Rajasthan, India: Amer Palace, Streets of Jaipur, Neemrana Fort Palace

Continuing north from Gujarat we made our way to Rajasthan in northwestern India. I’ve been traveling back and forth to India for my entire adult life but never had the chance to visit Rajasthan. It’s known as the archetypical India of old, the source of many of the hyperbolic images you probably associate India with. So I was of course very eager to get my first taste of it.

I didn’t have a lot of time to fully immerse myself, and I didn’t get my dream shot of camel merchants in the desert at sunset lol, but what I was able to take in was thoroughly spellbinding. While I didn’t have time to hit every famous site, the real treasure of India is her people so I’m very grateful I had the chance to meet a few of these living jewels.

The two sites I did get the chance to take in, Amer Palace, which you will see first here, and then Neemrana Fort Palace on the way to Delhi provided endless scenes of classic Indian architecture and history. I hope you’ll enjoy the photos!

India: Mumbai to Ahmedabad

After my visit to South India, I took a flight to Mumbai where I joined my friends Edward Sanchez and Anita Jaisinghani to take the overnight Gujarat Mail train to Ahmedabad. Anita is originally from Ahmedabad so it was a real treat to have her show us around her hometown. Edward is an award-winning filmmaker who came along to do a short documentary about our journey and the work of She Has Hope.

Anita is the owner of what she refers to as an “India-Inspired” restaurant in Houston by the name of Pondicheri. She is currently embarking on her latest venture called Queen Scarves which will feature a line of headscarves made from fabrics sourced in India.

Many of the scarves will be made by trafficking survivors who are recovering at the She Has Hope rehabilitation home where they find purpose and empowerment as they learn various tailoring skills. A generous portion of proceeds from the sale of the scarves will be used to pay the artisans fair trade prices for the pieces they produce as well as to fund their programs.

Thus you will see many photos in this set showing you the amazing fabrics we shopped for while we were in Ahmedabad.

Then, of course, there were the amazing people of Ahmedabad. They were extremely welcoming and so happy to be photographed. I have found this to be true all over India. It’s a photographer’s dream come true to be able to freely interact with the locals and have the honor of shooting their portraits.

For my fellow statistic lovers, here are some mind-boggling stats I’ve gathered on Ahmedabad and India population topics. Honestly, this is just me rambling but in case you find this kind of thing interesting I wanted to put it out there:

Ahmedabad is the seventh-largest urban agglomeration in India by population (6,361,084), and the fifth most populous city in terms of people living within the official city limits. Interesting to note that my hometown, Houston, has about the same urban agglomeration population as Ahmedabad at 6,315,000.

However, the real difference can be found in the population density of the two cities. Ahmedabad is extremely crowded with 22,100 people per square kilometer, whereas Houstonians enjoy a sparse urban sprawl of just 1,300 people per square kilometer!

This kind of density is seen throughout India. Many do not realize that India has a current estimated population of 1.339 billion which is more than four times the population of the United States. Here’s the rub: India sits on a landmass only 1/3 the size of the United States. So we’re talking about four times the population of the US, on only 1/3 the amount of land.

Add to this the challenge that 31% of this population lives in urban areas. This means that just India’s cities alone hold a population of 415 million people, more than the entire population of the United States and Canada combined. I do not envy the infrastructure challenges the Indian government is faced with.

Yet in spite of these challenges, India is finally taking some bold steps to fight its environmental crisis. I am so happy to report that almost all of India’s 29 states have banned plastic bags, and many have banned all single-use consumer plastics such as plastic drinking straws as well. It’s a wonderful thing to see the people of India standing up to take pride in the beauty of their amazing country and unparalleled heritage.

This is a major step for India’s staggering environmental crisis, as most cities do not have any well-organized trash collection systems and estimates put the time it takes a plastic bag to decompose at anywhere from 20 to 1000 years. Even at 20 years in a best-case scenario, imagine the accumulation of plastic bags in such intensely dense population centers with no organized trash collection systems?

