The tranquil isolation of Mono Lake in California – just outside the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park at Lee Vining – makes it almost a place of pilgrimage for me. It’s a lake filled with mountain snow run-off from the Sierras, and it has no outlet. The mineral wash from the mountains and the volcanic springs that enter from the lake bed get concentrated through evaporation and as a consequence the water is highly alkaline. Almost nothing can live in it, except algae, a specific kind of brine shrimp and a kind of brine fly almost unique to the lake.
All of these thrive in unthinkable numbers, making the lake the perfect feeding stop for migrating birds. The consequence is this “dead” lake is one of the most important wetlands in North America, providing a “service station” for countless birds each year as they cross the otherwise barren wastes of Nevada. You can see the flies swarming in the video above. They’re quite safe – they have no interest whatever in humans and simply fly away when disturbed.
There was a problem, though. The growth of metropolitan Los Angeles meant there was an ever-increasing need for new sources of water. LA bought the water rights to the area around Lee Vining and started to divert the mountain streams into a giant aqueduct that runs all the way down the back of the Sierras. The water level of Mono Lake started falling, so much so that in 1978 an action committee formed to protect it. The “tufa towers” you can see in the photograph used to be completely submerged – they are mineral deposits from underwater volcanic springs.
The activists were successful in a judicial review of the practice and were able to secure a court ruling that the level of the lake should be restored. That’s a slow process, still in progress and still needing a great deal of activism to keep it on track. I’ve been supporting the Mono Lake Committee ever since my first visit there and still regularly hear from them of assaults on the lake and its water catchment. The pressures can only increase.
But this is vital habitat. If its destruction at the hands of the water prospectors were to resume, it’s possible that bird migration across the USA could be affected. This isn’t a dead lake, nor just a local landscape that might be expendable because of its isolation. It’s a vital in-route service area for millions of birds. It would be a crime to let it be destroyed.
If you are ever able to spend a night at Crater Lake in southern Oregon, do it. It’s a large, deep lake formed in the caldera of an exploded volcano. Waking up in the comfortable Crater Lake Lodge back in late June 2002 to go out in the snow and enjoy the sunrise is one of the most sublime memories I can remember. No wonder earlier inhabitants considered it sacred.
Yes, there is still deep snow there in late June; it’s a mountain-top in the Cascades chain, after all, you’re at 2,100 metres above sea level. It gets more snow than just about anywhere in the USA and it persists into July. You can’t see in this photo, but the water of Crater Lake is quite remarkable as a result. There are no inlets or outlets to the lake, so it takes 250 years for the water lost to evaporation to be replaced by snow-fall (and rainfall) alone.
The resulting purity of the water and the exceptional depth (its half a kilometre deep, ninth-deepest in the world) means you can see 20-30 metres down into it, and as a result on sunny days it looks the most incredible cobalt blue colour I have ever seen. It’s a small national park to go and be tranquil, rather than a high-activity destination, but it’s among my most memorable visits and I recommend it.
Probably the most amazing artefact of the ancient world I have seen, the Pantheon in Rome, started life as a Roman temple to all the gods around 27 BC. When it became a Christian church in 609 AD it was already as mature a building as a medieval church would be to us today. It is still splendid, 2000 years old and going strong. I first saw it when I was in my mid-teens and it’s one of those places in the world (like Mono Lake and Yosemite Valley) always guaranteed to awe me no matter how many times I visit.
It is an amazing leveller for me. It’s easy to imagine those ancient people were primitive, that our technology and culture is superior. No amount of words and explanation can dispel that intuition. Wandering modern Rome and seeing those piles of rubble scattered among the buildings, that prejudice can rule ones perceptions. The Romans can seem a distant, alien race responsible only for ruins. But a visit to a building like the Pantheon can be a solution.
The building is marvellous; massive, elegant, wonderfully engineered. Just the roof alone is remarkable. It is not some inferior predecessor of the domes of the Renaissance. It is perfectly made from poured concrete. Yes, by ancient Roman builders. It’s not just a crude mud-and-straw affair either. It is made from graded layers, includes hidden chambers to reduce the weight and includes other techniques that are clearly the product of an experienced and educated civil engineer.
