Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Beograd

On a cold, rainy night in the cobble-stoned Skadarlija, I ducked into an old, candle-lit restaurant and found a troupe of Serbian mariachis plucking and crooning old tunes. Bienvenido a Belgrade. Viva Serbia!

I warmed up on vinjak (wine brandy) and čorba od pečuraka (Cream of Mushroom soup). I dined on delicious whole grilled trout; its skin crispy- its meat, white and flaky, along with a side of garlic spinach and potatoes. A glass of wine from Montenegro.

For dessert, I ate tufahije- a baked apple filled with crushed pistachios and chantilly cream. I sipped kajsijevača (apricot brandy), while I read Mr. Dickens' Oliver Twist under candle light.

The band played a gyspy version of Frank Sinatra's "My Way" and I slipped some dinar into the folds of the accordion. Like Frankie said, "Ја то урадио на свој начин"

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

I am so glad that I was born in Europe and not in America

I was sitting the other day in a small restaurant for dinner, when two girls sat next me.  They were Hungarian college students on Spring Break, and we got to chatting.

A pretty girl with long black hair and periwinkle blue eyes said something to me that really made me shake my head:
I am so glad that I was born in Europe and not in America
I would think that this is the first generation to ever express such sentiments.

All I could wonder in my head was:

What happened to us?

And sadly, it is an answer I think I know.

Bosnian chicken soup for the soul

To chase away a cold grey, snowy day, all that is required is a bowl of Begova čorba- delicious Bosnian cream of chicken soup with chunks of carrots and okra swimming in the thick broth. Along with a glass of šljivovica (plum brandy) to warm a cold body and spirit.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Show Must Go On

My time working in Sarajevo began in earnest today, and I met this morning with the U.S. Embassy's CAO Eric and Cultural Affairs Specialist Lejla (FSN, ie local hire).  In the afternoon, we went over to the National Theater to scope out the location.

As we entered the theater, Lejla was greeted with kisses and greetings from a number of people we passed.  Once inside, she explained that she used to be an actress and a producer of theater.  Then she told me a story I will never forget.

Lejla mentioned that during the siege of Sarajevo, she took the stage for two plays.  

The power had been cut in the city, so they were forced to act by candle light (This little light of mine...). 

Under illumination of incandescent candles, she took the stage to perform Waiting for Godot.

I stared at the gilded, ornate theater and tried to imagine the lights burning in the darkness and heard the echo:

If Godot comes, we will all be saved.

I shivered as the chills ran down the back of my neck.

The Hapsburg Vacuum

While Vladimir Vladmirovich declared that the collapse of the Soviet Untion was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century, I think otherwise.  I would argue that it was the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that gets such honors.

I was walking through the Mezuj Sarajeva 1878-1918, chronicling the period of Austrian rule over Bosnia when such thoughts came to me- right when I was staring at the gun of Princip, and the pants he wore.

My rationale is this: the power vacuum that existed in Central Europe without a counterweight to Germany or the Soviet Union created the ability for both powers to come conquering through the region rather unchecked.  The absence of a counterbalancing central power in Central Europe paved the way for a century of strife.  Meanwhile, the absence of the benign gatekeeper to keep the squabling tribes of the region from fighting would come back to haunt the Balkans among other places.


Operation Vowel Storm

Clinton Deploys Vowels to Bosnia

(originally appeared in The Onion, Number One In News)

Cities of Sjlbvdnzv, Grzny to Be First Recipients

Before an emergency joint session of Congress yesterday, President Clinton announced US plans to deploy over 75,000 vowels to the war-torn region of Bosnia. The deployment, the largest of its kind in American history, will provide the region with the critically needed letters A,E,I,O and U, and is hoped to render countless Bosnian names more pronounceable.

"For six years, we have stood by while names like Ygrjvslhv and Tzlynhr and Glrm have been horribly butchered by millions around the world," Clinton said. "Today, the United States must finally stand up and say 'Enough.' It is time the people of Bosnia finally had some vowels in their incomprehensible words. The US is proud to lead the crusade in this noble endeavour."

The deployment, dubbed Operation Vowel Storm by the State Department, is set for early next week, with the Adriatic port cities of Sjlbvdnzv and Grzny slated to be the first recipients. Two C-130 transport planes, each carrying over 500 24-count boxes of "E's," will fly from Andrews Air Force Base across the Atlantic and airdrop the letters over the cities.

Citizens of Grzny and Sjlbvdnzv eagerly await the arrival of the vowels. "My God, I do not think we can last another day," Trszg Grzdnjkln, 44, said. "I have six children and none of them has a name that is understandable to me or to anyone else. Mr. Clinton, please send my poor, wretched family just one 'E.' Please."