The plastic litter had completely overwhelmed Indian cities and meanwhile, plastics disposed of before the bans are still seen strewn about the landscapes, seashores, and riverbanks taking their time to decompose. But this new of the bans is great progress and gives me a lot of hope for the future of India to avert a full-blown environmental catastrophe.

So I have given you quite a lot to think about regarding India! Now let’s take a look at some of the beautiful Gujarati fabrics and the beautiful, hospitable people of Ahmedabad!

Note the bonus content at the end of this post with some food shots and a few Ahmedabad restaurant recommendations! 

Bonus content: food shots taken with my iPhone along with a couple of videos of street life during the rainy season. Restaurants you MUST try when you’re in Ahmedabad: Swati Snacks (could eat here every day), The Vishalla, House of MG, and the Green House.

South India

My recent trip to (South) Asia began with a visit to a boarding school for at-risk youth including trafficking survivors in South India. My lifelong local friends operate these programs, so I’ve been able to visit their campus many times during my travels to India since I first fell in love with the country in 1993.

It is always so inspiring to see the smiles of these children knowing the circumstances from which they have come. Learn more about this education program at PeaceGospel.org and their girls’ trafficking response programs at SheHasHope.org.

The program includes an accredited day school for local at-risk children, many of whom, without the free education and fresh-cooked meals the program provides, would otherwise be involved in child labor because the families cannot afford the supplies needed to keep the children enrolled in other local schools. Orphans recovering from trafficking (slavery) situations are able to find boarding at the school where their complete resident care is provided for. Much of the evidence of the success of the programs is found simply in their smiles.

Photography note: I took over 600 photos of these kids but had to face the hard task of narrowing it down for this blog post. I managed to get it down to 105, I know it’s a lot, but it’s the best I could do in choosing from so many great smiles!


Amsterdam: Venice of the North

Or is Venice the Amsterdam of the South? Whatever the case, I was thoroughly impressed with this city. With an intricate web of both wide and narrow canals and a staggering number of bridges (1281 to be exact), there’s an endless amount of exploring to be done. Rent bikes and find your way around the canals and the parks of this gorgeous city and you will not be disappointed! I would suggest staying away from the too-commercialized city center, one walk-through to discover some very quaint side-streets is a good idea to get the feel there as you come out of the “Centraal” Station, but the more serene and appealing parts of the city, in my opinion, are toward the middle of the fan of canals that emanate southwest from the station.

The summer daylight lasts from about 5am to 11pm and due to the city’s high latitude, the sunset seems to last for 2-3 hours, setting very slowly, providing surreal light shows during golden hour and the extended blue hour. I hope these few shots might give you some feel of the city. I cannot wait to return to explore more of the Dutch countryside. A quick trip to Bloemendaal for a concert gave us a little preview. There’s water everywhere, and nature is on grand display at every turn. The country is very environmentally conscious and it shows.

Per i miei amici italiani:

Amsterdam: Venezia del Nord. O è Venezia l’Amsterdam del Sud? In ogni caso, sono rimasto davvero impressionato da questa città. Con una rete intricata di canali ampi e stretti e un numero impressionante di ponti (1281 per l’esattezza), c’è una quantità infinita di esplorazioni da fare. Noleggia le biciclette e fatti strada tra i canali e i parchi di questa splendida città e non rimarrai deluso! Suggerirei di stare lontano dal centro della città troppo commerciale, una passeggiata per scoprire alcune stradine molto pittoresche è una buona idea per farti sentire lì quando esci dalla stazione “Centraal”, ma più serena e parti interessanti della città, a mio parere, sono verso il centro del ventaglio di canali che emanano a sud-ovest dalla stazione.

