounted and placed in the Normal School Museum within a few days."[5] 

Why a museum at the Normal School (the institute for training school teachers)?! Well, five years after the opening of the school building (1852), a project called the Museum of Natural History and Fine Arts was founded. Dr. Egerton Ryerson, prominent educator and early provincial superintendent of schools, began the collection with scientific and artistic items he acquired himself from travels in Europe. Forty years later, large archaeological collections were added to it from the Canadian Institute of Toronto. In 1912 the museum's collections became the foundation for our Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). The Normal School, located at Church and Gould Streets, was demolished in 1963.[6]

Archives of Ontario: F1125-1-0-0-178
I can tell you that the turn-of-the-20th-century camel benefactor, Mr. Frederic Nicholls (1855-1921), was an influential Toronto businessman in the fields of engineering and hydroelectricity.[7] Among varied career ventures, he organized the syndicates that led to formation of Canadian General Electric and became its first manager. Nicholls' home was on St. George Street and he had a farm north of the city, but I can find no hint of an interest in exotic animals.

Nevertheless, further searching in The Star produced the news of the original donation:[8]
Camels for the Riverdale Zoo
Two Animals to be Added to the Collection in the East End Park
One is an Arabian and the Other of Bactrian VarietyOn the Way Here

The public was assured the four and a half year old "Arabian," already in his new home, was "splendid and healthy"; children will be thrilled to relate the camel with various biblical stories. The last word was "Bactrian now en route from Central Asia." The next day The Globe buried the story in a mishmash of local Toronto news no headline, no excitement, and almost word for word from The Star.[9]

The transport of the Bactrian must have run into numerous difficulties and delays, because the animal only arrived two years later, after several months' intermediate stay in New York. Without being inclined to continue squinting at newspaper print, I cannot feel the same emotional attachment to the as-yet unnamed animal.
Wikimedia Commons
Did Moses the camel ever go on display as a stuffed carcass and/or as a skeleton? Apparently yes. Mr. Burton Lim, Assistant Curator of Mammalogy in the ROM's Natural History Department, tells me that Moses' skeleton was finally "dismantled" in 1953.[10] 

I wonder if the ROM ever knew his name.

[1] "Camel Skeleton and Skin to be Saved," The Toronto Daily Star, 13 July 1906, p 1 col 8.
[2] "A Train killed the Zoo Camel," The Star, 11 July 1906 p 3 col 5.
[3] "A Stern Lesson," The Star, 12 July 1906, p 6 col 2.
[4] "Camel Was Insured," The Star, 13 July p 5 col 7.
[5] The Star, August 10 1906, p 8 col 1.
[6] "Toronto Normal School," Wikipedia (wikipedia.org/ : accessed 9 April 2013).
[7] "Frederic Thomas Nicholls," Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online (http://www.biographi.ca/ : accessed 9 April 2013).
[8] "Camels for the Riverdale Zoo," The Star, 24 July 1902, p 1 cols 5-6.
[9] The Globe (Toronto), 25 July 1902, p 7 col 5.
[10] Burton Lim to Brenda D. Merriman, email, 9 April 2013.

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman

05 July 2017

Varanasi, India 2009

Photo: Mary Ann Waring
Varanasi, the holiest of sacred Hindu cities, is a pilgrimage site where the Ganges River will wash away sins. This is where Hindus want to be when they die, water and fire freeing them from the reincarnation cycle. Early in our Northern India tour and knowing little about the city in advance, the visit was intense cultural shock.

Photo: Mary Ann Waring
Photo: Mary Ann Waring
In this Hindu milieu, oddly enough we start the day by going to the Buddha Centre where Buddha delivered his first sermon in about 550 BC. Our local guide named Krishna emphasizes the tolerance of the Indian system, accepting all faiths. Buddhism is now a shrinking religion here. We run the gauntlet of hawkers and street sellers between our bus and entrance to the site. Krishna explains some of the history. Of more immediate note are the beggars sticking their hands through the fence for money. Most are children. Tourists are told time and again not to hand out money but some do, regardless; big kids grab the money given to little kids. The Buddhist priests try to chase the kids away and admonish the dumb tourists.

