180° Persepolis

While located in today’s southern Iran, (renamed in 1935 from Persia, meaning “Land of Aryans”, shortened from Iranshahr*, “Iran” is a cognate of “Aryan”), near the lovely city of Shiraz (from where the Shiraz or Syrah wine grape is incorrectly thought to have come from, but is actually a city known for its accomplished poets, Saadi and Hafez), Persepolis is a Greek word from “Perses Polis” or “Persian City”, while the original name is Parsa (City of Persians**). Constructed by Darius 1 or Darius the Great, around 518 bce, it was the capital of the Achaemenid empire (560 – 330 bce), whose founder was Cyrus II or Cyrus the Great (600 – 530 bce). Darius III, not so Great, was defeated by Alexander III or Alexander the Great circa 330 bce, who then also destroyed Persepolis, which I visited with my mother, Asha the Great (b. 1938 – still rocking) in 2016.

Persepolis was burnt and looted as revenge for the destruction of temples at the acropolis in Athens, which was demolished in revenge for the decimation of Sadis, the capital of Lydia while it was a Persian city.

While Cyrus the Great was known as a conqueror (Medes, Babylonia, Lydia, parts of central asia), as he had conquered the largest territory in then human history, from the Mediterranean in the west, to the River Indus in the East, later extended further into Egypt, Eastern Europe, etc by his successors, he is while controversial acknowledged for the first human rights document, the Cyrus Cylinder, his statesmanship through a system of satraps, and secularism as he respected and invested in the religions and cultures of his subjects.  Importantly, for his freeing of the Jews of Judah when he defeated the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (now the name for a 15L sized wine bottle), who had destroyed Jerusalem and sent them into exile, he is the only non-jew (and an Iranian as such) in the Jewish Bible who is referred to as a Messiah. How about that…

Today, the inhabitants of Judah in the southern Levant have a very different opinion of the ruler of Persia, 180°.  Things fall apart.

*known to the locals as Eranshahr during the Sasanian Empire, 224 to 651 CE, the last Persian empire before the Islamization of the region. The Sasanians were recognized as world powers alongside the neighboring rival empire of the Roman-Byzantine. **Central asian nomadic tribe that drifted south into west Asia along with the Medes.

Persepolis below…

The Gate of All Nations

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Originally, 70 x 70m, remnants of the Hall of Hundred Columns.

Palace / living quarter of Xerxes I.

Relief on the apadana, Armenians bringing gifts of wine.

Representation of the new year Nowruz, the beginning of spring in Zoroastrianism, the religion in Persia before Islam, ascribed to the teachings of Zoroaster, which exalts a diety of wisdom, Ahura Mazda.  Suppressed and persecuted with the muslim conquest of Persia in the 7th ce, most practitioners fled and now live in western India.

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Extent of the Achaemenid empire.

Tomb of Cyrus the Great, near Pasargad, capital of his empire.

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The remains of Cyrus’ palaces in Pasargad

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Artifacts in the National Museum in Tehran.

From Persepolis, fluted stone columns with a double bull capital.

Emperor visit

While the recent protests in Iran, the trigger for this post, wax and wane, and started because of price inflation, the theocracy has a problem on their hands.  The Persian people are proud of, and have preserved their pre-Islamic history unlike the Chinese satrap of the Maldives. They verbalize that their current religion originates from a desert tribe, in comparison to their millennia of secular pre-islamic history from the Achaemenids thru to the Sasanids.

Among anti-islamic pro Iranian republic chants, they shout “Long Live Reza Shah” at the demonstrations. Reza was an ordinary army officer who maneuvered his way to the throne and ruled from 1925 – 1941 when he was deposed by his son, the chants are very symbolic as he was the one who challenged islamic clergy,  banned the hijab and adopted western dress.  This shift was followed through by Mohammed Reza Shah, his son who deposed him, and had to flee Iran in 1979 after from what i understand were widespread nationwide protests after years of widening income inequality and lack of opportunity, a mirror image of the protests today.  On my trip, the locals I had a chance to speak with were so disheartened with the state of things, that they wished for the times under the despised profligate ousted Shah.  It was then I knew the theocracy had an issue.  However the theocracy still control the army thru the Revolutionary Guards, which remains key for the near term.