The Pantheon still holds the record for the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The rest of the building also announces the sophistication of the people behind it. The enormous columns supporting the portico are made of granite which was imported from Egypt. The proportions of the structure are both symbolic and mathematically perfectly matched.
Once I had visited the Pantheon, spent time in awe of the achievement of men dead for two millennia, every ruin I saw in Rome was different for me. No longer the rubble of ancient primitives, I now saw every wall as a soaring building of perfect proportions, every pillar stump as a minutely engineered architectural masterpiece. Rome as it was – a city of Pantheons – represented a pinnacle of achievement for the human race, in any era.
There’s a global lesson for me here. No matter how tempting it is to judge a community by its failures, the true measure comes from finding and appreciating its successes. That doesn’t mean ignoring the failures; they too inform and educate. But without an empathy for the successes of a community, criticism of its failures is hollow.
This is a fruit stand in São Paulo central market, selling what’s probably my favourite fruit – caju. It’s soft, sweet, has a hint of the strange mouth-furring sharpness you find in persimmon and it has a wonderful fragrant flavour that I adore. It’s especially wonderful as a caju caipirinha or capifruta, blended with cachaça and ice.
It’s amazingly perishable – a caju left in my hotel room for me one morning had already spoiled by the evening when I got back from work – and I have never seen caju on sale anywhere outside Brazil. I know they grow in many sub-tropical countries and there must be tons of the pulp around.
Why? Well, if the name “caju” sounds like “cashew”, that’s no accident. The green “stalk” on the top is actually the real fruit, and its kernel is the cashew nut that graces tables worldwide. They spoil so fast because that’s how they propogate. The fruit falls from the tree, nut first (they are attached by a stalk at the other end), and the flesh squashes around it on the ground to create the ideal germination environment. Now you can see why cashews are so expensive compared with most other nuts – each one had to be harvested from a caju.
In the centre of Sydney, the Botanical Gardens provide a welcome oasis from the city life. Each time I have been to Sydney I’ve taken time at some point to walk slowly round the gardens, see the Wollemi pine, stalk cockatoos and ibis on the lawns (where they are commonplace) and generally chill out.
A favourite stop on the tour is the flying fox camp, where there are a very large number of flying foxes (fruit bats) roosting in the botanical gardens year-round. It’s not an intentional attraction. The bats just showed up to feed on the fruit trees and decided they liked the place as much as I do and would stay. The population has grown and grown over the years and there is definitely no shortage of them – there are around 20,000 in this one roost!
As the Gardens’ own web site explains, they are an endangered and protected Australian species. But looking at the enormous colony in the Gardens would not give you that impression. They are noisy, smelly, bad-tempered creatures who fight a bit and sleep a lot by day as they roost and then go party at night. They are not respectful of their home, though. They are killing rare tree specimens in the Gardens.
This situation provides conservationists with an excruciating choice. On the one hand, the bats are killing the trees in the Botanical Gardens, many of them rare and valuable specimens. On the other hand, the bats are a protected species. Both deserve (and in law are given) protection from harm. But what happens when a protected species harms protected plants? Which should win?
It seems the conservationists’ struggle may finally be coming to an end. Next month the Botanical Gardens is due to attempt to relocate the colony in a move that’s both controversial and (to my eyes at least) only partially baked. The animals are going to be scared away with noise-makers and expected to just go somewhere else. Guards will be posted to eject unwanted bats just like any other out-of-hours visitors. Exactly where 20,000 bats the size of cats will go in the densely urbanised landscape of Sydney is anyone’s guess. Certainly no-one has asked the bats, who are likely to find the cozy home with the well-stocked larder just as appealing as ever.
So who knows. Maybe the bats will scram. Or maybe my next trip will still have a visit to see the flying foxes of Sydney Botanical Gardens.
This photo – a chance capture from a plane crossing the south end of San Francisco Bay to land at San Jose in California – is interesting for two reasons.
First, the colours. Those rich colours are the result of algae blooming in lakes being used as salt pans, evaporating sea water to make salt. The process takes a long time, so the producers maintain a sequence of lakes. As the water gets more and more salty, the kind of algae that can flourish in the lake change, with a resulting change of colour. This sight is unlikely to be repeated in San Francisco Bay as the salt-pans there are gradually being restored back to marshland, without enclosed lakes.
