Sydney_Harbour_Bridge_from_the_air

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.”

DSC00121

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.

DSC00134

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.

DSC00130

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.

DSC00135

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.

 

 

 

DSC05477

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.

DSC05495

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.

DSC05377

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.

DSC05401

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.

DSC05412

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.

1-vve8WvFnWJMfvCjYqNydkA

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.

DSC05430

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.

DSC05437

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.

DSC05433

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.

DSC05392

#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.

DSC05453

DSC05416

DSC05458

DSC05472

DSC05500

streets4

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.

Water-pollution-india_e85_650x310

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

02IN_LPN_POLLUTED__2183161f

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.

markandya

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

126

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.

lifeonthestreet-11

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.

DSC05307

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

DSC05309

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

India_2_039_edit

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.

10712601914_30f10a17b9_b

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.

the-many-faces-of-india-47-110811_091727

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.

 

DSC05208

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

DSC05289

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.

 DSC05292

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.

 DSC05215

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.

 DSC05233

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.

 DSC05152

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.

DSC05159

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.

DSC05170

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.

DSC05220

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.

DSC05227

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

DSC05230

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.

It’s hard to put the strangeness of this morning in words. India is definitely stranger than anything the mind could invent.DSC05259

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.

DSC05270DSC05267

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

DSC05286

DSC05202DSC05275

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

DSC05153

DSC04942

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

DSC04870

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.

DSC04905

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.

DSC04881

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.

DSC04898

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.

DSC04887

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.

DSC04886

“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.”

DSC04900

The Taj Mahal: always on my mind

DSC04785

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.

DSC04795

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.

19IN_POVERTY_HEALTH_147322f

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?

DSC04805

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.

DSC04859

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.

DSC04856

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.

DSC04846

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.

Poverty-in-India

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

DSC04776

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.

DSC04739

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.

2015-11-03 21.30.28

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.

DSC04781

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

DSC04744

DSC04754

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.

DSC04758

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

DSC04778

2015-10-31 02.06.03

Our 5 weeks in Korea are coming to a close and it’s about time to share a few thoughts about this intriguing country:

  1. Surprisingly, food in Koreatown in Los Angeles is as good as any Korean food I had in Seoul/Jeju. The service is better in Los Angeles, the price much higher but the quality of food is on par, maybe even a little bit better in SoCal.

2015-10-05 23.32.09

2. Koreans are addicted to coffee. Based on my scientific analysis, there’s one desert coffee place for 2 Koreans. Most of them are fairly deserted, many super cute and the quality of coffee is astonishingly good. My assumption was we would have problems finding any good coffee place, just tea houses everywhere. The opposite is true. It’s much harder to find a nice tea house than getting your latte fix.

2015-09-30 00.43.28

3. Nobody speaks English. I mean nobody. Many cab drivers utilize translation services but it’s still a challenge to get where you want to go. Public transportation in Seoul is outstanding, taxis inexpensive. We often opted to go with public transport because we dreaded trying to explain to the cab driver our destination. (Pro Tip: Take pictures of the Hangeul/Korean address.)

2015-10-31 01.47.31

4. It can be hard to deal with the average rudeness. People stepping on your feet, bumping against you, pushing – don’t expect an apology or even an acknowledgement of their act. Best you to move on. However, Koreans are not rude people. They are very polite and often act subservient. Just when it comes to strangers in the wild (public transport, streets) all civil rules evaporate.

5. Expect to be overwhelmed by the auditory environment. You push any button and you will get an auditory response. Elevator, traffic light, AC – anything. It’s an auditory wonderland.

2015-09-30 00.46.15

6. There’s a lot of beer and soju. Not much else. It’s going to be hard to find any decent wine, even wine bars are not a common site in Seoul. You can see the ugly side of alcohol all over Seoul. A cyclist passed out in the middle of the bike path at 4pm. Older men barely able to walk. We saw quite a few groups of older people consuming alcohol like college students.

7. Don’t go to foreign restaurants, stick with Korean food. Quality of food is not good and/or it’s overpriced. After 4 weeks of Korean food, I caved and dragged the family to a German restaurant. A sausage with fries was $25. You can get the same in Europe for $5. Was it worth it? Hell yes.

2015-09-30 00.45.25

8. Try a lot of street food. I couldn’t follow my own advice because of my sensitive stomach but street food smells delicious.

2015-09-30 00.42.30

9. Too much sugar. And no breakfast. You are lucky when you can find a place with bagels. In general, Koreans eat breakfast at home, many cafes don’t open until 11am. I’m pretty sure I ate my yearly allowance of sugar in 5 weeks. Everything has sugar in it, the side dishes, the meat and the deserts – don’t get me started.

DSC04310

10. It’s a wonderful country. A country with many problems, an evolving country. I didn’t experience much Confuciansim, more pure capitalism. They are starting to understand that preserving the past is worth the effort and not everything new is worth developing. Surprisingly, the conflict with North Korea is not a really a topic. It’s just a fact one has to deal with.

2015-09-30 00.48.22

Pro Tip: Get more sleep. South Koreans work the longest hours in the world and the subways are filled with sleeping people. We caught a few storekeepers sleeping at the job. Take a nap, Korea.

