human earth

As a follow-up to “pure earth,” I am attempting to make sense of a stream of consciousness thought process that ensued after I excavated those photos from the reserves of my computer. In assembling “pure earth,” I sought to depict earth, sky, sea, wind, and rock in its most virgin, untouched splendor–thus affording me the rare opportunity (for me, at least, since I do like toying with words) to show, not tell. And, par for the course, all according to the vision of John Muir (and other equally impressive naturalists). I suppose that as I developed “pure earth,” I was ultimately giving some life to my personal vision of Earth Day. In addition to my conviction–and of course, the cliche–that “Earth Day is everyday,” I strongly believe that our Earth Day discourse about reducing, reusing, and recycling overlooks a most basic form of reaffirming our commitment to and care for Mother Earth: reverence and utmost respect for the natural world that we get to “play in and pray in” (as Muir once mused). As such, in an attempt to emphasize the natural wonders pictured in the first set of images, I herein present another series of photographs, each of which depicts a human-earth interaction or scenario–some rendering a light, respectful footprint and peaceful coexistence and others, a less forgiving scar on the natural landscape.

En route to the clearer air of the Nepal Khumbu for some on-foot adventuring this past fall, my younger brother and I paid our obligatory respects to the Kathmandu tourism establishment. Pictured above (and, for better or worse, experienced during our weeklong sojourn there): perpetually gray air, saturated through and through with pollution of headache- and black snot-inducing caliber; ramshackle buildings punctuated by historic stupas, Hindu holy grounds, and ostentatious Nepali government palaces (the central palace on the Durbar Marg is Pepto Bismol-pink); and motorcycles (and more motorcycles) as far as the eye can see. I almost hurled in the taxi en route to the elevated viewpoint from which this photo was taken. I have exhaust and pernicious stop-and-go traffic to thank for that. Photo: SK; Kathmandu, Nepal, as seen from Swayambhunath (the “Monkey Temple”).

A different Asian “cityscape.” After almost two weeks of backpacking near Mount Jhomolari in western Bhutan, we ventured east over painfully windy–and muddy–roads for some “cultural exploration.” We spent a night in the “authentic” village of Wangdue Phodring, Bhutan, a village from another world, where women lather and rinse their hair on the side of the street, farmers desperate to earn a few ngultrum sell potatoes, onions, and carrots laid upon burlap sacks laid, in part, directly upon the muddy streets, and where the local hotel installs a government-sponsored condom dispenser at the end of the guest room hallway. That’s some careful planning. Anyway, in all seriousness, I am challenged to thought and consideration by the juxtaposition of the image of Kathmandu, in the filth and wildness of its urban sprawl, and the above snapshot of life in Wangdue. Should the Nepali government, awash in foreign funds generated by the tourists who flock the Khumbu and Annapurna regions each year, be held to a higher standard? I’m thinking some basic infrastructure additions…like sidewalks and traffic lights. Then there’s the air. And what to say of crumbling Wangdue Phodring? I am compelled to argue that its residents have inherited unforgiving logistical circumstances, namely rural location and lack of resources, and should thus be forgiven for less-than-optimal treatment of the natural environment. The plot thickens (see and read below). Photo: SK; as experienced on a “wild” escape from the relentless grip of the Bhutan Tourism Corporation.

After a fourteen-hour-long layover in the Delhi-Indira Gandhi International Airport, an experience replete with opportunities to catch malaria from the hordes of mosquitoes prowling the airport’s oversized hallways, we, as the “lucky” recipients of tourist visas for Bhutan, boarded our premier Druk Air flight to Paro. Surrounded by deep green, virgin forest, the bustling metropolis of Paro features traditional Bhutanese architecture, fertile rice paddies, wild cannabis lining the one-lane street that leads to and from the airport, and, undoubtedly, the cleanest urban air that I breathed during a six-week-long adventure in Asia. While seemingly simple in its “innocence,” Paro, when considered as the gateway to this “mystical” country famous for its “Gross National Happiness” meter and governmental efforts to retain a certain national “purity” by levying formidable restrictions on tourism, is an exercise in complication and contrast when juxtaposed with snapshots of life in rural Wangdue. Photo: AK; overlooking the Paro Valley of Bhutan.

The final, on-foot approach to the Paro Taktshang (famous in tourist jargon as the “Tiger’s Nest) is befitting of the monastery, itself: dramatic and breathtaking, with uneven, winding staircases clinging helplessly to the craggy mountainside (or more precisely, to the cliff-side). Our acclimatization hike to Taktshang on our second day in Bhutan afforded us immediate immersion into the Buddhist-influenced, precise harmony between man and nature–or perhaps more accurately, the symbiotic relationship between man as a benefactor and Mother Earth as a host, for better or for worse. The steep ascent was punctuated by tsatsa, miniature memorial urns composed of clay and ashes, prayer flags draped in far-flung locations by energetic, young monks mingling with the misty outpouring of waterfalls, and the whinnies of beleaguered horses carrying jetsetters to the Tiger’s Nest. Photo: SK; approaching Taktshang in the Paro Valley of Bhutan.

After braving more than a week of rain, snow, hail, fog, thunder, lightning, yak dung, and Bhutan’s ubiquitous mud, we achieved our final mountain pass at ~15,000 feet (located in the “hills” above the pictured campsite), and descended to our final resting ground. I arrived almost an hour late to our group teatime. Rather than hustle down to the campsite to avoid further contact with all of the friendly hail falling from the heavens, as logic would have had it, I opted to retrace almost 2,000 vertical feet of ascent in hot pursuit of a pair of beloved sunglasses that had escaped the grip of my croakie during our frantic descent. I eventually arrived at the campsite–empty-handed, of course–to find my family huddled together in matching down jackets, sipping morosely at yet another dose of black tea. Silence persisted until we regained the energy to retire to our sleeping tents, and as we did so, the sounds of silence intensified. The clouds parted, craggy peaks reigned high and mighty, and the air grew calm and cool–promising quite a show of the heavens and its celestial bodies later that evening. We were speechless. Photo: SK; a desolate campsite in western Bhutan’s Jhomolari region.

City hills and shanties unto one another on the outskirts of Lima, Peru. Photo: AK, as seen from a double-decker coach bus at the beginning of a thirteen-hour-long drive to the town of Huaraz, the gateway to the Peruvian Andes.

Foothills and mountain villages as one, a landscape that rolls freely away from the cars, dust, and barking dogs of Huaraz into the craggy, life-giving contours of the glaciated Cordillera Blanca. Photo: SK; in the foothills outside of Huaraz, Peru.

Reveling in the reinvigorating qualities of glacial runoff in Peru’s north-central Cordillera Blanca. Mom is on deck. Showering is a distant memory, but improvisational bathing in the company of towering, glacial peaks is infinitely more appealing–and more earthly–than the dirty and chaotic Lima labyrinth that we navigated en route to the Andes. Photo: MK; nestled away in the Quebrada Quilcayhuanca.

We are but a shadow upon the landscape. Photo: MBK; location: my backyard.

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