The second point of interest is at the centre of the picture. That’s the town of Drawbridge, an early 20th-century settlement triggered by the building of the railway line across the bay. It’s now deserted, but you can still see the decaying buildings in the photograph. You can see more detail on Google Earth (search for “Drawbridge, CA” within the app).
As a child, my parents used to regularly take me point-to-point racing. I wasn’t very interested in the horses, but there were often trees to climb and always a picnic and friends in droves. My parents used to “have a flutter” on the races but of course I never gambled – too young. We had to drive for miles and miles to get there, but all the fresh air, food and fun used to make it a highlight.
Fast forward 40 years (gulp), and I’ve still never bet on a horse race. I was over at Stonehenge a few weeks ago taking visitors to see the rocks, and noticed in the hedgerows a still-familiar set of signs for the races. Painted on wooden slats, the same signage was in use in the 1960 and 70s. I saw that the Larkhill races were happening this weekend and told my daughter (an avid equiphile and lover of racing over jumps). Larkhill was one of the more distant destinations my parents used to take me to, and I (just about) remember it as having very poor tree-climbing facilities. Still, the experience as a whole all came flooding back to me.
That was all it took. We headed out today (sans picnic) to find the races again after so many years. I live closer now so it was a fairly quick drive to the middle of Salisbury Plain. The byways to the fields are gritted these days, so no fears of tractor-propelled exits that I remember from my childhood, but everything else was still exactly the same. We paid for our pass, drove into the field, found a space near the last jump (number 5 on the map) and settled to watch the racing.
It was like stepping back in time: announcements on trumpet-like loudspeakers, a rickety sign with wooden slats hauled on ropes showing the runners for each race, red-coated riders from the New Forest Hunt patrolling the fields on horseback, raffles to raise money for the hunt, trashy outdoor food on sale (pasties! a beer tent! candy floss!) and a line of bookies by the paddock.
I’m not usually a betting man (my grasp of statistics is weak but good enough to tell me it’s foolish to gamble against professionals), but I was surprised to discover that I could still read the racing form in the race card and the temptation grew too. My daughter was certain that the favourite was going to win, at fairly short odds that weren’t worth considering, but I saw another horse I thought had a good chance and so decided to risk my £2 coin at 4-1. Bookie time.
While they may look timeless with their leather bags and wooden trestles, the bookies have modernised. They now have whiteboards instead of blackboards, but there’s a more radical change. No more coloured cards with interesting markings that I remember playing with as a child when my parents lost. These days, even in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere the bookies all have computers that issue betting tickets. So I paid my coin, took my ticket and headed back to the track.
It was a close race, and my daughter was right about the favourite. She has an eye for horses and I think if I was ever to take up racing seriously I’d want her to be my advisor and cashier. But in this case, the rider was very unfortunate and broke his stirrup just before the final jump, leaving my horse with a clear run to the finish. Amazingly, my only ever bet on a horse won. I went back, joined the line and claimed my crisp £10 from the bookie.
While the gambling isn’t my thing, I can see we may well be back at Larkhill at some point, maybe even soon. The sun shone, the sky was blue, I was able to take photographs and there were even skylarks. But next time, we’ll take a picnic.
After travelling on Europe’s low-cost airlines I have realised that there is only one way to make air travel secure, and that is to take security seriously and prioritise it above all other factors. We should learn from the most secure flights to date – operated by the US military for select trips to the Caribbean.
In future, all passengers aboard planes must:
- Wear secured headphones for safety education and approved entertainment throughout flights, so that passengers cannot communicate with each other for co-ordinated attacks. It’s possible Apple or Sony might sponsor these, reducing costs. This measure will also reduce incidents of unlicensed use of music, especially as people cross market boundaries, so maybe the RIAA will support this.
- Travel blindfolded. This prevents any awareness of location or time and ensures no targetted use of devices. This additionally defeats attempts to benefit from unlicensed movies, so MPAA sponsorship for the blindfolds is possible.
- Travel naked. This reduces opportunities for concealment of devices, although security staff will still need to use powerful scanners pre-boarding.
- Undergo sensory disorientation pre-travel, so that passengers do not know where they are seated or what the time is. This could be combined with the blindfolds and headsets.
- Travel in limb restraints fastened to the seat. In addition to protecting against unexpected turbulence, this will prevent any attempt to operate devices. Airlines could consider tube-feeding so they don’t lose revenue from in-flight paid catering.
- Require a pre-flight “hotel night” where they spend 12 hours before boarding naked in solitary confinement under observation. This will eliminate the possibility of devices being ingested. Boarding will only be permitted with evidence of defecation.
- Flights must operate to unpublished departure and arrival schedules using undocumented routes. This has the added benefit that flights can no longer be late.
- Business class passengers might benefit from loin-cloths during boarding and in-flight sedation so they are less impacted by security measures. They can also purchase use of video goggles instead of blindfolds.
- First class passengers benefit from anesthesia and are boarded on stretchers. Choice of approved drugs available pre-boarding.
There are huge cost-savings achievable for the airlines here, as well as potential new revenue opportunities and sponsorships such as those indicated. The pre-flight “hotel night” will naturally be charged extra, the need for in-flight entertainment systems is eliminated since no-one can see, hear or operate them, on-board toilets and galleys can be removed and replaced with extra seating and on top of all this far fewer staff are needed and training can be reduced.
RyanAir appears to be field-testing some of these ideas already. All for your safety, comfort and convenience, of course. Relax, sit back and enjoy the flight!
Surprisingly, despite hundreds of thousands of miles of travel, I had never visited India before September 2002. On balance, I am sorry to say that I experienced more that was sad and shocking in this encounter than I did the sublime or the enlivening. Not least was the terrorist attack on a Hindu temple the day before I arrived which caused a wave of national outrage expressed in a ‘bandh’, of which more later. As you can tell from the unusual lack of photographs in Mumbai, my camera did not emerge from hiding until Delhi. But both shocking and sublime were present – in the words of the film ‘American Beauty’, “there is beauty everywhere”.
Visiting Mumbai (the City Formerly Known as Bombay), I didn’t actually get down to the city centre proper as the event at which I was speaking was held well out of town, north of the airport in an affluent enclave. Even so, the streets still screamed both the pain and the entrepreneurial flair of the Indian people. The scenes were reminiscent of my visit to Harare in Zimbabwe in the late 90s – except with more people, many more people, and with fewer signs of an affluent elite and their associated security arrangements.
The culture in India clearly encourages a can-do entrepreneurial attitude in many people. Everywhere there were signs of private enterprise, with expensive signage posted above the most humble of locations, often no more than three walls covered with a light roof. A cement shop caught my eye – the sign of the one-person-sized brick booth proudly announcing the “Powai Cement Centre”, with a huge pile of dry cement powder heaped up outside almost obscuring the proprietor inside.
Mahatma Gandhi’s distaste for modern labour-saving industrial devices (soundly based on the observation that they destroy jobs and further impoverish the poor) is clearly still shared by the building trade in India. Passing a hotel under construction near the airport, a workman was playing concrete mixer stirring a huge pool of concrete in a pit just outside the site and dispensing it like so much porridge to a never-ending line of women in smart, colourful saris. They in turn filled baskets with concrete and carried them on their heads into the building site where, no doubt, they were being poured into frameworks to form the walls of the new building. There were no machines visible anywhere.
On Thursday, there was a unique scene that would have been impossible to predict. Mumbai is a teeming, seething mass of people and traffic, with never a daytime moment when anyone other than a madman would try to drive on the streets. My conference address was brought forward by a day to allow for the fact that many of the delegates would be unable to attend on day 2 due to a ‘bandh’, or stay-at-home protest, called by the opposition political parties with the tacit approval of the government and pretty much everyone else in response to a terrorist attack at a Hindu temple in central India. On the day, the bandh resulted in the amazing and rare spectacle of a silent Mumbai (whether out of solidarity or out of a fear of instant ‘discipline’ on those breaking the bandh).
The city came to life again as dusk drew near, and by flight time the madmen were again on the streets with their apparently suicidal driving style (just keep moving and everything will be all right). At the airport, the news showed riot police contrrolling demonstrators in central Mumbai with water cannon and the evening newspapers told of the apparent suspension of SMS service in some areas to stop ringleaders co-ordinating their supporters. Meanwhile, locals reported that the police had been sending them SMS messages all day to say there was nothing to worry about and everything was under control. Clearly SMS is a new tool in the police toolbox – a trend worth watching.
