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In modern economies, we use an agreed-upon medium of exchange, or currency, to trade with merchants, corporations, and our neighbors. Throughout history, this has most often been domestic animals, agricultural staples like rice and barley, salt, beads, cowry shells, precious metal, and government-backed legal tender. These are things that can be led or carried by the owner. However, what if your currency is an enormous limestone disc that can be over three meters in diameter and weigh four metric tons? What if it is a shovel blade that one can put the handle back in and use in the field? Some agreed-upon currencies used throughout history, and even in the modern day, we would consider impractical.

article-imageYap stone in Micronesia (photograph by tata_aka_T/Flickr)

On the Micronesian island of Yap stand the Rai stones. Limestone is a very rare mineral in this area of the Pacific. The stone was quarried mainly from the island of Palau, with Guam supplying some for a time as well. Originally fashioned into the shape of fish, and later as circular discs, these stones are still used today, though mainly for social transactions like marriage by the Yapese. Instead of carrying these behemoths across the island, giving the stone can be as simple as saying it belongs to a new owner, and the “bank statement” would be the oral history of the stone’s possessors. Not all Rai stones are colossal, and vary in value by their history, as well as size. Even a stone that sank into the ocean is still considered owned, because it is agreed upon that the stone is still there, and it has a history.

In ancient Greece, rods of various metals were used as currency before coins. These are the oboloi (singular obolos, or obol in English) — rods of iron, copper, or silver about a meter in length. In Athens, six oboloi equaled one drachma, meaning “handful.” The word passed into usage as the name of Greece’s currency until the euro was adopted. Even after the introduction of coins, Plutarch wrote that Sparta kept using oboloi to discourage the pursuit of wealth over deeds in battle. One obolos could buy a ritual cup with wine.



A drachma of oboloi (via Odysses/Wikimedia)

In Zhou Dynasty China, there are two examples of tools being used as currency. Spades and weeding tools with the handle taken off were used in northeast China. This is known as spade money. When first used, the spade kept the hole so the handle could be reattached. In time, the money of the area and era kept the spade shape, but shrank to a more manageable size. In some areas, various stories took hold about how knives became traded, and then for 400 years, knife money became the currency. These knives weren’t edged, but they did have the same shape and dimensions as common knives of the time.

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article-imageNorth Korea (photograph by Darmon Richter)

North Korea might not be everybody's first choice of holiday destination. In fact, many remain oblivious to the fact tourism to North Korea is even a thing. In fairness, it’s easy to see how anyone who follows the news might find a leisurely holiday in the DPRK (or “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”) to be irreconcilable with everything they think they know about the place: a totalitarian nightmare of gulags and thought police, poverty and oppression.

This article is to examine the nature of tourism in North Korea, and to speculate just how much any of us can ever truly know about this secretive “Hermit Kingdom.”

The Quest for Authenticity

The search for authentic insight into other cultures has become a cliché; it is the Holy Grail of the backpacker, the travel blogger’s muse, the driving force behind many an off-the-beaten-path adventure. This trope of travelers searching for an unspoiled slice of foreign heaven formed the premise of Alex Garland’s 1996 novel The Beach. The blockbuster film which followed generated enough traffic to virtually destroy the chances of stumbling across such paradise in Thailand. The remote Thai island known as Koh Phi Phi, where Garland set his story, is now a chaos of hotels, bars, souvenir shops, and strip clubs. This beach paradise has been fully commercialized.

Statues of the nation's leaders on Mansu Hill, Pyongyang (photograph by Darmon Richter)

A man waits for a bus on a street in Pyongyang (photograph by Darmon Richter)

So what about North Korea? As far as original travel goes, it doesn’t get much more off-the-grid than the DPRK — a country that we Westerners know so very little about and where email, phones, and messaging are as good as forbidden. The conservative nature of tourism to North Korea however, makes the prospect of authentic interaction all the more elusive.

Getting into North Korea is easy. Most passports — US included — require only the approval of a basic tourist visa, a process which generally takes less than a month. Discovering authentic culture however, embracing the real North Korea, may prove somewhat more difficult.

