Two Sides of the Geocoin

Are geocaches at historic sites a good idea? Maybe, maybe not.

On the one hand, being a strong believer in the importance of learning about history, I think bringing visitors to historic sites in any way, shape or form is a good thing, at least for sites with an education/outreach mandate. Geocachers are by nature explorers and learners, and how cool would it be to follow a trail of caches that traces Paul Revere’s ride or the route of slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad? (If these exist, please let me know!) A code of conduct among geocachers helps ensure sites are left as they are found, so impact would be minimal.

We followed a trail of caches placed along the historic Farmer’s Ditch in Boulder, Colorado, this summer and used it to explain about irrigation, water rights, and a host of subjects to our young cachers. A great experience for all.

However, I can easily see why resource managers would not want the general public crawling around delicate sites looking for the prize. Years ago, the USGS removed the “archeological site” labels from its topo maps in order to protect the sites, and GIS systems often hide that information from the public for the same reason. Geocaches are also not permitted on US National Parkland.

Geocaching in Bhutan

Have GPS, will travel: geocache crew in Bhutan

In Bhutan this spring, we found several geocaches, including one at a mani wall and one in a stupa,  i.e. sites that were not only historic but sacred as well. Our guide and driver were intrigued by the concept and joined our “treasure hunts” with great gusto. Nonetheless, I got a slight sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach the day we searched along the backside of a temple. It seemed wrong somehow to disturb something sacred. And that’s what got me thinking about this post.

Maybe the best thing is to encourage independent geocachers to share historic sites with the world but place their caches just outside the site or near interpretive panels. Earth Caches, where you prove you were on the spot with a photo or by answering a question rather than finding a physical cache, could be another option.

What do you think?

Don’t know what a geocache is? Learn about geocaching

Haunted, or Just History?

Here’s a timely post by ace AiP Intern Susie Trexler

Autumn leaves, by Susie Trexler

Autumn color in Walla Walla, Washington Photo by Susie Trexler

We have finally stepped into October: autumn foliage is in full bloom across the hillsides, pumpkins decorate doorsteps and fill produce aisles, apples are sold in heavy bags, and Halloween is just around the corner. Leaves crunch underfoot and the old mansion at the end of the street has a larger presence in the crisp, fall air… Perhaps because it is no longer hiding behind trees thick with green summer leaves, or perhaps because Halloween is a time for imaginations to run wild.

When I first began investigating haunted mansions and ghost tours, I had drawn a distinct line between paranormal stories and actual history as though ghost stories were an elaborate (and eerie) side-story. As I wove my way through websites, imagining lantern-lit tours of the Hermitage, home of President Andrew Jackson, and  dark strolls down the boardwalks in the Victorian Virginia City, Nevada, I realized supernatural stories are not the sole – or even the main – source of intrigue about these places. By letting our imaginations run wild – at Halloween and any time – we are connecting with the past.

Photo by Susie Trexler

Eerie opening, or a trick of light? Photo by Susie Trexler

NBC’s Syfy channel has named – by popular vote – the top three “most haunted” cities in America: Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; and Virginia City, Nevada. Sure, we may relish the thrill of a ghost story (and ghost stories are aplenty), but these cities have something else in common: they are all witness to vivid and important scenes in American history. They are witness to previous eras and societies.

There is something about people that extends across time and place: people like people-stories and gossip. People like things they can connect to, touch, and imagine. By some ironic twist, ghost stories bring history to light.

Are we preserving the ghosts, or are the ghosts preserving the history, themselves?

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Use Halloween as an excuse to step into the past! Explore your local cemetery, or indulge in an eerie event at a historic house near you.

Here are a few we found:

Add to the list, if you dare!

La Isla de Christina

La Isla de Christina Uros Islands July 2011 Photo Courtesy Jason George

Christina's Home Stay in the Uros Islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru - photo: Jason George

Lake Titicaca’s Uros Islands are home to a thriving traditional culture.  The islands, and pretty much everything on and around them, are made of dried totora reeds using techniques dating back hundreds of years. One of the reasons the culture thriving is heritage tourism.

The people living on the islands receive a great number of visitors, the vast majority of whom come on day trips out from Puno. The families alternate days on which they host visitors on their island so that everyone benefits.

Perhaps more interesting than a relatively quick day trip to the islands is an overnight trip. We were fortunate enough to spend two nights this past summer with Christina. She and her extended family have created a homestay on their island. What we saw and learned there was fascinating, in more ways than one. Everything is made of totora reeds, houses, floor, benches, even a chess set. Our time there began with an explanation of how the island is built and maintained, how the houses are made, how the boats are made, how food is traditionally cooked, and so on.

Christina singing for guests

Christina, left, singing with family after dinner - Photo: Jason George

During the evening, after a delicious dinner, Christina and a few members of her family came into the dining house. They sang a few songs for us, in Spanish, French,  Japanese and Aymara, their local language which is slowly dying out. Then, very clearly and eloquently (fellow travelers translated for us), she thanked us for coming and told the story of how she got started in the hospitality business and what it has come to mean for her and her family.  Several years before, two travellers from the Netherlands had suggested that Christina arrange for guests to stay overnight. She thought about this idea and decided, in the best entrepreneurial spirit, to give it a try.

She went on to say she has learned a lot over the years, from friends and visitors, such as how to prepare food safely, what visitors like in terms of comforts (hot water bottles in the bed at night!) and necessities (toilet and hand-washing facilities), and has thus created a thriving business. Unbeknownst to her, she was listed in Lonely Planet, which she discovered once visitors started flocking in.

With the money she has earned, she is putting her children through university: one is studying to be a chef, the other hospitality. She is also sponsoring the education of several other family members and island children and has become a leader in the community.

Student with new toohbrush

Student at Uros Torani Floating School with her new toothbrush - Photo: Jason George

While on Christina’s island, we met a woman volunteering with French charity Association La Runa who comes each year to distribute toothbrushes collected from school children back in in France. We went with her to the local school to help distribute them. Teeth brushing instructions were given via “assembly”, the children standing at attention in rows. Multiple references were made to “la isla de Christina” as the storage point for additional toothbrushes and instructions.

It became crystal clear that tourism has given Christina, her family, her neighbors, and her community a bright future.