Krishna enlightens us before we head toward the river. To simplify, corpses are purified in the waters, burnt up in the cremation fires on special river bank ghats (steps) and the remaining bits and ashes consigned to the river. Downstream from the largest cremation spot, living Hindus purify themselves by immersion, drinking, or even swimming. Respect for religious practices requires subduing our own sensibilities about the toxic potential.

Photo: Mary Ann Waring
We travel by rickshaw (bicycle-powered) as it becomes dark, not the most comfortable vehicle for about forty-five minutes. The streets are pandemonium. Small cooking fires, lights, colours, traffic of every description, wandering cattle, beggars. Many of the beggars are afflicted with dreadfully twisted or missing limbs. Women are walking together or alone, shopping. One large area we pass has no hydro at all. We are about to see an evening Diwali ceremony at the ghats.

India has had a drought for three years and the river now does not reach the lowest step of the ghats, crowded with pilgrim families, holy men, beggars, flowers, vendors, and not that many tourists. Krishna explains in advance before we load into a boat to observe on the river. Seven priests perform certain rituals with fire and bell-ringing. A young girl joins us to give us candles and flowers to float on the river as homage to Mother Ganga. We watch corpses being burned from a distance—two-three hours they say it takes—and hear the story of how an Untouchable family eventually became the most powerful in the city. Only Untouchables can handle a corpse for this purpose. They set arbitrary fees for cremations and sell the fire wood at exorbitant prices; Krisha's contempt for the system is clear. 

Photo: Mary Ann Waring
On the way back to our hotel, again by rickshaw in even more hair-raising traffic, somehow our rickshaw drivers manage to keep moving. One of the rickshaw men among our group has to be assisted by his fellows. He is an older man, and the long haul is doing him in. We are not allowed to tip him individually; tips must go to the boss and then be shared.

Next day we go back before sunrise, same place, after a 4:45 a.m.(!) wake up call. Greeting the sunrise is symbolic although omnipresent air pollution obscures the sun's actual emergence as we know it; the visual pollution is generally referred to as mist. Nonetheless it has its own muted beauty. Along the roadway we see corpses being driven, carried, or trundled toward the Ganges. Cremations at Varanasi are estimated at 46,000 per year. Now, more religious ceremonies. The Hindus do not mind us taking photographs of their preparations for bathing in the river. We go downstream by boat this time, witnessing the hordes in various stages of undress and immersion. Palaces of the rich dominate the river banks, five or six storeys sometimes. We see a yoga school in action.

Leaving the boat and climbing the steps, we walk through the vegetable market. Colour everywhere! Impressive veggies and fruits! Brilliant flowers! Boundless photo opps. All mingled with the occasional cow and deformed beggar, but for once free of pestering hawkers. Breakfast goodies have been baked or fried, awaiting passersby. The liveliness of the scenes—and no wonder why everyone mentions the colours of India—is in sharp contrast to the dirt of the streets they live and trade on.

Later to the Mehta Family Silk Factory with Krishna. Few of us opt out of such local pressures, which obviously supplement the guides' meagre incomes. Interesting to see some weavers demonstrating for our benefit, although most work is done in their homes now. Beautiful samples of intricate weaving on the walls. Upstairs, we are shown absolutely stunning bedspreads. The sales pitch is toward the most expensive items―why not? Those of us with budget concerns sit politely through it, waiting to scavenge the $20 silk scarves. Outside, a man with two cobras and two monkeys entertains us.

Photo: Mary Ann Waring
Inadequate, really, to capture the overwhelming sensations of the five senses, let alone the pantheon of religious gods and rituals.

