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Nearly two hours outside of the Swiss Alps in the small town of Naters is a 6th century ossuary filled with hidden wonders.
Constructed in 514 by Ulrich Ruffiner, the ossuary houses more than 31,000 skulls, including 1,857 that are visible from the front wall. The upper floor of the ossuary is home to a chapel dedicated to St. Anna. The bones housed below were sourced from the town's old cemetery which surrounded the church until 1869. Apart from a few minor renovations conducted during the mid-late 1980s, the ossuary has remained virtually untouched since its creation.
During renovations, the northern opening of the ossuary was placed behind a barred wall to protect the skulls from theft. The construction of the wall was a welcome addition as it has protected the site and had helped preserve the skulls, many of which are entirely intact.
Amid the skulls on the northern wall, a central support beam contains the inscription, "Was ihr feid, das waren wir, Was wir feid, das werdet ihr," which translates to, "What you are, we have been, What we are, you will be."
It's a poetic reminder of the fleeting nature of our existence.
In the summer of 1876, a group of settlers from Boston, Massachusetts crossed into the Little Colorado River Valley in northern Arizona. They had been drawn to the area by rumors of fertile land for farming and easily accessed mineral deposits for mining. However when they arrived, they were disappointed to see that the area was much more arid than they had been led to believe and it was already being settled by Mormon pioneers who had come south from Utah. Still, having come so far, they continued on towards the snow-capped mountains within sight to the west.
In early July, the Bostonians reached a ranch owned by Thomas McMillan and camped nearby. On July 4, 1876, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the United States' independence, the settlers chopped down a large Ponderosa pine tree, stripped it of its branches, attached an American flag, and stood the tree back up.
In the following years, the area around McMillan's homestead began to be developed. An economy grew around timber and ranching, and soon the community was large enough to warrant having its own post office. With the arrival of the post office, the community needed a name and chose to name itself after the landmark created on the nation's centennial.
The town of Flagstaff, Arizona continued to grow and became a major regional transportation hub. By 1886 it was the largest city on the railway between Albuquerque, New Mexico and Los Angeles, California. At some point, however, the original Boston party Ponderosa flagpole fell and its precise location became lost to history.
In 1985, a monument to the original Flagstaff flag staff was constructed in the general area of where the original group of settlers from Boston camped. The governor of Arizona dedicated the monument to the spot from which the city of Flagstaff grew.
One day in 2015, Steve Cornish was tipped off that squatters had broken into the Rotherhithe Pumphouse in southeast London.
The Pumphouse had once been open to the public, as a museum of the Bermondsey district's history. But it closed in 2011, when the local council slashed its budget under austerity measures.
The council had installed security guards outside, but Cornish, who’s the chairman of the nearby Russia Docks woodlands, is a local boy. “When you're born and bred here, you know how to get in places,” he says. He gained access to the Pumphouse by claiming to have been sent by the health and safety executive. “As soon as I went in there, there was graffiti and damage. It was in a terrible state,” he says.
Worse was to come on the mezzanine. “I just had to stop. I was in shock,” he remembers. Queen Elizabeth’s wedding cake had been turned upside down and doused in red paint, “as if blood was running down it.”
Admittedly, it wasn’t actually the cake eaten by the future Queen Elizabeth II and Duke of Edinburgh. Their wedding cake was made by the cooks of the Royal Navy. But the bakers of the Peek Freans biscuit factory had sent a fruit cake to the wedding in 1947 as a gift nevertheless. Topped with a solid silver statue of Saint George, it weighed 630 pounds and was driven at walking pace in a specially modified car from the factory in Bermondsey to Buckingham Palace, where it joined numerous other cakes sent from around the United Kingdom. The same Peek Freans employees who decorated the cake also decided to make a sugar-paste replica to commemorate their achievement.
The original, edible cake was most likely distributed around hospitals, says Andrew Hill of the British Sugarcraft Guild. But until 1989, when the factory ceased operations, the replica held pride of place in the Peek Freans lobby. Chris Carr, the great-great-grandson one of the original Peek Freans owners, recalls running to look at it every time he visited. Each of the lofty cake’s six frosted tiers told a story of the then-Princess Elizabeth and her spouse. The top tier’s panels showed the official badges of the Sea Rangers (the young princess was enrolled at 16). The level below depicted the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth where Prince Philip trained, and where the royal couple reportedly met for the second time and fell in love. Halfway down, the third tier depicted St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, where many royals would later tie the knot.
