Category Archives: Landscapes

Crown of Palaces: The Taj Mahal in Agra, India

 

If you get up early in Agra, skip the most popular viewpoints near the reflecting pools, and hurry around to the west side by the Yamuna River, you can find yourself mostly alone, watching the sun rise over the Taj Mahal, with the world’s most famously beautiful building seemingly all to yourself.

 

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Muslim Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the white marble “Taj” in the 1600s as a mausoleum and memorial for his favorite wife (and mother of 14 of his kids).  A probably-apocryphal legend says Shah Jahan planned to build a similar black marble Taj directly across the river as his own eternal resting place. But it’s tough being a Mughal emperor, and one of his sons took over and sent Jahan to a far less glorious prison cell for his final days.  The Shah’s final tomb is wedged into the Taj beside his wife, the only thing asymmetrical in the whole place.

“Taj Mahal” means “crown of palaces,” reflecting Jahan’s intent to make it the fanciest place in the world. The signs say he spent around a billion inflation-adjusted U.S. dollars on it, and from the perspective of a visitor 400 years hence, that was a billion bucks well spent.

 

 

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The red out-building to the west — from which some of these pictures were taken — is still treated as a mosque (no shoes allowed), though the identical red building to the east is not.   If you put booties over your shoes, you can go up on the balconies of the Taj itself, which is a fine spot, but the best views are “of” the Taj, not “from” it. Unfortunately, there was some maintenance work going on when I was there – thus the scaffolding on the east side and on two of the minarets.

 

 

 

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I also visited the Agra Fort across town. It’s an interesting complex, but the only real photo opportunities there were its hazy views of the Taj Mahal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A final Agra amusement: I knew the days ahead in northern India would include more than a few nights in cold tents and without showers, so I’d decided to spring for an unusually nice room for the two nights in Agra, with a balcony that overlooked the Taj Mahal complex. The place must’ve been nearly full (or nearly empty?) because they instead upgraded me to a ridiculously lavish top-floor suite with two big balconies, seating for 18, and Taj views even from its glass shower and bath tub. A further amusement was that most of the hotel staff had no idea that I was in Suite 512 only through a flukish free upgrade, so they treated me like a Maharaja! They also let me know that Prince William and Kate Middleton had been in the same suite in April when they were in town.  Pictures of the hotel, and of or from my snazzy suite at the Oberois Amarvilas Agra:

 

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Cross-Country Colombia: Coffee Farmers, Mountains & Medellin

As usual for me, the further I got from the main cities and main highways, the more interesting my visit to Colombia became.

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Colombian coffee-country landscapes were planted in meticulously organized patterns.

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One of several older gentleman farmers hanging around the town square of the hilltop town of La Merced, Colombia.

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My Hertz reservation for a small pickup truck got fouled up, leaving my friend Grant and me driving a late-model VW Jetta through the mountains in the heart of Colombia.  It’s impossible not to look conspicuously out of place in rural Colombia in a late-model Jetta.  Hertz’s punishment was that their Jetta endured long stretches of dirt-and-gravel mountain roads of the Colombian Andes.  Much of our trip was in the heart of Colombia’s “coffee country.” Most of the patterned agricultural landscape you see in the pictures is coffee.   Despite the mostly hazy and cloudy weather (and my dislike of coffee), the landscapes were striking.

In the hilltop town of El Merced, the town square was full of old guys – mostly just hanging out. It took a fair amount of bi-lingual cajoling to get some of them to let me make a few pictures. The guy with the scarred face was also toting a machete strapped to his hip – which gave me some insight on how his smile may have become so crooked. (They carry machetes as agricultural tools; not as sidearms). I wished for a photograph with that big knife in the picture, but I was barely able to get him to let me photograph him at all.  One of the guys recommended “Asadero La Fonda” as the best restaurant in town for us to have lunch (see picture in the grid); we had lots of meals at places that looked like that.

When you get away from the cities and tourist areas, prices in Colombia can be disconcertingly low. Two meat-and-cheese breakfast pastries, two doughnuts, a cup of (Colombian!) coffee, two Diet Cokes, and a couple of big cookies for the road? COL $8,000 – less than $3 U.S.  At Hotel Colonial in Aguadas, I paid extra for a bigger room with three balcony-windows overlooking the town square (and with a couch, table and chairs, big bathroom, wifi, refrigerator, breakfast included). It was US $20; my buddy’s room (without the ‘view’) was US $8.  (The last image in the grid below is the view from my room).  One regular quandary: What kind of tip do you leave when you get great service and a fine lunch for less than two bucks?

The biggish city of Medellin was the end of our car trip (we flew from there to Cartagena). The plump-looking (and probably familiar-seeming?) statues are by a famous Colombian artist, Botero.

Next stop:  Cartegena.

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Near Manizales, Colombia

 

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Late Friday night in the town square in in the isolated mountain town of Aguadas, Colombia. Their director was perhaps the best (and surely the most entertaining) clarinet player I’ve ever heard.