Said Sjlbvdnzv resident Grg Hmphrs, 67: "With just a few key letters, I could be George Humphries. This is my dream."

The airdrop represents the largest deployment of any letter to a foreign country since 1984. During the summer of that year, the US shipped 92,000 consonants to Ethiopia, providing cities like Ouaouoaua, Eaoiiuae, and Aao with vital, life-giving supplies of L's, S's and T's.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Auschwitz and Palestine

A recent trip by Palestinian students to Auschwitz caused a bit of an uproar in Palestine.  I know the professor that took them, Professor Mohammad Dajani. I met him at Seeds of Peace years ago, and interviewed him for an interview I was never able to publish in the Jerusalem Post because of politics.  I have a lot I could say about all this but I won't.  I would rather sip my warm wine in Sarajevo, and be glad I don't deal with the Sandbox anymore.

Sarajevo pics up

Smile

There is a certain beauty in imperfection.  Like the authentic smiles of many of the Bosnian girls.  Not perfectly alligned by braces, the real shape of teeth in a smiling mouth has both a charm and exoticism that is hardly found in America.  And of course, such things become a fad in Japan and girls are paying for what comes naturally.

You are my witness

I woke up early, and wandered through the still slumbering city.  I sipped espresso and ate a potato borek in a quiet cafe, then meandered through back alleys and along the river as the city slowly awoke.  I sat out in the old town, sipping espresso as the warm sun gently kissed my face while I read the travails of Oliver Twist.  

On my way back through the city, I spied a sign for Galerija 11/07/95, an exhibition on the massacres of Srebrenica.  I had wanted to visit Srebrenica this trip, but timing proved difficult, so I will have to visit on my return.  For now, all I could do was visit the memorial gallery.

As the civil war in Yugoslavia raged, in April 1993 the U.N. declared Srebrenica in the Drina Valley in Bosnia to be the world's first "safe area" for the thousands of fleeing Muslim Bosniak refugees. Shortly there after a contingent of 400 blue-helmeted Dutch troops were sent as UN peacekeepers to Srebrenica to guard the refugees.

However, by 1995 things had deteriorated, and by June 1995 the Bosnian Serb Army ("The Chetniks") under General Ratko Mladic, began to roll into Srebrenica.  With the Bosnian Serb Army coming, the Bosniaks began to flee, or try to seek shelter at the Dutch base at Potocari.  Many of the Bosniak men and boys headed over the mountains to try to seek refuge in Tuzla in the Republic of Bosnia and Hercegovina. The men, women, children and elderly who stayed behind tried to enter the Dutch base, but the Dutch peacekeepers would not allow more than 5,000 people in the compound.

On July 11, 1995, the Bosnian Serb army took the deserted city of Srebrenica.  On the movie, I watched an exuberant Mladic speak of avenging the Serb nation against the crimes of the Turks.

As the Bosnian Serb Army captured Srebrenica, it began to shell the mountains to kill those fleeing.

At the Dutch base in Potocari, the Dutch expelled the 5,000 refugees including the remaining 239 men and boys of military age on the base who would surely be killed.  The Dutch forces did scant little to protect the refugees under their charge, and nothing to stop the massacres going on around Srebrenica.  It is a stain that Holland still bares today, although like Gen. Romeo Dallaire in Rwanda they had little assistance or help from an indifferent world so it is hard to fully judge their actions.

Meanwhile, the Chetniks began to round up all the men and boys from ages 12 to 77 years old.   The Bosnian Serb Army started executing all captured men and boys, taking them into fields to be shot in the back or slitting their throats.

Over 8,000 men and boys were massacred in Srebrenica in the days that followed, the worst mass killing in Europe since World War II.

I watched on the movie women speak of their lost sons and husbands, their fears as their loved ones were taken away from them- never to be seen again.

The mass graves continue to be uncovered and excavated to help find all those who went missing.  I watched a somber Bill Clinton innaugurate in 2003 a memorial site in Srebrenica, and all I could think of was that someday it will be President Obama doing the same in Syria.

After the movie, I walked quietly through the gallery of photos.  Pictures of the mass graves, or of the remnants of possessions left behind of those massacred. A doll with its throat symbolically cut.

When I walked out of the gallery my eyes welled up at the words of Edmund Burke on the wall:
All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
I just shook my head, and thought of all the other places I have seen around the world that are just like Srebrenica. Bloomfontein. Auschwitz. LidiceThe Killing Fields in Cambodia. El Mozote in El Salvador.  Never again? It never fucking ends.

And I saw a picture that really made me tear up: a Bosnian Muslim woman in hijab and long robes staring at a picture of Anne Frank.

I got into the mirrored elevator and just over my head the words were printed:

You are my witness.

As I walked out of the gallery, I heard church bells echoing through the square.

There was a procession of worshippers carrying palms.

It was Palm Sunday.
   

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Vive La France

On the Precipice of Austria and Ottomania

I left DC and arrived to Dulles with the requisite 2 hours. I meandered through to the airline counter, then through an ungodly long line to get through security. One of the worst I have ever seen this side of fleeing Hurricane Rita. It was just for the pre-security check, but it snaked in rows like bilious intestines through the airport. Some fugheddaboutits in front of me said we should just cut the line. At a break of confusion I did just that. As I passed them on the other side of the queue, I remarked, “Don't talk about cutting the line; do it.” They just laughed. Fugheddabout.

I startled to nervously eye the clock, but thought I would be fine. I packed up everything in my pockets in my backpack just in case to streamline the process. I finally got through and hurried to the train to my departure gate. I got to the C gate, and bounded to it next to a tall Italian fellow also on my flight. Of course, the C1 gate was at the very very end of the terminal, and we just muttered and cursed as we hoofed our way to the gate. We got there in time, and the flight proceeded to be delayed 45 minutes once I got on board.

The flight itself was fine if lackluster. United cheaped out, and wanted to charge for drinks on an international flight. I took umbrage and called them out. The stewardess tried to give some excuse about post 9/11, and I rolled my eyes. WTF does 9/11 have to do with complimentary drinks on a flight that cost $2k. I fly a lot of international flights, and it is only the cheap American carriers that try to charge for drinks.

Since I had left at 6pm, and it was an 8 hour flight to Munich, I realized I was better served trying to stay awake the whole time and roll with the morning I would arrive to in Munich. I arrived to Munich some 8 hours later at 8 am on Friday in Germany. I left the inside of the terminal to take a shower in the gate. I had to change currency to bathe, and it cost me 15 euros, but it was well worth it if I was going to push on. I showered and returned to the gate to catch my last leg to Sarajevo.

I napped a bit on the flight, and chatted with the Indian-Anglo girl sitting next to me. She was an interesting one. A head-scarved Indian lass who had grown up in Malawi. One of the communities in the world that interests me most are the Indians of East Africa. She mentioned something medical, and I asked if she was in medical school. No, she was a doctor at 24. In the UK system, you can go straight through from undergrad.

I arrived to the compact Sarajevo airport and collected my things and some Bosnian marks. I caught a cab into the downtown and sped out through the city in a silver Mercedes. I turned up the driver's radio, and Bosnian folk music and techno alternately blared from the radio as I took in my return to Central Europe. We passed some pockmarked building that bore the scars of the Balkan wars that cleaved Yugoslavia, but much more of the city showed a newness of the reconstruction that had followed. The cabdriver and I had little common language but bonded over pointing out hot girls we passed as we whistled to ourselves. Some things are universal.


I found my way to the Hostel Tito and checked in. I thanked the hostel clerk in Bosnian and she laughed.

“Are you learning Bosnian?” she asked.

“I'm trying,” I smiled.

“Don't bother, it is too hard,” she replied.

I splurged a little and got myself a private room. I figured that would serve me better for the inevitable jetlag crash than being in a shared dorm. The room cost me 30 Bosnian marks (km) or 15 euros, the same price as my shower in Munich.

I dropped my stuff, freshened up and went out wandering in Sarajevo. Immediately I fell in love. I wandered my way into the old town, the old Turkish section with round dome mosques and markets. The place is everything you would expect from a city on the precipice of the Ottoman and Hapsburg lands. It feels both Central European and Turkish at the same time; I alternate between Bratislava and Istanbul with every passing glance. Beautiful dark-haired Slavic girls with bangs; blond Slovenish long hair tied back in singular braids; gorgeous Bosniak Muslim girls with loose, elegant headscarves of different hues and patterns delicately covering the contours of pale faces with blue and green eyes peering out.

The Bosniaks in beauty remind me of the Kurds, and I mean that in a supreme compliment to both.

I stopped for lunch at a cafe for some borek. Borek is a dish of seasoned ground beef and onions wrapped in filo dough with the top and bottom baked crispy while the sides still soft.

I wandered through the markets and down to the immaculate City Hall that the Austro-Hungarians built in Moorish style. This was Franz Ferdinand's last stop before he and his wife headed down their ill-fated route. I followed that route down the river past the old stone bridges that connected the banks.



I crossed the Latin Bridge and stopped at the point where Princip found his mark. I just stared at the spot and sadly shook my head at what could have been.

I wandered back through the markets, trying to find a scarf. Unfortunately, all I can find are Sarejevo football clubs that I fear would get me stabbed in Belgrade. Interestingly, all over there are Brazilian flags and Brazil-Bosnia scarves. Bosnia is in the World Cup, and Brazil's green and yellow banner is quite common. Of course, this has me wondering what kind of public diplomacy Brazil is doing to countries in the World Cup. This is such an incredible departure point for public diplomacy, and Brazil could have a field day doing cultural diplomacy and gastrodiplomacy in countries that will play in the World Cup. I'm sure Bosnia would absolutely love Brazilian rodizio- the skewers of grilled meats, and enjoy dancing to the samba beat. I feel an op-ed coming on...

I sat out in the market drinking turkish coffee to stave off the jetlag, and hopped on a free 1.5 hour tour at 4:30pm. Our guide Adnan toured us through the old Ottoman quarter as he explained how the Ottomans had built the first real incarnation of the city. We passed through mosques, markets and covered bazaars. I sipped from a fountain whose waters held legend that anyone who drinks from them will surely return; I shall.
On the tour, we learned of how Sarajevo was called the “Jerusalem of Europe” for all its different faiths and skyline of minarets, cupolas and church spires. We stopped at the old Sephardic Synagogue, and learned about Sarajevo's role as haven for Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition to find refuge in Ottoman lands.

We walked down the main drag, and stopped at the meeting point of the city. One one side stood the Ottoman district; on the other it was Austrian. We crossed into Central European pastels and rococo flair as we visited a Croat Catholic church holding mass in Croatian and Latin. And then on to the Serbian Orthodox church with its iconography.

We spoke of the siege of the city. I asked Adnan what he remembered from the time. He was only 6 then, but he remembered the trials of finding water and the disappearance of his uncle. Parts of the city still bear the pockmarks of those days.

Today Bosnia is quiet and holding together in complexity. There are literally 3 presidents, one Serb, one Croat and one Bosniak. There are 14 governments in charge from federal to different cantons. It is quite complex and quiet here, but not always as there was protests recently against the corruption taking place.

The tour ended at the eternal flame marker for those who perished in the fight to liberate Yugoslavia during WWII.

The thing that I can't help wondering about is what Yugoslavia would be like today if it hadn't crumbled. Slightly more open and prosperous during the Cold War, it was in better economic shape at the fall of the Berlin Wall than its neighbors. A Yugoslavia whole would likely be in the European Union today, on par with Poland or the Czech Republic or the Baltic states. Yet the petty wars arrested the development of all parties and set it back for years.
Did Yugoslavia need to break? Perhaps not, if better leadership inside, and outside the country, had worked to keep it whole. There are many parties who bear responsibility for the destruction of Yugoslavia, and the bloodshed that followed. If Slovenia and Croatia hadn't been allowed to so quickly secede and their departures recognized by Germany among others, perhaps a whole Yugoslavia could have been saved. 

But those inside the country hunkered down on petty divisions, and those outside such as the U.S. bought into the speciousness of the “ancient hatred thesis” i.e. that these tribes had always been fighting and it wasn't worth getting involved.  So the situation was left to fester (But I can't blame the Clinton administration too much while Syria continues to burn). My counterfactual conjecture matters not. The best I can hope for is that these lands will all once again be united in the European Union, but even that is years away.



Friday, April 11, 2014

Sarejevo, Sarejevo

Drinking mulled wine- warm red wine spiced with cinnamon, cloves and orange in a smoky old Sarajevo pub. Reading Dickens' "Oliver Twist" with jazz blaring through the joint and a smattering of languages bouncing off the wall. I don't get much happier than this.
I moved on to a smoky old restaurant where I sat on the top floor with old Bosnian folk music blaring. I ate ćevapčići (small lil spiced sausages) in a lepinja, a giant Bosnian pita bread with a side of sliced onions and ajvar- red pepper and eggplant spread, while I chatted with Amer and Hassan.
"Is Brooklyn dangerous?" asked Amer as he bought me a large bottle of Sarajevsko beer.
"Is Sarajevo dangerous?" I replied.
50 Cent came on, and we bobbed our heads. It's your birthday. Not mine, but I will accept it.
It did not take me long to love Sarajevo- sitting precariously on old Ottomania and Austro-Hungaria.

Titolandia

Arrived safely to Sarajevo and nicely ensconced in Hostel Tito (!). The price of my single room (15 euros) is the same price as the shower I took at the Munich airport.



The Last of the Yugoslavs

A poignant NPR piece on the Last of the Yugoslavs, worth a listen.

