“Life should be lived to the point of tears.” – Albert Camus

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One of the things we enjoy the most as human beings is to lose ourselves in an experience. To find ourselves in a situation where the gravity of the moment, the weight of the now is so powerful that we find ourselves outside of ourselves. You become what you behold. In these moments our neurotic inner critic, anxious of the future, paralyzed or saddened by the past, this inner critic goes silent. There is a grace to this moment. The weight of the now in all of its gravity and splendor, purges us temporarily from the angst.

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When you have this moment, whenever you put yourself outside of yourself, I am able to pierce the veil. I am able to see beyond my concerns and constraints. I connect with something larger than myself. It’s something we can all relate to.

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It’s something that we seek out. These moments are medicinal to our soul, they change us. It’s existential medication, we hit the Pause button of our existential angst. Death transforms from an imminent panic to a metaphysical abstraction. The constant thoughts of our mortality dissipate and we momentarily live in the space of the eternal now. It can be the most amazing lake ever, Burning Man, a moment with your family, a walk on the beach – anything. These moments become transformative experiences. We push ahead.

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And then the angst is gone.

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One year of travel is coming to an end. 20 countries. More than 40 different beds, endless nights in airplanes and countless hours of jet lag and naps throughout the day. We experienced one major fire, no visit to any emergency room or doctor, every bag made it to its destination, no major flight delays. Some food didn’t like us, some beds were too soft or too hard, there were pulled backs and muscles, the longest summer of our lives and a growing love affair with a city.

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And I wore a poop on my head.

When we decided to leave the daily life for a year, I didn’t have any philosophical insights or deep thoughts on why we did it. The stars just were aligned and we did it. Looking back, my main driver was to rid myself of this angst. At least, quiet it down for a while. When the daily routine turns into a daily adventure, those moments of now seem to happen on a daily basis. They not only happen at the Taj Mahal or Uluru.

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They happen when your daughter takes her first subway ride alone.

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Or you’re about to eat the perfect lunch.

I never understood the pursuit of happiness. The way I see it, happiness is like sleep. We can’t force ourselves to sleep. The harder we try to sleep, the less likely it will happen. The most we can do with sleep is to create external and internal environments that will allow sleep to occur. Ultimately, sleep comes only when we create an internal environment, that is, a particular physical and mental state, notably when our bodies are relaxed and our minds are clear and unburdened.

The same holds true for happiness. Happiness doesn’t arise from the presence of something (good relationships, passion, etc.), but rather the absence of something, notably angst. When we are free from angst we are better able to embrace and experience predictors of happiness.

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The angst is never fully gone but we pushed it aside on a daily basis by moments of the eternal now.

 

 

 

 

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I remember hearing about the Christchurch quake in 2011. I saw some of the pictures, remember reading about the 185 victims and moved on quickly afterwards. It’s just human. New Zealand is far away, Christchurch was just a name. 6.3 didn’t sound like that much, something one can encounter in Los Angeles every day.

When I was planning our trip through New Zealand, I met a fellow traveler who just returned and she mentioned that there’s no reason to go to Christchurch because “everything was destroyed”. Ah, the hyperbole, I thought and booked a night in Christchurch. We arrive late in the afternoon, dropped off our bags at the airport hotel because of an 6am flight and drove to the city.

The cab driver warmed up after a while and drove us around, explaining the multiple earthquakes that destroyed the town center. The further we drove, the only answer from me was “Oh, my God.” and “Wow, that’s crazy.” Not very literate but exactly how I felt.

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This is the Cathedral, with the adjacent Cathedral Square. The heart of Christchurch. Almost 5 years later, it’s still in complete disrepair. Most of the building that surrounded the square are gone or abandoned.

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It felt like we were walking around the movie set of “Walking Dead”. Almost no people on the street, more abandoned buildings than active stores. We had problems locating a restaurant, almost everything is just gone.