Uncredited photographs by BDM
© 2016 Brenda Dougall Merriman

19 June 2017

Rabat, Morocco 2017

Whereas Casablanca is a bustling, mainly modern-looking city, Morocco's capital RABAT, a short drive from Casa, is a good introduction to some of the country's exotic flavour and its living historical evidence. And that began with late-day checking into a riad ... the traditional guest houses about which I've already written. Dar El Kebira was a revelation behind an unprepossessing door in the medina (old town).
Reception area; photo Mark Charteris

Bathroom sink ceramics: photo Heather Daveno
The bathroom sink shows the care and craftmanship that goes into riad hospitality. The bedrooms and the service were equally impressive. Once tried, a standard hotel can never hold a candle to such cultural immersion. Staying at a riad or dar usually places you within the heartbeat of a Moroccan city's medina and souks.

Heather enjoys sunset in Rabat: photo Doug Baum

Sunset overlooking the Atlantic, just outside the medina walls and over the hill from our riad; so many people out strolling. Burial stones were scattered over the slope, on both sides of the road; we were to see many such sights (cremation is not an option in Islam). As dusk fell we walked around part of the medina walls to find a recommended restaurant.

Harira soup is one of several Moroccan food specialties and the one I found most pleasing. Variations occur regularly this one with a hard boiled egg but all are pleasantly spiced. The appetizers aka mezzes present the most variety in taste, always including the customary assortment of olives. Traditional tagine meals are a work of art, basically a small mountain of meat and vegetables, but rarely seem to have unique spicing. I crave more traces of their preserved lemons and cinnamon, lovely cinnamon. Glasses of mint tea, of course, are de rigueur everywhere.

Next day to the old Kasbah Oudayas, a UNESCO World Heritage site, at the height of the city. Restoration work on the main gate is underway to preserve its 12th century origin. Some families still live here within the kasbah, plying their trades, generally tolerant of tourists as a market for their wares. Pride in their heritage is obvious. The use of the gorgeous blue colour, sometimes called Majorelle blue, has become a tradition, although we will see it at its most prominent in Chefchaouen. The rampart area is magnificent with a view to the maritime setting.

Photo: Heather Daveno

The tomb of Mohamed V, grandfather of current king Abdullah, is always on the tourist route. The vast space of sheared-off columns formerly supported a mosque, destroyed by an earthquake. Only the unfinished minaret tower still stands. Particularly notable are the fabulous decorative lanterns. Lots of colour in the beautiful interior tomb and the ceremonial guards. 
Photo: Doug Baum

Photo: Mark Charteris

More than one earthquake has afflicted Rabat. We visited anciently-inhabited Chellah, once a Phoenician, then a Roman site. Little is left of what they abandoned; later the 14th century Marinid Muslim dynasty rebuilt the complex as a royal necropolis. Ruined buildings after a 1755 earthquake are being restored from that period. It makes a stunning venue for concerts and festivals, contained within the existing surrounding wall. Storks have claimed the site as nesting grounds and add to the other-worldly atmosphere. Descent into the site is through well-maintained gardens, an attraction in themselves.

2nd century Roman Base; photo Doug Baum
Photo Heather Daveno

As I said, a perfect introduction to the mystery and magic of Morocco. A special thank you to my esteemed travel companions for sharing their expert photographs (uncredited photos are mine).

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman

06 June 2017

MOVIES, Part Two

Since Part One about foreign-made films, I snagged a DVD of Queen of the Desert on Amazon. Nicole Kidman does a creditable job but the script ignores a lot of what Gertrude Bell accomplished ‒ her cartography, her archaeological finds, her founding of the great museum in Baghdad (where she died) ‒ and seems to end with her initial posting in Cairo. Absolutely spectacular cinematography, though.

Hollywood (and other first-world film studios) has also produced its share of movies that involve camels or deserts or Middle East settings. Leaving aside classic biblical epics, herewith a few that I have seen (the country in parentheses is the story's setting):

A Hologram for the King (Saudi Arabia) 2016
Overexposure of Tom Hanks as American salesman falling for forbidden Saudi beauty; waste of time and credibility.