La luce del giorno estivo dura dalle 5:00 alle 23:00 e, a causa dell’elevata latitudine della città, il tramonto sembra durare per 2-3 ore, impostando molto lentamente, fornendo spettacoli di luce surreali durante l’ora d’oro e l’ora blu estesa. Spero che questi pochi scatti possano darti un’idea della città. Non vedo l’ora di tornare per esplorare più della campagna olandese. Un breve viaggio a Bloemendaal per un concerto ci ha regalato una piccola anteprima. C’è acqua dappertutto e la natura è in gran vista ad ogni angolo. Il paese è molto attento all’ambiente e mostra.

Day 7: Pre-Dawn Via Dolorosa, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Garden Tomb, Garden of Gethsemane, Holocaust Museum

Continuing my journey with Ecclesia Houston and Pastor Chris Seay via the always-innovative tour company Breaking Bread Journeys, day 7 of our itinerary was perhaps the most profound. There are many inspiring moments along the way but there’s something about waking up before dawn and taking a vow of silence only to hear the scriptures related to the path that Jesus took to his crucifixion at each of the 14 stations. We departed from our hotel at 5am to take the walk to Herod’s Gate and then made the descent to Station One of the Via Dolorosa, or “The Way of Sorrows.”

There in the predawn deep blue glow of a sleepy Jerusalem sky, we listened with broken hearts as Pastor Chris read us the scriptures that chronicled or prophesied of Jesus’s walk to his death. It struck me that many of the stations depict those who loved him reaching out to help him, to do something for their beloved teacher and friend. They did not understand anything he had said about his coming resurrection, so to them, this was just the most awful, dark, miserable thing they could imagine happening. Here was the man who had healed, preached forgiveness of sin, fed the poor, taught a Gospel of a higher love, yet here he was the scorn of man, bruised, beaten, flogged nearly to death, then sentenced to carry his own tool of execution while wearing a crown of thorns.

I cannot imagine anything more profoundly distressing, depressing, confusing, or anguishing than these scenes laid before the very eyes of those who had followed him and loved him. In that dark hour, before the sun had risen, I and members of our group were gripped by the reality of those accounts as we trod over stones sometimes dated to the first century. There were few dry eyes as we meditated on those seemingly slow-motion brutal moments of the Via Crucis, or the Way of the Cross.

At the same time, as Pastor Chris read these scriptures, it became apparent that another emotion felt in those steps is a realization of the profound love that God has for us, that while we were yet imperfect people lost in our own ways, Christ died for us because he loved us. I’m no theologian, but I do know a few things about the Bible from my time of studying it personally. I believe that when Jesus was buried in his tomb (Station XIV of the Cross) he descended into hell (“Hades”) and conquered death so that we might have the resurrection into eternal life at our bodily death. “Following his death for sin, Jesus journeys to Hades, to the City of Death, and rips its gates off the hinges.” —Joe Rigney

After this intense experience, we visited a much brighter place called the Garden Tomb, a location just to the north of the Damascus Gate believed to contain the empty tomb of Jesus, a site many historians believe to be the place of Jesus’ resurrection. The overseers of the location have done an amazing job of keeping the gardens bright and colorful, as a representation of the glory of Christ’s resurrection, symbols of rebirth blossoming all around us. We took communion in that holy space and we all felt a very present touch of the Holy Spirit, a touch of the very palpable hope of the resurrection in that supremely serene garden.

Later in Day 7, we made our way to the Garden of Gethsemane, another important scene in the story of Jesus’ path to his crucifixion. It is very revealing to me that Jesus prayed in the garden the night before his crucifixion, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” This reveals his humanity, that he knew the fight for the salvation of the world was before him, and in that humanness, perhaps he did not feel he could bear it, and thus he prayed for God to take it. Yet in his humility and submission to God the Father, he relents, “yet not my will, but yours be done.”

