Friday, September 08, 2023


Jis wajah se fasaad hote hain, uska koi ataa-pataa hi nahin
(The reasons for strife, they are nowhere to be found)

— Krishn Bihari ‘Noor’, 1926-2003 (Uttar Pradesh, India)
[A delightful rendition available here.]

The Berlin wall, built in 1960s, was a concrete barrier that separated West Berlin of the Federal Republic of Germany from East Berlin of the German Democratic Republic. It was about 155 Km long, and 13 feet tall. The Separation Barrier, under construction since 2002, is partly an electronic fence, and partly a concrete wall in urban areas that separates Israel and West Bank in Palestine. It is about 750 Km long (approximately 10 percent of it being concrete), and 30 feet tall in some places.

I was greeted by a series of murals, mostly pro-Palestine messages and symbolism, on the West Bank side of the Separation Barrier near Bethlehem. These are beautiful pieces of art, including many inspired by Banksy’s works (there is also a hotel claiming that the artist stayed with them), amidst one of the most contested regions of the world. I couldn’t see the other side of the barrier, but a reasonable assumption is that murals there would depict the alternate side of this ethnoreligious conflict. The vocabulary changes based on where you stand and what you read (in my case, based on the VPN gateway): liberation for one is occupation for the other, someone’s resistance is another’s terrorism, aggression for me could be security response for you, and what one calls as settlements could be annexation for another. Amidst this exchange of words and gunpowder that arbitrate the nuances of power and hierarchies, hangs precariously the lives and livelihoods of the ‘common’ millions who are frightfully present throughout the unforgiving wheels of history.

The spectacle of barriers continues in the Old City of Jerusalem: they are there, inside and outside, shifting over centuries, determining who is welcome – or not – in different neighborhoods. Modern day Jerusalem consists of an urban sprawl that developed largely after the creation of Israel in 1948, and a medieval Old City enclosed by 16th-century walls and gates built by the Ottomans. The Old City is constructed in white, using picturesque “Jerusalem Limestone” (meleke) whose sun-kissed photographs are splashed across travel magazines, goading visitors to soak-in the culture and beauty of the holy land. The city could be a treat to the eyes, with its medieval bazaar bursting with smell of spices, and its narrow alleyways lined with restaurants and souvenir shops buzzing with tourists and pilgrims and guides. But with all its beauty, it is probably difficult to find another parcel on earth that is such a startling juxtaposition of tribal instincts of humans reflected in organized religion, of political opportunism that feeds it, and of military/militancy that enforces it.

(Image courtesy: israeltourism, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

A walk through the Old City in Jerusalem is a distinctly unsettling experience; it feels like an exhausting drag through a viscous, thick concoction of faith and religion, traditions and orthodoxy, rules and checkpoints, and an unnerving feeling of being watched. There are points where one may be asked about one’s religion or nationality, and accordingly granted or denied access. The present day nomenclature of the territorial fragmentation of the Old City introduced in the mid-nineteenth century by the British – the Armenian Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, and the Muslim Quarter – perpetuates the city’s history tainted by perennial disappointment.

Jerusalem’s tag as the “land of creation” derives from its veneration as a holy city by the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity whose believers constitute more than half of humans on the planet. The Temple Mount, a large compound on a hill in Jerusalem, contains the religious sites for all three. In Jewish scripture, this spot is where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac, and this was also the location of the first temple (Temple of Solomon around 950 BCE) and the second Temple (around 500 BCE). Both temples were destroyed in conquests, but a large section of one of the retaining walls from the second Temple remains, and is known as the Western Wall, the holiest site for the Jews. After Islamic conquest, a shrine called the Dome of the Rock was built in the 7th-century on the site of the destroyed second Temple, and is believed to be the site of the prophet Muhammad’s ascent to heaven. After Mecca and Medina, this is the third holiest site of Islam. The Al-Aqsa mosque, located adjacent to the Dome of the Rock on the same compound, is also holy to Muslims. Christians also believe that this is the same site mentioned by the prophets in the Old Testament of the Bible, and was visited by Jesus according to the New Testament.