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Humans are very resistant. Because there’s so much red tape to start rebuilding the town center, the restart mall was made up of imported shipping containers that have been colorfully decorated and fitted out as banks, cafes and retail shops.  It is a great way of getting people back into the city.

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The temporary replacement of the cathedral, called the Cardboard Cathedral.

The building rises 21 metres (69 ft) above the altar. Materials used include 60-centimetre (24 in)-diameter cardboard tubes, timber and steel. 

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Buildings are missing from the city centre, hundreds of them, tumbled and crumbled by wreckers’ balls and jackhammers. But art has appeared – murals, graffiti art, paintings on walls and sculpture. Lots of it. Much of the sculpture is new. Some has been there for a while, but is more obvious now, with fewer high-rise buildings around.

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A chair is not just a chair. Each of the 185 chairs, (Peter Majendie, 2012) is different to all the others, just as the 185 people who lost their lives in the February 2011 earthquake were unique individuals. The chairs are painted white so there is uniformity in their differences. I imagine an elderly man in the plastic garden chair, an office worker on the computer chair, a bohemian woman on the bentwood and the baby in the car seat. This empty-chair art installation is a heart-wrenching tribute to lost loved ones and the idea of eternal absence.

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The 6.3 quake in February 2010 was so devastating because it was preceded by a 7.1 quake in 2010 that loosened the ground, contributed to liquefaction and caused the devastation.

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This is just one image I found on the Web, taken a few days after the 6.3 quake. Walking around the ghost town, I started to wonder what will happen in California when the big ones hit? What kind of damage will it cause, how many lives will be lost? Will a rebuilding effort take as long?

Economists believe it will take Christchurch up to 100 years to recover from the events. We talked to a waitress in the only restaurant we could find. She just moved from Auckland down to Christchurch. She was astonished about the destruction in the beginning but believes “this is such an exciting time to be in Christchurch.” She hopes for a city filled with art and hopes. I share her dream.

 

After a 3am start to get to the airport for a 5am lift off to Uluru, we left the coastal humidity of Brisbane and flew into Australia’s heart – the Red Centre.

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Peering down onto the scrubby outback and gouged channel country from 35,000 feet we flew over flooded Lake Eyre and sparkling salt pans until as the mid-day sun was reaching its zenith the soil color changed from a bleached grey to rusty red, and… a tantalising first fleeting glimpse of Uluru came into view as we circled to land.
“There it is! There it is!” And with the excitement and anticipation of seeing a long lost friend – I beamed with delight.
There aren’t many iconic places you go to in your life, which prior to your visit, you’ve been bombarded with a gazillion images forming impressions and expectations. Such places have a lot to live up to – Could Uluru live up to my high hopes?
While it was summer, it was a comfortable 80-90 degrees throughout our visit in the National Park. To visit, you have many options: camping, budget hotels and a variety of hotels. The one think you realize quickly are the flies. Flies are everywhere. The moment you are outside they want to be with you and your humidity. They don’t attack, they don’t hurt, they are just annoying. One morning when I run, my back was almost covered with flies just going along for the ride. Since it was fairly windy and mild throughout our stay, we didn’t have to buy a fly net that covers your head completely. We just opted for a hat and bandana and were good to.
Luckily, the flies mostly stay out of the room and hotel. We didn’t have to deal with them during meals which was a huge benefit.
Back to Uluru.
Once you’re in your accommodation, you have many options to visit the National Park and they are super expensive. All of them. The cheapest one is just buying a bus fare plus park ticket and it will run you $85. Ouch. We opted for the sunset tour, including Kata Tjuta and ‘nibbles’ plus wine.
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Kata Tjuta, sometimes written Tjuṯa (Kata Joota), and also known as Mount Olga (or colloquially as The Olgas), are a group of large domed rock formations.
Kata Tjuta is a Pitjantjatjara Aboriginal tribe word meaning ‘many heads’. There are many Pitjantjatjara legends associated with Kata Tjuta. One legend tells the story of the great snake king Wanambi who is said to live on the summit of Mount Olga and only come down during the dry season. Kata Tjuta is a sacred site for men in the Anangu Aboriginal culture and many of the legends surrounding the site are kept secret.
DSC00289The Walpa Gorge walk is an easy stroll for less than a mile, a gazillions of flies waiting for you.