After the factory closed down, the replica was moved down the road to the Rotherhithe Pumphouse. After that too closed, most of its collection was distributed around local schools or sold. This worried Gary Magold, another Bermondsey son who works as a clerk in the City of London business district. As a major employer in the area, Peek Freans is still remembered with affection. “It kept people’s heads above water,” says Magold. He arranged for the Peek Freans displays to be moved back to the old factory, this time to a suite of rooms temporarily donated by the current owners. It's now known as the Biscuit Museum. (The site will soon make way for a mixed development of new apartments, “affordable” housing, and commercial units.) But to his dismay, the replica cake had to be left behind in the shuttered Pumphouse. “It was just too fragile to move,” he says.
That had consequences. Back at the Biscuit Museum, Magold shows me some of the remaining shards of the replica cake on a tray. “Smashed to smithereens,” he says.
After Cornish discovered the destroyed cake, Magold, who volunteers as keeper of the museum alongside Frank Turner, the factory’s former head of fire and security, called the British Sugarcraft Guild, a group dedicated to the traditional crafts of cake decoration and sugar ornamentation.“I said, ‘You don’t know me but I’ve got the Queen’s wedding cake that’s been vandalized. Do you think there’s anybody that could get it restored?’”
It couldn’t be done, was the response. Despite Magold’s initial dismay, another of the Guild’s members suggested that the replica be completely remade. Out of the wreckage came “a very happy project,” says Magold. The British Sugarcraft Guild pledged to remake the replica, bringing together the Biscuit Museum, Guild members, academics at Warwick University, and Buckingham Palace itself.
At the University of Warwick, engineering professor Mark Williams and project engineer Mike Donnelly scanned the cake remains to produce silicone molds for the detailed side panels. Meanwhile, award-winning cake decorator Jan Thorpe drew up technical diagrams for each tier, which were sent out to seven Sugarcraft Guild groups across the country. “It was the first time the committee members of the Guild had actually all worked together on a project,” says Magold.
Across the country, workshops of sugarcrafters—mostly women—labored together at long tables. Some rolled out paste flowers, others piped delicate sugar lattice-work. Volunteers working on the project ranged in age from 25 to nearly 90, and included professional and amateur sugarcrafters alike. The project even tapped the expertise of ex-royal baker Eddie Spence, who made cakes for the royal family prior to his retirement.
There were surprises. A package of sugar paste flowers came in from Ghana, sent by an international member. A BBC producer who knew one of the Queen’s historians wrangled an invite to the Billiards Room at Buckingham Palace. On a long table draped in red, Donnelly laser-scanned the now-tarnished silver statuette of Saint George that Peek Freans had sent as a cake topper in 1947, while Magold looked on. These scans were used to exactly reproduce the topper with a 3-D printer.
The delicate sugar lattice decorations proved troublesome. Each took 45 minutes to make and more often than not, they shattered. For every 48 made, Turner says, roughly eight survived. While infuriating, the Guild volunteers enjoyed working on such a prestigious project, especially one which showcased their aptitude and craft. Turner and Magold contributed too. Turner added a panel depicting Glamis Castle, while Magold’s self-described “horrible big fat flower” was reserved as the final piece of decoration, the cake’s crowning glory.
With its cornucopias, pilasters, molded plaques, and flying trellises made of sugar-paste, the decorations alone took over 130 Guild volunteers roughly six months to complete. In all, the entire project took around two years. Once volunteers finished the individual pieces, they sent them to Bermondsey, where they were painstakingly assembled at the Biscuit Museum over the course of a week.
The completed replica was unveiled in time for the Queen and Prince Philip’s platinum wedding anniversary in 2017, and the museum threw a party for its debut. Encased in a glass box, the replica cake now dominates the Biscuit Museum. Surrounded by vitrines holding biscuit molds, tin tea caddies, and cake decorating tools from the Peek Freans factory, it’s a tribute to Bermondsey’s past. “Everybody was really proud to take part,” Hill says.
In fact, Guild members enjoyed working together so much that they organized follow-up projects. In the museum office, another sugar-paste cake waits to be enclosed in its own cabinet, having just travelled back from a show in Birmingham. “Whoever the vandal was, they didn’t win,” says Magold. “Because out of it came this project.”
Tor di Nona was once a thriving cultural hotspot. In the late 17th century Queen Christina of Sweden founded the Teatro Tordinona in the Roman neighborhood, much to the displeasure of the Pope. Though the neighborhood has changed and the original theater is now gone, a piece of rogue street art honors its legacy.
Teatro Tordinona was the site of much scandal. It was often packed with enthusiastic opera goers, but a series of papal decrees banned female singers and rowdy behavior from the audience. The theater was eventually shut down, and was replaced in 1829 by the Teatro Apollo (a work of the architect Valadier). Among other famous performances, two of Giuseppe Verdi's works were first premiered to the public at the Apollo.
But at the end of the 19th century, the construction of the Tiber's embankments, or muraglioni, led to the demolition of the historic theater. Now its memory only preserved in the inscription of the monumental fountain by the Tiber that you can spot across from the Flying Donkey graffito.
The disappearance of the theater led to a slow urban decay in the neighborhood. In the 1970s, its state was so unbearable that the local inhabitants, along with the young students from the Faculty of Architecture decided to raise awareness in a rather unconventional way: They started painting graffiti of utopias and ideal urban cities on the walls of the old buildings. These early writers included a young Isabella Rosellini and in the long run succeeded in restoring their neighborhood's dignity.
Nowadays, all of the graffiti are gone save for one: a flying donkey, a symbol of that crazy utopian dream, which hovers in between the windows of one of these buildings. For those wishing to imagine what this display might have looked like, just across from the graffito, on the lower side of the road, the original writers, in 2013, painted a new mural based on the original ones.
Fuller Lodge, while a little less than 100 years old, has served many different purposes as the center of the atomic city.
Fuller Lodge was constructed in 1928 for the Los Alamos Ranch School, a private school for boys with an emphasis on outdoor skills. The lodge, named after a staff member, held the school's dining hall, staff and guest quarters, and the infirmary.
The lodge was acquired in 1943 when the federal government purchased the Ranch School for the purpose of using the site for the Manhattan Project. During the project, Fuller Lodge was transformed into a dining hall for scientists working on the project. Dozens of scientists also stayed at the lodge during their time working on the project. The school's Fuller Lodge and Big House often hosted gatherings and social events where current and future Noble prize recipients had cocktails and talked science.
After the war, Fuller Lodge was expanded with additional wings and served as a Tudor style hotel for several years. In 1968, the lodge was sold to Los Alamos County for just $1, with the stipulation that it had to be used as a community meeting center.
The lodge has remained a community center ever since and is used for conferences, concerts, and weddings. There is also a gallery inside that often plays host to works from local artists. The Guest Cottage, adjacent to the lodge, is now a museum dedicated to the Manhattan Project and the history of Los Alamos.
When Colin Khoury was six years old, he committed an act of civil disobedience. It was Southern California in the 1980s, and real estate companies were hungry to turn the remaining farms and wilderness bordering Los Angeles into shiny new developments.
Barely out of kindergarten, Khoury was firmly against the developers. His love for landscape was tactile, childlike; he’d comb the sun-drenched earth around his home for wild plants, popping their juicy leaves into his mouth. His mother regularly found herself calling poison control. So when six-year-old Khoury saw a developer's banner planted on a plot of land overlooking a craggy depression, he chucked the sign right into the canyon. “I was doing my own activism,” he says with a laugh.
Several decades and degrees later, Khoury no longer stages impromptu acts of eco-vandalism. He still, however, loves wild plants. As a crop-diversity specialist affiliated with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and the USDA, Khoury works with a network of scientists, land managers, and crop-diversity advocates to map, research, conserve, and cultivate the wild relatives our our favorite supermarket produce. The search for these species has taken Khoury around the world—from Syria to Jamaica and back to the Sonoran Desert—and back in time, to the dawn of human agriculture.
Around 10,000 years ago, humans at several sites across the world began domesticating plants. They selected seeds from plants they had previously foraged, which had large, sweet fruits or convenient growing cycles. Over millennia of breeding, our ancestors turned wispy seeds, bitter fruits, and tiny tubers into the wheat, beans, and potatoes we eat today.
Domestication made wild plants more friendly to human consumption. But in the process, these plants lost something precious: resilience. Domesticated crops are notoriously coddled, reliant on regular watering, precise temperatures, and human care. At the same time, monoculture—the dominant agricultural practice of intensively breeding and mass-producing a select few cultivars for food production—has created crops with high yields but little diversity, making them less resilient to disease and climate change.
The modern banana exemplifies this vulnerability. While there are more than 1,000 types of banana, 47 percent of all cultivated bananas are of the Cavendish variety. This lack of genetic diversity means that when a threat comes along, like the feared Fusarium fungus, scientists fear the possibility of a “banana apocalypse" and chaos on par with the demise of the Gros Michel, the once-ubiquitous banana that preceded the Cavendish.
In contrast, domesticated crops’ wild relatives have evolved in diverse and often challenging conditions, from the wild-potato cousins that thrive on rocky Andean outcroppings to the hardy tepary beans of the parched Sonoran desert. This resilience makes wild plants genetic gold mines of potentially useful traits, such as drought and heat resistance. When crossed with conventional domesticates, they can yield more resilient and sustainable—not to mention potentially tastier—cultivars. To preserve these traits, scientists have spent decades collecting seeds and depositing them in gene banks.
But staple crops' wild relatives are under threat. “They’re wild plants that have all the issues that wild plants have: being encroached upon by human beings, climate change,” says Khoury.
Human activity, such as deforestation and development, has led to the extinction of hundreds of the worlds' plants in the past hundred years, a rate 500 times faster than would be the case without human interference. The wild relatives of our most important crops haven’t been spared. Daniel Debouck, a now-retired gene-bank manager at the Center for Tropical Agriculture, who spent most of his career hunting wild plants in Latin America, says that many of the plants he first identified in the 1970s and '80s have now been encroached upon by humans. “My most urgent priority was extinction, and continues to be extinction,” he says.
With even more climate-change-induced habitat destruction on the horizon, Khoury and his colleagues are taking action to prevent this wealth of agricultural information from being forever lost. In a series of recent studies, they’ve dug through hundred-year-old museum specimens, scoured published surveys, and drawn on their own experience tracking far-flung species in the wild to map the remaining populations of domesticated crops' wild relatives in the Americas. They’ve charted populations of wild chile peppers, lettuce, and squash, designating 600 wild species for further study in the United States alone. Dozens of those species are under threat of extinction; others have yet to be studied at all. Researchers estimate that more than 65 percent of wild pumpkin varieties and 95 percent of wild pepper varieties have never been included in any gene bank.
By mapping where these populations occur, scientists can focus on collecting plants from threatened areas, and advocate for greater protections for these plants’ wild habitats. Their results would resonate with six-year-old Khoury, who already suspected that threats to wild plants are threats to human wellbeing.
Daniel Debouck has witnessed the disappearance of wild-crop habitats firsthand. In 1977, Debouck had just started his first job as a plant researcher in Belgium. He was working with colleagues to develop more resilient agricultural crops, but he found the specimens he already had access to just wouldn’t cut it. By the mid-1900s, interest in crop research, and scientific advances in genetics, had sprouted a wave of gene-bank openings around the world. These facilities allowed scientists to store genetic material from plants, like seeds, and use them for further research. But there were gaps in the collections of the wild relatives of many of the Latin American-origin crops that feed most of the worlds' inhabitants, including potatoes and beans.
So Debouck took to the field. Over the next four decades, he traveled the Western Hemisphere, from dense Central American rainforests to cool, scruffy Andean ledges, with his eyes glued to the ground. Debouck specializes in bean plants' wild relatives, so searched areas around beans' initial domestication sites, in current-day Mexico and parts of South America, for their telltale spindly pods. He's discovered 14 new species, and collected over 3,900 new varieties of plants. But he's also witnessed many of these species come under attack. “I’ve been collecting in places where today you’ll find houses, roads, and supermarkets,” he says. “Coming back in something like 10 or 15 years, the area will be completely different.”
That makes Debouck's intimate field experience even more vital to wild-plant preservation. To find a relative of a popular food crop, Debouck first searches through herbaria specimens, which are dried plant and seed samples glued to paper and kept in vast libraries at museums and botanical gardens. Plants in these collections can be centuries old; they’re sometimes unnamed, labelled with just a place of origin. Once Debouck has identified a specimen as a potential wild relative, he takes to the field.
He begins by asking local farmers what they know about the mystery plant, comparing their knowledge with his research. Then, he starts searching. Debouck combs the countryside, reading seeds and leaves like a doctor reads symptoms. His memory for landscape is uncanny. On a recent trip to Peru’s Sacred Valley, he used signs such as soil type, ground coverage, and proximity to water to locate the descendants of wild beans he had first spotted 30 years before. Once he finds the plants, Debouck documents their location and condition, and, if he's obtained host-country permission, take samples to store at gene banks for posterity.
That last step, of asking permission, wasn't always on the botanist checklist. “The politics of all of this stuff has changed hugely since 100 years ago, where basically it was Indiana Jones time,” says Khoury. During the 1800s and early 1900s, explorers, on behalf of colonial powers, often took specimens from colonized areas without the input of local people, and used these samples to prop up the agricultural exploitation of African, Asian, and Latin American lands for European and, later, American benefit.
Today, thanks to international agreements such as the 1993 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, scientists must request permission from host countries and honor ethical commitments to local communities. Rather than using the resulting data to plunder distant lands, they’re helping to restore the very ecosystems that extractive agriculture, characteristic of settler colonialism in the Americas, initially disrupted.
At the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, researchers are taking inspiration directly from the prairie, including wild grains native to this area, to reimagine the way we farm. An untrained eye may look at the ground around the Land Institute and see nothing but wind-ruffled grass. But Tim Crews, Director of Research at the Institute, sees the future. “The whole goal is to make an agricultur[al system] that is like the natural system that was there to begin with,” Crews says.
When Europeans first stumbled across the vast grasslands that sweep the central United States, they saw a landscape of diverse perennial grasses, managed by Native peoples through controlled burns. Colonists replaced the varied vegetation with intensive monoculture. Over hundreds of years, this has devastated soil quality. “Read the reports on the state of the world’s soil and man, that’s one depressing document,” says Crews.
Climate change has further increased the stakes: Annual crops, like wheat, quickly deplete soil nitrogen. To restore this soil, farmers turn to fertilizers, whose emissions substantially contribute to climate change. The resulting increase in temperatures and extreme weather events has already had worrying effects on agriculture worldwide, including in the Midwest.
To address this, Crews is researching wild perennial plants, whose enduring root systems allow the soil to naturally build up organic matter. Crews and his colleagues are attempting to breed crops from wild relatives of sunflowers, native to North America.
Allison Miller, a professor at St. Louis University and researcher at the Danforth Plant Science Center, is also using wild plants to create more sustainable agricultural cycles, in this case through the development of cover crops. When farmers plant common crops like corn and soybeans, she says, “They’re harvested in the fall and in many cases the fields just kind of lay bare over the fall and winter.” Cover crops, on the other hand—especially ones that are native to the local ecosystem—can be planted through the winter to help the soil regenerate, limiting the erosion and nutrient runoff and decreasing fertilizer reliance.
When Debouck first started searching for domesticated crops' wild relatives, he didn’t know that his discoveries would help farmers survive on a dramatically warming planet. But that’s precisely what he finds most exciting about this work. “There are many cases where we don’t know yet what we will need and what we will invent,” he says. The key is to keep looking.
Khoury, for his part, never stopped looking. Last year, he and his collaborators published maps detailing populations of the wild relatives of squash and chile peppers. In 2020, he published a study, co-authored with Miller and others, that outlines a roadmap to conserve these wild relatives. Besides finding new plants and protecting their habitats, the researchers emphasize another vital step: inviting farmers to incorporate wild-plant research.
Decades after Khoury spent his childhood grazing on potentially poisonous wild plants, he still believes humans stand to benefit from moving beyond conventional agriculture. Unlike those early days of lone activism, however, Khoury is now part of a movement of scientists, farmers, and plant breeders, who all agree that business as usual can no longer sustainably feed the planet. “There’s something new happening in food and agriculture," he says. "Openness that things need to change in big ways."
Desperate people have long used fire and police stations as safe places to leave infants they can’t care for. Unwanted animals more often are either dropped at animal-rescue facilities or, unfortunately, set free outdoors.
But last week, 29 snakes were left at a fire station in the northeast of England—in the trash.
In the wee hours of February 14, a passerby walking behind the Farringdon Community Fire Station, in a quiet suburb of Sunderland, noticed a pair of tied-off pillowcases (one of them with a colorful Toy Story theme), partly full, slumped against the fire station’s trash bin. And the sacks were moving.
Because they were full of snakes.
Thirteen royal pythons (aka ball pythons)—in a variety of colors, each about three feet long—were split between the two bags.
The next day, firehouse staff discovered two more wriggling pillowcases—pink ones—left inside the bin. One was stuffed with 15 corn snakes, the other with a male carpet python (the latter can reach nine feet in length, though this particular one was much smaller).
An inspector from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) secured the snakes and took them for a veterinary check-up. Twenty-eight of them are now warm and safe, though the 29th has died. But if they hadn’t been found, all 29 snakes would have ended up dumped at the nearest landfill.
Meanwhile, the mystery of who bagged them up and abandoned them in the cold remains unsolved. And authorities are scratching their heads.
Despite firehouses’ reputation as safe havens, the location may have been incidental. “If someone had wanted the snakes to be found, we would expect them to have used the front steps of the station,” says Trevor Walker, an RSPCA inspector involved in the case. “Whoever did this discarded them without any concern for the animals, and they went around back to avoid being found out.”
None of the found snakes is venomous. And all are exotic: Royal pythons come from West and Central Africa, carpet pythons are from Australia and nearby islands, and corn snakes are North American. The rescued animals appear to have come from a collector or breeder.
Abandoning snakes in this way isn’t just cruel, says Evangeline Button, the RSPCA’s wildlife and exotics expert. It’s also against the law.
“It is illegal under the (amended) Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 to release, or to allow to escape, any species that are not native to the U.K.,” she says. If caught, an offender could face a 20,000-pound (about $15,400) fine and up to six months in jail. “Non-native species could pose a serious threat to our native wildlife.”
Case in point: Consider the devastation in the Florida Everglades caused by escaped Burmese pythons—aggressive, sometimes 20-foot-long snakes that are eating their way through the native wildlife and outcompeting native species for food and other resources.
The United Kingdom has just four native snakes: two species of grass snake, the smooth snake, and a venomous adder. Already, invasive species—perhaps liberated pets—have introduced a deadly snake fungal disease that now threatens these native animals, which are already declining due to habitat loss and other factors.
Even if they'd managed to escape their sacks, “none of the snakes dropped off in those two incidents would be able to survive long in the U.K. winter,” says Terry Phillip, a herpetologist at Reptile Gardens in South Dakota. Native snakes only get through Britain’s coldest months—when temperatures can hover around 35 degrees Fahrenheit—by hibernating, and these exotic species are built for warmer conditions. Still, even if the invaders were short lived, “disease from captive animals can easily be spread to wild populations this way.”
Phillip notes that the pythons, while not rare, would be worth as much as 1,500 pounds (about $2,000) on the collectors’ market. Indeed, reptile ownership has grown significantly here in the past decade; conservatively, U.K. citizens today own more than two million pet snakes, with royal pythons and corn snakes two of the most popular species. (Some ownership estimates are much higher.)
The rescued animals, minus the one “emaciated” python that died, were deemed healthy by the veterinarian. Walker then volunteered to transport them “in the warm boot of my car—please don’t tell my wife”—100 miles to a reptile specialist in Yorkshire, where they’re now getting the care they need. “Hopefully, some of them can be re-homed,” he says.
He says that it’s unusual for the RSPCA to deal with such a high volume of reptiles. “We’ll occasionally pick up, say, a lizard walking up the high street of the village,” he says. "But that’s a one off—an animal that escaped its tank and walked out the door.”
“Then again,” he adds, “tomorrow we might find 29 bearded dragons abandoned."
Since the snake rescue, there have been no more scaly surprises behind the Farringdon station, and the case is still under investigation.
“If we learn who committed the crime, we’d certainly want them disqualified from having animals in the future,” says Walker. And to anyone else wanting to rid themselves of a reptile collection? “Contact the RSPCA, or a reptile center or pet shop that has snakes,” he says. “Please don’t just dump them in the bin.”
The deep horn aboard the Binaiya rumbles as a nearby ship worker shouts, “Hurry on, we leave in 30 minutes.”
Amid the intense heat and humidity, what appears to be a sea of people squeezes through narrow gates. Above their heads, cardboard boxes of uncommon shapes crowd surf their way up to the front as the many uniformed guards stamp available arms, ensuring a steady flow. The mass moves towards the ship like a well-oiled machine of chaos. Where exactly is everyone going?
Indonesia is the world’s largest island nation, an archipelago consisting of more than 17,000 officially registered islands. While the vast majority of the 264 million people that call this country home are spread across just two of these, Java and Sumatra, many live scattered among over 6,000 other islands.
After over three centuries of Dutch colonization, and a few years of Japanese occupation, Indonesia proclaimed its independence in 1945. President Suharto’s new regime, centralized in Java, had to unify thousands of islands that had long differed in cultural customs, religions, and political structures.
In an effort to consolidate power across the archipelago, the newly formed government attempted to nationalize KPM, a Dutch-owned shipping company that dominated inter-island travel. Following a Dutch refusal to cooperate, the Indonesian government set up the Pelayaran Nasional Indonesia (Indonesian National Shipping), or PELNI for short, to regain control over their seas. With a combination of ships looted from Japan in WWII and ships rented from elsewhere, PELNI quickly emerged as the winner in this short skirmish for logistical dominion. By the end of 1957, KPM discontinued its operations in Indonesia entirely.
In an era predating affordable and convenient air-transport, PELNI became the lifeblood of local travel in Indonesia, connecting passengers and cargo to each corner of the newly united archipelago. In recent years, the company's importance in the larger, more populated islands has dwindled. But, to many of the smaller and less developed islands, primarily further east, the 26 ships still functioning are absolutely vital. They stop at places where air travel has remained an impracticality and crops are less easily grown.
Binaiya is a fairly standard model in the fleet. It officially sleeps 960 passengers, though a number closer to 1,500 is not uncommon. On the upper decks, there are a few private cabins that sleep two or four. However, the vast majority of passengers sleep in rooms of up to 200 in the massive dormitory decks.
Though routes of these boats are infamously prone to change, Binaiya regularly travels between five major islands: Bali, Sumbawa, Flores, Sulawesi, and Borneo. Dormitory tickets for the 30-hour Bali-to-Flores leg cost $15 and include six meals.
Soon after leaving the port, Binaiya takes on a life of its own. Many of the kids on board rush to the upper deck, where strong winds drown out their excited chatter. In the shaded regions, large groups circle around decks of cards. Cigarettes are passed around and, in between the small meals, copious amounts of Indomie (Indonesia’s most popular Instant Noodle) are devoured.
Every leg of a PELNI journey has its own clientele. On boats leaving from Bali, migrant workers looking to capitalize off of the tourism craze might be the most common. For young Indonesians from islands such as Flores, Sulawesi, and Sumbawa, the booming tourism industry in Bali offers stable job opportunities in hospitality and transport.
William, a local passenger, is from the Manggarai province in Flores. The population of his home town, Golocala, is roughly 1,000. Many of the people here, his family included, spend their days farming the region's main crops: coffee and rice. Curious about the opportunities offered on some of the other islands, William boarded his first PELNI six years ago. A little less than two days later, he landed in his new home, Bali. After some time wandering around the island, William found work as a manager for a pair of small villas in Uluwatu, a popular surf town for tourists.
Generally, William returns home via PELNI once or twice a year. "Almost all of the people I know are using it because it is very cheap," he says. On this particular trip, he is off to see his newborn baby for the first time. His wife, who also moved to Bali to find work in the tourism industry, had moved home just a month earlier to prepare for the birth of their child. “In Bali, having our baby in a hospital will be maybe seven or eight times more expensive than in my province,” William says.
Eventually, William and his wife plan to move back home to set up a small shop with the money they have saved in Bali. Growing up with nine siblings in a village of fewer than 1,000 people, there is a sense of community ingrained in him. “When I first left,” William says, “all I wanted was to experience different kinds of life. Now, I mostly just want to be with my family again, to feel at home.” His mind momentarily drifts before rejoining the conversation once again. “In my family, only me and one of my sisters left Golocala. But, on this boat, there are many people from Manggarai, just like us, who can’t wait to be living at home again.” Until then, the cheap price of PELNI allows William, and many others, to travel home a few times a year, for a fraction of the cost of an airline ticket.
After nearly 24 hours floating across the calm of the Bali Sea, we dock in Bima, the largest city in Sumbawa. The docking process is always a spectacle.
From the moment the gates open, food vendors rush aboard, racing to their chosen spot on the deck. All too aware of the less-than-ideal meals served on the boat, locals come laden with local delights like nasi campur and ayam goreng, as well as popular sweets such as dadar and wajik.