Airport security at Mumbai was unique in my experience (admittedly I have never flown El Al either).The fear of technology-lead unemployment was obviously rife here as well. Despite all hand baggage being x-rayed like everywhere else, it was all also thoroughly but inexpertly manually searched by a paramilitary type, who then stamped the bag tag to show he’d found nothing. Then at the gate, the bag was searched again, this time by a clearly experienced professional who knew what to look for and at and what not to bother with. To accompany the intrusive triple-search, I (and everone else) was also frisked twice and had my boarding pass and passport inspected at least three times by the myriad of differently-uniformed staff who seemed to outnumber the passengers. By the time I boarded the plane to Delhi, both my bag tag and boarding pass had three or four official stamps on them. This, I am told, is standard Mumbai practice.
Delhi was clearly different. The journey from the airport to the hotel was often lined with the guarded compounds of diplomats and politicians, and there was green everywhere, trees and grass. There were still clusters of slum dwellings everywhere, but it was clear that this place had know and to a degree still knew affluence. People-powered urban development was still much in evidence, not least outside my hotel where a new fibre-optic cable was being laid by crews of workers equipped with pickaxes, bare hands and relatives. One father was touchingly working on the trench while minding his young son (maybe two years old) on this shoulders. To my eyes at least, the crew all seemed to be living in dwellings they had made from the road rubble at the end of the trench.
Touring Delhi on Saturday my driver did his best to show me the sights. We couldn’t get anywhere near the Red Fort because of preparations for an event there, so I had to satisfy myself with a view of the huge walls from a distance. Driving back, I was dropped at India Gate to admire the imperial architecture of the Rajpath and had my first encounter with a small but persistent swarm of hawkers, including a charming snake charmer and his pet cobra in a dim sum basket. The photo to the left shows a lantern/mina in the area where a bird had found a home – versatility symbolised. As you can see from the photograph at the top of the page, a passing elephant completed the stereotypical encounter.
Continuing along the Rajpath towards the former Viceroy’s palace, the skill of Lutyens in designing awe into architecture gradually became apparent. The hazy distance from India Gate gradually revealed the immense scale of the palace buildings (now home to two government ministries as well as the president and his staff). The buildings are just immense, several times the size of Buckingham Palace – the three domes you see in the photograph are all the same building. In their day, they must have acted as the ultimate symbol of Raj.
Perfectly embodying the spirit of resourcefulness that I believe characterises India, the lush parks at the side of the Rajpath between India Gate andRashtrapati Bhavan (the president’s palace) were being groomed by the ultimate in eco-friendly grass cutters, balancing labour-saving with economy. This amazing device cuts the grass, gathers and recycles the clippings as fuel and even conditions and fertilises the turf. Cordless, powered, self-starting and eco-fueled, it has to be the best motor-mower I have ever seen. The photograph itself I have decided to name ‘Working Lunch’.
My tour continued to the tomb complex that includes the tomb of Hunayun, second Mughul emperor, who lived in the 16th century. After purchasing a ticket from sullen, almost hostile staff and immediately giving it to a cheerful security guard, the escape from the hawkers and bustle outside to the tranquility inside was striking. The complex offered a partial cross-section of the religious history of India, with Hindu, Muslim and modern Sikh styles all visible, and stood as testament to the sophisticated culture of its ancient rulers. A side visit at the site took me to Isa Khan’s tomb, octagonal and interesting if crumbling a little.
The main tomb at the heart of the building has a window with an impressive carved screen. Looking through the central star of the screen, it becomes clear that it is aligned to line up with the window in the gatehouse and that window itself is designed to align with the outer gate window. All of these align to give a clear line of sight to the horizon in the direction of Mecca. What an achievement this would be for any builder! Such attention to detail in ancient architecture is almost more impressive than the building itself. If you click on the photograph of the screen over to the right, you can zoom through the star to see the view.
