Mexico Mandala

I love ancient ruins and I’m not exactly sure why. I suppose the mystery behind their history is very intriguing to me. No one fully knows or understands how sites like the Pyramids of Egypt, the ruins of Machu Picchu, and the temples of Tikal were constructed. And we have to rely on cryptic carvings and broken pottery to piece together how they communicated and lived. I guess I love that in their presence, your imagination is kicked into overdrive envisioning how they looked during the peak of their existence and what activity might have been happening around you.

So it’s no surprise that many of my trips are based around visiting ancient ruins. In March of 2006, Michael and I set off for a week of exploring the Yucatan Peninsula. We based ourselves in the small coastal town of Tulum. From there we visited the well-known Chichen Itza ruins, whose vast grounds are kept immaculate. In contrast, the ruins of  Coba are still partially covered in tree roots and soil, which is much more to my liking. Plus, we were still able to climb some of them, which is always a fun challenge as their stairs are very deep and shallow.

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But it was the small coastal ruins in Tulum itself that intrigued me the most. All other ruins I have ever visited have been buried in the middle of a jungle. But here on the cliffs overlooking the Caribbean Sea sits this ancient port city. I found the location made the setting come alive, despite the fact that crumbling buildings surrounded us. And I loved the vibrancy of the green foliage and the topaz-blue seas against the charcoal gray of the ruins.

And because of this, the ruins of Tulum surprisingly inspired this lively mandala.

Cambodia Mandala

I was first introduced to Cambodia when it was still known as Kampuchea. As part of my International Relations class in high school, I had to devise an international crisis-type of scenario and the rest of the students had to debate how the United States government should get involved. I chose to focus on Cambodia, in particular Pol Pot, his reign of terror, and the aftermath. I don’t remember the specifics of my scenario, but whatever it was, I had the class stumped. More importantly, my eyes were awakened to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and the millions of people that suffered under them.

When I decided to travel to SE Asia in 2001, I knew that Cambodia had to be on the itinerary. Most people who travel to Cambodia do so to visit the vast complex and amazing temples of Angkor, and that too was on my to-do-list. But people who pass over visiting Phnom Penh, the Killing Fields, and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, are doing a disservice to themselves and the lives that were lost.

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Of course, Angkor Wat and the various other temples in the heart of the country are miraculous to see in person. The complex was begun in the 12th Century as a Hindu temple and later converted to Theravada Buddhism. Most people recognize the main temple, Angkor Wat, but there is believed to be over a thousand temples in the area. You can easily spend weeks exploring all that the complex has to offer. And like most temples that have been deteriorating over time and lie in ruins, your imagination is put to the test.

(National Geographic published a great article on the history of Angkor – “Divining Angkor: After rising to sublime heights, the sacred city may have engineered its own downfall”)

For my Cambodia Mandala, I wanted to evoke the sadness that the horrors of the Killing Fields brought on, yet celebrate the rich history of Angkor. I feel the contrast of the two emotions is represented in the cold grays of the stonework and the brightness of the Buddhist robes. And I think that because of this dichotomy, this has always been one of my favorite mandalas. But I know it is not for everyone. Maybe it makes other people uneasy without them realizing it, and if that is the case, then I think it is successful.

California Mandala

I’ve been to California many times over the years, but there is nothing like that first experience of driving up the Pacific Coast Highway. For me it was July of 1995. My friend Holly and I had just returned from six months of backpacking in Australia & New Zealand and were wrapping up our trip with five days in Fiji followed by two weeks in California.

It was a beautiful ride as we meandered our way up the coast from San Diego to San Francisco, with every turn offering an amazing view. And the further north we got, with the sharp cliffs and pounding seas, the more we were reminded of the Great Ocean Road in Australia – but even better. Ending with a camping trip in Yosemite, those two weeks were the highlight of our trip.

I loved being with Michael the first time he was going to experience driving down the PCH. It was 2006 and we were heading from San Francisco to Los Angeles. With stops in Monterey and Big Sur along the way, the views seemed better than I remembered. And it was from a photo on this trip that inspired this California Mandala.

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What pleased me the most about this mandala was that is was the first one I’ve known of that really spoke to someone. I was showing it at a local art fair in New Jersey and noticed a woman observing it for a period of time. When I introduced myself she expressed how much it drew her in and she had no idea why. Talking further, we figured out that the photo it originated from was taken from the same area in Big Sur that she grew up.

The magic of the mandala – nothing pleased me more.

Alaska Mandala

After many years of spending my travel time abroad, I decided that I wanted to see more of my own country. The summer of 2003 was the second year in a row that I did a travel holiday in the United States with Trek America, a tour operator that offers active small group adventures throughout the Americas. They offered a great opportunity to explore and camp through Alaska, a trip that would have been difficult to pull off on my own.

Our guide served as both our tour leader and driver, and our small group of 11 served as cooks, camp set-up/clean-up crew, and overall entertaining company. In our two-weeks on the road we had many incredible adventures, including:

  • Flying by seaplane to our camp site in Kachemak Bay, where juvenile eagles soared overhead as we enjoyed the first salmon of the season;
  • Carefully navigating our kayaks through the chunks of ice that calved the night before off of Schoop Glacier as seals swam along side us;
  • Camping along the river banks in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and tramping on Root Glacier where we set-up ropes on an ice wall for some intense ice climbing;
  • A breathtaking flight over the Alaskan Range;
  • And four days of 100% visibility of the majestic Denali (Mt. McKinley).

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Being in Alaska was like a breath of fresh air – its beauty is invigorating and the only other time I felt so alive was in Nepal. There must be something truly magical in areas where mountain ranges and glaciers dominate. And that is the essence I wanted to portray in my Alaska Mandala.

If one color were to represent Alaska it would have to be blue; from the sea to the sky and iceberg to glacier, its vibrancy is everywhere. And for me, this mandala completely encompasses the electricity that Alaska created in me.

Nepal Mandala

Nepal Mandala

I found myself in Nepal the month following September 11, 2001. With my flight originally scheduled for that day, instead of heading to Asia, I spent the month rearranging visas, sleeping on my couch (I had sublet my apartment), and volunteering with the Salvation Army at a recovery center in NYC. A month later I left the chaos of the city for the pristine mountains of Nepal, where our only traffic jams involved goats and the only human interaction we had was with the people of the Himalaya.

I couldn’t have been in a more completely different environment, spending four weeks hiking the Annapurna Circuit. With every twist in the trail and turn of the corner I saw new views that took my breath away – from the green rice paddies of the lowlands to the barren desert-like terrain of the highlands, with the pristine white mountaintops of the Himalaya greeting us along the way.

Nepal Closeup

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The photo that inspired my very first Mandala was taken during the final part of our trek. Having spent the first two-thirds of the hike slowly ascending the trail so as to avoid altitude sickness, our descent was much faster and hurried – we barely had time to look up and enjoy the scenery in front of us. On this particular day it began to rain and hail for a short period of time.

As we took refuge under some trees, I was able to pause and admire the view in front of me. Looking out through the bright pink blossoms of the cherry trees that protected us I could see a varied spectrum of green in the rice paddies, whose colors took on a glistening affect because of the rain. It was such a beautiful moment during an otherwise uncomfortable period.

And in a way that summed up what my experience in Nepal meant to me – an incredibly beautiful experience during a time in which there was much turmoil and pain back at home. Nepal was my peaceful reprieve from the devastating events of September 11.