Life is full of surprises.
In early September I received a letter from Dr. Ed Cohen, chairman of the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Westminster College in western Pennsylvania.
For 25 of the 28 years I taught at Westminster, I had served as chairman of the political science department. I was proud to have hired Ed and glad he could be chairman of the combined political science and sociology departments.
Ed invited me to return to Westminster College for a special reunion of the 25 professors who had been selected to receive a grant for research that would be presented as a Henderson Lecture to the students, faculty, and interested public in an evening presentation, one per year for 25 years.
I was honored to have received such a grant in 1996. I undertook a project to examine the video tapes I had made while traveling abroad to show my students some of the culture of the countries we were studying.
Culture is the cement that holds a society together connecting the present with the past. Americans who live in New Orleans, Boston or Savannah have cultural characteristics unique to each location. This is also true of foreign peoples.
In the 1980s, I had traveled across Eurasia, from the Baltic to the Pacific. I had purchased an RCA video camera which was very bulky, but which took excellent pictures both outdoors and indoors with available stage lighting.
I had many hours of my tapes to consider and edit. I started with St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland. Peter the Great had moved Russia’s capital from Moscow to a new city built in European style.
I had photographed the tsar’s palaces in the city, and his summer palace with all the gold plated fountains of water. While photographing the water jets, I lost my group, but I found our bus and waited for the students to return. They had not even missed me.
After St. Petersburg, I next visited central Asia to see Bukhara, a fort on the Silk Road just north of Pakistan, The oasis attracted many caravans in its prime. The fort looked like similar forts in North Africa. I was able to photograph song and dance with local women in beautiful Uzbeck costumes.
Next was Xian in China, where farmers in 1974 discovered terra cotta soldiers, about 6,000 in the ground guarding the tomb of the Emperor Chin who ruled briefly some 2200 years ago. The name China comes from the Emperor’s name. Many Chinese prefer to call their country the Middle Kingdom, as they think they are the center of the world. With the economy of today, that may be more apt.
I was able to get down to the edge of the stage and film dancers and musicians in authentic Tang Dynasty costumes but with modern lighting that was remarkable.
One cannot visit China without being taken to the Great Wall. I photographed it on a clear day showing graffiti on most of the bricks near the entrance. It stretches from the Pacific to the hills of Tibet and was never breached. However, some of those who guarded the gates were bribed to let invaders through. Both the Mongols and the Manchus came into China through the gates or around the end. No army was able to come over the top of the wall.
In Tibet, I photographed a street bazaar in Lhasa, and some dark internal shots in the Potala which were lit only by candlelight at the foot of a statue of Buddha. A reception for Jimmy Carter forced a cancellation of a concert for us. Instead, we visited a school for the arts where the students performed just for us. They were beautiful.
In Thailand, we photographed dancing men and women in wonderful local costumes. Thais look more like Hawaiians than Chinese.
I ended the tape with a visit to a Thai snake farm. One snake got close and personal with me. I was surprised how dry the snake was, not slippery at all.
I no longer take movies when I travel abroad, because I no longer have students in classes to show what I have discovered when on study tours abroad.
If any local teacher wants to use this DVD in a class here in the Gainesville area I can bring my tape to show any part of it that might fit into an existing curriculum. Just e-mail me at the address beneath my name.
Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears regularly and on gainesvilletimes.com.