I had always wondered what the Baha’ai fath involved, and in Delhi I had the chance to find out. I visited a stunning modern temple building on the outskirts of the city, build in the form of a lotus flower to reflect the local faith emphases and sitting at the top of a beautifully groomed slope in tranquil grounds surrounded by blue pools of water. A constant stream of visitors flowed up the path to its entrance and yet the sense of tranquility was not lost in the busyness. Removing my shoes and socks I walked the scorching path to the cool interior and wandered for a while enjoying the silence. After the encounter I am still not much the wiser about the tenets of the religion (seems a kind of eastern version of Unitarianism) but I am impressed by the concept and execution of the temple.
Before heading for the airport, my last encounter was a visit to a Hindu temple within a huge campus of temples to the south of Delhi. Again removing my shoes and socks, it was an experience of cultural dislocation – nothing familiar to grasp. Despite devouring “India -The Cultural Companion” [Amazon have it] (which I would recommend despite its lack of reference to either Christianity or Baha’ai), I found few points of reference and as none of the signs had any latin script at all on them there were no hints. The sense of unfamiliarity didn’t lift and the experience for me summed up how little I understand, or fit in with, this place.
My trip ended with a transit stop in Mumbai. Arriving there late in the evening, my car was mobbed at one point with begging children. I foolishly opened the window a crack to give some money and we ended up with a girl of about twelve clinging to the window and not letting go even when the driver drove away. For me, this encounter summed up the determination, enterprise and desperation I had witnessed throughout India and will stick as a visual memory of the visit.
My guidebook for Delhi was “Lonely Planet: Delhi” (US|UK), which I found very good although in common with several other Asia guides I have seen it seems to neglect the Christian heritage of India, which stretches back at least as far as the Islamic heritage.
Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, has finally allowed me to fit a place to a name. At University, tea-tasting parties were a fad in which I indulged. One of the weird and wonderful teas to which I was youthfully introduced was ‘formosa oolong‘, a smoky green tea which to neophyte students was an amusing adventure. I have memories of sitting in tiny university residence bedrooms gingerly sipping the strange green-brown brew to the accompaniment of the latest Christian choruses played by the hosts, who were invariably providing a non-alcoholic alternative for newly arrived students.
This evening in Taipei, I am once again drinking oolong and listening to choruses. But this time I am on the island of Formosa (the old name for Taiwan) and the music is being played by a charming lounge bar pianist who has clearly realised that no-one minds what western music she plays on the piano as long as it is flowing and sublime.
So much of my experience of China has seemed strangely familiar that it is almost no surprise to have this experience 6,000 miles from home in the lounge of the Far Eastern Plaza Hotel. Listening to Chinese conversation I have to keep reminding myself that I do not understand what I am hearing, so familiar is the intonation and gesture in what is said. In some ways, Taipei seems like an American-influenced mid-point between China and Japan. It is incredibly densely populated, with 22 million people on an island 300km long. The city seems filled with trees, though, unlike the utilitarian concrete and modernist glass of today’s Beijing (and, it must be said, Tokyo).
The buildings reflect ongoing life and investment and gently shout hope, unlike the atmosphere of Shanghai which seemed in some ways frozen at the end of colonial occupation (like other former colonies I have visited such as Harare). Much here reflects a greater wealth, unlike Beijing. Brand and style are common elements of every store I have seen, and fashion seems something of a fetish. People work impossibly long hours, and the streets are completely full of vehicles, from luxury cars down to a vast array of motor cycles.
Whereas the Beijing rush hour was clogged with bicycles, Taipei’s has a starting-grid feeling as acres of mopeds and small motor-cycles jostle for space at each road junction and as every available inch of pavement is used to stand them. The traffic is so heavy that crossing town often takes a very long time, and I am amazed that none of the taxis I have taken so far here or on the mainland has actually hit anything – no journey would be complete without swerves, stops and a horn accompaniment.
If the physicists are right and time is a tree of forking possibilities, Beijing and Taipei offer the rare chance to visit and compare two alternative branches of time and reality. On the mainland, the choice was made for a communist ideology, for central planning, for group wisdom. The result is a grey, morose uniformity that mocks the millennia of exquisite culture and innovation that China created, perfected and often exported to an adoring world. On the island of Formosa there are trees, variety and enthusiasm everywhere, engendered by the capitalist culture chosen by the people’s rulers. One cannot judge which is better, but it’s not hard to know which is easier for a westerner to embrace