Monday, October 13, 2014


There are few things as magical as the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Watching over 700 hot air balloons fill the horizon, drifting on the invisible currents, is an awe-inspiring experience. It is a sight well worth making a trip, but we New Mexicans are lucky enough to have this happening in our own backyard.

And why Albuquerque? Well not only is our weather beautiful in early October (okay, it’s a bit chilly in the early morning when people begin to pile into the park), but we have a meteorological phenomenon that makes Albuquerque uniquely suited to hot air ballooning. It’s called the Albuquerque Box, in which northerly winds take the balloons southward, then once the balloons ascend to a higher elevation the winds take them back in the opposite direction, making it possible (in theory and when conditions are right) to land right back on the field.

As you can guess, this isn’t always the way it happens. You certainly don’t have to attend the balloon fiesta to watch the numerous balloons flying high over the city. Much of the time balloon chase crews end up driving around town as the balloons plunk their gondolas down in residential neighborhoods, land in any of Albuquerque’s numerous open green spaces, and occasionally drop into streets.

As the world’s largest hot air balloon festival, Albuquerque’s Balloon Fiesta draws visitors from all over the state, country, and world, with over 800,000 visitors annually, which adds up to some pretty hefty crowds and equally heavy traffic clogging up I-25 morning and evening.

But with balloon glows morning and evening, a mass ascension on the weekends at dawn, fair-style New Mexican food chockfull of green chile, balloon flying competitions, and a number of family-friendly booths and activities, it is worth fighting the traffic, being jostled by  crowds, getting up hours before the sun rises, and bundling up against the morning chill for at least one visit.

Or if you’re unfortunate enough to attend on one of the days where there’s a wind cancellation, like we were this year, it is worth doing it all over again the next weekend. Especially when the second time you’re blessed with perfect fall weather and such breathtakingly beautiful sights. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Layover of the Pharaohs

Seeing the pyramids has been high on my bucket list since before I was old enough to know what a bucket list even was. By third grade I was hooked on all things Egyptian. Fact or fiction, the strange images of the hieroglyphics, the unique vision of the afterlife, the mummification process, the myths, legends, and curses, the reverence for cats, eight-year-old me soaked it up and longed to see the pyramids.

Almost twenty years later, my inner child was silently squealing with joy as we touched down in Cairo International Airport.

Let’s be blunt, our decision to extend our layover in Egypt from six hours to three days evoked some strong reactions. The 2011 Revolution, the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, the continued travel advisories from the US State Department, none boded well in the eyes of family and friends. Emails and phone calls, when Egypt was mentioned, dripped with concern. But, to Cairo we went.

Egypt was immediately striking and unique, a city that runs abruptly into the pyramids and the desert, as though divided by invisible walls. From the strangely silent and solitary camel ride through the desert to the massive, warehouse-like feel of the Antiquities Museum, everything felt incredibly, well, Egyptian.

And then there was everyday Cairo. Revolutionary street art and the incredibly welcoming and warm Egyptians themselves.  A ubiquitous presence of stray cats. Savory kofta, falafel, lamb, and pita sandwiches available from street carts for next to nothing. Men, young and old, lounge about in sidewalk cafes, drinking tea, playing dominoes and smoking hookah.  

Smiles, conversation, and advice abounded. Hello. Welcome to Egypt. Ah, I love America. Close your eyes, pray Allah, and keep walking; it’s the only way to cross the street in Cairo. We were made to feel safe and welcome. Even the tanks parked outside of the museum felt nonthreatening, like slumbering giants, aware but not on guard. 

We had braced ourselves for the worst, for the possibility of having to stay holed up inside the airport should we have arrived to a Cairo in distress. Instead, we had an overwhelmingly positive experience. Thank goodness we listened to the Rachel of third grade instead of all the modern day Debbie downers.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Rock Cut

Though often referred to as caves, the monuments of Ajanta and Ellora are manmade structures. Comprised of numerous monasteries, shrines, temples, and living quarters, each of these sites provides visitors with a unique glimpse into the extreme lengths to which man will go in the name of religion.

Ajanta’s structures, carved into a cliff wall encircling the U-bend in the Waghur River, are the oldest of India’s famous rock-cut caves. Dating from as early as 200 BCE, the site’s various enclaves are entirely Buddhist. Filled with stone carved scenes depicting the life and teachings of the Buddha, Ajanta served as a monastery for Buddhist monks for up to 800 years.

