Deserts Aren’t Supposed to Be Green

Crazy Rain, Fort Davis, TexasI’ve never seen Trans-Pecos Texas so green. I’m 43 years old and admittedly I’ve been coming out to the Big Bend area since my late twenties so that’s not a very good statistical sample.

Be that as it may: I’m glad that the West of Texas isn’t in hardcore drought like it has been in years passed. I’m also glad to see just about every creek and river on my route for Fort Davis in good health. All except the Pedernales. That river is just dead. Good job Austin!

Here is a link to the Drought Monitor.It’s current for Texas. Look at the area worst hit in Central Texas. That’s pretty much most of San Antonio’s watershed. Except we get most of our water from an underground aquifer and so we won’t see the effect of this drought for a year and we won’t see the recharge, when it comes, for a year.

I hadn’t realized how bad a year Texas was having until I looked at the details. 59% of the state is currently in moderate to exceptional drought status. Three months ago it was 72% and a year ago it was 89%. That’s bad. It isn’t California bad, but we had California’s bad drought in 2010-2011. Relief is expected over the next few months as well as Texas’ traditional September rains arrive. California, I am very sorry to say, is fucked. Another reason Texas can soon expect more Californians to come live here. 

In retrospect, I suppose my comments about healthy creeks and rivers don’t mean diddly-squat. Still, I’ve never seen the area around Fort Davis so green. I can only imagine what Big Bend National Park looks like? It must be amazing, Ocotillo in bloom all over the place? Prickly-pears of all different colors blossoming in the desert? I wish I’d had time to drive down there but it’ll have to wait until later in the year, if I get back out west at all. I might have some research work overseas during the winter break so we’ll see.

I took a detour about three hours out of San Antonio and headed south across Terrell County through the Pecos River canyonlands. I drove across Independence Creek, filled with insanely glorious water. Water so clear it made me want to drink it. Water so clear it made me want to take my sandals off and get my feet wet, walk up and down the creek for a while like I used to when I was a kid.

Of course, it made sense, looking at the water, why landowners are so protective of entry and exit into the Devil’s River (which is on the other side of the Pecos River canyonslands): open that river up to tourism and it’ll be wrecked in two years, even to the most responsible tourists. Industrial tourism has a way of doing that–and no, I am not one to talk. Some places are better off with a conservation easement but no public access. Some places are just better off left alone.

Some places should remain wild.

Then I drove down into Sanderson Canyon, stopped in Sanderson itself for gas and water and chips and then drove on, eager to drive up out of the canyon onto the Marathon Uplift, as they call it geologically. I fiddled around in the road-cuts along the way, messing around in the rocks like a boy. Then, a few miles outside of Sanderson Canyon it all changes. I call it the most gorgeous view in all of Texas, purple mountains and golden grass filled with pronghorns and cattle and the occasional elk.

Except this time it was green.

Beautiful, yet green.

Compare the view atop the Davis Mountains looking south and east just three days ago, and the view on December 29, 2013.

Same place, damned different colors.

Deserts aren’t supposed to be green.

It rained an awful lot, which feels bizarre in Fort Davis. Clouds obscured the skies at the McDonald Observatory so no Star Party, which was why I came out here in the first place. I did get four solid days of daydreaming before the rigors of scholarship begin. Four days to let my brain do nothing but follow the monkey mind wherever it led. Four days of food, fresh air, wild critters and the occasional bird or two.

If you are so inclined you can check out all the photos here:

Green or not: get yourself out to the Big Bend area and the Davis Mountains. It’s the best country Texas has to offer, and country is something we still have a whole hell of a lot of.

Guatemala: A Microcontinent All Of Its Own

Vulcan de AguaGuatemala occupies a strange place on the map of the world. Take a look at it. The best way to understand Guatemala geographically and geologically speaking is this: picture a very fat reversed capital “L.”

Across the bottom, horizontal, line is the Cordillera, a very high mountain range created by the subduction of the Cocos plate under the Caribbean plate, for good measure the North American plate pushes down on Guatemala. Most of the rocks in this range are igneous, usually volcanic but there are some places in Guatemala where one can find mantle rocks. Mantle rocks are rocks created when the plates separate in the deep mid-oceanic ridges and eons later, after moving across the bottom of the ocean, are thrust high up into the skies by continents colliding. This is why you find fossilized seashells in the Dolomitic Alps, which once were a great coral reef. Mantle rocks are found, exclusively in mountains where they have been uplifted, like Cyprus, California and other places. California’s serpentinite is a good example, as seen in two photos attached, one close-up and the other an outcrop near Yosemite National Park.