When we visited Pasargad and Cyrus’ tomb, we were told it was his birthday the day before, and 4,000 youth drove to this out of the way place, and stayed all night chanting “We are Cyrus, We are Cyrus”…He remains officially and unofficially, the Father of the Nation.

Learning about their illustrious past…

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Not your Mamas Maldives

Over the years, I’ve consistently heard fabulous reports back from travelers about their holidays here.  So when an opportunity presented itself this fall, I took it.  While I was there, I started doing some reading up, and I was very surprised.  This is a story not widely known…and if you are considering travelling there or know someone who might it should be of interest to you.

Simmering under the idiosyncratic circular coral atolls is a sunken volcanic range formed thru the meeting of tectonic plates which created the Deccan Plateau, on which the Maldives sit, a wide swath of ridge from India to the Madagascar, making it one of the most mountainous countries in the world, except that the people live on the peaks around which the coral reefs then formed. Just under 0.5% of the country’s territory is above water or dry land.

Simmering under the sheen of the hyper-marketed-in-the-west one-per-island atoll resorts, their chockablock rooms on stilts, buffet lines and infinity pools lies a different reality.  Analogous to the geologic formation is the country’s past and recent fiery history, resulting in a radical form of Islam pervading the islands.  The earliest recorded example of Maldivian script, the Ishdoo Loamaafaanu from 1194 ce, details the execution of Buddhist monks (see note below *).  The Buddhists came here from India/Sri Lanka circa 3rd ce, was the religion of the islands till Islam came here in the 12th ce, when the local ruler converted, and the rest fell in line (similar as to what happened in Indonesia).  In the capital Male, a half dozen years ago a mob attacked the National Museum to destroy their nine centuries of Buddhist heritage, the entire collection of artifacts, reportedly magnificent ‘priceless’ statues and tablets found at stupas on different islands, were “Bamiyan-d” (see note below **).

In 2014, the capital Male held a pro ISIS rally!  It has been documented that hundreds of citizens were fighting in Syria along side ISIS rebels, in fact, the Maldives has the highest per capita ISIS jihadists in the world.  In the summer of 2017, an anti-radical islamism blogger was murdered, and post that another moderate blogger has gone into hiding under death threats.  No protection was offered by security forces.  A few years ago, an investigative journalist delving into the nexus of political corruption and religion was abducted and is presumed dead.  And earlier this year a Maldivian medical student/model in Bangladesh was murdered as she had appeared on the cover of a magazine not covered up in Islamic clothing.  In 2015 a woman was sentenced to death by stoning and alcohol is banned in the capital.  Saudi Wahhabia based radical Islam is all pervasive and entrenched here. Yup, Not Your Mamas Maldives.

Some pictures below from the internet.

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In the west, we’ve had issues with two-speed economies, where certain sectors far outperform others within a single country with uneven consequences for the populace.  Here there are two countries and two economies.  Tourists, about 1.2mm per annum compare to the population of 350,000. They fly into the capital Male, where the bulk of the population lives, but never see it, they are whisked away to one of the atoll island resorts, by water taxi or seaplane.  They have no idea whats going on in the country.  I spent half a day walking and observing around the capital.  The local people don’t seem to smile much, don’t seem happy, are not curious and have no interest in positive interaction, in fact seem almost dismissive. And thats also the case with workers that have been imported. Men in general wear dull (greys browns black) ill fitting western tees and pants, yup, no shorts nowhere. While the women are in some sort of mostly head to toe covered black hijab while it’s 90 degrees F outside…in December, in stark contrast to the geology – colorful aqua marine waters, brilliant coral reefs and green landscape. Odd for a tropical country. And again in stark contrast to Sri Lanka, the closest country, where a radiant smile, a gentle head bobble, colorful clothing and a soft spoken two-handed “Ayubowan” with a bow welcomes travelers.  Statues of Christ, Buddha and any other ‘idols’ are banned from being brought into the Maldives.  Receptivity (and tolerance) is non-existent in the country, quite the opposite.  The country is 100% Sunni Muslim and no other muslim sects or other religions are permitted in the country. In fact, the radical version of Sunni islam (salafi/wahabi – i’m not an expert) is becoming institutionalized.  Not Your Mamas Maldives.

Maldivian lady at the beach. 90 degrees in the shade.

A bomb in 2007 in the capital injured 15 tourists, part of an Islamic jihad.  I’m surprised the pro ISIS-ISIL-IS mob hasn’t blown up some tourist yachts or resorts. The single atoll remote resorts are hard to secure, and would be easy to infiltrate. The country sells sun bathing and alcohol to the non-believers, while the populace thinks that to be heretic, and citizens not towing the line are killed.

The sultanates were abolished in 1968, after independence in 1965. The first president came to power easily as opposition political parties were not allowed till he skipped town to Singapore in 1978 with a bag of cash. Another President came to power with no opposition and won ‘elections’, till 2008 when reforms brought in a democrat President, who four years later was ousted in a coup and the previous dictator-presidents’ brother-in-law, a religious conservative with strong ties to the Saudis, has taken over since…so four years of elected government in almost 50 years.  The current government doesnt seem too legitimate.  And, 90% of the governments tax take comes from tourism.  Then you have the clergy…new mosque building dots the islands, not as overwhelming or numerous as in todays Istanbul, but funded by the government.  So…if we connect the dots…maybe there has been an explicit or implicit arrangement…a replica of Saudi Arabia, we stay in power, we empower and fund your religious brand of Islam, you manage the rabids (send them to Syria?) and lets not bite the hand that feeds us.  Well, things maybe changing though and this is why if you are planning on going, you may want to reconsider.  The caliphate is over.  Are the radicals coming home?  On Nov 15th, 2017, Maldivian police released that they had foiled a dual suicide attack in the capital.  Not Your Mamas Maldives.  And not mine either, I don’t want my money funding this arrangement, while risking my life.

Charged with terrorism, and in exile…granted asylum in the UK.

Most colorful and truth speaking shirt in Maldives.

* (Buddhism is non-existent in its country of birth India, due to the invasion of muslim raiders and their subsequent tyrannical rule, initiated with the decapitation at buddhist Nalanda, of monasteries, libraries and universities, in the late 12th century by Khilji, and then by the lineage of central asian mongol (mughal) rulers till the mid 1850’s).

** (Discomfort with Islam being at the national core while irrefutable historic facts point to a different storied heritage is a similar issue in Iran, where I traveled through last fall. The difference being that there people are proud to be ‘Persian’ while considering themselves to be only ‘recently’ Islamic, and have preserved and are educated in their secular and cultural Achaemenid past).

Beautiful non denominational residents of the country.  Pics taken by fellow scuba diver Jean-Francois Belanger.

Swim – Green Andaman

Maldives: Over the years I’ve developed a desire for and joy in open water swimming. A couple days ago I swam back from those islands in the distance to the boat (picture below). The first bit was over a fish rich coral reef before the deep bottomless sea brought the first sense of hesitation. I’ve been diving with sharks etc for the last three days so they are prominent in my current mind space, but there hasn’t been a shark attack since 1973 per the dive master Mox, but still…Over this sabbatical I’ve written in a diary occasionally about my swimming experiences and am sharing one of them from almost to the day, a year ago in Phuket, Thailand. Over time I may share more…

Green Andaman:

(Nov 29, 2016, edited Feb 2017)

I step onto the matte gold silica speckled beach. The giant ocean stretches out west, birthed in a circular bay, and then onwards into the infinite horizon in front of me. Im on a baby bay, within a larger idyllic crescent, about the same curve as a one-eight new moon. I plunge in softly, through nourishing tropical dense air. For the first few strokes I watch the sand below me as it gently reclines away, bits of coral light the way. A hilly but small high tide island stands guard to the baby bay on the south, forested with large dark spinach green trees, seemingly immovable, ignoring the gentle breeze, watching over me, arrested. On the north, which is part of the longer crescent, the frantically waving yellow-ribbed happy coconut trees, dance and fan me forward confidently thru the green Andaman.