 

Images from Salento, Aguadas, and Medellin:

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One of several Botero statues in Medellin, Colombia’s downtown Botero Square. Medellin is Botero’s home town.

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Morning near Aguadas, Colombia.

Overlooking Bogota

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Bogota, Colombia,  just after (above) and just before (below) sunset – from Monserrate, a 10,000 ft mountain just east of downtown.

I spent just 36 hours or so in Bogota before heading west through the Andes. It’s Colombia’s biggest and capital city — with a metro population bigger than Chicago and an elevation higher than Aspen. Bogota has plenty to offer. If you go, plan to stay longer than I did.

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A “protester” (sort of) on Plaza Bolivar (between the Capital and the Supreme Court) in Bogota. Her sign says (I think) “There’s nothing left to say.” Every minute or so she’d just scream “Aaaaaaahhh!” as loud as she could. The capitol police kept a close eye on her and other protesters, but generally let them do their thing.  A statue in the image is Simon Bolivar.

 

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In the grid above are views from Monserrate, around Plaza Bolivar and the Catedral Nacional, inside Museo de Oro (Gold); and outside the presidential Palacio Narino.

 

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The central courtyard of Bogota’s Capitolio. The guards were nice enough to let me past the first layer of security to get a few pictures.

The central government square in Bogota is “Plaza Bolivar” — named for 19th Century Latin American hero, Simon Bolivar. He’s credited with liberating from Spain the region of “New Granada” — now Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia.  Maybe obvious: “Bolivia” was named after him. Depending on who you believe and how you look at it, it may be a little unclear whether he was benevolently liberating, or if he was attempting his own Napoleon-style conquest. In any case, history has been kind to Bolivar: seemingly every town or city we visited had its own Plaza Bolivar and its own big statue of “El Libertador” himself. (Americans may overlook him, but there are actually prominent Bolivar statues in downtown Paris, in Washington DC, and in New York’s Central Park.) If you see a statue in Colombia and wonder who it is, you can probably win a bet by guessing Bolivar.

A few of the other Plazas (and “estatuas”) Bolivar we encountered, in Salento, Medellin, and Cartegena:

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Scotland: Skye and the Outer Hebrides

 OKAY!  Finally — the last of my pictures from Scotland.  Yes, I’ve been home for quite a while, but these were some cool places and I still wanted to share what they looked like.

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Dunvegan Castle has been the headquarters of the MacLeod Clan for over 700 years.

Not surprisingly, Dunvegan Castle, the home of the MacLeod clan chiefs for the last 800 years or so, was chock full of old paintings of men named MacLeod wearing kilts and high socks.  After my visit there, I headed for the ferry from the Isle of Skye out to the Isle of Lewis & Harris, and the big semi next to my car said, “D.R. MacLeod Transport.”  Two of the workers who were getting me checked in on the ferry had name tags with the last name MacLeod.  Apparently the MacLeod clan is alive and well on Skye and Lewis & Harris, just like they have been since before Columbus sailed west.

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The harbor town of Portree — the biggest ‘city’ on the Isle of Skye — was my home base for a few days on and around the Isle.

The Outer Islands have their own culture.  The area is known for its strong religious heritage – mostly the Presbyterian-ish Church of Scotland, as I understand it.  On Sunday, there was almost nothing open: I finally found one café and one gas station that were (apparently) heathen-operated.

The highway and other signs in the area are written in both English and Gaelic, but a long-time local I quizzed thought that was mostly symbolic.  He didn’t believe there were many people who spoke only Gaelic. I was surprised that I had no trouble understanding the Scottish accents in the Highlands and islands, even though I could barely understand the folks down in Glasgow.  (I was briefly concerned that I was going to be detained at the Glasgow airport because I was unable to understand and answer the several security-screening questions asked in Glasgow-accented “English”).

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These 600-year-old carvings of swords, displayed inside St. Clements Church on the southeast tip of the Isle of Harris, probably once marked the graves of prominent members of the MacLeod clan.

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Looking east from the southeast coast of the Isle of Harris, with the Isle of Skye on the horizon.

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This igloo-looking monument on the Isle of Harris is a modern memorial to a group of protesting local farmers from the late 1800s. A part of it marks the spot where the local sheriff (literally) “read the Riot Act” to the protesters. The Riot Act was English law; if an unruly group gathered (creating a threat of a riot) the sheriff could read a section of the Act ordering them to disperse or else be arrested. I knew the modern idiom of “reading someone the Riot Act” — giving them a strong scolding or warning — but never knew its history!