Like most “highlands,” languages proliferate, such as in the Caucasus and Papua New Guinea, which both have hundreds of languages. In Guatemala there are roughly 20 languages up in the mountains, which is one good reason to return: just to see and experience so many different cultural groups crammed into one small area. I do not know the native dialect the Mayans of the Peten region; I’ve been told it’s Yucatecan, but I’ve also heard of at least two more Mayan languages, both of which I could never pronounce, even if I tried. I will discuss the languages of Guatemala, later, in a separate post.

More dramatically, along the east-west axis of the bottom line of our “L” volcanoes are very common. In fact, I am looking at one right now.

SerpentiniteThe vertical line of our imaginary capital “L” is karstic, limestone, hilly, eroded, uneven and covered in a blanket of deep pile, luxuriant green jungle. The vertical “L” is also mostly one geological unit: the North American plate’s margin, a vast limestone plateau and former seabed of soft, malleable rock. In some places Karst topographies can take wild shapes, like the area around Guilin, China and Ha Long Bay near Hanoi, Vietnam. I’ve also seen some strange karst in Belize, but have no photos. This kind of geological unit is also prone to sink holes and caverns, hence the perpetual fascination with sinkholes that just “appear” in Guatemala. (Side note: sinkholes, or cenotes, also serve as great places for archeology, as the Classical Maya used them as garbage dumps.) Peten Itza, the lake we stayed on in Flores, is a shallow depression in this geological feature that has filled up with water. This limestone is not, as the geologist would say, a competent rock. A product of uneven, unsteady erosion the lake is proof of the incompetent rock.

Now, run a diagonal line at 45* between the vertical line and the horizontal: this northeast to southwest running line roughly corresponds to the Rio Motagua valley, the main river that drains this massive rain shadow valley. The valley is semi-arid, complete with cacti, other succulents and sandy soils that are perfect for growing the tasty cantaloupes and honeydew melons. As I mentioned earlier this valley is smashed between three mighty geological units: the Cocos Plate, the Caribbean Plate and the North American Plate.

I mentioned all of this mostly for your edification, but also for two separate but fascinating reasons.
First, as we were driving down the valley, literally down, but bearing northeast, I spied what looked to be like green rocks to me. A clear hint of the trauma the rocks in the hills have undergone were the shattered roadcuts, outcroppings and multiple faults visible in the roadside. Imagine what the underlying rock looks like? This little country is the earthquake hotel and its own microcontinent all rolled into one.

Some of the stone was hard igneous, some was sandstone, some metamorphic and other plain limestone. But here and there about halfway down the mountains green rocks proliferated. I simply had to stop and look at the rock. Indeed, it was serpentinite.

“Now,” you ask, “why do I give fig about a green rock?”

Answer: there is a very special element that precipitates through serpentinite. Its abbreviation in the Periodic Table is “Au,” and the Spanish had a sickness for it that destroyed two great empires and countless smaller societies. Over time gold will, indeed, given enough pressure, rain through serpentinite. It’s one of the chief reasons so many people went to California in the 1840s. Further, I have a hunch, although my geological knowledge is only basic, that this serpentinite I was looking at was probably a proto-jadite stone, which would make sense because jade was more valuable to the Mayans and Aztecs and Zapotecs than was gold, or silver.Crustal Collision Zone

The second reason is this photo  (also pictured in the post) I took on the flight from Flores to Guatemala City this morning. Take a look at it. It’s a collision zone, where the soft margins of the North American plate are running into the harder rock of the Caribbean and Cocos. The mountains look like you’ve shoved a carpet against the wall. One narrow valley is even more interesting. I suspect what’s happened to it, the one that looks kind of like a ladder, is that the rock was pushed together and then pulled apart briefly creating stretch marks, and then pushed back. (This feature can be seen in the Appalachians, as well, which are extremely ancient mountains compared to these in Guatemala.)

The next question, which I am unqualified to pretty much even speculate on, is how the geology and geography effects politics. I reckon I’ll be needing to call a buddy of mine in Austin who is a Guatemalteco and ask him.

More soon . . .

The Best Dog I Never Owned

Guido and I in the ApenninesDo you have any dog stories? Leave them in the comments.

I’m not a dog person. Sure, we had a black lab–named Isis after a Saturday morning television show for kids–from the time I was six until I was seventeen. What a life that dog did lead. She would hunt and fish with us, chase after all manner of ducks and birds. She never harmed another dog, but she never lost a fight either. She’d immediately roll them on their back and that was it. She was a bad-ass. But she was my father’s dog, never mine.