On to the main event.

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Standing there with nibble and a glass of wine, many people started chatting away. I mostly just stood there and looked at the monolith. While the viewing conditions weren’t optimal due to cloud cover, we were still able to experience the perpetually changes of light and colors throughout the sunset.

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One of those experiences you dreamt about all your life, always imagining how it would be.

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You take pictures every other minute to capture the changing light and to find a way to experience the moment over and over again. And, deep inside you know that it will take time for the moment to really sink in.

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You are in the middle of nowhere to look at a monolith that was turned 90 degrees millions of years, spreading downwards for 5 kilometers.

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The vastness of the universe.

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The little specks that we are.

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Our inconsequential being in the big scheme of everything. And you feel the moment sinking in.

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The moment you see her, you are in love. The Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, the just-perfect skyline, the climate: Everything is perfect about this place. While it’s expensive to live here, I mean, expensive; it still feels like a very democratic city. The best views are not reserved for the few rich people. The best views are for everybody, all around the city. DSC00051

Little side note: The Opera House was once discussed as overpriced, overhyped and over architectured. The original architect, Jorn Utzon,  actually never saw the final product. Humans are such fools.

It stands by itself as one of the indisputable masterpieces of human creativity, not only in the 20th century but in the history of humankind.”

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Some people call Sydney London on the Carribean. It has more than 100 of the best beaches I’ve ever seen. And, for sure, the best coffee you’ll ever get.

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What makes Sydney so perfect is its incredible livability. Commutes don’t seem like a chore, they feel like an adventure. It takes you 30 minutes to get from downtown to Bondi Beach, my favorite beach. Ever.

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When you leave downtown 5 minutes behind, you walk through small neighborhoods. Neighborhood stores, local communities that seem to work. Kids on the street, dogs and a lot of heavy Australian accents.

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We spend more than 2 weeks in Sydney and I could have stayed a few more months. I didn’t experience all the beaches, didn’t see a performance in the Opera and didn’t drink my way through all coffee shops.

One thing for sure: If there’s any work assignment, speaking engagement or workshop in Sydney, just name the date. I’ll be there.

 

 

 

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Almost everybody knows about the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal April 25, 2015. A magnitude 7.8 earthquake violently shook the earth under them and their 27 million fellow countrymen and women, killing more than 9,000, injuring an estimated 23,000, and displacing more than 450,000 people.

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According to UNESCO, more than 30 monuments in the Kathmandu Valley collapsed and 120 incurred significant damage in the initial quake and the 7.3 aftershock that occurred a little more than two weeks later. This is in addition to the thousands of destroyed monasteries, shrines, office buildings, apartment complexes, and private homes that did not escape the wrath of one of nature’s most terrifying phenomenons.

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The devastation of the earthquake is everywhere. Especially in Kathmandu, almost half of the buildings are just rubble. Rubble, building, building, rubble, rubble, rubble, building. It’s amazing how life just seems  to continue. The human spirit is something to be in awe of.

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Bhaktapur, literally means a ‘place for worshippers,’ is still standing and continues to be the best-preserved of the city states.The streets are lined with temples, houses made of bricks glued together with mud, and handicraftsmen sells gorgeous dragon masks, little temples made of wood, and other artifacts made of brass. Bhaktapur is a delightful little town, with something to offer for everyone.

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Around 90% of buildings in Bhaktapur are structurally compromised. Even though the houses are standing, no one should be allowed to live inside them. Still, people do.

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When walking around the cities, you see tent cities everywhere. Hundreds of thousands of people continue to be homeless and hundreds of volunteers from all around the world trying to help as best as they can.

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As if this situation wasn’t difficult enough, Tibet has to deal with another crisis:

About three months ago, protests over Nepal’s new constitution led to violent protests and strikes, and eventually a complete halt to fuel trucks coming from across the border in India.

India denies it has imposed a blockade, but for the past two months, Delhi has refused to allow vehicles to pass through, citing security concerns due to the protests, which have killed nearly 50 people.

Aside from provoking anti-India sentiment among Nepalese, the border closure has hit locals hard.

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It’s almost impossible to get any official fuel right ow, everything has moved to the black market. Cab rides that normally cost $3 are now more than $50. You see up to 5 people on one motorcycle and hundreds of people on top of big buses. Gas lines stretch for miles and days of waiting.

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Buses from the blockade zone, windows destroyed by rocks are a normal part of life in Kathmandu.

Winter is coming. Residents try to survive by cutting as much wood as they can. But for many people it will not be enough to make it through the winter. Many organizations believe that the fuel crisis might be more devastating than the quake.

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#prayfornepal was the rallying cry after the quake. I fear Nepal needs more than prayers to make it through the winter and create a prosperous future for their citizens.

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Let’s get real, India: Nobody should live like this. It’s just not acceptable. More than 20% of your citizens live below the poverty line of $1.25 per day. I know, you halved extreme poverty in 20 years but you’re not as fast as your neighbors Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. You have to increase the pace.

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This is also completely unacceptable. Your canals, oceans and rivers shouldn’t be dumping grounds for untreated sewage.

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The Ganges is where 2 million people bathe every day. Not only that: they wash their clothes, dishes and animals in the river as well. And companies dump raw sewage, cities their waste and humans top it off. Sometimes I feel Indians don’t care because their country doesn’t care about their people.

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Breathing shouldn’t be an effort. And working out not a hazard.

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It’s extremely hard to live in India. Life shouldn’t be that hard. A trip on a train shouldn’t take all your energy and then some.

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Your people deserve better than experiencing this sight and the smell as a constant companion. They deserve much better. They deserve to be taken care of, cherished and admired. Just like every human deserves to be taken care of, cherished and admired.

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The children deserve to be growing up in better environments, in better conditions, under better circumstances.

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I love you, India, but you infuriate me. Your bureaucracy infuriates me. Your average living conditions. The way you serve your people. Or not.

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Because your people will make me come back. They are what makes India such a loveable place. There is not a more energetic place in the world than India. There are not more stories to be told than in India.

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That’s why I will return to India: for the people. They make me love this country even though so many things about it make me so mad.

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Romain Rolland said: “If there is one place on the face of the earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India.”

Let’s dream big again, India. You deserve it.

 

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This picture best describes my experience in Varanasi: It was strange, amazing, weird, cacophonic, draining, life-changing and bizarre all at the same time.

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Varanasi is nuts. All of life is here, including death. 

Varanasi is like nowhere else I have been on the planet. It is just a crazy city, and not necessarily in a good way: the noise, the crowds, the dirt, the beggars, the cows with spikey horns – it’s a cacophony of a city that is slowly crumbling away into the huge, slow river that dominates this landscape.

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The city appears to be unloved and falling to pieces, which is the case with much of India. What shocked me at the time of my visit was that the city was so uncared for. The sacred ghats (the palaces, steps and wharves that line the river front), that are the center of the Hindu religion, they are crumbling into the river, uncared for, unpreserved and unprotected. However, I have since read, that I was looking at the ghats and their history from a very privileged, Western perspective and that I wanted to gentrify the ghats, whereas Hindus believe that everything has a life cycle, including the buildings. It’s an interesting idea, and it showed me not to be too judgemental, but it still makes me sad to think of these beautiful, unique, culturally significant architectural wonders disappearing into the slow moving waters of the river.

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I always suspected that Varanasi was going to be hardcore and full on, but I thought that as a sacred place it might be more restrained and conservative in some ways. However, it’s the opposite and Varanasi is possibly the most extreme place that I visited in the world.

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Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world, and India’s most sacred city. Most people will be aware that many Hindu have their funerals in Varanasi, this is because if you pass into the sacred River Ganges, you will achieve moksha, or release from the cycle of birth and death, which is what Hindus seek to attain. So there are many temples in Varanasi and many people who come to the city towards the end of their lives.

 However, this is India, and so the city also has crowds, traffic, shopping, crazy police, drug dealers, begging kids, menacing monkeys and huge, holy cows (and cow poop) everywhere.

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We arrived to this view from our balcony. An amazing start. Looks a bit like Venice of India, right? Well, you need to forget about the smell, the dirt, the uncaring of everybody about the future of this place, and, yes, you have maybe 1% of Venice.

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At 6pm, we took a boat around the Ganges, drove by the burning Ghats. These fires are cremations. And, on the top right are the lights of a rooftop restaurant where one can enjoy dinner with a special view.

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A special ceremony takes place every day from 6-7pm, the river is filled with boats of tourists and worshippers. The streets are clogged, it’s a Burning Man craziness that Burning Man itself will never achieve. Actually, Burning Man feels like a Teenager Party compared to this insanity. We walked the alleys of Varanasi for a while, ate a quick dinner and retired early for our 3.30am wake-up call.

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Our boat ride awaited us at 4am, including heater in the middle of the wooden structure. Should have brought some hot dogs for a breakfast snack.

We rode the boat for an hour through the darkness, people sleeping on the steps of the Ghats, dogs, sheeps and cows trying to find food and the stench of the Ganges always around us.

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The morning ceremony started at 5am but I barely noticed it because the ritual washing in the Ganges river took up all my attention.

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The one thing that I loved about Varanasi was mother Ganges. You can see why people worship this river. She’s really wide and she just flows, on and on and on, calmly and smoothly. Because there is no obvious infrastructure on the other side of the river, she does feel like the end of the world. She feels like a powerful natural force that dominates this land. 

In truth, I wouldn’t go anywhere near this holy water as it is filthy. Not only do people put their dead bodies directly into the river, but it is also full of raw sewage and heavy metals from the industrial plants upstream. This doesn’t stop people bathing in the river and washing their dishes and clothes in it, even though they will probably emerge more dirty than when they went in. They also wash their cows in the river. 

And, pilgrims rush to the river throughout the day to submerge themselves, drink the water, keep gallons as a souvenir, let their children play in it for hours.

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I’m glad we took the time to spend one day in Varanasi. But I’m also glad when the plane left for Mumbai again. I will never forget the moments I had in this unique place.

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Watching an elderly couple washing clothes in the river and drying them in the sun.

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“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” Henry Miller

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There she is.

“Should guilty seek asylum here,

Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin,

Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,

All his past sins are to be washed away.

The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;

And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.

In this world this edifice has been made;

To display thereby the creator’s glory.” Empereor Shah Jahnan

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Taj Mahal is Arabic for “crown of palaces”. Constructed over a span of about 20 years in the mid-17th century as a mausoleum for the wife of Emperor Shah Jahan, it’s often described as the jewel of Muslim art in India.

The Taj Mahal’s purpose as a mausoleum has long led many to credit its origins to the fairy-tale love of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. As a poet described, it is a “solitary tear suspended on the cheek of time,” an attempt to commemorate a feeling for a person in the grandest manner possible. Some of the story is based in fact, most of it was fabricated.

Let’s face it: The Shah has six wives and Mumtaz Mahal was his third wife. She gave birth to seven children and she has substantial power at the royal court. And the Shah was grieving over her death. But, he never planned on having his own tomb, a mirror of the Taj but in black, built facing across the river is also an idea of recent invention. Many historians believe that the Taj Mahal was mostly a propaganda piece for an emperor who should be better known for his ruthlessness than for his romance.

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At its core, the Taj Mahal is a Muslim building. In big indication are the decorations of geometric patterns images of plants and elaborate Arabic calligraphy. The Taj’s central structure has four equal sides, each with a gate and smaller gates at the corners. The Taj Mahal is surrounded by an outer perimeter wall made of red sandstone. The outer gates mark a transition between two worlds: the outer and the inner, the profane and the sacred, of the living and the dead.