“Poets and storytellers are in error in matters of the greatest human importance,” wrote Plato, lamenting the pervasive legends of gods and heroes. On Good Friday, pilgrims walk the Via Dolorosa (“the way of grief”), through the 14 “stations of the cross” representing the path that Christians believe Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. As a tourist, one is bombarded with ‘facts’ and ‘counter-facts’ as promulgated by different Christian sects at various stations. The route ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, believed to be the site where Jesus was crucified and buried, and where his resurrection occurred. The church itself has continued to witness scuffles between Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Franciscans, Armenians, Coptic, Ethiopian and Syriac sects. In Bethlehem, a little south of Jerusalem, lies the Church of the Nativity, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. It’s also where Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests have often attacked each other. Amidst brawls over stories and contests for the ownership of God, lessons on how to live with tolerance and righteousness were lost, replaced with an all-pervasive ennui of existence, and God being reduced to a refuge. In a book I read recently, truth was laid bare: “For two thousand years, Jerusalem has brought out the least attractive qualities in every race that has lived there.”

Outside the Old City walls, political drama of the last century has been playing out. It started with the British troops entering Jerusalem in 1917 under Edmund Allenby, who directed the Palestine campaign in World War I. My crossing into Israel from Jordan was through the Allenby bridge – the current land border between the two countries that came later – where immigration for a solo male traveler, arguably suspicious, was a predictable four-hour process. This was also the point at which the Arab hospitality, optimism, and smiles, largely disappeared and a palpable unease settled-in for the rest of my journey, until I reached Tel Aviv. Since the end of the British Mandate and subsequent wars and peace talks, Southern Levant has been a land perforated with political greed, false hopes, lost identities, and claims over resources. The last failed attempt at peace, Oslo Accords, turns 30 on Sep 13, 2023, marking yet another generation lost.  

Unless one is able to find repose in the Kotel, or the Dome of the Rock, or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem will batter the soul and bludgeon the most stout of optimists. And while hope in general might be in short supply in Jerusalem, as one listens to the sound of the shofar, the muezzin, and the church bells, one is at least ‘hopeful’ of the judgment day that everyone here agrees upon. It’s dangerous, and ignorant, to be taking sides when witnessing the world’s most intractable, divisive, and perhaps the oldest conflict. Meanwhile, a taxi driver who drove me between Israel and West Bank said: “no mother will ever send her child to war either for the temple, or for the mosque, or for the church.” I did not ask his religion, or nationality.

Monday, September 04, 2023


Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.”

This was apparently a pronouncement made to Moses, a prophet revered by three monotheistic religions, at the top of Mount Nebo, about 30 km south of modern Amman. Since three-thousand years, this pronouncement of the ‘Promised Land’ has united a horde of believers, continually reshaped the geopolitics of this region (and the world by extension), and left a long trail of beauty, art, faith, hope, belief, and often, violence in its wake.

Geography is a great tool to understand history, and tracing the Jordan river was helpful for me to gain a basic comprehension of the Southern Levant. On the map, the Jordan valley bisects the region from north to south, with the 250 km long Jordan river flowing roughly from the Lake of Tiberias (Sea of Galilee) into the Dead Sea. There is desert all around it: Syrian desert to the east, Arabian desert to the southeast, and Sinai desert to the southwest. The valley is amongst the oldest inhabited parts of Eurasia, and possibly a route through which early humans migrated out of Africa into Europe and Asia two million years ago. Northern portion of the valley has a higher population density, and more than 90 percent of Jordan’s population is concentrated here.

On a clear September day, I could see a good panorama of the southern portion of the valley (including the Dead Sea), and the national borders that currently encompass it from the summit of Mount Nebo, close to the city of Madaba about 30 km south of Amman. And on another day, I could see a good panorama of the northern portion of the valley (including Lake Tiberias), and the national borders encompassing it from the city of Umm Qais, situated on a high plateau about 25 km northwest of Irbid.

(Image courtesy: Google Earth)

A crude way to divide the better-recorded history of the valley is into the Nabataeans from the 3rd century BC (who built the beautiful capital of Petra), their alliance and cultural merger into ancient Romans who ruled until about the 4th century (a period which also saw the crushing of three Jewish revolts, altering the fate of Jews forever and ending their dominance from Southern Levant for the next 1800 years), followed by the Byzantine rule for about two centuries, until the rise of Islam and the Muslim conquest of the Levant in the 7th century and establishment of the Caliphate. It gave way to the Crusaders who established the Kingdom of Jerusalem and other Crusader states in the 11th century. Then came the Mamluks during the mid-13th to early 16th centuries, who were in turn defeated by the Ottomans in the early 16th century. The Ottoman rule lasted until World War I, when the British took over the region to the west of the river under the Mandate for Palestine, and established Transjordan as a protectorate on the east of the river. This forms the backdrop of the present-day conflict. Amidst all this churning, there were a plethora of cultures and people, tribes and nomads, customs and traditions, crafts and fabric, and arts and cuisines, that greet modern-day travelers with a maelstrom of a ‘Middle Eastern’ experience which is almost impossible to fully comprehend, and yet a delightful concoction to stimulate the senses.