The olive trees we saw there were at least descendants of the trees that would have arched their embracing arms in sadness over Jesus on his last night before his death (some say they are saplings of those trees that provided rebirth for the trees to carry on, as is the manner of olive trees to regenerate in their same location for thousands of years– either way, a beautiful symbol there, too). So many touch-points for us to feel, see, and experience these places where he walked, where he prayed, and where he loved us with an ultimate love unfathomable among mankind.

As if we had not felt enough for the day, the tour ended at the Holocaust Musem, “Yad Vashem.” There we experienced yet another kind of darkness, one of history’s deepest wounds, the Jewish Holocaust. There are no words to appropriately express the horrors of the Nazi’s deliberate cruelty, a merciless and systematic murder of millions of innocents, in the most unthinkable ways possible. In this contrast to the beauty of God’s love as demonstrated on the Via Dolorosa, we remembered the total depravity of mankind, that we could fall to such a grave brokenness, to an antithesis of love, and the ambivalence of so many who turned their hearts and eyes away from the reality of what was happening all around them in those days. Yet even in those horrible chapters of history, the museum beautifully and thoughtfully documented “The Righteous Among the Nations” — accounts of those who stood up to the ultimate brutality and evil, to rescue and hide Jews who would have otherwise perished.

The group then took a much needed time of reflection and prayer on the bus to help us process all that we had taken in on this inexpressible day. Then Christina Samara and Lisa Moed of Breaking Bread Journeys met us at a farewell lunch and presented all of the group with a small but beautiful gift of cookbooks containing their favorite holy land recipes. We were all so grateful for them and our faithful tour guide, Bassam.

We concluded our last night with a special Shabbat dinner hosted at a local Jewish home by the group called Shabbat of a Lifetime. Photos are not allowed so you will have to imagine the scenes of an authentic Jewish Shabbat (Sabbath) meal.

If you’ve read this far, thank you for following along. I hope these blog posts have been inspiring as a visual expression of what we felt this week. God bless you.

Day 6: Church of Saint Anne, Pools of Bethesda, Chefs for Peace, Tunnel Tour, Razzouk Tattoos

Continuing the Ecclesia Houston tour with Breaking Bread Journeys… after a morning of free time recovering from our epic road trip the day before, we started the day with a visit to the beautiful Church of St. Anne, built between 1131 and 1138 on top of the site believed to be the childhood home and perhaps the birthplace of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The church possesses mesmerizing acoustics, and this makes the church a pilgrimage site for soloists and choirs, of which we got to hear a few from around the world singing praises in various languages. We contributed our own song as well!

Our tour guide Bassam shared some very interesting facts about the unique nature of the church:

Unlike most other Crusader churches, St. Anne’s was not destroyed after Saladin’s 1187 conquest of Jerusalem (Saladin led the Muslim military campaign against the Crusader states). In 1192 Saladin converted the building into a madrasa (Islamic educational institution), known as al-Madrasa as-Salahiyya (of Saladin), as is still written in the Arabic inscription above the entrance to the church.

During the renewed Muslim rule of Palestine, Christian pilgrims were only permitted inside the grotto after paying a fee. Eventually, the madrasa was abandoned and the former church building fell into disrepair. In 1856, in gratitude for French support during the Crimean War, the Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid I presented it to Napoleon III. It was subsequently restored, but the majority of what remains today is original. Currently St. Anne’s belongs to the French government (thus the French flag that flies atop the church) and is administered by the Missionaries of Africa, commonly called “The White Fathers”, for the color of their robes.

The church is located right beside the archaeological excavation of the Pools of Bethesda and its collonades mentioned in the 5th Chapter of John’s Gospel. Pastor Chris Seay read to us this Gospel account of the crippled man who had been waiting 38 years to be healed in the pool which was known at the time to have healing powers (“a heavenly messenger would come to stir the water in the pool. Whoever reached the water first and got in after it was agitated would be healed of his or her disease”).