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Unlike many famous moments, such as the Eiffel Tower or the Pyramids of Giza, the Taj Mahal is largely hidden from view and does not dominate the city’s landscape. Instead, it is withdrawn inside the walls like a precious gem and is only finally revealed to visitors once they pass through the Great Gate.

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Observers stand on a raised stone platform that continues along the perimeter wall, giving a sense that the garden is sunken and giving further drama to the mausoleum rising up in the distance. The garden itself is square, with four paths and pools of water coming in from each of the gates. Also in front of the gate is a long reflecting pool which continually draws the eyes towards the mausoleum.

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And, there it is. Changing colors four times a day. We saw only white. I hope to return for the other colors. The embodiment of all things pure.

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“The world believes it was built by love but reading Shah Jahan’s own words on the Taj, one could say it was grief that built the Taj Mahal and it was sorrow that saw it through sixteen years till completion.”

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The Taj Mahal: always on my mind

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This scooter is a good metaphor for Delhi: Once a proud, well-designed machine. Now a battered, in ill-repair construct barely making it through the day. If it breaks down, band aids will be applied and a lot of hope next day will be better.

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The first impression: One hasn’t experienced polluted air until one lived in Delhi for a while. It’s a pollution that grips your whole body: a sore throat, barely functioning lungs, you feel the pollution transported throughout the blood stream, into your heart and your brain. Your mind gets foggy, everything in your body tells you to escape the air. The air pollutes everything around and inside you. Even parks feel dirty, breathing slightly less polluted air, amazing monuments are degraded by the air.

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The second impression: How can people survive like this? How can a government tolerate this level of abject poverty? How is India considered one of the premium emerging markets when 3 million people in Delhi alone are homeless and live like this each and every day?

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India is a problematic country, a fascinating place. It shocks me, enchants me, repulses me, enthralls me, annoys me and continues to pull me in.

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Everything is hard about Delhi. It’s hard to breathe, hard to love this formerly magnificent place, hard to stomach the reality of everyday life in this megapolis.

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The magnificence is fading away fast, one pollution particle and government neglect at a time. I don’t envy Indian’s government: Where to start to stop the neglect? Too many people, too many conflicts, too many problems, not enough solutions.

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The people are lovely. Sales people are pushy and annoying but the people of India are lovely people. The third impression: Sadness. What could be and what is. The discrepancy is shocking. One wishes so much better for the people of India.

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As Gandhi said: “Poverty is the worst from of violence.”

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I visited Singapore the first time 3 years ago. I liked it but I wasn’t particularly impressed, had no desire to return. The situation in Nepal required us to change plans and we decided to spend three nights/two nights in Singapore. It seemed enough for the distance but, looking back, I wish we would have stayed another 2 nights.

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The first impression was: How great it feels to be in a city where everybody understands you. The second feeling was to be happy about the multiculturalism in the city. Korea (especially outside of Seoul) can feel monocultural: the same style of restaurants, the same setup, sameness creeping into the culture and mind. Singapore, on the other hand, is all over the map: a fascinating melting pot of three main cultures: Local, Chinese and India and a lot of global influences. And the third feeling: Singapore, just like Asia, seems to be evolving and changing in very short bursts. Singapore 3 years ago didn’t feel like the Singapore today.

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Time flew by: Spent a lovely evening with friends, living in Singapore for almost 5 years now. A lot of maintenance work: Teeth cleaning and haircut. Not a lot of time to relax on this chair.

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But on the last night we headed out to the Gardens by the Bay, a wonderful refuge in the middle of the city.

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An inside waterfall, a walkable cloud forest, secret garden and so much fauna and flora to explore. It was quite an experience and we were lucky to be able to go in the evening, the views were quite breathtaking.

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After a quick, way overpriced, at the Marina Bay Sands, it was time to wave goodbye to Singapore. Until next time.

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