The Hurt Locker (Iraq) 2008
Hyper new guy in the army's bomb disposal unit disrupts their routine, putting them all at risk. Oscar winner.

The Kingdom (Saudi Arabia) 2007 
Americans investigate terrorist bombing of their Riyadh compound; muddled politics; echoes of Nelson DeMille's novel Panther that was set in Yemen.

Syriana (an oil country) 2005
Iran or an Emirate-like setting; complicated petropolitics and story lines; George Clooney is prominent.

Sahara (W. Africa) 2005
Clive Cussler action; search for hidden treasure in desert sand; Matthew McConaughey. Several previous films of the same name (with Bogart in 1943).

Black Hawk Down (Somalia) 2001
Many awards for the film based on the American raid on Mogadishu.

Three Kings (Iraq) 1999
Soldiers after the first Gulf War hunt for Kuwaiti gold supposedly hidden in the desert; they discover their humanitarian consciences. George Clooney stars.

The Man Who Would Be King (India) 1975
Beloved movie of Kipling's tale of two British soldiers who take over fictional Kafiristan; sneaking it in here because what's not to love with Connery and Caine chewing exotic scenery?

Jesus Christ Superstar (Israel) 1973
Andrew Lloyd-Webber's rock opera in a mesmerizing take on Holy Week.

Lawrence of Arabia (Jordan) 1962 
Who hasn't seen this classic? O'Toole sweeps to victory (and cinematic history) in the 1917 Arab Revolt as the Ottoman Empire declines.

A few I've missed:

The Little Prince (Sahara) 2015
Animated version of the delightful Saint-Exupéry story; previously made in 1974 with Gene Wilder as the fox. 

The Men Who Stare at Goats (Kuwait/Iraq) 2009
Reporter George Clooney pursues strange story of a sci-fi army on a mission to establish world peace. A real box office bomb?

Cairo Time (Egypt) 2009
A gentle, brief romance between an American woman and an Egyptian man.

Sand and Sorrow (Darfur) 2007
Documentary narrated by activist George Clooney; the humanitarian crisis in Darfur which was largely being ignored by the rest of the world.

The Sheltering Sky (Sahara) 1990
Has to be in here somewhere because Bertolucci-directed classic, but the aimless characters appear to be bleak, bleak, bleak.

The only remaining question is:
How many desert movies can George Clooney be in?!

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman

27 May 2017

Helsinki, Finland 2006

Helsinki was a bright revelation, although relegated to the initial meeting point and the terminus of our further destinations. It must be related to the clarity and energy of northern light! Hotel Scandic Grand Marina provided a night of rest before the next day's long drive. 

Enough time for a morning stroll, revealing our hotel could not have been more central. It was on the harbour and next door was a charming open air market. Shoppers have more than food to choose from!

Then we stumbled into a street demonstration, protesting or supporting lord knows what.

Much later, after thousands of kilometres driving through Russia and the Baltics, we returned by sea to Finland and Helsinki. We had a little more time then to sightsee.

The Church in the Rock (Temppeliaukio Kirrko) is probably the number one tourist attraction in the city. Finished in 1969, the circular Lutheran church is built into a natural, gigantic chunk of granite. The entrance would really fool you.

If you had a high external or aerial view, all that shows from the outside is the huge copper dome, forty feet above street level. Flying saucer deja vu, anyone?

The interior space was blasted out of the rock, leaving the stone walls as the natural finish. Light comes from windows between the dome and the walls. Concerts, as well as church services, take place here.

And speaking of music, Jean Sibelius, the native composer who died in 1957, is memorialized in a park named after him. The magnificent stainless steel sculpture reflects the beauty and colour of its outdoor surroundings, especially when the wind blows through the hollow tubes. The similarity to organ pipes (an instrument Sibelius never played) still causes controversy at home.

Of course Helsinki has much more to see than what we grabbed on the run, so to speak. Not necessarily top of a bucket list, but well worth more than casual attention.

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman