From Rushmore to Carhenge: Exploring the Cost of the American Spirit

Image: Susan Pi
Image: Susan Pi

For almost ten years, I lived in California as a guest—a green card resident from Canada. The only thing stopping me from applying for citizenship was the Oath of Allegiance. I balked at bearing true faith and allegiance to a country I didn’t know.

But a lot can change in ten years, and with every visit back home, it became clearer to me that I’d lost touch with the country that raised me. I was stuck between two places—a situation that applied to almost everything else in my life.

I got into a car and started to drive. The plan: see the country, do something new. Eventually, I found myself  parked beside a Dairy Queen on the edge of Alliance, Nebraska. The town has a population of about 8,500—the largest town I’d driven past in hours and the only one with strong enough cell signal to pull up a map on my phone.

I walk inside to grab a soda. As soon as my eyes adjust to the interior lighting, I see… staring. I am in a room filled with demure beige dresses and light-coloured hair. And here I am: red tank top and jeans, a head taller than even the men. Here in Alliance, I am very foreign, very Chinese.

I fell in love with America here.

Only twenty-four hours before, I was standing at The Avenue of Flags, a walkway leading to Mount Rushmore—a shrine to American democracy. I’d travelled 1,400 miles to visit this secular pilgrimage site. Nearly three million people visit every year, and yet, I’d never seen it in person until then. It was worth the wait. When the light of the sun hits the monument just so, the effect will stir even the most unpatriotic of hearts.

The American spirit—traipsing west into the unknown, recreating the wild in our own image through dynamite—is nothing short of audacious. We turn our leaders into gods and our system of government into a religion.

It is this same spirit that led Gutzon Borglum, a Danish-American sculptor and member of the Ku Klux Klan, to partner with the United Daughters of the Confederacy back in 1915. He was to carve a memorial to the Confederacy into Stone Mountain, Georgia, complete with a KKK altar. On June 23, 1923, the first cut began, but his memorial was never finished due to disputes between Borglum and the managing association.

After abandoning Stone Mountain, Borglum went on to oversee the carving of Mount Rushmore, but the site he chose was sacred to the Lakota Indians. For centuries, the Black Hills region had been rife with violent turmoil between the US government and Native Americans. Even today, there are still many who view America’s shrine of democracy as a controversial monstrosity.

But if Mount Rushmore is a shrine, complete with soaring flags and polished granite, then Crazy Horse Memorial is a testament to the enduring will of the people. Located less than twenty miles from Rushmore, the memorial is far from completed, but when finished, it will depict Crazy Horse; a legendary Lakota warrior, riding a horse and pointing into the distance. The final dimensions are planned to be 641 feet wide and 563 feet high, making it much larger than Mount Rushmore, and even dwarfing the Statue of Liberty.

The sculpture is a response to the double-edged sword that is the indomitable American spirit—the determination to forge a free nation even if it means crushing those left behind. In 1877, a white trader taunted Crazy Horse by asking what had become of his lands, and Crazy Horse replied, “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”

His words are emblazoned inside the museum at Crazy Horse Memorial, and it is those words that stay with me as I drive 150 miles south to Carhenge near the city of Alliance, Nebraska. It is a replica of England’s Stonehenge using cars salvaged from nearby dumps. All of them are spray-painted gray. For miles around, there is nothing but fields of golden wheat. I have the place all to myself. Its eerie, graveyard quality is heightened by the absence of throngs of tourists found at Rushmore and Crazy Horse.

Assembled in 1987, three foreign cars were originally a part of Carhenge but were torn down, buried, and replaced by American models. A 1962 Caddy – half-buried, head down –  marks their grave. Someone painted onto its roof: “Here lie three bones of foreign cars. They served our purpose while Detroit slept. Now Detroit is awake and America’s great!”

Patriotism is dead. America is dying. At least, that’s what media pundits are telling me. There are so many things wrong with our country: healthcare, education, the economy. But as I’m standing in line at Dairy Queen, feeling out of place, I can’t help but believe these are symptoms of a larger problem—one that we may never be able to solve.

We have forgotten what it means to be American, because liberty, equality, and justice have taken on a nuanced meaning in today’s world. The unspoken part: “At the expense of…” We are scrambling to figure out who we are, and in so doing, forget our place in the world.

But as I leave Dairy Queen with a drink in hand, my phone finally shows two bars—enough to tell where I am in relation to the country. The miles between Alliance and everywhere else are narrow, one-lane highways stretching to the horizon. The land is flat. The sky is an indomitable blue—the kind of color that must’ve stirred the hearts of our forefathers as they pioneered a new nation.

The Extraordinary Power of Toilets in India

Image courtesy of GLP Films
Image courtesy of GLP Films

A shot of a scholarly-looking, older Indian man pushing the flush on a toy toilet isn’t exactly the introduction you’d expect to a documentary about the plight of Delhi’s ‘untouchable’ population. But as the crew from US-based production company GLP films discovered, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak – founder of Delhi’s irreverent toilet museum – has developed his interest in all things latrine over many years.

Pathak, 72, and the work of the Sulabh  Foundation that he created over forty years ago, are the subject of the documentary A Toilet Fascination Leads To Social Change, a new short created in partnership with National Geographic. The film tells the story of the quietly determined doctor and his two central missions: to revolutionise the sanitation system in India, and to help some of the country’s most vulnerable people. These goals are inextricably linked.

Clearing the human waste produced by India’s 1.2 billion people is a job that has traditionally fallen to members of one of the lowest and most persecuted castes – the Balmiki. Done the old-fashioned way, “manual scavenging” involves crawling into latrines and collecting excrement by hand before carrying it away on the head in an (often leaking) basket for disposal.

The Sulabh Foundation, I discover, has made outstanding inroads into abolishing this status quo. They’ve come up with a viable alternative to traditional brick latrines, while providing vital retraining programmes for the people who had been forced to clean them. Sulabh has pioneered the design of a cost-effective, flushable lavatory that eliminates the need for such exhausting and hazardous labour. Over 55 million toilets based on this model have been installed nationally, and 640 towns are now completely “scavenger-free”.

 

So how did the team from GLP come upon such an extraordinary character? “We uncovered the story of the toilet museum first,” Jenny Ersbak, the company’s production manager, tells me. “It was known as one of those kooky, must-see attractions in Delhi. From there, the story of the Sulabh organisation came to light. We learned more about its creation and its purpose; then we were introduced to Dr. Pathak and learnt of his mission to improve sanitation across India.”

Rob Holmes, the film’s director, had visited India a number of times, but for the rest of the crew it was quite a culture shock. “The moments that I found to be the most memorable were the ones that were particularly moving,” says Ersbak. “Visiting the slum in Delhi – for a film crew from the West, the sight of that much poverty is really troubling. Being face to face with the issues you came to document is such an eye opener. You see people defecating on the streets and you think, ‘OK, this is real’.”

I wonder about the difficulties of filming in such an environment. “I think the biggest challenge was being able to capture those raw moments without being disrespectful to the people we were filming. It’s something that all filmmakers struggle with,” Ersbak tells me. “When you capture emotion on film, it can really breath life into a piece, but at what cost?”

The film was produced as a piece of bite-sized digital content that would tell a powerful, contemporary story within the space of a few minutes. Ersbak is enthusiastic about the potential influence this kind of documentary can have, particularly because of the demographic it’s likely to appeal to. “It’s the younger viewers, the millennials,” she says. “They’re the first generation to age in the digital world, so we hope that our films are going to reach people that we can truly inspire to bring about change.”

The Best of Luxury Boutique Hotels in UK Cities

Diverse, vibrant and unique, UK cities have a lot to offer to bright-eyed travellers who are keen to learn and explore. But when it comes to accommodation, a lot can go wrong. If you don’t have friends in the city you’re visiting, you might find yourself choosing a hotel blindly without really knowing it’s the right one for you.

We know all too well that where you choose to rest your head can really impact on your experience of a place. That’s why we’ve done all the hard work for you and put together our luxury boutique hotel picks in five of our favourite UK cities.

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Image via Landmark London

The Landmark, London

Dating back to 1899, this grand Victorian railway hotel is a 2-minute walk from Marylebone tube station and a 6-minute walk from Madame Tussauds. The rooms have tasteful, classic decor, and feature sitting areas and flat-screen TVs. Suites add Nespresso machines, Italian marble bathrooms and separate living areas, and suite guests get to use the hotel’s spa and health club for free.

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Image via Landmark London

The real treat at this property though is the restaurant’s incredible architecture. It’s set in an eight-storey atrium beneath a glass roof and has an enormous mirrored bar. Even if you don’t have time to dine for a full meal, breakfast, afternoon tea and aperitifs (included in some room rates) are served in this spectacular space. Just sitting here is luxury London at its best, and leaves no doubt as to why this hotel has been awarded Great Hotels of the World Luxury Collection status.

222 Marylebone Road, London NW1 6JQ | 020 7631 8000
landmarklondon.co.uk (or ghotw.com/hotel/home/landmark-london.htm)

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Image via Hotel Felix

Hotel Felix, Cambridge

Nestled on grounds that feel more country home than city lodging, Hotel Felix is that rare thing: a premium property with a real personal touch. This 52-bedroom independent hotel is stylish and friendly, and situated within easy reach of Cambridge city centre. The rooms feature laid-back, modern decor and offer flat-screen TVs, tea and coffeemaking equipment, and free WiFi.