2015-10-31 01.47.31

I don’t like Halloween. I don’t care about horror movies, candy stuck to my teeth, root canals and masses of anxious children. I never asked a creepy stranger for crappy sugar treats because we didn’t do that in Germany. We just put out a boot on the porch on December 6 and Santa Claus mysteriously fills it with candy overnight. Now, that’s a good deal. Who needs to deal with all that trick-or-treat nonsense? Then my daughter was born and I suddenly had to care about Halloween.

I admit, until a few years back, I had a pretty good deal: My daughter does all the costume work, she carries the plastic pumpkin and she has to do all the begging work. Well, for some reason I was assigned to carve the pumpkin even though I’m left-handed. Actually, I have two left hands. At least you won’t need to see my pumpkins on Instagram.

When she went to bed, my wife and I went to town: M&M’s for me, Twix for her, sticky candy for the daughter. By next day, Astrid had forgotten about all the Halloween candy. She moved on to think about St. Martin, Santa Claus and Christmas. While we secretly stuffed our waistline with the beggars delight.

And then we went to Korea. Just like the majority of smart countries in the world, most Koreans heard about Halloween but don’t care about it. Which resulted in a severely depressed daughter and an increasingly cranky dad. Don’t ask me how but my wife found an event in some school in Jeju. Now, Jeju is a small island to the south of Korea. You have to drive 5 hours to find a piece of cheese here. Which tells you everything about the power of Halloween. Or the power of depressed children watching too much Halloween advertising. 5 hours to get cheese, 45 minutes to go to a Halloween event. Talk about wrong priorities.

We don’t have a car here in Korea. The government doesn’t trust us to drive here because we don’t have an International Drivers Permit, the document they hand out the AAA like tooth brushes on Halloween night in Santa Monica. That means we have to take a cab. Easy, right?

Wrong.

Taking a cab in Korea means taking a picture of the Hangeul translation of the place because nobody speaks English, dealing with translation services, an annoyed cab driver and really bad music playing on the radio. I mean really bad music. We are talking accordions and flutes here. Sometimes, taking a cab translates into almost getting into a fist fight with an old man. But that’s a different story. I’m trying to sell that story to Hollywood right now. Stay tuned.

In short, driving a cab for 45 minutes is a torture in itself. Just imagine getting a root canal for 45 minutes and then the dentist tells you: “Let’s get started.” That how it felt when we arrived at the Halloween event. 500+ screaming kids on a Sugar-Kimchi-Halloween high, stepping on feet, pushing, kicking, yelling, screaming. And a jerk with a megaphone.

2015-10-31 02.01.52

That jerk jelled out some nonsense for hours. You can get a glimpse of it on my Instagram. Nobody was listening, he was just the rent-a-jerk on the megaphone, feeling great that he was louder than anybody else. And I was thinking what Freddy Kruger would have done to him. Visualization is a powerful tool. Oh, at one point we found out that we needed tickets. I was assigned the task to deal with a sold-out event, 50 pushing and yelling women trying to convince the ticket agent to sell them one more ticket. 5 additional tickets were released. How did I get three? As with any war stories, one doesn’t share the details. Let’s just say there was shrapnel and things got ugly.

After winning that war, it was time to head to the second front: Megaphone Jerk and kids that should be in prison. It’s hard to win two wars in one day: I just handed over the tickets and watched the rest of the proceedings from the sideline. The pushing, the shoving, the kids with a sword trying to poke my eyes out, the adults that push you and step on your foot without ever  acknowledging their mistake. Is there a “Sorry” or “Entschuldigung” in the Korean language? I watched it all, let my body be battered, my mind bruised. Just for my daughter to walk through a haunted house for 30 seconds. That’s why the economy is so weak: So much emotional and time investment for a 30-second payoff.

It took us another 90 minutes and an awful cab driver to be finally home. But it didn’t matter anymore. While I was drinking Cass beer and chewing M&M’s, I was thinking: “She’s 10 now. She’ll be too old for this in 3 years. 2 more years.”

Only 2 more years.

2015-10-31 02.17.03

2015-10-12 09.48.27

Like many major cities, Seoul, South Korea’s capital, is situated near water, with the Han River running through it. The Han — also known as the Hangang — is the fourth longest river on the Korean peninsula and the second longest in South Korea. Once part of a trade route to China via the Yellow Sea, the Han River is no longer used for navigational purposes because its estuary falls along the North Korean border.

While there are many parks along the Han, it doesn’t feel like Seoul has really discovered this river yet. It’s more used as a utility, not as a way to escape the metropolis.

2015-10-22 01.59.51

The real water attraction is in the middle of the city: Cheonggyecheon is a small creek — about four miles long — that flows west to east through downtown Seoul. In the past, massive development projects have been built near the river — or over the river: From 1948 to 1960, the creek was covered over with concrete and in 1968, an elevated highway was built over it. However, in 2003, the river was given a facelift by Seoul’s former mayor, Lee Myung-bak, who became the country’s 10th president. He ordered the removal of the highway and restored the stream.

2015-10-22 02.02.29

2015-10-22 01.49.25

2015-10-22 01.54.16

At dusk, the creek comes to life: Thousands of people stroll by the creek, adjusting their pace from never-ending chase to a leisurely walk. Throughout the year, there are lantern and light festivals. I missed all of them. But I was able to see nightly digital installation:growing flowers throughout the night.

2015-10-22 03.43.20

Better late than never: At one point Seoul wised up and understood that you need more than building roads and offices to grow a city. You need a refuge.