The Illusion of Pyongyang

The truth is, the North Korean government doesn’t want you to see their reality. Western tourists are allotted trained guides, whose job it is to show you all the sights approved by the nation’s leadership. In fairness, it’s as thorough and culture-packed a tour as you’re ever likely to experience, a whistle-stop ride around the DPRK’s landmarks and museums, monuments, palaces, memorials, and mausoleums. They’ll treat you to fine examples of traditional Korean cuisine, while every site you visit will (sometimes literally) roll out the red carpet for your approach. You’ll get to skip the queue at Mangyongdae Funfair. Children will sing and dance for your entertainment. 

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article-imageAtlas Obscura at the Rogue Taxidermy Fair with a cruxified sheep by Tanis Meyer-Thornton (all photographs by Steven Acres, visit to view more of his work)

Transforming cast off creatures from roadkill to vintage discards, some contemporary taxidermists are reimagining the art of preservation. This October 5, Atlas Obscura co-presented a Rogue Taxidermy Fair with the fellow Brooklyn-based Morbid Anatomy in celebration of a new book on "rogue taxidermy."

Robert Marbury's Taxidermy Art: A Rogue’s Guide to the Work, the Culture, and How to Do It Yourself, published by Artisan Books, examines new approaches to taxidermy, which are breaking off from the traditions of hunting mounts and natural history museums, while maintaining the careful skills of the practice. The Rogue Taxidermy Fair at the Bell House in Gowanus, Brooklyn, brought together local and regional practitioners including the Minnesota Association of Rogue TaxidermistsCaitlin T. McCormack who crochets skeletons contained in bell jars, Amber Maykut of Hoardaculture showcasing beautiful butterflies and tattooed frogs, Divya Anantharaman of Friends Forever Taxidermy with ethically-sourced taxidermy transformed with ecological specimens and beadery, and Daisy Tainton with anthropomorphic insect dioramas. 

Mike Zohn of Obscura Antiques & Oddities also brought to his booth a Ferris wheel of chipmunks that was once part of the defunct Dead Pals of Sam Sanfilippo housed in a funeral home in Wisconsin that included a whole cavalcade of critter taxidermy. Katie Innamorato of Afterlife Anatomy demonstrated for the crowd the careful process of squirrel taxidermy from specimen to detached skin, and the all-day event concluded with an incredible evening set by the Lucky Chops Brass Band (previously seen at our Cocktails in the Crypt evening) and a taxidermy trivia competition. Check out photographs from the fair below, and keep an eye on our events page for more unique adventures in New York City and beyond. 

Robert Marbury (at left), Atlas Obscura founder Dylan Thuras (at right), & the proud winner of the taxidermy trivia contest at center


Katie Innamorato of Afterlife Anatomy demonstrating squirrel taxidermy

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article-imageOfferings at the Palacio Municipal at La Calaca Festival (photograph by Reka Nyari)

David Metcalfe, author, researcher and founder of Liminal Analytics — Applied Research Collaborative — co-authored this piece. Dr. Andrew Chesnut is Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and is author of the only book on Saint Death in both Mexico and the US, Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint. Metcalfe and Chesnut direct, a site dedicated to news and analysis of the fastest growing new religious movement in the Americas.

The season of death is at hand. Halloween and the Mexican death trinity of Day of the Dead, Catrina Calavera (Skeleton Dame), and Santa Muerte (Saint Death) engage millions of South and North Americans in rituals that reconnect us with our own mortality. Leaving aside the jack-o-lanterns and trick or treating of our own childhood in the United States, we will try to answer one of the two questions that invariably come up during our presentations on Santa Muerte. What is the relationship, if any, among Saint Death, Catrina Calavera, and Day of the Dead? The other question that always arises is "Do you believe in the Bony Lady?"

Let's first take a look at the member of the Mexican death trinity who has been in the limelight during the past three years, especially with her cameo appearance in the critically-acclaimed TV series, Breaking Bad. Santa Muerte is a Mexican folk saint who personifies death in the form a female skeleton. Whether as a votive candle, gold medallion, or statue, she is typically depicted as a Grim Reapress, wielding the same scythe and wearing a shroud similar to the Grim Reaper, her male ancestor. Folk saints, unlike official Catholic ones, are spirits of the dead considered holy for their miracle working powers. However, what really sets the Bony Lady apart from other folk saints is that for most devotees she is the personification of death itself and not of a deceased human being.

article-imageA Santa Muerte devotee commemorating Day of the Dead in Tutitlan, on the outskirts of Mexico City (photograph by Angus Fraser)

article-imageFamily of Santa Muerte devotees commemorating Day of the Dead in Tutitlan, on the outskirts of Mexico City (photograph by Angus Fraser)

In Mexico and Latin America in general, such folk saints as Jesus Malverde, Juan Soldado, and San La Muerte (the Argentine cousin of Santa Muerte) have millions of devotees and are often petitioned more than the Catholic saints. These homegrown saints are united to their devotees by nationality and often by both locality and social class. A Mexico City street vendor explained the appeal of the skeleton saint to her saying, "She understands us because she is a battleaxe (cabrona) like us." In contrast, Mexicans would never refer to the Virgin of Guadalupe as a cabrona, which is also often used to mean "bitch." All the major shrines in Mexico and the U.S. celebrate annual feast days with the specific date varying. Doña Queta's historic shrine in the notorious barrio of Tepito will commemorate its thirteenth anniversary on Halloween. One of the most recent trends among devotees of Death on both sides of the border is to integrate the Bony Lady into Day of the Dead commemorations.

In the United States, All Hallows' Eve has taken on the darker image of Halloween, with haunted houses, horror movies, and the dead returning for trouble rather than tradition. However, in Latin America and Europe, where Catholic cultural influences have remained strong, the first and second of November continue to hold their ancient ties to festivals associated with sacred remembrance of the dead's continued presence in the world of the living. In Mexico, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead,) which falls on November 1 and 2, is one of the most anticipated holidays of the year. It's a time to reconnect with deceased friends, family members, and ancestors in a festive spirit of remembrance and celebration.

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Although it sometimes seems today's New York City is made up of nothing but brand new, ultra-luxury, high-end condominiums, it is still scattered with an incredible number of derelict buildings, abandoned historical sites, and disused infrastructure spaces. The most high-profile recent ruin repurposing is the High Line — 1.45 miles of disused railway tracks made over into a linear park, the final piece of which opened just last month. The project was massively successful, especially in terms of rising real estate prices nearby and a huge influx of tourism in the neighborhood. It also inspired imitators: a West Harlem resident recently came forward with a proposal for a similar project, which would involve selling the air rights above a rail line to pay for the park, and then using them to create an affordable housing district.

Here are five more NYC ruins, from the Bronx to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, that may soon be given new lives:


article-imageQueensway (photo by Jim.henderson, via Wikimedia)

Also inspired by the High Line is the plan to convert the QueensWay. The 3.5 miles of rail tracks between Rego Park and Ozone Park — known as the Rockaway Beach Branch that once served the LIRR's Rockaway Beach line — seem to be moving ahead into an elevated park. “The QueensWay is like the High Line on steroids: It’s more than twice as long and seven times the acreage,” Adrian Benepe of the Trust for Public Land told CBS New York.

The proposed project will cost in the neighborhood of $120 million, and is not without its detractors — opponents would rather see the rail line itself restored, which would increase transportation options to an underserved section of Queens. But the current proposal includes walkways, biking trails, a wetland habitat and bioswale, and outdoor classrooms. It's possible construction could begin early next year.


The Lowline

Exhibition with a prototype for the Lowline (photograph by Bit Boy/Flickry)

Although projections put the opening of the Lowline at around 2018, the idea has already been tantalizing New Yorkers for several years. The proposal to reappropriate the 1.5 acre Williamsburg trolley terminal to create the world's first underground park was made public in 2011, and has received tremendous media coverage and both official and popular support, including a record-breaking Kickstarter that raised more than $155k from 3,300 donors.

The trolley terminal, which was built in 1903 and abandoned since 1948, runs for three blocks under Delancey Street on the Lower East Side. The park will be lit and powered by a combination of LEDs and a new kind of fiber-optic technology called a "remote skylight," which, in addition to pulling enough sun from street level to light the park, is also strong enough for photosynthesis, enabling plants to grown beneath the ground.

As the Lowline website states, "We envision not merely a new public space, but an innovative display of how technology can transform our cities in the 21st century." An engineering firm has priced the project at a mere $55 million.

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