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…

Luang Prabang: A morning walk

Across the misty verdant green Apocalypse Now-like dense snaking mountain ridges of the Golden Triangle*, where the soft Nam Khan river meets the milky black chai colored Mekong, lies sublime Luang Prabang, capital of ancient Lan Xang, the Kingdom of One Million Elephants, which shared a border with ancient Lanna, Kingdom of One Million Rice Fields, current day Northern Thailand.  (click on the pics to enlarge them)

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The Mekong

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The Nam Khan river with seasonal bridges rebuilt every year

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Even sublime Luang Prabang can get too much for meditation, as monks cross rivers for forest retreats, two here seen in the background

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As the Lao landscape is mountainous, villages are mostly organized along a single street running parallel to a river. The noble part of the village is upstream, and as a rule that is where the Vat (monastery, Wat in Thai) is built.  Under French colonial rule of the late 19th and 20th centuries, these villages were enlarged, paved, leveled, embankments built and colonial architecture introduced. As such this town of villages is a treasure trove of varied architecture, from tradition Lao houses to French colonial, and everything in between.

There are thirty five Vat in the UNESCO protected area, with Vat Xieng Thong below being the jewel. The Royal Monastery of the City of Erythrinas (Thong Trees) was initially founded in the 16th century and transformed and enlarged over time.

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Magnificent glass mosaics on red background.

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Some That or stupa (sanskrit)/thupa (pali), containing relics or ashes of the dead

 

Tree of Life mosaic and Jataka stories

 

 

Gilded stencil work on black illustrate the Jataka, a literary account of the previous lives of the Buddha.  The caves at Ajanta in India also have wonderful murals of them. The picture below with the elephant is the red right hand door to the entrance to the Sim (Sanctuary), known as Airavata, or Erawan, the fabulous mount of Indra, the King of Gods, commonly represented with three heads but unusually five in this case which became the emblem of the Indianised kingdoms of the Indochinese peninsula.  Indianisation being the process by which influences of Indian civilization were peacefully and selectively absorbed, including language, literature, institutions, art, architecture and religions.  Introduced into the Indochina Peninsula, then known as Suvarnabhumi, or Land of Gold, by Indian sea merchants, traders, teachers and monks, Laos came late into the process, following the Khmer Kingdom, now Cambodia, which has the spectacular Angkor Wat.

 

 

Chapel of the Reclining Buddha: a beautiful statue from 1569 cast in bronze, and on the entrance, five disciples paying their respects to the reclining Enlightened One, who has just received nirvana, while a sixth disciple washes his feet.

Chapel of the Funeral Chariot houses the vehicle of the funeral of King Vong (1885-1959).  On the chariot in the form of a seven headed Naga sits the Kings urn. The exterior decor is exquisite, depicting scenes from Phalak Phalam, the Lao version of the Indian Ramayana. A very popular story, it is presented annually in the form of a ballet at Vat Mai as part of the New Years celebrations.

 

Given the political leaders of major countries today, some mis-elected, some self styled enthroned ganglords, One Buddha is not enough…

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*Golden Triangle: where Thailand, Burma and Laos meet, a place where opium was grown.  “Golden” as gold was the means of trade, of which the French government had a monopoly, having subjugated the local hill tribes to cultivate the crop forcibly, to pay for the war against communism.

Colonial architecture: The Customs house, Mekong Hotel with the communist flag (still common), chilis being sun dried, the children’s school with 100 year old tamarind and mango trees (still common too).

 

Magnificent Vat Sensoukharam, The Monastery with the Sanctuary of One Hundred Thousand Joys, founded in 1717.

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Exceptional gilded stencil work on red background

Triple gabled wooden Kouti, monks living quarters with an ebony tree in front of it.

 

One Buddha is not enough…

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Vat Khili, The Monastery of the Mountain of Gold, circa 1775

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Street vibe

 

The elegant and simple Vat Pak Khan, 1737

 

 

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Royal Barges Museum, Bangkok

In the museum are eight historic barges, which are the most important ones in a fleet of over 50 barges.  Made of teak, gold lacquer, mirrors and jewels, they are intricate, elegant and beautiful.  The bows are carved into creatures from Hindu mythology that carried different Gods.  Thais believe their King is an avatar of the God Rama.

During the Ayutthaya period, early 1400’s onwards, it is reported that there were thousands of royal barges, after all they were the main mode of transportation up and down the river. They also doubled as warships when required. The French amabassador in the 1650’s wrote of hundreds of the embassy’s barges as they went upriver. When the Burmese invaded in the 18th century, they destroyed most of them, and the bombing in the WWs took a further toll.  Since restored by successive Kings, now they are purely ceremonial.

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The barges below are called Krut Hern Het, Suphannahong and Narai Song Suban.  Suphannahong means Golden Hongsa (Hamsa in Sanskrti, or Swan), is about a 150 feet long (the longest dugout in the world), built in 1911, and is the vehicle of Brahma, built for the recently passed away King Rama IX.  The barges beside it have bows of Garuda, and Garuda carrying Vishnu, the latter one to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Rama IX.

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Theres a fiery one Anantanakharrat, of the serpent king Ananta who transformed himself into a bed to carry Vishnu while he slept/dreamed in the cosmic ocean of milk. This one is seven headed.

There are also bows of Hanuman, Bali and Sugreeva.  Magnificent.

 

Classic Thailand: Wat Arun and Wat Pho

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The Shrine of the 8th Imam Reza has been built and expanded since the 14th century right through today. Located a hundered long miles from Afghanistan, and less from Turkmenistan, deep in mountain desert Iran, the scale at close to a million square feet is an ensemble of 30 buildings and courtyards built as a place for Shias to pilgrimage, an alternative to Mecca (in Sunni Saudi), it is beyond description.  The picture above is blasphemous. In the similar category as the magnificence of Bagan, Sossuvlei, Angkor the visitors arms become involuntary switch blades clicking pictures to exhaustion.  Beyond the intricate physical beauty, the eons of real history and imagined conspiracy of the region, plundered for god or territory or riches along with the atmosphere of being a living pilgrimage site adds overwhelming magic to the visit.  And all of that to an agnostic.  To the pious it is the way, and His way is the only way to paradise.
As I wind my way to the center, moving between shadow and light,  warmth and cold, barefoot and not, ebbulient courtyards one grander than the previous unveil themselves to my mouth agape.  Gleaming golden and transfixing turquoise domes and minarets frame the rooflines realigning themselves in a game of planetary hide and seek as I slow dervish along silently losing my bearing among the thousands of black flowing chador Muharram pilgrims. Through a gorgeous gold ivan into a painted mirror fluted hallway I lose my breath.  Kufic calligraphies, the moezzins lilting retelling of the betrayal and unforgivable death of Hussein to the left right thumping of the believers chests, the echoing and unabashed crying of mourners, some swaying some seated along the floor wall takes me to an uncomfortable place of being a non believer. As the lilting rose, I dissolved out into an eclat of irredescent mirrored rooms and jewel box hallways, getting closer to the shrine, light shoots through sun roofs competing with coruscating chandeliers, the wailing of the courtyards gives way to the rhythmic murmur of chanting prayer. I resist succumbing fortifying buckling knees. Without knowing I had crossed the threshold, through thick carved wooden doors smoothed by the brushing of millions of hands lips and foreheads, and into the kaleidoscopic room with the golden cage towards which a hundered hands reach out from the surrounding throng of bodies.

“The face of the Beloved wears neither a veil nor covering,

To glimpse it for yourself, just let the dust of the road settle”

 
“What is the Hearts purpose in gazing on the garden of the world?

To gather the flower of your face in the grasp of the eyes pupil!”

Tehran : War Murals, the Ayatollah and our abandoned Embassy

With the release this week of June 2017, of the previously expunged documents of the 1953 CIA backed coup against the democratically elected leader of Iran, in the name of oil, heres a look at a few things in Tehran from my trip late in 2016. 

Iran lost a million lives in the war with Iraq. The city is mausoleumed by vast eye catching wall murals to commemorate their war dead. Murals also spotlight current war actions by their external forces (Syria). Conscription is mandatory.  Expressive in nature, foreboding in essence, the political message is clear, They Will Never Forget…too.  The murals tell the story of the Shahid, the martyr, the one who gave or lost their life.  Doves fly thru images, evangelical light streaks across the sky as warriors walk across fields, a mother and child with wheelchair look upwards towards heaven, moonlight beams onto wings of bombers on fatal night missions.  To an American visitor from the west with a penchant for history, this is startling, raw, new and unnerving.  As the tour bus weaves through the city, I am on the lookout for the next shocker.  Like New Yorkers to noise and crowds, I wonder if the locals have acquired the inure of the familiar, overlooked and overwhelmed by the more pressing present.  Meanwhile in this city, the Dead look down on the Living.

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“The harvest from the fields of space and time is not that much
Bring on the wine: the worlds affairs do not amount to much”
– Iranian Poet, possibly Hafeez.

 

The Ayatollah vs The Shah: Theocracy vs Monarchy

I visited the last Pahlavi Shahs palace followed by the Ayatollah Khomeinis home. A stark contrast. The Queen of the Shah, had a new modern very stylish palace built in the Niavaran Park, a high end neighborhood in Northern Tehran closer to, and on the mountain slopes and therefore cleaner air, to accompany the palaces built by previous Shahs. A beautiful building, resplendent with art and antiquities, built by Germans, it even had a retractable roof to view the blue skies. Memorabilia from prior to their chopper evacuation from their front door to the airport and then onwards abroad have been preserved. A lot of wealth was taken along in the C-30 airplane, rumors of the amounts which abound.

In contrast the Ayatollah Khomeini initially lived in the poorer neighborhood of Southern Tehran before his doctors suggested he move to the same neighborhood for the superior air quality. He rented a small place and slept, ate, and met with guests in his one not large room. Family lived in a few other rooms. When he arrived to Tehran from exile, in contrast to the Shahs exit, millions lined the streets in 1979, and his Chevrolet (!) took him to the graveyard of the martyrs…zoom in on the pic below. Next door to his home is the hall where he gave the electrifying “great satan” speeches. At the nearby museum, under ominous black banners everywhere, the director welcomed us warmly!, photographed our visit, and said 5-6 groups of Americans visited every week, and gave us complimentary sweets and books on the way out. Huh.

That scowling face.

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The alleyway leading up to his three room home, and where he gave his fiery speeches.

Bedroom and office all in one.

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The US Embassy

The walls of the still intact US Embassy where the evacuation of employees/captives of the failed evacuation are interesting. To the non Kufic script reader, ominous seeming messages and images line the periphery wall.  Liberty with a deathly skull, a revolved painted in the stars and stripes…Up front, the iron gate along with the Ayatollahs image has a rusted helicopter rotor installation, the same heli that didnt make it out i assume. And then the billboard of americans in fatigues, blindfolded, tied up and kneeling. Stopping by here to photograph is highly discouraged…for a first time visitor, a discomforting sense of foreboding envelopes the area, as there is little to no foot or road traffic.  The Embassy still belongs to us, the US, and as such has not been destroyed.

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Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, Scotland

This tournament is part of the European PGA tour, and is held over three legendary golf courses with a repeat finale at the “home”of golf, The Old Course at the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of Saint Andrews. The other two golf courses, also spectacular, being the picturesque Kingsbarnes and difficult test of Carnoustie. 

168 golf professionals play a regular professional tournament with a purse of $5 MM, a slight variation being that the cut down to the lowest ~ 60 guys is after three days not two. They also are teamed up with an amateur in a team net best ball tournament. The amateurs are generally celebrities…actors, musicians, cricket, rugby, racing and soccer stars, and celebrities of other pursuits, including very successful international business people. On occasion, someone like me slips through the cracks and gets invited. I was very interested in playing as I had consistently heard from many fellow amateurs and friends that this was the best week of the year. And it is a very fun week run in a classy manner with panache by Johann Rupert and his staff. Johann owns the luxury brand Alfred Dunhill among others through the publicly listed company Richemont in Switzerland. 

I was there for a week including a practice round on each course prior to the tournament familiarizing myself with the tracks. The weather was great, this being not very common, and I enjoyed every minute I was there. After the practice rounds, the days stretched on with feisty and boisterous dinners catching up with close, long-lost and new friends. The jetlag, long days, and the little bit of drinking, but everyday, are not conducive to attempting to win the tournament, but very much a part of the magic. To my delight, I managed to optimize my energy and concentration and played very satisfactory on all of the days, our team finished 12 under for the tournament, and did not make the cut, which is a low probability event for a low legitimate handicapper I’m told. But if I get reinvited, I’m going for it again, and hopefully both my professionals’ (the journeyman Englishman Daniel Brooks this time) and my game will shine, which will be required.

I should mention a word about the caddies. They were consistently excellent. Not only did they know the layout of the courses very well, they quickly understood the players capabilities and calibrated their recommendations as such. But, they also really want you to reach the best of your potential, and to have a great round of golf. The tournament recommends taking a local caddy at each of the golf courses as opposed to striking a partnership with one for the six or seven days of the tournament. This is to ensure to help the local economies of each of the golf courses. I met most of my caddies a few minutes before I teed off each day, and almost instantaneously felt, given how high-quality they were, that you were in an fabulous partnership. At the end of the rounds, it was a bit sad to know that you will not see them again.

The 18th at Carnoustie, the first tee at The Old Course with Ric Kayne, and the awe inspiring 12th at Kingsbarns. 

More shots of Kinsbarns and our respectable team score after day 1 of 4 below par. 



At St. Andrews, birdies putts at the infamous road hole #17 (hit a memorable four iron for the ages in there, over the false front which checked up and left me 15 feet), and 18, and the score after 3 days of magic. 

I smiled from ear to ear throughout those days. It was a very special experience to play “inside the ropes” and under the studying eyes of crowds… i’m doing a decent job of it.


Where the rubber hits the weaving road… and it all ended with a fabulous party including a magnificent fireworks show over the fairways of the Old Course. No one pinch me, let it keep going. 

Meanwhile in Chandigarh, mom on the Links. 

And an older pic of Amit and Dad at The Old Course. 
A few days prior to the tournament, I got in some valuable practice rounds at Sebonack on some magical fall New York days, my “home” of golf.  

Oceans: Beauty and the beast

I’ve been fortunate enough through swimming, diving and snorkeling to experience, to see and bask in the beauty of some of our many oceans, islands and sea life.  Many of my friends don’t SCUBA dive.  I encourage you to start. The ambrosial serenity and cacophonic beauty of what is there, above and just below the water respectively, and the juxtaposition of the two is indescribable.  But it is the whole experience: getting there and getting further out, drifting and meandering on the water, enjoying the landscape, local culture and food, then preparing and going down and seeing the Ozymandian reefs and reef walls, the magical patterns and iridescent colors of life of all types and sizes, their eco system, the seascape.

And, as in our other pursuits, on occasion, triggered by the environment, one effervesces into an unforgettable period of transcendence, not something one can plan for, but out there in the vast deep blue, out for a swim, a snorkel or a dive, with a bit of luck you can get hugged by angels.

However our civilization is having a not so subtle pernicious impact on this beauty. Unseen to the naked eye due to the fragmentation of soaked plastic, there is a garbage patch two times the size of Texas swirling in the Pacific, yes two times the size of the Texas or the UK. This now micro-plastic tectonic plate floats just below the surface like a cloudy soup.  And even worse, it is estimated 70% of entire garbage is actually at the bottom…Click the hyperlinks in the prior sentences to learn more, Google the term Pacific garbage patch, or get a tea/coffee and educate yourself on “The biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of” in 4 of your 1,440 minutes today and check out this short video.

Even in Fiji, on our journey rounding back towards the main island from farther satellite islands, I dove off the boat and went for a daily idyllic swim to a seemingly desolate Hollywood perfect South Pacific coconut and flower tree beach rimmed with coral and fish life, and there, just under the laden trees, just tucked away from view, a meter or so from the golden beach, in the brush, were tens and tens of large clear garbage bags full of plastic bottles – water, colas, detergent.  Someone had made the effort to pick up this refuse from the beach and capture it. This beach in the middle of nowhere was ‘clean’. But some of the bags were torn, a few plastic bottles were preparing to liberate themselves, as the winds and waters pried them open. I’m done with plastic, local tap and filtered water in restaurants and elsewhere, and cloth/paper grocery bags now, to the best of my efforts. We need to change bad habits.

Even in Southampton, where I spend some summer months, there are almost no swimmable lakes or water bodies. The lakes have been corrupted and subsumed by ego and craving for large green flowery barely used lawns, and the consequent fertilizer chemicals that seep and sicken the water bodies, and the devil be damned if you were to swim off your lawn into these lakes and catch a deathly disease. Southampton must be one of the wealthiest boroughs in the world…and if educated, monied and incentivized Homo Sapiens there don’t care…we can’t expect more from the primarily less wealthy countries and communities that exist and rim the vast Pacific and other oceans.

We are clinging onto this magic of our ocean life, like a lover whose loved one is about to leave him forever. Some experimental solutions are being batted about but seem insufficient and tackle the symptom not the cause.

Baba Dioum said “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, we will understand only what we are taught”.  I encourage you to experience more of this ocean life now, upgrade from more than just a visit to a beach. If the past is any indication of the behavior of our species, it is likely all will be lost, it’s just a matter of time. ‘Teach’ yourself and experience this ethereal wonder. It will be well worth it. After all, who is more curious, intelligent, empathetic and empowered than you.

 

 

 

Fiji

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Landed to the sun rising on Nandi, and went to the boat off the Malolo Lailai reefs. A serene transcendental stunning dive trip followed.

We spent our second day in the southern Kadavu islands. A preview of what was to be stunning green mountain landscapes, ringed by South Pacific golden beaches, circumbulated by magical waters over beautiful reefs teeming with gorgeous tropical fish of all kinds and sizes

The vibes, tranquility and vistas all day were stunning.

The route Rics boat took is the middle pic below.

I loved the diving.  It is out there in the middle of nowhere, somewhere where the vast ocean’s waves crash onto seemingly fragile but impervious reefs ( as many an unfortunate ship captain asleep at the wheel has come to realize) which occasionally poke themselves above the water surface.  Hillsides of multicolored reefss of all shapes and sizes falloff gently sloping into the deep blue ocean. Or you may roll off the boat, go down 20-30 feet to the top of the reef and then go off the reef wall another 50 feet, and the wall is embroidered with coral , xxxponentially more beautiful than anything man could’ve created. Among this magnificence, are Billions of tropical fish, names I’m uneducated about, with colors, and color combinations, and shapes that cannot be imagined nor created by Homo Sapiens (we’ve evolved further but it seems like the other species are more beautiful!!).  In the same environment, schools of hundreds of silver barracuda and mean looking red snapper surround you, farther away an occasional languid sea turtle or two. And as we drift with the wall, just observing and breathing, white tip sharks, mmud shark, silver sharks, circle you, slowly, sliding slickly by, till the mind makes u believe the revolutions are getting shorter in radius and the noose is closing in…moments of meditative absolute. The wall’s crevices hide lobster, sea anemone, giant clams, the list goes on… and feed the wonderful tropical fish.

Can u believe it…

And I will be back for the northern islands, for sure. A wonderful place.  A place that made me think, that the earth was more beautiful below the water than above it.

And then a quick 3 day stopover in Pasadena to celebrate Maya’s birthday! And a visit to the stunning Norton Simon Museum.

 

 

 

Southampton, NY

Another beautiful summer full of dinner on the beach with the Mike, Polly, Alexa, Nick, India and a wonderful stay over by Eva, Cyrille, Alba and Luca.

Pics below : with my god daughters Alba and India, Luca, their dads, and, Eva and Polly.

 

And the satisfying club championship win at Sebonack.

Porquerolles + Sardinia

A few fun days away from grey Paris in Ramatuelle, St.tropez, Porquerolles  – bright sun and warm sand!

 

A few delightful days laughing, talking, diving, watching the euro 2016 football and swimming in Sardinia. Had to digest the great food on the boat!  Amazing fun. Clockwise from top left corner…Corsica whispering by pre dawn, beautiful swimming bay Spaggia I due Mari, Isla Caprera, diving on a dual pinnacle off Isola Tavolara.

France

Paris, before the south

Morfontaine GC clubhouse (delicious food inside :)), and my room with a view over the Place des Vosges. Weather was a bit damp and grey but the city is still spectacular.

At the Clown Bar, had delicious Cow brain in ponzu, and grilled pigeon…sounds crazy but great meal…and a few more fun meals and golf rounds with the Quinn’s and Sandra

The incomparable Museé Guimet

Museé Rodin