And I thought about how this crippled man had kept his faith all those years, believing that he could be healed if only he could get in the pool at the right time. And the passage indicates that Jesus knew of this man’s longsuffering spirit in waiting for so many years. I think perhaps that’s why he chose to heal him, to underscore how great this humble man’s faith was. Look at the results of his faith: a visit from the son of God himself, and he was instantly healed. May we all have even half the faith and patience of this man.

A definite highlight of our week was meeting up with Chefs for Peace, a non-profit, non-political organization founded in Jerusalem in 2001 by a group of Jewish, Christian and Muslim chefs committed to exploring cultural identity, diversity, and peaceful coexistence through food. Chefs for Peace realizes food— its preparation, sharing, and enjoyment— is a powerful means of creating a bond with others and revealing that which is valued by all faiths: food, family, and friends.

We met the chefs at the Damascus Gate on Thursday along with the founder of Chefs for Peace, the Armenian, Jerusalem-born chef Kevork Alemian. They then took us on a tour of the old city to buy the ingredients we would be using to prepare our dinner!

After shopping for some fresh Tahini in the Muslim Quarter along with a demonstration of how it is made, the chefs took us for lunch at a restaurant known for their falafel and hummus, Abu Shukri, which is located by Stations of the Cross 5. They explained to us the different styles of making hummus and how to eat the various appetizers served.

After a visit to the spice market, we then made our way to the hidden gem of Zalatimo’s Sweets. In a small room with just an oven, a refrigerator, and a few tables, Mr. Zalatimo and his relatives serve up the greatest pastry that the Old City has to offer, an Arab treat known as a mutabak (from the Arabic for “folded”). The flaky phyllo dough type creation is the only food served at Zalatimo’s, and ordering is simple: “with nuts” or “with cheese.” The shop also includes another treasure: one of the original entrances to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is now sealed off and no longer used.

Afterward, we visited a famous photography print shop, known as Elia’s Photo Service. The photo prints this Armenian family sell are part of a collection of about 3,000 photographs taken by their late grandfather Elia Kahvedjian, an orphaned refugee of the Armenian genocide and one of the greatest photographers in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 20th century. He and his family are featured in the National Geographic film “Jerusalem: Within These Walls” to represent the Armenian Quarter. The photos, which had been hidden away since 1947 by Elia as he thought they were of no value, were rediscovered by the family over 30 years ago and now serve to help researchers and aficionados of Jerusalem probe its past. For a fascinating article on the importance of the photographs, you can read here. Several of the group bought his book, Jerusalem Through My Father’s Eyes, which is a rare and beautiful collector’s item.

We stopped by Samara Tours, where co-owner of Breaking Bread Journeys works running her decades-old family tour business. As it was Valentine’s Day, Christina and her co-workers had an unexpected gift of roses for each member of the group!

After we literally ate our way through the Old City, the chefs invited us to learn how to cook with them at the Bulghourji Restaurant in the Armenian Quarter, and then we ate some more.

Next, after a walk through the Jewish Quarter and another visit to the Western Wall, our tour with Breaking Bread Journeys took us through the tunnels revealing archaeological finds deep underneath the Old City. The Tunnel Tour is in such high demand that you must book it two months in advance. We learned that much of the city was raised from a small valley centuries ago by arched supports, and it is under these arches that many of the tunnels were excavated. We saw the ancient gates to Solomon’s Temple and learned that one stone of the temple’s western retaining wall (which our group was able to see and touch) weighs an estimated 570 tons. To put this weight into context, the heaviest stone in the Great Pyramid of Giza, found in the “King’s” chamber, weighed 80 tons.

Last but not least, we ended the night with a visit to Palestinian Christian Wassim Razzouk’s tattoo studio. The Razzouk family has been in the tattoo business in the Old City for over 700 years. It has been a longstanding practice for Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem to get the Jerusalem Cross tattooed as a commemoration of their pilgrimage. Several of the members in our group did just that. To learn more about the fascinating history of the Razzouk family business, you can read an article here.