Before I made the trip, I learned the words and music to “Scotland the Brave”.  It’s the anthem (sometimes regal and sometimes eery) you always hear Scottish bagpipers playing as an iconic musical symbol of the country.  At a minimum, I knew it would be running through my head while I was there, and I wanted to be prepared in case I was caught up in any pre- or post-Independence vote revelry and felt compelled to amuse, or to show some local musical allegiance.  I was ready play it on either guitar or ukulele.  Among the resulting disappointments:  no occasions arose where my would-be barroom antics would have been appropriate; no real patriotic revelry erupted anyway; and — worst of all — I learned that the song was a 20th Century creation (written perhaps in the 1950s).  Somehow I’d imagined it being played for those kilted soldiers who fought alongside Braveheart in the 1200s — not something written for a potential gig on the Ed Sullivan Show.

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My most-remote destination was the Uig Sands area, on the west side of Lewis & Harris. At low tide, there was a mile or so of flat sand between my 400-year-old guest house and the water. At high tide, the Sands were flooded and the water was only a few yards away.

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In one sense, the Outer Islands were a lot further from home than the mileage might make it seem.   I started toward home at about noon on a Tuesday.  A drive to the port where the ferry would leave the next morning; hotel overnight; ferry to an Inner island; drive to the town where I’d rented my car; taxi across the bridge to the mainland; train to Inverness; another train to Glasgow; taxi to Glasgow airport hotel; morning flight to Newark; airport tram; flight to Houston; parking shuttle; then my trusty Chevy Tahoe back to the house on Thursday night.  I spent almost my entire two weeks in Scotland on the out-of-the-way islands rather than seeing the major cities and sites.  I didn’t even make it to Loch Ness to see the monster.  I had a great trip, but I don’t think I’m ready to cross Scotland off my list.

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Coastal sands on the Isle of Harris

 

 

Scotland 2014: Lighthouses, Sheep, and Dead Economists


Yes, I’ve been home from Scotland for a while, but I’ve got a few more batches of pictures to share.

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For 190 years, the Eilan Glas lighthouse has sat on the small peninsula off the Isle of Scalpay (a prior lighthouse was on the same spot in the 18th century).  Scalpay is a tiny island recently connected by bridge to the Scottish Isle(s) of Lewis & Harris.  The peninsula it sits on sticks well out into the Minch – the branch of the Atlantic Ocean that goes between the Inner and Outer Hebrides – which is presumably the reason someone thought a lighthouse was needed there in the first place.  In better light, you can see back to the Isle of Skye.

Honestly, it’s probably hard to be more photographically trite than a bunch of cliched pictures of a lighthouse with a sunrise in the background.  But my pre-dawn hike through the sheepfields of Scalpay was a pretty special experience, and – if I may say so myself – these pictures turned out pretty well.  I only got lost (and wet) a little on my two-hour hike — taking the long way — through coastal sheep fields back to my car.

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Much of the land in Scotland’s outer islands is part of a Common Grazing system. Local committees generally supervise the land and decide how much livestock each farmer is allowed to graze.

This area of Scotland has lots of sheep, and lots of land dedicated to “common grazing.” In a common grazing system, grazing lands are controlled by the town or by some sort of semi-governmental cooperative, and the individual citizens have some ability to put their livestock on the land for grazing. But nobody owns the grazing land (or maybe everybody sort of does). This is especially interesting (to me) because there is a famous principle of Economics called the “Tragedy of the Commons,” which analyzes the ups and downs of common ownership of resources like this (mostly the downs – thus the term “tragedy”).   The grazing tragedy occurs because every farmer with access to the common grazing land has the incentive to graze as many animals as possible on the seemingly free public land, so the land becomes overgrazed and barren and thus no good for anyone. This rarely happens on privately owned grazing land, because a property owner tends not to spoil his own land. The moral of the story is that when nobody owns the land (or other resource), nobody has a great incentive to care for it.

Solving the “tragedy” can take two seemingly opposite courses: heavy governmental regulation (like the Grazing Committee); or private ownership of the lands. Environmentalists analogize to the concept to argue that something must be done (i.e. regulation) to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring in the “common” air we breathe and water supplies from which we drink.  Because nobody owns the skies or rivers, people are unfortunately inclined to abuse them absent some government control.  On the other hand, conservatives (more precisely: capitalists) point to the “tragedy” concept to teach that private ownership of resources (where possible) is the best way to ensure that they will be well cared for and preserved. Both these arguments are mostly correct, and that’s why the Tragedy of the Common idea is such an important, interesting concept.

Somehow it’s also interesting that Scotland was also the home of Adam Smith, the 18th Century economist and author of Wealth of Nations. Smith is the one who taught the modern world that a capitalist system – where people act in their own financial interest – generally creates better outcomes for a society because private ownership and profit interests usually lead people to direct resources to their most productive and valuable uses. It’s a little ironic that the odd pocket of common grazing systems persists in the country that is Smith’s homeland. He may be rolling over in his Edinburgh grave.

So if you ever wonder what I think about on a two-hour solo hike through quiet Scottish sheep fields on the way to and from an isolated lighthouse, now you know.

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Sheep graze near Uig Sands on the Isle of Lewis