Remnants of this complex tapestry of history and religion can be seen, in parts, through a narrow, serpentine road winding down the ridges, gorges, ravines, plateaus, and edges of the desert in modern day Jordan: the King’s Highway, believed to be one of the world’s oldest continuously used roads. This route has served as a vital artery connecting ancient kingdoms and empires for millennia, and warriors, merchants, and pilgrims have used it as a thoroughfare. In ancient times, it was an important trade route connecting Arabia, the Fertile Crescent, the Red Sea and Egypt. It was also an important pilgrimage route, for Christians during the Byzantine period visiting the Holy Land and for Muslims in early Islamic period traveling to Mecca. Ottomans also constructed the magnificent Hejaz railway in the late 1800s roughly along this route from Damascus to Medina, and I could see a refurbished Ottoman locomotive on display at the Wadi Rum Train Station near Shakaria.

The modern Highway 35, which I used, is a tarmac atop its ancient ancestor, running south from Syria and passing through Roman ruins, Byzantine churches and mosaics, Crusader castles, the ancient city of Petra, natural wonders of Wadi Rum, before reaching Aqaba with its Mamluk castle. It traverses the most fertile part of Jordan – through the country’s springs, water sources, olive orchards, and other agricultural land – and therefore is its backbone. In my itinerary, this highway took me north from Amman to the cities of Jerash and Umm Qais, and south from Amman to the cities of Madaba (with detours to Mount Nebo and Umm ar-Rasas), Shobak, Wadi Musa (where Petra is located), and Wadi Rum. A road westward from Wadi Rum connects to the Dead Sea Highway near Aqaba, from where I drove up north almost parallel to the King’s Highway, to Wadi Mujib and Sweimeh, before crossing over to Israel.

Traveling through the country, the first thing one notices is the kindness, generosity, and conviviality of the people in this land. Jordan shares the cultural traditions common to the Arab world, and their hospitality to strangers is exceptional. Long handshakes and conversations, cups of tea being offered everywhere, and faith in everything being ‘God willing’ lends an almost mystical elegance to the inhabitants, and a comfortable serenity to the visitors. A vocabulary of exactly one Arabic word – šukran – was sufficient to be felt accepted and welcomed everywhere. Jordan’s cuisine is rich, sumptuous, and a means to express hospitality and generosity, which also implies that one is always stuffed, and happily so. The dishes primarily feature beans, olives, yogurt, garlic, za'atar, rice, meat, khubz (flatbread), salads, and an umpteen variety of spices and dips; lavish breakfasts give way to even grandiose meals, interspersed with countless servings of tea and coffee through the day. For inexplicable reasons, I was stuck for days with everything that started with the letter ‘M’ – mansaf, maqluba, musakhan, and mezze – until the Bedouins fed me Zarb in the Wadi Rum desert, apparently a delicacy cooked in a large underground pit for several hours. Smoking is prevalent, and by some estimates, Jordan has the highest smoking rate in the world. It feels strange to find officials and civilians smoking inside most buildings and office rooms, something usually associated with days of monochrome cinema. Alcohol, on the other hand, is scarce.

Jerash (Image courtesy: John Romano D'OrazioCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Jordan has a lot to offer to tourists. Ruins from the Roman times are scattered throughout the country, most notably in Jerash, Jordan’s best preserved Roman ruins often dubbed the ‘Pompeii of the Middle East,’ and in Umm Qais, both cities located in the northwestern corner of the country. These cities were part of The Decapolis, believed to be a league of ten cities that were allowed significant political autonomy within Roman protection. Jerash (originally Gerasa) is imposing, with its paved and colonnaded streets, largely-intact temples, theatres, public squares and plazas, baths, fountains, and city walls – a marvel of human achievement from more than two thousand years ago. The vastness of the site made it a challenging walk for me; even the milder early-autumn sun seems to sizzle amidst the rocks and the sand, and lack of shade anywhere in the city can be tough on visitors. Umm Qais (originally Gadara) is similar, though less vast and more picturesque due to the use of black basalt stones conferring a dramatic hue to its structures. Another highlight of Umm Qais is its tremendous vantage point at a crossroads between three countries; I could see the Golan Heights, northern Palestine, and Lake Tiberias, but not southern Lebanon (Mount Hebron) which is also visible on clearer days. There are some Roman ruins in Amman itself, and a garrison for Roman military in Umm ar-Rasas. Many of these sites also have Byzantine-era churches with well-preserved mosaics and carvings, and are well-shaded for visitors, with large signboards describing the international agencies that paid for preserving the heritage. International aid often bends to divine influences of select variety.

