This morning I was waiting outside a public library as it got ready to open. Others were gathering around me too and an elderly couple ambled slowly along the path, holding hands. As they approached, they greeted another fellow standing across the sidewalk from me. This other fellow asked how they were doing. The elderly man replied: “So far, so good”. His partner chuckled and said to the fellow: “He always says the same thing – So far, so good.” The elderly man smiled to himself and my eyes drifted to his hands, which were lovingly caressing hers. I saw the wedding ring on her finger and saw her respond by tightening her hands around his. It gave me happiness and a comfortable and warm feeling inside just wondering about the path they took in life to arrive at this moment together. A nice way to start the day.
I decided to visit Arizona for the Easter long weekend. Good decision: as I write this, Chapel Hill is undergoing a deep freeze of 30-50° F (6° C) while I am thoroughly enjoying the warm and dry 94° F (34° C) weather.
It was not a difficult decision to come here. Arizona offers intense hiking opportunities, awesome and raw natural beauty, and a major plus is that an equally keen adventurer friend of mine is based here. He and his wife recently had a baby boy who I was eager to meet. And so the plans were drawn.
It’s my first time here and I was surprised to discover that Phoenix has 4.2 million people in the metropolitan area. This makes it the sixth largest city by population in the country, according to Wikipedia. The metro area also includes the large and well-known towns of Scottsdale and Tempe, which is where I have spent my time so far.
The town of Tempe is home to the campus of Arizona State University and like most college towns in the US, it has a vibrant, hip and liberal feel to it. The streets are pedestrian-friendly, decorated with palm trees, and lined with trendy bars and restaurants, yoga studios, and smoke shops. You’ll see young professionals chatting it up over cocktails and beers and students sipping iced coffees and pounding away on keyboards trying to get their papers finished. Still, I was horrified to see one bar with its patio sliding doors thrown wide open and its air-conditioning system cooling the city air at full blast. And another restaurant across the street was spraying misted water on to its patrons to cool them down. (I found the temperature to be quite balmy.) I had gotten off the plane just 30 minutes earlier and so unfortunately these were among my first observations of my life in the Phoenix area …
My friend Paul and I stopped at the Handlebar Tempe, a restaurant with an airy beer garden out back. We ordered sausages, burgers and sweet potato fries accompanied by cold local ale. That was enough for me to declare it a meal of champions!
The roads around Scottsdale are lined with Saguaro cacti and palo verde trees which are among the dominant forms of fauna here. The entire area is situated within the Sonoran Desert, one of four desert ecosystems found in the United States. Despite the low amounts of precipitation in this climate there is apparently enough rain (or groundwater) to sustain some life. Certain types of plants have evolved to thrive here, but they tend to have a dusty or dull brownish and greenish colour to them and this is a dominant feature of the landscape.
Scottsdale city authorities have undertaken efforts and put rules in place to protect the sensitive local environment. For starters, developers are apparently prohibited from removing the road-side brush. The result is that nearly every road is lined with the original desert vegetation and resident and commercial developments are a secondary feature, blending more readily into the landscape. I understand that homeowners may only plant species of vegetation which are native to the area and which are adapted to the low rainfall levels. Moreover, as a water conservation measure, properties have drip-irrigation systems built in at the time of construction which are designed to provide only a minimal amount of water to the plants growing around the home. And you’ll notice from the photo below that there is no grass – just light-coloured grey stones. Where grass exists, it’s usually Astroturf! These efforts are quite a contrast to the waste of water I witnessed in downtown Tempe.
Another dominant characteristic of the landscape is its sharp mountainous relief. Everywhere you look you will see conical or triangular shaped mountains rising abruptly out of the desert. These are the McDowell Mountains. Some of them rise only a few hundred or a thousand feet, while others must be easily twice that height. It is funny because as we were driving along the way, I found it difficult to tell where the homes and businesses were, so well were they obscured by the same landscape that was occupying our attention.