I’ve moved around too much to own a dog. One can leave cats alone for a week or two to their own devices only to be fed by friends once a day and have their litter cleaned once a week. They are much easier than dogs. We have two currently: Kedi–which means cat in Turkish–so named as we got him shortly after we returned from Istanbul in 2010. And Stella, whom we rescued after we returned from Costa Rica in 2011. (We’ll not be getting a cat when we return from China this year, however.)

But I do like dogs and was reminded of the best dog I never owned when my father texted me the above photo the other day.

Dad and I were high in the Apennines, just above an Italian village called Pescasseroli. It was August of 1998. The dog, whom we named Guido, had attached himself to us the first morning we arrived. We were heading out of town and up the mountains. He followed us all day, ate our scraps and showed us the best trails in the mountains. He was a cheap guide. He wasn’t pushy. He was sweet and didn’t slobber or smell. The kind of dog I like.

The next morning and the next morning and the next he was outside our hotel, waiting. It was uncanny. We grew fond of him. How could we not?

What’s even more uncanny is that the morning we were leaving Dad and I both expected him to meet us at our hotel as he had for the prior three days. But he wasn’t there, as if he knew.

I often wonder what became of Guido. I hope, where ever he is, he’s getting good salami scraps from tourists on the side of some mountain, on earth or in heaven.

“Oh, my head!”

I’ve now seen all the great mountain ranges of the world. The Himalayas, the Pamirs, the Tien Shan, the Elburz, the Caucasus, the Alps, Carpathians, the Appalachians, the Rockies and now the Andes.

I was in no way prepared for the elevation here in Quito. I’m not sure why it slipped my mind, but within ten minutes of stepping off the plane my head was throbbing, my heart was pounding and my breath was short. Getting to sleep was a task. In the morning the hotel recommended ‘te de coca,’ which is exactly what it sounds like: coca leaf tea. I’m sipping some now and will inform you later if it works. Everyone here swears by it. It does taste good. Not leafy, or bitter like East Asian green tea, it’s got a very subtle alkaline taste, kind of like a cross between mint and basil. “Whatever you do,” I was told too late, “don’t drink the coffee, yet.” It certainly tastes a whole hell of a lot better than the “qat” I chewed in Ethiopia.

Good lord, these mountains are huge. Quito sits in this magnificent, steep valley running north to south. The equator is about thirty miles north of here. There is no local currency, as the economy was totally dollarized in 1999. That’s odd. But it’s kept inflation largely intact.

I seem to be managing well traveling with my father. It has, after all been almost five years since we last traveled together. Was it really in Iran?

The weather is pleasant, not cold, but not quite warm: sweatshirt weather. We’ll be walking around the old town of Quito this afternoon so there will be photos posted this evening!

Tomorrow at 800am we leave for the Galapagos. This trip is strange in many ways, as everything is first class: the trip was a birthday present from my father. I say this because our boat has hi-speed wireless on it. That’s a far cry from the Tiger Breeze.

Hopefully there will be misadventures along the way. And of course, I will be your faithful correspondent.

More soon.

The Big Question

Road ShotAs the bus twists and turns up the Sierra Madre del Sur coming out of Zihuatanejo the first thing you notice are the lush green hillsides. The next thought that logically follows is: wow, there is a lot of water here. But like the coastal ranges of California the water is deceiving as I soon discovered.

After climbing above the first range of crests, outcrops and rippling ridges we descended into a broad valley, much as I imagine the Salinas Valley in John Steinbeck’s retelling. It was dry, cactuses proliferated. Grasses burned off in the heat of a Mexican summer. Corn fields baked on the banks of a river.

“Lago muy seco,” I asked the bus driver. “Si,” he replied, “it’s the lowest it’s been in twenty five years.” The scene was well nigh apocalyptic. Everyone here in Austin is concerned about the levels of Lake Travis, one of a chain of Hill Country reservoirs built for flood control (and water management) on the Colorado River during the Great Depression. LBJ’s pork for the area when he was a Congressman and Senator. But this Mexican lake? It was forty feet low. In part of the lake fields of corn had taken over–the river snaking through where water and fish once thrived. This lake provides necessary drinking and farming water for the States of Guererro and Michoacan and now it was almost empty. The landscape was parched. Sure, I was in a rain shadow. But the sources of the lake were not, as they sat at the crest of a watershed, which in most years, brings in ample water to the region.

“It’s the hottest and dryest summer I can remember,” said Resendo, the owner of a small cafe in Melaque. Melaque is on the coast. Tropical. It is supposed to rain every day in July, August and September. Not this year. And when a Mexican complains about the heat, you know it is unseasonably warm. “It’s the rainy season,” he went on. “And you’ve been here, what, almost two weeks? Has it rained?”

“Once, for half a day?” I replied.

“Exactly,” he said.

In the last year I have traveled in almost twenty foreign nations. And there were only two (Vietnam and Singapore) where the people didn’t complain in one sense or another about massively altered traditional weather patterns. I’m not talking about ‘global warming’ here. That’s a misnomer, in my opinion, for what is happening. What I’ve heard about and what I am discussing is nothing short of global climate change.

In Indonesia Lake Toba was 10 feet higher than it had ever been. “Too much rain,” said Efan, the young man who managed the guest house I stayed in.

“The Highlands are extremely dry this year,” said Les an Australian ex-pat (and bug collector) living in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia. “I haven’t seen my favorite beetle this year at all. And it’s not rare. It just needs water,” he said.

In Laos and Thailand the late onset of the cool season messed up food production. And it’s almost paralyzing Cambodia.

Although the Monsoon didn’t fail in India in 2008, my farming friends in Kerala had already almost run out of water in the Western Ghats and were worried about the cardamom crop failing. “It’s not as water hungry,” said Ahmed, “as cotton, but it is a thirsty plant.”

Oman had been devastated by a hurricane the year before. Yes, a hurricane.

Turkey? Central Anatolia was greener than many people could ever remember. But spring was late in coming. And it was a cold spring. The Judas Trees blossomed a full month later than they normally do.

“We only had a week or two of snow this year,” said Stuart, my best friend in Denmark.

Yes, you read that correctly. Viking-land lacked real snow.

And here I sit in Austin, Texas. The mercury in the thermometer is at the point of bubbling and it’s only 1100am.

All this is anecdotal. Dismiss it. Or don’t.

But here’s the whole point of my anecdotes, from an interview of Jared Diamond:

“The average per-person consumption rate in the first world of metal and oil and natural resources is 32 times that of the developing world,” says Diamond. “That means that one American is consuming like 32 Kenyans.” The problem is not the number of Kenyans, the problem is when Kenyans or, more pressingly, big developing countries such as China, gain the ability to consume like Americans.

Can’t humans simply increase the supply of resources as they have done before? “We can change the supply of some things if there is only one limiting resource. If it is food, then we can have a green revolution and produce more crops,” he says. “Unfortunately, we need lots of resources. We need food, we need water. We are already using something like 70 or 80 per cent of the world’s fresh water. So you say, ‘Alright, we’ll get around water by desalinating sea water.’ But then there’s the energy ceiling, and so on.”

That’s the big question. The question no one is willing to voice. Am I, a member of the advanced world willing to forgo some of my standard of living for those in the developing world? And if I do so, do I have the moral and ethical standing to ask those of the developing world to forgo some of their wants?

I don’t have an answer.

I can promise you one thing: we cannot have it all. The Chinese cannot live like Americans and the Americans cannot continue to live as they are. Something will break.

One night in June, as Stuart and I sat in the garden, polishing off a bottle of tequila, he asked me how I saw the world in fifty years.

“Hotter, poorer, hungrier and more violent,” is how I put it. “But it’ll still be round,” I said, taking a swipe at Tom Friedman.

“That’s pretty grim, brother,” he said, smiling at the joke.

“If history has taught me anything, Stuart, it’s this: life can be grim and history is inexorable,” I held my finger up silencing an emergent query. I gathered my thoughts and finished up, “but humanity will muddle through.”

I don’t know if I want to bequeath a world of ‘muddling through’ to our children. But that’s what they’ll get.

Time, Unanchored

The drive from Malatya to Sivas was rather boring. Most of the landscape between Malatya and Sivas is high, averaging around 800-1,000 meters and semi-arid. It’s mostly an up-and-down, up-and-down journey climbing one pass after another. The aridity is broken up only by rocky alpine streams lined with toothpick straight cypress trees. They look much like aspens in Colorado and make a similar pop-corn crack in the wind. I lost count of the snow-blanketed ranges in the background. It was and felt like a very far off Central Asian landscape. I understand why the Turks feel so at home here. It’s in their nomadic blood.

Sivas is much dryer and higher than Malatya as well. The weather has been fantastic, 75-80* with few clouds, just enough to break up the piercing high altitude glare. Looking out on the way the light falls on the buildings and people here is wonderful. The light enhances the pastels so common to Anatolia. But when I’m out in it, it’s harsh and dry.

I stepped off the bus the day before yesterday, dropped off my bags at a hotel, wolfed down lunch and walked into town. My first stop was the Ulu Cami of Sivas. The mosque itself was a typical Damascene rectangle. It’s been heavily restored and nothing of the original remains, except for a tall, leaning minaret on the northern corner. It’s constructed of dirt red bricks with two narrow bands of turquoise tiles.