The crown jewel of Jordan is Petra, a city spread over more than 250 square kilometers. It perhaps represents the pinnacle of human quest, and dedication of a people to shape rocks, over a hundred years or more, resulting in a city entirely carved out of red sandstone in the middle of a desert. Petra was built in 4th-century BCE by the Nabataeans, a civilization of ancient Arabic peoples. There are more than 500 buildings in Petra today, mostly tombs and mausoleums, in addition to the famed Treasury and the Monastery. Large, majestic rooms were created by scooping out rocks, often with colorful walls of red, orange, and grey hues. The city also has a unique system of conduits and cisterns to harvest, store and distribute rainwater, and a dam that must have bent a creek to the will of its inhabitants. Petra shows the essence of industry in our species, and sitting inside any of its numerous caves, there is a mysteriously tender feeling of not being alone, but being in the company of those who are buried here, everywhere, and continue to live on.

Another allure for tourists is the Dead Sea, a quirk of nature with waters containing 34% salt, almost 10 times that in oceans, increasing its buoyancy sufficiently to make a human body float. It was originally a much larger lake that extended to the Lake of Tiberias, but its outlet to the sea evaporated around 18,000 years ago, leaving a salty residue in a desert basin at the lowest point on earth, 1300 feet below sea level. Until the 1950s, the flow of fresh water from Jordan river and a few other tributaries balanced the surface evaporation, holding water levels steady. However, water inflow has since reduced due to large-scale irrigation and generally low rainfall. In addition, an Israeli dam collects significant water from the Sea of Galilee, further reducing the flow. And finally, there is Arab Potash Company that has been pumping Dead Sea’s water on the Jordanian side since the last 40 years into solar evaporation ponds to manufacture potash, a key ingredient in fertilizers. On the Israel side, the Dead Sea Works operates even larger evaporation ponds for a similar purpose. Over the past 50 years, the level of the Dead Sea has dropped by 45 meters, and water levels are falling at an average rate of 1.2 meters per year. Visiting the Dead Sea is more dystopian than delightful – abandoned resorts, receding shoreline, and rampant use of freshwater and energy to keep this place on life-support is distressing.

 Wadi Rum from a balloon (Image courtesy: Jedesto, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

And yet there is hope, and an eternity to the universe that remains untouched by the human hand. The moonrise in Wadi Rum, the ‘Valley of the Moon,’ is as exquisite as it perhaps was millions of years ago, when this sandstone desert was still under the sea. Its spectacular landscapes, stretching forever, and dotted with mountains, monoliths, canyons, and sand dunes, mirror the alien landscapes of the infinite stars and planets visible in the unpolluted night sky above. As I stand in the cold sand gazing through telescopes, the moon’s surface comes into view – a familiar landscape of craters and rocks, and Saturn appears – its rings smaller and monochrome than those in pictures. And there is the Milky Way, and the Andromeda, and a supernova explosion somewhere thousands of light years away. As I stand, I know that I am looking at all these events in the past, stuff that has already happened, in a perplexing ‘timeless’ reality that is incomprehensible to the unidirectional human mind that cannot comprehend time. And it’s the surest sign that in the grand scheme of things, we are inconsequential.