The staying power of Ajanta’s hand-carved statues and monasteries is not nearly as impressive as the fact that a handful of its numerous frescoes are fairly intact. It is absolutely amazing to see remnants of frescoes, which disintegrate in chunks of falling plaster, survive over 2,000 years of history.

Sometime during the 5th-7th centuries the style of rock cut cave monasteries began to be replicated some 100 kilometers away in Ellora, leading to the abandonment of the Ajanta Buddhist settlement.

The various structures at Ellora display primarily Hindu, but also Jain and Buddhist temples and monasteries. Historians believe that the coexistence of temples from all three religions in one single site demonstrates a unique time period of religious tolerance in Indian history.

Directly at the entrance to Ellora sits its main attraction. Marking  the height of the development of India’s rock cut temple architecture, the Kailasa Temple is the crown jewel of Ellora’s complex. Built over the course of multiple generations, carved from a single rock from the top down, Kailasa demonstrates an incredible ability to plan and execute a design.

Looking at the tool marks visible on the floors, walls, and ceilings of Ellora and Ajanta, it is nearly incomprehensible that human hands carved such buildings directly from the earth. Elaborate, beautiful, and impressive, the caves of Ellora and Ajanta are impeccable examples of the feats and determination of man. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Jains: A Peaceful Bunch

Some of the holiest sites in India sit way off the well-worn path. Ranakpur, about three hours from the tourist center of Udaipur, is on the list of secluded locations.

Dedicated to Adinath, the first enlightened human according to Jain teachings, Ranakpur’s temple is one of the most sacred Jain sites in India. It is also among the more beautiful and intricately carved temples we encountered.

Constructed during the 15th century, the temple is widely considered to be one of the most spectacular Jain structures on earth. Inside one finds over 1,440 pillars, each of which is unique (including one pillar at an odd angle, which supposedly serves as a reminder of the futile nature of striving for perfection). The pillars, walls, statues, and ceilings are carved in such elegant detail that one scarcely knows where to look.

When they aren’t building lavish and incredible temples, the Jains tend to be a peaceful bunch. Not a particularly well-known religion, Jainism closely resembles the Western conception of Buddhism.

The primary path of Jainism is strict adherence to the practice of ahimsa, or nonviolence. Not only does this include a vegetarian diet, but often also excludes onions, garlic, and other root vegetables, as living organisms may be harmed when the vegetables are pulled from the ground. In order to avoid inadvertently harming even the tiniest of insects many strict Jains sweep the ground ahead of them as they walk, rarely go out at night, and even go naked lest bugs get trapped in their clothing.

In addition to ahimsa, vows taken by Jains include satya (non-lying), asteya (non-stealing), bramachariya (celibacy), and aparigraha (non-attachment). Monks practice these vows in the strictest sense, while the common man is expected to adhere to them as much as is practical.

With 4.2 million followers Jainism is among the smallest of the major world religions, but they sure do know how to make some beautiful temples. Where spirituality and architecture meet, there one finds some of humanity’s most amazing structures.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Desert Giant

Jodhpur’s afternoons swelter. It’s a heat that sneaks up behind you, wrapping a heavy, sweaty arm around your ribcage, covering your mouth and nose with its clumsy, chloroform hands. Moments in the grip of such heat leaves beer boiling, soda scalding. It is a heat that immobilizes, penetrates, permeates. It hangs itself around your shoulders, a winding shawl, demanding you pay it homage. Gallons of sweat, liters of water.

Rajasthan, India’s desert state, is a land of camels and turbans. It is dry and dusty, yet full of mystery and magic. Johdpur’s fort is no exception. Full of exotic twists and curls, flourishes and artifacts, the fort transports visitors to another era. It’s a time of Maharajas and camel caravans.

The fort is a massive behemoth. Rising out of rock and desert, strong and impenetrable, it looms over the cubic crumble and tangle of streets that makes up this blue city. And the giant, its courtyards and winding staircases full of history, sleeps over the blue city. Its nap drips shadow pools where people and dogs while away the blistering desert afternoons.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Wedding Crashers

“When we go to India, are you gonna wear a sari and get your hands henna’ed?”
“Probably not. It’s not like we’re going to be attending an Indian wedding.”

It’s conversations like this that make the universe silently chuckle about all the things you don't know.

Mid-way through gallivanting around India, we found ourselves sitting in a café with a group of perfect strangers. They swept in, sat down, invited us to a wedding three days hence, and promptly left.

Leaving me eating my words.

So, Win got a haircut and a Rajasthani-style mustache. My hands were henna’ed. A sari was purchased (to later be twisted, stuffed, folded, and pinned by the family of the bride). And off we went to an Indian wedding.

We had been invited to the fifth and final night of said wedding, a ceremony that turned out to be a triple-decker party of sorts. Two sisters were having arranged marriages; a brother-in-law was having a (less prestigious) love marriage.

The pomp and ceremony, makeup and costume changes, set design and pyrotechnics were enough to put a full Broadway production to shame. Grooms with feathers fluffed and turbans twirled rode in atop bedazzled horses. Brides shuffled slowly to center stage, at times carried by brothers, beneath the weight of beautiful, elaborate, bejeweled marriage saris.

Time between ceremonies, of which there was much, consisted primarily of eating. And being photographed. And being asked if we had eaten. And being asked if we would take just one picture.

It was exhausting, but it certainly wasn’t dull. Plus, the universe gave me good reason to wear a sari in India. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Haveli Heaven

In touristy Rajasthan, the Shekhawati region is seldom visited, bypassed for the grand forts and palaces of the other desert cities. The few visitors who do head to the towns of the dusty, arid Shekhawati typically go for one reason – the havelis.

In the intense heat of the summer months, we were the only visitors. There wasn’t another white face to be seen in the town of Nawalgarh, and most hotels were partially or fully closed. In overcrowded India, it felt like being in the middle of nowhere.

The havelis, extraordinarily painted homes, reaching often grand proportions, were the attempts of 18th and 19th century Mawari merchants, who often lived far from home for long periods of time, to show their neighbors how successful they were.  The murals often cover the mansion-like havelis from baseboards to rafters, depicting everything from everyday scenes to Hindu gods to family portraits.

Compared to the massive forts and temples available in other parts of India, the havelis represent an understated grandeur. Of course, many of the havelis are in need of some restoration and TLC. For most tourists, it probably doesn’t seem worth the fight and jostle of almost four hours on a local bus to see some rundown mansions. However, there is beauty in the understated, splendor in the dilapidated.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A Drop in the Bucket List

The Taj Mahal tops any number of must-see lists. And not without good reason. It is iconic, a majestic, beautiful structure, renowned as a tribute to love eternal. Its marble inlay that covers the arches and gateways is delicate and precise.

It is also India’s biggest tourist trap. At 750 rupees (roughly $13.50), its entrance fee is more than double that of most other historic places of interest. For perspective, that’s more than our nightly budget for a hotel room.

And of course it doesn’t stop there. The city of Agra is a veritable sales pitch played on loop. Tuk tuk drivers encourage you to stop at shops, stay in hotels where they get a commission. Vendors don’t understand that sometimes, no matter how low the price, you just don’t want what they’re selling. Everyone wants a cut, a kickback, a couple more rupees.

But, every once in a while fortune shines bright on our little trip through Nepal and India. First, our timetable landed us in the Buddha’s birthplace on the Buddha’s birthday. Then, we found ourselves in Varanasi on the day when the newly-elected (in a landslide) Indian Prime Minister was visiting the city.

Turns out, in Agra we got lucky again.

We arrived on the last day of a three-day holiday honoring the death of Shah Jahan, who built the Taj as his wife’s mausoleum. During said holiday, the 359th Urs (deathiversary) of the Mughal emperor, the cenotaph chamber, which contains the graves of both Shah Jahan and his wife, is open to the public. Also, entrance is free.

Of course, free entry and a major holiday are not without their downsides – specifically the massive crowds that push and pulse their way through the gates. The line to get inside the Taj and view the tomb (opened once a year during the holiday), even during the height of an Indian midday in summer, was more like a mob four people deep, wrapping all the way around the outside of the mausoleum. Needless to say we only saw the outside of the building.

In the end it was a bit like a postcard, only far more crowded. Magnificent structure. Check on the ol’ bucket list. Happy we didn’t have to pay to see it.