Today Me, Tomorrow You: Rome's Memento Mori Tombs
The Catholic churches in Rome are full of skeletons. While the bodies of the saints are often the most famous examples, the skeletons lurk around the tombs of the clergy and laity as well. Unlike the saints, the physical remains of former parishioners are largely kept out of sight, but if you imagine the number of bodies resting just beyond every surface, the churches start to look like mega-necropoli. You realize you're walking though Tokyos made of tombs.
You don't need an over-active imagination though; the Baroque skulls and life-sized marble skeletons decorating the graves are designed to grab your attention and speak to you. At Santa Maria dell'Orazione e Mort a skeleton delivers a message to the living on the street from the dead inside the crypt: "Hodie mihi. Cras tibi." "Today me. Tomorrow you." It shrugs. The skeletons are eager to remind you that the bones holding you up will be all that's left some day.
Though their rhetoric is grim, the skeletons are surprisingly lively. At San Francesco d'Assisi a Ripa Grande, they climb out from behind the artwork. At Gesù e Maria, one appears frozen in the middle of a solo danse macabre, flailing so wildly it seems to be coming apart. It's this kinetic quality that's so arresting; life bursts supernaturally from these dark corners devoted to death. The juxtaposition is unsettling but it illustrates the Catholic belief in eternal life. Though the skeletons tell you that you too will die, they're also showing you they believe there is another life to come.
The Controversial Senegalese Monument Built by North Korean Propaganda Artists
On one of the twin hills in the Mamelles district of Dakar, Senegal, stands a mighty—and mightily confusing—monument.
At 160 feet tall, the bronze African Renaissance Monument is over one-and-a-half times the height of the Statue of Liberty. It depicts a man with a bare, ripped torso holding an infant aloft in one arm and guiding a woman with the other. The infant points ahead to indicate the glorious future, while the woman extends her arm behind to acknowledge the troubled past. Her hair is swept back by the wind, as are her scant, gossamer-like garments.
The colossal monument's Soviet-influenced, Socialist realism style makes sense when you consider that it was built by Mansudae Overseas Projects, a division of North Korea's government-run propaganda art factory.
Founded in 1959, Mansudae Art Studio employs around 4,000 North Koreans at its Pyongyang headquarters, 1,000 of which are artists handpicked from rigorous national institutions like Pyongyang University. These artists spend their days producing beautifully detailed propaganda, such as portraits of rosy-cheeked farm maidens, paintings of North Korea's glorious countryside, and One Can Always Lose, a series of 10 paintings depicting North Korea's 1-0 win over Italy during round one of the 1966 World Cup. All public images of Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Il-sung, including the enormous statues in Pyongyang, are the work of Mansudae artists.
So how did members of North Korea's propaganda art factory wind up sculpting a monument in Senegal? Simple: it was all about the money. Mansudae Overseas Projects can build mammoth statues relatively cheaply, and has done so for 18 cash-strapped African and Asian nations thus far.
The Senegalese monument project began in 2006, when then-president Abdoulaye Wade began planning a massive hilltop monument that would represent Senegal—and Africa—emerging from centuries of slavery and colonialism. After years of planning and construction, the African Renaissance Monument was inaugurated in 2010 to mark the 50th anniversary of Senegal's independence from France. The final cost of the statue was $27 million. Unable to afford the payment in cash, Wade paid North Korea in the form of state-owned land in Senegal.
When the monument was unveiled, Wade was nearing the end of a 12-year presidency marred by alleged corruption, vote rigging, and changing the constitution to suit his own ends. His claim that intellectual property laws entitled him to 35 percent of revenue from tourism at the monument was met with understandable ire from fed-up Senegalese—47 percent of whom live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. The statue's depiction of a near-naked man holding a woman with an exposed breast also caused consternation among the 92-percent-Muslim population.
Despite the controversy, the monument still stands, surrounded by half-built houses and piles of litter. You can pay to go inside and take the elevator to the giant man's head for a stunning view across Dakar. Just remember: 35 percent of your admission fee goes to Abdoulaye Wade. After fleeing Senegal following his 2012 defeat, Wade has returned to the country to support his son Karim, a former minister in the Wade government currently standing trial for allegedly embezzling $238 million.
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Revisiting the Dystopic Outback World of Mad Max
The release of the Mad Max: Fury Road trailer at Comic-Con over the weekend stirring up interest in the 35-year-old action franchise, but the new film, starring Tom Hardy, won't be in theaters until May 2015.