On the ground level, hundreds of family members line the docks eagerly awaiting the return of their loved ones as other families begin their goodbyes. Beside the boat, trucks full of corn, onion, and garlic, the main exports of Bima, load tons of products abroad. These shipments will be gratefully received by various islands less able to grow their own.
At this particular port, far more passengers get on than those who leave. An already over-capacity ship sees its hallways nearly overflow. After a couple of hours, the deep horn of Binaiya rumbles once again and the many vendors scatter back ashore. Before long, Binaiya is on the move, with Flores a mere six hours away.
Once commanding a fleet of over 50 vessels, PELNI is no longer as popular as it once was. As the nation experiences a continuous rise in affordable air travel, shipping routes available to the public will decrease. Unfortunately, for an archipelago so large, modernization occurs at very different speeds. So, while some larger islands are losing the need for these boats, many smaller islands have come to rely on them more than ever.
On the Eastern end of the archipelago, where lands are often less fertile, mass shipments of rice, onions, corn, and other basic foods are critical. Each time a route closes, these islands face less-regular shipments and added obstacles for leaving and returning home. Thankfully, a restructuring of the ticketing system and improvements to customer experience has led to an increase in low-budget local passengers, like William, over the last five years. After nearly two decades of declining popularity, PELNI seems to be turning a corner.
For millions of Indonesians, this means that dreams of better job opportunities and new homes are still on the horizon. For William, his goal is to ultimately return home. He will once again take a rather long boat ride.
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It's said that famed Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León found his long sought-after Fountain of Youth here in what is now known as De Leon Springs, about an hour north of Orlando. If he were alive today, however, he'd more likely find a fountain of homemade pancake batter. At the Old Spanish Sugar Mill, diners can build and flip their own pancakes table-side in the verdant beauty of a Florida state park.
This syrupy nook of the park has a romanticized history and a more probable one. Park lore has it that the Spanish here erected an actual sugar mill in 1570, a site dramatically destroyed and rebuilt in both the Seminole and Civil Wars before being finally rebuilt as the structure it is today. Fact-beholden park rangers will tell you, however, the land was once a sugar plantation and that the building came up in 1900. At any rate, in 1961, mill-enthusiast Peter Schwarze bought the property and raised the mill to either its former or newfound glory, depending on your interpretation.
The Schwarze family still runs what may be the most picturesque pancake house in the country. The charmingly designed wooden building looks out onto the crystal clear waters of Spring Garden Lake, within De Leon Springs State Park. Feel free to go for a hike, swim, or canoe while you wait for a table to clear. Rest assured, there will be a wait.
Once inside, diners receive two homemade batters: one a stone-ground mixture of five different flours, the other unbleached white flour. From there, take your pick of blueberries, chocolate chips, bananas, apples, and pecans, and make the pancakes your own. Crisp or undercook each pancake to your liking on the commercial-grade griddle in the center of each table. Round out the meal with bacon, ham, sausages, or eggs.
If there's no Fountain of Youth to keep you young, chuck another handful of chocolate chips in your pancake for that Saturday-morning toddler feeling.
Near the pyramids of Teotihuacán, lost between cornfields and houses, is the archaeological zone of Palace Atetelco. During the heyday of the ancient city, this area was an apartment complex of sorts for the pre-Hispanic city of Teotihuacán. It's believed that it operated between the year 450 and 650. Much of the artwork located around the site features military themes, which has led researchers to believe these were either living quarters for the military, an academy to train warriors, or some combination of both.
The structure is divided into courtyards. During excavations, obsidian knives, arrowheads, and numerous maguey thorns (used by warriors to self-flagellate to please their deities) were discovered. This further added to the theory that this was used by the military.
Many of the murals discovered in the different hindquarters were found in pieces on the ground. After their discovery, work began to attempt to match the various pieces on the walls. With the help of a few original pieces, researchers began to uncover the contents of the huge blank spaces. Today, they reveal how the site could have looked during its heyday when it was draped in ancient splendor.
Among the characters presented in the various images, there is the "bird man" who bears a shield, a beak-shaped helmet, and has wings. One of the columns displays a man with broken feet and crying. Then there's an eagle with extended wings carrying 13 offspring. Paintings of shields, sacrificial knives, and hearts with crossed arrows can also be found around the site, along with jaguars and other animals relating to the night and underworld.