Soon, I’m out about twenty languid minutes, past the submerged sand break. Limp and largely colorless boulders of corals recede under me. Leaves and stalks liberated from the jungle shore brush up. Sneaking a look around, suddenly what I’m familiar with has faded into the rearview. Nothing I can see from the shore is recognizable. Now, no one else is around. Im in virgin territory. Some lice bite away at me, i flail rub my body as i swim, but new beastly lice show up, Sisyphean efforts I think. I choose to ignore them.

Further out, I turn back to see how far i’ve come. I’m not sure if its far enough. But i know if I’m not sure, its not far enough. I have to turn around when there is no doubt i’ve come too far, when I’m dancing on the edge. Courage from experience has taught me that it will be never too far, but you have to get to the point where you don’t question that you have reached where it gets scary far. I stretch further out into the throbbing ocean, arms pulling the torso out of my pelvis. Off rhythm breaching waves slap me rudely, brushing me around like a twig, filling my mouth with water where there should be air. Spitting out salt water, I catch the current and it pulls me out further, eventually breaching the juvenile ocean waves of unknown origin. Dark goggles all fogged up, my sight is blurred. I’m out there, past the sentry island into Layan Bay. There is nothing in the periphery of my sight ahead, neither land nor man in any avatar, only pulsing energetic wavy big ocean. I turn a bit, maybe a hundred degrees. Far on the right, as the land ridges up and away from the warm Andaman, a few pagoda spires of the Trisara Hotel break out, Burmese betel nut box lacquer orange, thru the frolicking coconut frond canopy, while other deep green trees around remain Buddha like still. Alone out there, I wonder, do they have eyes and are following me, wondering, what now, what is this, whats he doing here in our world?

Further out past the bay, I see longtail boats, little specs on the horizon. Turning back now, the large rocks corralling in the baby bay are small pebble like far behind me, and my dive in entry spot invisible behind the waves pillaging the shore. I don’t see the point where I have to return to but I know the path. The thought comes to me, right, this is it, too far out now. The ocean is dark green, there is no visibility in the water, can’t even see much below my immediate chest. Thoughts enter, will a ravaging half mad starving mammal take me out from below with a leg as appetizer, or maybe my sides, or mercifully from behind in a painless nanosecond into non-breath? The magnitude of my insignificance firmly sets in, the vast ocean punctures the ego, shattering it, leaving nothingness.

Though I put in place my process of focus thoughts puncture through, can i make it back…What would Michael Phelps do? Oh, and does he swim in the ocean or just a pool. Does he have his own pool…he must. Is his pool as beautiful as David Hockneys? Or is his beauty just the millisecond by which he has to improve his process and performance everyday. Does Phelps know any other beauty?

At the edge now I paddle, where vulnerability brings clarity of what needs to get done, and the sunrise tomorrow depends on my ability to get back, and my luck. If a mammal gets me so be it…or the idiot russian on a jet ski that I saw yesterday. It will be a while before anyone will know, I’d be toast. The feeling of self-insignificance drowns over me, and the clarity of the fragility of control melts the illusion of self-determination. Everything fades except what is the Essence. Idiot homo sapiens. If they bothered to know this beauty, they’d skip their war mongering prophets and temples, this earth is the large magnificent One. This moment of quietness out there, in the hands of fate and my focus, death by vamping mammal or a bloody smashing by errant wave on a jagged rock only moments away. Mrityoma amritam gamaya, take me from the fear of earthly death to immortality.