Sunday, April 30, 2023


About 200 km northwest of Las Vegas lies the Death Valley, the hottest place on earth. About 75 km northeast of the city lies the Valley of Fire, a vast expanse of bright red Aztec sandstones from the Jurassic period. And at about 375 km further ahead in that direction begins the Grand Staircase, a sequence of sedimentary rocks stretching south, starting from Bryce Canyon at the top, Zion Canyon in between, and Grand Canyon at the bottom. To travel through these lands is to witness a snapshot of nature’s long dance that continuously shapes and reshapes the flying rock we call home. In these lands, swathes of earth get bent, lifted, tilted, carved, and eroded over millions of years to form mountains, cliffs, basins, canyons, valleys, ridges, plateaus, mesas, deserts, badlands, and every other phrase in geology that humans have coined in their attempts to comprehend the mystery and grand spectacle of physical existence. Wind operates as the conductor of this grand orchestra, moving earth and sand into shapes and patterns that inspire awe, and compacting them into rocks that stay to tell the story. Water flows and meanders through rivers that drain out plateaus; streams that cut through mountains like sandpaper; waterfalls that churn silt, sand, and cobbles sending them downstream; abrasive narrows that carve rocks into canyons; lakes that feed life as we know it; and snow that wedges apart rocks as it forms in its crevices, and caps everything at the top to complete nature’s perfection. Fire appears, once in a while, spewing out the innards of the planet, bedazzling the landscape with new colors, shapes, and patterns that will keep redefining these lands that represent ‘forever’ more meaningfully than anything humans ever accomplished. And all these elements – earth, wind, water, fire – at the inconsequential moment of human observation, come together to reveal more than 200 million years of the planet’s history meticulously stored layer by layer in the rocks – a timespan that dwarfs the existence of humans by a distance and some more. This region in the southwestern United States is one of the finest productions of nature’s drama. Its extremes of climate and geography make it the ultimate showcase of our insignificance in space and time, and our absurd attempts at ‘reality distortion’. Being here proffers something priceless to us: perspective (a word that, ironically, betrays our sense of self-importance).

Death Valley, straddling the California-Nevada border, is the largest US National Park outside Alaska and is a land of striking contrast and extremes. Despite its forbidding and gloomy name, there are parts of the valley with lush green oases teeming with mammals and birds and reptiles, fields of wildflowers, peaks frosted with snow, occasional rainstorms, and a tremendous diversity of life. There are mountains as high as 3300 meters, deep and winding canyons, and rolling sand dunes. And there are barren salt flats, devoid of soil and vegetation, and covered largely with table salt (along with calcite, gypsum, and borax). A drive from the aptly named Furnace Creek Visitor Center to the Badwater Basin (and nearby Devils Golf Course, and Salt Creek) transports one to the second-lowest point in the western hemisphere at 86 m below sea level. Air trapped in this basin surrounded by the mountains recirculates the heat without being able to escape and sucking out most humidity. A colloquial story of the basin’s naming is about a surveyor’s mule refusing to drink the ‘bad water’ – high in salinity – from the spring-fed pool near the present-day boardwalk. The basin must have had ancient names, presumably vanished amidst the prejudice of recorded history and its narrators.

(Image courtesy: NPS)

At a slightly higher altitude in the Death Valley, short walks from the Zabriskie Point towards the Golden Canyon seem easy at first, but quickly remind one about the fragility of human bodies to withstand the forces of nature. Unforgiving terrain in this part of the valley, mostly made of yellow and brown stripped hills shaped by water, offers no shade and makes walking difficult. Humans have, nonetheless, lived here for thousands of years and sophisticated native American cultures have hunted and gathered in these lands. The first European descendants arriving in this area were lost travelers originally headed towards the California Gold Rush, who might also have lent the valley its present name – rather harsh for a land that accommodates such diversity of life. Motorable roads within the valley form a surprisingly dense network to access its different parts, and a pleasant drive to the Dantes View is a great way to soak-in the panorama of the swirling white salt flats and surrounding mountains from 1700 meters above the ground. Arguably, the most scenic drive in the valley is the Artist’s Drive where the generosity of creation is resplendent in the colorful rocks. Presence of different compounds (iron oxides and chlorite from volcanic deposits) adorns the hills with diverse hues – shades of red, orange, yellow, blue, pink, green, and grey – perhaps prompting the name of the road. For visitors with more time at hand, there are several locations to explore where Star Wars was filmed, and the mysterious Racetrack playa (a dry lakebed) to see, which is known for its strange moving rocks that seem to have been dragged across the ground.

Death Valley is a masterclass in adaptation: of bushes and mesquite plants that survive with long roots, beautiful Joshua trees that grow in the desert, bighorn sheep that can eat almost any plant, toughened snails and pickleweed plants that survive even the hostile salt flats, and generations of humans who thrived through vertical migration patterns moving from valley bottoms in winter to higher altitudes in summers. There is a stark and lonely vastness in this valley – a place that juxtaposes scenic views, multiple climates, insignificance of life, and yet, life’s sheer tenacity.