While you wait, here's a virtual trip back to the dystopic desert home of the original Max Rockatansky, Mel Gibson's broken down, biker-chasing road warrior.
Mad Max 2, released in 1981 to critical acclaim, was shot in and around Broken Hill, an isolated mining town founded in 1883 deep in the Australian outback. About 15 miles north of Broken Hill is Silverton, a town of 90 or so residents that, in traditional Australian fashion, manages to maintain a busy pub. (Said pub, the Silverton Hotel, also makes an appearance in the second movie.)
Die-hard Mad Max fans will want to visit Silverton's Mad Max 2 Museum, a collection of costumes, props, and vehicles assembled by British ex-pat Adrian Bennett. Look out for the disembodied model head sculpted to look like an injured Mel Gibson.
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The Old Nuclear Bunker Now Staffed by Mannequins
To gain access to the secret nuclear bunker at Kelvedon Hatch in Essex, England, just follow the road signs marked "Secret Nuclear Bunker."
Security at the decommissioned subterranean shelter has gotten a lot more lax since the Cold War days, but the bunker retains its eerie, apocalyptic feel. Built in 1953 to stealthily house hundreds of military and civilian personnel in the event of nuclear attack, the Kelvedon Hatch bunker is accessed through an ordinary-looking bungalow in the woods.
Conditions were relatively comfortable: VIPs tasked with running a nuked nation could do so with the help of air conditioning and heating, a self-contained water supply, generators, radio equipment, and protected telecommunications systems.
Of course, the bunker was never used for its intended purpose. The collapse of the Soviet Union removed the nuclear threat, rendering the Kelvedon Hatch hide-out obsolete. It is now a museum, its corridors full of dusty old telephones, geiger counters, and maps. A few rooms feature an unusual sight: battered shop mannequins in cheap wigs, posed in typical bunker scenarios such as resting and performing minor surgery.
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The UFO Welcome Center, for Tired Extraterrestrial Travelers
"I’m shocked at the countless hundreds of millions of dollars that have been spent over the years in the desperate and fruitless search for extraterrestrial life," Ham wrote in a blog post on answersingenesis.org. "Even Bill Nye 'the Science Guy,' in our recent debate, happily gloated about tax dollars being spent toward this effort."
For Ham and anyone else who balks at the idea of spending money on interplanetary diplomacy, there is a much more economical option out there: the UFO Welcome Center in Bowman, South Carolina.
The center, designed to attract and accommodate extraterrestrial visitors, consists of two stacked, saucer-shaped structures made of scrap wood and metal. Both were built by local alien enthusiast Jody Pendarvis, who began the project in 1994. Clutter, bits of wood, and fallen pieces of saucer surround the center.
Inside the 42-foot-wide bottom saucer is a bed, television, air-conditioning unit, shower, and toilet. The motel-like amenities are intended to offer respite for extraterrestrials who feel a little zonked after racking up frequent light-years of travel.
The smaller saucer, added in 2003, contains an air mattress and a communication system for attracting alien attention: flashing Christmas lights.
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Tekapo: A Lake Made Beautiful by Rock Flour
A great benefit of living on a planet with an axial tilt of 23.4 degrees is that when it gets dark and snowy and horrible in the northern hemisphere, you can always escape to summer serenity south of the equator. Herewith, an option for the next northern winter: stunning Lake Tekapo on the south island of New Zealand.
Lake Tekapo gets its turquoise hue from "rock flour," also known as glacial flour. This fine powder is made when thick, heavy glaciers move down mountain slopes, grinding rocks as they go. The glacier then carries this rock flour down to the lake, where the ice melts. The powder remains suspended in the lake water, giving it a turquoise color.
The calming hue of Lake Tekapo combines with purple wildflowers, sage forests, and dramatic, often snow-capped mountains to create a scene of near-illegal tranquility.
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A Tour of Wat Rong Khun, the Oddest Temple in Thailand
Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple, is one of over 33,000 Buddhist temples in Thailand. But it's the only one that features a mural of a plane hitting the Twin Towers as Spiderman and an Angry Bird look on.
Artist Chalermchai Kositpipat began building Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai in 1997. The incredibly detailed, all-white exterior represents Buddha's purity. Mirrored trimming symbolizes self-reflection. The bridge to the entrance crosses over a sea of arms reaching out for help from the fiery depths of hell. Skulls, demon heads, and pop-cultural figures from the underworld—Hellraiser; Hellboy—are harbingers of what's to come.