Early one morning, Paul and I decided to hike up into one such set of mountains, following the Pinnacle Peak Trail. The hike was about 2 miles long, with an elevation change (both up and down) of about 1,300 feet, and took us about 2 hours to complete. There were dozens of other hikers and joggers on the trail with us. I wondered at those who were running up and down the mountains. I thought to myself that they must be doing interval training (an exercise format that aims to improve strength and recovery time after highly intense periods of physical exertion).
From the top of Pinnacle Peak, you can see a few golf courses built into the desert.
And one home with an infinity pool, set into the mountain side.
Preparing okonomiyaki takes a lot of concentration. This is a popular Japanese dish that looks like an omelet or a pancake and is made with ingredients such as flour, egg, potato, cheese, onions, cabbage, and other vegetables. But really you can put anything you want in it. It is then grilled to your taste and you can season it with mayonnaise or seaweed flakes. Some restaurants, like this one, offer the DIY (do-it-yourself) option. Its a lot of fun and a good way to spend time with friends. Definitely a must on your next visit to Japan or even in the Little Tokyo neighbourhood of your city!
Men in Saudi Arabia’s capital city of Riyadh gather at a local restaurant to eat a traditional meal known as kabsa. Kabsa is composed of different types of rice and meats which are flavoured with spices and topped with nuts, raisins and onions. Here there are several men, including myself, seated barefoot on the floor around a large platter. After a short prayer, we dug in with our hands. Delicious.
In spring, the Antarctic sun lays low in the sky over the Southern Ocean. The sea ice is breaking up with the arrival of warmer temperatures. At this time of year in Antarctica the sun never really sets so there is about 23 hours of daylight and 1 hour of twilight. It makes it difficult to sleep, but who would want to with views like this?
A Pakistani schoolgirl clutches her books as she stands outside of the new primary school that is being opened in the small, mountain-side village of Sokar (Chattian) in the state of Azzad Jammu & Kashmir. Many girls in Pakistan don’t get a chance at an education – perhaps for religious reasons or because their parents need them to support the household in various ways. The folks in this community, however, are very happy to have this new school in place. I felt privileged to join them for the celebration. The school was built in 2010 by the NGO formerly led by my late friend Mubashir Niaz (aka Mishi Khan).
After a night dancing under the full moon in the desert outside of Los Angeles, California, seeing the sun rise over the mountains seemed like the right thing to do at 5:00am. Seize the day, right? I headed in the direction of the brightening sky and climbed to the top of the nearest hill. At the top of it, I realized I was at the start of the mountain ranges of the Mojave Desert where the ridge of each mountain seemed to be higher than the last. I continued on, climbing up and down for what seemed like forever. Finally, at a certain point, the sun had risen high enough that it came over the top of the ‘last’ mountain and there I was.
This is the mountain gorilla eating lunch in its natural habitat in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. The gorilla is part of a family of about a dozen other gorillas of which there are only about 900-1000 known to remain in the wild. To find the family, we spent several hours trekking through the dense jungle thicket guided by park rangers. At the time the permit cost $500 which gets you the guided trek and a maximum of 1 hour in close proximity to the gorilla family (apparently it now costs $950). Although we were not allowed to get closer than 3m, at one point, a gorilla looked at me and came closer… and then ambled past me on the path, just a couple of feet from me. I was scared shitless. Although still considered critically endangered, the Government of Rwanda has done a good job protecting these gorillas and conserving their habitat using the funds from the permit program and the population is slowly increasing again. This photo was taken by Edward Taylor, one of the members of our trekking group.
A street vendor in the Rocinha favela of Rio de Janeiro selling grilled meats: chicken, sausage, and beef skewers. Small-scale entrepreneurs are common on the streets of Brazil where millions of these types of workers are part of the informal economy and pay no taxes but may also have no or limited access to social or financial services (though this is changing rapidly). He probably runs a good business and is likely eagerly awaiting the influx of millions of tourists for this year’s World Cup. Viva Brasil!
Traditional Arabian dhows carry the banner of a new F1 race to be held annually in Abu Dhabi starting in 2009. The promotional festival brought together F1 teams and their drivers for a mock race on the city’s streets and was open and free to the public. Fast cars are a common sight in the UAE’s capital city which is also home to a Ferrari themed amusement park.