Jul in Århus

Thanks to a week in Kiev, my exit from the EU was pushed back enough for a Christmas in Aarhus, my first in Denmark. I thought I'd experienced hygge before, but Juleaften (Christmas Eve) in Jutland raised it to a new level.

In the early-afternoon, just as the darkness was setting in outside, Bodil, Joanna and Martin gathered into the kitchen for an hour or so of rolling, cutting, stirring, dipping, then stuffing chocolate-covered marzipan balls with almonds, all merry and busy as elves. At 4pm the kids settled in with a plate of their new creations for the mandatory viewing of the Danish Disney program, a ritual since 1958. Back in the dining room, duck, pork roast, browned potatoes, gravy and plenty of wine followed, then rice porridge with cherry sauce for dessert. When younger kids are in the house, a bowl of the porridge is left nearby for the mischievous gnomes that are known to be avid pranksters. By pure luck (or else because Joanna placed it there), the unbroken almond ended up in my bowl of porridge, an auspicious sign in Denmark: while the others would be forced into the kitchen for the dishes, I'd have the honor of lighting the candles set around the tree. Alone in the warm, soft-lit room, decked with wreaths, dozens of candles and homemade ornaments spanning three generations, I waited for the others to return, patiently.

The most memorable ritual followed, a tradition that I like to believe has roots stretching into pre-historic times in the forests of Scandinavia: we circled the tree. Bodil had little hymn-booklets ready, and so even I could join in awfully-pronounced Danish, struggling through three or four songs, broken up with variously-directed laughter as we circumambulated the tree. Gifts were then opened while all the candles burned themselves down much too quickly.


Syrian Flashback

A good Egyptian friend of mine, Shereen Salah, asked last week if I'd share some Syria prints for an upcoming fundraiser. Organized by the Syrian Expatriates, "Don't Leave Syrians Cold" will have its Salt Lake event on the first of December. I went ahead and put together some black and whites, some of which will be sold that afternoon, the proceeds to aid refugees just beyond the Syrian border. Most of these were taken during my short visit back in the summer of 2010. If you won't be anywhere near downtown Salt Lake for the event, consider ordering a print or two to support a good cause.  

Camel boy at Palmyra, Syria

Palmyra, Syria

View from the old Citdael of Aleppo


Ummayad Mosque, Damascus

San Simeon Basilica


Sayyida Zeinab Al-Kubra Mosque, Damascus

San Simeon Basilica; Aleppo Citadel

The good old days in Aleppo

Balloon Man, Damascus; Shoeshine Man, Aleppo

Souq Man, Aleppo

Serjilla, one of the Dead Cities

Dura Europos, near Syria's eastern borders

Grand Mall, Raqqa

A kid heads home in Şanlıurfa, just across the Turkish border

Street Cafe, Cairo


The Source of the Ganges

Barely settled into their new life in Ludhiana, my brother and his family joined me from Punjab towards the end of my time in Uttarakhand. We met in Rishikesh, spent a night in Uttarkashi and, after another arduous jeep journey, reached the very end of the road in Gangotri. The trailhead for the source of the Ganges leads east from there.

After a bit of wrangling at the permit office over the mandatory guide (it was finally admitted that guides are not mandatory), the permits (Gangotri's power was out across town until late afternoon so that the town's sole photocopier was out of commission; only Billy's Hindi persuaded them to allow an exception in processing our papers) and Billy's camera (confiscated after a threatened bag search and refusal to pay the Rs1500 fee which came on top of our Rs600 permits), we were relieved to be on the trail late the next morning. I was even more relieved when my own camera magically came back to life after I beat it against a rock. The shutter had stopped functioning back in Rishikesh and I hadn't had time to get to the Nikon shop in Dehra Dun. Luckily, I managed to keep it alive for most of our trek.

Gear trouble and Indian bureaucracy aside, our luck couldn't have been better: we'd arrived at the very end of the monsoon. Rain had come every day since I'd touched down in India, and heavy clouds filled most the sky during our 14km upward trek to the camp, just straddling the tree line about 4km from Gaumukh glacier. But stepping outside our tent the next morning in the barren valley of Bhojbasa, the icy peaks of Bhagirathi (6856m/22624ft) rose in full view, the entire sky above the baby Ganges cyrstal clear and deep blue.




Upper Garhwal

It always feels especially good to be alive after a Himalayan drive. Stepping out the back of my over-packed jeep into the high Himalayan town of Joshimath, after another bumpy ride through the Garhwal foothills, was no exception. Winding high above white rivers at the sunless bottoms of vertigo-inducing valleys, long stretches of the road had been battered by the monsoon into a precarious muddy track barely wide enough for a single jeep. Passing buses was always fun, as were the routine stops for landslides. Some held us up an hour or so while others forced us to hike across and wait for jeeps or buses on the other side to turn around. After watching them casually maneuver their heart-stopping u-turns I'd reluctantly climb inside for what always seemed likely to be the final ride of my life. It had been two heavy months of monsoon and I'd caught the roads at their very worst.Basing in Joshimath, I took a few days to explore the upper reaches of Garhwal, stopping off at Badrinath, the most famous of Uttarakhand's char dham, and taking a two-day trek to Gangharia and the Valley of Flowers. I was a few weeks late for the flowers, but the hike was well worth its 18km climb: while I probably passed a thousand Sikh pilgrims en route to Hemkund Sahib, I found myself almost completely alone in the secluded valley.