(Image courtesy: Lana Law)

A worthy detour while driving northeast from Las Vegas towards Zion is the Valley of Fire – a place where time appears to stand still, with the past and present fused under the beating heart of the sun. Located in the Mojave Desert, its name derives from 150 million years old brilliant rock formations that illuminate the sky with a fiery red color. These Aztec sandstones with their rough floors and jagged walls are what’s left after the compaction and extensive erosion of sand dunes – a constant process of natural transformation over an incomprehensible timescale. The Valley of Fire Road traversing through the park – yet another example of America’s focus on automobiles to reach the inaccessible – takes one through some of the most famous rock formations such as the elephant rock, arch rock, and the fire wave. Humans inhabited this region too, and there is rock art (petroglyphs) by the ancient peoples that can be seen at the Atlatl Rock. Witnessing this juxtaposition of humankind’s eternal quest to mark ‘we were here’, and the nature’s slow but assured dominance over it, is humbling.

Driving northeast for another 2.5 hours from the Valley of Fire gets one to Zion, the middle layer of the Grand Staircase and arguably, its finest composition for human exploration. Zion is charming, spectacular, imposing, and domineering, all at once. It offers something for everyone – leisurely strolls, moderate to strenuous climbs, cliffs and rivers and waterfalls, vivid imagery, plants and wildlife, and fascinating stories of the land and its people. The story of Zion’s topography, and of most of the Grand Staircase, is extraordinary. A long time ago, when dinosaurs were evolving, Zion was a flat basin near sea level. Over time, streams in surrounding mountains deposited so much sand, gravel, and mud eroded from those mountains, that the entire basin sunk. More layers of sediments continued to be deposited and solidified into rocks. At some point, the earth very slowly pushed the entire surface up, hoisting huge blocks of the crust creating the Colorado Plateau and mountains as high as 3000 meters, and giving speed to rivers that flowed rapidly down a steep gradient, cutting through rock layers, and forming deep and narrow canyons. The layers of rock across the Grand Staircase today are a magnificent tableau documenting the fascinating story of these geological processes that are still underway amidst the stunning but transient landscape of the region. Grasping the passage of geological time with the perception of a human mind is futile, and reinforces, yet again, how miniscule our lives are amidst the extravaganza of the universe.

(Image courtesy: Grotto by Tom Morris)

The term Zion was used by Mormons who settled in this region only during the mid-nineteenth century, even though the land has been inhabited since more than 8000 years. The last of native tribes, the Paiute Indians, receive a share of recognition today through odd jobs in managing the national park, even though most of their culture appears to be largely lost. This recent history of substitution of cultures, mostly described as ‘exploration by European American fur trappers’, ‘pioneers settling into the area’, and ‘increased economic activity’ is perhaps the familiar archetype of the complex human conflicts and power struggles that have existed around the world for centuries and narrated by those who survived to tell the story, and yet inconsequential and frivolous when viewed from the prism of nature’s endurance.

A lot of breathtaking scenery of the Zion National Park today is accessible through motorable roads that lead to several trailheads for hikes and climbs and canyoneering, campgrounds that allow spending time in the wilderness, accommodation both inside the park and the town of Springdale just outside, and facilities for river trips and use of stock animals for exploring trails. One of the oldest sections of these roads – the Zion Mount Carmel Highway connecting Springdale with the east side of the park – consists of a 1.8 km tunnel with six large windows cut through massive sandstone cliffs to provide light and ventilation through the canyon wall. Constructed more than ninety years ago, a drive through this engineering marvel is a showcase of human ambition that blasted through rocks and made way, however temporarily, in the grand scheme of things. A few kms north of the tunnel lies one of Zion’s star attractions – “Angels Landing” – a 9-km roundtrip hike that gets one to the top where, as put by a Methodist Minister a century ago, only an angel could land. The last 1 km of the hike requires a permit, though the non-permit parts allow equally majestic views. Shorter jaunts from the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, such as to the Weeping Rock, or the riverside walk, divulge more of nature’s artistry and interplay of imposing cliffs and glistening rivers. Zion, the middle child in the Grand Staircase, and closer to the earth’s surface than other two, is a happy place; somewhere where the fickle human heart doesn’t feel lost and forlorn amidst the vastness of nature, but is more at ease in the latter’s abundance.

(Image courtesy: NPS)

At the top of the Grand Staircase lies the Bryce Canyon National Park, famous for its surreal hoodoos, the red spindly rock formations collectively creating the park’s ‘Amphitheater’. The story behind the creation of hoodoos as narrated by the native Indians is more refreshing than the tedious geological explanation. Once upon a time, before the Paiute people, lived the to-when-an-ung-wa, the Legend People, who took too much from the land and used to drink all the streams and rivers in spring. They were punished by the coyote God of the Paiute, the Sinawava, and turned into stones. When the sun shines on these red, snow-capped formations casting long shadows, the Legend People appear to look back at us, creatures of dust ourselves, with a calm serenity, telling us a story. At the bottom of the Staircase, is the Grand Canyon, the more acclaimed of the three layers. Standing at the rim during the day, the canyon below is a vast tapestry of colors, patterns, rocks, and water smelting into each other on earth, stretching infinitely in time. At night, the spectacle is reversed, twinkling as stars overhead, a vast tapestry of colors, patterns, rocks, and unknown elements smelting into each other in the sky, stretching infinitely in time.

There is no perspective, other than the cold hard truth of the eternal existence of space and time, and of life that flickers in it like fireflies.

Saturday, April 29, 2023


The protagonist

Uttering the words Las Vegas in any conversation usually evokes a smile. A smile not of the innocuous variety, the type that could be passed along with pleasantries and in situations of ease; but a gravid smile, one that withholds a reflex, an opinion, a judgment, or perhaps a memory that instantly flashed in the mind of the one who decided to bestow that smile to the utterer. On the face of it, Las Vegas is merely a city, slightly more than a century old, but it has a reputation preceding it. Once upon a time in the middle of a desert, humans dared to replace the oppressive heat and glittering sand with neon lights, excitement, and entertainment. The result was an opulent skyline dotted with some of the most grandiose experiments of a civilization, creating lavish structures that emerged from the surrounding desert like a mirage.

Everything in Las Vegas is by design, meticulously crafted to pump a potent mixture of light and sound, frolic and feast, celebration and sensation, channeled through swishing alcohol and fluttering dollar bills. The energy here is palpable, and with some extravagance, it is possible to witness and indulge in the finest accomplishments of the modern civilization – art, cuisine, fashion, wellness, spectacles, and nightlife. The Las Vegas Strip – a 7 km long arterial road through the city – is organized as a series of mega resorts, each as grand as a mini-city with its distinct architecture and theme, casinos, restaurants, hotels, and entertainment venues. The old ones such as Flamingo, Caesars Palace, or Mirage, or the more recent ones such as Bellagio, Venetian, Palazzo, Wynn, or Encore – each resort offers an endless array of unique experiences and adventures in the comfort of precisely conditioned buildings that never sleep. These luxurious buildings are the beating hearts of the multi-billion-dollar economy that helped catapult Las Vegas as the entertainment capital of the world.

The gravid smile that appears at the mention of Las Vegas usually originates from its erstwhile hedonistic reputation – “What happens here, stays here,” was a famous credo for marketing the city until four years ago. The new slogan is a subtle variation – “What happens here, only happens here,” and perhaps a more befitting ode to its glut of entertainment options that are increasingly family friendly. The city was dreamed as a bold destination, with its own Rialto Bridge, and Eiffel Tower, and Colosseum, and Statue of Liberty, and Egyptian Sphinx – different resorts attempt to replicate Venice, New York, Rome, Paris, Cairo, Marrakesh, et al within their compounds, offering an unmatched spectacle.

While gambling in the city’s endless casinos is its most common stereotype, the allure of Vegas as a panoply of human expression and arts is less recognized. Music forms the city’s soul, both with big name shows (Las Vegas is host to some of the biggest music festivals) as well as intimate performances. And it can also be found in astonishing settings, such as the Bellagio fountain featuring more than a thousand water fountains choreographed to music. A highly recommended experience is to visit one of the performances of Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian contemporary circus that hosts multiple permanent shows in the city: productions that defy what human bodies are capable of.

Las Vegas is a place with something for everyone. It's easy to take the route of casuistry in drafting one’s narrative, and fixate on the city’s history of crime, adult industry, and other vices. However, it might be more prudent to assess Vegas as a city of contrasts, where luxury and excess meet history and culture, where glamour and glitz often collide with continence and fortitude, and where foundational questions of philosophy about rights, wrongs, and justice appear both substantial and frivolous at once. When the bleak judgments are stripped off, what remains is a city of possibilities even for the most cautious of visitors, and a delightful escape from the mundanity of everyday life.