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Image via Hotel Felix

Graffiti, the hotel’s award-winning fine dining restaurant, serves up sublime British cuisine in a contemporary dining room that’s brimming with distinctive and colourful artwork. As well as mouthwatering lunch and dinner menus of seasonal cuisine, freshly-made hot breakfasts and afternoon tea are also available in this vibrant space. Guest parking and full breakfast is included in most room rates.

Whitehouse Lane, Huntington Road, Cambridge CB3 0LX | 01223 277977
hotelfelix.co.uk | twitter.com/FelixCambridge

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Image via The Bristol Hotel

The Bristol Hotel, Bristol

This upscale quayside hotel is the ultimate accommodation option in Bristol, situated close to the Arnolfini Arts Centre and Bristol Hippodrome. A member of the premium Doyle Collection of Hotels, The Bristol hotel is a city centre property that offers great service and indulgent little touches without any of the fuss.

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Image via The Bristol Hotel

The contemporary guest rooms feature flat-screen TVs and free WiFi, as well as Nespresso machines and iPod docking stations. Most also have river views. The harbourside grill restaurant boasts floor-to-ceiling windows and serves up locally-sourced, seasonal cuisine. Guest parking is free in an adjacent car park.

Prince Street, Bristol BS1 4QF | 0117 923 0333
doylecollection.com/hotels/the-bristol-hotel

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Image via A Room With A View

A Room With A View, Brighton

Set in an elegant Georgian townhouse, A Room With A View offers a taste of luxury in an intimate, laid-back setting. This swanky guesthouse is a 10-minute walk from Brighton Pier and less than four miles from the Castle Hill National Nature Reserve.

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Image via A Room With A View

The stylish, modern guest rooms feature marble bathrooms, Nespresso machines and flat-screen TVs. Some rooms have private balconies, while most also offer sea views. With just 9 rooms available, options range from single to king-size. Freebies include full hot breakfast served in an airy dining room, WiFi access and guest parking.

41 Marine Parade, Brighton BN2 1PE | 01273 682885
aroomwithaviewbrighton.com

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Image via Hotel Gotham

Hotel Gotham, Manchester

Set in a historic building that was previously home to a bank, Hotel Gotham opened earlier this year and has since made a name for itself as one of the city’s finest accommodation options. Decorated in art-deco style, other hotel features include a Modern British restaurant with city views, and a bar/club with terraces on the top floor.

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Image via Hotel Gotham

The sophisticated, vintage-style guest rooms feature high ceilings, flat-screen TVs and Nespresso machines, as well as minibars and free WiFi. Suites include extras such as sitting areas, free-standing tubs and 60-inch flat-screen TVs. Full hot breakfast and 24-hour room service are available at additional cost.

100 King Street, Manchester M60 8HG | 0843 357 5555
hotelgotham.co.uk

This Website Wants to Feed British Expats

British Food
Image: Christian Kadluba via Flickr

The longer you spend in a country, the more you find yourself “going native” in terms of how and what you eat, how you spend your leisure time, where you choose to shop, and in a handful of other everyday decisions.

But whenever I’m living in a foreign country, there are always little things I miss from home, especially when it comes to snacks and food products. Luckily for me, British Corner Shop has the answer for all expats hankering after a McVities chocolate digestive or a packet of Walkers Quavers.

British Corner Shop is a website and food delivery services made with British expats in mind. And although the concept is a simple one, it’s also pretty damn brilliant.

Picture the scene: you’ve been living in China for three months, and as much as you’re enjoying this fascinating cultural experience, the novelty is beginning to wear off. After a bad day at the office, all you really want to do is chow down on some Ambrosia rice pudding and watch Eastenders reruns on BBC iPlayer.

This moment of homesickness is where British Corner Shop steps in to make all your dreams come true, and aid you in continuing your Chinese journey. They stock over 8,000 products and they deliver to almost every country in the world – from stuffing mix to pork scratchings, and from Belgium to Barbados.

So if you’re living abroad and want British products delivered right to your door (within 4 to 12 working days), head on over to British Corner Shop and give it a whirl.

This post was created in collaboration with British Corner Shop.

Review: Radisson Blu Stansted Airport Hotel

Image via Radisson Blu
Image via Radisson Blu

HOTEL NAME: Radisson Blu Hotel London Stansted Airport

LOCATION: Stansted, England

BEST FOR: Easy and relaxing one-night stays before or after a flight.

GENERAL IMPRESSIONS:  A sleek, modern hotel with friendly, professional staff and intriguing architectural features.

ROOMS: All rooms feature flat-screen TVs and free WiFi, as well as laptop-sized safes, minibars, and tea and coffeemaking equipment. The decor style is simple, modern and understated.

Image via Radisson Blu
Image via Radisson Blu

AMENITIES:  There are 4 dining venues including an American grill and an Italian restaurant, plus a bar area with a wine-tower and acrobatic hostesses. There’s also a spa, a gym and meeting space on-site. The express check-out service means you can just pop your keycard in a postbox at reception and head inside the airport when it’s time for your flight.

BREAKFAST: A standard hot and cold buffet breakfast is included in some room rates and deals, or available for a surcharge on the day.

PRICE GUIDE: Prices start from £99 for a standard double room (excluding breakfast).

Image via Radisson Blu
Image via Radisson Blu

LOCAL AREA: The Radisson Blu is the only hotel within walking distance of Stansted Airport. Just a 5-minute walk from both arrivals and departures, it’s a super convenient before an early flight out or after a late return journey.

GETTING THERE: The airport’s train and bus stations are just a couple of minutes’ walk from the hotel. Short-term and long-term parking options are available at the hotel for additional fees.

CONTACT INFO: Radisson Blu Hotel London Stansted Airport Hotel, Waltham Close, Stansted Airport, Stansted CM24 1PP | 0127 966 1012

WEBSITE: radissonblu.co.uk/hotel-stanstedairport

USA Guide: New Orleans Highlights

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via Jonathan Percy on Flickr (Creative Commons License)
 

EXPERIENCE BOURBON STREET
Land of cheap drinks, seedy clubs, greasy takeaway restaurants – no trip to New Orleans would be complete without a few nights spent on the city’s most notorious street. There’s lots on offer and lots to see but planning is crucial or you’ll likely be roped into all sorts of expensive mischief.

Start off with a drink in a pub-like bar that’s bound to have live jazz and blues happening in one corner, then accept the inevitable fact you’re going to a strip club. The Bourbon Street experience just wouldn’t be complete without it! Most have cover fees, and the few that don’t make up for it with their drink prices, so choose carefully and then go for it.

When the hedonism (or the booze) becomes too much, grab a pizza for $10 and head back to your hotel. You might need an aspirin in the morning.

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via Pat Kight on Flickr (Creative Commons License)

 

SAMPLE THE LOCAL CUISINE
 As a city set on the Mississippi River (watch your spelling!), New Orleans is a brilliant place to eat seafood. It’s also a place that’s very serious about its meat, its flavours and its portion sizes. But with so many restaurants offering so many different dishes, it can be really difficult and confusing to figure out which ones are worth a punt.

For a seafood dinner…

My favourite overall find during a two week stint in the city was the bustling Drago’s Restaurant (2 Poydras Street, New Orleans, LA 70130). It’s a modern yet rustic, family-run spot with an extensive menu of seafood dishes and a full-service bar – read: they’ll make you any cocktail you want. The menu highlights for me were the Fleur de Lis Shrimp and the Drago’s Original Charbroiled Oysters. Both were absolutely stunning.

For a casual lunch…

Another great eatery, especially for lunch, is Mother’s (401 Poydras Street, New Orleans, LA 70130) – a historic spot offering up the best po’boy sandwiches in the city (at least in this humble blogger’s opinion). Be sure to try the Ferdi Special, packed with ham, roast beef and gravy. And always add cheese. There’s no sandwich in the world that doesn’t need cheese. The prices are really reasonable and the staff super-friendly.

For a delicious brunch…

The best brunch I had was at the Ruby Slipper Cafe (I went to the one at 200 Magazine Street, but there are four different locations across the city). They serve breakfast-like dishes all day long, and the two offerings I kept going back to were the Costa Rican Breakfast (it includes avocado, chorizo and crispy plantains – what’s not to love?) and the Miami Slice (a pulled pork sandwich – but, like, times ten in terms of flavour and size).

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via Shaun Harquail on Flickr (Creative Commons License)

 

CHOOSE YOUR ACCOMMODATION
For a taste of old NOLA, choose a hotel in or right by the French Quarter. Some of the city’s prettiest and most historic properties to stay in are part of the New Orleans Hotel Collection – which is why I chose them. If you’re anything like me, a community of hotels like this is a good place to start if you want to get a feel for what’s on offer without being overwhelmed by pop-up deals flashing in your face!

I stayed at the Dauphine Hotel (415 Dauphine Street, New Orleans, LA 70112) and the Hotel Mazarin (730 Bienville Street, New Orleans, LA 70130). Both offer free continental breakfast, free welcome drinks and free WiFi access, making a stay at either good value compared to lots of other American hotels I encountered. The rooms at both of these hotels have traditional decor, sitting areas, flat-screen TVs, work desks and complimentary toiletries.

The thing I really liked about both Dauphine and Mazarin was their historic setting and old-world vibe. In my opinion, there are too many clinical chain hotels that don’t offer atmosphere and learning experiences – and there’s no good reason for missing out on these things while you’re visiting somewhere with such a rich, vibrant and tumultuous history like NOLA.