I ask, when does knowledge become realization? Tamaso maa jyoti gamaya, take me from darkness to the light. Knowing what I have to do, I free style, focusing on one stoke after the next, focusing on the different sound of the inhale and the exhale, a swimming meditation. The latter being underwater is bubbly, noisy, it invades the ears, surrounds it, the trusted path to shutting down the brain, drowning out the past and the future. I focus on rhythm, the only way to make it back from the edge that is real or imagined and unknown too far out. Thoughts of Hemingway and his swimmers in the Mediterranean in The Garden of Eden mirage. I get tempo, but I have to get right tempo. Right, thoughtful tempo. The kind to make it thru with ease, an ease, that is error destroying, all conquering. Like a desired life, it has to be light and effortless. Now I focus on the now, plunging into rhythm, fueled by knowing. Anxiety, worry, despair and pain wash away. All of it. Gone. Now the oceans whippy snappy irreverent waves also submit, choosing rhythmic Ahimsa, they now rise and fall with me. I become aware the exhale has lost its sound. It is soft, small and gentle now, effortless. Something internal lifts me over the water, i’m light and hovercrafting, my pectorals ripping me thru salt water. I wonder…I must be riding a wave of that elusive alluring cocktail of the Fab Four neurochemicals – dopamine, endorphins, norepinephrine and anandamide – there is an awareness of being in some form of ‘flow’. I’d love to plunge deeper. It’s always a meditation in the flow, a consciousness of being in the moment, where the impossible unveils into the possible. The puzzle-pieces of knowledge embrace to form realization.

The beach which was beyond the reverse horizon, that never got closer as I swam in, now rushes in…i walk out.

Where I swam is below.

Chiang Mai

As the cremation ceremonies are undergoing in Thailand this week, I am posting pictures taken on my visit there shortly after the late Kings passing away on October 13, 2016.

Twenty pictures of a lovely city by the river, much slower paced than Bangkok, very digestable at a leisurely pace, full of markets, day and night, and lots of handicrafts influenced by Burma (which ruled this area till the late 19th century) and the many hill tribes from the surrounding hills as well as contemporary artists, delicious food and fruits, coffee shops (a local crop started by the recently deceased King who asked the tribes to swap coffee etc for opium) as well as an afternoon culture of high tea (scones and all included), and loads of boutique hotels and temples (gold, silver, adobe).

Fakarava, French Polynesia

This post is overdue by about a month, but it was a very special experience.  The island of Fakarava is part of the Tuamotos archipelago, one of three in French Polynesia, about 90 minutes by little cessna from the well know capital of Papeete, aka Tahiti, which is part of the Society archipelago. The final of the three being the hawaii-like Marquesas archipelago, no beach coral atolls, just wind, water and time worn hunks of magnificent old green volcanic land.

Fakarava is off the beaten path for divers, a crown reef atoll with two passes, one North (the legendary Garua) and the other South (Tumahukoa Pass, see the cuts in the atoll in below right pic), which used to be a volcano a couple million years ago, there is only one little one road village on the North East end of the ‘rectangle’. Rangiroa, another atoll popular with divers is a short distance away in the same archipelago.

Its the North and South passes and the entire ‘lagoon’ that are teeming with life in this UNESCO Biosphere. The Biosphere includes 6 islands in and around this atoll.  From the village, the North pass is about 20 mins by boat (see above right), the South pass about 2 hours (see the cut in the atoll at the very bottom, above right).

Above: Main street on the left, architecture with local designs, efflorescent sweet fragrant 5 petal gardenia trees and a church made with coral, and lastly the views as you walk down the single road of the island.

Above: The gorgeous lagoon above at different times of the day.

I did seven dives in about three days.  A fourth day was the compulsory surface time required before flying and one was lost to weather.  The ‘slack tide’ when the current is neither rushing into nor flowing out of the lagoon brings the most pelagics to the passes as the currents are switching, and as such more ‘gentle’. And what you see is heart stopping. There were literally walls and walls of sharks, at one point, there must have been about 200 all around me, all 360 degrees and above and below, in spectacularly clear water (100 feet visibility), loaded with tons of other fish and coral. Like armies of sharks out on a march, a sight never to be forgotten.  A video, although restricted to one minute, which is more mind blowing than the pics below is on my instagram feed, tygerwalla, or spend a second here, you wont regret it (Video of Fakarava) And the sharks swim upto you, about say 20 feet or so, menacingly, curiously, gliding effortlessly and swiftly when needed. There are a lot more videos and i’m happy to send them out if you want, to taste this once in a lifetime experience.  The first time you see the sharks in the 100s, the breath, heart and mind stop, and you are supremely focused on an ethereal experience.  And it happens again, the second and third times. Click/expand the pics below.