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The antagonist

The first thing one might notice after landing at LAS is the odious smell of fries. It is yet another unremarkable American airport, replete with fried potatoes, fried chicken, fried bacon, fried patties, sugary drinks, and coffee, interspersed between flight gates used by thousands of souls each day queuing up to be projected into the sky inside pressurized metal tubes. There is a swarm of humanity; humans in different shapes, sizes, and colors; babies, often crying; old people, lurching their way through; all attempting to escape the place they are at, to get somewhere else, quickly, right now. The precise point in history when fortunes such as ubiquitous food, and wonders such as flying, gave way to an all-pervasive ennui in human minds is unknown. On the other hand, it’s downstream effect – of unfettered consumption – is well known.

Nearing the exit of LAS, the welcome signs adorned on walls are all too familiar gateways into the Sin City. Most narratives of the city’s history would describe Vegas as a twentieth century invention – of progressive government policies that transformed a land in the Mojave Desert into the entertainment capital of the world. It’s convenient: history is often too complex to fit into a text message, and usually unpleasant to indulge-in over fine dining. The Paiutes (the natives) who lived here for thousands of years since before the ‘common era’ began, and the story of their displacement by Europeans (the settlers, usually Mormon missionaries) and Americans (who fought with Mexicans to annex the entire region) is somber, complicated, and bears all hues of grey depending on the narrator. The history of these Native Americans isn’t obliterated either, it’s merely commoditized with casinos and hotels decorated with stereotypical imagery, where the tribal traditions are lost, and what remains is the vulgar cultural appropriation that could be exchanged for cash.

On Vegas’ streets, bright LED signboards, each the size of a church’s graveyard, display towering humans in front of garish graphics screaming for attention, goading other humans to consume something – a loud concert, some greasy food, a comic show, a place to gamble, clothes, or shoes, or women – anything with a promise of instant gratification, anything that can stoke concupiscence. The city's adult entertainment industry is a multi-billion-dollar business, built on the exploitation of women's bodies. Debauchery needs celebration, because when everything is available aplenty to the human race, there is little left that can satiate its forever quench for more. 

Las Vegas is affluence in-your-face, a desert where one walks more on carpets than on sand, expensive cars and limousines line up in garages, energy burns at twice the average rate for America with thousands of slot machines whirring inside every building, a giant water fountain uses millions of litres of desert water outside one, a mega beacon of light catapults a beam up into the night sky from the top of one, and other absurdities that are as imaginative as they are an assault on senses. And like any other affluent parcel on the planet, the city successfully hides the have-nots amidst its sheen – the homeless parked on every pedestrian bridge, the trash collectors, the men and women in asinine costumes coercing you for pictures, the casino workers with their unforgiving jobs, the pole dancers, and the drummers of empty plastic buckets attempting to be heard over the din of overlapping amplified music from every corner. The extravagant resorts and towering hotels on the Strip manufacture a world of illusions, where reality could be distorted and stowed away amidst glitz and glamour, and a lewd fantasy could be created by exploiting people and nature.

The frenzied swarm of humanity continuously flows through the city like murky sewage in its drainage system of walkways, bridges, elevators, and escalators. People balancing ‘yard drinks’ in their hands drift aimlessly through buildings of glass and concrete that eclipse the sky, and gape at crass recreations of Rome and Venice replete with plastic plants and artificial skies inside those buildings. Here, the present presents a sneak peek into an eerily dystopian future when the most predatory species on earth will perhaps get permanently relegated underground after the remaining flesh on the planet’s cadaver has also been scorched.

Las Vegas is synonymous with casinos. And it’s those opulent gigantic spaces with their stationary air mixed with smoke and sweat and nonstop fluttering screens and beeping machines that truly represent a generation lost – where the innate beauty of the most intelligent life on this planet got substituted with sparkling machines of chance, where the profundity of human experience got bartered away for mindless ‘recreation’, and where the most intimate and authentic human feelings perished forever in a seductive trap of life behind screens and alcohol. And all this while, dreary crowds continued to queue up at 5100, Las Vegas Boulevard South to get their pictures taken under a signboard. It said: Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas.