Why Columbus Day? How A Wrong Turn Became A National Holiday…

For all you non-Americans, this week we had a holiday in the US.  It’s called Columbus Day.   President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Columbus Day a national holiday, meaning government offices and banks are closed (although many companies don’t shut down).   It was an opportunity to reflect on the efforts that resulted in the creation of our nation, plus it gave the labor movement an extra holiday.

Officially, Columbus Day commemorates the  Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas on October 12, 1492 (although he thought he’d landed in India).  Almost every American school child knows the rhyme: “in fourteen hundred and ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”  He did sail the ocean blue, or blueish, but when he landed on San Salvador (in what is now The Bahamas).  In one of the most giant “oops, my bad” ever, he thought he’d landed in India.  While he didn’t quite land in India (as planned), he developed a European awareness of the American continents (Leif Ericson had already sailed from Europe to the Americas so Columbus wasn’t the first).

In the 1800’s, Columbus Day was (unofficially) celebrated in a number of cities (NYC and Baltimore).  Italian Americans, who for many years were discriminated against in the US in part because of their Catholicism, were proud of their Italian forefather and instrumental in having it declared a holiday.  For them, it was a way of celebrating Italian-American heritage.  Today, many see Columbus’ arrival as marking the beginning of problems for the Native Americans (who were already here) and the onslaught on their culture.  Thinking about it in those terms, the holiday gets a whole lot more complex.

Schoolchildren learn about the “discovery” of the Americas.  Bankers enjoy their day off.  A US friend joked that they would celebrate by: going in the wrong direction, not recognizing their destination, inaccurately reporting where they’ve been inaccurately upon their return, and do it all on someone else’s dime (also known as spending someone else’s money)!

By the way… I hear some countries in Latin America close down for the whole week to celebrate Columbus Day (known as Día de la Razain, Discovery Day in the Bahamas, Día de la Hispanidad, Fiesta Nacional in Spain, Día del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural in Argentina and Día de las Américas in Uruguay).  Geez… the US is getting the shaft.

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Why Is Antwerp A Center For Diamonds?

We took a quick jaunt around Antwerp when we were in Belgium.  We knew that Antwerp was a center for the diamond trade, we just had no idea why.  I did some research and here’s what I learned.

Until the 18th century, all diamonds came from India. Until Europeans arrived in India at the beginning of the 16th century, they made their way to Europe via trade routes.  One of the major trade routes cut through Venice.  It became the center of the diamond trade.  Bruges was at the end of one of the trade routes. Over time, it developed into a diamond cutting center.

Image from Snatch courtesy of Columbia Pictures and SKA Films

When the Zwin silted up in the 14th century, Bruges no longer had access to the North Sea.  A lack of sea access was not good for trading and the diamond business shifted to nearby Antwerp with its burgeoning trade.  At one point 40% of the world’s trade passed through its port.

Image from Snatch courtesy of Columbia Pictures and Ska Films, taken from Rotten Tomatos.

Antwerp began pioneering new diamond cutting techniques.  Cutting is extremely important because it influences the brilliance (the sparkle) as well as the size of the stone and therefore its value.  The waste should be as minimal as possible.

Image from Snatch courtesy of Columbia Pictures and SKA Films, taken from Austin Chronicle Website

Over time other towns gained in power and prestige.  By the end of the 17th century, Amsterdam had in power to such an extent that it had a virtual monopoly on the diamond trade.  While Antwerp still cut diamonds, Amsterdam kept the best stones to be cut by local cutters.  Antwerp’s cutters got creative and brought their “A” game, transforming small and mediocre stones into higher quality gems.

When diamonds were discovered in South Africa, there was a massive influx of rough stones into Antwerp.   The industry took a hit during the depression of the 1930’s.  Many Jews were involved in the diamond trade and fled Belgium at the outbreak of the Second World War.  To keep as much of the diamonds as possible out of the hands of the Germans, many diamonds were transferred to Great Britain for safekeeping.  The diamonds were returned to their owners after Antwerp’s liberation from the Nazis.  As a result, they industry was able to get back on its feet quickly after the war.

Flawless is a book about the Antwerp Diamond Center heist in 2003. Thanks for the image Union Square Press.

In 2003, there was a successful robbery of the Antwerp Diamond Center.  I’ve included a link to a great article about it.

Camels And Falcons And Henna, Oh My!

Okay, okay, I know it is cheesy and a bit hokey, but I couldn’t help but enjoy myself at the “Arabian campsite” on my desert excursion.  I wish I’d been able to stay the night out in the desert, but settled for a sunset dinner.

Even with those sweet eyelashes and innocent eyes, I was glad that he had his muzzle on so he didn’t spit on me.

There were camels to ride outside the site and I immediately did it.  I couldn’t pass up my first (and perhaps only) opportunity to ride a camel.  Someone had warned me to hold on tight as the camel got up so it was surprisingly easy.

Falconry is popular in the region and we were treated to a falconry demonstration.  It was impressive.  After learning about raptors at the Carolina Raptor Center, I find them interesting, impressive animals.

The falconer takes off the mask, releases the bird, and swings the meat around on a string for the hawk grab.  Falcons come back for food.

Some people took advantage of the henna painters.  Others enjoyed smoking sheesha pipes.  A traditional pastime in Dubai, sheesha (also known as narghile in Turkey and hookah in India and Pakistan) is a long-stemmed smoking pipe packed with flavored tobacco.  I didn’t partake in that either, but I heard that Strawberry is the most popular favor.

I love middle-eastern food more than just about any other cuisine and was super excited for the spread.  In fact, I was so busy scarfing it down that I didn’t get a picture.  Sorry.

Luckily I was done eating by the time the belly-dancing started.  I love belly-dancing and the belly dancer was much better than I expected.  She performed in the heat for over a half an hour and had people mesmirised.  It is easy to see why.

Time Traveling To Old Dubai In Al Bastakiya

Dubai is unabashedly new.  Traditionally, buildings were made from palm leaves.  As a result, not many of the old buildings survive.  Dubai’s Bastakiya Quarter (in the Bur Dubai area) is one of the few places to see traditional architecture.  It is the oldest surviving part of the city and a sharp juxtaposition to the skyscrapers in the distance.

Walking through Bastakiya, you can almost imagine life here when it was a small fishing village and ancient trading port for dhows travelling Gulf to India and East Africa.

The Bastakiya neighborhood dates from the early 1900’s.  Wealthy pearl and textile merchants from Iran’s Bastak region settled here.  Even then Dubai’s trade policies attracted immigrants.   These Persian merchants used more durable coral and gypsum to build their houses that were heavily influenced by traditional Arabian architecture.

I loved exploring the chaotic labyrinth of traditional Arabian heritage houses. This maze of narrow alleyways isn’t on a grid pattern.  Instead, the streets orient toward the water to take advantage of its cooling breezes.  The high walls shade the tight lanes and interior courtyards for much of the day.

Virtually every aspect of the buildings was designed to counter the intense heat.  With heat like that, you can’t blame them.  Houses had a central courtyard and were topped with wind-towers. The towers, which are open at the top on all four sides, act as wind-catchers.  Amazingly effective, they funnel breezes into a central shaft, cooling the room below.  Residents would throw water on the floor underneath the tower.  The evaporating water-cooled the interior.  Trust me when  I tell you they needed every means they could find to help cool things.

Traditional Barasti huts made from palm fronds were cool and easy to build.  Unfortunately, they didn’t withstand the elements very well (and were probably hard to retrofit with air-conditioners).

It’s Hip To Be Square, Aka Why The Swiss Flag is Square

The Swiss adopted the design of the white cross on a red background as the national flag (the design is older and in 1863 it was used for the basis of the Red Cross’s flag) in 1889.  The current version consistently appeared over the years.

It was first used by Swiss mercenaries in the Middle Ages. Prior to 1889, each canton (the Swiss version of a state) had its own flag and national flags varied over the years.  When modern Switzerland was formed in 1848, they had to come up with a flag.  They tried a few different versions and eventually settled on the square because of its military origins.

All national flags are rectangular, with three exceptions.  There are only two countries with square flags: the Vatican and Switzerland.  Nepal’s is made from two triangles.

When neutral Switzerland joined the UN in 2002, it was a big deal for them.  It also presented a problem.  UN rules require rectangular flags.  Thankfully, a loophole was found.  New flags are permitted as long as they do not exceed the size of other flags.