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The ‘drift’ dives were spectacular also. You are whipped around like in an underwater typhoon at 5-6 knots current through the ocean, and fierce effort of buoyancy and swimming is required to stay the path, while trying to rise, fall and hug the jagged and beautiful coral studded floor, hopefully avoiding all of them as you will cut yourself badly, through canyons and into one that runs perpendicular to all called Alibaba…and in that canyon, along with the sharks, are a billion fish.  I’ve never seen anything like it…Lots of goat fish, flounder, coral trout, snapper, dolphin, nurse sharks, lemon sharks etc etc…

Tips for divers:

  • As one has to connect between Tahiti and Fakarava/Rangiroa, best to plan where you dont waste a night in Tahiti to catch the onward journey the next day.  Flights are not regular, so plan ahead.
  • I would also NOT book the dive packages that are sold.  You’ll pay a bit more per dive, but you’ll be able to pick and choose between where and when to dive which is more important.
  • Check with dive shops as to the level of co-divers, if its not great, a lot of time is wasted and you wont get to the site you want to as it’ll be too difficult and the dive shops have to default to the lowest capable diver…
  • I would skip the heavily marketed trans island dive shop TopDive, for the local ones, they are far less commercial, and far more flexible, and care about the dive rather than maximizing the utility of their assets.
  • MAKE SURE YOU ARE DOING AT LEAST TWO SLACK TIDE DIVES. These are the best, followed by the drift dives which are very special.  Even the reef dives are…
  • There is only one worthwhile place staying in, unless you insist on slumming it, the Pearl Havaiki.  So one has to co-ordinate flights and availability at this place.

Selfie with sharks…had to do it, sorry.

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Another tip for Papeete – there is a epidemic of thievery.  Be careful.  Everything should be under lock and key unless with you.  I had my passport and wallet stolen from INSIDE my room…and the hotel people at the Fare Suisse, couldnt care less.

From the sky, Northland, New Zealand

A day in a seaplane over the northern part of the North Island.

The coastline up and down is carved with gorgeous bays of all shapes and sizes, cuddled up with beaches of all colors, and islands in the foreground, pleasantly almost all named in the maori language, Te Kao, Karikari, Pukenui, Houhora, Taupo, Waiharara, Ahipara, Te Hapua, etc.  Human activity is fairly sparse and thins out the further north one goes, but there is sheep and cattle!

 

 

We flew over the now dive site and fish sanctuary of the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior.

From Wiki: The Rainbow Warrior sinking, codenamed Opération Satanique,[1] was a bombing operation by the “action” branch of the French foreign intelligence services, the (DGSE), carried out on 10 July 1985. During the operation, two operatives sank the flagship of the Greenpeace fleet, the Rainbow Warrior in the port of Auckland, New Zealand on its way to a protest against a planned French nuclear test in Moruroa. Fernando Pereira, a photographer, drowned on the sinking ship. It went down in 4 minutes.

France initially denied responsibility, but two French agents were captured by New Zealand Police and charged with arson, etc and murder. As the truth came out, the scandal resulted in the resignation of the French Defence Minister Charles Hernu.

The two agents pleaded guilty to manslaughter and were sentenced to ten years in prison. They spent just over two years confined to the French island of Hao before being freed by the French government.

In the wake of the bombing, a flotilla of private New Zealand yachts sailed to Moruroa to protest against a French nuclear test.  More info on the operations are on wiki.

The Bay of Islands, a popular place where the Kiwis flock to in their summer.

The ocean laps up and creates beautiful waves, colors and light.

 

Just a day out for the cattle on the beach…no humans in sight.

Close to the very north is Great Exhibition Bay.  Beaches for miles and miles…and no one.  It was difficult to stop taking pictures…it was impossible to take it all in, stunning as it was.

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Coming down the east side of the peninsula, there is a 51 miles long beach called 90 Mile Beach.  The sand and water is darker, the waves roll in..

We surfed the waves home…