Of Interest

Chasing Balkan Ghosts

Off to Sarajevo, to warn the Duke before the Black Hand Strikes!


And to chase down some Balkan ghosts.

The ghosts of Apis, the man who helped tear Serbia apart with his Game of Thrones scheming and pushed Serb irredentism through The Black Hand that would sleepwalk Europe in the July Crisis and Great War.

The ghosts of Tito, who held Yugoslavia together.

The ghosts of Milosevic and Franjo Tudman, who would tear the country apart.

The ghosts of Miladic and Kardzic, the Butchers of Bosnia who turned Srebrenica into a killing field and gave Europe its worst genocide in generations.  I plan to go pay my respects to Bosnia's dead.

The ghosts of Richard Holbrooke, who with his able and insufferable ways helped end the Balkan wars.

In short, I am excited.  I have ten days of both adventure and work (pre-planning for hip hop diplomacy with the US Embassies in Bosnia and Serbia) to explore some Balkan terrain both unknown to me and seared in my memory as a teen starting to pay attention to the ways of the world.

As always, journey on!

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

The Green Heel

Thanks conservative judges on Supreme Court, the exact thing the America democratic process needs is more private money to shape elections.

PS: From the Borowitz Report- SUPREME COURT DEFENDS WEALTHY’S RIGHT TO OWN GOVERNMENT 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Levantine PD's Spring/Summer fun

Levantine Public Diplomacy has a busy Spring/Summer coming up in the wide world of cultural diplomacy. Projects on tap:
-May 4-14, 2014: Levantine Public Diplomacy is sending the American Music Abroad ensemble The Boston Boys to Colombia with the U.S. Embassy in Colombia to perform at the 55th anniversary celebrations of the Colombian-American Binational Centers in three cities.
-May 5-18, 2014: Levantine Public Diplomacy will be taking Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar legends Keola Beamer & Jeff Peterson, with Hula Master Moanalani Beamer, to Venezuela with the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela to conduct performances, music masterclasses and collaboration sessions with local musicians.
-May 18-June 7, 2014: Levantine Public Diplomacy will be running the new State Dept/University of North Carolina hip hop diplomacy program Next Level in India, with programs of MCing, DJing, Beatmaking and Breakdancing, as well as performances and collaboration, in Patna and Calcutta.
June 24-July 6, 2014: Levantine Public Diplomacy with take American Music Abroad ensembles Della Mae and The Clinton Curtis Band to Brazil with the U.S. Embassy in Brazil for cultural diplomacy programming during the World Cup.
That's a lot of frequent flyer miles a'comin. Follow along on the Levantine PD Facebook page to stay up on all the cultural diplomacy fun!


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Preach

Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.
-St. Francis

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Delta's 1980s In-Flight Vid

So Delta Airlines has the absolute best In-Flight video ever made. It is an 80's wonderland, and all the big hair therein. And it is hysterical. Cameos from Teddy Ruckspin, Alf and the Rubik's cube among others. It sure captured my attention. Bravo Delta, well played in tape cassette wind up.

 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Son

I was walking back to use the bathroom on the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. I had been smiling my way to double drinks and I had to use the bathroom. I walked back to the back, and a lil Afro-ed child said to me “da da.”

He said it again. Dada.

Haha, I ain't your Daddy. Although I see the resemblance between us. I see how you could get me and your daddy confused. I am just a light skinned.

His dad just laughed as I picked up Kige and asked the steward if he saw the resemblance. I explained to his older sister that I wasn't her daddy either.

Martin, their daddy, was from Kenya. He lived in Phoenix. That was hotter than Hell. Although possibly Iraq is hotter.

Someday I might adopt a child. I can see that more likely than having my old. If parenting is narcissism, then adoption even more so sometimes. Can I make a slate not my own in my image?

But that is a different discussion.

I greeted Martin in Swahili. Jambo Bwana? Assante sana. Hakuna Matata. I told elder sister to watch out for Kige, lest he find more strangers to be his daddy.


Dutch Treat

And we took off over giant windmills. Like scores of three-armed giants waving goodbye.

Follow the windmill.

I did last night, and had a Dutch treat of an evening. I danced and laughed until it hurt to great 90s music with two Dutch girls I met at the bar. I invited them over to my corner in the back of the bar, and they joined me.

Push it real good.
-Salt & Pepa

Such beautiful girls. And so funny. One named owned a butterfly reserve in Laos. Her name was Eden and it could not have been more apt. Se was gorgeous in that sharp angular Dutch way. With striking strong blue eyes and angles of an art deco dream.

Her friend Rihana was a tall blond beauty. Lord, they sure do make shiksas pretty. Just so you are aware of such things-- although I am sure you are.

They were so sweet and funny. I invited them over and they joined me in my corner in the back of the bar. Dutch Dulcineas joined me for an evening of dancing over Dutch karaoke. As weird as that sounds, it was.

Dui. Dutch for goodbye.

I wander through the canals of the sunlit city with a Cheshire grin on my grill. And she winks back at me.


Follow the windmills. Holland is a land of windmills. Amsterdam is a giant windmill. Something that keeps this quijote coming back.   

The Dutch Bar Maid

Dreaming of the most beautiful Dutch bar maid.

Cheer up sleepy Jean. Oh, what does it mean to a daydream believer and a homecoming queen.

Blond locks tied up in a golden bun. Golden straw strands hanging loosely down.

Turquoise blue eyes wrapped in black kohl.

A loose-riding grey shirt showing suppleness.

A Dutch milk maid from a Vermeer dream.

And a lil James Brown. How do you say “make it louder” in Dutch?

Dit is een mannenwereld (This is a man's world)

And a lil Elvis. Forever the King.

A Clarence in Amsterdam, if ever in need of an Alabama.

What's a Drexel?



VOC Visa

Do you take credit card?

Credit? This bar dates back to 1630. It's older than your country.

Well, my credit is good with the Dutch East India Company.

The Delhi Shave

Ahead of the big meeting, I headed down to Rajiv Chowk. Connaught Place as it was once known, and sometimes still is. CP.

I needed a shave and a shoe shine. I had not budgeted my time well, and I was cutting it close. But I needed a shave and a shoe shine.

I wandered through a back alley to find a shave but the “shop” was closed. Another was pricey and busier than the time I had. So I figured I would get a shoe shine first and punt on the shave if needed.

I wandered through the white column walls dusted half black with grime and found a man half asleep. He jumped from slumber with alacrity. Language barriers ended haggling and I gave him 20 rupees (30 cents) and he got to work. He blackened my scuffed shoes from Brooklyn.

Next I asked a doorman where I could get a shave, and he pointed me to the market. I found a place under the tree and the young barber got to work. 30 rupees (50 cents). I sat under the tree, sitting on a red pouch while my face was lathered up.

As the barber cut away my whiskers, I watched flies swarm on the mouth of a woman sleeping on the ground. Passed out perhaps.

Behind her a fellow smoked heroin behind a motorcycle. Chasing the dragon off aluminum foil. Aluminium. He came up for beadies from the tar. I looked over but not too closely.

And the barber-under-a-tree did a masterful job. Nary a nick. Fast too. The witch hazel still burned my cheeks as I paid and gave a nice tip for good service.

Shave and a shoeshine for a buck.

My meeting did not yield what I had hoped it would. Not the big fish I wanted. They weren't buying what I was selling, and that became apparent quickly. But they were also interested in information that I had, and maybe wanted some smaller fish so it was not wholly unsuccessful.

I finished my meeting and had a small limca and a gold flake. Also a cup of fresh-juiced carrots and beets for fifty cents.

I wandered over to the the center of Connaught Place to try to read about Hawaii but the ear-cleaners wouldn't stop hassling me.

So I left.

And some fucker squirted shit on my shoe. As I was walking away. I heard the squirt softly but didn't connect the sound and the dots until after the shithead spoke up.

You have something on your shoe.

Get away. Now.

Motherfucker. In my dreams, I flung the shit on my shoe at him.

So for the second time that day I got a shoe shine. I hopped around in my socks onto the jute mat, which gave a smile to the shoe shiner.

I wandered around a lil while longer but the unending din was grating on me. So I headed over early to Mandi House. I sat out in the sun's fading light as I watch the evening glow envelope workers in yellow jackets that accentuated their dark tone as the sipped chai. I sipped chai and gold flake and read about Hawaii.

And I met Venkat and watched South Indian creation myths in dance form with Krishna and Vishnu in Kathik pose.

The bells rung and the sitar played to echo her deft dance.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Sleeping Tigress

Early morning wandering in the Red Light District.
The sounds of the gulls cries
echoing down the empty canals.

Workers sit in the booths of the sex workers,
cleaning the glass that had been tinted red
the night before.

I always love cities in the morning
when they are most meek and vulnerable.
Amsterdam is a sleeping tiger if there ever was one.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Bamisate

One of my most favorite things in the world: bamisate. Sold at Febo, in a glass automated case.

It is kinda like deep-fried Chinese noodles.

Crispy fried Chinese noodle goodness- a true gastrodiplomacy fav.

I'll fly away

One glad morning when this life is over, I'll fly away.
To a land where joy shall never end, oh I'll fly away.
Oh' I'll fly away, Ol' glory. I'll fly away.
When I die hallelujah bye and bye.
I'll fly away.


puissance douce

Viva La Differencia

The room is not much. Basic. Shower and toilet outside.

I just came from India.

Oh, then it is a palace.

I just smiled.

I do know Indian palaces though.

It's so quiet. So utterly quiet.

There are no horns; no rickshaws (ok, I saw one but not the same)

No cows. No monkeys. No mohwak piggies eating garbage in the Central Park of Patna- the Gandhi Maidan.

Nothing on the ground. Not trash. Not bodies.

I don't think you could find two more contrasting cities than Calcutta and Amsterdam.

I don't think you could find two more contrasting places than India and the Netherlands.

The one thing I fear in both: the traffic.

Viva la differencia. Sempre.




Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Playa Patna; Return to Delhi

Working backwards

On our second day in Patna, we had the morning free.  I woke up at the crack of dawn, and joined Mark for a walk around the Gandhi Maidan- the large park across from our hotel.  Patna's central green space was filled, even at 6am.  There were people practicing yoga, jogging, walking and playing cricket.  There were also stray dogs, and a family of mohawked pigs munching garbage.  We did a couple of loops amid the morning bustle.  Hard to imagine Central Park being so packed at dawn.

Later, we went with Saadia down to the Ganges.  I purified myself in the semi-polluted Mama Ganga.  We decided to take a boat across the river and wander along the beach on the other side.


After we returned back across the eternal river, we met with some professors and performs at the State of Bihar's cultural facility.  I sat bare-foot and cross-legged as we discussed ways of connecting hip hop and traditional Bihari music and dance.  Ala Yo Yo Ma and Young Buck, I spoke of how we envisioned a breakdancer working to a sitar, or a traditional Bihari dance to a hip hop track.  The musicians smiled favorably and were inclined to work on such innovations.  I think this will be fun.

That night, we joined Saadia for a most wonderful dinner at her father's home with her husband and daughter.  We had an incredible spread of Indian veg delights.

The following day, Mark and I continued the dawn constitutional.  We worked until noon, then he headed out to the airport and back from Patna to Chapel Hill.  I had the day to kill before a scheduled train departure back to Delhi.  There were no spots left for my normal second-class Non-AC train, so I was forced to go up a class to AC.  I was a tad disappointed, but it would be fine.  It was about $40 for AC class, which was about 6 times what I would normally pay for Non AC but I didn't have a choice.

Just one catch, I was on the wait list.  We had paid a ticket agent extra to secure a berth because it was quite busy post-Holi and hard to get a spot.  But I paid an extra 500 rupees because he assured us he could get me a spot.  When I purchased the ticket, I was number 7 on the waitlist, and this was not supposed to be an issue.  In the morning I was up to number 4 on the list, and could reasonably expect a berth when the list of berths was published 2 hours prior.

I spent the afternoon walking around the teeming streets, and sipping chai on the side of the road.  Then about 2 hours before the train ride, it turned out I didn't have a berth.  I was stuck at the number 1 spot on the wait list and couldn't get on the train.

So I quickly scrambled to get a flight to Delhi.  I figured I would have to overnight in Patna and head on the next day but surpringly I was able to find a flight that night for $141 from Patna to Delhi on Air India. It was the same price as a flight the next day.  So I booked it, and let Venkat know I was coming a night early.  He was still down in Chennai, but was able to arrange for a driver to pick me up at the airport and bring me to Venkat's Ashram in Gurgaon. 

And like that, I caught a taxi out of Patna to the airport to return to my former Delhi home.  I slept most of the flight and was a lil dazed as I got to Delhi.  But  I found the driver with my name (Rampal) on a sign, and we sped me to Venkat's Ashram, and back to my Delhi home.

Natraj


At a music school, we eyed a statue of Shiva in a dance pose.  Saadia explained:

Shiva engaged in the divine Dance of Bliss to destroy the weary universe.  He assumed the Natraj pose, and began his chant.  When his chant is finished, the world will end and destruction will begin.

Without destruction, you cannot have creation.

And I got chills.

I had awoken that morning from my slumber in the darkness, with the words nitraji echoing through my head.  It was related to a different world, a Brazilian public diplomacy adventure where I was suffering from a stye.  The cure for such ailments in silver nitrate.  And I could hear the Cultural Affairs Officer repeating as we went from pharmacy to pharmacy the Portuguese pronunciation nitraji.

I brought this story up with my friend Anschul in Delhi, as we discussed iconoclasm in our respective travels and work.

Then it became clear to me: public diplomacy is natraja. If we can destroy the pre-conceived notions held in the mind of the other, it is then that we can begin to create.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Leaving Calcutta; On to Patna; The Day the Gora Died in the Shop

Mark and I had the morning free yesterday, so we met up with Sayak- a OneBeat fellow, to show us around Calcutta.  Sayak took us to find DJ equipment in the electronic market in Chowringhee Rd but the store he had located was closed.  He made some calls and found out it would be open later.  We would return later.

We hopped a cab with him to the Victoria Memorial, the stunning marble dome and merringue moment to the Empress of India.  We strolled around the grounds, and through the monument, looking at the old intricate Mughal and British weapons, and the British East India-commissioned paintings in Romantic style of India.

After a nice stroll around the monument, we hopped another cab to the giant bridge spanning the Houghly River, the mighty body of water which abutts Calcutta.  We sat under the shade of the giant bridge span that reminded me of Charleston and chatted about collaboration outlines for our upcoming program as boatman steered their little falucca in the turbid water.

We caught a cab back through the teeming streets, back to the market to find some in a market speakeasy some actual DJ equipment that we would use and eventually leave behind for the budding Indian DJs we would groom.

We lunched over the delicious Calcutta Egg Roll- the omelette chapati slathered in chili sauce and red onions, which our consummate host treated us to.  

Mark and I packed up and checked out of the opulent palace.  One of the staffers at the Grand Oberoi gave me a goodbye present in the form of traditional chimes.  I was quite touched.  We took a car to the airport and checked through the security procedure.

Mark went pashmina shopping for his wife, and I was trying to get wifi.  The bar had wifi, so I popped in and figured I would grab a drink while I checked my email.  I looked at the menu and ordered a whiskey on the rocks for 360 rupees (a lil more than $5).  I checked my email and waited a bit for Mark.

I finished my drink and asked for the bill. Instead of it being 360 rupees, it was 950 rupees.  Puzzled, I asked why.  The bartender told me I got a large whiskey.  I responded that I had only asked for a whiskey. On the rocks.

Yes, but you drank the large serving, which is a double.

But I didn't ask for a double.

But you drank it.

Grr...okay, that makes 720, where did the extra 230 come from?  Apparently taxes and service charge.  I knew to give up, because I wasn't going to win.

We flew to Patna on a tiny little carrier.  We arrived, checked in to our hotel and I wandered off on the street for dinner.

There were some roadside carts serving food so I sat down on a small bench above the ground to have a bite.  I think I am probably the only gora who ever ate there, because they laughed and stared.  I ate my egg curry and vegetables with chapati while the eyes of the fellow diners were on me.  As I was sitting on the ground, I felt myself getting bitten by fleas.  I tried to eat faster to get away from the itchy bites, but they kept piling chapatis on my plate and I felt forced to finish.  Finally, I finished the dish and quickly got up and out. My arms looked like braille.

The next day, Mark, Saaida- the Consulate's cultural affairs specialist accompanying us and I went to St. Karen's school- the place where we will be hosting the music residency in Patna.  St. Karen's is a Christian school on the outskirts of Patna- at least it is sponsored by missionaries but the students are all Hindu or Muslim.  This is rather common in India.  There is a Jewish School in Calcutta with nary a Hebrew.

Anyway, we were greeted with flowers and rolis- marks of blessing on our foreheads.  We met with the principal and staff, then toured the fine school and met in the auditorium with some students.  Mark introduced the program.  Beyond teaching the kids about hip hop and breakdance, we are working with these students to design PSAs related to issues that affect youth such as gender violence.

And I introduced myself since I would be returning to work with the kids with the program.  I greeted them with a big namaste and they all laughed.  They made me demonstrate some aspect of hip hop, so I gave a meager attempt at beatboxing.  Later, the kids gave us dance demonstrations of the hip hop dances they knew and also of Bollywood.


After our visit, we headed back to the city center amid teeming streets of full-on traffic including rickshaws, motor bikes, cars and cows.

I stopped outside the hotel for some lunch in a little samosa shop.  I got some kachori chaat- a fried lentil puff- smashed and covered in chickpea stew and topped with chili pepper.  As I was eating it, I managed to inhale some of the chili powder into my lungs and proceeded to choke and die in the small shop.  Hacking and crying, I tried to catch my breath as the whole shop stared at me.  The guy behind the counter was kind enough to get me some water, but I figured that would be a lil extra death so I grabbed a small limca soda to wash the pepper away.  Once I could breathe again, we all had a good laugh at my expense.

Later that afternoon, we visited another dance school and we spoke about the program and doing some workshops for them, and they demonstrated for us.  And then they taught us some Bollywood moves.