I then walked to the Gok Medresse. The name, “gok,” means sky blue. John Freely writes that the Gok Medresse has the most splendid facade in Seljuk architecture. Naturally, I was excited to see it. I’d been reading about it for a few days and my expectations were high. But upon arrival I discovered it to be under restoration–and hideously disfigured, grossly overwrought restoration work it is. I can deal with scaffolding. But what they are doing here is a crime. The portions that have not survived the ravages of time are being replaced with new carvings designed to fit perfectly with the old. Needless to say much of the skill set required for such exacting work has been lost. Thus, the replacements look like a man wearing a brand new suit top and old, threadbare pants. They were even replacing the tile work in the minarets with new iznik tiles. Just awful.

I swallowed my disappointment and walked uphill to Sivas’ three remaining Seljuk works. Along the way I stopped to figure out how to rent a car. Super easy, although I really hated to have to use the guy’s google translator to make myself understood. It will be much easier to communicate in Istanbul. Although, it does surprise me that so few Turks actually speak English. It’s one of the few countries in the world with a significant language barrier. Not anything close to Russia or China, but still. Miming, hand signals and about 20 words of basic Turkish vocabulary are pretty much a necessity. And I really cannot speak Turkish. I love the sounds of the language, but I cannot, in any way, get my tongue to make them. It’s just not going to happen. Russian? I can do that. Chinese? Sure, my Mandarin is passable. Hell, I was even getting good with Bahasa Indonesia at Lake Toba. But this? No can do.

Sivas is a relatively prosperous town of about 280,000 souls. It sits on a set of hills overlooking the Kizilirmak–Red River–and was the site of the Turkish Republic’s founding by Mustafa Kemal in the early twenties. Narrow cobbled streets are flanked by six and seven story apartment buildings. Schoolyards filled with the laughter of children and alleyways musty with dust and the soft thud of women beating carpets are found at every turn. The downtown area has a nice pedestrian shopping area of about six or seven blocks. For a small city it has an almost urban feel to it.

In the meydan–the city square–sit three Seljuk medresses–actually the reamins of one, one fully extant and a third which is a darussifa, or hospital that was in use as such until 1917. It is now being restored, as well. I wasn’t allowed in, but after flashing my ‘Press Card’ the workers admitted me and I had the place to myself. The workers even showed me the tomb of Keykavus I, himself, for whom the complex was constructed. The tile work was very striking, blues and red. I hadn’t seen red done in this manner in tiling, ever, so seeing this compensated for the let down of the Gok Medrresse. Sure, I’d seen orangish bricks inlaid amongst blue tiles, but this was novel.

The Cifte Minarets were, like the Gok Medresse, undergoing restoration, but I was allowed to wander freely around the foundations and got lots of good photos. I was surprised to see fluted half towers like these. I didn’t know they existed outside of India and they have a very curvaceous, Indian-houri, Qutb Minaret feel to them. I then sat down in the medresse that was open to the public, there is a wonderful tea house inside it and proceeded to write for a few hours. (An interior photo here.) Then it grew dark, I returned to the hotel and prepared for sleep.

I was excited to be taking a drive and thus awoke early, like a child on Christmas morning. The drive was stupendous and easily took an hour longer than need be due to constant stops to snap shots. (Here and here and here and here for example. The last one is my favorite. It’s just so evocative of the whole day!) As I climbed the last pass–1,950 meters–I thought to myself, “who settles in a place like this? And where the hell am I going? If Divrigi is all the way up here, wow!”

But then I plunged downward and Eastwards, back and forth, back and forth, switchback after switchback, hairpin curves for at least ten kilometers. Then I saw the Tiphrik Valley. Verdant, warm–it was actually hot, close to 90*, much like Malatya: a narrow, exuberant concave valley, about the third the size. The Çaltı Çayı is a rushing green freshet pouring into the Euphrates 80 kilometers from here–it rips and roars through the valley below, audible even at the Divrigi Mosque. The town of Divrigi (population 12,000) climbs and clambers up the hillsides. Of course, I drove 200 kilometers to see the mosque, not the view.

There are only three buildings I’ve ever walked into and literally said, “wow!’ This wasn’t one, but it was close. The vaulting was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It’s complexity was beguiling. A display of impetuous virtuosity if I’ve ever seen one. The intended effect here, unlike say, the Hagia Sophia, isn’t to provide light. It’s the builder saying, “look at what I can do!”

Here follows a long digression on Islamic art. Skip it if too boring.

Jairazbhoy writes of the Divrigi Mosque that the carving style appeared “suddenly” in Anatolia, implying in a sense it came from no where. After seeing it myself and looking at the photos multiple times I not only concur with his judgment but feel compelled to elaborate on it. Before I do I need to add that the vaulting, as I said before, is the most amazing vaulting I’ve ever seen. The vault of the second bay is a four pointed star the likes of which I was very surprised to see here, much less even attempted. Sure, I’ve seen vaulting do similar things, in the Isfahani Friday Mosque for example. But nothing approaching this scale. The thickness of the ribs, as you can see in the photo, immediately brought to mind vaulting seen in Gothic Cathedrals, not a mosque in the middle of Anatolia. (There is a reason for this, which I will get to shortly–a kind of architectural whodunit.) But it was the four pointed star vault in the hospital wing of the mosque that really stupfies. What is so amazing about this work of art–and that is exactly what it is–is how it is actually two melded vaults, one a four pointed star and the other a semi-hemishperical. It’s like a groined vault that gives off the sensation of the sun rising and falling from left to right. At every angle of viewing there is some new complication, enhancing the sense of movement until you want to whirl off in circles like a dervish.

Now, about the portal facades: the main north portal, the West and the Hospital facade each differ in style and treament. This is what makes the whole complex and its provenance so interesting, not only intellectually, but aesthetically. Most complexes of this sort have a unanimity of design spirit. Rarely are they a hodge podge merger of vastly different influences. As a matter of fact, most buildings of any sort that throw stylistic elements from different artistic eras or traditions fail. They’re ugly and don’t cohere into a unified whole. I’m reminded of the Gostinitsa Moskva in Moscow. The architect who designed it presented Stalin with two different sets of plans. One was in the soi disant Russian Gothic–which is actually well represented in the Seven Sisters of Moscow, the other in High Communist Realism. Stalin, to the terror of the architect, approved both designs. And hence was born a hideous square block of a hotel adjancet Red Square, overlooking the Statue of Zhukov, the Nazi-Slayer. (Really, that’s what they call him.) Two facades are in High Communist relief, the other two are Russian Gothic. Last time I was in Moscow (2003) both facades had been razed and were being replaced with something more unifying. Laugh out loud at that–the Russians under Putin couldn’t pour piss out of their boots if the instructions were on the soles. Which is a terrible shame, as Russian art has much to offer. But that’s another discussion for another day. Suffice it to say that Russian art is far to underappreciated in the West.

But the Divrigi facades, disparate as they are–semi-Hindu, classical Seljuk, and a Muslim-Christian-cum-Gothic fusion, actually cohere. The West portal does look Hindu. Very reminiscent stylistically of the Qutb Minar (which I linked to above). There is no record of who carved this portal. The Seljuk portal is amazing in the refinement of its ornament. It’s as if the artist jumped ahead two hundred years. The floral reliefs almost make it look like they were glued or mortared on, as opposed to being carved. And the ornament is huge, almost super-life like. The Hospital Entrance portal if it were stripped of its Muslim ornament and replaced with gargoyles and kings would look exactly like the facade of a medieval cathedral. The twin piers supporting the double recessed pointed arch? Dead ringer for Gothic. But who designed it? Who built it? Jairozabhoy cites several sources that claim prisoner’s of war from the Knights of Saint John, a Crusading Order based on the island of Rhodes were pressed into its consctruction to earn back their freedom. There are also two crusader looking cross vaults–the vauls literally have crosses built into them–that support this conclusion.

Taken in its particulars the complex is a wild romp through the architectural trends of the day, stretching from the Indus River Valley in the East to the North Sea in the West. The Seljuks did have a whole world of art to draw on, as Turkish tribes of one sort or the other ruled at the time from the shores of the Adriatic to the Jamuna River Valley near Delhi. Taken as a whole, the Divrigi Mosque works aesthetically, too–it’s more than just an intellectual curiosity.

Before I trudged downhill for lunch I was given a real acoustic treat. I sat on the porch, next to these two old guys, when the muezzin belted out the azan, or Muslim call to prayer. He wasn’t finished with the first chorus of “Allahu Akbar” before the melancholy song ricocheted of the mountain walls twenty kilometers distant, racing back in a mezmerizing echo. Now, I’ve heard azans from Xi’an in China to Muscat in Oman, from the southernmost Indian Cape of Comorin all the way north to Skopje in Macedonia and they are always wonderful. But this one? I sat there, still as I could be and closed my eyes for the full effect. Time unanchored. A moment of complete dissolution. I’m not religious–religion in my opinion is a false construct created by humanity to try and bridge the gap between the transcendental yearnings we all have and the common place duties we all face. Religions fail. But sometimes, and this moment was one, a hint of transcendence echoed through me, right as it was bouncing of the valley walls. The azan ended, I smiled and walked down the hill to eat lunch.

On the return journey to Sivas I turned off an old dirt road to nohwere. I drove for twenty or thirty kilometers just breathing in the scenery. Who ever said scenery was breathtaking was no Buddhist. Breathing is pure essence of life.

And so, I stopped the car, got out, sat on the hood breathing deep draughts of Anatolian air. The only sounds were birds chirping and a high keening wind.

The dome of the sky settled over me like light linen in a summer breeze. Green pastures rolled off in the distance. Mountains rose like smoke signals on a windless day. White clouds and snow-dusted peaks merged imperceptibly into each other.

At last, the jabbing and counter-thrusts of thought crawled to a stop.

I breathed again and life slowed almost to a halt. I let out the deep breath, as my Buddhist master taught me to, and became the clouds, the grass, the dust-devils whilrling down the road.

As I inhaled the world dissolved.

Anatolian Skies

Anatolian Skies

Drove to Divriği today. About 400 kilometers round trip. Rented a car. Splendid. The day was as close to perfect as could be asked. I took some rural photos for Don, and also I stopped at a place where they breed those Anatolian Shepherd Dogs everyone is raving about. Enjoy the photos.

Not A Lot, But Still Something

On the SummitAs many of you know I injured my back in a 2003 car accident coming down the Himalayas into Nepal. Due to the injuries I haven’t hiked a mountain since then. Until today, that is–a nice jungle hike up a mountain. I climbed to a height of 1,784 meters. Now, that isn’t much. But it’s a huge achievement for me personally. Of all the things I missed most that I lost due to my injury hiking in the mountains and running were the top two. And now, I can hike again.

(Today’s photos can be found here, I especially like the bee flying out of the flower.)

I am sore and I will feel it tomorrow. But I am looking forward to feeling those good aches, those aches when you know you’ve accomplished something, even something minor as a four hour hike up a small mountain and then down again.

It’s been too long since I looked out from the top of a mountain and surveyed all below me. It’s a great feeling and I’d forgotten just how good it is!

So, here’s to baby steps! I may climb the Matterhorn yet, someday. Always dreamed of doing that perhaps I still may.

Lake Toba, Indonesia


In a word: superlative.

Lake Toba is quite possibly the most beautiful place I have ever seen in my life. And I’ve seen a lot.

The scenery is intensely dramatic. And the photos do not do it justice. If this lake was indeed once a volcano, as the history books suggest then it was a monster volcano, because this lake is huge.

It resembles a Polynesian paradise more than I imagined.

There are no tourists here. This is one of those places I had to work very, very hard to get to. First, there was a 9 hour ferry ride across the Straits of Malacca. (Start at the link and move forward from there.) Then there was a night in Medan, Indonesia. My hotel was right behind the Masjid Raya. At 400am the call to prayers sounded out. The imam then proceeded to give his sermon, over the loud speakers for the next hour. I didn’t get to sleep until 630am, only to be awakened by my alarm at 730. I then caught a bus. And this was the absolute epitome of a chicken bus. It was jam packed, standing room only, no air con (I hadn’t had a shower in two days) and everyone, men and women, chain smoked the entire time. There were no pit stops and my bladder almost exploded. Not only did our bus driver have to dodge oncoming traffic on hair pin curves–and these are always intense in Asia–but he also had to dodge monkeys, hundreds of them running across the road every fifteen minutes.

But then we arrived. And when I jumped in the waters of Lake Toba from the balcony of my hotel (which is only $5 a night) and looked out around me I knew I it was all worth it.


Nota bene: I learned something very interesting about Indonesia, or at least Sumatra, last night. Whilst hanging out with an Aussie I met on the ferry I found out that women, here in Indonesia, are the aggressive ones, not the men. He and I were sitting at a sidewalk coffee shop (where I snapped this kitty photo) and at least five young ladies sat down, said “hello” and tried to chat us up. I asked him if they were working girls, as I was a bit befuddled. He said, “no way. Women here are the one’s who talk to the men, not the other way around.”

“I could get used to that,” I replied.

A Vietnamese Pastoral

WaterYesterday I drove out into the jungle to see the ruins of ‘My Son’. Along the way I recognized how true it was that Vietnam is still largely a rural nation. It’s currently the 13th most populous nation in the world and in a few decades is projected to become the 10th. There are babies and infants everywhere and pregnant women are a common sight as well. Similar to Iran there is a huge under-30 cohort in the country. This group has come of age in an era of rapid economic growth and reform. But Vietnam is still rural and it was the land, the countryside to which I was drawn. (I grew up on a farm and find rural areas quite fascinating.) The Vietnamese countryside did not disappoint.

In this part of Central Vietnam the flat farm land is found in a very narrow strip–40 to 50 miles wide–between the mountains and the sea. It is land of thick, fertile alluvial soils. As I drove inland from the coast we passed several rivers–it’s no wonder Swift Boats played such an important part in the war (my uncle died on one), but it’s only until you get here and see for yourself that you realize this. Fisherman in conical bamboo hats waded in the shallows along the banks and the islands in mid-river, while many long canoe-like boats paddled upstream and down.

Then came the rice paddies, fields and fields of them–all just recently harvested–with water buffaloes languishing in the muck left behind. Egrets sitting atop the big, strangely calm and silent animals, herons hunting in the muddied waters of paddies, ducks, geese and moor-hens were everywhere. Often I caught the reflection of the mountains in the distance in these semi-stagnant pools of water.

The roads were clogged with bicycles; school children riding home, others with parasols jerry-rigged for shade from the withering sun and women wearing the elegant ‘ao dai’ blowing gently in the soft breeze.

Sometimes a farm house sat in the middle of an immense field of rice paddies, raised up on a dyke-like formation. Shaded by banana trees and other palms, the thatch-roofed houses were made of red-bricks, fired from the luxuriant red soil of the region. Some were surrounded by water-cress fields, and cabbage patches and melons and orchards. And even though it was the heat of the day and all the beasts of the land were laying in the shade the Vietnamese were hard at work. Ceaseless. One man patched a roof with his friends. Another fixed a flat tire on his moped. Women cooked lunch on a front yard grill and the children separated the rice from the chaff or tended to the animals.

The population density here is intense. It’s hard to travel more than a kilometer without passing through another village, much like rural China. Even in the empty spaces farm houses pop up out of the paddies, dotting the landscape all over. Rolling green hills, terraces, duck ponds and pig pens were everywhere to be seen. Humanity has placed a giant footprint here and it was only when I drove on into the mountains that the jungle closed in–and fast.

Soon I parked. The canopy overhead, dense and disturbing, darkened the path forward. Warning signs punctuated the path at key points. One read: “Caution! Unexploded ordinance in the area. Stay on path!” Such portents were a common, if grim reminder of a darker time in Vietnam’s recent past. I continued on for another kilometer. The shade provided by the canopy overhead provided little relief from the heat and amplified the humidity to a stifling level. I continued climbing upwards but my slight pant and heightened heart-rate were soon greeted by the ruins of ‘My Son.’

The bricks looked as if they were fired yesterday–the same hue of ochre as the farm houses further down the mountain. But the architecture was stunning–so very Hindu. The sensual ornamentation of full-breasted Hindu goddesses and the sleek elegance of Hindu warriors graced each temple and building in the ruins. They filled the site with a strange feeling of displacement–as if I were off some untrod path in Kerala instead of in Central Vietnam.

But the jungle rules here, hanging as it does from the tops of temples much as it does at Caracol in Belize. Unlike Central American sites the water is plentiful here. Streams, brooks and small rivers criss-cross the 12 square kilometers of the site. ‘My Son’ was inhabited for close to half a millenium and it is no wonder. ‘My Son’ is strategically placed in an emerald bowl of jungle clad peaks with only a single, narrow, valley entrance. In an age of swords, horses and the bow it was easily defended and not easily besieged. The surrounding land, although cratered and littered with UXOs now is fecund. Farms must have been plentiful then and with plenty of water ‘My Son’ could withstand any attempt at a siege, wholly self-sufficient as it was.

Sadly, like most of South-East Asia and China, excepting parts of Indonesia, the landscape is denued of any large wildlife. The Indo-China tiger is all but gone from the area and so is its prey. I heard half a dozen different song birds, but the jungle canopy prevented seeing any of them. Little is more frustrating than hearing a haunting bird-song whilst unable to see the singer. Loud croaking from frogs echoed all around me but I was unwilling to hunt them out–for leaving the path was too dangerous.

Driving back I watch the country-side pass before me. A lone figure pulls out weeds from a rice paddy. Another tosses a fish net into a river. A black dog tramps through rows of carefully cultivated cabbage, sniffing something out. Pigs wallow in the mud. Water buffaloes are ever present, as are cows. Banana and palm trees fill the low, flat horizon and the green is everywhere except in the sky overhead, pastel-blue, studded with thick white clouds and the sun breathing life into everything.