Inside the temple, the decor swiftly moves from pristine white to fiery and bewildering. Murals depict swirling orange flames and demon faces, interspersed with Western idols such as Michael Jackson, Neo from The Matrix, Freddy Kruger, and a T-800 series Terminator. Images of nuclear warfare, terrorist attacks, and oil pumps hammer home the human impact on earth. The presence of Harry Potter, Superman, and Hello Kitty confuses the message somewhat, but the overall moral is clear: people are wicked.
Kositpipat's juxtaposition of traditional Buddhist imagery and pop culture has drawn criticism from the Thai government. Photography of the interior murals is prohibited, but visitors are welcome to purchase prints in the temple gift shop.
On May 5 of this year, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck Mae Lao, located 17 miles southwest of Chiang Rai. Wat Rong Khun sustained significant damage, and Kositpipat initially declared that the temple would have to be demolished. Subsequent evaluations, however, have found that the cracked pillars, damaged murals, and broken spire can be repaired. The restoration process is expected to take about two years. Travelers can still visit the temple, but may not be allowed inside depending on the work being undertaken at the time.
The Accidental Mummy Crypt at St. Michan's Church, Dublin
Venture down into the dark, musty stone vaults beneath St. Michan's Church in Dublin and you'll encounter an unusual sight: a collection of accidental mummies.
Most of the well-preserved bodies belong to Dubliners who lived during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The crypt's dry air and limestone walls have kept their desiccated skin intact, even as their wooden coffins have begun to crumble. Some of the coffin lids have caved in compltely, while others have fractured enough to reveal an arm or leg. A thick layer of dust covers each body.
According to the legends told by tour guides, the mummies in the photo above are, from left, a nun, a man with one hand and both feet cut off—either as punishment for thievery or so he would fit into the coffin—and a woman of enigmatic origin. At the back, placed horizontally, is the six-foot-six body of a man who apparently fought in the Crusades. (Though how he managed to die during the Middle Ages and end up mummified in a Dublin crypt built in 1685 is a great mystery.)
The Crusader, as this mummy with a dubious backstory has come to be known, is something of a talisman these days. Visitors to the St Michan's crypts are invited to touch one of the desiccated fingers on his outstretched right hand for good luck. If you have a whisper-soft grip and a delicate approach, you may shake his hand.
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Hundertwasser, the Architect Who Made Toilets and Treatment Plants Adorable
In Osaka, Japan, is a waste treatment plant that is a lot more Looney Tunes than your average incineration facility. Its wavy lines, haphazardly placed, mismatched windows, and bursts of clashing color are all expressions of an overriding architectural philosophy: that human misery is the result of straight lines.
Friedensreich Hundertwasser was an Austrian-born artist-turned-architect. Born Friedrich Stowasser, he changed his name to Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser (translation: "Peace-Kingdom Rainy-Day Darkly-Multicolored Hundred-Water.")
Hundertwasser wrote a series of manifestos beginning in 1958, in which he reacted against what he believed to be the soul-stifling uniformity of Bauhaus architecture. Instead of rational, standardized designs, he advocated an approach that saw buildings as growing, changing structures that incorporate the natural features of the surrounding landscape. Many of his creations incorporate greenery, which grows alongside, on top of, and within the buildings.
Hundertwasser's residential, industrial, and commercial buildings—located in Austria, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and at a Napa Valley winery—are irregularly shaped creations with boldly colored tile mosaics, pottery, golden domes, undulating floors, and tilting walls. The Kawakawa public toilet building in New Zealand, built in 1998, was Hundertwasser's last major project before his death in 2000.
Turda Salt Mine, for Summer Fun Without the Sun
If you adore the leisure activities of summer but can't bear to spend time in the bright light and hot sun, there is an obvious solution: head to a Transylvanian salt mine to play minigolf and ride paddle boats.
Excavated by hand and machine over hundreds of years, Turda Salt Mine in Romania is now a subterranean fairground-cum-health-spa. After operating as a mine from the Roman Empire until 1932, Salina Turda closed for 60 years, reopening to the public in 1992.
The current attractions in the 260-by-130-foot space include a Ferris wheel, biliard tables, a minigolf course, ping pong, a bowling alley, and an underground lake with paddle boats. A 180-seat amphitheater hosts th occasional concert. To offset the darkness, bright lights hang vertically on strings from the 160-foot ceiling, illuminating dripping stalactites with a blue-tinged glow.
The temperature at Turda is a steady 53 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, with around 80 percent humidity. The conditions are perfect for sun haters—like the traditional residents of Transylvania—but also optimum for halotherapy, an alternative health treatment in which people with respiratory problems spend time in humid, salt-infused air.
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